Travelogue: Adventures in Arequipa

Co-written by Miluska Pachas Moron

Haz click aqui para la versión en español.

To celebrate Independence Day of Peru, 28 of July, we headed to the 2nd most populated city in Peru – Arequipa. But, crazy as we are, we didn’t choose a relaxing vacation with umbrella drinks, enjoying the city…no, we chose the adventure vacation: 2 overnight hikes, first in the heat of Colca Canyon, and then in the freezing cold of the snow-capped volcano Misti.

In fact, the very day we arrived in Arequipa (a 16-hour bus ride from Lima), we headed straight towards the Canyon to get started on our trek down into the canyon the next morning, so we could return to Arequipa and climb Misti Volcano all within the 7 days we had in Arequipa.

Hiking Colca Canyon (without a guide)

Encouraged by a blog we read, we decided to do a 2-day Colca Canyon hike on our own, to enjoy leaving on our own schedule, hiking at our own pace, and hoping to do it cheaper than if we had paid a guide. It turned out well, and we share our experience here.

Our bus arrived in Arequipa en the early afternoon, and we headed directly to the “empresa” Centella to take a minivan to Chivay (15 soles), where we would spend the night and get a good night’s rest before starting the hike the next morning. At 3,650 meters above sea level, Chivay is a pueblo about 1.5 hours from the start of the hike down into the canyon. At night, the temperature got down to the low 30’s, just below freezing.

We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Rumi Wasi (22 soles), and coordinated to leave the next morning at 6:30am with a minivan that was giving a guided tour for a group of tourists and agreed to drop us off at the trailhead for the Colca hike, near Cabanaconde, for 30 soles. On the way to the trailhead, our driver explained some of the history of the area, including the two indigenous cultures that had lived in the different parts of the canyon, and the sophisticated canals they used to carry water from one part of the canyon to another.

We stopped in the plaza of a pueblo called Yanque where some children were doing traditional dances in traditional clothing for the tourists. In the distance, you could see Volcano Sabancaya smoking like a chimney (they said it was normal.) After about 25 minutes in Yanque, we stopped for 30 minutes in Cruz del Condor, a part of the canyon 130 meters higher than Chivay, where the huge condors can be seen flying above the rising walls of the canyon, with the backdrop of the majestic mountains on the other side of the canyon.

   

When we arrived at the trailhead for the Colca Canyon descent, there were a few different guided tour groups and a handful of people also doing the hike on their own. Our first day was a hike of about 7 km to spend the night in the canyon at “Sangalle”, where there is a group of hostels referred to as the “Oasis”, and the second day would be an early morning for a day of pure climbing back up to the rim of the canyon.

The starting descent was fun, like a trail run, with some tough parts, but mostly a smooth descent. We noticed that there are many different settlements, or pueblos within the canyon, in the walls of the canyon and below.

We arrived at the bottom of the canyon (2,200 meters above sea level) to a wooden bridge in a district in the canyon called Tapay, where there was an outhouse and a place to rest.

After crossing the bridge, we took a switch-back to the left – a steep ascent that was said to save about 40 minutes. After about a half hour, we arrived to a pueblo, “San Juan,” where the tour groups stopped to eat a 15-soles “menu” (soup and “segundo”, which is rice and a typical plate defined by the restaurant offering the “menu”), and where you could buy a bottle of beer for 10 soles – more expensive than in a night club in Lima!

After San Juan, we continued towards the pueblo “Cosñirjua,”, which was about an hour and a half, with the last half hour being a fairly tough climb, and arriving at a restaurant/hostel that has snacks, drinks, and a bathroom, all for a higher price than anywhere else in Peru…but not surprising considering there are no other options in the area and it’s not exactly easy to import things to the site. We bought a Gatorade that looked like it had been brought there about 100 years ago, took advantage of the bathroom and a short rest, and then continued the route towards Sangalle, where we would find the Oasis lodges.

We had heard that it would take about 2 hours, or 1.5 hours at a good pace, to arrive at the lodges so we opted to walk-run so we could rest in the horizontal position as soon as possible. The first part of the trail was a dirt road wide enough for trucks, and as we continued we didn’t see any signs, nor the pronounced descent that the blog had mentioned. We passed a woman outside her house washing clothes, and she pointed us to a turnoff to the left that we had missed a few hundred meters back.

Descending, we came to an overlook with a gazebo-like structure, took some fun photos, and continued the descent back to the base of the canyon. After about an hour, we came to another bridge, where we would cross back to side of the canyon we entered (though further down), and where we would find the lodges after 30 minutes of a steep ascent.

Caught up in the adventure, we hadn’t thought to try to reserve a space in one of the lodges, and almost all of the spaces were reserved when we arrived. Luckily, there was a room with 3 beds and its own bathroom with hot water that we got to ourselves for 30 soles each, in a lodge with a pool fed by naturally warm water from the canyon. The lodge also provided dinner for 15 soles – prices that are reasonable for most travelers, but quite high for the area, but again understandable that they are taking advantage of the limited options available.

We had read that we could buy snacks along the way, but we recommend that you bring all the snacks you need for the two days, and a way to treat water, because the snacks they offered in the lodge were limited supply and exorbitant prices – a bottle of 2.5L of water was more expensive than the room! Ok, not really, but it was half the price of the habitation – or 5 times the normal price of a bottle of water this size!

But luckily, the Girl Scout/Peace Corps WASH volunteer in me had brought everything I needed to treat water (Iodine pills and a Steri Pen) to have potable water for the next day.

