Buenas Fiestas

13 Jan

I spent the Christmas holidays, through New Year’s, traveling around Peru, specifically in and around the two largest cities — Lima, the capital, and Arequipa.  I was lucky to be joined by friends from the States — Abhi, his sister Adithi, and Glenn — for much of the time, and local friends for the rest.

Below, a few vignettes and some photos to illustrate the beauty and excitement of some parts of the country that are very different from my small town in the jungle.

El Misti casts an imposing presence over Tarapoto

Rolling in the Deep

Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest; more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon at its max point.  To get there, my American friends and I had come to Arequipa (Peru’s second-largest city, behind Lima).  Eschewing the innumerable packaged tour guide offerings, we instead set off on a dirt-cheap local bus for the ~7 hr. ride in the direction of Cabanaconde, a tiny village located on the canyon rim that is a common starting point for many treks.  The drive took us through some spectacular scenery, as we climbed high in elevation through and around snow-capped mountains and volcanic terrain.

The bus ride to Cabanaconde passes through snow-covered volcanic landscape

After several hours, it was completely without warning that we passed the vaunted Cruz del Condor viewpoint, a site every guidebook had touted as offering impressive views of the canyon and the majestic condors soaring on thermal drafts.  Only Abhi’s eagle-eyes happened to catch it as we passed, and so I asked the bus driver to let us off, a little worried that we were the only ones alighting and that there was nothing else for miles around.  I suppose at the right time of day (early morning or pre-dusk) it’s a much more impressive sight (and that’s when it’s apparently mobbed by tourists), but for us it was desolate.  The views, as they had been on the whole drive, were eye-catching, and we saw a few condors, but my socks weren’t yet blown off.

At the Cruz del Condor viewpointFrom the Cruz del Condor viewpoint, we hiked along the completely deserted highway for ~1.5 hours.  Right as we heard the first of several ominous thunderclaps, we spied a passing van, which I flagged down, and we were thus able to hitch the rest of the way into Cabanaconde.  Arriving at the sleepy town square, the rain, lack of options, and complete power outage forced us to hole up in a tiny hostel chatting with other foreigners for the rest of the night.  Abhi and Adithi had both become quite sick and retired early, but Glenn and I stayed up drinking with the hostel manager, bartender, and a pair of Danes whom I played chess with — very successfully, I should note, until the chilcanos de pisco caught up to me.  When in one game I attempted to capture my opponent’s piece by jumping my own pawn with my rook, I realized it was about time to call it a night.

Glenn and I were up at 5 the next morning to tackle the canyon — Abhi and Adithi had decided to sleep in and then take a bus back to Arequipa to recover.  We’d been told that we could find and follow the trail to the canyon bottom quite easily, and this proved to be the case.  Each carrying one (woefully-inadequate) water bottle and accompanied by a small but intrepid little street dog whom I had befriended the previous night, we set off on the Sangalle trail with the objective of reaching the “Oasis” resort on the canyon floor.  Given our compressed timeframe — needing to return to Arequipa by that night — Glenn and I couldn’t do what was custom, spending one night (or more) on the canyon floor to rest and relax, before doing the hike back up.  Quick in-and-out for us!

Pictures, though not perfect, do the canyon better justice than any dry description of the canyon.  Also, it would be too painful to relate how after 2.5 hours of fearlessly leading us (and trying to pee on every one of the thousands of rocks we came across), our dog (“El Jefe”) heartlessly abandoned us to follow the female dog who was with hikers headed in the opposite direction.

Posing with a makeshift flagpole on the Colca Canyon descent to Sangalle Oasis

Finally reaching the Oasis, along the banks of the Colca River, we found it virtually abandoned at this mid/late-morning time.  That didn’t stop us from immediately stripping off and plunging into one of the clear blue pools in an attempt to find relief for our aching knees and ankles.  It was so damn nice and peaceful down there, and from the bottom the ascent back to the top looked 10 miles high, that we gave serious consideration to just staying.  As it was, the two hours that we spent at the Oasis, where we also ate breakfast, meant that our hike back out of the canyon was starting at mid-day — when the sun would be at its most merciless.

We hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards out when the ~4,000 ft. ascent already seemed daunting.  In the morning I had shivered in the see-your-breath air while wearing all of my available layers, and now, I was stripped down to an Under Armour shirt and gym shorts.  Yet we persevered, and for the rest of the hike up were were almost completely alone, save for the rare passing horses/burros and their minders hauling supplies to the floor.  We also at one point encountered the strange sight of a lone healthy, clean dog, at least an hour’s hike in each direction from the next people we saw, perched precariously at the edge of a precipitous ledge.  No amount of coaxing it seemed to interest “Suicide Dog”, as Glenn dubbed him, from his position — even when I fed him some snacks, he promptly returned right back to his cringe-inducing stand.  For the rest of the hike out, we kept checking back to see some sign of Suicide Dog, but without luck.

