Huaraz & Huacachina.

Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.
Laguna 69, the glacial lake deposit from Chacraraju, of the mountains of Cordillera Blanca at 4650 meters above sea level. Huarascaran National Park is home to the highest mountain in Peru.

Peru is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever been to. It’s one of seventeen of the world’s megadiverse countries (all of which contain 70% of the earth’s biodiversity). The country has three major regions: the coast (costa), the Andes (sierra), and the Amazon rainforest (selva). I experienced the drastic changes in climate not only in Manú, where within one day I saw the changes in flora and fauna as we reached the high selva and descended into the wet and rainy rainforest. But I also saw the sudden climate shift on the bus from Huaraz to Lima, and from Lima to Ica, where I had started my day next to the snow-capped mountain range in Huarascarán National Park, and by sunset I was exploring the hot and dry desert oasis in Huacachina. While in Huacachina, a small town in Ica province that is known largely for it’s sandboarding and dune buggy excursions catered to foreigners, I took a day-trip to Paracas, where I sealed my introduction to Peruvian geography. It was in Paracas National Reserve, a desert peninsula along the coast and the only marine reserve in Peru, where my subconscious thoughts about the environment were surfaced for the first time. I realized that I had been thinking a long while about my relationship to the planet and what it means as a traveler to experience the world within an environmental context. Being able to witness these extraordinary changes in my environment, and at such a fast pace, is overwhelming yet very powerful. It’s also really depressing. We are destroying our world, and as a traveler I am playing a significant part in it’s rapid environmental decline.

It’s interesting how as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more excited about nature. I was born and raised in the classic city setting. The extent of my exposure to nature was going to the beach on weekends and on holidays. I wasn’t isolated from the diversity we have on this planet – I’ve traveled extensively and have seen many exotic places. But I never considered myself an outdoorsy person, and so I didn’t explore nature from an “adventure” perspective. I wasn’t in love with the idea of camping outside and spending my days hiking in the forest. Nowadays, I crave being outside; last year I started hiking and since then I haven’t been able to stop. Although challenging, I felt at ease in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, hiking for hours on end each day. I felt invincible climbing the snowy Villarrica Volcano in Pucón in Chile. The 5,000 meter altitude of the Vinicunca mountains near Cusco left me gasping for oxygen, but when I reached the summit I felt such a sense of accomplishment rarely felt in my “city” life. And I see myself getting better and stronger each time I set out to hike. I didn’t think I would ever be wearing hiking boots in my life, and here I am proudly wearing them almost every day!

Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
Vinicunca Mountains, Cusco.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.
At 5000 meters above sea level in Vinicunca.

In my travels I crave seeing the world in its natural beauty partly because I am increasingly aware of its impermanence. What I see is not forever.

On our way back to Huacachina from our day trip to Paracas, a fellow traveler and friend said to me, “as we see the world, we destroy the world.” The more foreigners visit a place unknown to them, the more they destroy that particular habitat. It makes no difference whether we are luxury travelers or frugal backpackers. Our mere presence is what creates the chaos. And here in Peru it is evident that some of it’s most prized physical and cultural treasures are at risk of destruction.

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Sandboarding in Huacachina.
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Huacachina Oasis

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Every day tourists take photos as they jump into the air overlooking Machu Picchu. What they don’t realize is that this high forest is actually in danger of sinking. As they land from their high jump, checking to see if all their friends made it in the air and editing away to post on their instagram, they don’t realize they are contributing to soil erosion. The rumor that the Peruvian government is going to create elevated platforms that prevent the huge influx of tourists from stepping on the ruins themselves can quickly become a reality. Hikers leave trash at the gorgeous glacial lakes in Huarascarán National Park. Cultural destruction is evident in Cusco where the local Peruvian way of life has been substituted with the increasing demand for tour operators, massage parlors, souvenir shops, and a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, all occupying historical buildings in the main plaza square. In Iquitos, it has become increasingly common for foreigners to interest in partake in a spiritual and medicinal ceremony that has been performed by shamans for hundreds of years. People are taking note of this heightened interest in ayahuasca, and as a result there are some unscrupulous fake shamans taking advantage of people that are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do something without truly understanding the cultural significance of such to the indigenous community. On a related note, people will also pay anything to learn from the partially remote indigenous communities in the amazon. The social consequences of tribal tourism are dire, as is the mission/religious-based “white man” influence on indigenous populations. For instance, while I was walking in the jungle in Manú I saw three young girls from the Machiguenga indigenous tribe dressed in western clothes, one in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt and another wearing clogs. My guide recognized that they were Machiguengas and was surprised they were anywhere near where we were walking. He began speaking to them in their native language, and he knew they were at least three days away from their home, as they lived much deeper in the reserve. We saw a young European man accompanied by several women approach us, quickly interrupting my guide and speaking to the young girls in Spanish, telling them to hurry along. We knew right away these were missionaries. These missionaries are not exactly the tourist travelers I am discussing here, but this is just another example of the long term effects of modern-day exploration.

