Antigua.

Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Guatemala was one of my favorite last minute backpacker-getaway decisions I’ve made. I was happily surprised by my time visiting the country. Guatemalans are reserved but very friendly, they respect their surroundings by being neat and courteous to others, and they have a great deal of pride of their religious beliefs and their Mayan culture and clothing. Although a small country, it holds a richness and diversity in geographical and cultural sites. Although I only had 11 days there before I had to catch my flight to Cuba, I felt I was able to see the highlights of the country, and left feeling energized and renewed as a backpacker from my time there. And best of all, my last two days in Guatemala was spent accomplishing a major physical feat: hiking up Acatenango Volcano.

And so, just as I had begun my travels ice climbing Volcán Villarrica in Chile in December (my post about it can be found clicking here), I neared the end of my journey with an even more challenging hike. It was difficult, but it was an incredible reminder that we can truly achieve whatever we put our minds to. And the physical challenge was just what I needed to keep me motivated as I began to acknowledge that I was indeed going home within a month. Acatenango Volcano peaks at 3,976 meters, and although it’s not the highest climb I’ve done, it was the longest. We began our hike in the morning at 2,400 meters above sea level. The following six hours was a straight uphill climb, finishing the day at basecamp at 3,600 meters. The following morning we awoke at 4am to finish the vertical climb on soft volcanic ash to the summit. The two steps forward, one step backward rule was in full effect as we scrambled to the top with just enough time to watch the sunrise alongside a nearby volcano peaking above the clouds. My knees were like jello, my hands and face were frozen, I had barely slept the night before. It was not only the incredible view but also the exhilarating feeling of making it to the summit that made the entire journey worth it. The volcano is joined by  Volcán de Fuego, a highly active stratovolcano where you can see eruptions of ash and lava on a weekly basis. We were so lucky to camp overnight with a close view of Fuego, and throughout the night we were able to see it erupt, something I had never seen before in my life. I was in awe of our guides who did this hike about three times per week. One of them brought his puppy named Valentino. Having a dog accompany our group was a real treat, as it offered an escape from the discomfort of the grueling hike to the summit. The hike itself was a fascinating experience of three completely distinct biospheres: the dry farmland and oak forest, the wet and humid cloud forest, and the high altitude pine/subalpine forest at the higher levels of the volcano, just beneath the volcanic ash that leads to the summit.

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View of Volcan de Fuego at sunrise.

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Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Hiking up to basecamp.
Hiking up to basecamp.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
Ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
Volcanic ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
The puppy accompanying our hike.
The puppy accompanying our hike.

Prior to the hike, I was able to visit the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, only 35 minutes outside of Guatemala City. It’s a colorful, cobble-stoned town in a valley, surrounded by active volcanoes, and generally serves as any tourist’s introduction and farewell to the country. On a shuttle bus from the airport in Guatemala city to Antigua you’ll see for the first time the local busses that Guatemalans use, which are called “chicken busses.” These busses were previously American yellow school busses, only in Guatemala people have made them colorful, often metal plated, and generally pimped out, each with their own signature look and style. Some even carry the old license plates from the state where they were used. For example, I saw a California license plate on a silver and red painted chicken bus, with a painting of Jesus at the top of the backside of the bus. The motorbike taxis are equally adorned with pride and care, reflecting the driver’s individual personality.

Antigua.
Antigua.

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A local chicken bus in Antigua.
A local chicken bus in Antigua.

From Antigua I made my way to the mystically serene Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake at 1,560 meters above sea level. The area has been a sacred place for Mayans for centuries, and holds a measurable vortex of energy. It’s difficult not to sense the spiritual presence of the area, particularly in the small villages surrounding the lake that can be easily visited by boat. I stayed in the backpacker town called San Pedro, but was able to visit the mind-body conscious village of San Marcos one afternoon. As soon as I had arrived I saw that it was a place filled to the brim with yoga and meditation focused hotels, Vipassana retreat centers, shamanic healing workshops, organic vegan restaurants, and shops selling natural, homeopathic herbs and medicines. The initial shock I felt was how could this exist so far away from where you’d normally find it, such as in Bali or Koh Phagnan in the Southeast Asia. It was a true hippie hideaway, one that I immediately felt a connection to. But as I walked around, and with two friends I had made who were nowhere near this sort of lifestyle back in their hometowns, I felt that the high concentration of these types of establishments only served to lessen the effect of the positive and transformative experiences that are being offered to visitors. Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? I realized that although I consider myself a practitioner of many of the offerings to be found in San Marcos, I am also very much aligned to the New Yorker way of living, which brings in that balance of a practical, day-to-day work life. It did feel as if some of the authenticity was lost. Or, perhaps it was a reminder that these practices, traditionally derived from eastern medicine, are now becoming popular enough for westerners to bring them to the rest of the world. Globalization has it’s positive side effects, and arguably this is one of them. But perhaps the reality of it is that eastern societies actually incorporate these practices into their daily rituals, and not as merely an escape or a retreat. And by doing so, there is no need to go out of their way to travel to, and pay for, a transformative experience. It is in their blood and in their culture. This is something that I hope tourists passing through this sacred lake will realize: that they can make change happen wherever home may be for them and still be true to their authentic selves.

