On the road to Cusco

How is it possible to be cold when you are covered with a ton (and I mean a ton) of blankets? I wouldn’t have thought it would be, but it is in Puno. I think I have got spoilt and forgotten my English days in unheated houses and flats where the side of your body sitting a foot in front of the fire was warm and your back was cold. Thankfully, I left Puno today and set off for Cusco in the hope that it would be warmer.

Rural scene on the altiplano
Rural scene on the altiplano

Having woken in plenty of time, I then almost missed the 8am bus. I only have myself to blame as I wasn’t watching the time carefully enough. However, I arrived and was rushed through Cruz del Sur checkin (they were a little put out that I had an electronic ticket and was fumbling with my phone to find it!), which included checking in my backpack, checking my non existent ticket and I.D., a wave over myself and hand luggage with a security wand and my photograph being taken. All the bus companies in Peru like to video you either as you get on the bus or whilst you are sitting in your seat. Presumably, the reason is security, but who knows? Apart from the photo being taken, it bears a close resemblance to an airline checkin.

Traffic in Juliaca
Traffic in Juliaca

The next 6 1/2 hours were very relaxing as I sat in my seat in the very front of the upstairs deck and watched the scenery and 2 movies, both at the same time, of course. It is a sign of being old, I feel, that it is considered a bonus to have the front seat of the bus! The movies were in English with Spanish sub titles (which I couldn’t read), which indicates that the stewardess assumed, probably correctly, that the majority of the passengers were English speaking.

High grassland
High grassland
Country village
Country village

The scenery was spectacular as we drove across the altiplano and up through the mountains and valleys before arriving in Cusco at about 2.45pm (only 15 minutes late). Mary Jean, my Airbnb host, was there to meet me and we then caught a taxi to her house, once she had done the bargaining with the driver. This was a major bonus for me as this is the worst part of arriving in a city. Leaving is not quite so bad as the hotel or hostel can call a taxi and usually knows how much it should cost.

The road to the mountains
The road to the mountains

I have a very cosy room at the top of the house with views over the rooftops. Not long after I had arrived and was thinking of going for a bit of an explore, the heavens opened and massive hailstones started pounding on the roof. Needless to say, I delayed venturing out.

Hailstones on the roof
Hailstones on the roof

It was almost dark when I did so my first real experience of Cusco was at night. It is about a 10 minute walk into the centre from the house along narrow cobblestone roads that are filled with traffic. The pavements are quite narrow so pedestrians sometimes have to join the cars on the road. However, the atmosphere was wonderful and I immediately liked the city. I walked around the Plaza de Armas, which is huge, and one or two of the other plazas before going to the supermarket and back to my latest temporary home. It was enough to whet the appetite for further exploration tomorrow though.

A day on the lake

Leaving Puno
Leaving Puno

I was picked up from my hotel at 7am and, along with the others we collected along the way, was taken down to the pier to join the boat and our guide for the tour on Lake Titicaca. In total there were about 30 in the group, including a lot of Canadians and some Australians, one of whom was quite talkative, to say the least. Our guide for the day was Oswaldo, who proved to be very knowledgeable, with a good sense of humour.

Once we had dropped off some kayakers at one of the islands, we continued on our way to the island of Taquile, where life still exists as it has for centuries.

Most of the morning was spent doing a gentle stroll from one part of the island to another, where the boat picked us up. On the way, we stopped at some houses where the villagers showed us how they do their weaving and knitting. The women do the former and the men the latter. Apparently, in days gone by, it was very important for a man to be a good knitter, as marrying his girlfriend depended on whether his potential father in law approved his standard of work. The man had to produce one of their traditional hats, which is knitted extremely finely, and if it wasn’t good enough, he was rejected as a suitor. There were no second chances! The girl, on her wedding day, presented her husband with a woven belt, which she had made using her own hair that her mother had collected over the years when she brushed it. This was then used for the warp in the weaving. It was very strong and supported the man’s back when he was carrying heavy loads.