The area is known as the Oasis because while most of the canyon is rocky, with desert-like plants, common in the “sierra”, this part had green grass (probably planted for the lodges, though we did see another naturally green part of the canyon where there was a waterfall, near where we had crossed the bridge.) We took advantage of the grass to stretch for about 15 minutes so our bodies could recover from the day’s hike and be ready for the next day’s ascent.

The hot shower, eating even the last grain of rice on our plates, looking for constellations (Scorpio dominating the sky in our case), and resting under the starlight in this corner of paradise, was the best way to recharge for the tough day ahead.

(Side note: At 8pm they turned off the power for the hostal, so if you need to charge phones or use the light, it’s important to do it before hand, and always good to bring a portable charger if possible.)

We had planned to start the ascent at 5:30am, as recommended by everyone, to avoid the heat of the day during the tough ascent, but our alarm didn’t go off, so we got a late start (story of my life…surely the fault of my late curse)! So we ate breakfast at 6am – the breakfast of gold – the most expensive breakfast ever: 10 soles for two pieces of bread with butter and jam, with a cup of tea/coffee, but also very necessary for the day ahead.

We hit the trail at 6:30am, and the scenery was incredible, as we ascended along with the sun, which painted the canyon walls more and more throughout the ascent. The first hour was peaceful, silent, like a walking meditation. During the second hour, the ascent got more intense, like a never-ending rocky stairway that made the quads and glutes burn with every step, not only carrying our own bodyweight, but also the weight of the backpack of water and supplies. A great workout in an incredible and peaceful corner of paradise!

Towards the end, it can be discouraging to look up because there are many “false peaks” where you think you are close to the rim, but it turns out you still have a ways to go. As the sun comes out, the heat intensifies, so it is important to have enough water and snacks to power you through, as well as sunblock, hat and sunglasses…and toilet paper just in case (and a bag to put used toilet paper to throw it away afterwards and not add trash to the trail.)

Almost 3 hours had passed and we didn’t see any sign of the rim, but suddenly a group of hikers appeared, descending from the top, and they told us we were just 10 minutes from the rim…just the words of hope we needed to awaken the surge of energy that carried us almost running to the top! We arrived 10 minutes before our planned arrival time, thanking our legs of steel and celebrating that we made it out alive and strong, even if exhausted!

After celebrating, we realized that we still had a 15-minute hike to the plaza of Cabanaconde, where we would be able to catch a bus back to Arequipa…but at least it was a flat 15-minute walk!

We were able to catch bus that left at 11:30am – just enough time to eat lunch before the 5-hour ride. And luckily, the bus stopped in the pueblos along the way, so we were able to pick up our gear that we had left in the hostel in Chivay.

 

Volcano Misti (5,825 meters) (Only for the strong-of-heart! Have you seen the movie Everest?)

Returning to Arequipa, we took a day to rest, try some of the delicious food in Arequipa, and to find a guide to climb the volcano Misti the following day.

To climb Misti, we went with a tour company that offers “pool service”, (puts you with a group of around 5-15 people), for a trek of 2 days and one night, and we paid 250 soles each. They also provided the warm gear (pants, jackets, gloves) needed for the extreme temperatures in the night and at the higher altitudes, tents, main meals, and sleeping bags.

We only had to bring a few basics: a hiking backpack, boots, (they rented the backpack and boots if you didn’t have them), light clothing for the first day of ascent (which would be hot), warm clothing for the night (which would be ridiculously freezing cold), snacks, and 5.5 liters of water – 4 to drink during the 2 days and 1.5 for the guides to cook with.

We rented hiking poles from them too because the ascent is steep and the descent even more tricky. And I heard that hiking poles eliminate about 25% of the strain on knees on the ascent, and 75% on the descent…so I was happy to pay to rent hiking poles now to gain a few years before I will need knee replacements!

It is recommended to climb Misti with a guide because it’s easy to get lost, and the altitude and cold really do affect the human body and its ability to think well, (and there are plenty of stories of people getting lost and dying).

The guide company picked us up from the hotel at 8am and we met up with the rest of the group to outfit our gear and head to the trailhead. A 4×4 brought us out of the city, to the base of the volcano, where we would start the ascent at about 3400 meters.

Between the hot sierra sun and the constant climb, with backpacks of more than 5 kilos, the sweat was pouring, and we tired quickly, with aching legs, hips, and shoulders. But like all marathon challenges, we took it step by step, advancing little by little, resting every 30 minutes to drink water and eat fruit to refuel.

Finally, after about 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at 4,600 meters, where we set up camp.

We were lucky enough to experience an unbelievable sight – the contrast of the awesome sunset in the west and the incredible full moon rising in the east – which made the intense cold that came with the setting sun, slightly more bearable.

setting sun
rising moon

We ate dinner as quickly as possible and immediately climbed into the tents to escape the cold and try to sleep 7pm-1am: our wake-up call to eat breakfast and start the climb before 2am.

The morning cold was like no other I have experienced, but luckily, the full moon was a huge light in the sky, illuminating our way through the snow. We learned that the secret was to move at a pace fast enough to stay warm and not die of cold, but slow enough so that the lungs could deal with the low levels of oxygen at that altitude.

The trek was like no other I’ve ever done – freezing cold, in the middle of the night – dark, but illuminated beautifully by the full moon, a steep ascent through the beautiful rocks and snow, at altitude. It was incredible. It was difficult – physically and psychologically. Our heads were hurting from lack of oxygen. Hearts pounding. Loving and hating every minute of it, all at the same time.

