Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cusco, Puno, and back to Lima - the final installment


Plaza de Armas, Cusco
After Machu Picchu, we slept like like the dead in the opulence and splendor of Hotel Libertador, in a giant bed made of angels' sighs, and woke up to a breakfast spread of ambrosia and nectar crafted on Mount Olympus.

Hotel Libertador. Si, por favor.
Yes, we had made it to Cusco, capital of the Inca empire, and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Western Hemisphere. After the adventures of previous day, we were happy to have a leisurely morning, slowly strolling the cobblestone streets of this storied and stately city.

Homogeneous architecture, diverse pedestrians.
Many of the colonial buildings are built on foundations of original Inca walls

Spanish City Gate
moments on the streets of Cusco
Coffee break at Plaza de Armas
Handicraft gallery with masterfully camouflaged attendant
In the afternoon, we took in some of the city's highlights like the Cusco Cathedral, with its amazing art collection (of course, no photos allowed...)  and Temple of the Sun (Coricancha), which was at some point the most important temple in the Inca empire. In the Incan times, Coricancha (golden courtyard) had walls covered in gold; and a huge golden sun-disk was mounted over its entrance. Of course, the Spanish conquistadors quickly stripped it of its treasures and essentially leveled it, leaving only partial walls and some vestiges of architectural detail to serve as foundations for their own "improvements". It's haunting really; this superimposition of one culture over another, seeing in the anatomy of a building one nation disassembling another, absorbing its essence into its matrix, like new bone calcifying over a fracture.

Inside Temple of the Sun complex - gold artifacts
Temple courtyard in its current form. Inside this colonial structure, original Inca walls still support the Spanish arcade.
Inca walls on the left. Cut and assembled by hand, the stones fit so tightly that a credit card wouldn't fit through the seam. No binding agent of any kind was used in construction - these monumental stones just sit snugly on top of each other - mortar-less and symmetrical, a testament to the genius of Inca masonry.
After Coricancha, we drove just outside the city to a site called Sacsayhuaman - pronounced "sexy woman" (not really, but that's what everybody calls it) - a former fortress overlooking the city, and another chance to marvel at the Incas' amazing masonry skills.

The lightning rod design of Sacsayhuaman

As you can see, there are some pretty impressive views opening up from this site towards the city. Cusco, in its entirety, is literally in the palm of your hand.

A little reminiscent of Guanajuato :)

History Lesson Break: Cusco was actually called Qosco in its native Quechua language, a word meaning something like "center" or "navel". It was renamed into Cusco because the Spanish couldn't pronounce it. For the record - and this was was new to me - the word "Inca" is used incorrectly as well by us foreign troglodytes. "Inca" was the term people used for "leader", sort of like "king" or "Caesar". The people themselves were called Quechua (KEH-chwa). At this point, there is, of course, no use in trying to correct the misunderstanding, but I thought it was an interesting tidbit, in any case.


The next morning, we boarded a bus bright and early for a 7 hour drive to Puno...

We did make a few interesting pit stops along the way, but yeah... it was a long ass bus ride.

Feel good moment: on the way to Puno we stopped at a tiny rural school  that's being sponsored by the tour company we traveled with. We got to see the facilities that our money built, and handed out some school supplies to these adorable grimy Peruvians.

Bathroom break with a view. Somewhere between Cusco and Puno, at 14,000 feet.
Amazingly, we still arrived in Puno with daylight to spare (it was summer there, after all), so we took a walk around to get our bearings. Puno is a small, sleepy town that probably wouldn't see much tourist traffic if it wasn't tucked into the shores of Lake Titicaca, which happens to be a huge natural wonder.

Puno harbor, Lake Titicaca
As already mentioned elsewhere, Titicaca is South America's largest lake, as well as the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12,500 feet above sea level. That mention in the Guinness Book of Records is certainly notable, but what's much more interesting is the effect that the lake has on the surrounding area. It basically creates a micro-climate that allows life to flourish here in a way that doesn't happen at this altitude anywhere else. We were told, for example, that Japanese tourists sometimes pass out when they are told how high up they are, because the icy peak of  mount Fujiyama is actually lower than the town of Puno. Conversely, the hills around Titicaca are green, but the vegetation here is thin and scraggly, and there are barely any trees; it's simply too high for them to grow.

