Peru - Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon and Nazca Lines
Land Based Adventures
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In the Footsteps of the Incas: Week Two - Lake Titicaca, Arequipa and Colca Canyon, Paracas, and the Nazca Lines...
With my first week coming to a close, I said goodbye to my mom and looked forward to new discoveries around the bend. The next stage of my journey would include three different regions of Peru, for which I was assigned the task of inspecting.
Departing Cusco, I boarded my train, the first-class Andean Explorer, to travel 10 hours south to Lake Titicaca. Though a significantly longer journey than by plane, the train passes through beautiful scenery, first through Andean mountains and then through rolling plains. The glass-enclosed observation car at the end of the train provides the perfect spot for reading or photography. A delicious lunch was served mid-day (included in the fare), and bar service and snacks could be ordered throughout the day at an additional cost.
As the highest navigable lake in South America, Lake Titicaca sits at an impressive 12,500 feet above sea level. I arrived after sunset and was again met by an English-speaking guide to show me to my hotel, the lakeside Sonesta del Posada in Puno. Feeling the effects of the elevation gain, I decided to forego dinner; however, after a good night's sleep, my body felt more energized and acclimated--until we started hiking that afternoon, of course!
My guide and Puno native, Maria, met me early the next morning for our transfer to the town's main pier. Here, dozens of boats line up to ferry locals and travelers to the islands. Our first stop was the Uros Islands, about 30 minutes by speedboat from Puno. Entirely made of totora reeds from the lake, these 60 or so islands are home to nearly 600 Urus with a heritage that dates back to pre-Incan times. According to Maria, visitors started coming here about 30 years ago, but the islands have drawn significantly more interest since 2000.
As we approached Parihuana (flamingo) Island, I was struck by the brilliant colors before me. Both the sky and water glowed a cobalt canvas with the reed island being the only slice of contrast between the two. Awaiting our arrival at the island's edge were about a dozen smiling women and children dressed in vibrant-colored traditional costumes. Parihuana includes about six or seven homes, a flamingo-shaped watchtower, and in the center a pond with growing reeds and live white flamingoes--the island's pet mascot.
Maximo, who appeared to be the leader of the island, demonstrated how the totora reeds are peeled and eaten, as well as how they are used to construct their homes. It takes about a full year to assemble one reed island. And, Ana shared with me a colorful display of their dried carachi (fish), grains, potatoes, freeze-dried potatoes, and seabird eggs. I even got a taste of what it might be like to be "a part of their family" when Ana dressed me in typical Uru attire of bright orange and green.
Tourism is the primary source of income in these islands, so visitors cannot help but admire the beautiful textiles, jewelry, purses, scarves and ornaments. Ana presented several dozen handmade and self-designed tapestries depicting Incan legends and everyday life in the islands. Towards the end of our visit, all of the women and children gathered in the center of the island to share a traditional song in Uru. For transfer to the next island, I opted for the quiet, leisurely route aboard one of the reed boats. As we pulled away, Ana waved and called my name; and just minutes later, I could hear all of them joining in song again.
Characterized by unrivaled textile art, stone paths, archways, and Inca terraced hillsides, Taquile Island is a must-see for any visitor to Lake Titicaca. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed Taquile and its hand-woven textiles and clothing as "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Here, it is the men who exclusively knit and the women who make yarn and weave. We passed one bashful boy, no more than eight-years-old, who walked by while simultaneously knitting a hat. The craft of textile-making is not only a favorite pastime but a way of life.
We began our walk from the backside of the island, a less frequented starting point due to the 30 to 40-minute climb up a meandering pathway. This route, according to Maria, would afford us breathtaking views and more time to enjoy and observe the landscape and locals. We passed young girls tending sheep, children vending their beautifully-made bracelets, ornaments, and hats, and boys plowing the land.
There are no vehicles on Taquile Island. Instead, stone walkways can be followed throughout Taquile linking communities and farmlands. Restaurants abound, where travelers can pop in to sample the famous lake trout or quinoa and potato soup, and simple guesthouses--some with spectacular lake views--are available for those wanting overnight accommodation. The Taquileños live in keeping with their ancestral customs and maintain a strong sense of group identity, rarely marrying a non-Taquileño. Each Sunday, the island leaders convene and line up in the main square for an official public meeting before Town Hall. We were lucky to watch the last half and joined some of the locals gathered on the Hall's steps for a listen.
