Far from the Hiroshima Peace Park, on the other side of the hill from the Peace Pavilion, there sits another shrine that does not memorialize the victims of the atomic bomb but cannot escape the shadow of the war. Kinkou-Inari Shrine was built to honor Inari, god of prosperity, and the shrine sports rows of red Torii (gates) lining the path, much like in Kyoto’s famous Fushimi-Inari.
But beyond the gates, the similarity between the two shrines disappears. As you climb past the main shrine and continue up the hill, you’ll find not a well-worn path of stairs to immaculately-maintained shrines but a jumble of uneven steps, obscured in part by dirt and fallen leaves. Shrines lay beside the path in various states of upkeep; some are clearly swept and cared-for, while others are mere remnants, scattered pieces of wood with flecks of faded vermillion paint. A sign at one shrine near the hill’s top gently implores guests with “please do not cause trouble in the shrine.” Its altar is devoid of all but a single glass plate, and pieces of broken vases and ceramic plates are embedded in the dirt nearby. It seems that here the shrine to prosperity is in want for itself.
A plausible source of the area’s unpopularity lies at the top of the hill, where hidden between the overgrown trees and heavy leaf litter is a collection of circular structures sunken into the ground. “These are the remnants of an anti-aircraft battery from World War II” reads a nearby sign, but it looks like few souls come by to read it. The masonworks is now nothing but a remnant from when Japan had a military, a reminder that Hiroshima is part of a country that once used its military might to control much of East Asia.
Today’s excursion out into the city is a solo one. Though my dad is still busy teaching and couldn’t meet us in Taipei, I’m curious to know where he grew up so I sent him the question via email. He responded with a snapshot of Google Maps containing a rough-drawn circle over a bit of Yonghe District. “I lived at “#30 Baofu Road Section 2. […] No physical trace of my house or the neighborhood remained. The only tangible thing left is the Baofu temple. I fell into the pond in front of the temple when i tried to pick some lotus flowers. Still remember the underwater image, green water and a lot of straight underwater stems.” So today I’m going out, alone, to try and find Baofu Temple and what remains of #30 Baofu Road.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much of my family’s life in China before the Communist Party took power or here in Taiwan after they fled, and what little I do know is gleaned from secondhand sources. I only really know my grandmother’s side, the Hu Family, because they were the most numerous among the survivors and the relatives that lived nearby in Southern California. I know that once my grandmother’s family was once wealthy and lived in Suzhou, a city about two hours outside of Shanghai. I know that the family house still stands there, an immense traditional family compound enclosing an inner garden, used when I last visited as excess storage space for a nearby hotel. And I know that to escape the Chinese Civil War and communist revolution, my grandmother and her husband (of the Ma Family) fled with my uncle and aunt here to Taiwan sometime in the early fifties, where my dad was born. They lived here until my grandfather died, when my grandmother decided to emigrate to the Albequerque, New Mexico, bringing my dad to the United States somewhere during his high school years. But that’s where the facts end, and beyond them lie is a series of nebulous, achronistic anecdotes and stories.
Back in the real world, I’ve found my way to Ren’Ai Road and turned right, in the direction of Baofu Road, navigating busy traffic stops and dodging people, equipment, and motorbikes planted on the sidewalks. When my dad described his childhood, it sounded like he grew up more in the countryside or in a sparse suburb. He told me about catching frogs and bugs, and to this day he doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon because it reminds him of the stinkbugs found here in the summertime. But any semblance of nature has long been paved over in this district. As people flocked here to live and commute to Taipei City across the river, the buildings here were flattened and then-new apartment complexes rose more steeply and densely in their place. The population continued to grow. In 1979, before being swallowed up into the New Taipei City municipality, Yonghe City was one of the most densely-populated places in the world.
I make a final turn onto Baofu Road, Section 2 and take a look around. There are no visible numbers on the apartments here, although again any building around here was built after my father left. But Baofu Temple still stands, a brilliantly-painted building with traditional curved roofing and an open front façade leading to the altars indoors. To my dismay, there’s no sign of the pond my dad mentioned, likely a casualty of the construction process of what is now a parking lot in front of the temple building. There’s also no one else around to ask, although what would I ask them? “Did you know a kid back in the early 60’s who went by the name Ma Tzen and once fell into the pond here that no longer exists?” I could ask something akin to with my rudimentary Chinese and Google Translate, but then what? Would I understand the response? And would anyone here now have even lived here back then?
