I spent the weekend in the high Andes in southern Peru. I took a tour, which is something I normally avoid, but there was no other way to get to the places I wanted to see, and it cost, including lodging, $35 US. It was a great choice, and we had a splendid tour guide.I went with Carlos Zirate Adventures. as they come highly recommended, for good reason. The best part was the extremely knowledgeable tour guide, Laura.
Our tour began with the Reserva National Salinas y Aguarda Blanca. This wildlife reserve sits at 4000 to 5000 meters in altitude, and gets relatively few visitors. Wildlife and wild rock formations and volcanoes abound. The 5000 meter part takes a toll on some visitors, especially if they haven´t taken the time to acclimate. Two of our 18 person group got vomitingly ill and there were many headaches. The high Andes is one place where slow travel is really the only way. One of the sick was a young woman from Lima, up from sea level for the weekend. But the wildlife was incredible as well as the lunar landscapes.
We first spotted the vicuña. There are only 200,000 left in the world, their world being the high Andes of Peru, Chilé, Bolivia and Argentina, at over 3200 meters. Their lovely wool is the major reason they are endangered. The Incas simply caught them and cut their hair, but hunting has decimated their numbers in modern times.
Plenty of llamas and alpacas still populate the altaplano, as they have been domesticated. This means lots of close up hands on contact with the furry camelids.
This one looks so tranquil, but he was muttering and complaining under his breath. I was leaning in to listen when the guide got this shot.
Our sharp-eyed guide spotted one lone rabbit for us. They have adapted with great coats, long ears and long tails, and Maybelline eyelashes.
The landscape at 3000-5000 meters (up to 16,000 feet) at this latitude isn´t as polar as it is in more northern climes, but it is cold, and the coveted furs of the wildlife are adaptations to this cold desert climate. Rocky and almost barren, tonality and form gives the landscape a striking beauty.
The wet landscape is like arctic tundra. It doesn´t dry up for lack of heat, though it is actually desert.
The piles of rocks are communications amongst herders in the very sparsely populated region.
Cuzco is on of the few cities, maybe the only major one, in the Americas where you can so clearly witness the mixing of the ancient indigenous empires with the colonial Spanish and modern worlds. Maybe the Spanish knew they could never replace the architecture of the brilliant Incas, or maybe they had in mind cementing the fusion of cultures. For whatever reason, walking down an ancient street in modern Cuzco gives one a real sense of the merger.
There is really no deciding where it is best to spend the rest of one´s life. We cannot really know if it will work, so the process is filled with some bittersweet hope and trepidation. I´ve been too many places and have seen and experienced too much disappointment after having earnest confidence. I´ve read the stories of others whose hearts were broken by a place they fell in love with. Perhaps that is part of the reason I have been looking for so long, and have been mostly crest fallen at what I´ve seen.
But Mexico. In the last 14 years I have been in Mexico more time than in the US. I have worked there, a bit, and slept there a lot. I´ve invested in land there, only to be ripped off by my partner/good friend; a real soul crushing experience. I have few romantic delusions about Mexico. I am currently reading Under the Volcano, which should banish what remains of my fantasies. I think if I stay in Mexico, it will be a measured decision.
I landed back in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, from Lima, Peru, and it didn´t take long to remember why it has always been my first and last choice. Why hadn´t I just decided that long ago? First, I am very concerned that I won´t qualify for residency with my very limited resources, besides, I still had exploring to do. The issue of financial requirements scares me. If I can´t get residency here, then I am back to the start in terms of finding a place. For a variety of reasons that I will try to cover in another post, I was not satisfied with the options in South America.
I am set on Mexico for now. I have contacted an attorney, and I hope they can help me sort out the residency visa. Now is a good time to do this, as the dollar is at an all time high vs. the Peso, so at least it seems like I have more money than I do.
What is it about Mexico? That is the ephemeral aspect to choosing a place. I can give lots of practical reasons; I am learning the language, it is close to the US, I love the food and the culture, yada yada. But it comes down to walking the streets of Mexico City and feeling a part of it, and yet totally foreign. It gives me the psychic space I personally need while allowing and inviting me to be part of it.
If I stay, I will try to spend a lot of time in Mexico City. I imagine I will need to settle some place less costly, but I love the city. Here are some photos from the recent visit:
First, there is the architecture, the very bones of the City. The Cathedral is actually built upon the Aztec bones of old Tenochtitlan, upon and with the stones of the old empire. The architecture spans centuries and tells the history of the city. I think now the powers that be understand the importance of this and will protect it.
And the food! My favorite two countries for street food are Thailand and Mexico. I really cannot decide between the two, but ranking Mexico with Thailand in terms of food says a lot. The food is cheap and plentiful, and of course, muy rico.
And cool, stylish, joyful street life. Mexicans live hard and party harder.
I have posted about my trip to Machu Picchu. First of all, it was a personal challenge for me, as I wasn´t confident that my knees, and my endurance, were up to the challenge. Second, I have taught a bit about the Incans in my World Civ classes, but regrettably did not really know all I should have about them. This trip has been a good correction for that fault.
But for those of you who actually plan on the trip, here is some on the story not shown in the picture postcard scenarios we see on wordpress and in all the adverts and brochures.
First, to be clear, it is in fact expensive, unless you are already here. Consider flights, hotels and tours. I’m traveling on the super cheap and had already taken the overnight bus to Cusco (overnight buses are exhausting, but they save you airfare and a hotel room). Once you are this far, their are combis (collective buses) and other ways to get to Ollantaytambo. From there the cost goes up.
So, assume you aren´t in the south of Peru already. Then it is expensive. Your airfares will probably be at least $1000 a person. To Lima. Then to Cusco, another $100 t0 $200, depending on persistence and luck. Then factor in whatever you luxury level requirements are for hotels and meals. The train from Cusco, if you choose to travel from there by train, will cost another $200 t0 $300, or more, on the other hand, the 2 hour train trip from Ollantaytamba at the cheapest level of service is still $111. Two hours. Then from Aguas Calientes, the final station, it is a $24 dollar bus ride to the gate. Most people spend at least one night in Aguas Calientes, and even the hostals there are expensive. I paid $35 for a noisy clap-trap of a room. Tours from foreign countries run in the many thousands of dollars, I have seen listing from $5000 to over $10,000 and up, USD.
But, of course, Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world. Bucket list essential. Yada Yada. Why do you want to go? Punch card tourism? Bucket list check-off? There is are other considerations for such travel. It is very carbon intensive, it is destructive of the actual monuments we want to see, and, well, you won´t probably be the first on your block, or in your book club, anyway.
So, here is what I saw and experienced in Machu Picchu.
First, it is all a tourist trap. Yes, that is unavoidable, but how do you deal sensitively with all of the touts, and the beautiful old women with their handwoven whatevers? It is difficult. They have a living to make. Once their ancestors were defeated by Pizzaro and his Catholic terrorists, they are part of a cash economy. It is part of the package, folks. At least try to be polite. Buy some trinkets from the street vendors, it gets to the families. But you will be assailed every step of the way. That $200 ticket on Peru Rail? Oh, you will be hyped by them while you are a sitting target.
Second, most people visiting MP are there for the picture that they were there. Oh, I am guilty of that, too. Mine was splashed up on Facebook before midnight. But the photo taking, especially selfies and we-fies and camera-extender tours of oneself touring MP, amount to the majority of the tour, whether you are doing it or not. Every few feet someone is stopping you so they can get their shot. They stop in the middle of a line of people, don´t step aside (and lose their place in line!) and everyone behind has to stop, while a few minutes of posing and posing again takes place. Shockingly rude, but there you go. One man actually fell to his death last month trying to get an extra inch of view from his extender.
And all of these pictures are being uploaded to people the pictures takers are talking to on their iPhones from whatever place in the world the recipients are. ¨See me, I´m at Machu Picchu while you are at your office desk suffering.¨ Now there is an insufferable friend.
And the lines? Well, they start at the bus station especially if you have decided you must see the sun rise over the site. This may be a good idea on a clear day. Everyone in my hostel was up at 4, though it had been cloudy all night and the sun wouldn´t be seen till 10 AM. It was breaking through about the time I arrived. Then you will likewise wait in line in front of the gate. Every direction you go at the site is dictated by signs and polite park officials. Into the lines again. It honestly felt like Labor Day weekend at Disneyworld, except for the bloody authenticity of it. Disney at least has had the sense to ban selfie-extenders.
Is no one interested in Machu Pichu? The marvel of it? You would be forgiven for believing no, it is the punch card destination with the photos to show for it. But despite all of this, it can be awe-inspiring. If you tour the Sacred Valley as well as other archeological sites in Peru, a picture starts to develop of a world of brilliant achievement cut short but not entirely demolished by Spanish ambitions and slaughter. The more I do of it the more I am convinced of the rectitude of slow travel. I have been in Peru for two and a half months. I have been averaging about $40 a day, with a bit of a Machu Picchu hemorrhage of the budget. To travel slowly, north, south, east and west, allows you to learn and develop an understanding not only for the Incans but for those who were here thousands of years before them.
This place is a part of Machu Picchu called ¨3 Doors.¨ I like the way the portals lead to the mountains and the sky. The Incans were no slouches when it came to vistas. Most of the houses and temples have the grandest of views. I think they understood well their relationship to the sky and the earth. I always prefer living with altitude and view, perspective.
The local women here call each other, and me, ¨mama.¨ I take it as a term of endearment. Anyway, this mama made it to Machu Picchu.I almost didn´t come. I was worried about all of the climbing and my poor fragile knees. But 7 months of trekking around South America has put more of a spring in my step. I went to the top of all of the places in the park, including the very high sight where this photo was taken.It seems everyone that goes has this shot of themselves, as well as the overhead shot of Machu Picchu itself. I knew I would get there, once I was determined, but I never thought I would get the ¨money shot.¨ I got many, from many angles.
I have such a feeling of personal achievement. Yes, there were young and old, fat and poorly shod, many with walking sticks and canes, and I hope they feel as successful as I do. But the fact is that I´m not sure I could have done this a year ago. At least I don´t think I would have had the confidence to have tried. I have been working on not comparing myself with others and to take my achievements and satisfactions on my own measure. I succeeded, and that is my Machu Picchu.
Of course I have too many more photos. If you need proof of the brilliance of the Incans, it is all here. In 100 years, the Incans built an empire that: