In February of this year I bit my nails anxiously waiting to board my flight to Peru. For years Peru was hovering near the top of my wanderlust list and after a few failed attempts at planning trips to the Land of the Incas, fate stepped in and sent one of my best friends, Ashley, there who was happy to let me tag along. And so I made a spontaneous decision to go.
The day after leaving home I landed in Iquitos, Peru’s gateway to the Amazon. The Amazon Rainforest was the oldest item on my bucket list. Ever since being taken to a rainforest bio-dome when I was a child no older than seven it was my dream to see the green canopies, waterlogged jungles, and rivers that held and supported such a vast ecosystem. Upon meeting Ashley in the hot and humid city on the shores of the Amazon River we planned our trip. I’m more of a ‘shoot now ask questions later kind’ of traveler. Naturally, we wanted to go deeper into the jungle, however all of the tours we could find were very inauthentic and touristy and we wanted a real jungle experience. Ashley had already been in Peru for a month and had been told by fellow travelers of a man named Jorge, an indigenous man born, raised and still residing in the jungle, who takes travelers to his house to live with his family.
Jorge, a soft-spoken gentle spirit in his early forties, worked out of one of the popular hostels and after we tracked him down we agreed to stay with him and his family for three nights ($150 each, all included). The following day he and his wife accompanied us to a local market in Belen where we purchased heavy denim pants and thick cotton shirts to protect ourselves from the mosquitoes. Leaving our big backpacks locked away in the hostel, we packed everything we would need for three days into our day packs.
Early the next morning we met Jorge and took a minivan an hour and a half to Nauta, a less developed town on the shores of the Maranon River, a major tributary of the Upper Amazon. Joined by a Chilean sociology student we boarded a narrow wooden boat on the brown river waters and drove two hours away from civilization. Passing giant water lily pads, birds, flying insects and dolphins both grey and pale pink breaking the surface we arrived at a wooden house on stilts.
For the days we spent out on the Amazon Jorge took us piranha fishing, trekking through the jungle, swimming with the dolphins, cruising the river and to visit jungle communities to pick up his kids from school on an island. The house had a generator and electricity was available for on hour each evening so our nights were filled with conversation, learning about life on the river and swatting away the most voracious mosquitoes ever imagined. While laying on a hammock one afternoon the two boys dashed through the balcony/living room grabbed what looked like a dustbin lid four feet in diameter and had the time of their lives riding it down the river’s current. They had nothing of what our culture would consider ‘luxuries’, but they lived a beautiful and truly enviable childhood.
It was an incredible experience but after three days we had enough of being eaten alive by bugs so upon returning to land we spent another night in Iquitos and then flew to Cusco. Ashley had found a hostel on Air BnB in the Sacred Valley, an area just over an hour’s drive costing less than ten dollars per person in a shared minivan from Cusco. The Sacred Valley was an area at altitude but lower than Cusco, and so it was the perfect place to acclimatize. Altitude Sickness can ruin a vacation.
I had no idea what to expect of the hostel, The Casa Tres Osos (House of the Three Bears), but I was more than pleasantly surprised when we turned up. It was a house nearly in the middle of nowhere surrounded by lush and rugged mountains draped in clouds that was run by a young married couple originally from Pennsylvania, Megan and Eric. Along with the three gorgeous dogs, Ted, Chaska, and Choco, The house was full of tenants from all over the world who had come to Peru with open minds looking to relax and take in the country. It felt like home away from home. We had intended to stay for three days and ended up staying nearly a week and a half.
Our days in the Sacred Valley consisted of hiking the mountain trails past ancient Incan tombs to waterfalls, diving into the local culture at the markets, seeing Incan ruins and and visiting the nearby towns. The Incan culture is a beautiful and gentle one. It is customary to address perfect strangers as “Amiga/Amigo,” and “Mami/Papi”. And I never once felt unsafe, as the Incans live by three rules: don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t be lazy. The culture was thriving in the older generation, with the Mami’s tending to their work wearing traditional white top hats, cardigans, pinafores and woolly socks with their long black hair braided into two pigtails. However, with many of the younger generation moving to Lima in search of lives filled with fashion and technology, this culture is struggling to be passed on.
After finally forcing ourselves to leave and see more of the country, Ashley and I took a minivan to a stunning and charming town called Ollentay Tambo and then took a train to Aguas Callientes, more often called Machhu Picchu Pueblo (Town). We arrived at midnight and found a hostel room for $18. It was clean, safe and cheap and seemed almost too good to be true. At four thirty the next morning we dragged ourselves from bed, down the stairs and across the road to buy our tickets for Macchu Picchu ruins, then joined the line for the bus up. The key to touristy places is: get there early.
Fog had still blanked the ancient Incan city but as it lifted slowly it revealed the true beauty of the landscape. Ashley and I had worried that Macchu Picchu would have been overrated and inauthentic, but the ruins, and the town was some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever seen. Rivers feed the fertile soil, which grows the lush forest that clings to the mountains rising to the heavens. As the mist rolled we made our way through the stone remnants of the city taking photos of the scenery, the ruins and the llamas. We climbed a brutal hike up Macchu Picchu Mountain, which is twice the height of the mountain you see in the post-card photos of Macchu Picchu. As my legs and lungs burned I wanted to give up and turn around, but I pushed through and when we made it to the top, it was like a little slice of heaven. Machu Picchu were the size of my thumbnail, and at as green mountains rolled into the horizon in all directions around us, I felt on top of the world.
After taking a train back to Ollentay Tambo that afternoon we then took a combi to Cusco and then a night bus south (no rest for the weary). As the sun rose we crossed the border to Bolivia and then an hour later we were deposited in Copacabana, a touristy town, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Eager to make up for the time we lost lounging in the Sacred Valley, we hopped on a boat bound for the Isla Del Sol, a key location in the Incan religion – it is believed that the sun god was born there. On the island there are no motor vehicles, spotty electricity and WiFi, and not a whole lot to do except marvel at its incredible beauty, indigenous culture and hike the trails. The island boasts rocky terrain, sandy beaches with blue waters, forests and grassy lands. And so we took a boat from one end of the island to the other, and walked back to where we had begun that morning.
After two nights we made our way back to Copacabana and made the difficult decision to head north back to The Sacred Valley instead of going further south to the Bolivian salt flats. Time being was not on our side. On our way back, we stopped at a quaint town called Chivay in the Colca Canyon and had the opportunity to see the majestic Andean condors, an endangered species of vulture with sprawling wingspans up to ten feet. We watched the sun rise through the canyon and the clouds roll below us, until they awoke for their morning meals and put on a show for their spectators. After two nights in Chivay and one more in the developed city of Arequipa, we arrived back in the Sacred Valley where we spent our last week in Peru with chilled out days exploring the nearby towns, waterfalls and the salt terraces.
Peru is perfect getaway if you are looking to reset mentally, reconnect with nature, and experience a culture that is gentle, beautiful, and unaffected with the Western world. I shed a tear as I left Peru for the next stop on my travels, but look back with joy and gratitude that I had the opportunity to see such a magical place and I would recommend it to everyone.
Big thank you to Rachel Sawden for taking the time to write about her experience in Peru. If you would like to see more photos and keep up with her adventures you can follow her on instagram @rayraydatyou
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