Peru: Lake Titicaca, Arequipa and Huacachina

February 11, 2014


Since we've been back, I've been craving dry white wines, soy lattes, sharp cheddar and bread that has not been challenged with rising in high altitude. I have indulged, and it has been lovely. We had some delicious meals while travelling, but also many ordinary ones. I'll be perfectly happy not seeing instant coffee, corn, potatoes or undercooked eggs for a while.

We left Cuzco early to catch a tourist bus to Puno, a 10hrs journey. Tourist buses tend to be safer in Peru, with better regulation of drivers hours, engine maintenance and speed. On some buses, a bell will start ringing if the driver goes over the speed limit. Every time we looked at the paper during our few weeks there, the front page was about a fatal bus crash in between two cities, with speed and engine failure being the reported cause. So we decided to spend the extra dollars, and thought that the few stops on the way, at various sites, might be worthwhile or at least break up the trip.

The stops were alright, a cathedral, some ruins, nothing too special, until we saw some vicunas and learned about their wool. I mean, I was extremely interested. Vicunas are high Andes native camelids, that produce an extremely soft and warm yarn. In the Inca time, only royalty was allowed to wear their wool. They are now at risk of extinction, and protected in Peru. According to our tour guide, while baby alpaca yarn will sell for about $40 a kilo, vicuna yarn costs $700 a kilo. Now that's an expensive sweater to knit. The animals are very slender and cute, and we enjoyed comparing them to llamas and alpacas, which I can now tell apart based on their ears and the thickness of their neck.


We drove through Juliaca just before getting to Puno, thankful that we had not planned on staying there, as our bus struggled to make it through the giant pot holes on the nearly flooded main street. It was striking to see every building unfinished, with poles sticking out. Our guide explained that the main economy of the region is contraband, and that the majority of the residents refuse to pay taxes. It appears that if your house is still under construction, you don't need to pay taxes, and that people therefore leave it unfinished, or start a second story they never actually intend to build. The city definitely lacks charm. The bars on every window don't hold any redeeming quality either, but do make you hold on to your purse and camera a little tighter. 

We finally got to Puno and easily arranged a home-stay on Lake Titicaca for the next day. According to Wikitravel, the hillsides of Puno have lovely views of Lake Titicaca, but armed robberies against tourists are frequent, so we decided to just go out for dinner.

Lake Titicaca

Uros floating Islands

On our way to Amantani island, we stopped at the Uros floating islands, which was... interesting to say the least. The Uros are pre-Incan people living on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, on man-made reed islands. Each island usually hosts a few families, and when it becomes too populated, or when discord occurs, they divide it up by cutting the island in two. Reed isn't only used to make islands, but also boats, and it serves as food and medicine. We sat on reed seats on the reed island and listened to our guide translate a presentation from this woman about how they live, with a large dead bird on the reed ground, which was at times stepped on, and at times picked up to talk about what they eat. It was absolutely disgusting. Then we were encouraged to go visit the "houses", and were pulled into a reed-made hut smaller than my bathroom, covered in dirty clothes and filled with flies. Apparently 8 people "live" there. After that, we were strongly encouraged to either buy reed crafts or take a reed boat tour to support the Uros people and their life-style on the floating islands. I don't know if I support that, seems to me like a terrible living situation, but I sat on the reed boat anyway. The views of the lake were lovely, and I don't know if it's because the lake is in such altitude, but it felt like we were right up there in the clouds. At times, it was hard to tell where the lake ended and where the sky started. Pretty amazing.



Amantani Island

As we got back on the tour boat, our guide advised us that the water would be a lot more rough on our way to Amantani Island, so I took a Dramamine and slept the whole way, even though the ride ended up being pretty smooth. We were greeted on Amantani island by women in beautiful traditional clothing, and each small group was assigned a family and guided to our host's home. The rooms were simple but nice, and appeared to be an addition to the home specifically designed for tourists. Different groups on the island are assigned tourists on a rotation system. We were offered a simple but tasty lunch of barley soup and rice with vegetables and potatoes, before joining the group to hike up Pachatata, for nice views and sunset. Lake Titicaca is the highest altitude we went to on this trip, and it was surprising to see how challenging a simple hour walk up the hill was. We came back to our hosts' home for dinner before attending a party, where we all got to dress in traditional clothing and dance to a live band. My skirt and belt where tightened on so tight that I felt like I could hardly breathe, and I became progressively more dizzy and had to sit down. The party ran out of beer, and we made our way home in the dark. We said goodbye to our family after breakfast the next day, a little disappointed that we did not actually spend that much time with them and really seen how they live.


Taquile island

Our next stop was Taquile island, where we did some hiking up to the mirador, stopped for lunch and learned about traditional roles in their patriarchal society, including that couples can do a try-out period before marriage, but that if it doesn't work out, they better settle with the next one, otherwise they are "ruined". As opposed to Amantani island, where woman do the crafts, men on Taquile are the ones who knit, and will learn over many years how to make a complicated and colorful red hat, which they will start wearing once they are married.


