This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads’ Travel Writing Scholarship to Beijing. I didn’t make the top three, but I did make the shortlist.
Considering there were 1125 entries, I’m pretty excited about that! Here is a link to the World Nomads’ Page with the winning entries and complete shortlist.
The porter’s eyes twinkle as he passes me the soap. It’s dark along the Inca Trail, but moonlight fills the campsite as hikers prepare for bed. As I wash my hands, I ask his name. He winks when he hears my Spanish.
The name slides off his tongue into a soup of Quechua vowels.
I find a grassy spot to sit nearby. He hesitates, but approaches. We gaze at the starry sky. Looming mountains split the world into light and dark.
“Did you like dinner?” he asks, bridging the silence.
I nod, and ask if the porters had carried the trout all the way from Cuzco.
“We fished while you were napping.”
I blush. A lazy tourist, was that me? I thought I was tough for tackling a four-day trek, yet I’d hired someone to carry my gear.
“How long have you been a porter?”
He brushes aside his thick, black hair, tucking it under his “chullo.”
“Two years, but I’ve worked since I left home.”
“How old were you then?”
“Seven. Now, I’m 23.”
I pull at the threads of my alpaca sweater – a gringo tourist staple. We’re the same age, but my idea of work is sitting in an office, making more an hour than he does in two days.
“Why so young?”
“All of us children were sent to Cuzco to work.”
Avoiding his stare, I let my eyes fall to our legs, which almost touch at the knees. My feet glow in the night, but his are black; dry mud cakes his knockoff Adidas sandals.
“I’m studying to be a guide,” he continues.
I ask what he’s learning and he clasps my hand eagerly.
“English and Inca culture. History is my favourite.” He glances down, dropping my hand. My fingers tingle with the imprints of his calluses.
“I studied history too, in Canada.”
Aderlin sweeps his hand across the horizon. “Here, we follow a path that’s over 500 years old. Isn’t it the most beautiful place to work?”
I smile and tilt my head back. I search for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia but for me the southern sky is an unmarked map. Aderlin explains that Quechua people find constellations in the spaces between stars. “Urcuchillay” the llama, and “Mach’acuay” the serpent. I squint to make out these shapes but I fail to see beyond the shadows.
When a cool breeze picks up, I wish Aderlin goodnight. At five the next morning, I’m woken by a soft call at the flap of my tent. Aderlin carries a tray with cups of coca-leaf tea.
“Your mate, miss.”
He gives me a steaming cup. I don’t see him again until he hustles past on the steep Inca stairs, a 20-kg duffel bag bouncing on his back and a grin on his face.
The main attraction in Arequipa, the “White City” of Peru, is the Santa Catalina convent. It’s an enormous complex located in the heart of the historic city centre.
Numerous buildings and rooms are connected by small streets named after famous Spanish cities. The convent is one of the most important religious structures in Peru, and is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Santa Catalina Convent is run by an order of Dominican nuns.
It was established in 1579, only shortly after the Spanish conquest of Peru.
The convent was expanded in the 17th century.
The interior of one of the chapels.
This is one of the historic kitchens in the convent.
The buildings are constructed from sillar, a volcanic stone from the volcanoes that surround Arequipa.
Most of the exterior walls are brightly-painted.
Carla was my wonderful tour guide; a friend I met through Couchsurfing.
The daughters of many wealthy Spanish families entered the convent, and had to pay a dowry to do so.
The perfect time to visit the convent is in the late hours of the afternoon, just as the sun begins to set.
Arequipa, Peru. Haven’t heard of it? While it may not be as widely known as Lima, Cuzco, or Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a major Peruvian city with a lot to offer travelers. Located in the south of the country (a few hours from the famous Nazca lines), Arequipa is home to close to a million inhabitants.
It’s known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), a nod to the stunning white architecture that fills the city centre. These buildings were constructed with sillar, white volcanic stone from the three volcanoes that loom over the city — the most prominent being “El Misti”, which is pictured above. Partially because of the colour of the stone, but also because of the colonial and heavy Catholic influence in the architecture, Peruvians consider Arequipa to be one of the most Spanish or Mestizo cities in the country. There is much less outright indigenous influence than in a place like Cuzco, for example.
That may sound nice, but what is there to actually see and do in Arequipa?
