, , , , , , , , , , , ,

There are a certain number of must-sees when traveling in Peru. According to the Lonely Planet, some of these sites include Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, the Colca Canyon, and the famous Nazca lines. Considering the outrageous prices for flights from Cusco to Lima, I decided to finish work a week earlier than planned and travel back to Lima by bus, seeing some of these attractions along what has been dubbed the “Gringo Trail.” Now before you say “Wait, didn’t you almost die on a bus going to Cusco already?” let me just say that yes, I did, but the round-about route back to Lima via Puno and Arequipa is far safer than the hazardous mountain road I took before. Besides, I figured that if the Inca gods wanted me dead, they would have finished the job by now. I’d certainly given them enough opportunities.

So on Monday afternoon, I packed my belongings, waved goodbye to South American Explorers, and hopped in a cab for the bus terminal. I had bought my ticket to Puno the day before, and it was for 3 PM. Like everything in South America, buses tend to be late, but now, as I looked at my watch, I was a little concerned that it was already 2:55. Okay, so my laid-back attitude might have been a little excessive. And the traffic sure wasn’t helping.

I paid my driver extra to take me and my heavy suitcase into the terminal parking lot, and rushed inside. By now it was at least ten minutes past three. The lady at the gate told me to go to platform one, granting me a shred of hope. The bus must not have left yet! But as I squeezed my way through to platform one, I found another bus, bound for some city I’d never heard of. I frantically asked the people around me if they knew about a Power bus leaving for Puno, and was met with blank stares. Then someone pointed across the parking lot. “There it goes! I think you missed your bus.” Sure enough, a bus bearing the name “Power” was just turning out onto the street. I swore in English, and the blank stares turned to sympathetic ones. It looked like I might be waiting awhile to get to Puno, with a pocket 25 soles lighter.

As I sulked back towards the terminal proper (as much as one can sulk while hefting a 50-pound suitcase and a loaded trekking pack, that is) an official approached me. The lady at the gate had told him that I was looking for the bus to Puno, and he had good news. The Power bus had not yet departed! In fact… it hadn’t even arrived. It should be here “any minute” he said, which I knew meant “sometime today, probably, or possibly early tomorrow.” Relief washed over me. For once, I was grateful to be on South American time.

The seven-hour ride to Puno was cramped, noisy, and cold. In another stroke of genius, I had stored my fleece with my backpack underneath, so I ended up pulling my arms inside my T-shirt for the little warmth it afforded. On numerous occasions, vendors would climb up into the bus when it made its frequent stops. Curiously, they seemed to be met with either no success or with roaring enthusiasm. When a lady stepped up offering bags of bread, people started yelling and frantically reaching for their purses. As the bread began to run out, passengers in the back started virtually trampling each other to get at the stuff. I just sat quietly and ate my choclo con queso (corn and cheese) that I had bought from the last vendor, thinking I was either blessed with a profound aloofness from the mob mentality or was missing out on some damn good bread.

Needless to say, it was a relief to arrive in Puno, put on my fleece, and get to a hostel with a warm bed. Everyone I knew who had been to Puno had told me that the city didn’t have much to offer, so the next morning I took a cab directly to the docks and looked for a boat out onto the lake. Spanning the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the origin of creation in Inca mythology, and is the highest navigable lake in the world. It certainly was an impressive sight, I thought, as I set off in a little motorboat with about fifteen other travelers plus the local captain. I’d read somewhere that the lake turns everyone into a good photographer. I’ll let you judge the truth of that statement for yourself:

Approaching the Uros Islands.

The Island of Taquile, population of about 2000.

View from the top of Amantani Island, population about 4000.

The first stop was at one of about 40 floating islands, constructed and inhabited by the Uros. Dating back to well before the Inca Empire, the Uros were a peaceful people who sought the isolation of the lake in order to avoid war. They used, and still use, the naturally-growing totora reeds for… well, for just about everything. Boats, houses, the very islands themselves, are all built with these reeds. They can even be eaten, too! (They sort of taste like celery, which, to me, makes the whole business all the more impressive. Can you imagine building a house out of celery?) Tourism has effected the Uros profoundly, and while it has undoubtedly brought them considerable wealth, there are severe downsides as well. I found myself uncomfortable not buying a 5-sol postcard from one lady after she directed me to the bathroom, and every one on the island seemed to see us as walking bags of money (and who can blame them?) I have a deep respect for the 5% of Uru people who choose to have no interaction with tourism whatsoever, thereby losing the material benefits, but maintaining their traditional way of life.

