Friday, January 28, 2011

Our summer in Peru

January 27, 2011
January 11th was the last time either of us wrote on the blog and at the facebook request of Claire I am trying to correct our two week absence. What have we been doing for the last two weeks? - Everything. We took a bus from Lake Titicaca to the amazing city of Cusco. Cusco cannot actually be described very easily. It is a city of contrasts, its streets cobbled with myth and conquests and at one time gold. The city sits in a valley and the surrounding hillsides are terraced, as is much of Peru, for planting thousands of different types of potatoes and one type of corn. These terraces are not new: they were there when the Spanish entered the city in 1533 and they were there when the 1st Incan, Capac, found the “navel of the world” and claimed the area as the capital of his empire. These green terraces starkly contrast the grey stones that were chiseled to sit perfectly, one on top of the other, by the Quechua people for the Incans. (Incan means king and so only the kings were Incans everyone else was Quechua, which is the name of the language many still speak) In the city you can walk down narrow streets that the Incans once walked down.  These are also the same streets that Pizarro and his men marched on. Every building you enter is an archeological site. Sitting in a pizzeria one day I noticed that the wall was obviously Incan because it too had perfectly cut stone and these stones were marked with numbers that the owner had left after the archeologist marked them. Also, in this ancient capital city, you can watch women and little girls walk around leading Llamas behind them...animals very out of place in the urban landscape. This can all be seen while sitting on the steps of Cusco’s cathedral which was built on top of an Incan palace. So Cusco is pretty much amazing and it’s not even the primary attraction.
Machu Picchu…. “Discovered” in 1911 by a professor from Yale, Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacular sites on this continent. I would argue that it is more amazing than the Acropolis in Athens. I guess Athens is never hard to beat however, since it smells like urine. Anyways, Machu Picchu is frakin’ cool. Buffy and I didn’t have time to actually hike the Incan trail and we had heard that we wouldn’t want to anyways so we took a train from Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes.  Aguas Calientes really only exists to support the tourism of Machu Picchu. It sits at the base of four VERY large mountains, the top of which you can only see on the sunniest of days. This town is also flanked by a rushing brown river that is part of the end of the Amazon. We stayed one night there and then took a bus up the winding trail to the “lost city of the Incans”. This drive is splendid. From the bus you can see waterfalls, forests and mountain tops and as you get closer to the ruins you start to see the marks of a lost empire. Once we actually got to the site its size and grandeur were immediately visible.
In 1911, Hiram Bingham, the archeologist credited with the discovery, was apparently pissed off about the discovery of Machu Picchu (as he was looking for someplace else entirely). But in following years he began to excavate and quickly recognized the significance of this site.  It is literally a city on top of a mountain. The Incan priest or king who built the site took great pains to build it here. It is linked by an Incan road (just a sliver of an immense highway that stretched from present day Chile to Ecuador) and by bridges that were built along cliffs. There are many impressive buildings on this site as well as astronomical carvings and niches for worship (maybe for mummies). We spent about eight hours just walking around and being truly amazed. Also at Machu Picchu you can look at Llamas and we were extremely lucky because the night before we arrived, a sacred black Llama was born, and three days earlier a tri-colored one. They were both pretty cute and frolicking like baby Llamas do.
After Cusco and Machu Picchu, Buffy and I took another 21 hour bus ride to Lima. We had heard from fellow travelers that Lima was barely worth a stop and not to stay for more than a day, but we found it to be pretty cool and interesting. Lima is now the capital city of Peru and has been since 1535 when Pizarro made it so. But the city was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid 18th century and so all of the colonial architecture is less than three hundred years old-yawn. Just kidding. The city has some cool museums and we went to the most fascinating one yet- Museo Larco may be the most fascinating because of its large collection of ancient erotic pottery. J We spent a few days in Lima recuperating from travelers fatigue and enjoying the oxygen (we’d been at over 14,000 feet for weeks by that point) and then we headed north towards Ecuador.
On our way to Ecuador we stopped in a little town called Trujillo, which is not so little. Named after Pizarro’s hometown in Espana, Trujillo has colonial architecture dating back to the 1500’s. Trujillo is also surrounded by the remains of civilizations predating the Incans. The Moche and the Chimu were two cultures that built great pyramids and palaces using adobe. When we first arrived in Trujillo I was not too interested in these adobe ruins, having played in my fair share back home, but these sites proved to be remarkable-and a must see for any of you planning a trip to Peru. These ancient ruins made up the largest adobe city in the world back in 1300 c.e. And the sand and adobe served to preserve paintings and other important archeological artifacts that a visitor can see and take photos of. It is really difficult to describe the awesomeness of a 14 story building made of adobe. I really cannot do it justice.
Hanging out around Huanchaco, the fishing/surfing village we stayed in north of Trujillo, I discovered Papas rellenas! So… these things are amazing!!!! What they do is take a potato and mash it and then stuff it with meat or a hardboiled egg or veggies or all three and then they fry it! Now this process can be done entirely by a little old lady with a baby strapped to her back at a stand attached to a bicycle. And I love it! But I also pay for it each time since my puny American stomach flora can’t handle street food. But I’m working on that by eating as much as I can and spending everyday sick!

