Thursday, January 7, 2010

Well, Perú To You Too!

This coming summer marks my 10-year high school class reunion. It seems somewhat appropriate then, that I spent the two and a half weeks around Christmas and New Years with a good old friend from back in the Roseville Area High School days!

I actually knew Chris's mom before I knew her, as she was my elementary school librarian. I got to know Chris several years later in the waters of Parkview Center School as we were both swimmers. Chris is currently working as an English teacher at a school in the ocean-side city of Trujillo in northern Perú for one year, so it seemed like an opportune time to visit the country of the Incas. After many adventures cruising around town in a friend's JEEP, skinny-dipping in Lake Owasso, and endless spontaneous dance parties, it's nice to see that some friendships never change.

LIMA (Part I)

"Pues, es conocido."
I had not intended to spend any time in Perú's capital city, Lima, as my guide book's description and various friend's recommendations were more or less lukewarm. Nevertheless, due to flight times and bus schedules, I was stuck there for a night. After asking the counter-girl at the bus station if she knew of a good hotel nearby, she hesitated, choosing her words carefully, and replied, "no bueno...pero conocido" (not good...but 'known').

So I spent the first night in Lima here, in a little cell with a drippy faucet and triple locked door. (That's essentially the whole room; the fact that the bathroom is not visible is for the best.)


The small town of Nasca, located in the middle of one of the ugliest deserts I've ever seen, is about six hours south of Lima and not far inland from the Pacific Ocean. Nasca is most famous for the mysterious Nasca Lines spread across a desert plateau a few kilometers from the current population.

The "Owl Man"

The monkey

The condor.
I remember seeing pictures of these giant mysterious figures etched into the desert floor several hundred meters across when I was younger and being awed and impressed but never actually thinking I'd be able to see them. "Seeing them" is debatable. I know I looked at the first half dozen or so, but after that the banking of the tiny cessna plane carrying me, an Australian girl, and Taiwanese guy, high above the enigmatic creatures got to me and I resorted to "point, shoot, hope, and look later" strategy for enjoying these phenomena. (The going rate for almost losing your breakfast is about $50 USD, in case you're curious.)

No one really knows how the lines were made, as the figures can only be properly viewed from the air. Many theories exist - including aliens - but no one has been able to prove anything. They actually weren't discovered until this last century when commercial pilots began passing over the area. The Panamerica Highway actually accidentally cuts directly through one image, as it is nearly impossible to recognize the presence of the pictures from ground level. The largest is around 400 meters across and all shockingly straight and proportioned. The arid conditions of this part of Perú aid in preserving the geoglyphs and are really the only reason they lasted long enough to be discovered in the first place.

Most people stop in Nasca to see the lines and move on, but I had about 9 more hours to kill before my bus left so I trotted back into the tour agency that so kindly tested my upchuck reflex and asked about other guided opportunities. Before I knew it I was on a bus with a bunch of obnoxious Australian tourists heading back into the desert to an archaeological site called Cemetario Chauchilla.

This ancient burial site, also linked to the ancient Nasca peoples, was originally discovered by grave robbers who dug up the tombs, taking the valuables and leaving the mummies and broken pottery scattered across the desert-scape. Again, as with the lines, the arid conditions preserved the mummies - many have skin and hair still - as well as their clothing and pottery. The bones are bleach-white from the years spent sitting out exposed to the suns relentless rays.

The Peruvian government has worked very hard to gather the mummies and return them to their tombs, however, returning each mummy to it's original burial site is next to impossible. As you walk from tomb to tomb it is possible to spot various bones and strips of cloth out, off the path, stuck in the sand, where the grave-robbers presumably left them.

The most interesting thing for me was the initial heart-in-throat shock I felt upon approaching each of the grave sites. They were all essentially identical, two or three long-dead corpses, wrapped in their finest once-brightly colored blankets, facing east, awaiting the rising sun, but each and every time I felt a silent gasp coming from somewhere deep within. I suppose it is a natural ingrained reaction to seeing other humans in the deceased state, much like approaching the casket of a loved one at a funeral; you know they're going to be there, but the sight of their soulless shell of a body is slightly unsettling.


In Colombia there is a caramel-like sweet called arequipe (say: ahr-ay-keep-ay). I think I kept mixing the two up during my two days here! Arequipa, the city, is built in the foothills or several mountains, including the still-active volcano, El Misti. With a distinctively Spanish architectural feel, it is easy on the eyes and even easier on the pedestrial visitor; wandering the city-center, marveling at the myraid cathedrals was almost like going to a home-and-garden show for churches. Most of the buildings, including the churches, are built from sillar, a whitish volcanic rock.

