Our very early morning flight took us from Lima, Peru up into the Andes Mountains and set us down in the city of Cusco, elevation 11,152 feet.
Mountains are fascinating and intimidating to this flatlanders girl. I always choose the window seat if I can, just so I can see views like this.
At places 17,000+ feet in elevation, the Andes Mountains are the second-highest mountain range in the world (only the Himalayas in Asia are higher). They make the Rocky Mountains look like teenagers and the Appalachians like toddlers. The Andes are HUGE....not only in height, but also in length as the mountain range runs most of the way down the west coast of South America.
Cusco is a bustling mountain town, the place where Inca Trail hikes begin and where tourists start their Machu Picchu excursions. We would be visiting Machu Picchu a week later, but for us now it was the beginning of our expedition into Manu National Reserve...the reason we chose to come to Peru to begin with.
At the busy Cusco airport, airline passengers were given coca leaves to counteract altitude sickness. Kim and I had already started taking medicine to prevent that, and the only difference I noticed in the high altitude was a little tingliness in my face and lips. And our stamina (nothing to brag about to begin with...) was lagging.
Coca leaves are highly illegal in the US, as they are a key component of cocaine. In the Peruvian Andes, everyone keeps a pack of coca leaves on them for chewing, making tea, etc. I drank coca tea several times and didn't feel any different...maybe that's because I'm always a little naturally whacky!
We were met at the Cusco airport by what would become our entourage...guide Nicolas, our driver, and our cook...who loaded us into a mini-van for the trip over the Andes and down into Manu National Park.
Before we left Cusco, we stopped at this roadside stand to buy some bread...
...for our meals the next several days. There are no stores where we were going....
It's the part of the journey I had eagerly anticipated and dreaded at the same time. I'd seen YouTube videos of buses crossing these mountains and it was a scary sight...but we were here and committed...and up we began!
At first it was a 2-lane paved road with guardrails...
...and gradually, the higher we climbed and the farther away from civilization...
...the roads turned to one-lane gravel (and even mud at times) and there was nothing between us and the valley WAY below.
But the views...
...oh the views!
Surprisingly enough, I wasn't clenching the sides of the van most of the trip. There were a few harried moments, but our driver was very careful and our van was reliable. And powerful. And narrow. Made for the task of mountain-climbing.
Every so often we'd drive through a small village.
I shot photos from inside the van...I love unposed photos of people just doing their thing.
Notice the women...such beautiful colorful textiles, nearly always a hat, and woolen leggings. It's cold up there!
I wondered where all these people lived...
...places like this.
And this. Precariously perched against the side of the mountain. Sleepwalkers do not survive here!
These are rugged, strong people. Life is hard in the mountains. And no one needs a stairmaster to keep in shape!
Part-way up we stopped in the quaint mountain village of Paucartambo...
...for breakfast in a little restaurant. Kim and I both had to duck going into the door...the Peruvian people are tiny little things and we must seem like white giants to them.
This is our guide Nicolas. You'll read lots about him in the posts to come...he is one of the smartest men I've ever met and an expert biologist in his own right before he started guiding. He fixed us some coca tea while we waited on our scrambled eggs.
Afterward we walked around Paucartambo for a few minutes to stretch our legs.
I would later ask one of our female guides why the older women don't have gray hair. She explained the the mountain people (of which she was one) have strong genetic ties to the Incans who, like our native Americans, don't have gray hair or body hair. So the old women's hair stays black and doesn't gray. Interesting... She also said that the Peruvians in other parts of the country have much more Spanish blood in them than Incan, and therefore have different facial features and more/grayer hair.
We followed the crowd...
...to a large school assembly in the village square.
That's a lot of French braiding!
Not quite sure what they were celebrating (Nico didn't know either), but very colorful and fun.
Proud parents and grandparents are universal!
In every village, a Catholic church...
And yes, cell phones...
I LOVE the bright colors! All the mountain women wore these...a combo purse/backpack/baby carrier.
How'd you like to trudge up to your home from the village?!
Back in the van and still higher upward we go...
We finally started down the other side...up in the high elevations it was either misting or we were in the middle of the clouds...
We were about to reach the entrance to Manu.
Quite a ride that took us most of the day.
Up and into the Andes.