Peru - The Many Faces of Peru / Iquitos Photos
Nov 28, 2004
|Picture this ... it's 3:45AM and you're woken by a soft knock on the door. Initially you're alarmed. Then you remember that you have an early boat to catch; the knock on the door is your wake-up call. Off in the distance you hear lively Latin music playing and realize that people are still at the discos. You're getting up before some people have gone to bed! 4:15AM, the taxi that is supposed to take you to the pier dies a slow painful death in front of the hotel, so you're forced to make the trip on the back of the hotel owner's motorcycle, backpacks and all. At the pier you take a water taxi over to Santa Rosa, a small island in the Amazon across from Leticia where Peru's immigration post is located. 4:30AM, you stumble in absolute darkness as you leave the water taxi, thankful for the small ray of light coming from your headlamp. Not one streetlight is illuminated to show the way for the early travelers. 4:35AM, you arrive at the police office where you must have your passport checked before proceeding to Immigration. The door is locked and loud snores are heard from within. Knock, knock, knock. You and others wait while snores continue. KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. Snores are interrupted and eventually the door creaks open. You reluctantly hand over your passport and the door slams shut in your face. 4:45AM, the door reopens, your passport is returned and you now stumble, still in complete darkness, to the Peruvian Immigration office where you must repeat the exact same process, snoring officials and all, before finally receiving your visitor's entry stamp into Peru. 4:55AM, you arrive at the pier where your boat awaits. You hand over your backpack which disappears into an unknown region at the back of the boat, and take your assigned seat. 5:00AM, surprisingly punctual, you leave Colombia and Brazil behind and are now on your way to Iquitos in Peru.
With its rich cultural and geographic diversity, it's no surprise that Peru is one of South America's most visited countries. The mere mention of Peru conjures up mystical images of Machu Picchu and the Incas, but the country is filled with archaeological ruins, mummified remains, and remnants of ceramics, textiles and metalworks from other Andean cultures dating back thousands of years before the Incan Empire entered the picture.
The people of Peru are beautiful; their lovely features show a blend of indigenous, Spanish and African races. The country itself is an intriguing mix of tradition and progress. Some high traffic tourist areas have not escaped the usual trappings of so-called progress - internet, fast food, modern clothing and the English language - but in other areas it's almost as if the passage of time has stopped. Customs and traditions of the past are warmly embraced and intricately interwoven with the practices of today. Spanish is generally the main language in Peru, but Quechua and Aymara, indigenous languages that date back to Inca times and beyond, are still widely spoken and in certain areas are the first and only language. Pachamama, or Mother Earth, is still revered. Women and men wear hats and clothing that seem exactly the same as those worn by countless generations before them, each region represented by a slightly different color or style. I will never be able to think of Peru again without picturing those wonderful hats!
Geographically speaking, Peru has an amazing array of landscape. Within a matter of hours you can literally go from Amazon rainforest to snowcapped mountains, from lush green valleys to bone-dry desert, from Inca times to Nazca Lines, and from the world's deepest canyon to the world's highest lake. Peru is like a dozen different countries all wrapped up into one.
After 12 hours of "rollin' down the river" my boat finally arrived in Iquitos, a busy frontier city in the northeast part of Peru's Amazon basin. Expecting something similar to Tabatinga and Leticia, the small frontier towns of Brazil and Colombia, I was pleasantly surprised with Iquitos. It has lovely colonial architecture (a remnant from the rubber boom days of the late 19th century), a nice boardwalk running along the river where people stroll in the cooler hours of the evening, and very friendly locals.
Iquitos has the designation of being the "largest city in the world without road connections". Well, there may be no roads outside of Iquitos, but the streets within are filled with the loud, noisy, non-stop buzz of the "motocarros", motorcycle taxis similar to the tuk-tuks in Bangkok, and the main form of transportation around town.
Tour companies abound in Iquitos as it's an ideal spot for organizing tours into Peru's jungle. Other attractions around town include the "Iron House" which was built by Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) in Paris, disassembled, transported, and reassembled piece by piece in Iquitos in 1890. Why he chose Iquitos as the place for this masterpiece is anyone's guess, but in all honesty its origin holds more allure than its appearance! Also of interest is the "Museo Etnografico", located inside one of Iquitos' oldest colonial houses, which explains the history of the various Amazonian Indians using 76 life-like bronze statues.