Aside from the catholic places of worship, two other structures are notable in Arequipa. The first is the convent Monasterio de Santa Catalina which was veiled in secrecy for nearly 400 years. Built in 1580, the convent was home to nuns from mostly wealthy families; each had to pay a dowry upon entry equivalent today to $50,000 USD. When you wander the maze of this several-city block-sized structure, you soon realize how poshly these nuns had it, each having their own "house" complete with private living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and servants quarter.

Pretty nice furniture!
Life continued this way for the monestery - no one exiting, no one entering, save for incoming sisterly candidates - until the late 1800's when word got around about the grandiose conditions of the nuns. A new Sister was sent, a strict Dominican nun, who freed the slaves and servants (providing the option to stay as nuns, of course) and sent much of the riches back to Europe. About a hundred years after that, the convent was opened for tourism and for the first time the general public could see for themselves the secrets of the mysterious walled monastery.

Even with my map and the aid of the idiot-proof arrows marking the corridors, I still found myself getting turned around. The most fascinating part of the convent for me was the delivery area where goods from the outside were delivered to the cloistered women. Through rotating doors and storage courtyards, it was completely possible to drop off large amounts of food and products to the nuns without anyone seeing anyone else. Incidentally, there is still a small population of nuns living on the grounds, in a corner away from the tourist path.

Another famous Arequipa resident is even older than the convent. "Juanita" the "Ice Maiden" was a young 12-14 year old girl sacrificed to the Incan Gods about 600 years ago. After an earthquake, her opened tomb was discovered high atop Mount Ampato, near Arequipa; her tightly wrapped body was discovered further down the slope, more or less in good condition. The small museum she is housed in takes extreme precautions in exhibiting and preserving her. No photography is allowed and the mummified remains of Juanita herself are under very low light, behind thick glass, and in a freezer-like case. Nevertheless, this discovery sheds a lot of light on the rituals of the ancient Incan culture and empire (more on that later).


At around 3,400 meters above sea level, the ancient Inca capital city of Cusco (or Cuzco or Qos'qo) is the only still occupied city originally built during the Incan Empire. Many of the people here still speak Quechua (say: ketch-wah) and most of the streets are slowing being returned to their original spellings, after being translated to Spanish when the conquistadors arrived in the 1530's. In this way, with the prevalence of the native language, visiting southern Perú was like being in some place outside Latin America; all of a sudden I had no idea how to pronounce anything all over again!

Since the Spanish built their city directly on top of the Inca's city, there is a distinct fusion of Incan and Spanish architecture. The bases of many building retain the characteristic precision-cut and angled stones of the Inca with the tops embracing the soaring baroque style of Spain.

As touristy as parts of Cusco are, that becomes part of the fun. Searching through the endless markets for just the right scarves, gloves, sweaters, and blankets made from 100% pure alpaca wool to wear immediately and bring home is only enhanced by the low prices of these hand-made goods.

I met Chris in Cusco and we spent a few days in the city and visiting the surrounding area, which is host to dozens of other long-abandoned Incan cities and ceremonial archeological sites. Of these, we visited Písac (pictured below), Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero on a day-long bus tour of the Valle Sagrado ("Sacred Valley").

The interesting thing about the Inca culture, as opposed to many other ancient and modern civilizations, is where they built their cities. Most often major populations are found along natural resources like oceans and rivers, for food and transportation purposes. The Incas build nearly all their cities, agricultural, and ceremonial sites at the tops of mountains, not in their valleys. While this gave them a good vantage point and, arguably, protection, it also meant they needed to get the several-ton stones used to create these structures up there!

The Incas were the first to use several unique forms of governmental policy and agriculture. For one, the Inca did not pay taxes int he monetary sense. They were required to "work for the government" for four months of each year. This is how the cities got built; the Incas worked together to cut, polish, and drag these enormous pieces of rock to the tops of these mountains.

The Incan farming method.
They also practiced terraced farming. At the high altitude, the temperature changes every six levels, therefore different crops were planted at different levels - corn, potatoes, yucca, beans, and coca all had their places. This method also proved to be less dangerous than farming on a slope and allowed for more surface area. Our guide said that it is theorized that if farmers in mountain and hilly communities went back to this method of farming, more people the world-over could be fed.

