Before coming to Peru, I was pretty psyched about “la costa, sierra, y selva” which, with my rudimentary Spanish skills, I assumed was some sort of authentic Peruvian delicacy.
Hahaha yeah I know, silly me.
Peru is a land of the coast (costa), mountains (sierra), and jungle (selva). It’s actually crazy how vast the country is and how many different ecological zones it encompasses.
Essentially there’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of geographical and ecological diversity to explore.
With little to do in Puno in terms of our project since we were still waiting for ethical approval, Jackie and I decided to go on an adventure to see the mountains and jungles of Peru.
- Night bus from Puno to Cuzco
- Salkantay trek and camping for 5 days; on the fifth day we arrived at Machu Picchu
- Recovery day in Cuzco
- Parque Nacional del Manu for 5 days on a jungle wildlife tour; spent time exploring by van, boat, and some jungle hiking. We stayed in modest bungalows under mosquito nets.
- Night bus back to Puno from Cuzco
I can proudly say our trip was book-ended by two very decadent visits to the McDonalds and Starbucks in Cuzco. It was an absolute treat. I’m not even kidding – they don’t have stuff like this in Puno!
I’ve decided to structure this post like my post from my 2012 solo trip in the south of Thailand with The Good Parts here in Part 1 and the Not So Good Parts and What I Learned covered in a second Part 2 post.
Anyways! About the trip:
The Good Parts
The Salkantay trek, and the first day in particular, featured a very marked series of ups and downs both literally (elevation-wise) and figuratively. Salkantay mountain, all snow-covered and looming, was awe-inspiring.
As we hiked that first day, we got closer and closer to the mountain, and I felt like I was drawing energy from the magnificence of the landscape unfolding around me.
I remember being overcome by feelings of euphoria – and I think it was partly the endorphins from the exertion of trekking uphill for 4 or 5 hours, and partly maybe even hypoxia since we were well above 4000 m that day.
So I was sort of oscillating between feelings of complete joy and, alternately, altitude-induced malaise and physical exhaustion. I remember having the thought, “How wonderful it is to have nothing else in the world to do but climb and see the view from here” accompanied by a short-lived but decided inner peace [hypoxia???].
The euphoria was a bit unusual but also exhilarating.
We did the trek with Alpaca Expeditions and they were extremely professional and organized throughout. Even if our tour guide, Juri, wasn’t crazy about us (we got the feeling he was annoyed by us at times), he always stayed professional and checked in with us, giving us options like taking a car instead of walking the next stretch if we were in too much pain to go on.
We chose this tour company because of their high ratings on TripAdvisor, and they didn’t disappoint. The porters would literally run back and forth between tents to get the plates at dinner if they had forgotten to deliver them to the table. They were always respectful, happy to do their job, and in good spirits.
Speaking of dinner, OH MY GOD was the food delicious! One hundred percent the best food I’ve eaten in Peru. The cook, whose name was also Juri, dreamt up these incredibly ornate (by wilderness cooking standards and restaurant standards alike) four-course meals using only a double burner gas stove and whatever ingredients he and the porters had transported by mule.
We had chicken stir fries, soups, chocolate pancakes, fava bean salads – he even baked and iced a cake using just the gas stove.
Standouts for me were the guacamole with wonton chips and the mango ceviche with pan-fried maize. It was such a joy to eat on this trip, and a delightful surprise considering what I would have expected from wilderness cooking (instant noodles, roasted potatoes and corn, hot dogs on a stick, granola – that type of thing).
Even better was what I like to call The Hunger.
As you may or may not know, I’ve been living at altitude in Puno (3825 m) for about 6 weeks, during which time I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight. Partly due to switching medications, partly due to lack of interest in the food options here, lack of access to a functional kitchen, but also partly because altitude takes away your appetite.
The science goes that there are two hormones: one that signals satiety and one that signals hunger. The satiety one increases at altitude while the other one stays the same.
So when we descended down to 2000 or so meters, Jackie and I got The Hunger.
We became ravenously hungry. It was so intense and weird, almost inexplicable. It was like feeling hunger for the first time in your life, and it felt really. Really. Good.
Well…it started off feeling good.
At even lower altitudes in Manu – 700 meters or so – my snacking became relentless. It was partly out of boredom and not liking the food that the second tour company provided us (cold, salty, and repetitive is how I would put it), but also due to The Hunger.
The rest of our Manu tour group judged us HARD when we stopped at a store to pick up cookies and chips. But, guys: The Hunger was real!!
While we’re on the topic of food, one of my favorite moments of the two weeks was a stop at a coffee plantation during the Salkantay trek. The family at the plantation showed us how you get from the coffee plant, which has little red and green berries with the raw coffee beans inside, to the drink itself. They then poured us fresh coffee to drink.
I don’t even drink coffee in normal life so I don’t know why this was such a special moment for me but I didn’t stop talking about it the rest of the trip.
Lastly, we saw some pretty neat animals.
We were walking down the street in a small village one day trying to get closer to some turkeys when the family who presumably owned the turkeys invited us to see their pigs in their backyard.
We were led back there by a cheerful four-year-old girl who had previously been occupying herself by soaping her hands and waving them around in the air trying to catch the nasty biting black flies that swarmed us all. In fact, she initially “introduced herself” by chasing after us with soapy hands trying to “save” us from the flies. (We ran from her thinking she was going to attack us with soap.)
Anyways. The backyard full of pigs and piglets was a fun time.
Also, we got to take pics with a particularly stoic llama at Machu Picchu. He wasn’t friendly but he also didn’t run away. This was a special moment given how rude all of the alpacas in Puno have been to us.
In the jungles of Manu, we saw lots of colorful birds like macaws and weird prehistoric bird-things, as well as some monkeys, tarantulas, giant toads, and even – and this was my absolute favorite moment of the jungle trip – a really friendly 6-month old capybara.
Melt my heart the thing was so weird and wonderful. It was like a character from a Dr. Seuss book (maybe the lorax?).
So yeah this little guy showed up at breakfast one day and we all ran out when our guide said he was friendly and we could pet him. He sucked on our fingers (missing his mother?) and it was so sweet and sad at the same time. I don’t know what sustenance our fingers could provide besides salt from our sweat.
I don’t know what the deal is with capybaras, but I can tell you they look like giant guinea pigs, feel like pig pigs, and have webbed feet. It was my personal goal to see one while on the trip; even better than just see one – I got to pet and interact with one! Checked that one off the mental bucket list.
Seriously though, if you know of a petting zoo with capybaras, hook me up. What an animal.
Continue to Part 2 for the Not So Good Parts.