Because there´s more to Peru than just Cuzco province...
10.08.2012 - 23.08.2012 11 °C
The Cuzco region had so much to offer that it held us for a good three weeks, but it was finally time to move on. We headed off down to the southeast to Nazca on one of those fantastic overnight busses (aside from lay-down seats, they also give you dinner and movies!) that I wrote about in my ´Odds and Ends´ post. We woke just as the sun was coming up, and the bus started to descend from the Andes foothills into the flat desert coast area where the city is located. Often there´s mist over the desert in the morning, and today was no exception. It looked like there was a sea of clouds spread out below, with the last of the mountaintops sticking up through them. It was an awesome sight!
We´d arranged in advance in Cuzco for a flight over the Nazca lines late that morning, but you´ve got to be prepared for the occasional screw up when travelling like this - the local agency had no record of our booking. The staff, however, sprang very helpfully into action and after multiple phone calls we found ourselves around 4pm climbing into a little Cesna airplane at a tiny dirt airstrip on the edge of town. Most people have heard of the Nazca lines, I expect - huge diagrams and figures that were carved into the desert floor here by a long-ago civilization for reasons no one knows (although there are a lot of theories). At first, they were a bit more difficult to make out than I expected, and I completely missed the first one.
G: See the whale?
K: No, where? I don´t see a whale
G: Just under the wingtip, see there´s the head, and the back, and the...
K: I see a ditch. Is the whale in the ditch?
G: In the DITCH? No, it´s HUGE, it´s right there!
K: *starts furiously cleaning glasses*
Eventually, I picked up on how to spot the outlines, and the pilot did awesome ´butterfly´ dips back and forth that took each side of the plane very low for a good view over each formation. Unfortunately, this did NOT sit well with the guy in the other couple flying with us. Within 10 minutes, he was busily filling all the barf bags their row of seats was stocked with, and the pilot eventually ended up cutting our flight short by a good five minutes. That was a bit of a bummer, but he was obviously feeling so miserable I had sympathy with us getting back down quickly, and I DID get really good looks at most of the figures I really wanted to see. Not, unfortunately, photos, as those things are damn hard to get framed and in focus in a moving airplane. The only one that really worked for me was ´the spaceman´ (which locals insist is simply an image of an ancient shaman). Gerard, however, somehow managed to get some decent ones on his iPhone (unfortunately, can´t upload them here).
Aside from the lines, there's not much to do or see in Nazca, so we'd only arranged to stay one night. But the next day - while we were waiting for the night bus to Arequipa - we did do one other excursion which was unexpectedly amazing to the necropolis of Chuichilla. The pre-Inca civilization here buried their dead in carefully prepared pits which were only discovered in the 1940s. After that, grave robbers did their damage, but the site is protected now and enough was preserved to give visitors today an incredible glimpse into the past. What is especially cool is that the remains have not been carted of to museums in Lima, but left in a very simple and respectful open-air 'museum' that you can walk around. We had a great guide who gave us lots of insights into what the clothing and hair of the mummies said about their social status.
After another night bus, we arived in Arequipa - unless another city proves me wrong, my favourite in all Peru. Less hectic than Cuzco, and more cosmopolitan and gracious. I absolutely loved it. We were there for the city's founding day celebrations, which included a marvelous parade of countless groups of people enthusiastically dancing by in regional costumes.
It is a city - literally - on the edge, surrounded by three volcanos and sitting right on top of a huge tectonic plate. One of the biggest volcanoes - Misti - you can see right behind the main Cathedral. Earthquakes and eruptions are a fact of life here. A local guide told me that three minor earthquakes - too small to feel in the bustle of the big city - occur every day. Every single hotel and restaurant has a clearly designated spot which you should flee to and huddle under if the ground starts shaking. But the locals seem to accept the danger stoically, and go about their business as if nothing is going on.
Arequipa is also the starting point for going into the Colca Canyon - twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, so - of course - Gerard wanted to get to the bottom of it (*sigh*). Our three-day excursion started with an early morning pick-up with 10 other travellers. We took a roundabout way through protected nature parks where we got to see free-roaming herds of vicunas, llamas and alpacas up close.
It's an incredibly dry region, a kind of landscape that doesn't usually appeal to me - I love water, vegetetion, greenery - but it had an austere majesty even I could appreciate. Then up, up, up to another incredibly high Andes mountain pass which was an awesome testimony to the honour in which the Peruvians (no matter WHAT their Catholic Spanish conquerors tried to beat into them) still hold their ancient gods and religion.
For 360 degrees around were landmark volcanos and mountain peaks - one of them is the source of the Amazon, on others, ancient human sacrifices of children had been found (most within a 100 year period in which the volcanos had been particularly active) to try and appease the angry gods. And on that high pass, were countless tributes of stones piled upon stones that travellers - most LONG before us - had left for Pachumama, the Earth Mother. They stretched out from the road in fields almost as far as the eye could see.
I must say something about those human sacrifices because I saw one of them face to face in Arequipa - Juanita, the Ice Maiden. It may seem a terrible thing that cultures would purposely kill a child, but you also have to admit that - even today - cultures are also willing to resort to terrible things in terms of 'human attrition' to try to protect themselves or allay their fears. Potential victims to the gods were apparently chosen at birth from high-born families, and educated from a young age about their noble destiny. They would, perhaps, never be called on, but if the drought was really bad, or the mountains started exploding, it was their fate to be sacrificed in an attempt to appease the gods.
The 12-14 year old Juanita, according to the experts, may well have been taken on a grand and solemn parade all the way to Cuzco to be honoured and venerated before climbing almost 6,000 metres to the very peak of Mount Ampato where, richly dressed, she was killed and buried with great and reverent ceremony. What makes her especially unique is that the icy conditions preserved her body - including clothing, skin, hair, organs, and even stomach contents - so perfectly. National Geographic named her one of the ten top scientific finds of the last century Information about Juanita. We saw her - along with many artefacts collected from the burial site - in a museum in Arequipa, and it was extremely solemn, sad and touching. There is no telling with what feelings - from fear to pride - that this young girl lost her life, but there is no denying that in doing so, she herself has become almost as immortal as the gods that her people worshiped.
After spending the night on the rim of the canyon, we started hiking down early the next morning. 3,600 hundred feet downhill is no joyride, but the views were awesome. Over the rim at the top, we could just barely see the amazing destination waiting for us - the Oasis - a rich, green, river-fed Eden at the very bottom, complete with sparkling swimming pools - where we camped for the night. It more than made up for the knee-knocking hike down. The stars, just like in Manu - were unbelievable.
Unfortunately, the next morning, we had to go back UP. We started at 5am to avoid the sun beating down on us during the climb. It was tough, but I stubbornly stuck to my own pace - communing with Pachamama all the way. I was the last of our group to make it back to the top (Gerard - the first - was there almost an HOUR before me) but it wasn't as bad as I'd feared it would be.
Afterwards, we headed back up the valley we'd come down and stopped at a viewpoint where we could see the huge condors who live in the canyon swirling and circling on the updrifts. They are the world's biggest birds with wingspans up to 12 feet wide, and we stayed almost 45 minutes watching almost a dozen of them majestically floating around.
After that, we had a quick lunch and visit to a hot springs before our group split up. The majority went on back to Arequipa, but we were put into another, smaller bus with another couple heading to Puno on Lake Titicaca further south. The bus may have been smaller, bit with four of us it was quite roomy and luxurious. I could even appropriate a whole row of seats to nap a bit on the 4-hour drive!
I roused myself as we headed into Juliaca, the last big city before Puno where I saw (again) one of the strangest things I've noticed in South America in one of its strongest manifestations: houses where the ground floor has been built and finished, and the upper floor simply left abandoned when it was halfway. Various people and guides have explained this is the way things go here. You start building something until the money runs out, and then you just let it sit until you have money enough to go on with building. I'd gotten used to the sight of weird, half-finished houses here and there, but Juliaca took the cake. This was a HUGE city, which had barely any buildings that seemed to be finished. Ground floors were all topped with garish, extruding cables of steel and half-built brick walls. Very odd and disorienting.
Puno is not a super attractive city, but it´s right on Lake Titicaca, the highest naviagable lake in the world at more than 11,000 feet, and a lot of people head here just to experience the lake. The biggest draws are certain islands where indigenous people still live largely undisturbed and, especially, the ´Uros Islands´, a cluster of 65 small ones that have been built out of reeds, as are the houses in which people live on them. We heard it was very unique, but also something of a tourist trap if you went on the day-long excurions which stopped at one handicraft sales point after another. So instead of that, we arranged to stay at the only Uros island on which a local family offered overnight accomodations. We were picked up at 10:00am last Monday morning with two other guests, and ferried out there in a little wooden motorboat through a maze of channels in the reeds. The islands really ARE small - just 100x100 yards at the most. Anywhere from 2-6 families live on each one. The little cabins and dining hall which our host family had built to accomodate guests took up about 1/3 of our island. Four other families lived on the rest, and I got the idea that they helped out at the accomodation as cooks, boatmen to take people back and forth to Puno, etc. It was absolutely fantastic - everyone was so warm and welcoming, and the accomodations were much nicer and more comfortable than I´d expected. They had a lovely little lounge area set up with parasols and hammocks, and they even had hot showers run by solar panels.
It´s a very strange feeling walking around on those islands - you sink and spring a bit in the reeds with each step. They gave us a delicious lunch after which we explored every corner of the island (didn´t take long!), relaxed in in the lounge area, and watched the constant parade of tourist boats hustling people on and off all the other islands around us. By the end of the afternoon, however, all the tourist traffic was finished. Our hosts amused themselves by dressing us up in traditional dress, then took us out on a gorgeous boat made out of reeds (EVERYTHING is made of that stuff here, not just the islands but the houses, boats, parasols, watchtowers and more) to empty their fishing nets.
That was followed by a dinner every bit as good as the lunch and an early bedtime - it felt even more bloody cold than it usually is at night at these altitudes. Perhaps it was because we were on the lake? In any case, we had - literally - POUNDS of blankets on our beds, and hot water bottles under them. Once you were inside and had stopped shivering, it was quite comfy! The stars (when I went out to pee in the middle of the night) were awesome.
Although the other guests had to leave early the next morning to catch a bus (the hosts would take you back to the mainland whenever you wanted), we elected to stay on our private little island until mid-afternoon. It was a much nicer place to read and relax than in Puno! But we had to head back at a certain point, because we had booked a ferry to take us to one of the 'real' islands further into the lake the next morning. That excursion, however, was something of a disappointment - bit also a learning experience. We had understood it was strictly a transport-ferry service. But no. On the way they stopped at - yes - the Uros islands and tried to shove everyone off at the one right next to where we´d stayed, where fetchingly dressed local girls stood like cheerleaders along the quay to pull you in and show you their wares. Gerard and I stayed on the boat, and from this viewpoint we could see that every island within view - except 'ours´of the night before - had all kinds of advertisements on their banks and watchtowers. What with that stop, arguments between the island and boat owner about whether G and I had to pay the island ´entrance fee´ even though we didn´t get off the boat, and engine problems, we were almost two hours later getting to the Taquile island than we thought.
And once there, it was a different kind of thing than I´d thought. This really was partially my problem. I thought we would just land at the main village which we could then enjoy exploring for a couple hours. But if I´d read the Lonely Planet information about the island more closely, I would have known that once you got there, you had to hike up almost 30 minutes to get up to the main village. As we were arriving, the ´host´on the boat also gave the extra information that, from the village, we also had to calculate another half hour to hike back down to the other side of the island where the boat would be waiting to take us back to Puno at 2:20pm. In short, outside of the ´walking´ that we did on the island to get from one place to another, we had around 40 minutes in total (what with the delays etc) to just ´be´ there.
This was a perfect example of how wrong expectations, misinformation, and unexpected complications can combine to make you suddenly feel miserable when travelling. I started slogging up that (very) steep incline from the harbour, dressed MUCH too warmly for the heat beating down on me, and was really on the verge of tears. But I took a deep breath and thought 'What can I do to feel better NOW?' - and number 1 was to take off as many goddamn clothes off as possible. I did, and things immediately improved. As we walked on and - especially- when we reached the main square of the villae, I started to comprehend that I may have misunderstood the whole nature of the excursion. It was the WALKING around this island that was the main thing - because the village itself wasn´t much. The pathway, however, was wonderful. Once I got in my head that the HIKE was the main attraction of the thing, I started to enjoy myself again. It WAS beautiful, and the proud, insular islanders (it was the very last last place in Peru to submit to the Spanish conquerors, and they still primarily intermarry among each other) were fascinating to see in their traditional dress.
That was, in any case, our very last excursion in Peru for the time being. Tomorrow early a.m., we get on a bus that will take us to Copacabana - a small town on the other side of Lake Titicaca, which is in Bolivia. I am rather upset at the moment because not all the pictures I wanted to include with this blog post are in here. I´ve been working on it for a number of days over a number of cities, and this afternoon I´d uploaded the last images (especially from Lake Titicaca) that I wanted to include in an internet cafe. But - GAHHH - now that I´ve come back to finish this post, they are GONE from this computer, and they are also no longer showing up on my camera display . VERY upsetting, but I am not going to get my knickers in a twist. Maybe I will be able to get to them on the memory card itself and share them with you later. In any case, they will always be in my head. Until next time....