Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From Arequipa to Titicaca (hehe!)

I cut off the last blog at Nazca.  After the nausea from the scenic flight subsided, our little group boarded an overnight bus and ended up a few thousand feet higher up in the Andes.  Why can’t I breathe?

A few highlights of my time in Peru… part 2:

Though substantially smaller than Lima, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and one that I wish I had more time to explore.  With only 24 hours to play with, Lenora and I left the group and made our own way around the city on one of my classic “I must see everything” tours.  We started in the Plaza de Armas, where the city’s cathedral takes up one entire side of the square.  It’s the largest cathedral facade in Peru.  Nearby, the Museo Santuarios Andinos houses the famous Juanita – a mummy that was found high up on a mountaintop in the Andes, nearly perfectly preserved by the freezing cold temperatures.  We took the compulsory guided tour and learned about ancient cultures of Peru as well as plenty of details on the mummy herself.  Sadly, no cameras were allowed.  Finally, we hired a guide and walked around the Monasterio de Santa Catalina.  Big enough to be its own little city, the monastery used to house hundreds of nuns and operated for hundreds of years as a convent, school, church, shelter, and more.  A few nuns still live in the compound today, though we didn’t see any.  A short climb up the tower gave us great views of all of Arequipa below.

Outside of Arequipa, on our way to the town of Chivay, we pulled to the side of the road in the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca to view a big ass group of vicuñas – the smallest camelids.  The vicuña is the little cousin of the llama and alpaca, and one of four camelids found in South America (the fourth being the guanaco, the largest of the lot found down in Patagonia).  Vicuñas are not domesticated like llamas and alpacas are, and locals must sneakily corner the animals in order to sheer them for their wool.  This only takes place once per year.  Incidentally, their wool is the finest of the camelids.  This combination makes for an expensive sweater.  A sweater made of alpaca wool could cost $400, but the same one made of vicuña wool would be thousands of dollars.

My highest point ever:
Also en route to the town of Chivay was the highest mountain pass that I’ve ever been over, making it my highest elevation ever.  The Mirador de los Andes rests at a prime 4,910 metres above sea level, or 16,109 feet.  That’s over half of the height at which some commercial airliners fly.  Oxygen levels are low, but luckily I had been on the coca tea that morning, was sucking on my coca candies, and was doing my best to stay hydrated.  Speaking of being hydrated, the Mirador de los Andes is home to the highest toilets in Peru.  That’s one for the record books.  Note:  I didn’t trust them so I didn’t use them.

The little town of Chivay was our base for our visit to Colca Canyon.  We did have a little time to wander around the town, where we checked out their local market full of colourful corn varieties, lots of potatoes, and plenty of dead alpacas ready to be cut up, cooked, and eaten.  Yummy.

Or not.

We went down to the nearby thermal baths for a dip in the warm waters.  It also happened to be the time of year for the largest of the Inca festivals, Inti Raymi, or the festival of the sun, celebrated near or on the summer solstice.  We watched the pre-festival activities and evening procession, though I was sadly too tired to go watch the big celebration and fireworks at night.  The elevation was knocking me out and I needed my sleep for the next day’s early start to…

Colca Canyon:
While not the widest canyon and not nearly as grand as the Grand Canyon, or even the Fish River Canyon that I visited earlier in the trip while in Namibia, Colca Canyon is one of the world’s longest and deepest canyons.  Our group took a short hike along the side, visiting various lookout points, but most of our time was spent at the super-touristy Mirador Cruz del Condor.  Its name comes from the fact that it’s quite easy to see Andean condors at the site.  The Andean condor is the world’s largest flying bird.  We probably saw around ten or twelve different birds which is apparently quite a lot for one day and one spot.  It was a bit unnerving being near them while walking down the paths.  The Andean condor is a scavenger, meaning it eats carcasses of animals that are already dead.  If the birds can’t find a carcass, they have been known to fly into smaller animals (like young cows) on the side of the cliff so that the prey loses its footing and falls to its death in the canyon below, providing some good eating for the shifty condors.  I don’t think they’d likely go after tourists, but still…

Situated down in one end of the canyon, the little town of Maca is mostly deserted.  Devastating earthquakes that haunt the area destroyed the town two times, prompting the Peruvian government to relocate most of the residents to another town nearby.  A few residents refused to leave and remain in the town, taking care of their restored church building (paid for by a donation from the Spanish government) and mostly making their living from tourists who give a few soles to take a photo with a baby alpaca.  I took a selfie with a beautiful five-month-old alpaca named Mateo.  Awwww!

The city of Puno has a few nice plazas and such, and plenty of tourist amenities like restaurants and cafes, but doesn’t really offer much in the way of attractions.  It does, however, serve as the launching off point for the world’s most hilariously named lake…

Lake Titicaca:
One of the world’s largest lakes, and arguably the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca is certainly the funniest sounding lake (hehe!)  It would have been a fantastic day trip from Puno, but sadly turned into an awkward overnighter.

The lake is split between Peru and Bolivia, though we stayed only on the Peru side.  The edges of the lake are full of reeds, and local islas uros (aka floating villages) are built on these reeds.  We took a tour of one of the villages, got dressed up in their traditional garments, and even went for a ride on a traditional reed boat.  The village ladies happily serenaded us with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” after we boarded.  That’s the only English they know.  We also stopped on Isla Taquile, one of the largest islands in the lake.  We did a hike up to the town and had a trout lunch high up on a hill overlooking the lake.

Our final stop was Luquina Chico for our overnight homestay.  Situated on a peninsula that juts into the lake, the local villagers house tourists for a bit of extra cash.  We played soccer with the locals, watched the sunset over the lake, and got dressed up yet again in their traditional garb.  Our little homestay was basic with a family of farmers.  The family grow potatoes and raise sheep.  We witnessed one of their chickens lay an egg.  Exciting!  The family didn’t speak much Spanish (they speak the local Aymara language) so the whole thing was a bit awkward.  We were tasked with helping to herd the sheep in the morning, but seeing as we couldn’t really communicate with their daughter who was in charge of that job, we mostly just watched her.  I asked her a few questions in my basic Spanish, but it quickly became clear to me that my Spanish was far more advanced than hers.  Eeek!

From Lake Titicaca (hehe!) we headed a bit north to the old Inca capital and the current tourism capital of Peru:  Cusco.  More on that in the next installment.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in and around Arequipa and Colca Canyon, follow this link:

To see more photos of my time in and around Puno and Lake Titicaca, follow this link:

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