Extending down the west side of South America, Peru is amazing for its diverse environments. There is the dry desert like conditions along the coast, Alpine mountains of the Andes, and tropical jungle in the Amazon Basin. We had numerous exchange students from Peru at our house, so we already had a wonderful connection to Peru. There is nothing more friendly, chaotic, insane, and lovable than Peruvians. The first time I went to Peru was 1989 and I was fifteen. The country was going through a turbulent time with the Shining Path blowing up buses, buildings, and electric stations when I first arrived. A wonderful time to send your son to a foreign country, I know. But I loved every minute of it. It was the most unique, interesting, and educational experience I had ever had. I still consider my host families I lived with back then family, and know I will always have a home there. In 2006 I flew back to Peru with my parents and brother. It was an amazing experience of uniting my Peruvian family with my family. It was wonderful experience for the everyone. If only I had picked up Spanish the three times I was there.
When people think of Peru, they think of the great ruins of Machu Picchu, perched on the side of a jungle clad mountain. The more we learn about this place, it seems, the less we do. Was it a royal palace, religious center, or Agricultural University? When Hiram Bingham re-discovered it in the early 1900’s, it had been abandoned for a few centuries. The locals that live in the area are called the Quechua, and still speak their native language. They are direct descendants of the Incas. Many people don’t realize that when conquistador Pizzaro came to Peru and conquered it with only 168 soldiers, the Inca Empire was just recovering from a massive civil war as well as a small pox epidemic. Two Inca brothers fought it out for the throne when their father died of small pox. By the time Pizzaro arrived the people were reeling from the effects of a small pox epidemic. Pizzaro lied and played to the Incas superstitions and ended up taking down the entire Empire. It’s a huge tragedy, and so sad the way it went down. It’s very possible that this set of ruins were abandoned and forgotten because of the collapse of the empire. The best way to see the ruins is to hike the Inca Trail up through the sun gate, cresting the top in time to watch the sun rise over the ruins.
At the bottom of the mountain that Machu Picchu is on is the town of Aqua Calientie. When I first went 25 years ago, it was about 10 buildings along the railroad tracks, where I ate on log chairs while chickens pecked around me, now it’s a cosmopolitan village with food options like Sushi and Steak. The springs are the same though, cascading down the ravine. It’s a great place to relax and soak in the natural springs after tromping around the ruins all day. A lot of tourists do Machu Picchu in one day, taking the train in and out. There is no way you can appreciate this architectural wonder in one day and I seriously feel this is a mistake.
The gateway to Machu Picchu is Cusco, the largest city at this elevation in the world. This was the Inca capital, and the construction is amazing. The massive blocks on some of the ruins are the size of cars, perfectly fit together with no mortar. Every time I come here I just wander the streets, eating anticuchos (cow heart kabobs) and sipping coca tea (cocaine leaves in hot water). I remember playing a pick up game with some kids and getting my butt handed to me because I could barely breath due to the altitude. When I went back the second time Cusco had developed into a very cosmopolitan city; nice hotels, restaurants, and clubs.
Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of the Amazon. A jungle so big, filled with so many animals was more than my little brain could handle. I was obsessed with it. So of course when I went to Peru there was no way I was not going to see the Amazon. So I flew to Iquitos, the largest city in the world with no roads leading to it, in the center of the amazon jungle. Even today, the only way to get here is via plane or boat. I would love to say that I saw all kinds of wildlife, but even back then most of the animals had been eaten for food or sold for the pet trade. I was picked up by a cab to go to the zoo, because I figured it would be the best place to see unique jungle animals. Well, the driver drove me out of the city, to the end of a dead-end road in the jungle, and told me to get out and give him all my money. I did, and he left thanks goodness. It was a long walk back to town and I never did see the zoo. I did use this as a stepping off point to go to the Amazon. I took a five hour boat through some of the numerous tributaries going through the jungle, to a small out post. Remember, this is 1989, before Ecotourism was even a word. There was a small camp set up, mosquito netting, and that is about it. There was a coati there that had a thirst or booze, and a few parrots. Still, I was in the jungle. I went to a native village, which was really cool. Did I say how much I love Peru, really, you can’t beat it.
Next hot spot is Arequipa, a large city in the desert. Its architecture is very interestin, which is a mix of Spanish and indigenous styles. Wandering the streets here you really feel like you are in a European city, till you come across a Quechua lady in her hand woven garb. This is the beginning point to see one of the largest bird in the world, the Andean Condor. We took a trip out to one Peru’s grandest canyons, and were lucky enough to see the bird. Due to thermos coming up at this point, the Condors endlessly fly up here, looking for carrion. So it was not long before one soared above our heads. Their wing span is over 10 feet.
Last but not least, Lima is the capital of Peru, and where I lived among my adopted families. Though the city is not the most gorgeous, or safest, it still is the heart of the country. Here you can sip Pisco Sours while dining on Ceviche. Ceviche is raw seafood marinated in lime juice, with cilantro and red onions. In Lima it is an art form, with the gourmet to the street corner cevicherias dishing out unique and delicious variations that make my mouth water with even the thought of partaking. What is Pisco you ask, well allow me to explain. It is most definitely Perus most famous drink, and there is an entire city named after it. It’s a form of Brandy, and they take it very seriously here. I always bring a bottle home when I go out to Lima. It can be a bit rough straight, but when you have it in the form of a Pisco sour, there is nothing better. There are numerous interesting museums in Lima. One is all about torture, with its own poorly made mannequins. But the best one is the Gold Museum, which houses all that remains of the Inca Empires gold collection. It really is beyond words when you walk into what is really a giant safe, to see the intricate and detailed work of the Incas.
I am going to end this blog on something I did that was incredibly stupid and illegal. I am totally against this and realize how much of a problem it is in the world, and I hope by writing about it maybe it will stop some other impressionable kid from doing the same. I bought a monkey from a old quechua woman in a shady deal at an illegal pet market in Lima. I got pills for the monkey from a vet and was going to smuggle him home with me. I was only 15, stupid, and who would not want a monkey. My family found out and flipped out, yelling at me over the phone at $2 bucks a minute, so I never got my monkey home. But I did help my friend bring a Spider Monkey home through customs. In the end, the monkey was in a pouch inside our coat, sleeping like a baby. The monkey made it, but died shortly after. My monkey also died, and was a pigmy marmoset. Pigmy Marmosets are an endangered species, and because of my actions, he died. It’s stupid and irresponsible to take wild animals out of their environment. Chances are you do not have the know how or resources to keep them alive, nor give them any quality of life. So don’t do it. Wild animals do not make good pets.
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