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Journal of No. 118


July 8th, 2011

Peru IV @ 12:27 pm

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Day 6

Off in the morning to the port in Puno to catch a tourist boat to the Uros Islands, the famous floating islands of the Uru people, who live their traditional centuries-old lifestyle of fishing, bartering, and extracting money from tourists. Apropos of nothing, I note that the local pronunciation of Titicaca is aspirated on the second half, more like Titikhakha. The totora reeds grow all over the shallow areas of the lake, but in some places the rootbeds are particularly buoyant. These are cut with saws, towed by boat, and then lashed together with other chunks to form the base of the floating islands. We stopped at the Isla del Sol y Luna and the local demonstrated the construction, adding layers of reeds on top of the floating rootbeds, and then houses, watchtowers and other structures on top (also all made out of totora). In fact, totora is a magic plant -- it can be eaten, used for cooking fires, used for medicine, built into boats, and made into the islands. Anchors keep the islands relatively fixed in position, but winds do shift them about. It seems pretty stable when you're walking around on it -- you almost suspect it's really attached to the lake bottom -- so it was a little surprising to see the jefe of the island use a rock tied to a sounding rope to show that the depth directly under the island was some 17 meters.

We bought a few souvenirs and got strong-armed into taking a ride in one of their totora woven boats (which are supplemented by plastic bottles concealed under the hull for buoyancy). New boats still have the green color of the fresh reeds, but they later dry and bleach to pale yellow. They last about two years before they need to be replaced.

Lake Titicaca, of course, is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. Obviously, this depends a lot on what you mean by navigable, since you can stick a rowboat in higher lakes. Wikipedia informs me that "Navigable waters of the United States, as defined in 33 CFR 329, are those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce while the waterway is in its ordinary condition." Certainly the lake is used for commerce between Peru and Bolivia. Wow, that was boring.

Back on land, we were dropped off in the main plaza for a bit of time on our own. There's a pedestrian street that travels between the main plaza and a lesser plaza. Along this are many restaurants, including Ukuku's, which the guidebook had praised somewhat (there not being very many really praiseworthy eateries in Puno it seems). We had the eponymous Ukuku's pizza loaded with ham, bacon, sausage, peppers and a couple other things. It was good, but not as good as the pizza from Chez Maggy, though the little cup of Ukuku's hot sauce was excellently hot. A couple big bottles of Cusqueña were also quite welcome.

We finished and went back to the plaza for our next tour and happened upon a funeral procession, complete with marching band, sorta New Orleans-style. Then onto the tourbus, out to see the Chullpas of Sillustani. These are mainly pre-Inca funerary towers. Each stone cylinder has one or more mummies inside; later, the Inca Empire extended here and some chullpas are constructed with fine Incan stonework, with curved faces and interlocking tongues and grooves to make a tights, round tower. Chullpa means basket, and originally mummies were 'buried' in baskets, but as time went on, they developed into these stone towers.

The area is also pretty as the towers are situated on a hill that juts out like a little peninsula into Lake Umayo. As you climb the sight, you get better and better views of the lake as it surrounds the land. Also here we got a fairly close encounter with a herd of alpaca. And we were surprised and delighted to discover that they take dust baths!

Back to the hotel for a light dinner and early bed. We get up abominably early to catch the bus to Arequipa. -- Hm, as it turned out, not so light a dinner. Lovely alpaca cutlets with chimichurri, alongside little mounds of quinoa/potato/cheese stuff. I also enjoyed the tasty maracuyá sour: a pisco sour with passion fruit instead of lime.


Day 7

Today started with another stressful moment. A couple times yesterday, the agency people we were dealing with (Kon Tiki) told us we'd be picked up at 6:15 this morning. Then in the evening Señor Freddy called the hotel to tell us 5:30. Ugh, but so be it.

5:30 comes and goes and no transfer. After a few minutes, we get anxious and start trying to get in touch with our tour people, but no soap. Finally, I fish out a scrap of paper with Ruben's # and manage to get a hold of him. He calls back and says the bus will come at 6. We don't know what to believe at this point, but we stay put. 6 comes and goes. Oh yay. Another couple has arrived and they're also waiting. I ask where they're headed and they say Arequipa. At least that's a half relief -- probably we're on the same bus, and it does indeed arrive at 6:15 or so as originally promised. Now this all worked out well in the end (apart from lost sleep and worry) but suppose Freddy had said 7:30 instead of 5:30?

We board our minibus, and head out of Puno, through beautiful (ha) Juliaca and then take a different route out toward Arequipa. We have a guide who points out a few things and sets out the schedule for today's trip.

