The Valley Temple and Osireion: Echoes of a Bygone World Culture?

Seeing is believing.

It was deja vu all over again, as a famous American Yogi once said. I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gigantic stones in ways that we can’t explain.

Here’s where current thinking becomes unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we think of historical engineering achievements relative to our own, that technology evolved from simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology in a linear fashion. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?

And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.

The Valley Temple and Osireion are such examples.

Valley Temple of Khafre

The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s provenance is the famous statue of him, now in the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock, is wondrous in itself.)

Statue of Khafre, Cairo Egyptian Museum

This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty, claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple (the pyramids are not mentioned) were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. Some dispute its claim, complicated by the fact that it was written roughly 2,000 years after Khafre. If it is true however, the temple’s construction would be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.

Inner courtyard, Valley Temple of Khafre

Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, its physical characteristics are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Physical evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were molded onto the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. This type of dressing is quite similar in technique to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s roughly cut limestone core blocks.

Note the limestone layer at the top and granite walls below.

In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels that define the temple’s core structure.

The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.

Aswan red granite casing stones

Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are shaped like parallelograms, others are notched, yet others curve around corners at right angles.

Note notching on second large granite block from the bottom and corner block above it. An upper stone is a parallelogram.
A closer look

I stood there in amazement. What could possibly be the reason for manufacturing stones with odd dimensions? Some say it was for earthquake-proofing. Maybe so. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.

The Osireion

The Osireion, which we visited several days later, is a complex directly behind the Temple of Seti I in Abydos. It is currently regarded as a cenotaph for Osiris. It’s striking that it has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise was submerged in water for a time. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. It used to be roofed over by two rows of thick granite stone slabs, before they collapsed, were removed by stone robbers or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe, damage that was curiously spared Seti’s temple.

I was disappointed that visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.

Peru Connection?

Both the Valley Temple and Osireion reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. There are similar examples all over the world. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to have reverberated across the ocean.

Pisac, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco (Peru)

And, for good measure:

Megalithic blocks, Japan (screen capture from YouTube)

What the Nub is Going On?

The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.

Pyramid of Menkaure (image from Pinterest)

One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.

The stones on the rear wall have nub protrusions (image from

What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Ollantaytambo (Peru)
Stonework, including the famous 12-sided stone, Cusco (Peru)

No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. They are a complete mystery. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Rather than a design element, they must be the by-products of an undiscovered process?

What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stones in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia.

Stone nubs, Bulgaria (screen capture from YouTube)

Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that was lost long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it appears.

Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. They probably are Old Kingdom works, but they could conceivably be older. Nevertheless from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of advanced knowledge and technologies that were sophisticated beyond measure.

The Amazing, Colossal Sanctuary of Ollantaytambo

Streets in the old part of Ollantaytambo are narrow, cobble-stoned, inaccessible to cars and trucks. Along one side, water flows in ancient Inca canals, still used today, no more than a foot wide. Quechua is spoken more than Spanish. Life goes on here as it has for centuries. There is no indication that less than a half mile away, a crush of tourists descend everyday on the railway station to board trains for Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that Ollantaytambo has some of the most impressive megalithic ruins in the world.

Water canals line one side of the streets in old Ollantaytambo

That Ollantaytambo lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu is why it gets short shrift by tourists who’d rather spend their time at those popular destinations. A shame really because Ollanta, which locals call it for short, has its own important history and architecture. The town used to be the royal estate of emperor Pachacutec. It was here in 1537 that during the Inca rebellion, Manko Inka Yupanqui defeated an invading Spanish army led by Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s half-brother. Like a spectacular movie battle scene, volleys of arrows, slingshots, spears and stones rained down on the Spanish troops from high terraces and water flooded the valley that the Incas somehow diverted from Rio Urubamba. Despite the historic battle, Fortaleza de Ollantaytambo had more than a defensive purpose.

