exploring the peruvian altiplano

After two weeks in the Sacred Valley, including two more days exploring Ollantaytambo and a final overnight in Cusco, it was time to see what else the high plains of southern Peru had to offer. The next big attraction for most visitors to this region is Lake Titicaca, the biggest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world (steamships used to run north to south, connecting Peru and Bolivia). By the way, the name is not a rude reference: in a local ancient language is roughly means “puma chasing a rabbit”.

It was a four hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno, the launching point for tours of the lake and visits to the famous floating Uros Islands. They are a group of islands essentially manufactured by using big blocks of root-bound dirt as anchors, and building up layer upon layer of reeds until you have a base that is several meters thick – and every six months they add another layer to the top as the bottom reeds underwater rot away. Each island is home to several families, and the islands are arranged side by side with varying gaps between them, and one main canal down the centre.

Our tour guide introduced us to a number of island residents who showed us how they built the islands and the many other uses they have for the reeds, and then we were matched with a family and invited into their reed-thatched homes. Except it was really just a sales pitch – there was nothing personal in the “home”, it was more like a tiny gift shop filled with all kinds of souvenirs made from the reeds. We did take them up for a leisurely ride across the main channel in a large reed boat, but the whole thing seemed completely contrived. Whatever reasons their ancestors had for living on the lake seemed lost and now it was all about putting on a show for tourists; what was once probably a proud and independent way of life has been reduced to the status of theme park attraction. We felt badly to have contributed to this travesty.

Our day tour continued to Isla Taquile. It was a long climb to the top of the island for a panoramic view of the lake and across to the snow-covered mountains of Bolivia. Otherwise, the island didn’t have much to offer. The tour included lunch during which we were not impressed to learn that girls and women on the island are expected to keep their heads down and covered, and not respond to strangers – with no such restrictions on boys and men. The 2-1/2 hour boat ride back to Puno was pleasant enough, but after all, it’s just a big lake. We won’t be recommending this tour to others.

Puno itself did not have much to offer – just another cold and dusty little town, choked by the high level of air pollution that is created by a complete lack of anti-smog regulations, or lack of enforcement if there are any rules. Cars, trucks, and buses of every shape and size constantly spew out thick clouds of blue or black smoke – it’s difficult to walk down some of the narrow streets because there is so much exhaust in the air. It was like this in every town we visited in southern Peru except Aguas Calientes where cars are not allowed in the street. However in Aguas Calientes, it is the train that blasts blue smoke into the covered market area next to the train station. Throughout our time in southern Peru we wondered how such high levels of air pollution affected people’s health, especially when the air is so “thin” to begin with. Can’t be good.

After Puno and Lake Titicaca we headed north to Chivay, enroute to Cocla Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest canyon is also in Peru, but difficult to get to). Colca was also promoted as the place to see condors. Unfortunately, the day tour only takes you the shallow end of the canyon; much less impressive than the Fraser canyon or along the Coquihalla highway, and not a condor in sight. Since then, we’ve suggested to other travellers that the day-trip is not worth it and they might consider the overnight trip that takes visitors further up the canyon but does involve a four-hour trek into the canyon (and four hours back up hill!). On the way from Puno to Chivay we did see quite a few wild vicunas – a relative of the llama but on the endangered list in Peru. It is illegal to kill them although people catch them to shear them for their highly valued wool.

From Chivay we headed further north to the colonial town of Arequipa. It is also known as the “white city” – from the white volcanic rock cut into blocks for the government buildings, churches, and homes. Our two-night stay included a free walking tour of the historic centre, during which we visited the old Jesuit church and school, a colonial home (now a bank), and the very famous Santa Catalina Convent (founded in 1579). This five-acre complex was where the wealthy sent their second oldest daughter (the first was expected to get married right away) – so girls as young as twelve would be sent here, required to live in virtual isolation and silence for up to one year depending on when they announced their vows. They would then spend up to four more years inside this walled city-within-a-city.

In the early years they were allowed to have fancy furniture, expensive dinnerware, and other home comforts, including one or more slaves to cook and clean (then later, servants).  In one of the main rooms there is a large sculpture of Christ, post-flagellation. When we asked if this image was intended to encourage self-flagellation our guide said it was in the past but the official word is that it is no longer the practice (about 20 nuns still live on site), although she suspected it did continue in some form. Nevertheless, Arequipa was finally a city that was both warm and interesting to wander through. We could have stayed longer if we hadn’t already booked our next bus trip and hostel stay.

From Arequipa it was a nine-hour bus ride up the coast to Nazca. This was the most harrowing ride of our year so far – surpassing the moments of terror we experienced in small buses in Guatemala.

We were in one of the big two-level buses – right at the front over the driver with a big window in front of us. Perfect we thought. Then again; perhaps not. First, the scenery from Arequipa to Nasca is comprised almost entirely of sandy rock-covered mountains sloping into the oceans, with no vegetation except in the small river valleys we crossed every once in a while. The narrow highway is cut into the side of the mountains and comes complete with hairpin turns, eroded sections with one lane left, fallen rock on the inside lane, no guardrails, and big trucks simply stalled in the middle of the road. Second, our drivers were hell-bent on passing everything in sight, and took the widest possible turns around every blind corner. In our front seat over the driver, it felt like we were headed over the edge at every turn and from our raised vantage point we were sure we could see much further ahead than the drivers, who frequently pulled out to pass and then had to withdraw when we could see it was clearly unsafe to try.

It might not be such a big deal if only our drivers were doing this – but every other driver on the road coming towards us was also hell-bent on passing – and once a huge dump truck attempting to pass a bus and barrelling toward us on our side of the road had to slam on the brakes, coming to a stop just a couple of car lengths ahead of us and leaving a 20m stretch of burnt rubber behind.

We’d been warned that flying over the Nasca Lines might be risky. As it turns out, the bus ride to Nasca was a far more harrowing and risky venture. Stay tuned for our next post: fearlessly flying over the Nasca Lines!

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