At 3 o’clock in the morning I heard the loose rap against my tent’s tarp door alongside what had become the typical call for mate de coca by young red-eyed porters with a thermos. We’d known it was coming, the early start, and so our things were packed; but nothing really prepares you for the deep darkness—the Milky Way-seeable darkness—achieved at altitude on the Inca Trail. Nothing prepares you, not even tea with 1/5th the alkaloid power of a line of cocaine. I exited into the darkness, the headlamps of the porters illuminating first my face, than their thermos, than a metal mug of the Peruvian panacea for altitude sickness. I burned my tongue with it, looked out at the Milky Way, and then at Machu Picchu Mountain, around which was the terminus. The lost city. The enigmatic Incan fortress or burial ground or summer vacation home of the king or whatever: the Machuest Picchuest citadel around.
I put on my boots.
* * *
In being perhaps momentarily reductive, Peru is a country of relatively coexisting binaries; its duality pervades in its east-west geography which, like in much of Latin America, is represented by the nomenclature “orient” (East) and “occident” (West). Lima, the capital, is a metropolitan, contemporary, post-colonial megacity in the middle of a coastal desert. Spanish is spoken there. St. Martin’s square—if not for the red-and-white striped flags—could be Paris. Lima’s complement, Cusco, in the orient, is in the midst of the Andes mountains: a lush, verdant place where Incan culture thrives—where Quechua is spoken—, where there are guinea pigs on dinner tables and there’s a whole lot of altitude.
The complements continue:
Seafood of the occident, bone-in four-footed meats of the orient.
Westernized culture of the occident, native culture of the orient.
The grey marine layer of the coast, the grey rainclouds of the mountains.
The food fusions: Chifa (Chinese/Peruvian); Nekkei (Japanese/Peruvian).
The lavish haves, the abject have-nots.
I believe that every place in the entire world has something worthwhile to explore. If one is intrepid enough, if one chances the fear of discomfort that absolutely comes with leaving home, than the world becomes this priceless thing; it reveals in its most unexpected corners its rarest prize: that it is worthy of being called our home. Amy and I left for Peru for two weeks to discover its binaries, to walk around its mountains, but most importantly, to look in its corners. Because life’s a panorama, not a telescope, we have to look out from the highest places, not just ahead on narrow paths.
Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, which means you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night with Vader’s mind-grip squeezing your lungs like a stress ball. Sometimes, walking Cusco’s romantically antiquated streets can feel like running an uphill marathon breathing through a straw. There’s just no air in the air. Or, more sciencey mixed with slang: there ain’t a lot of oxygen in that jawn. So it’s best to take Cusco as Cusco makes you take it: slowly. And really, there’s no better way; the city is, after all, a delightfully beautiful place. If you can ignore the camera-clad hordes of tourists (I’m not casting stones; I brought a camera) and the ware-peddlers abounding, you’re left with the remnants of two cultures particularly proud of their architecture.
It’s very necessary (S n P—throwback) for me to mention that the two aforementioned cultures did not coexist as well as their structures seem to beautifully. Cusco, being the center of the Incan civilization, was home to temples and palaces that are all, essentially, gone now. In the great imperial European way, when the Spanish came along, they determined anything not oriented to the Christian God heretical, and thusly tore down all of the Incan buildings in town. In their stead, the Spanish built what we see now in Cusco: huge, ornate, cathedrals (seriously, there are four cathedrals in the center of town, which begs the question: how many do you need?) and buildings with ornamented balconies. And because we in the West are so oriented to the West, the buildings are astounding. But thinking so immediately calls into question the cost of such construction and the predisposition of preference: do I think European cathedrals are pretty because I’m a European descendant? Psychology aside, it’s valuable to be mindful of how treacherous colonialism was (is) despite the beauty that remains.