At last, we emerged from the canyon, Glenn having gamely toughed out the pain from the rib he fractured shortly before the trip, as well as his altitude sickness.  In a bit of irony, although we never once lost our way while descending or ascending the canyon, we somehow managed to forget the quick half-hour route to get back to Cabanaconde.  After fumbling across several trails and growing ever more despaired, we were finally guided by a passing farmer and his horses.  The route he took us along seemed completely unfamiliar, until we came out to town at exactly the same point we remember starting from that morning — proving, perhaps, that we may have still been under the influence of the previous night’s chilcanos when we started our hike.

Brown Guy Blows Things Up, Avoids Arrest

Abhi lighting a firecracker in Chosica Plaza on NYE

New Year’s was very nearly a disaster.  The plan was to go to Ica, and hit up the nearby resort town of Huacachina, a desert-oasis surrounded by sand dunes — 2012 would be rung in with sand boarding, dune buggies, and drinking copious amounts of pisco.  With my American friends, I was due to fly back from Arequipa to Lima early on the morning of the New Year’s Eve, whereupon we would be picked up my buddy Jean, and directly hit the road for the several-hours drive down to our destination.

Things went wrong in rapid succession.  Upon completing our successful hike of Colca Canyon, Glenn’s and my return to Arequipa to reunite with Abhi and Adithi were hampered by a bus schedule that stranded us in the village of Cabanaconde for several hours, and then further delayed in Chivay.  We luckily reached Arequipa some time after 5am, in time to grab one quick hour of sleep before heading to the airport.  Where we waited.  And waited some more, for a flight that eventually was delayed nearly 5 hours.  Arriving in Lima in the early afternoon, we were then way too late to beat the traffic headed down South — Ica was out of the question.  Further compounding matters, by early that evening, Glenn had joined the ranks of Abhi & Adithi among those suffering severe internal distress.  With just hours to go before midnight, my plans for epic partying had been replaced with watching three green-in-the-face gringos seek refuge at a four-star San Isidro hotel and take turns assaulting the bathroom.

Through a fortuitous chance, I got in touch with Jean that evening, and was able to convince the group that we should go out to the upscale mall Jockey Plaza to meet with him briefly.  Once there, he was able to convince them that we could celebrate a pleasant, low-key New Year’s with him and his friends in the suburbs north of Lima.  And so we piled into his car and headed on the hour’s trek up to Chosica.

The plaza there is huge — bigger than Lima’s central plaza — and much more festive. Flanked on one side by a giant Jesus statue, Chosica’s plaza features a mini-carnival of sorts, with rides, games, and food vendors.  The smell of anticuchos de corazon wafted in the air, but what quickly drew our attention — and what would re-define the rest of our night — were the loud, intermittent bangs of firecrackers being set off.

Some might say I’ve led an incomplete, unfulfilled life, because never before in my life had I set off fireworks.  I was inclined to agree, and so when I saw we could buy all manner of explosive toys right off the street for cheap, my inner jihadi was completely hooked.  Initial hesitation and fears giving way to return trips to the street vendor for more fireworks, we proceeded to set off several in the plaza there.  This continued, my excitement growing, until at last the smoke from one particular round of mini-rockets cleared — and we saw a pair of cops headed for us.  With grim faces they approached Abhi — he who fired the last offending shots — and informed him that an errant missile had struck a child in the neck.  At that point Glenn and I both tensed, partly out of concern for the victim, partly thrilled at the potential to see Abhi hauled off to Peruvian prison.  (Yes, we’re great friends.)  Instead, what happened next was even more comical — the police assured us the kid who got hit was completely OK, apologized to us for the inconvenience, asked us if we wouldn’t mind moving further down the plaza, and wished us a Happy New Year before going on their way!  As I said then with a shrug for the umpteenth time since I got here, “T.I.P.” — This is Peru.

At that point we decided it was time to head to Chaclacayo to meet up with a few of Jean’s old school friends.  In a public square on the street there is where we rang in the New Year’s, fortified with additional fireworks purchased off the street, launched to our own midnight countdown.  Several others in the square had the same idea, and in the sky in the distance, we could see the “official” city fireworks — awesome.  (It’s worth noting that Abhi also added his own delayed pyrotechnics when, shortly after, he sought refuge in a nearby church to relieve his gastric emergency.)  Later on, we commiserated over beers at a nearby bar as a live salsa band played; Jean ably demonstrated his moves while teaching Adithi to dance.  By 2am, my friends’ intestinal stamina was completely taxed, and we decided to head back to our hotel in the city; but not before they got to experience the intense thrill/discomfort of riding a crowded “combi” (mini-bus).