I arrived in Arequipa on a bus straight from La Paz, Bolivia, a city that had overwhelmed me with its chaos. I have to sheepishly admit that I completely embraced Arequipa for its modernity, and tourist-friendly atmosphere. Arequipa is a city fit for tourists of all types and budgets, not just hippy backpackers. It has luxurious hotels, high-class restaurants, and even plenty of air-conditioned malls with western-style gyms. However, you’ll still find plenty of local eateries, budget hotels and hostels, and family-run businesses.
Here are some of my recommendations on how to spend your time in Arequipa:
1. Walk the City Centre: The historic centre occupies roughly a five-block diameter of the city. It’s easily accessible, and safe to walk around in. There are plenty of small museums, and some converted mansions which you can view. It’s great to just wander the streets, and observe the activity. The hub of the centre is the Plaza de Armas, the main square. In true colonial tradition, the square is dominated by the cathedral, but it’s also filled with hawkers, and promotion people who work for various tourism companies. Most will try to sell you packaged tours to the Colca Canyon, Cusco, or Lake Titicaca. Try to avoid them by sticking to the side streets, which are almost equally beautiful and full of small shops.
2. See a Frozen Inca Princess: Ever seen a mummy? How about an Inca mummy? Although the Museo Santuarios Andinos may seem a bit pricey, (20 soles), it’s a worthwhile experience. “Juanita” is the name given to the frozen, preserved body of a young sacrificial victim, who was found by an anthropologist in 1995. Her corpse was discovered high on the volcano Ampato, and now resides in this museum. Watch a short documentary, see some of the artifacts that were buried with her, and learn a bit more about Inca history.
3. Tour the Santa Catalina Convent: One of the best pieces of advice I got about Arequipa was from Carlita, a local who I met through Couchsurfing. She told me that I should visit the convent in the late afternoon, about an hour and a half before sunset. This way, I could take photos and see the site both in daylight, and during the magnificent sunset. Established in 1579 (only a few decades after the Spanish conquest), the entire complex was built out of sillar. (Most of it has been painted a beautiful blue or reddish-pink.) Although part of it is still in use, the majority of the convent was opened to the public in 1970. Don’t forget to climb up the stairs onto the roof to view the sunset! (Give yourself lots of time here; there’s plenty to see).
4. Have a Rooftop Drink: If you visited the convent earlier in the day, you can always catch the sunset at one of the many rooftop bars in the Plaza de Armas. One of the best views is from the restaurants in the upper-right corner of the plaza, if you’re facing the cathedral.
5. Take a Cooking Course: Peruvian Cooking Experience is a fantastic company that is located in Hotel Casa Avila, just a six or seven minute walk from the main plaza. The class I took cost 45 soles, and was some of the best money I spent on my entire trip. There are a few different menus you can choose from (classic, Andean, and seafood), and they also cater to vegetarian students. In my class, we cooked the Andean Menu: Soltero de Queso, (a cheese and corn salad), Rocoto Relleno (see below), and Pastel de Papas (potatopie). My class began at 11 AM, and ended at 2. Book ahead of time, here.
6. Eat and Drink!: Arequipa is home to some very popular Peruvian dishes, such as Rocoto Relleno, Rocoto hot peppers stuffed with a mixture of beef, raisins, eggs, cheese, peas, carrots, milk, and potatoes. These have a real kick to them, but are probably my favourite Peruvian dish! Soltero de Queso is another popular dish here. It’s a tasty, brightly-coloured salad, with lots of cheese, corn, lima beans, onions, tomatoes, carrots, all tossed with a lime dressing. (For more Peruvian food, see my list of some of my favourites.) When you’ve had your fill, wash everything down with some Pisco Sour, a famous cocktail made with egg whites, lime, and Pisco alcohol. If you’re looking for a mid-range restaurant and want something less traditional, visit Crepisimo (right by the convent). It has a beautiful courtyard, so eat outside.
7. Couchsurf: Arequipa has some great couchsurfers, and this is one city where it’s nice to go out and meet people. I met up with Carla and Carlos during my stay here, and both were eager hosts who were more than willing to show me the city. Carlita also introduced me to spicy versions of Pisco Sours — the best way to cool off on a warm afternoon! 😉
8. Hike the Colca Canyon or El Misti Volcano: The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, and is home to the Andean Condors, which can be spotted from the Cruz del Condor lookout point. El Misti is the volcano that towers over Arequipa. I did not do these myself, because I had to hurry over to Cuzco for the start of my Inca Trail trek, but all of my friends who have done it, loved them. Give yourself a couple of days for either of these excursions, and make sure you compare prices before booking. You can do the Colca Canyon on your own, but you need a guide for the volcano. Expect to pay around 150 soles for a 3-day (2-night) Colca Canyon tour.
