Tag Archives: Arequipa

Portrait of a Peruvian Lady

The face is an insight into each unique life lived. The wrinkles, the expressions and above all the eyes. A window into the soul. So says the cliché. I suspect it contains a very large dose of truth.

I was reminded recently of one of my favourite sets of old portrait photos: a series of beautiful, strong Peruvian women I encountered on my travels in 2009. These photos, taken on a small point and shoot Canon camera I’d gotten for Christmas of the year before, were nothing sophisticated – but they were honest and reflected a desire to connect with a new culture I was experiencing and loving. Tucked away in my photo folders on an old external hard drive – they have traipsed around the world with me and are a nostalgic reminder of uni travels.

And so, on a cold winter’s night after perusing textures and colours at an exhibition of Latin American contemporary art at the Museum of Art & Design or “MAD” in NYC, I came home in search of my old archives! They brought back memories of how mesmerized I was by the Latin American continent when I first arrived in Peru for the first time. The colours, the smells, the chaos, the people, the food. The faces. Travelling through the countryside – the Colca Canyon region and Arequipa beyond the touristy Cuzco and hectic Lima – the clothing in particular was infused with a dash of texture, shape, pattern and colour that was representative of the strong and diverse personalities of the women that I came into contact with.

Crafts, textiles and weaving are a big part of the Peruvian culture of artisanship, skills held primarily among the women. Wandering along the streets of small towns, I was reminded of the need to provide for family and children. Many of these women keep up traditions not for just pure passion but for necessity and income – tourism and selling traditional arts remain an important source of growth for Peru. Much like in any other country, some encounters were friendly – others were distracted as the women were engrossed in their creations, or suspicious of tourists. Invariably – a little bit of Spanish helped.

These photos are a short storyboard of my travels through Peru – interacting with women on the street, in museums, on tourist tracks between canyons and trails. They speak to my own love of the textures, colours and patterns of the Peruvian culture and the interesting Peruvian women I met along the way…

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Mother and daughter – colourful hats, sharp eyes, overlooking the Colca Canyon

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Suspicious knitter

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Don’t distract me…I’m knitting

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Maria, the friendliest by far on the streets of Arequipa

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Hard work

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Shy weaver

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Hiding behind my llama

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Artisan sewing in modern colours

M xx

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Knockout

I have a very animated way of talking which involves waving my hands around a lot. Not a big surprise if you take into account my Italian background. Then add in a pinch of enthusiasm, a hint of energy and a  drop of flamboyant personality…and you have a recipe for knocking over many glasses of water! Yes, I have spilled a lot of water in kitchens and at restaurant tables in my adult years, not to mention my childhood ones.  Recently, I managed to knock over a series of full glasses of water in fancy New York establishments onto the lap of my great friend MC. In both cases I had barely touched my glass of wine, so I really had no excuse other than my own over enthusiasm and excessive gesticulations to blame! Thank you MC for being so patient with my water spills!

Water glasses are not the only casualty from this intensity in communication style – I have (accidentally) knocked people in the face with my elbows on the dance floor (to the chagrin of their boyfriends nearby!) and practically and unintentionally tripped myself over, rifled phones to the floor and ruffled many feathers.

The unintentional “knockout” moment. It is amazing what you discover when it happens. Some people laugh as you collect yourself and clear the spillage. Some people respond as if distressed by the invasion of their peace and personal space. Some people start up a conversation in the wake of the damage, as if you broke the ice and opened yourself up to a fresh, genuine interaction. It is impossible to be inauthentic in that (embarrassing) moment! Caught off guard by your own imperfection and unconstrained passion for the topic of the day.

That “knockout” moment is not always bad. In fact – in the creative process, it most often manifests itself as a moment of inspiration, of  eye-opening wonder. When you suddenly seize the moment, filled with a sense of vision. It happens in writing, it happens in art, it happens when you get that perfect shot, without trying. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does – it’s great. I find travel often wields these artistic “knockout” moments, more than normal life. Maybe it’s because our hearts are more open to them. We are more relaxed, more liberated. Maybe it’s because what we see is somehow new and makes us feel renewed, novel and different. Bill Bryson put it beautifully:

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.