In the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s center square, hawkers hawked and hawks (see: pigeons) scoured for leftovers. The cathedral on the north side of the square was built atop the destroyed Incan central temple, rendering the ground holy in two cultures—something one can feel. Interestingly, if not somewhat arrogantly, the Spanish built the cathedral out of the remnants of another destroyed citadel just outside of the downtown (Sacsayhuaman: epitheted phonetically as “sexy woman”). So, the Spanish church is made from Incan stone on Incan religious ground. In a lot of ways, this juxtaposition is very representative of Peru as a whole.
Passing through the Plaza de Armas, a bootblack told me my zapatos were malos. Yo lo sé, amigo. Yo lo sé.
It’s touristy; it’s loud. It’s like any place in any town: it’s the historic center and it’s where you’re supposed to go. So go. But then, like hell, get out of there. There are people trying to sell tourists cocaine, there’s a Northface store, there are people trying to herd you into every restaurant in a never-ending cacophony of bad food one-upmanship (here’s a great phrase to know: ya comi). There’s a Starbucks.
The real sauce, the place you’ll find any—and it seems every—well-balanced Cusqueño enjoying a lunch is the San Pedro market. There are tourists there, but most of them are too timid to sit on the long, parallel, white pews huddled close to fellow humans to enjoy a lomo soltado, chicha morado, and bowl of soup for around an American dollar from one of the hundreds of women nestled into 4X4 stalls with nothing more than ingredients and a stove. No tables; no bullshit. Obviously, this is one of the best places in the world. Wherever you go, go to the markets. This is where people collect their necessities and eat their lunches. If you ever want to know where the locals are, they’re in the markets (and I don’t mean ACME).
We also trekked out to the Templo de la Luna, a cave-laden spiritual site in the mountains just north of the city. We took a cab to the site and spelunked for a while before walking back. Though I enjoyed the templo, the long descent from the mountain and through the outlying neighborhoods of Cusco was, for me, the treat. Destinations are not as interesting as the routes that lead us to and from them. The city opened itself up to us, a beige blanket, until we sunk beneath the rooftops and were again in its streets.
Back at the plaza, there was an Incan festival replete with music, dancing, and traditional garb. Cusco’s motto is “Ciudad de todos”: everyone’s city. And despite a history of violence and colonial subjugation, ancient customs seem alive in this handsome place. Maybe “everyone’s city” is a euphemism of inclusion distracting from an oppressive reality, but standing there amongst the dancing people, not being looked upon sidelong at all, I felt the tremblings of something indescribable that—without my even knowing it—would hit me with might the next day.
The Inca Trail
In my travel journal, written under the glow of a LED flashlight in a tent while rain fell in toddler finger taps on the tarp, the sky so impossibly full of stars that I had to look away, was the only line I could think to write at the end of my first day on the Inca Trail: “And there’s nothing—NOTHING—I could do to describe any of this—so I won’t.”
Despite my penchant for long dashes, this line resonates with me most in how I remember the trail now that it exists only in my memory. And despite that night’s certainty of the sublime indescribable, it’s my job here, now, as a travel memoirist, to do the very thing I found impossible then: describe it.
The Inca Trail is a rite of passage. It is a religious experience, stretching from the aptly named Sacred Valley not too far from the city of Cusco all the way to Machu Picchu. Really, it’s only around 30 miles and can be traversed in a couple days; but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in ecosystems, vistas, and ruins that are in no way ruinous. (Note: the Inca constructed hundreds of miles of trails; what is now referred to as the Inca Trail is the previously mentioned stretch hikers can trek with the blessing of the Peruvian government).
There’s an easier way to get to Machu Picchu. One can take a train to Aguas Calientes (which is just a nickname for Machu Picchu Pueblo, but even Google Maps calls it by the nickname) then a bus to the front gate. And listen, this is okay. I understand that physically, hiking thirty miles at close to 14,000 feet is impossible for some folks. But, if you have the stamina and the wherewithal, the hike is a spiritual pilgrimage. It was one of the more valuable experiences of my life and I would recommend it over the shortcut to anyone interested in seeing Machu Picchu.