My last night at Lake Atitlán brought me to another place in my memory where I felt as if I was back home; I found myself at a bar in San Pedro playing deep house music and with fire dancers worthy of a Burning Man DJ and performance set. But something was different. Something had quickly brought me back to Guatemala, accompanied by a big-bellied laugh that only I could hear as my laughter was drowned by the music. As backpackers danced and watched the performance, an old Mayan woman walked across the center of the dance floor, a basket on her head filled with muffins. She didn’t seem to notice or care of what was happening around her. It was such an odd image. Here was a woman, born and raised on this land; was she adapting to the changes around her, or forcibly catering to those who have decided to make roots in her village? Was she just trying to sell her food and go about the rest of her night in peace, and not let the new music and strange foreigners influence her? I asked myself this as I watched her pace around the bar, until at last she vanished.

Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan.

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San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.
San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.

Anyhow, a little sidetracked there. My next stop was near a town called Lanquin. It was a long daytime journey on winding, bumpy roads, but by nightfall I had arrived at Semuc Champey. The forest was unlike your typical humid jungle. Rather, it was a dry, pine forest with a mix of trees that blended the native species of central america to some of the trees you’ll find in the mountains of upstate New York. Semuc Champey itself is a series of limestone bridges and caves that runs through central Guatemala and meets the Cabahón River. Combining the limestone and the river creates various tiered pools of turquoise, which were extraordinarily beautiful. From there I made my way to Flores, the jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal. In just one day’s drive I left the dry forest of Lanquin and found myself in the country’s northern tropical rainforest, rife with abundant wildlife, namely howler monkeys, toucans, and coatis. Tikal itself dates back to the 4th century BC, but reached its height during the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 AD. We watched the sunset from one of the temples in Tikal and listened to the birds and howler monkeys as they made their way to sleep.

A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.
A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.

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Tikal ruins.
Tikal ruins.

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Some practical tips for those looking to backpack in Guatemala. Firstly, most ATMs do not accept MasterCard debit cards. I had a huge problem with this as both my debit cards are MasterCard, and after trying countless machines in Flores and in Antigua, I was not able to withdraw any money. Luckily, I had just enough dollars that I could exchange to last me the remaining four days in the country. Secondly, Guatemala time is very different from the standard concept of time; when a Guatemalan says the journey will last 1.5 hours, it will actually take 3. The most common method of transport within the country for tourists are small shuttle busses, not the local chicken busses. These busses are not the most comfortable and often lack air conditioning, but they are the safest and most reliable means of getting from one place to another. The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin took almost 10.5 hours on a tourist shuttle, even though it was advertised as 8 hours. Don’t be fooled by the small size of Guatemala. Because of the road conditions it does take a long time to cover a short distance, and unfortunately the only overnight bus you can take is from the town of Flores (where you go to visit Tikal) to Guatemala City. I did take this bus and it was decent, similar to an average quality South American coach. So in all, be aware that you may take a day just to travel from one place to another, which makes the amount of days remaining to visit the cities more limited if you’re short on time.

A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
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Local Guatemalans seen on route from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin.

 

One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Iquitos.

