Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Peru 3: Puno, Lake Titicaca and Lima

Peru 3: Puno, Lake Titicaca and Lima

We departed Cusco early in the morning of Saturday, February 3rd, the 19th day of our South American adventure. Our destination – the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. At 3,860 meters above sea level (a mere 12,352 feet), Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, a featured answer in the geography category of Trivial Pursuit, and the favorite landmark in the world for all grade school boys. For these reasons we were determined to visit it. We were not disappointed.

We were, however, a tad disappointed with the mode of transportation we selected. We opted to go by bus – nine hours by bus. And it was a small bus (some might say a large van), not one of those huge land cruisers with all the amenities (though another group riding in one of those mega-buses trailed us the entire day across Peru, producing envious grumbles from the 12 of us traveling with Inka Express). During the seemingly endless trip, Adrian, our thoroughly knowledgeable guide, offered us some spectacular views of the mountains and some impressive sights. We visited the Church of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas, better known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, due to its decorated polychrome ceiling. While beautiful, it certainly does not compete with the Vatican version!

Further along, we stopped in Rachi, where we walked through a spectacular Inca sanctuary built by Pachacutec, the ninth of the 13 Inkas and the one who apparently accomplished more than the other dozen put together. The religious site, dedicated to the great Inka God, Wiracocha, has a great central wall with a stone base and other walls made of giant adobe bricks. The Temple area also has two circular columns and several buildings once used for housing and storage, all in all an architectural wonder. A small village has grown up next to the site, home to natives pursuing traditional farming tasks and the ever-present church in the center. One thing quite different in this tiny town is a restaurant that touts “hoogies” and “steaks & cheese” – for a moment, I thought I was back in South Philly!

We kept climbing until we reached the high plateau of Collao, home to several large ranches where llama and vicuna are raised. We stopped at the town of Ayaviri, a livestock and textile center, to enjoy a delightful buffet lunch in a quiet countryside restaurant. We shared lunch with an interesting fellow, a cranberry farmer from Oregon, who was traveling alone and with whom we swapped dog stories (see photo of him at a mountain stop with a couple of native kids; his camera battery died!). Following lunch, we drove across a dusty plain with nothing to see but sad, almost desolate villages, consisting of a row or three of adobe shacks running a quarter of a mile or so along either side of the highway. The only thing remotely interesting was the fact that most of these tan buildings had been used as political billboards in last year’s national elections. Candidates and party affiliation (22 parties fielded a candidate for president in the last election) along with political symbols (an Andean warrior, a two-handle pot, a stallion, a star and many others) were painted on almost all homes, walls and commercial buildings. To make the drive even less bearable, the paved highway ended and we began driving – for kilometer after kilometer – on a dirt/gravel road that rattled our teeth and filled the air with dust. Finally, in late afternoon, we sighted Lake Titicaca and began the winding drive down into Puno, the poorest large city of those we visited in Peru.

Early the next morning, we were picked up at the hotel (another nice Casa Andina) for an unforgettable motorboat excursion on Lake Titicaca with Richard as our on board guide. As we left the harbor, we made our way through pathways of reeds to the unique "Floating Islands" of the Uros, the “Water Tribe,” ancient inhabitants of the lake, who built their own "islands" out of “totora” (Scirpus Totora), a vegetable fiber of the papyrus family, to escape oppression hundreds of years ago. As we found out when we landed on one of these islands, Isla Apu Inti, their homes and boats are also made from this material. The islands actually float and bounce when you jump up and down on them. The islands can expand (when families increase by birth or marriage) by adding new layers of reed; and they can contract (for example, when neighbors fight) by sawing off a portion of the island (or less dramatically, by picking up the house and facing it away from the offending folks)! The homes are primitive, with straw beds and cooking by fire, although we found one home with a TV, powered by a solar panel! And the kids attend floating “one room” schools. We got to ride in one of the fancy reed boats, Barbara feeling a bit like Cleopatra on the Nile! Barbara’s reaction was we had “visited a place that seemed as if it was created by Disney Imagineers!” We shared the experience with a very nice couple, Barbara and Mike from Santa Barbara (if Liz ends up at UCSB she’ll have a family to drop in on!), who were planning to spend that evening living with a native family at our next stop on the tour.

We continued our motorboat trip on Lake Titicaca to Taquile Island, inhabited by natives who speak Quechua, the language of the Inkas, and who developed a socialist community system over many generations. Until recently, everyone in the community shared equally with all others. And then capitalism raised its ugly head. It seems the operators of the few tourist restaurants in the village decided they should retain a greater share because of all of their efforts that were the sources of the largest percentage community income. As a result, individual families have set up “restaurants” to cater to the tourist trade. As you can see in the posted photos, we ate at one of the family homes. The community also is known for its fine hand weaving techniques which we got to see being done up close and personal (Barbara still can’t figure out how they do the intricate weaving!). To get to the village and to most of the homes, it’s necessary to go up a stairway of more than 567 steps - slabs of stone that wind their way among green platforms - to arrive at the Town of Taquile. We took a shortcut that allowed us skip about one-third of the climb up and (most important for Barbara’s knees) down. Walking through the hills and farm and grazing land of the island with beautiful views of the lake was incredibly peaceful and relaxing, a perfect prelude to the two-hour ride back to Puno.

Our first night in Puno, we were leery of walking the streets in search of a restaurant (there was a huge multi-day festival going on and the streets were filled with people, bands, fireworks and the like) so the hotel sent us to its sister facility, the very upscale “Private Collection” Casa Andina resort right on the lake. The dinner was delicious and the setting lovely and we promised to return a second night. But Sunday was the Super Bowl and, lucky for us, it was broadcast in Spanish on ESPN International. So we hunkered down in our hotel room, nibbling on ham and cheese sandwiches, Nachos, candy bars and cerveza purchased from a teeny store across from the hotel and rooted hard for Peyton Manning and the Colts!

The next morning, we left for the Juliaca Airport to board our flight to Lima. On the way to the airport, we visited the famous Chullpas of Sillustani, the stone cylinder burial chambers used by the Aymaras (and the Inkas?) to bury their important leaders. Set on a hill overlooking lovely Lake Umayo, the Chullpas are an impressive sight. An island in the middle of the lake, a sanctuary for vicunas, adds further beauty to the place. Juliaca, a town with a thriving black market tied to Bolivia, is a less attractive place. It has a population of about 100,000 people and there are an estimated 10,000 chalos, motorbike-powered “taxis” that swarm like mosquitoes! Then again, who cared – we were only driving through on the way to the “international” airport (two gates; no ramps). But as we winged our way back to Lima, we got to enjoy our last Inka sunset!

Our final day in Peru was spent on a city sightseeing tour that included the historical center (the Plaza San Martin, Plaza Mayor, the Government Palace, City Hall, the Cathedral and the Church of Santo Domingo), and the convent and Church of San Francisco, a significant complex of colonial art and, something different, underground catacombs filled with human bones seven meters deep (freaked Britzke out!). The highlight of the tour was a visit to the truly beautiful Larco Herrera Museum, for a peek at the best private collection of pre-Columbian art in the country. The museum has many fine examples of textile works (one of which has a record breaking 398 threads per inch); materials and tools used by ancient Peruvians to produce work in ceramics and metal; and pre-Inka and Inka period pottery, gold and silver pieces with semiprecious stones. The niftiest room was filled with pre-Columbian erotica. Examples of every conceivable combination of participants in every position imaginable reinforced the understanding there isn’t anything new about sex!

Our final dinner in Peru, inspired by Pat and Doran Jason, was at the elegant waterside restaurant on the Pacific, La Rosa Nautica, where we were served by a young man who grew up in Miramar and moved to Lima to care for his 80-year old grandmother. A delicious meal in a fantastic location closed out two wonderful weeks in Peru. On to Chile!

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