Gold of the Andes: A Journey Through Peru

Take a minute to consider this: for many of life’s deepest and most intimate of questions, the process of inquisition is often far more rewarding and valuable than any answers lying in waiting further down the road. A metaphorical road that may be, but to travel is to inquire. This is where an avocado-addicted millennial comes in useful. Upon asking the average wristband-laden twenty to thirty year old who may have had the opportunity of jetting off to Asia or South America, as to the purpose behind such a voyage, it won’t take too much digging, if any, until something akin to “finding” oneself gets splurted out. Now, there’re two distinct forms of irony here. Firstly, there’s a wonderful chance that oceans were crossed only to have dedicated the majority of their time, on his or her personal quest of self-discovery, to being splattered across a myriad of cheap hostel bars, entirely unable to recall the reason they were there, or even to pronounce the name of the town; admittedly, local beverages still consist part of the culture. The second form of irony in such a justification, is that it is deadly accurate. The adventure of exploration and reaching a destination, may well be analogous with something far more profound; something that is at the very essence of why many, whether attuned to it or not, choose to do it in the first instance – to enshrine into consciousness a greater and deeper understanding of the psyche. This quest of self is as mysterious and enlightening as the physical journey undertaken in its search, yet it is through such a passage of inquisition, where the purest gold may well be found.

Some thought could be dedicated as to why this is. What is it about travelling and more specifically, exploring solo, that can lead to a greater grasp of one’s inner functioning. When distilled down, one answer may well be perceived to be, that by immersing ourselves into environments and circumstances which are, quite literally, entirely foreign, and then by observing our responses to the unpredictable situations that will inevitably arise, it can shine an internal light, illuminating the attributes, pathologies and insecurities that are embedded within. Paying close attention is the trick, as we then gain the ability to rectify or sacrifice those aspects which are not conducive to serving us, and build upon those that are. Real freedom lies within the empowerment that such self-knowledge can bring.

20190424_061107Earlier this year, I was fortunately enough to spend over five weeks in Peru – a sort of personal Celestine Prophecy. It was a journey I wanted to dedicate my pen to properly and so whilst it wasn’t my initial intention of waiting four months after returning to do so, for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t ready to immediately regurgitate my experience. The time has, however, allowed the manifestation of a more holistic impression and recollection of the trip to unfold. I hoped this would be the case, and so by enabling the separation of the wheat from the chaff to occur organically, the most meaningful and insightful parts of my trip have become more vividly ingrained. And so the story goes… way up high, over 3000m into the clouds.

Cusco, the old Incan Capital and now the most visited city in Peru being the gateway to Machu Picchu, was my home for a month. By taking a part-time Spanish course at the wonderful Mundo Antiguo language school, I had left the Pacific North-West with the hefty ambition of improving upon an ability level consisting of little more than: “Buenas noches Senorita, puedo tomar una cerveza y tu número?” – for the most part, its utility was limiting.

Personal meaning is transcendent and unique to each individual, and when encapsulated, life becomes optimally fulfilling. Of this there is little doubt, and it constitutes a major a factor in the quest for self. Many people travel because they are searching for their own, or striving to recapture it in a world where regaining its possession has become increasingly complex, once it’s been momentarily stripped out of hand. But being in the proximity of those who intimately possess it, provides a transcendent optimism that the search is one to pursue. Together with the graciously selfless tour guides I met along the way, the teachers at the school, which is run by the passionate, kind and accommodating Koen and Carina, made this ever clearer to me. During four weeks of private and group tuition under the instruction and guidance of Abraham, Empe and Luz, their glowing enthusiasm for helping us foreign kids learn their mother tongue was radiant and palpable, and whilst four consecutive hours of daily lessons hit a personal threshold, it was a pleasure to have been in their classroom. I hope to continue to build upon my now raised Spanish foundation as time goes by.