So here’s where a little bit of controversy comes along: the only way to access the Inca Trail is via permit issued by the government. I’m fine with this; the trail is in Peru, Machu Picchu is a global destination, why shouldn’t they be able to capitalize on the tourist economy? I’m also okay with the mode of transferring permits to tourists: through trekking agencies. What this means is that if you want to hike the Inca Trail, you have to pay to do so with a hiking group, which are mostly based out of Cusco and with which you must book your trip nearly six months in advance for the popular season. Not all these groups are the same. There’s a humanitarian outcry that should be heeded concerning the treatment of porters hired to carry tourists’ crap along the trail. In effect, porters carry tents, water, food, and—for extra—even your personal stuff. Some agencies force porters to carry despicable amounts of weight for low pay. On the trail, we saw such porters, often wearing flip-flops, with packs that had no waist straps.
Aware of these pertinent issues, we did research and went with an organization called Llama Path, which, to the best of our knowledge, pays fair wages, provides a house and gear for porters, and limits the weight they can carry. We pay more, but we also avoid some of the more nefarious enterprises of unfair human labor. Even this being the case, it’s weird to have someone carry your stuff for you. There’s a conundrum in it all: portering has servile roots and can be a frustratingly subjugative practice, but it is the only way to hike the trail and it gives people jobs in a country where jobs are scarce. Most of the porters are from poor villages outside of Cusco. Some don’t even speak Spanish (in favor of Quechua) and so carrying the propane tanks and water of paying tourists is a way to help them earn money for their families.
Beyond what the porters were mandated to carry, I carried the rest of my own stuff—about 50 lbs. worth—in my own pack; I just didn’t like another man carrying my crap. And it’s not a bravado move; I just felt like a rich white guy (comparatively rich) who was trying to get a poor brown guy to carry shit uphill for thirty miles. I know it’s more complicated than that, but I was very mindful of the problem when I was there. We tried to be more responsible, but regardless, it was a tough reality of our being there.
The porters would hike in groups up ahead and set up camp for us. They’d have food waiting. I was never exactly sure what they felt for us (I can imagine), but they seemed content, at least in one another’s company.
The trek begins at Km 82 and follows the Rio Vilcanota for quite a while before heading up into the mountains. On the second day of the hike, we scaled to Dead Woman’s Pass; at just around 14,000 feet above sea level, the pass is accessed by steep climb where hikers are forced to break every few steps because of the dearth of oxygen. It was a challenging ascent, doubtlessly, but I was buoyed by the flow of other humans in similar struggle and for the promise of incomprehensible vistas upon arrival. Getting there, a kind porter handed me a cup of mate de coca—a stimulant tea made from leaves of the coca plant and said to help with altitude sickness; this is dubious—which I took gladly. I sat, laughed, and looked out over what may well be one of the more perfect sceneries our spinning stone has produced. Agnostics believed a little more. What was most apparent was why the Inca chose this land: they were as paralyzed and rapt with it as I was, as we all were. As anyone would have to be, seeing it.
The vistas were incomparable; the Andes, replicating in crests as far as I could see, faded a shade the further away they got. Some were rock, some were tree-lavish, some were snowcapped. All were indicative of the mighty wonder that is plate tectonics, when the fingertips of the Earth’s crust steeple together to pitch the land where it seems we can’t go. But being human, of course, we are drawn to them. Mountains. We’re drawn to them and we go.
The trail was everything and nothing I expected. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail through PA six years ago, I was told that hiking great distances is something you do because there’s nothing else to do. A trail tells you where to go, you just go. And so the Inca Trail just went, and I went with it.
The Inca sites along the way described a culture of artistry and industry only impeded by Western colonial trespass, but what was most astounding was their reverence for nature and community. The Inca, like many other Native American populations, were very connected with spirituality, the Earth, astronomy, and brotherhood. Sitting on the tiered terraces of one of the sites, I couldn’t help but think back on my own culture and how disconnected from spirituality (minus dogma) and reverence we are. Our lives are so intellectual and independent that we may have lost something essential within ourselves. Maybe we should examine our lives in a bigger context, as not an absolute but as a transitory action—a single leaf falling—that should be spent in the pursuit of connection. Our existence is so incomprehensible, so primordially strange, that any hope to discover it is an immediate movement toward vanity. The Holy Grail. But really, we’re just people walking on a trail, who will get to an end. So perhaps we should just meet others, treat them like little gods, have experiences, take what comes, and expire.
