Lima, Peru: 22-25 March 2015

22 march 2015
The taxi drivers practically mob me as I walk up to the road leading out of Huacachina with my backpack slung across my shoulders, headed for the road out of town. They’re all talking over each other, offering prices, asking me where I’m going. I’m about to get into a cab when just in time a line of the tiny, plastic-sided three-wheeled carts you see all over Peru come teetering around the corner. They’re everywhere in the cities, not much more than a little motorcycle engine attached to three skinny wheels, tiny and a little slow and brightly decorated with plastic sides, and probably not very safe in the event of an accident, but usually half the cost of a taxi and at least three times cooler to ride in. I’ve heard backpackers call them tuk-tuks, which is what they call similar cars in Thailand, but here in Peru they’re called taximotos.

I flag one down and slide in the back as the driver guns it for Ica. “Terminal de buses!” I yell over the buzz of the little motor. “A donde vas?” He asks me. I tell him Lima and a few minutes later we’re pulling up to a little building that seems dedicated to just one bus company. It’s not what I was expecting – “terminal de buses? Aqui?” but he waves me on and I wander inside completely confused. Strangely helpful security guards shepherd me over to a counter where I buy a ticket for Lima and after a false start involving getting on the wrong bus, I’m on my way.

17:30 – the bus pulls into a parking lot in Lima that would seem to be our final stop. This isn’t a bus terminal with multiple companies all together – it’s just a building and parking lot of the company I came in with. I’m confused by this system, but at least they didn’t leave me on the side of the road like in Ica. There’s the usual screaming horde of taxi drivers outside the door. I make it through the crowd without losing my composure and screaming back at someone, and after a few vague sets of instructions I manage to hop on a collectivo to Miraflores, where I’m staying in a pretty hostel on a quiet residential street.

After the bus ride I’m too tired for anything except dinner (stir-fried eggplant, in the first hostel where I’ve been able to cook since Arequipa) and relaxing on the rooftop terrace of the hostel, enjoying the night air.

23 march 2015
After breakfast, I meet Liz, a girl from Lima who I met online through a friend of a friend, and who has time to show me around Lima today. She picks me up in her car and takes me through busy Miraflores to a stunning shoreline that nobody really talks about when they talk about Lima. Here there are beautiful brown cliffs towering above the pulsing blue waves. The city stretches out behind us on all sides. To the left there’s a towering hill speared with tall radio towers, sheltering high-rise apartments and office buildings. To the right, more cliffs and shoreline, fading into the ocean haze. Liz and I walk down to the shore and out a little pier.

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Later she takes me to her family’s house where we eat an anticucho of chicken heart and delicious fried rice and I try the ubiquitous Peruvian soda called Inka Cola for the first time (it’s yellow and sweet and reminds me of candy).

We drive with Liz’s mother and sister to Barrio Barranco. On the way Liz tells me about Peru and about her time spent living in Mexico. I exchange travel stories with her mom, who has been all over Europe and the US and who is planning to go to China next year despite speaking only Spanish. She likes hearing about my trip and wants to know, as most parents do, what my own parents think of me traveling all over the world. I give her my usual answer – I wasn’t living at home before anyway, and my parents tell me they’re happy to have raised an independent and adventurous daughter. They never tried to stop me from traveling.

Barrio Barranco is a pretty neighborhood of shady old streets and pretty buildings that I think date to around the turn of the century. We pass charming old bars and little restaurants and an old beautiful bridge overlooking a dry canal that opens onto the sea.

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Just before sunset we drive back to the shore, to a very western open-air shopping mall with fancy restaurants and American stores. We find a restaurant with a view of the ocean and a happy hour with some seriously strong drinks and we order a seafood platter and watch the sun sink into the ocean.

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24 march 2015
I wake up late and have a lazy morning. Today I have made a solemn vow to eat ceviche, so I set out for a restaurant in Miraflores called La Red (the network) that’s supposed to be famous for the quality of its fresh ceviche. I find it a quite upscale restaurant with glass table tops and fancy looking desserts on display. The ceviche costs an arm and a leg – 30 soles, three times as much as what they charge at the little restaurant down the street. I decide to go for it anyway – I’m in Lima and it’s the national dish and you only live once. The ceviche comes out fresh and tender and soaked in delicious lime juice and salt. The taste is incredible. I eat the raw fish with sweet potatoes and with big roasted corn kernels, which taste delicious and which you can find all over this part of Peru.

