News from South America 2 - Peru 2

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October 14th 2011
Published: October 14th 2011
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News from South America 2 - Peru 2

Having recently moved from the Amazon Rainforest, we are struck by the diversity of cultures we have already encountered here in Peru. But as yet, we have not discovered the forces that persuaded that Australian lady to give up her home and her husband of thirty years to come here to Peru. Could it possibly be the delightful climate of Arequepa, the remote rainforest of the Amazon basin, the tiny self-sufficient villages set amongst the patchwork fields of the Colca Valley, the unmatched colour and culture of Cusco, the enigma that is Machu Picchu? I really don't know, so let's see what else might have tempted this lady back to Peru.

With due diligence we have managed to avoid an attack of Montezuma's Revenge. Bottled water is cheap and we shun all offers of washed salads unless in the best hotels. That said, we have somehow managed to get nasty colds, caught no doubt from our European companions on buses, trains and aeroplanes. If that's the extent of our troubles, we'll take it on the chin in true British form.

Lake Titicaca
We left you last week in Cusco and now get to travel by bus the eight hours to Puno and Lake Titicaca, out across the seemingly endless and barren high sierra with a wonderful backdrop of the mountains rising over the altiplano. Lake Titcaca, 165 km from end to end, is the highest navigable lake in the world, covering an area of some 8,400 sqkm. And yes, we're high again, at over 3,800m, awaiting more sleepless nights and being exhausted just tying our shoe-laces. Puno offers us the opportunity to visit the Uros floating islands you have doubtless heard about, and Taquile, an island further out across the sparkling Lake Titicaca, looking east towards the white-tipped mountains of Bolivia.

The Uros Islands run like a string of pearls a short way off shore. Built of layered reed on a floating base of reed root, we came ashore from our fast boat to the unsettling feeling of walking on a water-bed or a bouncy castle. The Quechua-speaking Uros people now have their own schools and hospital - and most have a little electricity from solar energy, if only enough to run one electric light and a nine-inch TV in their one-room homes. High school kids have to go into Puno to finish their education, a bonus, as they might get to meet new partners from beyond the generic pool. For the people of the Uros Islands there can be no comparison with their previous lives, fishing dependant on the fruits of the great lake. Today their livelihood is almost entirely derived from tourism and consequently you might imagine a sorrowful culture, saddened by the loss of their heritage. But these are sturdy people, seemingly enriched by change. There are so many smiling faces. Maybe they are just naturally good actors, but they continue with their crafts and now fish just a little, living in small, generally family groups of five or six, amongst the 45 or so islands. The bustling scene is reminiscent of The Grand Canal in Venice as fishing boats ply the waters and reed boats carry tourists from island to island!

Half an hour across the lake we came to the self-governed island of Taquile, so much a Mediterranean pardise set against a clear blue sky, where the men do the knitting and the women the weaving, farmers till the heavy, stony soil with bullock drawn ploughs, working alongside long-skirted women in the fields. They were offered piped water to every house on the island, but the population voted against it, because of the noise from the pumps apparently. And as we observed, water is still carried from the springs on the backs of the women of the Island. When they're not doing that, they're bent-backed in the fields, but they seem happy enough with their lot, self sufficient and content with control of their lives in their own hands and those of The Good Lord, be he Protestant or Catholic. Another delightful image of a hard life to lock in the mind.

All this time and not a supermarket in sight. Perhaps it was this simple life that appealed to our Australian lady. It would certainly not be the bustling schedule we have set ourselves. Off yet again, this time to catch our flight from Juliaca, just outside of Puno, heading south this time, to Arequipa.

Arequipa, the White City, once the reserved enclave of white Europeans following the conquest, but now noted for its magnificent pearly-white volcanic stone, Colonial style buildings. With year round temperatures between 14C and 23C this proud city, set amongst dramatic volcanoes at a mere 2,000m, boasts 360 days of sunshine each year and humidity of 15-20%! I could live with that - though the dry lips and sparks off the blanket on our hotel bed were something else! No comments please.

