Llamas and alpacas. Copious amounts of llamas and alpacas! A majority of my experiences in Cusco involved these silly, smiling creatures. They were a part of the community. If they weren’t dressed up, being led down the streets on a rope by the locals, they were being served on the local menus, things PETA would’ve been horrified by. Alpaca fur dominated the clothing in every market. Women waved fluffy scarves and ponchos in my face, informing me they were “baby alpaca”, a sure indication the material would be soft. From the cozy town of Cusco, to Rainbow Mountain and Machu Picchu, they were everywhere. As I wandered around in wonder at a culture so different from my own I found amusement in the realization that I had ended up in Peru in December, spring time in the southern hemisphere, when initially I had been planning on going to Iceland.
As is typical of my travels, Peru happened in a spontaneous way. I met a backpacker in town from Pennsylvania at my favorite local bar a few days prior to Thanksgiving. I was discussing my desire to hike the Appalachian Trail when JD overheard my conversation and hopped in. It turned out he had hiked the entirety of the trail. Recognizing the energy of a fellow traveler, we were soon engaged in swapping travel stories. He informed me he works 6 months at a time and backpacks the other 6 months of a year. With my flight attendant schedule, I typically take shorter holidays every 3-6 weeks, jet-setting across the world anywhere from a weekend to 6 weeks at a time. Although we practice two entirely different travel styles, the general traveler mindset made it easy to get lost in conversation. Before I knew it I heard myself inviting him to the Friendsgiving dinner and party I was having the next day.
Two weeks later, after a week of working and a week spent relaxing in Hawaii, I found myself heading to the airport with my new friend in Orlando. He drove as I booked his flight from Lima to Cusco. I laughed as he informed me he hates airports and flying whereas I love the excitement of it all. JD, despite his laid back persona and spontaneity, is more of an organizer than I am. I prefer to take life and traveling a moment at a time, making it up as I go along. We celebrated the efficiency of our teamwork over an airport beer before heading to our respective gates. I flew from Orlando to Atlanta to Lima to Cusco in exactly the same time frame that he flew from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale to Lima to Cusco on completely different airlines. We spent a cold few hours in a sleeping bag in a sterile airport hallway in Lima on our layovers until security kicked us out at 4 am. We arrived in Lima within 30 minutes of each other around 6 am, exhausted yet adrenaline filled.
Ignoring the men outside baggage claim gesturing to their unmarked cars yelling “Senorita?! Senor? Taxi?!” We uttered a few solid, “No! Gracias!” giggling at our horrible Spanish accents and continued on our way in the general direction of the city center. We both agreed we were in no rush. We wanted to see Cusco’s character as we wandered through the residential outskirts and local businesses. The number of adorable stray dogs greeting us had us pausing at every corner. We crossed streets with the local children who artfully dodged and weaved at opportune moments.
Breakfast took place in a dark, single hole in the wall building off the street we were walking down with a smiling woman who spoke no English, offering us pollo and rice. Starved for anything edible we could get our hands on, we ordered a few smoothies. Minutes later our waitress ran out the open door and down the road, returning with the fruits we had ordered for our smoothie and a hospitable smile. Cusco wormed its way right into my heart in that moment. As exhausted as I was, the first impressions of our Peruvian home town for the next week charmed me. The next focus was to find somewhere with wifi so we could figure out where to stay for the evening.
Our stroll to town zig zagged from distraction to distraction. Searching for an atm we stumbled upon a local market in an alleyway. The fruits and vegetables were stacked high between booths. Dark skinned local women in long dresses sat scattered amongst the stands with braided hair and large hats. Merchants offered to sell us anything our gaze fell upon, assuring us their deals were best. We turned a corner and the most nauseating sight was before us . . . a separate partitioned area that made up the meat market. Raw meat of every kind sat open on the stands. Heads, hooves, ears, organs; it was all there. We paused to observe a woman beating something over the counter, lifting her arms over her head for stronger impact. I turned questioning eyes to JD. “What is she doing farm boy?” I whispered, using the name I’d endearingly gifted him after learning he works on farms and vegetables are his favorite food. He hesitated and then his eyes widened. “She’s . . . it’s a cow tongue! She’s tenderizing it.” Horrified I quickly moved in the direction of the tent opening functioning as a door, passing the large slaughtered pigs with their organs on display. The pungent aroma of dead things repulsed me but I also couldn’t look away.
Resurfacing from the meat tent we embarked once again on our journey to the town center. A peaceful parade of protestors wandered down the street holding signs and speaking through megaphones. Police escorts with shields walked alongside them. We climbed up a steep set of stairs for a better vantage point of the city. The brief moment of stillness reminded us of our fatigue. We found ourselves sitting down to rest for a few minutes . . . then we were lying down with our backpacks as pillows . . . before we knew it we were asleep on an overhanging sidewalk of a small walkway near a homeless man and some strays. The smell of urine was just prominent enough to remind us where we were, but not strong enough to overpower the exhaustion. JD woke me up when he felt a woman stepping over us. That was our cue to end our much needed hobo nap.
