Back on the oxygen - but it's worth it!

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November 19th 2015
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -15.8422, -70.0199

San Pedro de Atacama to Lake Titicaca, Peru. 10 - 18 November 2015

San Pedro proved a relaxing place to stay. We went on a night star gazing activity. It was interesting, providing a 20 minute talk about what we might see, then looking through telescopes and binoculars. We had a number of constellations pointed out to us such as Scorpio, Sagittarius, Aries, Aquarius, Taurus and Pisces. The two presenters kept saying we had to use our imaginations to 'see' these and that was definitely true! I believe it was the Babylonians who originally devised the Zodiac signs to identify constellations. They must have been using very special substances if they could 'see' the shapes as they described. For me the best view was of the binary star system, Antares. They are two stars very close together but one is orange and the other a bluey white. That is the first time I have seen colour in the stars.

The days passed quietly apart from a dog incident. As I walked across the garden of our Lodge the resident dog started snapping around my legs. I called for help and the young female receptionist (all the staff are part of the family) came to rescue me, laughing at my predicament. She assured me it was only a young dog and wanted to play. As she said, "it would not hurt anybody". The next day Jim and I were sitting on the wall by reception (the best place for wifi) talking to Anna on Facetime when the dog arrived again. It was snapping at Jim's legs, then it picked up a stick in it's mouth to play but would not let him take the stick to throw. Instead it started jabbing Jim with the stick, honestly! Anna wondered what was going on. We retreated into reception where the same young woman laughed again but clearly thought we were weird. Eventually it left and we made our escape. However the next day as we sat on the shady wall again we heard the young receptionist shouting. She was in the same spot where the dog first harrassed me and it was doing the same to her, except it became more and more aggressive. At first she was laughing, then as it started biting with more intent she called for her brothers who ran out and grabbed the dog but by this time it had shredded the bottoms of her trousers and must have caught her legs beneath. She ran off, as white as a sheet and was clearly very shocked.

When it was time to leave we took another night bus to Arica near the Chilean border with Peru and then took a taxi across to Tacna, the Peruvian border town where we passed an uneventful night. The next day we were able to take a day bus for a change to Arequipa, back up in the mountains. The first couple of hours were spent crossing the most dismal and dreary flat stone desert I have ever seen. After that we started to climb and it became more mountainous and interesting. The reason for going to Arequipa was simply to break our journey to Puno (3,800 metres high) where we wanted to visit Lake Titicaca. We needed somewhere at an intermediate height to adjust as much as possible. We passed only one small dusty and ramshackle town during the six hour journey across mountain deserts and then we reached Arequipa.

Like all the large cities we have seen in South America, Arequipa (Pop: about 1 million) spreads outwards over a huge area in a messy, dusty, urban sprawl of unfinished brown brick buildings but when we reached the centre we were amazed. It is stunning. The buildings in the square mile around the main plaza are built of white Sillar rock, a volcanic rock mainly comprised of silica and quarried locally. The Cathedral is huge and takes up the whole of one side of the Plaza. It has been damaged a number of times by earthquakes but proudly repaired immediately. The three other sides consist of two storied cloistered walkways housing the Municipal buildings and shops and restaurants. The centre of the square provides a park like area with lots of flowering shrubs and palms trees. The backcloth to the Cathedral is a couple of snow-topped volcanoes.

The are 2 main attractions apart from the central Plaza area. The first is the Museo Sanctuarios Andinos which has only one subject matter, a fourteen year old girl, 'Juanita', or the 'Ice Maiden'. In 1995 a volcano erupted next to the nearby mountain Ampato. The heat from the ash melted snow on Ampato that had been there for centuries. An American archaeologist together with a local guide climbed to the peak to look for Inca
Entrance from Novice cloister to Graduate cloisterEntrance from Novice cloister to Graduate cloisterEntrance from Novice cloister to Graduate cloister

From this point on the Graduates (but not nuns yet) had to respect the Silence rule.
relics before the snows fell again. They found a burial site, and eventually 3 mummified bodies of children that had been sacrificed. The Incas believed that the mountains were gods who needed appeasing in order to prevent them from getting angry and exploding! The ultimate sacrifice was a child. It took days for the explorers to carry the bodies carefully down the mountain together with the artefacts discovered alongside the bodies..

The Museum visit starts with a 20 minute National Geographic video about this exploration, then there is a display of artefacts from the site and finally you come face to face with the mummified body of 'Juanita', who was sacrificed and then remained frozen on the mountain top for hundreds of years. She is now eerily preserved in a special glass refrigerator. In a way she has now achieved immortality in her own museum. The video described just how difficult it must have been for the Inca priests to climb the mountain and to take children up to the top, although historians have very little real evidence about how this was done or how the children died, whether they were given drugs and left to freeze on the mountain top or slain.

A number of similar burial sites have been found on other Andean peaks.

