I awoke on the morning of December 24th, Christmas Eve, to a dark, wet scene out the window of the modest hostel room. It was early still, light struggling to penetrate the cloud layer above. I took a hot shower, brushed my teeth with Listerine and toothpaste, and finished packing for the trek. I had already filled my backpack completely, which left others to carry some of my consumables for the first leg. It wasn’t raining outside anymore, so a few of us opted to walk to our meeting point at the other hostel, about a half-mile through the Plaza San Francisco and up an entire block’s worth of stairs. In the hostel, we put away our extra luggage in storage, grabbed coca tea and a bagged lunch, and combined with another trekking team, a group of 12 or so Australians; mostly tall blonde-haired bros with a couple blonde-haired ladies. They headed off into one of the two vans there, leaving the other for the six of us plus our local guide, Samuel, and our driver.
It started raining a bit as we snaked up the hills out of town. I stared out the window at the city passing by — outside of the tourist areas, it rapidly devolves into a patchwork of makeshift brick housing, bumpy roads, and dogs. So many dogs everywhere. The rain caused dirt and sludge to line the sides of the street, adding to the already messy city aesthetic. The road soon escaped Cusco, heading out into the Peruvian countryside, a green hilly paradise dotted with farms, settlements, railroads, and expansive foliage. It was so green, I wished I could somehow capture this land’s excessive water and bring it back to California.
In contrast to the quaint scene outside, inside the van, our guide blasted a mix of 80s and 90s American pop music through the speakers. I don’t get it– stay tuned for a litany of things I don’t understand about Peruvian culture regarding loud music. It got old, but for now it was not yet annoying and I moderately enjoyed it. Especially the part where our driver sped along the narrow, winding, cliff-side road with a fogged up windshield, while messing around with his phone, as the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” played; that was both terrifying and appropriate.
One thing I noticed immediately about the rural country was the ubiquity of political graffiti on buildings. Seemingly every wall and structure outside of the city had somebody’s name on it, be them a presidential candidate, a congressperson, or local representative. There were only a few names repeated over and over along with their logos. I have no knowledge of Peruvian politics, so I don’t know the time-frame of these ads, but it was kind of a sad display regardless. Indeed, the farther from the present day that the election happened, the sadder I find it. However, I’m sure for the next election cycle, they’ll just paint over them again in support of a new batch of folks. Right?
I also found the rural architecture interesting, if only because it was very similar to the outer city’s. See, most of the standalone buildings there were built of the same red brick with tall, darkened glass windows. The thing that stuck out the most, however, was the fact that most of these buildings, in place of roofs, had rebar jutting out of the tops of the building main support columns, as if still under construction. Make no mistake, these buildings were clearly occupied at the first few floors, so it struck me as pure optimism that someday they’d grow even taller. Buildings like these were everwhere along the entire trip.
The farther we got from the city, the more rugged the terrain became. We rose up into the clouds, a valley outside my window disappearing below. It was less scary not knowing how deep the cliff fell, but still I was uncomfortable with the speed at which we were winding around turns and switchbacks. We descended into said valley, the river valley of the Urubamba and headed through the resort town of the same name. Shortly past there, we stopped for a break at a general store and cafe. It was pouring outside at this point and I again made use of my umbrella, which I was greatly appreciating having brought. Inside I had more mate de coca. It was scorching hot, so much so I couldn’t even put it near my mouth for nigh 15 minutes. The bathroom there also didn’t have toilet paper, which is odd considering the store sold toilet paper. We were advised to pack our own; apparently, this was why.
While sipping tea, I thought I heard a train horn in the distance. Having been driving alongside rails since we reached the valley, I walked outside to see if one was coming. Suddenly, a blue PeruRail locomotive appeared, rolling up the railway along the river, tugging a few passenger carriages behind. It was gone in seconds. I wondered if this was the train we’d be taking back to Cusco after the trek. (Spoilers, it wasn’t.)
Once underway again, our driver took a seemingly unnecessary turn onto a one-lane road, one that was extremely close to the river without a single safety measure. The rains had the river swelled and brown, raging past us at a distance too close for comfort. If there’s one thing that bothers me more than heights, it’s extreme proximity to dangerous water. Luckily, this trip had no shortage of both, sometimes simultaneously!
This road led past a train station, which our guide pointed out. I wondered if our train back would go through here. (Spoilers, it did! Sort of…) After a seemingly endless ride, we turned back toward the land, cutting through farms and reaching a road that would begin to take us up and up and up. This mountain pass road split two massive rock faces in two, gradually climbing switchback by switchback, ad infinitum. The switchbacks offered views to both sides of the van, including the occasional glance at the place from where we’d come. A beautiful, mystical valley, shrouded in clouds. The sights were starting to outweigh the nerves, so long as I kept my eyes on them and not the cliffs below. Most of the time there were guardrails up here. Then again, even looking up could be scary — with my side of the van hugging the mountain, above was a sheer cliff face, almost curving on top of us. At least with a rock avalanche, it would be quick.
