Pain and Gain in Peru
“To boldly go where no tourists have gone before.” That was the offer made by Jimmy Aguirre, the official guide/go-for/handyman of AmeriSpan’s language school in Cusco, Peru. Jimmy is also a tourism student at the Instituto Superior Tecnologico Antonio Moreno. As part of their thesis project called Jakuchu (“Let’s Go!” in Quechua), he and two friends organized a weekend trip to a remote archaeological site near Jimmy’s parents’ hometown of Yaurisque. They had been planning the trip for months, down to the last detail. All they needed was a group of Guinea pigs (also a Peruvian specialty dish that does NOT taste like chicken!) to make it happen. So, a few gringos, some Dutchies, a German, an Englishman, and a man from Iceland volunteered for the adventure.
Our trip started with a bus ride ... only about 35 kms from Cuzco, but a fairly long ride to 3,900 meters. There, in the middle of nowhere, we mounted our bikes and headed down, down, down. The spectacular view of sprawling countryside and jagged mountains helped take our minds off the pain of having to tightly grip the semi-functional breaks as we descended the hairpin curves of the rocky road. After an hour or so, I couldn’t have cared less about the view and just wanted off. Luckily, right about then we rolled into our lunch stop ... Jimmy’s grandparents’ house. And seemingly in celebration of our arrival and joy at getting off the bikes, a colorful street procession with dancers and musicians passed in front of the house. Of course it was not for us, but it was nice to pretend. We were then ushered into the altar room where we were fed sandwiches and fruit while Grandma lit candles and prayed for our journey, which seems to have worked!
After lunch, it was time to hit the dusty trail again, but this time on four legs instead of two wheels. We were a bit surprised that our trusty steeds did not actually have saddles but rather blankets and rope. It turned out to be sufficient gear for our leisurely stroll along the Eucalyptus wooded riverbank. Of course, no gain without pain ... soon my inner thighs were screaming with saddle soreness. There it was again, that simultaneous feeling of physical torture and visual ecstasy. As I was trying to figure out which pain was worse, the bike or the horse, we finally came to the end of that leg of the journey.
This time, no procession or sandwiches awaited ... this time, it was a mountain to climb! The climb was steep, but not too bad ... and anything was better than being on the horse any longer. So up, up, up we went along with about ten guys who effortlessly carried all our gear. After about an hour, we breathlessly arrived at the archaeological site Maucallacta ... recently discovered and uncovered and previously visited only by archaeologists and locals. We were the first group of “turistas” to tread that sacred ground. You should see the campsite they set up for us (complete with circus-style big top dining tent!) just below the ruins overlooking the valley from whence we had just climbed.
That night, the local shaman came to perform a Pago a la Tierra (Payment to the Earth). After meticulously placing little packets of stuff (sorry for the lack of detail, but I have no idea what all those powders and plants were) onto wrapping paper, he asked each of us to place a coca leaf in the right spot on the pile. We then “blessed” the package by dabbing a wine-soaked flower on each of the four corners. Then we each took a shot of local wine, wrapped up our present and threw it on a cow-dung fire (not as smelly as you might think). Once it started burning, you could see the “stuff” coming out in purple and blue flames. Truly magical.
As you might imagine, we slept like the dead until we were awakened by the faint sound of live music. We woke up and were brought hot (!) water to wash up with. We were treated to a fabulous breakfast of local-made cheese, fresh papaya juice, and REAL coffee (not the instant nonsense)