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Southern Peru (Oct. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 8:48 PM by Gerick Bergsma

As many of you know, one of the reasons I chose to travel to South America was to brush up on my Spanish.  In that regard, I think I have been afforded one of the best compliments I have ever received.  It began with a typical bus ride along the Peruvian coast.  As I arrived, fresh out of Lima, in the small seaside village of Pisco, I was accosted by the usual gang of tour agency representatives, taxi drivers and hostel owners, all trying to convince me that I was in desperate need of their services.  As anyone who has traveled knows, one of the first questions anyone asks you is, "Where are you from?" undoubtedly to best gauge the amount they can attempt to cheat you out of, and true to form, as the agents lined up in front of me, the first words out of the first one's mouth was, "Where are you from?" 


Having answered that question on countless occasions, each time knowing full well that a truthful answer only meant being charged ten times the actual rate, and having just gotten off of another eight hour bus ride, I really was not in the mood to repeatedly hear the same routine about how my hostel is more comfortable or how my tour agency will give you the best rate, and quickly replied, "where do you think I am from?" 


Immediately, the agent rolled his eyes, and declared, "Oh, you are Peruvian," where upon the rest of the pack immediately turned their attentions to the other wearied tourists coming off of the bus.  I paused for a moment, thinking that I had somehow just been insulted, and then realized that I had just accomplished what many travelers only dream of.   Somehow the bright yellow North Face pack on my back and the Tamrac camera bag slung over my shoulder had not marked me as a foreigner.  I was blending in!  I had had hints of my transformation all along the way.   Several people had thought I was Colombian while I traveled in Ecuador, and in the Galapagos one person even thought I might be from mainland Ecuador.  Through much of northern Peru, people had asked me if my family was from Costa Rica, Spain or even Ecuador, but never had anyone assumed that I was a local - a Latin-American tourist, yes, but not an honest to goodness paisano, the holy grail of tourists and language students worldwide.  Now, for the first time, I had been mistaken for a local, and the tables had turned.  Tour operators beware, I was now working covertly.   I had arrived, and basked in the glow of my small triumph for several seconds before, realizing that a Peruvian client was better than no client at all, the horde of tour operators and hostel owners again surrounded me, handing me the little photocopied pamphlets advertising their wares.


It is difficult to say when you reach a moment when your life truly changes.  It is constantly molding and flowing, and abrupt changes are rare, but I can say that after that day, I have definitely handled myself a little differently.  To truly appreciate the new, Latinized Gerick, though, one must follow my journey through Peru, and witness the birth and growth of someone who, possibly, could be a local.  My journey through Peru has been decidedly different from my travels in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, I spent most of my time with locals, avoided heavily touristed areas as much as possible, and really met few foreigners.  Having heard about the dangers of Peru, however, I decided to stick to the trail more followed, and as such have come across many more fellow tourists.  Starting with Josh in northern Peru, and continuing throughout, I have been hanging out more with the tourists, and as such have taken the role of translator and group leader more often.  When surrounded with nothing but locals, the differences are bound to stand out more, but being associated with other foreigners, perhaps being seen as a translator or guide, I have been able to finally transcend my foreign roots and become, at least in the eyes of one tour agency representative, just another Peruvian.


On that fateful bus to Pisco, I had sat next to an English Archeologist.  He spoke Spanish well, but with a strong Spain accent, his father coming from Madrid.  He told me about some of the ruins in Peru, comparing them to many of the sites in Greece and the Middle East.  He was an interesting bloke, but had an odd inspiration for traveling.  He was going to places he had heard of on a board game he played in his youth.  He was friendly, and we talked about the places we wanted to visit while in Pisco.  Upon arrival, though, after I was declared a Peruvian, he became the focus of the agents' attention, and they viscously descended upon him.  In the frenzied attack, I only saw a pack slung over a shoulder, perhaps a hand reaching out of the multilingual fury, and then the backs of the horde as they shuffled him out of the station, leaving only scattered brochures fluttering in their wake.  Another soul devoured by the pack.  As he was dragged off to one hostel, and as some of the glaring agents' eyes began to turning to me, I quickly befriended another English couple, Darren and Claire, who were intently warding off the swarm of touters as they hastily looked for a place to stay in their travel guide.  They found one that sounded nice, and I followed them to the pleasant courtyard of the hostel where we stayed, all the while listening to the appeals of a travel agency representative trying to sell me his tour package.  We arrived at our rooms and relaxed for a moment, recovering from the bus arrival frenzy that with which I had become all too familiar.


