Sunday, September 12, 2004

Lake Titicaca and The Island of the Sun

Saturday morning breaks early at 5 AM, as our bus is coming to pick us up at 5:45.  These weekends are going to kill us.  Those who know me can relate to how much I like to get up early in the morning.  Anyway, succeed without killing anyone, get on the bus and off we go to Chuya, the harbor on Lake Titicaca where we will catch the Catamaran to cruise to the Island of the Sun (Isla del Sol) or Sun Island. 

At 3100 square miles, Lake Titicaca is the 24th largest fresh water lake in the world, and the world's highest navigable lake at 12,500 feet.  It is bordered by Peru and Bolivia and some of the islands are Peruvian, some Bolivian. 

It's only a 90 minute ride to the harbor, but just 45 minutes outside La Paz we get our first glimpses of the lake and the civilizations that have grown up around it.

At Chuya, we board a large Catamaran for a three hour tour across Lake Titicaca to Sun Island.  It's early and it's chilly, and the sky starts to look formidable as we pass through the Straits of Tiquina, which separates the lake into two bodies of water.  Tomorrow when we return by bus, we will need to be ferried across this point.

But, miraculously and luckily, as we pass through the straits the skies clear and the sun shines down on us, making for spectacular views.  This area is known as the birth place of the Incan civilization, as can be realized by the 35 MILES of terraced mountains we sail by.

Cloudy, cold and beautiful

Some of the terraces, and a neat tree line

And here comes the sun!

First look at the Island of the Sun
It's been a nice cruise, and we arrive at Sun Island, pulling in right under the "original Sun Palace" of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, the Aymaran (and Incan) version of Adam and Eve.  This structure was built over pre-Incan ruins of another civilization, and is only a portion of the original building. 

After our brief but interesting tour of the Sun Palace, we go to an Aymaran house (the Indians who inhabit this island) for a traditional lunch.  Of course, I was too busy feeding my face to take any pictures of the food, but it was delicious.  Kingfish from the lake, tiny fried fish like smelt, chicken, corn, sweet potatoes called Oca, dehyrated potatoes that looked like llama scat (and kind of tasted like it, too), some large beans like lima beans, hardboiled eggs and cheese.  They gave us enough food to feed a dozen people.  All the vegetables are grown on the island and said to be extremely healthy.  Many people on the island of the sun live to be well into their 90's.  Over 1000 types of potatoes are grown in Bolivia, and 300 types of corn (I didn't even know there were 1300 types of these vegetables!). 

Now we must don our backpacks and walk uphill for 90 minutes (about five kilometers, I'm guessing) to La Estancia Eco Lodge.  This is the part we've been dreading, being that we are not much of hikers.  It goes alright, though, once we catch our breath.  Some beautiful views as we climb.  And climb.  And climb.

Obviously, I'm not used to climbing with a backpack on, and am whipped, not to mention we probably just went up another 1500 feet!  Anyway, we do arrive at the Eco-lodge on time (around 3 PM), and have some refreshing beverages to revive us.  Unlike last week we have plenty of free time, as dinner isn't until 7:30.
Tired but happy.  Almost a normal state.
Despite some concerns, the lodge ends up being pretty nice.  Sun Island has only had electricity for 2 years, and the lodge uses solar energy to heat water and warm the lodges.  I have to say, it works better for hot water than heat in the rooms.  It was freezing in there at night.  However, we did have an endless supply of hot water.   After a robust dinner, we all sat around the fire and drank cerveza until we couldn't keep our eyes open (about 2 hours!). 

SIDENOTE:  The advent of electricity to the island has brought than inevitable evil of television.  Hence, many of the young folk (who never saw the "outside world") are now leaving this island haven for "bigger and better things", and the fear of the ancient ways and customs being lost looms large on this community.  Many of the kids who leave end up in El Alto, the La Paz immigrant suburb of lawlessness and poverty.

The sun comes up early here, or so it seems as our cabana faces dead East.  So, at 7 AM, unable to sleep anymore and welcoming the warmth, we crawl out from under our down comforter and face the day.  Breakfast is at 8:30 and we won't leave the lodge until around 10:30.

FM and I go for a little trek around the corner of the island to see the view on the other side before leaving the lodge.  We heard there were some beaches and coves that you could see from the top of the island.  It was nice to walk without the backpacks, and we were rewarded by a tremendous view.  Until now, we didn't realize how big the island actually was (probably because we felt like we had hiked half of it!).