Surprisingly, this route is going to get even higher than the previous record. And it's not like we're climbing to the top of a mountain, or even taking a twisty little road in the outback. We're taking a section of the Interoceanic Highway that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil to the Pacific Ocean in Peru. I haven't found an official elevation, but it looks like the elevation on this section reaches 4800 meters above sea level. That's 15,750 feet. Putting that in perspective, that's 1,000 feet taller than Mt. Whitney, the tallest spot in the lower 48 states. Atmospheric pressure is about 55% of what it is at sea level. The boiling point of water is 182 degrees. On the highway. Dr. Pookie slept through that, possibly due to lack of oxygen to her brain.

We stop at an overlook at Lake Lagunillas and a smaller lake nearby with some flamingoes that have flown north for the winter (though it was still plenty cold and windy up there -- ice covered the smaller ponds and streams. But the rule is still true -- if tourist buses stop, there are locals waiting around to sell you ocarinas and alpaca goods.

Another 1.5 hours down the road, we come to a wide spot in the road crouched under some neat rock formations. There's a little cafe, some bathrooms, and some souvenir stalls, and precious little else. The terrain has changed and snowclad volcanoes appear on the horizon, and craggy cliffs. We have a little snack here -- a ham and cheese and chicken salad sandwich provided by the bus company -- and a refreshing three-plant tea with coca leaves and branchlets of two other local plants in it. Quite good, and the warmth was very welcome.

Along the route, we had nice chats with the other couple from the hotel, our only companions on this trip. We swapped stories of travels here and there around the world. After the rest-stop, we transferred from the bus to a smaller van, which took us the rest of the way to Arequipa, while the bus headed back for Puno. Much of the area in this half of the journey was in areas set aside for the protection of local fauna, and we caught a few looks at some adorable vicuñas. Guanacos live in the area, but evidently they prefer to live at altitudes over 5,000 meters!

As we descended rapidly into the Arequipa area, we saw a humongous cement factory -- musta been at least 200 feet tall. Into Arequipa proper, the outskirts are fairly commercial, but nowhere near as ugly as Juliaca. The center of the city is really nice, and scenicly overshadowed by the three local volcanoes. Our single-serving friends on the van went to their hotel, while we were passed off to another tour company for a short tour of two of the major sites in town.

The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a perfect little city within the city, a chunk walled off from the town by the Spanish for the nuns. The convent covers several blocks and we saw the different cloisters for the novices, teaching sisters (with beds for their pupils), and other nuns. And various other areas: kitchens, the cleverly engineered laundry, work areas, plazas, servants quarters, etc.

Servants, you say? Yep. Although the nuns had a fairly strict rule of silence, the convent accepted primarily the younger daughters of aristocratic families, who forked over quite a pile of silver when their daughter was accepted, and most had private rooms. Servants did much of the drudgery, though the sisters also did embroidery and fashioned Hosts for sale to help support the convent.

The convent dates from about 1580, though the buildings are mostly newer (due to earthquakes). Much later, the pope altered their rule, forbidding servants and private rooms. Apparently, the nun population dwindled from 500 to 50, and there are currently just 24 nuns in the convent. They now live in a newer building on the site, while the old buildings have been restored and opened to the public.

From there, we walked throught he main plaza, where we saw the cathedral. In 2001, an 8.1 earthquake destroyed the left bell tower, but it has since been replaced.

Another couple blocks and we came to the archeological museum, with its main attraction: Juanita, the Ice Maiden, an Inca sacrifice to the volcanoes. Her frozen body was fortuitously discovered in 1995 -- the scientists had climbed that volcano solely to get some good photographs of the neighboring volcano, which was erupting. Another dozen-and-a-half such sacrifices have been found in the area, but Juanita is the best-preserved.

She was not mummified, but her body was frozen, leaving her quite intact. And though she's kept under dim light and at -20 degrees in a thick glass case, it's still pretty eerie to see her face staring out at you. Apparently, her last meal was coca tea and corn beer, and then (like the others) she was killed by a strong blow to the head. She was buried with due pomp and ceremony, wearing costly clothing and surrounded by offerings. The museum has many of these on display from both Juanita and some of the other sacrifices. A small museum, but with lots of neat things.

Walking back through the square, we entered the narrow lane behind the cathedral, which is lined with shops and cafes. We went to one with a terrace on top and had a little snack of papas and beer.

Going back to the tour office, they transferred us to the airport. The morning started out with us being 45 minutes early for our bus; the evening ended with the plane being an hour and a half late. if you ever plan a trip to Peru, do not count on the domestic airlines to make a connection for you to your international flight. We batted 0/2 for on-time flights.

The plane should land in a bit, and hopefully, there'll be someone there to collect us and drop us off at our hotel, the Marriott in the tony Miraflores district, which includes (so we hear) a casino. A long day, but now we'll be on our own for a couple days, setting our own schedule. Sleeping in seems to be a high priority.

Made it to the Marriott. Swanky place with a great view of the Larcomar (mall) and the Ocean. As promised, the weather is grey and almost drizzly in Lima. Evidently they have LA- style 'June gloom' for most of the year.
 
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Journal of No. 118