Floating Islands in Pachamama’s Lake: Lago Titikaka

Travel

I was collected at the Casa Andina at 7am by yet another braces-wearing Peruvian guide to drive to the (inland) port. The port was quite close by, but as usual we had to go via umpteen other hotels to pick up the other passengers. When we eventually got to the Titicaca dock we were swarmed upon by a small battalion of lakeside Indian women trying to entice us to buy a bargain-priced hat or two from a broad assortment they were either carrying or wearing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The German tourists from yesterday’s Cusco coach were on the same Uros Islands trip as me. These upbeat Teutonic folk were certainly enjoying their Peru visit. I have noticed that Germans on holidays are able to escape the stereotypical dour visage that is generally associated with them.

We were shepherded on to one boat which I thought was going to be our boat for the trip, but before we could settle, the crew moved us across to another boat, and then, after an apparent another change of mind, guided over to a third boat where we were allowed to sit down. There was a bit of a delay in embarking, during which we were entertained by a pipe-playing musician in traditional garb. The piper banged out three tunes, the second instantly recognised as “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, the first time I had ever heard a rendition of a Beatles standard played on a Latino pan pipe! When he finished he took the hat round, most of the punters on board were not particularly generous but I tipped him 10 soles (my small contribution to the cause of local struggling community performers).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our Titicaca tour director was the same guy who had accompanied us on the bus trip. Not sure what to make of him, he was friendly, enthusiastic certainly, but his thick Peruvian accent was hard to fathom. So, his jokes spoken in Spanglish it seemed to me, were largely lost on me!

Totora reeds, Puno
Totora reeds, Puno

We got out onto Lago Titikaka which is 3812 metres above sea level and shared between Peru and Bolivia. It is amazing to reflect on the fact that this is an enormous inland ‘sea’, the highest navigable lake in the world, a hundred or so kilometres from the Pacific Ocean! On the outward journey I noticed that reeds were freely growing all along the northern shore of the lake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The first island we visited in the Lake was Taquile where we leisurely wandered from one side of the island to the other, taking in the views, very tranquil, relaxed ambience. We passed the fields comprising the Islanders’ collective agricultural system which basically hasn’t changed since the 14th century. At the other side we met a family of colourfully and traditionally-attired weavers. We had a demonstration of their antiquated textile techniques, finished products of which were available to buy (I bought a floppy white hat with a colourful patterned band for 30 soles).

After Taquile we went to Llachon – Santa Maria, where a shaman prepared a Pachamanca meal for us on the beach. This is a traditional form of cooking using underground ovens (something very akin to a Māori hūngi). Part meal preparation and part religious ritual, the ceremony involved the shaman pouring wine onto the mound covering the food and waving branches and leaves over it. The purpose of this ritual was to make offerings to Pachamama/ Mother Earth (the Incas’ creation myths have it that the people had their origins in the Lake!). Blessed or unblessed, the meal was delicious!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From Taquile we moved on the ‘Floating Islands’ of Uros, the highlight of the Titicaca trip. The Floating Islands were artificially constructed by the Uros people using bundled reeds from the totora plant mixed with mud to cut themselves off from the Incas and other aggressive neighbours. The community demonstrated how they expanded the tiny island by tying together extra reeds, soil and turf, and affixed to the sides of the island by rope.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Uros, cutoff from the World in this way, survive by fishing (the Lake is stocked with Canadian trout and Argentinian kingfish) and by trading the goods and materials they produced for food from the surrounding larger islands. I couldn’t help wondering about the kind of alternative, parallel life they lived, living freely for sure, but living in a very enclosed, claustrophobic world – to my eyes. Walking around the uneven reed floor of the island was a novel and strange experience.

Whilst on Uros we were given a boat ride around the lagoon in one of the Island’s reed boats. I had used up all the money I had brought with me buying some cushion covers, so I experienced an uncomfortable moment when the reed boat pilot tried to hit me for a donation after we had returned from the ride. He looked quite put out when I intimated that I had zilch on me.