Anyways we left Peru after only a few weeks but what feels like a lifetime and rode three more buses for a total of 26 hours to Cuenca! We spent most of our three days in Cuenca sick in bed so not a lot to report there but now we are in Quito! I also don’t have a lot to say about Quito since we just got here about 15 hours ago but will report more in the future. What I can say is that you can buy a three course vegetarian meal including a drink for $2 and so I’m a bit in love.
Eating street food in Peru!
Street vendor express!

Terraces and fields around Cusco

Black Baby Llama chillin in Machu Picchu

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

11 Jan 11-Lake Titicaca

These last few days we’ve been exploring the fabled Lake Titicaca, the mythical origin of the Incan people and, at about 13,000 ft above sea level, the highest lake in the world.  We went on a 2 day tour that explored several islands in the Peruvian side of the lake (the lake sits on the Peru/Bolivia border). 
First, we visited Islas Flotantes, one of over 60 floating islands.  These floating islands are man-made from reeds that grow in the lake.  Legend has it that locals constructed the islands and set out to sea in order to isolate themselves from aggressive Incas, who spent 100 years violently conquering and subjugating western South America.  These islands are trippy!  They are constructed of several layers of reeds that float on the lake’s surface.  The islands last about 30 years each.  They are constantly decomposing, so they smell a bit and they are squishy!  Walking on the island is kind of like walking on top of a mattress...a little unstable.  The houses are also made out of reeds and last about 10 years, and their boats are made out of reeds and last about 5 years.  There are little garden plots in some sections, and they place their stoves on top of rocks so that they don’t set fire to the island.  Smoking on the islands is strictly prohibited for the same reason!  Honestly, this part of the tour was over touristy….a little short on interesting information and a little long on efforts to squeeze a few more bucks out of visitors, but still good.  Also, I really liked seeing all of the solar panels outside the houses…technology at work!  Jynene and I got to hear a few of the local boys speak Quechua, which is the pre-Columbian Andean language.  The boys were going out on a trip in their canoe to hunt flamingos with these crazy looking hunting rifles.
Then, we visited the real earth island Amantani.  This island is very rocky and hilly, and is inhabited by 4,000 people split among 10 villages.  There are no cars or hotels on the island, and the people mostly speak Quechua and wear traditional clothing (seen in pictures below!).  Also, there is no church on the island because they were never converted to Christianity!  They still worship their ancestral deities.  This is really cool to me because I have never visited a community that maintained its original non-major religion.  First, all of us gringos climbed up to the top of one of the peaks on the island.  This was extremely difficult because of the altitude: we climbed from about 13,000 feet to 13,700 feet.  It was tough!  But the view was worth the effort.  Jynene played a game of soccer before the climb, because she is un poco loco en la cabeza.  From the peak we could look over the entire island, which is all hills, but the local community has cut terraces into the entire island to create farm land.  It’s really amazing looking and must have taken hundreds of years to terrace the entire island.  Also, the two peaks of the island correspond to the two places of worship, Pachatata and Pachamama (Father and Mother Earth).  So we got to visit the temple of Pachatata at the end of our climb.  We learned a little bit about the way of life on the island: There are 10 villages, and each village is responsible for growing one or two types of crops.  For example, a few villages will grow potatoes, a few will grow quinoa, a few will grow oca, a few will grow coca (although the source plant of cocain, coca is locally grown for use in tea/medicine and religious ceremonies and is not a narcotic here).  I don’t mean that it’s just not considered a narcotic, I mean it’s actually not a narcotic but is just like any other tea leaf and is good for treating altitude sickness and other ailments.  The 10 villages pool their produce and rotate crops.  Inside the 10 villages, the fields are communally owned and farmed.  Once a year each year, everyone on the island journey’s to the top of one of the two peaks, Pachatata or Pachamama, 5 villages to each peak, for a day of worship and prayer and communion with the heavens.  All of us tourists got to stay with a local family and share meals with them.  We ate quinoa soup and rice and eggs and potato and pasta.  The islander’s aren’t very well off and so can’t provide meat.  They did, however, dress us up in their traditional garb and bring us to a local dance.  See pictures for more on that!
The next day, we went to our last destination, the island Taquile.  Here is where the trip fell apart- a bit.  Our tour guide had partied that night before on the island and was still intoxicated in the morning.  He gave us curt instructions about what to do on the island in garbled Spanish/English/Quechua that none of the 30 of us tourists understood.  But we made our way from the port to the main square, had lunch, and walked to the other port on the other side of the island where the boat picked us up.  As the boat pulled up to the docks on the mainland and the tour was about to end, this tour guide suddenly woke up and started telling us about the island of Taquile, about 4 hours too late.  A few of the folks on the tour called the company and complained, and Jynene and I got a call at our hostel asking us to confirm the complaints about the tour guide. And apparently that guide no longer works for the company.  As annoying as it was that our guide didn’t do his job, it was good for a laugh.
So here we are, sitting in our hostel in the mainland, reflecting on our fun and interesting exploration of Lake Titicaca.  Tomorrow, we head to Cuzco, the heart of the Incan Empire!