After Uros, we continued for three hours by boat, until we reached the natural island of Amantani. One of the bigger islands on the lake, Amantani is home to about 4,000 inhabitants, who have also become very accustomed to tourism. As a community, they have developed a system of rotation to deal justly with the influx of tourists, most of whom want homestays for a night. I was assigned to a quite but kind hostess, who showed me and another tourist through the terraced fields to her home. The island has no cars and limited electricity, and I can only imagine how peaceful it must be when there isn’t an influx of eager camera-snapping gringos. I slipped away from the crowds as they gathered in the main plaza, and headed up to the Pachamama sacred site at the top of the island. My climb was rewarded with some of the most stunning views I have ever seen, and a sunset I won’t soon forget.

On the boat ride back to Puno the next day, I met three guys from the Basque Country who were traveling with a Taiwanese girl they had met in Cusco. Some would call the Basque Country a part of northern Spain, but you wouldn’t want to around these three. Fierce independistas, they support separation from the Spanish state and the establishment of an autonomous nation, defined by their unique language and culture. I had heard a lot about the Basque Country when studying abroad in Sevilla, mostly in the context of Eta, a Basque group that the Spanish government calls a terrorist organization. But one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and my new friends were quick to inform me of the vile human rights abuses committed by the Spanish state. I guess there’s two sides to every coin.

It turned out the three Basque fellows and the Taiwanese girl were planning on going to Arequipa as well, and they were happy to add an American to their motley crew. Another bus ride (this one shorter and much more comfortable) and we arrived in Arequipa late that night.

Arequipa’s bustling Plaza de Armas.

The second most populous city in Peru after Lima, Arequipa is an economic and cultural hub, bustling with mothers pushing baby trollies, men in crisp business suits, and yes, its fair share of tourists to boot. Its plethora of colonial-era Spanish buildings , constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar, has led to its nickname”La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City), and its famous Santa Catalina Monastery, a beautiful historical citadel, afforded the city status as a UNESCO world heritage site. We had a relaxed first day meandering through the streets, navigating the crowds at the pigeon-infested (and stunning) Plaza de Armas, buying some local goods in the covered market (which was designed by Gustave Eiffel, who also designed a certain tower in Paris), and eating a whopping lunch at a typical picantaria. The heavy Spanish influence in Arequipa is unmistakable, and I found myself reminiscing over my time in Sevilla last Fall. We arranged to leave for the Colca Canyon the next day, and would be gone for three days, which left only two more to see Nazca and the South Coast when I got back. Considering a good chunk of that would be spent sitting on a bus, which God knows, I’d had enough of by now, I searched for some flights, found a good deal, and made a quick decision that would give me two more days in Arequipa, set me back only about $30, and leave my rear end 15 hours less sore when all was said and done. Who wanted to see a bunch of lines in some rock anyway? Nazca could wait until another time.

The town of Cabanaconde is a six-hour bus ride from Arequipa, but worth every minute of it. The Colca Canyon, which is more than two times as deep as the Grand Canyon in the U.S., has features spectacular trekking routes, majestic condors (the world’s biggest flying bird), and even a little town with swimming pools dubbed “The Oasis” at the bottom. I’m sure you’ve all heard enough about my trekking adventures, so I’ll let the pictures do the telling. Suffice it to say that my three Basque friends made excellent trekking partners, and we ended up doing the entire 3-day circuit in only a day and a half, with only minor cases of respiratory problems to show for it. (This was mainly Igor, who smokes like a chimney, and threatened to keep me awake with this hacking cough. But he reached the top of the Canyon before I did, so what can I say?) We arrived back in Arequipa on Sunday night, tired, stinky, and feeling accomplished.

Well, I guess that’s just about all, folks. Tonight, I fly to Lima, then to Mexico City, from there to Washington D.C., and finally, home. It will be a long trip, but at least there isn’t a 23-hour bus ride involved. I feel like I ought to wrap up with some statement about what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed as a person, or something to that effect. But I’ve never been good with grand, sweeping statements, so I’ll just say this: I’ve seen some wonderful places here, met some great friends, had some killer adventures that luckily didn’t kill me, and I’ve learned to prepare a damn good guacamole. Peru, you’ve been good to me. It’s as simple as that. And thanks to you, beloved reader, for joining me along the way.

Just to continue my obnoxious theme of me looking out on spectacular landscapes…

The Santa Catalina Monastery

Arequipa’s cathedral at dusk.

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.”
― J.M. Barrie