During the month, I spent ten days living with a Peruvian family, who epitomised the warmth and hospitality I came to know from the city at large. Despite probably being all too used to students coming and going, I thank Yvonne and Alex for gracefully welcoming me into their home and family. Their little girl and her cousin, aged four and five, were two bundles of exuberance who provided the most memorable part of my stay by suddenly, and without warning, invading my room and initiating a winner-takes-all… Nick’s-clothes, sock-throwing war, and in the process locking themselves in, with yours truly left outside wondering how on earth that had happened, and how I was going to reclaim my suitcase. Bribing a kid with candy is never an option – except when it is, as desperate times call for desperate… candy. Peace was restored; socks were regained. 

Cusco itself is a metropolis in the mountains. Spending a month at such an altitude reemphasises and reignites an appreciation for a few things. Firstly, that oxygen is bloody marvellous – thank God for O2. In addition, life is beautiful as long as the road is flat, but introduce the faintest of inclines – being in a city in the Andes, inclines are more common than in Holland – and years of vigorous fitness training and a resting heart rate of 44 bpm seemed to account for nought; the pulse races and there’s nothing, other than acclimatisation, you can do about it. It is of no exaggeration to say that playing 5-a-side soccer at an altitude of three and a half kilometres, was probably one of the most debilitating activities I can recall undertaking since listening to Nick Ferrari interview Diane Abbott. You are continuously left craving something all too absent; in the former case, air – in the latter, competence.

The Spanish colonial past is visibly evident all over Cusco, especially in the Old Town and around the Plaza de Armas. With the Cristo Blanco shining down with love from above, and the Cathedral lit up – sustainably, unlike Notre-Dame at that point in time – it provides a stunning night time scene. But from my travelling experiences, where lies historic cultural urban beauty, the opportunity for an inundation of massage requests is just, quite literally, around the corner.  “Amigo, massage 20 soles, 1 hour… 1 hour, 20 soles, amigo” is, after all, an offer one can’t refuse, although after a little further investigation, it turns out the full works is at least 40 soles and the whole ‘20 bargain’ includes little more than a facial, and is used as a shrewd tactic to drag in gullible lone backpackers. But it’s a reasonable deal and whilst nothing close to any sort of RMT, it provides an adequate method of relaxation; and one that is especially required after the tribulations involved in determining the most cost effective means of exchanging currency in the city…

Nothing provides a more vivid demonstration of our neurosis with legal tender than when it comes to exchanging money in a foreign country. Coming from the Wild West, where many generally don’t tend to bat an eyelash at purchasing their daily skinny, almond milk, de-caf, vanilla cappuccino for over $5, when it comes to saving a rupee, peso or sol, in the flick of a compulsive switch, we become obsessively fixated on saving what wouldn’t amount to a few cents, which ironically makes none whatsoever. The issue in Peru, is that by nationally accepting both US dollars and Peruvian soles, one needs to have access to both to get by, with soles being the only viable option for remote towns. Yet Cusco’s exchange bureaus only accept US dollars to buy soles, and the cash machines are a no-go for the sake of bankruptcy. It took myself and a software engineer from Silicon Valley, a brief quasi-intellectual analysis to deduce that one had to go into the bank, where you weren’t charged ATM fees, exchange Canadian dollars to US dollars to get the highest rate despite the bank being Peruvian, and then head to one of the street bureaus to exchange those dollars into soles. When I was given a worn twenty dollar bill which was sequentially rejected by every exchange kiosk Cusco could throw at me, the incessant quest to save a damn sol was rendered vain with the massage that followed… and that, mis amigos, was the happy ending! 

Living in Cusco puts you on the doorstep of a vast archaeological and geological treasure map, whose histories and mysteries are what all us soul searching pilgrims have travelled there to discover. Unless one has pre-booked the Inca Trail a decade previously, the most popular, and generally the only way to access this world, is via what should be considered the 8th Wonder of the Modern World – Cusco’s thriving population of white minibuses, which seemed to outnumber people by twenty to one and then proceed to clog up the arteries of the region’s major organs. After a three-hour ride, followed by a breath-taking and oxygen depleting 400m ascent up Rainbow Mountain to 5050m, and being half an hour ahead of the rest of the group, I was given permission to go on alone and briefly explore The Red Valley, which provided possibly the most remarkable geological perspective I’ve ever been witness to. After asking my guide where to meet him, he replied “by the bus… the white one.” Maybe he said the “the right one”? Either way, the parking area resembled spilled rice. Unfortunately, I was too busy bargaining for a Coke to take a picture.

