At 5:45 AM on Day 4, I abruptly woke up, looked at my clock and exclaimed, “Oh shit!” The pickup for the Amazon trip was at 6:00 AM. We skipped showering, scrambled to shove everything into our backpacks, threw on clothes, and grabbed the bananas and toast from our continental breakfast. Despite the chaos, we were just about on time.
The second surprise of the day came only a few minutes later. We were the only people on our trip! There’s usually 8-10 people on this type of trip and to have a driver and guide to ourselves is an expensive that we could never choose. Our guide, Fiorella, was very nice, although amused by our disorganization. (This was not to be the first time.)
In the Sacred Valley, we stopped at the ruins of a small town built by the Wayari, a pre-Incan group who the Incas had conquered. While most of the city’s walls were only waist-height, due to years of decay and people poaching the stones, some walls still had notches for early cooking stoves. They reminded me of the ancient ruins we had seen in Ireland and Spain, where there was clear evidence of a community, but you couldn’t tell much about them. In fact, even archeologists don’t know that much about the culture both because the study of the group is relatively recent and what Incans didn’t raze, the Spanish practically finished off.
A few hours on and further into the mountains, we visited another pre-Incan site from a completely different culture. The Lupacas lived much further up in the highlands, where they faced more difficult weather and soil conditions. The site featured small cylindrical huts with pointed roofs, which served as burial chambers for the elite members of their society. Similar to other cultures, they buried the dead person’s possessions with them so that they would be ready for the next life. The Incans did this as well, and developed mummification independently from the Egyptians. It’s amazing how cultures so geographically distant can develop such similar belief systems.
Three little girls were hanging around the site, covered in a thin layer of the ever-present dust. They tried to sell us cheap woven summer camp bracelets, to which I replied, “No, gracias.” They followed us all over the site and even down to the van, hoping that they could break our resolve. I was sad that they were living in poverty, but I didn’t want to reinforce the idea that the best way to make a living is selling junk to tourists. I’m more than willing to invest in well-made crafts, as I did in the scarf I purchased from the weaving collective. Similarly, I don’t think there’s any shame in tourism – D.C. certainly has enough of it. What I don’t like is supporting the production of worthless goods or the idea of soliciting handouts out of pity. Although I couldn’t help those little girls specifically, I hope that by choosing local businesses, we helped the economics of the region at large. It didn’t make me feel any less guilty though.
The van continued weaving up and around, until we were at least as high as we had been the day before. The narrow road clung to the side of cliffs, switchbacking along the brown, dry highlands. The scars from old landslides slashed down the mountains, their paths of destruction still fresh. Fiorella said that the paved road we were driving on was quite new. The route had been closed for a few years while they paved it, hoping to improve transportation in the area. While dirt roads exist in the U.S. and I know South America’s infrastructure tends to be far behind, the extent of the unpaved roads still surprised me.
We stopped in a very poor mountain town for supplies. Upon Fiorella’s recommendation, I decided to visit the public bathroom. Despite costing a sol to use, it didn’t have any toilet paper, so I was thankful Fiorella carried some with her. When I opened the door, I faced a hole in the ground. If offered the option, I would have chosen the woods instead. However, I was grateful for all of the chair poses my yoga instructor had our class do.
Our next stop, in Paucartambo, was far more pleasant. We had the very good luck to arrive on the last day of the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, a huge regional celebration. Fiorella explained to us that the festival involves 12 different dances symbolizing different parts of Peruvian culture, from the beautiful to the painful. Statues portraying the dances included an ancient Incan warrior, the never-conquered indigenous people of the rainforest, the Spanish inquisitors, the European-influenced breadbakers resembling Heidi, and even the African people brought as slaves. Listening to her describe the different dances helped me understand Peruvian culture better than a history book ever could.
Rounding the corner from the town square, it was as if the statues had come to life. Four or five different groups of people in full costume clustered in front of the church, ready to participate in the ceremony and parade. Each group wore a different bright, elaborate, fringed, jangly costume, with an accompanying mask. All had elaborate patterns, with some embroidered and others beaded. Each group would parade into the church, participate in a ceremony we couldn’t see, and march out.
The girls dressed as bakers twirled their skirts as they skipped, looking as if they were right out of a Ricola advertisement. The dancers meant to represent the Africans had caricatured masks that most Americans would be consider quite racist, but as all of the masks had very exaggerated features, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Their costumes featured cameo pictures of tigers on the back of their shirts and chains draped from their waists to feet to symbolize the slaves’ chains.
Some little boys were dressed as bullfighters, somehow entrusted with whip-like long ropes. Like all little boys everywhere, they proceeded to whack their sisters with them instead. They mulled around for about 10 minutes, then out of nowhere, started dancing down the street. We followed the dancers down the main street, slipping through the crowd as the party snaked its way through town.
The festival was particularly exciting because it was a genuine Peruvian cultural celebration, completely separate from us being there. There were hundreds of tourists in town, but the very large majority of them were Peruvian. Fiorella herself was happy to be there – she hardly ever gets to attend, and we even snapped a couple photos of her with the dancers upon request.
Not long after the town, we ran out of paved road, continuing on hard-pack dirt. We passed over the mountains and began to descend into the cloud forest, a much more significant descent than our climb. While Cusco is on a plateau of 10,800 ft. (3,400 meters) and the surrounding mountains even higher, the rainforest on the other side is at less than 1,000 meters. As we started down, the landscape transformed. While green sections on the other side only occurred where local people irrigated crops, the elfin forest had verdant trees, albeit still stunted by the altitude. Further declining, the landscape became more lush, while the road became less reliable. Numerous waterfalls splashed near the van, their streams often crossing the road itself. Not being in a 4X4, I was increasingly nervous about our ability to make it over the running water. It felt like Jurassic Park, except that there were no raptors (as far as we knew). We alternated between fear and awe. Thankfully, our driver knew exactly how to shift and brake to make it over every spot without getting stuck.
Once we transitioned to the highland rainforest, we got out of the van to walk along the road and spot birds. Inexperienced in birdwatching, we relied upon Fiorella to point out the flashes of wings we saw out of the corner of our eyes. With her help, we saw everything from yellowHooded Mountain Tanagerss to the brilliantly iridescent Highland motmot with its blue wings and green tail. We even saw several Andean guan, which are related to American turkeys and about as smart. Just like the turkeys at home, they kept walking in front of the van!
A number of the birds were in “mixed flocks,” where multiple species flock together. Fiorella said that this behavior only occurs in the rainforest, which has such a high density of species that they all occupy separate niches. By flocking together, they can protect each other from predators with strength in numbers without overlapping their food supply.
On our last walk, we actually made it all of the way to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, where we were staying the night. The lodge is named for the Cock-of-the-Rock, a bright red and blue bird that’s considered by many people to be the national bird of Peru. I have the sense of humor of a 10 year old, so it makes me giggle, but the name most likely comes from the fact that the male has a rooster-like comb and nests in the cliffs.
Once at the lodge, we met a couple from Calgary, Canada who had their two teenage sons with them. The father and sons were birders – one was so hardcore that he memorized almost 500 Peruvian birds before the trip. They were quite rich, but didn’t flaunt it and seemed to be very nice.
A cold front had swept through the day before, so it was about 15 degrees colder than usual and the huts had no heating. Chris and I bundled up before retreating to our individual beds covered in mosquito netting.