This was the first town in Peru where my wife and I stayed last year (2016), following the Amazon rain forest. Like all tourists, we were here to take the train to Machu Picchu. Still, I was also looking forward to spending a day to see ancient megalithic ruins that some regard as the equal of any in the world. No matter where we walked, The Fortress, as it’s sometimes called, loomed over the entire town.

The first thing I noticed was the impressive terracing (andene) that looks from the bottom like one side of a gigantic stepped pyramid, an illusion of perspective. Andenes are one hallmark of Inca engineering.

Terraces at Ollanta

A long stairway on the left side leads to the top. From anywhere along the climb, it’s easy to see why researchers think they served some agricultural purpose, much like the terracing at Moray; the surfaces are broad, deep and flat. Because they’re oriented toward the sun, it’s believed that the terraces were solar energy collectors to provide heat for crops, long after the sun set. Not only that, the resulting microclimates made it possible to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa at different altitudes.

Did the Incas use these terraces for agricultural purposes? Note their scale relative to people.

Near the top, we turned left to a stairway that led past incredible stonework that I saw time and again in Peru. Immense, polygonal stones were fitted together with such precision that no mortar was necessary. This section contains The Ten Niches (Diez Hornacinas). Why go to so much trouble to build a ‘fortress?’ The complex must have served more important ceremonial or astronomic functions.

Stones are fitted so tightly that a razor can’t be inserted in the seams. These have rounded edges.

Some edges are beveled (bottom, left). The planar surfaces are amazingly flat.

Why are these stones so non-linear? The enigmatic ten niches (Diez Hornacinas) are to the left and in the topmost image.

The much-photographed portal

Look at the precise vertical cuts in this joinery.

The Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) is the site’s stunning architectural achievement. Monoliths weighing up to 50 tons and rising 15ft (4.6m) high form a six-section wall made of pink granite (rhyolite), transported from the Cachicata quarry 4mi (6km) away, each stone separated from its neighbor by shim-like inserts. Again, the seams are unimaginably tight. How were these stones brought here across the 1000-ft (300m) deep Urubamba river valley and dressed so beautifully? These are not the handiwork of Bronze Age tools.

Temple of the Sun (image from Note the chakana pattern and the smoothing marks as if the surfaces were wet concrete.

The wall might have once been part of a larger structure. Where’s the rest of it? I noticed the ground nearby littered with other gigantic pink stones. Some researchers suggest that the ‘temple’ was left unfinished when the Spanish invasion happened, others feel that the rubble was the aftermath of a massive earthquake or other catastrophe that toppled the structure long ago.

Do these massive stones mean the Temple of the Sun was left unfinished or suffered a massive catastrophe?

The rest of the complex consists of Inca-era walls, buildings and passageways of mortared field stones that, while impressive and extensive in scale, clearly don’t match the technical sophistication of Templo del Sol or Diez Hornacinas. Why is there such a big difference?

The construction here is not as sophisticated as the Diez Hornacinas or Templo del Sol.

The stones are considerably smaller with lots of mortar holding them together.

We wandered through this sprawling area until we got to an area called Inka Misana. The crowds were sparse. Most visitors don’t go through this part, though it’s not far from the main entrance. More large blocks of impressively finished stone were on the ground. Equally incredible were what appeared on the hillsides. You could even say, what didn’t appear. Large cubed sections had been skillfully and smoothly removed from solid rock, with no visible gouge marks, as if the stone were cut by some sort of machinery or unknown technology.

Excavations in rock, some appearing as cubed cutouts, others like stairs.

The planed surfaces are flat with no gouge or chisel marks.

How in the world did the builders accomplish this? Certainly not with hammer and chisel. I’ve wondered before about the different building styles at Machu Picchu. I think the same applies here in Ollantaytambo. Is it so hard to imagine that different peoples may have been responsible for the three styles, the Incas being the most recent, calling into question everything we think we know about human history and its technological achievements?

ollantay pan

(Click to enlarge)

Ollantaytambo should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Baby alpaca at the entrance

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A Taste of Lima, the Culinary Capital of South America

At almost sea level, my lungs were finally free of high altitude. They sighed welcome relief in Lima after 18 straight days at 7,700ft or higher. I had an extra spring in my step as I deboarded at Jorge Chavez.