The Inca-Jungle Trail

The "original" Inca Trail, otherwise know to locals as the "Gringo Trail," gets booked early, is packed with hikers, and requires both a guide and high entrance fee. For all these reasons, Chris found a tour agency that leads small groups of hikers along one of the lesser-known Inca Trails, this one through the low-lands and jungle.

Discovered only six years ago* by the owner of the tour company and father of our fantastic guide, covering this trail involved three complete days - one biking and two hiking. Our guide, Johan, is a Quechuan himself who went to University to study the Quechuan religion, language, and culture which made his insights into the ancient Incas all the more interesting. (Several years ago, in the midst of rising ethnic tensions between the indigenous populations [highlanders] and those of Spanish-relation, the President made it mandatory that all Universities offer Quechuan [or another native culture] courses. This both improved the literacy of the native peoples, but got others interested in the culture-within-a-culture in Perú.)

*The local Quechua in the area knew of it's existence and used the trail frequently.

Johan discusses coca agriculture.
The chewing of the coca leaf is one of the most prevalent symbols of Quechuan culture. The leaf, surprisingly high in many minerals like Calcium, helps fight off altitude sickness as well as having a caffeinated effect. The cocaine made from coca leaves can only be attained by turning the dried leaf to powder and adding other chemicals like gasoline and fertilizer; growing of the coca leaf is legal in Perú and the production of cocaine has not been a problem for the country.

We learned that the Incas had several Gods, the main one being Pachamama or "Mother Earth." They also held the mountains (Apus) in high regard, specifically those found surrounding the ancient capital of Qos'qo (Cusco) - Machu Picchu, Salkantay, Saqsayhuaman, and Abra Malaga.

The condor, puma, and snake.
Before chewing the coca leaves, for example, a ceremony is performed where the chewer selects three leaves of increasing size representing the trinity of the holy Incan animals. The condor represents peace and is the largest, the middle leaf is for the puma, which stands for strength, and the final and smallest of the leaves is for wisdom, carried by the snake. The three leaves are raised and blown on in the direction of the four mountains (which can be the same direction if you are anywhere outside the Sacred Valley). The leaves and then buried in tribute to Pachamama and the "watered" with chicha, a fermented corn drink, in the shape of a cross. (I found it interesting how the trinity theme and the cross shape showed up in the Inca ceremony.) Finally, a three new leaves are chosen and those are chewed and then spit out after several minutes. Or, if you're Chris, you swallow them and then look surprised when Johan instructs everyone to spit them out later!

Where's the nearest shower?
The biking was fairly easy, as it was mostly downhill. Regardless, when we got to the tiny jungle town of Santa Maria, we all looked like we had been crawling through the underbrush for days, chewing on sticks and caterpillars and sleeping under rotting leaves. That night over dinner we got to know our tour group a little better. Chris and I were definitely in the minority as our caravan was composed of German-speaking Europeans - two German guys, a German family of three, and three more from Switzerland about our age (two girls and a guy). They all knew English at least passably but because of the first-language difference, Chris and I got to know Johan really well.

Highlights of the first day of hiking included sunny weather all day long - a first for our time in the Cusco area as it was in the midst of the rainy season. Also a rest stop at a mountainside "tienda" fulfilled a childhood (and adulthood) dream of holding a monkey. Another highlight that persisted throughout all my time in Perú, but was magnified by the hunger built from hiking all day, was the delicious soup. I am convinced that within Peruvian cuisine are some of the most flavorful soups in the world. Not spicy, just delicious; pumpkin soup, criole soup, quinoa soup, asparagus soup to name a few were all incredible!

Day two of hiking was more of the same but with a stop the night before at some local hot springs converted into several pools of increasing temperature left us re-energized for a three hour hike straight up a mountain to visit the Inca worship temple of Llactapata (pictured). From here we had the unique vantage point to see the iconic Inca city of Machu Picchu for the first time. It was a cloudy day up there on the mountain but at one point the mist cleared in passing through the peaks long enough for a brief, albeit clear view across the valley to see the famous ruins.

This is not a fashion show.
Just as we began our descent it began to rain. This was not a cloud passing around us, misting our faces and jackets, this was a torrential downpour or the near-monsoon variety. As if navigating a steep switch-backed dirt and rock mountain slope was difficult enough, the dirt turning to mud and blinding rain falling on our faces upped the ante a little. At the bottom, almost in accordance with some perversion of Murphy's Law, the rain ceased. We then continued our trek, off the Inca's trail, along the raging and rapid-filled Urubamba River, passing an amazing waterfall, back and forth over several bridges, and finally onto some railroad tracks leading us to the tiny tourist mecca, and Machu Picchu starting point, Pueblo Machu Picchu (or Aguas Calientes).

