By Mabel Lee.
Upon our arrival to the city of Cuzco, the abrupt increase in altitude to 3,400 meters was immediately felt in my protesting lungs as we trudged up the sloping streets, past women slinging babies in colorful papooses and children peeking out from doorways. We were on our first South American adventure, and as we sat waiting in the open courtyard of the Hostel Qorichaska, the kind receptionist brought us our first infusion of coca leaves, of many to come: a bit bitter, yet warm and soothing for the head, perfect for a quiet moment before the journey started.
Arrival at Macchu Picchu on the fourth day of the Inca Trail.
Cuzco is a bustling city with many remnants of its colonial history; taking a stroll through its grand plaza, I was reminded of Spanish cities as I observed the elegant architecture of the buildings and churches. Throughout the streets the colorfulness of woven textures on dresses, of street vendors and markets, stood out brightly against old stone walls. With a tourist ticket in hand, which provided access to over 16 different historical sites ($43), we traveled more deeply into the city’s remote past on a visit to Saqsaywaman and Pukapukara, two ancient sites dating back to the Inca Empire, consisting of massive stone walls built without the help of mortar. The greatness of the Incan civilization, seen firsthand, was beginning to dawn on me.
With head and lungs still aching from altitude sickness, it was on to the biggest challenge yet: the Inca Trail. There are many agencies offering the hike, but we chose an economical one called Cusco Travel ($360 per person, all included). With a group of 20 international fellow travelers, our Peruvian guides and porters led us through 4 grueling days, up 4,215 meters to what I thought was aptly named “Dead Woman’s Pass”, across stone trails originally constructed by the Inca, through dreamlike, mountain scenery, through tears and exhaustion, and arriving at that final, famed destination as if we had been on a long pilgrimage: Macchu Picchu. The thick fog that blanketed the skies soon cleared up to offer a view of the ancient city once lost: a maze of brilliant architecture nestled between soaring green misty mountains, which to this day seem god-like and evoke an unearthly power that the Incas surely recognized. I sat and explored for hours. I took in the grandeur and history with all five senses, running my hands over carved gutters, over perfectly joined stone blocks and centuries-old walls, feeling so fortunate to have arrived at such a sacred place right on Christmas Day.
Rowing the boat out onto Lake Sandoval at dusk, preparing to spy on caymans.
No trip to the Americas is complete without a venture into the Amazon jungle. After recovering from the Inca Trail and a quick flight to the small tropical town of Puerto Maldonado near the eastern border, we took a boat down the river Tambopata and into the jungle where our three-day tour began. At Lake Sandoval, under whose opaque waters all kinds of creatures lurked, we fished for piranhas, observed a family of playful otters, hunted caymans by nightfall following the red glow of their eyes, and got splashed by the largest freshwater fish in the world as it dove from sight. Our daytime jungle treks revealed noisy parrots, delicious chestnuts, monkeys, and giant trees. And our tour guide told us stories about pumas, forest sprites, and a mysterious, oppressive wind called “mal aire.” The jungle seemed to be a place even more foreign than the heights of Macchu Picchu.
Sea lions napping at the Islas Loberas de Hornillas, a boat-ride from Quilca.
Finally, we wanted to see the penguins and sea lions. In the tiny fishing village of Quilca on the western coast of Peru, the mayor (and captain), said they weren’t taking any tourists out on that day since there were no others. We insisted, and finally one of the fishermen decided to take us on his small, motor-run boat. After two hours of rollicking waves, we spotted them from afar: hundreds of fat, grey sea lions napping on rocks that jutted out of the ocean. They were noisy, blubbered, and wonderful, plunging into the icy sea only to surface and slap themselves on rock with wet flippers. Some penguins also scuttled over, peering at us with their beady eyes and wondering at us with like fascination. After anchoring the boat near a small, empty beach, we took the plunge — into water so cold it was impossible to breathe, and only possible to swim speedily towards shore. It was just the two of us, our fisherman, and the timid crabs that peeked out of their sandy holes, shivering and rejoicing on a deserted beach on the coast of Peru.