Popping into Peru

It took all of maybe an hour to sort out and pack up the Santiago lab into two new blue duffel bags. Now done with work, I enjoyed lounging around my favorite Santiago hostel and spending time with my friends there. I attended a fiesta at another hostel where the host/my friend started the grill using a hairdryer, something I had never seen before but learned it’s a Santiago thing. I caught up with the guys running the hostel, made some new friends with the younger crew staying there, then slipped away into the night to return to my hostel to get a good night’s sleep for an adventure the next day. I never really like saying goodbye, so being elusive when I make my departure is a skill I’ve gotten pretty good at.

I rented a car for a day to escape the city and spent some time in the sun at Embalse de Yeso, a place I had visited when I was working in Santiago in the autumn. I wanted to see what it looked like after winter season with the mountains covered in snow. Simply put, it was stunning. Much quieter now, without many people parked out on the flat, I wandered the vast valley and followed the river for a while. I felt at home, alone among the giant peaks surrounding me. My heart was full.

The next day, I arranged a ride with my go-to Santiago Uber driver, Jonathon. He picked me up at the hostel, waited for me at the university while I shlepped down the two big bags of supplies from the lab (it was a Sunday so the university was empty), and drove me to the airport. We arranged a ride for when I came back, and he helped me find a cart to load my supplies and personal bag. It was time to head to Lima, Peru. It was a quick flight; after blasting off from Santiago I landed in Lima about 3 hours later. I got a ride to the same house I stayed at before in La Molina on the outskirts of the city, and the next day unloaded the bags of supplies into the new lab I would be setting up.

Besides prepping the lab space, my goal with this trip was to train members of the lab on the PBMC (peripheral blood mononuclear cell) protocol. I trained them with my own blood first, and was a little sleepy after getting 60 mls drawn, but the protocol was successful with a clear density separation of the different blood cells and a good PBMC cell count to confirm the protocol worked. The next day another member of the lab repeated the protocol, luckily with another donor from the lab, and we had a second success and new vampire to add to the crew. The training was much smoother than I imagined it would be and I feel that we are ready for action in January!

The new vampire in the lab took me out to Lima square to explore the town, sample cocoa, and eat ceviche. We went on a tour under one of the old churches and explored the remains of catacombs that had an estimated 300,000 corpses worth of bones! It also happened to be a religious celebration, The Lord of Miracles day, where tens of 1000s of Peruvians gather along the sides of the roads in downtown Lima to watch a procession of a group of people carrying a mural of the crucifixion for 24 hours straight (eventually ending at a church). I found it ironic that out of all days I end up in the city, it was probably one of the most crowded days of the year! It was interesting to watch, though from a distance.

Spending a week in Lima drew a lot of energy from me though and now, with a few days free before my trip to Costa Rica, I made a plan to leave behind the concrete jungle. I rented a cheap car and researched how best to spend my free time. When I had left Savannah in Peru to work in Chile (before the border was open), I was researching different routes to drive down. I ended up taking the coastal route along the ocean, since Sav was having mechanical issues and I didn’t want to push my luck on mountain passes. But, I was still curious about a route I had been eyeing and decided to go up and check it out. I also wanted to see the mythical rock sculptures in the Marcahuasi Stone Forest. With a plan set and muchas ganas (much desire/eagerness) to get up somewhere high, I was ready to head out.

When I drove my van through Lima back in February, I was appalled at the aggressive driving here and absolutely terrified Sav wouldn’t make it out unscathed. With white knuckles and sweaty palms, her and I made it through but I swore to myself I’d never drive in Lima again. Eight months must have been long enough for me to forget just how bad it was, since I decided to rent a car. The people from the lab thought I was crazy and warned me against it. But if there’s nothing I do better than being stubborn and going with my own way, I stuck with my plan and decided to chance it. I did luck out and got an automatic car, and I upgraded from the cheapest/shittiest car there to one that was a bit bigger (more for the roads that I wanted to drive than protection from other drivers but I’m sure it was mental security against that as well). I had assumed the road leading out of Lima and up into the mountains would turn into a highway and eventually be free of the Lima hellhole traffic. I was wrong. The entire 3 hours I drove from the Hertz headquarters in downtown Lima, to literally the last city (San Mateo) on HW-22 before it hit the mountains was absolute chaos. Drivers here seem to defy both space and time as they morphed lanes and created new traffic patterns I didn’t even know could exist. Honking, cutting each other off, hands waving out of windows, shouting… any bad traffic habit you can think of was apparent and excessive. Though I never used the horn, I did learn the ways of Peruvian driving and bobbed and weaved out of the way. I’ve been told Lima has some of the worst driving in the world, right up along with places in India, and I now believe it. Something to add to my resume of random skills, perhaps.

Due to the traffic I hadn’t gotten as far as I wanted to and decided to get a hotel in San Mateo. It was incredibly cheap, 30 sol ($7) per night and quite cute tucked away from the city along a gurgling river. The next morning, I got up early with a plan to check out HW-120, the route I had considered driving with Sav. I was surprised to find it was a dirt track, at times only single lane, and twisted up into the mountains to around 15,000 feet. I had hoped to do a glacier hike about 40 km along this road. The going was slow, and I needed to drive with extra caution through deep ruts or random potholes since this was not a 4×4 vehicle and rather a 2wd little car. The landscape was striking, the mountains seemed to change completely with every kilometer I drove. First they were lush with eucalyptus trees and desert-y plants, then barren slabs of red and gray rock, there were some multicolored scree covered domes, and then finally bright white sharp peaks. I was in the Peruvian Andes.

As the road ascended, so it felt like my breakfast did as well. Perhaps it was stupid to go from sea level in Lima to 15k feet within 24 hours… it was absolutely stupid. But I had bought some coca (not cocaine but derived from the same plant or something like that) to suck on which apparently helps with altitude sickness. It probably helped a bit, but after I finally arrived at the trailhead for my hike, my head was pounding and my movements were incredibly slow. I tried eating a banana in the car but only managed half, drank some water, chewed on some coca, then figured I’d give the hike a shot anyway and see how I felt. I walked very, very slowly as the trail crept up along the side of the mountain. I could see the pass I would have to go over to see the glacier, it seemed so far and so high. I began to get dizzy so I hung out on a rock for a bit and tried to regulate my breathing. Feeling a bit better, I tried again… but didn’t make it very far. Spotty vision and more dizziness, I sat down for a bit again. I thought I’d give it one more go, pushed on, but not far and succumbed to the wooziness and laid down this time. I was shut down. So I lounged in the sun and took in the scenery. I felt incredibly small and insignificant among the landscape, which was perhaps exactly the feeling I was searching for on my trip up there. I could see the spot of my rental car parked on the corner of a switchback way below, I had barely seen any other cars or trucks pass on the road. I looked up at the glaciers rolling along the sharp summits and tried to imagine just how much ice was up there, how tall the peaks were, if anyone had ever walked along the ridges and summits up there or if that was simply impossible, too big and protected by the wall of glacier. Eventually I tore away from the scene and returned to the car, drove the crazy switchbacks back to the long dirt road, and rolled back down to San Mateo.

The Marcahausi stone forest is about 60 km east of Lima, but takes more than 3 hours to get to from the city. I was coming from San Mateo, maybe 40 km East of the turn off for the road to the stone forest, so I assumed it would take an equal amount of time to get there. Marcahausi is known for massive stones that eerily take on shapes like human faces and animal forms. Theories such as extraterrestrial visits and dimensional doors in the forest where inner Earth beings come out to sculpt the rock are told. Call me boring, but I chose to go with the wind erosion explanation, which is still quite impressive and ominous! The plateau was formed from a volcanic reaction and covers an area of about 4 square kilometers at 13,000 feet. There are also some pre-Colombian structures such as tombs and small living quarters up on the plateau.

The road up to Marcahausi was even sketchier than the mountain valley road I had driven the day before. I think it’s a form of therapy for me to be drawn to these kind of sketchy mountain roads with soft shoulders and steep drops off the side. It makes me concentrate but also unlocks parts of my mind for some deep thinking. It took 2 hours to drive from the highway to San Pedro de Casta, the last little town before the plateau. There I stopped to ask for directions to the trailhead and was met with smiles and friendliness. They told me it was another few kilometers, up more switchback windy roads until the trailhead. I really wanted to see Monumento a la Humanidad, basically a giant rock eroded into the form of a human head. I hiked up the trail to the plateau at 13k ft and swung Northwestward towards the head. I passed one other couple setting up camp but otherwise was completely alone up there. It sure did feel eerie, so I could imagine where the myths and stories of other worldly beings came from. There was no wind, no animal sounds, and only a few birds. It was oddly easy to lose the trail, it would just sort of vanish. I never got truly lost but without major landmarks besides big rocks that changed form from every perspective you looked at them, I’d sometimes find I had begun to wander in a different direction than I had planned.

Eventually, I did find the path leading to the human face. As I approached, I thought it must be the wrong rock as there was no resemblance of a face. Then, as if materializing in front of me, it appeared. A perfect form of a human face, slightly looking up, with lips parted. It was about 3 stories high. I sat on a rock for awhile, silently watching as if I expected it to change shapes in front of my eyes again. I saw other big rock “sculptures” around it that my imagination made into beings and extraterrestrial forms. If aliens did sculpt this human head, did they sculpt the others to resemble what they themselves looked like?

I explored other parts of the plateau. I walked along strange walls of oddly shaped rocks, scrambled up tracks from rain runoff, and found myself on the edge of a cliff looking down 1000’s of feet. Here it was said that the rocks that form this cliff were sculpted into faces representing all of the different races of the world, all standing together and looking in the same direction. It was indescribable up there, a sense of stillness but tension with scenery that would play tricks on your mind and make you marvel at the forces of nature.

The car was due back by mid-afternoon the next day, and not wanting to wait to have to deal with the scary dirt road back down in the morning, I decided to return to the highway that evening. I put on some good tunes, let my mind chew on whatever needed chewing, and rolled my way back down. I got to the highway in the dark and had a bit of a hard time finding a place to stay. It didn’t really feel like a safe place to just sleep on the side of the road in the car, and Google Maps had already taken me into some shady neighborhoods. Finally, I found a hotel who responded to a message about availability.

I happily parked the car in a locked parking lot, dropped my bags on the floor of the room, and flopped into bed. That night though was a fitful night of “sleep.” I’d have intense dreams of doors in the wall opening and awaken to noises while either feeling freezing or soaked in sweat. I’d jolt awake to the feeling of levitating or being pulled off the bed by my feet. Perhaps I picked up some of the strange energy from the plateau. (These kind of episodes actually happen to me somewhat regularly, a few times a year, and my best guess is that it’s related to my generally low blood pressure… but I never really know what causes one to be triggered.) I shook off the feeling the next morning, threw my stuff back into the rental, and bobbed and weaved through the hellish traffic to drop off the car. I had a quick rinse in the shower, one last meeting with my collaborators, and prepared to head to Costa Rica.

I’m here at the field site now and am pretty stoked about the future work I’ll be doing here… but that’s for next time 😉

Map of sleep spots, here!

Driving Song lately – Otta by Solstafir

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