There are few moments more startling than waking up to a jungle primate seeking refuge in the warm recesses of your crotch. Consider the fact you’re sleeping in an abandoned, open-air, concrete nightclub in the middle of a Peruvian cloud forest, and the entire ordeal takes on a new aura of peculiarity.
This, however, was exactly how I started my morning in the rural village of Santa Teresa in the 6,000-foot highlands of southern Peru. One of the stopping points along Peru’s Salkantay Trek – the budget friendly and more adventurous alternative to the famous Inca Trail – is Santa Teresa, a remote little village that modernity seems to have forgotten.
Level of development aside, the real draw of Santa Teresa is undoubtedly the muscle-soothing hot spring, which percolates on the outskirts of town. From the confines of a massive thermal swimming pool set on the banks of a raging river, local women wade waist deep in the tepid waters and sell baskets of cold beer while attempting to simultaneously bathe. A surefire way to dehydrate yourself and welcome a morning hangover, the entire scene takes place alongside torrid waters hell-bent on draining into the Amazon Basin as part of a muddy, eventful journey to the Atlantic.
Completely unregulated and awash with the stench of freedom, in a word, it’s utterly perfect.
A welcome respite for the weary, Santa Teresa is the first real town Salkantay trekkers will encounter after having crossed over the 15,200-foot Salkantay Pass the day before.
In the actual town there are a handful of small restaurants, children playing in the town’s only square and shop owners willing to place a cot in their kitchen and firmly call it a hotel. Oh, and there’s also a communal concrete slab for slaughtering livestock, a daily affair which doesn’t seem to turn that many heads except for, perhaps, mine.
Camped out with an adventure tour company in what can best be described as a friend of a friend’s backyard, the last thing I expected to see from the window of my tent flap was a hapless cow on its way to being slaughtered.
Nevertheless, a militia of young boys wielding saws and machetes systematically took to slaughtering the bovine directly in front of our cheerless campsite. With the same level of excitement of someone brushing their teeth before bed, the young troop of butchers dismantled the cow in such a routine fashion their nonchalance spoke volumes towards the realities of rural Peruvian life.
Succumbing to a growing sense of nausea birthed from the morbid entertainment, I swapped the damp board shorts of the hot springs for a dry t-shirt and my trusty thermal underwear. Blissfully ensconced in the comfort of a two-person tent and pulling the edges of my North Face sleeping bag to just beneath my armpits, I settled in for what I deemed to be a much needed slumber.
The strengthening pitter-patter of precipitation, however, ensured that this would be far from a restful night. With drops morphing into rivulets atop the overstretched nylon dome above, it wasn’t long before the skies would open completely and turn what was once a modest campsite into a soggy and swampy mess. With the rain actually forming streams beneath the bottom of the tent, my soporific sanctuary was transformed into a dripping den of misery.
With the downpour causing my wife and I problems enough, the introduction of a violent bout of flatulence really wasn’t helping matters.
Mistaking my nausea as a product of watching the cow slaughter, it was beginning to become apparent the mystery meat from dinner was having an adverse effect on the welcoming atmosphere of our tent. As my sleeping bag finally relinquished its attempt at keeping my body dry, so too did my ability to keep us from perishing in a cloud of high-altitude methane.
Frustrated, cold and weary from days of trekking, I contemplated the few options remaining and finally decided to do the chivalrous thing and preemptively remove myself from the tent. It simply had to be done.
With zero places to turn, however, and the prospect of sleeping beneath the stars vanquished long ago, I grabbed my half-soaked sleeping bag and sprinted for an abandoned concrete building, which once housed the town’s only discotheque.
Slinking into the soggy bag and cringing at the state of my current affairs, I was eventually able to fashion a remedial pillow out of a plastic bag and a dirty towel found languishing in the corner of the shelter. Frigid, bloated and with nowhere else to turn, my vacant stare rested on a dangling disco ball awash in a sea of dripping, wet wires. This, I reckoned, was my Peruvian chateau.
Finally, amidst a fitful bout of thrashing and copious amounts of internal dialogue, I eventually drifted off into an impressively deep sleep. Falling ever deeper into the realm of mental exhaustion, amidst a gastrointestinal meltdown and a torrential tropical downpour, I somehow welcomed a restful and purposeful slumber.
Waking to clearing skies, the first rays of lights were beginning to penetrate the high clouds and twist their way through the verdant valleys above. With the introduction of sunlight, I could tell that the concrete shelter I had chosen had all the charm of sleeping in a construction site.
Feeling an itch against my inner thigh and still searching for an exit from my early morning daze, with much difficulty and little coordination I fumbled with the ability to unzip my still damp bag. Just as the first teeth of the zipper began to chatter, however, in an explosion, which can be described only as mammalian fury, a rambunctious young monkey exploded from the dark nether regions of my sleeping bag.
Nearly climbing over my face in his hasty exit, he too was simply seeking emergency shelter from the sky-opening downpour and brisk evening air. As I would later find out after recounting the story to my guide, the monkey was actually a pet of the property owner and not some wild primate.
Nevertheless, there are few things more startling, scary or downright confusing than waking to a face full of monkey – an unwelcome visitor from the depths of your loins just trying to stay out of the rain.
Want more stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” here…