Discovering Peru: a trip of firsts!
Discovering Peru: a trip of firsts!
Peru was a trip of many firsts for me:
- The first time I realized that there were thousands of different of varieties of potatoes
- The first time I went trekking and slept in a tent out in the wilderness
- The first time I enjoyed a beer
- The first and only time I had a “Bath Butler” in a hotel
- The first time I saw a canyon
- The first time I travelled on my own
I recently started feeling rather nostalgic about Peru, a country I visited over a year and a half ago. Looking through a folder on my laptop brimming with Peru photographs brought back all the wonderful memories of every single day of my journey. I ended up going to Peru, because whenever I asked a widely travelled individual what is THE place to visit in South America, if you could only go to one country, Peru was consistently the answer. I found this rather intriguing; it made me wonder: “What is it about Peru that makes it so special, so memorable, so enjoyable?” I had only been to South America once before, a few years previously. It was a family trip over Christmas, a brief time spent in Chile, followed by a short time in Argentina. I was yearning to explore more of that faraway continent, but with limited time, I could only go to one country. And Peru it was…
It was the first time that I decided to travel on my own for a rather extended period of time. In my mind, Peru had the potential to be the perfect destination for that solitude I was longing for at the time. Living in a city sometimes makes one crave the quiet of the wilderness, some time spent in one’s own company, contemplating life and having a “mental” detox. Before I boarded the plane to Lima, I was equally excited and nervous. Over the next two weeks, I would lead a nomadic lifestyle, never spending more than two nights in the same location; with the limited amount of time I had, I just could not afford it. This constant movement afforded me the chance to sample the majority of Peruvian delights: Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, Arequipa, and of course, a must-do in Peru: trekking in the subliminally beautiful Andes. This solitary exploration of the country meant that I had a lot more time at my disposal to really absorb everything I was seeing along the way. The topography of the country is extraordinarily varied: flat, arid coastal plains; the bare, jagged peaks of the Andes; the lush rainforests of the Amazon. I encountered welcoming people who liked to smile a lot and tell me many interesting things about their culture, cuisine and country. And of course there was the mind-blowing historical monuments, which made it easy to imagine the splendour and the grandeur of the Inca Empire…
The Andean People:
I found the indigenous people of the Andes utterly fascinating. Throughout my three-day trek, I often wondered: “What is it that keeps these people living here, generation after generation, for thousands of years?” To an outsider, the living conditions in the Andes might seem extreme: barren landscapes of rocky mountains covered with puny-looking grass, frosty nights and days of scorching sun, tiny settlements located at the attitude of three thousand metres and above with almost non- existent infrastructure… Regardless of the fact that I had a couple of days to adjust to the high altitude, I experienced the altitude sickness on the first day of the trek, for the first time in my life: a splitting headache and dizziness, accompanied by a nosebleed that just would not stop. The only thing that I wanted to do at that moment was to curl up in my little tent, to be enveloped by total darkness, and to drift off to sleep. My guide gave me a big mug of coca tea, and then made me breathe pure oxygen in order to alleviate the symptoms. In contrast, over thousands of years the Andean people have adapted to living at extremely high altitudes; they have a significantly higher concentration of the hemoglobin in their blood, thus allowing it to bind to as many oxygen molecules as possible. It was incredible to see the locals walk quickly, even run, over long distances. I tried running a short distance once, and was completely out of breath after fifty meters, regardless of the fact that I am a very fit person back at home.
The Andean people live rudimental lives, and their way of life seems timeless. Their brick houses are basic, but comfortable. Being so far away from major settlements, they rely on farming maize and potatoes, keeping domesticated llamas and alpacas, and possess excellent storage skills to keep food edible throughout the year. Everywhere I saw the proliferation of colour in the form of vividly bright, eye-catching colours in the Andean textiles; red, yellow, blue, green, all sharply contrasting with the bleak, grey mountains. During my scenic hike, I occasionally stopped for a little break that would allow me to interact with the locals.
There are roughly three thousand varieties of potatoes in Peru; I never imagined that there could be so many. And did you know that potato, which has been a staple crop of many countries around the world for centuries, originated from the area that is now the southern part of Peru? I certainly did not. The potato was domesticated here thousands of years ago; wild potatoes are laced with toxins, and are bitter in taste, which means that that the early cultures must have spent a considerable amount of time picking the right tubers to cultivate to attain the mild, tasty potato that we eat today. Afterwards, thousands of different varieties have been achieved through selective breeding. Furthermore, centuries ago the Andean people have developed a method for freeze-drying potatoes; such potatoes are called Chuño, and can be kept in storage for years neither losing their nutritional value, nor rotting. For five days, these potatoes are exposed to very low temperature in the night, freezing them, and the hot sunshine in the day. I was never much of a potato eater, always finding it rather boring-tasting; but Peruvian potatoes make potato eating exciting due to the opportunity to taste potatoes that you have never laid your eyes on before.
I have a great fondness for vast expanses of water; large lakes, seas and oceans have somewhat a calming effect on me. Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, is a place of extreme beauty. Situated in the Andes, with its surface elevation at over 3,800 metres, the lake has an aura of something inexpressibly sublime and uncanny. The air around the lake was exceptionally crisp and fresh, and the water, practically ice-cold, was pellucid. Lake Titicaca is also home to the unique and fascinating Uru people, pre-Incan people who live on artificial floating islands entirely made of reed, and who move about in boats, also made entirely of reed…
Peru is not known for its beautiful cities; therefore, Cuzco shines like a bright star in a murky night sky. Cuzco, a former capital of the Inca Empire located high up in the Andes near Urubaba Valley, is a lively town of picturesque centuries-old Spanish architecture with narrow, steep streets, elaborate Baroque Churches and a magnificent Plaza de Armas as its epicentre. I found that the best thing to do in Cuzco was simply wandering about and getting lost in its labyrinthine streets and alleys.
During my time in Peru, I really enjoyed a beer for the first time in my life. Not just any beer, but perhaps the best tasting beer in the world: Cusqueña Malta, a darker sibling of a more widely consumed blonde Cusqueña. During my pre-trekking dinner, my guide insisted that I try the dark beer, because it was “delicious, and goes very well with this deep-fried guinea pig!”. I was reluctant, but after the first sip, I was addicted to its malty, caramel-like taste. And yes, I did try the guinea pig, a very popular delicacy in Peru, which I decided after the first bite was not my cup of tea. So I just stuck to the beer.