The second site of interest in Arequipa is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Called a monastery it was really a convent founded in 1580 by a rich widow, Dona Maria de Guzman. It was almost a town within a town as it covered 20.000 square metres, protected by high walls and consisting of 3 main cloisters, one for novices, one for graduate novices (the Orange Cloister) and the Great Cloister which is bordered by the chapel and refectory together with streets, gardens and utility areas. I was surprised to find that some of the cells are in fact large! The nuns built their own cells, had their name above the door, and could sell on their cells to other nuns. Their comfort level depended upon individual wealth. Novices had to pay 'dowries' to enter the Monasterio and their progress also reflected their financial status. There was a rule of silence, very limited contact with the outside world, and a requirement to reflect and meditate for 2 half hours each day. The nuns main purpose was to help sufferers in purgatory. It would be quite a challenge to produce performance measures to assess their success! They also had servants to look after them if they could afford it. At one time a Bishop felt their lifestyle was inappropriately luxurious and he tried to curtail their activities and impose more rules such as limiting servants to one per nun. The nuns became quite militant about these proposed restrictions and opposed them successfully to the point of getting the Bishop sacked!

At this point in our exploration of the Monasterio I was beginning to think it was quite a nice lifestyle, especially for that time, and perhaps I could have been happy living there but then I came across the display of hair shirts and barbed wired underwear. I am not sure how many nuns felt the need to punish themselves in this way but Santa Ana, a nun who has been beatified was well known for her self imposed suffering.

We spent a couple of days just walking around the centre enjoying the buildings. There is a Jesuit church which unfortunately we could not visit as it is being renovated but the adjacent cloisters are made of beautifully carved sillar and are now one of the most elegant shopping parades
Formal room for dignatories.Formal room for dignatories.Formal room for dignatories.

The Mother Superior would meet important guests such as the bishop in here. They were not allowed access further into the Monasterio.
I have ever seen. The Plaza always provided entertainment. There were 2 demonstrations on different evenings, one being so small that it petered out before it had completed the full circuit of the square. Brides and grooms seemed to enjoy a perambulation with their friends and we even watched a guide/scout meeting take place for a couple of hours with about 30 young people sitting in a circle on the pedestrianised road. Indigenous ladies wander around with baby Alpacas in their shawls waiting for tourists to take photographs. Life is lived in the Plaza.

Arequipa is 3 hours drive from Colca Canyon where we went to see Condors flying. It was a fascinating sight to see them rise up from below us in the canyon as the sun warmed up and created thermals. Condors rarely use their wings and just ride the air currents. Unfortunately there are always lots of people there at the Cruz del Condors lookout as the spectacle happens at the same time most days. The majority of the people seemed more pre-occupied with trying to take photographs of themselves in increasingly precarious positions on the rocky edge of the canyon than in observing the Condors.

In the late
When a nun died their portrait was painted in hereWhen a nun died their portrait was painted in hereWhen a nun died their portrait was painted in here

They could not have portraits painted whilst alive!
1400s over 800,000 Incas lived in the upper Colca valley and they terraced the land wherever possible to increase agricultural production. Most of the Incas from this area were wiped out in wars with the Spaniards. Two other indigenous groups live there who have been hostile towards each other, the Cabanas and the Collagua. It used to be possible to identify the groups by the shapes of their heads as they both performed cranial deformation. One group compressed the heads of babies sideways, usually from birth to 3 years old. This produced an elongated 'raised' skull whereas the others put pressure on the top of the head so that their faces became flat and wide. Nowadays the only way to tell the difference is that the woman wear the brims of their hats in different positions. Seems a much more sensible strategy.

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from Arequipa we made our way to Puno. It is 3,800 metres high so we are only staying 2 days in order to visit the Uros Islands, then we are going to move downhill quickly.

17 November Lake Titicaca

We had a lovely day today in a boat on Lake Titcaca visiting the Uros Islands and Taquile. The Uros are the islands that are built of reeds, and the houses and boats are built of reeds too, however we did see signs of motorboats, solar panels and satellite dishes so even on the reeds technology is making life a little more comfortable. There is no rubbish to be seen anywhere and the water of the lake is crystal clear. We were given a demonstration of how an island is constructed. First, large chunks of reed roots are cut into square blocks. They have a lot of air in them so are very buoyant. They are tied together and anchored in the lake. Next, they are covered with layers of long bunches of reeds which are laid one way and then at right angles the other way until they reach a height of a metre. The houses have a 'foundation' of more roots to make them more waterproof and raise them off the criss-crossed reeds. It did take a few minutes to adjust to walking on loose reeds. The reeds deteriorate gradually and all of them have to be replaced after 11 to 12 months.

The people were very friendly and happy to show us around their houses. Tourism is now one of the main occupations on the Lake but it did not feel too 'touristy' or contrived as these visits sometimes do. Our guide explained that by the age of 40 most Uros Islanders suffer from Rheumatism but in fact their life expectancy is 80 years which is higher than the rest of Peru. They chew the bottom of the growing reeds as this provides iodine which prevents goitres.

We continued on across the Lake to Taquile Island which is completely different. It is a largish island where agriculture is important and surprisingly the people wear traditional clothing from parts of Spain, particularly Andalucia and the Catalan area. We had a lovely lunch whilst being serenaded by a man playing the guitar and pan pipes. They have the pipes fixed in place around their necks so they can play both instruments and sing too! After a long walk across the island we returned to the boat and then back to Puno.

Last night was the first night back at altitude and I was back on the oxygen. We both felt well but I was unable to sleep until I had had 2 sessions and then I managed 3 hours of sleep. I am hoping tonight will be easier as I am going to start the oxygen earlier rather than trying to get to sleep without it first.

Tomorrow we drop back down to 2,500 approximately so that should resolve the problem. Then it is on to Machu Picchu. I will say more about tht in the next blog.

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22nd November 2015


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