Small village on Taquile
Small village on Taquile

Whilst we were walking, we had periodic stops to catch our breath, as the altitude makes walking difficult, and also for Oswaldo to tell us more about the villagers’ way of life. On a couple of these occasions, we were passed by children on their way to school, all dressed in their bright red outfits. They had over an hour’s walk and even quite small children seemed to make the trip.

Once we had been entertained by the knitters and weavers, who had transformed themselves into musicians and dancers, and, inevitably, brought some of their wares that were spread out to tempt us, we walked on to a beautiful beach where we were instructed to find a spot and sit and think of nothing for a while. Most of the Canadians went paddling (one even went for a dip) and I sat on a rock trying to ignore their chatter. By this time, I had got quite a headache, which nothing, once again, was shifting. The altitude problem is really getting very tedious.


Our next stop was in Lachon for a Pachamanca lunch. Here, we had chicken, fish, potatoes, beans and banana that had been cooked using hot stones in the ground, with a quinoa soup to start. It was very reminiscent of a Maori hangi, although a great deal tastier. Quinoa is a traditional crop here but most of it is now exported as the Western world has discovered its health properties. This has, unfortunately, made it expensive for any local people who don’t grow their own.

By the time I had drunk about a gallon of exceedingly expensive water, my headache was a lot more manageable, so I was feeling better once we set off again. Lake Titicaca is renowned for its floating reed islands, inhabited by the Uros people, and it was to one of these that we headed next. There were 6 families and a total of 28 people living on this particular island, which didn’t seem very big to me for that many inhabitants.

Another Uros island
Another Uros island

We were, firstly, given a demonstration of how the islands were made. To begin with large blocks of cork are collected and joined together. The reeds are then laid on top, with layers being built up day by day. Lastly, the whole structure is anchored so, as they said, they don’t wake up one morning and find themselves in Bolivia! Walking on the island felt quite strange and rather like walking on a water bed. (Not that I have walked on that many water beds!) The houses are then placed on top of the reeds. Apparently, they even float islands to join them together for celebrations if they need more space, which, to me, seems quite extraordinary.

A reed house in the Uros Islands
A reed house in the Uros Islands

The Uros people have a lot of trouble with rheumatism and arthritis, as they don’t wear shoes and water can seep through the reeds, resulting in damp living conditions. Every so many weeks, they also have to lift up their houses and build up the reeds underneath them again as the reeds start to sink. We had a look inside one or two of the homes. They were, of course, very basic, with no furniture and clothes piled up around the edges of the walls. Cooking is done outside when it is not raining and great care has to be taken not to set the dry reeds on fire.

Part of our group in a reed boat
Part of our group in a reed boat

To supplement their income, they have turned to weaving, many items of which were on display and for purchase. Unfortunately, I had already made my weaving purchase on Taquile, so didn’t buy anything. I think the colours were probably a bit too vivid to fit into my home, anyway, as they were extremely bright. The ladies themselves were dressed in fluoro colours, so a lot of colour obviously appeals!

 

One of the ladies on the Uros Island
One of the ladies on the Uros Island

Whilst we were preparing to go on a trip on a reed boat (now only used for tourists) all the school children arrived back from school. The population suddenly doubled and became a lot more lively! The boat ride was short and afterwards we had to get back onto our tourist boat and return to Puno. Once back, I set out to buy yet more water (it is supposedly the best antidote for altitude problems, along with coca tea) and, on the way back, wanted something sweet so purchased some flat pastry type food from one of the many street vendors. They were quite nice but she seemed to have forgotten to put the vanilla custard in between the layers!

I was asleep very early once again this evening. I am not sure if it is the altitude or the drugs that I take to combat the headache that are making me so tired.