The main reason to come to Pisco is to visit the seabird nesting colonies on the Islas Ballesta, and to visit the Paracas National Reserve nearby.   To get there, you have to go on an organized tour, so, despite my distaste for the propaganda I was about to subject myself to, I went out in search of a tour agency that could get me a ride out to the islands.  It just so happened that the same tour operator that had mistaken me for a Peruvian coming off of the bus had been the one trying to talk me into a tour the entire way to the hotel.  When I descended to the lobby, he was still waiting there, so I asked him about the tours to the islands.  We talked for a bit, and I ended up purchasing a combined Islas Ballesta and Paracas Reserve tour, and I am proud to say, for a bit less than most of the other tourists paid on that tour.  That night, I shared a room with another Englishman, a bird watcher who spent six months out of each year bird watching around the world.  Of course we hit it off immediately, and we talked well into the night about bird watching and ecological problems around the world.


Bright and early the next morning, I prepared for the tour.  Claire and Darren had also purchased the same tour, so we boarded the microbus that took us to the docks for our tour of the islands.  We picked up a few more tourists, arrived at the docks, and boarded the speedboat that took us out to the islands.  On the way out we viewed the Candelabra, a large design similar to the Nazca Lines, carved into the hillside by the Paracas civilization.  We then continued to the islands, a short ways out.


The islands were spectacular.  Thousands of Peruvian Boobies, Guanay Cormorants, Inca Terns, Brown Pelicans and various gulls were perched along the islands' cliffs.  The beaches were covered with thousands of sea lions, and Humboldt penguins could be seen hopping along the waterside boulders.  The islands are also important for guano harvest.  Every four years, the excrement of the thousands of seabirds is collected and sold as fertilizer.  This was apparently a harvest year, as dozens of workers could be seen scraping the guano off of the rocks, and piling bags of the nitrate and phosphate rich guano onto barges.  Not exactly my dream job, but at $100 per bag, the harvest is an important part of the local economy.  For an hour, we cruised around the island, darting into coves, and around magnificent arches and caves eroded into the rocks.  One cave, inside of which hundreds of sea lions barked, also housed bats that reputedly fed on sea lion blood.  We returned to port, and then boarded the microbus for our tour of the Paracas reserve.


About the only word that can accurately describe the Paracas reserve is desolate.  Miles and miles of nothing but sand.  Desert followed by more desert with dunes extending beyond the horizon.  Barely any sign of life anywhere, barren, dusty and dry.  One at first wonders why this area would be declared a reserve, until you arrive at the seashore.  The reserve extends well offshore, protecting a spectacular array of marine life.  Our first stop was a small bay where Chilean flamingos could be seen in the distance.  We continued to a sandy beach where we walked to a rocky intertidal, and what miracles should I behold but rocks covered in chitons!  The species I was not familiar with, genus Chiton I believe, but their beautiful octet shells dotted the shore.  We don't have any common chitons of the genus Chiton in the Pacific Northwest, so it was rather exciting for me.  There was lots of other stuff there as well, tons of grapsus crabs, megabalanus barnacles, anemones, and even some cucumbers that lived beneath the sand and extended their tentacles out to feed (similar to cucamaria, but with dark purple tentacles).  There were also many Littorines (yes, Robin and Julie, they rule the high intertidal even down here), Tegula and various cowrie shells all along the rocks and beach.  Behind the beach, cliffs displaying gorgeous lamination patterns rose to the desert above.


Our tour concluded, and a pair of Italian flight attendants, Manuela and Sara, invited me and an Australian lawyer that was also on the tour, Alex, out for a drink.  We all went out, befriended another Italian, Mauro, and spent the evening talking about international popular culture and teasing me (the waitress seemed to have a fondness for Americans, and Mauro a particular distaste for American pop culture and country music).  The next day, as I arrived to board the bus for Nazca, I was delighted to find that Darren, Claire, Manuela, Sara, Alex and Mauro were all on the same bus, along with Matthew and Lucy, the English couple I had befriended in Trujillo, who had now been joined by Lucy's mother, Gwen.  The ten of us traveled to Nazca, where again we were immediately assaulted by the horde of agents awaiting every bus.