In Paracas National Reserve, our guide brought us to an area where we could find thousands of fossils proving that the present-day desert was once a lake within a humid, jungle-like landscape. As we looked at these cylindrical remnants of a tropical water world, the guide began showing us how we could remove the fossils from the clay with water. He excavated a fossil in this method and then he promptly gave it to one to one of us to keep. Various people subsequently walked about and started doing the exact same thing. I was in total shock. I could not believe that this man, someone who is supposed to be proud of the diversity and rich history of the Paracas desert, was literally removing 36 million year old fossils from it’s proper place. Instead of preserving what is left, he is directly causing its destruction, and soon enough there literally won’t be any fossils left in their natural resting place. I realized then that we truly are our own worst enemies. We are the reason for all the destruction we so often try to prevent. And “gringos” aren’t the only ones at fault. As with the local guide in Paracas, no one escapes the blame. Sometimes it’s the residents, those who live in their world more than anyone, that cause more destruction than the visitors. Is it a question of education? Or is it just that we want to have, in a materialistic sense, a piece of something exotic come along with us, as a memento of our where we’ve traveled? Why do we have such an obsession with the material? This is not a modern phenomena – think of a beautiful library where hunters proudly display their kill, the lion and boar heads stuck on a piece of wood jutting out from the wall. I am growing more aware of how I used to carry extraordinary value to objects, and I am now feeling less of a desire to physically take a part of what I see and what I experience with me, although sometimes it can be tempting. We are fortunate to have photos to remind us of the beauty we saw, videos to show us those candid moments frozen in time, and our voices and memories to record our memories and reflections of our travels.

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A pelican in Paracas marina.
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Paracas National Reserve.
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The 36 million year old fossils embedded in clay.

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Huaraz.
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Puya tree. These trees are only found in Peru, and at this altitude (over 3000 meters). This puya is over 100 years old.

The more we push ourselves to explore every corner of the world, the more destruction we cause along the way. Yes, there is ethical travel. There is responsible, eco-friendly, sustainable tourism. But none of these travel concepts are completely immune. The sad fact is that even if we stayed put in our home town and didn’t travel, we would still be causing destruction. Because then we’d be hurting our own land, sometimes without even knowing it. So what can we do? I certainly don’t have an answer. And I certainly won’t stop traveling. Because I, selfishly or not, want to see the world. I want to hike the mountains, ride along the desert, lie on the pristine beaches, scuba dive in the oceans, and ride boats along the rivers of the rainforest. And in a very small way I can be more aware of the food that I eat, my lifestyle, and my consumption habits. And if we all tried to be more aware of our footprint and of our individual impact wherever we are in the world — maybe, just maybe, we can keep on traveling.
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Hiking to Laguna 69 at Huarascaran National Park.
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Laguna 69.
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Colorful mineral lake at Huarascaran National Park.
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One of the coolest trees I’ve seen, the queñual. The red/orange bark is flaky and soft. Queñual trees are only found at 3,500–4,800 meters above sea level, forming forest patches along the eastern and western slopes of the Andes highlands.

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Manú.

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After Bolivia I made my way to Peru for the second time (I wrote a post about my trip to Peru over a year ago, which you can read here). My intentions in Peru from the beginning were the areas of the country that are usually visited when there’s enough in someone’s vacation after Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. These include the desert, the central Andes mountain ranges, the northern coast, and the northwest amazon (which includes the well known city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru). After arriving in Cusco I decided to take a four day tour through the southwest rainforest in Manú. Manú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve covering an area of 15,328 square kilometers. The park protects ecological zones that range in altitude, from as low as 150 meters above sea level to the Central Andean high selva, or jungle, at 4200 meters. Because of this topographical range, Manú has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world.

Our first day we began our 10 hour bus ride at 6am in Cusco. We passed the town of Paucartambo and then descended the high selva cloud forest at 3400 meters above sea level all the way down to 500 meters to the jungle town of Pilcopata. As we rode through the highlands, beginning in the cold, dry, classically Peruvian terraced mountains that later became the flat, lush, humid, hot jungle, I had some time to watch the vast changes in landscape to reflect on my travels thus far, which had totaled three months and eighteen days.

A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at the animal conservatory in Manu.
A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at an animal conservatory in Manu.

