First dispatch from Valerie Sauers, Assistant to National Geographic Photographer Erika Larsen, as she journeys across Peru.

I COULD SMELL THE SWEAT on myself from a long day in the jungle followed by a plane ride back to Lima. All I wanted was the luxury of a hot shower, but as usual city traffic was backed up, and I was stuck in a taxi. I rolled the dusty window down and rested my head in the opening, using my sweatshirt as a makeshift pillow.

There was a CRASH and I awoke violently. Gino yelled. Then a gunshot. Instinctively, I hit the deck. From my crouched position in the tiny floorspace of the backseat, I watched one man running away over the median of the road, followed by another with a pistol. In hot pursuit, the second man fired another round into the air.

The robber had shattered the side-rear-window in the back of the station wagon, less than a foot from my sleepy, blonde head. He grabbed the bag with my laptop, camera, all my lenses, and two weeks’ worth of photos I had yet to back up. He would have made off with it had Gino not been quick enough to yank it back into the car. Gino, my Peruvian friend turned bodyguard. The straps broke and the robber fled. Somebody (a cop? who knows?) ran after him with a gun.

Covered in tiny pieces of glass, I thought about my dad — how he’d wanted to mail me my pepper spray. I was scared shitless the rest of the night and continued to look over my shoulder the rest of the drive home. We passed a sign: Bienvenidos a Lima. Welcome back to Lima.

* * *

All photos by Valerie Sauers

In February, I embarked on a three-month photographic exploration of Peru. The cities. The countryside. The donkey-worn dirt paths in between. By plane. By car. By bus. By motorcycle. By boat. By foot. By the end of April, I’ll have barely scratched the lush, green surface.

I’m grateful to see all that I have, though the sensory overload can be exhausting. To keep my sanity I sometimes escape, in my head, back home to Elma, New York. But before long, the sound of potatoes frying and the smell of cuy bring me back. I realize that when I finally go back home, I’ll be daydreaming of Peru.

* * *

I am a gringa. Fair skin, blonde hair, green eyes. I’m used to people staring here. Sometimes it’s impossible not to laugh when I feel their gaze. In the small mountain pueblos and the jungle I often have a good eight inches on the average Peruvian. I try a friendly wave. Sometimes they smile and wave back. Sometimes they just stare. Most of the time, I feel like what I am, an outsider.

* * *

It’s nighttime in the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo and I’m photographing some crazy good breakdancers. The dimly lit park has a yellowish haze that contrasts against the blue glow of the main statue in the center. Their excitement is contagious. They ask me if I dance at all. Yes, but my breakdancing is worse than my Spanish. For the next half hour they crank up the tunes and we all take turns. A remix of “I’m sexy and I know it” bumps through. They demonstrate a move and I mimic it. They start spinning on their heads and doing bouncing handstands. I laugh and shake my head.

I hear “gringa” amidst a slur of rolling r’s and rapid-fire Spanish slang and raise my eyes to find the source. Who’s talking about me? We’ve drawn quite the crowd. I guess all the fun made me temporarily oblivious to everything else. It was the first time I felt included.

* * *

At times I wish I could teleport back to the familiarity and comfort of my small Western New York town. Where I know I can find the world’s best hot wings ten minutes from my house. My extended family lives next door — five houses in a row and two others close by. It’s easier than trying to live somewhere new.

Then I remember the hot springs I cannonballed into in Picoy, while the cool rain fell on my damp skin. I taste the sweet fruity syrups drizzled over shaved ice on my favorite raspadilla. I think of my newfound love for bananas — fried, cooked, raw, sweet, salty. I relax my shoulders to this slower pace of life. I smile at the sound of my friends calling me their gringa.

I travel to truly appreciate home. To experience a different spring and figure out how I want to live the rest of my life.

The photos that follow begin that figuring.

