Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Arequipa.


Arequipa is Peru's best-kept secret. We came for the condors not knowing if we would even be able to see them without committing to a five-day hike into the depths of the Colca Canyon, but discovered there is so much more to this city. 


The bus ride from Puno was billed as six hours and taking off late wasn't the start we were hoping for but the scenery more than compensated. After an hour of dusty roads and extensive half-constructed urban sprawl almost connecting Puno to Juliaca the breath taking scenery emerged. 


Just the day before a Russian tourist, with a note of disgust and disbelief in his voice, had told us this landscape is tundra. All those high school geography lessons came flooding back and I instantly thought, "Well that makes sense."


However it wasn't until it appeared before my eyes that I realized I actually had no visual of what tundra really looked like. 


At first the open, exposed and arid landscape seemed lifeless. It was then I recalled those Köppen climate classification definitions and remembered "no trees but ground covers and low scrub." There was also plenty of barren, open land. 


However, spectacular alpine lakes soon came into view. A variety of bird life hovered above, suggesting plenty of unseen life below. The slopes were dotted with llama, alpaca and vicuña. (Not that we knew that was what the third group were at that point) We saw plenty on the roads, and thankfully they scurried to safety as the heavy vehicles approached. We were also thrilled to see the drivers not only aware but keen to ensure the safety of these placid creatures. 


My perception of a near lifeless desert quickly changed as the variety of landscapes unfolded over the next few hours. Of all the sightings the greatest surprise and delight was certainly several flocks of pale pink flamingos wading in the shallows of alpine lakes. 


By the time we approached Arequipa it was dusk and the volcanoes surrounding the city were bathed in a pale pink glow which intensified and eventually turned the whole sky deep orange much to my complete delight. A journey that had begun badly certainly ended in a spectacular fashion and I was once again reminded by nature that expectation sets you up for disappointment but also unparalleled gratitude and appreciation. 


The "Lonely Planet" claim that Arequipa is Peru's most picturesque city seemed absurd as we crept through traffic in the outer zones of sprawling suburbia but it proved to be totally true when the majesty of the white,volcanic rock structures of the ancient quarter were revealed to us the following morning. 

                           
In the past I have lamented the take over of historic buildings by guest houses, hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops but this time I could see that without them, the structures might fall into the hands of developers and be gone forever. Certainly the ancient quarter of Arequipa is well restored and beautifully maintained. The internal courtyards of many structures serve as outdoor cafes and museums, universities and banks and all manner of other commercial uses abound. Pedestrian friendly zones make strolling the narrow cobbled streets safe and more than once we were encouraged to step inside and view the exhibits on offer in the many tiny municipal galleries hidden away in the courtyards. 


Our day trip to Colca Canyon to see the Andean Condors began at 3am. Although my heart sank when the guide said that sometimes there are none to be seen, I opted to think positively. I focused on the fact that it was a beautiful day and the condors live there so why wouldn't we see them? And we did. 


We marveled at their majesty and despite it being very difficult to photograph them when you are so in awe of seeing them, we both captured a few great shots and felt blessed to witness them in the wild. 


We traversed much of the same landscape as we had journeying to Arequipa and were happy to have our questions answered and a guide who was able to explain in English the significance and protection of the wildlife in this national park region. The vicuña in particular are revered and adored by the locals and there is an abundance of no hunting signs along the roadside. After our hellishly early start we were happy to forgo the sunset to arrive back in Arequipa exhausted but thrilled with the day's sightings at 5pm. 


The next couple of days disappeared sampling the culinary offerings of this cosmopolitan city and walking the cobbled streets admiring the architecture and largely unsuccessfully searching for opportunities to get above the street level to photograph the still active volcanoes, which surround the city. 


All in all Arequipa piqued our interest well beyond the condors which we came to see but without a doubt they were still the highlight of the time we spent here. 


Sitting now in the airport awaiting our flight to Lima, I am more than happy that we decided not to endure the 15-17 hour bus trip back to the capital. 



We certainly feel satisfied with the time spent in the places, we selected for ourselves here in Peru and have seen not only the sights which motivated us to come but a whole lot more. It has been travel at its best with language challenges but world-renowned sights and unexpected experiences and insights too. 


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lake Titicaca and a brief sojourn into Bolivia


After the historic charm of Cusco, arriving in Puno was something of a shock. A few well-preserved and renovated historic buildings exist around the main plaza but far more common is the ramshackle, new construction, which proliferates. It is a typical frontier town with a strong emphasis on economics, trade and contraband. (from Bolivia we were told) I didn’t enquire about what exactly that involved.