Freezing in Puno

The altiplano
The altiplano

Saturday was a travelling day. I caught the Cruz del Sur bus at 8am (in theory, but we were on Peruvian time) from Arequipa, bound for Puno. This was a 6 1/2 hour trip, firstly heading back towards Chivay, and then over the mountain ranges and onto the altiplano that is the terrain of Southern Peru and Bolivia. There was a large group of Americans and Australians aboard, some of whom needed to recover from the night before. Once they had all gone to sleep, the journey was relatively quiet.

The weather had turned very grey and the landscape looked a bit bleak by the time we reached the altiplano. We had couple of stops, one of which was in Juliaca, which appeared to be an exceedingly poor town. I found out later that is the centre for contraband traffic from Bolivia. Goods are transported by boat across the lake where there are no border guards. It is also a bit rough and unsafe for tourists. As the aforementioned Americans and Australians got off there, I can’t imagine what their destination was.

It was exceedingly cold in Puno when we arrived and, once in my hotel, I donned some warmer clothes and then went for a walk. However, I was much too cold and, after visiting the supermarket, I returned to my room, which was like a fridge. I spent the evening tucked up under the covers fully clothed!

A plaza in Puno
A plaza in Puno
Parade in Plaza de Armas
Parade in Plaza de Armas
A street in Puno
A street in Puno

On Sunday, I pottered in my room for a while, trying to get warm, and then ventured out wearing multiple layers. The sun was shining and I eventually warmed up as long as I stayed out of the shadow.

I strolled towards Plaza de Armas where I discovered a parade in progress. This was absolutely massive and included not only the Armed Services but just about every other organisation in town. I watched for over an hour, as more and more groups paraded past the officials, who were standing on the Cathedral steps.

As it happened, my observation point was right where they were lining up to march past. I therefore had an excellent view of parents trying to position their very small children ready for the march. It was quite hilarious! There were midget cheer leaders, soldiers, nurses, firemen and goodness knows what else. Apparently, this parade happens every Sunday, which I found quite unbelievable. Half the town must have been in it and the other half watching it.

A lake at Sullisani
A lake at Sullisani

Afterwards, I went to a cafe for lunch (very tasty and tender grilled alpaca), and then returned to the hotel to await my pickup for the tour to Sillustani. As usual, the bus did the rounds of the hotels and then we also had to wait for the guide, before we could set off. It was about 30 minutes drive to the small village.

Sillustani is an ancient burial site used not only by the Incas but also 3 different civilisations prior to them. There are therefore 4 different types of burial chamber in evidence. Those of the Incas are the most intact. These comprise (or at least did) towers in which the dead were buried in a foetal position. It is not known how many people would have been buried in one tower or who they were.

Old Inca burial tower
Old Inca burial tower

Some mummies have been recovered as well as some gold and silver, but much had already been stolen by the time the site was discovered. Today, it is difficult to see what it would have been like without a guide’s explanation and there is much information still lacking regarding the tombs.

Remains of tombs at Sillustani
Remains of tombs at Sillustani

Our guide, once he had explained the important points, left us to our own devices. I was somewhat unimpressed by him overall as, apart from being late, he only took us around part of the site whilst I noticed other guides covering a bigger area.

I had a wander around and then headed back to the bus. Inevitably, there were stalls with lots of local goods for sale. I ended up buying an alpaca jersey, which was remarkably cheap, without trying it on. Once back in my room, though, I discovered it to be a perfect fit and much warmer than the polar fleeces I had in my backpack. Who cares if I scream ‘tourist’ whenever I wear it out?! At least I will be warmer.

On the way back to Puno, we stopped at a farmer’s house, where everyone (except me) dutifully took lovely posed pictures with llamas and alpacas. We also had a look at the guinea pigs destined for dinner (all families have them) as well as at the outdoor area of the farmhouse. It was all very basic and must have been extremely cold at night. No wonder the ladies wear so many layers of clothing.

My room was no warmer than last night but when I went downstairs to get a cup of tea, the owner had put a big (what appeared to me) patio heater in the dining room so I could at least get warm whilst drinking my tea. Then it was back to my room and under the blankets again! I do so hate being cold.