Thursday, October 24, 2013

There are no atheists in a Combi

During late winter Jenny and I got the travel bug- months of sub-freezing temperatures provide great planning time! After debating a few different trips, we settled on a ten-day trip to Peru at the end of May, six days backpacking in northern Peru and then a few days in Lima at the end.

Our trip didn't have an auspicious start. International flights to Lima tend to arrive late at night, while domestic flights for other destinations in Peru tend to leave very early. Along those lines, our flight from New York arrived at 10:30 PM and our flight to Huaraz (in central Peru) departed at 5:30 AM. Given the short time between flights by the time we cleared customs, the cost of the on-airport hotel, and the distance to any other lodging, we decided to just crash at the airport for the night. Unfortunately, our flight to Huaraz was moved back two hours the day before we left, and then delayed a further two hours at the airport, which led to...

Note Jenny's "cozy" nook and my entertainment for the night on the table (The Warmth of Other Suns is a great read by the way). Ten hours, one noisy food court, and two spine-compressingly hard chairs later we boarded our flight to Huaraz.

After a short flight we landed on a tiny runway at the Anta airport, squeezed into a narrow valley, and then took the 25-minute cab ride to Huaraz. We had a quick lunch of trout ceviche and then hopped on the bus for the three-hour ride east from Huaraz up and over Kahuish Pass at 14,700 ft and down to Chavin de Huantar. And wow- the altitude hit. The altitude plus a bumpy curvy road led to the closest I've been to motion sick in my life...

We finally reached the quaint town of Chavin and spent the evening recovering from an international flight, sleeping in the airport, a radically new cuisine (guinea pig anyone?), and the altitude. 

Feeling much better the next morning, we set off for the main attraction in Chavin: the ruins at Chavin de Huantar, an archaeological site containing remnants of the Chavin Society, which peaked somewhere around 1500 B.C. Sadly, we learned that UNESCO World Heritage Sites need days off too, and the ruins were closed on Mondays. Having traveled to Chavin specifically for the ruins and having to head back to Huaraz later that day, we were disappointed (and felt pretty dumb- doh!). 

Luckily for us, someone mentioned that "Professor Reeeek" might be around. "Professor Reeek" is Stanford Professor John Rick, who has been excavating at Chavin with the help of undergrads and graduate students for nearly 20 years. A few of Jenny's friends had worked with Professor Rick at Chavin, so we decided to stop in and say hello. After we introduced ourselves, Professor Rick very generously offered to show us around the site himself for a few hours- a private tour of the ruins! Wow!

Here's Professor Rick explaining the temple complex and some of the new excavations to me:

The tour culminated with the Lanzon, a 20-foot tall granite monolith entombed in the middle of the ruins. The current theory is that priest inductees would consume the local hallucinogenic cactus then descend in the temple, which would be filled with the sound of rushing and splashing water (poured in through special channels) and the music of conch horns (the temple was built to resonate at the pitch of the horns), until they found the Lanzon and had a religious experience. Intense stuff.

And here's Jenny having her epiphany (no cactus involved). 

Definitely an amazing site considering it's age!

We were a little worried on the bus ride back that afternoon when we saw what our backpacks would be sharing the luggage compartment under the bus with...

Fortunately our packs remained llama-blood free and we were back in Huaraz that evening. Walking around town that night we ran into a young German who had been on our flight, Jonas, who ended up joining us for the Santa Cruz trek- he was great company and could speak Spanish better than Jenny or I, which was a huge help! The next morning the three of us were off to the Santa Cruz Trek, starting from Cashapampa, around 60 miles north of Huaraz. To get to the trailhead, we took the city bus equivalent in Peru, a "combi", which are generally old vans repurposed as buses that run on fixed routes for very cheap. Since combis aren't operated by the government there are some perverse incentives for operators: 1) the more people in the combi, the more fares they collect and 2) the faster they finish their route the more times they can run it. This leads to 1) crazy crowded vans and 2) fast, reckless driving. After watching a couple blind passes around curves and over hills I decided it was better not to pay attention to the road. Here's a photo of one of our combis:

Now imagine 22 people (and a bag of live guinea pigs) crammed in there. Eventually we made it to the start of the trek (to be continued...), but as the title says, "there are no atheists in a combi." 

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