Peru – Flavours of The Andes

My friend Sonsoles has set up ZUVY, an innovative initiative that aims to put in touch independent travellers with NGOs and community organisations. Zuvy’s web service helps travellers find experiences to include in their itineraries, so that they can experience and share the day-to-day of those projects for one or two days. Travellers pay for their visits and thus contribute to the projects. Perhaps more important are the benefits that could stem from raising awareness and promotion back home. I suggest you browse Zuvy’s website to find experiences that suit your travel plans.

Welcome by Paulina

Through Zuvy I signed up for the experience “Flavours of the Andes”, offered by local organisation “La Tierra de los Yachaqs” (the sages, in quechua), in the small community of Huchuy Qosqo. On my arrival, Paulina, the president of this locally run organisation, offered me a warm welcome with flowers. In the kitchen, I met the rest of the women with whom I’d share a very special day. They told me about how this idea started, and how they’ve been preparing to start receiving tourists. Codespa, a Spanish NGO, has helped them out with training and promotion of the initiative.

Kitchen

The activity consisted of cooking a meal with local ingredients and cooked in the traditional way of the Andes. And so, we started cooking. First, we peeled the maize (corn) and olluco (akin to potatoes).

While two of the women stayed in the kitchen to keep an eye on the stove, the rest of us went to collect maize and potatoes from the garden nearby. They grow almost all the products essential to their diet, including the main staples: maize and potatoes (in both cases there are thousands of varieties and colours). It is 100% organic farming, with no artificial products added. They offered me to take home a choclo (corn), which I later gave to a friend in Lima, and he assured me it was tasty.

Maize (corn) varieties

Result. Yum, yum!!

Back from the garden we continued cooking. As a starter, a soup with maize. The main course was made from olluco. Sitting in the kitchen, they tought me about local products and their diet, but also about their culture, their language (quechua), traditions, clothes and so on. They also inquired with great curiosity about my trip to Peru, how we live in Spain, whether we eat the same food, etc. In short, it was a great opportunity to interact with the people of this community for the whole morning, and share with them ideas and experiences. From the outset, I noticed they were behaving in a very natural manner, doing the same things they’ve done for ages in their day-to-day lives, a very hard-to-find authenticity (particularly in the region around Cusco, where tourism is a bit of a circus)

After finishing work, we sat at the table and enjoyed the result, and actually the food was excellent!!

Finally, let’s enjoy the food!

This organisation also offers other activities in other communities along the valley, such as textile weaving or routes through the land of the llamas. In this community they also offer accommodation, and are ready to receive visitors. Seemingly, it is quite empty, probably just because travellers don’t know about it – yeah, Lonely Planet doesn’t mention it.

There are an increasing number of activities of this sort. It is all part of an understanding of responsible tourism, shared by Sonsoles and me, Codespa and many other organisations: tourism that is respectful with local communities, managed by locals, so that it contributes to improve their standard of living.

Cooking team

Peru – Machu Picchu

Finally, I arrived in Cusco. This region is the most visited by foreign tourists, so it can get a bit overwhelming. Be patient, in my next post I’ll suggest an alternative to conventional tourism in the area.

Machu Picchu lies in such an isolated place that even getting there isn’t straightforward. The only alternatives are joining a trek (like the famous Inca Trail) or taking a train. So to get there I took 2 combis, a train and a bus from Aguas Calientes up to the site. If you want to go on a day trip from Cusco, you need to wake up early.

It’s somewhat irritating how everything is so overpriced here. Entrance to the site sets you back 128 soles (just for benchmarking, tickets for Kuélap, the most comparable, cost 15 soles). It is unconceivable that such amount of money, multiplied by the huge number of people who visit the site, would need to be spent in the preservation of the ruins. Another example: the bus to get from the village to the site costs 21 soles one way (10-15 min), while the trip between Puno and Cusco (8 hours) had cost me 20 soles the day before. And so on.