 The buildings seem thrown up haphazardly and incomplete. Brick exteriors are neither rendered nor painted and most have rebar (reinforcing rod) poking up above, suggesting the desire to expand just as soon as another sudden financial flush or windfall appears. Even those buildings with little more than a framework constructed are functioning as cafes, homes, stores or other businesses at the street level. Streets cross the seldom-used railway lines without warning and wind into plazas and small parks with no apparent zoning and a mishmash of styles and uses abound.


However is it very clear that this is a determined entrepreneurial community and any service, product or commodity can be acquired here. An extensive market takes over several blocks on Saturday and this was a huge highlight for us. This town has spunk and an attitude that says we are here to survive and thrive not just to pander to tourists. 


When the rambling vendor–filled, traffic-choked streets suddenly open up to the wide vista of the spellbinding view of the shores of Lake Titicaca, it comes as a delightful surprise. The tranquil mirror-like surface of the lake emerges from this confusion and it is obvious why so many local and foreign visitors are attracted to this dusty town. Snow capped mountains stand regally beyond the lake and the clouds seem close enough to touch. If Tibet is the roof of the world then this must be the ceiling.


The shores host birdlife and “totora” (or reeds) grow abundantly along the water’s edge and in the shallower sections of the lake as well. This quiet harbour close to the town has a boardwalk for promenading and private boatman touting their services attempt to compete with the agency run half-day and full day trips out to the famous floating islands and other attractions.



These islands are little more than bales of totora bound together and anchored and then covered with even more cut reeds to create a comfortable if somewhat spongy base. They need constant maintenance and replenishment about every 15 days but this long-standing tradition has survived for centuries. The fascinating life of the indigenous folk, who fled the rule of the Incas to establish themselves as an independent floating community continues today and is on show, with different islands being selected for visits on a rotation basis and the funds generated are shared among the whole community. The tourist dollars acquired through entrance tickets and handicraft purchases are improving the lifestyle and viability of this fragile community but one still wonders how long they can continue their way of life.


Houses, furniture, boats and many daily items on the islands are made of reeds but signs of modernity are creeping in with solar panels providing electricity and exposure to more outside influences establishing a deep desire to send children to the schools, which have now been established on neighbouring islands. We certainly enjoyed our brief visit and would highly recommend the experience.


Seeing the expanse of the lake on this day trip was what confirmed for us that we should at least take a brief trip to the Bolivian side of the lake.


 Being harvest season it was fascinating to see the activity in the rich, fertile fields on the lake’s edge, as we bussed between Puno on the Peruvian side and Copacabana on the Bolivian side. The corn and wheat crops were largely already harvested with stalks standing upright among the stubble but brightly coloured strips of quinoa were still ripening in the sun. Women in colourful skirts were scattered about performing the backbreaking labour required and kestrels hovered above or sat on overhead wires staring attentively at the harvested fields- no doubt contemplating a feed of the mice and reptiles scurrying around below.


Copacabana couldn’t have been less like Puno. The buildings still suffer from that incomplete look but more are rendered and painted and some are even whimsically designed to look like storybook creations. That famous beach in Brazil stole the name of this quiet backwater, which appears to serve no function except as a resort for local and foreign travellers. Cafes, handicraft stalls, restaurants, guesthouses, hostels and hotels line every street.


There are plenty of hiking opportunities along the lakefront or into the mountains beyond but the natural islands nearby are the main attraction here. Isle de Sol and Isle de Luna have ruins and history and indigenous peoples but I’m sure for many, like us, they are simply a way to spend a pleasant day boating on the lake and hiking about enjoying the views and a quiet and peaceful time. We engaged in bird watching and heart thumping climbs to over 4,000 metres just because it was possible.


Having whetted our appetite in Copacabana we then took the plunge and decided another brief detour to La Paz would give us a bit more of a taste of Bolivia and we certainly have not been disappointed. Bustling with activity, sprawling across a huge expanse of valley and hillside and an enigma of poverty and enterprise, La Paz has simply astounded me and posed more questions than it has answered.  




How can public transport consist of cable cars and this be affordable? 



What is it with the bowler hats? Just how many petticoats and skirts does the average Bolivian wear at once? Why are so many school-aged children not in school? 