– Bill Bryson

I share a couple of “knockout” visions. They are by no means the best photos ever taken at all, but I can remember feeling a sense of satisfaction when I took them. A random selection to inspire over the weekend.

1. Composition

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The art of gelato: it was too good to pass up, the moment of dripping, melting gelato in the Springtime sun on a backstreet in Milan with my sister’s bright multi-colored necklace shining in the background!

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Seal Rocks: the most gorgeous outlook to the Pacific Ocean on the north coast of NSW, Australia. The turquoise waters shimmering in the summer sun and the green shrubs in the foreground, both a lovely contrast to the deep, dark blue hues of the watery expanse.

2. Intense color and contrast

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German tulips: brightening your day and the tiny dew drops topped off one of my favorite flower photos.

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African sunset: it doesn’t get any better than an African sunset along the Chobe River in Botswana. It took your breath way.

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Micro China: red, the color of fortune and royalty. These slippers from a market stall in China were a bright reminder of a regal past. I love the messiness of the close up, entangled tassels and all.

3. Ambience / enigmatic human interest

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Rainy reflections: stuck on a rainy night in the backstreets of the charming, quaint town of Suzhou, China about an hour or so outside Shanghai, the reflections of the bright lanterns with these lone girls huddled under their shared umbrella just captivated me. The blur of the photo felt in tune with the drizzly outlook from underneath my own umbrella.

Old fashioned Shanghai street: This is by no means the most fabulous set of photos, but it felt like I’d capture a moment of humanity passing by me in those moments. I was standing still and alone on a standard back street somewhere in the metropolis of Shanghai, with people, cars and mess passing by me. In those moment, two elderly gentlemen cycled slowly past, and 2 elderly ladies wandered in the opposite direction. Each a slow solitary figure in this overcrowded city. Each simply going about their own daily business and happening to have intersected with my own travels, in a moment when I too had stopped to take stock.

4. Nature: stunning scenery

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Antarctic ice sheet reflections

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Iceberg depths

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Spot the penguin

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Iceberg graveyard

5. Great smiles

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Colca Canyon Joy: traveling through the Colca Canyon in Peru, we would stop along the road to look at the beautiful local scarves and textiles, occasionally buying something or chatting with the locals. This mother and daughter captivated me – in their traditional colorful patterned dresses and hats of the local area. The warmth of the mother’s expression, the hand of the daughter leaning close to her mother. A great smile lights up a portrait like nothing else. We all look better smiling! 

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Maria de Arequipa: I managed to garner from my basic Spanish that this lady’s name was Maria as she sat smiling on the sidewalk of the old town of Arequipa, Peru making small dolls and keychain dolls – artisanship slowly being lost. Her positivity was palpable.

Have a great weekend!