We leave the lodge enroute for the "Fountain of Youth" (yeah, right), where we will meet up with some other one-day tourists and visit the cultural center, go for a reed boat ride, and then grab the catamaran to Copacabana for our return bus ride to La Paz.  The tour group ends up consisting of Japanese from Tokyo, and one of the girls worked at the Starbucks next to our hotel in Akasaka, Tokyo.  Too funny. 

Made it to the fountain of youth, and we'd better drink from it, because we are going to climb down the stairs below, and then back up them with the new additions to our tour group.
And there it is - the FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH.  Huh.
Yep.  We're climbing up those steps. Maybe this dude will serenade us as we walk.
At the cultural center they have terraces with plants growing on them, the remains of the old hanging gardens on the Incans, Llamas, Alpacas, a Vicuna and a baby, and a museum with artifacts from the ancient Incans.  Interesting, but the highlight was getting the baby vicuna to kiss me!  He wasn't very interested in anyone else, though.

The inevitable Alpacas

My new boyfriend
After the Cultural Center visit, we climbed back down those stairs and got on a traditional Incan reed boat.  These boats are hand made, and one of this size takes about 3 months to build.  The average life expectancy on fresh water is about 14 months, and on sea water, about 9 months.  They claim that these boats were either brought over by the Egyptians, or the Incans brought the technology to Egypt.  They have a whole section in the cultural center based on the feasibility of high sea travel with such boats, including a National Geographic expedition where they built an exact replica and sailed it to Africa.  Interesting thoughts.  And, a fun sail for us, too!  Don't want to try it on big water, however.
Here comes our ride!
After the big reed boat ride (about 20 minutes) we switched back to the catamaran of yesterday and had a nice buffet lunch and cruised to Copacabana.  There we had a five minute stop to take pictures of the church (about the only thing of interest there), then onto the bus for 3 1/2 hours to return to La Paz. 

And again with the potential breaking of FM's hand as I clutched it dearly for life as we wended 90 minutes downhill; but the views were fantastic (when I could get my eyes open). But, we did stop and take some pictures, and when we FINALLY got back to La Paz I was able to take a picture of Illimani at twilight that amazed even me.  This mountain "protects" La Paz from earthquakes, and can be seen in part from most parts of La Paz.

El Plano
Mount Illimani at twilight

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Cusco, Machu Pichu and Some Fine Dining

Saturday morning. 6 AM.  Catching our flight to Cusco. How irritating to have to be at the airport 3 hours prior to our flight for a one hour jaunt across the mountains to Peru.  Flight was on time and went fine, and we flew across some gorgeous snow covered mountains and Lake Titicaca.

When we arrived in Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our tour operator picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel.  Unfortunately, we went cheap and it was one step above a hostel (meaning we had our own bath), but we ended up with two little bitty beds and a room about as big as a closet.  Paper thin walls and lots of noise.  The good news:  we wouldn't be spending very much time in our room!  We got to our hotel around 10 AM local time, and had "free time" until 1 PM, when we would start our first tour of the town of Cusco, two cathedrals, and some Incan ruin sites around the town.  

While we were waiting for our tour to start, FM and I visited an old monastery which is now a five star hotel (wish we were staying there) and walked around a bit.  Then a nap before the tour!
The monastery was built in 1962.  Interior plaza.  Very romantic.

Cusco is a very Spanish town, much like what I expected from LaPaz and didn't find.  Our hotel was in the Plaza de Armas, which is dead in the center of town, and is a town square.  This Catholic cathedral was directly across from our hotel and included on our city tour, however we couldn't take any pictures of the inside.  The most impressive part was a choir loft carved totally out of cedar and very intricate.  Somebody on our trip snuck a picture and shared it with me. . . 

This cathedral was to the right of our hotel, but never open.  Cusco was very clean and fairly safe, just had to look out for the kids hawking postcards.

Where there weren't churches, the square was surrounded by two story buildings with arched doorways and a balcony all the way around.  The buildings were full of restaurants, stores, and hotels.

I can't imagine why a small town like this has so many churches built by the Spanish.  Most of the churches were built over old Incan Holy Places, so maybe that's why.  They were trying to eradicate that cultures important spots.

A common sight everywhere are adorable little Peruvian children dressed up in traditional costumes holding baby goats, llamas, alpacas.  They'll charge you a sol or two to take their picture.  The money was called "Soles" and 3.34 of them made a dollar.  It wasn't quite as cheap here as in LaPaz, but still not bad.  The local beer is called Cusquena, and tasty.

