Sucre, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | Leave a comment

Sucre was a breath of fresh air after the smoggy chaos of La Paz. The city is the second capital of Bolivia, and is known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (the White City,) because just about every single building is painted bright white. It creates a wonderfully clean and peaceful aesthetic. Sucre is much more quiet and calm than other South American capitals. There are several universities in town and thus an abundance of young students in the area; however, that definitely doesn’t make it a party town like you might imagine. It’s also a popular spot for Spanish lessons, so a lot of travelers come to Sucre to chill out and study the language before continuing on the “Gringo Trail.”

We planned to stay in Sucre for two or three days before heading out to Uyuni to see the famous salt flats. It’s centered around a charming park in the main square, which is bordered by a lively ring of shops and cafes next to vintage, grandiose government buildings. We spent the first day on our hostel rooftop—it was sunny but cold, in typical high-elevation weather—and the evening wandering around town, searching for vivacious restaurants and live music.

One afternoon while we were out for a stroll, we ventured a bit further than we had gone before. We weren’t too far, but definitely outside the tourist realm. We were about to head back when Murray suddenly perked up, saying she smelled something delicious and had to have some of whatever was cooking. We followed the scent to a tiny house, which had a raised garage door and a makeshift bakery set up inside. We arrived just as a squat Bolivian woman was pulling a tray of steaming, glistening empanadas out of the oven. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Empanadas in South America can’t be THAT exciting…” But they were! True, it’s common to see these pastries for sale in food carts and restaurant display cases, but they usually look dry, crusty and unappetizing. These were a different story. We ordered five or six of the vegetarian delicacies and were blown away! Although we tried several times over the next few days, we couldn’t find the secret bakery ever again. We must have told everyone we met in Bolivia about “the best empanadas in the world” but there was no way to give directions so that others could share the experience.

I made good use of our next otherwise idle afternoon by running some much-needed errands. I had noticed a plethora of medical offices in town, so I decided to get a couple checkups. I went to the eye doctor for a vision prescription, got a teeth cleaning at the dentist and a haircut—for less than $30 total! We also found a lovely little Pilates class that night and the instructor turned out to be from Palo Alto, of all places (Murray’s home town!)

When we first arrived in Sucre, we had heard that all the bus and truck drivers had gone on strike, but as were planning to stay for a few days, we figured the whole thing would blow over before we had to worry about it. Apparently, strikes are very common in Bolivia—nobody seemed at all bothered by the situation. However, after a few days, we tried to schedule our escape and nobody would sell us bus tickets! The problem was that there is only one way in and one way out, so we couldn’t exactly come up with an alternate route. We must have gone to ten different agencies and they each gave us different accounts of what was going on and when we could leave. We never got the full story, but from what we could gather, it seemed the drivers didn’t want to pay taxes based on the cost of their cargo, but rather a flat rate… Or something like that. Anyway—we were trapped in Sucre! Everyone made it seem like the strike would be over any minute, but finally after almost a week, we had to take matters into our own hands. We teamed up with a few other travelers at our hostel and decided to take taxis to the frontier of the strike and just figure it out from there…

We got dropped off about 40 minutes outside the city, which was as far as the taxis could take us, since the road was completely blocked. There were trucks and buses parked perpendicular across the road as far as the eye could see, preventing any and all vehicular access.  We donned our big backpacks and started the trek, weaving through dozens of semis, their drivers sitting in circles under the shade, playing cards and drinking bottles of beer.

There was no telling how far the block stretched, so we just continued to hoof it, sweating profusely but still laughing at our bemusing predicament. Finally, after what seemed like forever but was only probably about an hour, we reached the end of the line! There were about 30 taxis, waiting to transport—and most likely overcharge—those who navigated the maze. Thankfully, Bolivia is super cheap so a two and a half hour taxi ride cost less than $20 and we made it safely to Potosi in time to take a bus to Uyuni..

La Paz, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | 1 Comment

Some fellow backpackers from Copacabana recommended a hostel for us in La Paz called Wild Rover. Knowing nothing about it, we headed straight there in a taxi from the bus station and immediately, we could tell that it was a party hostel by the rows of lockers, stale cigarette smoke, loud music and clusters of grumpy twenty-somthings that looked like personified hangovers. We checked into a 6-person dorm room at about 2PM and found three boys still sleeping off their previous night’s debauchery. In an honorable attempt to be respectful, we silently ditched our backpacks and set out to explore the neighborhood.

La Paz is a pretty cool city. It’s actually one of two capitals of Bolivia. Technically, the legal capital of Bolivia is Sucre; however, La Paz is considered the administrative capital, and more commonly regarded as the country’s main city. It’s also one of the highest altitude cities in the entire world, ranging in elevation from 3100 – 4058m (10,170 – 13,313ft) above sea level. We weren’t suffering too much, having seamlessly transitioned from a trail of high-altitude locations, but between the frequent hills and the dense smog my lungs were working overtime. I can’t recall the name of the area where we were staying, but it seemed to be pretty central to everything and just a few blocks away from the main square, where the presidential palace is located. If you look past the film of soot covering everything, you’ll notice the architectural drama of La Paz’s authentic and stately architecture. The buildings, even those housing unpretentious businesses, are gorgeous.

We weren’t really sure what to do in the city, so we spent the first afternoon wandering around and getting our bearings. It was a Saturday so, expectedly, when we got back to the hostel, happy hour was in full swing at the bar. As I had learned from my previous experiences at party hostels: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! We ended up having a jolly good time and met a lot of interesting characters from all over the world…

That night, at about 5 o’clock in the morning, one of those same guys busted into the room, turned on the lights and proceeded to boast to his buddy about his crazy exploits that night, involving sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Actually, he didn’t really say anything about music, but his story did end with getting chased out of a girl’s house— naked— by the girl’s father, and leaving his friend behind, somewhere 45 minutes outside the city. Party hostels can be the worst because you almost always encounter some version of this personality type. Traveling abroad is so much more rewarding when you’re not surrounded by the exact people that give Americans such a bad name!

There are a few “must do” activities in and around La Paz, the most popular of which being extreme mountain biking down the “Deadliest Road in the World.” Thrill-seeking tourists flock to the countless companies offering guided excursions. The so-named Death Road earned its title by claiming a chilling minimum of 100 lives annually (until abnout 2006, I think.) It extends about 70km, from La Paz to Coroico, descending 3600 meters through a range of climates and ecosystems. They recently built a new road to serve as the main highway for cars and trucks, although many still prefer the original route. The single-lane path is ridiculously narrow, with sharp turns and unanticipated obstacles. As if that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, a treacherous drop-off borders the road and, before we even arrived in La Paz, we had heard some gruesome horror stories about injuries and even fatalities on the Death Road. Naturally, we signed up for the next morning.