There are many, many more things to do in Arequipa, whether you’re looking for culture, history, or adventure tourism. Get out there, and explore. Give yourself at least two or three days in the city, and two or three more for nearby excursions.
Where to Stay: I stayed at the Arequipay Backpackers’ Hostel, and loved it. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the main plaza, and right down the street from the Peruvian Cooking Experience.
Out of all of the countries I have visited, nowhere is as popular with my readers as Peru. I’ve gotten lots of messages asking for advice on itineraries, places to stay, and the logistics of Peruvian travel. To makes things easier for you, I’ve decided to compile some of my tips in a series of posts: “My Quick Travel Guide to Peru.” I hope it’s a useful reference for you, but of course, feel free to contact me if you have any other questions!
Here are my accommodation suggestions, based on the places I visited and stayed in in Peru:
Arequipa: You HAVE to stay at Arequipay Backpacker’s Hostel. I think there are two hostels with a similar name, but this is the one:. It’s fantastic and cheap. The place is extremely clean (they probably cleaned the bathrooms every 15 minutes), and well organized. Best of all, there is a great cooking class right around the corner from this hostel. I can’t recommend the hostel or class enough.
Cusco: Because I made several trips to Cusco, I stayed in two different hostels there. My top pick is Ecopackers Hostel. It’s in a fantastic location, just off the Plaza de Armas (main square), and is a five-minute walk from the San Pedro Market. The prices are affordable, and the breakfast is good. I stayed in the 18-person dorm, which sounds crowded, but I found it to be a large enough room that I didn’t notice all of the people. The only problem (and this goes for any hostel in Cusco) is that you are often woken up at 4 AM by people getting up to leave on a trek to Machu Picchu, as the treks always leave in the early morning. My other choice for Cusco is Kokopelli. While both are slight (but not extreme) party hostels, Kokopelli has a more hippy vibe. It has fantastic artwork everywhere, which is often created by the guests. A really good breakfast as well, but a bit further from the plaza.
Huacachina: Stay in Huacachina, not Ica. Desert Nights hostel is simple, and the accommodation is nothing special, but they have the BEST food in their restaurant. It’s a super touristy menu, but the portion sizes are enormous and a great value for the (tourist-priced) prices. It may seem like pricey food, but trust me, it will be the best western food you eat in Peru. (And hopefully the only?)
Lima:HQ Villa hostel! This place is only $6 per night, and is an old converted villa. It’s gorgeous! But, I would spend an extra dollar or two and get a ten person dorm or smaller, because the twelve can get a bit noisy with people waking you up early in the morning. Great breakfast here! It’s on the edge of Miraflores neighbourhood, but it’s only about a 25-minute walk to Parque Kennedy.
Mancora: Mancora is a surfing, party town. Any hostel here will do its best to live up to that reputation. I was only there for a day (by accident), and wasn’t there to party, but I still liked the vibe of Kokopelli Hostel. If Carlos Enrique and his dog Pisco are still on staff, tell them I say hi!
Paracas: This place is small, with only one main street, and there are only a few options. There are a couple places called Paracas Bacpackers’ Hostel, but this is the one you want to stay at. The owner is a very, very friendly older man named Alberto, who will go out of his way to help you book tours and figure things out.
Puerto Maldonado: What I would tell you to do here is to either fly or take a bus here, arriving early in the morning, and then go at once to a tour company. If you can, pre-book a tour, or try to be there before eight or nine so that you can leave that day. I did a three-day Amazon tour with Carlos Expeditions, and thought that the accommodation and tour was fantastic.
Puno: Avoid this city, if you can. It’s ugly, touristy, and not worth an overnight stay. If you do go, do NOT stay at Hotel Empejador. We got into a big hassle with the hotel when we booked our bus tickets through there.
For my final post of 2012, I wanted to find an image that captured both the places I’ve been this year, and the feelings that my travels have induced.
I came across this howler monkey in a Lima zoo (all things considered, the conditions there exceeded my expectations). His eyes and the expression on his face seemed so human, so pensive.
That’s exactly how the last ten months have found me — lost in thought. As I’ve traveled, I’ve encountered an endless list of new places, people, and cultures. All of these experiences have left me time to reevaluate my own life. What is important to me? Where do I want to be ten years from now? What type of people do I want in my life?
Sometimes, this thinking has reinforced values that I’ve always held. Other times, I’ve come to surprising conclusions. At different stages in my trip, my perspective has shifted, as things like dancing, friends, family, Holland, Canada, writing, and history struggle to win priority in my life.
The most important thought that has stayed with me throughout this journey is this: right now, I am completely happy. My life amazes me.Every day, I wake up, happy to be where I am, and the person that I am. And that is an attitude that I’m determined to bring home next week, and carry forward with me.
We all deserve a happy life. Make sure you’re living one.
Here’s to 2013, our next chance to live the life we want to live.
“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown.
— The Friendly Beasts, Christmas Carol
As Christmas gets closer and closer, I’ve started to see countless nativity scenes (“El nacimiento”) pop up around South America. But, since I’m a bit out of the Christmas element this year, the friendly beasts of the dioramas are actually reminding me of one of my favourite Inca Trail moments.
I shot this photo at Wayllabamba, my first-night stop on the Inca Trail. We shared the campsite with a donkey, dog, and a few loose chickens and pigs. This building was next to the cooking area for the porters on our trek. The lady who lived here ran a tiny shop (pictured on the left), but it was the other room that caught my attention.
When I peeked through the door on the right, I saw a bed, and about twenty guinea pigs (cuy) scurrying around the floor. This week’s dinner. Have I mentioned that I’ve tried said Peruvian delicacy? Roasted and eaten whole. Not my cup of tea, to say the least.
Maybe I jinxed myself. On Wednesday, I had marveled at the fact that I had been traveling South America for nine months and nothing had been stolen. Sure, I’d had some close calls: someone tried to walk off the bus with my friend’s bag one day (Cory caught him red-handed), and there have been numerous times in which locals have warned me that someone had just attempted to rob me, but had been warded off by my habit of keeping my hand over the zippers of my purse.
I wanted to go back home with all my belongings intact, not so much because I valued my possessions, but simply because I wanted to prove to people that you can backpack South America alone and be just fine, as long as you’re careful and use some common sense.
“Don’t start preaching just yet about South America,” I told myself. “You still have one month left.”
The very next day, I got robbed.
So what happened?
On Thursday afternoon, I went to meet someone for lunch in Lima. I arrived “early” (by Peruvian standards), so I grabbed a seat at the only free table, right in the doorway. I sent a quick text saying that I had arrived, and placed my cellphone on the table to await the reply. Because I had my SLR camera and wallet in my bag, I kept everything else on my lap, but I took out my iPod to pass the time.
Just then, three boys (maybe 18-21?) entered the restaurant in hopes of selling some caramels for a few cents. This is a common occurrence in Peru, so I just ignored them. As they were leaving, one of them stopped at my table and started waving the bag of candy directly in my face, pleading with me to buy some. I thought he assumed that I had lots of change to spare since I was holding an iPod. The other two boys came up behind me and started waving their bags around as well, while I shooed them away.
Immediately, I had a bad feeling, and did a quick check of my bag to make sure I still had everything. But wait… I had left my phone on the table — where was it?!
I jumped up and looked outside, where the boys were walking calmly down the street.
“¡Me acaban de robar mi celular!” I exclaimed to the restaurant owner.
“No, lo tienes. Fíjate bien tus cosas.” — No, you have it. Take a good look through your stuff.
When I finally convinced the guy that I had indeed been robbed, he was utterly useless.
“Ya se fueron.” — They’re gone.
They weren’t gone. They were still less than 100 meters away. But the owner said there was nothing we could do; it would be dangerous to follow them. He was right about that. If I ran after them, they could take my camera or iPod, which were far more valuable than my $100 non-smartphone.
By this point, two female customers came to my aid. They borrowed a phone to call the police, and then tried calling my phone. Apparently, sometimes these thieves will pick up and ask for money in return for the phone. Sadly, no answer.
Five minutes later, a security patrol showed up, and I went riding around, searching for the boys. By this time, they were long gone, so I headed to the police station to file a report. Because I was leaving Peru the next morning, it seemed a bit silly, but I needed it to later make an insurance claim.
While the theft was quick and stealthy, there are still a few factors that led to me getting robbed.
1) Being in a familiar place: We all tend to let our guard down where we’re somewhere familiar. I had come to this same restaurant for lunch almost every day for a month. (Hey — they had a typical $2.30 USD menu with a different appetizer/entree each day — don’t blame me). Because of that, I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings, and had even gotten accustomed to leaving my phone out, something I almost never do.
2) Sitting near the exit: This is the first thing the female customers said to me after the incident. “Never, sit by the doorway in a Peruvian restaurant.” You become an easier target.
