“There's a race of men that don't fit in, A race that can't sit still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will. They range the field and rove the flood, And they climb the mountain's crest; Their's is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don't know how to rest.”
- Robert Service

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


 Last month, Michael and I travelled to Peru. It was our first experience in South America, and it definitely left an impression. When we returned and friends asked us "how was it!?" my reply has constantly been "It was great! Memorable! But....it was most certainly and adventure and not a vacation." Peru kicked my ass!

Of course, I have still come home with a great sense of accomplishment. For all of my challenges, I still survived and have plenty of great photographs! Let me tell you the story:

Our flight to Lima (where we would meet up with our G Adventures tour) was long, but in those 7 hours we never changed a time zone (except for that pesky dalight savings thing). I always love the first drive to our accomodation after we arrive somepleace new, and I find myself pressing my face to the window to see everything. New billboards! New shops! New people! New homes and buildings!

The first day in Lima was self-directed and we wandered around the bohemian districts of Barranca and Miraflores, in awe of all the murals and artwork and colour. Lima also presses right up against the ocean, with great, long ocean cliffs. It's really quite impressive!

After having met our group - which included 7 Swedish girls, a couple from Germany, a pair of friends from Britain, two girls from Australia, and two from Scotland - we started our journey to Nazca via overnight bus. Overnight buses are not for the faint of heart. While the seats reclined quite well, the seats are on the upper deck which amplify the wobbles and turns as we travelled up winding roads. I slept poorly, and felt like barfing after 8 hours. We learned much later that the first class seats on the lower deck were only $10 more.

Michael and I opted out of flying over the Nazca Lines, mostly because the private flights cost a lot and you'd probably get better pictures from the internet. Instead, we went on a dune buggy trip to go sandboarding! I found it terrbly difficult, mostly because I was exhausted by the time I hiked back up to the top of the dune, and  battered from having fallen on the run before. Sandboarding isn't nearly as nice as snowboarding. The landings are harder, and getting a facefull of sand (vs snow) is decidedly unpleasant. Michael picked up the sport like a champ!

 Food was a real adventure in Peru. I think they have something like 400 types of corn and 1000 types of potato. Their diet is pretty starchy - if you life in a rural area, you might even buy "dehydrated potato" so it lasts longer. But there are plenty of interesting things to eat! Ceviche is extremely popular - raw fish cooked with the acidity of a lemon-lime juice sauce - and delicious. We also made sure to bring home a bottle of Pisco so we could recreate the lemon-merange-like flavour of their national drink, the Pisco Sour. They also have a special drink called Chicha Morada, made from purple corn! While in Nazca, our group feasted on a meal cooked underground (similar to a Luau)....
Our underground feast!
...and we tried (a couple of times) a Peruvian delicacy called cuy. Cuy in English is.....Guinea Pig. Yes, we ate that cute little thing us North Americans keep as cuddly pets. Peruvians think it's strange that we don't eat them. The traditional way to eat it is BBQ'd on a stick, head, legs and all. Our guide, Jeiko, told us that he loves it, but can't eat it very often because there really isn't a lot of meat on one animal and it's expensive (so he has to order two)....it sounds like how we feel about lobster.
Deep freid guinea pig. Tastes like chicken....sort of.
After we left Nazca, we boarded our second overnight bus (I got wise and knocked myself out with Gravol), which would take us up to Arequipa, at 2335m. The morning we arrived, I was tired. I'd brought a pulse oximeter with me to keep track of any signs of altitude sickness, but so far it showed that I was ok. It's above 1500m that you're likely to start feeling the effects of being at high altitude, and we would be going much, much higher.

 In my opinion, although Arequipa is one of the largest cities in Peru (over 850K people!), there wasn't much for us to do except acclimatize. Michael and I went for a walk around the older areas of the city, and spent some time visiting the Santa Catalina Monastary. It is an active monastary, with at least a dozen nuns still living cloistered. We obviusly weren't able to visit those areas, but the church is very old and still had plenty to show us! As a cloister, it was designed to resemble a small village behind tall walls, where the nuns had little gardens and common squares to hold weekly "markets."
Our official photographer, doing Official Photographer things.
Jeiko made sure to help us try out plenty of new and interesting foods while we travelled, and brought us to a large produce market in the city. We tried passion fruits, "tuna fruit," prickly pears and Jugo de Rana. Let me tell you a secret: Rana juice is not nearly as fruity as you migth guess. What is that special ingredient that locals say gives you strengths? FROG. Yes, it's frog juice. Well, as the vendor showed us, it's one frog which gets blended up with a bunch of other things. I didn't have a "Oh, yea, that frogginess really comes through in the flavour," moment, but that she showed us the live frog beforehand really put a damper on my willingness to chug it. Fifteen of us shared one glass and we had plenty leftover...