IMG_0688We started at 4700m in the early morning, fully clad in protective gear and surrounded by ice and snow. It was so cold we even had to wear cloth masks to cover our faces. We looked like a motley crew of gringo bandits! I definitely felt a little shaky and unconfident as I mounted my bike. I’d actually never been mountain biking before, so this was one hell of a first experience to choose!

The road starts out paved, smooth and wide. The cold air burned my eyes as I sailed down the initial descent but within a few minutes, my anxiety melted away and I started to feel one with my bike. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road when all I wanted to do was stare out at the scenery… It was a lot to take in! I felt like a tiny ant in comparison to the giant cliffs and mountains surrounding me. We were told that we’d take breaks every 10-15 minutes so that people could catch up and check in. At the first stop I remember thinking that the ride was a piece of cake so far. That’s when our guide explained to us that the first stretch was the easy part and to buck up cause shit was about to get real.

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Soon after that, we merged onto the real Death Road—a rocky, constricted, twisty mess of a highway. By this time, however, I was feeling invincible and Murray and I both started inching up from the caboose to the front of the pack. I was so impressed by the way our bikes handled the terrain! Every time I was sure I was about to eat it on a rocky patch, I sailed (somewhat) gracefully through.

IMG_0713Each time we stopped for a break I had to shed a layer of clothing, as the further we descended, the hotter it became. It wasn’t long before we were covered in sweat and dirt, Murray and I turned our flame-patterned facemasks into sweatband/doo-rags. The scenery was breathtaking and ever-changing. We cruised from dusty, rock-strewn passes through luscious greenery, miniature towns and even a drug checkpoint, to our final destination in the jungle.

The whole ride down took about five hours. When we arrived at the bottom we got to go to an animal sanctuary for lunch and a much-needed shower. The little reservation was home to myriad free-roaming animals including monkeys, parrots, caimans, turtles and an adorable little raccoon/anteater guy that I can’t remember the name of (pictured.)

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Back at the Wild Rover, it turned out that two of the guys in our room, both named Yoav, were pretty cool and we joined up with them for a night of fun. After dinner we went out in search of live music. Murray and I had been craving an authentic folk scene and had read about Bolivia’s indigenous music peñas. We didn’t want to go to any of the places listed in the guidebooks because we knew they’d be overpriced and full of gringos, so instead we asked a local for a recommendation. When the taxi dropped us off across town in the neighborhood we had requested, we couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical at first. There was hardly a soul on the street, and it didn’t look like any businesses were open. We walked up and down a few streets, straining our ears for a sign. Just when we were considering giving up, we spotted the place: a small, unassuming stone building with steps leading into what could have been a dungeon.

As soon as we walked in, every head spun around and a hundred eyes stared at us in disbelief. We were probably the only white people to ever step foot in the joint. It was pretty packed and there were no open tables, so we had to squeeze in with a large group who clearly were not thrilled to have us there. But the icy tension thankfully didn’t last long! The other patrons were surprisingly open-minded to our presence and I guess we wowed them with our good vibes and positive attitudes. After about thirty minutes and a few rounds of cocktails, the group took the stage, (I use that term loosely… By “stage” I mean the tiny corner of the room jam-packed with myriad instruments and a microphone.) Bolivia is a macho culture, so we were shocked to see that seven of the eight costumed band members were women. They ROCKED! We had such a good time grooving to their lively music and the entire room was feeding off the collective synergy. At one point we were all passing around instruments and contributing—albeit awkwardly—to the sound. We made friends with everyone at our table. Heck, we made friends with everyone in the entire restaurant! When it came time to leave that night we exchanged hugs with almost everyone there!

La Paz is also famous for its Mercado de Las Brujas—Witches’ Market—where you can stroll from shop to shop and buy creepy cosas like llama fetuses, love potions, dried amphibians and voodoo dolls, along with the typical alpaca sweaters, scarves and hammocks. Many of the products and services advertised on this street have religious or spiritual undertones—most of them are positive: good luck charms, spells for a long life, herbs to increase sex drive… However, we also saw some signs for Black Magic, including curses to hurt individual people and evil witchcraft to ruin businesses.

We had to inquire about the ubiquitous llama fetuses, which are sold in every shop and come in many different shapes and sizes. Why would anyone want to purchase such a thing?! Well, the answer is that the llama is considered a sacred animal in traditional Incan history; for centuries, they have been used a for their wool and their meat, but more importantly as sacrifice to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth.) The llama is a highly-respected animal in the Andean culture and many locals believe that if you bury a llama offering under the foundation of your house, you will bring good luck to your family. Apparently, llamas often miscarry, self-abort, or have stillborn babies, so the eerie fetuses are readily-available and relatively common.

We ended our stay in La Paz with one last night of partying at the hostel and by morning we were ready to pack up bus it to Sucre for a change of scenery and some peace and quiet!

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Copacabana, Bolivia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Bolivia | Leave a comment

Let’s hop in the time machine and travel back about seven months… After the Machu Picchu trek and a recovery period in Cusco, Murray and I separated from Meghan and Kyle for a bit to check out Bolivia. Our first stop there, (after a brief stay in Puno and a mini-tour of Lake Titicaca on the Peru side,) was a small beach town called Copacabana—or as Murray called it, “Coco Banana.” It’s a quaint place with one main road that leads straight into the water. Because we were still at high elevation, the sun was strong but the air was chilly.

IMG_0682Much like San Pedro in Guatemala, Copacabana has an artistic appeal that attracts an abundance of pierced and poncho-clad youths who express and sustain themselves by selling homemade wire trinkets and hemp bracelets on the street curbs. Murray and I came up with plenty of theories about the differences between lake towns and ocean towns, and the reasons why places like Copacabana become a Never Never Land of sorts for certain types. One surefire answer is the cost of living: Bolivia is so cheap!! Our jaws all but dropped when we learned the price of our hotel room… $4 per night! Granted, it wasn’t the Ritz, but it was clean, quiet, had two beds and a private bathroom, so we were psyched! The exchange rate, while we were there, was 7:1. To give you an idea of what we were spending, typical meals usually cost us somewhere between $2-3.

IMG_0684One morning we hiked up to the highest point in town for a beautiful panoramic view of the area. Copacabana must thrive in the summertime—all along the shore were docked paddleboats and lines of closed restaurants that, from our vantage point, looked more like game stands at a carnival. Lake Titicaca is enormous and a deep, beautiful blue color. Our tour guide in Peru told us a joke that, because the lake spans between both countries, the “titi” side is in Peru and the “caca” side is in Bolivia, haha!

IMG_0661The next day, Murray and I caught the ferry over to Isla del Sol, an island about thirty minutes away. We had lunch up the hill on a restaurant patio with a gorgeous view across the lake of snow-capped mountains in the distance.

We made some friends in town and enjoyed a night out at one of the local bars, but after a few days in Copacabana we started to feel a bit claustrophobic from the small town environment, noticing that the things we initially found charming were starting to feel creepy. That’s when we decided it was time to hightail it out of there!  We packed up our bags, shedding any and all excess weight, stocked up on snacks from the bodega, and boarded the overnight bus to La Paz..

An Ending and New Beginnings…

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I am officially the last man standing on the Juicebox Journey! (Well, JBJ Part 1, at least. I think it’s safe to say that all three of us have developed some degree of Wanderlust and the next few years will find us on another adventure… But that story will unfold in due time!)

Kyle went back to Delaware in July to be the best man in his brother’s wedding and also focus on his web design business. At this exact moment, however, I think he is somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, driving in an RV with our buddy Jay on a cross-country road trip back to San Diego. Meghan flew to Florida in the beginning of September to audition for Master Chef and put her superior kitchen skills to the test. I am so proud of them for finding their passions and pursuing their interests, but I sure do miss them every day.

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To tell the truth, I had a tough time adapting to life down here without my faithful cohorts. After Meghan left, I cried for two straight days and felt a deep and anxious loneliness. It was impossible to imagine continuing on my own the life we had built together! Throughout the better part of a year, I had been like a sponge, soaking up new information, experiences and emotions without really processing them. Once alone with my thoughts and feelings, everything just felt too heavy to sift through.

We went through a lot together and truly solidified our haphazard little family. Thinking back on our adventures, I have to say that the Juicebox Journey far exceeded any and all of my expectations. We learned so much and grew into better versions of ourselves. I feel endlessly positive about the future, as a result of what this journey has given each of us, respectively.

Last night, as my new roommate was typing away on his laptop, he told me that his Anthropology professors say it’s mandatory to transcribe their field notes the exact same day, so the information is accurate and detailed. I sighed with a deep disappointment in myself… “God dammit,” I thought, “ain’t that the truth?” It has been so long since I’ve transcribed my field notes/blogged about our adventure that the details are fuzzy and the information is scattered.

Anyway, better late than never, right? I honestly don’t understand how people can write memoirs 20+ years after their experiences, though I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment to authors or a testament to my pathetic ability to recall events. So here we go, deep into the depths of my goldfish memory….

World’s Most Dangerous Prison: ‘Lurigancho’ in Lima, Peru

Posted on by Kyle Dukes in Peru | 8 Comments

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After almost eight months into the Juicebox Journey, I finally found something to make me overcome my fear of writing.  I have always been intrigued by the senselessness and corruption that makes up the judicial system we live with in the United States.  Some friends we made while traveling told us about a dangerous prison in Bolivia where prisoners have taken control over the guards and cocaine is manufactured and distributed from behind the prison walls.  I really wanted to go to Bolivia to check it out, however, I fell in love with Peru and didn’t see myself making the journey over to Bolivia any time soon.  A little snooping around online and I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much different here at the prisons in Peru.  I came across this National Geographic documentary, seen here, naming Lurigancho Prison just outside Lima, Peru, as one of the world’s most dangerous prisons.  Fascinated, I set my heart on getting inside the prison.

I searched around online and found a blog that was written by a local Peruvian who had documented his visit to Lurigancho.  In the comments under the blog I found contact information for a lady from New Zealand who was seeking to help Carlos, one of the inmates in the documentary, to get released.  I contacted her and she told me that Carlos had just been released a few months ago after serving an eight-year sentence.  She gave me a link to his Facebook and two days later I had a date inside one of the world’s most dangerous prisons with a convicted criminal I had never met.

Lurigancho holds nearly 10,000 prisoners convicted of crimes including armed robbery, rape, multiple homicide, international drug smuggling, gang affiliation, and the list goes on.  The prison is kept by only 100 guards who hold highly coveted and more importantly, highly profitable jobs.  On any given Sunday, which is visiting day at the prison, Lurigancho sees anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 visitors.  Add 10,000 prisoners to that and you can get an idea for the level of control the guards have.

aerial_luriganchoAll of the visitors I saw inside were local Peruvians visiting family or friends inside.  My initial reaction when Carlos and I arrived at the exterior of the prison was that this is definitely no tourist attraction.  The streets outside the prison are lined with vendors hawking sandals and white clothes as no dark colored clothes or shoes with laces are allowed inside.  The line of people waiting to get in the prison reminded me of the line outside of a massive concert hall with people as far as the eye could see.  Less than a minute after renting our sandals, Carlos and I were approached by a teenager claiming he could get us to the front of the line for five soles, about two dollars.  I quickly took him up on the offer since Carlos had mentioned it may take us several hours to get in and several hours to get back out.  The kid held true to his word and less than five minutes later I was face to face with my first guard who explained that since my sixty-day tourist visa had expired, I wouldn’t be allowed in.  Carlos nodded his head to give the guy some money.  I gave him two soles, about 80 cents, and he smiled at me and waved me through to the next guard.  We shuffled our way through a sea of guards lined up at the entrance, each holding an open hand tight to their waist line as if no one was noticing that they were soliciting bribes.  Each one smiled after receiving their cut and waved us on to the next guard.  About twenty soles and ten guards later, we were officially inside the prison gates where few guards dared to go.  As we came into the first open courtyard of the prison we were greeted by thousands of screaming, pointing, gawking prisoners grabbing the prison fences.  I took a deep breath, stared straight ahead avoiding eye contact, and had to collect myself for a moment before fighting through the crowd.  Being the only white person in the whole place, I felt the looks piercing through my skin and going straight to my stomach.  Carlos kept looking over is shoulder checking to make sure I was right behind him and I kept looking over my shoulder to see who was grabbing my arm or tugging at my shirt.

A police officer escorts inmates inside Lurigancho prison in LimaA few minutes later we arrived at his old pavilion, one of twenty one pavilions in the whole prison compound.  Each pavilion houses about 500 prisoners and is ruled by an inmate who has inherited the position by demonstrating his gang affiliation, violent capabilities, money, and connections inside the prison.  We weaved through a maze of hallways, fences and locked gates to get to Felipe’s room.  Felipe runs the pavilion where Carlos used to live.  Felipe is a muscular, stocky Peruvian with a shaved head and skin I noticed was free of scars, unlike the other prisoners who were marked head to toe with bullet wounds and knife marks.  He was wearing only his underwear and standing on his bed.  When he saw us he started screaming with joy and jumped down to give us a big group hug.   He threw candy and chocolates at us from a bag full of treats.  He put on some workout clothes and laced up a brand new pair of Nike Air Max’s.  He pulled out his cell phone and asked Carlos to help him adjust the settings since his internet service hadn’t been working properly.  Inside Lurigancho, if you have money, you live like a king.  Prisoners with money wear nice clothes, have cell phones, eat good food, do good drugs, drink lots of booze, etc.  If you have no family, friends or gang members to bring you money, then you steal food or fight for the limited supply of food inside.  Felipe’s room had its own shower, toilet, a radio and a small television.  It took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t seen a single jail cell anywhere and I never did see one inside Lurigancho.  There are no lock down times.  Everyone is free to roam as they please all day and all night.  Felipe took us to the restaurant hall where there are about 20 restaurants and food stands lined up.  We grabbed a table and were quickly served chicha, a traditional Peruvian drink, and pollo seco, which was a massive plate of chicken and rice.  Above us were several floors of housing for prisoners in for international crimes.  I could sense the word was spreading that a white guy was there because I could see little doors popping open on the floors above us and prisoners leaning over the railing staring at me.  I kept my head down and stuffed myself with some of the best rice and chicken I have experienced in all of Peru.

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A massive black man was making grilled ham and cheese on a George Foreman grill right next to our table.  He stared at me for a while, then came over to shake my hand.  That was by far the biggest hand I have ever shaken.  His fingers seemed like they were the size of my wrists.  He said he was from the Bahamas and in for a murder he committed while in Peru.  I didn’t ask any more questions.  A white guy from South Africa came over and we had a little moment because he spoke English.  He came to Peru with a brilliantly crafted plan to take a kilo of cocaine back to South Africa in capsules.  He told me the story of how he picked up the drugs and took them back to his hotel room.  Two hours later, Peruvian police kicked in the door of his hotel room and he’s been in Lurigancho for six years, five more to go.  Felipe ordered a hot tea and a round of ham and cheese sandwiches for all three of us.  I was absolutely stuffed but I forced it down.  The bill for the food came and I think it was around thirty soles.  I anticipated I would be buying and was fine with that.  Felipe grabbed the bill and shook his head no, refusing my multiple attempts to pay.

We fought our way through seemingly endless crowds of prisoners.  Prisoners would come running across the courtyard towards me begging for money or trying to sell me anything from apple pie to alcohol and drugs.  When they saw that I was with Felipe, they quickly withdrew their offer and just walked away.  We toured the ceramic market inside the prison where they make some really creative ceramics of animals and Peruvian warrior figures.  Healthy looking cats, dogs, roosters and rabbits ran wild all over the prison.  Flat screen TV’s were mounted on the walls of nearly every common area inside.  We hung out and watched guys play soccer on one of several soccer fields inside.  I grew comfortable with the fact that at any given moment there were several hundred guys with face tattoos and knife wounds staring at me. The sweat on my palms finally dried as we wandered though a literal maze of prison walls.  Carlos asked if I wanted to see the disco.  He took us to a dark room with green laser lights bouncing off every wall, reggaeton music blasting, and about fifty drunk guys standing around staring at each other.  We smiled and laughed for about ten seconds and left.

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Felipe took us to another restaurant and people came by our table greeting him like he was the Mother Theresa of Lurigancho.  Felipe kept a notepad with a list of names on it and numbers beside them making sure each one of his cronies got food for lunch and notating how much they owed him, either in money or services.  Soon after sitting down we all had a massive plate of beef and rice in front of us.  I was thankful for the food but literally couldn’t force anything else down.  I passed my plate off to this guy who had been staring me down for a good twenty minutes in hopes to make amends.  He was covered from head to toe in terrible tattoos and had what I would estimate to be at least fifteen knife scars on each bicep.  We soon became chatty with each other and he was quite intrigued with me and why I came to Lurigancho.  Within a few minutes we were talking, all in Spanish, and cracking jokes about the differences between prison in the USA and Peru.  I turned around to find a giant plate of ceviche and a huge pot of seafood soup in front of us.  The ceviche was honestly the best I have had in all of Peru, the ceviche capital of the world.  Once again, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything.  Felipe gave me the “thanks but no thanks” look when I offered money.  He asked if I had Facebook and quickly sent me a friend request.  He instructed me to look for him on Facebook when I got home, he would be the guy with the default picture of the guy holding a machine gun.  I checked him out later when I got home and sure enough, there he is “Skareface” as he is listed on Facebook.  Peruvians are obsessed with Scarface and spell it like that for some reason.  We wrapped up our lunch session, I bought some bracelets and we said our goodbyes.  I promised a prisoner who said he had family in Connecticut that I would call them and send them some small things from Peru for him.  He wrote down their contact info and gave it to me.  I felt myself hesitating to leave a little.  There were a lot of random beggars pleading for me to give them anything or buy their drugs, but for the most part all the guys I met and hung out with didn’t ask for anything.  They said I could come back anytime and I was safe with them.  I think someday I will.

Getting out was a process much like getting in.  Guards lined up one after another, hands placed strategically at their waist line ready to receive payment for front of line privileges.  Drunk visitors spilled out from the prison gates stumbling into the waiting area where thousands were cheering, screaming and aggressively trying to work a deal to get out the fastest way possible.  The normal process for leaving the prison takes about three hours or more.  We bribed a guard and got to the front of the line.  It still took two hours to get out.  Leaving there was a feeling I will never forget.  There were so many thoughts running through my head, but an inability to manage them at the same time.  I took a big breath of relief as Carlos looked at me and asked what I thought of Lurigancho.  I just shook my head and said, “crazy man”….

Lake Titicaca, Peru

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Peru | Comments Off on Lake Titicaca, Peru

My friend from San Francisco, Brian, visited Machu Picchu a few days after we did, so we got to meet up with him in Cusco when he finished. His trip got off to a rocky start—the airline lost his bags so he had to skip a couple days of his intended trek. Despite some major frustration everything worked out pretty well and they had a great time on their trip. Fortunately for their group, the weather was beautiful on the day they visited the ruins. I was very jealous of his photos—it was so clear you could see everything!!

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Murray and I split off from Meghan and Kyle to travel south with Brian, his girlfriend and his buddy to Lake Titicaca. We decided to take a fancy bus tour in order to split up the long day and see some interesting landmarks on the way down.

The first place we stopped was the Andahuaylilas Church. This church is known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas because of its extravagant décor and intricate paintings. Apparently the Spanish colonists built the church over an Inca Temple, which is evident by the seamless stonework on the floors and  base of the walls. The Spanish wanted to make the church especially fancy and beautiful in order to attract the locals and eventually convert them to Christianity.  The Spaniards were tricky—throughout the church, they incorporated Inca symbols like the sun and the Chakana to lure in the locals. The inside of the church was painted by an unnamed Pervuian man who was trained by an Italian artist—the Spanish wanted to decorate the church in true Renaissance style.

IMG_6513Our next stop was a traditional Inca village, which was once the site of a great temple. The only thing left of the massive building today are the ruins of the giant supporting walls. The doors to the temple were built in a trapezoidal shape to signify strength and balance—representative of standing with your legs hip-distance apart rather than with your feet together.

We finally arrived at our destination of Puno, Peru. There isn’t too much going on in the town… Aside from the lively hole in the wall bar we found called The Positive. The place is completely black-lit and plays a variety of random music videos we rocked out to all night long.

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In the morning we got up early for our Lake Titicaca boat trip.  This two-day tour showed us more of the lake than we would have otherwise been able to explore on our own and was super informative.

The guide first took us to a floating island. Seriously: a floating island! This island is man-made by perpetually stacking reeds on top of each other. When we first stepped off the boat the ground felt like a waterbed beneath our feet. There are five families that live on this tiny island and the children get picked up by boat each weekday morning to attend a school located on another floating island! The local women sang us a traditional song right before we left to thank us for our visit.

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Next we went to Isla Amantani, where we had a homestay organized with a local family. There are 4,000 people that live on this island and there are no police or dogs anywhere. The citizens abide by their three laws: Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy. Everyone works to contribute and respects one another. It’s an incredibly peaceful society—there is no violence, crime or theft anywhere.

On Isla Amantani, we hiked the Mount Pachatata and visited the Temple of the Moon. According to local legend, you’re supposed to find four small stones on the hike up and carry them with you to the top. With your rocks in hand you walk around the outside of the temple three times, placing one pebble at each corner. The four rocks are meant to represent work, health, wisdom and love. We performed this ritual and took time to meditate on what we hope for in each category.

IMG_0598We ate a wonderful dinner prepared by our host family, Blanca, Daniel and Jenny. After dinner they dressed us up in all their traditional clothing and we went to a party at the village hall!

The next morning we boarded our boat again and cruised out to Taquile Island. On this island there are no cars, horses or donkeys. Taquile is on a big mountain, so everything the locals build has to be carried up by manpower alone.  There is also no pollution on the island—between the clean air and the altitude it almost hurt to breathe!

The people on Taquile Island never leave, but we noticed several houses had satellite dishes affixed to the roofs. Murray and I speculated on how strange it would be to live such a simple life so far removed from modern society, yet watch cable TV. What must they think of the rest of the world?! Hopefully they aren’t watching Real Housewives or the Jersey Shore… Or even the news for that matter!

IMG_0607Over lunch we got a presentation on local textiles—on Taquile Island they produce two main items: belts and hats, but they aren’t ordinary by any means! The belts are woven out of both human hair and sheep hair. They are designed in white and brown stripes (the brown being human and the white being sheep hair.) The belts are made for the men by their wives and are supposed to be incredibly strong… Strong enough to hold in the mens’ stomachs while they work in the fields! The women are sure to collect any stray hairs that are shed around their homes for this exact purpose… They would have had a field day at my old apartment– or anywhere I go for that matter!

The hats are all for men and have different significances. Typically white means the man is single, red means he is married and black denotes an authority figure. The running joke in town is that white is the color of happiness and red sadness. Single people will meet each other at parties or social events and if a young man finds a girl he is interested in they live together for three years while their parents train them for married life. This is important because sometimes they get along and sometimes they don’t. During this live-in period, the man wears his white hat flipped to the right to show that he is in a relationship. If it works out the couple gets married and the man has to start working (and wearing a red hat.) If it doesn’t work out, the man flips his hat back to the left side and tries again!.

Cusco, Peru (2)

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When we got back to Cusco after the Ayahuasca ceremony, Murray had already secured our apartment—she went straight back to the city after the Machu Picchu trek and met up with the owner of a place we found on airbnb. It was adorable! Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, fully equipped kitchen, living room with cable TV, 24/7 security, etc. (for $45/night.) It even had a jacuzzi that we never ended up using.

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We all definitely needed some time to decompress after two massive experiences: the Salkantay Trek and the Ayahuasca ritual. It felt especially comforting to have a home in which we could settle down for a week, cooking, reading, writing and relaxing. It was also great to know we had extra time to explore the city of Cusco as there was so much more to see and do there!

Qorikancha was once the most important temple in all Inca civilization. In Quechua, “qori” means gold and “kancha” means enclosure. This building, now considered the city’s Temple of the Sun, was once covered in gold—walls, ceilings, floors—and had a courtyard full of gold statues.

When the Spanish colonists came to Cusco, they stripped the temple of its gold and built the Santo Domingo church over its ruins. The difference between Inca and Spanish stonework and masonry is blatant:

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Murray and I took a nice tour of the temple, which is still beautiful today due mainly to its strong base. You have to use your imagination to picture what it was like back then, but its easy to appreciate the history and culture behind the building!

Another Cusco hot spot we enjoyed was the Centro Mercado Artesenal. This indoor market is teeming with vivid textiles and traditional crafts. We spent hours wandering through the lanes, considering the variety of sweaters, purses, headbands, slippers and trinkets in each stall. It was hard not to go crazy and buy everything, but I managed to get out of there with just a few gifts for my family (and maybe one or two things for myself!)

IMG_0446One morning, Murray, Kyle, Meghan and I got the itch to go horseback riding. We hiked up 500 steps to Saqsayhuaman and found a boy who would rent us four horses for 20 soles each (about $8.) We had such a nice time riding through the fields and forests!

Other than that we spent the remainder of our time in Cusco wandering around and chilling out at the apartment. We found a hidden gem of a restaurant called Roma Mia, where we celebrated Meghan and Jason’s birthdays our first night back in town. The food was delicious and Kyle went so far as to say that it was the best meal he’d ever had in his life! The chef is Italian and when we started ordering from him it turned into a full-on shouting match while we collaborated on off-menu items. We ended up going back to Roma Mia several times over that week and he and Kyle became close friends!

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In our search for a live music venue one night we came across another local joint: 7 Angelitos. Murray, Meghan and I arrived way too early for the night scene (probably around 8PM,) but decided to chill at the bar and wait it out. We ordered a round of mojitos, which the club is supposed to be famous for, but they were sickeningly sweet so we switched to beers. After a while the place filled up and we were able to get a table right in front of the makeshift stage. The band rocked! They played a mix of local folk music, pop, reggae and rock. At one point, the lead singer picked Murray’s glass off the table and played his guitar with it, then took a huge sip before slamming it back down—it was awesome!

We all felt very at home in the city (despite the cold,) and I honestly hope to return one day. There is so much bright culture and interesting history! The people are welcoming and there is always something to do. Cusco will always hold a special place in my heart..

Ayahuasca

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Ayahuasca is a medicinal brew that has long been used by Amazonian tribes for divinatory and healing practices. It mainly has to do with philosophical and astronomical virtues; the medicine, containing psychoactive infusions, is administered by a shaman in some places today and is meant to help people open up their minds and connect with their souls. Individuals often take Ayahuasca to meet and conquer their fears, objectively view their pasts and/or envision their futures.

In order to prepare for our Ayahuasca ceremony, we were told to avoid salt, spice, processed food, caffeine and fat to cleanse our systems—we had to begin fasting at 2PM the day we finished our Machu Picchu trek so we could participate in the indigenous ritual that night.

Greg the Shaman met us at the train station to take us back to his home and spiritual center in Urubamba. We were instinctively mortified to be in such close quarters with him because we REEKED after the intense four-day trek. He passed us some scented oil to rub on our palms and necks to prepare for the ceremony… Or so he said. It was most likely a gentle attempt to cover our stench.

When we arrived at his property (in the middle of nowhere, Peru,) well after dark, we walked up a dirt path and crossed a tiny stream, following the soft music and warm light coming from within the compound.

Before the ceremony actually started, we participated in a cleansing ritual. Greg has a homemade sweat lodge teepee set up in the yard. We were instructed to take off as much clothing as we were comfortable with and head in. When I first climbed in it was so smoky I couldn’t see or breathe and I thought I was going to have to evacuate immediately. I could see that as each person climbed in behind me everyone had the same exact reaction. We had to squeeze ten people into a space that was probably meant for four—around a smoking fire pit no less! Someone said not to worry and that it would get better, but as I looked around I could tell we were all having individual mini panic attacks. Finally Greg entered the teepee, sprinkled some herbs and spices over the fire to make it smell nice, and then sprayed it with water to create steam instead of smoke.

We sat there in the pitch black, fighting for air and sweating all over each other. The whole point of the sweat lodge was to cleanse and relax ourselves, but the entire time I was thinking about how badly I wanted to get out of there.

When we ultimately were invited to exit the teepee, we bounded out like bats from hell and were met with a bucket of cold water poured over our heads. We took quick hot showers and then changed into comfortable clothes.

The simple building on the property that serves as Greg’s spiritual center is bordered along the inside walls with mattresses. There were two tables set up in the center of the room covered in crystals, candles and other sacred objects.  We each got two blankets, a plastic bucket and a roll of toilet paper.

We started off with some yoga poses for balance and clarity before doing a few sound circles, chanting “ohm” all together to cause a strong vibration in the room. Greg performed traditional Inca prayers and chants and then came around to each of us and performed rituals to ready our individual spirits. He then gave us each a cup of the Ayahuasca drink, which tasted like thick, bitter coffee juice. By this point we were down to just one candle, but he soon blew it out and we sat in silence and blackness on our mattress pads before floating away into our own worlds.

I think it’s really important to note that going into this experience we had already learned a lot about Inca history and the traditional spiritual beliefs. As I wrote in the Machu Picchu blog, the legend of the snake, puma and condor is central to Peruvian culture. It’s good to have this knowledge going into an Ayahuasca experience because a lot of the visions and feelings that arise have to do with such beliefs.

Ayahuasca is a purifying drink and is meant to make you purge (which explains the plastic buckets and toilet paper.) Soon after the first drink I could hear the sound of people vomiting over Greg’s songs and chants. He played the mouth harp, didgeridoo and bongo drums throughout the night, to name a few instruments. His wife came around to each of us and rubbed scented oil in our hair and on our necks and faces. She spoke to us in Spanish about the importance of living in love, giving to others and pursuing our passions.

After about an hour Greg offered us all another cup of the Ayahuasca, which we eagerly accepted. We each went on our own spiritual journeys and I believe the experience was fulfilling for one and all—we definitely had a lot to meditate on during and after the ceremony.

The effects lasted until about 3 or 4AM when everyone started fading into sleep. In the morning, Greg and his wife presented us with a delicious breakfast spread—fresh fruit, croissants, guacamole, tea—and we ate like pigs because we were famished!

We shared our visions and experiences and offered one another insight into the meanings of our hallucinations and dreams. It was wonderful to share the event with such loving and trusting friends. Ayahuasca was definitely an incredible once in a lifetime experience for us!.

Machu Picchu & the Salkantay Trek

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…And so the adventure begins!

We had organized our Machu Picchu expedition many moons ago via a ferocious ongoing online conversation. After much debate, we decided to go with the Salkantay Trek, recommended to us by several other travelers as well as convincing online reviews. The selling points were that the trail was more demanding and less peopled than the classical Inca Trail. Our group, composed of tough and adventurous individuals, welcomed the challenge with open arms.

The night before we were due to depart on the hike we had an orientation scheduled with our tour guide. We hurried home from our field trip with Greg the Shaman and made it back in time to be briefed on what to expect for the next four days over a “carbo-loading” pasta dinner at the hostel.

Jimmy Jhon, our seemingly reluctant tour guide, was sweet but timid in his introduction—which was basically a list of what was “not included” in our tour. He made it clear that of course he would be our reliable trail guide, but hoped to be, first and foremost, our friend—an idea he incorporated in almost every sentence: “And so my friends…”

JJ passed out maps and explained our route, noting that we would be hiking on average 7 hours each day. He named our group the “Sexy Llamas”—a title I’m sure he uses for all his tours, though I’m also sure none rock it as fervently as we did! He let us know that there would be horses carrying up to 8 kilos per person, including our sleeping bags and mattress pads, and that we had two cooks coming with us to prepare all our meals. Those two aspects were our luxuries—the rest of the trek would be pretty rugged but beyond gratifying.

Day One:

5:00AM wake up call… Let’s do this! We were all geared up and ready to go, notwithstanding our puffy eyes and inability to converse with one another (sleep still had its hold on us at that ungodly hour.)  After a nap on the quick drive to our starting point, we all bounced back to our spritely selves and excitedly gulped down the tar-flavored instant coffee we purchased at a ramshackle cafe nearby.