After another delicious dinner, we bid farewell to Johan and went to bed. At 4 AM we woke up to begin out 90 minute hike to the top of Machu Picchu mountain (Quechua for "Old Mountain"). There are two ways to get to the top to see the ruins - walking or by bus. People begin walking at around 4:30 AM and you need only follow the sleepy but determined parade of hikers to figure out the way to go. The buses begin taking tourist to the top at 5:30 AM, although a line has inevitably been forming since around 4 AM at the bus stop. Regardless, morning is the best time to see Machu Picchu and the gates open for everyone at 6 AM sharp, so really it's a matter of how much you want to be the first to the top and how earlier you can get out of bed! (Pictured below is Chris and me halfway up the mountain at about 5:15 AM.)

5:15 am has never looked to amazing!

Machu Picchu was a sight to see. I have never seen a picture of this ancient city that wasn't impressive and feel that all my photographs succeeded on this front as well. Unfortunately, Johan had been such a fantastic guide that the one we were met by in Machu Picchu, while interesting, was giving us information we already knew and didn't have the guiding prowess to disseminate more advanced information. The basic nut-shell history of Machu Picchu is that that reason it was not discovered and then ransacked by the conquistadors is because the Incas abandoned it before the Spanish even knew to look for it. Looking out across the remote and baguette-like mountains all around and its easy to wonder how that might have even been possible.

Chris and I wandered around the site, watching both the thickening of the tourists (the train from Cusco had obviously arrived) and the clouds. One minute you could see the entire city and the nect you could barely see the wall a few meters in front of you. And then the cloud would pass and it would all be visible again; it was like a meteorological magic trick.

After four days of biking, walking, and climbing, we were exhausted and took the bus down the mountain, to our hostal, grabbed our bags, and headed for the train station. Peru Rail has created an interesting situation. This is the only non-walking method of getting to Aguas Calientes and the company has a monopoly on the track. Therefore, the British-owned train can charge astronomically high prices; our one-way 90 minute journey was a bit over $50 USD. The company has also been accused of some racial practices, one being not allowing Peruvian nationals - even those who can pay - to ride the tourist or backpacker cars; they are relegated to the Peruvian-only cars. It's difficult to fight this though, without leaving the same way you came in - on foot.


Back in Cusco we hopped on a bus and headed seven hours south to the nearly 4,000 meter high city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. But not before being told by transit police that the tire was bad, getting off the bus, returning to the same bus with the same tire, going through the same routine with the tire and the police, and finally watching the driver pay off the police officer. the tire still bad and the cops are looking the other way, or was the tire never bad in the first place and Officer Crooked over there didn't get enough a Christmas? Ah, foreign travel...

Feliz Año Nuevo
Puno is cold. Fortunately we found a lively little fusion bar to spend New Years Eve and danced the night away with an international community of Peruvians, Australians, Russians, a couple Brits and a Dutch guy. I even requested some salsa be played and then got many compliments and a free beer for my dancing efforts. Thank you, Cali!

The next morning wasn't so festive. The night before I has drank a local Peruvian beverage called a Pisco Sour which tastes a little like a frothy margarita. Pisco Sours, however, are made with eggs and mine were evidently very bad eggs. Chris used the time where I was sleeping and or making mad dashes to the bathroom (or one unfortunate time to a potted plant in the hallway) to make reservations to take a tour of the highest navigable lake in the world.

The next day, feeling 80% better, we hopped on a boat that would take us on a two-day tour of the lake. Being from "the land of 10,000 lakes" it takes a significant body of water to impress me, but this was impressive. At over 32,000 square miles, Lake Titicaca is very important for the communities in both Perú and Bolivia that share its shores.

Living like the Uro.

The first stop was the visit the Islas Flotantes ("floating islands") of the
Uro people who have built entire communities consisting of houses, restaurants, schools, and a post office, on mats of reeds. Originally constructed as a way to avoid conflicts with other nearby more-warring groups, about 50% of the Uro's economy now comes from tourism. Walking on the reed floors was a unique experience as there is some give to the "ground" and the artificial islands definitely move with the waves. While the reeds are continually being replaced as the older ones rot away underneath, it is impressive to think that you were standing on 15-16 meters of water.