The reeds that make Islands


Friday, January 7, 2011

Chasing Dakar-Or rather being chased by Dakar!

January 7, 2011
Today we are in Arica, Chile and I am sick. Damn. Buffy had a super cold for the last five days and so now I fear I will have to suffer as she did over the next few days. I have to say I was quite happy with my immune system as I watched her cough and sneeze. But now I know I was premature in my thinking and believe I will endure more suffering as a result of my pride. L On the bright side Dakar (an international race through Argentina and Chile) finally caught up with us, after trailing us through two countries and five cities. So today we will hang out, in this border town, long enough to see the racers pass by and snap a few photos to make my uncle’s, back in the states, happy. Our goal is to see Dakar, get lunch, hop across the border, get a bus and arrive in Arequipa, Peru by nightfall. Is it possible –likely not since we’ve had absolutely no success with border crossings up to this point.
Last week we camped out in La Quica, Argentina for five days hoping that the crisis sparked by a 70% hike in gasoline prices would quell in time for us to go to La Paz, Bolivia. In the end we didn’t go to Bolivia because there was no public transportation, $130 visa, and a chance that we would have to turn around and dart back to Argentina. It was sad as both of us have been dreaming of Bolivia since we started this trip.
Because of the Dakar race getting back to Salta, Argentina from the Bolivian border (south of La Quica) was difficult as was getting out of Salta and across to Chile. We travelled for many hours in a cramped SUV to cross the desolate border of Chile/Argentina in the west and arrived in San Pedro de Atacama on January 4th.
San Pedro, Chile was a pretty cool little tourist destination with a beautiful adobe/cactus church and an archeological museum founded by the town’s priest in the 1940’s. We had vegetables for the first time in many weeks (Argentina is famed for their steaks) and a nice, albeit expensive sleep. The town is overlooked by an impressive volcano and we were able to see quite a few of the pit crews for the Dakar teams.
We arrived in Arica, a surfer’s paradise, on the 6th after another daunting overnight bus through the desert. However, Arica (a town bordering Peru) has turned out to be very nice. In the 1880’s a famous architect for Paris by the name of Eiffel stopped here long enough to build a beautiful church.And again we get to see the crew pits for the Dakar team’s storm though the city. We stayed at Tres Soles Hostel where the owner’s family has taken very good care of us and we FINALLY had a proper breakfast. So now I am sitting at that hostel waiting for breakfast number two!!!! Buffy is doing math and I am angry that now it’s my turn to be sick but looking forward to breakfast, Dakar, Peru and the next six weeks of our trip!
Office of Priest/Anthropologist of S.P de Atacama
Border of Argentina and Chile

Dakar Dudes
Church in Atacama

Eiffel's Chrurch