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Sunset along the Iquitos boardwalk.
Iquitos is the wild west. It has an energy that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Peru, one that is scarily crazy and backwards, yet exciting and glamorous all the same. Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road – you can only get there by flying, by taking a 3-4 day cargo boat from various amazonian cities in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, or by taking a 12 hour fast boat. Yet when you arrive in Iquitos, you don’t feel like you’re trapped by the rivers enclosing it. It’s truly a city, bustling with rundown moto-taxis honking at one another, the rain seeming to splash upwards from the concrete during the daily downpour. The city is full of oddities. There are casinos and Hummers and various forms of police in the downtown and waterfront areas. You can find bars, clubs, vegetarian friendly restaurants, and beautiful colonial Spanish architecture along the boardwalk. But there is also poverty – an overall “sketchiness,” where strangers approach in the same casual way to take their tour of the jungle or to buy their drugs. There are stray dogs on every corner, grouped together and howling at whatever passes them, all looking completely disease ridden and hungry. There are kids that are devoid of gringo curiosity, rather trained to steal the gringo’s bags draped over their chairs at restaurants. There’s the famous Belén market that sells fruits and fish right next to dead turtles, caymans, monkeys, and tapir. In a funny contrast, just a few blocks away you’ll find an expensive supermarket selling sugar free biscuits and ten varieties of granola next to the in-store wine shop and air-conditioned cafe, one that we frequented on a daily basis for their set menu lunch. There is wealth that oozes of loose morals: casinos are safe-havens for the ever-present mafia to launder their money, and the presence of not only various Peruvian police forces but also of the DEA only proves that the movement of cocaine in and out of the amazon drives much of the wealth that can be found there. (You’ll notice the extremes that I had experienced in and around Iquitos in the photos I’ve posted here.)
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Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
Abandoned boat in Iquitos.
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The dichotomy of life and death is so easy to perceive in Iquitos. In just one day I went to the Belén market in the morning, where I saw dead endangered animals being sold as if it were entirely normal to eat animals that in no way have a place in our diet. I cringed when one woman holding a live turtle pierced it’s skin with a knife, getting ready to open it’s insides to present to shoppers looking to buy that evening’s dinner. I couldn’t bare to watch the skinned tapir head, the charred and hairless monkey hand and tail, it’s head nowhere to be found. That afternoon my friend and I visited Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage, founded 12 years ago by an Austrian woman named Gudrun. Just an hour by taxi and then by boat outside of Iquitos, orphanage is home to various species of monkeys as well as a capybara, tapir, an ocelot, and a jaguar, all either brought to the sanctuary or rescued by the Eco-Police. It was incredible to see the amount of care taken to create a safe and healthy habitat for these animals as well as seeing how much it took to sustain various species of butterflies. Pilpintuwasi curates their entire life-cycle process, from housing the butterfly eggs to providing spaces for the caterpillars to grow, and then for the butterflies to survive and mate. We learned just how much work and time it takes to ensure a successful transition into a butterfly, and how short and beautiful their time on this earth is. And it was ironic and sad to see the same species of turtle in the water as I saw that morning in the market. I was able to see a small tapir while learning of its very slow mating process where a female has a baby once every five years and has a gestation rate of 13 months. Many types of Tapir are endangered due to heavy human consumption; it was no surprise that I had seen tapir heads, hooves, and their meat for sale at the market only hours before.

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An owl butterfly at Pilpintuwasi.
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Up close with a butterfly.
Up close with a butterfly.

Turtles for sale at Belen market.
Turtles for sale at Belen market.

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Monkey and an unidentified animal for sale at the market.

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Tapir head and hooves.
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I had never seen a jaguar, and at this orphanage I was fortunate to see one, although he had been kept behind bars for the past 13 years after it was brought to the owner as a cub. It’s incredibly ironic that most of the animals cannot go back into the wild, whether because they were born in captivity, are physically unable to survive on their own, or in the case of the jaguar, not allowed by the Peruvian government to be transported to an open reserve or to be released into the wild. These sanctuaries and rescue centers are incredibly important for the survival of these animals and for the species in general, while also serving as a place to educate the people of the destruction they cause by capturing, killing for food, or keeping these animals as pets. But they also present a difficulty to the casual visitor – we are still seeing these animals in captivity, and they will most likely remain as such for the remainder of their lives. The zoo is the evil stepsister, but they are related all the same. This goes back to my post on Huaraz and Huacachina about the environment: we cause this destruction. We abhor it and want nothing but to change it, yet we perpetuate it by taking part in the visiting of animals, the rainforest, by merely being visitors to these places. And these people who live on that land are equally responsible for destroying their habitat, and the habitat of the animals that live there.

A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.
A friendly monkey at Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage.

Pedro the Jaguar.
Pedro the Jaguar.

