Friday, August 01, 2008

Puno to Cusco

Robyn, Matt and I have so far spent a very fun time together. We seem to have similar travel styles and have easily agreed on everything: how to spend a day, where to eat, what type of transportation to take. It's nice to be with familiar people and I am now among one of the card-playing groups I eyed enviously as a solo traveler. We have been playing lots of Rummy and right now Matt is up one game which we are none too pleased about. But, on to vacation specifics.

The first day in Puno was supposed to be spent as a relaxing one for Robyn and Matt to acclimatize. To Matt this meant trudging up about 1,000 stairs and 2,000 feet to get to this giant "condor" statue at the top of a hill, which when we arrived at the top looked more like a turkey vulture. There was also a hill with a giant Puma statue on it, but we only drove past that on the way out of Puno. They love their statutes in Puno and also had a giant Jesus.

That night we ate dinner at a hilarious local hole in the wall. My meal cost 50 cents; they splurged on about 75 cents each. It was as authentic as it gets and we were definitely out of place. The next day we did a 180 and joined an overnight tour of Lake Titicaca with lots of aging Germans, a family of Canadians, and a tour guide named Giovanni who spoke excellent if not mispronounced (and often repeated) English. There were also two Irish people about our age who we did end up befriending, and who I will be meeting up with in Buenos Aires. Anyway, the first stop were these famous reed islands called Uros Islands, which native Aymara people literally hand crafted to escape Spanish colonialism. They were definitely awesome but are now so touristy they are referred to as "floating souvineer stands." Walking around on them was surreal, very spongy and with the threat of falling through at any moment. We were surprised at how fat some of the women were, but I guess there aren't a lot of exercise opportunities on tiny manmade islands. We had the opportunity to take a reed boat ride for a hefty 10 soles; bear in mind the cost of our entire trip, with transportation, food, and lodging, was 60 soles. We passed and instead lounged on the cushy reeds until the motor boat was ready to take us to the same place our cohorts on the reed island went, for free.

The next stop on our painfully slow, fume-filled tour was lunch on a beach, pickled vegetables that Robyn swears were canned, chicken, bread, and a banana. Yummers. After that it was back on the crawling boat and we finally made it to our final stop that day, Amantani island. When we arrived our host daughter, Gloria, was there to collect all three of us and each group was led to their own house to meet the family and get acquainted with our digs. Ours was possibly the only house without some form of electricity, but what they lacked in light they made up for with... straw mattresses. Matt and Robyn had fairly normal pillows, but mine was literally a parka shoved into a throw pillowcase. At least there were plenty of blankets. The stark room had three single beds, a table with only TWO chairs, and a decoration of a smashed bug with a shoe outline surrounding it. Hilarious. We had to walk up a steep, slanted staircase to get to it, which was impressively done by Gloria and her sister Maxima holding trays of our food. Dinner was potato soup and then potatoes and rice. They love to combine starches. Dessert was a rather delicious tea called muña which was literally just a sprig of the plant brewed in hot water. Apparently it grows on the island.

Before dinner, however, we had the chance to climb to the Sun Temple, stopping on the way to watch locals play tourists in a concrete soccer "stadium." The climb was rough and we were fighting against the sunset, but once we got to the top we were rewarded with beautiful views, made all the more incredible by the many rain clouds and falls in the distance. Of course, after the sun went down they weren't so distant and our walk back was filled with tiny balls of hail. Robyn wrapped herself in my beautiful new hand embroidered shawl, bought on the way down from the temple, a steal at $15. I just got wet.

We played cards by candlelight before finally convincing Gloria to take us to the big "party" they had organized for us. Technically she was supposed to dress us up in native clothing but sufficed with giving Matt a poncho and Robyn a shawl like the one I had bought. We envied Matt's poncho as it was freaking COLD on that island. The stars were beautiful, but the party was lame. We stayed only long enough to giggle at the other tourists dressed in full native garb and to tip the bad young boy pipe band a U.S. dollar. Then we played more cards and went to bed by 11, which was ironically the latest we had stayed up thus far. In the morning we had more muña tea and delicious fried bread before it was off to the boat to make our final stop on the tour: Taquille island.

There was a lot of talk about Twix bars these two days so we bought one at the bottom of our next hike, figuring 9 a.m. was not too early for a candy bar. It was, however, too early for the climb, at least for Robyn and me as we were passed by tourists twice our age without breaking a sweat. We justified it by telling ourselves they had already done Machu Picchu and were therefore used to it, and really, Robyn did have the excuse of not being fully acclimatized. My excuse? I'm going with the Twix.