IMG_0316We were just getting started on the walk up a hill to the trail when Jimmy Jhon stopped us to point out a cactus on the side of the road. He told us that the seeds inside the cactus’s flower were used as a natural remedy for indigestion and that there was something else on the plant that could be used for dye and face paint. JJ scraped the white barnacles from the cactus and then went around the circle, mixing the concoction in his palm and drawing tribal stripes on our faces. Halfway through the circle we realized he was actually squashing bugs and smearing their blood on us. Regardless of my initial impulse to be disgusted, the bug gut war paint looked badass it felt right!

We were expecting the weather to be cold, so were all defensively dressed in pants and long sleeve shirts; but the sun shone mercilessly, bombarding us with heat and strong rays. Insect blood mixed with sweat dripped down into our eyes and mouths. None of us was as uncomfortable as Jason, dressed in black snow pants and furiously overheating. The horses were way ahead of us, so there was no option to change clothes. Instead, his only choice was to tie his side-snap pants up like a diaper, cut off a shirtsleeve to use as a sweatband and put on a happy face. As we learned the night before, “a positive attitude is also not included.”

IMG_1375Most of Day 1 consisted of set trails, but every once in a while JJ would veer off track and lead us up makeshift shortcuts—which were typically straight uphill and left us gasping for air. At the top of one such shortcut we were rewarded with a dazzling view of Salkantay Mountain, snowy and stoic in the distance. Our first glimpse of the sparkling peak was energizing and inspiring!

There was a wooden shack with water bottles, coca leaves and other hiker necessities for sale. JJ convinced us to buy natural energy balls, which looked like lumps of charcoal and didn’t taste too far off either. You’re supposed to pinch off a tiny bit and wrap it in coca leaves which you chew and tuck up in the pocket of your gums. Skoty got overexcited and bought five, which I imagine is a lifetime supply. We all joked that they were probably balled up cow turds or something suspicious that tourists like us were suckered into purchasing and eating.

IMG_0364This is where we met our first canine companion, Benji, a scraggly old pup. For the remainder of the day he thoughtfully trotted ahead of us, intuitively leading the way. He would calmly wait for us to catch up or would sprint back to check on the group if there was any distance between us hikers. At some point in the day Benji passed the baton to Consuela, and she stayed with us all the way to our camp for the night.

After a delicious meal and a siesta we set out again and hiked for hours and hours. We were all under the impression that the day would be about 7-8 hours, but as the sun set behind the mountains we started to get nervous. We had to trek in the dark over giant unstable rocks, through rivers, and over rickety bridges for what seemed like an eternity.

Baby Erica was feeling really sick. In a moment of true relaxation the night before, she swallowed a few mouthfuls of Peruvian shower water, and Montezuma’s Revenge was setting in full-force. She couldn’t eat anything at lunch and took a strong lead in the Sexy Llama Trail Poop competition. Poor Baby Erica was hanging on by a thread, severely dehydrated, nauseous and without having eaten all day.

We finally arrived, cold, wet, exhausted and otherwise pissed off. I honestly wanted to punch Jimmy Jhon in the face. We decompressed quickly in our tents and Murray fed me chocolate cookies until I no longer felt like I was going to cry.

After dinner we all laid on the ground together and looked up at the sky. I have never in my life seen the stars so clearly—it was one of the most beautiful sights I could imagine. The Milky Way was a giant brushstroke of silver along the navy canvas. The glittery stars formed well-defined constellations and we made wishes on those we caught breaking free from their stationary posts. We were able to recognize many of the obvious patterns, like Orion’s Belt and the Dippers, and JJ taught us about traditional Inca constellations like the llama and the frog. We even made up some of our own, playing connect the dots in the sky. What a wonderful way to conclude our first triumph!

Day Two:

We woke up before the sun and grumpily discovered all our shoes and socks were still wet. We knew from our orientation that Day 2 would be the most challenging, so any unnecessary setbacks were unwelcome. I had an even more disappointing surprise in store: major blisters! I suppose I didn’t do a good job of breaking in my new sneakers, and I was paying the price for it dearly. Baby Erica, still in recovery-mode from the tap water fiasco, hired a horse to ride up to the top and I think more than a few people were slightly envious.

IMG_6378We set out in the opaque fog and within ten minutes were hiking up a steep incline. Chris and Jason took off like pack mules while the rest of us climbed at a slow and steady pace. This was by far the most difficult part of the trek. Halfway to the top my lungs were working overtime and the altitude made me feel like I was on the verge of fainting. I honestly didn’t know if Skoty was going to make it. I kept pace with Kyle who was doing an amazing job of setting small goals. He’d say, “see that rock up there? Let’s just get to that spot and then we can take a 30 second break.” If I tried to think beyond his landmarks I would have wanted to throw in the towel!

We climbed up that damn mountain through rain and sleet—pebbles of hail attacked from above and bounced off our hooded heads. Even though it was tough we were having a great time pushing ourselves and supporting one another. The camaraderie, paired with the feeling of triumph and the indescribable view from the top, made Day 2 unforgettable.

IMG_0335We summited at 4600 meters—higher than any of us had ever been—right up against Salkantay. The mountain was almost too powerful to take in with human eyes, and photos couldn’t even come close to capturing its greatness. Despite our fatigue and the cold, we were revitalized!

Jimmy Jhon led us through a ritual offering to Pachamama and a traditional Inca ceremony in which we released all the skeletons in our closets (a lot with this group I’m sure!)

The rest of the day was downhill, which was much appreciated but not necessarily easy. The scenery was beautiful because the afternoon took us through many different landscapes. At first the countryside looked like it was from Lord of the Rings—green everywhere with a heavy looming mist and boulders strewn about haphazardly. There were sporadic wild horses and cows that couldn’t be bothered with us. After a couple hours the ground transformed under our feet and turned to mud so thick and deep it felt like quicksand. We learned to love our walking sticks!

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The sun was starting to dip below the looming peaks, so we prepared to buckle down and power through to our campsite. Just when we figured we had a couple more hours to go, Jimmy Jhon and Jason surprised us with a trick they’d been planning all day—we had actually arrived! We absolutely killed it on Day 2, trekking much faster than expected and really pulling through on the hardest part of the hike.

We were all in high spirits so we decided to build a campfire. Unfortunately the wood we purchased from the locals was damp, so it was a constant battle to keep it going. We huddled together around the smoky pit and laughed uncontrollably as Jimmy Jhon told us some of the worst jokes of all time.

Day Three:

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In the morning we had the option of hitching a ride to the non-touristy hot springs near Santa Theresa. Apparently the pools at Aguas Calientes are crowded and dirty, so JJ didn’t think we would enjoy them as much. We had to pile all together in one rundown pickup truck. I still don’t understand how we all crammed in there… The four of us girls squeezed into the backseat behind the driver and our cooks. Jimmy Jhon and the boys, along with all our gear, had to sit together in the bed of the truck. We drove down narrow windy roads, dodging cows and cliffs—but eventually we made it!

The drive was totally worth it—when we arrived there were less than ten people and the hot springs were fantastic! There were three giant pools and the warm water felt soothing on our sore muscles. We got to relax there for a few hours before trekking out to our next campsite—the famous town of Aguas Calientes.

Day 3 was our chance to hike on the classical Inca trail, which in my opinion was pretty weak compared to the Salkantay Trek. We were basically just walking along gravel next to a train track, with countless other tourists surrounding us. We hardly saw another soul on the Salkantay Trek, so the Inca Trail felt claustrophobic and invasive.

Aguas Calientes is comparable to a ski town—a likeness we all observed separately. There are lots of shops and restaurants, many tourists. We arrived at night and didn’t have much time there, but we could actually feel the magnitude of the mountains surrounding the village.

Day Four:

IMG_0390Finally, our Machu Picchu day had arrived! We woke up at 3:30AM in order to be the first people there. The weather was miserable—cold and rainy—and it was so foggy we couldn’t even see the sunrise, which was the whole point of going so early! The dark gray sky just suddenly changed to bright gray in a supremely anticlimactic fashion. Regardless, it was amazing to be the first people inside. We had a beautiful view of the ancient city without a bunch of tourists peppering the panorama.

Machu Picchu is absolutely amazing! It’s incredible to think that it was built so skillfully such a long time ago. Much like the meticulous city planning and architecture of Cusco, everything is well thought out and constructed with specific intentions in mind; each angle has meaning, every stone placed perfectly. JJ gave us a thorough tour of many different areas including the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Condor, Temple of the Virgins. He showed us where the priests sacrificed women and llamas to Pachamama and the Espejos de Agua (water mirrors) where the people stargazes and searched the reflection of the constellations.

We boarded the 16:22 train from Aguas Calientes feeling fulfilled and inspired, albeit exhausted. The ride back was beautiful and I tried to fight impending sleep and keep my eyes open so I could continue looking out the window at the scenery.

The trek was a great success and I feel so lucky to have shared such a rewarding experience with the Sexy Llamas!.

Cusco, Peru (1)

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I fumbled my way through the Bogota airport at four o’clock in the morning (after a night out at Theatron) on my way to Lima, Peru. I was meeting Murray, my best friend from college, before everyone else flew in to meet up for our anxiously anticipated Peruvian adventure. Despite feeling groggy and exasperated, it was a happy reunion—she had come to join our Machu Picchu trek and the Juicebox Journey!

The flight to Cusco was a piece of cake and there was a car waiting for us when we arrived. It’s so much fun to see a dapper fellow holding a sign with your name on it when emerging from the chaos of baggage claim in a foreign country.

IMG_6358We had some time to explore Cusco before the others arrived, so we went to the main square, Plaza de Armas, to walk around and grab lunch. The Plaza is nestled at the base of rolling green mountains and flaunts picturesque ancient cathedrals. The town of Cusco is full of tourists on their way to or from Machu Picchu, so the many local businesses cater to that market—Plaza de Armas is loaded with multiethnic restaurants, souvenir shops and tour company offices.

After scouring Bogota for gay-friendly hot spots with Mark and Richard, my eyes lit up when I saw a giant rainbow flag waving above one of the main buildings downtown. Apparently Cusco’s official flag is a seven-striped rainbow design, the sight of which on buildings and bumper stickers reminded me of my hometown, San Francisco— although the Incan version takes on a completely different meaning.

IMG_0144Once Kyle and Meghan got settled into their hotel we all met up for dinner at some random joint by the Plaza and we were pleasantly surprised by a performance from an authentic Peruvian three-man band with tunes so lively we unquestioningly bought their ridiculously overpriced CD. The main guy was enthusiastically playing the guitar and vocals, another man played both the ukulele and the pan flute and the last guy kept the beat on a drum with his foot while playing guitar. They had one song, Pachamama, (which we learned means Mother Earth,) which got stuck in our heads for days. Even though the food was terrible we went back to the restaurant several times, bringing more friends and newfound fans with us to indulge in the vivacious music. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself bopping along to one of their jazzy tracks in the future if you’re ever hanging out with one of us…

The textiles and style in Peru are especially alluring, and once the rest of our crew arrived (Kyle and Meghan, the Sells, Skoty and Chris,) we did some major damage on the shopping front. There are tons of street markets and stalls throughout Cusco selling beautiful Peruvian sweaters, scarves and gloves made of brightly dyed alpaca wool. Each piece, although aesthetically similar, is a little bit different. The intricacies are beautiful and we loaded up on cold weather accessories for the trek as well as gifts for friends and family back home.

The locals in Cusco have such incredible fashion sense—and I don’t think they realize it! Instead of stressing over coordinating their outfits or wearing the latest trends, the men, women and children don traditional pieces that are individually stunning and look surprisingly attractive as a whole. For example—a fuchsia top embroidered with multicolored flowers, an olive knee-length skirt and black leg warmers over hiking boots. Sounds strange but looks gorgeous!!

IMG_6255The day after everyone got to town, we went for a hiking tour with the shaman, Greg. He met us early in the morning and led us through the city, giving us information on the landmarks and legends of Cusco. We were all able to feel the energy of the area. In Quechua, the traditional language in Peru, “Cusco” means navel—the city was named so because it was believed to be the center of the universe, the birthplace of men and the navel of the world.

Greg the Shaman also taught us a lot about Inca spiritual beliefs, which were fascinating. This is where we first learned about the Chakana, as well as the legend of the snake, puma and condor in Incan culture.

chakanaThe Chakana, or the Andean Cross, is a central symbol in Inca spirituality and is still ubiquitous in Peru today. Every step, point and axis of the cross has a specific meaning. It represents the phases of life, the levels of existence, the elements and directions. It also characterizes the snake, puma, and condor, representing the underworld, the middle world and the upper world, respectively.

We climbed about 500 steps to get up to Saqsayhuaman, an Incan archeological park abounding with llamas and sacred ruins. Greg led us through several prayer and meditation ceremonies in antiquated temples while we hiked through the breathtaking scenery. We had to get back to the hostel by nightfall for our Machu Picchu orientation, but the day’s journey prepped us for what was to come..