Thursday, July 17, 2008

Girl, What You Wore to Peru?

Outfits, baby. I wore outfitsss for a hike along the Andes to Machu Picchu. I rocked North Face, Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana, hoodies and a Mets cap as I battled the elements and the Chelsea queen within on my way to the Inca holy land. And I did it on the clock. As part of my job, I escorted a group of reporters on a press trip to Peru to showcase LAN Airlines Premium Business Class and acquaint them with one of the hottest tour operators in South America, Mountain Lodges of Peru. Style met style on this journey as the cushy comforts of my client's business class cabin were complemented by the plush attention of a lux tour company that's re-inventing the concept of glamping (glam camping).

But don't get it twisted. A boondoggle this was not - for every glass of champagne swilled in my seat-as-bed (technically referred to as a full-flat seat) on my way to Lima, or every night spent under the stars stewing in a jacuzzi, there were miles upon miles of rocky, muddy, steep, and dusty trails to conquer. Thirty to be exact. And then there was the issue of altitude which, depending on your physical make-up, you can either get used to pretty quickly or lose your lunch over. I straddled the line between asphyxia-induced hallucination and run-of-the-mill huffing and puffing.

And I'd do it all over it again. For some reason I wound up thousands of miles away from my self-complicated life and smack in the middle of nature - and I couldn't be more thankful for that. Even self-absorbed me recognized the smallness of, well, me, and my issues, next to the mountains of Peru. I was seeing red before my trip, but soon enough my sights were set not on vengeance and snarky comebacks, but on the lush green valleys and snow capped mountains outside of Cusco, on the fog rolling in over the Santa Teresa valley and on the coffee fields of Lucmabamba.

For five days I embraced that boy within me that probably never was. I relished in the dirt that accumulated under my nails, in my shoes and and on my face. I marveled at my dirt brown snot and didn't shave until the end of the trip. And not once did I get sick - not bad for someone who'd never hiked before. It was absolutely liberating. Eff you, Seventh Avenue.

The journey began in Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire. Much of Inca history is based on conjecture but scholars do know this: the Inca loved gold and silver, as did the Spaniards, and on came the genocide. The Spaniards won.

What's left of the turmoil is a beautiful colonial city that is home to centuries-old religious institutions like Saint Dominic's Cathedral, a monastery built on top of an Inca temple, and the Iglesia del Triumfo (Church of the Triumph) a massive complex with 12 chapels all teeming with gold, silver and other sparklies in honor of a host of Catholic saints.

I was especially struck by the art in Cusco, as it's the home of the Cusco school of painters who were taught by the Europeans to create pieces that are reminiscent of Raphael, El Greco and Rubens.

And as a backpacker's paradise, Cusco offers tons by way of colorful characters. But we'll get to that later.

You can see art and have a snog with a random Brazilian anywhere, but you go to Peru for the nature. And if you're lucky like me, you get to wade knee-deep in nature and wash it all off at a luxe lodge every night.

The highlight of the hike, believe it or not, wasn't Machu Picchu. At least not for me. I was more impressed with the Salkantay Pampa and the snowcapped Salkantay and Humantay Mountains:

I felt like I was in a Marlboro ad on this part of the hike. On this particular morning we set out at 7am - and it was fuh-reezing. By noon, we were 15,000 feet above sea level and hugging each other. Our first achievement of the trip. But it wasn't without it's drama:

Still, getting up close to the mountain, feeling the snowflakes om my nose and taking in the blinding sun made all the drama worthwhile. This was my first day as a hiker and this was the sort of jolt I needed to keep going.

And the sights just kept getting better.

Along the way, the lodges we stayed at fed us, cleaned our boots (in my case my Pumas, which held up fantastically) and placed hot water bottles in our beds before we went to bed.

I even ate guinea pig, or, as the locals call it, cui.

