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april 3, 2005 -> the third peru

There are three sides to Peru.  The first is well known: the Peru of the Andes, Cuzco, Macchu Pichu, and the Inca Trail.  The second is increasingly familiar: the Peru of the East, of Iquitos, the headwaters of the Amazon, and expensive jungle eco-lodges.  The third Peru was unexpected.  Running almost 2,500 kilometers from north to south, and extending east from the Pacific to the foothills of the Andes, lay a dry, desolate land of deep canyons, sand dunes, and corrugated coastal cliffs - a world away from the lushness normally associated with the country.  Neglected by tourists and the Peruvian government, this “third” Peru is beautiful and culturally rich, but imperiled. 

We had crossed into Peru from northern Chile.  You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or a bottle of wine by its label, but you generally can tell a country by its border post.  The Chilean side was modern and efficient.  The Peruvian side was dirty and disorganized.  We were sharing a taxi with two Chilean women who were making a day trip into Peru, primarily to stock up on pirated movies and music.  (In Peru and in Ecuador – as in China – every third shop was brazenly selling rip-offs.)  There was nothing to detain us in the ugly border town, so we caught the next bus to Arequipa, arriving late at night. 

The next morning, we took a long, bumpy, 8-hour bus ride from Arequipa to Cabanaconde.  It was a very clear morning.  We could see several volcanoes, including snow-capped Volcan Misti (5822 meters.)  In some places, the road came perilously close to frightening drop-offs.  A twenty-minute walk from Cabanaconde brought us to the lip of the Colca Canyon, reportedly the deepest on earth.  In some places, the Colca River is more than 1.2 kilometers below the canyon rim (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.)  We had just begun to descend when our guide pointed to the cliffs above us.  Perched in a small cleft in the rock was a massive Andean condor! 

A few minutes later, we gasped as two condors soared just below us, giving us a perfect view of their majestic wings.  They are the largest flying birds on Earth, somewhere between a seagull and hang-glider.  The condors have adult wingspans of 3 meters (10 feet), and can weigh 40 pounds.  The Colca Canyon is one of the most important refuges for this amazing and endangered bird.  Not so long ago, the condors soared over the entire Andes range, but human predation brought them close to extinction.  Numbers are now recovering, but they remain severely threatened.

At the bottom of the canyon, we crossed a rickety cable-and-plank bridge, and continued through a magical area of giant agaves, flowering trees, ancient-looking stone walls, and little cultivated plots.  We stayed the night at our guide's house, a tidy collection of small thatched-roof buildings.  In a small hutch next to the kitchen scurried dozens of rabbits and guinea pigs – all destined for the pot.  When we neared the guinea pigs, they launched into a chorus of terrified squeaks.  The next morning, I woke early to sketch the amazing cliffs on the opposite wall of the canyon.  After a short climb, we began traversing the canyon wall, and passed through a small village on the way to the “Oasis,” a lush grove of palms and fruit trees.    We spent the day sunning and swimming in a wonderful swimming pool fed by a lukewarm stream that coursed directly out of the cliffs.  Nori and I celebrated the two-year anniversary of the beginning of our trip with chocolate cigars.  Later, we beat the locals in a hotly-contested football match. 

We returned to Arequipa the day after the Pope's death.  All the newspapers had special pullout sections, “Ya Un Santo!” (Already a Saint!), one headline read.  “Adios Nuestro Papa!” (Farewell our Pope!), said another.  Almost every restaurant and store had a poster of John Paul II on their walls.  The Pope had made several trips to South America during his papacy, and his rigid conservatism had won him millions of devotees here.  We only had one night in Arequipa, so we headed straight to the beautiful plaza – one of the most stunning in South America.  They were holding a special mass in the cathedral to honor the Pope; it was standing room only in the cavernous nave.  Outside sat a BMW decorated with crepe paper and flowers.  Someone's Catholic marriage had started off with seriously bad karma.   

We took an overnight bus from Arequipa to Nazca.  It was supposed to arrive at 4 am, but fortunately we had a breakdown and instead arrived at daybreak.  When we disembarked, a trio of Nazca Lines touts converged on us, all offering exactly the same thing.  A few hours later, we crammed into a tiny plane with a nervous-looking Kiwi.  Just moments after take off, we began to see the figures: a whale, a monkey, a hummingbird, a condor, a spider, a lizard, a tree, an ‘astronaut,' dozens of triangles and trapezoids, and innumerable crisscrossing lines.  With a lighter colored sub-soil beneath the hard, darker desert crust, the Nazca Plains made a perfect canvas.  Today, the figures are not always easy to see: the enormous floodplain on which they were etched is scarred with thousands of twisting arroyos, and walking paths are often more distinct than the figures.  Tomb raiders, vandals, and erosion have also taken their toll.  

The Nazca Lines remain a mystery.  No one knows when or why they were constructed.  Many experts believe them to be astrological markers.  The alien-lovers see them as UFO landing strips.  No one accepts the simplest answer: that they were drawn for artistic reasons.  I find it amazing that we always assume that behind every ancient drawing, every building, there must be some deep symbolism or a complex numerological or astrological basis.  Frankly, if people were clever enough to orient buildings to the cardinal points, and track stars across the heavens, why is it so hard to believe that they could have also appreciated beauty for beauty's sake? 

A few weeks later in Lima, we would listen to Peru's Minister of Tourism regaling foreign travel agents.  Peru is much more than Machu Picchu.  We also have the jungles of the Amazon river and our wonderful Pacific coast!”  There were certainly incredible things to see in the “third” Peru.  Unfortunately, Peru has not cared for its coast.  In general, the seaside cities were horribly ugly.  It was obvious that there was no central planning, no zoning rules, or at least no enforcement.  People built whatever they felt like on the ocean, and then they let it fall apart.  The stench of fish processing plants often assaulted us on bus rides, and huge squatter settlements sprawled near the shore.  Trash was piled up everywhere.  While Lima has made an effort to clean up at least part of its coast (a small area in front of the affluent Miraflores and Barranco barrios), its beachfront landfills remained a grotesque affront.  With a coastline 30% longer than California, Peru has an amazing potential resource that is now being squandered.