Friday, October 19, 2012

Exploring Peru - Cusco Again, Lake Titicaca, Home

Well, it's time for the big wrap up...the last post in my "Exploring Peru" series recapping our August trip to Peru. This time, I'll re-cap our second stint in Cusco, describe our trip to another part of Peru and our nine hour Lima stopover on the way home.

If interested in catching up on previous posts in this series, you can do so in sequence by going HERE, HEREHERE and then HERE.

And, as usual, I've updated my Flickr Photostream with new pictures that match this post. Just go HERE to see the entire set. The ones in the lower quarter of the page will relate to this post.


Cusco - Take Two
Our group at Chicha in Cusco
Our first stop in Cusco was short. Just about 24 hours. So, we did not have the time to really look around and check the city out. Sure, I went on that half day tour to see some of the historical highlights...and I was glad I did...but really seeing a place involves walking around, getting off the tourist track a bit (but not too much in this case), doing a bit of shopping...and eating...and just, well, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. Luckily, on our second stint in Cusco on this trip we would have an evening, a whole day and then another half day to do just that.

After saying our goodbyes to our guides and, we thought, our fellow tour mates, Diane and I cleaned up and rested some at the hotel. We had made arrangements to meet up with our now good buddies Kevin and Josh for dinner, so we went to the lobby to meet them as discussed. As we waited, other members of the tour group filtered in. Naturally, they asked what we were up to for the evening. Learning that we were off for dinner, they all decided to tag along. So, suddenly we had a group of 10 and not four. Hey, the more the merrier! I also thought this was a good sign that our group overall had been a good one for the tour. After all, they would not have wanted to hang out if they didn't like each other - or us!

As it turned out, we found a great place called Chicha not far away and cajoled the greeter there to set up a table for ten people. Chica is an upscale place with a wide ranging menu...and hence why we thought it would be good for a group of ten people. Want nicely done and presented alpaca? They had it. Want delicious pizza? Done. How about some Peruvian classics done up in a "gastro pub style"? No problem. Something for everyone. And speaking of everyone, I was impressed with the camaraderie and openness exhibited by each member of our group. Diane and I had quickly go to know Kevin and Josh right off the top of the tour, but most of the rest of the group already knew each, nice and cordial as they were, it took some time to break the ice. And at this last meal together, the ice truly was broken and we all had a great time. Full and contented, we called it a night after the meal...strolling back through the nigh time Cusco Plaza de Armas and back down the narrow streets to our hotel.

We awoke the next morning and saw that the weather was going to be very nice...perfect for a walking tour, shopping and lunch. By 10 a.m. we out of our hotel and checking into another for one more night in the city. We stayed at the delightful Hotel Arqueologo. After that, we were on the streets looking for knit hats, sweaters, art and souvenirs of all different types with Josh and Kevin along for the fun too.  We visited nice boutiques, typical tourist stalls and pretty much everything in between. Lucky for Kevin and Josh, Diane was there to lend her keen eye to their potential clothes and art purchases. I can summarize our shopping thusly: we went to a lot of shops, it took most of the day, it was fun, we bought many items (art, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, etc.), it's all nice and unique stuff and it was a good way to see the old town.

Early in our adventure this day, we came across a woman dressed in typical highlands attire and holding a small baby alpaca. Very cute. Naturally, we had to get a picture. Now, with situations like this, you know you're going to have to pay the person something for taking their picture. Typically, you ask how much and they say, "whatever you want" or "it is your choice." Also typically, no matter how much you give ($1, $2, $5, $10) they respond with a look or a reply that is along the lines of, "you've got to be kidding...that's all you're going to give me?" So, the thing to do is just figure out how much you think the picture you're taking is worth to you and give them that amount undeterred. My feeling is not to be a cheapskate just because I can. So, I gave this woman the equivalent of $5 U.S. She didn't like it, but I didn't think twice about it.

In between all that, we all visited the Inca Museum for a short look around at art and artifacts from the Cusco and highlands area of know, learn a little something! We also spent a little time at the Plaza de Armas to people watch. And, out on the street, we ran into a couple other members of our tour - Sally and Evelyn. Together, we hit lunch at a great little place in the San Blas area of Cuco called Jack's Cafe. Later in the afternoon, Diane and I toured through the big Cathedral on the plaza.

