Travelblog SA#25: Lake Titicaca Part 1 (Uros, Amantaní & Taquile) – Peru

1st-2nd November 2018

Situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is both the largest lake in South American and also, at 3,800 meters altitude, the highest navigable lake in the world. It has a rich history, having been inhabited by many cultures – including the Tiwanaku people – for thousands of years before the Incas came, and many ancient relics to this area’s spiritual past remain.

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This was my final week in Peru and I began it with a two-day boat journey through the lake. The boat I was cruising on took us first to the Uros archipelago. A community of floating, man-made islands made out of reeds. Each one is home to a small extended family and they form a complex network, either connected to each other directly or within close proximity.

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It is said that these people originated from the Amazon, from which they were driven out hundreds of years ago. Having no land to call their home, they created their own. The islands are mobile and they used to dwell deeper within the lake but now, having achieved a more peaceful existence with the people who live upon the shore, they have moved closer to the port town of Puno where they supplement their living on tourism and selling handicrafts.

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As a tourist, your time on Uros is very structured. You are not really allowed to wander freely and are taken to a small part of it chosen by the community. The amount of time you spend is also designated by the captain of your boat. One of the locals comes out, tells you a little about their lives, and then you get some time to browse the shops some of the inhabitants have set up.

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I am not saying this as a complaint. It was still interesting to see, even if you didn’t feel like you get to know the place and its people properly. I have seen a lot of people online complaining about this place being too ‘touristy’ and, to be quite frank, those people need to get a grip. What exactly are you expecting? You are a tourist. One out of dozens who come to a very small place each day to walk among them. Of course they are going to control where you go and try to sell you things. What other benefit are they going to get out of you nosing into their life? Minority cultures don’t exist solely for the curiosity of white people.

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After our time in Uros, we got back onto the boat and sailed deeper into the lake, passing through a channel between the beds of reeds. We saw lots of birdlife. Within an hour or so, something appeared on the horizon and it got bigger and bigger. It was the Island of Amantaní, where we were staying that night.

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Amantaní is a small island, mostly populated by Quechua-speaking farmers who have lived there for generations. There are no hotels, restaurants or cars, only homestays, which the Elders allocate to visitors on a rotating system. I was given my own room, which was surprisingly comfortable, but there was no electricity or hot water (not that I am complaining, simplicity is what I came here for). The woman who looked after me also provided me and the other guests with meals.

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After lunch, I went out and explored the island by foot.

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Despite how small this island is, it is surprisingly tiring to wander around. It is hilly and sits at an altitude of 3,800 to 4,100 meters, leaving you breathless at times. The sun is very strong too.

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First I walked to Pachatata, a peak which is home to some old Tiwanaku ruins which are still in use by locals for folk-ceremonies today.

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And then I walked to Amantaní’s highest peak of all, Pachamama, which had more ancient ruins and some wonderful views. One of my favourite sights was this photo I took.

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Amantaní has many Tiwanaku-style stone arches framing the pathways and this is one of them. In the background, you can see Pachatata, and then, beyond that, the white peaks of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. An area I intend to explore in the coming weeks.

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Most visitors to the island remain at Pachamama till dusk to watch the sunset, but I didn’t see much point in that because it was cloudy. I walked back to the main plaza. The temperature plummeted and it quickly became chilly. On the way, I popped into a small bar and had a beer before I returned to the homestay for dinner.

I slept very well that night. At one point I needed to get up to use the toilet and saw one of the starriest skies I have ever glimpsed. In the morning, our host made us a quick breakfast and then we were back on the boat again.

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We went to visit another island called Taquile that morning. Our captain dropped us off at the northern tip and then picked us up from the other side later that day, allowing us to walk its length.

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Taquile was a little more touristy and yet also more scenic than Amantaní. Amantaní gets fewer visitors, and the ones who do come mostly stay overnight, whereas Taquile mostly just gets day-trippers. It is steeper too. Not many people seem to bother walking up to its highest peak, which is a shame because it was probably my favourite place on these islands so far, and the walk had stunning views.