The Inca Trail is a special thing. A difficult hike. Ancient history. Mountains. And man does it get you thinking.
On the last day, after our 3 o’clock start, after the mate de coca, after a short final hike, we arrived at the first vantage of Machu Picchu, to watch the sun gently rise and illuminate our path there. Sun Gate sunrise. When the world was fully awake, entonces, fuimos abajo.
And what we found—were tourists.
Hordes of them. Flocks of them. Tankards of tons of them. Endless endlessnesses of them. They bore make-up, perfume, flip-flops, fanny packs, and were often aggressive. Machu Picchu was crowded, speckled with the diverse colors of tourists’ t-shirts. It rang with the clicking of a million cameras. It was Disneyland.
The truth is, Machu Picchu was an amazing place, but I think there is too much focus on the structures of the city. For the Inca, the structures were just where people lived, where food was stored, etc. The real treat was not looking in, but looking out. In doing that, we got a sense as to why the Inca built their magnificent city there. I’m certain that if one of the original architects could be there today, he/she’d tell us to stop looking at the structures and start looking out at all the wonder around the walls: the valley, the mountains, the river. The Inca built Machu Picchu where it is using the same rubric by which we value houses today: location location location.
Machu Picchu was just a symbol. It was an excuse. Beautiful in the extreme for sure, but really just a terminus.
I don’t know much about the world or existence, but I know this is right: traveling, walking, with loved ones and friends by your side. What the Hell else is there to life?
Lima is a sprawling, big, complicated, grey, dirty, congested, insane, wild, convoluted city; in short, everything I like about my metropolises. It is, like most cities, a place where the cultural heritage of present-day Peru can be found; it is the locus of art, food, and humanity: as 7.5 million folks call it home. If you’re from a big city, like I am, you’ll find a lot of comfort in Lima. You’ll figure out the public transportation system, know how to Yelp good restaurants, and know perfect sidewalk café people-watching etiquette. You may also be more apt at stomaching the reality of Lima’s darker sides, not unlike those of many or any urban areas.
But wait. It’s easy to get caught up so much in the grandiosity of a grand city and in doing so, forget to parse out the particulars. After all, it is—and has always been—the small things about big cities that make them so special. Lima is no different. Generally, the commonalities among all cities force me to find more intrigue OUT of the metropolitan places than in, while traveling. For these reasons, I deem it necessary to hang in a city for a few days. Museums, cultural centers, restaurants. . .peace out.
Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice in Peru is that people are nice. I mean, extraordinarily nice. Extra-terrestrially nice. Three hours before we were to arrive in Lima and taxi to our AirBnB apartment, we got word from the proprietor that the apartment had flooded and we were out of a home. Without internet access or a phone, we boarded the plane from Cusco with a standing question mark as to our lodging. But, in the great Peruivian way, our proprietor rustled around and actually got us a place to stay in her boyfriend’s mother’s apartment in Miraflores. Now, I know what you’re thinking: that is the most hair-brained circumstance to ever find pleasing when entering a new and big city. But let me retort to the presupposed question before its utterance: though it may seem uncomfortable at first, we ended up hanging with a legit Peruvian family, who not only were kind and accommodating (the mother, by the way, who didn’t speak English, told us we brought light into her house) but gave us a locals-only understanding of the entire city. So before you book that hotel, where the only local you’ll meet will be paid to clean your unmentionable sheets, consider the advantages of accidently thrusting yourself into the world of happenstance, where the real magic happens.