Inca foundations on Spanish buildings in Cusco
One thing I thought interesting about Cusco was the least in the old town...because the ancient Inca foundations remained on most the buildings. They were easy to spot: big, insanely tightly fit together blocks of carefully carved rock rising from street level. These were the foundations of Inca palaces, temples and everyday buildings. When the Spanish arrived and took over, they eventually tore all of those structures down, building their own buildings - what you see today - on top of the Inca solid foundations. I could not help think about what those original Inca buildings would look like today. How tall? How big? What shape? Some clues were given when we saw things like the Temple of the Sun across town, Machu Picchu and the ruins at Tarawasi. But who knows?

In the evening, we had a nice stroll around the old town - down cobbled streets, under pleasant streetlights and among the hustle bustle created by the mix of fascinated tourists, working people on their way home or our to dinner and school children trotting along to some sort of function or another. We ended up at a nice restaurant off the Plaza de Armas called Tupananchis. There we sat next to the window and had a great meal of causas (little pillars of potatoes with differing toppings), alpaca, Peruvian red wine and a dreamy desert. Behind us sat a large group of German tourists, clearly having a good time. As we ate, a few children came up to the window and inevitably tried to sell us something from the other side of the glass. The only thing that works to get them to leave you alone is to ignore them.
Cusco Plaza de Armas at night
After dinner, we met up with Kevin and Josh for a little bar hopping. Before we got started, curiosity got the better of us and we decided to try chewing coca leaves. Hey, why not? Your there, it's available. Just so happened that Josh procured a bag of leaves when he and Kevin visited the coca museum in Cusco earlier in the day. Excellent. With that we each took 4-5 leaves and stuck them in our mouths, chewed on them for a while, then repeated. After a few minutes, we all conceded that while there was  a mild stimulant affect (very mild) and a bit of numbness in the gums, the leaves were having  surprisingly little effect. After a while we just gave up and agreed that a good stiff drink was the better way to go. Later in our trip in Puno, Diane and I figured out why the leaves didn't have as big an effect as we thought they would. Check out the section of the blog post below for that.

Anyway, not much later that evening, we ended up at a place on the plaza called Mama Africa. This was a typical nightclub. As we sat sipping our Peruvian beers, we speculated that a couple shady guys sitting at the bar might actually be pimps for a few of the "service" staff. Who knows. I will say that a couple the waitresses seemed a bit over the top friendly. Another interesting thing was that while we sat there in a maybe 1/3 full club...all of a sudden a big pack of people came walking in all wearing some sort of wig. Yep. Wig party. Turns out these were recently accepted students to the Kellogg Business School. As they told the story, as a class they were given some options of places around the world to go to "bond," and Cusco was one of the choices. That's why they were there. As for the wigs? Well, even really smart people can have bad ideas.

The night got late and we called it...walking back though the nighttime Cusco streets bathed in street light glow. The next morning we had a few hours to kill before our flight to another part of Peru to continue our trip. We used the time to finish up our shopping spree, say our goodbyes to friends Josh and Kevin and to have a stunningly delicious ceviche lunch at Limo. Soon, we were back at the hotel and into a car headed to the airport for our next destination - Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca
That's right...Lake Titicaca. You read that right. Titicaca. That's the name of the lake we visited. Giggle, giggle, laugh, laugh. Yes, it is a funny name. But, it's ancient and translates to "Rock Puma" as many locals have said the shape of the lake resembles a puma chasing a rabbit. Pumas are another traditional sacred beast in Peru along with Condors.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, I can also tell you that the lake is at 12,000+ feet (higher than Cusco) and the highest "navigable" lake in the world. This means there is no other lake in the world higher in altitude that is also deep enough to enable "vessels" to ply its waters - vessels being large ships. It's also a huge, huge lake...and very pretty. Our thought was that after 10 days hiking through the Andes, it would be good to spend some down time at the lakeside and relax.

Following a few hours on our last morning in Cusco, we packed up our stuff and headed to the airport where we took the short 45 minute flight to the airport at Juliaca - the nearest one to our final destination. Juliaca is not a city you'd want to stay in as a tourist. It's large, dirty and without any real tourist or historical attractions. It literally was built around the airport and today serves as a trade center.