We were in a group of 7, and the majority didn’t make it to the peak because there were two different paces in the group but one guide stayed behind babysitting someone who had never been on a hike before, much less in the altitude, and kind of ruined it for the rest of the group.

I definitely recommend this trek (especially if you can time it with a full moon!), always remembering:

1. If you haven’t climbed a mountain or done a hike at altitude in the last few months and aren’t in shape, this is not a good hike to start with. Do easier hikes at lower altitudes, and work your way up to this one. Also, if you can do work-outs in the altitude in the week before the hike (without exhausting yourself), it will help immensely.

2. When going on hikes, take some plastic bags for trash, including bags for your used toilet paper, and don’t leave trash on the trail. Respect nature and leave it beautiful for the next person!

Travel Blog: Northern Beaches of Peru

My vacation to the beaches of northwest Peru with Peace Corps friends was  the most relaxing vacation I’ve had in my life.

The Plan: Enjoy some beach time, probably go to a few different well-known beaches in the north.

The Rules: No rushing.

After meeting up in Piura city, we took a 3-hour bus ride to our first destination: the beach town Los Organos.

To me, this beach was literally perfect…perfect water temperature, perfect depth, mild waves (good for a swim workout), and not too crowded. I immediately jumped in the ocean upon arriving, and spent most of my time in the ocean until we left.

There was also a pier where they fed the turtles and rented life jackets and goggles to swim with those massive, docile creatures.

I swear, they really are like the stoner turtles in Finding Nemo. They just swam around me almost like I wasn’t even there; one even kept bumping into my feet from below so I was basically surfing on top of him, under water. It was an amazing experience to be swimming right next to such huge, beautiful animals – almost as long as I am tall, and much bigger than me.

Los Organos was my favorite beach of the trip, but we only stayed one night because the place was expensive for our Peace Corps budgets. So after enjoying the beach to the max, we got a car for 3 soles each ($1) for the 30 minute ride to Mancora, where we met a very different atmosphere.

Mancora is pretty popular and was the most crowded beach we stayed at, by far. But it wasn’t too crowded to be able to enjoy it. The water was also the perfect temperature and perfect depth, and great for swimming (except for the jet skis that go zipping around). There was also a great restaurant right on the beach, called Green Eggs and Ham.

While relaxing on the beach, Zach plays the cajon, a Peruvian drum.
Kevin serenades us while chillin on the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed in a chill hostel called Palo Santo frequented by travelers from around the world (we met people from Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other places that I don’t remember.) By night, and well into the morning, Mancora is a party beach, with pop-up dance clubs, blaring different music right next to each other, appearing on the beach at night. Even though our hostel was chill, it’s pretty loud at night because the whole city parties all night long.

The hostel where we stayed

Unfortunately, I had a challenging encounter with pushy surf instructor I was dancing with, who insisted on trying to make out, even after I told him no. I wish I could have shown him this video that explains sexual consent using ceviche as an example, but instead I just had to talk frankly with him about respecting when someone says no, until he left pouting like a baby.

After 2 nights in Mancora, the group was all partied out, so we headed north to Los Zorritos in the department of Tumbes.

Following recommendations passed down by other PCVs, we found ourselves in an Eco Hostel called 3 Puntas, which was very different from our stays in the other two beaches.

This was a super cute, rustic site with cabins pretty spread out, a beautiful outdoor pool, bucket flush toilets that use greywater from the sinks, an outdoor, build-your-own-fire kitchen, hammocks on the beach, and again, a beautiful, perfect beach.

Unfortunately, I lost my phone getting out of the van when we arrived, so I spent the first afternoon catching a ride to Tumbes city, 30 minutes north, asking around for the vans that run between Mancora and Tumbes. A really nice guy helped us find the van, but sadly I did not find my phone. On the bright side, I got to see the city of Tumbes, which was celebrating its anniversary that week.

The church in the central plaza of Tumbes

After the little side trip to Tumbes, we had the perfect two days of relaxing that we needed.

Like true PCVs we made our meals over the wood fire, and flushed our toilets with buckets, and we loved every minute of it.

A friend living in Piura braved the 5-hour ride to meet up with us for one night and one day, but said the travel was totally worth it.

When our time was up and we had to begin the journey home, we thought about options for getting back to Piura. We decided to wait a few minutes on the side of the highway and see if a bus passed by before heading into the central part of town to find a van or car. Within 10 minutes we landed a comfortable ride in a car with air conditioning (a luxury here) and a really cautious driver (one of the first cautious drivers I’ve seen here), for the 4-5-hour drive back towards Piura.

One of the varied coastal desert landscapes between Piura and Tumbes

We stayed in a hostel called Qispi Key, which had cool Grateful Dead and hippy like wall art, but terrible service; even though we had called ahead saying we were coming, no one was there when we arrived and a guest had to let us in, and we had to wait 30 minutes for someone to show up to check us in. The next morning, our 8am breakfast came at 8:45 and we almost missed our 9:15 bus, forcing us to break our “no rushing” rule. So not a recommended hostel if you are on a schedule.

Energy production in the north – oil pipeline run through windmill fields.

Instead of going straight home, we decided to break up the travel, so we spent 8 hours traveling from Piura to Trujillo and spent a couple nights in Huanchaco, the beach town outside of Trujillo.

The Pope is coming to Peru this week, and he will be visiting Huanchaco, so there was a lot of work going into preparing for his visit.