A small tapir at the orphanage.
A small tapir at the orphanage.
The high rainfall during the months of November to May in the amazon also brings out the mosquitoes. Never before have I seen so many mosquitoes in one place. And wow we did suffer from their presence, their attraction to gringo blood. My friend and I booked a three day tour in the jungle, away from the chaos in Iquitos. I left with the most mosquito bites I’ve ever had in my life – there were so many all over me, I even had two bites on my eyelids. The amount of scratching caused bruises to form – it was a discomfort that was hard to psych myself out of. But it was worth it to see truly what goes on in the jungle. We went upstream 220 kilometers outside of the city, to the underside of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a 20,000 square km protected area that is the largest in the country. We stayed in a rustic lodge built on stilts in the water, and took the small motor boat every day along the river to look for wildlife and to stop on land to do some walking through the jungle. I expected to see monkeys, pink and grey dolphins, caymans, sloths, various species of birds, tarantulas, medicinal trees and plants, and a copious amount of spider webs. I didn’t see any sloths or caymans, as nature doesn’t guarantee all flora and fauna sightings that exist in the jungle. But what I didn’t expect to see to the extent that I did, in only a short amount of time, the destruction. The sheer horror I felt when I saw our “local” guide, who was just a villager with a small boat and a machete, cut through his backyard whenever a tree or plant stood in his way. The way he spoke about the animals as if they’re just a good sport to catch and kill for pets or food. The little respect he had for nature. Most of the jungle paths we visited had lost it’s luster, completely void of the lush vibrancy of a healthy planet. We stopped at a local village along the river to find the waters near their homes, all built on stilts, full of empty plastic bottles and smelling of rotten fish. In fact, we did see some dead catfish, their guts swollen, floating belly up in the water just by these people’s homes. I can say I did see a sloth in the jungle, however it was completely in the opposite way that I had imagined. As I approached the poor three toed sloth, he was tied to a wooden post on the underside of a woman’s house. His arm was held up by a knotted rope, and he had little place to move. Our group spoke to the woman, who told us with pride that she found the sloth and decided she would care for it by giving it food and keeping it as a pet, that way her neighbors wouldn’t kill it for food. I understand our need to respect the cultures and customs of others. However, it was impossible to hide my disappointment and my sadness. Indeed the jungle that we fly thousands of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to visit before it becomes obsolete is being destroyed from the inside – and frankly I am not sure that anything will be done about it. Not now, not ever.

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A captured pet sloth.

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Trash and plastic bottles outside a small village.

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Floating dead catfish in the river.

Cut down trees in the rainforest during our daily treks.
Cut down trees in the jungle.

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A rainbow over our lodge, situated near Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.
Piranha fishing, where I caught some baby catfish.

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A monkey jumped on our boat, curious about our food!
On our last day we visited the Centro de Rescate Amazónico  (CREA), an amazon rescue center and Manatee sanctuary. In contrast to the sobering effect that our jungle tour had on our visions of the future of this planet, this place provided us with a small glimmer of hope. Here we learned of the great efforts that are being made to protect the manatees, macaws, monkeys, otters, turtles, and caymans, helping to rehabilitate them as they’re delivered to the center and subsequently sending them back to the wild when they are ready. CREA frequently accepts school groups. The local students, many of whom have these wild animals as pets in their homes, are known to give up these animals to the center after learning of the harm that they are doing to them by holding them in captivity. And so we see first-hand the importance of educating people of the world they live in, and it is indeed a precious place that they inhabit.

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A rescued monkey at CREA.

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Friendly manatee looking for food.
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As I write this, I am on a 19 hour overnight bus ride from Lima to Mancora. To my left is an orange sunset shining its light along the dry desert coastline, the highway bordering the sea. It’s a dry beauty, and the sun illuminates my face, giving me warmth as I reflect on the overwhelming amount of emotions I felt in the amazon just a couple of days before.

And it hasn’t just been about the battle between humans and the environment. I was confronted with a far more immediate and personal decision to make in Iquitos. I received an email my first day in the city from the Hertie School in Berlin. I had been accepted into the International Affairs master’s program. It’s funny how it happened the same way I was able to reflect in Manú National Park, the amazon region in the south of Peru (I wrote about my experience and my decision to apply for graduate school here). It all seemed to come full circle when I received that email – I knew that I had a huge decision to make, and it was extremely time sensitive, as the tuition deposit is due in exactly a month. And I still have not made my decision. When I realized that I was actually accepted, the utter shock on my face showed my surprise that such a prestigious school would take a chance on me as their wild card in their Class of 2018. I knew I was going to Berlin, but I had already made it up in my mind that I had more time, and that perhaps early next year I would be picking up my life and starting anew. It seems that things are moving a lot quicker – I now have a timeline again. If I accept, by September I will be moving, and much of what I thought about while spending hours boating in the amazon was precisely what that means for my life in New York. How I would be leaving my friends and family, most of whom have no idea that when I return in June, I would have just two months to see them. How I won’t be returning to the life I started to create for myself in NYC. I now arrive in Mancora on the coast of northern Peru — a town of surfing, beaches, and ceviche — to take the time to rest and find some clarity.

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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