M xx

Besos da Peru

As a teenager, I was lucky enough to travel to Europe (more on that later!) to experience the warmth and love of Italian hospitality and family, and to take one of those anglo-saxon peculiarities otherwise known as a “gap year” to explore the world and “grow up”.  At the end of 2009 after finishing college (or “uni”), I decided to explore a new continent…the Americas. It began with a trip to north actually, in New York and the family history in the American Northeast, but was soon followed by my first foray into South America.  My first experience of an organized tour. It was to be a 2 and a half month discovery. In one of my favorite continents now, through Peru, Bolivia,  Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.  It was without doubt an eye opening experience. One that heralded the start of a period in life where I chased after adventure travel and stunning landscape.  It opened my horizons, as with all travel into truly novel cultures and places of great beauty.  It made me appreciate big hikes and altitude.  It was seen through the eyes of young woman, still a student, before entering the world of full-time work, unfettered by responsibilities of work or demands of anything other than the pressure to enjoy youth to the max. I highly recommend Peru…enjoy…
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Lima, Peru – Lima was the first stop off into South America, and wow, what an entry! My friend J, who I am travelling around South America with, was arriving 6 hours after me, but one of her friends A from Lima picked me up from the airport with his dad, Jesus (quite common in the older generation here!). So, I got whizzed into the centre and gosh, the traffic over here is the craziest I have EVER seen! Everything about Lima is intense – the pollution fills your lungs, the buses are all from the 1950s, there are no lanes, the traffic is intense, everyone honks their horns for EVERYTHING and anything, and the local buses are pretty much just combi vans run by private drivers (because public transport is pretty much non existent and infrequent) that stop on the side of the road picking up people with their hands out and they stack about 25 people into a tiny tiny bus, people hanging out on the side, lots of stray dogs, grey apartment blocks and hollering taxi drivers who honk at everything and anything (especially given there are no indicators, seatbelts or lanes over here!)! It was good to be with locals who knew how to navigate and even then I felt like there were near misses every few seconds…but being the car with Jesus made me feel better!! Although I did go for a short walk on the Sunday morning by myself around the historic centre, and as soon as you step outside the main squares it quickly becomes dilapidated houses, beggars and no women by themselves (i.e. only with boyfriends, husbands or men), so I quickly hurried back to the hotel…no surprises there given an 8million people city which is over one third of Peru’s population and there is a lot of poverty because so many people come from the mountains and internal Peru to find work and they find that life is much worse than where they left.
Lima has quite a beautiful historic centre, the cathedral is the first ever built by the Spanish in South America, and the architecture heralds the colonial past which can be felt across South America. The traditional food to try here include Pollo a la Plancha (grilled chicken), ceviche (a type of lemon, onion and chilli marinated raw fish which is delicious), tacu tacu con bistec (corn and bean paste with beef steak) and mazzamorra morada (a type of purple corn syrup often served with arroz con leche, or rice pudding…yummmy!) Potato chips are served almost with everything because there are about 3000 types of potatoes in peru, and corn is common too with about 1000 types of corn grown in peru! But remember not to eat lettuce because it is pretty much always unclean…even though it is unlikely to get through south america without some bowel issues hehe!
After the local tour of the historic centre we picked up Julie from Lima airport and the next day we hung out again with A and his friend D who took us to the local joint to try Chicharrones – greasy pig burger basically…which we had for breakfast! We hung out in the more touristy area (feels less local than the historic centre) of Miraflores with its many shops and view to the water (albeit rather grey and muddy) before meeting up for the start of our tour with Tucan of Peru…it was primarily aussies, and mostly girls with a few couples, but having spent 24 hours 7 days for the last couple of weeks it is a great bunch of people, all of which seem to know each other rather intimately now because we pretty much always end up back at bowel movements by the end of meals…unavoidable hehe!
Pisco & Paracas / Islas Ballestas – from Lima we headed to Pisco, a tiny town on the coast of Peru south of Lima which was completely destroyed a few years ago by an earthquake. You really notice the poverty over here because the roads on the coast are often surrounded by barren sandy expanses with shanty towns, and since there are a lot of earthquakes there are a lot of towns which have half finished buildings, rubble, and motorcars and bikes navigating through unpaved streets with potholes everywhere and no powersteering! The town of Pisco is the birthplace of the famous Peruvian drink, the Pisco Sour…which include egg white, lots of lime and lots of Pisco, a strong grape liquer…hmmmm! best Pisco so far in Peru came from the tiny restaurant in Pisco, a haven among a wasteland of food otherwise!