By prior arrangement, we were picked up by a driver and a local contact named Omar who drove us from the inner city of Juliaca out to the lakeside - and much nicer - town of Puno. As the sun set, we made our way through the Juliacan streets choked with cars, carts, moto-taxis, pedestrians, stray dogs. As we moved along in our nice private vehicle, we could see into each shop or dwelling we passed by - seeing what was up with the locals all along the way through town. We also noticed that on every block in this city, there were dentist offices - each with its own clever sign advertising dental services on offer. Diane asked Omar about this and he said that, yes, many, many Peruvians went to dental school with the thought that they could make a good living only to find out that the market is flooded and they cannot make enough money. He further said that the signs we saw were for actual businesses, but there were many more who either moved to another city or country to practice or just quit to become something else.
View from our hotel room in Puno

Our drive to Puno lasted just about an hour and a half. By the time we arrived at our hotel, the Libertador, it had been dark for an hour already. This big, white hotel is part of the Westin chain, and sits on a peninsula just outside Puno - situated so on one side you can look back at town and on the other you look out to the lake. We checked in and went to get dinner at the dining room on premises. It had been a long day and we had no desire to go into town. Funny enough, as we were checking in, we ran into the same German tour group who had been at the restaurant we had eaten at the night before in Cusco. We talked for a minute and went on our separate ways.

For the first of three full days in the Puno area, we decided to just relax, go into town for lunch, see the sights and go back later for diner. However, we had thought that as part of the "relax" portion of our stay at the hotel, we'd have access to a pool and pool deck, spa, nice gym and related facilities. We were wrong. Nice though it was, the hotel had none of those things. So all of a sudden, we had a lot more time to kill on our hands than we originally thought. This was primarily filled with extended shopping and walking around Puno town. Arriving in the sunny afternoon, we toured around the main plaza, went into the cathedral, strolled down the pedestrian streets, hung out at another plaza where we saw a kids parade and perhaps the aftermath of a wedding and just generally indulged in people watching.

We also took in the city's Coca Museum. Yes. The coca leaf is quite important in the tradition of the Peruvian culture. Dating back many centuries, the affect of chewing of the coca leaf for its stimulant powers, its utility as a medicinal substance...and related reverence of it for both those properties...made possession and distribution of the leaves a duty only for those in power or control - tribal or village leaders, shamans and similar. He who has the coca leaf (and it was always a he) shall be respected.

Oh, and just for the record...yes, the coca leaf is where cocaine comes from. But, making cocaine requires a complex process of extracting a specific alkaloid from the leaf and processing it in certain way. And apparently that "business" is still going strong because we learned that Peru is the number one producer and exporter of the raw coca leaf.

While there is a stimulant affect of coca in tea, candy or chewing the leaves, it's not a"cocaine" like affect. None the less, after learning from the various displays, one thing we came to realize was that our earlier attempts to chew the coca leaf in Cusco were not done properly. More specifically, we should have jammed a whole wad of leaves in our yappers and not just three or four. No wonder we were unimpressed.

The other thing the museum had was a pretty good collection of wild and traditional costumes that the locals have come up with over the centuries and wear in annual festival parades and celebrations - complete with a video to explain it all. What this had to do with coca was never explained nor evident. But, it was kind of interesting to learn about the different festivals, what each costume represented and why it was created.

More walking around, a rest back and the hotel and dinner back in town rounded out or first day at the lake.

Urus Islands
The next day, we got ourselves out on the water to visit some of the islands. The first stop on this clear, sunny day tour was to the Urus Islands. Not more than four kilometers from the Puno harbor dock,these islands were interesting because they are man made. That is, way back in the centuries, the Urus tribe decided it did not want to be dominated by the Incas, so instead of fleeting over land...they simply decided to make their own floating islands safely off in the lake. These would be much easier to defend and literally separated them from the control of the Incas. That tradition has held up over several hundred years, and today the islands still exist. Urus people still live on them. However, it must also be said that today their continued existence is directly related to them being primarily a tourist attraction.

