Monday, August 10, 2009


Swine flu. Shining Path. Sunburns. Etcetera. Everyone we knew had some reason for us to cancel our trip to Peru. We couldn't argue with these points...we just interpreted them differently, applying a simple formula: perilous destination = high season discount. Our journey began at the unusual hour of 9pm, when we embarked for a 12:30am flight from JFK to Bogota, en route to Lima.

Having just finished a biography of JFK Jr., I can't say I understood why I was voluntarily boarding a 20 ton steel projectile on a 4000 mile ride through a dark abyss. But the danger wasn't without its sense of glamour. International spies travel at night, I told myself. Granted, with our overstuffed backpacks, waterproof hiking boots, and full array of Goretex accessories, we bore more resemblance to extras in an EMS photoshoot than characters in a James Bond film. I assured myself that that was precisely the point. The less we looked like real spies, the more real we were.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of night travel is also the most obvious- nobody else does it! We breezed through airport security with pre-9/11 efficiency. This left us plenty of time to gawk at the Port Authority armed guards standing ominously at our gate. We secretly hoped we'd bear witness to the dramatic arrest of a Colombian drug lord; as it turns out, this level of preparedness is standard procedure for planes arriving from Bogota.

We flew to Bogota on Avianca, Colombia's national airline. One might describe it as Spirit Air with the Latin flair of Spanish safety videos. With my 6'2 frame and mild claustrophobia, every millimeter of legroom counts. Unfortunately Avianca does not rank among the world's roomier airlines, but despite the parsimonious floor plan, we landed safely around 6am.

As a self-identified climate nerd, I was taken aback by Bogota. In my ignorance, I had lumped all of Central and South America into one massive banana republic, filled with sweltering jungle heat and insufferable humidity. At sea level, Bogota might have fulfilled that expectation, but at 8,000 feet, a blast of 50 degree morning air immediately roused our senses. When we first arrived, the landscape was shrouded in a thick fog. As morning progressed, the sun unveiled a green mountain landscape described by Eyal as no less than a temperate paradise.

In Bogota, we transferred to Peru's national airline, Lan, for our second flight to Lima. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the usual suspects of cultural diplomacy: McDonald's, Dunkin Doughnuts, Papa John's, and the like. However, we needn't take this as cold, impersonal capitalism robbing the earth of its diversity; these franchises certainly had a local twist. All employees were wearing face masks, apparently to protect themselves against the swine flu epidemic whose epicenter had recently shifted from Mexico to Peru. Perhaps the only thing more puzzling than the ubiquity of this accessory was the widespread belief that it would actually do something. It's not that Eyal and I didn't give it some consideration, but we ultimately decided that anything worthy of the McDonald's seal would be chemically sufficient to smite anything mother nature threw our way, viruses included.


Our final leg of the trip, from Lima to Cusco, was also the most dangerous. Because of afternoon fogs that strike without little notice, travelers are advised to fly in the morning. It was now 2pm. The landing in Cusco is preceded by a narrow mountain pass through which all planes must fly. I've never flown to St Bart's, but I'd imagine it's similar.

Fortunately, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and our descent into Cusco revealed a vast sea of adobe. With its red-brown hue, the city appeared to grow organically from the earth beneath it. The region's climate is dry, with sun-drenched, grassy hills reminiscent of California. The landscape is kaleidoscopic- a wheat field yellow by day, and a fiery sandstone red at sunset.

Like Florence or Athens, Cusco thrives on its former greatness. As the crown jewel of the Inca Empire and a key colonial center, Cusco is richly layered in history, literally. The destruction-savvy conquistadors tempered their carnage to preserve the masterful Inca stone masonry, which forms the foundations of many buildings in the central historic district.

To our surprise, we saw rainbow flags nearly everywhere we went. Not even Christopher Street or the Castro could compare. Had they known we were coming? Not quite...the rainbow flag is also a symbol of Inca identity. From local Christianity, I knew the Incas were masters of double-entendre, incorporating traditional symbols seamlessly into the western canon (for example, there's a famous painting of the Last Supper featuring roast guinea pig). Yet something told me this overlap was more coincidental than contrived.

We stayed in San Blas, a historic neighborhood with an artistic, bohemian vibe. Its narrow, one-way cobblestone streets had the look and feel of old-world Europe. In some cases, Cusco's urban planners had the prescience to include raised pedestrian walkways, but these were only about 12 inches wide. Consequently, a walk around the block is no mindless task, but a continual testing of fate!

