A Mariachi group from Mexico is singing Cielito Lindo. My trip to Latin America begins.
Mexico. The music takes me north, to Mexico´s border with Arizona, to the small border city of Nogales. Then, all the way down to the Yucatan peninsula. The colorful indigenous clothing and the native Maya languages. The descendants of the Spanish conquistadores and the mix of Hispanic and native cultures they left behind. The colonial architecture of Mexico brings to me the aroma and the colors of Andalucía. I feel like I’m going back and forth between pre-Columbian Mexico and 16th century Spain.
I leave behind Central America and continue going south. Ecuador. The equator cutting it in two. I stand there, with one foot above the equator line, in the northern hemisphere, and one below, in the southern one. What a strange feeling. Where am I really? Where do I belong?
The cultural mix here is mostly Hispanic and Quechua. I go for a walk in the coastal city of Guayaquil and I end up the in the park in front of the city’s Cathedral. El parque de las iguanas, they call it. No wonder. It’s full of iguanas. They are considered harmless, so they let them stroll around free. They are much larger than the occasional iguana one might have seen in an exotic pet shop in Europe. They seem to completely ignore me. As I turn around to take a picture, I feel something heavy hitting hard my left shoulder. Sort of like someone having kicked a soccer ball right at me. Nope, it’s no soccer ball. It’s a huge (or so it seems to me at the moment) iguana that slipped off a tree branch above me and I just happened to be its landing spot. The iguana crawls carelessly away from me, as if nothing has just happened, as my scream of terror has all the park visitors looking my way. Fifteen years later I return to Ecuador. I’m still remembered as la chica que se le cayó por encima la iguana (the girl that the iguana fell on)! There’s a story to tell my grandchildren. For some reason, on my second trip I don’t visit the iguana park.
It’s a short flight to Lima, Peru. My excitement is indescribable. The land of the Incas. My childhood dream. Do you remember Paddington Bear who came to London all the way from Darkest Peru? Did my first English teacher realize my amazement at Tintin’s adventures in Peru, or could she have imagined the effect of the story on me, when we were reading the Prisoners of the Sun and Tintin was discovering the lost treasure of the Incas?
Lima is beautiful. Gorgeous. Dear friends are showing me around and I can’t get enough of the beauty of this city. Combining the colonial with the modern; the city, which for more than two centuries was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru. A lot of green. Beautiful residential areas. Wonderful places to walk around. A part of my heart stays in Lima, as I head for the mountains.
Cusco, at an altitude of 3,400 meters (11,000 feet). My first experience of lack of oxygen.
Mal de alturas or soroche. Altitude sickness. The effect of such altitudes to those of us used to living at sea level. You must move around extremely slowly, they told me. I feel silly, but I don’t have much choice. I lay in bed feeling my heart pumping the blood into my veins like crazy, in an attempt to get as much oxygen to my brain as possible. As soon as you arrive to the hotel, you must drink the tea, they said. They keep it right by the entrance. Another shock for us westerners. Coca leaves tea. And lots of it. It helps dilute the blood and you need it since altitude causes your blood to thicken. I drink it. No sugar. Tastes like common green tea. For those wondering, no, it has no hallucinatory effects. Coca is a plant that grows in the Andes precisely to serve the inhabitants of the area with their particular needs. It’s funny in how many forms you can find it: loose tea leaves, tea bags, candy, chewing gum.
I visit numerous archaeological sites around Cusco. Sacsayhuaman, Q’engo, Tambomachay. The sacred valley of the Incas and the villages of Pisaq, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero. Finally, Machu Picchu. The city on top of the mountain that still makes everyone wonder how in the world they managed to build it. The lost city of the Incas… At last, I´m here. The dream has come true.
Tourism is an important part of the Peruvian economy. They have so much to show and they do it well, excelling at hospitality and tourist services. Even the indigenous people play now a big part in it. Some decades ago they were more reserved and camera-shy. Now, at every tourist site a group of them will be waiting with their llamas and other animals, to have their picture taken with the tourists. At the price of a few Soles, of course. Wherever I stand, some Indian girl approaches me, asking me persistently to buy her merchandise. I wave goodbye to Peru, with their words buzzing in my ears “¡Cómpreme señorita, cómpreme!”
by Melina Stefanidou