I walk around inside the temple, where decades and a few renovations ago my family would have visited for festivals and prayers and offerings to the deceased. I can’t read much on the walls, for things are often not only in traditional characters, but also in “grass writing”, a stylistic form of Chinese characters akin to cursive for us English speakers and unintelligible for those who can barely read to begin with. In one corner, though, I find a stack of incense sticks wrapped with gold foil-inlaid papers and a price written above them on a shelf. I’ve visited temples and gravesites of family members enough to know that these are offerings for the dead, to be burned so they reach the deceased on the other side. I drop Taiwanese dollars into a nearby lockbox, grab a packet, and head outside.
Knowledge about is less powerful than knowledge of, and I find myself fumbling with what to do next with this packet of goods for my deceased family members. I decide to light the incense first, and though I have no lighter, someone has thankfully just finished burning offerings in the nearby oven. I hold the tips of the incense sticks over the remnants of their offerings to catch the twisting orange tongues, and in a few seconds the sticks catch fire. After shaking them to put the flame out, I carry them over to the altar, bow three times, and push the incense sticks into the altar’s sand.
The gold-foil papers are a bit more more difficult to burn, and it takes me a few minutes of piling them into the oven and turning over the remnants of the still-smoking previous offerings to get them to light. Then I add the remaining sheets slowly, pausing to step back and out of the stinging smoke. Bit by bit, the sheets disappear into the flames, transmuted from paper into smoke and ash, disappearing into the atmosphere.
Keelung is a port city in northeastern Taiwan, but it feels like a small town compared to Taipei. We’re here as part of a transit route from Taipei to Jiufen, a tourist town just to the south. But an impending heavy rainstorm has stalled us, and given our limited amount of time here we’ve opted just to stay here in Keelung.
The strangest part of Keelung is the subtle Japanese influence that pervades and surfaces seemingly at random. At the tourism center, which is staffed by mostly elderly volunteers, I find a man who speaks fluent Japanese. He learned it in school, under the Japanese occupation (which lasted until the end of World War II). The old man helps us find an affordable hotel room, and tells us about how the Japanese occupied the island and treated the native Taiwanese people well. They built the rail system we used to travel here from Taipei. They modernized the economy. And to this day you can take a two-day ferry from here to Okinawa, at the southern tip of Japan. The weirdest thing is to listen to this man remember the fifty years of Japanese occupation with warmth; nearly anywhere else in East Asia, they’re reviled for the wartime atrocities committed during occupation.
Like Taipei, the city lives more at night than during the day. In the daytime, the city loses thousands of people who commute into Taipei to work. Their motorbikes stand, neatly lined up together, behind the city’s train terminal. Few people walk the streets, and most are visitors that have just arrived on cruise ships for the day. In the evening, the situation reverses. The cruise-ship visitors return to their floating hotels and depart, while the people of the city return to enjoy Keelung’s night market. Stalls offer dumplings, fried scallion pancakes, and fresh seafood. Locals walk between the stalls, carrying food or the now internationally-famous Taiwanese invention, bubble tea.
After all of the food at the night markets, we set out one morning to try and walk off some calories, heading north along the coastline to see what we find. We walk roads meant primarily for cars and keep a nervous eye out for careless drivers, though there’s little traffic for a weekday. The roadside scenery on the landside alternates between dense hillside forests and dense apartment buildings, both a chaotic mess of angles and lines.
On the sea-side, we see nothing but port and shipping equipment. We pass rows of cranes for shipping containers, standing stock-still like iron horses silhouetted against the sky. There are no people in sight, but there is evidence of them everywhere. We see a crane moving in the distance and trying to center itself over a shipping crate, like a giant, million-dollar stakes version of a claw catcher game. We find empty chairs in front of guardhouses, and trucks left with the engine idling. But we encounter no human souls on our side of the port’s wall.