Natural Resources

Exhausted from 20 hours of flying but eager to start exploring, we were both in need of a little pick-me-up. When we arrived at our hotel, our hostess offered us some "coca." Expecting Coca Cola, I cheerfully accepted. Instead, she brought us hot water steeped in coca leaves- yes, the same leaves that turn white and more powdery on their journey north. In this purer, legal, and less stimulating form, coca has sustained the Incas for centuries, and remains a first-course treatment for altitude sickness.

Coca might not be the salt of Peruvian cuisine, but at times it comes close. If you seek it out, you can have it in nearly anything. Before long, we sampled coca chocolate, coca ice cream, and coca bread. In San Blas, we even came across a coca store. With a long pony tail and a full beard, the proprietor had the look of a happy pirate who had cleaned up his act and decided to make an honest living. He had a little twinkle in his eye, and pranced from one coca treat to another with seemingly inexhaustible energy.

"The creative uses of coca are endless!" he raved, holding a small bowl of ground leaves. I nodded, smiled, and pointed to my nose. I was joking; he was immediately mortified. "Oh no! I don't support that!" he exclaimed and quickly changed the subject. In retrospect I can understand why my joke wasn't taken lightly, as I'm sure many a gringo has come a-knockin for a more processed form of Peruvian marching powder. But with a name like "Coca Shop"- he might just be asking for it!

If It Ain't Baroque

The next day Eyal and I put on our American tourist caps, with the express intent of covering as many 'greatest hits' as possible. We had about 12 hours and over 500 years of history of cover, so there wasn't much time to waste.

We purchased an all-access pass to Cusco's religious sites, including one cathedral, two churches, and a museum of religious art. All were built in the middle of the 17th century at the height of the Baroque period.

In full disclosure, I normally can't stand Baroque. It's the Renaissance on steroids; a train wreck of a sequel on par with Caddyshack II. If it's Baroque...please fix it. Tear it down, melt it, bury it- do anything besides permit it to continue in its gross excess. The local style known as Cusco Baroque, characterized by its "fear of unadorned spaces," brought me head-to-head with one of my strongest loathings.

The experience became an unexpected lesson in tolerance. By my third altar, endlessly intricate and gilt to the hilt, I began to appreciate this style in new found ways. Baroque's beauty, I meditated, is in precisely what I detest the most: its incomprehensibility. In these 30 foot golden monoliths, there was so much to take in- so much pattern, symbol, narration- that I would never fully grasp their meaning. I would never be able to grasp the wholeness of this altar, just as I would never fully comprehend the meaning of the Holy Trinity. There was another world within the altar- one which I could only partially understand- and that partial understanding only increased my desire to be a part of it.

My visit might not have converted me to Christianity, but it did convert me to Baroque.


Our evening culminated with a trip to Sacsayhuaman, the Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. Historically, Sacsayhuaman was a part of Cusco. The Incas built the city in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman representing its head. Sacsayhuaman exemplified the skill of Inca stonemasons. As the conquistadors once remarked, you can't wedge a knife in its crevices. Many of the stones were about my height, which begged the question: "How did y'all do this?"

Machu Picchu

Much has already been written about with ancient city of Machu Picchu. Its magical energy, breathtaking vistas, and harmonization of man and nature have been covered by many a scholar, and likely many a blogger. I'll spare these topics here, and focus on a few general impressions

It's widely agreed that images of Machu Picchu, or "the Mach" as Eyal calls it, fail to convey a sense of place. This is the beauty of the live experience- as each step taken reveals a new perspective.

I believe the heart of Machu Picchu lies in its most basic element: its terraces. Basking in their latent symbolism, one quickly forgets their agricultural function. Emerging seamlessly from the untamed jungles below, they might be taken to represent the evolution of man, now distinct from nature, but still very much a part of it.

In addition to the city itself, one of the site's most impressionable features is the adjacent mountain of Huayna Picchu. I stared blankly at Hauyna for about 15 minutes, pondering what exactly made this mountain so captivating. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides, which entropy has softened into worn, amorphous forms. In contrast, Huayna seems to defy nature with a sharp angularity that's withstood the ravages of time. Indeed, Huayna seems as timeless as the gods entreated at its summit, remaining eternally youthful.