Rainbow Mountain is Peru’s most recently uncovered major tourist attraction, and now one the most popular and commercially lucrative. Up until 2015, the Montaña de Siete Colores was hidden beneath the perma-snow only being exposed due to the incrementally increasing temperatures and weather erosion in the region. Now attracting in excess of a thousand tourists a day, many entirely physically unprepared for the demands of hiking at such an altitude, who flock to get a view of the oxidised iron, sulphur and copper infused stratification, the impact to the local natural environment has already taken its toll; over-tourism is already happening, and it won’t be long before government intervention will be required to ensure its preservation. For a full description of the Rainbow experience and the holistic impact it’s having, this is an informative read:

Yet naturally, it’s Machu Picchu that is the country and continent’s hottest ticket. Whether via the Inca Trail, the Salcantay hike, or simply by taking the train to Aguas Calientes the previous day, and then tackling the 1900 steps up to 2430m before sunrise, like a true Incan warrior, or me, you are provided with one of life’s truly mesmeric spectacles that sits atop many people’s Bucket List. However, even if you had waited in line with the morning masses to catch the bus from the bottom, once at the top it all too quickly dawns on you that one is still required to earn the spectacle by navigating through the ordeal that is the chaotic lottery of finding your guide. Upon recovering from a twenty-five minute, 400m ascent, my mental recollection proceeds something along the lines of: piss-up; no brewery… World Wonder; faith in humanity restored and exceeded. For many here, including myself, gold lay prevalent.

The medieval Citadel was built over an eighty-year period towards the latter stages of the Incan Empire and abandoned at some point after 1533, post Spanish colonisation. Yet today, over a century since its rediscovery, and as is the case with Rainbow Mountain, over-tourism provides a major concern. Let the following figures detonate in your mind: in 1991 there were 80,000 visitors to the site, or 220 per day; in 2018 there were 1.6 million. That was a 12% increase from 2017. A daily limit has now been set at 5000, as during the height of summer it was receiving almost 7000 – a settlement in which no more than a thousand ever inhabited. Despite the numbers being far from peak levels, by walking amongst its walls, one struggles to grasp full appreciation in the moment, and yet you are simultaneously acutely aware that it is one of your own life’s momentous mornings; a moment which happens to age better than any Burgundy. I had been left in similar awe upon approaching the Taj Mahal in 2009, and even if much of it likely originates from popular prestige and renowned cultural significance, it could also simply be that there is nothing in this world quite like Machu Picchu.

Once departed from Cusco, I spent ten days travelling round the southern half of Peru. In a country which has thirty of the planet’s thirty-two climates, you are presented with an entirely different perspective of the country at every stop. Puno, Arequipa, Huacachina and Paracas are all unique and worlds apart. To see a lot of birds, do the boat trip to Islas Ballestas, the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’, off the coast of Paracas. For pure exhilaration, hit the sandboard and buggy around the Saharan-esque dunes by Huacachina’s now not-so-paradisiacal ‘oasis’ – just ensure you don’t do it after a twenty-shot pisco wine tour that morning as it may well cost you the rest of your trip; 50mph, head-first, down a 200m dune and everything is taken out of your hands, except perhaps the liquor which may be put back into them.

Spending a day on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3810m, presented the opportunity to visit the floating islands of Uros. These are comprised of 120 islets constructed out of Totora reeds, and on which around four thousand people currently inhabit. The Uro tribe pre-date the Incas and it was fascinating to see the extent to which their traditional way of life has been preserved. But again, tourism has played a major recent role in reshaping their cultural trajectory, not just economically, but also by increasing the rate at which the essential and continuous maintenance process of reed-renewal needs to occur, to ensure their ongoing stability and functionality; fresh layers are laid almost every two weeks in order to maintain the islands’ 2m depth. Such a way of life is a world apart from the Puno shoreline two miles to the west, let alone anything I’ve seen before. But that was a consistent theme of my passage through this magnificent country.