Having swum every day for the last 5 days, at 3 different beaches, (there is nowhere to swim in my site, so swimming is a real treat), I jumped in the ocean for my final swim before heading home…and I almost died of hypothermia (not literally, mom). The water was like ice water and took my breath away. After 25 minutes of torture, I ended up running inside to take a warm shower and put on a flannel shirt even though it was warm outside.

In the afternoon I came to understand what had happened, thanks to a pre-Incan culture called Chimu. A few minutes from Huanchaco is “Chan Chan”, ruins from the Chimu culture, a civilization that peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries until it was overtaken by the Incas. Known for the architecture, this site still has standing walls, even though it’s from centuries past and is on the beach in an area prone to earthquakes.

The walls are strong and also decorated with icons of their fishing culture – fish, pelicans, and nets. The icons point in the direction of the exits to help know the way through the maze of rooms.

In one entryway, the walls were decorated with fish swimming in one direction towards a wall, and on the other wall swimming in the opposite direction – towards the other fish. The guide explained that these fish represented the two currents on the coasts of Peru: the current that comes from the south and brings cold water to Lima and Trujillo (and Huanchacho), and the current that comes from the north and brings warm water from the north to the beaches of Tumbes and Piura. So that is why I enjoyed the bath-water oceans of Tumbes and Piura and then was shocked by the ice water of Huanchaco!

The fish on the right side of the wall represent the northern current and are swimming toward the left. The fish on the left represent the southern current and are swimming towards the right.

Finally, every night in Huanchaco ends with watching the sunset on the beach; a perfect end to a beach vacation, and the beginning of a new year in Peru.

Photo Blog: Lima to Oxapampa

Night buses are the most common way to travel in Peru, and it makes a lot of sense because they come with the option of big comfortable seats that recline 180 degrees into a bed, so you can just sleep during the night and wake up at your destination. And they really are super comfortable and have their own tv screen and headphones so you can watch movies or listen to music of your choice. While I often take the night bus, I prefer the day bus because of the scenery.

Peru is blessed with amazingly beautiful landscapes throughout the country, and on the journey between Oxapampa and Lima, you get the pleasure of  seeing each of the three types of regions that make up Peru: Selva (jungle), Sierra (Highlands), and Costa (Coastal desert).

The journey takes you from the coastal desert of Lima, to the highlands, to to the jungle, and then to up to the high jungle, or eyebrow of the jungle (ceja de la selva) which is between jungle and highlands.

While photos do not do it justice, I would like to share a few to give you a glimpse. Starting in Lima, which is coastal desert, you make your way to barren desert hills that get taller and taller until they turn into mountains of the highlands.

You enjoy the beauty of the highlands for hours, for the majority of the trip but you never get bored (or at least, I never get bored) because no mountain is the same.

You have the grey desert mountains, the beautiful highland lakes, the black, snow-capped mountains and the turquoise lakes beneath them, the screaming red mountains, the mountains with patches of green and brown highland grasses, mountains reforested with eucalyptus or pine, brown and orange mountains (being carved up by mining operations).

Maybe I am biased because I just love mountains, but I never get bored of the scenery. It always leaves me breathless (and not just because of the altitude, which reaches 4,818m or 15,807 ft) and awestruck by its beauty.

Then, as you start to lose elevation, the mountains turn green as you begin to enter the jungle.

The vegetation takes over and the vibrant and wild greenness of the jungle refreshes you with a new vista.

The streams, rivers, and waterfalls are something out of a travel magazine (sorry I don’t have great pictures of these, but they exist!).

And as you gain elevation again, going from low jungle to high jungle, climbing those green mountains, looking down on the verdant valley, and passing right through the middle of that mountainous jungle, you feel like you are Indiana Jones on the way to a hidden city in the middle of the jungle.

Obviously, the reverse journey is just as amazing, going down from the high jungle, winding through the verdant mountains, getting closer and closer to the river below in the valley between the mountains. And then rising again and entering the sierra (the highlands) in all its grandeur…until it begins to turn into smaller and smaller, greyer and greyer mountains…that eventually get more and more sparse as you enter the desert coast of Lima.

So, if you can’t come visit me in Oxapampa (like Julia, Toni, and Ilka have done!) here’s a glimpse of the beautiful journey.

Wonder of the World

After not seeing any of my family members for a year and a half, I was so happy to see my mom and my aunts walk through the door of the Lima airport! It was also a little surreal to see them in Lima. My two worlds collided…here I was in Peru, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living a simpler life in a rural area trying to integrate and live like a local, and I hadn’t seen my family this whole time, and suddenly my family was here and we were going on a family vacation here! (After a year and a half living here, I still had not had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu, and we were going to go together!)

So, that means I was going to be a tourist…something I have been trying hard not be, as I try arduously to “integrate”. This was going to be a super interesting experience as I tried to use what I had learned over the last year and a half – language, culture, and how things work in Peru –to navigate like a local, while being a tourist.

Beach time in Lima

What do I mean by that? Navigating transportation, the language, and trying to not always pay the “gringo price”. For example, in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, they tried to charge an additional 20% on our bill, saying that all the restaurants do it. Considering that there was no notification in the menu or anywhere that they were going to charge an additional 20%, I had argue that it was unfair and that I wasn’t going to pay it.  I was super uncomfortable doing this kind of negotiating when I first got here, but after a lot of practice it starts to come naturally, (and I get a lot of practice, being of light-colored skin, because I often get quoted a price twice or three times as much as the going price).  But I digress.

