1/26/16 – Endless vistas of flat ochre fields, craggy mountain peaks that stretch to the far horizon, night skies so vast you can sense the curvature of the earth—these have been the backdrops to my life, the settings for long roadtrips, new schools, birthday parties and funerals. It is the unapologetic expansiveness of the American West that always strikes me first when I come home—at once familiar yet also untamed. Subconsciously my wanderings have always taken me away from this landscape. I’ve sought out oceans, rainforests, urban jungles, medieval towns of houses leaning in on each other. And then I went to Peru.
The vastness took me by surprise. From the parched desert south of Lima to the seemingly endless, treeless highlands to the midnight blue, glassy depths of Lake Titicaca, the scale of the land was simply impossible to capture in photographs, or in words. The beauty of these landscapes had both a breadth that reminded me of the sweeping vistas of home, yet a different density that defied comparison. Sometimes the stench of urine outside a rural bus depot or a rare, aggressive tout was welcome—a reminder that this place was real, not an elaborate stage set conjured from fantasy novels and fairy tales.
The Sechura Desert
The pueblos jóvenes are the only thing that break this bleak landscape of impossibly barren rolling hills, so sun scorched and parched they make you thirsty just looking at them. It’s hard to imagine the motivations of these semi-legal squatters, claiming tracts of land as their own by erecting flimsy shacks of wooden poles and reed mats. If these primitive structures endure for five or ten years, their land claims are legitimized and granted government services—most importantly, precious water. It’s water that defines this landscape, and transforms it. With shocking finality, the bleached plain terminates in the steel blue surf of the Pacific. In other places, tracts of technicolor green rise from the bone-colored dust—small oases of date palms, carob trees, citrus groves and grapevines fed by underground aquifers. Along the north coast, some of these forward-thinking settlers have managed to sell their plots of luxury resort developers for handsome profits. Perhaps for others, they just sense the possibilities just under the surface, trusting the same forces that nourished the sophisticated ancient Nasca culture in this unlikely place will provide for them as well.
Ochre and olive hillsides are broken by outcrops of steely grey rock and dark teal rivers coursing purposefully over the horizon. The volcanic mountains seem to stretch on forever in all directions, triggering a palpable sense of agoraphobic exposure. Squat cinderblock homes and shops hug the rocky gravelly soil, the ubiquitous (K) and (A) logos of this season’s favored presidential candidates standing out in lurid paint even in these remote outposts. Women wearing heavy, colorful skirts, petticoats, leggings and vests appear suddenly on the crests of hills, herding flocks of sheep, alpacas and skinny fawn-colored cows—the only evidence of habitation for miles at a time. Occasionally the glimpse of a railway tack or boxy metal buildings high on the mountaintops bring the reminder that this landscape is not from a fairytale—these hills are rich in copper and dotted with pit mines all too willing to follow in Pizarro’s footsteps.
Stands of cactus like huge candelabras burst from the steep hillsides. Heavy, round sancayo fruit grace their spiney tops, carefully harvested by nimble locals to blend into bracingly sour, bright green juice. It is these same hearty people that till the beautifully terraced pre-incan fields of quinoa, potatoes and corn that transform these steep mountainsides into surreal pyramids, a powerful convergence of natural, history and mankind. Deeper inside the canyon, cradled by the sun-warmed rock walls and fed by a clear Andean glacial river, villages, some still only accessible on foot, grow figs and quince, hauling their produce to the canyon rim on burros or wrapped in colorful cloth bundles slung over their own backs with the unique graceful tenacity that seeps into everything these people touch.
I stood atop the boat for a moment, wavering. I could feel the sun, harsh and hot in the thin air, already burning my winter-pale skin. But there was also a cool breeze, touched by the snowy peaks lining the lake’s Bolivian border. Vaguely Greek islands rose steeply from the deep blue water in the distance, dotted with graceful eucalyptus trees, rough stone walls, grazing sheep and the occasional bright spot of a woman’s brilliantly pink or orange stiff, traditional skirt. One more gulp of the bracing hot/cold, thin air and I jumped, plunging into the shockingly cold embrace of the lake itself. Like everything here, it was harsh and beautiful all at once—nothing in halves. Half an hour later, the shivers chased away by the unforgiving sun once more, it was with regret that I spotted the jumble of blocky, terracotta buildings spilling down the mountainsides to the port of Puno. There was something magnetic about these waters…
Descending into Cusco
The colors changed—no longer the muted tones of the highlands, here the greens were chlorophyll-rich permutations of lime, forest and emerald. The broad Chimayo River cuts through the valley, nurturing broad swathes of corn. Squat homes graced by Florentine red tile roofs and crowned with crucifixes and little terracotta bulls nestle in the nooks and crannies of the hills, sporting the sort of vague dilapidation you only find in lands of plenty, where a crack in the wall or toppled fence will never spell disaster. As the altitude dropped and the temperature rose, the trees came back—skinny pines at first and then broad deciduous varieties and regal palmetto palms in the village squares. Giant yucca and prickly pears rub shoulders with willowy bushes on the roadside. The steep hills bear the marks of centuries of terraced farming, but their contours are softened by a layer of green—mossy, surreal, pyramid/peaks like some sort medieval painting, composed on hearsay of what “mountains” were rather than reality.
It took a few minutes to register—total silence. I hadn’t even realized I’d been without it these past few days, always hiking alongside others, happily listening to stories in the garbled Australian/Puerto Rican/Indian/Norwegian accents of our mini-UN of traveling companions. But there it was—quiet. In that absence of sound, all my other senses seemed to light up. The coral and lime groundcover that clung to the cliffside seemed to almost glow with intensity as strange orchids peeked out from beneath branches draped in spanish moss. The Inca-built stone trail clung to the cliffside, at the same level as the clouds, each curve seemingly leading into the sky itself from a distance. It was with a deep melancholy that I first spotted our final camp, the last stop before Macchu Picchu. It was with that slight preoccupation that I rounded a bend in the trail and was confronted by what I would later recount as the most remarkable sight of the whole trail: an entire mountainside of Incan-built terraces, completely deserted and ripe for exploration. From a distance, we’d seen these sort of terraces plenty of times before and they looked human-sized, cascading fields that one could easily stroll between. But now, using my 6’3” traveling companion as a not terribly cooperative yardstick, I was confronted by the incredible reality of these complex structures first-hand. Each level of flat tillable land was separated by 15 or more vertical feet of solid stonework, still perfectly intact after all these centuries and more than a few earthquakes. With incredible ingenuity, beneath each terrace lay a row of boulders fitted together with a carved ball and socket design, creating a simultaneously flexible yet strong foundation on which to build these farms, majestic cities and an entire civilization.
As I share photos and stories of these places that feel more and more distant by the day, I am struck with a contradictory sense of continuity. I can somehow sense the unbroken geography that links home and Peru. There was something comfortingly familiar about Peru—a sense of shared history imbued in the same-but-different wild landscapes. I could feel this realization building every time I began to introduce myself as “from Americ…, errr from the US.” I was already in America, our America.