In our trip planning, my wife and I saw Lima only as a gateway to Puerto Maldonado when we arrived in early September and, at the end, a stopover before going home, never mind the city’s function as de-pressurization chamber. It wasn’t, in other words, a destination like Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Amazon rainforest, or any other major place on the itinerary. Still, we did decide to spend a day in Peru’s capital at the end of the trip.

We were met at the airport by Alberto Astete and Lourdes Valencia of One Earth Peru, the company (in concert with Crooked Trails of Seattle) that made all the fantastic travel arrangements for us throughout Peru. Despite our late afternoon arrival, we were still taken on a short tour, which included the Monastery of San Francisco and its catacombs, a drive past the Huaca Pucllana ruins and a stop at an overlook above the beaches of Miraflores that faced the Pacific Ocean, before being taken to our hotel in Miraflores.

At the time I made travel arrangements months ago, I thought what better way to spend the single day than to take a food tour. Lima is, after all, the gastronomic center of South America, the domain of superstar chef Gaston Acurio. The Lima Gourmet Company picked us up in a van at the hotel. Silvia was our engaging, informative hostess and guide. Ours was an enthusiastic group from a mix of English-speaking countries: a couple from Chicago, two ladies from Australia, one from New Zealand, another from the U.K. and ourselves (Seattle).

Our first stop was a coffee shop, ironically a few doors down from a Starbucks (and would you believe Dunkin’ Donuts?), in the district of Barranca. Tostaduria Bisetti roasts its own beans from organic Peruvian farms. It’s said that they’re fanatical about their vetting process and roasting. Each of us enjoyed a beverage of choice (mine, a delicious double-shot black espresso) in a beautiful garden area in the back, enjoyed with delicious cakes.

Next was a milkshake at La Bodega Verde, this one made with a fruit called lúcuma. It’s common to Peru and very few other places. I couldn’t drink it because I didn’t have a Lactaid tablet. Too bad, because my wife said it tasted like butterscotch.

Lucuma milkshake (image from

Lucuma milkshake (image from

San Isidro Mercado Municipal has one of the nicest produce stands I’ve seen anywhere. The quality and variety at Ortiz Fruteria was mind-boggling. The produce there is good enough for Gaston Acurio. There was quite a selection of Amazonian fruit, including mangos, bananas, granadillas, starfruit (carambola), lúcumas, pineapples, guavas, papayas, oranges, grapefruit, limes (which are interestingly called limón), chiles, cacao, coconas, avocados (palta). Many of these I saw on a farm near the Tambopata Nature Reserve at the beginning of the trip.

Ortiz Fruteria

Ortiz Fruteria

We were given samples of fruit I’d never tasted before and some I had, but varieties I’d never get at home. I read somewhere that the abundance of fruits in Peru would be astonishing, and it truly was.

Our next stop was Embarcadero 41 Fusión, a restaurant in Miraflores. I had my share of pisco sours throughout Peru—they might’ve replaced margaritas as my favorite cocktail—but here was the opportunity to make one with the restaurant’s mixologist. I’ve posted before the recipe she gave us, so I’ll only add that our entire group, two at a time, had the chance to make them in front of everyone else. The pisco brand they used was either Cuatro Gallos or Portón, a three-grape blend of the latter readily available here in the States. This was definitely a fun experience.