On our way back to Cusco, Eyal surprised me with a trip on the Hiram Bingham, a luxury train managed by the Orient Express. From its dark wood panels to its highly mannered staff, the train lives and breathes opulence. Before we boarded, one butler handed us a moist towelette; 5 feet further, another butler collected them. This was our point of entry into a world of delicately calculated perfection. And perhaps best of all, a world of all-you-can-drink pisco sours! Here's me after three or four:


If Cusco represented Peru's past, Lima certainly embodied its present and future. Like many a capital in the developing world, it seems to have expanded without the auspices of urban planners. The population has grown significantly in recent years as the result of guerrilla violence in the countryside. We passed a few shanty towns en route from the airport, but otherwise our exposure to this side of Lima's history was limited.

Instead we headed to Mira Flores, a stylish neighborhood on a coastal bluff with spectacular views of the Pacific. We came to visit Enrique, a friend of mine from business school and a member of Peru's haut monde. Usually when I peruse the Sunday Styles section of the Times, I can at least take comfort in recognizing a name or two among society's notables. In the Peruvian equivalent, Enrique knew half of them personally. He lived in a penthouse apartment, tastefully decorated in a pastiche of antiques and Philippe Starck furniture.

We first went out to Panachita, a restaurant around the corner. It was a place where Peru's moneyed elite came to see and be seen. Interestingly, its clientele shared many features with the denizens of Manhattan's upper east side, including perma-tans, botox, and excessively blonde hair.

For better or worse, there were no available tables for the next hour, so we headed to La Mar, a contemporary seafood restaurant in Lima's equivalent to the East Village (presumably, this is where the children of Panachita's customer's ate). The ceviche was second to none, and we also got to sample several varieties of potato. Given how close potatoes are linked to brand Ireland, I was surprised to learn that their roots trace back to Peru, where thousands of varieties abound.

the bus

Our descent from Peruvian society was as swift as our debut, as we boarded an overnight bus headed for Huaraz that evening. Between Amtrak and Greyhound, my expectations for any form of ground transportation are abysmally low. This made my journey on Cruz del Sur unexpectedly fun in many ways.

For starters, they've learned the art of price discrimination, offering a first class cabin for those who delight in pampered bussing. At $26 per person, we readily paid. Our seats were spacious, plush leather recliners complete with beverage holder- the kind of chair you'd find in a suburban bachelor's TV room. A bit tacky, but oh so comfy.

Had we been cruising a bit faster, I would have thought I was on a plane. In lieu of air traffic control, headquarters monitored the progress and speed of each bus through a GPS system. In lieu of the TSA, Cruz monitored suspicious activity by videotaping all passengers before departure. We started by watching the world's longest instructional video on how to fasten a seat belt. Uniformed stewardesses cheerfully serve on-board meals. Above and beyond airlines, Cruz del Sur offers free wi-fi and a complimentary computer station, complete with internet and all Microsoft Office applications. Thank goodness, I had many spreadsheets to tabulate along the way.

In short, Cruz del Sur takes itself very seriously. I found this airline-wannabe style humorously quaint at first. However, had I known the terrain we were about to cover, I would have found that level of precaution warranted! Between Lima and Huaraz lie the foothills of the Andes mountains, which we would be traversing by night. I wasn't brave enough to pull back the curtains, but even in the absence of images, my anxiety skyrocketed as we collectively heaved left and right with each hairpin turn, knowing full well that about 2-3 feet stood between the roadside and a 1000 ft plummet.

This stormy ship ambiance might have been alleviated by showing something pleasant and soothing, like a Disney film from the 1950's or a documentary on the wonders of the deep. Instead we screened I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic drama starring everyone's favorite super hero, Will Smith.


We arrived in Huaraz at around 6am the following morning. The town has few traces of history, owing to a catastrophic earthquake in the 1970's. The number of dogs equals or exceeds the number of people. It was a sleepy provincial capital until relatively recently, when gold was discovered in its vicinity. This triggered an influx of rural poor, many who work on strip mines that chequer the vicinity.

Huaraz's tourism, like its economy, is defined less by the city than its surroundings. It's nestled between the shrub-peaked Cordillera Negra and the snow-peaked Cordillera Blanca. Over the next three days, we would take day treks into the Cordillera Blanca to acclimatise for our final destination: Vallunaraju.