I rest for the heat of Lima’s scorching afternoon – the sun is baking and there’s hardly any breeze away from the shore. In the evening I’m craving something fatty after the lean ceviche, so I find chorizo in the supermarket and cook it together with melted cheese and tomatoes. I try drinking Corona, which is apparently gluten free according to the tests despite being brewed from barley. (It doesn’t give me a gluten reaction – so far so good, readers). I stay up watching movies and relaxing on the roof of the hostel.

25 march 2015
Tonight I’m taking an overnight bus to Trujillo, further north in Peru, but I’ve got all day to kill, so I buy a bus ticket for the evening (at the supermarket – I’ve given up on the idea of an actual bus terminal by now) and catch a city bus into downtown Lima.

Lima is a gigantic city – more than eight million people – and the traffic is miserable. The bus driver slams on brakes and gas with equal frequency and vigor, and the noise of people leaning on their horns (5 seconds at a time, or more) is constant. It takes us an irritable 45 minutes from Miraflores before I’m at the Plaza de Armas getting my bearings. The buildings here are old, colonial, though I learn later that most of them have been reconstructed in a colonial style and aren’t original. Hundreds of years of strong earthquakes have leveled the city year after year and hardly anything has stayed standing for more than a century. It surprises me that modern construction techniques have never tried to mimic the Inca style of building with slanted walls, which is famously resilient against earthquakes.

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From the Plaza I walk to a convent of Franciscan monks and nuns, where I go with a group on a tour of the cloister and the famous catacombs under the sanctuary. I’m surprised at how lovely the building is; there’s an elaborate wooden dome made of a sort of intricate lattice; old frescos of surprisingly good quality depicting the life of Saint Francis; a beautiful library with spiral staircases and books dating to the early 19th century. The sanctuary is huge and wooden and grand, with another impressive ceiling and an elaborate lazy-susan wooden book holder for the massive hymnals we saw earlier.

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We pass through rooms of monks’ vestments and down a set of stairs to cool musty rooms with low ceilings (I’m happy again to be in a country where I’m the same height as everyone else here and I don’t have to crouch). Through a set of low doors we come to a series of tunnels lined with rectangular wells. In the wells are thousands and thousands of human bones. They say that at least 25,000 people were buried here, first when it was a public cemetery, later on by choice when deeply religious citizens wanted to be buried close to the convent. The bones have been disinterred and re-arranged over the years, and the top layer of bones in each of the wells has been arranged into a pattern, but I think it all seems rather sloppy – the bones are piled messily, caked with dust. In some corners of the catacombs there are random fragments of femurs and pelvic bones lying broken and seemingly forgotten. I can’t help but compare these catacombs mentally to the catacombs in Paris, where rows and rows of bones and skulls line the corridors for miles; but there you never feel a lack of respect – awe, perhaps, and sobriety, but everything is polished and arranged and there’s an air of macabre dignity to it. The catacombs are the last stop on our tour of the convent and everyone leaves feeling a little unsettled.

I eat ceviche for lunch again, so good it nearly brings tears to my eyes, with Api, a drink made from purple corn juice. I finish just in time to take a free walking tour from the Plaza de Armas, which I’m sorry to say is probably the most boring tour I’ve taken in South America. Our guide speaks very quietly in a monotone, going into laborious detail over insignificant architectural features of the buildings downtown. The main thing I remember learning is that there was once a rail and tram system in Lima, and that it was disassembled when it was believed that gas for cars would be much cheaper. Our guide mentions Lima’s numerous earthquakes and takes us for a Pisco tasting, which thanks to his deadpan delivery is probably my least exciting alcohol-related event to date.

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Back at the hostel I make myself a simple supper and settle down to wait for my bus to Trujillo. I’m going with Harmeet, an English girl of Indian heritage whom I met in the hostel. We take a taxi together to the parking lot of the bus company – of course there was no bus terminal to go to – and go through a check-in and quick security scan that’s almost like the security at an airport. We’re both shocked to get on the bus and find how nice it is – we have tv screens in front of our seats like you get on some airplanes, blankets, headphones, and a bus attendant who brings around snacks as we navigate the outskirts of Lima. We settle in to very comfortable seats for the ride, which is meant to take around 10 hours.

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Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

The Packing List

I wasn’t planning to post a packing list, because I’m sure in a few months the contents of my backpack will have changed, and the packing list of someone who’s been on the road for a few months is a lot more helpful to a new traveler than that of a novice.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about packing as I prepare to leave on Tuesday, and I thought it would be interesting to post my list for posterity. It’s a benchmark of where I’m starting, a point from which I can measure the way my mobile life evolves in the coming months.

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I hope I’m not forgetting something

For a backpack, I’m taking the

Rei Gemini 50L Backpack

It’s different from many other trekking packs in that it’s composed of two bags that clip together – a main bag that’s essentially a giant flash bag (I estimate 30 or 35L) with a stiff internal frame and waist strap; and a smaller (probably 15 or 20L) day bag that’s more like a conventional hiking backpack. I love this system, because I can detach the daybag for use as a hiking backpack on day trips (or even to wear around town, if I’m not concerned about blending in) and not have to lug my entire massive backpack around with me.  At least, I love it now – maybe I’ll hate it in a few months.  I’ll keep you posted.

Day Bag – top portion

  • “duck’s back” backpack rain cover
  • tiny umbrella
  • foldable shopping bag
  • moleskine notebook, modded with a duct-tape penholder; zebra ballpoint pen
  • antibacterial hand wipes
  • safety whistle/compass
  • passport
  • yellow fever vaccine certification
  • “travel wallet” (cash and backup ID with a rubber band around them – sophisticated, I know)
  • chapstick

Main Portion

  • 3L water reservoir and drinking tube

Electronics

  • iphone
  • headphones
  • kindle
  • iphone charger
  • kindle charger
  • universal plug adapter
  • Headlamp

Misc (some in day bag, some in main bag)

  • paracord (50 ft)
  • vegetable peeler
  • combination lock and cable lock
  • moneybelt
  • small scissors
  • 2 sharpies
  • extra ballpoint pen (I’m in love with Zebra brand)
  • duct tape (wrapped around an old credit card to conserve space)
  • plastic utensils
  • tampons
  • mini sewing kit
  • thank you cards for couchsurfing hosts
  • postcards of Roanoke for couchsurfing hosts/friends
  • small thank-you Roanoke souvenirs
  • extra hand wipes
  • deck of playing cards
  • passport-sized photos
  • Credit and Debit cards
  • ID

Clothing (main bag)

  • 1 pair of quick-drying olive green pants (can be rolled up to convert to shorts)
  • 1 wrap-around skirt (can convert to a dress)
  • 1 pair thermal leggings (can and probably will be worn as “pants”)
  • money-hiding belt (looks like a normal belt but contains a hidden zipper that can conceal bills)
  • 1 camisole/undershirt
  • 1 basic black tee
  • 1 dressy sleeveless top
  • 1 casual blouse
  • bra
  • bathing suit
  • 6 pr underwear
  • 4 pr socks
  • head warmer/earmuffs running underarmour thing
  • scarf
  • light jacket
  • ultralight down jacket
  • waterproof shell
  • misc jewelry
  • chucks
  • teva sandals

Toiletries

  • dr bronner’s magic soap
  • toothbrush
  • travel-size conditioner
  • travel-sized deodorant
  • small comb
  • tazorac (prescription acne cream)
  • nail clippers
  • tweezers
  • dental floss
  • earplugs
  • Concealer
  • Eyeliner
  • glasses case & backup glasses
  • Clip-on sunglasses
  • sunscreen

Medicine

  • doxycyline (anti-malarial, also an acne treatment)
  • ciproflaxin antibiotic (in case of a brief illness)
  • 30 iodine/water purification tablets
  • 5 packets oral rehydration salts
  • geigerrig water filter (clips onto the hose attachment for the hiking water bladder) – filters up to 150 L
  • tylenol
  • sudifed
  • benadryl
  • lactaid (lactose-intolerance medicine)
  • immodium
  • pepto-bismal tablets
  • triple antibiotic ointment
  • hydrocortizone
  • band-aids
  • Bug spray

Other

  • Quick-drying microfiber towel
  • Extra zip-lock bags
  • travel-sized tissues (aka emergency toilet paper)

Total weight is 17.4 lbs and feels manageable. The weight will definitely go up if I throw in a tent and sleeping bag.  For the first month, I’m planning to travel without the camping supplies as a trial.  If I end up with a lot of camping opportunities I wish I could have taken, I’ll have the tent and sleeping bag mailed to me, and that will bring the backpack up to around 24 lbs.

All this, to carry on my back for the next 6 months (maybe longer).  It’s a little scary to plan to live on so little, but also immensely freeing.  My hope is that limiting my possessions will encourage me to think creatively about solving problems with what I have (rather than just buying more things), that I will feel more free to spend my time exploring new places, interacting with and serving those that I meet, and working toward other goals I have set for myself (my reading list is up to 50 new titles and I intend to learn Spanish on this trip – to name two).

Fellow travelers, what has your experience been with the things you’ve brought with you?