Recaps of days 2 and 3:

And now the moment you've been waiting for. If you've made it this far, thanks so much for staying with me, I hope the following makes up for all the pre-amble.

Machu Picchu is, rightly so, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. When I said it wasn't the highlight of the trip for me I just meant that Peru is teeming with unbelievable sights, and having been so focused on Machu Picchu from the start of my trip, I was blown away by how much more there was to take in on our way to the site.

But make no mistake, Machu Picchu is truly an impressive site. It looks as if it's hovering between endless jagged peaks and you can literally stare at it, dumbfounded, for hours. How did that complex of houses and temples just happen in the middle of nowhere? No one knows for sure, but the result is still amazing.

Yep, I brought my Lil Kim T-shirt to Machu Picchu.

Among the many lessons I was trying to absorb from the heavens while atop Machu Picchu, the one that came through loud and clear was that there is no easy way to see this place. There is no way around the hiking and climbing here so if you want to go and think you can skip the travails of steep inclines and stress on your hamstrings - no dice.

We caught a bus for a train early in the morning to reach the town of Aguascalientes (Hot Waters) where we caught another bus that took us up to Machu Picchu. The first train ride was, as we say in Spanish, muy folklorico - it was full immersion in the sights and smells of Peru.

One of our guides, Diego.

On the way back, we took a luxury liner and were treated to a dance number by a guy in a ski mask and a fashion show by the train's attendants. One minute they were wearing their uniforms, the next, they were struttin down a runway (read: aisle)in Alpaca confections. I was expecting for unicorns to come out from under my seat as I was sure I'd OD'ed on coca candy. But no, I was not hallucinating, the same person who served me my sandwich was now grooving to Dancing Queen. And I had to sing along:

Ski-mask dance number (notice the woman, who I assume is from Iowa or some other backward state, staring at me):

And now the fashions:

By now you should be as dizzy with nature, culture and history as I was by the time this fashion show took place. Fortunately, our train was speeding not toward another hiking trail, but toward our goodbye party in Cusco which ended conveniently before our 7am flight to Lima.

Tell us about it Tracey:

Because we had to go about our hike sober, we made up for the dry spell with a few Cusquenas. We played darts for a bit, then head out for Cusco's clubs which will play anything that was hot in 1999. And I loved it. Pictures with random strangers and an accidental snog with one bawdy Brazilian (meaning, I snapped the picture and as soon as I turned around I had a carioca on my lips)definitely put a bow on five fabulous days.

How would Lima ever compete with that?

Well, what Lima lacked in bawdy Brazilians it more than made up for with historic sites and colorful buildings.

And that brings this recap to a close. I'd never thought that my job would afford me the amazing opportunities I've enjoyed over the past few months. This trip to Peru was one of the most exciting experiences of my life and I'm still reeling from the things I saw.

If you ever want to make the trip yourself, I can't recommend Mountain Lodges of Peru enough. Not just because they worked with my client on this trip to comp my stay as well as that of the reporters we brought on the trip, but because our guides Pepe and Diego turned this priss into a true mountain man, and anyone who knows me can tell you that that is no small feat. Also, these guys are running a business that's helping the communities surrounding the lodges - so you don't have to worry about being an entitled gringo flaunting wealth among the less endowed - MLP is handling job training, health care and education in these parts - so not only are you treating yourself to a fab experience, you're also doing good for people in need.

Y, por supuesto, LAN Airlines, my client, is the best airline in South America.


Anonymous said...

blair witch meets mt everest. you survived!

beth said...

Amazing trip! And, witty enough that I am compelled to trade my Manolos for durable Pumas and dare the feat myself. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Hey young man, your fan here from the Loire valley again.
thanks for the photo tour of the tour. You were missed.
Go forward and travel more! You represent our country well! Have a nice day, Mr. Ambassador

H.P.M. said...

damn, boy!

you make my chicago trip look like a milk run to 7-Eleven!

glad the Pumas made it through (love your labeldropping).

miss u.