The start to 2012 was very nearly a wreck, but turned out awesome; I’m confident the rest of this year is going to be much more like the latter than the former.

City Slick

Jean and I at the Cristo del Pacifico statue in Lima Skulls in Las Catacumbas de Iglesia San Francisco

The other highlight from the trip had to be the simple pleasure of experiencing big-city life again after three months in my small jungle town.  Lima, in my mind a perpetually gray city, got off to a great start with a huge fireworks display as we arrived at midnight on Christmas Eve (it technically became the 25th — and my 25th birthday — on the taxi ride into the city), and then contributed nicely with several blue-sky, sunny days over the next week and a half.

I got to experience fine dining, most notably at a few of renowned international celebrity chef Gaston Acurio’s restaurants (La Mar in Lima for seafood, which on Xmas at least was disappointing and had poor service; an outpost of the Tanta cafe in Lima; and Chicha in Arequipa, which was terrific).  Unfortunately, Gaston’s flagship Astrid y Gaston, ranked in the S. Pellegrino top 50 in the world, was closed on the two days my American friends were in town.  But thanks to local friends, I discovered some gems — Fernando turned me on to El Rincon de Bigote, a wonderful little lunch spot for ceviche and even better almejas (clams) in Miraflores; a tip from Jean initially led me to my first sushi I’d had in months, satisfying a long-overdue craving.

I played tourist too, seeing the macabre arrangement of skulls and bones in the catacumbas (catacombs) of the Iglesia San Francisco, finding sea horses for sale to eat in a shop in Lima’s sizable barrio chino (Chinatown), checking out a beachside seafood market with ex-Tarapoto-volunteer Maike, and taking in the impressive views of Lima from the controversial new Cristo del Pacifico giant Jesus statue overlooking the city.

Christmas display in Lima's Plaza de Armas Glider above the Miraflores oceanside cliffs in Lima

There were more simple pleasures too.  One of my favorites was being able to go to a movie theater — there are none currently in my region.  In fact, I went twice with my Liman buddies, catching Mission Impossible: 4 one day, and Tintin (entirely in Spanish!) the next.  Finally, on my last day in town, I bought new clothes at an upscale Ripley’s department store, and then hit up Vivanda (Lima’s upscale grocery chain) for all kinds of non-perishable food items I could bring back to Tarapoto: seasonings and spices, of course, but more importantly, Betty Crocker mixes for fudge brownies and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  I can’t wait to have those.

And Now, Back to the Grind

I’ve been back in Tarapoto for a little over a week now, and that means back to less-exciting adventures: dealing with extremely gross inner-thigh bedbug bites from a Lima hostel; trying to beat the stifling 95 degree jungle heat one day and the torrential rain the next; enjoying the arrival of new volunteers — a McKinsey Mexicana this week, an American McKinsey girl due to arrive next week; and challenges at work.  An example of the latter being yesterday when I had to ask our office admin for a tampón — and hope she wouldn’t misunderstand me.  I needed an “ink pad” … and that’s the word … although my anxious consultation of a dictionary beforehand also unhelpfully informed me that the word also meant the English cognate I was afraid it would be confused for.

Despite my trepidation, I received what I was looking for — and that, I suppose, is a good analogy to describe my time here.

Feliz año nuevo, everyone!  Here’s to a great 2012.

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4 Responses to “Buenas Fiestas”

  1. Andrew T January 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    The fireworks in the plaza reminds me of Phil and my trip to the indian reservation south of Seattle for 7-4-09. Maybe 4 long rows of fireworks stands set up along the road, and next to it a giant open field with hundreds of people launching their purchases as fast as possible. Including two huge bonfires people would just chuck their explosives into and see what happened. I won’t lie, I was too chicken to brave the field of battle and just hung around the edges where I could dive behind human shields if an errant missile approached, but Phil naturally was into it and ran out into the chaos to set off our rocket.

    Man I could go for some ceviche. Sucks that your friends had so many stomach problems 😦

    Overall, sounds like an occasionally-trying but great time! Keep ’em coming.

  2. SITuation January 13, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    dude – are you wearing a cardigan and loafers while hiking around Cruz del Condor viewpoint?!?!??

    • Jay January 15, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

      Hahaha, no… a rain jacket over a casual button-down, and Timberland oxfords. Because I’m in the jungle where it’s usually over 90F, I didn’t even have a sweater to bring on the trip, and it was COLD at Colca.

  3. nj January 16, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    instead of being scared by the incident with the cops, abhi has been empowered and his ego inflated – police departments of the SF bay area should be on full alert.

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