However, once you get there and gaze at the amazing view, you suddenly forget about all that and get open-mouthed. I introduce you to Machu Picchu:

The Incas enjoyed amazing views from their bedrooms!!

At first sight, Machu Picchu is just spectacular. The ruins are not as impressive as the whole setting. Awesome!

Machu Picchu is one of those places that are much more impressive in person than seen in photos. You need to get the 360° perspective to fully appreciate its beauty, with mountains in every angle.

You immediately ask yourself how could the Incas build such a wonder in an isolated place like this and on top of a mountain. Certainly, their houses had one of the best views in the world. I can imagine the feeling of waking up and seeing this amazing landscape of the Sacred Valley through your window.

Llama in Machu Picchu

In 2007, Machu Picchu was chosen as one of the 7 Wonders of the World. The only one of the others that has impressed me more is the city of Petra in Jordan.

Nearing closing time, the ruins were quieter, with less tour groups. There were some llamas walking through the ruins too, which was colourful enough. Who knows? They might be descendants of those that lived alongside the Incas 5 centuries ago.

Peru – Homestay in Lake Titicaca

Peru and Bolivia share the immense Lake Titicaca, home to wonderful landscapes and a distinct culture developed over hundreds of years. It lies at almost 4,000 metres over sea level, so get ready to feel a bit of altitude sickness or at least more fatigue than usual. Tourism here has developed in the form of turismo vivencial (homestays), which consists of staying with a local family and sharing their food for a day or two.

My advice: DON’T go on a tour. The local community has organised tourism perfectly well, so there’s no need to hire a guide or a tour. Signing up directly with the locals ensures that your money goes entirely to the community, and in a very spread way as I will explain. Going with an agency not only is more expensive, but in some cases host families are given an unfair treatment, and only a small fraction of the money goes to the families that actually provide accommodation and meals.

On the contrary, the most advisable is to do the following. You should arrive at Puno’s port at 8 am. You can buy the boat ticket (S30=US$11 return) from the local cooperative Servicio de Transporte Colectivo de Amantaní, that uses boats owned by locals on a rotating basis. You are then taken to the next boat. Actually, you don’t need to do anything else because they offer a well-designed two-day programme. That’s unless you have other specific requests, which they’re also willing to accommodate, like staying longer or heading for the peninsula at the end of it instead of back to Puno.

The first stop was in the Uros Islands. These are a very interesting concept (so weird!). The boat stops on one of those islands, also assigned on a rotating basis. These are no natural islands, but floating artificial constructions made out of the bulrush that grows in the lake.

Uros floating islands

We were received by the “president” of the island. Sounds important but this is more like a president of the homeowners association, since each island only hosts 3-4 families. Their houses, their boats and even the island itself are made out of bulrush. This requires a regular maintenance, constantly adding layers of bulrush and abandoning the island altogether and building a new one every few years. Their tradition has it that they first occupied such islands fleeing persecution by the Incas. Today, their inhabitants make a living out of fishing, handicrafts and, of course, tourism.

Inhabitants of the Uros islands collecting fish

After stopping by at Uros, we headed for the island (a real island this time) of Amantaní, which is 3 hours from Puno. On arrival, they assigned each visitor (or group) to a local family. They allocate visitors on a rotating basis, so as to ensure that the benefits of tourism are equally spread among all the families in the island. The price is 30 soles per person per day, full board. If you skip this rotating system, and try to negotiate directly with a family, you’ll get a lower price. However, I didn’t think it was worth doing that because the standard rate is reasonable and the system fair.

My soup in the kitchen

Staying with one of these families is really worth it. Keep in mind that there’ll be no basic amenities such as hot water or heating (and it get’s quite cold there). But sharing day-to-day life with these families is the best way to experience life in the island. While I had lunch or dinner the woman would always stay with me and give me interesting information about the island. Her husband was almost always labouring in the plantations and the children got in and out from school.

I had this soup and a main with potatoes and cheese and went to explore the island. There are two summits: Pachatata and Pachamama, where rituals are performed yearly, and from where you can see beautiful landscapes.