With only 7 days of vacation, we had a pretty tight schedule, but the great thing about Peru – and Cusco is maybe the epitome of this – is that the journey is often as amazing as the destination. So even though we had a full day of travel the next day, (flight to Cusco, and 3-hour car ride to Ollantaytambo), it was full of great sites (and surprises).

In addition the beautiful mountains and scenery on the drive, we stopped in Chincheros, where we saw a demonstration of how wool from sheep and alpaca is made into wool thread and dyed to make textiles, (and of course had the opportunity to buy some great handmade items like shawls, scarves, hats (chullos), socks, gloves, sweaters, blankets, etc.

Chincheros – textile shop

And randomly…our driver was awesome, and completely coincidentally, had grown up in Oxapampa where I live now (which is very far away from Cusco).

The next day we started with a 3-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes to catch the 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu. And again, the journey itself to Machu Picchu was amazing and beautiful.

View from the train window (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes)

But, of course, nothing compares to the marvel of Machu Picchu. As my Aunt Michelle said, she was a little worried she wouldn’t be that amazed because she had already seen so many photos of it online, but then seeing it in real life is just something completely different and stunning.

Adding to the photos of Machu Picchu on the internet that just can’t do it justice.

First, it’s got its views – Machu Picchu is set in one of the most amazing spots, tucked in the mountains of the high jungle, and therefore surrounded by verdant green mountains, and overlooking a valley.

Then, it is built on the side of a mountain, but engineered in a way that prevents it from being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion.

And unlike a lot of cities of today, it doesn’t exclude nature from its design, it incorporates it, keeping green terraces, and natural streams as an integral part of its structural and functional design.

You see an interesting combination of the complex shapes and rounded, soft edges found in nature, molded into the straight edges, corners, lines, and simple shapes of the human-constructed world.

For me, this was a sight where the beauty of nature comes together with creativity and engineering brilliance, and it demonstrates the evolution of human knowledge.

And while, the beauty and marvel of Machu Picchu is unique for its location and how well it has been preserved, even the journey back to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, was a journey that was, in itself, a destination.

Sacred Valley – Pisaq

We were able to explore the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sacred Valley on the way back to Cusco…and still we barely scratched the surface of the sites that offer breathtaking views ruins that give hints into the lives of past civilizations.

Our final full day in Cusco, we explored a few sites nearby the City of Cusco, including the famous Saqsayhuaman (basically pronounced Sexy Womán), until we felt like we were experts in Incan mythology, architecture, and engineering (not even close).

Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

Turns out that 4 days in Cusco was a good amount of time to see a lot of the highlights, but an extra day, or few, would have been even better, to be able to see the city of Cusco itself, some museums, and maybe to take another day trip or two to some other cool spots like Rainbow Mountain or the salt farms.

It turned out to be an amazing trip with the family, and I am so lucky that they were able to come, and that we were able to experience these amazing sites together. While the role of being a tourist took getting used to, the role of translator, negotiator, and vacation planner was fun and challenging. In a way, for the first time in my life I felt like I was taking care of my mom and aunts, instead of the other way around. Considering that they have taken care of me my whole life, I was honored to be able to do that, at least for a few days.

A Rich New Year (2017)

There are a few interesting new years traditions here in Peru, such as sitting under a table and eating 12 grapes, one to represent each month, and making a wish for each grape. Or wearing something yellow (usually yellow underwear) to bring good luck in the new year. Or walking around the block with a piece of luggage so that you will have the luck to travel in the new year.

In the same spirit, but instead of walking around the block with my luggage, I rang in the new year 2017, by traveling to another part of Peru where I would experience not only a different town, but different landscapes, a different climate, and a different culture. (Peru has such a great variety of all of these – landscapes, climates, cultures – that I could not experience all of them in my 2-3 years here, even if I didn’t work and only traveled. Since I do in fact spend the majority of my time in site working, this new years trip reminded me that this year I want to take time to travel to try to experience some of these treasures that Peru has to offer.)

What happened was…about a week or two before new years, my bestie Karlia invited me to meet her and a few of our good friends in Lima and then travel south to a small village that is one of the epicenters of much of the history of Afro-Peruvian descendants in Peru, (which also happens to throw a mad new years party every year). Luckily I had the clarity of mind to say yes and I hopped on a bus to Lima.

After taking a day of relaxation on the beach in Lima, we headed to El Carmen, a town in Chincha, in the department of Ica.

In Chincha, we went to the supermarket to buy some new years eve snacks (wine, crackers, and champagne) to enjoy while we waited for the NY party to start (start time: 11:45pm, we were told).

At the supermarket we were all separately amazed at how the appearances of the people that entered the supermarket in Chincha reminded us so much of being at a supermarket in the US and made us feel an interesting sense of comfort, like home – because we saw such diversity in race, unlike we are accustomed to seeing in our sites. And then when we arrived in El Carmen (20-minute drive from Chincha), the same thing happened when we saw that the majority of folks living in this tiny town of a few blocks wide in either direction were majority black, Afro-Peruvians. I have never been so happy to see black people!

While Lima hosts a good diversity of race in certain areas, we all live in rural sites that tend to be pretty racially homogenous with most people being darker skinned with ancestors being a mix of indigenous peoples and Europeans.

(The majority of people in my town have a mix of indigenous and Austrian-German heritage and have the “typical Latino” look that most Americans know, though it is not uncommon to see lighter-skinned people usually with more Austrian-German showing, which is uncommon in a lot of other sites.  In my site, I have only seen one black person (who is from Columbia actually), one person that appears to be of Indian descent, and a few Asian-Peruvians or “Chinos” as they are called, despite the fact that their ancestors may be from any east Asian country.)

