One of the things I worried about my third time studying abroad was that it wouldn’t live up to the expectations I had built up after my two previous experiences. After all, how could Peru stack up against looking down the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls, riding camels in the same valleys Lawrence of Arabia once did, or visiting the observation deck of the tallest tower in the world?
Even more worrying was that I wouldn’t feel the same amount of personal accomplishment that I did on the first two trips. After all, even though I will never forget the incredible places I visited, it is the little triumphs and memories that make up a study abroad experience. I will never forget when I was successfully able to give directions in Buenos Aires nor when I successfully bargained for a cab ride to Ajloun Castle in Jordan.
And perhaps my biggest worry was the people. In Argentina, I was always treated kindly by the people and I made some great American friends. In Jordan, people were always shockingly welcome and helpful, and I felt at home with my host family, at my internship, and on campus. I developed relationships that I hope will last my whole life.
Basically, before coming to Peru, I had two unforgettable study abroad experiences that, although at times challenging and frustrating, will go down as some of the best times of my life. I wasn’t sure Peru could live up to that.
And yet, somehow, miraculously, it has. Although there are certain common parts of any study abroad experience, there are always new challenges and therefore new rewards. Peru has certainly brought that for me. The experience of enrolling directly in the university here has been more academically difficult than my previous abroad classes, and yet, it makes it all the better when I receive a good grade for an exam I wrote in another language based on lectures and readings also in that language. It has also given me an excellent avenue for making friends and injecting myself into the local culture more. Plus, I live with an amazing group of people from across the globe. And almost everyone I meet has been kind to me, answering questions about food items (Peru seems to have a limitless amount of traditional food items that I have never heard of before), pointing me in the right direction, or giving me advice about where I should visit.
Now, this post may seem a little sappy, especially since I still have over two months left here (our finals aren’t until July!) However, the reason I am in such a reflective and grateful mood is I just came back from the trip of a lifetime. Or, since I have been so incredibly lucky in my travels, one of several such trips. And, despite my fears of unattainable expectations, this trip was able to exceed them.
On Thursday evening, after midterms were over, I headed out with three friends (two French, one American) to the city of Cajamarca in the northern mountains of Peru. Before, I had only traveled north and south along the coast, so I was finally going to see a different part of Peru.
Cajamarca is a good city to visit for a number of reasons. It has a really interesting history, as it was the city where Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors caught and later killed Atahualpa, the last Incan king. While in Cajamarca, we were able to see all the various stages of history that the region has passed through.
We visited a couple of sites of pre-Incan history. The Ventanillas of Otuzco, a series of holes cut into a mountainside, was a burial ground for the Cajamarca people before the Incans conquered them. Likewise, at Cumbe Mayo, there were petroglyphs and some incredibly impressive and long-lasting stonework done by the Cajamarcans dating back to 1000 BC.
We also visited a few Incan sites, including the Baños del Inca, where the Incan kings preferred to go while visiting Cajamarca. A natural hot springs only a few miles outside of town where water can get as hot as 80°C/F, this is where Atahualpa was when Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca. We also visited the last remaining Incan structure in town, el Cuarto de Rescate (the Ransom Room.) The Spanish held Atahualpa here before they eventually executed him. It is called the ransom room because he offered to provide the Spaniards with enough gold and silver to fill the room up to 2.4 meters high in order to spare his life. Although he held up his end of the deal (furnishing about pounds of 13000 gold and even more silver), they did not.
Moving further ahead in history, we saw several Spanish era colonial churches. They were beautiful and had interesting histories as well. The church of San Francisco was particularly interesting as it had many paintings and artifacts from the 16th and 17th centuries.
We also saw modern Cajamarca. The tour guides were particularly interesting, giving their thoughts on the situation of the town. One lamented that despite the existent of the extremely profitable Yanacocha gold mine just a few miles away, Cajamarca was still the second poorest city in Peru, something evidenced by a noticeable homeless population. On a brighter note, Cajamarca (much like Wisconsin) is well known for its cheese production, so we enjoyed some locally made cheeses, particularly from one shop that gave us delicious samples every time we came in. Another delicacy of the mountains of Peru that we sampled is the guinea pig, which has been domesticated here for thousands of years (long before it became a pet elsewhere), and is actually pretty tasty.