After a few hours, we find our first destination, a Buddhist temple hidden in a cave. I realize with embarrassment that I’m not wearing anything to cover my shoulders and pull our travel towel over me like a makeshift shawl. But the Buddhist monks here don’t seem to care, or at least they ignore us politely as we enter. We make our way in to the main altar and bow like my father taught me to when in the presence of a temple.
To the left of the altar is a crevice, and I’ve heard rumors that there’s another altar past it where you can hear the ocean through the cave’s walls. At nearly 2 meters, Stoytcho is hesitant but follows, and we walk, then crouch, then crawl our way through the crevice, scraping the walls with our backpack and shoulders. It’s not something I would recommend for anyone with claustrophobia, but on the other side a small room with an altar stretches before us, the walls decorated with thousands of Chinese characters scratched into the sandstone walls. I make out a character here and there, but can’t put any meaning to them. We also stop to listen for the sound of the ocean, but can hear nothing.
Back at the temple entrance, we continue north in search of our final destination of the day, Baimiweng Fortress. It’s near sunset when we arrive at the fort’s base, and we find our way through the maze of apartment-lined suburban streets to our destination with the help of locals, who tolerate with patience my attempts at pronouncing Baimiweng. At the top, we find that the local government has converted the fort into a grassy field for sports and recreation, with richly-painted pagodas for picnics and lounging about.
We rush to explore the fort in the dying light, up to the top of the lookout hill and then back down and across the grassy fields to the concrete bunkers installed during Japanese occupation. While the fort location has been an important military base since the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese government was the one who updated it for modern warfare and installed concrete structures, now overgrown with weeds and showing cracks from disrepair. But this area was once a strategic place protecting Taiwan, then vital to the Japanese Empire as a supply line to their former colonies. It’s strange how alliances and governance have shifted and changed since then, and it all seems like far away history. But just yesterday, we met the old man at the tourism office who lived through it.
It’s rainy and overcast when we touch down at Taipei’s international airport and make our way through the immigration and customs lines into the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name since the Kuomintang established their power here in 1949. After losing a four-year civil war to the Communist Party of China (PRC), the remaining Kuomintang forces and their supporters fled here and re-established their government, maintaining to this day that they are the sole legitimate government of China despite having no control over the mainland. It’s a claim that’s logically absurd, possible only through the backing of my home country, the absurdly powerful United States of America. And I know I should feel some support for Taiwan’s claims, for another reason: this is where my grandparents fled after the war, and where my father was born.
The story surrounding that exodus is murky to me, complicated by two things: all members of the generation that fled have died, and I speak almost no Mandarin, so any attempts to clarify what happened must be done with the next generation, those that speak English. None of parents’ attempts to get me to learn Mandarin as a kid succeeded. I languished through Chinese classes on Saturdays, rejected any attempts of my dad to carry on conversations in Mandarin, and sought out only English speaking relatives at family gatherings. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; everyone else outside my family spoke English, and my family only used Mandarin for grown up talk, so why learn anything else?
Now I’m squinting up at the characters in the subway cars, trying to make the jumble of lines and angles into meaning and cursing my short-sightedness. It does me no favors that what little Chinese I do know is Simplified, a less-complicated character set created by the PRC in mainland China to enable more people to gain literacy. With no love for the PRC here in Taiwan, they’ve stuck with the Traditional Chinese characters, which seem to have two to ten more strokes than I’m used to. There are rules for how characters were simplified, but I only know a few.
Thankfully, for this first night in the city we have hosts. A friend of mine from Yale, Leslie, is visiting with her friends, and they take us out to a night market. We wander behind them, looking over the endless stalls of snacks to decipher what they are. Someone hands us a stick of fried quail eggs, then some other kind of fried food. We eat and walk, and I let Leslie do the talking. But tomorrow we’re on our own.
We pass a week in Taipei and my Mandarin gradually improves. I remember words that I’ve forgotten, and pick up new words that I didn’t know. The city seems to have two distinct times: day and night. In the day, business is conducted as usual and I can find people who speak English if we truly need it. We visit shops and restaurants, and using Google Translate I can sketch characters and get their pronunciations. I order us food, terribly, many times, though the food is always wonderful.