When I had departed Pisco, the hostel owner had given me a recommendation for a hostel and a travel agency in Nazca.  What I didn't know was that he had then called his friend at the travel agency, and told him that I would be arriving.  It was therefore quite a surprise to me when out of the swarm of agents, one came up to me and asked, "Are you Jerry?"  I have pretty much given in to the fact that as long as I am in a Spanish speaking country, my name will be Jerry, but Oscar, as the agent introduced himself to me as, said that he would take me to the recommended hotel, and even give me a discount.  I invited my friends along, and as they had already planned to go to the same place, the ten of us walked to the nearby hostel.  Another tour operator, seeing us leave as a group, saw the opportunity to attract a lot of business, and assuming me to be the group leader, talked my ear off the entire way about tours and about a competing hostel that he represented.  I pretty much ignored him, but he continued to follow anyways.  Oscar, hearing the other agent try to sell me a tour immediately began to pitch his own tours, telling me how we could work out a group rate.  Both of them kept describing their tours, all the while saying that the other was just trying to scam me and arguing over who represented the better hostel.  Both of them, assuming me to be the leader of the group, seemed intent on convincing me to arrange a tour with their agency.


We arrived at the hostel, where the owner informed us that they were full, and could not accommodate our group.  Oscar immediately recommended another hostel, and said that he would take us there.  Already fed up with all the lines I had been fed by so many travel agency reps, I demanded to know why he had brought us to a hostel if it was full, and was not about to walk across town to another hostel nobody knew about but him.  He told me that he would even arrange a good price, ten soles (about $3) per person in triple rooms.  At this point I was a little frustrated, and seeing the other agent that had followed our group outside the door, I immediately went to him and asked him to describe the hostel he represented.  The other man said that he would also give us a ten sol rate, but that he would include breakfast.  Not to be outdone, Oscar immediately said that he could drop the rate, and that the rooms would all have private baths with hot water.  Something clicked in me at that moment, perhaps a throw back to the glory of being considered a Peruvian, or perhaps a brewing sense that I was about to retaliate for all the tourists these two men had scammed in the past, but I suddenly felt empowered.  Both agencies were intent on winning my "tour group's" business, and I finally had power over them.  With both of them there fighting over me, I ended up brokering a deal in which Oscar paid for taxis to take us to the hostel where I and all of my friends got an 8 sol a night rate for private rooms, all with private bath and hot water (not bad around here).


I know that part of the reason that I was awarded the Bonderman was because I was not going to travel in organized groups or follow the preplanned itineraries of most tourists.  Somehow, though, I don't think that gathering my own group, organizing and leading a tour really falls into the same category, so I don't feel too bad about what happened next.  Oscar and the other tour operator both assumed that I was somehow the leader of the group, and as such offered group rates for flights over the Nazca lines and tours to surrounding areas.  All of my friends had expressed interest in the flights over the Nazca lines, and so, suddenly, we transformed into a tour group in which I had become the default leader.   I told the rest of the group that they could do whatever they wanted for the rest of the afternoon, as I, their guide, was going to organize the flight and tours for the next day.  I really don't know what came over me.  I can only think that after being subject to the whims of so many tourist scamming operators that the power I suddenly wielded as a tour guide made me a little giddy.  I set out to find a good deal for my group, and to strike fear into the hearts of all travel agents operating in Nazca.  I should mention at this juncture that the going rate for a flight over the Nazca lines is about $50, plus transportation to and from the airport and a $2 airport tax , tours to the nearby pre-Incan cemetary is about $10 plus $1 entry fee, and tours to the nearby aqueducts another $10 per person.  I don't think that normally the agencies in Nazca are terribly hungry for tourists, but upon entering the off season, a group of ten people was something well sought after.  I entered agency after agency first asking prices, and then explaining that I was representing a tour group.  I had soon narrowed the field down to just a couple of agencies, and then the games really began.  My Spanish was on, I was bartering and maneuvering like never before (Mike and Auntiekiki, think Chichicastanango on a grander scale), and the agents knew I was playing their game.  I really felt like I had entered the dark underworld of Nazcan tourism, and they all knew me by name (well, at least by Jerry).  I had agencies calling me at the hotel and sending taxis to pick me up, or coming to the hotel where they would wait in the lobby until I allowed them to present their latest offer.  I would enter their offices, and they would take me into back rooms and pitch me offers and counter offers.  One, somewhat seedy tour operator sat me down in a room above his normal office and said to me quite frankly, "do you want a good rate for your group or for you," after which he offered to give me my tour free if the group paid a good, but not quite spectacular rate.  When I assured him that I wanted a good rate for the whole group, he looked somewhat surprised, and after complimenting my negotiating abilities, offered me one of the best prices yet.  I went back and forth from agencies, each time upping the stakes.  By the end, I had been offered flights for $22, and each of the two other tours for $3.  The best overall offer ended up being $29 for the flight, both tours, all transportation, entrance fees and taxes, but because the agency wouldn't

