Beautiful Colca Canyon’s of South America

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Peru was the first stop of my first trip to Latin America, so I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I got there. Through osmosis I’d heard about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, as well as that Lima was among the least impressive of all South American capitals.

It wasn’t until I got on the ground, however, that I began to develop an understanding of what makes Peru stand out as a destination, something I believe is due in large part to my not having had a set itinerary — nor, to a large extent, a fucking clue — upon arrival. Many tourists arrive on holiday knowing or at least assuming they know what to expect; I just knew that I was in Peru.

Over a month after my return to the United States I was speaking with my friend Felipe, a Latin American studies scholar from Brazil I first met in Amsterdam last October before seeing him again in Rio this past April. According to one theory, he explained, Latin America can be broadly classified into three groups: new peoples; transplanted peoples; and witness peoples.

Peruvians fall in to the latter category, which are peoples regarded as “the heirs of ancient civilizations” who bore witness to and endured colonization by Europeans without succumbing to them. The two weeks I spent in Peru provided me with a beautiful illustration of exactly how the country and its people fit into the complex and sometimes complicated culture of today’s Latin America.

5472009029 75a9798c0a Peru: The Witnesses

My flight was to arrive in Lima just before midnight, so I went against my usual rule of not booking in advance and booked a night at the Loki Hostel, in the city’s Miraflores neighborhood. Located on a high cliff overlooking the Pacific in the southwesternmost part of Lima, Miraflores is at once cosmopolitan and provincial. As Lima goes, Miraflores is without a doubt the “hippest” part of town, its streets and avenues home to colorful buildings with bougainvillea vines spilling off them, restaurants serving a combination of local and international specialties and a grand, dramatic view of the ocean as it breaks on the black rock beaches below.

5472015905 a40f0ab9d9 Peru: The Witnesses

Miraflores is to Lima as Bellavista is to Santiago, Palermo is to Buenos Aires and Avenida Paulistia is to São Paulo: the “cool” (and therefore safe) alternative to the city’s “downtown” area. It was in Lima that I was first advised to stay away from Latin American downtowns whenever I could, at least after nightfall. I took said advice so I can’t comment on what central Lima is like at night, but my experience there during the day was anything but scary. I initially arrived with the intent of meeting a local friend for a tour of the city’s cathedral and catacumbas, which date back to the arrival of the Spanish colonists. Thankfully, some entertainment was on hand to distract me the Catholicism.

5480101432 00b18b2f32 Peru: The Witnesses

After a few days in Lima I hopped on a bus bound for Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. The journey to Arequipa was a deceiving one: After falling asleep on the night bus shortly after its arrival, I awoke just as the bus had begun traversing an ever-dramatic series of parched sand cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Eventually, desert beaches gave way to pure desert and before I knew it, signs of civilization began to pop up again. I won’t go so far as to say I disliked the city of Arequipa, but I found it rather bland — and fittingly so, given its being nicknamed “The White City” — when compared to the road that led to it. Its central plaza also paled in comparison to Lima’s, lack of color and otherwise.

5486443575 c5e8dee947 Peru: The Witnesses

Before I left Lima I’d tried to get at least a vague idea of what I’d do with the rest of my time in Peru. One of the bartenders I spoke with at Loki advised me to take an excursion to the Colca Canyon, located about three hours away from Arequipa by bus. I only wanted to do a one-day tour of the area, however, so this long transit time translated into a 3 A.M. wakeup. Thankfully, the Colca Canyon proved to be very worth rising so early. After ascending rapidly into the Andes and enjoying a breathtaking sunrise over a high, ice-covered plateau — as well as my first bout of altitude sickness — the bus drove into the Colca Valley via the city of Yanque. I know it’s cliché to invoke going back in time, but that was truly how I felt when I was overlooking the Colca River from more than 10,000 feet and spending a few minutes with some locals girls and their beloved alpacas.

5497639129 141f5313a3 Peru: The Witnesses

Scenery-wise, there are no words for the Colca Valley, so I’ll let this picture do the remainder of the talking on that subject.

5491468117 c44a10d3cb Peru: The Witnesses

The Colca Canyon’s beauty served only to intensify my disappointment-cum-dislike with Arequipa, so I took a bus to Cusco literally hours after my return to the white city. Cusco is without a doubt most famous for its having been the historical capital of the Incas, and its resulting proximity to Machu Picchu. For me, however, Cusco, was most fascinating in terms of how large a percentage of its population was native. Most of what I’d seen in Peru prior to arriving here seemed relatively par for the course in Latin America: bright colors; frequent displays of dancing and other partying behavior; and Catholic imagery everywhere. Cusco incorporated all of these elements, but still felt somehow sovereign from all of them. Wandering just a few blocks away the central Plaza de Armas, for example, takes you to a world completely removed to the gringo base that has set up camp in the city.

5494586682 7d6093fb41 Peru: The Witnesses

I like traveling quickly and my plan upon arriving in Cusco was to visit Machu Picchu my second or third day in the city. Thankfully for me I chose to stay at the city’s own Loki hostel, where I met more amazing people within the span of a few hours than I could possible leave after only a few days. Most recommended I check out the nearby Sacred Valley, a place I was skeptical would live up to its name. After a quick bus ride from the Cusco’s Santiago bus terminal, Assaf (an Israeli traveler, pictured here) and I found ourselves walking through what it without a doubt the most pristine scenery I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

5507090697 742eeebfb2 Peru: The Witnesses

After more than a week in Cusco — can you tell I loved the place? — I decided to do what I’d initially come for and scale Machu Picchu. I opted not to do the ultra-expensive “Inca Trail” and instead took land transport to Aguascalientes, the town at the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits. Although I knew I couldn’t leave Peru without seeing it, I was skeptical that Machu Picchu would be a crowded, soulless gringo fest. Thankfully no amount of gringos can ruin the view of the sun rising over the ancient city from the top of the mountain — and walking less than half an hour away from the main ruins takes you to an area of almost complete seclusion. As I took everything from a mile or so back, an Inca man was marrying a French couple who’d also managed to escape the tourist terror. Machu Picchu is a microcosmic example of what makes Peru such a special destination on the whole: it is a place where tourists can see what they came to see and where travelers, like the native people who’ve called Peru home for so l0ng, can bear witness to what is happening from a distance.

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