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Of Mountains and Jungles: Our Two Week Trip in Peru Part 2

If you’re just tuning in, this is the second of a two-post series about a trip my friend, Jackie, and I went on in Peru. Check out part 1 here.

The Not So Good Parts

I don’t know the specific breed or even the common name for these assholes but Jackie and I had to battle the most persistent swarming, biting black flies when we got to lower elevations during the Salkantay trek. We were covered in 40% DEET but apparently it was no match for these guys. They got us, and they got us good.

Poor Jackie was worse off than me and was still itching even six days later.

Me taking tips from a four-year-old friend and catching the biting flies with soapy hands

The jungles of Parque Manu oddly enough didn’t include any annoying biting bug problems. I mean, by that time we had armed ourselves with 98.11% DEET so we were definitely prepared/poisoned, but the jungle bugs proved surprisingly harmless compared to these little black flies from higher elevations.

We went to hot springs one day while in the Biting Black Fly Region (for lack of a better term), and it was all nice and relaxing but then: within seconds of getting out of the water they were upon us. Before we could even dry off and reapply the DEET, they were drawing blood.

It was a whole lot of itchy from there on out.

What began as a a moment of relaxation and reprieve from all the hiking became an opportunity for the biting black flies to ambush our lower backs.
What began as a a moment of relaxation and reprieve from all the hiking became an opportunity for the biting black flies to ambush our lower backs.

Physically, the other main challenge we faced was literal exhaustion and muscle and joint soreness. Walking 50 km (31 miles) up and down through rocks is no joke, especially the down part.

One would assume it’s the uphill hiking that exhausts you – and it does – but not as much as the downhill hiking. It was a struggle to stay in control while our tired muscles gave way and we felt like we were tripping and falling our way down the mountain.

We had stretches of 3 or 4 hours sometimes just downhill through rocks and it really wore on us.

We walked downhill in the fog and, soon, darkness for 3-4 hours on this particular day. My knees were like "NOPE."
We walked downhill in the fog and, soon, darkness for 3-4 hours on this particular day. My knees were like “NOPE.”

For Jackie, this meant it felt like her toes were going to fall off. For me, it meant that by Day 5 of the Salkantay trek, I couldn’t descend stairs without loudly vocalizing my pain.

I was so sore I couldn’t even indulge in the 20 soles (about $7) massages all the touts advertised in Cuzco when we got back from the trip because I was afraid it would hurt too much.

You know there’s a problem if I’m saying no to a massage.

I also had some altitude sickness while ascending on our first day in Salkantay. I started feeling the altitude probably around 4100 meters or so – I was dizzy, unable to think straight, losing my balance, and experiencing tunnel vision. Any time we stopped to take a break, I was immediately overcome by the desire to sleep.

I noticed my mind drifting off into hypoxic daydreams, and it could have almost been pleasant like being drunk or high if not for the physical symptoms that made it difficult to function.

Feeling some altitude right around this time
Feeling some altitude right around this time

I told Juri, our guide, about my symptoms and he gave me a wad of coca leaves to chew on. He also put a perfumey alcohol liquid in my hands and I rubbed them together and inhaled deeply. He said breathing in this stuff would open up my airways and relive the dizziness.

I was feeling better after that, and felt even better once we got to lunch and I could access my bag the porters had been carrying, which had my stash of Diamox in it.

Luckily, the 5 days in the Manu jungle post-Salkantay were not physically rigorous at all. Which actually brings me to my next Not So Good Part…

I think overall Jackie and I were somewhat disappointed with the Manu trip. I was bored to tears by all the bird-watching, and also offended by the tour guide at times (“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” he asked. “No, I’m an only child” I answered – you know how this conversation always ends).

My interest in the birds was extremely short-lived. These are some macaw silhouettes from a bird-viewing platform in the jungle.
My interest in the birds was extremely short-lived. These are some macaw silhouettes from a bird-viewing platform in the jungle.

