Peru – Peruvian adventure

Arequipa, our first stop with a connecting flight from Lima. It’s the second largest city in Peru,  and much of the city’s architecture is built with sillar, a white volcanic rock that has a shimmer effect – and has earned the city the nickname “La Ciudad Blanca,” the white city. Our hotel, the Libertador, was situated on a hilltop but just a short walk from the center of town. We visited the San Carmelo market with an amazing selection of fresh, locally grown fruit – and the potato varieties – supposedly 3,000 or so throughout Peru!!!! Along with the ubiquitous fish, poultry, vegetables, meat, cheeses, herbs, etc. It was fabulous! From there a walk to the Plaza des Armas with it’s stunning cathedral, colonnades, and architecture then on to Santa Catalina monastery for nuns (founded in 1580) where the nuns took the vow of silence. Evidently, in the day, the second daughter would be given up to the monastery along with a dowry, and although there are nuns there to this day, in its heyday there could have been as many as 400 which could have made the place quite wealthy. Today’s nuns live in newer quarters and  do community work instead of taking the vow of silence. Later we went to the Museo Santuarios Andinos (Museum of the Andean Sanctuaries). This museum is most famous as the home of Juanita, the Ice Maiden, a young girl who was sacrificed 600 years ago. Her perfectly preserved body was discovered in 1995,20,000 feet above sea level buried in the ice on Mount Ampato by Johan Reinhardt, an American, and she was given the name Juanita in his honor. The museum includes other mummies and a great collection of Inca artifacts. It’s strange, but I remembered the discovery of the girl’s body, but not the details.
The trip into Colca Canyon was amazing and to have seen several sets of Andean condors soaring in that 13,650 foot canyon was icing on the cake. (To give an idea of height/depth – the canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). Described by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize–winning novelist, as the “Valley of Wonders,” Colca is considered one of the most scenic regions in Peru. Lining the mountainsides are many terraced farmlands which pre-date Incan civilization – many going back 2,000 years. These are farmed by the people who live there with their llama and alpaca herds in extremely harsh conditions, without electricity and no trees for firewood. They burn a green brush shrub- I can’t imagine how that provides much heat, and probably throws out a lot of smoke! For water they have melted snow. The valleys and mountainsides are dotted with shepherds, some of whom are descended from indigenous tribes like the Collagua and Cabana, tending to their alpaca. We learned that alpacas are domestic descendants of the wild vicuña, while llama come from the wild guanaco. At our highest point, Patapampa,  a 16,000 foot summit, the view was incredible with a ring of eight snow covered volcanoes in all directions . The air was pretty thin up there, and climbing a small hill to view the apachetas (tiny towers of piled stones) made you breathless. These precarious looking little sculptures mark the spot locals considered closest to mountain apus (gods), however, most if not all of these offerings have been left behind by travelers. Our hotel, the Colca Canyon Lodge was a lovely and Eco-friendly place situated on a river with hot thermal springs. The hot water was  used for the radiant floor heating in the cute little chalet style rooms.The rock hewn thermal pools at 37-39 degrees felt pretty good too!
Our next stop was Puno, on Lake Titicaca. We stopped, on our way, and picked up our local guide Broz, who was  excellent,with a great sense of humor and endless knowledge of the area. We stopped at Sillustani to view the  above ground, cylindrical towers,also known as chullpas, which the pre-Incan people used as burial chambers for the entire family. It was extremely interesting to see how huge blocks of rock had been carved and notched out to fit together like pieces of Lego! Our hotel Libertador was directly in Lake Titicaca – the highest and largest navigable lake in the world.
After a quick overview tour of Puno, which, with 150,000 odd inhabitants has a fairly small downtown area and nothing of great interest, we spent the remainder of the day observing how the rural Aymara people live. Tortura reeds, which grow prolifically in the lake are used for many things. We watched a woman braiding rope from shredded reeds. She then showed us how the tortura mattresses are made by pounding pieces of rebar into the ground as a loom, using the rope as wefts and then stacking small handful sized sheafs across the wefts and tying them in place. She said she could make six a day and they sell for 15 soles (approx. $5).
We continued on to the lovely little village of Liquina, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which is attempting to encourage tourists with a couple of little B&Bs – not your average!!! Our host, the village elder/mayor and a shaman had set up a long table with allthe chairs facing out over the lake. We had a superb lunch of quinoa soup ( a national favourite) and grilled lake trout with several different potato varieties followed by mint tea. It was both delicious and delightful. A boat then picked us up to take us on the lake for about an hour ride over to the floating islands of Uros. What a fascinating place that is! The Uros people used to say that they have black blood because they did not feel the cold. Also they call themselves “Lupihaques” (Sons of The Sun). The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive, and if a threat arose they could be moved. The largest island retains a watchtower almost entirely constructed of reeds. They create these floating  islands by cutting out blocks (ca. 3x3x3 feet) from the roots of the totura reeds. Groups of four or so of those blocks are tethered together and with a total of 15, they have enough to start laying the 6ft long reeds down to create the platform which is large enough to hold up to 15 people. Their houses are built from the reeds- in fact everything is made from the reeds to include kontiki style boats! They even eat the fresh white flesh found at the base of the reed, use it as a toothbrush; use the dried flowers for medicine – you name it, they have a use for it!! They have to lay down new reeds every several months, as the moisture starts to wick through, and the actual island lasts for about 20 years, after which they would build a new one and use the old one for farming!
Rene, our guide told us the evening before our departure for the Sacred Valley that there was social unrest with strikers blocking the roads at the junction town of Juliaca. He was most distressed to tell us that we needed to get up at 2.30 a.m. And get on the road at 3.30 in convoy with some other buses to by-pass the town, and also before the strikers were up and about and able to stop us! What excitement.  The route we took to circumvent Juliaca was on farm roads (using that term very loosely!), across bridges that I’m sure weren’t build to carry the weight of our bus, down narrow village streets, etc. what an adventure!The roads, if you can call them that were nothing more than farm trails in places with extremely narrow crossings over streams.  I’m sure that most of the bridges we crossed were not certified for the weight of our bus – but, we made it safely thanks to the good planning of Rene and our driver Edwin.
Despite the early departure, we still had a really long day on the road until we reached our sightseeing venue of Raqchi, a temple complex that was huge in it’s day, and considered one of the holiest of Incan temples. We reached our hotel in the Sacred Valley in Urubamba at about 5.30 – tired, but relieved to be there. The setting of the hotel (Casa Andina Private Collection) was set in beautiful grounds at the foot of a mountain.
We were up bright and early, but at a reasonable time, to set off on our itinerary for the day. First stop was the Pumamarca ruins of an Incan Emporer’s estate at Ollantayambo. During the Spanish invasion of Peru, the estate became a stronghold of Incan resistance and was the site of a rare Incan victory over the Spanish invaders. The site was spectacular with views across a narrow valley of houses and warehouses, also known as qollqa, built into the side of a sheer mountainside. A local stray dog became our mascot and followed us all the way to the top, along the ridge, and back down again. He was named “Trooper”. Ollantayambo is a lovely little town with a square and narrow streets. Lots of interesting looking local people dressed in their traditional clothing.
Next was a ride up into the mountains to Chinchero with our first stop at a small village primary school. The class consisted of about 10 children in ages ranging from 2 1/2 to 6 with the very young ones being there more for day care than lessons. The school is partially supported by Gate 1 Travel, but the teachers salary is paid by the state. The kids were so sweet and sang several songs for us, with one little boy doing two solos! In Chinchero village we visited a weaving cooperative where they served us a delicious lunch before demonstrating the washing/dyeing/spinning/weaving techniques – using natural vegetable dyes and alpaca wool. Lunch was delicious and comprised the popular quinoa soup followed by a variety of potatoes, a small piece of grilled guinea pig and chicken! In lieu of dessert we had a shot of pisco and anis liquor.
We were mistaken in thinking we were heading back to the hotel to relax! As we descended from the mountain to the Urubambo valley, we made a stop at a local potter’s workshop where he explained where he got his raw materials and his techniques. After that we made another stop at a Chicharia – a type of pub/drinking establishment where home-brewed chicha is served in huge glasses! A brew, not too alcoholic, made from fermented corn. In the courtyard we were able to play the “frog game” Juego de Sapo where the goal is to toss bronze discs (about 1.5″ diameter) into either the frog’s mouth or one of the 8 round holes cut into the board. If successful, and they make it through a hole, they are collected in a drawer below – each with a point count. The points are tallied like in darts. I was selected as a team leader and we named our team “condors”, who went on to beat the “pumas” mightily!!
The next morning we were up early again to drive to Ollantaytambo to catch the. Vista dome train to Machu Picchu – the day we had all been waiting for, and the sun shone brightly in a blue sky with puffy white clouds. The train ride of about one and half hours down through the narrow valley with white waters and snow-capped mountains was beautiful. The bus ride up to the “ancient mountain” was around one hair-pin bend after the other. I kept thinking about the bus drivers, who’s job it is to make that ride up and down, day in day out! Arriving at the top and seeing the sight that everyone has seen in National Geographic and more, is indescribable. The ingenuity, strength, skills, and endurance that those incan people must have had! We were also blessed with the most incredible weather conditions – even though I had prepared myself for low clouds and drizzle! Rene gave us a good three-hour guided tour and then we were left to our own devices to explore. After the bus ride down, train ride back to Ollantaytambo, we then set off in the bus for Cusco (a good 2+ hour drive).
Cusco – what a beautiful city (of approx. 400,000) – colonial in appearance with the red-tiled roofs, but when one looks closely at the foundations, you see  Incan handiwork. We spent three days in the lovely Novotel (close to the Plaza de Armas). The name Novotel puts one in the mind of a modern high-rise, but this was in a narrow street and a former typical, courtyard-styled residence where the hotel has installed a glass dome over the courtyard for restaurant purposes. Ingenious! We visited the beautiful Santo Domingo cathedral of Cuzco which has an amazing collection of colonial art; Quricancha (Golden Temple) where in Incan times the floors and walls were adorned with gold. In the evening we were  invited  by a local family to join them for dinner! where we had a pleasant exchange and a delicious meal.
The next morning we were treated to a “session” with a Shaman from Chinchera. He brought a bundle of offerings including coca leaves, which he distributed among us. After making his offerings and surrounding them with a piece of string and our coca leaves, he then wrapped up the bundle (for later burial on a mountain top) and blessed each one of us by touching it to our heads and  doing a type of body scan with it! Afterwards we drove out of town a little way to visit the Sacsayhuaman fortress, constructed of huge blocks of limestone (incan) with the largest weighing over 110lbs. Evidently, from the air, the complex resembles the head of a puma – one of the sacred animals (puma, condor, snake). After our tour of the fortress we were entertained by a quartet of musicians who played their unique music whilst we stood in a fragrant eucalyptus grove. Preceding lunch, we had a demonstration on how to make the appetizer causa, which we later ate.
On to Lima, via a one and half hour flight. We were whisked away in a bus to the Miraflores district for lunch and visit in the Larco Herrara Museum, which is housed in a vice-royal mansion built over a 7thC pyramid. The collection of pre-Columbian pottery and art was absolutely mind boggling in its size and quality. Then on to a quick city tour including the Plaza de Armas, Government Palace, and Cathedral, where Francisco Pizarro is entombed. Our farewell dinner was at the renowned Huaca Pucilana with views of a 1,500 year old pyramid site.
I haven’t mentioned the PEOPLE! Gentle, hardworking folk! No problems, no bad experiences and I didn’t see one singe Peruvian smoking a cigarette! Rene said it is not a part of their culture. I have many photos of the people going about their daily lives.
All in all this was an amazing time with a really nice group of fellow travelers and super nice guide. It was pretty intense  with a lot packed in, so not much time for lazing around. I wasn’t really sure how the group/all-inclusive thing was going to work out, but our Tour Manager, Rene, was superb; the local tour guides excellent;  the hotels  top range and the food excellent too. No complaints:)
Thanks to Brian for the amazing condor photos!

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