To most, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination, right up there with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza. It is a destination that defines an entire continent. But what often comes with such a designation are the precise things one tries to avoid when traveling: crowds, inauthenticity and price gouging. If Jill and I were going to do this, and of course we were, we were going to have to get creative. This was nothing new to us. We were used to dealing with a bit of discomfort in order to stay on budget while visiting major tourist destinations. The tricky part, however, is that we would no longer be alone. My father would be joining us for two weeks as we made our way from Cuzco to Arequipa. While we were thrilled to have the company, our tight timeline and budget in South America meant we agreed to the visit under one condition: that we would continue to travel in the exact manner we would if it were just the two of us. And although his resources provided new options, we would continue to be frugal travelers, cutting corners wherever possible. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu on a shoestring, avoiding the tourism super highway. Or at least as much as that is possible.
The persistent fog was all around us. It had completely enveloped the mountain landscape, stealthily hiding the thousand-foot sheer drops and allowing our location on this craggy peak to be forgotten. Originally we were hoping for the dense clouds to clear but we had come to realize how perfectly fitting they were. Deep in the northern Peruvian highlands, we were about to explore the well-preserved but little-visited ruins of Kuelap, home to the Chachapoyas or “People of the Clouds.”
Most long term travelers have in the back of their minds a fantasy of a place that they imagine they could find themselves getting stuck in. These fantasy scenarios often include opening up a hostel or some other small business to sustain a lifestyle abroad. As we travel through city after city we have come across a great number of people who have done just that and turned their fantasy into a reality. Travelers just like us who decided to pull the trigger and give it a shot. Would we, Jill and I, be capable of doing this? What typically comes quickly after one of us poses that question is admitting to ourselves that living that far away from home would be difficult to say the least. Nevertheless, no more than 48 hours into Peru and we found ourselves brainstorming about our fantasy with a significantly greater amount of earnestness.
I awoke from my slumber feeling relieved. My fears of being violated by cockroaches during the night did not come to fruition and, to my surprise, I had slept peacefully. Of course that could be due to my position in the hammock. Zach might not have been so lucky, as he had offered to sleep on the bare wooden floor beside me. It was the first day of our jungle adventure and we were staying in the house of our guide, Guillermo.
A late lunch was quickly turning into an early dinner as Jill and I wandered through various small towns looking for the right place to eat. Our hunger was distracted by the beautiful scenery of the mountains surrounding Volcan Baru in the NW corner of Panama. We entered the one horse town of Cerro Punta and soon passed what looked like the perfect little restaurant, equipped with large windows and a view of the surrounding peaks. We pulled big blue into the driveway of the small restaurant which was attached to a residence. There were few signs indicating it was open and soon our suspicions were confirmed when our polite knocking received no response. We hopped back in the van and I shifted the Astro into reverse, pressing my foot to the brake pedal. Instead of the expected resistance, the brake pedal fell quickly to the floor. We had lost complete pressure in our brake lines.
It seems that each “start” of the trip for us comes with a test of our convictions, a “prove yourself” diversion that would make even the most confident travelers question whether they could hack it (remember our first series of unfortunate events). After four cushy months living in CT, our first few days back on the road did just this. It started with the gasoline leak we noticed when we picked up the Astro from storage. Then there were a series of frustrating mechanics who sent us on a scavenger hunt throughout the tangled, traffic-filled streets of greater San Jose. Then there were the usual missed deadlines that come with said frustrating mechanics.
After our hike in El Imposible, we decided to stick together as a group a bit longer and visit the renowned feria gastronomica, or food festival, in the small mountain town of Juayua. I mean, who doesn’t crave some freshly grilled iguana after a long hike in the sweltering heat? We arrived in town just in time to watch the vendors pack away their culinary delights and soon found out the festival was wrapping up for the weekend due to the national election that was taking place the next day.
Our plan to make it to Parque Nacional El Imposible before dark seemed reasonable enough. Distance-wise, it wasn’t far and the border crossing into El Salvador went smoothly, leaving us plenty of daylight for the trek. Between the four of us we had three maps and a handheld GPS. The fact that the road to El Imposible was in a slightly different location on each map didn’t phase us at all. It wouldn’t be the first time we used a less than mediocre map (or, no map at all) to navigate Central American roads. We’re experts, we thought. Besides, even if we got lost we had twelve weeks of Spanish class between us – we could easily use our new skills to ask for directions from the locals.
We were both annoyed when our alarm went off at 4:50 am on our first Saturday in San Pedro. Sleep weighed heavy on our eyes and we wanted nothing more than to roll over and ignore the incessant beeping. Still groggy, I forced myself out of bed and began preparing our packs for the day. We had to hurry if we were to be on time meeting the rest of the group. Once Zach was up, we had a quick breakfast of corn flakes, which Rosario had set out for us the night before, and ran out the door. Pedro and the others were already waiting for us when we arrived.
After over a month of city-hopping, we were more than ready to hit the famed Oaxacan countryside. The mist covered mountains in this region are dotted with dozens of indigenous villages, most of which are only accessible via remote dirt roads you won’t find on any map. We had our sights set on a small village by the name of San Jose del Pacifico, a three hour drive south on the region’s only highway. The windy mountain road provided ample mountain vistas and opportunities for viewing indigenous life.