Culture, Responsible tourism

What I Found In The Peruvian Jungle

When the day finally arrived to go back to South America, I almost got cold feet. I had just spent nearly four months in Buenos Aires on an exchange program through New York University, traveling at every opportunity I could find. After one week at home in the US at the end of the program, I thought I would be itching for more travel. I had decided to travel during my winter break for a full month before returning back to Buenos Aires for a second semester. But the closer the day came, the more nervous I became about traveling alone.
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The view from a mototaxi on the streets of Iquitos, Peru
I was eager to travel alone for several months, and the timing was just right to finally do it. I wanted time to think, write, read, and wander around Peru, the country I chose to spend one month in, but I quickly realized that comfort decreases as liberation increases.
How was I going to return to living out of a backpack? Budgeting every dollar spent? Negotiating prices with taxi drivers in another language? Carrying on a conversation without back-up Spanish from my friends?
Apart from these questions, I started to wonder if it really was too dangerous and risky to travel alone as a woman in Peru. Countless people warned me of robbery, rape, drug trafficking, and other horrible things which could happen or I would come across. I have always believed in not letting sensationalism and fear control my life, but I wanted to stay safe and my nerves challenged my beliefs.
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Overlooking the sunset in Lima, Peru
Months of excitement and here I was days before my flight. Scared and full of doubts.
When my Monday evening flight arrived, I ended up sticking through with my plan and flew back to South America. After a week or so in Patagonia traveling with other people, it was time to begin the solo part of my journey.
I flew to Iquitos, Peru: the city in the middle of the jungle only accessible by plane or a three day boat journey. When I stepped off the plane, an immediate wave of heat and humidity hit me. Somewhere in that heavy air, I found what would help me overcome my fears and doubts: language.
Being alone forced me to adapt to speaking Spanish quicker than through a study abroad program with other English speakers. In Iquitos, I met my Couchsurfing host’s mother and was able to carry on conversations about typical foods, family, and everyday life with her–albeit slightly fragmented and with a lot of hand motions.
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Sunset view from the three-day boat journey which took me from Iquitos to Yurimaguas on the Marañón river
From the port town of Yurimaguas to the city of Tarapoto, I was confident enough in my Spanish to defend myself to a taxi driver, who was yelling at me for not having correct change. On the flip side, countless times I listened to taxi drivers’ opinions on politics and economics and conversations about what I was studying–journalism–which seemed to always intrigue people. On the coast of Peru between the beach town of Huanchaco and the city of Trujillo, a taxi driver told me about his dreams of becoming a tour guide because of his love for learning English and the history of his country.
In the village of Sorochuco, three hours from the nearly tourist-free city of Cajamarca, I listened to my WWOOF host tell me about the ritual of setting up a sacred space in the home to honor both saints from the Catholic roots of the country and the Incan ancestors to bring good luck, love, health, and prosperity.
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Street scene from Cajamarca- Walking in the small village of Sorochuco with my WWOOF host
Everyday, he would light candles which would burn until they were used up hours later before going to sleep. He asked about rituals in my country, and I had a humbling moment of silence when I realized the only daily ritual I had acquired was brushing my teeth.
In the Valley of Belen outside of the small, colonial town of Chachapoyas, I watched the mountain fog fade away uncovering thousands of stars while sitting next to a bonfire. Our trekking guide recalled a story of when he was young, he would watch the stars late into the night. Eventually, he would fall asleep outside. He laughed, recalling when his mother would come outside to tell him to come inside or otherwise throw a blanket for him. In small stories like this, understandable only through piecing together another language, I was able to be a part of this country on a deeper level by immersing in the language. Through learning the language, I was empowered and liberated to travel and learn about Peru on my own.
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Belen Valley, where my trekking guide, his helper, my French friend and I shared anecdotes around a bonfire with chicha (a common drink fermented from corn)
During my several months abroad, and the month or so I spent traveling alone, I went from being able to order a coffee and doing my laundry in Spanish, to chatting about the politics, economic problems, and what could possibly be the solutions. Each step of learning Spanish was my gateway to independence while traveling. The fears and doubts of traveling alone faded with every successful conversation I had in Spanish. And as for when I venture to places which don’t speak Spanish or English? Well, the process will begin again.
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Fortaleza de Kuelap, the “Machu Picchu” of northern Peru and ruins of the Chachapoyas people- a culture which existed before the Incas conquered them
Article by Sydney Pereira