Arequipa

From Puno we went straight to Chivay and Cabanaconde, to go hiking in the Colca Canyon, which I will share more about on a next post. From there, we went to Arequipa, which is often viewed as the baby alpaca capital of Peru. Unfortunately, we were there on a Sunday, which meant that a lot of the stores were closed, including Michell, one of the best international sellers of Peruvian baby alpaca. By some sort of miracle, I had looked this up in advanced, and stopped by the store in Cuzco. I happily dragged around over a kilo of yarn for most of the trip. We mostly spent our time in Arequipa walking around and eating, enjoying some renowned fusion food at Chicha and some phenomenal mexican food at Tacos y Tequilas.

On our way to the bus station, we asked the hostel to call us a cab and as we were about to get in, a tourist police officer stopped to ask our nationalities and destination, and then took the cab driver's license plate number and registration information, writing everything down. I guess the city's bad reputation might be worthwhile, or they are working hard at getting rid of it. We made it safely to the bus station, and check in for our first VIP night bus of the trip. We lined up, and then were told that before checking in we had to go pay a ridiculous departure tax of the equivalent of 50 cents. You'd think this could have been included in the ticket. We finally got in the bus, after multiple security checks, and I was so excited. Giant, comfy reclining chairs, individual touch screen computers with tons of movies, this was going to be grand. I felt like we were in first class, which I have always dreamed of flying. Except, then we set off, and it must have been the windiest road I've ever been on, because I spent the next 3hrs concentrating not to vomit. It was awful. 12hrs later, we were in Ica, and I've never been so happy to get off of a bus. From Ica, we hoped on a cab to Huacachina, a short 10min drive, enjoying the sun and heat.


Huacachina

Huacachina is sort of a backpacker's dream, a once peaceful and beautiful oasis now surrounded by hostels, bars and restaurants. After our packed few weeks, it was great to spend a few nights in the same spot, chill by the pool, eat, drink and basically do nothing. We stayed at Hotel Curasi, which was great. The rooms were lovely and clean, and so was the pool. It is said to be one of the best hotels in town, if you aren't looking for the bustling hostel experience. The staff is extremely helpful, but doesn't really speak much English. Every night, we walked up the sand dunes to admire the sunset, which was quite a workout. Graham seemed happier than ever, running up and down the sand dunes, it was adorable.

On our last evening there, we went on a dune buggy ride/sandboarding tour, which was one of the most horrible and terrifying experience of my life. The driver was a maniac, it was like riding a roller coaster, but on a car that probably has never been checked for safety, and with a driver that probably never passed a driver's license exam. I almost walked back.

We ate great food, enjoying the proximity of Desert Nights, and the delicious food from the Bamboo cafe, although on our second visit, the owner's daughter's clearly had chicken pox, and it seemed like a questionable decision to have her bring us menus.



Islas Ballestas and winery tour

From Huacachina, we did a few tours to occupy our days. The first one was to Paracas and the islas Ballestas, sometimes called the poor man's Galapagos. Our first stop was to see the Candelabra geoglyph, of mysterious origin, and then we leisurely cruised the islands, watching the sea lions, cormorants, pelicans and Humboldt penguins. It was fantastic, until the motion sickness overwhelmed me, and I was miserable for the rest of the trip.

The following day, we went on a chocolate, wine and pisco tour, with our enthusiastic driver Willy. Willy rocked out his new Beatles peruvian flute CD, possibly for our benefit, and drove us around, stopping for chocolate and booze. The wine was quite terrible, served in bottles without labels, and introduced by its colour instead of type of grape or taste description. The pisco tour, on the other hand, was very interesting, maybe because the guide was much better, or because by then we were a bit tipsy.


After all these fun adventures, it was time to say goodbye to our friends and head back to Lima. We took a nearly 5hrs bus ride from Ica to Lima, had dinner, and headed to the airport early. We then waited 2hrs in line to be told that our flight was delayed from 1:45am to 3:10am, that we would miss our connections, and that we were now stopping (but not disembarking) in Miami for crew change and refuel. Because of bad weather in Atlanta, our first flight didn't leave Lima until 4:15am. When we got to Miami, we were told that we would, after all, have to disembark and clear customs, and our flight unexpectedly got delayed another 3hrs, because a de-icing truck hit the plane with the crew we were waiting for. When we finally got to Atlanta, we were rebooked on a new flight to LA. We started boarding that flight, and then the pilot announced that the plane had too much fuel and therefore wouldn't be allowed to land in LA, so we would be delayed an hour. 30 minutes later, they decided to switch planes, and sent everyone to a new gate. We asked two agents if there was any chance we could get seats on a direct flight to Seattle, and were told that it would be impossible. They kept telling us we would make our connection, although we were sitting in rows 49 and 53, and had less than 45 minutes between landing and planned departure from a different terminal. Finally, an agent randomly offered us seats on a direct flight to Seattle, which only ended up being delayed by about half an hour, for unknown reason. We made it home, and the following day Delta sent an email survey asking for our satisfaction. I answered with 100% honesty.

Now we are home, enjoying the comfort of our place and Noodle's cuddles, and missing our friends.

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