But at night, when the businesses and citizens of most other countries close and leave, Taipei comes to life. People flock to single, chosen streets in each neighborhood to do two things everyone loves: eat, and socialize. Lit by street lights, neon signs, and the glow of lightbulbs built into vendor carts, crowds squeeze between vendors selling everything from fried yam balls to grilled steak cubes and stinky tofu. People shout to each other and hands reach out to receive snacks piled into a paper container, all in exchange for a few Taiwanese dollars. And while a few vendor signs are in English, almost no one speaks it. Getting food is a fast-paced game of guess and point and grin.
Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, the people and culture of Taiwan feel incredibly familiar. I can see my dad’s mannerisms reflected in the people here, the facial expressions and gestures while speaking. Then there’s the standard Chinese/Taiwanese utter lack of respect for formal lines, which offends Stoytcho but I’ve long since grown used to. “How can people BEHAVE like this? The inefficiency is just…” He’s at a loss for words and I can only offer a shrug. “Lines are a Western thing,” I reply, “and things just work differently in this culture.”
On May 30th, we head to river’s edge to see Taipei’s annual Dragon Boat Races, a celebration that in its current form celebrates the death of a beloved minister or poet (it depends on who you ask). After drowning (by accident or suicide, also depending on who you ask), the people of the nearby village were so moved by his death that they raced out onto the water to try and save him. When they failed, they threw packets of sticky rice into the water to ensure the fish would not devour his body. Today, people still commemorate this person’s death through boat races and eating sticky rice, known as zongzi. But I’ve only ever heard this story through Google; it was never mentioned by anyone in my family. And my grandmother made zongzi whenever she wanted, which was thankfully often.
We watch the boats race from and the bridge above, staring down at the rowers moving their paddles in unison, to the beat of a drummer up front. Then we descend from the bridge and stand with the crowds, watching as the flag-bearing boats and their teams race by, bound breathlessly for the finish line or gliding back in the return victory lap. In a moment, cheers erupt from the crowd around us for some unknown thing of team. I get the feeling that there’s something I missed, maybe lost in translation. I’ll just have to get better at translating.
Hanoi is two things: hectic and contradictory. It is hectic because it is the capital. Everything must happen here, but bigger. Vendors clog the sidewalks with impromptu eateries and storefront goods spill out onto the streets. We’re here also here during the tail end of Reunification Day celebrations, which every year commemorates the end of what they call the American war and joining of North and South Vietnam. In the evenings, young couples and families walk the boulevards of the Old Quarter and along the river, weaving their way through rivers of motorbikes and dodging the occasional car. During the day, it’s business as usual: everyone on a motorbike has somewhere they need to be five minutes ago and most driving rules are loose. In the early afternoon the roads flood with schoolchildren, walking home with friends or catching a ride on a motorbike with parents. Neither will stop, so watch your step.
And Hanoi is contradictory because it is both the seat of the country’s communist state and a business center. Nearly everyone here is involved with business of some kind, whether selling food or household goods or running restaurants and coffee shops. In the downtown area, multistory malls with Louis Vitton and Burberry stores attest that anything can be had here, for a price. Teenagers pose for photos in front of monuments to the revolutionaries, but in the shadow of shimmering ads for Pepsi. Yet all this occurs under the watchful eyes of Uncle Ho, the adoring personification of former leader Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam feels less like a communist country and more like a country that used communism as a unifying word against colonial forces.
The museums and monuments corroborate that idea, dedicating themselves more to portraying the evils of colonialism and the heroic acts of people who fought the colonial forces than to illustrating a post-capitalist worker’s paradise. A visit to the Women’s Museum yields two floors dedicated to female revolutionaries who fought against the French and American forces and their fates when captured. Similarly, Hoa Lo Prison (known by American POW’s as “Hanoi Hilton”) is divided into two parts: the first is a scathing reconstruction of conditions here during French colonial rule, depicting torture and treatment of political prisoners at the hands of the colonial forces.
The second half of Hoa Lo Prison is a museum dedicated to the American POW’s housed here during the war, with specific attention paid to the good care and conditions the prisoners received. Wander through and you’ll find yourself staring at goods given to them for personal hygiene and entertainment, at photos on the walls of them playing volleyball or celebrating Christmas. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, a sort of proud elevation of the Vietnamese people over the barbaric colonial forces. I can’t comment on veracity, but it’s certainly interesting to see.