It struck me as strange that seeing black people was so comforting for me, and also for my friends (probably more so for them, being African Americans). Apparently, I had previously been accustomed to greater racial diversity while living in DC; then I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t living in a place with much racial diversity, until I experienced greater racial diversity again, and I was struck by how much it made me feel at home, that I had been missing that aspect of diversity in my life without even knowing it.)

We wandered around the plaza de armas, seeing what the local artisans were selling (woven bags, souvenirs like carvings featuring black figurines, locally-made wine, among others.) Someone handed us a flier about a history lesson and demonstration of zapateo that was taking place at that moment, so we hurried one block over and found a man standing outside his house and a group of about 7 young men from Chiclayo sitting around waiting for the event to start. We entered the house and the man started telling us about the Afro-Peruvian history of the area of El Carmen, and then he pulled out a fiddle and 3 young men came in and started performing zapateo, which reminded me of “step”.

Fast forward to the 11:45 start of the new years party (which, by the way, I found out a few hours before that it was a white party). First, I have to say that my friend Vanessa was the queen of the party, by far. She was looking fabulous, BOMB!, and rocking the afro hairstyle…freely and with pride here in this site, which is very different from the reality of her (and most of our) sites.

From what I understand, it’s hard enough to wear one’s hair naturally (in an afro) in the US and for people to appreciate the beauty of that look much less to be taken seriously, or professionally. And here in Peru, that is the case but even more extreme, unfortunately. It’s one of those things that is not talked about and often unnoticed by anyone that is not black, but is a real struggle to have someone telling you that your natural hair is ugly and you should really spend a lot of money and time to make it look more like white people’s hair. (Read more about this from one of the Blog It Home winners, Brittany.)

Everyone, including a few drummers, was gathering around some large stuffed dolls the size of crash test dummies. So we joined the circle, and at midnight, the drums started going and someone set the dolls on fire…to send off the old year and welcome in the new year. We all proceeded to dance around the fire, to the beat of the drums…which also made me feel incredibly at home, reminding me of my Sunday afternoon ritual to dance at the drum circles in Meridian Hill Park in DC.

After the old year dolls had burned down, the party started. Led by a DJ, bands (of course with a cajon – a drum that is a wooden box that the drummer sits on top of), and dancers dressed as devils, everyone danced and mingled like one big happy family.

The party continued through the morning and until about mid-day the next day (though I don’t know from first-hand experience; I’m not that hard core.)

It’s hard to describe how wonderful and meaningful this new years was for me…spending time with some of my best Peace Corps friends, seeing a completely different part of the country, having so many experiences that made me feel at home…it was the best way possible to start a new year – open to new experiences and adventures, and a reminder to take advantage of my time here – in this country and in this life.

First Impressions of Oxapampa, my site

So I joined Peace Corps as a Water And Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, and after working on water projects in El Salvador and Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders for 7 years, I had prepared myself to live in a small village without running water.

When I got my site assignment and came to my new home fore the first time, I was pleasantly disappointed to find myself living in a nice room with running water. (Well, usually there is running water. Without warning, we lose water for a few hours about 5-10 times a month). The showers are cold so I often take the health advice that it is not great to shower every single day. (Thank you Jessica for this entertaining article!)

My site is Oxapampa (town), Oxapampa (district), Oxapampa (province), Pasco (Department), Peru. Or Oxapampa for short.

The entire province is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the town of Oxapampa is a beautiful little tourist town as well as the provincial capital, and it takes a lot of pride in being a part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve, having clean air, and being “tranquillo” – safe and calm. The schools put a lot of emphasis on environmental stewardship, and most people have a pretty strong sense of wanting to do what’s best for the environment.

In some ways it has the feel of a small or medium-sized rural town in Texas (or in any state, but I’m more familiar with Texas), though the motorcycles and mototaxis outnumber the cars (and it’s a lot more green and jungly).

They have rodeo here a few times a year, where cowboys from here and from other towns come to compete. They play country music at the rodeos and at some local events, and they host Country Fest once a year, which includes performers from all over the world (mostly South America) singing various country songs, including many popular country songs from the US.

There are chickens and/or cows in some yards (I walk past a cow and sheep on my way to work every day,and when I hear rustling in the grass, it’s not a squirrel, nor a bird – it’s a chicken). I know this sounds weird, but the sound of roosters regularly every day is kind of comforting for me.

Most everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from the family (though the town has grown drastically in the last 10 years and that is changing.) It is very common to see women in skinny jeans and a plaid long-sleeve (which I think might be a general fashion trend?), but it definitely reminds me of the rural US.

The majority of people have farms and raise some type of animal (chickens, cows, and/or pigs usually) and/or grow some type of crops – zapallo (a large pumpkin-squash thing) and granadilla are the most popular. You can find many artisanal products made here such as honey, coffee, cheese, and yogurt.

People’s farms are usually outside the town, so the houses in town are relatively close together and the town is very walkable (which I love!) – it is about 30 blocks by 15 blocks, and there are moto-taxis for public transportation.

Just about everyone rides a motorcycle to go everywhere. Except me. Peace Corps does not allow us to ride motorcycles.

Lucky for me, I love walking and riding my bike, and I always have. Anyway, it’s actually pretty great because I have a little more time to appreciate the INCREDIBLE landscapes that surround me every day.

