“Tempestuous” is defined as ‘characterized by strong and turbulent or conflicting emotions’. Synonyms for “tempestuous” are ‘turbulent, stormy, wild, lively, heated, explosive, frenetic, emotional, passionate, intense, frenzied, volatile, quick tempered and unpredictable”…yes! That’s certainly been our experience of Peru!
Within a few hours of arriving in Peru I was tearful, fearful, anxious, angry… and just wanted out. I had not had such strongly negative emotions about any country on any part of our journey across the Americas thus far and realising the sheer enormity of this country I felt quite overwhelmed at the prospect of weeks’ worth of travel here, feeling very vulnerable being on a motorcycle and realising that there was ‘no quick out’. After 6 weeks experiencing Peru I now describe our journey as a “tempestuous love affair” having equally raged at and fallen in love with Peru. It has been an incredible rollercoaster ride of emotion, growth, rage, peace, passion, fatigue, awe, challenge, seduction, understanding, strength and wisdom… and I’m grateful for the experience.
We entered Peru from Ecuador at Tumbes on the coast and it was the quickest, smoothest border crossing of our whole Americas journey. Surprisingly Peru was the only country where I immediately felt a sense of ‘imminent danger’ and this prevailed throughout our time here. “Danger from what?” you might ask. I’ll try and explain…
On arrival, it felt like we’d been swept into a raging torrent of filth, broken roads and insanely aggressive and erratic driving. Travelling on motorcycles this was not good news. The level of filth was overwhelming. Plastic bags flew in the air, swept up by passing traffic and we were ducking and weaving to avoid having plastic wrap around our visors as we drove. I sarcastically decided that the only requirement to obtain a drivers’ licence in Peru is being able to blow your horn. Everyone was hooting and no-one obeyed any traffic rules or seemed to have any common sense. Vehicles would overtake on blind corners or even on a straight piece of road where you were clearly visible as oncoming traffic. It did not seem to matter and we immediately adopted a defensive driving approach. Then there were also the Peruvian dogs…
Everyone knows how much I adore dogs, but in Peru they absolutely terrified me! We were constantly chased down by dogs as we rode and I was bitten on the leg whilst riding through Huaraz. Thankfully leather boots and Klim gear meant that an adrenaline rush and slight wobble on my bike was the only result of this attack. In Huacho, Paul and I took a stroll from our hotel and thought nothing of the dogs we saw lounging outside the homes we passed. We were very shocked to find ourselves suddenly surrounded by these dogs – snarling, menacing, growling, barking and surrounding us, moving closer as a pack. We were dressed only in shorts and thongs (flip flops) so felt very vulnerable, should they attack. It was impossible knowing what to do and I was looking desperately for something which to protect ourselves with, whilst Paul faced them trying to shoo them off. We got away unscathed yet rattled and took a tuk-tuk ride back to avoid further assault.
Peru’s landscape is diverse, magnificently beautiful and extreme in its ‘wildness’. Whilst admiring the exquisite beauty of the varied landscapes, we were often aware of our vulnerability traveling by motorcycle in this unforgiving terrain.
At the coast we crossed the Sechura and Atacama deserts. We crossed the most spectacular sand dunes on remarkable roads that snaked incredibly high across the sand, linking towns and cities such as Tumbes, Chimbote, Huacho, Lima, Nazca and Tacna. These arid landscapes were insanely beautiful and peaceful, but unfortunately marred on many occasions by filth dumped at the roadside or in the dunes. People built homes and towns on the sand dunes and we marvelled at “for sale” signs stuck in the sand! It eerily felt like we were crossing the moon and high temperatures meant we stopped frequently to keep hydrated. In Northern Peru we were astounded to come across rice paddies in the desert landscape. This was our first experience of incredible Peruvian engineering – getting water channeled down from the Andes into desert valleys, creating small oases of lush arable land. Huacachina is a beautiful desert oasis near Nazca. Set amongst enormous sand dunes, it has a lagoon surrounded by palm trees, hotels and restaurants. It was a memorable stay for both its beauty and the terrifying ride across the incredible sand dunes in a buggy driven by ‘Mad Max!’. Shamefully, the dunes were also full of rubbish poking out of the sand and detracting from the beauty of the landscape.
The peaks of the Andes mountains had us awed and challenged on so many occasions. To give you some perspective of the magnitude of the Peruvian Andes – Peru’s lowest peak is Huaytapallana at 5,557m, which is higher than Everest Base Camp (5,380m). We crossed the Andes many times, riding consistently at altitudes between 3,500m and 4,500m and reaching our highest altitude on the bikes at 4,882m near the Colca Canyon. We hiked in Huascaran National Park, where the highest Andean peak in Peru is Huascaran at 6,768m and we hiked up to Pastoruri Glacier at an altitude of 5,250m. Altitude sickness plagued us during all of our time in the Andes, it’s just the severity that varied. Surprisingly our experiences at altitude were inconsistent and Paul and I never experienced the same symptoms at the same time, other than chronic fatigue – at times one of us would be incredibly ill and on other occasions we would be absolutely fine, but we were always out of breath and fatigued. It appeared to be less a factor of the altitude but more a factor of our individual physiology at a given point in time. Fatigue was a major challenge for us, both in terms of physically riding our bikes but also in terms of coping with the emotional ups and downs and being on such an intensely emotional journey. We were physically and mentally shattered for most of our time traveling through Peru. Dirt roads, inclement weather or unexpected challenges became major issues, simply because we were already fatigued and could not face additional challenges. An obstacle that may have been “a giggle” at lower altitude became “a major obstacle” at altitude, simply due to chronic fatigue. Riding was exhausting, picking up a dropped bike a major challenge. We did not sleep well at altitude, waking constantly and gasping for air, adding another level to our fatigue. The Andes are incredibly beautiful, mystical and daunting. We also experienced how quickly the Andes can become incredibly dangerous when we got caught in a freak hail storm at an altitude of 4,400m en route to the Colca Canyon. At that altitude and a temperature of only 2 degrees Celsius we were shocked at how quickly the severe storm turned into a dangerous situation and how quickly we were succumbing to exposure and needed to get out. We abandoned our bikes and the first passing vehicle happened to be an ambulance and we secured a ride to the nearest town. From the ambulance we saw cars piled up in an accident further along the road in ice piled inches thick. The ambulance ride was incredibly scary and our only experience of crazy Peruvian driving from within a vehicle! The driver and passenger were relaxed and happily chatted away in the front seats as us gringos sat white knuckled and with eyes shut in the back, listening to the tyres squeal around the hairpin bends on the mountain pass, praying for our safety as we journeyed at great speed across to Chivay. We retrieved the bikes when the weather cleared but the day we left Chivay the mountain pass was covered with snow and the roads incredibly icy. We inched along slowly, seeing two cars flipped on their roofs due to the dangerous driving conditions. On reflection we realise that we worked well as a team and made sound judgement calls when the situation got dangerous. Every experience is a learning and Peru has exposed us to so many challenges that we’ve grown in leaps and bounds, both individually and as a team.
We spent a week in the Amazon at a research station and this was an incredibly spiritual experience on so many levels. The sheer expanse of the Amazon River and jungle was awe inspiring. The simplicity and joy with which people live in this unforgiving terrain was something we instinctively adopted from the minute we arrived. The oppressive heat and humidity, the rain, spiders, snakes, monkeys, birds, plants and insects…and insect bites! We had great fun hiking through the jungle looking for poison dart frogs, finding tarantula and fishing for piranha. The bird life was incredible, as was the magnificent beauty of the river reflections, raw nature and the expansive rainforest wilderness. We spent time at an indigenous village and met the shaman and most of the villagers, just chatting and learning or watching games of soccer and volleyball. It seemed as though time just stood still and it was the most remarkable experience…to “just be” awhile. Nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, just being open to it all and soaking it all in.
The ancient cultures of Peru have been beautiful to discover and fascinating. We marvelled particularly at the history of the Inca Empire, their architecture, engineering and mysticism. The Spanish Empire conquered and destroyed much of what the Incas had created and built magnificent churches where once Inca temples stood. We saw gold and silver abundantly adorning spectacular churches and magnificent paintings covering church walls. One of the most impressive paintings was of “The Last Supper” in a cathedral at Cusco. In this particular interpretation Jesus and his disciples are depicted eating a feast of guinea pig. The Incas considered guinea pig a delicacy and it is still considered a ‘special treat’, served roasted whole on sticks or deep fried. Machu Picchu is an Inca city not destroyed by the Spanish as it was only discovered in 1911. High in the mountains, where the Amazon Jungle meets the Andes, it is a marvellous testament to the Inca culture, their incredible architecture, engineering, agriculture and history. One of the things which fascinated us most was seeing the many “eternal fountains” built by the Incas along the Inca Trail and at Machu Picchu. Fountains which have been running with pure water since the 1400’s from an unknown source. Spending time at Machu Picchu was another intensely ‘spiritual experience’…sitting on the mist covered mountain just watching the landscape reveal itself as the mist cleared momentarily and marvelling at the magnificent stone structures, temples, fountains, terraces and magnificent mountainous terrain.
I have raged, cursed and sworn my way through the crazily insane Peruvian traffic. We have been pushed off the road by other vehicles, faced oncoming traffic on blind corners and narrowly avoided collisions on so many occasions as vehicles either suddenly make a u-turn without warning, run stop signs or simply just change lanes without a care for right-of-way. All of this is accompanied by frenetic hooting! Paul has remained calm through it all and when I marvelled at his ability he simply said: “Peruvian drivers are predictable. Expect them to be insane…” He has not responded with anger and anguish the way that I have and it may appear that my rage has been unfounded or misplaced. Passing through Juliaca I was once again being pushed aside by hooting traffic from all sides and trying to negotiate a particularly tricky section of “road” with a combination of potholes and train tracks I unfortunately fell. In shock, my only thought was to avoid being crushed but almost instantaneously hands reached out around me, helping me pick my bike up and bodies shielded me from the traffic swirling and hooting around me. I do not know where the help came from or how it was there so quickly. I did not even have time take it all in or to say thank you. In Arequipa I was pushed off the road by a bus and mere minutes later as I stopped beside the bus at a traffic light the driver greeted me cheerfully, asking where I’m from and striking up a conversation! I was dumbfounded and my earlier cursing was replaced by the realisation that he had not meant me harm, it simply is the way Peruvians drive!
Peru has beguiled, seduced, enraged and confused us. It has been a country of so many contradictions. In a country that is so filthy it is astounding that they have had the best food! The best food, hands down! Many of the world’s top restaurants are in Peru and particularly in Lima. We were initially thinking of avoiding Lima (anticipating insane traffic!) but we’re glad we decided to brave the risk and spent a few days exploring this beautiful city and its amazing cuisine. Lima aside, the food has been excellent everywhere in Peru, from the shantiest of towns to the biggest of cities such as Lima or Cusco. Street food has been as delicious as the food in restaurants. The Peruvians can’t drive, but boy they sure can cook! The cuisine is a fusion of indigenous Inca, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese and West African. The popular “National” drink is Pisco and there are many ways to enjoy this brandy. There are 15 different cocktails and we enjoyed many Pisco sours (pisco, egg white, lime juice, syrup and bitters), Chilcano (pisco, lime juice and ginger ale) and Maracuya Pisco (pisco and passion fruit).
We were astounded that cities such as Lima and Cusco are pristinely tidy, a stark contrast to the rest of Peru. I delicately asked a tour guide about the reason for the filth and shared my observation that cities like Lima and Cusco are immaculately clean. He replied that “Lima and Cusco are tourist cities and tourists have taught us to be clean”. It was his simple way of explaining that it is all about education and economy, that in most of Peru issues of poverty take precedence over the cost of or education about garbage disposal. Paul and I have reflected a great deal about what we’ve seen and experienced in Peru in terms of garbage and filth. We are mindful that during our time here we have contributed to the garbage. Although we’ve disposed of our garbage mindfully in bins, we’ve no idea where that garbage may have ended up in the end. And who of us is blameless for creating filth and garbage? Some of us just ‘dispose of it more cleanly’, but it’s still there, it’s been created…we’ve thought a lot about how we should be focusing on ways of minimising the creation of garbage in the first instance.
The geology in Peru has been astounding! Wherever we’ve traveled, we’ve marvelled at the beauty of the earth around us, impressive rock formations have been everywhere and marvels such as the Nazca lines and Rainbow mountain are unique to this part of the world. Unfortunately we decided not to hike up to Rainbow mountain (5,200m) due to its altitude and the extreme altitude sickness we’d experienced at that height on our previous hike to Pastoruri Glacier (5,250m). In Nazca we took a flight over the valley to see the ancient geoglyphs from the air. These magnificent and mysterious lines, geometric shapes and designs of animals, birds, trees and an alien had us debating aliens (in my case), giants and Inca rituals. It was an incredibly scary flight and I must admit that I kept wishing it would end, even though I marvelled at what we were seeing. The little plane dipped and lunged constantly then continuously banked first steeply left (so that I could see) and then banked steeply right (so that Paul could see), making us both so air sick that the pilot eventually had to open a window to try and calm our nerves with some fresh air! It was the most magnificent sight and the history of Maria Reich was captivating. We attended a lecture at the observatory to learn more about Maria’s work and theories. She is the German archaeologist and mathematician whose life work preserved the site and ensured it being listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Colca Canyon is Peru’s “Grand Canyon” but impressively it is 3,270m deep whereas the Grand Canyon is only 1,857m deep. It was a magnificent ride on our motorcycles along the rim of the canyon, especially when we were gifted so many opportunities to see condors soaring just above our heads. Condors are the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere and a truly magnificent sight. To be fair, we saw so many incredible raptors and birds all across Peru. Peru astounded us with its rugged, magnificent beauty, mountains and canyons alike.
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake (3,812m) and close to the Bolivian border. We spent a few days here and stayed on a floating reed island with the indigenous Uros people. The islands are made entirely from reeds that grow in the lake and everything on the islands is constructed from reeds – the houses, roofs, schools, clinics, shops, umbrellas, swings, their boats, everything. Even our host’s hat was made of reeds! The bird life was incredible but the most amazing aspect of the lake in my mind, was the magnificent reflections on the water.
The people of Peru have seemed aloof, yet on so many occasions their generosity of spirit has shone through spontaneously. I’m unsure if they are just a more private or shy people, but they have not been as openly friendly, gregarious or curious as people in other Latin American countries. As was our experience in other Latin American countries we have marvelled at the many acts of humanity and kindness we were gifted in Peru.
The music of Peru is very unique and incredibly beautiful! It’s a combination of wind instruments (panpipes and flutes), stringed instruments (charango and Spanish guitar) and percussion instruments (cajon, cowbell and bombo). Musicians abound as do music stores selling the flutes, guitars and ‘drums’. The music has a magical, mystical sound that invokes a soothing, haunting, mesmerising sadness-mixed-with-joy. Pretty much reflecting all that we’ve come to experience and love about Peru…