After that, we boarded our boat again and struck out for an actual island way, way out in the lake called Taquile Island. The attraction here is not only the view, but also the traditional town and culture of the people on the island. Sure enough, as we approached the island, we could see a massive white capped mountain range on the horizon. We quickly learned that this was Boliva on the other side of the lake. Docking, we walked uphill to the town square. Every 50 yards or so, we'd pass under a traditional rock gateway or encounter girls and old women selling local handcrafts. Up at the town square, we took in the view again, and also looked around at the various shops - all offering island-woven hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters and other items. Lets just say, we went Christmas shopping in August. Next, our little day-trip tour group went to a local restaurant for a nice lunch of fish and frijtes.

View on Taquile Island
The rest of our time on the island was spent strolling across it's width on stone paths that took us through little villages and, ultimately, back downhill to the water's edge at a different dock where our boat awaited. Along the way, we got to chat with our fellow tour group members and met quite a few very nice people - including a guy named John from California and his girlfriend Stephanie from Australia. Satisfied with our visit, the boat cast off for the two hour ride back to Puno. Mostly, people in our group napped or read on the way back. We arrived back to town about 5 p.m. As we walked off the boat and up the ramp, we made plans for dinner with John and Stephanie. Later, we met up with them, hung out and even met some other travelers - a woman from L.A. and a couple backpackers from the Netherlands. That's a cool thing about travel, you can have these pleasant run-ins with fellow travelers, hang with them for a few hours and gain their perspective on things (from soccer, beer, politics, the country you're all in and more). It's one way that I think travel really is valuable - you gain access to very different world views and perspectives than your own. Whether you like them or not...well, who knows...either way you come away with a better appreciation of just how big and different AND similar at the same time the people of the world are.

Pre-Inca tombs outside Puno
Our final full day in the Puno area was spent half at the hotel resting and then an afternoon tour out to some ancient tombs in the countryside. These monolithic style tombs dated from pre-Inca, Inca and post-Inca time frames, but in total were quite interesting to look at. This is doubly so because of the beautiful place they are located near a pretty lake. Among the many things we learned was that the tombs really didn't fall apart and crumble as they appear to have over the centuries. Rather, the main reason most were torn down or have sections ripped out of them is that the Spanish who came to Peru in the 1500s deconstructed them because they believed that surely these tombs would have gold in them. They didn't.

On the way back to Puno, our group stopped at a typical Peruvian homestead...complete with housing, a courtyard, kitchen, llamas, and of course a pen full of "cuy." One last dinner in Puno and then back to the hotel. The next morning we were on our way back to Juliaca airport for our flight to Lima and, ultimately, home.

Lima and then Home
Sunset over the ocean in Lima
We arrived in Lima at about 3 p.m., but our flight back to the U.S. didn't leave until 12:30 a.m. the next morning. So we had about nine hours to kill. What to do? Not sit around the airport, that's for sure. Instead, before our REI tour had ended, we had asked our guide what he would advise we do. He said that going into the old center of Lima would not be a good idea after 2 p.m. because it was too dangerous for tourists. He'd lived in Lima for several years and said that we should trust him on this. Instead, he suggested we head to one of the upscale seaside neighborhoods - in particular a place called Miraflores. So we did. We went to a massive shopping center overlooking the ocean and spent our time eating, drinking and shopping. One of us also visited a couple spas for some face and nail treatments. I'll leave it to you to guess if it was me or Diane.

All and all though, not too bad! By 9 p.m. it was time to head back to the airport. We boarded our flight - first class seats! - and lifted off for home. After a three hour layover in Atlanta, we were on our way to Seattle.

And that was it folks. Trip over. What an adventure. Physically challenging, natural beauty the likes of which we had not seen, ancient culture explored, Machu Picchu visited, new friends made and a new culture experienced. Will we go back? Hard to say. Peru is like so many other places we've been...yes, notionally, we'd love to go back. But will we? Probably not...or not soon. There are just so many other new places around the world to go. However, I would say that our appetite is whetted for more South American travel. We've discussed going to Buenos Ares and Patagonia in Argentina, as well as Rio and the Amazon in Brazil. Those would be high on our list now because of our experience in Peru. We shall see!

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts about the trip. Soon, I'll do one more post that aggregates links to all the posts in this series, as well as the related photo set on Flickr so everything is all in one place long term.

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn. No use of these pictures for any purpose is permitted without advanced written permission from Marc Osborn.

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