When I found out I was going to Lima, Peru, I pictured myself walking along some majestic Andean path while my colorful poncho fluttered in the wind and pan flutes played mystically in the background. But it turns out the Peruvian capital doesn’t really afford that opportunity. A coastal city of more than 8 million people, Lima is traffic-choked, relentlessly gray-skied, and perpetually damp. Herman Melville once described Lima as “the strangest, saddest city thou can’st see.”
For my part, I actually found its dreariness kind of romantic. In the first three days following my arrival, I poked around the trendy neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco, ate ceviche and drank pisco sours, and almost got run over several times by the city’s famously insane drivers. Then on the fourth day, at my hotel, I ate breakfast next to an English-speaking family. I had recently purchased an iPad (it’ll be great for traveling, I’d told myself) and was attempting to compose an email on its maddening touch-screen keyboard. Watching me curiously, the mom asked me if my device was “a very tiny computer.” They were Americans living in Australia, she explained, and new technologies arrived there late. I detected some eye-rolling from her teenage kids. We chatted a bit more, and I learned that she had grown up in Los Angeles, where I live, in a neighborhood adjacent to mine.
We went through the “What are the chances?” routine, and then I explained I’d been sent to Peru on 24 hours’ notice and was looking for an adventure. She told me I must go to the Colca Valley in the mountains of southern Peru and take an overnight trek in the Colca River canyon.
“Our guide, Carlitos, was wonderful,” she said. “We stayed in the villages in the canyon. We saw the famous condors. It was spectacular.” This was exactly the sort of thing I was in the mood for. The trouble was, I explained, that I hadn’t brought my hiking boots. The only shoes I’d packed were my old clogs and, inexplicably, a pair of three-inch mules.
“You can have my shoes,” the woman said.
I politely declined, but before I knew it she had dashed off to her room and come back with a pair of dusty walking shoes. They weren’t the hardiest-looking footwear I’d ever seen. They were shaped like ballet slippers. But they did have rubber soles, and they looked, I told myself, like something you might plausibly call a “walking shoe.”
I slipped them on. They fit perfectly. Obviously the excursion was fated. I went back to my room and booked a flight to Arequipa.
I was not able to arrange a trip with Carlitos, but I did find a tour company that had decent reviews online. Over the course of several phone calls, I was assured that the trek was “easy,” that the guides were “experienced,” and that my shoes “sounded fine.” I elected to reserve a room at the Hotel Libertador, one of the only five-star hotels in Arequipa, not just because it was a bargain at US$147 a night but also because after three freezing nights in my boutique hotel in Lima, I wanted to get a night’s sleep without having to wear my coat to bed.
Please understand that I am not generally a foolish or a snobbish traveler. Nor did I imagine that the knapsack I’d thrown into my suitcase, a flimsy leather satchel I’d used in graduate school nearly 20 years earlier, was suitable trekking gear. I just (as I would say upwards of 20 times over the next 48 hours) hadn’t planned on hiking.
The tour company’s van picked me up at the hotel at 3 a.m. I had opted for one of the less expensive canyon tours, and apparently they’d never once picked anyone up at the Libertador. For nearly six hours, we weaved through the darkness on a narrow mountain road lined with crosses where people had died in accidents. As the sun rose I could see that my fellow trekkers—there were 14 of us in all—were mostly European backpackers in their late teens and early 20s. Our guides also appeared to be around 21 or 22. What they lacked in intelligible English skills they made up for in their ability to sleep on the floor of the van until daylight. Upon waking, one of them looked at my feet.
“You’re gonna wear those shoes?”
The hike was supposed to be “easy.” It occurred to me now that maybe the woman on the phone was referring to the altitude problems people commonly have in Arequipa, which is 7,600 feet above sea level. Maybe she had meant “queasy.”
Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Day One of our trip involved seven hours of climbing down and occasionally climbing up rocky passes, crossing creaky swinging bridges, and traipsing through ancient villages. Within the first hour, my blistered feet were bleeding. By lunchtime they were ripped nearly to shreds. I kept mum, though. I was already mortified by my whole presentation—the luxury hotel pickup, the deteriorating backpack, not to mention the iPad, which was all I had for a camera. To take pictures with it, I had to put down the knapsack, dig out the tablet, and hold it awkwardly at arm’s length, invariably hitting the wrong button and transforming the whole screen into Angry Birds. There was no way I was going to complain about my self-inflicted wounds.
We reached our overnight quarters at the bottom of the canyon—a tranquil compound called the Oasis, which had bamboo huts for sleeping. More backpackers were playing volleyball and drinking beer on the grass. At dinner, amid a cloud of Marlboro smoke, I made a vain (in all meanings of the word) attempt to explain myself to my companions: I’m a journalist! I got sent to Peru on 24 hours’ notice! A woman approached me because of my iPad and then gave me her shoes!
Finally we cut through the language barrier—and their lack of interest—by distilling my situation down to a simple concept: business trip.
“Yes, I’m on a business trip!” I said.
“So it’s kind of like in Indiana Jones,” a floppy-haired German boy said, “when he has to break the heels off the woman’s stilettos.”
I’m pretty sure he meant Romancing the Stone, but close enough.
The hike out of the Oasis up to the canyon-rim town of Cabanaconde takes three hours and is so steep that we had to leave before dawn to avoid the hot sun. Some in our group, 19- and 20-year-olds among them, rented donkeys for the climb. (“We can smoke on the donkey, yes?”)
To my own surprise, I decided to walk. I’d noticed that the position of my foot inside the shoe was such that ascents were significantly less torturous than descents. As I trudged up the switchbacks, breathless and nauseous from the altitude, I started thinking that I probably wasn’t as big of a freak show as I’d thought. After all, my knapsack had worked just fine, and my shoes hadn’t fallen apart—and, hey, I may have been 20 years older than most of my companions but I was fun and cool (relatively speaking) and able to go with the flow. There were only two other people from the United States in our group, a young married couple from Seattle. The wife, a Chinese American, had introduced herself as being from China, as if she were somehow trying to avoid being labeled an “ugly American” tourist. All the more reason I needed to make a positive impression. I wasn’t just traveling, I was representing.
I made it to the top. Triumph! Relief! Vindication! Here, the Andes seemed to encircle Earth itself. The trails we’d walked looked like tiny threads pressed into the mountainsides. I needed a photo, of course. I unpacked the iPad. I held it out in front of me and squinted at the screen. One of the guides saw me and walked over.
“Oh, you’re taking a picture!”she said.“All this time I thought you were looking in a mirror.”
That’s right. Ugly Americans never travel without their mirrors. That evening the van dropped us at the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, near the youth hostels. I had to walk a mile or so alongside a highway to get back to the Libertador, where I took a long shower and dined alone in the restaurant on stuffed crab. Two days later I flew back to the United States and returned the iPad for a full refund. It seemed pretty expensive for a mirror. On the other hand, the poncho I bought myself at the Inca Market in Lima flutters in the wind quite nicely. The pan flute music should start up anytime now.
Meghan Daum The author of five books, Meghan Daum was columnist for Medium from 2019 to 2021 an op-ed columnist for The Los Angeles Times from 2005 to 2016. Her latest book is The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars (Gallery Books, October 2019), which was a New York Times Notable Book and will be released in paperback in February 2022.