From Oxapampa town, there are beautiful tree-covered mountains in all 360-degrees of your vista. They call them hills, and it’s true, they are probably the forested foothills of the Andes, but they are so grand the best way to describe them is mountains. (Yes, I said grand.)

Like all the districts in Peru (and maybe all of Latin America that has Spanish influence? Help me out history people…), the city center has a small park called a plaza de armas, with the municipality and a catholic church.

In the case of Oxapampa, it has the oldest wooden church in Peru, and built of wood from a tree called diablo, or “the devil”, so they say it is the only church where god and the devil live together.

Most of these photos are around the plaza, so things look pretty ordered and the streets are paved. Currently the town has quite a few paved streets, but the majority are still dirt roads, and the dust blows around in the wind during the dry season.

Speaking of the weather…I LOVE it. One day I swear I experienced 3 seasons (as they are defined in Washington, DC weather) in one day…the morning was cool like an autumn morning, then it rained (could have been a spring or autumn rain), then the sun came out in the afternoon and it was HOT like a summer day, and then the evening was like a cool spring evening. I would say that day accurately describes the weather here…a little bit of everything, sometimes all in one day, but never too hot and never too cold.

Usually the days are 70-80°F, but even when the air doesn’t feel very hot, the sun burns – thanks to being close to the equator, and thanks to the altitude of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). And maybe it has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer which I think is nearby, a little more south of here…(but is getting smaller thanks to global efforts to curb ozone-depleting substances!!! But I digress.)

For you science or weather geeks:

Since I’m in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter here when it’s summer in the US and vice versa, right? Well, yes but no. Since I live in the selva alta (high jungle), and we’re close to the equator, the climate is more tropical, so instead of winter and summer we have rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is about October-March and they call it winter because we don’t see the sun much and so the air generally stays cool…so our “winter” actually corresponds to winter in the States. The rest of the time is called summer because the sun is usually out and so there are more days that feel hot…however, the nights get cooler than they do during the rainy season, sometimes almost reaching freezing. So this winter/summer business is a little confusing. I just always carry sunscreen, sunglasses, a jacket, and an umbrella, and life is good.

Being a Tourist in your Own City

Sometimes you can live for years, or decades, in one place, going about daily life, knowing your part of the city, but often not really spending much time doing the “touristy things” in your city. And then someone comes to visit and suddenly you have to be the tour guide and different aspects of your city come alive for you for the first time, or again after many years?

I’m still new to my town of Oxapampa – I have been here 9 months now – so I am still getting to know some of the gems that are here. I have been getting to know my family, making friends, and trying to “integrate” (and improve my Spanish so I can actually understand what’s going on around me and connect with people). I’ve been getting to know my way around the city and the surrounding areas (sometimes on bicycle with friends). And I spend a lot of time thinking about, planning, and navigating my work here…the daily grind so to speak.

I have learned that Oxapampa is a rural tourist town where Limeños (people who live in the capital city of Lima) like to vacation. It is known for its tranquility, landscapes, fresh and natural agricultural products, and interesting history of native inhabitants that have centuries of history here and the Austro-German colonists that settled here in the 17th century. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But in the midst of all the newness and trying to be part of the community, trying to make Oxapampa my home, I have not really stopped to think of Oxapampa from the tourist perspective – what gems would a tourist want to see if they only had 1-2 days here? Naturally, everyone expects me to know the answer since I live here, but you really have to step out of your daily life to think of your city from a different perspective to be able to answer that question.

Luckily, last weekend I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was invited to participate in the inauguration of a new tourist route called “Oxapampa, authenitc and natural”. With about 30 people – from the regional government, a local NGO, local coffee producer, and a local tourist agency – we got to participate (for free!) in the inaugural tour of the nearby native community Tsachopen (“Satchopén”), a dairy farm, and a co-op that produces fair trade and organic certified coffee.

Day as a tourist

Our first stop was one of the dairy farms in the region that produces cheese and yogurt. They have about 100 cows and they don’t give the cows supplements to make them produce milk year-round; they produce when they are pregnant, so they rotate production. In this way, they explained, the cows continue producing milk their whole life, whereas cows that are made to produce constantly stop producing after a few years. The cows were well-trained…without any direction from a person, they all filed into their stalls waiting to be connected to the machine that pumps their milk.

Cows waiting patiently to be milked

The baby calves don’t drink milk directly from the mothers, they get the milk that doesn’t go into the products (including the milk from cows that have recently been given any kind of medicine, or anything they don’t want going into the products.)

Calves having lunch

And we got to sample the 7-8 different kinds of cheese they make and the yogurt.

Our next stop was the coffee co-op, made up of producers from around the region, including native and colonial descent, men and women. They pride themselves on representing the various cultures of the region and making sure that women have leadership roles in the co-op. This woman explained the process of the plant we visited – the producers bring their product to be processed at the plant – weighed, de-pulped, washed, and dried. The product they produce is certified organic and fair trade and exported to the US and Europe.

Our guide from the coffee co-op explains that this is where they dry the coffee

Our last stop was Tsachopen, the native Yanesha community 15 minutes from the town of Oxapampa. Here we had the privilege of seeing a few dances with native costumes, drums and chanting, a lunch of smoked chicken with yucca and sweet potato, and the opportunity to purchase artisanal products (jewelry, bags, hats, etc.) and locally harvested vegetables and fruit.

A dance performance in the Yanesha community of Tsachopen
Danza en Tsachopen

This tour is not the only tourist thing to do in Oxapampa, but it was a great way to get put myself in the tourist shoes and get to know my town and appreciate it on a deeper level. I definitely recommend taking some time every now and then to be a tourist in your own city! (And come visit me in mine if you can 😉

 

*For those who read Spanish (or want to practice), there was an article in the Peruvian news about the event.