Reed boat
Reed boat

About 50 metres away from the island was a second, smaller artificial island, the story of its existence was a peculiar one. Four of the families on the original island fell out with the majority of the families and broke away from them, constructed a new floating island. The tourists in our group were a good bunch of people (mainly Americans and Costa Ricans), we exchanged lots of jokes, eg, do you need a passport to visit the breakaway reed island?

After returning to Puno I went for dinner in the town. Walking through the streets, just about every café and bar with a Peruvian band that I passed was playing that old favourite, ‘El Condor Pasa’. I returned to the hotel after eating and souvenir-hunting to find that a bulldozer was busy decimating an old building directly across the road – as if the road wasn’t already stuffed up enough!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Iguazú, the Argentinian Waterworld

Travel

Travel Destination Review

Left the Sorgente hotel in Puerto Iguazú to get an early start for the bus ride to the Falls area. When we arrived there were already a great number of visitors lining up at the entrance – international visitors, nationals (Buenos Aireans and from elsewhere in the country), school groups, and so on.

We were at the Argentinian section of the Falls of course (the Brazilian section is known as Iguaçu). Spare a thought for Paraguay and its tourism industry, the country shares the Rio Paraná with Brazil and Argentina and is just up the river from Iguazú, but none of the Falls lie on Paraguayan territory.image

Inside the national park, despite the train standing on the track, our guide gets us to by-pass the train and walk a couple of kilometres through the bush to the second train station. By getting there before the first train arrived at station # 2 this ensured that we’d be in the first train to arrive at the Falls. Good, but I was left wondering WHY, a) there wasn’t more trains scheduled seeing that Iguazú was a world-class highlight on the global tourism calendar, and b) train # 1, instead of terminating at station # 2, didn’t just go straight through to the Falls, considering that both trains left from the same track! To me, that would be the logical way to operate it!

The Falls as a whole are divisible into two parts, the Cataracts and the Gorge. We started at the Gorge first, El Diablo Garganta. From the Gorge entrada, we still needed to walk about 1200 metres on a linear footbridge to the actual ‘Devil’s Throat’. As you get closer to the throat, the roar of the powerful waters gets louder and louder and a couple of hundred metres away, the spray shooting up from El Diablo can be seen.

El Diablo
El Diablo

When you finally get there, it is 100 per cent worth it! At the edge of the waterfall, the catwalk bends round into a U-shape (more accurately the structure is three-pronged, fork-shaped) to maximize the number of people that can view the waterfall from point-blank range. The viewing platform extends out over the edge of the ground (as in the Grand Canyon) so that anyone standing on it cannot avoid getting a decent old drenching! Ponchos are definitely the preferred fashion choice at the Throat! Standing on the footbridge, trying to look and take photos and videos at the same time, you get the sense of all that cascading power, the spectacle was quite mesmerising.

Rocoso
Cory – the long-nosed Argie coatí

Later we journeyed the short distance to Cataratas del Iguazú, exploring the multiple, other reaches of the Falls, walking on the National Park’s upper and lower trails, the Paseo Superior and the Paseo Inferior as they are called. This gives you a different viewpoint of the Cataracts and lots more photo opportunities. Plenty of flora (in a broad, dense jungle) and fauna around, including dazzlingly beautiful and unusual butterflies and cute long-nose coatís. However I lucked out on spotting the elusive toucan, the emblematic bird of the Falls.

As 80 per cent of the Waterfalls are on the Argentinian side of the river, the best panoramic views tend to be from the Brazilian side or from the river itself. So, I decided on the optional speedboat ride (Macuco Safari Boat Ride) under the waterfalls itself, which was a great thrill. Be forewarned though that YOU WILL get drenched by the falls and from the motion of the boat rapidly swerving from side to side (make note to bring or wear swimmers on the Falls tour).