By allowing time to pass and the internal clarification of such an engrossing trip to seep deep and become interwoven into memory, extracting the most precious moments and stories becomes a more fulfilling undertaking. My journey through Peru had many of these moments, which over time crystallise into something golden within.

But up high I also stumbled upon tangible gold – the Gold of the Andes. With the softest and finest animal fibre on the planet, the vicuna, the smaller relative of the alpaca and descendent of the llama, earns its namesake. A scarf can set you back $2000USD – it’s like being wrapped in a cloud. In Incan times, its wool garments were restricted solely for the use of Royalty, yet after the Spanish had colonised, they caught on that there was a silkier alternative to Cashmere. The thriving Andean vicuna population of over three million was therefore decimated to five thousand by the 1960s, declared endangered in 1974, and now, thankfully, has recovered to 400,000 and rising. Luxurious gowns aside, it’s the intangible that provides the most valuable reward from travelling, and it was my four days in the jungle that has since left the most profound and indelible imprint on my trip, my life, and for reasons which have permeated through to the tragic and personal.

To walk in the Amazon, to breathe from the lungs of the planet – you enter the visceral. A place where if you lean against the wrong tree, it could be game over. To be totally immersed in an environment where you must be at the full command and beck and call of your local guide. From spending one night at Collpas Tambopata Eco Lodge and two at Paradise Eco Lodge, I met two wonderful Amazonian oracles in Rodrigo and Jhonattan. It was within the security bounded by their expertise that paved the space to try a few things: to be voluntarily stung by a Fire Ant, whose venom is used to help relieve arthritis and which gets increasingly, yet almost pleasantly, uncomfortable over ten minutes before rapidly dying down; systematically avoiding a Bullet Ants’ nest, who inflict the most painful sting on the Schmidt sting pain index; eating termites, a taste resembling parsley; chewing Cordoncillo leaves which, being a natural anaesthetic, turns your mouth numb within seconds; undertaking a night-time caiman search and bringing one on board; kayaking up the Tambopata River; and spending three hours in silence watching the parrot and parakeet river bank show, where hundreds of tropical birds descend upon the nutrient-rich mud slopes. Rodrigo, a Puerto Maldonado local boy, assured me that even at the age of 22, his knowledge would enable him to survive deep within the jungle for weeks. Without him, five steps beyond the lodge and there were no guarantees. With him there, all you need is DEET…

Three weeks after I returned to Canada, I got a Facebook notification informing me that Jhonny had been rushed to Cusco, a ten-hour drive away, critically ill. It is still with disbelief that three weeks later, he passed away at the age of 30, leaving behind his wife and two young boys. As with Rodrigo, we had kept in touch, hoping to meet again perhaps elsewhere in the world. Upon hearing the news, I was taken straight back to the first night at the Paradise Lodge, where due to it being the ‘slow’ season, it was only us and a couple of staff that occupied the complex. We had dinner and chatted about his life growing up in the jungle, and his increasing concern for its future; how, despite their often initially reserved persona, his favourite tourists were naturally from England; girls; social media; and his sole encounter with ayahuasca, how it had helped him and how it had almost killed an ill-prepared American guy in his group, who during the ‘trip’, ran off terrorised deep into the jungle only to remarkably return all scratched up the following night. With a calm demeanour, he radiated a fierce passion for the Amazon that must only be found in those who have grown up a part of it. Needless to say, with swathes up in flames and far more continually being destroyed for agricultural use in the beef and dairy industries, there are not even remotely enough people cast from the same mould as Jhonny.

It was during these four days of relative seclusion in the pristine rainforest that allowed me to experience its true golden power in bestowing life, and get to know a diamond of a man. It is connections such as this that define why we travel. It is people like Jhonny that engrave a deeper sense of what and who on earth we are. It is therefore, fundamentally the internal journey that is what really matters. If one is willing to voyage into that unknown, to proceed down that untrodden path, it may just be the trip of a lifetime.

“They say you can’t take it with you, but I think that they’re wrong
‘Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone
Gone into that dark ether where you’re still young and hard and cold
Just like when they built you, brother, they broke the mould;

When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold
When they built you, brother, they broke the mould” – Terry’s Song

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