Having discovered the indigenous people of the Amazon Rainforest, the truly eclectic mix of people in the ever-celebrating city of Cusco, then the beautifully attired folk of the semi-tropical cloudforest in the Inca town of Aguas Calientes at Machu Picchu and the delightful smiling people of the floating islands at Puno, we thought we had seen it all. But at its tourist heart, Arequipa, Peru's second city (pop 1.1m), is a Western city by any other name. And those other names include KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King.... and good coffee served at the table for £1 a cup. Here, there are few indigenous people about; a few hawkers with dolls and paintings and some roadside stalls. Central streets boast fine shops amongst the touristy arcades and smart young things walk high-heeled on spic and span avenues alongside suited gents, delicate Colonial buildings and magnificent churches. I sampled my first alpaca steak whilst in Arequipa - but we both refused to be tempted by the guinea pig on the menu. We had seen it served up to a Spanish family at a table opposite the previous night, seemingly baked whole - complete with head!

The city stands in the shadow of three mighty volcanoes: the iconic, conical Misti, Chachani (6,075m), and Pichu-Pichu. Whilst major eruptions are rare, the tower of the Cathedral has been demolished more than once in recent times. Tremors of varying proportions are recorded every day here, for Arequipa stands slap-bang on the Pacific ring of fire. The earth didn't move for us whilst in the arms of this white city.
'Pedestrian crossings here are purely for decoration', our guide told us. There are traffic lights here and there, but most junctions are free for all; cars, buses and thousands of tiny yellow Daewoo taxis all bustling for supremacy at unbelievable speeds and honking their horns as hard as they can go!
At its heart stands the city square, another Plaza de Armas, its streets swept hourly by smog-masked ladies with brush and pan, white-stone arcades on three sides and the Cathedral on the other. Protesters, upset by government measures to close a special school, had chained themselves to the railings under the watchful eye of the local police. The police and security guards are ever present, friendly and courteous.
Close by is the Santa Catalina Convent, truly a City within a City, where the second daughters of wealthy parents gave their lives to the cause as cloistered nuns - with a little help from numerous servants. The light, so typical of equatorial countries, cast dramatic shadows on narrow alleyways and terracotta buildings within the mighty walls of this most interesting monastery, first opened to the public in 1970.

There is fertile soil in the irregated valleys surrounding the city and as many as three crops per year can be expected: asparagus, peas, paprika, avacado, beans, garlic and carrots. There's also silver and gold up in them there hills, fine quality cement and copper by the ton. At just 2,300m above sea level, we enjoyed our first good night's sleep for the past week. But there is yet more high ground to come over the next few days!

Condors in the Colca Canyon
Our mini-bus took us on a long drive up from Arequipa into the Valley of Volcanoes, a rocky, arid, mountainous, oatmeal moonscape, devoid of trees and dotted with cacti and whispy golden grasses. Here at over 4,000m we saw the dainty, wild and protected Vicuna, skittish, raising dust-clouds as they ran in small groups across the wide open plain. Their relatives, the llamas and alpacas were later spotted in herds grazing on grassy meadowland by the water along the Colca Canyon. They eat alpaca here as you might remember from our earier report. 'Alpaca looks nice, but it tastes even better,' Omar, our guide told us.
Our mission was to reach the Colca Canyon Hotel in time for a brief dip in the natural hot springs, well earned I must say, after a long bumpy ride on unsurfaced roads. The following morning we rose early, back on the minibus, rattling like a bag of beans over yet more unsurfaced roads deep into the canyon. Colca Canyon is more than one mile deep at its deepest and the canyon provides the thermals and prey for the magnificent condor; the world's largest flying bird. Now, that we've got to see!

And see it we did. Not one, but three in fact. Three magnificent condors soaring gracefully overhead for ten minutes or so, wings outstretched, wingtips reaching for the thermals, silent as a glider in the bright, cloud speckled sky, eyeing us up - before moving away into the distance. They didn't return whilst we were there, but we saw what we came all this way to see; that graceful huge bird at close range! If only we could stay all day. Did I hear aother, wow!?
At this point the canyon is quite narrow, but lower down it opens up to a breathtakingly beautiful broad valley scattered with small farming communities working vast terraces and patchwork fields.

