One Country – Three Distinct Geographies
by Michael Morcos
Impossible, I thought! It can’t be done, I chuckled to myself as I packed for my trip to Peru. This is a job for NASA; they are the experts at packing light and for different conditions. How else was I to pack clothes for visiting three different climatic regions in the same week?
I had to pack for Lima’s mild Pacific Coast weather, keeping in mind I needed to also be ‘Urban Chic’. I also needed warm clothing for the cold nights in the Andes and casual light garb for the extremely hot and humid conditions of the Amazon Basin. All this had to be crammed into a bag that was small enough to fit on the single propeller plane that would fly us into the jungle. Got to contact NASA fast!
Land of the Incas
I had read very little about Peru before leaving (this is my way of getting the full impact of a destination right at the source) and Lima would be my first introduction to South America. I had spent my honeymoon in the Dominican Republic some twenty years before, so this trip would also be my long awaited re-introduction to Latin America.
Pacific Coast – Lima
I quickly found out that Lima was South America’s fourth largest city with a population of over seven million people. Situated on the Pacific coast, Lima has mild winters, warm summers and fog for much of the year. It is also an arid desert-like land with less than 10mm of precipitation per annum.
Our stay in Lima was short, as we left the day after our arrival for the Andes and the Amazon. We would only return to the capital for our last night in Peru. Little did I know that this would be my most challenging trip both physically and in some ways mentally. Late night activities, very early morning wake-up calls, three differing temperature zones and a world of unfamiliar social and cultural encounters would bring me close to a complete state of exhaustion.
The centre of Lima felt just like being in Spain. The architecture in Plaza de Armas (better known as Plaza Mayor) was a great walk back into history, as the Spaniards established it way back in 1569. The well-kept buildings, the city’s main cathedral, its central square and its great fountain all had that Old-World charm but the overall atmosphere was distinctly South American.
Lima sure had its share of surprises! Besides its many pre-Columbian archaeological sites and museums, the gastronomy was second to none. I was treated to fresh seafood, tender meats and fine wines that were found on every menu.
Each restaurant we ate in had its own special appeal in its charming architecture and décor. I could easily have spent my entire week in Peru just eating.
The Mighty Amazon
The 3:30 a.m. wake-up call came far too early. I was exhausted but also very excited, to say the least. I was actually trembling under the skin. City boy here was leaving all the comforts of the big city to fly over the continent’s highest mountains in a single-prop plane and land on a grass airstrip in the middle of the jungle before taking a two-hour motorized canoe ride deeper into the darkness to sleep in the wild.
What an adventure! Sleeping with jaguars and alligators? Perfect! Poisonous frogs, snakes, tarantulas, spiders and all things poisonous? Yes, bring it on!
Into the Wild
I was now the furthest I have ever been from civilization. No radio signals, TVs or phones. No cities, towns or civilization for hundreds of kilometres. There were no roads to speak of, just a couple of rough trails. The major highways were nature’s waterways. The only way out was days away by boat or three hours upriver to the landing strip, and that’s presuming the plane would be there. Was this all still so perfect? You bet!
The Manu Eco-lodge was more than I had expected. The grounds were literally part of the jungle. The main building and individual cabins were constructed mainly with natural materials found in the vicinity.
No electricity meant we had to use candles and kerosene lanterns at night. The gas-powered generator was used only a couple of hours a day for cooking and recharging batteries. Waste and packaging materials were kept to a minimum and we were even asked to bring non-combustibles, such as anything made of plastic, back with us. However, this did not mean we were deprived of luxury, as each cabin had its own (extremely) clean private toilet and shower with propane-heated running hot water.
The elevated cabins really gave a new meaning to the term ‘open-air concept’ as our fairly large accommodations had nothing but chicken wire for exterior walls. This did have its upside at nighttime, as cooling breezes and the chorus of insects and other wildlife made the jungle experience that much more real.
The saying ‘early to bed, early to rise’ did not exactly apply on this trip. I did go to bed early but waking up at 4:00 am still felt like the middle of night to me. We had to make an early move, as this would be our last full day and it was packed with activities. On the agenda were a boat ride and hike to see a bird clay lick, a climb up a gigantic kapok tree for a canopy walk and finally an excursion to witness a tapir lick.
Remarkable Bird Lick
The short boat ride followed by a hike through the jungle brought us to the bird lick. This would also be another first for me. I didn’t even know what I ‘lick’ was! But I soon found out that ‘the lick’ was a cliff face consisting of chalk, which the birds need to consume on a daily basis to help in the digestion of their meals.