In December, I realized I wanted to go back to school. I never thought that I would even consider graduate school, but there I was hiking in the gorgeous Patagonian mountains in Argentina and thinking about going back to the student lifestyle. And the more I thought about graduate school, the more I was drawn to studying abroad in Europe, specifically in Berlin. And so after I left Recife at the end of February, I decided I was going to apply for a Masters in International Affairs program in Berlin. I’ve applied and am awaiting a reply — I will know soon enough if my life is about to change drastically. I may be leaving New York in September to go to Berlin, and for two years, at least. If I don’t get accepted into this program, I will honestly be okay with it. It does not, however, change my intentions to move to Europe to obtain a masters degree. It may happen in the following winter or spring semesters, but it is something I feel I must do. I love New York City and I know it will always be there for me when I return, just as it was when I moved to Washington DC for my undergraduate degree, when I moved to Paris for my exchange program, and whenever I leave to travel for long periods of time. I am not afraid of packing up and settling into an unknown place. What I don’t know right now is the exact context of my moving to Europe. Will I be changing careers and studying international relations? Is this even what I want to do? Or will I be taking the slightly more comfortable route of receiving a masters in business at a lesser known school in Berlin that caters to foreigners? Or, will I move there to work for a startup, and study for a master’s degree part time? Depending on my moving timeline, what will I be doing in NYC to earn a living? Should I find a full time job or just work on some side projects?

As of now, I know that I will be moving to Europe for some time. I need this change. I left my apartment in Manhattan initially to sublease it for three months, which then turned into six months, and as of almost a month ago I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back to the city. My mother went to the apartment and moved out almost everything that I had left behind. Thinking about it now, I didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to my life at that apartment that I called home for the last three years. I didn’t tell my doormen, I didn’t say anything to the local businesses that I frequented in the area. I left my life there while I was already gone, and maybe that’s the best way to do things anyhow. I am devastated that I won’t have a place to go back to when I return, and that I will have to come back to my mother’s home, which I know will be extremely challenging for me. I won’t have the freedom I had in the city; I won’t even have a car. But I know that is the sacrifice I have to make so that I can still travel and save enough money to be able to live abroad again. And, hopefully with the help of some friends, I can stay in the city here and there when I need to.

I am not at all sure what’s next for me in the very near future, and it’s often overwhelming to think about. It’s crazy to think that I am even going through this process in of all places in the amazon rainforest, more than halfway through my travels. Applying for graduate school is not an easy task at home, let alone at random cafes in Bolivia and Peru with terrible WiFi. Moving out of your home is not something to be taken lightly, and here I am moving out of my beloved apartment virtually, without even closing my front door for the last time.

And so in rainforest my thoughts kept coming back to what the real purpose has been for me to travel right at this moment in my life. I thought, this is what traveling is all about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’s one day of feeling absolutely free to the next feeling completely strangled. It’s yesterday having a clear head and moving in a straight line to tomorrow feeling cloudy and sensing you’ve only made the wrong turn and nearly falling off a cliff. At that moment in the car, I was feeling all the extremes at once; it was like I was revisiting the drastic weather changes in Patagonia all over again.  It felt like I was waiting for everything to make sense somehow in an instant, a sign that some higher power was in control of my destiny and was going to make all the decisions for me. I was searching for the moment where I would feel that same relief I felt when I realized on Christmas Eve that I wasn’t coming home in February when I was supposed to. It was such a bright and beautiful feeling.

So much has happened since that day, it’s hard to believe it was only a few months ago. It’s funny how when traveling, although we may be visiting a certain place at a slower pace than those who are going for a two-week vacation, we make decisions quicker. I’ve made big decisions more rapidly and with far more conviction than when I was stuck in the day-to-day at home. It’s because I am removed from that routine, and with that comes a far greater perspective, concentration, and clarity. I couldn’t have dreamed my travels would turn out the way that they have so far. And what’s even more scary and beautiful all at the same time is that I’m not even close to finished yet. I suppose that means I still have some more traveling to do – and some more big decisions to make. Stay tuned.

 

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A tapir wandering about the animal conservatory, our last stop before arriving in Pilcopata.

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Hoatzin birds at lake Machuwasi.
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Lake Machuwasi
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Paititi Lodge, a 30 minute boat ride from the Port of Atalaya, Manu’s last town accessible by land. Our lodge had a view of the Madre de Dios river, which we used every day to explore deeper into the jungle.

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We came across fresh jaguar paw prints imprinted into mud on a morning hike.
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We woke at 5am for a pre-sunrise boat ride along the Madre de Dios River.

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