All we had to do was slide over from the bar to the dining area to learn next how to make ceviché. I have to state that my preferred way to eat raw fish is as straightforward sashimi with only soy sauce and a bit of wasabi for flavoring. Anything else is excess, which is why the idea of ceviché never struck a chord with me. I had poké on the U. S. mainland, which never impressed me much, until I had it in Hawaii, which was an eye-opener. Here was faultlessly fresh and buttery fish (ahi) dressed with other ingredients that in the right proportions could make me swoon. Now I was going to be in Peru and ceviché, especially in Lima, was on everyone’s list of must-haves. The first time I had it on the trip was in Cusco where the fish was trout, so readily available in mountainous Peru. It was certainly good, though very tart from the liberal use of Peruvian lime (limón), which has the characteristic of being extremely sour. The Embarcadero chef showed us in what proportions to use limón juice, fish broth, red onions, chiles, cilantro and sea salt. We could, if we wished, alter the amounts according to preference. I stuck with the basic ratios, with a bit more chiles for added spiciness. The fish was sea bass.

Ceviche ingredients

Ceviche ingredients

Before I continue, a word about Limeños and fish. Silvia remarked that by afternoon, the people of Lima consider any fish caught that morning to be too old. Limeños tend not to eat ceviché for dinner. The sea bass in front of me was very fresh, I gathered.

The ceviché was exceptional, nicely balanced, tart without being puckery, onions providing a nice bite, seasoned with just the right amount of salt (pictured at top). Peruvians like to accompany ceviché with cancha and, of course, the ubiquitous potato, which I can do without.

As if the group hadn’t had enough to eat, we were next taken to Huaca Pucllana Restaurant that was next to the famous pyramidal ruins that look like terraces of upright bricks, thought to have been built by the ancient Lima Culture.

Huaca Pucllana ruins

Huaca Pucllana ruins

The restaurant is definitely upscale, someplace one would go for special occasions. Its location next to the ruins provides lots of ambience, especially at night when they’re lit up. I had no idea we were coming here, but as the visit was included in the tour, all my wife and I did was to sit back and enjoy. What followed was a bunch of shareable small plates, all wonderfully prepared, featuring Peruvian ingredients. There was no menu to look at. The food arrived, we ate. Silvia rattled off their names, but I couldn’t keep track. Several desserts came at the end. The meal was a spectacular end to a culinary adventure.

Desserts at Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Desserts at Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

My wife and I were taken back to our hotel. Because we had checked out of our room before the tour, we walked over to the beach area and wandered around Larcomar, an outdoor, multi-level shopping complex, before we went back to the hotel’s spacious lounge area to spend the last few hours in Lima (and Peru). We would finally be going home late that very night. The food tour, which was sort of an afterthought, turned out to be a wonderful and fun conclusion to an almost month-long trip to South America that will remain one of our fondest travel memories.

The Intangibles of Isla Taquile

Take a boat tour to the Uros Islands out of Puno, and the package will likely include a visit to Isla Taquile (Taquile Island). Where? you ask. That’s what I said when I booked it. OK, I thought, as long as I get to see the reed islands.

Turns out, if I had done my research, I should also have looked forward as much to this visit because of a marvelous cultural tradition that earned it the rare UNESCO designation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity.

Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That’s quite a mouthful, a designation that I have trouble repeating without stumbling over the words.  To be serious, the idea behind it is to recognize an ‘intangible’ art that needs protection and faces pressure of disappearing without it. It involves a cultural heritage or tradition in which an entire community gets involved and goes further by recognizing the observance as a form of cultural identity. It could also include spaces where these activities take place. Examples are expressions of art, craft, music or dance; festivals; markets; rituals; language or other forms of oral heritage. To date, there are 166 such proclamations.

The approach to Taquile from the west was visually impressive because of extensive terracing, the legacy of the Incas who took the island by force in the 15th century. On de-boarding, my tour group was instructed to meet in the central plaza. It wasn’t effortless getting there, the middle of the island. The western side of Taquile challenges anyone who hasn’t gotten accustomed to the thin air. The stairs were a steep climb, though my lungs kept screaming Everest. No tour information I saw warns visitors who might have respiratory or cardiac issues. A local woman offered muña leaves to ease the strain. When I finally got to the plaza, I discovered that the world-famous woven products are displayed and sold in a community building facing the plaza.

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Stone arches are common on Taquile

Taquile Island, with a population of only 2,000, was bestowed the UNESCO recognition for the exceptional quality of its hand-woven clothing and textiles. If the skill involved in making them were all that was considered, that would’ve been the end of UNESCO’s vote. Here, there’s more to it than that. All able-bodied Taquileños take part in the handicrafts. The women do the weaving, and the dyeing and spinning of wool. The men, including boys as young as 8 years, do the knitting.

Women and men both wear the chumpi, a wide colorful belt woven by the women with ancient patterns depicting annual events. Islanders have worn these belts even before the Spanish arrived.



The men knit chullos, the ear-flapped hats that are seen throughout the Andes. The ones the men here wear are distinctive for their extra long pointed tops that drape over the wearers’ heads down to their shoulders. The ones for sale have different designs than those worn by the island’s men.



It isn’t just these two famous garments that make what the Taquileños do so distinctive but that they make their entire wardrobe, a mix of Spanish peasant and traditional Andean clothing, and utilitarian textiles, the crafting of specific articles relegated along gender lines. And they wear them in their daily dress. Weaving requires skills that are passed down from one generation to the next and is an integral part of the island’s culture and social practices. Certain garments, like the chullo, coca-leaf purse or almilla (the woman’s shirt), even reveal the wearer’s marital status. It is for these reasons that UNESCO thought it important to recognize the weaving arts of Taquile and help preserve its way of life.

The pace seems unhurried on the island. There are no cars or roads, no running water. And with no electricity, there are no cell phones or other powered devices or appliances. After our group gathered in the square, we were taken to an outdoor dining area where we were served a prix fixe lunch.

Quinoa soup

Quinoa soup

Fried trout

Fried trout

Trout omelette

Vegetable omelette

Lunch was followed by a harvest dance performed by men, women and children.

Harvest dance

Harvest dance

The walk back to the boat took a different route, one on the other side of the island. It was noticeably longer than the arrival, more gently sloping but downhill. With no need to catch my breath, it gave me the opportunity to appreciate this beautiful place, set in the sea-like Titicaca, above it a deep blue sky that you find only at high altitudes. The peace and solitude are intangible, like the weaving culture. Two hours after boarding the boat, I was back in Puno, thankful that I had the chance to experience an island that hadn’t entered my mind at all before taking the tour. Wonderful surprises like that thankfully happen every now and then.



Night and Day, A Tale of Two Peruvian Bus Companies

I walked up to the Transportes del Carpio bus counter in Arequipa to pick up pre-paid roundtrip tickets to Aplao, but it wasn’t going to be as simple as that. Not by a long shot. The biggest problem was I didn’t speak Spanish. The second was the clerk didn’t speak English. The bus line, after all, serves locals. The result of the ensuing miscommunication and misunderstanding was that I wound up having to purchase additional tickets for my wife and me to make sure we got to Aplao. In the end, everything got straightened out with the help of our tour company, but this experience and one that followed highlighted a basic fact about bus travel in Peru. There is a big difference among bus companies.

Take the bus to Aplao. By modern standards, it was antiquated—cramped, the pitch and width gave airline economy seats a run for their money, the windows rattled in their frames. The upholstery was worn, curtains dingy. No air-conditioning, no bathroom. If nature calls, you have to wait until the bus arrives at one of its planned stops. And an American adventure movie was played (too loudly) on a single CRT monitor in English with French subtitles. This was supposed to entertain locals?

The next bus my wife and I took was one from Arequipa to Puno, a popular route for tourists. We boarded at the very same Terminal Terrapuerto in Arequipa as above, but the bus line was Cruz del Sur, a company that provides a higher class of service and considered possibly the best bus company in Peru. Though we already had tickets in hand, it was clear from the beginning that the travel experience was going to be much different. The agents all spoke English, they collected our baggage at the counter and there was a special waiting room for customers. There were even restrooms in the waiting room, while ‘outside’ you had to use the public facilities at a cost of 50 céntimos per person.