3) Letting myself get distracted: This is hard to control. Lauren and I had a similar “distraction” experience in Buenos Aires, in which someone squirted mustard all over us in the metro. (Because this is a common European gypsy trick, I assume it had bad intentions.) We checked our stuff before anyone could take anything. So, the important thing is to get in the habit of keeping a hand on your bag or wallet whenever a stranger approaches you. This way, if your mind is being distracted, at least you have a physical guard against robbery.
4) Not yelling for help: I noticed instantly that something had been stolen, and I probably could have stopped the boys by screaming for help. It was a busy street, with lots of shops and traffic, so there’s a good chance that someone would have intervened. (Or maybe not — Peruvians/Brazilians are quite cautious because of the risk of concealed weapons). So why didn’t I yell? The restaurant owner telling me that my phone was still somewhere in my bag threw me off, which delayed any chance of reaction.
In the end, I wouldn’t say that this incident was necessarily my fault. I’m always extremely cautious and walk with my hand over my bag. But, this was a case of me letting my guard down and not knowing how to react.
Does this mean that Peru is a dangerous place? Not exactly. While Peru has a high incidence rate of petty theft, I still believe that you’re almost as likely to get pick-pocketed or robbed in countries like Italy or Spain as you are in South America. Wherever you go, even if it’s just outside your front door, you need to be careful and be aware.
If I had a dream-date bucket list, a December night at the Nutcracker Ballet would top it. At any time of year, I love listening to Tchaikovsky while taking a bubble bath, but when the holiday season comes around, I have non-stop visions of sugarplums dancing through my head. Tutu-clad sugarplum fairies, that is.
Yet, despite years of longing, I’d never once been to see the Nutcracker, and the last place I expected to have this happen was in Peru, a country with 25-degree Christmases. But, on Sunday night, I found myself in Lima’s magnificent Teatro Municipal, sitting next to Scott, a dancer from the Peruvian National School of Ballet. (If you’re going to fulfill a life-long dream, who better to do so with than a professional insider?!)
The ballet was beautiful, nothing short of my expectations. I had previously met a couple of the lead dancers — classmates of Scott — which made it extra special. The music, in turn, captivated my imagination. It brought me back to Christmas Eves with my cousins, gathered around my Grandma’s television and watching the “Waltz of the Flowers “on a Disney Christmas VHS. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a live symphony, but apparently it was out of the budget.
“The city pays for the ballet.” Scott explained. “Most dancers earn a monthly salary of 1400 soles ($542 USD), while the top dancers earn 1800 ($698 USD).”
This is above the average Peruvian monthly salary, which was 1274 soles ($494 USD) in 2011. (According to this news site, the difference between male and female average incomes was 500 soles!) However, this still isn’t high, and reflects the limited government support of the fine arts. Despite this, patronage of the arts has been improving dramatically. In 2008, a decade after being almost completely destroyed by a fire, the Teatro Municipal was finally reconstructed. Furthermore, this year marked the opening of a modern, $110 million National Theatrein Lima, a venue designed to hold almost 1500 people. This theatre offers a wonderful opportunity for the expansion of Peruvian arts, but my question is: will citizens show their support?
What struck me the most about my night at the Municipal Theatre, was that less than a quarter of the red, plush seats were occupied. The performance began on the 29th, and continues until December 15th, but if the theatre is already this empty on the fourth night, how can the show run for so long?
My initial thought was that Peruvians can’t afford the entrance price. But ticket prices for the Nutcracker go as low as 20 soles ($7.75 USD), and I’ve seen ticket prices at the National Theatre for even less. I paid 30 soles for my seat on the top level, and could see perfectly fine. So, while 20 soles may be a lot for a lower-class Peruvian, there is still a huge chunk of the population that should be able to afford it.
“Peruvians don’t appreciate culture. Most would rather spend the 30 soles to go see a 3D movie,” Scott remarked. “Once, my friends had a performance that only three people showed up for, so they had to go out into the street and offer free tickets just to build up an audience.”
For me, this is a real pity, but I also recognize that the decline of fine arts is a reality for many places around the world. In a day and age when video games and PVR programming are constantly within hands’ reach, the tradition of theatre and visual arts struggles to stay afloat. With beautiful, new venues such as the Teatros Municipal and Nacional, I can only hope that Limeños can soon find it in them to put down that remote and head out for a night at the theatre.
For an idea of what I experienced Sunday night, check out this video of Lima’s Municipal Theatre Company performing “Cascanueces.”