Pisco is also close to the area called Paracas, off of which the Ballestas Islands are an amazing wildlife park. On the way to the Ballestas, we passed huge factories of anchovies and frozen fish – which gave off a strong stench – which are one of the major industries of Peru and which are factories literally dotted along a coastline which looks barren, sandy and rocky! Apparently a kg of anchovies in peru costs about A30c…so if anyone wants anchovies, let me know! The Ballestas Islands were incredible – they were this set of rocky islands which appeared quite arid and barren but which are hope to thousands and thousands of beautiful cormorants and their nests, tropical birds, cute sea lions (despite their huge size), lots of fish (due to the cold water all year round), incredibly majestic black pelicans…it felt like being in a David Attenborough episode!
The sand dunes & oasis of Huacachina – we then headed to Huacachina, which is literally this oasis of a tiny town in the middle of mountains of sand. The landscape (as you will read) in Peru is so diverse that it changes from coast and beaches, so rocky barren flat sandy desert, to amazing sand dunes, to the Andes and mountain chains, to incredible rainforests! Anyway, this was the first taste of the diversity, with an expanse of sand dunes as far as the eye could see around this tiny oasis…it was so hot and so dry and we got to go sand dune buggying which these crazy Peruvian drivers who had these open buggies with insane engines and massive tyres with the most incredible tread on them to climb sand dunes at 80km/hr and then prevent us from toppling over as we descended the dunes. We had to wear this goggles which reminded me of looking at bunsen burners in Year 8 science to prevent us from getting whipped by the sand as we drove around, but between the sunscreen adn the sandy wind we all looked like cinnamon donuts by the end of the exercise (description coined by J I should say!). We also went sand boarding, which was the most exhilirating of the trip so far! We would get driven to the top of a sand dune, jump out of the buggy, the driver would soap up what looked like a snowboard and we would lie flat on our stomachs on the board holding on to a strap for dear life as he pushed us down the hill…the board got up to quite a speed going down the hills (which got steeper and steeper) and then you’d slowly slow down once you hit the flat at the bottom of the hill! Quite a scream came out of most of us as we descended the hill, it was amazing!! I’m sure we must be able to have a sport like this in Australia, we have so much sand…it require very little prowess other than some gumption and a board! People even surf down the dunes too..although we heard a boy broke his collar bone trying to do that without experience, so maybe not!
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Nasca & the Nasca Lines – We then drove from huacachina in the late afternoon to the small town of Nasca where the famous ‘Nasca lines’ can be seen in the desert (I’ll explain shortly!). We got driven in these ‘american taxis’ which were basically like old 1950s american style wide cars with no seatbelts (no one wears seatbelts in the back of cars here anyway) and comfy cushioned chairs. All the taxis have funny sayings on the front, like ‘Dios es Amor (GOd is love)’ or ‘Soy tu Amigo (I’m your friend)’ and as we drove along the Panamericana Sur highway, I felt like I was in a crazy road trip movie – we were squashed into this old cadillac style car, with an old friendly Peruvian taxista, Jorge, and the view was incredible, flat rocky desert all around this straight highway heading into the horizon with huge reddish rocky mountains further into the distance, and the most incredible sunset. Along this highway there were occasionally thatched roof houses with men outside the front on their mobile (amazing that they had reception in the middle of nowhere!) and etched into the moutains around us were often political slogans or names…something you seen quite a lot over here, signs saying ‘working against illiteracy’ or pro-government and pro-voting slogans, or names with the date of 2011, the next presidential elections. It almost has this old-style communist feel in fact, even though it is ‘democractic’.
In Nasca there was literally one main street and main plaza, and that was about it…and the main street is just filled with small cars which are all taxis with men hollering out guapa and bonita, and one of the taxis we took even had a broken windscreen, so that made us feel really safe heading home! Lots of streetside vans sell amazing fruit – lots of tropical fruits, watermelon, papaya, thick juices, and chocolate snacks with funny names like ´Chips Ahoy!’ (ie choc chip cookies) and ‘Chocoman’. In Nasca, there is a flat desert surrounded by rocky mountains and in this barren desert there are amazing etchings of birds, spirits, monkeys, spiders and shapes which are prehistoric and because there is no wind, no rain in this area, the desert has preserved these huge carvings into the rocky ground. We took a 12 seater plane over the desert to witness the view from high which was quite incredible, although one girl was sick on the plane aargh, and it’s quite surreal to see these etchings in an area which is so barren and you can never imagine that anyone ever lived in…although there may have once been water in the past.
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Arequipa – This was the second largest city in Peru and is home to about 800,000 people. It has quite a quaint, charming feel to it with streets around the main square full of cobble stones and beautiful old churches with peruvian style decoration. It is a very earthquake prone area and has been rebuilt several times with photos of the spires after the earthquake looking like apple cores. It is also quite high up, about 2,500m and so was the first taste of altitude which was quite good to get used to given that we went up to almost 5,000m later in the week and would be walking the Inca Trail in high altitude. I didn’t have any altitude sickness, but you do get tired more easily and out of breath after short walks making you feel really unfit! Arequipa is also home to the most amazing convent where over 400 nuns used to lives throughout the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s and is almost like a town inside a town – it takes more than an hour just to walk through the cute quaint backstreets of the convent which are painted in blue and red on the beautiful white stone quarried from the area around here. It felt like you had stepped into a Wonderland, the doors were all so short (Peruvians are very short, so I’m feeling quite tall at the moment and almost knocked even my head on the door of one of the houses in the convent!)! Arequipa also has great nightlife as a student town and more women wearing traditional dress and weaving on the streets – in fact, a lot of older Peruvian women are always weaving alpaca and lama wool into yarn and fabric just as the walk around as if they don’t even realise they’re doing it! it’s quite incredible!
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Everything is also so cheap in Peru – it’s about A40c per Peruvian sol and you can get amazing local food for 7 or 8 soles (or A$3), but you can also afford to splurge on the amazing restaurants! In Arequipa there was a famous internationally renowned Peruvian chef’s restaurant called ‘Chi Cha’ where we got to taste the local specialties of chichamorada (purple corn drinks) and guinea pig, alpaca ossobuco and creme brulee in a bed of purple corn – all for the grand total of about A$17 (which is expensive here, but quite a nice treat for travellers looking for gourmet delicacies – J and I have more photos of food than anything else at the moment, except maybe for mountains!).
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Colca Canyon – From Arequipa we went to the Colca canyon, which is the deepest canyon in the world – almost double the depth of the Grand Canyon in the states, although with different surrounding scenery. It was absolutely incredible driving out to the Canyon we passed through the National park of the Salines and White waters which looked like massive flat expanses of swamp and barren dry sandy areas which are the natural habitat to 4 of the 6 species of camels in the world – including, llamas (as they call them here, pronounced yamas also considered sacred animals), alpacas and visquenas (like gazelles almost). Families in Peru and especially in the Andes often have alpacas and llamas as pets and kids walk around with baby llamas (although they don’t treat them very well!) and many women wear traditional dress and still sew the elaborate skirts and hats with colourful lace patterns and weave tapestry hats. Then you sometimes see them putting their hand into the stomach and pulling out a mobile phone! So there is this weird mix of modern and ancient which haven’t quite integrated smoothly over here!
Anyway, the views of the Andean mountains were absolutely spectacular! It’s quite a harsh landscape and the rocks are all hues of red orange and grey, with the occasional shrub and scrubby sandy patch. The Andean peoples still believe in the ancient spirits of mother earth and the leave gifts and petitions to the mountains and the rivers in such a way that the ancient religions are mixed into the official ‘Catholic’ religion. The beautiful views of the mountains are also heightened by the fact that the mountains are such so huge and so expansive – we drove through an area which was 4,910m which is 100m higher than the highest point on Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) and there were many many more mountains which were higher and snowcapped. We even spotted condors (the symbol of Peru and Bolivia or of the Andes generally) flying majestically over the mountains and through the canyon. We really felt the altitude when we went for walks around the canyon because after small inclines you could feel the blood pumping in your neck and head and sometime ended up getting a headache if you didn’t drink a lot of water. But the views were definitely worht it…just have to watch out for all the donkey poo everywhere!