The bus was much more comfortable than del Carpio’s. The dimensions around and in front of the seats were more generous, it was quieter, there was an onboard toilet. And a meal was served, although it was nothing to write home about. The seats were more modern, comfortable. A blanket. Your own entertainment system.

Cruz del Sur (image from

The difference was like night and day.

I’m not out to diss del Carpio, only to make a point. If modern amenities are important, you’ll pay more for the privilege.

Islas Uros, What Price Commercialism?

It’s like walking on a waterbed. Unnerving at first, there is a definite squishy firmness under your feet as you walk on an island made entirely of totora reeds, so thick that there is no danger of falling through into Lake Titicaca. Even so, the feeling that water is underfoot never leaves you.

Lake Titicaca is an incredibly large lake at over 3,200 square miles (8,300 km2). It is the mythical birthplace of the Incas, the progeny of Manco Capac and Mama Occllo, and straddles both Peru and Bolivia.

Lake Titicaca (image from wikipedia).

The Uros people have been living on these floating islands for centuries. It’s thought that the idea arose because the Uros wanted to escape marauding enemies like the Incas, which explains why there are still watchtowers on many of the ninety or so islands. This strategy couldn’t have been successful because the Uros were subjugated anyway. Really, how can you escape a determined army by isolating yourself on a tiny island? But their culture and way of life endured.

Historical necessity aside, these islands are really remarkable. Everything is made of totora reeds, including the homes that sit on them, as many as ten on an island, and the double hull boats that have an uncanny DNA to those of ancient Egypt and Easter Island. The reeds grow abundantly in the lake. Because most of the buoyant reeds are underwater, they rot quickly, so there is the almost perpetual need to overlay existing layers with a new one, as often as every two weeks.

Rotting reed foundation needs to be topped with new reeds often.

Rotting reed foundation needs to be topped with a new layer often.

I made arrangements to visit the islands through my hotel, a tour that also included a stop at Taquile Island, but you can walk right up to the boat launch area in Puno and purchase tickets. You can also arrange for an overnight homestay. The Uros have been receiving tourists for a while now. It has gotten to the point where it seems there is inordinate reliance on visitors to supplement their income. Another way to put it is that tourism has changed their traditional way of life, for better or worse. Tourists come in droves, transported by commercially-owned motor boats or community-owned ferries to one of the participating islands.

I was bothered by aspects of the experience. It had a certain staginess and smacked of commercialism. It started, in our case, with just the resident women waving at the incoming boat, all in a line along the dock. Later, after a presentation by the men on how the islands are constructed, each lady selected a group of tourists to come into her home where she asked each guest his or her name, where each was from, did some chit-chatting, hoping to establish a ‘connection’ before the Big Sell. This is when the hostess displayed her wares for sale, woven tapestries, trinkets, dolls, even little model boats made from the reed. When you’re a captive audience, it’s hard to say ‘no.’

There was the opportunity to take a ride on one of the marvelous boats, in our case, a catamaran flanked by two traditional double-hulled boats. But the privilege cost each of us S/10, which wasn’t voluntary.


Before the tour moved on to Taquile Island, the passenger boat made one more stop for tourists to get an official Uros Islands passport stamp. I was surprised (or maybe not) that it cost S/1.

Granted the amounts I’m talking about didn’t break the bank. At the going exchange rate of $1 = S/3.4, we’re talking peanuts here. Should I have just sucked it up? Maybe so. It’s just the idea of having to shell out for every little thing through pressure, guilt or obligation.

Let’s be clear though that tourists are the ones who created the demand, who are intruding on the lives of the Uros. Who can blame the latter for improving their lot? Ironically, there’s no doubt that the ability of the Uros to lead a traditional way of life has been changed, maybe forever. There are families who still refuse to be bothered by tourists. They are fending off the new ‘Incas.’