As we’re leaving Hoa Lo prison, we overhear a tour guide talking to a visiting American couple. “There’s a joke here we say,” the guide says. “If you ask us whether we forgive the Americans for invading, people will say ‘yes, yes, we forgive the Americans.’” The guide pauses and chuckles, “But if you then ask whether they forgive the French, people will say ‘well, we forgive the Americans.’”
It’s Thursday, and we’re gathered in the main foyer of the National Museum’s new wing for an English-language guided tour. With the old wing under renovation, the tour is limited to the new wing exhibits. But between the artifacts, scale models, and multilingual tours, the exhibits in the new wing alone paint a detailed portrait of Indonesia’s history.
We start with the natural history of the world and humankind (Man and the Environment), where the guide shows us replicas of proto-human skulls and patterns of human migration. We then follow her up to the second floor, where the tour of Indonesian culture begins. It’s an epic tale of cultural evolution driven by what Indonesia does best: trade. The cultures of Indonesia adopted new ideas that flowed along the trade routes, starting with Hinduism and followed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. The result was a cultural melting pot unrivaled by any other pre-modern civilization.
The number and variety of artifacts in the exhibits is staggering. We pass ancient stones carved with Sanskrit, ceremonial jewelry worn by the islands’ various ethnic groups, and scale models of temples. The guide stops at one of these scale models and introduces it as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Inscribed in its walls are the stories of Buddha and his enlightenment. I think Stoytcho and I have found our next destination.
We end our tour on the top floor, with the treasures of Indonesia. We’re not allowed to take photos, due in part to a heist that happened here in 2013. But the pieces here match those of Europe’s crown jewels: gold rings, necklaces, and brooches threaded with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Ornate Kris blades, encrusted with jewels. It’s stuff from the dreams of Ali Baba. While we’re finishing up in the exhibit, the lights flicker for a moment and go out. We’re left in darkness, and fumbling for our phones, manage to shed some light on the glass displays. Thankfully, this isn’t a heist; the museum has been suffering intermittent outages thanks to the construction next door. We wrap up and head downstairs, into a sea of fidgeting, giggling schoolchildren waiting for their own tours to begin.
Much of Maori culture and history in New Zealand is locked behind a paywall. That’s not to say it’s inaccessible, but it takes money. The Waitangi treaty grounds, arguably the most important site for understanding the modern day relationship between Maori and colonists is a $40 ticket per person, almost as much our daily budget. Outside of Cape Reinga, which is a fantastic experience, we found very few free areas to learn about the Maori past. The Te Porere Redoubt was one of them. As a hike, it’s short and sweet, with interesting and varied flora. The trail continues past the redoubts, at least for a while. Where it leads we’re not sure.
Te Porere A Rereao tells the story of two Maori events. The first is how the place got its name. According to the sign the area “was named for Reraeo, grandson of Tuwharetoa, the ancestor of of the people of Ngati Tuwharetoa.” Specifically, “at one time Rereao joruneyed into the west area of Tongariro and stopped here for the night. Early the next day he rose and attacked Ngati Hotu on a ridge west of Ngauruhoe.” Because the attack was carried out in a night (Te Po) flight (rere) and by Rereao (a Rereao) the area is named Te Porere A Rereao.
The second important event was one of the last major battles between the independent Maori and the New Zealand government. This took place in September of 1869, when the Te Kooti, a leader of the Maori resistance, was surrounded by the government forces and their Maori allies. Te Kooti and his forces were driven from the lower fortification to the upper, where the last of his warriors were slain.
At the upper redoubt you can supposedly see the final chapter in the story. We did not find any in-depth sign, but this placard speaks for itself.
It reads : “Here lie the followers of Te Kooti killed at Te Porere.” The sign tells of a fairly one-sided victory and from just visiting the site one might assume this was the end of Te Kooti and his followers. Reading a bit on Te Kooti shows that he escaped the battle and lived a long and storied life. Before Te Porere he had founded a religion (Ringatu, still active in some Maori communities) and escaped prison to lead raids against the New Zealand government. After To Porere he continued raiding for three years before being again captured, escaping, and living under the protection of the Maori king for a decade, expanding his religion.