1

Water Ceremony

A religious official blows on ashes at the Ceremony de Agua at the temple of Pachacamac about 25 miles outside Lima. This religious (and now archeological) site was built circa 800-1450 AD, shortly before the Incas took over the area. It was likely used to worship the creator god, Pacha Kamaq.

2

Pelicans

A flock of pelicans float on a lake we passed on the rough, sandy road en route to El Paraíso. These social creatures can weigh up to thirty pounds and live 10 to 25 years or more. While they are endangered in North America, they seem rather abundant on the west coast of Peru. There are 8 pelicans species extant today, though that number is thought to have been around 57 during the species' peak fifty millennia ago.

3

The road to Huancahuasi

The scenic route to Huancahuasi and Picoy is long, winding, and often narrow. It would be a lie to say I never got scared at the thought of sliding off the damp dirt road and plummeting down the mountainside for hundreds of feet to the river below. Who's got my guardrails?

4

They Call These Crabs, "Muy-Muy"

Muy-Muy crustaceans live a cyclic life: wash up onto the sandy shore with the ocean current, burrow down into the sand, get washed back out into the salty abyss, and repeat. Standing in the water, you can feel them burrowing beneath your feet.

5

Tortoras

Tortoras are boats made from reeds and are amongst the oldest known boat types. They are a common tourist attraction along the beach of Huanchaco, Trujillo. The muddy complexion of the water was actually due to the presence of red algae.

6

Night on a farm in Santa Rosa

Light is very subdued and localized at night on this farm in Santa Rosa. An irrigation canal runs along the ridge of the surrounding mountains and provides water to this and many other similar farms situated in the pockets of the otherwise dry land.

7

Sobador of Churin

Isidoro Narsiso Andrade Rojas is a sobador in the mountains of Peru. Sobadores are therapists trained in healing massage techniques. He practices his traditional medicine out of a small, dimly lit, white concrete building in the town of Churin.

8

Gallo

An adult male chicken is actually called a gallo, pronounced like guy-jo. They are delicious to eat as well as their female counterpart the gallina in one of my favorite soups, caldo de gallina.

9

Pueblo Joven

This is a young town that has quickly built up in the past decade or so. Look left and you see desert mountains. Look right and you see the salty shore of the Pacific. Look at the town and you may wonder why someone chose this spot to erect a town. Although it feels like the middle of nowhere, Pueblo Joven is accessible by the Pan-American Highway that hugs the curves of the coast.

10

Hola vaca!

Various small dairies and farms, like this one, dot the extensive systems of cooperative plantation agriculture that dominate the irrigated coastal valleys of Peru. In this region, dairy production is vital to the local economy.

11

Mark of faith

Marks of Christian faith are evident all over Ventanilla, a district of the Constitutional Province of Callao in Peru and one of the six districts that comprise the port city of Callao. Covering more than half of the province's territory, it is Callao's largest district. It was officially established in 1969 but has truly sprawled within the past fifteen years or so.

12

Caballos locos

One particular horse was rather timid and kept trying to flee. With much effort the workers were finally able to calm her and we were then able to ride her bareback. Once I mounted her, roles changed and I was the timid one.

13

Vacas II

The cows on this farm in Ventanilla have names like Osito, Yuriko, and Hitomi. Also on this particular farm live bulls, horses, dogs, cats, turkey, chickens, and plenty of flies.

14

Room with a view

The view from my room Lima. As is the case here, it's not uncommon for multiple generations to reside in the different levels of the same house with extended family across the street. How about that micro-bus? Great for carting all the cousins to the cantina.

15

Hola Angie!

Angie Blankenship waves at me while her uncle, Jhonny Vidal Gonzales, relaxes on the beach in Santa Rosa. There are sections of beach that are packed with people looking for a party as well as less crowded parts -- preferred by surfers and body boarders like Jhonny.

16

Suffocating for safety

Traffic in Callao just sucks. We sat in the stagnant heat of the late afternoon for an hour with the truck windows rolled up and no air conditioning because robbers love snatching things from cars.