We visited the third island, Taquile, on the third day. It’s somewhat more touristy and has a few restaurants and hotels, something completely absent in Amantani (since everything is provided by families). The inhabitants of Taquile wear beautiful ethnic clothing, and the village is well worth a visit.

Taquile island in Lake Titicaca

To conclude, a visit to this islands is highly recommended. You can sample and share with them their traditional lifestyle. Homestays so typical here are gaining ground in many countries, as visitors are keen to explore alternatives to conventional tourism.

Peru – A trip around the North

From Trujillo I travelled to other cities in the North of Peru. I will start  by telling you more about the Mochica culture.

In the village of Lambayeque, near Chiclayo, I visited the Museum of the Royal Toms of Sipan. In the area around the village of Sipan, an important archeological site was discovered in 1987. There were violent clashes between archeologists/police and huaqueros (tomb looters) for the “treasure”, even a few of them ended dead.

Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan

The museum shows some of the objects found at the site. It also features a reproduction of the toms of three top leaders of this civilisation: the Lord of Sipan, the Priest and the Old Lord of Sipan.

The visit is organised in the same order that objects were found during the excavations, rising steadily in importance, so that you can share the upbeat mood archeologists must have felt while identifying more and more “characters”, and finally, realising this was no less than the royal tomb.

Apart from the main occupant, the toms contained jewelry, ceramics, food and other objects that could be of use to the Lord in the afterlife. There were also animals, like a headless llama, and several women (concubines), a boy and a guard (who had his feet cut so that he couldn’t move from his post). Once the Lord died, several other people were killed and had the “privilege” of being buried alongside their master, in a carefully prepared layout.

From Chiclayo I travelled inland, to the city of Chachapoyas. The scenery here was completely different. While the coast is arid, almost desert, the Andean landscape is lush green and mountainous.

Kuélap fortress

The first day, I visited the Kuelap fortress, located a 3-hour scenic drive from Chachapoyas. This landmark of the Chachapoyas civilisation is located on top of a mountain and surrounded by a stone wall, for protection. The entrance to this city is through a very narrow alley, aimed at containing potential attacks. Despite having constant threats from their neighbours, particularly those of the Amazonas region, this fortress enabled the Chachapoyas to withstand their attacks for centuries, until they too were conquered by the emerging Incas around 1470.

Kuélap

It is considered to be one of the best ruins of pre-Columbian Peru, aside from Machu Picchu. It is certainly less shocking than Machu Picchu, but still very impressive. It is also surrounded by Andean mountains everywhere, making a spectacular landscape. Naturally, the number of tourists you come across here is 0.000001% of those in Machu Picchu, so there are no hassles and it preserves an air of authenticity in a very remote location (and it is A LOT cheaper).

Gocta waterfall

The next day, I went for some trekking and to visit the Gocta waterfall. Several waterfalls claimed to be “the tallest in the world”, so they were measured in 2005 concluding that at 771 metres it ranks as the third tallest free-leaping waterfall in the world (contested). Anyway, competitions aside, it’s a very scenic trek through narrow mountain paths, recommended.

I also had a little fright here, due to my inexperience and bad planning. I went with a 66-year old German man whom I had met in Kuelap. He’s a retired experimental physicist. He’s left his wife (who’s still working) at home and now travels around South America couchsurfing. You always meet interesting people while travelling. Thank goodness he lives in Switzerland and is a good mountaineer, because the trek was really hard, I left exhausted. The combi from Chachapoyas left us in the middle of the road, and from there it is quite a long walk to the falls. It took us over 4,5 hours to get there, non-stop and through mountainous paths with steep ups and downs. I had already bought my outbound bus ticket (mistake!) for 7 pm that evening, I was certain to miss it, and we also feared that it would get dark in the middle of nowhere, with no transport available for the city after a certain time. When we finally got to the waterfall, we almost didn’t stay there and rushed back to the road through a different path. Thank goodness, the return was “just” 2,5 hours. We got to the main road and it was already getting dark. There were no combis available at that time but we hitchhiked to get back in town. Running to the bus station, I got there just in time! 🙂

Travelling in this area of Peru is really worth it. There are many opportunities for trekking, just as in the region near Cusco. But tourism here is far less developed (or should I say overcrowded?), and thus there are fewer people, it is more authentic and much cheaper.

