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 boletomachupicchu.com). 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 recetas.cuidadoinfantil.net)

Lucuma milkshake (image from recetas.cuidadoinfantil.net)

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.

our-piscos

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 Veneration of Pachamama in Bolivia


I can’t recall how many times I heard Pachamama mentioned in my travels through Peru and Bolivia. I read a little about her before the trip, but afterward it was obvious that she is without doubt the most important deity in the Andean pantheon of gods. The veneration of Pachamama is hugely important in the daily lives of Bolivians (and Peruvians), even if the vast majority profess to be Catholic. The church has never been successful in eliminating indigenous beliefs and practices, in Bolivia or anywhere else in Latin America. It’s generally recognized that the people observe a symbiotic religious life, one that involves an interesting, contradictory coexistence between two religious systems.

Pachamama, which literally translates to Mother Earth but has a deeper meaning (including a cosmological one), is important to all Andean indigenous peoples, from Ecuador to Argentina. Better thought of as a feminine energy, she is the goddess of fertility, agriculture, harvest, protection, nurturing, mountains—and earthquakes. The last realm highlights an important relationship with humankind, one of give and take, for it’s believed that if too much is taken from the earth and she is thus displeased, Pachamama will move and shake the foundations of the world.

President Evo Morales thanked Pachamama for his first election victory. He is a typical Bolivian indigeno, a Catholic and follower of ancient, pre-Hispanic beliefs. The word for it is syncretism. It isn’t unusual for Bolivians to go to mass on a Sunday and perform ancient blessing rituals hours later.

I only got glimpses of Pachamama veneration through our guide Gery over a two-day period. But it was enough to add a fascinating element to my travels, one I didn’t expect to think about as much as I did after my return to the States.

Ch’alla and the Coca Leaf

At a bustling, open-air market enroute to Tiwanaku, Gery bought a small plastic bottle of cane sugar moonshine.

“You wanna a little taste?” he asked.
“Is it OK to drink this stuff?”
“Sure.”

By ‘taste,’ I figured maybe a couple teaspoons, which I gulped without much hesitation. Big mistake. He probably meant an teentsy taste, as in a-few-drops-on-the-tip-of-your-tongue-sized taste. I heaved and hacked. It felt like fire was cauterizing my throat. W-O-O-O! was all that came out of my flame-throwing mouth, unable to say intelligible words. At 192 proof, it was little wonder it felt like someone poured sulfuric acid down my esophagus, which probably might’ve been smoother. Gery and the nearby vendors, including ladies in bowler hats, chuckled, probably because I was another in a long line of clueless tourists. Or, just as likely, another who fell for it.

Gery also bought a bagful of coca leaves. Back in the car, he demonstrated the proper way to ‘chew’ them. Take a big pinch between thumb and two fingers—and this is almost a fistful—and shove the wad in one cheek. Slowly work the leaves between your teeth, but don’t chew. Let the saliva moisten the leaves. I must’ve looked like I had massive novocaine injections. Next, he gave me a little black square of a chewy, chalky substance. “Make sure to get the leaves around it and don’t have it touch your mouth.” I’m supposed to perform some amazing oral gymnastics, I thought. He told me that it was a mixture of quinoa ash, stevia and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), which more quickly releases coca’s active alkaloid compound. “Remember, don’t chew the leaves.” After a few minutes, I felt a numbing sensation. That’s when I was supposed to switch the leaves to the other cheek. You keep this up for as long as the leaves haven’t disintegrated.

The stories above do have a point. In Bolivia, offerings are made to Pachamama for blessings, good luck or good harvests. One of the ways is to offer her coca leaves and sprinkle a bit of alcohol (“spirits”) on them. Gery picked a dirt parking area, chosen for being the highest in altitude along the highway, to perform this abbreviated ch’alla ritual. Many ch’allas do involve chewing leaves. There were burn marks on the ground where other ceremonies to Pachamama were performed (see below). It is also common for Bolivians to sprinkle a few drops of beer or chicha on the ground before their first sips as a way to give thanks.

Feeding Pachamama with coca leaves and alcohol

Offering Pachamama coca leaves and spirits

From where we were standing, we got a magnificent panoramic view of the Andes, an unbroken chain for as far as the eye can see north to south. Pachamama’s realm. It’s incredible to realize that on the other side of the mountains lies the vast Amazon rain forest that continues eastward all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

andes-pan

The Andes. On the other side is the Amazon rain forest. (Click to enlarge)

Witches’ Market

Pachamama not only receives coca leaves but something surprising, even startling to tourists. Desiccated llama fetuses. Buried under homes or new construction, they are an offering to the goddess for luck and protection, or buried in crop fields, for a good harvest. But, where to get the fetuses?

Gery took us to the Witches’ Market (Mercado de las Brujas), which happened to be only blocks from our hotel in La Paz and (ironically) Iglesia de San Francisco. It isn’t a market so much as a few stalls on cobblestone streets, Calles Linares and Jimenez. They sell not only the fetuses but powders, charms, religious objects, soapstone statues, amulets. If you wish ill on someone or a business, you can find stuff for that, too. Mostly, a ritual involves placing objects on a sheet of white paper that will make Pachamama happy and small plastic replicas or symbols of things you desire. Then, you burn the whole thing to the goddess. If you like, you can have the proprietor, a bon fide yatiri (community healer), assemble a bundle for you, depending on what you want.

Dessicated llama fetus

Desiccated llama fetus

Stall at Witches' Market

Stall at Witches’ Market

The offering of food—fruits, herbs, nuts, animal fat, llama fetuses, coca leaves, and more—is done to feed Pachamama in return for the bounty she will give or favors requested. In that sense, the ceremony is a reciprocal gesture that dictates the relationship humans must have with the earth. I left Bolivia with a better understanding of the reverence the Aymaras and Quechuas (and other indigenous peoples) have for the Earth Mother. Our tour guides all talked of her with esteem and appreciation, in both Bolivia and Peru. Pachamama.

La Paz, the Heights of Charm and Frustration


Nuestra Señora de La Paz. That’s a mouthful for a place that sounds more like a title. Most of us know it simply as La Paz. At just under 12,000 feet, it’s the highest capital city in the world—in rarefied air. If you saw the movie Our Brand Is Crisis, you would’ve noticed Sandra Bullock’s character taking days to adjust to altitude sickness. My wife and I made the transition gradually from Peru.

We arrived in La Paz after a lengthy bus ride from Puno (Peru) on Bolivia Hop, disrupted by a painfully long layover in Copacabana (4½ hours) and unruly passengers who saw fit to get drunk in Copa and make asses of themselves on the bus. Once we got to the outskirts of metro La Paz late at night, it took an eternity to get to the center of town and our hotel. The reason would become clear the next day as I saw that La Paz sits in the middle of an enormous bowl-like canyon surrounded by the mountains of the altiplano.

The feeling I got was that La Paz is a chaotic city in more ways than one: dense population, extreme traffic congestion, urban planning (or lack thereof). It’s rare to find streets parallel or perpendicular to one another. Viewing it from a high vantage point, like Mirador Killi Killi or El Alto, the houses and buildings look like millions of Lego blocks were spilled over the canyon rim. Undeniable though is the spectacular setting, with 21,000-foot snow-capped Illimani as a backdrop.

lapaz-pan

View of La Paz from El Alto

Homes are being built precariously on the canyon’s steepest slopes. It surprised me that the wealthiest don’t claim these locations (and views), but the poorest who have no other choice but to live where there’s still room to build. I can’t imagine these homes made of bricks on unstable slopes standing up well against earthquakes that regularly rock the region.

The well-to-do, powerful and famous live in an area called Zona Sur. At an average of 10,500 feet, this area of La Paz remarkably enjoys a warmer climate than city center, which is about 1,500 feet higher. Such is the amazing topography of La Paz. You can be sure that the homes are bigger, and streets wider and tree-lined, in contrast to the crammed ‘inner’ city. Here too is the home of foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of many multinational corporations.

This density, unbearable traffic and La Paz’s geography make it hard to swiftly get into or out of the city. As stated before, the city sits in a huge bowl-like depression. To get to El Alto, one of the fastest growing cities in Bolivia (population 1,000,000) and location of the world’s highest international airport (13,000 ft/4,000 m), you need to take Ruta Nacional 3 that slowly zigzags up the canyon. (The air is so thin at the airport that heavy, wide-bodied jets, like the B-747, are not allowed to operate there.) Just to make your way from one community to another is a major hassle. That’s the reason the Bolivian government has embarked on an ambitious program to link important centers via Mi Teleférico’s cable cars. You guessed it, as high as La Paz is, the three cable car lines that have been built so far are the highest in the world. There are plans to build seven more. On the red line that connects the center of La Paz to El Alto, I got a closer panorama look at the city and its disorderly density.

mi-teleferico

The day I rode the cable car was Thursday, which meant that (along with Sundays) the El Alto flea market would be in full swing, according to our guide. He took us there to have this shopping experience, of being able to buy almost anything—and I mean anything—even used syringes according to another blogger, at what seemed like the world’s largest (definitely highest altitude) flea market.

el-alto-market

When I took this picture, the vendor was not happy

Our guide led us to the back of the market, along a small street lined with semi-permanent stands, where he wanted us to try some roasted, sweetened peanut juice. Amazingly refreshing is all I can say.

