Peru 2019

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This report comes late, seeing as this trip happened approximately a year ago. But 2019 was a busy year... Visiting Peru marked several personal "firsts" for me: my first visit to the continent of South America, my first time to cross the equator (though just barely), the highest altitudes I have experienced.

We followed a complicated itinerary: Lima to Puno to Cusco to Machu Picchu back to Cusco to Lima and then home. Lima is at sea level whereas the other locations are at considerable altitude.

The weather at Christmas in Lima resembles summer in Maryland. The hill in the background oddly resembles Diamond Head.

A Peruvian Christmas tree. I much prefer this approach of decorating a native species to the obviously fake evergreens I have seen in other tropical locales.

After a couple of days in Lima, we flew to the city of Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca. For the first time in my life I experienced the effects of altitude. Puno lies an an altitude of 12,556 feet (3827m) above sea level, slightly higher than Lhasa, Tibet.

From the airport we took a rather lengthy taxi ride, through a town that looked pleasantly strange and unlike any place I had been before, and then across a quasi-rural landscape that reminded me of part of Texas where I grew up, to the town of Puno proper. We exited the taxi and went into the hotel lobby. Mrs. Gorodish then informed me that she wasn't feeling well. And, like Wile E. Coyote looking down to find empty space beneath his feet, I felt it too.

The first sensation is the obvious one of having not quite enough air. One should be able to compensate, I would assume, by breathing deeper and faster. Whether I didn't apply the theory properly, or it's just wrong, shortly there followed effects I had heard about but never experienced before: headache and nausea. We tried the local remedies: coca tea (which had no effect that I could feel) and then a local pharmaceutical (about which more to say later).

I had heard that sleeping is difficult at high altitude, and I now understood why that is true. It seems that when your autonomous breathing takes over as you fall asleep, you aren't getting enough air. So you wake up and breathe heavily. And the cycle starts again....

After two days in Puno, we took the train to Cusco. Here I admire the shrewdness with which the Peruvians are leveraging their major resource of natural beauty for the tourist trade. Peru has no high-speed rail (nor, I suspect, even medium-speed rail). High-speed rail might well be impossible on routes that climb up and descend at significant grades. 

Perurail makes a virtue of necessity by rebranding the Puno-Cusco train (which apparently runs at an average speed of 24 mph/40 kph) as a ten-hour luxury experience---deluxe food, entertainment, etc. 

I missed a good shot here. Open space is such a premium here (not sure why--there's plenty of empty land) that the market is set up next to the train tracks and even on the tracks. Merchandise is spread out across the tracks, low enough that the train can pass over, and people scramble out of the way when the train passes by.

The highest spot on the route is the La Rava pass at 4338 meters (14232 feet). The thinness of the air was a remarkable sensation. But locals (of course) had no problem with it.

An interesting feature of this trip was the gradual change of the landscape from reddish-brown and arid around Puno, gradually greener, and extremely verdant in the area of Cusco. The mountains, too, became more rugged, extremely steep, almost vertical in places. Some of the train cars had domed observation roofs---this was one place with truly a lot of interesting things to see overhead.

For the latter part of the journey the track ran along the Urubamba river, which consisted of nothing but rapids for miles and miles and miles---which just goes to show how much we descended on that leg of the trip.

Cusco is at an altitude of 11,200 feet (3400m) so a little milder then Puno. By this time we were getting a little used to the altitude---at least the headaches and nausea were gone, though sleeping was still an issue. We felt good enough to scamper up some of the many hills. Cusco is a charming city, layered with pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial architecture.

And now we interrupt this program for a commercial announcement. It may or may not be the placebo effect, but this little pharmaceutical made us all feel significantly better with respect to the altitude. I swallowed it, but I have no idea what's in it--frog's eyebrows, leftover guinea-pig fragments, whatever.

Two more notable features of this advertisement. I love the lack of subtlety exhibited by the ailing gent on the far right. And this font, complete with outline, is apparently the official national font of Peru. 

From Cusco we proceeded to Machu Picchu. This is one tourist attraction which is definitely worth the hype. Photos can't capture it. Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, verdant jagged mountains in every direction. 

We were there at the beginning of January, which is supposedly the rainy season. Friends told me it would be disappointing because Machu Picchu would be shrouded in fog. As it turned out, everything was great. We had a little rain to deal with--not much. And the fog was merely some lovely wisps clinging to the mountainsides. 

What's the opposite of "bucket list"? A list of the things I will never regret wimping out on... at the top would be visiting Huayna Picchu, which is the peak visible in the background of all the Machu Picchu photos. While I was there I noted outlines of domes, stairs, and other architecture at the peak. Incredible--like something out of a fairy tale.

Only later did I learn that--incredibly--they take tourists up to the top. If you want to see insanity in picture form, Google "Huayna Picchu hike". One sneeze, and it's all over...

Many people don't care for the modern town of Machu Picchu, which exists purely as a staging point for tours of the historical site. I found it rather charming, backed up against these fairy-tale mountains. Note the huge missing chunk of rock that fell down some time in the past.

The train back from Machu Picchu again featured scenic windows in the roof. Unlike most such trains, there actually is a lot of scenery overhead on this route.

On the way back to Cusco, we stopped at Ollantaytanbo, a small town notable for more Inca ruins, Inca construction still in use, and the inherent charm of the town itself. I must admit that by this point everyone in this group was experiencing high-altitude-Inca-ruin-climbing fatigue, so we eschewed visiting the spectacular fortress (the stairs to which we could easily see zig-zagging up the mountain).

Either you get this joke, or you don't. The men in our group all got it. None of the women did.

This explains why no one knows what state Springfield is located in.

Some of the Inca stonework is still in use in Ollantaytanbo. The trapezoidal doorway is a characteristic feature (poorly suited to the use of actual doors).

We see here once again the Peruvian national font, which are these outlined balloon-animal characters. It's everywhere. 

And to wrap up, a visual aid. We carried this empty Coke bottle from Cusco back to Lima. The collapse indicates the difference in available air between Cusco and sea level.


synnotus said...

hi, I am requesting wheher there is a mnemonic system for swahili language.

Serge Gorodish said...

I have not heard of a system specifically for Swahili. There are general techniques applicable to any language. You might try discussing this on