If you’ve ever read a blog or travel book about Lima, you’ve probably read about a bunch of horror stories. Narratives about bad travel experiences proliferate like Catholic bunnies in sardonic circles and pessimistic pow-wows. You’ll inevitably hear about Peru’s crime, scam artists, and anything else that would worry your mother. And though I grant that these situations surely occur, they are not what happens with the most frequency. They are isolations multiplied to hysteria and often taken out of context. (Imagine what a travel blog to Philly would look like!) What’s good to remember is to remember that people are good. Mostly. If you’re in need, I firmly believe there will be someone to help you. If this is a youthful arrogance, I’ll take it. But in my experience, it’s real. Fear draws too many people away from the experience of travel.
So don’t believe everything you read. Strike out headlong into that old world.
Lima was a bit much to take in—the rambunctious city life—after spending four days on a spiritual pilgrimage through the Andes; but I’m a city boy at heart, so the metropolis is, ultimately, my home.
Lima, like all good cities, is a patchwork of neighborhoods. Here, the economic disposition of neighborhood families is in huge contrast: the airport area of Callao is obviously less affluent while the economic center of San Isidro or the beaches of Miraflores are replete with gated communities, public parks, and high-end restaurants. The schism between haves and have-nots is enormous in Peru and nowhere is that more apparent than its capital city.
We were in Miraflores because our first apartment flooded, but also, if I’m being honest, because that’s where tourists go. That’s where people flock. That isn’t to say we didn’t spend time in Callao or neighboring San Miguel; but the majority of our Lima-gallivanting was in the neighborhoods that expected to host international visitors.
Lima is also in stark contrast to Cusco. There are skyscrapers, a tremendous stadium, hulking municipal edifices. The key to understanding a city is understanding its public transit system, so Amy and I rode that puppy to its lengths to discover places further from the travel-books’ eyes.
In the downtown historic area we climbed down into catacombs of human remains and ate ceviche at an inconspicuous joint. In Miraflores, we walked the parks along the cliffs that cast out into the Pacific Ocean while paragliders hung like hovering hawks over the surfers below. In Barranco we drank craft beer (cerveza artesenal) and crossed the Bridge of Sighs holding our breaths (for a wish, duh). In San Isidro, we sat in the shade of an olive tree in the Bosque de Oliver, before walking down the buffered median parks that separated the lanes of the main avenue. Our goal was to exhaust ourselves in a relentless pursuit of city life. We caféd at cafés every afternoon. I read Harry Potter y el caliz de fuego in parks where Peruvian teenagers were ceaselessly and passionately making out. We searched far and wide to taste Lima’s globally famous food scene.
This last point…yes!
From pork belly sliders at Mercado to a sixteen-course Nekkei dinner complete with ceviche ice cream (don’t hate) at Maido, Lima was exactly what they said it was: a food capital. We ate tacu tacu, a sticky rice dish with sweet sauce and a protein. We drank pisco sours and Cusqueño beer. We even had a Lucha sandwich (which was a cheesesteak) with a jugo de mango con leche.
And right up to the moment we were to depart, despite the perfunctory longing for home that occurs occasionally along the way, I languished over leaving.
* * *
Five years ago, when I returned from Ethiopia, it took me nearly two months to reacclimate to the United States. There was a sort of depression, a reverse culture shock, where I had to get used to my own country. Returning from Peru, I felt a similar pang. Traveling makes you look at your own culture and perhaps analyze it in ways that are more critical than you are capable of while plunged inside it. It’s like how we don’t know what our faces look like until we happen upon a mirror. Traveling is such a mirror, and sometimes our faces make strange gestures. Sometimes there are scars.
Leaving home, we see more clearly where we live. The United States is a country of velocity. I love it and consider myself a patriot, one not concerned about criticizing my home where I see fit to hopefully improve it. It’s beautiful here. It’s scary. And returning from a place where there is so much emphasis on spiritual connection, I can’t help but want to bring that here. Maybe that’s a vanity, but there are worse things. Peru taught me that I can feel like I’m in the Andes when I’m kicking through trash in Philly.
The Inca Trail beats in me through my heart.