Feeling the thinner air from the altitude of Cusco, around 11,152 ft/3,399 km, combined with heavy smog from an assumed lack of pollution emission regulations, we worked our way through the layered levels of the city. Each side street became a new adventure. We wandered into an archaic church and many different shops. My first purchase was a handmade threaded bracelet by an older local woman for just cinco soles. I quickly learned of JD’s weakness for nice jewelry as he stopped to look at everything silver and shiny. Each shop’s personality enticed us deeper into the city.
Finally arriving in the main square, much to my distaste we stumbled upon a Starbucks, a guaranteed place to pick up wifi. A hostel in an elevated area just outside the square was booked and google maps were consulted. We did some basic research on ways to get to Machu Picchu in the following days over espresso and then we were off. To our delight, our hostel room overlooked a beautiful view of the city. Red wine and probing conversation was to ensue in the later hours looking out over the twinkling orange city grid. Small talk amongst travelers is simply impossible.
The main purpose of my trip to Peru was to hike Machu Picchu and see a new country in a new hemisphere. I’d not yet traveled to South America. The conversation leading up to this decision was something of this sort:
Me: “Wow you’re going to Peru! That’s amazing. It’s on my list. I’d love to make that trip!”
JD: “Yeah I’m looking forward to it. You’re welcome to come along.”
Me: “Well . . . don’t say it if you don’t mean it, but sure, why not? I could probably get the time off work. When do we leave?”
Two weeks from our initial meeting we left for Peru. To anyone who travels frequently, this is not surprising. I oftentimes meet travelers along the way in which one of us will reroute completely and tag along with the other because of a simple suggestion and invite. Half of the fun of backpacking comes from the people who join you for the journey and pure serendipitous spontaneity. I’ve gained some of the most informative travel tips from these experiences in addition to some amazing friendships. I do, however, realize this sounds crazy to those who do not participate in this kind of lifestyle. If you have not yet had this experience, I highly recommend it.
The trek to the base of Machu Picchu, also known as Aguas Calientes turned out to be a bit of a challenge. JD and I wandered around town to different tourism centers looking for the best deal. He bargained and haggled in his Spanglish, each package becoming cheaper than the next. I admired his gusto, taking mental notes and keeping track of each price package in a note pad on my phone as he refused to settle for anything less than what we wanted. According to our research we needed transportation to and from the town, the entry fee to the ruins and a guide. Everyone told us the guide was mandatory, much to our chagrin. As for accommodation, we figured we could just camp, book a hostel or Airbnb it for a cheaper price than any package could offer us. With our three points of focus we finally settled for the cheapest package offered through our hostel. That evening we settled in for an early night. We choked on a sampler of pisco, the local brandy, and then promptly gave the rest to some European backpackers. I consumed my first alpaca burger over a grueling round of Incan style chess. Then it was time for bed.
We departed our hostel at an early hour and were met by a tour guide who spoke limited English. We followed him down the road to a white van. The door seemed to be stuck and we watched from the sidewalk, chewing on a mealy apple, as the men inside and our guide yelled back and forth to each other in rapid Spanish. It was clearly just another normal morning in their lives. Once the door was pried open we crawled into the last row of the 14-seater white van.
Every bump in the rocky road hit us as we weaved through the primitive streets, picking up other backpackers along the way. 7 hours later, after some terrifying mountain roads, we arrived in Hydroelectrica, a stop in the middle of nowhere. A partial overhang with a small kitchen offered us a warm meal. From here there were two options to get to the town; we could either take a train for about $40 or hike along the tracks for approximately 10 km. We chose the hike, arriving in the charming Aguas Calientes just a few hours later. Our arrival was celebrated over pina coladas in a café offering wifi as we figured out where to book our stay for the evening.
Our alarms went off at 4:15 am the day of the big event. I snoozed until the last minute as JD coaxed me to arise in a much too chipper tone while he gathered things we might need for the day. It was a dark mile or so hike to the first checkpoint. The guards requested tickets to pass through. We had never received paper tickets. With the help of a translator app we spoke back and forth to them, starting to realize that maybe we had gotten ripped off. While I remained at the checkpoint, JD ran back to town to borrow the hostel phone.
His phone calls were unsuccessful. The tour company didn’t answer. The original hostel we booked through seemed uncertain as to what happened, but assured us they would attempt to make things right when we returned to Cusco. We were on our own. The tour guide waiting up at the gates of Machu Picchu said he could meet us a few hours later than planned. On my end, the security guards began making conversation, mostly through charades and my limited Spanish skills, asking where I was from, if I was a student, and if JD was my husband. Upon learning I was unmarried and a flight attendant, or rather a “stewardess” as they chanted excitedly to each other, they suddenly became overly accommodating. They called up to the gates and read our passport information over the phone, requesting information as to whether or not there were tickets at the top for us, which there were not. By the time JD returned, we were both very aware that we needed to come up with a plan B.
After hiking into town and buying our own tickets, we did an about face for take 2. The sun had fully risen at this point. We cheered as we passed the checkpoint this time and began the hike up. Unfortunately Machu Picchu has turned into a massive tourist attraction, so there are buses constantly running up and down to the top. For authenticity purposes we chose to take the steep rocky stairs to the top. The view among the clouds became prettier with each turn in the path.
Our guide had agreed on the time of 9 am to meet at the gate. We arrived almost 30 minutes early, choosing a place to sit and eat while we waited. 9:00 came and went . . . then 9:15. The chill in the air encouraged us to put on all of our layers. We assumed our guide worked on Peruvian time so we weren’t concerned. When 9:30 rolled around, the feeling of dread returned. JD once again went in search of a phone. A while later he informed me the guide wasn’t coming, but one of the tour guides at the top, upon hearing our story offered to include us in whatever group he led next for a discounted price. After waiting for another 15 minutes, with no signs of groups looking for a guide the man came back and apologized that he wouldn’t be taking us. Then he said the words that left us incredulous. We didn’t actually need a guide for our first entry . . . with that we were up and smiling again, thanking him profusely as we were waved through the gates.
Neither of us was too upset about the situation, choosing to find humor in how ridiculous the whole situation was. We were simply happy to finally pass through the gates! Despite the annoying amounts of tour groups passing through with flags and speakers as if this were Disney, the trip and our efforts proved to be worth it. My first view of the ruins had me floored. I’m sure I stood on the mountain edge with my mouth open for a few seconds of silence, taking it in. “Wow!” Seemed to be the only appropriate response.
An island of rocks, piled into mathematically shaped rooms and compartments, surrounded by intertwining levels of stairs reminded me of the legos I used to build structures out of as a kid. The intricate layering perfectly complemented the shape of the mountain in which the civilization lived upon. Clouds floated along the mountaintops surrounding Macau Picchu, shrouding the peak from view. Generations of time gone by yet the elements had still managed to leave much of the original structures untouched. I could almost imagine the ancient people milling through their homes, cooking and sharing laughter in everyday life, children hopping from stone to stone as they played among the mountains. Llamas and alpacas wandered in and out of the ruins as if no time passed. I laughed at how goofy they looked but remembered to be careful to stand clear of the cliff’s edge as the animals pushed their way through the crowd, unconcerned about the photoshoots that ensued in their wake. JD and I explored with newfound energy, drinking in the experience. Halfway through we took a nap in a patch of grass overlooking the ruins, enjoying the stillness as many of the tourists dutifully boarded their buses to town for lunch. Eventually we returned to town for a nap and a much deserved meal, ready to plot our next adventure, making plans to return to Cusco the following day.
We did eventually get our money back from the hostel we had booked the Machu Picchu package with, receiving a heartfelt apology as well to our surprise. Hands were shook, apologies were accepted and appreciation shown on both ends. With everyone content we had rainbow mountain next up on the list! Although it hadn’t been on my radar prior to my Peruvian adventure, it soon became one of my favorites memories. I highly recommend it to anyone planning to visit Peru. I warn you now though, the biggest challenge with this hike is the elevation. Born and raised at sea level in Florida, I was not prepared, despite my previous hiking experience.
JD and I had booked an Airbnb with a kind Peruvian family near the airport in Cusco after our return from Machu Picchu. They spoke almost no English, but a lovely woman from Switzerland and her Peruvian husband also happened to be staying with them and spoke both fluent English and Spanish. With her help we were able to request information on how to get to Rainbow Mountain efficiently. It turned out her husband had a connection with a tour company in Cusco that sells packages for that trip. With his help we were able to work out a fantastic price including transportation there and back as well as two meals before and after the hike for that day trip.
We awoke far too early, in my opinion, for the long drive out to rainbow mountain. The sun wouldn’t rise for another few hours. As usual JD hopped up nice and chipper at the alarm to pack everything we might need for the day while I snoozed an extra 10 minutes, threw my clothes on in a rush and grabbed the essentials as we ran out the door to catch a taxi to the town square. The owner of the house we were staying in, a maternal elderly woman awoke and walked out with us to ensure we were able to find a taxi. (Taxis are extremely cheap in Peru as long as you act like you know what you’re doing). We arrived at the town center in the dark and stood in confusion until a man walked up saying our names and telling us to follow him down a side street. If I hadn’t already been in Peru for a week, I might’ve been skeptical, but by now I had learned this is just how they operate. We followed him to a group of people who were clearly backpackers as well and stood yawning until our bus arrived shortly after.
We had chosen to explore the nightlife of Peru the previous night, enjoying some side street bars and sharing a bottle of questionable wine, which left maybe an hour or two of sleep. Therefore, as soon as I boarded the bus I went right to sleep on JD’s shoulder. He dutifully pulled out his book to read as we bumped along the mountain roads once again. I dreamily zoned in and out of sleep as the sun rose, smiling at the beauty of Peru and my experiences thus far. I couldn’t get enough of the culture, the people, the beauty of the Andes and the lifestyle. I let myself drift through the dream I was in, half in reality and half otherworldly all culminating from the moment until we arrived hours later in the middle of the mountains for breakfast.
JD woke me up and waited for me to fumble with my boots and jacket as we climbed out of the bus, suddenly starving. We sat at long picnic tables in a one room building while the locals served us much too salty eggs with bread, jam and butter, watered down tea and coca tea. Coca leaves are supposed to help with altitude sickness. Hikers are encouraged to chew on the leaves while hiking in Peru. We made friends with the guys sitting at our table from England and New Zealand. Immediately linked by the travel bond everyone began sharing tips and experiences from their insane backpacking and hiking trips, a different story for everyone even when they centered in the same places. We all instantly became friends.
Soon after breakfast we drove the rest of the way to the entry trail to rainbow mountain. Blue skies, fluffy clouds, horses saddled up and advertised at affordable prices by locals in traditional garb to take the less athletic travelers up to the top on horseback, we had arrived. Starting strong, and on level terrain, we laughed and joked with the guys we’d shared breakfast with. Things took a turn rather quickly, however. Pretty soon we were walking slower, all except JD who apparently has lungs that don’t need oxygen. Soon, we were all in different stages, struggling with the altitude and going at our own paces. Suddenly I envied the people on the horses as they were led to the top, taking in the scenery.
I forced myself on, stopping to catch my breath occasionally, reminding myself this is exactly the experience I wanted. I needed this. I needed to be in another country, surrounded by another lifestyle, pushing my limits like this. I craved it. Years later, it seemed, I reached the top, JD bounding up to me like it was the most casual thing in the world. The temperature freezing, I donned my layers, and borrowed JD’s opossum gloves. When I finally caught my breath and warmed enough to focus, the view took my breath all over again. Words cannot describe the beauty of the colors of a place that seems so untouched by civilization. It truly mesmerized me.
I spun in circles at the viewpoint, marveling at every angle, overjoyed to be alive. These are the moments, blocking out everything and everyone else, alone with nature, that satisfy every part of my being.
We returned to Cusco that evening, hearts full, bodies tired and relaxed. The nostalgia already creeping up on me as I felt the end of my time in Peru drawing near. Mentally I began to withdraw, recapping the journey, allowing myself to be fully in Peru, mind, body, soul. America seemingly on another planet, I listened to the people in Cusco speaking rapid Spanish, I watched the children run through the streets laughing, dropping their science projects in the town square, enjoyed the smells of the street vendor food and surrounding restaurants, even began to find the young men trying to sell other people’s art to us charming. In my final few days, a part of me became Cusco. I stopped connecting my phone to WiFi to check my messages, enjoyed every sip of my beers and every bite of the food that was entirely different than what I had ordered. Home was Cusco. It didn’t matter that I could barely understand Spanish. The non verbal communication spoke louder than anything verbal. The kindness and servitude of the people reminded me how jaded I’d become to assume that all customer service tended to err on the fake impersonal side as it often is in America. The genuine kindness of Peruvians moved me.
One of the most beautiful things I found about Cusco was the genuine happiness of the people, no matter their societal standing. They say Thailand is the land of smiles, which I found to be true, but I think Peru is equal in this. Much of the population seemed to be populated by a lower class, yet they were seemingly content with their lifestyle. They are hard workers but they live without unnecessary material possessions. It was amazing to see this first hand. If you’ve ever watched the Netflix documentaries “Minimalism” and “Happy”, this is the main focus. People and countries that tend to be “poor” monetarily generally have higher levels of happiness than westernized societies focused on capitalism.
Now that I’ve experienced this firsthand, it’s only increased my desire to live the life of a minimalist. I’ve ended my lease on my apartment, preferring to live entirely through couch surfing, moved to a new state, am living off of the things I fit into my two seater car and surround myself with amazing people in between and during my adventures. I’ve never been happier! They call me a hippy, they tell me I’m crazy, but the lifestyle takes over and changes a person for good. Cusco has imbedded its lessons into my heart and I can’t go back. I never live a day without living.
For those of you who would like to follow JD’s journeys through his photography and blog:
Jonathan David Photography (Facebook)
*Thank you for sharing this journey with me JD. I’m grateful to have crossed paths and learned so much from you. Until next time! Xxx