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Cuzco – From Arequipa we headed further and higher into the Andes to the famous city of Cuzco at 3,500m which was the centre of the Incan Empire in the 1400s and 1500s when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in 1532, and it is a charming city (albeit slightly touristy!) with a beautiful square in the centre surrounded by cobblestone streets heading up many hills and then surrounded by lush green Andean mountains. It is a much wetter and greener area where you really feel the wet season – so every afternoon, after a morning of sun, the grey clouds slowly descend on the city, you hear claps of thunder and shortly after it proceeds to pour down rain onto this ancient city! It has some amazing museums and artefacts of the pre-Incan and Incan civilisations which are housed in a kind of old mansion with a courtyard and very little security or proper labelling – it’s amazing, because in Europe these kinds of artefacts would be protected by ropes and alarms and security guards…but not in Peru! Cuzco also is home to some of the most beautiful silver jewellery that you find all over Peru, and beautiful warm soft baby alpaca scarves and blankets! it’s hard to resist them when everything is also so reasonably priced! Cuzco is also a great centre of nightlife with so many tourists and a lot of young people studying to be tour guides (to be a tour guide in Peru requires 5 years of university study and given the importance of tourism to Peru it is a very popular option for young people) – so this was where Julie and I (who have a birthday one day apart) ended up celebrating our birthdays into the wee hours of the morning after some amazing meals of alpaca, lomo saltado (traditional Peruvian beef dish) and more! The local markets in every city, including Cusco, are also always a ‘must-see’ sight – they are usually filled with the most delightful tropical fruits and jugos (a type of fresh juice which includes all the pulp and so are thicker and richer than regular fruit juices, you find them everywhere here!) and the most incredible array of fish, meat and cereals – you can’t be squeamish though because there are plenty of pig’s heads, pig’s trotters, chicken feet, frog’s legs and even cow’s heads being sliced up in front of your eyes as you walk around!!! It was a bit of a shock to the system actually to find a cow head with the skin and ears on one side being chopped up as we perused the markets!
The Inca Trail / Macchu Picchu / Wayna Picchu / Sacred Valley – Well, everyone knows that you go to Peru for Macchu Picchu, the ancient Inca city! So, we too went on the amazing 4 day trek through the Andes to Macchu Picchu! It was the most incredible and the most inspiring experience – the trek takes you past the most spectacular mountain views, this time of much greener, more lush mountains with terraced sides from the Inca times where agriculture is still important and many small towns and groups of huts still are congregated in the areas closer to towns. The path is not a well worn path, although it is clearly marked, it remains rocky and moutainous with lots of stairs and mud. The path snakes around next to an incredible river filled with water gushing through according to a more powerful current than I have ever seen, and which is so loud that you can hear it almost the entire trek even though you walk away from it into the heart of the mountains. The trek strarted at around 3,000m and goes all the way up to 4,200m with the second day being the toughest and most gruelling, requiring an ascent of 1200m in 5km and which really tests your calf muscles, thigh muscles with huge rocky stairs, and which is a massive challenge on your lung capacity towards the end of the trek up to the peak, where you arrive exhausted and tremendously satisfied only to find that within about 5 seconds you are FREEZING in your t-shirt and so you layer up with about 6 layers from your day pack, including gloves and beanie! The landscape over the four days changes from lush green scrubby mountains to almost rainforest-like sections where it drizzles all the time, and then to forest-like sections in the clouds where you can’t see anything except for mist and white around you. we had great weather, primarily warm sun so we could walk in shorts and singlet tops, but it got cold at night and cold in certain higher altitude sections, so you kept on changing as you walked. The landscape also included passing through some amazing ancient Inca ruins, often in higher altitude areas where it was quite misty, giving it this ‘lost civilisation’ kind of mystique! I often felt like I was in a set of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and expected Gandalf or Frodo to suddenly appear – especially given that we sometimes walked in cape like ponchos a la Gandalf and used walking sticks to help our ascent and to prevent us from slipping in steep descents. Most mornings we were up around 5am and on the last morning we were up at 3:50am to be at the gates when Macchu Picchu Sacred Valley opens at 5:30am for the hour walk to the sun gate. It was an incredible experience always being up with the light because by about midday you felt like you’d had a full day already! We had porters who carried the tents, some additional provisions and food, and who cooked for us as we walked – they are amazingly fit because in the altitude they are carrying 25kg on their backs and often run past you as you’re walking so they can set up camp for when we all arrived! Some had been doing the Inca Trail for 12 years and were in their 60s, and when we would arrive to camp they would sometimes play soccer with the locals in the high altitude – we all laughed that it they came to sea level they could probably all run marathons without much training given their lung capacity and calf muscle strength! The final morning we headed to Macchu Picchu in the mist and descended into the heart of the valley to the town itself just as the clouds cleared and a brilliant sunny day revealed itself! The city of Macchu picchu is incredible – it is huge, and is made of the most beautiful white stone. The central sun temple lights up at solstice and equinox and there are still functioning fountains. Many llamas still live