The pace of the trip with all the getting-out-of-the-van-every-five-minutes-to-look-at-birds-through-binoculars was soooooooo not my speed.

I was grateful to have downloaded the Serial podcast before the trip and used that to keep myself busy while everyone else stared up into the trees. (P.S. DID ADNAN DO IT OR NOT IT’S ABSOLUTELY KILLING ME NO PUN INTENDED LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS AND OPINIONS BELOW I JUST WANT TO TALK ABOUT SERIAL)

Everyone looking at birds. Except me.
Everyone looking at birds. Except me.

What I Learned

Podcasts are necessary for me for long treks: I get bored of walking after like 1.5-2 hours (my bird-watching limit is about 10 minutes) and need to tune into some music or a podcast. It really keeps me going.

What it takes to be a good tour guide: I thought about this a lot during the trip, comparing our two guides and thinking about what I would do if I myself were a tour guide. I see how it can be both a really fun career and really challenging one. I recognize those challenges – leaving family behind for days or weeks at a time, not having any personal time or space, having to be “on” all the time – but I have to be critical too because if you’re a tour guide, you presumably accept and find strategies to face these challenges.

Our guide guiding. Telling us about Incan architecture in Machu Picchu.
Our guide guiding. Telling us about Incan architecture in Machu Picchu.

Well I wouldn’t say either of our tour guides succeeded in completely wowing me. Here’s what I’ve observed is necessary to be a good guide:

  • Expert knowledge and the ability to tell a good and compelling story
  • Mastery of the language of your guests
  • Patience
  • The ability to get along with lots of different types of people
  • Excitement/passion for the region you’re guiding in
  • The genuine desire for the guest to have a good time – a sort of selflessness in terms of your needs/desires
  • Friendliness and a positive attitude

That I can only camp for so long before wanting for the conveniences of modern life (I have my limits, we all do): Yeah I think I’m done with camping for a little while. It was awesome but so is having Internet and a real toilet. Moderation, my friends.

Sleeping outside in the jungle is cool until you find one of these terrifying monster creatures nearby
Sleeping outside in the jungle is cool until you find one of these terrifying monster creatures nearby

People at lower altitude are friendlier: It’s so true you guys. We would pass by houses in the rainforest and people wouldn’t let us walk by without taking some of their avocados and bananas. Maybe it’s a temperature thing or maybe it really is an altitude thing, I don’t know what the deal is, but everyone we encountered at lower elevations was way friendlier than the people up here in the altiplano.

How important connection is to your impression of a country: I’ve given this one a lot of thought lately. I’m in my final two weeks in Peru now and I’ve been reflecting on why my experience here hasn’t resonated with me the same way my experiences in say, Thailand, or Australia did. I don’t think it’s necessarily a country thing (although there are certainly big things in this country that are just not for me e.g. the food and the cold), but maybe a people-connection thing.

This experience has really been missing that connection with other people that I had in places like Thailand and Australia. There are no Jordan Serniks to go cliff jumping with in Bondi; no Rebecca de Guttrys to eat gelato with on Glebe Point Road; no Molly Hayes’ to get painted up in neon and dance until sunrise on the beach with.

It's just me and Jackie on our metaphorical boat battling the currents and the shallow waters together
It’s just me and Jackie on our metaphorical boat battling the currents and the shallow waters together

I’m so grateful to have had Jackie here – she really has been the only social component of this entire experience (besides another recent student arrival, Amanda, but we’re not working on the same project and our stays don’t overlap as much). So yeah: connection makes it or breaks it, hands down.

I’ll close with that, as I have many times before, because I can’t get away from it. It’s that thing we are all looking for. I’ve found it in various places at various times and I’ve had to let it go time and again. It’s sort of elusive, isn’t it? You can’t really book your flights somewhere and plan to find *connection* at 3pm the next day. It just has to happen or it doesn’t, and Peru was just never that for me.

Still, two thumbs up for the mountains and the jungle. It was a truly amazing trip.

Up next: my final two weeks in Peru. Stay tuned…

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