Part war curiosity, part historical site, the redoubts are interesting to visit. It’s fun and sobering at the same time to walk through the ditches where men fought and died, to see the corners around which ambushes might have happened, and ports in the walls for shooting. The site feels a bit more “alive” than a castle does, open to the air and covered in growing green grass, it’s easier to imagine how the embattled warriors may have arrayed themselves, the fighting that would have taken place between the walls.
I don’t think the posted signs do a very good job of describing the events that took place here. Only the bare minimum is provided and even then fairly disjointedly. This sheds more light on the strange dynamic of Maori history on the island, at once cherished but also constrained. While clearly cared for, and perhaps in development, the story is engaging and then entirely dropped. The site is well preserved and some money is dedicated to its upkeep, but not so much that it’s a fully developed historical site. Our reaction stayed somewhere between the “ah” of learning and the “oh” of dissappointment. The nature was beautiful and the short hike a worthwhile stretch of the legs, but reading Te Kooti’s story beforehand would add a great deal to the experience.
At the not quite northernmost point of New Zealand is Cape Reinga, a peninsula on a peninsula, bordered by crashing waves and fantastic cliffs. We arrived early in the morning, not quite early enough for sunrise, but early enough to be one of only four or so people there. At Reinga there is only a little bit of hill climbing to be done, mostly to see a wider view and to get back to the parking lot. The rest can be accomplished at a slow, meditative walk from the entrance out to the lighthouse.
The cape is a holy site for the Maori, who believe it to be where the spirits of the dead fly off the island and continue on to the underworld. New Zealand may have issues with cultural relations, but at least from our visitor’s perspective, the government seems to have done a lot right with the monument at the cape. The original gate and toilets were too close to the cape and local Maori complained. The NZ government moved the gate further out and extended the walkway to what is there today. The signs along the route are as educational as they are plentiful. Each one tells a Maori story or describes the local flora and fauna. The signs are made out of wood and rusted metal, designed to be unobtrusive to the area.
Even the entrance plays a deep and sorrowful wind-ensemble style piece when you walk through it. Initially my impression was that it was slightly corny, but it fits the place and sets the walk to the water off on the right note. For us it changed the experience from simple sightseeing to conscious appreciation of a different culture, and we hope it does the same for others.
When you reach the lighthouse at the literal end of the road, you can see, far off in the distance, a small outcropping with a gnarled tree growing out the side. This is an eight hundred year old pohutukawa tree which, in Maori folklore, the spirits of the dead grab in order to leap into the ocean and continue their journey.
It’s quite a sight to see it growing out there, entirely alone and seemingly unsupported. With the surrounding crystal-blue waves it’s an experience of beauty and contrast, the seemingly eternal cliffs battered by the turbulent waves. On a clear day they say you can see even as far out as a set of small islands off the coast. We saw only hints of their shadows through the fog, and that we may have imagined.
Taking the road back to the main Northland is a continuation in the beauty of nature. Here stand windswept trees to greet you, on hills overlooking rolling green hills stretching out to forever. One the western side of the road, past the grass lies the ocean, on our foggy day a dull gray in contrast to the turquoise to the north. The road is long and mostly lonely, but well worth the drive out and back.
After a day of rest and recovery in Cusco, we decided it was time to test our preparedness for the Salkantay Trail by hiking Cusco’s trail of Inca ruins, a ~7.5 km downhill hike that visits the Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Saqsayhuaman archaeological sites. While 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to acclimate to Cusco’s high altitude, we’re due to head out to the Salkantay tomorrow and it’s better to know now if we’re not in good enough shape. So we paid 17 soles (~$5 USD) for a taxi to the start of the trail at Tambomachay, where we paid 70 soles (~$21 USD) per person for day passes to all four ruins and got ready to hike.
The ruin of Tambomachay was a few minutes’ walk uphill, with bilingual Spanish/English signs along the way that introduced the site’s history. To the Incas, Tambomachay was simultaneously a sacred site, a resort getaway, and a key defensive area. The Incan leaders worshiped the manifestation of water here through the abundant springs in the area, rested in its hot springs and enjoyed hunting, and commanded warriors to use this as a guardpoint for entry into ancient Cusco. Now the area was guarded by polite ropes cordoning off the ruins, and manned by a string of vendors selling souvenirs to the handful of tourists coming by. This time of year is the low season in Cusco, and mostly what these poor folks are doing is huddling under blankets to ward off the morning cold, chewing coca leaves and chatting to each other.
The ruins held our interest for about 10 minutes as we admired the masonry and construction, then we turned our attention to the patchwork of trails around the ruins. There didn’t seem to be a specific trail we should take, so we picked one and started hiking uphill, partly to test our fitness and partly just to see what else was around here. The flora and fauna was decidedly different here – there were plants and insects of brilliant color and odd design, from the papery husk of a wildflower set to seed to a metallic blue-green wasp. The view was also stunning, as the clouds of the rainy season drifted over the Andes.
On a trail high above the ruins, we stopped to rest and were ambushed by a pack of llamas, who insisted on taking right-of-way on the path. We climbed up above them, gazing down in awe as the trail became a flowing river of wool, llamas and sheep walking, stopping to nibble, and rolling in the dust. As we waited for them to pass, I made the mistake of snapping a photo. The driver of this herd, an old woman, had rounded the bend by this time and approached me. “Moneda,” she said forcefully, holding out her hand. I was confused, and then it dawned on me that she was demanding money for my pictures. “Moneda,” she demanded again. “Uh…no,” I replied. The woman stood there for a few more moments, her hand out, frowning. But her herd was wandering on without her, and so she hissed and turned away. For the safety of the money that’s supposed to get me from here to home, I made a mental note to never photograph specific things or people here in Peru without asking first. It’s just too risky. It also seems absurd that photos of daily life would warrant payment, but when tourism pays so much better than anything else then everyone wants in on the action.
On the way back down, a vendor stopped us to try and barter some of his goods for Stoytcho’s watch, a ~$30 Casio G-Shock. We politely declined, but I asked if I could pay him 5 soles (~$1.50 USD) to take pictures of his wares. He agreed enthusiastically, suddenly donning a hat and holding up his brightest colored blankets for me to photograph. It was an absurd display, and it seemed so far from life in fact that I cringed inside. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t necessary, that I was interested in him just as himself, and that he didn’t have to dress in the kitsch he sells to tourists and put on a show. Instead, I took my picture and thanked him.
The next two ruins were a blur as we trudged down the paved road and dirt trails toward Cusco. Puka Pukara had little information provided only in Spanish, though its walls were beautifully reconstructed and we could see the amazing stonecutting skills of the Incas. Each piece of stone seemed to fit together perfectly, without even space to slide a needle in. This hadn’t stopped plants, though, and mosses and weeds sprouted defiantly from some cracks in the walls, intent on rejoining the structures with the nature around us.
Q’enqo had no information whatsoever, its sign missing from the wooden frame. We walked the ruins anyway, puzzling over its cave and stairs that probably once led to an altar. “This was probably a worship site for the Incas.” I hypothesized to Stoytcho. “Whatever it was, it was meant for shorter people,” Stoytcho replied, bent at nearly ninety degrees as he squeezed through spaces between the rocks.
While we weren’t the only visitors on the hike, we seemed to be the only foreigners around. We passed local families walking the ruins, children playing in fields, and couples picnicking on the hills. Maybe they’re shopkeepers in the city, but they seem to be a different class entirely from the Cusquenos selling souvenirs from street stalls and at the ruins.
It’s late afternoon when we finally reached the ruins of Saqsayhuaman, and I fully admit to being pretty done with ruins. It was a shame, because Saqsayhuaman was one of the most interesting ruins, a reconstruction of the part of the ancient city of Cusco. Ancient Cusco was built in the shape of a jaguar, and the fortress at Saqsayhuaman was the jaguar’s head, complete with an eye and jagged teeth. Many guides here walked with tour groups, explaining the history and structure of the site, and there were several signs explaining the layout of the ruins in English and Spanish. But we were both tired, and so we stayed only 30 minutes before continuing on toward the city. We only stopped again for the giant Jesus on the hill.