Our next stop, after an even chillier cruise through more open water, was the island of Amantaní. This island, inhabited by native Quechua-speakers was where we spent the night with a local family. There are no real hotels on any of the islands as a way to regulate tourism and not hurt the local populations. The reason we chose this particular tour company is that we were required to pay our host-family directly and not through the tour group, which has been known to cheat the islanders.

Amantaní fiesta!
Our stay was pleasant and relatively uneventful. The mother of the house, Bacilia and her nine-year old daughter, Maria de los Angeles, were amazing hosts and cooked us delicious soups and dishes by wood burning stove. At night we were invited to a party in the town center and got to dress up in some of the traditional clothing. For me that consisted of just a hat and poncho whereas Chris got wrapped tightly in several layers and girdle-like waist wrap; she had impeccable posture for the evening!

The next morning, after potato pancakes from scratch, we headed for the neighboring island of Taquile, a similar but slightly more visited island than Amantaní. After a nice stroll around the island's winding upward path, we reached the town square at the top and had lunch a nearby restaurant overlooking the expanse of the lake. On Amantaní the women, even our host mother, were always knitting. They would walk and knit, cook and knit, probably even sleep and knit. On Taquile, the men knit also. And they take great pride in this skill. We passed several men and boys, including the one below with his flock of sheep, knitting away the day.

The sheep of Taquile.

LIMA (Part II)

We rode the boat back in to Puno, said our goodbyes (until Chris quits her job and visits me in Cali!), and I headed to the bus terminal. I had bought my ticket back to Lima three days before while still in Cusco, so this should have been easy. Upon arriving to the terminal I soon discover that my reservation and seat have been lost. I have the ticket and receipt so the bus company believes that I bought the ticket. They just don't know where to put me. Eventually it was decided that I would sit in the "lounge area" up at the front of the bus for the first 6-7 hours until a space opened up; this is table with a semi-circular cushioned bench seat facing the oncoming road. (Buses in Perú are not like normal buses. They have fully reclining "bed" seats, stewards that serve food and drinks, and television monitors playing movies from the ceilings.) Fine. Just get me to Lima so I can catch my plane.

Right before we leave an employee comes on the bus and asks me to follow her off. When we get outside she tells me I actually can not ride up front for safety and security reasons and then has the gall to suggest I take a taxi and meet the bus in the next city, six to seven hours away. I asked her who was going to pay for this suggested taxi and she didn't have an answer. The driver then stepped in and, when informed of the situation, told me to just get on the bus and that it didn't bother him. Great buses in Perú, but not so great communication.

Upon arriving to Lima I was, of course, accosted by the cab drivers outside the terminal. I told the driver I wanted to go to a hostal from my guide book near the airport. He told me I "didn't want to go there" (oh? I don't?) because it "wasn't safe" ( guide book is generally not in the interest of suggesting unsafe digs). He then told me I wanted to go to Miraflores, the touristy area. I told him I was "en transito" and just needed a bed and shower so I can be close to the airport and catch my flight. He then suggested a place even closer to the airport that he said was good. Fine. I was too tired to argue. If it was hovel, I would demand he take me back to my original suggestion.

It turned out the place was not a dive and the price was right. I checked in and immediately took a shower. Two things happened almost simultaneously. As I stepped out of the shower I noticed the abundance of mirrors in the room. There were two parallel facing ones in the bathroom alone, and three of the four walls of the bedroom were caked in them. Fortunately not the ceiling. Then I heard the faint exaggerated screams and Hollywood-style sex echoing from somewhere down the corridor and the smell of bleach and disinfectant I thought was evidence of proper upkeep upon entering the room, was suddenly so much more. My taxi driver had taken me to the "love motel." I slept on top of the covers that night and left earlier than necessary the next morning.

To seal my disdain for Lima, the cabbie who took me to the airport charged me the exact same price for a five minute ride that the one from the night before had charged for an across-town haul. There are no meters in cabs in Lima, and when I told him what my driver from the night before had told me the fare would be he just laughed and gave me some mumbled lie about taxes or something. I payed him as angrily as I could and made a B-line for the airport. A straight line toward freedom from Lima and home to warm, friendly, happy, non-cheating Cali.

1 comment:

jsmarslender said...

Wow! Fun to read about your experiences in Peru. I really loved our short time there too. Glad you had the chance to travel with a friend too.

No pisco sours for me!