South, Way South


Kayaks on Lake Titicaca, near Puno.
Kayaks on Lake Titicaca, near Puno.

Last January, our local creek was still locked-up in snowpack up in the hills. I hadn’t been in my kayak in months, and I must have been getting on Sara’s nerves because one day she said, “Let’s go to Peru.” It seemed like a good way to get my mind off the frozen river and the bleak 10-day weather forecast, so I said, “Let’s do it.” I’d never traveled very far before, at least never off the continent. Sara’s been everywhere, and she’s pretty nice. Maybe traveling in Peru could teach me something worldly, or something about myself. Or maybe I could go boating down there.

We bought the Lonely Planet book and worked out a travel plan. We did a ton of research online, found some good ticket prices and decided on the towns we wanted to see. As it turned out, the exact sequence of towns that form the loop we’d planned to travel is semi-affectionately called the “gringo trail” for exactly the reasons we’d picked it: it’s easy for travelers to fly into Lima, travel by bus south along the coast and then slowly hop from town to town on the way inland and up to Cusco, which is at 11,500’ elevation.
We planned to spend 3 weeks traveling through Peru, and then a week off the north coast of Venezuela. In the 8 years I’ve been working at NRS, I’d never taken more than a week off at a time. I knew it was going to be weird to be away for that long, especially in a place so far away. When the day finally came for us to fly out, it was the first time in as long as I can remember that I didn’t have any idea about what to expect. It was like walking forward into darkness, with no way to see what’s coming next.
Pedro, our taxi driver in Cusco.
Pedro, our taxi driver in Cusco.
We left early one morning from Lewiston, Idaho, flew to Salt Lake City, then to Houston and then the long leg straight to Lima, Peru. We landed late at night, and were instantly glad that we had arranged a ride to our hostel, because there were literally hundreds of people crowded around the exit, jostling for position to take our money. I’d been worried about the language barrier issue, since I speak very little Spanish, and Sara claimed to not know much. Her “not much” turned out to be more than enough in most cases, and I would have been totally lost without her. She and the cab drivers and waitresses and other locals were always laughing about something. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was me.
For those of us who have never traveled to Central and South America before, the driving habits of the locals are shocking. Actually being in one of the cars, especially that first taxi ride, caused me to spill out some of the words I’m not supposed to say. Our taxi driver smiled at me and laughed a bit, indicating he did speak some English, even though he claimed not to. 90% of the cars on the road are taxis, and the drivers push those little things to the limit. They’re all made by the same company, and they all look the same, except some guys put spoilers on the backs of theirs. They honk their horns constantly, from 5am to 3am every day, right outside the window of whatever hostel you happen to be staying at. At first I thought all the drivers were absolutely nuts, but I came to recognize that, as a group, they’re probably better drivers than most US citizens. We’re so locked into the rules of the road that, when something goes wrong, we’re not as prepared to deal with it. Down there, there are no rules. They keep their eyes wide open and see possible problems way early. As a preventative measure, they honk their horn.
In the Nasca Desert, with some of the famous lines in the background.
In the Nasca Desert, with some of the
famous lines in the background.

We spent the first week headed south from Lima. We went through Pisco, where they make a unique wine and liquor using the small grapes that grow in that region. If you’ve never had a Pisco Sour, try one the next time you at your favorite watering hole. Or visit Pisco. They’re very proud of their national drink, and rightly so. We got in the habit of drinking as many as possible before the long, overnight bus rides. It’s hard to sleep on those buses without help.

Further south, we stayed a couple nights in Nazca, famous for the mammoth animal drawings and long, perfectly straight lines etched into the desert floor. It’s one of the mysteries of the world, why generations of the past civilizations would work daily on creating and maintaining these figures that are really only visible from the air. One of the designs looks like a spaceman, complete with a bubble over his head, waving hello. It’s easy to get caught up in the theories involving vacationers from outer space, until the guide mentions that it’s probably just a drawing of an owl.

After turning inland, we began climbing up into the foothills and eventually into the higher mountains. The further we went, the more rugged the lifestyle endured by the people living there. Across the whole section of the country we visited, there were two constants: poverty and friendliness. Most of the people of Peru live in conditions I couldn’t have imagined before going. They have less money, and yet have as much fun as any one group of people I’ve ever met. We were welcomed wherever we went, and exchanged email addresses with quite a few of the friends we made.

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All the big towns have their own beer, but they’re all made by the same company. The beer is exactly the same from town to town, they just name it after whatever town you’re in. In Cusco, it’s Cuscania; In Arequipa, it’s Arequipenia; in Pisaq, it’s Pisquenia. All the same, not very good. When we jumped over to Venezuela, I was excited that maybe they had a better beer selection, but they don’t. Microbrewing hasn’t hit South America yet, but I bet someone could earn some good money if they could make a decent beer to sell to travelers.

In the end, if I learned anything worldly, it’s that people make a place what it is. We saw some amazing scenery, thick jungles, arid deserts, abandoned ruins made of rocks so big, no one knows how anyone moved them, let alone stacked them into a wall. But Peru’s true national treasure is its people. I couldn’t communicate with words very often when I was there, but that made it more interesting when some of what I meant got across anyway. And a smile breaks through any language barrier and speaks a universal language.

 Me, Chando and two employees at Mayuk Expediciones.
Me, Chando and two employees at Mayuk Expediciones.

If I learned anything about myself, it’s that I want to travel more often. I want to see more of how my fellow human beings are getting along in other places, under different circumstances. I was extremely happy when we got back to the US. A month is a long time to be away from the comfort of routine. I missed our dogs, mostly, and ice and drinkable tap water. But I can’t wait to get out there again. The travel bug bit me hard, and we were already talking about where to go next while on the long flight from Miami back to Seattle.

I never did get to go boating, though. In Cusco, we visited the offices of one of the outfitters in Peru that buys their gear from NRS. We brought him some hats to give out to his guides, and he insisted we come rafting with him that weekend on one of their trips down the Urubamba River. After 3 weeks traveling by bus, I was looking forward to spending some time on the water. The night before the trip, I must have eaten something not-quite-right, because I was sick all night and all the next two days. I had to back out of the trip at the last minute. Disappointing at the time, but it's all right. I'll be back some day.

Ellis Cucksey
NRS Customer Service