 With barely enough time to get used to 2330m, our group set out again to travel to Colca. It was a full day trip to get there, and included winding roads (barf), mountain passes, llama, alpana and vicunia sightings and a stop at 4900m. When the bus pulled up to the highest point in the road, we were told that we could get out and look arouind, but that we would only be staying for 5 minutes. The altitude would make us sick and tired otherwise. Even still, several of our tour group remained in the bus, too tired or carsick to even bother. My pulse oximeter told me that my resting heart rate was 130, and my SpO2 (blood-oxygen carrying capacity) was 72%. For refernce, an average person should be >95%. at <65%, you might have impaired function, and you'd pass out at <55%. Despite the fact that we didn't stay at high altitude for very long, and the town of Colca lies at nearly the same altitude as Arequipa, my SpO2 wouldn't recover for several days after this. The next morning, I woke up with a heart rate of 120 beats per minute (should be 60) and I was at 82% O2. So walking any distance made me feel exhausted and gross. I was not excited to do anything except rest.
4900m and reaching higher!
En route to high altitude, we met an alpaca!
Our stay in Colca was brief. We stopped at a hot springs that freshened me up quite a bit in body and spirit. Half of our group went to supper together where locals were performing traditional dance and dragged us up to dance with them. The remaining half stayed behind, trying to sleep off altitide sickness. Most of the Swedish girls were quite ill. The next day, we got up extra early to travel to the nearby canyon, where giant condors could be seen ascending from the depths and the shadows. The canyon is nearly 3300m deep, twice that of the Grand Canyon!

Next up, Cusco. Cusco is the last stop before most people head out to trek or to visit Machu Picchu. It's bustling and full of tourists! It's also the last place to really acclimatize, being 3380m elevation. This is generally classified at "Very High Altitude" where you can be hypoxemic just while sleeping. So yay! Another couple of days feeling tired and useless. My feet swelled up, too.

One of the major activities in Cusco for our group was the pre-trek meeting where all the particulars of our 3 day hike were explained. I was tired, and I remember feeling extremely intimidated as we were told what to expect. I thought: I can barely manage walking up a flight of stairs without feeling winded. How the F^@% am I going to hike up 1600m!!? At least I knew that the only thing I'd have to worry about was myself. I wouldn't have to carry my own gear, set up or take down my own tent, or cook my own food. I could just focus on keeping myself alive.

 Next, we repacked our necessary belongings into a duffle bag that could be transported by llamas later. We were getting on another bus! And to make things more exciting, I woke up on the morning we left Cusco with a terrible stomach illness. It was like waves of being punched in the gut. Good thing we were en route to our homestay, high up in the mountains in a village where they just barely had plumbing and spoke no English! Yes!

To be honest, the homestay was a really awesome part of this trip. Michael and I were paired with the Brits (Tom and Jade, or "Hadé" as the locals called her. She did not like that we assumed this as her official Peruvian name), and placed with a local family in a village called Ccaccaccollo. Patricia would be our new mother, Elias our new Father, and Michael, Stephanie and Brain our siblings. They were fantastic hosts despite their limited means. Patricia cooked out meals in a tiny kitchen with a dirt floor and a wood "stove" build from mud bricks. Elias was on the local council and a former trekking porter. He graciously brought me fresh mountain herb tea as I lay in bed like a wet noodle. I asked them to name my new gnome - he's been officially called Elias! And big thanks to Tom, who was the most fluent in Spanish (the rest of us couldn't speak a word) and helped us make sure we didn't all just sit around awkwardly pointing at things in silence.
Tom, Hadé and I helping shell the peas for supper
After we'd rested with our new families, Patricia dressed us all up in local traditional clothes (the boys lucked out - they just wore ponchos and toques!) and paraded us around the village, where we would later meet up with the others in our group.
Swagger on fleek
The bonus part of wearing fancy clothes and feeling sick meant that the ladies got to just watch as the buys got muddy! Elias brought us around to where villagers were busy making bricks for a new house. Everyone seemed to be helping, even these little kids. While the men used shovels and hauled mud in wheel ballows, these kids slopped mud with their hands into little buckets. Everyone wants to be helpful! (or, play in the mud...)

This young girl was very curious of us. After I showed her this picture, she was so excited and had Hadé take many more.
 We met up with the rest of the group at the soccer field, which had a fantastic view of the valley. Michael was eally stoked to play in his poncho. I think he may have used it to cheat a bit...
The next day, we were given a tour of the village's weaving project. Most women (and some of the men) create textiles and knit garments to sell at their market, Planterra Weaving Project, which is heavily sponsored by G Adventures. I was able to purchase a beautiful scarf which had been hand woven by my "sister" Stephanie, and from wool harvested from an alpaca we'd met the night before! It really was sad to leave this community. They had been wholeheartedly welcoming.
But we had to keep going. We would sleep in Ollaytaytambo that night. Or, rather, I would hole up in our hotel room for the rest of the day, still sick. I tried to rest for as much as I could, knowing I'd be working hard the next day. The bright spot was that by supper I'd recovered enough to go out, and I'd remembered that it was Thanksgiving! A small group of us ended up at an Italian restaurant. I decided that I needed to carbo-load (since I'd hardly eaten anything in 2 days), and so that night, I was thankful for spaghetti carbonada.
Incan ruins overlooking Ollaytaytambo
One of many winding roads on the way through Peru
We started our trek on October 13. When trekking to Machu Picchu, most people try to do the Inca trail. It's a 4 day trek that finishes at the Sun Gate, overlooking Machu Picchu and it's extremely popular. It's so ppoular that the trek is limited to 500 hikers (including the porters) per day. You'd have to book 6 months in advance (at least) to get a spot. G Adventures offers a trek nearby, the Lares Trek. It doesn't finish at Machu Picchu, but it is still a fantastic hike and it goes much higher. The trek begins at Lares, at a hot spring. We were fed well by our new favourite people: our porters. There were several of them, taking care of feeding us, setting up our camp, and transporting our bags. They're amazing! Llamas and mules helped, too.