Outside of the square, things are a little more rustic.  Many building walls are made of manure and straw, and it smells real nice walking along them in the sun!

Next visit was the most important church in Cusco, called the Church of the Sun.  It was built over the original Incan Temple called (imagine this) the Temple of the Sun.  There are many relics of walls and sanctuaries within the church that the Spanish didn't tear down when they re-built it.  Again, you couldn't take any pictures INSIDE, though.  What a crock!

We left the city on the tour bus to visit Incan ruins called Saqsaywaman (sounds like Sexy Woman), Kenko, Tambomachay and Puva-Pucara.  The most impressive to us was Saqsaywaman.

Aqueducts at Tambomachay

View of Cusco
Manteled doorway at Saqsawaman
Typical Incan doorway, built in a trapezoidal shape with one mantel over the top. This was one level up from the massive wall at Sexy Woman.  

More Saqsawaman
Sexy Woman is on a large terrace about 12,000 feet up the mountain.  On one side is a massive long wall of rock built by the Incans.  It stretches and bends for about 400 feet.   Most of the structure up top has fallen down or been demolished, but still hard to figure out how they got these large rocks in place without mortar.  Kind of like the pyramids, only horizontal.
And more terraces at Saqsawaman
Across the terrace from the huge wall is Incan terraces cut out of the mountain which they used for agricultural purposes.  Again, they have all this flat land to farm on, but choose to terrace the mountain for growing.  Theory is the center part was used as some kind of communal meeting area of Main Square.

The other ruins we visited before returning to Cusco were small, but neat.  One was a fountain, one was a labyrinth were they mummified their dead, and the other was a look out building (fort) for protection of Saqsaywaman.

This is the land of llamas and alpacas and even vlcunas (which I never heard of and look a little like deer with really long necks).  It is a staple of their economy from the wool they shear to the meat they eat (yes, we ate llama).  Anyway, when we got out to Sexy Woman there was a bunch of llamas there.  They are so cute, but pretty dirty and shy. I went over by them but they all just showed their butts.
We returned to the hotel around 7 PM, and it was already dark.  We were told by our guide that Peruvians consider guinea pigs a delicacy, so the six of us decided that was what we would dine on tonight.  Unfortunately, they didn't tell us how it was SERVED!  It was a struggle, but we tried it (once!), and enjoyed our several side dishes.  The worst part was when I ate something that I thought was a mushroom, but turned out to be the poor little guy's liver.  They split them right down the center and serve each person half a guinea.  Sorry to anyone that had one as a pet as a child. . . .

After dinner, we went and washed down the guinea pig with a couple beers (and tried to forget what we had for dinner).  Wake up call at 7 am for more touring.

After a pitiful breakfast at our pitiful hotel, the tour bus picked us up at 8 AM for a full day tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incans.  This is the valley that eventually culminates into Machu Pichu, however today we would not get that far.  Our first stop was a village about 90 minutes out of the city called Pisac, which is one of the agricultural centers of the area.  They also have a THRIVING artisan market which we were obligated to spend an hour at.  The first trip through the market was with the guide, who took us to a "bakery", where we had an empanada to subsidize our weak breakfast, and saw how they cooked Guinea pigs.  Great, I had almost forgot I ate one of those things!  
Sacred Valley

Returno n the Guinea Pigs.  They actually had live ones right next to the grill.  My stomach and I are at war today
After our shopping expedition, we continued down the valley for another hour, and then stopped to have lunch.  Everyone on the bus had lunch someplace different, so after about 90 minutes, we regrouped and went on.  We had a HUGE buffet lunch, including trout from Lake Titicaca and Llama (which has no fat or cholesterol and is really quite tasty). 
The hotel we had lunch at had quite an extensive garden where they grew all their own vegetables.  They also had a neat cactus garden and some unusual flowers.  The hotel was really nice, but out in the middle of NOWHERE!

Finally full, we continued down the valley to Ollantaytambo (old Incan fortress city that protected the valley).

As we continued to Ollantaytambo, we all "voted" to stop at an Alpaca, Llama, and Vicuna ranch to check out where they raise them, shear them, and then dye the wool and weave it into handicrafts.  Surpisingly enough, they didn't try to sell us anything, just let us wander around.  Very nice little stop.

These poor vicunas are almost extinct, as they are slaughtered in the wild for their wool, which is the softest of all natural fibers in South America.  A scarf made of Vicuna costs about $500 US. They remind me of a giraffe the way they twist their necks around.


Weaving the wool into tourist products.

Baby vicuna.  Just need to figure out how to get him home.

The Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo were a very strategic ruin for the Incans.  It was not only a fortress for the sacred valley, but also a holy temple for their priests and a huge agricultural center.  Some of the original streets in the town are still present, and new houses have been erected over old foundations.  The Spanish did find this fortress and destroyed a lot of it, but the original aqueducts, terraces, and base are still there.

Some giant steps

These are the tops of the five sacred stones, and the steps behind it are the remains of a fortification wall that was built behind the terraces.

We were also able to go into an authentic Incan home (currently lived in by Andeans).  They keep the mummified skulls of their ancestors on the mantle (UGH!).  First they bury them for about 7 years, then they go dig up the skull.  
And some giant sacred stones

Looking down

Way, way, way, way WAY on the other side of the other mountain they built storehouses (on the right) for their excess produce.  The face carved into the mountain is of an old Incan legend that came to the civilization sometime around the time of Christ.  A tall, thin, white skinned man who taught the Incans about astrology and astronomy. . . Hmmm.


Gratuitous Pretty

After leaving Ollantaytambo, we stopped on the way to Chincherrios (where we were going to visit ANOTHER spanish cathedral) to take some more scenic shots.  When we got to Chincherrios, I was losing the war with the guinea pig and had to hit the bathroom and return to the bus.  
A stop along the way.  I look a little better than I feel.


We returned tired and exhausted to Cusco around 7 PM, went out with a couple girls that TJ had met on the tour (flight attendants for Delta) at the Incan Grill.  Skipped all local food and had some chicken soup, then off to the Irish Pub for a little refreshment.

Finally, the day arrives we are heading to Machu Pichu.  Sure has seemed like a lot leading up to what we thought was the purpose of this weekend jaunt.  Breakfast at 5, bus leaves to go to the train station at 5:30.  The train will follow much of the same route we were on yesterday, so we grabbed quite a bit of sleep in the first couple hours.  We were exhausted.  We had climbed a lot of stairs at Ollantaytambo, but were warned that it was nothing but a warm up for Machu Pichu.  But, first a four hour train ride (to travel 110 kilometers).  The train leaves Cusco and goes up the mountain, but the mountain is too steep to climb directly, so we have to go through 3 switchbacks.  Half of the first hour we are going backwards.  Slept through most of that, though!

After arriving at the train station in Agua Calientes (Hot Water), we then have to get a 25 minute bus to go straight up the mountain to Machu Pichu.  Now it's 10 AM.  Here we go up a gravel road with Jeff Gordon at the wheel and thousand foot drop offs over the edge, and it's a two way road on a one and a half lane street.  YIKES.  Have to remember not to sit by the window on the way down.

Looking back at the road I'm already dreading taking down

After turning in our tickets and walking along the top of the mountain, we finally turn the corner and see our first view of Machu Pichu.  We are in the clouds and it is beautiful.  The mountain behind Machu Pichu is called Mayna Pichu and you can climb it.  They say it only takes 90 minutes up and 60 minutes down, but we arrived too late to do it and the tour and make our train - THANK GOD!!!!!  

Machu Pichu was lost to the jungle until 1911 when Hiram Bingham from Pennsylvania re-discovered it.  The Spanish never found it during their occupation, so much of it was still intact.  Much of it has been rebuilt as well.  It's unbelievable that they built this way up here, the vista's are amazing and the clouds keep rolling in over our heads.

Finally we climb and climb to the top of the terraces to take some pictures that look like National Geographic!  Well worth the trip up, and the trip down is a piece of cake. . . Until we get to the bus again!

Eat your heart out Nat Geo.  LOL

I sit in the middle of the bus on the way down, so I don't freak out too bad.  When we return to town we have time for a late lunch (around 2:30) before our train leaves at 3:30.  Another delicious buffet, and today I feel well enough to try the llama.  Delicious. Back on the train for another 4 hours, return to hotel around 8:30.  We are exhausted and we have to get up at 7 AM tomorrow to catch our fight.  

We decide to skip dinner, go to a bar called Norton's (the owner is from Cleveland, Ohio) and play a couple games of pool.  Have some beers for sleeping because tomorrow we get up, get packed, get on the bus to the airport and return to LaPaz.