Throughout much of Latin America, there seems to be a penchant for claiming a city for Christ by erecting a giant cross atop a nearby hill. Our first trek was up this token hill.

On our way up, we passed a group of local teenagers who cheerfully shouted "gringo! gringo!" Not that the label was undeserved. With polarized shades, smears of sunscreen across our faces, and sunhats the size of sombreros, we probably looked like a pair of fugitive albinos who had escaped from some local cave. Normally, the word 'gringo' has a negative tinge. If someone yelled "cracker! cracker!" to me in the US, I might take similar offense. But in Huaraz it is used positively. After this uncensored greeting, one of the girls even asked us to take a picture with us.

Our next two treks took us into the foothills of Villanuraju. Beginning each trek first entailed a 1-2 hour taxi ride (depending on the speed of the driver) up serpentine dirt roads that wind up the valley foot by foot.

The roads made me wonder if Peru had had its own recovery and reinvestment act. When driving up hills, there was a clear need for a gradual, winding ascent. However this pattern went on regardless of gradient- continuing uninterrupted as we entered plateaus. Perhaps once upon a time the cattle roamed this path and there was little need to change it. Perhaps Peruvians love to drive and seek to maximize the distance of each journey. Or, perhaps with the reinvestment act I imagined, more road = more recovery.

Or, perhaps the builders of these roads felt the same as Eyal and I - that with scenery this stunning, one should do everything possible to prolong the experience. The roads started through terraced wheat fields tended by women in traditional Andean garb. Beyond these rural farming communities, we ascended into a steppe region that was largely uninhabited, save a stray cow or two. From there, the Cordillera Blanca rose majestically before us. Narrow passes offered us peaks of the glacial universe awaiting us at higher altitudes.


Our three hikes were essentially warm-ups for our final ascent to the peak of Mt Villunaraju. Normally, a climb consists of a half day hike to the base camp (4500m), an evening nap, and a 2am departure for the summit (5600m), which was typically reached at sunrise. As aspiring mountaineers, we opted for an extended journey that included an extra day at the base camp to practice belaying, ice climbing, and other skills necessary for summits beyond the reach of mere footsteps.

Most people associate mountaineering as a highly austere sport. This is true, but not as austere as you might imagine. Our team consisted of two porters, our cook Augustin, and our guide, Beto. Even with the extra help, Eyal and I still shouldered about 80 pounds of equipment each.

Climbing Mount Villunaraju is similar to standing in line for a really popular amusement park ride. The trip is broken into fragments, and you never quite know how far along you are. Every turn of a corner and every hill yonder carries the hope of reaching your final destination; all but once, you're given yet another test of endurance.

Throughout the climb I played various mental games to keep myself in good spirits. When there were climbers below us, I pretended I was one of the Von Trapp family children in that final scene when they scurry up the Alps with the Nazis on their tail. After these climbers passed us, I resorted to cognitive-behavioral therapy. "This is an exercise in optimism" I repeated to myself. Cheesy and trite? Yes, but it worked for a while. Ultimately, with optimism fading and pure exhaustion coming to the fore, I scrapped aspirational mantras to focus on pure survival.

This sounds tragic, but it's my favorite part of climbing. It's the part when every muscle movement requires total concentration...when all you can do it focus your gaze on the one step ahead of you...when looking up will destroy you. Completing that one step becomes your only goal in life. Taking it bestows complete and utter victory- a victory that replenishes fully with each step taken.

I find this stage profoundly meditative. It reminds me that 99% of the time, my mind is wandering somewhere into the past or future. The time might be in 5 minutes or 5 years, the prognosis good or bad, but the state of being is nevertheless imagined, divorced from the here and now. I love the survival stage for the same reason I'm moved by a Richard Serra sculpture or the teachings of Shambhala Buddhism: for the radical focus on the present moment.

I also love this stage because I believe it points towards genuine happiness. To a lecture hall filled with MBA students, a professor of mine told us the key to happiness on no uncertain terms: set small, simple goals; achieve them; and repeat. I didn't believe it was that simple at the time. Even after I accepted this as true, I found myself continually in doubt. Life, after all, is largely defined by milestones. But, as this climb reminded me, it is lived by stepping stones. One step at a time, I found myself re-centered.