The driver continued his Peruvian ways, speeding up to tight curves, dodging rocks, dogs, and the occasional broken vehicle. Again, you can do anything on Peruvian roads, provided that you honk first. Blind turns into oncoming traffic? Why not!? I searched out the window for new scenery, as the majestic cloudy mountains soon became banal. Briefly I spotted a hole in the clouds through which I caught a snowy scene, though I could not follow it through shifting nebulae and the turning of the van.
It was around this time we initiated a simple science experiment, using an open bottle of water. Having been sealed near Cusco at 11500 ft, it crunched as we descended into Urubamba (9500 ft). It returned to its Cusco shape as we continued our rise up into the mountains, ultimately puffing up most at our peak altitude in the mountains (13300 ft). On our descent over the next few hours, the bottle was noticeably crushed under the higher atmospheric pressure at our destination city of Santa Maria’s lower elevation of 4400 ft. Science!
Above the tree-line on this road, the terrain became a barren, soggy, green alpine tundra. We suddenly turned off the road, which was a scary feeling initially until we figured out what was happening. Both us and the other van pulled over onto a flat open plateau to begin our bike-ride adventure down the mountain. We all got out of the van to stretch, and were treated to the majesty of the glaciated peak of Nevado Verónica, the tallest mountain in the Urupampa range of the Andes. It was shiny and white in the clouds, its slopes gradually turning into a palette of brown and green. Out of the vans it was cold; windy with light mist blasting our faces. The clouds at the mountain tops roared past, shifting its shape and keeping my creative mind unsatisfied. I shot photo after photo of the changing scene on the mountaintops, which led to me finally making a decision regarding the bike ride: I didn’t do it. I was on the fence until I had an excuse to leap off. I wanted to continue shooting the stunning scenery from the van as the road began to curve downward, not wanting to miss out on whatever else lay ahead. Plus, I could see the road below and a novice cyclist like me should probably have had a little more practice before attempting it. In retrospect, that was a good decision.
The little plateau we’d parked on there was (I think) the highest land I’ve ever stood upon, at 13300 feet above sea level. My previous high was Peak 8 at Breckenridge, Colorado, a 13000 foot high summit only accessible by climbing up a few hundred feet from the top chairlift. It was also the very top of a mountain, not some saddle of a mountain pass. Speaking of, the glorious Verónica just across the road? 19,334 feet at its peak. That’s only 1000 ft shorter than Denali. No big deal.
Down from the mountains broke blue skies in the distance, an ocean above and beyond the cloud tops. I couldn’t wait to see what lay ahead on the road. We were briefed on what to expect on the ride out there on the mountainside, and I wished the others the best as I got back into the van. My van was to be the leader of the pack, with the other one trailing the riders; I would end up several minutes ahead of the rest down the road. The road itself wound through dense fog (neblina), so my stunning view of the mountains was almost immediately blocked. I saw only those trees and houses on the edge of the road, as the land behind fell away into the shroud. On the road were scattered rocks, fallen from above, as well as spots where the roadside had slid away.
After a short ride skirting around rocks, cars (with a honk), and sharp mountain curves, we pulled off the road at an overlook, another group already there and just about to head out. I stepped out of the van, walked over by the road with my camera and waited for my group to arrive on bicycle. After a minute of waiting, I decided it would be more productive to walk around the area, taking a quick peak at the view over yonder. It was absolutely stunning, a panoramic vista of the expanding river valley, our road continuing to twist down below, white clouds hovering at the rims. I felt it better to experience this with everyone else once they had arrived, so I returned to the other side of the van to wait.
First arrivals: the other tour group, the Australians. It figures that they would be there ahead of everyone. After them, another group dressed in orange. Then, one by one our team rolled in, appearing from behind the last turn in the road. I was excited to ask them about the ride, given the obstacles the van avoided and the overall serpentine-nature of the road. Also, I wanted them to see the view. They shed the most cumbersome of their biking armor and we headed up to the top of the ridge at the overlook. The view was even better than from road level, offering a nearly 180 degree view over the Andes. It was there that a trio of young women asked me to take a photo of them; I obliged and as I lined up a shot, I heard them conversing with each other in German. When they thanked me for my service, I replied “bitte schön,” which gained me some surprised looks. Yes, this is random, but it gets better.
As my badass crew re-equipped their armor, I said goodbye again and retreated to the van, which followed the group this time. Except we weren’t supposed to and ended up speeding around the cyclists, flying in the other lane down the mountain road. I waved at those I passed, one by one. Some took quite some time to catch up to, especially those Australians who were once again leading the pack. Along the way were 12 or so water hazards, streams crossing the road. Our guide made sure to note the seventh one as the most treacherous and requiring special attention. Well, the first one was a veritable torrent of water around a turn. The van blew through it, spraying water on both sides a few feet high. If this was number one, what was seven like? Most of those between and after were just trickles. Seven looked a lot like one, but this time the van stopped to warn the cyclists, now behind us, to slow. I enjoyed watching them lift their legs to not get wet, splashing water and splitting the flow.