The Puno area is the cradle of Inca civilization; in their mythology, this is where life originated, and lake Titicaca is revered for its role as a life source. So, Puno, by association is a city rich in folklore and tradition, a small but flavorful place to visit.

Perhaps the biggest draw of the area are the Uros islands - over 40 artificial floating islands made of reeds, populated by the Aymara - an indigenous population that has lived in the area for over 2,000 years.

The structures, as well as the islands themselves are made from totora reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake. 
The Uros islands are now a huge tourist attraction, with boatloads of visitors coming and going all day. There's a carefully observed schedule of which island is visited and when, to ensure that each family gets a fair share of revenue.

What's in a name?..
The locals seem to have grown accustomed to the constant stream of people, and direct the foot traffic deftly and expertly. They act less as hosts of a home, and more like guides in a museum, as they run around their little floating villages. As soon as a horde of tourists descends from a boat, these colorful little people swarm them, break them up into pairs, and steer them around while chatting merrily, albeit incomprehensibly in one of the three languages they all speak.

The welcome committee

Standing on reeds, with about 30 feet of freezing water just below.
Inside one of the reed homes

around the island

A shaman's tool? A midnight snack? A back scratcher? All of the above?

The Aymara people are delightful, with their perpetual wide grins, festively colored outfits and an earnest desire to share - even if only by gestures and demonstrations - everything about their way of life. Though, of course, it's also amusing to see how expertly they juggle the crowds, like a conveyor belt, efficiently relieving the lumbering visitors of their money. There's no pushiness or unpleasantness at all, it just feels like you're Gulliver, landed on a miniature busybody world of colorful water-dwelling gnomes.

Me, my new friend Olga, Olga's house, and the solar panels she's very proud of. Solar panels are the only source of power on the reed islands, and used mostly for watching TV.
Incredibly elaborate reed boats, made of the same totora reeds as everything else on the Uros islands. Totora is also edible, and consumed widely by the locals as a quick snack. Kids eat it almost like a popsicle, since the water keeps it naturally cold. They just pull it out, peel it and eat it. Tastes kind of like a pulpy cucumber.
So, the whole thing is a pretty commercial venture, but nevertheless fascinating and definitely worth experiencing, to see a way of life that will surely disappear in no more than a few decades. Most of the youth are leaving the islands, understandably, to seek education and opportunity in the city.  Perhaps in another 40 or 50 years, these islands will exist merely as museums. For the moment, we enjoyed the opportunity to learn a little bit about these little people in the reeds.

Taking in the view from the top of a reed boat.
It may look like it's chilly. It was actually about 80 degrees and we were sweltering in our clothes. But the sun is so merciless at that altitude, that you can literally hear your skin sizzle wherever it's exposed. It was hard, but we kept covered like a Saudi housewife during the whole time.
The beautiful - and unusual vistas - of lake Titicaca, with  totora reeds in the background.

In the afternoon, we visited another Puno must-see: Sillustani tombs. These unique funerary towers were built by the Aymara people, and pre-date the Incas, although Incas also used this site following their conquest of the area in the 15th century.

Sillustani funerary towers. The towers were designed to hold entire families, even "grave attendants" who were buried alive to follow their masters into the afterlife.
A chullpa at Sillustani
The location is very serene. Sillustani is located on a peninsula that juts out into the surrounding lake, with beautiful panoramic views in every direction.

The weather that day made the vistas especially spectacular.

Me, next to the biggest Starbucks cup in the world.
And, for our final stop of the day we visited the Naval Museum "Yavari".  The museum is actually a ship, a perfectly lovely, seaworthy, slim gunboat moored demurely behind a giant hotel in the port of Puno. Not to be outdone by its lumbering neighbor, the Yavari moonlights as a bed and breakfast itself, and yes, you can stay on it!

The lovely Yavari, framed by an even more lovely sunset.
This ship has a colorful story. It was ordered from a British shipyard in 1861 by the Peruvian government, who wanted cargo boats for lake Titicaca to grow the local trade. Yavari, and its sister ship Yapura were built - but not assembled - in England. They were shipped to Peru in 2,766 pieces, transported to Titicaca in countless crates on the backs of llamas, donkeys and slaves, and assembled on the shores of the lake. She was launched on Christmas day 1870, and was powered by burning llama dung (it was later refitted with a hot-bulb semi-diesel).  There's more to the story, as this old lady has certainly seen her fair share of adventure, but I won't bombard you with the details. All I'll tell you is that this ship has been lovingly and painstakingly restored, down to every polished, gleaming detail, and is a true gem to visit, especially for anyone interested in naval history.

The next day we flew back to Lima, where we had but one afternoon to fit in some last minute adventures before it was time to head home. We decided to visit the district of Pueblo Libre, and specifically, the famous Larco Herrera Museum of pre-Columbian art and history.

Facade of the Larco Herrera Museum
And I have to say, I was really glad we went. Throughout our trip, we took a few tours, and learned bits and pieces of history from our guides. But, we never really made it a priority to put those pieces together or acquire any in-depth knowledge. We mostly wanted to see things, and then educate ourselves on the context if anything struck us particularly. So, it was with a fairly high degree of ignorance that we walked into this amazing museum.

The museum is housed in a 17th century mansion - home to the collector, Rafael Larco Herrera himself - that was built on top of an Incan pyramid (naturally, as seemingly all colonial buildings were). Herrera received a collection of pre-Incan vases as a gift, which sparked a collector's curiosity in him, and eventually ignited a lifelong passion for exploring and documenting pre-Columbian civilizations.

Despite being fairly compact, Larco houses a dizzying collection of artifacts. There are pieces here dating from 4,000 BC, and all the way up to the day the conquistadors arrived, without knocking, at the gates of Cusco.

What dawned on me very quickly after I started to explore the collections, is that pre-Incan civilizations are kind of a vague concept to the world at large. There's a good reason for this, of course. When the Spanish conquistadors returned to Europe with tales of the Incas - who were thriving at the time - it captured and held the Old World's imagination. Just imagine it - to 16th century Europeans, discovering these vibrant societies must have been akin to us running into space aliens. I can only imagine the wonder, bafflement, and terror with which conquistadors beheld the Incas - their gilded bodies, serpent gods and human sacrifice. What reason or incentive was there to even consider what came before? Besides, they had their hands full raping, pillaging and demolishing, none of which the Incas took lying down.

So, the pre-Incan civilizations remain largely unknown. Which is why a museum like Larco can be such an eye opener. Here, you can learn that Peru is one of only 5 locations on the globe where civilization developed independently. Hunting tools dating back 11,000 years have been found in caves around the country! Long before the Incas started raising their dazzling gold pyramids to the sky, a veritable carousel of cultures flourished here: Norte Chico and Kotosh, Chavin, Paracas, Nazca and Moche, Wari,Tiwanaku and Lambayeque, Aymara, Chimu and Chincha... Each with its own beliefs and traditions, its own unique systems of building, story telling, and artistic expression, creating things like this:

And this:

And even this (the saucy minxes):

But.. thanks to a quirk of history, most of their story remains shrouded in shadow.

We spent a good few hours at the museum, there was a lot to see and learn. It was a great wrap up to our trip, especially since we finally got to see the contents of all those magnificent ruins we visited, all the barren cities and vacant temples and hollow tombs; empty vessels stripped of their treasures. It's good to know that most of these treasures are not lost to history, but sit safely on the shelves of museums like the Larco, waiting to be discovered.

The backroom: Larco's storage facility is open to the public. The collection is so vast that only a small fraction can be displayed, while thousands upon thousands of items sit in storage.

Just before calling it a night we took our last insane cab ride (a Lima specialty) to Parque de la Reserva to catch the fountain show.

The End.

I read somewhere that if Peru didn't exist, guidebooks would have to invent it. There's really a little bit of everything here - from trashy beaches and dashboard Madonnas of Lima, to lush jungle, from ancient cities tucked into a foggy mountain side to arid deserts with their mysterious Nazca lines. We only had a little over a week, and certainly saw a lot, but it feels like barely a taste when you consider how much Peru has to offer. Due to the political instability that plagued the country up until the 90s, it remained relatively free of outside influence in the late 20th century, so it still exudes a hint of its unique flavor, though of course it's fading quickly with its increasing popularity and the march of globalization.

Now is a good time to go, if you like your travels with a side of character and eccentricity. So, pack some Acetazolamide, pop an Inca Kola, hop into a Lima cab (and cross yourself), and see what Peru has to offer.

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