One of the most interesting areas of Iquitos is Belén, a shantytown where thousands of people live in shacks that float on the river. You can finally escape the noisy motorcarros here as canoes are the only form of transportation. Belén has the usual stuff ... schools, shops, even a few local bars ... but everything floats. The area is obviously very poor but the houses are reasonably spacious, the thatched roofs provide cool shade from the incessant heat, and in a nice slummy sort of way I really liked the place!
Anyway, after spending a few pleasant days in Iquitos, and by now around 3 weeks in the jungle, it was time for me to leave the mosquitoes behind and hit the road. Of course the nearest "road" was 10 days away by boat. Learning from my recent mistakes in Brazil, I decided to choose a more time-efficient form of transportation this time ... and up in the air I went.
The Capital City
I flew to Lima, Peru's capital city (population approx 8 million). With my general dislike for big cities, and with Lima's reputation for being polluted and very dangerous, I didn't really want to go there at all. But it was unavoidable for two reasons: (1) you simply cannot go from the north of Peru to the south without first passing through Lima, and (2) I was desperately low on blank pages in my passport and the nearest Canadian Embassy where I could rectify the problem was in Lima.
I didn't linger long in Lima after my business with the Embassy was concluded, but I did go on a half-day tour, feeling I should at least see a bit of the city. Actually, Lima is another place where I was pleasantly surprised. It has more museums than you can visit in a week, and even more churches than museums. There are ancient ceremonial pyramids, beautiful plazas, the presidential palace, and a monastery famous for its underground catacombs and unusual "bone collection". There is also a very modern side of Lima with golf clubs, huge shopping centers and entertainment complexes.
I stayed at the "Flying Dog Hostel". Hey, I stayed at the Flying Pig Hostel in Amsterdam, so the Flying Dog in Lima seemed appropriate! It didn't have a "Happy Room" like the one in Amsterdam, but I did meet some great fellow backpackers, people who I would actually meet again and again in other countries as we traveled the Gringo Trail.
The Majestic Mountains
I had planned on heading south from Lima to Nazca, but agricultural strikes and resulting roadblocks made the trip impossible for at least a few days. So I changed direction and hopped on a bus heading north to Huaraz which is located in the Cordillera Blanca region; a hiking, climbing and trekking wonderland. This region contains more than 50 mountain peaks of 5700m or higher including Huascarán, Peru's highest mountain (6768m).
Huaraz was my first introduction to major altitude. The town of Huaraz itself sits at an elevation of 3091m. Visits to surrounding mountain parks, lakes and glaciers put you at altitudes of up to 5100m. That's a very big difference in altitude from sea-level Lima, and the headaches and insomnia I experienced for a few days, typical symptoms of altitude sickness, made me realize I hadn't acclimatized properly.
Which led to my first introduction to coca leaves! Chewing coca leaves (the raw plant from which cocaine is eventually produced) and/or drinking "mate de coca" is the usual combat against the effects of altitude. So while in Peru I became a coca leaf addict!
Most of Huaraz's attractions are outside of town and difficult to access by public transportation. To deal with this issue I went on a series of organized day trips. We hiked around beautiful emerald green lakes and drove through some absolutely stunning scenery, crossing high mountain passes and bleak pampas regions where only the llamas and the alpacas roam. We visited small towns, many of which had been all but destroyed in the 1970 earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people in central Peru. We toured through "Chavin de Huantar", the most significant pre-Incan temple in the Huaraz area. And although I went to South America to avoid the cold and snow of the North American winter, we even hiked up to Pastoruri Glacier which took us to just over 5000m. I never would have imagined how difficult it is to hike at that altitude.
By the way, "we" was me, a few other gringos, and about a million high school students from Lima who were on end-of-year field trips. It was simply impossible to get away from the kids ... they were on the tours, at the hotels, on buses, around town, in restaurants ... but their enthusiasm was catchy and we had a lot of fun together - nothing like slowly struggling along at high altitude to form a bond!