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There was yet another temple at the top, which also showed signs that it was still in use by the locals today.

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After lunch, I went to the dock where the boat was waiting to take me back to Puno.

 

For more photos from Lake Titicaca, click here.

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Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

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You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

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Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

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There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

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They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

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Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

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Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

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Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

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Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

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Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

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All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

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The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

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When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

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It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

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A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

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It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

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The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.

Travelblog SA#13: Chachapoyas – Peru

25th-28th August 2018

‘Chachapoyas’ means ‘people of the clouds’ in Quechua,  and there is no mystery as to why this region was named such way as you are driven there through a series of winding roads cutting through the mountains. I arrived there at night, after a long day crossing the border from Ecuador where I made a new friend, Henri, and together we gritted our teeth through a series of colectivos (Peruvian shared taxis, often with more passengers than seats). I was already noticing that the rules of the road were different in Peru, and my heart was in my throat during the final stretch where we experienced a particularly precarious driver who liked to overtake at corners and accelerate to over 110 kilometres per hour.

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Chachapoyas, the town, was prettier than I expected. Its streets were lined with old colonial buildings with balconies. Our first day, we wandered around, getting a feel for the place. We went shopping in the market, which was the centre of life and had a great variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, bread, and grains from all regions of the country.

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In the afternoon, we caught a bus to Huanca – a village a few kilometres away with wonderful views of Soncha canyon – and it was there we finally got to see the terrain in the daylight.

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Soncha Canyon beautifully demonstrates the extremes of this region and was a great introduction to understanding it. The Chachapoya people who dwelt here hundreds of years ago are mysterious. Not much is known about them because they fell into obscurity shortly after being conquered by the Incas who implemented a system of known as ‘mitimaes’ (forcibly relocating subjugated peoples to spread them out and better control them). What we do know, is that they somehow managed to thrive for hundreds of years in a difficult landscape and, one of the ways they did this, was turning its extremes to their advantage and acting as traders between those who lived in the highlands of the Andes and the people of the Amazon.

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You cannot easily judge journey times around Chachapoyas. Distances as little as thirty kilometres can take over an hour because of the difficult terrain. The destination is always worth the time. On our second day, we went to see Gocta Waterfall which involved an hour and a half down bumpy roads followed by sweaty two-hour walk.

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At 771 meters, people can’t seem to decide if it is the third tallest cascade in the world or the sixteenth. At the bottom, the water has fallen for so long it fumes into clouds. I have taken a video which can be seen here.

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It was our final day that we went to see the crowning jewel of this area. Kuelap, an ancient city estimated to have been home to over three thousand people.

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Perched upon the top of a mountain, Kuelap can now be accessed by Peru’s first ever cable car system and, while making this twenty-minute journey up the mountain, you can only begin to appreciate how impressive it is that they built it in such steep inclines. At the top, you can see for miles in every direction. The site has an ethereal quality which makes the Chachapoya people deserving of being ‘of the clouds’.

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Our guide told us some facts (and speculations) about the place. It hasn’t received too much archaeological attention compared to other areas, but the excavations which have been done uncovered curious things such as human bones ritually placed within bottle-shaped recesses built into some of the walls. There is also a large platform on the south side they believe to have been a ceremonial space. It has the iconic face of a deity imprinted onto some of its stones, and the small opening at the top is perfectly aligned to where the sun shines on one of the equinoxes.

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It took a full two hours to make our way through the entire complex, which is overgrown with trees but fairly well maintained. I didn’t realise that it would be so extensive. Kuelap exceeded my expectations in many ways and I do honestly believe that if it was in a country other than Peru – where it is somewhat over-shadowed by Machu Picchu – and wasn’t so hard to get to, it would be a world-renown attraction of much higher regard.

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I guess that it is a good thing in a way that it gets such little attention because sometimes the magic of places can be lost when they become too popular.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

Also, here is a link to a very interesting BBC documentary about the Chachapoya people.