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Cuzco

By now you may have noticed some spelling variations, like Cusco/Cuzco, Inca/Inka, Titicaca/Titikaka, etc. In this case the difference is Spanish vs. Quechua spelling. Quechua was the language of the Incas and is still spoken in the Southern highland regions of Peru. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire and is now the top visited tourist site (with Machu Picchu) in all of Peru.

There are many reminders throughout the city of Cuzco's Inca heritage

The city itself is absolutely breathtaking. The historic center, or Plaza de Armas, is a literal fusion of Inca and Spanish history with massive Inca stones forming the foundations of Spanish colonial buildings. There are many attractions in and around Cuzco including archeological sites, museums, convents, parks, markets, churches, etc. We had a couple of days in Cuzco before and after our Machu Picchu trip so we tried to see and do as much as possible!

Coricancha, "Golden Temple". The Spanish destroyed this Inca temple to the sun god, Inti, and used the foundation to build the Convent of Santo Domingo.

Carved metal idols used as offerings from the Incas to their gods.

Stone weapons lashed with rope made from llama hides used by the Incas for fighting and hunting.

Flowers for sale at the Cuzco municipal market.

The 12 angled Inca stone - famous as an example of the quality of Inca stonework and often used as a symbol for Cuzco.

View of several churches

On our last full day in Cuzco we set out to see several archeological sites that lie a few kilometers outside of town. We caught a local bus in town and got dropped off at the furthest site, Tambomachay, noted for the aqueducts and canals that run through the site.

The water is still flowing!

From there we walked through the beautiful pastures stopping at various other sites along the way all leading up to the “big one”, Sacsayhuaman.

Cool bird at Tambomachay.

Walking through the Andes

Sacsayhuaman is the situated on a hill overlooking Cuzco below and is considered to have been a military complex. It was also scene to the last bloody attempt by the Inca to regain control of Cuzco from the Spanish in 1566 (spoiler alert: the Spanish won).

Massive stones at Sacsayhuaman

Cuzco was designed as the imperial city to the Inca in the shape of a puma with Sacsayhuaman as the head. The puma was a sacred animal to the Inca and is represented in many of their artifacts.

Puma paw!

Small view of the zig zag walls of Sacsayhuaman

We had a great time in Cuzco! Visiting the museums and various sites really helped us get a glimpse into Inca history before we headed off to the most famous Inca site of them all, Machu Picchu!

Rainbow over Cuzco

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Lake Titicaca

With the beautiful mountains of Arequipa in the rearview mirror we headed further south to Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world! (Altitude 12,500 ft above sea level)

Beautiful clear skies on the way to Puno

Puno is the port city of choice for most travelers although many folks find the town a bit…lacking. Upon arrival we wandered around with our Aussie mates looking for an inexpensive place to eat only to be greeted by nothing but “tourist menus.” We were also surprised that of all the places we´ve been on this trip, Puno was the most crawling with tourists! The town is nothing special but there are tons of tourist companies running boat trips to various islands on the lake.

The typical full day tour includes a stop at Uros, the floating islands. The islands are just as the name suggests – floating! The history goes that the original settlers fled the violent tribes of the mainland and set up shop on the lake. The islands are made of a reed native to the area and must be constantly maintained by the locals. There are around 70 floating islands and the particular island we stopped at was home to 10 families.
Uros floating islands

The island was very squishy underfoot and the thought of merely floating on the surface of the lake was kind of freaky! There are also various types of boats made from the reeds that the people use for transportation to and from school, the mainland, and for taking gringos on overpriced rides around the lake.

The boat ride with the island in the background. This kid said his name was Michael Jackson (I think he was serious).


The people also use the reeds to make handicrafts for added income. I loved these mobiles but feared they wouldn´t make the journey back to the States!

The mobiles depict a typical Uros wedding ceremony


Next to one of the houses. They stack extra material under the houses in order to avoid too much moisture in the living space (for health reasons).


The next stop on the tour was the island of Taquile. This is a regular island and is home to 2200 Quechua speaking inhabitants. The Taquileños are noted for their distinct native dress and their fine textiles. Male taquileños learn to knit at the age of six and female taquileñas make yarn and weave. UNESCO proclaimed the Taquile textiles some of the finest in the world!

The island is covered in Inca terraces that are still utilized for farming and grazing. The locals have distinct dress and use knit hats as a means of identifying marital and social status. For example, community leaders wear very brightly colored caps with colored tassles. Men carry a knit satchel containing coca leaves that they exchange when greeting other community members. Ladies wear long black shawls and their marital status is identified by the size of the tassles on their shawl.

Men in customary dress - the solid red knit cap signifies that the wearer is married. The man in front with the brightly colored hat is a community leader. Note also the bright satchel containing coca leaves.

On the day of our visit the islanders were having a grand party with dozens of bands and dance troups all playing their music as loud as possible at the same time! There was also plenty of imbibing taking place!

Taquile on Lake Titicaca


Dance group at the party

Overall it was a unique experience and we enjoyed the trip, even though the boats were painfully slow! The guide book notes that some people find the tours exploitative. We wouldn´t go that far because it seems to be the main source of income for the people but it was kind of cheesy to have the people of Uros singing pop songs and sending us off by saying “Hasta la vista baby!” In the end it was an enjoyable experience and a nice stopover on the route to Cusco.

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Arequipa

The next stop on our trek south was the 2nd largest city in Peru, Arequipa.  The city is famous for it´s distinct architectural style and also the use of volcanic stone, sillar, in almost all of the buildings.  The stone is a beautiful white color and glimmers in the sun giving Arequipa it´s nickname, The White City.  Arequipa lies at 7,661 ft above sea level and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the famous volcano, Misti.

We arrived in Arequipa around 1:30am after a 13 hour bus ride from Ica.  The next morning we woke up refreshed and ready to explore the city.  It was a bit overcast so we didn´t see the mountains or Misti but the city scenery was pretty spectacular on its own! Over the course of a few days we toured several of Arequipa´s many attractions including museums, a convent, and the Catholic church.

Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral on a cloudy day

While wandering around we stumbled upon a free museum set in a 15th century colonial house.  A guide led us through several small but very interesting exhibits including a history of Peru´s coins and print bills, pottery exhibits from all of the major native groups spanning from 1000 BC – 1500 AD, and a tour of the house in general.  David´s favorite part was the 500 year old original pine doors!

500 year old door, 28 year old doork

Courtyard in the old house

Another don´t miss attraction in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina Monastery.  The monastery houses nuns and is known as the “city within a city” because it is a huge walled complex with little streets, plazas, and it´s own church.  Santa Catalina was founded by a rich widow and built in 1580.  At that time the custom was for the second son or daughter to enter a life of service to the Catholic church.  Santa Catalina only accepted girls from upper class families and the girls were expected to bring a dowry of sorts equivalent to $150,000 USD in today´s currency!  The part of the monastery open to the public consists mainly of the old living quarters of the early nuns.  When you think of nuns you think of a sparse life but these ladies had beautiful tea sets, gold and silver articles, and other expensive belongings in their quarters as well as servants and slaves!  It was for this reason that in 1871 the Pope called for a reformation and the dowries were sent to Europe (interesting) and the slaves were set free. The nuns also had to give up their individual quarters and embrace communal living.  The living quarters were very interesting and almost all of them included a kitchen with large adobe ovens and even cage areas to raise guinea pigs (for food).

Courtyard in the monastery

Blue

Photo of one of the nuns' quarters

One clear morning David woke up early with hopes of viewing Misti and the surrounding mountains.  He lucked out and ran all over town taking pictures before the clouds rolled in. After seeing the city only in clouds it was pretty surprising to see these monsters hovering in the distance!

Cathedral with Chachani in the background

Misti

Chachani y Misti

Our view during breakfast

Chachani

Later that morning we decided to take a tour of the Catholic church hoping to get a better view of the mountains from the bell tower.  The sanctuary was huge and very beautiful including a huge Belgian organ which is said to be the largest in South America.  We also saw the ceremonial outfits and jewels that date back to the 16th century, some of which are still used today.  The Cathedral has a disaster riddled past including a massively destructive fire in 1844 in addition to many earthquakes.  An earthquake in 2001 caused one of the bell towers to topple and fall into the main sanctuary, barely missing the organ!

Belgian organ

Booong!

Finally, we debated visiting the Museo Santuarios Andinos mainly because the entrance seemed a bit steep at 20 soles (around $8) and we were a bit burnt out on guided tours.  In the end we decided to go because it is highly recommended and I´m guessing we won´t be passing back through Arequipa anytime soon.  There are tons of museums all over Peru (and the world) which display Inca pottery and artifacts but this one is unique because it is dedicated solely to Inca tombs found on nearby mountains, Ampato and Misti.  A volcanic eruption in 1995 caused the glacier on Mount Ampato to melt and revealed the frozen body of an Inca girl to later be named “Juanita” for the anthropologist who found her, Johan Reinhard.  Further investigation on the mountain uncovered several marked graves.  The graves held the bodies of human sacrifices made by the Incas to their gods dating back to the 15th century.

The museum displays the contents of several tombs which in addition to the human sacrifice also included material offerings such as pottery filled with corn beer, or chicha, woven bags filled with coca leaves, small gold and silver figurines depicting llamas and Inca leaders, as well as the woven clothing that wrapped the bodies.  One of the most fascinating and unbelievable aspects of Juanita´s story is that not only did she make the long trek from the Inca capital of Cusco to Ampato, but then also climbed 20,000 ft to the summit and her impending death. During our visit Juanita was in the laboratory for preservation and another frozen body, Sarita, was on display.  The bodies are displayed in semi-dark, glass case which is kept at a specific temperature and humidity level to preserve the bodies.  Considering all of the items on display are over 550 years old they were in remarkable condition!  The quality and intricate designs on the hand-woven textiles were unbelievable and the tiny silver Inca figures were incredibly detailed and well made.  We also thought it was very cool that the items remain in the region where they were found.

There are no pictures allowed in the museum and some of the artifacts haven´t even been photographed by National Geographic!  Here is a photo of Juanita we found on the internet.

In addition to all of the set activities, we also thoroughly enjoyed Arequipa for it´s dining options – amazing empanadas at La Alemana, the first good coffee we´ve had in a while (besides Starbucks) at Cafe Olé, and the various lunch spots we visited.  We would have been content to stay longer but the theme of this trip is go-go-go so we had to head out to our next stop, the second deepest gorge in the world – Colca Canyon!

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From Cuenca, Ecuador we took a bus across the border to Tumbes, Peru where we spent one night before flying to Lima.  We enjoyed Lima for a couple of days  before heading 4 hours south to the town of Pisco. (We’ll return to Lima for a couple of days at the end of our trip and will post about it then!)

In 2007 this area of Peru suffered massive earthquake destruction and the aftermath is still visible.  On our taxi ride in to Pisco we saw mounds of rubble that spanned several miles.  The rubble was actually taken from the city center and deposited on the shoreline to create a sea wall of sorts.  While I know reconstruction persists, from what we saw the city was bustling.  We spent the night in Pisco in order to enjoy an early morning trip the following day to the Ballestas Islands, often called the Poor Man’s Galapagos.

The scene at the dock the next day was a great example of controlled chaos! But the massive amounts of touts and guides abide by their crazy system and in short time we were boarding our speed boat and heading out to sea.

The first sight on the tour is the Paracas Candelabra or Candelabra of the Andes – a 595 ft. tall geolyph etched in to the side of the sandy hillside.  Many theories exist regarding the creation of the Candelabra; local legend claims it is the staff of the god Viracocha while others say it is a Masonic symbol.  It is not known when the figure was created but it was reportedly discovered by Spanish explorers to South America, so its pretty darn old!  The figure is etched 2 ft. deep and doesn’t blow away because it is on the protected side of the hill.

Candelabra of the Andes

From there we continued on out to sea to the Ballestas Islands.  The islands are a very important wildlife reserve and are home to 160 species of marine birds including Humboldt penguins, cormorants, boobies, pelicans, and more.  There is also a large population of sea lions.  Seals, dolphins, whales, and sea turtles also inhabit the sea near the islands.

Arch

In the early 1800s Europeans discovered the abundant quantity of bird guano on these islands which then became a very important export, to be used as fertilizer.  The guano from these island is particularly valuable because due to weather patterns there is very little rainfall in the area so the guano is baked in the sun and the valuable nitrates are preserved.  At one time guano was Peru’s #1 export!  The guano is still collected from these islands once every 8 years.

Guano (white) and extraction equipment

Penguins!

Aside from thousands of birds, we also saw hundreds of sea lions!  Throughout the tour we could hear their distinctive barks coming from shady coves and various beaches.   We spotted lots of sea lions sunbathing on the mini-rock islands that dotted the water and then we came across an amazing sight – an entire beach of mama sea lions teaching their new pups to swim!  The pups were born in January/February so our trip had great (unplanned) timing in that aspect!

This mom and baby were right next to our boat. Mom would let out a loud bark and baby would reply, so cool!

"Maternity beach" where the mamas come to have the babies and later teach them to swim (seen here)

So many sea lions!

Red rocky islands covered in guano

Although I had done this same tour back in 2006 during a study abroad trip, I was surprised that it was familiar yet unique!  Watching the mama and baby sea lions swim and interact was so amazing and completely different from anything I saw the first time around.  While we are bummed that the Galapagos weren’t in the budget this time around, the Ballestas Islands are a great value ($23) and provided awesome views of wildlife and beautiful landscapes.

Two thumbs up!

 

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After a few glorious days of sun and fun we reluctantly had to leave Baños and keep heading south to Cuenca.  Baños is already well-known by tourists, both foreigners and Ecuadorians alike, but it´s worth saying that we highly recommend it for anyone visiting Ecuador!

Baños has many sweet shops, including ones where men swing and hook taffy by hand! (Don´t tell the health department)

One of many market stalls selling sweets, cane sugar (the bamboo looking sticks), and oranges

No luck volcano spotting

Local delicacy, roasted cuy (guinea pig)

We caught an early bus to Riobamba where we would connect on to Cuenca.  We settled in for the 8 hour journey expecting a regular old bus ride.  After a few minutes on the winding road we were totally shocked to see Tungurahua volcano in all of it´s glory!  We scrambled to get the camera and hoped the moving shots would do it justice.  (They don´t, but almost!)

Tungurahua

As you can see from the smoke plume, this guy is still puffing!  Scientists consider it currently erupting with major eruptions (spewing lava) as recent as April 2011!

Awesome

Seeing Tungurahua peeking over this town gave me chills!

At this point we were totally awake and on the hunt for more awesome views.  Up until this point the weather hadn´t been cooperating on our drives through Ecuador but this day was off to a good start.   We weren´t disappointed!

Chimborazo covered in snow

The summit of Chimborazo is actually farther away from the center of the Earth than the summit of Everest.  Wow!

Gorgeous!

What a view

It´s safe to say that the bus ride from Baños to Riobamba is the most beautiful we´ve ever seen and our favorite ride to date!

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Exhausted from our two-day bike trip, we arrived back in Quito late on a Sunday afternoon.  We wandered around for a bit looking for food but to our dismay everything was closed.  Quito felt like a ghost town.  Eventually we found a half decent chain restaurant and ate dinner before turning in for an early night.

The little we had seen of Quito to this point had failed to impress.  So the next morning we were determined to get to the historic center of town and see what our guidebook was talking about when it called Quito one of the best renovated historic centers in Latin America.  Having been previously to Cusco, Peru and then to Cartagena, Colombia on this trip and finding them absolutely gorgeous colonial centers, I was ready to be seriously impressed by Quito.

We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, otherwise known as a huge church!   We bought tickets to enter and climb the towers but we had no idea how high they actually let you climb.  First it was several staircases up to the clock tower then began a series of spiral staircases and metal (fixed) ladders that led even higher!  We poked our faces through little cutouts in the concrete designs to see Quito sprawling out as far as the eye could see.

La Basilica

Church and courtyard (where you can also visit a therapist or dentist)

Climbing the towers

Oops eyes closed, but we´re in the clock tower!

Views of Quito

Quito, the other direction!

View of La Virgen de Quito

Crossing over the sanctuary ceiling to the other towers

OK, going to stop climbing soon, getting scary!

Big head!

Other highlights of the Basilica were the stained glass windows and the gargoyles out front that instead of depicting traditional monsters were actually forms of wildlife found on the Galapagos Islands.  Cool!

Sanctuary

Beautiful!

Instead of dwelling, I´ll sum up the rest of Quito by saying it just wasn´t our style.  A major theme we saw in Ecuador was graffiti, everywhere!  The weather, graffiti, and general city grime all added up to a not very impressive picture.  Travellers are also warned to be very careful in Quito and the fact that even locals didn´t go out after dark had us on edge most of the time.  In the end we decided to do one more day in order to visit La Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the Earth (Equator!) and then get the heck out of Quito.

So the following day, we set out to find the middle of the Earth.  Quito sure wasn´t going to make it easy!  After approaching 2 separate metro bus terminals, asking 3 city employees, and walking 15 blocks, we finally found the right bus.  At this point we were really missing Medellin´s super easy and clean metro system!  Quito´s city bus did have some added interest though in the form of a young guy with an 80´s style boombox on his shoulder busting out rap beats (for donations).

Mitad del Mundo park

The Mitad del Mundo park is kind of like a very small town – there are tons of crafts shops and restaurants all centered around a monument and a few museums.  We went through a couple of the small museums including an insectarium which had crazy bugs from all over Latin America and the world.  The science nerd in David was having a ball.

We´re in 2 hemispheres!

We took the obligatory picture supposedly straddling both hemispheres although the true center is actually a few hundred meters away, accessible with a guide.  Most of the restaurants were rather expensive but we did find a small locals only type of place with a set lunch for $2.50.  We had seen the dreaded “Chicken feet soup” on several Quito menus already but thought we were safe this day – almost, save for the single claw floating in mine 😉  Other than that it was a tasty soup and a good lunch!

Zero

Two days of exploring Quito felt like plenty to us and we were more than ready to hit the road to greener pastures.  Baños to be exact, land of waterfalls and volcanoes!

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After a few days in Guatapé we said goodbye to Colombia and flew from Medellin to Quito, Ecuador. Upon arrival we took  taxi to our hotel and set in to rest for the evening and attempt a rapid acclimatization.   To give you an idea, Medellin is at an altitude of 1,500 m (4,921 ft), Quito lies at 2,800 m (9,200 ft), and where we were headed the next day was even higher!

One of the activities I researched ahead of our trip was a mountain biking trip on Cotopaxi and the Quilotoa crater.  While David is a fairly experienced mountain biker, I am more of a casual beach cruiser type of bike rider.  I was assured by the owner of the tour company that so long as you could ride a bike then it would be no problem.  He also said things like ¨it´s not a race¨and ¨take your time and go as slow or fast as you want.¨  This will come into play later on in the story.

Our guide picked us and one other person up from our hotel and we headed off for the tour.  The weather was again grey and dreary.  As we drove through the mountains to reach Cotopaxi the clouds were literally so low it felt as if they were pushing down on us.  The weather seemed less than ideal but our guide wasn´t worried so we forged on.

At 5,897 m (19,347 ft), Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and the second highest mountain peak in Ecuador!  It also has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.   On a clear day you can see it´s snow capped cone towering over the highland plain and the valley below.

Our guide drove us through Cotopaxi park and up to a small museum where we took a break to stretch our legs and sample some coca tea, made from the leaves of the evil coca plant.

Té de coca

Yes, the coca plant is processed to make cocaine but the unprocessed leaves are perfectly legal and have been used for centuries by native people to ward off altitude sickness.  When I studied abroad in Peru we drank lots of coca tea, ate coca hard candy, and chewed the leaves directly. It was David´s first time trying the tea and we both thoroughly enjoyed it!  The flavor is similar to green tea but less grassy.

Yum!

After our little break it was time to continue on up the volcano to our starting point.

Our ride

Along the way we passed a foggy field with mossy boulders and wild horses grazing.  It was absolutely gorgeous!

Wild horses

Throughout the entire ride through the park the vegetation was really interesting.  We saw everything from pine forest, lichen fields, low scrubby brush with what looked like sea grasses, and wild flowers, up until we reached 4,000 m (13,123 ft) where the vegetation stopped.  From there the ground was covered in dark crumbly soil and small rocks.

We stopped the car at a parking lot on the North face to begin our hike up to the climber´s refuge, a permanent camp set up for those climbing to the summit.  At this point it was freezing rain, windy, and very cold!  I hadn´t remembered that a hike was part of the trip but there was no time to chat as our native guide took off up the mountain.

The crumbly soil and the steep inclination made it a bit difficult to ascend but the real trouble was the altitude!  Some people describe tiring easily and feeling short of breath but for me the main bother was the feeling that my heart was actually beating in my skull!  My heartbeat was very fast and the pressure in my head was also uncomfortable.  Coupled with the poor weather and even poorer visibility I was starting to wonder what was the point of this hike?!  At around 4,700 m (15,419 ft) I found a nice rock to sit on and wait while the boys forged on to the refuge.

David and Casper at the refuge, 15,780 ft

From there it was a quick descent to the car where we picked up our bikes and helmets and set off on our further descent down the mountain.  I was pretty nervous as I stared down the steep roads that zigged, zagged, and switch backed their way down the side of Cotopaxi, but there was nothing to do but go for it!  The dirt road was bumpy, rocky, slippery, and soft in places and my whole body felt like it was in an agitator!  The first 20 minutes was pretty much torture with the freezing rain – our hands had only the cheap, thin gloves provided by the tour and I almost thought my poor fingers were frozen solid!

Zooming down

After we made it back to the vegetation line the conditions improved and we were no longer being pelted by freezing rain.  My hands began to thaw out and the crazy switch back roads were now straighter and had less incline.  That´s not to say that I didn´t still have a death grip on my brakes!

A slight break in the clouds to reveal Cotopaxi´s snowy peak (look closely!)

At this point we had reached the highland plain and the roads leveled out.  Thank goodness!  From here it was pretty smooth sailing down to meet the car at the original tea stop.  The sun even came out for a few minutes and we had to peel off jackets and gloves.

Flat roads!

When we met back up with the car lunch and a rest were waiting for us!  My head was still pounding but was much less severe than during the hike.  Knowing we still had a couple of hours in the car to our next destination I took a Dramamine and settled in for a backseat nap!

David, captivated by the Andes, stayed awake and took these pictures along the way.

Mountain drive

Blue skies peeking out!

I woke up from my nap in time to see our arrival to the small mountain community of Quilotoa, our lodging area for the night and the starting point of the next day´s bike ride!  That´s right, there´s more!  Stay tuned for Part 2…

 

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