Question: What's worse than a bus full of high school students? Answer: A bus full of high school students suffering from altitude sickness and vomiting for hours on the way back to Huaraz!
The Incan Empire
From Huaraz I took the night bus back to Lima, complete with 28 of my young high school friends, and went straight to the airport, detouring around police vehicles and the aftermath of a drive-by shooting, to catch a flight to Cuzco, the foremost city of the Incan Empire.
Legend has it that the first Incan was given the task of finding the "naval of the earth" and, upon finding it, to create a settlement there ... and on this spot Cuzco was founded. Cuzco is also known as "the archaeological capital of the Americas" and the continent's oldest continuously inhabited city. The Spanish invaded Cuzco around 1533, drove out the Incas, destroyed a lot of their buildings, and rebuilt it as a colonial city. Consequently, Cuzco has a very interesting blend of architecture with original Incan built walls acting as the foundation for colonial style buildings.
I was booked to do the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu in mid-December. I arrived a week early in order to acclimatize (wish I would've thought of that before hiking in Huaraz!) and while acclimatizing I took some Spanish lessons, figuring it was about time I stopped living out of my Spanish phrasebook.
My Spanish lessons included a Peruvian family homestay, so for one week I became the latest addition to the Fernandez-Perez family ... there was Adolfo, Liliana, Alfredo, Melissa, Franco, and me! By Peruvian standards, and by any standard for that matter, the Fernandez-Perez family would be considered wealthy. Their house, food and lifestyle is similar to that of any North American or European family. I was a little disappointed as I had expected a more "authentic" experience, however I was immensely happy not to be served "cuy" for dinner ... the Peruvian delicacy of roasted guinea pig!
My week in Cuzco happened to coincide with a large political event ... "Los Presidentes" were in town. 13 presidents from various Latin American countries were discussing issues like whether to join NAFTA and whether to establish a common currency similar to the Euro. I never heard any outcomes, not sure that there were any! Between the 2,000 police who were brought in from all over Peru, and the hundreds of bodyguards that were trailing after each president, maximum security was in effect. It was difficult for someone new in town to navigate around the ever-changing roadblocks and detours that occurred whenever the presidents were on the move. The meetings wrapped up with a big fiesta and large parade featuring rural participants in traditional costumes that happened to take place right outside my Spanish school.
Cuzco is a beautiful city but it's also very touristy. I soon became extremely weary of being asked - at least a million times each day - whether I wanted to book a tour, pay money to take a photo, buy some postcards, do this, or buy that. It's hard to be polite when the 1,000,001st person approaches you to buy something! Tourists are also a crime target in Cuzco ... pickpockets are common, I met people who had their backpacks slashed and contents stolen, and one girl at my school went out partying at the disco one night, had drugs put in her drink, and ended up robbed and in the hospital. Thankfully I had no problems.
Anyway, the week flew by, the homestay experience was fabulous, I could now speak just enough Spanish to be dangerous, and I was ready to tackle the Inca Trail.
The Lost City of the Incas
The 4-day "Inca Trail" hike to Machu Picchu is the most famous trail in South America, walked by many thousands each year. Only discovered in 1911, the "Lost City of the Incas", or Machu Picchu, is considered the "most spectacular and most visited archaeological site on the continent". From June to September as many as 1,000 tourists visit Machu Picchu each day, and to protect the Trail there's now a limit of 500 hikers per day.
For 33 kilometers the Inca Trail winds its way up, down and around beautiful valleys, over 3 mountain passes (the highest pass being 4200m), through rainforests and cloudforests, over bridges and through tunnels, and passes numerous cliff-hanging Inca ruins.
Hiking the Inca Trail was an unforgettable experience for me. It was everything and more than I expected. There was more beautiful scenery ... the hike was more physically challenging ... there was more food and better service provided by the tour company ... I was more impressed by the porters who sprinted past us on the trail each day carrying tents, cooking supplies, all our heavy gear ... there were more amazing Inca ruins to explore. The list could go on forever. And then, when you think it couldn't get any better, waiting at the end of this amazing hike is the spectacular Machu Picchu ... what a grand finale.
