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Adventures in Peru

Hurricanes can be destructive, obtrusive, and incredibly intimidating. But for us there was no stopping us from exploring the beautiful country of Peru in early October 2009. Not even in the wake of a hurricane.

We packed up our entire luggage and survival gear and our pal Mike drove us from our home base of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario to the Hilton in Buffalo, New York the night before our flight. Expecting a very early morning and an extremely long 2 weeks, we hit the sack right away. In the morning we ventured across the street to the Buffalo International Airport and waited for our plane. Eventually we got on the jet before daybreak and started our flight. We had a brief stopover in Atlanta. Now, for those of you who haven’t been to the Atlanta airport, you’ve most definitely got to check it out. It’s huge! Not only is it a big airport but all of the terminals are connected using a subway system. I guess if you’re from a large city where this is common, it’s not such a big deal, but for us it was really cool. It was stormy outside so we just travelled on the subway between terminals taking a look at all of the cool displays while waiting for our next flight.

We arrived late that evening in Lima, Peru and our first order of business after getting through all of the security and luggage checks was to go pick up our vehicle. We rented a small manual Suzuki SUV. Technically it could seat 5 people. But realistically, after we packed it up with our gear, it could only seat about 2 persons. Luckily, there were only two of us. How perfect. At this point it was 2am.

The airport parking lot funneled us into a very eerie part of town. The roads were all gravel and the there was no distinction, aside from random elevated dirt piles and grass, between the road, the boulevard, the sidewalk and the adjacent buildings. Speaking of the adjacent buildings, most of them were closed and boarded up. Those that were open were extremely well accented with neon lights and surround buy loitering hoodlums. It was definitely a place that we needed to get out of. As Pat sped through all of the red lights, I guided him out of the city using the GPS on my Blackberry. Eventually we made it onto the main highway. After driving for about an hour, and passing through some not so welcoming towns (at least that is what they seemed like at night), we hit our first toll booth. We paid the toll with whatever soles our friend from Canada passed on, and were on our way. When we arrived at the second toll booth, well, we didn’t have enough money. We offered to pay in American dollars, as that was typically okay in South American countries, but the clerk wouldn’t accept. We backed up the car to where we saw a police officer directing traffic and asked him for help. He said that there was no way that they were going to accept American dollars and that this “wasn’t Columbia”. Awesome! Just what we wanted to hear. So what did we do? We couldn’t drive backwards because we were too low on fuel to look for a place that was open late. Those that were close enough were closed. So we just pulled over and slept until sunrise.

We woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn with a local couple knocking on our window trying to sell us potatoes. Peru has nearly 3,000 varieties of potatoes! I guess mashed, baked and French fried, just wasn’t cutting it for them. We politely refused and turned around and drove to an open gas station where we took some money from a bank machine and headed onwards. As we drove north along the coast in the sunshine all we could think about we just getting to our destination. The brief sleep in the car was painful. To our unexpected surprise, a police officer jumped out of the bushes and pulled us over. Perfect! Just what we wanted! He started giving us the business about speeding even though we clearly weren’t speeding enough to justify this. I’ve been in this situation before and I knew what to do. Just pretend like I don’t know what he is saying. Pat was not as fluent in Spanish as I so he was completely lost to what the officer was ranting about. I knew that he wanted us to pay him $ 50 on the spot. After about 40 minutes of bartering I gave him $ 7 dollars and a cheap two dollar pen. He seemed happy. And we, well, we were back on the road.

Still our first day in Peru, we were entering the mountain range which until now, we had only seen from a distance. The mountains were empty and desolate with no vegetation and even less life. Once in a while we drove by a small shack and a stray pig but there was no one around. “Creepy” was an understatement.