**Finally, I want to apologize for the poor quality of photos…I think I dropped my phone too many times!

El Niño

I should have known it was an omen predicting the fate of my entire journey, when the taxi broke down about one block from the bus station. On the bright side…we were just one block from the bus station…so I could haul all my luggage to the bus station on foot…inconvenient, but doable.

At the bus station, I checked my luggage and boarded the bus, trying to mentally prepare myself for the 19-hour bus ride from Lima to Bagua, Amazonas for a week-long training in Bagua and Chachapoyas (and afterwards, a short vacation to see the amazing Kuelap ruins (“the Machu Picchu of the north”), Gocta waterfall (one of the tallest in the world), thermal baths of Rodriguez de Mendoza, and other wonders of the beautiful region of Amazonas).

About one hour into the ride, on the outskirts of the greater metropolitan area of Lima, I was gazing out the window and saw our bus changing lanes, despite the fact that there was another large truck already in that lane. There was a barely noticeable crunching noise, and soon the bus pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Turns out we had broken a mirror and would have to wait to replace it before we could move on. They played a movie to entertain us, but after the movie was over we still hadn’t moved. I went outside and started chatting with the bus driver, and it turns out they were waiting for someone to bring a replacement mirror from Lima (and Friday evening traffic in Lima is no joke). Three hours later the mirror arrived, and after about 4.5 hours of waiting, we were back on the road again.

So, after leaving Friday night at 4pm, I had hoped to be in Bagua by Saturday morning at 10am, but now I was looking at arriving Saturday afternoon. A little frustrating, but I would still have time to get a day’s rest before the 6-day, intensive training that started Monday.

I got a decent night’s sleep on the bus that night and the journey was going pretty well until we came to a complete stop at about noon the next day (Saturday). There was a line of traffic and it wasn’t moving. Long story short, at 7pm it was getting dark and traffic still hadn’t moved. We got word that there was a landslide blocking the road ahead – about 6 miles ahead – and the tractors clearing the road had stopped for the night and would not resume until the morning.

We were going to be spending another night on the bus, and this time with the bus stopped and without air conditioning. Luckily, there were some restaurants nearby so the passengers went to go eat and then we sat outside the bus chatting. I started stretching and jokingly said I could lead a class of yoga on the side of the highway, but a couple of women and kids were legitimately interested so we proceeded to stretch and do exercises in between the stopped buses.

I did not sleep much that night and instead walked to see the situation with the landslide. It was in fact about an hour and a half walk ahead, and while there were not large rocks (pieces of mountains) blocking the road like I had seen in my previous travel delay due to landslides, the road was covered in a thick layer of mud which swallowed my shoes and left them a new color brown for the rest of my journey.

The next morning, it took the tractors a few hours after the sun rose before they started working, and the road wasn’t clear until about 10am. However, because the line of stopped traffic was so long and there was only one lane cleared where the landslide was, we didn’t actually pass the landslide and emerge into smoothly flowing traffic until about 4pm. That would be 4pm Sunday (I had completely lost track of the days). So finally, I was hoping to arrive in Bagua at about 7pm Sunday, 30 hours after my predicted arrival time.

But, no, it wasn’t that easy. About an hour later, we were stopped again, waiting for tractors to clear yet another landslide. This time, we could see the landslide, and they were close to finished clearing it, so it was only about another 2-hour delay. When we finally passed this landslide, our driver wanted to stop and eat, despite the fact that the entire bus (except 1 woman) was begging to continue so we could just finally reach our destination.

Finally, at 10pm Sunday night I arrived in Bagua…54 hours after leaving Lima. Extremely inconvenient…but I survived it (and thanks to the camaraderie with my fellow passengers it wasn’t so terrible). However, I did “need a marker”, which is a joke here meaning that you have sat for so long your butt is flat and the crack has disappeared so you need a marker to redraw it. A little crude but hilarious.

Throughout the rest of the week while I was in training, the conditions worsened on the roads and also in cities along the northern coast of Peru. Due to the flooding caused by the El Niño phenomenon, tens of thousands of people lost their homes in floods, hundreds were injured, and almost 100 are reported dead. Some photos here.

After training ended, I was evacuated by plane since the roads were inaccessible. Nope, I didn’t get to see the amazing sites of Amazonas, nor see my friends from the US who were visiting Peru, but were fortunately safely enjoying themselves in southern Peru…but I am alive and well.

I understand the Peruvian government is mobilizing to help the victims, sending aid to local governments and raising money through text message campaigns and telethons. Right now, with roads blocked and flooded, it is pretty tough to even get supplies to many affected areas, so the local governments and neighbors are helping the most. There is a national campaign “Peru: una sola fuerza”, and internally, people are helping each other (though there are of course the stories of the looters and those who take advantage too).

The recently elected president has said some intelligent things (like that when rebuilding they need to model their northern neighbor Ecuador who was also hit by El Niño but did not suffer so much because of better infrastructure. (Of course there is also finger-pointing that the previous president misused funds that were supposed to be used for infrastructure projects to prepare for El Niño.)

They predict El Niño will start to weaken at the end of April, so there is not much rebuilding they can do now; mostly locally they have to take care of the victims in the short term. I still haven’t heard of any organizations (other than national and local governments) that are providing aid, but I will keep searching and let you know if I find a way that you can help.