There were even more rocks on the road through this part. In fact, after a bridge crossing there read a bright orange sign saying “DERRUMBE CONSTANTE“. For the non-Spanish speaker, that means “constant landslides.” Indeed, there were rocks everywhere, mostly of the finer sort with worn car tracks through, however there were the occasional chunky clusters and boulders which necessitated a tad bit of evasion. Throughout this ride, another speedy one down a road similar to that of our ascent, I shot photos out the van window, again paying little attention to the heights, our insane speed, and the road hazards. I felt comfort in ignorance, focusing on the proverbial horizon to combat my uneasiness.
We regained our guide (who had been leading our group of cyclists) near the bottom, stopping to put his bike back on top of the van. He led us to a small settlement on the road, a “town” with a few houses, a school, and a general store out front of which was a grill with fresh meat and potatoes on skewers. I was quite hungry by this point, having eaten only raisins for breakfast. The smell was incredibly tempting. Once the Australians landed, they began buying food, including some of these grilled items. They weren’t helping. To help resist, I walked up the street slightly to await my group, once again.
And again, they rolled in one by one, though with a bit more time between them now. We’d descended almost 10000 feet and were now in the jungle. It was hot, actually feeling like summer for the first time on the trip. I was the only one not drenched in sweat. What a bum.
The bikes were returned to the roofs of the vans, armor stowed, and layers shed. We ripped into the bagged lunches we received earlier, enjoying some assorted fruits, sandwiches, crackers, and water. I didn’t try the sandwich, but the crackers were good, basically unsweetened graham crackers. Plus, word was that there was going to be another lunch in town anyway. There were maybe a few more miles to go.
The town we came upon was Santa Maria, the first major stop of the trek and the place where we’d lodge for the night. There, we stopped at a restaurant/bar, the only one in town and named something of the sort. We sat at one of the three tables inside; the Australians at another. On the walls hung a random assortment of decoration: Inca memorabilia, banners, drawings, bottles. Also a TV, which was blasting Christmas music. We could barely hear ourselves in there. By the bar stood a seizure-inducing Christmas tree, blinking erratically. It was also softly playing chip-tune Christmas carols, but we quickly disabled that function.
Lunch was good. There was chicken, some kind of mashed potato, and soup. It left me a little wanting, but it was at the very least tasty. I had been worried about cuisine on the trek, and so far it was going decently. Trek meals were the main occasion for our guide to give us instruction and brief us on the days’ coming events. He was exceptionally informative, if a bit long winded. Muy bien, chicos.
After lunch, we walked down the street to our hotel and checked in. I obtained the wifi password, for a minimal fee, and got in my internetting for the day (Duolingo streak alive!). Also I took a short nap. I was somehow already exhausted. Perhaps it was the heat, because our room was blazing hot. We were forced to relent to nature and opened a window, despite the risk of bugs. Screens are apparently not very common in Peru. I took a cold shower that definitely helped keep the temperature down. Then again, it was only cold because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat…
Downstairs, the others were doing a puzzle. It was a picture of Machu Picchu (our goal!). It was going swimmingly until we discovered the set was incomplete. Nevertheless, we’d figured out the entire perimeter and a massive chunk of the sky. Bunch of smarties 🙂
Before dinner, the Australians went on their way; they were on a three-day trek to our four so they were needed elsewhere. After the sun went down, we walked back up the road to the same restaurant, now dimly lit with nice ambiance. Except for that damn TV, still blasting Christmas music. I really don’t get it. It’s so intrusive to me, but to the Peruvians it seemed normal. What a country!
This was our first Christmas dinner, a delicious smorgasboard of chicken, potatoes, quinoa, soup, and tea. Did you know that potatoes go really well with quinoa? They really do! Dinner was a really nice time; it was early in the trip, yet it felt like we were a family. Our guide gave a beautiful sentiment of the sort, while also entertaining our every question and insight. I had my eye fixed on the future — I couldn’t wait to see what was coming ahead in our adventure. I was also trying my hardest to enjoy the moments and live in the present, since moments like these don’t ever come around again.
It was late by the time dinner ended. Having another early rise in the morning, we decided to head to bed immediately. Behind our room was a soccer field, upon which a lively game was happening. Because of the heat, the windows were open, so it was somewhat loud. I tried to sleep anyway.
At midnight, it was Christmas. In Latin America, that’s a big freakin’ deal. The modest town of Santa Maria was bursting to life, literally. Outside the other window on the street, some people were launching fireworks from multiple points. They exploded outside, overhead. For what felt like hours. The smoke drifted in through the windows. I woke up in the night with a sore throat, dead tired. That’s great, I lamented. This is just what I didn’t need.