Peru – Trujillo

The city of Trujillo is an eight-hour bus ride North of the capital. It took its name from a Spanish city in Extremadura, the birthplace of conqueror Francisco Pizarro. It is nicknamed “City of the eternal spring”, due to its mild climate, as I told you about Medellin.

As almost every city in Peru, the centre is occupied by the Plaza de Armas, that hosts colonial buildings and the cathedral.

Plaza de Armas in Trujillo

Typists working in Trujillo’s streets

Trujillo is a pleasant city, with an air of tradition due to its colonial architecture and the large number of old churches found here. Adding to this atmosphere are the typists who still sit in the streets working with their typewriters in the age of computers. I asked what they were typing and they replied: “a rental contract” ?? 😐

The surroundings of Trujillo house from a surfers beach to two of the most visited pre-Incan ruins: Chan Chan and Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. All that makes Trujillo an unavoidable stop for the minority of travellers who make it to the North of Peru, and don’t limit themselves to the aptly named “gringo trail” in the South.

I stayed in the nice coastal village of Huanchaco, that has a beach and where the coastal breeze makes the heat more bearable. Getting to or from the city centre is easy: there are many “combis” going back and forth and you can hear the conductor crying: <<¡¡Huanchaco!!! ¡¡Anchaco!! ¡¡Chaco!!…¡¡¡Huanchaco!!!>>.

In the middle of the way between Trujillo and Huanchaco lies Chan Chan, the ruins of the capital of the Chimu culture. This huge city is made of adobe brick, and it is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and the largest adobe city in the world.

Chan Chan

Representations in the walls of Chan Chan

Built around 1300 AD, Chan Chan was conquered by the Incas, who came from Cusco, around 1470 AD. In the century that followed, the Spanish conquerors also came here and looted the city. Efforts to preserve the city have run into difficulties due to the climate pattern of El Niño, that have eroded this adobe brick city. Therefore, what we can see today is only a small part of this once great city.

Centuries before the emergence of the Chimu and the construction of Chan Chan, the Moche culture developed in the same area of Northern Peru, between the years 100 and 700 AD. This culture excelled in pottery making. A major city of this civilisation was constructed between the landmarks of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna. It is worth going there. It is a bit farther than Chan Chan, but as usual there is also a combi going.

Huaca del Sol seen from Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca del Sol, bigger, is an enormous adobe pyramid which might have had an administrative function. The Huaca de la Luna, smaller but perhaps more important, had a religious purpose, and the main priests and rulers lived inside. The city sprawled between both landmarks, in what is now a deserted space.

Image of deity Ai Apaec

The Huaca del Sol was closed to visitors, as archeological works are underway. The visit to Huaca de la Luna is guided, which is good for learning about what happened inside. Here, human sacrificies were carried out. Two warriors fought, and the loser was jailed and sacrificed. When there were droughts, human sacrifices multiplied, in order to soothe the wrath of the gods. Just looking at the representation of these gods is pretty scary. The most important and feared was Ai Apaec, also known as ‘the beheader’. Others came in the shapes of arachnids, serpents, felines, etc.

Mural in Huaca de la Luna

The end of the Moche civilisation came around the seventh century. There was a long drought and a major El Niño. Despite the increasing sacrifices, priests and rules failed to soothe the god’s wrath and cease flooding. It is possible that the population left were fed up with making so many sacrifices and lost faith on the rulers and the system. Finally, the cities were abandoned.

Although the Incas take all the glory, Peru has seen the development of other equally important civilisations, like the Moche or the Chimu. The Incas only achieved domination of most of the territory in the century prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

Peru – Savouring Lima

From Easter Island I flew to Lima. If travelling in South America is a breeze, Peru is a backpacker paradise: cheap accommodation and food, many hostels, frequent and inexpensive transport throughout the country and an enormous variety of things to do and places to visit: from surfing in perfect sandy beaches to trekking in the Andes or visiting the Amazonian Rainforest.

Most of the museums and sites in Lima are located in the historic centre, near Plaza de Armas. From there, some time ago, the viceroy of Peru governed a large chunk of South America.

Plaza de Armas in Lima

Neighbourhoods North of Rimac

Lima is a city of marked contrasts. South of the historic centre, you find modern and elegant neighbourhoods such as San Isidro, with its trendy golf, or Miraflores, with a nice waterfront and tennis clubs. In the suburbs to the North, there are working-class neighbourhoods, largely occupied by immigrants arrived from the interior of the country in the last decades. This is a common pattern in Latin America: inequality is very visible.

Another thing that strikes the newcomer to Lima is its public transport. In the main avenues, one finds a slew of  combis (vans), small buses, buses, colectivos (shared taxis) and taxis. Alongside the driver there is a conductor who shouts the route, and so they pass by like greased lightning, competing between them. The first days, I had no idea of which one of the thousands of combis I had to take, so I always used the Metropolitano (bus with a dedicated lane). As I learnt the names of the most important avenues in the city, all that started to make sense and I could figure out the route from the hints they cried: <<¡¡TACNA!! ¡¡TODO AREQUIPA!! Baja, baja… ¡¡LARCO!! ¡¡BENAVIDES!! Sube, sube…Al fondo hay sitio…>>.

One of the main tourist drags here is the food (yum yum!!). You can find from perfectly okay menus at 5 soles (1,8 US$) to the most upscale restaurants. Aside from Peruvian or ‘criolla’ food, there are also plenty of Chifas in town. They looked like Chinese restaurants to me, but a Peruvian would quickly point out that this is fusion between Chinese and Peruvian cuisines. Anyway, they are recognised to be one of the best Chinese food outside China. It’s pretty good, and inexpensive.

Feast of cebiche

But the undisputed star of the culinary scene in Lima is cebiche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices). It is typically served in cebicherías, often open at lunch time only. Oscar, who I had met in Easter Island, took me to taste a good cebiche in a restaurant in the port of Callao. Yum yum!! Very good. And for a drink, the famous Inca Kola, one of the very few sodas that have beaten Coca Cola in its country of origin (until it was bought by Coca Cola, of course…)

Rapa Nui and the moai

Distance to major cities

For those of you who couldn’t locate it on a map, Rapa Nui (as locals call it) or Easter Island is a Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. In the middle of the Pacific and 2,000 km away from the nearest inhabited island (which has a population of fewer than 100), it is one of the most isolated and remote inhabited islands on the planet. A post in the street reminds me that we are 13.201 km from my hometown, Madrid. Easter Island was annexed to Chile in 1887, although it has the status of “special territory”, with laws that might differ from those in the mainland.

Moai

In such a remote location, the rapanui have developed a distinctive culture of their own, over at least 7 centuries without any contact with the outside world. This unique culture is one of the drags of modern tourism, added to the good climate and the possibility to relax for a few days in a Polynesian island. Not bad!! 🙂

In spite of the development of tourism, the island hasn’t lost its charm and peace. There are no resorts, big hotels or restaurant chains, everything is run on a small scale by the local community. It is expensive, however, since almost everything has to be imported from Santiago de Chile, a 5-hour flight.

A trip to Easter Island is good for soaking up its rich and enigmatic history; perhaps that’s what makes this destination so special. The lack of written accounts prior to the arrival of Europeans makes tracking its history a difficult task. According to oral traditions, the first settlers, who are believed to have come from Polynesian islands, would have been guided by Hotu Matu’a, the first Ariki (king) of Rapa Nui. The society developed with the population divided in clans, and a very stratified class system.

Somewhere between 1200 and 1500 the rapanui society reached its zenith. Population peaked at between 10,000 and 30,000 people. They built around 300 ahu (ceremonial stone platforms) that housed hundreds of moai. A destructive crisis occurred later. It is thought that overpopulation and the massive construction and transportation of hundreds of moai contributed to deforestation and depletion of the island’s natural resources. Competition emerged between different clans for control of the scarce resources, what caused warfare and the toppling of rival clans’ moai, leading to the destruction of their ancestors’ heritage. They even resorted to cannibalism.

When the first Europeans arrived at the island on Easter 1722 (hence its English name), there were only between 2,000 and 3,000 rapanui left. But the population was to dwindle even more. Many rapanui were enslaved and taken to work in South America, others died of epidemics such as tuberculosis brought by the Europeans and others fled with catholic missionaries for Tahiti. All that factors decimated the rapanui population, and there were only 110 people left in 1877. No priest remained, and without them rongo rongo, the only scripture in Polynesia, was left unexplained ever since.

The main legacy of Rapa Nui’s ancestral culture are the famous human statues carved from rock known as moai, usually placed over ahus (ceremonial platforms). There are about 600, although most of them were not even completed and lie unfinished at the quarry. Others were toppled as a consequence of tribal conflict and, finally, about 50 moai have been re-erected on their ahus. Most of the ahus are along the coast, with the moai looking to the interior, as if keeping an eye on what happens on the island.

Moai standing on an ahu in Anakena

Their meaning is still uncertain. The most accepted theory suggests that they would represent deceased ancestors, so as to project their mana (energy) to their descendants. Not knowing for a fact their meaning only adds a touch of mystery and interest. What do they represent? How were they built? What are they looking at? The answers to those questions will probably never be completely understood.

As the moai are spread all over the coast, the main route is to circle the island along the coast, stopping frequently to see the moai, and also climbing any of the three volcanoes in the island. The island is not big; however, it is not possible to cover it by foot. It is possible to rent any kind of vehicle imaginable: bicycle, motorbike, 4×4, quad… This way, you can visit the island at your own pace, preferable to a tour. Activities on offer include scuba diving (in the most crystal clear waters I’ve ever seen, in the middle of the Pacific ocean), surfing, horse riding and many others.

I went for the bicycle, since I like to go slowly and breathe fresh air, as well as exercising a bit. After cycling around the island 3 times, I was beat, so I decided to take a well-deserved rest in Anakena beach:

Anakena beach

As you would expect, the beach is also guarded by some moai, that stand on a ahu over some rocks on top of the sand.

On the other side of the island, there are some caves. Here also, the turquoise water is absolutely crystal clear, spotless in the middle of the immense Pacific Ocean. From one of these caves, the rapanui used to perform the annual competition called Tangata Matu (bird-man) where a number of young men from different clans competed to be the first to return to the island with the first sooty tern of the year. The boss of his tribe would become leader of the island for that year.

One of the caves in the South of the island

Tourists were spread through the island during the day, but all convened near the village at sunset in this spot to see the sunt set behind the moai:

Sunset over the moai

Sunset near Hanga Roa

Sunrise at the opposite side of the island is just as beautiful, but that is left for the very few who wake up and cross the island before the sun rises. Anyway, it wasn’t possible to sleep much more: the hostel became full of cockerels at sunrise, and nobody could sleep further! 🙂

Well, I think this post is a little bit too long already, but this destination deserves it. In my opinion, it is worth travelling there and soaking up the mana (energy) of the island. It isn’t beach tourism, although it does not lack this either, but it is much more than that. It is also a good place to meet other travellers, because the laid-back feeling the island brings it about. Many tourists come for 3-4 days, enough to see it all quickly. But it is advisable to stay 5-7 days in order to enjoy it at a more relaxed pace. Those who stayed over a week felt a bit bored in the end.

From Easter Island I flew to Lima, to start a route around Peru. I’ll tell you about that in my next posts.