Lovin’ Some Llama (and Alpaca) Time

Being raised in rural Idaho, my family always had a small menagerie of animals around. At various points in my childhood, our backyard/field was home to chickens (and an evil rooster), a variety of pheasant breeds, rabbits, dogs, cats, cows, and llamas. Yes, llamas. I must have been in upper elementary school when my parents bought the first three and the herd expanded from there. Throughout the years, we took them to nursing homes and schools, walked them in holiday parades, and spent the most time with them as 4-H entrants.

Unfortunately, my prime 4-H llama showing (and judging!) skills don’t hold a lot of weight in Washington D.C.

One would think that with so much llama-time under my belt, seeing a few in Peru would not have been a big deal, and yet, you’d be wrong. As any semi-regular reader of this blog’s travel writing knows, I am a sucker for an animal. I’ll suggest a rather out of the way side trip (as in a plane ride away) to *hold* a koala rather than just pose near one; I’ll put extra efforts into organizing an official consulate trip to the panda reserve to get as close as possible to those dumb, yet adorable, creatures; I’ll risk life and limb to reach out and touch whatever fuzzy critter might be native to my current location. I recently heard a rumor that sloth-sightings are possible at our next post. I now want to put “possibly of sloth encounter” as my number one request on our housing survey. Family negotiations are not complete on this point yet.  If it is an option, I’ll do it. (I once tried to bribe our guide in Terengganu, Malaysia to find me a tapir. I was totally willing to pay up too, but unfortunately, there was no tapir to be found that day.)

Anyway, cuddly digression aside, I was thrilled with all the llamas and alpacas in Peru! (This is not the place for lesson in the differences between llamas and alpacas- let alone guanacos and vicunas- but let me just remind you all they are different and pretty easily recognized with a bit of Googling.)

Lima itself, being at sea level and on the coast, didn’t have any llamas, but they did have endless stores of llama-themed items, everything from hats and scarves to pens and dolls. You want something with a llama on it? This is your place!

Cusco- now that is where the animal action is at! As the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, people usually spend a day or two in this fantastic town acclimating to the elevation. (At 11,500 feet above sea level, the altitude is no joke.) Lots of tourists taking it easy means lots of tourist traps, many of these being in the form of older women dressed in traditional clothing with brightly colored pouches slung over their shoulder, each containing an adorable lamb, and trailing behind them was often an alpaca on a lead. For whatever price you deemed appropriate (for me this ended up being all the random change in my pocket at the moment), you can get a photo with this woman and her small petting zoo.

Yes, I know it is a racket.

No, I don’t care.

If you are giving me the chance to snuggle up to a ridiculously fluffy alpaca for a handful of coins, there is no way I am going to walk away.

Which I did not.

Multiple times.

I could chalk it up to fuzzy thinking from the altitude, which was a bit of a strange sensation, but most of you would see right through that excuse. Lack of good oxygen was not at the root of my experience. I just never pass up the chance to pet/nuzzle/play with an adorable critter.

In all fairness, I do think I need to make one disclaimer before wrapping up this post about my inability to walk away from this delightful tourist-trap found on every corner of the city. The alpaca-on-a-lead was not my only run in with the species.

I may have had alpaca stroganoff for lunch.

I did it.

I couldn’t not.

I grew up with a field of llamas behind my house and I spent the day petting as many alpacas as I could before my change ran out.  Curiosity got the better of me. (For the record, alpaca meat isn’t bad. It was a bit tougher than beef, but in a stroganoff, I’m not sure you’d recognize it as not-beef if you weren’t told otherwise.)

Out of politeness, after my meal of alpaca meat, I did steer away from the street-corner critters for the rest of the evening. I was terrified they’d be able to smell their cousin on my breath!

It felt a bit like coming full circle, after having a field of llamas behind our house growing up to visiting them in their native Andean habitat. They’ve been to my place. I’ve been to their place. We’re just a lovely circle of life now.

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Machu Picchu: From Rubbish to Reality

I’ve always loved textbooks. As a kid, at the end of each school year, I would bring home any that had been deemed old or unusable. This usually involved some dumpster diving outside the high school where my dad worked (Go Cougars!), but a few scratches from rusty metal are nothing compared to the haul I’d come up with each early June.  Why else would we have been given tetanus shots if it wasn’t go provide us with the opportunity to hunt through less-than-sanitary garbage bins? With a boost from my sister, I’d rummage around in what high schoolers considered trash, but I thought of as treasure. There were nearly empty notebooks (college-ruled!), brightly colored binders in decent shape, and most importantly, old textbooks that were to be replaced in the fall. I’d toss as much of this over the edge as I could, where we’d then collect it in boxes and haul our booty back to my dad’s woodshop classroom. I think he was usually less-than-impressed with our desire to bring home garbage, so after some hardball negotiation, we would trek most of the notebooks and binders back to their blue bin-demise, but keep a few golden nuggets, like history and English textbooks.

Summer had arrived!

Now that I am lucky enough to travel all over the world (I’m just missing one continent- dang you, Antarctica, I will get to you!), I often flash back to the snapshots in those discarded history and geography textbooks. There are iconic photographs of instantly recognizable locations: The Great Wall, Angkor Wat, the Sydney Opera House, Pompeii, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are just a few that I’ve been lucky enough to stand in front of in real life. Each time it happens, when I am standing in the spot the photographer stood in decades before to capture those images, I can’t help but be moved.

Machu Picchu was no different.

I can still recall pieces of a chapter in one of those long-ago discarded high school textbooks that compared the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires. Each description had a photo alongside it, with the Inca’s section being portrayed by a crisp, clear photo of Machu Picchu, taken somewhere above the ruins. The green of the grass and moss around the gray of the stone, with a clear blue sky above was an eerie juxtaposition and one that I remember being fascinated by as a kid. What a world! Decades (yikes, decades is right) later, as I stood in nearly the same spot as that photographer did all those years ago, watching the morning clouds move across the valley, I couldn’t help but feel the power of that image. The places I daydreamed about through those textbooks are one after another becoming real life experiences.

I took a minute and soaked it all in.

Okay, I took about ten seconds and then I realized how terrifyingly close to the edge of the mountain I was, so made a hasty retreat to ponder life from a safer vantage. Machu Picchu is many things, but full of safety measures, it is not. The only place I really saw much of a barrier against falls was at a similar overlook, where a rope was loosely strung between two poles, hanging about ankle height. Yup. If you didn’t stumble and fall on your own, Machu Picchu is happy to assist, providing a wiggly tripwire to help you on your way.

Lack of safety aside, Machu Picchu is amazing. I went at the end of the main tourist season and the start of the rainy season, so it was no surprise when the morning was a wet one. Luckily, by the time I arrived at the ruins, the rain had let up and the clouds were starting to clear. Observing the entire site and up into the steep mountain ravines from that iconic overlook at the site of the ancient city, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pterodactyl swoop from behind a nearby peak or see a brontosaurs amble across the floor of the valley. The entire area had a prehistoric feel and the low hanging clouds sweeping in and out of the area just added to that eeriness. (Sweeping may seem like an odd verb for cloud movement, but it is accurate. The clouds moved through the ruins at an incredible speed. In one moment the entire valley would be sheathed in an impenetrable white and then a blink of an eye later, a break in the fog would appear, giving a perfectly clear and amazingly spectacular view of the city.)

Of course, no trip to Machu Picchu is complete without some serious llama sightings. You’d think I’d not be that into llamas at this point in my life, having had my share of llama-time growing up, but to see them wandering around the ruins, I couldn’t help but smile. And, not just wandering, but frolicking. There was some serious young llama playtime happening, with skips and hops and chasing to and fro. Again, so iconic! Llamas and Machu Picchu go together like roasted guinea pig and chicha morada. (More on that combo later.) As a true tourist, you just can’t have one without the other.

So yes, those dumpster-scavenged textbooks from days of yore were probably outdated rubbish, and heck, they were probably torn and marked up as well, but to a curious, book loving kid, those were insignificant details; all I remember is creating a mental photo album that comes to life with each new opportunity I have to travel. Now, I get the chance to stand on precarious ledges alongside those photographers from the previous century and rather than use a viewfinder to center my photographs, I snap a selfie that would make my generation proud!

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