Staff Adventures - Ryan Cassels-Conway - Peru

My girlfriend and I knew we wanted to go on a trip, we just didn’t know where. We wanted adventure and culture shock and we wanted to go far. We had decided to take a week off, and use weekends to bookend that week leaving us with nine days to adventure. Our time off had crept up on us quickly and both being busy with work we had yet to make a plan of any sort. It was Wednesday night and had planned to leave the upcoming Friday night or Saturday morning. With no plan yet we sat down, opened up google flights and started typing destinations. We tried destination after destination, but the prices, travel time and flight options left us somewhat hopeless, so we called it a night.

Thursday after work we were back at it. We tried to make plans for Ecuador, Chile, South Africa, Nicaragua, Dominica and a handful of small islands. Nothing quite worked. Once again, we called it a night without having a plan for a trip we were supposed to leave on tomorrow. The next morning, I lay in bed when my girlfriend ran into our room from the kitchen. “Want to go to Peru?” she asked. We had tried to find flights to Peru earlier, but for some reason early this morning the price of the flights dropped in half. We later found out this was probably due to strikes in the transportation industry going on there. We booked the flight immediately and were set to leave at 5 am the next morning. To Lima, Peru it is!

Since we sought adventure, we wanted to head towards the Andes and an area called the Sacred Valley. The city of Cusco is the gateway there. So after we landed in Lima we took a short flight to Cusco. The taxi dropped us off at a hostel as the sun set. It was beautiful and cost next to nothing. After we dropped off our backpacks and we tried the cocoa tea in the lobby, which was said to help with the effects of the high elevation, we went out to explore.

Two blocks away was the town square. It was surrounded by churches, smelled like warm tobacco. You got a sense of the cities age as you felt the smooth, weathered stone streets under your feet. It was the most romantic place I had ever been.

The next day we went and explored the hills nearby to find ruins of the Temple of Monkeys. On top of the ruins, a Peruvian man sat and played tunes that perfectly matched the surroundings. We hung out and listened to him for a while before we headed back to the town square. On our way down we found small roadside shop that sold “choclo con queso”, which is Peruvian corn that has huge kernels served hot with a block of alpaca cheese. We sat and ate it on a terrace that overlooked the city of Cusco. It was hard to believe just 48 hours prior we had no destination and our trip looked a bit hopeless.

To reach our goal of Machu Pichu we were told to travel to Ollantaytambo where we would later take a train to a town at the base of Machu Picchu called Aguas Calitente. Upon arrival to Ollantaytambo, after a somewhat sketchy taxi ride, our nerves were immediately settled such a culturally rich little town filled with three wheeled motorcycle taxis, guides who had just returned from the Inca Trail and many traditionally dressed Peruvians in bright colors, we knew we would need to spend more time here.

We hopped out, found the first hostel we could and started to roam the narrow streets - that passed through the beautiful square and stone houses. A narrow channel of water flowed through the whole town. We were told the Incans engineered this to run from a spring off the mountain and pass by all the houses and watched as people scooped jugs of water, or washed dirty clothes as the water rushed by.

We were scheduled to take the train to Aguas Calitene to see Machu Pichu before sunrise the next morning, and had gotten directions to the train in Spanish from one of the locals. It seemed easy enough. At 4am we were all set with our headlamps on as we started to casually walk in the direction we were told. As we walked, and got closer and closer to the time of our departing train, we really picked up the pace. We  must have misunderstood the distance, maybe it was a 10 minute car ride, not a walk? We fully ran down the dirt road, eager to make the train, when we heard the train coming from basically where we started our walk. At that moment we knew our lack of fluency and preparation lead us down the wrong path. 

We headed back to town disappointed, only to be reminded that we were in one of the most beautifully calm towns in the world. We shared a cup of coffee, and renewed our thirst for adventure and exploration. We spent the rest of the day at a nearby salt mine, which wasn’t something that I had much interest in, until I got there. It was overwhelming and proof that adventure can be found anywhere.

The next morning it was comical to learn that the train was roughly 200 yards away from our hostel when the day before we had walked about 2 miles in the wrong direction. Either way, we were finally going to make it to Machu Picchu. With our trip planned on such short notice we weren’t able to hike the Inca trail, but we were fortunate enough to get access into the ruins and permission hike the mountain. The hike was a rocky narrow path with rugged steps carved in stone or steps made of precariously stacked rocks getting significantly steeper as you climbed. There were some passes you would take that would leave knees weak when you looked over the edge to see the mountain fall away below you. That morning the whole mountain was socked in with fog, but as we got closer to the top the fog seemed to rise with us, and the views of the neighboring mountain of Huayna Picchu and the surrounding landscape was unreal.

Between the mountain peaks, you can explore the ancient ruins. The precision that the Incans would cut the huge stones making up their houses and buildings was astonishing. Just the thought of having to move them into place without any modern tools blew my mind. There was a large rock where they would give sacrifice to their three gods, the serpent, that represented the underworld, the puma which was the earth, and the condor for the heavens. The whole place was designed so precisely with a water system that flowed through the whole town and terraces the Incans built to stabilize the buildings and to grow food on the mountainous land.

The day after Machu Picchu, we signed up with a non-profit group called Awamaki. Awamaki works with master Quechua weavers, which are groups of Incan descendants who live in the mountains, still speak the Incan languge of Quechwa and weave amazing textiles all by hand. The group connects them to global markets and people like us, so that they are not forced into poverty through middlemen. We spent the day at their home where through a translator they explained their whole weaving process. It starts with an extravagant ceremony to sheer alpacas. Then they spin the wool by hand using a wooden spool. They let us try and it was seriously tough. Once the yarn is spun they use all natural ingredients to dye the yarn, like dead beetles harvested from the side of cacti that make a bright red, and salts found only in these mountains for purple coloration. Then they taught us the basics of weaving. The whole process takes so much skill and is very labor intensive. We were so stoked to just make one bracelet.

The day we were there was actually their thanksgiving. The Quechua family served us an amazing meal of soups, pancakes, and a full plate of fresh fish. For these families, it is a custom to eat guinea pig, which they don’t keep in cages instead they roam free around the floor of kitchen. Whenever they are ready to eat, they just scoop one up and throw it in a pan!

When we got back to Lima we had several hours to spare before our flight so we decided to head to Mira Flores and go to the beach and hopefully surf. By the time we got there the wind was blowing strong and the on shore flow made it impossible so we decided to wander around aimlessly instead.

I plan to head back to Peru one day. There is so much more to be seen. I feel like my girlfriend and I only got a small taste. If you are looking for adventure, Peru can definitely serve it up. All it takes is a little patience and a spirit for adventure.

-Ryan Conway  Marketing Coordinator  @conway_cassels