Finally, seven hours and four aching feet later, we were walking through the streets of Cusco again. We trudged back down to Plaza de Armas where our trip had started, and sat in front of the Catedral del Cusco. It was a fitting if not morbid end to the trip, sitting before the works of the Spanish conquerors who laid waste to the Incan empire only a few hundred years ago. With guns and horses, they captured Cusco in 1533 and made it their base for Spanish colonization of the Andes. They spread Christianity and suppressed Incan beliefs and political systems, building new edifices of power while the remains of the Inca civilization faded. The Incans may have made the temples, walls, and fortresses, but these conquerors made the ruins we saw today.
And as for the verdict on our condition after the hike? We’re exhausted but not dead exhausted and not injured, nor had we suffered any dizziness or fainting from the altitude. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for the Salkantay.
This trail is one of the only two trails available to visitors in the park and takes you to a village via an ancient trail built by the indigenous people. It’s awesome for two reasons: first, it takes you deep into the jungle where you can spot a wide variety of native animals and plants. And second, because the indigenous people paved the original trail with granite–you can do most of the hike barefoot! This is perfect for the rainy season in Tayrona, when ankle-deep mud forms on the trails and it’s easy to lose or destroy your shoes. So if you’re in the park for what’s traditionally considered the “off season”, this is a great way to experience the amazing nature of Tayrona.
I’ve traced out the route from the Arrecifes campsite (the first campsite you encounter in the park). There are essentially two sections, each taking around 1-1.5 hours depending on how fast you move. The first section of the trail is along the coast. Then at Cabo San Juan, you turn inland for the next half of the trail. Note that this rendering of the trail is estimated—we don’t have GPS coordinates.
Here are a few things for you to keep in mind if you hike this trail:
Either water or water-sterilization method. There are freshwater streams in the second half of the hike where you can refill.
Snacks and lunch, unless you want to pay top dollar for them at Pueblito
Sun protection; though much of the trail takes you through jungle, the sun can still get intense
Keep in mind…
Because it’s a hike in-hike out, it’s best to get started in the morning, before the midday heat
DEFINITELY do the trail before you go for a dip at the beach. Salt water on your clothes or skin will chafe your skin raw.
When you encounter indigenous people, either in Pueblito or along the trail, remember to treat them with respect. If you want a picture, please ask, and don’t be surprised or upset if they say no. Tons of people take pictures without their permission, hike their trails, and throw litter on their land. That’s gotta feel pretty bad.
The hike in parts:
Part I: The hike from Arrecifes to Cabo San Juan
We woke up at 6 am to start this hike, and caught the sun peeking through the clouds along Arrecifes.
Though the weather looked good for the day, previous rain guaranteed that this first part of the trail was thick with mud. At some places it came up to almost our knees. We pulled off our shoes and slogged through it, avoiding the mules and horses as they came through with their drivers.
Part II: The hike inland to Pueblito
When we reached Cabo San Juan, we took a break for a bit and snacked. We then took the trail inland from the northwestern corner of the campsite. This part was filled with tons of wildlife. Being me, I mostly took pictures of the insects and spiders:
The trail is also tons of fun to hike because it was paved with granite stones by the indigenous people, creating a path mostly free of mud and vegetation. We did most of this part barefoot, taking care not to step on the leafcutter ants that bite vigorously if disturbed.
After about 1.5 hours on this path, we arrived at Pueblito. The village was nearly empty, with the exception of a few indigenous people and hikers. We were allowed to walk around and take pictures:
Out of respect, we didn’t take any pictures of the indigenous people. They seemed fairly withdrawn and didn’t want to interact, and I can’t blame them. After all, we’re tramping around on their land.
It looks like there were once attempts to modernize the village, either building a dwelling for them or facilities for visitors, but they’ve been abandoned. Now the jungle is reclaiming these crumbling structures:
We stuck around the village for an hour, then had another snack (bread and Nutella and peanut butter) before heading back. On the way out, we spotted some familiar flora. It looks the ground cherry grows wild here:
It took us another hour or so to get back to the beach, where we enjoyed a cool dip in the ocean before heading back to the campsite.