So on the first day, we hiked 9km, mostly uphill. It was tough, but manageable. Quickly, our group of 15 turned into 2 groups, those who hiked fast, and those who did not. As a person who hikes very slow and who hates when I just get left behind, there was no way I was going to leave anyone else behind, so our little slow group consisted of myself, Michael (who has earned his "Best Hike Buddy Ever" badge), Hadé, and two of the Swedes (Emma and Lin) who'd continued to feel sick. Props to them for even doing the hike!
Elias the gnome also made the trip to the mountains!
The scenery was fantastic!
Even the view from the potty-tent was rad
Day 2 was easily the toughest hiking I'd ever done. The trail was fairly simple, and well managed, but it was gurellingly uphill. We would climb up over 1km, with the peak at 4800m (if you remember, the higest poing on the road the week before was only 100m higher) and a total distance of 17km. As we walked up and my heart rate raced and my breathing was laboured, I kept thinking "WTF. With each step, it will only get harder." But, my goal was to stay upbeat. I tried to take time to look at the mountains around us and the gacliers in the distance. I learned that those Swedes had grit - while I was feeling well and barely pushing on, Emma and Lin continued hiking and Emma was green in the face. I wouldda stopped much earlier, crying for sure.

But we did make it! And it was a fantastic feeling to conquor that mountain!
Hadé, Michael, Myself, Emma and Lin at the summit
This is how I felt, immediatly after reaching the top.
The rest of the day was entirely downhill. I was soexcited to be over the hump, and heading towards a good meal. Jeiko was a fabulous guide, having given us plenty of encouragement. He said something later about how despite the faster hikers in the group were very fast, our little turtle group still reached the summitt an hour and a half earlier than most. I don't know if it's true, but it made me feel pretty awesome. (Thanks, Jeiko!)

Day 3 of the hike was easy-peasy. Two hours of downhill! I love hiking downhill. Michal does not.

Moa and I trying to keep ahead of the stampeding llama train! (They weren't stampeding. They're just fast)
Day 2 campsite
Roger, our Chef. This guy made us a cake - on a stove. Spot on!
We all made it down safely, and proud. Next, it was time to shower and prep for the big show- Machu Picchu!
Elias found a buddy en route to Machu Piccu! Paddington! (He's Peruvian!)
 Machu Picchu is areally interesting place, though I would absolutely reccomend that you visit it early in the morning. Even at 6am, the transport buses are full up and we waited nearly an hour. Plus, you don't want a billion people in your otherwise fantastic pictures.

One of the things that stuck with me as we toured the ruins was that there are plans to install a gondola overtop in the next 10 years. Once the gondola is in place, tourists will no longer be allowed to enter the ruins. So I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to take pictures like this one...
 While the usual routine is to get to Machu Picchu early in the day to see the sun burn through the misty clouds, I never do things routine. We had an hour or so where the weather was misty but peaceful, and where we could take some nice, standard photos. But, then it started to rain! Hundreds of tourists pulled out their hundreds of brightly coloured ponchos. I actually really, really liked this visual - jellybeans dotting the grey and green of the ruins.
Pre-Rain. Pretty happy!
 But, visiting this "Wonder of the World" would be our last great act as a group (aside from a solid night at a club that I don't remember particularly well with 14 of my nearest and dearest ...) and Michael and I said our goodbyes as we flew back to Lima. We would have one day to see all of the things we'd missed on the first go around. Despite what we'd heard, we booked a hostel near downtown, and it turned out to be a fantastic choice. We took a walking tour, saw the changing of the guards at the home of the President (which included a marching band and orders from the Ministry of Silly Walks), went underground to see bony catacombs at a church, ate street food, and spent an evening at a park filled with lit up, musical water fountains!
Main shopping throughfare in downtown Lima
Empanadas. 1.50 soles (about 50 cents) and totally delicious
I'll keep this last bit short, but I find Lima to be a really interesting place. Not all that long ago, Lima was a very cosmopolitan city. It was quite affluent! But in the 1940's, mass migration of people from rural areas overwhelmed the city's resources, created slums, and pushed the wealthiest people to other regions. So the city has the bones of a city that could be very beautiful, but needs a bit of work.
Prime example of a street with rich history, but a shady present time
So, that's Peru! I fully appreciate that this post is extremely long, but there was just so much to tell. It was absolutely a memorable trip despite having been ill so often. I filled up my journal to the very last page!