accept credit cards, we ended up opting for a $33 deal that included all tours, tariffs and taxes, plus breakfast.  I had conquered for the sake of all foreigners.  For weeks to come, travel agencies in Nazca will fear the name Jerry.


So, the next morning, after spending a wonderful night in my private room and after a nice warm shower in my private bath, the group from Jerry Tours [very] Limited were picked up and taken to the airport, where we enjoyed a spectacular flight to view the Nazca lines.  I, the tour guide, got to ride up front with the pilot of our small Cessna as we flew from one line to the next.  They were magnificent, with figures and lines etched over an impressive area.  The pilot would bank sharply, circling each of the major figures, affording us excellent views of the ancient works.  We returned to the airport, where we were picked up and transported back to the hotel for breakfast.  Our tours began that afternoon, starting with the cemetery.  The tombs, stretching over an expansive bit of desert, had once been filled with the mummies and burial artifacts of the Nazca culture.  Grave robbers, searching for the gold artifacts often buried with the mummies, had excavated all the tombs, destroying many of the artifacts, and leaving the desert littered with mummies and non-gold artifacts.  Archeologists had attempted to recover some of the mummies, and have reconstructed twelve of the tombs, complete with cotton stuffed mummies and ceramic burial artifacts.  It was odd to see bits of cotton, fabric, ceramic and human bone stretching to the horizon, the scattered remains of the grave robbers' greed.  After the cemetery, we visited the aqueducts, impressive excavations that the Nazca used to get water and irrigate the barren desert.  The aqueducts are still used, and the stone walls still funneled the precious water to the nearby fields.  Also included in the tours were stops at a nearby Nazca/Incan ruin, and visits to an artesian ceramics factory and gold processing plant.  The gold processing plant was very interesting, and I even helped with some of the gold extraction.  I climbed on top of a board attached to a rock that I would rock back and forth, grinding the ore into Mercury that would bind with the gold.  As interesting as it was, it is admittedly a bit unnerving knowing that I was splashing about 2 kilos of mercury (can we say megafund cleanup site in the US), that would later be hand strained and finally distilled to extract the gold.


Tours complete, our tour group disbanded, ending the short but brilliant career of Jerry Tours Limited (although anyone interested in international travel, I can recommend an excellent guide).  I said goodbye to Manuela, Sara, Mauro and Alex, who took a separate bus, and Claire, Darren, Matthew, Lucy, Gwen and I took an overnight bus to Arequipa, a beautiful city on the ascent to the highlands around Cuzco and Lake Titicaca.  We arrived the next morning, where we were greeted by the beautiful cone of the volcano Misti.  We spent the day relaxing and enjoying Arequipa's European charm (Connie, Mike and Rob, you will be happy to know that I have felt quite at home here in Peru, making withdrawals from Banco Santander, battling the evils of Telefonica, and have even heard rumors that there might be a Corte Ingles around).