there, munching the grass as natural lawnmowers and the key structures were engineering feats built without any mortar, cement, mud or anything in between the stones on the structures which have lasted 500 years! It is surrounded by stunning mountains and rivers and 4 of us including myself were crazy enough to climb the vertiginous mountain of Waynapicchu which rises above the city of Macchu Picchu and provides a bird’s eye view of the entire valley! We had to use ropes to pull us up along the steep stairs (no railings or anything, no OH&S over here) and once we got to the top, it was the most exhilirating feeling to look back over the valley and witness the incredible feat of having built an entire white city in this imposing and impressive mountain setting. My legs were shaking as I stood on a rock at the top overlooking the scene of the city ensconced in its Andean paradise, most probably a mixture of fear at falling, nerves, exhaustion after the trek and the climb, and pure excitement! We made it and we conquered the mountains!!
Needless to say, we returned to Cuzco excited and rewarded and were hassled and bombarded with people around the main square offering waxing, massages and restaurants – they must know that all those who come back from the Inca Trail are exhausted enough to succumb!
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Amazon Jungle – Following the Inca Trail and some tours of the sacred valley sites of Inca ruins we headed to the opposite of the mountains – the jungle! As we flew on Star Peru (hmm I’ve seen better planes than these hehe) over the mountains around Cuzco we then suddenly witnessed a massive change in the landscape to a green expanse of flat jungle as far as the eye could see, and a brown massive river snaking its way through the green thick rainforest. Almost half of Peru is jungle, and the Amazon is so huge that you have to imagine the huge river in Peru is the Madre de Dios river that only joins onto the Amazon river 4200km away close to Brazil! We arrived to a tiny jungle town Puerto Maldonaldo and took a motorised old wooden canoe which was letting in water for an hour and a half to jungle ‘eco’ bungalows where there was no hot water, and only electricity a couple of hours each evening – there we arrived to the welcome of a tiny baby monkey who would clamber over our bags and shoes and drank starfruit and papaya juice to our heart’s content! Given it is the rainy season, it started pouring after we arrived and in our gumboots and ponchos we headed out to ‘Monkey Island’ in the Madre de Dios river, following our guide Victor with his machete, into the thick of the jungle! It was absolutely incredible – as we walked through this tiny path in the jungle that Victor hacked out for us, and walked over creaking mouldy wooden planks over muddy ground, we slowly entered into the thick of the rainforest which was filled with monkeys of all types! Spider monkeys, which look kind of like Aboriginal spirits they are so lanky, black and long with tiny faces, and about 5 other species of small monkeys! They are so beautiful, so friendly and curious – even though they are wild they would often jump gracefully through the trees until they were right on top of us so that they could get a closer look at us, just as we were trying to get of them! There were lots of mothers with tiny tiny baby monkeys clinging on for dear life on their backs! When we went to an area where we chopped up some bananas for the monkeys, they all descended like a stampede of hungry children to the dinner table to grab as much as they could – it was really quite awesome to witness the different personalities of the different monkeys – some were curious, some shy, some greedy, some clumsy, some more social, others more solitary! They are so human, it was quite beautiful to witness.
The second day in the jungle we hiked through a different section, once again following our machete-wielding guide who knew the jungle so well it was amazing – we could be walking along in thick mud up to our knees and then he would suddently stop us, point in a random direction and say ‘this animal’ or ‘that animal’ and sometimes he would even be able to entice them out (like baby tarantulas) or pick them up even though they were so well camouflaged (like tiny frogs the size of a quarter of my palm). We saw fresh jaguar tracks, bush pig tracks, a stunning array of birds and butterflies in colours as varied as purple, aquamarine, red, black, yellow and orange, sloths, caimans (small alligators), massive gigantic jungle snails, tapir tracks (the cow of the jungle weighing up to 250kg!), and all sorts of other amazing plants, trees, killer ants and mushrooms. No anacondas (thankfully!) but we were told of all the snakes that existed and how they kill their prey just to reassure us! When we finished our walk we arrived to where our little motorised boat should have been and there was nothing, so we just had to wait until some others came along the river – everything is rather relaxed in peru, things are always late, but once you get used to it, it’s actually very enjoyable because Peruvians are very friendly and helpful, gentle people. Probably the only scare we had was half way through our return on motorised canoe back to the town to catch our plane back to Cuzco the engine hit a tree as we were driving along on the river and just completely stopped! We were sitting in the lolling canoe for quite a while wondering whether we would miss our plane, or whether we even had an engine anymore…no spare engines here…or whether some paddling would be required! I can assure you that we all clapped when the engine got started again!