Doing the hike in December meant missing the hordes of hikers that you get during high season, but it can be a risk for weather as it's the start of Peru's rainy season. Thankfully we lucked out, having rain showers only at night and beautiful sunny and warm days. There were 8 people in my trekking group (I don't need to mention who was the oldest right!), and only around 3-4 other groups of similar size on the trail, so instead of 500 people on the trail we had less than 100 (including porters which were at a ratio of around 2 porters per hiker). Often we felt like our small group had the trail to itself ... I can't imagine doing the hike with so many people alongside.
Once we arrived at Machu Picchu we had a formal 2-hour guided tour, and then were let loose to explore on our own for an additional 4 hours. Some of us, of which I grudgingly became one, climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu (also called Rock Peak or Young Peak), a mountain behind Machu Picchu. More huffing and puffing up a very steep path was rewarded by more stunning views. After that it was time to make our way by bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes where our group had one final meal together before going our separate ways.
The Sacred Valley
I spent a few more days in the Sacred Valley, an area around 20 kilometers north of Cuzco, following in the footsteps of the Incas. I had mentioned my intentions to our Inca Trail guide, and he offered his guiding services of the area for the small price of transportation, food and accommodation ... all of which are very cheap in Peru ... so I got more professional guiding services for a steal of a deal!
I'll admit that we did a bit of a whirlwind tour through the valley. We set off from the village of Ollantaytambo, believed to be the best surviving example of Inca city planning, where a large Inca temple/fortress is perched up on a hill and other terracing and images are carved in the opposite hills. From there we went to Urubamba in the base of the beautiful Sacred Valley. Next on the list was Moray from where we hiked around 15kms to see the amazing circular amphitheatre-style Inca terraces. Then we went to the Salinas at Maras, an extraordinary sight where literally thousands of terraced pools of salt water are spread out along the valley. Our last stop for the day was in Pisac, famous for their colorful weekly market, and the site of yet another huge Inca ruin.
In Pisac I had my first taste of "chicha", a beer favored by locals made from fermented corn. Let's say it's an acquired taste! I soon switched to "Pisco Sours", a drink favored by tourists!
Early the next morning we set off to hike up the steep 5km path through Inca terraces to the hilltop Inca citadel with ceremonial sites, temple ruins and more spectacular valley views. By the time we hiked back down the Pisac market was in full swing and we enjoyed slowly poking our way through the stalls. From Pisac we traveled to Tambomachay (ceremonial baths), from there hiked to Pucapucara (soldier and messenger fort), Qenko (large limestone stone with niches and chambers used for ritual sacrifices), and finally we arrived at Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like "sexy woman"!!), site of the bitterest of battles between the Incas and the Spanish. From there we hiked along the old Inca road and entered Cuzco once again.
Leaving the land of the Incas behind, I traveled to Nazca and saw evidence of a culture further back in time ... the mysterious Nazca Lines. Spread over 300 square kilometers of dry flat desert is an amazing network of over 800 lines, 300 figures and 70 animal/plant drawings.
The Lines were discovered in 1939 by pilots flying over the desert. Scientists say the Lines were made by the Nazca culture between 300BC-700AD. Some think there is a direct relationship between the constellations and the drawings. Others think the Lines are maps of space and runways made by extraterrestrials, or representation of Shaman dreams brought on by hallucinogenic drugs. After seeing them myself, I'm still not sure which theory to believe.
The Lines are best seen, and in most cases are ONLY seen, from an altitude of around 200 meters in the air. So up in a little 6-seater tour plane I went. The tour sort of reminded me of a drive-by shooting ... we were up in the air, blasting over the 13 most prominent formations faster than a speeding bullet, and 30 minutes later our wheels were back on the tarmac. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed with the aerial tour. Granted, I was somewhat tired and cranky having only just arrived from Cuzco a few hours before on a night-bus-from-hell that twisted, turned, and bumped over the Andes. Also, the poor guy sitting next to me in the plane who was repeatedly airsick didn't do anything to improve my disposition. And then, the last straw, I discovered that I suck as much at aerial photography, especially at hyperspeed, as I do at wildlife photography!
Other than the Lines, Nazca doesn't really have much to offer tourists. I did visit a pyramid-shaped ancient city currently being excavated, a former jail of sorts, and an ancient viaduct which miraculously produces water from some unknown underground source in this bone-dry desert. Well worth a visit is also the pre-Inca cemetery, providing a remarkable amount of evidence of the people who walked this desert over 2000 years ago. Mummified bodies in remarkably intact condition are found in shallow underground chambers. Sadly the graves were looted long ago and most of the pottery, jewelry and anything else of value stolen, but scattered around the countryside for anyone to sift through are broken pieces of hand painted pottery, textiles, and a whole lots of bones.
The White City
Nicknamed the "White City" because of the light-colored volcanic rocks used in building construction which apparently glow in the moonlight, the colonial city of Arequipa sits in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, including El Misti, a perfect cone-shaped volcanic mountain of 5882m. Arequipa has many beautiful churches, colonial buildings and plazas to snoop through, as well as a wonderful selection of restaurants. You could easily spend a few days or even weeks there. But it's also a great place to organize trekking tours up to El Misti or down to nearby Colca Canyon ... which is the main reason I was in Arequipa ... so after a few quick days in Arequipa, not nearly enough time, I headed off to trek the canyon.
The Word's Deepest Canyon
Cañón del Colca is situation around 100kms northwest of Arequipa, but it takes 6 hours by bus to go up and across a high stretch of Andean plateau, through numerous towns and villages, and past some of the most extensive pre-Inca terracing in Peru before you reach the village of Cabanaconde, the starting point of the trek. By the way this 6 hours is by public bus, a very interesting experience in itself as this part of the world seems to have adopted the Indonesian public transportation concept of there being "no such thing as a full bus"! There were a few gringos on board, but mostly the bus was a constant stream of locals coming and going, women wearing wonderful regional hats and clothes and always with a child strapped on her back, and everyone was carrying huge bags/baskets of God knows what.
After arriving in Cabanaconde, my two fellow trekkers (Birgit and Steve from Germany) and I had lunch - our first taste of alpaca steak - before setting off with our local guide. Reaching the edge of the canyon, we started a steady hike downhill - going down 1200m in 7 kilometers - before reaching the canyon floor. By the way, that was 7 kilometers on bone dry, loose rock trail, my least favorite hiking surface as you're constantly slipping and sliding and somehow trying to brake, which was very exhausting on your old legs! We hiked along the canyon floor for a short while, then crossed a suspension bridge, continued a bit uphill on the other side of the canyon wall and eventually came to a small farm, the location of our first night's stay. Accommodation was in very basic bamboo huts, we ate simple but good Andean food, and had the most stunning views of the canyon.
The next day we visited many small villages as we hiked up and down along the other side of the canyon. Now we were on the sunny side of the canyon and hiking in the blistering heat. It soon became obvious that the narrow trail we were hiking along was the "superhighway" between Cabanaconde and the small villages in the canyon ... we saw a few other hikers but mostly there was a constant stream of heavy-laden mules, herds of sheep, and locals young and old sprinting past us. Accommodation for that night was at a place called "The Oasis", same style accommodation and food as the previous night but in a lovely green area with an added luxury of a few swimming pools ... an amazing sight in the middle of this bone-dry canyon.
At 4:30AM the next morning we started our slow but steady ascent, initially setting off in the pitch dark with only our headlamps for illumination, and then continuing on through a beautiful sunrise. Finally, after around 3 hours of steady uphill hiking, my very tired legs hit dirt at the top of the canyon. I'm not sure why but I mistakenly thought that the Colca Canyon trek would be much easier than the Inca Trail ... how wrong I was ... the Inca Trail was just "training" for this hike!
We ran into a slight problem on our way back to Arequipa. At a town called Chivay, where we had to make a bus connection, there were no seats available on buses back to Arequipa. I mean there were NO seats available on ANY bus at ANY time that day going back to Arequipa. So, after hiking for 3 days, including a very tough climb up the canyon wall that morning, Birgit, Steve and I ended up standing on the bus back to Arequipa with the locals, packed in like sardines, for 4 hours! We felt like we earned the right to share a few beers when we finally arrived back in town.
The Word's Highest Lake
I decided to experience the Christmas season in Puno, a small town sitting on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which by the way is the world's highest navigable lake and the largest lake in South America. I arrived in Puno on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
When you're constantly on the road, you have to address one very serious question from time to time ... where do you get a haircut? Well, after three months of travel it was definitely time and Puno was the place! I asked a woman travel agent for her recommendation, and she not only personally escorted me to her stylist, but then waited with me until I was completely satisfied with my haircut ... which I was, especially at the price of 2.50 Soles (just under US$1) ... then she took me for a wander through the markets, explaining local Puno and Christmas traditions. How nice is that!
There was a wonderfully festive atmosphere around Puno. Streets were busy with last minute shoppers. Restaurants were packed and most had live Latin bands playing. Nativity scenes were everywhere ... in shops, restaurants, hotels ... but although every animal imaginable was present (including elephants and llamas!), none of them had a baby in the manger yet. There was a great sense of anticipation for the arrival of "Niño Jesus" which would happen at midnight tonight.
When midnight arrived there were firecrackers, music and parties on the street, and even a few Santa floats. Niño Jesus figurines were added to the nativity scenes, some wearing traditional clothing, others dressed Andean style. Festivities kept going until the wee hours. In contrast, Christmas Day was very quiet. Most shops and restaurants were closed, the streets empty, people were spending a quiet day at home with their families. I definitely saw more of a focus on the religious side of Christmas, and even though I'm not a hugely religious person, it was a refreshing change from the monetary, gift-giving focus that we have in North America.
Boxing Day was back to business as usual and I went on a tour of Sillustani, a windswept area where local Inca nobility were buried in huge funerary towers. On the way back to Puno we stopped at a typical Andean farm which provided great insight into how locals in this area live, which by the way is very basic.
My final trip in Peru was a visit to the islands of Lake Titicaca. First on the list were the Uros Floating Islands. They really do float! The base of the island is the root of the reed plant found in the area which floats like cork, and then layer upon layer of dried reeds are added on top. More layers of reeds are added as the old layers beneath disintegrate. The "ground" felt somewhat spongy when you walked around. These islands have become quite touristy, but it was still very interesting to see how the people of these islands live, which is very self sufficient. Everything is made of reeds ... houses, churches, boats. And of course no trip to Uros would be complete without taking a little cruise between islands on one of their reed boats, all with mastheads in the shape of a puma head.
Next stop was the island of Amantani, 4 hours by boat from Puno. Here we saw more Inca terracing and ruins. We actually spent the night on Amantani, eating and sleeping with local families. The families are all very poor, but everyone was wonderfully welcoming and friendly, and it was a perfect opportunity for us to see what it's really like to live the Andean way. There are 9 small villages on Amantani, and the tour companies rotate between the different villages when bringing visitors. Whenever tourists are visiting a particular village, that village hosts a fiesta. The tourists get dressed up in typical Amantani clothing (the multiple layers of skirts are not the most flattering on the hips!), dance to traditional Andean music, and tourists and locals together have a whale of a time.
The next morning we said goodbye to our host families and set off to Taquile Island. This island is closer to Puno, more accessible for day tours, and is a bit more developed for tourism with a few shops and restaurants. The men of Taquile are actually famous for their knitting of all things! And they do great work!! To live on Taquile Island means that you must follow the traditions of the island ... you must wear only traditional clothing, you must follow rules established for the islanders. And I think the most interesting were the specific rules relating to what kind and color of hats men wear, or what color and style of skirt and shawl women wear, all depending on whether they're single or married. It was all quite fascinating! After a day of touring around Taquile, we made our way back in Puno.
5 weeks had flown by with amazing speed and it was time for me to leave Peru. Had I just visited one country?? It felt more like a dozen!!!
Languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara
Currency: Nuevo Sol
Exchange rate 1USD = 3.25 Soles
PS: I try to keep these stories short ... really I do ... but as I'm writing they kinda take on a life of their own, and it makes me re-live the moment and get all excited again! I hope this finds everyone happy and healthy. I'm feeling a bit isolated from the real world down here in South America so it would be good to hear from you guys telling me what's new with your life, or even in your city, country or the world for that matter! Chao chicos ...