From up high in a wooden ‘blind’, we would be spectators of an incredible phenomenon. This was one of nature’s most amazing spectacles! First came large groups of colourful parrots. Hundreds of them conjugated filling the sky and covering the face of the cliff. As the morning progressed, it was the turn of the much larger macaws that always travelled in pairs. What a wonderful sight! The smaller parakeets were the last to put on a show. Cute and noisy, they flitted about everywhere.
Kapok Treetop Canopy
The giant native kapok tree we visited was amazing on its own. The base of its huge trunk would probably take more than a minute to walk around. It was also one of the tallest trees in the forest.
This was not the only amazing thing about it. A tall spiralling metal staircase led to its treetop platform. Climbing to the top was exhausting but well worth it, as it afforded a spectacular view of the surrounding rainforest. What a sight and what an experience! I am still puzzled at how the builders were able to transport the many heavy components of such a large staircase so deep into the jungle
Part Pig, Part Elephant, All Peruvian
Nothing happened for most of the four hours at the tapir lick. Our group each had an individual mosquito-netted ‘blind’ where we sat and waited for this elusive animal to appear. We were told we should remain very quiet. I read until it was too dark to read, ate my pre-packed dinner and then had nothing else to do but wait.
Sitting alone and motionless in the pitch-black jungle, my mind started to wander. Here I am in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Our camp is an hour away and if our guide were to leave us here, we would surely perish. No roads, no maps and only a jungle trail to follow. What an experience I thought. My next thought was where is that damn tapir?
Just as we were about to abandon our quest our guide turned on his large flashlight and there it was! Finally, an animal the size of a pig with a truck like an elephant’s.
Our walk back to the camp took longer than expected. Our over-enthusiastic guide was determined to spot and show us the many night creatures that were all around us. Birds, frogs and insects were everywhere. The only thing I didn’t really want to see was a jaguar and thankfully none appeared.
The Magnificent Andes
Arriving in Cusco was like a rude awakening. At a height of 11,000 ft, I was struck with altitude sickness minutes after stepping off the plane.
This was a classic case — shortness of breath, dizziness, disorientation and fatigue. My travelling companion Tom and Sean were soon experiencing the same symptoms, only they had to resort to using oxygen respiratory masks for five minutes each. The many attractions in Cusco seemed very interesting but I couldn’t wait to sit down for lunch.
Cusco, capital of the Inca Empire would have to wait, as we were heading down into the Sacred Valley for two nights. On route, we would stop a couple of times to get breathtaking views of the surrounding pastures, farms, valleys and mountains. A little bit of time was spent at the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. It was unbelievable to see the huge boulders that were perfectly cut and stacked to form almost seamless walls.
Machu Picchu – Awe at first site!
Getting to Machu Picchu meant taking a special train built for mountain travel, riding on a bus that zigzagged up a dangerous dirt road and finally, a steep climb on foot. The few hours getting there were all worthwhile. This was truly a grand human accomplishment. Many world-renowned sites are over hyped, but Machu Picchu needs no such hyping.
Its hard to imagine that this site was abandoned and forgotten for centuries and luckily so, for if the Spanish had found this city, it would surely have come to the same fate as many other Inca sites that were demolished.
This day in the Sacred Valley would not be my finest on the trip. To put it mildly, the nearest toilet was always a welcome sight. With a war going on in my stomach and with what little energy I had left, I still managed to the enjoy our visit to a chicharria. These are places frequented by locals on a daily basis, where they meet to play social games, talk and drink a mildly alcoholic but nutritious beverage made from corn.
Lunch was at a charming historic colonial hacienda that was perched atop a hill. It gave us a magnificent view of the valley and surrounding mountains.
We also visited a llama farm where we saw many unusual and fascinating breeds of the woolly animals and watched the Peruvian style of weaving.
In the late afternoon, we visited a local market that had everything from raw meats and fleshly picked vegetables to locally made arts and crafts. My travelling companions and I where probably the only non-Peruvians at this large market and we were greeted with warm smiles.
Visiting Peru was like a reading a children’s bedtime story. It had everything — beauty, mystery, mysticism, adventure, a bit of pain and a great ending. The bad guys (altitude sickness and exhaustion) were finally defeated and the good guys rode off under clear, blue skies.
The most important thing for me were the lasting memories of a great country that is blessed with warm happy people, interesting history and architecture, great food, and incredible geographical diversity. With all this, Peru has a goldmine of adventures yet to be discovered. Next time I come I will bring a bigger pickaxe and shovel!