“Going alone for three weeks to Peru by yourself? Are you serious, Father?” I remember the reaction of a couple of Bolivian friends a few days before my departure for Peru when I told them about my plan for the coming weeks. After seven months in Bolivia in the parish of Buenavista (100km from Santa Cruz) and after having made several tourist trips in this beautiful country, knowing that I was soon leaving South America without knowing if and when I would return there, I wanted to reconnect with some emotions felt many years ago. Being 45 years of age, it had been a while since the last time I traveled as a backpacker. My last trip was actually a 250 km walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 2005…
Unlike the mass tourists who visit the Southern part of Peru, including the famous Machu Pichu, I had decided (it was an excellent idea, indeed) to explore northern Peru in particular. The program was quite dense: 4000 km by plane (three trips); 2384 km by bus and car (including 4-night buses), and many kilometers on foot, passing twice from sea level to over 3000m in altitude, and finally absolute record, a hiking trip that took me to 5120m of altitude… I had never experienced that before… During these three weeks, I also spent hours walking in town or in the mountains… Fortunately, I had coca leaf to chew to counter altitude sickness…
Small towns or hiking spots in the mountain, great spectacle!
The joys of this trip? Countless! Firstly, within my three weeks trip, I slept in a hotel for two nights only! On my way, I was successively welcomed by a diocesan priest, three Franciscan communities, and my cousin Caroline and her family. That’s a huge saving in terms of hotels and restaurants, but most of all, it gave me the opportunity to do many encounters with local people. I was also able to participate in daily masses and in several places, I was even invited to preside the celebrations. Having many conversations with the Peruvians, I could continue to improve my Spanish skill!
Many beautiful museums on the way, as well as churches worth to be visited.
Another great pleasure was the beauty of Peru’s landscapes. By bus, on foot, alone, or on an excursion, nature is absolutely magnificent and varied. The cultural side was not overlooked, since I discovered many pre-Incan civilizations that did not have their own writing but nevertheless had amazing architects. They built pyramids and fortresses at the top of the mountains; they mastered metallurgy and the art of making jewelry, long before the Westerners. The Spanish conquest and its baroque architecture were worth to be admired in the many churches visited along the way. In terms of food, I also made discoveries including raw fish dishes (spanish: chevice) (too spicy the first time…) and guinea pigs (not famous, though…)
The highlight of the trip was my stay with my cousin Caroline married to a Peruvian, Joel, parents of two lovely children, Mateo and Camilo. Camilo is the youngest (4 years old) and has a rather independent character. Mateo, seven years old, as comfortable in French as in Spanish, was delighted to meet his cousin from Belgium and the pleasure was obviously shared. And what a joy to meet a united family! The three of us are talkative by nature, so we had a lot of nice conversations. They took me to Lima (where I met Vietnamese sisters that I knew back from Saigon!) and they invited me to spend the beginning of Holy Week in Ayacucho, in southern Peru, a city that attracts an amazing crowd during Holy Week because of its processions and its folklore. It was a long trip to reach Ayacucho (go and return). When we reached the top of one hill, we even had snow! Back in Lima, I went back to Bolivia to spend the end of Holy Week and the last ten days I had in South America. I don’t know if I’ll still have the opportunity to make such a long and beautiful journey in my life, but maybe… Being a priest and a missionary means knowing how to stay for a long time with the people you are sent to, but it also means sometimes daring to adventure for a shorter time, made of discoveries and encounters. The world is vast and beautiful and what an excitement to discover it!