Why is La Paz an administrative centre, in fact the highest one in the world, but not the capital? What is it with the obsession with pastries, cakes, jellies and other excessively sweet treats? How do those stick-thin skinny jean wearing young girls with their midriffs exposed become the wide hipped bowler hat-wearing mamas? How much corn and bread can a single Bolivian consume? …………..




Without a doubt both cultures have a great number of similarities and we have barely scratched the surface of either. 


The military presence, the propensity for pomp and ceremony, the easy laughter and the colourful vibrant cultural displays, the loud brass bands and the respect and patriotism of the people are common elements.  


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

CUSCO: CENTRE OF THE SACRED VALLEY.


Cusco is one of those quaint little places, where the charm of cobblestone streets and ancient architecture attract huge numbers of tourists. 



The historic quarter and centre of the town is where the action takes place. There is a bustling new sector too but it is the old plazas and alleys, the cathedrals and basilicas and the markets and street life of the city where the fascination lies.


Yes it has vast numbers of hawkers and vendors touting their services in the streets and plazas and beckoning tourists to partake in any number of unlikely or luxury activities, but this what happens when places become tourist havens. I actually like the way this sudden popularity creates innovative and original enterprises, albeit enterprises that are quickly replicated. Cusco is no exception and each person can choses to engage in whatever of it is to their own taste.


There is no point in complaining about the crowds because we are only part of the crowd too from the perspective of others. It is the vast numbers of visitors, which give rise to boutiques, coffee culture, city tour buses, spas, massages, purveyors of spiritual guidance and sacred visions, laundry services, guiding, physically challenging outdoor adventures and cafes, bakeries and restaurants, catering to every conceivable desire or dietary need. 


While the roasted guinea pig isn’t to my taste, the world-class vegan offerings would be possible without the enormous numbers of travellers who frequent this town. I have the same abhorrence for zip lining upside down hanging from my ankles across a valley or bunging jumping, but others are welcome to it. Give me a Sunday market, with vibrantly dressed locals, a whole new range of vegetables, beans and fruit I have never tasted and the new culinary creations such local produce inspires and I am more than happily engaged.



The sacred valley has any number of other bustling towns and villages with ruins, markets and unique cultural practices to offer. We ventured to only two but were more than satisfied with the outcomes.



We were attracted to Chinchero and Pisac for their markets and these day trips could easily have been made into longer stays once we became aware of the facilities and potential for hiking and birding in these towns. We ventured only a short distance from the market place in each location but were able to sight hummingbirds, kestrels, and very active birdlife. Having chosen to travel by car, sharing a picnic lunch with the driver at viewpoints with spectacular views overlooking the Andes and valleys was also an experience we thoroughly enjoyed. 



Even a simple picnic of market fare was well received and once again I realised the power of food to cross cultural and language barriers to make a connection.



 Nonetheless we were delighted to return to the comparative extravagance and luxury of Cusco at the end of each day. We have seen a variety of street performances, public protest over corruption and religious parades, most notably culminating in the Plaza de Armas. At different times of the day it is disconcertingly filled with police, many of whom belong to the riot squad and are armed with shields and riot control equipment. Brass bands play and costumed participants carry enormous crosses through the streets on various days of the week, not only Sunday and the congregations follow or proceed tossing rose petals before the bearers. I do not claim to understand the significance of such events but the spectacle and true devotion of the locals is very evident.




As the jumping of point to Machu Picchu it must attract more travellers than anywhere else in Peru. There is however so much more to the region than that one ancient site albeit the biggest draw card. It was certainly what drew us to Cusco but it was to Cusco we willingly returned and even felt gratified that our stay had to be extended when the bus tickets we wanted were not available for several more days due to the May Day / Labor Day public holiday.


Nothing could prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the Machu Picchu site and I will not attempt to describe it or its majesty.  However, when we left, we decided to return to Agua Caliente on foot despite having prep-purchased bus tickets, because we wanted to savour the experience and the natural environment of the area.  The revelation of the day for me was the humble realization of how small we are as individuals but how mighty our achievements can be in universal terms.  It was a magical day and gratifyingly so when that was exactly what inspired us to come to Peru in the first place. It is without a doubt the main objective of most of the travellers in the region and there are many more who still aspire to make the journey too.



We were instantly taken with the quaint atmosphere and old world charm of Cusco and it permeates the entire region. The longer we have stayed the more it has grown. The practicalities of the steep uphill climbs and winding cobblestone streets and alleys, which accommodate both pedestrians and vehicles, present a daily challenge but no-one would trade that atmosphere for convenience and safety, would they?