Amenities at Iguazú left plenty to be desired. The Kiosk and the other food outlets were not good quality or value, not a great selection of food and (predictably) overpriced. Don’t try to exchange dollars at Parque Iguazú, the rate is not good, wait for BA.

Iguazú Falls was extremely impressive and even intimidating to witness its sheer, unrestrained power. Undeniably it is one of the natural wonders, a sublime Maravilla as the South Americans say.

Parque Nacional
Parque Nacional

Valparaíso: Ascensores, Street Art, Murals and Multicoloured Homes

Travel

Travel Destination Review

Overlooking the Valpo Docklands
Overlooking the Valpo Docklands

I took a tour from Santiago to the port city of Valparaíso, 115 km north-west of the Chilean capital. The highway (Route 68) was a good quality road and we made good time getting out to the Pacific. Valparaíso’s historic fame rests on its integral role as a port, and shipping is still a key industry, although it’s importance today is not what it was strategically in the nineteenth century before the Panama Canal was constructed. Beyond the town’s central plaza lies Prat Wharf which is still a busy area for shipping and docklands.

Spectrum of colour
Spectrum of colour

Valparaíso, or as the residents of the city (the Porteños) call it, ‘Valpo’ for short, is a fascinating place to walk around. One of the highlights is the street art and distinctive buildings, a hotch-potch of different-coloured houses, many with brightly-painted murals on their walls. A quirky aspect of Valparaíso is that you find very ordinary and humble dwellings (even rundown ones) right next to more grand and ornate buildings.

Palacio Buburizza
Palacio Buburizza

Up on the heights of Cerro Alegre (literally “cheerful hill” in Spanish) visitors can view some unusual and quite distinctive examples of domestic architecture, such as Palacio Baburizza, formerly a large rambling art nouveau palatial home (now a fine arts museum). Also up on Cerro Alegre, in a kind of unofficial Croatian sector of the city, is the 1861-built Casa Antoncich, a dwelling which survived major earthquakes in 1906, 1985 and 2010, something Valparaíso is prone to given its proximity to the Peru-Chile oceanic trench. Cerro Bellavista is another part of the hilly city celebrated for its array of luminously bright murals.

Ascensor
Ascensor

Topographically, Valparaíso is characterised by very steep hills surrounding the docks and shoreline. As a consequence, funiculars or as they are called here, ascensores (literally ‘elevator’, these are cable cars on sloping rail tracks) are the standard transportation options for residents in the hills to ease their descent from houses high on the hills to Plaza Sotomayor, the city Centro and the port. There are some 26 ascensores servicing Valparaíso. It was fun to descend rapidly to sea-level on one of these funiculars, very quick and costing only a nominal sum (about 10 Chilean pesos).

imageThe city centre, Plaza Sotomayor, includes the Chilean naval headquarters (Armada de Chile building), the large monument to naval hero Arturo Prat in the middle, and Cafe Melbourne on the other side promising “Melbourne café-style food and coffee” (is Melbourne so distinctive in food and coffee from that in other Australian cities I ask?) but its name will probably entice some curiosity from tourists from Victoria.

On the theme of Australia, visiting Valporaíso reminded me of the city’s other nebulous connection with the ‘Land Downunder’ – Australia’s third prime minister, John Christian (Chris) Watson, was born in Valporaíso of Irish-Chilean parents, an occurrence that was entirely one of happenstance!

Any planned visit to Chile should factor in at the very minimum a day trip to Valparaíso, otherwise tourists will be missing out on a charming and very fascinating part of the country.

Cusco Gold

Travel

Travel Destination Review

Visiting Cusco, after experiencing Lima and the Amazonas, uncovered a whole new side of Peru for me. Being perched at 3400m above sea level, Cusco’s cool air was a world away from the steamy Amazonian rainforest I had just come from. We were advised beforehand that either chewing cocoa leaves or drinking cocoa tea was the best antidote to ward off the possibility of soroche (high altitude sickness) at such a height. I decided that the latter was the more palatable course to follow.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo

The elevated ciudad had a real buzz to it, a constant hub of activity that I hadn’t encountered thus far anywhere else in the land of the Incas. People were everywhere in this tourist magnet of a town, streaming up and down the principal road (Avenida El Sol) and spilling out onto Cusco’s main square,the imposing Plaza de Armas with its mixture of historic churches, pubs and restaurants.

Unaytambo
Unaytambo

More than anywhere else in Peru, you could feel the footprint of history in Cusco. Santo Domingo Catedral/Qorikancha demonstrates quite literally the fusion of an overarching Catholic Spanish power with Inca culture and worship. Significant sections of the original Inca temple are extant despite the cathedral being built over it, so Qorikancha is a good place to start to gain an appreciation of classical Inca architecture with its mortar-less design, mathematically-precise stone construction and use of trapezoid features.

Qoricancha
Qoricancha

Unaytambo, the lodge where I stayed, was on the site of the former Inca palacios, the centre of the once great Inca empire. The ‘street’ (sic) outside Unaytambo, Pasaje Romeritos, was really just a narrow pedestrian lane, barely wide enough to drive a donkey cart. Most of the ancient footpaths of the city were like those in Romeritos – huge slabs of stone squares laid down parallel to thin strips of small, rounded cobblestones.

Cobbled street going down to Plaza de Armas
Cobbled street going down to Plaza de Armas

Cusco is of course a tourist Mecca, and has much by itself to recommend it, quite apart from its function as a launchpad for embarking on the ritualistic journey to Machu Picchu. It has heaps of interesting things to see, including San Pedro Mercado (where you can buy all manner of exotic and sometimes bizarre produce), the imposing El Catedral, the Inka Museo, and countless restaurants where you can try llama, ceviche and roasted guinea pig, or if you prefer, something slightly less adventurous. There are faux museums too, it must be said. The Chocomuseo and the Pisco (Sour) Museum are respectively, a shop and a bar. Totally transparent, they don’t even attempt to thinly disguise this fact, notwithstanding their names.

Inka Museo entrada
Inka Museo entrada

What makes Cusco 2014 such a captivating destination is the way it’s three integral strands, the Inca culture and traditions, the Spanish colonial panoply and the more modern aspects of the town, all blend in together to give it a particular fascination.

Camino a Puño: the Pan-American Highway

Travel
Andahualillas facade
Andahualillas facade

The next morning I had my umpteenth cocoa tea in Unaytambo and scuttled out for another early start on the road. I was taxied across town to the Cusco depot of WonderPeru on the other side of Av De Sol. To my relief, given my recent experiences, they had my coach ticket for the trip. The Camino a Puño via the Pan-American Highway was a distance of 386km, and WonderPeru advertised it as a 10 hour journey which seemed rather too long a time in a seated position for that distance.

San Pedro's Basilica
San Pedro’s Basilica

To my surprise, the coach was all quality, a real bonus. It was absolutely first-class, very modern, all the conveniences and comforts. I scored a seat upstairs right at the front, prime viewing spot. Leaving Cusco on the road south on Route 3S (glossy tourist brochures call it “The Route of the Sun), our first stop was St Peter’s, a 16-17th century colonial church in Andahualillas. This Jesuit church interior was largely wooden in structure (pillars, roof, etc), laced with large amounts of ornate gold decorations on the walls and picture frames. The walls were also adorned with magnificent frescoes and murals. A floral ornament with gold flakes on the ceiling was a standout. The altar was also elaborately decorated in gold with an Incan sun and countless small mirrors. The coach guide made the statement that San Pedro’s was viewed in Peru as the Americas’ counterpart to Europe’s Sistine Chapel. Impressive as the church certainly was, frankly I thought this was nonetheless drawing a long bow.