That afternoon we had planned to go fishing, but the rainy season interfered with our plans – once again, the dark ominous rain clouds descended upon our bunglaows faster than even our little motorised canoe could get us home and we got drenched as we cruised along the river in the heaviest torrential rain I have ever experienced – it was so powerful, so much in quantity that you couldn’t see across the river to the other side (say 700m wide at that point, it goes up to 4km wide on the Amazon river itself) and the sky and water just became a white film of water. I think we felt stickier and dirtier after half a day in the Amazon than after 4 days trekking on the Inca Trail! It was perfect weather though for lying in a sheltered hammock and chilling out, something which I have done very little of this trip so far!
Puno & Lake Titikaka – I am now in Puno, a small town on Lake Titikaka, the highest navigable lake in the world which is at 3,800m (once again in altitude!) and we are about to finish our tour in the next few days once we enter Bolivia. We went onto the islands of the Lake and stayed with a local family, so we did some shopping at the local market for the family as thanks for the hospitality before we went – we bought 3kg of rice, 2kg of flour, 1kg of lentils, sugar and corn flour, a bottle of oil, 2 cans of condensed milk, some sauces and meat and chicken stock – all of which cost us about 25 soles or less than A$10!
Lake Titikaka is a stunning landscape – it is huge! 160km x 100km at its largest and it really does look like a huge sea with mountains surrounding it in the distance. There are many islands where traditional communities still live and we visited  of them – the first was the Uros Islands which are literally man-made islands out of mud and reeds and the families make the most beautiful tapestries and use reed boats and paddle boats or motorised canoes to go between their ‘islands’ and Puno. Each family lives on an island, so each island is about a quarter of the size of a normal Australian house block and each island has a ‘president’ or head of the family who wears a colourful beanie to show his status. The people were incredibly friendly and showed us their reed homes and dressed us up in their garb – needless to say, we looked quite ridiculous! The amazing thing was that on these tiny islands they use solar power for electricity and get mobile reception!!!
The second island we visited was Amantani islands (about 5000 people), and this was where we stayed with a local family. Our Peruvian ‘Mama’ Olga brought us to her mudbrick house on the island at 3,900m (we were exhausted by the time we got there) and made us lunch and dinner – they only eat vegetables and their hospitality, whilst incredibly basic (some families only have candles at night and they do not have running water or normal toilets) was very warm. They loved talking to us in broken Spanish (we spoke broken Spanish and their first language is Quechua, the ancient Inca language that mountain peoples still speak) and telling us about their lives which were spent mainly walking across the island to see family (her mother and her sister’s family lived an hour’s walk away) and producing potatoes for subsistence living. We ended up playing soccer against the locals (they had a small cement ‘field’), watching the sunset from the highest point on the island which was stunning, and dancing at the local ‘disco’ hall with our families all dressed up in traditional dress. It was quite an experience and the beauty of the Lake and its views, and the warmth and generosity of its peoples (they made us a pancake for breakfast even though they had their noodle soup because sugar is very special here) were quite overwhelming – those with nothing are often the most generous we came to realise.
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On the following day we visited the other major island with about 3000 people, Taquile. In this island, the women make all the decisions and the men are the expert weavers instead who weave amazing tapestries and knit beautiful wares all day. We were recounted the traditions of romance and courting on the island which consisted of men and women wearing different pom poms on their scarves and different types of floppy hats to signify being single or married…quite incredible! It was especially useful because it the men are very shy on the island we were told!
After 2 days on the islands and the spectacular lake Titikaka (beware of the strength of the sun though in such high altitude, our whole group got severely burnt!!) we are now again in Puno preparing to head to Bolivia tomorrow.
I have loved Peru so much more than I expected – the distinctive and traditional culture that is still strong, the gentleness of the people and their sense of humour, the yummy food, the amazing and diverse scenery and just generally the fun discoveries that I have made – I highly recommend it! But hey, I haven’t visited the rest of South America yet so there could be more recommendations!
Couldn’t help but share some of the evening revelries dancing in the local school hall!
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Anyway, this is the summary as it stands! Apologies for the verbosity, but I believe most of my friends are used to it by now! There are many more stories to tell, many more funny, interesting, at times unusual experiences to share…
xox
M