Across from Town Hall, visitors will find a couple shops featuring some of the highest quality textiles in Peru, all made locally on the island. Purses, belts, hats, scarves, and gloves are neatly displayed on the wooden tables and walls, the money for which goes directly to the artists. Interestingly, no rings are exchanged in marriage in this culture. Instead, women weave for their future husband an intricate belt which they start creating from a young age. As my guide put it, jokingly, the belt only showcases "the stories they want their husband to know..." Now, that's a custom I can stand behind!
Our afternoon excursion finished at the opposite side of the island with an incredible descent down 525 stairs to the waterline. Astonishingly, several locals passed us on ascent carrying heavy supplies of grocery items from the mainland (such as milk, fruit and vegetables). Likely a weekly occurrence, grocery shopping for Taquileños translates into playing sherpa on an ancient stone staircase! I made a mental note to never again complain about the stairs I walk "down" to unload my groceries from car to house.
On my final day in this region, we visited Sillustani, a fascinating pre-Incan burial ground overlooking Lake Umayo. About 35 miles from Puno and at 13,500 feet above sea level, these tall stone towers called chullpas were built by the Colla people and contain entire families of nobility, though many have fallen victim to grave robbers. Sillustani is said to be the most preserved tombs of its kind on the Antiplano and offered a nice contrast to the ruins and tombs I had previously seen in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.
I will never forget the moment I turned around on the tarmac of the Arequipa airport to see why cameras were being snapped over a plane... Behind us, but beyond the airplane, was a most stunning and unexpected backdrop of the city's three magnificent volcanoes: Misti, Chachani, and Picchu Picchu.
Arequipa won me over with its beautiful colonial architecture, invigorating sunshine, and captivating historical sites. My animated guide, Daniel, sporting a panama hat and Miami-esque shades, shared a passion for Arequipa that was anything less than contagious as he led me through the city's main attractions. We visited the colorful and picturesque Monasterio de Santa Catalina, known as "the city within a city" which spans an entire city block. And, in the Museo Santuarios Andinos, I stood next to the 550 year old Mummy Juanita who was offered to the Incan gods around age 12 from atop Mount Ampato. In the evening, I relaxed on my hotel's terrace overlooking the brightly lit Plaza de Armas in the company of my complimentary "Pisco, the Sour" and pondered where I might find a good rocoto relleno for supper.
After an early morning wakeup call and coffee, I met Daniel in the lobby for our drive to Colca Canyon, four hours from Arequipa. After leaving the city limits, our shuttle started climbing immediately, and the urban streets slowly faded into expansive natural landscapes. At one lookout, we stopped to photograph a group of huancos galloping across the plain as Misti stood proudly in the distance. At the 16,000-foot pass, we pulled over again to admire the surrounding volcanoes, including the famed Mount Ampato. Daniel reminded me to walk very slowly and breathe deeply. I told him I felt as though I had landed on the moon and pretended to stagger like an astronaut...
As we neared the Colca Canyon region, terraced hillsides started appearing again, now feeling like faithful friends to me, and the volcano ranges were gradually replaced with sweeping valleys, rivers, and tiny villages.
Approaching Colca Lodge Spa & Hot Springs, we followed a narrow dirt road through farm lands and down the side of the mountain into the valley. The lodge is not the most easily accessible, yet this adds to the charm and sense of seclusion here. Colca gracefully merges the ambiance of a rustic ski lodge with the refinement of an elegant hotel and spa. And, the suites and rooms are nicely spaced throughout the property for further privacy and tranquility.
Guests can don a swimsuit and robe for a short walk to the private riverside hot springs, ranging from frigid to very hot. And, if the hot springs don't relax you, the lovely surrounding view and sound of the river surely will. Compliment your revitalizing soak with a glass of wine or pisco sour from the snack bar and you're golden. I was content to try two of the pools, the hotter one being my favorite, until my cheeks blazed; then it was a quick stop in the spa to try out the eucalyptus steam room. Though not a spa connoisseur by any means, I was very impressed with the Colca Spa, and found the highlight to be the infinity hot tub overlooking the river.
During cocktail hour in the lounge, I was lucky to have met a friendly couple from London enjoying their honeymoon, who much to my surprise invited me to join them for dinner. Not to my surprise, however, was their very high rating of the lodge as a wonderful retreat and excellent romantic choice for honeymooners.
Colca Lodge provides a great starting point for day hikes, village visits, and an excursion to the breathtaking Condro Cross, where we spent the following morning. After an hour and a half of dirt road navigation, we arrived to the most exhilarating view of the world's deepest canyon. From the lookout areas perched on the canyon's edge, visitors gather here to witness the impressive flight of the condor. While these birds may be scavengers to Westerners, condors are sacred and honored birds in Peru. Having seen the reaction of our guide at Machu Picchu when one was spotted above the ruins, I had already begun understand their significance.
We waited in anticipation for the birds to appear and fly overhead. One was spotted quite a distance away near a different lookout, but we waited patiently in place as I readied my camera. Patience paid off when a pair suddenly appeared from inside the canyon. As if watching a firework display, we stood in awe of every swoop and dip before they disappeared again into the canyon. Soon after, however, our luck was quadrupled with one, two, three...and eventually eight or so condors soaring overhead. My guide later explained that condor sightings at the Cross are never guaranteed, and are always a gamble, but that we had been blessed with a very good morning!
Nazca Lines & Paracas Reserve
My next and final visit in Peru was to the southern coast for the mysterious Nazca Lines, Paracas National Reserve, and the Ballestas Islands--known to some as "poor man's Galapagos." Since I first returned to Lima, my guide picked me up from the Atton Hotel for the three-hour drive south to Pisco, home to the famous white grape brandy. The drive toward Paracas follows the coastline, passing by farm lands, sand dunes and beach communities. The terrain in this region is vastly barren and dry; only with strict irrigation can crops such as cotton and asparagus grow with any success.
Most flights to the Nazca Lines depart from the town of Pisco, as opposed to the town of Nazca, located nearly five hours from the capital. The plane was larger than I had expected, a fifteen-passenger Cessna, and our flight out to the lines was about 30 minutes each way. A mix of giant lines and geometrical figures carved into the desert sand, the Nazca Lines consist of over 300 hundred 'geoglyphs.' During our flight, we saw about 12 of these figures, including the monkey, hummingbird, owl man, and condor. Though many theories exist, German mathematician Maria Reiche speculated that the Nazcas created these lines as some kind of astronomical calendar to measure key points of the solar year to better assist with agricultural planning. [For those prone to motion sickness, ready your sick bag when the first line is spotted, as the plane dips at an angle for optimal viewing...]
For my one overnight, I stayed at the Doubletree by Hilton Resort in the resort village of Paracas. This all-suite hotel offers a welcoming and chic beachfront oasis for poolside ceviche, a pampering spa treatment, beachcombing, or even para-surfing lessons. With a stunning orange sunset to my right and the windswept Paracas National Reserve straight ahead, I wandered down the quiet beach with only the shorebirds skittering about around me. Curiously, this area feels at the same time desolate and warm, and I found myself wishing for more days to explore the nearby Reserve for a day...
A quick speed boat excursion from Paracas is a visit to the Ballestas Islands. En route, the boat stops in front of the impressive Candelabra of Paracas, a geoglyph carved into the northern face of the peninsula. The Ballestas Islands provide a sanctuary for over 150 species of marine birds including Peruvian boobies, Humboldt penguins, red-legged and guanay cormorants, and Incan terns, as well as for sea lion colonies. The guano (excrement) harvested from the nearly 4 million birds makes up the world's finest fertilizer. Visitors are not allowed on the islands, but the small speed boats get awfully close.
As we made our way back to Lima the next day, I reflected on all of my adventures from the previous days. Having seen and experienced so much, I tried to pick out my favorite moments...of which there were so many...and my favorite people, who included everyone I had met. I had walked in the footsteps of the Incas, had stood at 16,000 feet amongst volcanoes, and had seen a sacrificial mummy; I had been inspired by the diverse friends I'd met, had my breath taken away by stunning landscapes, and had savored some of the most delicious and interesting cuisine. For anyone even remotely considering Peru as the next vacation destination, I say, do not hesitate, by any means. You will be delighted, moved, and inspired with each and every discovery.
Click here to read the first chapter of Amelia's adventure: In the footsteps of the Incas: Week One--Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu