‘I’ve got a wonderful flight planned for you’, said the pilot of our Boeing 736 to Houston. His tone was undeniably cheery. ‘Please enjoy it, and please also enjoy the wonderful crew we have on board today’. It was barely breakfast time and love was pouring out of this guy. I wondered whether he was a believer, or whether he’d been swotting up on some self-help books or whether he was in fact on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He seemed so calm and level though, so damn happy, and my own morning grumpiness after a night of zero sleep was accentuated. I was both envious and hateful. How dare he?!
As the airplane engines started to roar and the strong sun shone through the windows and reflected off of the wing, I gazed out at the snow-capped Cotopaxi and contemplated my months in South America. Butterflies filled my stomach, feelings of excitement and apprehension and adventure. And a little bit of sadness. Was I ready to leave?
We lifted off, the size of Quito only really appreciated from the air with its dense sprawl of colourful buildings spreading out and up into the hillsides. And somewhere down there was Rosario in Laundry Practika and Luz in Hostel Galapagos and Edith in the Simon Bolivar Spanish School. And all the other people I’ve met in Ecuador and Peru came into focus: Frank and Kelvin at Andes Camp, Sonia of Casa de mi Abuelo, Eran and longer-suffering Chen for being my travel buddies and putting up with my chaos, and so many other interesting and crazy and fun people who shared moments in my journey including Argentinian Juli who hated all the backpackers who ‘just drinking and f***ing’ and ‘I’ve come here to learn something’ Matt and ‘Oh my god’ Miranda, and Gareth from Tourist2Townie and Robin and Avi and Rebecca and Dan and Amy and Hernan and Cait and Pablo and Raz and Matthius and Penny and Alanna and Katey, and, oh so many more. A rich mix of randoms. Gotta love it.
My memories of Peru will forever be linked to colour palette and environment: a yellow, rocky, dusty and inhospitable backdrop of flat desert scrubland and amazing sand dunes that reach high into the sky (the exception would be the jungly area of Machu Picchu, but I’m talking overall impressions here). Accompanying the desert landscape was a desert climate: hot and dry during the day, cold and crisp at night when chullos and woolly jumpers were a welcome wardrobe addition (llama patterned, of course). The heights of Peru caused me some problems, although I loved what some of those magical places had to offer. Pasturori and Churup? Wow. Worth every last bit of headache and shortness of breath.
Distances between places in Peru took some getting used to, but before long, a ten-hour journey seemed short-haul. And then there was the luxury bus travel, luxury compared to Ecuador, luxury compared to anywhere I’ve been but costing a relative premium.
I enjoyed Lima, I could live there, however Cusco grew on me with its straight-talking shoe shiners (‘very dirty your shoes’) and great places to hang out, like Maracuyea and Wachumas and The Real McCoys. But Peru was considerably more hassly than Ecuador, more desperate in some respects with kids sent out to sell sweets and old, shrivelled men making approaches for money, shaky hands outstretched. Poverty and financial disparity were visible here.
Food highlights from both Ecuador and Peru have to be quinoa and juices of all sorts. It’s official: I am in love with quinoa soup and its wholesome, tasty goodness. I got over my vegetable smoothie phobia, stocking up on vitamins whenever I could by drinking orange and carrot blends (I also tried aloe vera and strawberry, tasty, great option!). Humitas were another favourite of mine and don’t forget the trusty empañada in all its various guises. Rarely a disappointment, the cheese and sugar combo was a surprise hit for my taste buds.
When thinking about South America, music and dancing are firmly in the picture. From a totally biased viewpoint, much of it is pretty bad music – schmaltzy or mainstream pop – that undoubtedly mentions ‘el corazon’ (heart) at some point but will often be so catchy and conventionally structured that the next time you hear it you’ll be tapping and singing along before you realise. Your hips may have even started to sway along to the likes of Fainal or Farruko or Joey Montana. Hola Que Tal* is one of those tracks, truly horrible, but once you’ve heard it for the umpteenth time (thanks Kelvin at AndesCamp) you have some affection for its crapness.
A few comparisons between Ecuador and Peru include the service in restaurants and cafés, which is generally much faster in Peru than in Ecuador. Peru isn’t actually that much cheaper than Ecuador, in fact, much of the time it’s on a par or more expensive. Something I had barely noticed in Ecuador was impossible to ignore in Peru: casinos are everywhere in the big cities and small towns alike. Middle aged men and women sit at slot machines, gambling S/.0.10 at a time to while away the evening. Security guards block the entrances to these places.
And although I’ve previously covered Ecuador in some depth, it is a country that will forever be recommended by me as a place to visit. Accessibility and diversity are among the things that make it so appealing. If it were a choice between Ecuador and Peru, don’t follow the crowds, follow the lush beauty of Ecuador. You won’t regret it.
So, back to the flight to Houston that’s just left Quito, and I’m feeling that great sense of adventure tingle through my body. The woman behind me pulls down her window blind firmly just as I open mine as wide as is possible. Sunlight streaks in, pushing through the morning mist, highlighting the chains of mountains and marshmallow clouds that we’re now flying high above. What a beautiful day. A fitting ending to a beautiful South America trip.