Arequipa, the White City, the Silent Stones

Rooms almost glow from within. Light reflects softly from surfaces as if they’re white-washed, made of ivory-tinted, slightly purplish stone, called sillar. Their whiteness the Spanish invaders admired so much that they made building material out of it. And why not? This rhyolitic rock is plentiful in the Western Andes where volcanic pyroclastic flows deposited countless acres of them long ago. This is a city surrounded by volcanoes, dominated by El Misti, a perfectly shaped cone that towers above the skyline at almost 20,000 feet. Arequipa, La Ciudad Blanca. The beloved city of Mario Vargas Llosa.

I admired sillar’s stark beauty. It is a unique building stone, not only for its light color but its pockmarked texture full of holes left behind millions of years ago by escaping Pleistocene gas bubbles. Its high ash content readily rubbed off on my finger. The thickly applied lime mortar is slightly darker than the stone, making for a pleasing, almost rustic pattern. It seems as if all of Arequipa’s Old Town is built of sillar.


I was struck by a unique architectural feature of buildings made with sillar, the vaulted ceiling. In my hotel room, Zig Zag Restaurant, in many buildings, these high barreled spaces made interior spaces seem to soar. This design may have more to do with structural integrity against earthquakes than aesthetics, but it was striking nevertheless.

Many devastating quakes have struck Arequipa. The Cathedral was destroyed several times, not only by earthquakes but fire and volcanic explosions. It was rebuilt or repaired after each event, the last time in 2001 after an 8.1 temblor struck the western Andes. The basilica is the ultimate monument to sillar.


The appellation of White City has another, darker meaning, one repeated to me by a docent at an archaeological museum. To many, the term symbolizes the Spanish racist attitude toward the darker indigenous peoples. Arequipa became the most powerful seat of Spanish power in the region, complete with administration, culture and religious infrastructure, including La Catedral that spans an entire side of the Plaza de Armas. It was also a fervent supporter of the Spanish crown. With consolidation came discrimination.

Sillar continues to be made today. In fact, you can take a tour to one of the quarries outside of town to see how blocks are made with sledge hammer and chisel. Sillar, the foundation of Arequipa, remains mute to the White City’s past, a silent witness and unwitting participant in Spanish conquest. And it’s a most beautiful stone.

Maracuya, Granadilla. I’ll Call It Passionfruit.

I have had my share of passionfruit the last several years. I consider it my absolute favorite exotic fruit whose incredibly heady aroma can fill a room with its unmistakable scent of the tropics. My frenzy started out in New Zealand where the fruit has a dark, purplish rind and crunchy seeds not unlike pomegranate. One time, my daughter bought a whole bag of them. It disappeared in no time. The same variety was available in Australia, where it was served as a fruit for breakfast at a resort I was staying at in Torquay. My wife and I ate several each morning. One of the servers noticed and was kind enough to see us off to Melbourne with several more to take with us.

I’ve also had passionfruit in Hawaii, where it’s called liliko’i. The most common form is oblong, has a yellow rind and tart and sweet fleshy seeds. The islands grow other varities, too, which I’ve sampled.

But I hadn’t expected it in Peru, at least not in the quantity that was available there. The first I saw it was at an ecolodge in the Amazon basin where the fruit also was served for breakfast but in a basket with other fruits. It was yellowish to orangish, globular and about the size of a medium apple.


My wife asked a server what it was. Maracuya. Passionfruit. We split it open from its styrofoam-soft rind and beheld a huge bunch of seeds (see top image). The flavor was more mild than New Zealand fruit and doesn’t have its intense aroma, but the seeds were less crunchy and, as I said, there was a humongous amount of them. If you’ve never had raw passionfruit seeds, think of a mass of slimy, slippery polliwog eggs with a taste of the tropics such as you’ve never experienced. You guessed it, we had maracuya for breakfast everyday we were at the ecolodge and whenever it was available at all our subsequent hotels throughout Peru. Talk about obsession.