17

El Paraiso

Gino Vidal Gonzales navigates the waves at El Paraíso on a body board. As we drove past the flock of flamingoes and pelicans, up and over some sand dunes, this secluded beach appeared nestled down between rocks. It was, indeed, paradise. The waves are well-suited for the prone body boarder, so it’s not overcrowded with surfers. In fact, we were the only ones there this day.

18

Hot pool

The hottest bathroom in Picoy, Peru. Only the patient and strong-willed can enter this steaming pool. Little by little I eased myself all the way in, but didn't go too far past the steps. The temperature increases the closer you get to the source on the far wall. Dehydration and dizziness set in immediately.

19

Paisana

Vicenta wards off the chill of the mountain rain with her poncho. When I looked down at the puddles forming on the muddy ground I noticed just how small her feet were, yet appropriate for her small frame.

20

Los Banos de Picoy

Los Baños de Picoy -- expensive commercial resorts have NOTHING on this secluded place. The hot bath is fed by an underground water source and contains minerals such as iron, sulfur, and cobalt. It's said that a soak in this water is good for cancer, skin problems, and other ailments.

21

Belly flop

Gino Vidal Gonzales leaps into the tranquility of the bath. I suppose his session with Narsiso, the sobador, the day before, put a little spring in his step.

22

No traffic noise, except for the donkeys

The long, bumpy ride to Picoy is well worth it when you finally get to step into a hot, natural mineral-spring and you look around only to see the lush, green mountainsides draped in a gentle haze. No traffic noise (except the occasional donkey), and totally private.

23

Chancay Castle

The first bricks for the Chancay Castle were laid in 1924 by Consuelo Amat as a tribute to her late husband. As the Peruvian saying goes, time changes everything. It took a decade to complete and, shortly after, the castle was abandoned along with her original plan to live there with family. In 1990 it was restored and is now an important part of the skyline and the local tourist industry.

24

Plaza de Armas, Trujillo

The Plaza de Armas in Trujillo was teeming with kids of all ages practicing their breakdancing moves to a boombox playing a remix version of "I'm Sexy and I Know It." Abilities ranged from trying to spin on your butt to flips to bouncing handstands and spinning on your head. The group of guys I was able to photograph, converse, and dance with was definitely the cream of the crop.

25

Flex

His nickname is "Flex" for a reason. Jesus Alberto Herrera Correa was one of the guys breakdancing in the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo. He generously showcased his talents for the camera and then taught me a few moves. Who needs broken Spanglish when you can just dance?!

26

Go Fish

Cordeles, plomos, and anzuelos, oh my! Don't have a pole to fish with? No problem, you can buy one of these guys on the dock for five soles and fit in with the locals. I recommend you wrap the wooden slat around a post if fishing from a dock above the water. Otherwise you might throw the entire line in like one kid I saw. Don't worry, they float.

27

Chan Chan

The Chan Chan Archeological Complex is a World Heritage Site situated on the right bank of the Chimor Valley just outside Trujillo.

28

Relief

Surrounded by dry adobe walls with the sun frying my fair skin, I felt like I was baking in a kiln. Chan Chan was the religious and administrative capital of the Chimu culture that dominated from 750AD to 1470AD. High relief iconography depicts elements that represent the moon, sea, marine activities, geometric figures, zoomorphic stylizations, and mythological beings, symbolizing the close relationship between the Chimu people, the sea, and the moon. These birds were painted yellow and black.

29

Corredor de Peces y Aves

The corridor of fish and birds was decorated with reliefs in the form of fishing nets followed by pelicans and stepped designs including swimming fish. Before the entrance to this hallway stood two guards in clothes from the end of the Chimu era. Sweating in direct sunlight, they wore metal headdresses that I can only imagine were hot enough to fry eggs on. They posed for me. I snapped a photo. They asked me for money.

30

Hi!

As much as I generally hate photos of myself, I wanted proof that I got to swim in the clear, hot mineral baths in the middle of the mountain paradise in Picoy.

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