Finally in Cajamarca, we saw some incredible natural sights. Surrounded by mountains and constant greenery, the city is quite beautiful. The visit to Cumbe Mayo, which was in part a historical place, was also the chance to see a breathtaking landscape. Cumbe Mayo was a beautiful green place filled with rocks in various formations, referred to as the Stone Forest. My description doesn’t do it justice, so I’ll leave post a few pictures.
Originally, I had been planning on returning to Lima after Cajamarca. However, one of the main reasons I went on the trip was to see Kuelap, which is not is farther from Cajamarca than we thought, so I extended my trip by a couple days.
What is this Kuelap? Well, it is an amazing pre-Incan fortress of the Chachapoyas (people of the clouds) culture that was built on top of a mountain and has an incredible series of ruins in incredibly good condition. It is sometimes called the Second Machu Picchu, although it is much less famous and receives far fewer visitors. Part of this is because it is hard to reach (from Cajamarca, we took a thirteen hour bus ride that wound up and down the Andes mountains to get to a nearby town.) It is off the beaten tourist path in Peru, although, (and I would put money on this) it won’t be in the near future. It has to be one of the most amazing archeological sites in the world.
After our bus ride through the mountains, my friends and I stayed overnight in Tingo, a tiny little town about an hour away from Chachapoyas, which is the name not only of the indigenous culture that built Kuelap, but also of the modern city that offers regular tours to Kuelap and other historic and natural sites in the area. The reason we stayed in Tingo and not Chachapoyas was because Tingo had a hiking path to Kuelap.
So, after sleeping over night in Tingo, where we made friends with our hostel’s tiny kitten and behemoth dog, we set out bright and early for a hike to Kuelap. Although we had been told by a few local sources that it was about a 3-hour hike, that was a pretty big underestimate. Our athletic, male friend made it up in three and a half hours, but us girls (in pretty decent shape, I’d say) made it up in five. You see, although the path was only about 9 kilometers (5.6 miles), it was uphill the whole way (Kuelap is over a kilometer higher than Tingo) and we were carrying our backpacks in the sun. Thankfully, we had brought plenty of water and had tremendous views of the surrounding mountains to encourage us along the way.
Finally, we made it to Kuelap. It was incredible. When we got there, the few tours that came daily had not yet arrive, so it was basically empty. According to the groundskeeper, we were the first people in a couple of weeks to have made the trek from Tingo, and fewer than one hundred people a day came to Kuelap, even during the busy season. This is a shame because it is an incredible place. The fortress is surrounded by a towering wall and houses ruins of homes, towers, and religious sites of the Chachapoyas. The place has a strong history, as the Chachapoyas resisted the Incan conquest strongly, and later aided the Spaniards in toppling them, and was clearly a great civilization in its time. However, once again, my descriptions fail to do the place justice. As great as my photos are though, they still don’t quite capture Kuelap.
That evening, we went to Chachapoyas and slept there. Unfortunately, I had to leave the next day to return to Lima due to pressing schoolwork and I didn’t get a chance to see the other wonders in the area. The trip back to Lima was a long one (23 hours in a not-too-comfortable bus.) It did give me a lot of time to think, which is perhaps why this post is more nostalgic than usual. I have a lot to be grateful for and this trip certainly reminded me of that. So thanks to all the kind strangers, chance encounters, travel partners, and friends I’ve had during study abroad, here in Peru as well as in Jordan and Argentina. And an especially big thank you to my mom, who has supported me this whole way. Although I couldn’t be with her on Mother’s Day this year (I was in Cumbe Mayo that day), without her none of this would be possible. And finally, thank you to anyone who has read this entire blog post. It was quite long, so if you really did more than just look at the pictures (which I probably would have done if I hadn’t written this tome), I’m impressed and grateful for your interest. Thanks everyone!