This week I started things off right on Monday morning by visiting a hot springs in Cashapampa, which was the perfect capstone on our hiking trip through the Santa Cruz valley. About an hour hike from our campsite the night before, we skated downhill over rocks on the steep descent towards the river to access the hot springs, then soaked our sore legs, feet, and backs in the steaming natural jacuzzis. As then sun began to rise over the surrounding cliffs and usher in the warmth of another beautiful day in the mountains, we worked our way back uphill for one last breakfast as a group, then hopped into a van and headed back towards Huaraz.
Although we had been thoroughly spoiled by the last five days, the views on the way back into town were no less impressive. On the way down I pressed my nose to the glass windows, observing how the tiny mountain town of Caraz built itself into the fertile valley that runs parallel, intersecting the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra.
The next 48 hours served as the perfect opportunity to relax, recover, and reinvigorate in Huaraz after the physical brutality of hiking almost 60 kilometers in 5 days. Although my initial instinct was to just hop on a bus and immediately depart for my next destination, I made the conscious decision to spend a few days just taking things easy in the beautiful and chaotic town, learning more about my surroundings before speeding along to the next attraction. While strolling around the town on Tuesday and distinctly trying to do as little as possible, I ended up uncovering the friendliness of locals, as exemplified by three distinct interactions.
Over breakfast, I looked up to find that the walls were covered by gorgeous images of the Cordillera Blanca and birds of the Peruvian Andes. Looking closer, my curiosity was peaked when I saw that in the corner of each picture lay a card, which held the Cornell University logo and indicated that the artist was a Biology student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Upon noticing how intrigued I was, the only other person in the restaurant asked if I liked the photos, which turned out to be his. What followed turned into a spontaneous conversation over our shared loves of Ithaca, NY, his work observing the effects of climate change on the glaciers of the Cordillera, and our favorite studying spots in Cornell's Mann Library.
Just a few hours later I was sitting in the city's central Plaza de Armas when a local man sat down on the same bench. After learning I spoke English, he launched into a diatribe about how important it was for him to learn English for his business. For the next hour, we exchanged vocabulary and conjugation lessons, he leveling up his English while I practiced some of my Spanish.
Finally I wandered over to the local market, the best source of amazing bargains in town. For just four soles ($1.25 USD), one can get soup, juice, and a plate filled high with rice, lentils, salad, and the meat of your choice. Upon sitting down I pulled out my battered book and the elderly man sitting across from me asked if I was reading the Bible. I politely informed him that it was a novel, but that didn't stop him from spending the rest of his lunch hour talking with me about the positive impacts the Bible has had on his life.
While taking my time exploring the city, I began taking note of some of the cultural and social norms which contribute to daily life in Huaraz.
One of the most peculiar things I can't quite wrap my head around in foreign countries is the way homogenous stores and market stalls will conglomerate together, completely matching each other in inventory and competing on price despite their proximity. For example, there's an entire alley just selling red meats in the market's butchery section.
And of course all the chicken storefronts are on the same block as well.
Or maybe you're in the mood for the totally logical combination of soccer balls and ovens? If so, this is the place to be:
For some reason unbeknownst to me, it seems as though the entire fleet of classic Volkswagen Beetles have migrated to random cities in South America, including Huaraz. Around the city streets are various models, ranging in quality from rusty and destroyed to this restored red model.
The area around the central market is absolutely packed with elderly ladies who lug around massive quantities of goods for sale, including clothes, potatoes, and various fruits. It's impossible to find them not wearing their signature brimmed hats, but it's quite easier to catch them sneaking in a quick nap in the afternoons.
Almost a week after my arrival in Huaraz, I hopped on a night bus, popped a sleeping pill, and bid the city farewell. Just after 4am the driver started blasting salsa music and turned the cabin lights to full blast, the universal signal that we had arrived at our destination in Lima. Pulling aside the curtain, I was greeted by empty city streets in the dead of the night, featuring blocks upon blocks of tiny impoverished houses and the vast darkness of a huge city when all of its inhabitants are asleep. Not wanting to linger in Lima, 2 hours later I took another bus to Paracas, working my way down the South coast of Peru.
In the early pre-sunrise air, Lima was shrouded by its famous fog, obscuring any hope of catching a glimpse of the city skyline on my way out. For the next four hours I drifted in and out of sleep, waking up each time to scenes of tiny villages and sand dunes that began to signal my arrival in the desert. Every time I blinked another impoverished group of houses flitted across my gaze, always featuring lots of plastic trash and distinctly infertile surrounding land.
By noon the bus rolled into Paracas, a tiny seaside town lacking in pretty much anything besides hostels, tourism agencies, and overpriced restaurants. A popular spot for backpackers but definitely not one of Peru's most popular attraction destination, Paracas is really just a few blocks of houses surrounded on three sides by the barren desert and on one side by the Pacific coast.