Roasted peanut juice

Roasted peanut juice

I noticed them all over the city, the Bolivian women in traditional Aymara dress. Up until fairly recently, they were never allowed in the ‘better’ parts of La Paz; it was a no-no for them to be seen with their undersized bowler hat, puffy, voluminous skirt, and embroidered shawl. The Spaniards called her chola, a derogatory term for an indigenous woman (cholo, the male counterpart). It’s now a symbol of new-found cultural pride and economic power. (The U.S. has its own usage as applied to Mexican Americans. Not so coincidentally, the term was first used by the Spanish during their conquest of New World native peoples.) Nowadays, not only is the dress commonly seen in the city, but the getups have taken on a life of their own, ladies known to spend a small fortune, even a king’s ransom, on the latest fashions complete with jewelry.

The women who wear them are affectionately called cholitas. Cholitas paceñas, the cholitas of La Paz. The skirts (polleras) are worn high and consist of many pleated layers to give the women the appearance of a larger-than-life butt, meant to convey fertility and beauty.

Cholita fashion contest (Image from blogspot)

Light shades on the ceiling of Café Banais were made to look like cholita skirts

Light shades on the ceiling of Café Banais were made to look like cholita skirts (polleras)

A relatively new phenomenon is very popular in the La Paz area, spawned by the WWF and Mexico’s lucha libre. Luchadoras cholitas. Yep, cholita wrasslin’. My wife and I got to witness this, not in El Alto where it got started, but on stage at Layka Restaurant over chorrellana llama steak and charquekan. This is all done in fun but started out as an acting out against male oppression and female servitude. Think about it, the women in El Alto are the highest-altitude wrestlers in the world.

Cholita wrestling compliments of Layka Restaurant

Cholita wrestling compliments of Layka Restaurant

All the indigenous pride and social movements resulted in the election of Evo Morales in 2006, Bolivia’s first indigenous (Aymara) president. He has become the longest serving president in Bolivian history, having won three elections, no mean feat considering that 79 presidents have served over its 223-year democracy (2.8-year average) prior to his taking office. His economic policies are unique among left-leaning countries for bringing about sustained growth even during the downturn of the recent worldwide recession. Saying Morales was responsible, our guide pointed to the Congressional building in Plaza Murillo and challenged my wife and me to spot what was different about it. How about you?

Clock on the Bolivian congressional building, Plaza Murrillo

Clock on the Bolivian congressional building, Plaza Murrillo

The official reason for reversing the clock face, called the Clock of the South, was that in the southern hemisphere, a sundial casts a shadow that goes counter-clockwise and therefore why not represent the analog clock in this fashion. Hmm, o-o-o-kay. But, the more symbolic reason goes something like this. Bolivia has long been oppressed by colonial powers, powers that reside in the north. In an attempt to reverse the effects of colonialism and imperialism, the clock has been turned back. I sympathize with countries trying to assert their independence from foreign oppression, but this move just seems downright weird. It did take tongue-in-cheek chutzpah though.

It would probably be accurate to say that salteñas are Bolivia’s favorite morning food. My wife heard about them from a friend, who said she must have them. A stuffed pastry like an empanada, it typically has a savory stew-like filling made with meat, usually beef, pork or chicken, though some have only vegetables. It is baked and has a half-circular shape with braiding along the curved edge. After my wife asked our guide about them the day before, he surprised us when he stopped at Beamar, a salteñeria near Hernando Siles Olympic Stadium, to pick one up for each of us. Best piping hot, you eat them with one pointed end up, making sure not to spill any juice. Delicious.

Beef salteñas

Beef salteñas

I liked La Paz but in a different way than I liked places in Peru. Sure, there are frustrations about the city—its over-crowdedness, insufferable traffic, its closed-in feeling, the extreme gap between rich and poor and that damn thin air. But it has a rawness, a chaotic mixture of traditional and new, culture and traditions that are worth exploring more. The spirit and gumption of the cholitas, who seem to embody an anti-establishment cheekiness and forging ahead with their new-found identity, are refreshing. My wife and I spent only one and a half days in La Paz, but we felt as if we experienced much more, thanks to our excellent guide.

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.

Chumpi

Chumpi

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.

Chullos

Chullos

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.

taquile-3

 

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 howtoperu.com)

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.

uros-2

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.’