The Last Hurrah: Peru & intro to Argentina

When I decided to take some time off work and was considering what to do and where to go, the first place that came to mind was Argentina. I pictured the perfect combination of Argentine cowboys, imposing mountains, expansive countryside and of course incredible meat and wine. Once I knew I was heading back to school in the fall and had a couple months of freedom left, South America was without a doubt going to be my destination. It would be their fall/winter and (hopefully) provide both an opportunity to trek the mountains before too much snow fell and ski the Cerro Catedral once it opens in July. Dani had been wanting to visit Peru for years and it was “on the way”, so why not trek the Incan trails and explore the Amazonian Rainforest? And I’m so glad we did… the trip offered so much more than expected. Our 4 day trek, an alternative to the popular Salkantay trail, was just phenomenal. The weather, no so much, but the Andes are green for a reason. We had rain almost every day, which turned into snow once we got high enough. The pouring rain, especially when combined with driving winds, definitely was not the most comfortable, but our guide David and his team did absolutely everything in their power to make up for it with incredible meals and dedicated service! Neither of us had been treated so lavishly in our lives… We signed up for a guide, and what we got was that plus a chef, a sous chef, a horseman and 4 mules! On top of cooking absolutely amazing meals (one time we counted 7 courses… at lunch time!) at altitudes up to 15,000ft, they set up our tents, mattresses and sleeping bags, set up a porta-potty tent, gave us nighttime hot water bottles for the cold nights, served us morning tea in “bed”, literally gave us the ponchos off their backs when our own rain jackets weren’t cutting it, and carried everything aside from our minimal daypacks. These guys were rockstars. Service aside, the views along the way were breathtaking and we both commented that the clouds often added to the allure of the scenery. The incan ruins were so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes, especially the ones we had to ourselves along the hike. Our guide David was actually half incan and still spoke the native language of Quechua; although the Spanish conquistadors largely succeeded in their takeover, it felt good to see that the culture lives on and to be supporting the locals through our choice of guide service. David gave us so much valuable history of the incan civilization and the Spanish conquest, instantly transporting you in time. Although Machu Picchu itself was impressive with it setting nestled in the mountaintops, it was a little harder to appreciate with the hordes of other tourists we were sharing it with. But what a vast and impressive city. I was most impressed by the technical skill of the incans. They formed perfectly square rocks as the building blocks of their city walls. They did so by first creating small cracks where they wanted the rock to be cut, and then either wedging wooden sticks in the crack and thereafter soaking the wood with water, the expanding wood shearing the rock. If they were in a colder climate, they would instead pour water into the crack, and the freezing process of the water would be enough to crack the rock. I observed stones the size of elevators and small cars at the Sacksywaman ruin site, formed the same way and moved via placement of sticks beneath the gigantic blocks to roll them into their designated places.

After a quick return to Cusco, we hopped a plane to Purto Maldonado for the other end of the weather spectrum – 4 days in the balmy rainforest. Actually, while we were there it wasn’t too horribly balmy and not at all rainy, so we lucked out. We were picked up at the airport, driven 30 minutes to the Tambopata river, then had another half-hour boat ride to deliver us to our jungle lodge home. We took night walks in the jungle, canoed nearby lakes, visited medicinal and fruit gardens, watched sunrises from canopy towers, and sunsets from sandbars alongside the river. We saw huge caymen on day 1 on the river, along with a number of dog-sized caipybera, a tarantula, a few (small caipybera), macaws, parrots and parakeets, and more monkeys than we could count of at least 4 different varieties. Growing up in the Maine woods and learning quickly that the way to see animals is to be as quiet as possible, it was a challenge walking through the woods with 10 other humans and to stay optimistic… So we snuck a few yards into the woods by ourselves and instantly had a number of monkey buddies playing in the trees above us. Our stay in the jungle was full of activities but still left relaxation time, and we became buddies with the 6 english and 2 swedish people in our group, always the last to leave the dining room and closing down the bar on the last night.

Dani and I had an afternoon left in Lima, ate some incredible ceviche at a place that intimidated both of us at first but sent us out the door with new friends, took in the sunset over the Pacific, then swung through the cool Barranco district before delivering her to the airport and me to my hotel to get a quick few hours of sleep before my own flight to Santiago early the next morning.

It’s funny, I’ve been in Santiago twice, and both times in was waiting for ridiculous amounts of time in one place. The first time it was the airport for 8 hours, this second time it was at the bus terminal for about 6. And for a bus I almost didn’t make it on. They give you this itty bitty piece of paper that could double for a gas receipt at Chilean customs, and apparently you need to carry that at all times – especially when boarding a bus that’s crossing country lines like the one I was taking to Bariloche, Argentina. I had thrown that little receipt away in the bathroom garbage, but when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be let on the bus without it, I sprinted back to the bathrooms, past the counter where you pay to use the bathroom, to the stall I’d been in hours before, fished through more than I want to say but you can use your imagination in the trash and low and behold FOUND my customs receipt, sprinted back out of the bathroom to confront a very angry woman screaming at me demanding her money (times are tight in Chile, especially at the bus station), after yelling back a little emptying out my change pocket into her hand and sprinting back on the (thankfully) waiting bus with receipt in hand. All this, mind you, in the limited Spanish I have. The 20-hour bus ride itself was surprisingly comfortable in the equivalent of recliners, and I had a fascinating conversation with a man of Mapuche descent explaining the current tension between the indigenous people an the government claiming ownership of the resources and land they are so connected to. This conversation, relevance to the Incans, and what I learned of the Sherpas in Nepal all led me to thinking we stand to learn a lot from indigenous peoples on how to truly live sustainably; might be a project for my Mountain Resilience Coalition fellowship!

So here I am, IN argentina, and yes taking a couple days somewhat removed from civilization to catch up on blogging, but I’m here! It’s beautiful, lakes surrounded by stunning mountains that have just gotten a new coat of snow, a great little town (well not so little) with more cerveserias than you can count and a whopping 45 pesos to the dollar exchange rate (making a beer a buck or two and a hostel bed about $10 if needed), hence “splurging” on an Airbnb for $9 a night to write and get some quiet time in the forest. The hostel welcomed me with open arms, the volunteers cook delicious meals together every day (covered costs by the owners) and soon I’ll test my capability to speak enough Spanish to interact with customers on my own. Here we go! I’m reserving the right to relocate to another workaway or even just stay with a couchsurfing host if I’m not loving the work or don’t feel like I have enough time to explore the area and do my one course of remote classwork… but we’ll see how it goes! I know the remaining 8 weeks will fly by unfortunately but I will absolutely make the most of the time I have in the area! Hasta siempre ?

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