Our destination was Huarez, a small (or so we thought) town in the Andes. The directions to our hostel we simple and very straight forward. All we had to do was find the main city square and go 2 blocks north. Easy! Right? No way! This place has a population of over 200,000 and they don’t build their buildings up. They build out. So now we were lost. Huarez was buzzing with people and activity and all of the roads were under construction. We called the guy offering us the hostel, which was also going to be our biking guide, Julio, for the afternoon, and asked for help. We tried to describe where we were, but not even he knew. So what did we do… well we kind of just sat there in silence and just tried to take a breather. We were tired. We drove into town and tried to find a main intersection where Julio could find us. Pat pulled over the car. While everyone honked and yelled at him, I ran out and called Julio again. He was coincidentally just passing by. We jumped into the car and followed him to our hostel. When all was said and done, it was not past 7pm and we had missed our mountain biking tour. We unpacked, showered, and went out for a quick bite to eat. Our first bite to eat actually. Then we hit the sack. Hard!

The next morning we woke with some discontent in our heart but still eager to take this country on. We packed up our bikes and Julio took us out to the top of the Cordillera Blanca just below the snow line. There, we met up with a friend of ours that we made the night before, Matt from Philadelphia, and started our descent. The mountain biking in this portion of Peru was absolutely beautiful. The vegetation was sparse and the trails were sometimes hard to see but the views were breathtaking. Steep ridges lined both sides of the trail as we descended into the valley. Once at the bottom we biked along an old genuine Inca trail that lead us right through a town, where stray dogs and pigs chased us, and back onto the mountains. The trails were fairly easy and downward slopping cross-country single tracks. Speed was what we came for and that is what we got.

Upon returning to our hostel, we simply showered, packed up, grabbed a banana from the front desk and went on our way. We drove all night through the desert towards the town of Nazca. We did stop to refuel and munch on some crackers we bought from the gas station. They washed down well with some local Inka Cola! But we had to get back on the road. We had plans in the morning.

When we arrived in Nazca it was about 2:30am. The town was, again, a ghost town and our hostel was closed. What to do? Well we just stood outside our hostel and called and called and called until someone answered. Finally our host came down and welcomed us with open arms. We drove to another property and woke that owner so he could let use into his garage to park our car. Once the car was parked, we went back to our hostel and fell asleep immediately, only to be woken up 45 minutes later for our big hike.

A 20 minute drive through the dark at 4am to our starting point was painful. The car stopped and we got out and started to hike. Up and over some boulders and rocks we went. Eventually the sun broke over the horizon and the heat hit us. 4 hours and 7 kilometers later we made it to the top of the world’s tallest sand dune. Cerro Blanco was the beast we had just conquered. It absolutely dwarfed the other surrounding mountains. This is where we were able to enjoy or reward for this climb. We waxed our boards and sand boarded down the dune. Contrary to popular belief it was actually quite difficult. Because of the coarse nature of the sand, the boards had to be waxed every hundred meters or so. This was good because carving was impossible, so it gave us an opportunity to realign ourselves. It was fun, but hot and tiresome. Eventually after a few hours, we got to the bottom and had to hike for another hour to the road. With little more than one nights sleep and two full meals since we left Buffalo, the biking and sand boarding was about to do us in. Pat had heat stroke and was parched. I was exhausted. We were both burnt from the sun and we were out of water. Our ride was an hour late. We found shelter from the blazing sun in about one foot of shade cast by the remaining foundation of an old desert shack. Death felt immanent as tumbleweeds rolled by and the theme to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” repeated through our heads. We had our local guide flag down a police officer and we convinced him to setup a road check. These are very common in Peru so he had little problem with this. Then the officer pulled over a pickup truck and told them that the law required them to drive us back to our hostel! Amazing!

We got back to our hostel and packed up our gear and had a quick piece of toast with our hosts and hit the road again. This was getting tough. Our destination was Arequipa and our plan was to be there for 11pm so that we could climb to the top of El Misti volcano, almost 6,000 meters above sea level, through the night. As we drove south along the coast, we went through some fabulous fishing villages and managed to get some fantastic photos next to the Pacific. As the sun started to set Pat made the decision that he was in no condition to climb the volcano. This was understandable