Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The lake at the top of the world: Titikaka

We traveled by the Andean Explorer train from Cusco to Puno, a journey of roughly eight hours.  The scenery was great, with panoramic vistas of the Huatanay River and, later, the vast Andean plains.  Isolated farms would occasionally dot the landscape and farmers in colorful attire tended herds of alpacas, llamas, or sheep. 

A stop along the way at a small settlement with a market

Views along the way

Puno appears to be a rough-and-tumble town on the banks of Lake Titicaca.  When we asked the guide what the major industry was, he noted the proximity to Bolivia and replied, "smuggling."  We spent little time in Puno, as our lodge, Titilaka, was several miles distant but well worth the trip.    It is an absolutely stunning, contemporary property, constructed on the waterfront and featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows that afford spectacular views of the immense lake.  At 120 miles long and 50 miles wide, Titicaca sprawls over more than 3,000 square miles and is reputedly the highest body of navigable water in the world--over 13,000 lung-challenging feet. 

View from the resort

Outdoor deck

Interior shots of the comfortable property

We boated to the Isla Taquile, a World Heritage site where 350 families maintain their traditional lifestyle.  The island is fascinating for several reasons, including its unique heritage.  When Taquile and a neighboring island were acquired by a Spanish nobleman centuries ago, he wanted to create an island in his own image.  Accordingly, he banned llamas, so that the islanders were forced to be more servile and had to carry everything themselves.  Note that carrying anything on Taquile is no easy task, as the village is situated more than 540 very steep steps from the small pier.  The nobleman, although 'noble' scarcely seems apt, also had the islanders wear clothes which reminded him of his region in Spain.  To this day, they continue to wear the attire.

A new walkway was placed last year and covers roughly half the distance uphill from the pier

Our walk along the cliff

Taquile also has an amazing tradition of knitting.  Men learn to knit, and how to make their wives clothing, and vice-versa.  For a man to request a woman's hand in marriage, he must knit and present her father with a cap woven so tightly that it will retain water for a time.  Married men wear red knitted caps while bachelors wear red and white.  Single women sport multi-colored pompoms on their skirts while married woman wear red ones.  There is a hierarchy of elected community leaders, readily identified by the style or coloring of their hats, belts, or other attire. 


One of the locals guided us along a ridge overlooking the lake and the Cordillera Real mountains.  He knitted the entire time we jostled along the winding, stony path and never appeared out of breath despite the altitude.  Although the coca leaves seemed to help, we needed to pause occasionally to rest.  Interestingly, another guide noted that people accustomed to higher altitudes often do not handle lower altitudes well--in her case, she feels slightly ill and her extremities swell. 

Our guide, constantly knitting

We also visited the Islas Uros, or floating islands.  Although many travelers complain that the islands have become floating souvenir stands, we nevertheless found the visit interesting and informative.  Centuries ago, the Uros people developed and occupied the islands as a way of escaping mainland hostilities.  Constructed from the totora reed, the islands float and house from 2-10 families. 
Because the reeds rot, the islands must be constantly replenished.  This often involves submersion in the cold water, but the Uros people claim that they have 'black blood' and can withstand low temperatures. Walking on an island is a unique experience and what I imagine it would be like to stroll on a massive sponge.  We also rode on a traditional raft constructed of the totora reed, although it is common today for floatation to be assisted by modern products, such as empty plastic bottles.  Disputes between families are typically resolved amicably but, in extreme cases, a large saw may be used to cut loose a recalcitrant family. 

Typical reed boat

Explaining how a floating island is constructed

Typical residential structures

Traditional cooking vessels

Watchtowers are used to communicate with other floating islands

Bird island--most islands erect a structure of reeds to symbolize the island 

Our final attraction in the Puno region was a visit to the Sullustani Burial Towers, on the shores of the picturesque Laguna Umayo.  Some of the burial towers approach 40 feet in height and were originally erected by a pre-Incan people known as the Collas.  When the Incas conquered the Collas, they maintained the site and used it to bury their own dead nobility.   The mysterious towers, perched above the stunning lake, are haunting. 

Note the amazingly tight stonework

Stunning views in every direction

From the cliffs of Lima, the tapir in the rainforest, the intricate stonework of Machu Picchu, the vast beauty of Titicaca, the solemnity of Sullustani--a wonderful country and people, and a spectacular trip.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


We traveled to Cusco via the Hiram Bingham luxury train, complete with fine dining, a handsomely appointed bar car, and a dancing and singing troupe of local entertainers.  Our hotel, La Casona Inkaterra, was a highlight of the visit.  The boutique property, converted from a sixteenth century mansion, displayed a variety of antique fixtures and furnishings but provided every contemporary comfort one could wish for.  This included, at an altitude exceeding 11,000 feet, oxygen in every room.  Although none of our party experienced altitude sickness, a few of us did awaken on occasion form shortness of breath. 

Hiram Bingham train

La Casona Inkaterra courtyard


Cusco, the former capitol of the Incas, and the surrounding environs provide a great opportunity to observe the architectural prowess of the Incas as well as to understand the devastating impact that the Spanish conquest had upon their way of life.  The Spaniards typically erected their churches and administrative offices atop Incan ruins, a way of physically demonstrating their victory and authority.  One such structure is the Santa Domingo church and convent.   The Spanish demolished the Temple of Qurikancha, dedicated to the sun God, and used the foundation for the construction of the church. Interestingly, when major earthquakes damaged the European-designed church, the Incan walls remained intact.  Working without mortar, the Incas fashioned tight, interlocking stone walls designed to withstand earthquakes by 'shifting' rather than collapsing. 

Santa Domingo

The Incan stone foundation--note how tightly the stones fit and how precisely the windows align

Sacsayhuaman fortress is another terrific example of Incan architecture.  The sheer immensity of the structure is impressive, as granite ramparts span nearly 1,000 feet and are constructed of stones towering as high as 17 feet and weighing up to 350 tons.  The alignment of the stones is incredible, as not even a piece of paper can be slipped between them.  The fortress consists of three large terraces erected in a zig-zag pattern, to symbolize thunder.  In 1536, following three days of battle, the Spanish defeated the Incas and soon began to dismantle Sacsayhuaman, using the stones to build churches and other structures in Cusco.  There are several other noteworthy Inca sites near Cusco, including Qenko, which has a large stone alter where llamas were sacrified to honor celestial bodies.

Note the precise fit of the immense stones

View of Cusco from the top of the fortress 

Qenko sacrificial stone

In central Cusco, La Catedral dominates the Plaza de Armas and is flanked by two small chapels: El Triunfo and Jesus, Maria y Jose.  El Triunfo, Cusco's first church, was erected atop an Incan armory to symbolize the Spanish victory.  The ornate, Baroque, interior of La Catedral is replete with gold and silver and displays more than 400 paintings of the Cusco School.  This artistic movement stemmed from Spain's desire, following the conquest, to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.  To help achieve this goal, numerous European artworks were imported and painters, attracted by opportunity, flocked to Cusco. One interesting piece is the Last Supper, which depicts chica beer and roast guinea pig, a common Peruvian meal. 

Jesus, Maria y Jose Chapel

Catedral exterior

Regarding Peruvian cuisine, we tried guinea pig, or cuy, one evening and thought that it tasted like rabbit.  We also had llama or alpaca steak on several occasions and enjoyed both.  The flavor was mild; not tough or gamy at all.  Several varieties of potato are cultivated in Peru and were a common side dish, as was corn.  Overall, the food was excellent.  Pisco, a brandy cultivated from grapes, tastes best when mixed with something--anything--such as the popular pisco sour.  In Cusco, the contemporary bar Museo de Pisco features a host of cocktails made with pisco.  We enjoyed a cocktail there--well, maybe three or four--one evening and I came to appreciate pisco much more than ever expected.  Until the next morning. 

Random photos taken inside Cusco's rambling central market