One night back at Arequipa and we took the short flight across to Lima where our Peruvian journey began, back to the relief of breathing at sea level, and from there we travelled southwards by bus to the small seaside town of Paracas, literally, 'sandstorm'. The road to Paracas passes through vast stretches of rolling desert, shrouded along the coast in morning sea mist, typical of the whole of Peru's Pacific western rim. On the outskirts of Lima, TV aerials sprout from roofs on lofty sticks, washing flutters on rooftops, red and white in the morning breeze, more and even more rubble and rubbish lining the roadside, political grafiti, shanty towns covered in a lifetime of grey dust, market stalls busy with morning customers, and on into the countryside of irregated agricultural fields, smallholdings, and fruit growing on a commercial scale - to the sunshine that is Paracas, set amidst the desert of rolling, camel-like humps on the Pacific shores. Our rather luxurious hotel is an oasis of blue pools, a graded sand beach and fine dining, surrounded by brown, barren desert stretching up to 55 km inland in places. Much of Paracas has been rebuilt since the earthquake of 2007 and
posh new hotels have been constructed in Spanish Costa style, with pools and palms, to house the growing tourist flock and the wealthy folk from Lima a couple of hundred miles to the north. A cool breeze driven by the Humboldt current wafts the morning sea mist from the sandy shore by midday, bringing welcome sunshine for those who brave the pool.

The Nazca Lines
If it's really a beach holiday you want, there's seemingly a million square miles of it here in the Atacama Desert as we discovered on our flight over the Nazca Lines, those mysterious lines of rocks embedded in the dunes left by ancient peoples around 300BC; the humming bird, the monkey, whale, heron, astronaut, parrot, condor...... and trapezioids galore. The 12 seater Cesna Grand Caravan flight lasted one and a half hours, circling and tilting its wings like the soaring condors for us to see these strange ancient monuments of some considerable size close up - the monkey for example, is some 110m long. Just one more small part of Peru's magical jig-saw, another corner.
There was another pasenger on our flight, a young man from Virginia. 'You remind me of someone,' he said as we walked across the tarmac to the plane. 'Spartacus, that's it. Has anyone told you that before?' I'm insulted. I might be old, but do I really look 2,000 years old?

The Ballestos Islands
Half an hour offshore from Paracas lie the Ballestas Islands, totally irresistable for those with wings - and those who are eager to see them. There are many thousands of birds filling the sky in great skeins here, squawking, weaving and diving all around us, our heads throbbing with excitement, binoculars at the ready, cameras blazing. Red-legged cormorants, Guanay cormorants and Neotropics, the fleet of winged, elegant Inca terns, Turkey vultures soaring, Peruvian boobies and pelicans diving, sea lions lounging on the rocks - and surprisingly, this close to the equator, the Humblodt penguin! There are so many birds on the Ballestas Islands they commercially collect the guano in great black sacks to ship to shore for fertiliser. Once upon a time there was a fortune to be earned from the stuff - where there's muck there's brass as they say! We're smiles all round as you might expect - except the one lady with her head in a plastic bag as the boat rides the rolling waves back to Paracas.

Our busy schedule left us little time to explore Lima. 9 million people crammed into the grey anonymous face of a city by the ocean bearing only the monuments of the past. Yet Peru has shown us a country of such drama, diversity and contrast to delight any visitor. We have truly loved this magical experience. There is colour everywhere, from the rainforest of the Amazon to the mighty Andes and this misty Pacific coast. It begs us to ask the question, 'Who in Peru has the better life? Where and how would you choose to live?' For everywhere, people have shared a warm, polite welcome which we shall treasure. That said, it's been a tough experience for us, living out of a suitcase and waiting around in airport lounges, one we are far from accustomed to, being free spirits; simple, laid-back motorhomers, at heart.

There are so many memories of Peruvian life for us, but we remain unsure what led our Australian lady to change her life. Personally, I think it must have been the handsome tour guide with the dark and flashing eyes.

With that it's time to say, 'Adios, Peru.' For tomorrow we will be in Quito, Ecuador, to start yet another adventure.

David and Janice
The grey haired nomads

Additional photos below
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14th October 2011
Uros Islands

Panorama possibilities?
Wot no panoramas? Okay, we'll let you off as you're in the rain forest but, when you're back to the Suffolk forest, there'll be no excuse!
14th October 2011

Little wonder you're knackered!
Too much to see, too little time - it's a good job you're only visiting Peru and Ecuador. P.S. Hope you received my email about the missing card.

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