The six of us arranged a two day tour into the nearby Colca Canyon (without the spectacle of the Nazca tour arrangements), and the next morning we were up at daybreak to start the expedition.  We were joined by six Israelis, and headed up the dirt road that lead from Arequipa to Chivay, where we were to spend the night.  The road up was spectacular, as we ascended to a 5000 meter pass, and then descended into the Colca valley.  Along the way we saw herds of Vicuna, and caracaras and falcons hunting over the high plains.  We arrived in Chivay, a town at the foot of the volcano Mismi, the source of the Amazon River, and had lunch.  We spent that afternoon hiking to some nearby hot springs.  The hike was gorgeous, following the ridge of the valley, and descending to a modern, but still high and very narrow suspension bridge.  As we crossed the bridge, a local Sheppard decided to come across the bridge in the opposite direction.  I squeezed along one side of the bridge as first about a dozen donkeys made their way across, followed by a large flock of sheep, and finally four cows.  We continued to follow the river until we reached a stone bridge where we crossed over to the springs.  I was a little disappointed to find that the hot springs had been converted into a cement swimming pool, and opted for a lovely walk along the Colca River instead of swimming.  After hiking up to another nearby town, we then returned to Chivay for the night.  That evening, we went to a local tourist restaurant, where we were entertained by an Andean band and traditional dances.  During one of the songs, the dancers came into the audience to recruit dancers.  When one of the dancers began to haul me up front, I said that I didn't want to dance, but that I would go up if I could play with the band.  The next thing I knew, I was manning the percussion section.  I can now say that I have realized my dream to play with an Andean band (although their drummer didn't seem exactly impressed with my skill).  Auntikiki, we'll have to have a jam session when I return.


The next morning we were up with the dawn to visit the deepest part of the canyon and to hopefully see Andean Condors.  We followed the river as it entered a deep canyon (supposedly one of the deepest in the world - if you measure from the snowcapped peak along one of its sides, it is over 3000 meters deep), to the area known as Cruz de Condor.  There were gorgeous views of the canyon and the terraced farms on the steeps slopes lining the river valley all along the way, with the winding Colca River far below.  When we arrived, there were a ton of tourists already there, but when the condors made their appearance, it was all worthwhile.  It started with two or three condors, barely visible along a distant ridge, trying to catch the first thermals of the day.  As the rocks continued to warm in the beautiful Andean sun, more condors began to appear from the depths of the canyon, steadily gliding back and forth below us, slowly gaining altitude.  Soon, they were at our level, effortlessly cruising past the silent crowd of tourists, casting sidelong glances at the throngs taking pictures of them.  They were spectacular, with massive bodies and wingspans easily greater than six feet.  We must have seen about 16 or 18 condors, many of which cruised no farther than twenty feet from where we stood.  They continued to ascend with the thermals, and soared and circled in the skies above us.  After watching them for about two hours, they had gained enough height, and dispersed over the hills, searching for food.  We drove back towards Chivay, stopping several times along the way to view the river valley and the terraced landscape.  There were birds of prey all over the place, and I saw kestrels and falcons, hawks and even an Andean Eagle.  At our last stop, we hiked about an hour into the hills to see the ruins of a pre-Incan village.  The natives had built all the terraces that are still used today, and lived in rather impressive stone houses.  Following the Incan conquest, their lives changed little, but when the Spaniards arrived, they forced the indigenous people to live in towns where they could exploit the native labor in silver mines.  To chase the locals from their homes, the Spanish would burn their homes.  The roofless walls we wandered through are known as "The City of Ash" is remembrance of the Spanish conquest.  Today, the stone walls that are left are still in remarkably good condition.  Tour groups don't usually visit the ruins (it was actually by special request that our guide allowed us to hike up to the ruins rather than visit another hot spring), and it was magnificent to wander alone through the impressive structures high in the Andean hills.  Walking around, I could still find pieces of pottery and now green bits of copper and chips of obsidian, testaments to the cultural and geologic wealth of the region.  We located some of the old burial sites, and our guide explained the mummification and burial processes of the period.  Following the hike, we drove back to Arequipa, during which our van began to have electrical problems.  The engine stopped a couple of times, and we all had to get out and push the van to restart it.  About half an hour out of Arequipa we finally made it to a service station where we waited for about an hour while Lucho, our driver, tried to fix it.


Safely back in Arequipa, we returned to our hostel, and I spent the next two days lazing around with Claire and Darren in the warm sun.  After my little break, I bid farewell to Darren and Claire (I will likely meet Matthew, Lucy and Gwen in Cuzco), and took the overnight bus to Cuzco.   After a 14 hour bus trip, I arrived in Cuzco, and spent the day researching the local attractions.  I will likely spend several days in Cuzco, and at some point hope to venture to many of the nearby ruins, including Machu Picchu.  We are entering the rainy season here, though, so I hope the weather holds out.