February 15-28, 2006
Colca Canyon: Llamas in the road, llamas in the hills, llamas on my plate.
Manuel, owner of the Hostal Astorga, set me up with a tour of the Colca Canyon–a quick 2 days of tromping in and around the world´s 2nd-largest canyon (both on foot, and and in a sparkling white, bad-ass Mercedes Benz mini-bus) for 25 bucks. In true Anna fashion, I shot out of bed about 5 minutes before the bus started honking, sprinted down the steps of the hotel with an “¡Hasta luego!” to Manuel and his mom, and greeted the other 15 Colca passengers while still shoving things into my backpack. It was a bumpy six hour busride to the canyon region (note to self: wear sports bra whenever public transportation is in order), with plenty of informative pitstops along the way, the first of which was our introduction to the coca plant.
Ask any local: since the age of the Incas, coca has been the prescription of choice for both prevention and treatment of altitude sickness. Straight up coca leaves, coca tea, coca cookies, coca candy…you name it, they can put coke in it! We were climbing (the area surrounding the Canyon gets up to 5000 meters high), and so a bit of the green stuff was in order. Coca tea was drunk by all, and following our guide´s example, we wadded up some leaves around a piece of powdered lime called llipta, popped it like gum, and continued on our way. Fifteen tourists bumping along with bulging cheeks and tingling tongues.
We made several stops along the way, which included a stellar view of the Misti Volcano (the one where they discovered Juanita and so many other young girls frozen and completely intact during the last decade–pretty little sacrifices to the mountain gods in exchange for rain, or sun, or to pacify an angry, rumbling volcano), lots of alpaca and other funny looking animals, and a chance to make our own small stone offering to the gods. These piles and stacks of rocks, called apachetas, dot much of the horizon in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Though these days they´re mostly the handiwork of busloads of tourists, who build them and then make a wish, traditionally they served as a representation of how the indigenous people were feeling the energy of the earth–it was their small way of leaving part of themselves, part of their soul, resting with the Pachamama (Mother Earth). I chose to forego wishing on an apacheta like the others, and instead breathed in the crisp air and sharp Andes horizon. I did make a mini one later, though, when I felt a little guilty about peeing on the side of an important mountain site…I just had to go!!
After lots of literal ups and downs, we crossed under a stone archway that read “Chivay,” and we were ready to stop for the night. Chivay is a small village of about 4,000 that serves as the gateway to the canyon, and while its location has made it a tourist attraction, with a few small hotels, boys running around with llamas (looking for a gringo with a camera and a tip), and one tiny “Irish Pub” that advertises Guinness “when available” (which is never–everyone ends up drinking the Arequipeña, I am told), Chivay maintains a traditional, old-world feel. The small main plaza is surrounded by farmland and mud-brick houses with roofs of straw. Cacti plants, rather than more traditional methods of barbed wire or broken glass, line the tops of stone walls–the method of choice for keep unwanted guests from climbing over onto private property. Dressed in jeans, a fleece, and hiking boots, I pass men, women, and children in traditional Cayllagua and Cabana garb: men in vests and hats, women in layers of heavy, heavily embrodered fabrics, apron on skirt on skirt, wrap on vest on shirt, babies strapped on their backs with colorfully woven blankets (this manner of toting toddlers is common throughout the country–usually, I am utterly impressed by the way they pack them in there so tightly, and at how cozy those little babies look, tight up against their mothers. Only a few times have I been tempted to run to the rescue of a floppy baby, or a thirteen-year-old mother who is double over by the weight of it all). The women all wear brimmed hats–some plain white top hats, others brightly emroidered hats–all an indication of what side you´re on, since there are Cayllagua people and Cabana people, and to this day, the two just don´t mix.
Once in Chivay, we checked into our respective hotels and set off on a hike into the mountains. We hiked past small farms, mules and cows, and a weathered woman in traditional garb sitting on the ground next to a scarf arranged with small piles of things no one could possibly want–a few dried black potatoes, some shucked corn, a fistful of grain, a lop-sided, shot-sized ceramic cup, a couple of withered carrots. Our guide, a lcoally-known Arequipeño who has been leading Colca tours for more than 10 years, and tries to encourage the locals to earn tourist dollars rather than beg for them, asked her a few questions, but she was shy and unable to tell us anything about what she was selling. Halfway up the mountain, we came across the trail´s major point of interest: several tombs dating back to the 1100s that remain chock-full of human skulls and bones–old burial sites used by the Cayllagua fighters. As you near them, you can see the skulls peeking out at you from various spaces in the rock (the tombs were raided at one point, but a few stray coca leaves, cigarette butts, and strategically placed skulls at one of the tombs point to more recent shenanegins). The views from the hike were outstanding: of the straw-roofed huts below, of little squares of farmland, each person´s share divided cleanly by a short wall of stones and mud, of the wind blowing across the fields, so that from where I stood the tall grass looked like an ocean of bright green waves. We hiked back past the farms and cows and the woman with her piles, and back into the village.
We spent a couple of hours and some of the surrounding natural hotsprings, and after dark we ate alpaca meat and saw a local group perform traditional song (in Quechua) and dance. After a day of alpaca-gazing–those furry things are everywhere!–I was a little wary of ordering the local specialty, but I figured it was better than guinea pig, and there wasn´t much risk involved (ahem…ceviche). I am happy to report that it in no way resembled the animal itself, and tasted quite good, though I don´t think my alpaca consumption will extend beyond the Colca Valley.
We were out and on the road at 5 a.m. the next day, since more morning hours in the canyon mean a better chance of spotting Colca´s number one celebrity, the condor. We did see some, and they were quite impressive, putting on a little show of loops and floating and majestic wingspan, but as I´ve never totally been able to relate to bird watchers, it was hard for me to understand why some would make the trek simply to catch sight of one soaring through the canyon. The canyon itself, though, plunging deep, surrounded by small waterfalls, craggy rockfaces, and blooming agricultural terraces, was well worth the trip. I only wish I would have had a whole week to explore, since time constraints limited us to just a small section of the canyon, and certainly not its deepest or most challenging. (This was, after all, the typical tourist route, all I had time for.)
After a few hours of hiking and history, we climbed into the Mercedes and started the long ride back to Arequipa. Sleeping was nearly impossible, since frequent changes in altitude made temperature regulation in the bus a challenge (no AC obviously, so either windows open or windows closed) , and the bumpy road was also a very dusty road, so that deep breathing induced choking. I popped some coca candy and watched the mountains pass, listening to my mp3 player until the battery died and we were back in the city. With contact info in hand, I said goodbye to my new Peruvian, Canadian, Spanish, Swiss, Irish, Dutch, and American travel buddies, thanked Carlos for a hell of a time, and moved back in to the hostel for two short days before moving on to Cusco.
Cusco: Classes and Carnival!
I might never leave Cusco.
No, really, if I weren´t a very dedicated friend, I would probably leave Brian to camp Patagonia by himself, and I´d live here blissfully until the end of time…or at least until April 28th, when I have to catch that flight back to the States.
Lima was nice, Pisco and Ica an adventure, Arequipa was quaint and Colca was impressive, but getting to Cusco was like taking an overnight bus home. I didn´t sleep a wink the entire 12 hour bus ride here, partly because I suck at sleeping unless I know I´ve got lots of personal space, but also because the guys across the aisle–Jesús and his four water distribution compadres, who´d spent a good hour hovering over me and my guidebook, teaching me phrases in Quechua, asking me about life in the U.S., and offering me places to stay/dinner dates (I politely declined)–were snoring away contentedly in our lower-level semi-cama section of the bus. At five a.m., the bus pulled into the Cusco terminal, and we all stepped into the freezing night air. I waited in delirium for the luggage guys to find my backpack, and said goodbye to Jesús and the boys, who patted me on the back and pointed me to the nearest taxi: “Que te vaya bien, Anita!” they said, and Call if you need anything!
“Hostal Royal Frankenstein,” I directed the driver, pulling a name from the list of hostels my trusty guidebook recommended. Since February is the low season in Peru, I never call ahead to book hostels, but I said a little prayer that 1)someone would be willing to get up and answer the door at the crack of dawn, 2)they would have an open bed, and 3)they wouldn´t hate me for the entirety of my stay for waking them up so freaking early.
I am in luck–the front door is open, and a disheveled but friendly-looking guy is standing in the doorway in loose pajamas, scratching his head and motioning me inside. He helps me with my backpack as I apologize for having woken him and inquire about a room. “Don´t vorry,” he says in a German accent, “I vas already avake…” he points and introduces me to Bruno, a yellow lab who sleeps at the front door. I silently thank Bruno for having a tiny bladder like mine. Ludwig, the owner, tells me they have one free room, a double if I don´t mind paying an extra 5 soles (a little over $1). Done. I go to sleep under heavy blankets and sleep until noon.
When I wake up, Ludwig shows me around the hostel and introduces me to his pretty Peruvian wife, Marita, and their 1 1/2 year old, Fiona, who is gorgeous, on her way to being a trilingual toddler, and likes to hit and throw things. The place is cozy, filled with natural light and hanging plants, a fishtank, a roaming Iguana in one corner, books and a guitar in another, and lots of funny signs and Frankenstein-themed decorations. We talk about Mary Shelley for awhile, and Germany, and he gives me a thorough sum-up of Cusco that includes maps, restaurant and agency recommendations, bus routes and beyond. A guy with grey stubble walks past me toward the front door. He´s wearing a flannel shirt and an Oakland A´s hat, and carrying a small ceramic mug. “Fuckin strong espresso up for grabs in the kitchen if you want it,” he says in a low, apathetic American accent. “Really?” I say, shocked at the prospect of precious, real espresso as an alternative to the watery Nescafe I´m trying to get used to. He pauses at the door. “You don´t drink it, kid, and I will, and I´ve already got enough to keep me high all day. Where you from?” “The U.S. Wisconsin.” “Uh,” he grunts, ”Cheesehead.” He walks outside without another word.
I gratefully sip what´s left of the espresso and head out myself. When I finally step outside, it´s about 1 in the afternoon, the sun is shining, and I feel like new person. I take a deep breath and know immediately that Cusco and I are going to get along very, very well.
Since it´s the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco is one of Peru´s major tourist hubs. During peak season, there are more tourists than locals in the central plazas, I´m told. But right now is the rainy season, and while there are many extranjeros about, the city is tranquil, bright and bustling, warm and colorful. I spend a few hours walking around, checking street names and getting my bearings, reading up on history and sights over coca tea in a colorful café in San Blas, the artsy, Bohemian-style section of town that I want to move to immediately. When I start making my way up the side of a mountain that will lead me to some Incan ruins, I am approached by a guy named Alfredo who is selling horseback-riding tours of the ruins–would I liketo spend a few bucks to go riding from one Incan ruin to another? Why not?
My guide ends up being Alfredo´s 11-year-old brother, Reinaldo. For the next 4 hours, Reinaldo and I hang out on horseback and ride from ruin to ruin, talking about Peru and the U.S., movies, music, school and girls. He doésn´t have much to say as far as the ruins are concerned, but it doesn´t really matter. I try to make him laugh and he tries to make my horse run after him as much as possible (which usually makes him laugh). I haven´t been riding in ages, and taking Quincy and Abby out at the farm once in a blue moon never really qualified me as a rider in the first place! By the end of the trip, I am throbbing from my butt on down, and feel as if my calf muscles have been permanently separated from my body. I thank Reinaldo for the ride, and hobble down the mountain back the hostel.
I´m past the tired, I-just-pulled-an-all-nighter phase, and well into the adrenaline phase: it´s Saturday night, and I´m dying to go out. The only catch is that going out requires people. As I unlock my bedroom door, another opens, and a girl steps out of the room next door. I introduce myself and am totally about to beg this British girl to go out to a bar with me, but she´s leaving at 5 a.m. for Machu Picchu, just stepping out to the market and then going to bed. Damn.
I change and consult my book for a restaurant/bar that might be crowded with people my age, write down a few addresses and grab my coat to go. Then, just as I´m locking my door behind me, a giant thunderclap rattles the hostel roof, and within minutes, all of Cusco is soaked. So are my plans to go out and meet some people over a Pisco Sour or two. I stand tentatively in the doorway, but this is a downpour. One of the guys who works at the hostel assures me that it´ll quit within a half hour. I can wait.
I head back inside to the lounge, where Marita and one of her close friends are talking. They ask me to sit, and three hours later, when the rain finally stops, the three of us grab our jackets and go out to meet a cousin, a sister, and some friends. Seven hours of nonstop dancing later, it´s six a.m., and I´m sitting on a bench in the Plaza de Armas watching the sun rise over Cusco. I´ve just had my first Peruvian girls´night.
The next day, I give my new girls hugs goodbye, we make plans to meet later in the week, and I head out to meet the Cusqueña family that will be hosting me for the week while I take classes at the Academia Latinoamericana.
I chose to take a week of intensive Spanish through an organization called Amerispan, to brush up after months of isolation from all that is non-white in northern WI, and to make contact with fellow travelers and what seemed to be a well-organized international organization. For those of you who were around for Freaky Franciny and Crazy Carmen, you might be surprised to know that I opted to stay with yet another host family. You certainly never know what you´re going to get. But I figured, what the hell? I´ll give it one more try.
Within 48 hours of living with the familia di Broggi, madre Martha and I had already had a hundred laughs, padre Alberto and I had invented a new version of the Twist that I like to call the Shoe Shine, and daughters Martha and Jessica were determined to teach me to dance a little less gringa, a little more Shakira (our Friday night discoteca plans fell through when we all fell asleep, unfortunately, and the now-international campaign to teach Anna how to body roll continues…). We sang at the dinner table nearly every night–from the Beatles to Juánez to Mana–and they tasted craisins and maple syrup for the first time, and I simply couldn´t have been placed in a happier, more perfect home.
The Academia runs 4-hour-a-day classes on a weekly basis, so every Monday means some new kids, and every Friday means some will get their certificate and go. Some stay for months, others, like me, a week. Classes were a bit of a disaster at first: Monday consisted of a written exam, a brief orientation of the school, and a walking tour of Cusco. Tuesday morning Kasia, my one fellow new girl (who also happened to live next door, and is from Chicago), and I were directed to our seperate classes. By the time we met for coffee during the mid-morning break, I was about to burst. It was so easy I could barely sit still–I must have really bombed the test. Kasia said her class was pretty hard. I went to the director´s office, and she looked at her class list, immediately realizing that they had made a mistake with the exams–Kasia was in my class, and I was in hers. But she was doing ok there, and they were at max capacity (4 people). They didn´t have a class for my level, they said. Instead, they were going to offer me private, one-on-one lessons for the rest of the week, which I had been way too cheap to sign up for in the first place. Score.
The rest of the week consisted of classes, lots of new family and friend time, excursions with small groups from the Academia to traditional markets, nearby Incan ruins, galleries and more, and lots and lots of water fights. After all, it was almost Carnival!
It would be difficult to describe Carnival in Peru without first explaining a bit about the age-old prankster tradition of water balloons. I am convinced that whoever invented the squeaky, stretchy stuff that is the balloon was clever, he who blew it up with air, whimsical, he who twisted it into shapes, artistic, and he who filled it with water, well…fabulously naughty. Water balloons are, first and foremost, a cheap laugh, one that transcends barriers of every kind: age, class, gender, language. You simply can´t help laughing when you catch a water balloon attack in action. I´m willing to bet that water balloons could do the Middle East (and any part of the world where various parties are unsuccessfully settling ongoing disputes, for that matter) a world of good, that if, in the heat of it all, someone launched a perfectly-aimed water balloon, everyone might just have a good laugh, shake hands, pack it up and go for a drink.
At any rate, about a week into my trip, I noticed the popularity of the water bomb among the local kids. Water guns, too. And anyone in the street, or even near the street, was fair game, whether it was a group of archrivals or an old man manning his shoe store. For the entire month of February, it´s go time, beginning with a few innocent pranks at the start of the month, and gradually evolving. By the week of Carnival, everyone is on guard, walking with suspicion, watching the hands of every oncoming pedestrian, eyes alert to any quick or sudden movements. I learned to watch balconies and rooftops (wet patches on the ground are a sure sign of recent battle), and taxis with open windows. Drivebys are pretty unavoidable. Add ”fake snow” spray foam into the mix, and unless you´re incredibly swift or the sun is strong, you might want to re-think that walk to the museum or stroll to the market.
It was a proud day last week that I made it home all dry. It was just one day. The globos were everywhere, an all out raid in the streets of Cusco, and while boys of all ages just loved to get “la gringa!”, everyone was a part of it, whether they liked it or not. I came home laughing every time.
These many weeks of globo wars were all leading up to the Sunday of Carnival, which was a soaking-wet free-for-all. Kasia and a new friend, Grace, and I decided to spend the day celebrating in various towns of Cusco´s Sacred Valley, home to lots of ancient Incan ruins and en route to the big one, Machu Picchu. We weren´t sure what to expect, but we never would have guessed we´d end up in a parade in Urubamba, dancing along with all of the traditionally-dressed locals through the streets of town, chasing and being chased, getting doused in buckets of anything liquid (we saw a group of boys carry one girl through the street, kicking and screaming when they finally dipped her into gutter water) until we reached the parade´s destination: a grassy field with cement bleachers on one side, a DJ and band on the other, rows and rows of food and beer on the others, and a balloon-filled tree standing in the center, surrounded by groups of dancers. We were soaking wet and laughing the entire way.
We were sipping 40 oz. beer, watching the dancers from a sunny spot in the field and finally beginning to dry off a bit when it began. I saw the groups of dancers part, and suddenly it was like a battle scene from Braveheart, only the warriors were teenaged boys in t-shirts, and the weapons were buckets of water from few nearby pools. They came slowly at first, rows of them, walking casually and numbering at least twenty. “Uh, guys,” I said, “I think we should RUN!”
Right as I said it, the boys started sprinting toward us, soaking all the innocents in their path. I grabbed my purse, jumped up and ran, sprinting alongside men, women, and children, everyone screaming and laughing. I could hear splashes and screams behind me, and when I turned around, it didn´t look good. I saw a drenched Grace with spray foam in hand, taking revenge on one guy, and Kasia looked liked she´d just walked leisurely through a hurricane. As it turns out, she had jumped up to run at the same time I did, but like a mother who runs back into a burning home for her child, she´d turned around to save our 40 oz. Pilsen, which she ended up dropping once she was drenched. A boy ran toward us with the foamy remains of the beer, and while she rang out her clothes, I poured her the last cup. She´d earned it!
The sun had all but disappeared, and it was getting cold. Needless to say, Grace and Kasia were ready to high-tail it back to Cusco, which celebrated in a tamer fashion. We went back to the hostel (I was back at Hostal Royal Frankenstein, home to my original Peruvian family, at this point, and Grace was staying there, too), took steamy showers and changed into dry sweats, and prepared to venture into the streets for some food. I peeked out the front door: “It´s totally fine, the coast is clear, guys,” I said with confidence. They followed tentatively behind, and within 5 steps of the hostel, a cab rounded the corner so fast I didn´t see what hit me, only felt it. When I looked down, though, I was covered in red dye. Grace too. We sprinted to the nearest restaurant and stayed for about six hours before sprinting back.
A balloon filled with red-staining dye. I can´t tell if it was better or worse than the balloon filled with pee that a guy was telling me about today as we walked across the Bolivian border to customs.
Bolivia: Just the Beginning
I left Cusco at 10 pm. last night, after a little send-off from Ludwig, Marita, and friends, and I boarded an overnight bus to La Paz. I was really sad to leave so soon–I needed more time in Cusco! And I was dreading the bus ride, especially when I saw how packed and cramped it was going to be. But for the first time since my eye mask + headphones + Nyquil ritual in the Mates´van, I managed to get a deep sleep on the road. When I woke up to the sun rising over Puno and Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian border, gleaming gold on the water and turning all of the fishermen in their one-man boats into floating figurine silhouettes, I felt calm and refreshed.
When the bus pulled into the La Paz terminal, I headed straight inside. My plan was to immediately purchase a ticket to Sucre or Potosí, and take off tonight, since I´ve got to meet Brian in under a week and it´s going to take a while to bus it all the way to Buenos Aires (flights were upwards of $400, and I´m just too cheap).
I stepped into the bus terminal and into some bizarre world: the whole place was pumping with music, the floor was running with booze, and all of the employees were popping firecrackers and confetti, dancing and having a good time in front of their respective ticket counters. I walked to a window and asked about a ticket to Potosí. I was handed a cup of beer instead. “Mañana, mañana!” they told me, and kept on dancing.
As it turns out, today is the day that La Paz celebrates Carnival. Not one bus is running out of the city today, and there´s a 99% chance of getting soaked upon arrival. My journey across a punctually-challenged, fabulously unpredictable continent begins.
Tags: Arequipa, Bolivia, Colca Canyon, Cusco, Peru, Travel