When we arrived at the main plaza at the top of the climb (really not too bad, the first five minutes are by far the worst) there were tons of locals decked out in neon clothing, playing pipes and dancing to celebrate the festival of San Santiago. They only knew one tune (and one dance) and after 45 minutes of it we were ready to get out of there. Next stop was lunch with a view of the lake. We had quinoa soup, very common here, and fried trout, even more common. We wowed the others with tales of eating street food, clearly something other tourists take seriously when the guide book says Off Limits. I'm not kidding, some of their mouths were hanging open about this daring habit of ours. After lunch we had to walk "540" steps to the bottom to get to the boat, though the Canadian mother insisted she only counted 500... compulsive, much?

The boat ride back to Puno was 3 hours, though it passed faster than we expected. We spent the first hour up top where Robyn regaled us with hilarious stories of her three months at sea, before the captain's wife frantically beckoned us below. The reason? The Peruvian coast guard. Our guide was worriedly counting life jackets, but we escaped without so much as getting pulled over.

Once in Puno we hung out with our new Irish friends and went to possibly the most delicious chicken joint you have ever imagined, called El Rancho. We all ordered a quarter chicken except for Matt who opted for the full half. Good, good times. Sarah and Derry were amazed that such good food existed outside of the tourist places they confessed to frequenting. I think we opened some new horizons that night.

Yesterday morning we left Puno for Cusco. Finding the exact right bus company was a challenge, but we finally settled on Power Express, departing at 10 a.m. with a double decker bus. We secured three of the four frontmost seats on the top level and settled in for what should have been a luxurious 6 hour trip north. Not so. Our first stop was in Juliaca, one hour after leaving. The other half of the bus filled up at this stop, and not with the reasonable smelling tourists that filled the first half. No, the bus quickly smelled like farm, mostly due to the family of four that occupied the two seats directly behind Matt and Robyn (suckers). While in Juliaca we witnessed a culturally disturbing scene: a toddler, perhaps three years old, doing both #1 AND #2 on the street while her mother looked on, bored, holding toilet paper. Once the young girl had finished her shockingly large job, her mother covered it with gravel, walked two steps to an outdoor eatery, and continued to eat her lunch. We were dying. This would only be trumped later in the bus ride when the young boy in the family of four stood in the aisle and PEED INTO A BOTTLE HIS MOTHER WAS HOLDING. I noticed first and quickly advised Robyn not to turn around. She thought they were simply emptying the on-board bathroom. That's right, there was an actual bathroom available for the boy's use, free of charge, and yet... they opted for the bottle.

Otherwise the ride was fairly uneventful, unless you count Matt and I almost getting left behind in some random town because we went inside to use the bathroom. Luckily we had left Robyn behind to stand guard and she forcefully stopped the bus from departing no fewer than three times. Good work, Woodman.

We arrived in Cusco at about 5 p.m. and checked into our hostel who had of course screwed up our reservation (we are in a five bed suite rather than a single and a double, but luckily the other two beds are not occupied. Bear in mind that by "suite" I mean the beds are separated by doors, and not of course that we have hot water). We ate a fancy dinner with our first bottle of wine and the whole shebang cost $62 U.S. This morning I had my first American breakfast in five months; it was literally called "the fatty" and man was it delicious. Then we spent the day running errands, buying stuff for the trek at hand and paying our Inka trail balance which was a whopping $140 each CHEAPER than we had anticipated (score!). We checked out a pretty rad Inka museum that of course the Spanish conquistadores built a cathedral on top of and learned that it took them three months to melt all the gold they pillaged from the site. And they say Americans are bad! We're just the newest offenders in an age of otherwise global responsibility and awareness... too bad we didn't get in on the hayday of screwing other cultures.

That brings us to now, in an internet cafe waiting for Matt to finish downloading his bazillion pictures onto CDs. I have basically stopped taking pictures because there is just no need with him around. Once he finishes we're off to eat, then sleep, then spend tomorrow checking out local ruins. The day after that is the start of our long-anticipated four-day Inka trail hike, and we are pumped. No blog until at least the 8th, but keep us (and our knees) in mind until then as we scale and then descend numerous Inka steps. Machu Picchu, here we come!

No comments: