Earlier this month, I went to Peru. I had never traveled to South America before (or even the southern hemisphere). My thoughts on the experience follow. Enjoy!
The Instagram Version
The Instagram Version - When discussing our lives in 2017, a great temptation exists to sugarcoat events for outside consumption. If I talk about my trip to Peru, my instincts (conditioned by years of intense online socialization) now compel me to present a version of the vacation in which bacon rained from the sky and blow jobs waited around every corner. I’d call such an account the “Instagram Version” of events. (If an alien being judged our lives based only on our Facebook and Instagram posts, they’d quite reasonably conclude that the United States population exclusively featured active, athletic, enthusiastic, model-caliber lotharios who exclusively eat at gourmet restaurants and exist solely at optimal viewing angles.)
In the following account, I have tried to avoid falling into this trap. Don’t get me wrong! The trip was good. But only a willful idiot could visit South America and return with the conclusion, “well, they’ve got everything figured out down there. Paradise!” I intend to post about the good (favorable exchange rate!), the bad (who put this many mosquitoes in the jungle?), and the ugly (why god why am I pooping so much?). Of course, should you prefer the feel-good, rose-colored Instagram version, you can find it in the above video. Just hit the play button and call it a day. No bad poops there!
Dogs - In the time of Moses, God purportedly visited 10 cruel plagues upon Egypt. In turn, the country was overrun with frogs, lice, and locusts. In Peru, God seems to have conjured a plague of dogs. In every city (and throughout the countryside), dogs roam unchecked. They cross the streets in front of cars, poop wherever they please, and fuck shamelessly in the streets. As a rule, the dogs behave in a friendly manner towards people, but even the most charitable observer would call their preponderance an infestation.
A Peruvian told me that dog owners generally let their dog out of the house every morning upon waking, thereby allowing the dog to wander the city and fend for itself until the evening. If you buy this explanation, most of the dogs I saw were pets, not strays. However, the amount of intact canine genitalia on display (as well as the aforementioned fucking in the streets) seem to belie the assertion.
Mountain Women - During our multi-day trek to Machu Picchu, we encountered many of the female shepherds that patrol the Andes. These women (often accompanied by a member or two of Peru’s ubiquitous dog population) put all the mountain men I’ve ever met to shame. Every day they walk 20+ miles at insane elevation toting large sacks of goods, a herd of hundreds (llama, sheep, and alpacas) in tow. Despite the low temperatures in the mountains (our group wore winter hats and gloves), they wear sandals. These chicks are carved out of rock.
Altitude - Many guidebooks warned me about the spectre of altitude sickness. Naturally, I scoffed at the notion. I’ve hiked everywhere from Alaska to Florida, I crowed. It will take more than some wimpy South American hills to flummox me!
I shouldn’t have been so confident. The highest peak I mounted in Alaska measured in at ~1,900 meters above sea level. In Peru the highest point I trudged through stood ~4,400 meters. That kind of elevation is no joke. I often found I needed to pause for a break after walking uphill for as little as thirty seconds. I had altitude-induced headaches for the first 5-6 days I was in-country. At the end of my first extended hike, I suffered two intense bouts of vomiting (though, to be fair, something I ate might have had something to do with this—but more on that later).
Inka Everything - Thinking of starting a business in Peru? Do yourself a favor; put “Inka” in its name. The prefix Inka adorns everything from junk food to soft drinks to restaurants to gift shops to internet cafes. The people of Peru take pride from their Inka/Quechua heritage and harbor nominal resentfment of the role the Spanish played in their history.
Machu Picchu - From 1438 to 1533, the Inka controlled the largest empire in the world, consolidating tribes from all over South America. They built massive cities all over the Andes, coast, and Amazon, connected them all with roads, and produced some bitchin’ textiles (you know, if you're into that kind of thing).
Then, the Spanish came. With a few horses and a lot of disease, they conquered the empire, stealing all the gold and callously destroying every Inka city, apart from Machu Picchu, which they never discovered. The world's best-preserved Inka site, Machu Picchu sits 2,430 meters high in the Andean cloud forest. When you see this place sitting on top of a mountain, you cannot help but marvel at the craft of the builders... and lament the fact that the dastardly Spanish destroyed every other prominent Inka site. South America might have been flush with Machu Picchus.
Of course, I'm subjecting the events of the past to the morality of the present. At the moment, the values associated with conquest have fallen out of favor. At the time, they represented the highest moral imperative. The Spanish literally called themselves “conquistadores.” They proudly attempted to obliterate the Inka culture. They believed their religion and their culture the right one, and felt obligated to spread it as far and wide as possible, to the cost of all competition.
My natural instinct compels me to echo the Peruvian resentment of the Spanish. From a modern perspective, they're the clear villains. (Moreover, Machu Picchu and the other Inka stuff I saw was really damn cool. More of it should be intact!) But then, I remember... the Inkas themselves were remorseless conquerors. Before the Spanish arrived, they conquered countless South American tribes, stealing their treasure, killing their gods, and doing everything they could to erase all evidence that the conquered culture ever existed.
The Jungle - Ah, the Amazon. For the first time, I saw wild monkeys. I saw army ants, weird snakes, frogs, giant river otters, macaws, tarantulas, and trees that dwarfed the ents in The Lord of the Rings. I will never regret visiting the jungle. It's a unique experience and one absolutely worth having.
That said... I'm not in a tremendous rush to go back. The simple truth; the mere act of existing in the jungle is an intensely uncomfortable experience. The sun scorches (with 98% humidity), and the sheer variety of insects, mosquitoes, poisonous reptiles, and other Things That Can Kill You compel you to wear long pants and long sleeves. So, you sweat, from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave (and forget about air conditioning, no one in Peru has it). Bugs teem with such ubiquity that I estimate their population at 1.2 entities per cubic inch of jungle space. Half a foot of mud blankets the ground in most places. And here’s your bed:
That’s not a frilly bridal drape. It’s a mosquito net.
I didn’t ever stray too deep into the jungle, and I walked with a guide every step of the way. Even so, one gets the impression that this is a deeply unforgiving place. When I first put on my life jacket to get to the lodge, a frog fell out of it. I ate a sandwich in the middle of a jungle hike, only to look down and see a line of ants carrying away the crumbs. Everything is alive, and nothing cares a wink about your well being. At multiple points I thought we’re probably less than 1,000 feet from the lodge, the river, or a hiking trail right now. Even so, if our guide suddenly dropped dead, I bet we’d all get lost in this sweltering green labyrinth and perish within 48 hours.
The Bus Ride From Hell
The Bus Ride From Hell - It takes a long time to get to the jungle. I got there on a 7-8 hour overnight non-stop bus ride from Cusco. Though snaking and hilly, I caught some sleep on the trip and it transpired without incident. On the way back, I had the misfortune of booking a different bus company. You could describe this new company as shady, but that would risk understating things. They provided enough shade to blot out the sun.
The return bus trip occurred during daylight hours. The bus itself featured accommodations as comfortable as my first trip, but the driver must have had some kind of side hustle going on, because we kept stopping at weird places in the countryside to pick up random people, only to carry them a few miles down the road and drop them off again without any explanation. Mind you, this is not the kind of bus that should do things like this. This is the kind of bus that works like an airplane. It goes nonstop from city to city, and you have to buy tickets in advance, check bags, and wait for your departure in a terminal. I don’t know about you, but most planes I’ve ridden in didn’t stop in front of seedy internet cafes to ferry the denizens five miles further up the road.
About two-thirds of the way through the journey, the bus stopped in a shithole town with a GDP likely lower than my annual salary. The driver turned the bus off, and then—with no explanation whatsoever—everyone got off. I had no idea where we were (I still don’t) and what the purpose of the stop was (and again, I still don’t). I watched as the passengers and bus crew hastily dispersed to all corners of town, each disapearing behind separate corners. My mind raced. Is this the end? How soon until some yahoo approaches with a shank? When my gringo organs are harvested, will someone at least tell my family? Who will watch my cat?! I stood stoically by the bus door, hoping against hope that everyone would just come back so we could continue our regularly scheduled trip to Cusco. In the meantime, a little kid walked up to the side of the bus and peed on one of the wheels. He didn’t do it out of spite or because of a proclivity for hooliganism. He did it because this was the sort of town where you simply pee in the street when you feel nature’s call.
After fifteen or so minutes, the conductor returned and reopened the bus doors. I immediately rushed back to my seat and didn’t leave it again until we breached the safety of the Cusco bus station.
Despite this harrowing episode, I learned a lot riding the bus. In the light of day, I got to see 7+ hours of Peruvian countryside. I got a decent glimpse of how much of the population lives. As a middle-class American, you can’t come to any conclusion except damn, these people don’t have a lot of money.
Low-rent, open-air shops stand back-to-back-to-back-to-back, each selling utterly random assortments of knickknacks. Street meat vendors stand around brandishing guinea pigs on sticks. Entire families (3-4 people!) cruise the streets on a single dirt bike. You can partly talk yourself into the idea that hey, of course it’s different here! They’re on the other side of the world, it makes sense that they developed their own way of doing things. They’re just choosing to live differently. Then, you watch a stray dog take a shit in someone’s restaurant and you’re like, yeah, Americans have it a lot easier. Peru offers a good dose of perspective.
Exchange Rate - At the time of this writing, a single US dollar commands 3.28 Nuevo Soles (Peru’s currency). Despite this, raw prices remain similar between the two states (one of which has no taxes!). In Peru, an entree at a mid-level restaurant might cost 17 soles. Bottled water costs 2-3. At restaurants, I lived like a king. Appetizer? Sure. Dessert? Why not?
I got the best deals on taxis, though. In Peru, you negotiate the price for a taxi ride up front, often haggling with the driver. For a ride across town, a cabbie might ask for seven soles. Hearing this, my instincts usually compelled me to talk him down to five. Then, I would remember that the money at stake ranges somewhere between 1 USD and 3 USD. I can’t take an Uber from my door to my mailbox for that price!
Street Meat - Feast your eyes on Peru’s national dish: guinea pig. With the exception of lobsters, crabs, and shrimp, Americans rarely eat meat that still looks like its source animal when served. If you can get your mind around that obstacle, try guinea pig! I found it quite tasty.
Of course, the experts tell you not to consume street meat. (WARNING! Unsavory details of excrement follow.) I don’t know if the guilt rests with the guinea pig, a different exotic dish, or simply a whole new continent of germs, but when I returned to America I could not stop shitting. I spent the first week back making double digit trips to the crapper every day. My brother (one of my traveling companions) reported similar issues. Fortunately, I have resumed a normal, healthy bathroom schedule in the last few days. If I did host a parasite, my body seems to have cut it a deal.