We also were told that it’s really called granadilla although I’ve never been able to find anything on the internet that distinguished it from maracuya. I’ll just call it passionfruit.

Passionfruit is famously exploited in desserts and drinks. The Kiwis and Aussies have their pavlova, the Hawaiians their plethora of liliko’i desserts (including shave ice), the Peruvians their maracuya sours. I like it just as well straight from the rind, juices dripping from my fingers, seeds crunching between my teeth and perfume overwhelming my olfactories.

Who’s Minding the Archaeological Store? The Toro Muerto Petroglyphs

Julio Zuñiga Medina is troubled. Toro Muerto’s archaeological treasures that are represented by roughly 5,000 ancient petroglyphs, presumed to be of the Wari people, are not being protected by the Peruvian authorities, it seems. It is possible to wander over 5 km in this desert area unsupervised and unwatched, even though vandals have defaced and removed rocks. All this deeply bothers Julio who bemoans the fact that very few Peruvians seem to care, only tourists who come here to see the ancient artwork.

With his wife Durby, Julio Medina owns a lodge by the Majes-Colca River, the first in the valley to accommodate guests. River rafting is a favorite sport around here. The shrimp caught in the river is the stuff of gourmet legend, which Durby will prepare beautifully, like all meals at the lodge.

majes river shrimp

Julio is a man of many interests. He makes his own wine from grapes that are crushed the old-fashioned way, by stomping. He likewise makes pisco in a distiller he fashioned himself, aging the brandy in huge earthenware jars that were manufactured in 1734 and inherited from his grandparents. He used to be a bullfighter in the very ring that sits on his property, complete with viewing stands. He revels in the fact that the Milky Way can be seen from his backyard. But, most of all, he talks lovingly about the valley that has long claimed his affection. At this stage in his life, he says, he doubts he will ever leave, even though his children live in six countries around the world. In short, Julio is deeply rooted in the land, a native Peruvian of Spanish ancestors who came here generations ago.

Julio loves to take his guests up to Toro Muerto. He has taken a personal interest in the petroglyphs, having studied them for years, catalogued them, and even has his own interpretations of what the enigmatic symbols on the rocks mean. He would ask both my wife and me for our own, which was like asking us to decipher Aymara. At one of them though, I thought I saw the dawning of our solar system. When he said it meant creation to him, for a fleeting moment I thought I had broken the Enigma Code. Each rock with at least one petroglyph is numbered, courtesy of an unknown (to me) entity but which Julio uses to cross-reference his own written material that he brings with him to share.

We ask him the obvious question of whether he’s ever going to publish his writings. Even if Julio’s been asked this many times before, he replies that it will be up to his family after he’s gone. For now, he sees it as his mission to talk one-on-one to as many people as will listen about the stories on the rocks, the largest collection of petroglyphs in the world. Will enough people care to save them from thoughtless violation? The government should at least do more than just collect admission fees. Nothing would please Julio more.

Did the Incas Build All of Machu Picchu?

To many, Machu Picchu is the poster child of the Incan civilization. Like an ancient lost city, the ruins lay hidden from the world for centuries, even the Spanish invaders, until they were ‘revealed’ to archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet, for all its majesty, Machu Picchu isn’t the only impressive legacy of the Incas. I visited several ruins in Peru: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Qoriqancha—all breathtaking in their own way.

But, there are anomalies at Peru’s ancient archaeological sites. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that there are three distinct, very different styles of stone construction, easy to overlook or ignore if you’re in a hurry. The conventional wisdom is that the Incas did all the masonry during their brief reign in the 13th-16th centuries. When the Spanish invaders arrived, everything was already in place. They made assumptions and recorded what they saw. Without a written language, the Incas cannot tell their own story.

Is there more than meets the eye?

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