Peru is a Mecca for tourism and it should come as no surprise that the country makes the top 10 list on many a bucket list. So what is it that attracts so many people to Peru? The most common answer would be Machu Picchu
, an archeological site that was named one of the new wonders of the world in a 2007 worldwide internet poll and is visited by over 1 million people every year.
I had gone to Peru for the same reason that most people go, to hike the Inca Trail to the lost civilization of Machu Picchu. Our group consisted of six people. Three had come just for Machu Picchu but myself and two others stayed for an entire month of exploration. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, we had no concrete plans for the remaining time. So the three of us sat down for some local food and Chicha, a fermented beverage derived from maize, to discuss what to do for the rest of the trip. By the end of the meal, we had decided on two locations farther south in the country: Colca Canyon
and the city of Puno
. Colca Canyon is a canyon similar to the Grand Canyon in The United States, except that Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep. It is also the best place to see Andean Condors which can have a wing span of over 10ft. There are tours available for hiking the canyon and I highly recommend the experience.
Puno is a wonderful city that gets to enjoy the beauty of Lake Titicaca. The reason that we chose to go to Puno was to see the floating islands of the Uros people. The Uros are a pre-Incan tribe who bundle totora reeds together to make a series of islands on which they live. They also use the reeds in their diet and to make the boats in which they travel the lake.
Reed boats and islands of the Uros people in Puno
The Uros people are known for their vibrantly colored quilt work
I feel that it is important to share my personal experience so you know how not to get to these locations. The trip turned out to be a very dangerous one though it was unintentional because it was a last minute addition to the trip and there was no research done before hand.
One pull on every tourist is the desire to blend in and be treated like a local. For Jordan, Yevgeniy, and me this desire to blend in meant taking local transportation-- no planes, no rental cars--we were taking a bus. And what better way to save money then to take the overnight bus and have a hotel-free night? This line of thinking seemed rational enough though one never can tell what passes as rational in high altitudes. So with high spirits and a bit more Chicha we boarded our double-decker bus and set off. The first part of the trip went smoothly. We upgraded our seats so that we were at the very front of the second story, directly above the driver. The scenery was amazing! There was a brief stop at a mega gas station where both bus and passengers could refuel. Everyone was comfortable and stocked up on food and drink as we appreciated the setting sun. The hour late, we decided to try and get some sleep. Jordan, arguable the most prepared of the group, had just purchased a watch which, among other functions, had a GPS and altimeter built in-- he could also post statistics about the trip online directly from the watch. So, with Jordan's watch running to document our trip, we all fell asleep.
It might have been the screech of bus tires or it might have been my face smacking into the side window but something woke me from my sleep. When we went to sleep, we were passing through small towns on relatively straight roads. When I woke up, it felt like we were on the Peruvian equivalent of Lombard Street (the curvy road in San Francisco). There were absolutely no lights and all I could see was fog and the edge of the road which, unprotected by guardrails, seemed to drop off into nothing. Jordan and Yevgeniy had no trouble sleeping through all of the excitement while I sat up blanched for the remainder of the trip. When Jordan woke up, we were all shocked to find that we had gone higher in altitude on the bus (about 15,000 ft) than we had on our hike over Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point (13,800 ft) on the trek to Machu Picchu. And as the sun began to rise, we were greeted by snow covered roadsides.
Snow covered roadsides from our bus window
Some of the frequently experienced bus trouble is from washed away roads
We went on to have a great time in Colca Canyon and Puno but we felt like we had narrowly escaped tragedy on that bus ride. After the trip, while talking to a Peruvian friend, we were told that we had, in fact been very lucky as the overnight buses are very dangerous. Sometimes the conditions are bad and sometimes the drivers are drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. The buses very often plunge off of the side of the road and are never recovered. So remember, while it is a wonderful thing to experience all that a country has to offer, do your research before setting off for places unknown-- even if you are trying to fit in like a local.