One of the most popular destination upon arrival in Paracas is Kokopelli Backpackers, the most recent addition to a chain of 4 hostels with the same name dotted throughout Peru. A veritable oasis of Western comfort and English speaking hospitality in the desolate town, the back porch features a bar, hammocks, billiards, ping pong, and foosball, all in view of the beach that lies right outside the back door.
Kokopelli prides itself on bringing the party hostel paradigm to a new level. Each night has some form of inane theme or drink special designed to encourage overconsumption, not that the inhabitants need any help. For those who think that happy hour is the best time of the day, they'll be proud to find it happens three times a day at Kokopelli, at 3, 6, and 9pm. And whereas I'm pleased to report the United States is currently dominating the "Jager Bomb World Cup" standings, we've got a long way to go if we want to catch up to the Germans in the "Beer Bong Grand Prix."
The hostel is staffed by a gregarious bunch of travelers who got stuck in Paracas for one reason or another, providing an inviting vibe and ensuring everyone is well stocked on drinks during happy hour.
On the town's bay, fishing boats alike bob in the ocean water, swinging through the rough winds that fill nearby houses with sand during the Summer Hemisphere's stormy winter months. The skies are adorned by thousands of birds, including massive pelicans, seagulls, and flamingos all eager to catch some food before it becomes ceviche. All day long flocks of birds perch on the boats in the harbor, float through the air, then plunge into the bay, constantly on the look out for another pack of the anchovies that inhabit the surrounding water.
On Friday I woke up with big plans to take a bike ride around the nearby national park, but ended up getting sucked in by the beach and the vibe at Kokopelli, soaking in a rare day of sunlight and sitting on the beach all morning watching the hordes of birds go hunting.
Instead I waited until Saturday to partake in the standard tourist attraction in town, a one day tour covering the nearby Islas Ballestas and Paracas National Reserve, two of Peru's most abundant destinations for biodiversity. I latched on for a group tour and was shuttled onto a speedboat out to the group of islands, which lie just a few miles off the coast and are home to packs of penguins, sea lions, and thousands upon thousands of birds.
Of all the birds, my favorites were definitely the massive Pelicans, which always traveled together in groups, overtaking the nearest boat or swimming spot with their impressive wingspans and intimidating squawking.
The entire set of islands was blanketed in a thick white layer of natural fertilizer, which wasn't surprising given how many birds occupied the relatively tiny land masses. In the distance, we could see entire hillsides completely occupied by an overwhelming community of birds which started streaming out for the morning breakfast in an everlasting highway just as we turned back towards shore.
After the tour was finished we were ushered back towards town and hopped in a van for a guided tour of the nearby Paracas national reserve, a stunning collection of endless sand dunes, barren yet beautiful landscapes, and picturesque cliff coasts.
That night I enjoyed some unexpected sunlight on the beach in front of Kokopelli, lounging the afternoon away and learning how to play the German drinking game of Flankieball. It was the perfect way to wrap up my last night in Paracas, but the next morning it was time to hit the road again.
Literally an oasis in the middle of Peru's desert, Huacachina caters mostly to international travelers and locals in search of a weekend getaway. The town consists of nothing more than a one block ring of houses, guesthouses, and food stands wrapped around a natural lake and its accompanying palm trees.
Approaching the city one is surrounded by massive sand dunes on all sides, some spiraling as high as 200 meters. Upon arrival in town I checked in at the popular Banana's guesthouse, which entices backpackers to stay for a few days with its Western food menu, relaxing pool, and home-made brownies dipped in fudge.
Outside of lounging and relaxing, there isn't much to do during in Huacachina except take the requisite trip that everyone offers to go sand boarding on the nearby dunes. With the sun emanating off the massive dunes, we hopped in a boogie and set off out of town, quickly accelerating as we veered off road.
Our driver must have thought he was playing Mario Kart, as we set off on a veritable roller coaster ride up and over the hills as the car careened down sheer vertical drops and drifted through turns, stoking our adrenaline. After about an hour we stopped at one of the higher points in the nearby vicinity to snap some photos, taking in the eery feeling of the desert that made it feel like we had been transported to another planet.
A few minutes later our driver got the party started by busting out a candle, which we used to wax down the boards. Then we took a seat on the edge of a ridge and sped down the hillsides, trying to keep our balance all the way to the bottom, avoiding others far below, and then using the pulsing excitement to rush up the next hill.
For the first few runs we got our bearings and learned how to balance by heading down on our butts, then we sped off to another set of runs and the driver completely flipped the instructions, telling us to lay down on our chests and splay our legs into the sand to brake. The last run was the longest and steepest; although I had apprehension at first, it was the perfect culmination to another amazing week of traveling. Any time I'm experiencing new things, managing difficult situations and enjoying a little bit of the exotic, life always feels significantly richer.