Raqchi casa
Raqchi casa

From Andahualillas we journeyed to Raqchi Parque Arqueológico in the San Pedro area. This was a preserved or restored Inca village comprising a bunch of rough-hewn adobe houses connected to each other. Next to the homes which resembled a clump of rubble cemented together, was the focal point of the Inca village, the colossal Temple of Wiracocha, or what remains of it. The facade stands 92 metres wide and over 25 metres high. This temple, also known as the Temple of the Supreme God of the Incas, comprised a series of pillars in the shape of massive I’s and H’s! Saw the usual grazing llamas in the village although I didn’t see any of the earring-wearing llamas that were mentioned in the tour poster.

Wiracocha
Wiracocha

When the coach paused for lunch on the highway the guide encouraged us to try the muña tea which he claimed was far superior to cocoa tea in respect of the drink’s medicinal potency. I did but it tasted not much different to the cocoa one, weak and a bit minty but pretty tasteless. After the sixth stop on the Pan-American Highway for a digression I realised why the transportation company brochure stated it was a 10 hour marathon drive!

Colonial church
Colonial church

At the highest point of the camino, the 4335m high Abra La Raya, we paused to buy souvenirs from the highway stallholders. I bought an attractive little fawn and white coloured bag adorned with cute llamas and images of Wiracocha for 30 soles. Going down from La Raya, we next visited the Reyla native archaeological site (Pukará) some 3800 metres above sea level, which was a bit of a Trojan site (ie, not much to see!). We also visited the Reyla native archaeological site some 3800 metres above sea level. Close to the site was the Museo Pukará, chock full of pre-Columbian sculptures.

Dusty drag of Juliaca
Dusty drag of Juliaca

Nearing our destination for the day’s travel, Puno, we again diverted slightly to drive through the incredibly dusty and dirty streets of Juliaca. We encountered mad, anarchic traffic everywhere. The popular Peruvian three wheel motorised taxis seen in Cusco were even more omnipresent in downtown Juliaca with hundreds of them constantly darting in and out of the flow of vehicles on the ‘main drag’. We got the rundown from our guide on Juliaca’s main claim to (in)famy. Juliaca is a mafia-run town, with all manner of contraband and stolen goods on sale. People flock to Juliaca from all over Peru to pick up that 63cm flat screen TV they were after at a very special price!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Three-quarters of an hour after leaving Juliaca we reached the outskirts of the southern city of Puno and got our first (distant) glimpse of the northern edge of Lagos Titikaka. The tour party’s relief at finally arriving at Puno after 10 and a half hours on the road turned to frustration when we were blocked from proceeding to the bus depot by a religious procession moving at glacial pace. It took 15 minutes for the ceremony marking the birth of some important local saint to pass the stalled convoy of vehicles trying to enter the city. We passed the time by twiddling our thumbs (although probably the modern version of this is to say that we amused ourselves with our portable electronic devices!), taking the occasional photo of the noisy cavalcade of clergymen and women – the noisiness was coming from the odd spectacle of nuns chanting homilies out of large megaphones. This was a curious sight with the nuns extolling Christian virtues to the masses through loud-speakers which made the event look very akin to a political rally.

From the bus depot in downtown Puno, taxis took the tourists from our coach to their individual hotels. Arriving at my particular hotel, Casa Andronokaki, the street at the front of it, Independencia, looked like a bit of a bomb site, the road was really bad, rough, broken up, pieces of loose rubble everywhere! Fortunately, the chaotic and decimated condition of the street outside was not replicated in the interior of the hotel which was, given its location, quite well presented.

Transzelo, Pan-Am Hwy
Transzelo, Pan-Am Hwy

Puno had a big selection of restaurants but after the all-day travel I decided the first night I’d have dinner in the hotel, bife carne, before heading down to the Centro part of Puno. Puno was lively, lots of tourist bars and eateries, souvenir shops, people walking up and down the strip. After a couple of hours of soaking up the atmosphere of Puno (OK but not really pulsating on the Cusco-scale!), I headed back up the road full of rocks to my hotel to rest up for the next day’s Floating Islands trip.