Incredible Iguazú Falls!

When I 15, I went to Niagara Falls and was underwhelmed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I recall thinking the gardens were pretty and feeling cheated by the falls. I was expecting something  majestic and it looked like a big dam. Decades later, Iguazú Falls provided the majesty I was seeking.

Iguazú Falls is on the border between Argentina and Brazil and is described as the “largest waterfall system in the world,” which I learned is because there are various ways to measure waterfalls in order to maintain bragging rights! We wanted to go to both sides of the falls but didn’t have time to get the required Brazilian visa. While I read posts that said sneaking visa-less over the border in a cab was no big deal, we decided not to become an international incident and stayed in Argentina. Compared with many of our adventures, it was pretty easy to get to the falls – we walked into town from our lovely hotel, the Iguazú Jungle Lodge, and caught a bus to the falls. Once there, it reminded us of the Milwaukee County Zoo – walking paths winding through wooded areas, kiosks and concession stands and even a train to take you to the “Devil’s Throat” to see where about 1/2 of the Iguazú river’s volume crashes over the top of the falls. The Devil’s Throat is 80 meters (262 feet) high and 2,700 meters (8,858 feet, 1-3/4 miles!) in diameter. The entry to the falls had an amusement park feel, but soon we were taken by the natural beauty. I had so much fun the first day and we didn’t get to see every corner of the park, so I decided to return the following day. Matt opted to join me and was glad he did as our first day was overcast and the second day sunny, which gave different perspectives. Plus, it had rained considerably overnight so the falls were noticeably fuller the second day.

First stop both days was the Devil’s Throat. Spectacular!

Devil’s Throat Panorama

Thank goodness that I had to get over my grate phobia in El Calafate, because I really had to get over it to enjoy Iguazú Falls!

On the first day, we had bought tickets for a boat ride under the falls. We lingered at the Devil’s Throat and then needed to scurry around the park to find the boat launch. Somehow we missed a turn and arrived 5 minutes before the boat was leaving. Thankfully, we were obviously not the first clueless tourists and the worker provided us tickets for the following excursion. I had been ambivalent about doing the ride, but it was great fun. You cruise down the river and look at the falls and then suddenly the captain guns the engines and drives you smack into one. Despite the ponchos, there is no escaping the deluge of water. I thought the women who brought swimming goggles were brilliant as I feared my contacts were going to get pushed out of my eyes! When you are on the trip, you feel like you are directly under the falls with the amount of water that crashes down on you, so I was surprised when we watched another boat cruise into the falls and saw that they really just go to the perimeter.

I loved that there were so many waterfalls to see – between 150 and 300 depending on the amount of water flow. Each one was pretty in its own way.

The lush jungle setting made it so much more magical than Niagara and allowed us to see capuchin monkeys, toucans and other birds, coati (raccoon-like creatures that will shamelessly try to steal your food) and butterflies. There were boa constrictor warning signs and jaguars in the park, so I watched for those although I couldn’t decide whether I was disappointed or relieved when we didn’t see any!

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Iguazú Falls is a magical place. It is no wonder that upon seeing it, Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “Poor Niagara!”

 

Glaciers Galore!

I’m weeks behind on writing any posts, but anyone who knows me knows that I am all about chronological order. When we left Chilean Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, we crossed the border into Argentina and headed to El Calafate. Still in Patagonia, El Calafate is a cute tourist town capitalizing off the proximity to Glacier National Park. After some pampering and a day of rest in a nice hotel, we were ready to check out some glaciers.

Glacier National Park

Our first tour was to El Perito Moreno glacier. El Perito Moreno’s claim to fame is that it actually is advancing as opposed to retreating like most of the world’s glaciers and every several years it forms a bridge with the land that lasts for a period of time until it crashes into the water. While I was interested in seeing the glacier, I had no idea how wowed I would be. The park has a series of metal walkways (I had to quickly get over my grate phobia) that allow many different views of the massive glacier. It looks like an advancing ice army and its creaking and groaning are spectacular. There was no ice bridge, but we were fortunate to see several calving incidents. Despite the dreary, drizzly day, we had a fantastic time.

The next day was our big adventure: kayaking at the Upsala Glacier. Matt and I are experienced kayakers, but I was still nervous about kayaking near a glacier and in frigid water. What a great time! The tour company, Upsala Kayak Experience, was fantastic. We had excellent gear (although I can’t stand things around my neck and the dry suit was a necessarily tight fit!) and the staff was fun and engaging.

Not everyone had kayaking experience, but after some instructions and paddling demonstrations, we set off. We intended to go to the face of the Upsala Glacier, but a storm blew in and our guides wisely determined a better course was to paddle around a large iceberg.

After we paddled around the iceberg, we headed back to shore. It was strenuous paddling as the wind was against us and the guides worked to keep the group on track. One kayak needed to be towed when they got far afield. Matt kept us on course and we paddled well together, which is unusual! The weather cleared up a little and we were offered the treat of paddling under a waterfall. Matt and I gamely went first and had a ball. I was shocked that we stayed dry. Each kayak had two trips under the falls, then we returned to the boat for the ride back to the dock.

Waterfall

After two active days at the glaciers, we relaxed on our last day and enjoyed walking around town and through its park. We recognized our pal Darwin with a few of his animal friends.

After 10 days enjoying nature, we left El Calafate for Buenos Aires to enjoy some city living for a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

Love Is in the Air

Size does matter. That’s what our naturalist told us as we watched the blue-footed boobies perform their mating dance. Foot size, that is. Because the male boobies are a progressive bunch who share the egg incubation and child-rearing duties with the larger, female boobies, the females look for big feet, in addition to the perfect blue, when choosing a mate.

When Matt and I returned from our trip to Wisconsin over Christmas, the end was in sight – only 3 more months on the Galapagos. We were eagerly counting down and one of the highlights along the way was our second Lindblad National Geographic expedition, this time on the newly launched Endeavor II. (Here are posts on our first National Geographic cruise and my cruise on the smaller Samba: Cruising the Galapagos and Sailing on the Samba.) Admittedly, Matt and I approached the cruise with a bit of a “been there, done that” attitude: after almost 2 years we have seen most that the islands have to offer. Instead, the islands wowed us again and we were as enthusiastic as first-time visitors when we saw new-to-us animals and voyeuristically observed mating behaviors.

Back to the sex. The birds were providing quite the shows. This poor swallow-tail gull couple had their fun interrupted by a frigatebird who just wanted to cause trouble!

Wah!!!

Matt and I were thrilled to see flightless cormorants for the first time. This pair did not disappoint: we watched their courtship dance that began in the water and then continued on shore only a few feet in front of us. Their turquoise eyes were stunning.

While the blue-footed boobies get most of the attention, the red-footed boobies’ colors are even more spectacular with their blue and red beaks in addition to their red feet. These pairs had already committed and were in the real estate phase of their relationships. The males would fly off in search of just the right twig, which they would return to give to the female. Then the two would fight over exactly where to place the twig in the nest. Who said decorating is easy in the wild?!

Incoming!

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The frigatebird bachelors were doing their best to attract some females. They have a teenage boy mentality: the males all hang out together, puff out their pouches and whistle to the females in an attempt to get their attention. No one got lucky while we were there.

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It was not all about the birds. My beloved marine iguanas were building their nests. It was a spectacular sight to see their compact bodies kicking up sand everywhere we looked. Even more fun were the turf wars.

We didn’t just see great land animals. On our way back from a hike, we spotted a whale from our zodiac. The rest of the passengers were back on board, but we were off on a wild whale chase!

It was both exhilarating and slightly terrifying – zodiacs are just little rubber dinghies! Matt and I were lucky to spot this orca from the ship on another day.

Orca

One of my favorite creatures to spot while snorkeling is the elusive octopus. This one was pretty easy to see for a change.

And, of course, my favorite:

Which leads us to the land iguanas.

Tres Amigos

In addition to the great animals and views, we also met fantastic people and had good conversations, games and laughs. An unforgettable last trip around the islands!

Sailing on the Samba

The Samba

The Samba

I was working in the library one Tuesday afternoon in July when Matt came to see me with a funny look on his face. The owner of the Samba, a 14-passenger, 78-foot sailboat, had just invited us on an 8-day cruise. The ship was sailing that night. Matt couldn’t go because he was hosting a group of US teachers who were training his teachers, but he urged me to accept the invitation. I waffled – did I want to go alone, would I get seasick on a small boat? – and quickly realized that I was being foolish. It was a wonderful opportunity, I had my own cabin if I did puke the whole time and Matt would get to have our small apartment to himself for a change. We got home from school around 4:30 and by 6 I was packed and waiting on the dock to be taken to the Samba.

What an amazing trip! The crew, my fellow passengers and ship were fantastic. Last year Matt and I were guests on the National Geographic Endeavor, and I didn’t think that experience could be topped. (I blogged about it here: Cruising the Galapagos.) This trip followed essentially the same itinerary and was equally fun and exciting.

There are pros and cons to being on a bigger ship versus a smaller ship. I honestly don’t know which trip I preferred, but on a smaller ship you get to do this:

On the other hand, a smaller boat is rockier and our first night was rough. On a late night trip to the bathroom – all of three steps away from my bed – the ship pitched just as I got through the doorway and I fell sideways, somehow ending up like a beetle on its back in the shower stall. I laid there, stunned, crunched up in the 18 inch square stall and not really awake, trying to figure out if I could actually get up without help. It became clear why our guide, Franklin, had advised us to wear pajamas to bed!

We were up early every morning because our days were chock-full of activities: hiking, snorkeling, kayaking/paddle boarding. The activities were offset by delicious meals and tasty snacks; no dieting on this trip! During downtimes we played cards, Catchphrase and relaxed in the common areas. Franklin taught everyone to play the Ecuadorian card game Cuarenta and the Martin family taught us a group card game. I never felt unwelcome or uncomfortable traveling alone and couldn’t have asked for nicer people. Franklin was an entertaining guide and made getting up early worth our while. He made the mistake of drawing a cute picture on our second schedule and we then insisted he do it every time.

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On a trip this active, it is hard to pick the highlights, but swimming with the penguins was one. These tubby torpedoes are unbelievably fast when hunting their dinner.

While most of what we saw and did was not new to me, my excitement was as genuine as my new friends’ excitement. I never tire of watching the birds, iguanas and other animals. While we were busy every day, we were never rushed and could enjoy countless moments in a genuine manner.

Best of the Birds:

My favorites, the iguanas:

Bored with Us!

Under the Sea:

Octopus’s Garden

Unexpected Highlight –  Wild Dolphin Show! *

Frolicking Dolphins

Dolphins Racing the Boat

Two nights the dolphins treated us to the most fantastic show. I have never seen anything like it, and this spectacle reinforced all I knew about dolphins – their beauty, athleticism, playfulness and intelligence. The captain sailed in large, lazy circles so we could enjoy the show and it felt like the dolphins were performing for us, as though they wanted the attention and to light up our lives. When they first started racing the boat, I asked the crew why and the response was “they are playing with us.” They were. I also loved that the crew was all on deck (well, apart from the ones steering our course) to watch the show and their wonder was genuine too.

 

This is How Happy the Dolphin Show Made Me

This is How Happy the Dolphin Show Made Me

Sailing on the Samba – one of the best gifts I have ever been given!

* Don’t go to a dolphin show. Seriously, don’t. Living here has made me struggle with zoos and aquariums, but I understand that good ones are important to conservation efforts. Dolphin shows are not.

The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca Part II – Taquile Island

After leaving the Uros Islands with an uncomfortable feeling that we had just been conned (The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands), we settled in for the 2-hour boat ride to Taquile Island and hoped our next experience would feel more authentic. Along the way, our guide told us about Lake Titicaca and Taquile. The people are known for their beautiful textiles and, in an interesting twist, the men all knit and the women weave. Similar to the Uros Islands, the Taquile community decided to control the tourism on their island. The community is a cooperative and runs day tours, home stays, restaurants and textile sales. After lecturing us for awhile, our guide piped down and most of us cat-napped on the ride.

Taquile is tiny – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide – and stunning. We landed on a lovely beach with farming terraces dotting the hillside above it. Some young tourists who had done a homestay were playing with local children on the beach when we were met by our local male guides.  They were wearing beautiful outfits – bright, knitted hats with earflaps (chullos) and gorgeous woven sashes (chumpis). The men never stopped knitting. It was remarkable to see them walk and knit, especially given that we were not on smooth pavement. The hats denote marital status. While men wear knitted hats, with or without earflaps, married men wear red, patterned hats folded to the right, while unmarried men wear hats that are red and patterned at the bottom and white at the top. Folded to the right, it means he is looking for a girlfriend; hanging down the back means he is taken or not yet interested in dating. The island’s elected officials (men) wear black, felt hats during their terms. The community marries within itself, and our guide bluntly remarked that a disabled man who was causing some minor disruptions is the end result when the gene pool doesn’t expand. In addition, couples cohabit before getting married. If the cohabitation doesn’t work out and they didn’t have children, they part ways. I’m not sure how that works out as it would be pretty hard to avoid your ex on this tiny island!

After a brief introduction on the beach, we walked up the path. Matt and I thought we were pacing ourselves and going slowly, but apparently we weren’t as we inadvertently ended up following another group and had to be shooed back to wait for our own. Due to the altitude, some folks had a trouble with the ascent, but we had been in the Andes long enough to be acclimated. The views are stupendous and we were able to see Bolivia in the distance.

Eventually our group congregated in a courtyard and the women filed in to set up their weaving. I was confused to see the black head coverings as we heard the islanders were Catholic with the usual indigenous bent. Our guide told us that the head coverings were to protect the women’s hair from being bleached by the sun. A woman’s hair is a great asset and a bride cuts off her hair to weave into a sash for her husband’s wedding gift. No word on what a man gives his wife, but apparently he has to finish knitting his married-man hat before he can tie the knot. As our guide talked and got one of the men to demonstrate how to clean wool with a local plant, the women bent over their weaving in the hot sun while wearing multiple wool skirts and sweaters. In talking with one of the women afterwards, she admitted that it was terrible for her back to weave in this fashion. She also said that the runners they were weaving take about 3 weeks to complete.

Ancient Tools

Ancient Tools

After the talk and demonstration, there was the usual setting up of textiles for sale with the obvious expectation that we would buy. In talking with other visitors to Taquile, I think our experience was different than usual due to the elections. The main square where there is usually a textile market was closed, so the selection was limited and we felt more obligation than if we had been wandering around a market. We bought a few things and likely would have bought more given the fine quality if we had seen more than just a sampling. In addition, the weavers and knitters were not friendly (and Matt and I usually get points for at least speaking Spanish though on the island they also speak Quechua) and I felt a vibe that ranged from indifferent to resentful. Very different from the overly exuberant women on Uros, but awkward just the same. Matt and I compared notes later and he felt the same hostility.

After shopping, we were herded to the Eco Lodge Taquile for a traditional lunch of quinoa soup, fried trout and tea. The setting was pleasant and the lunch was fresh and tasty. We then hiked around more of the island to another dock for pick up. The day remained beautiful and the walk was leisurely and lovely. Upon our arrival to the dock, we discovered that the crew had returned to Puno to vote! We were stranded for about an hour and half with no beverages in the hot sun and nowhere to go as we were not allowed to wander. Needless to say, this ended our trip on a sour note. Matt and I struck up a conversation with some friendly Australian tourists who were planning their cocktail hour upon returning to their hotel and we had to break the news to them that it was a dry country due to the elections. We gave them “directions’ to our source in the market and hoped they found some libations for the evening.

There is no doubt that Taquile is beautiful and we felt we saw an authentic way of life (questionable on the Uros Islands), but we also felt unwelcome, which is odd for a community that has decided to become a tourist destination. It is hard to say whether I would recommend either excursion to someone traveling in Peru.

The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands

Maybe it was because we had such a good time in the Colca Canyon. Maybe it was because I ended up so sick that we had to spend substantial cash to change our flights and travel plans back to Ecuador and missed one stop on our vacation. Maybe it is because I live with a gorgeous ocean view and have become spoiled. In any event, Lake Titicaca was the low point on an otherwise spectacular trip to Peru.

Sunrise Over the Lake

Sunrise Over the Lake

Lake Titicaca’s fame, apart from a name that sounds naughty, is as the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,725 feet (3,856 meters) above sea level. It forms a natural separation between Peru and Bolivia. The main tourist attractions are visiting the floating Uros Islands and one of the solid islands known for the handicrafts produced there. Puno is the main Peruvian city on the lake and we knew not to expect much from it. So we booked two nights in a nice hotel and planned to spend our full day on a tour to see the Uros Islands and Taquile Island.

Hotel Libertador

Our Oasis – Hotel Libertador

My highpoint of our stay came that first night. The Peruvian elections were the next day and we remembered that alcohol sales are prohibited beginning the afternoon prior to the election until the afternoon after the election. Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work for us native Wisconsinites. After confirming that the hotel also couldn’t sell alcohol (although we could have broken into the over-priced mini-bar), we were on a mission. We had some other errands to run and then asked the cab driver if he knew somewhere we could buy alcohol. He named the major grocery chain and we explained that his country’s laws didn’t permit alcohol sales. Clearly the man wasn’t a drinker, because he assured us we were wrong. To be agreeable, we dashed into the store to confirm our knowledge and asked him for a Plan B. He thought a moment and took us to the city market – a multi-block, sprawling affair – dropped us off on the corner where he would wait, and directed us to a store a block down and to the left. We set off and were overwhelmed by a typical, Peruvian market of chaos -food, clothes, sundries, probably some live chickens had we looked hard enough. We backtracked after a few rows and then realized we needed to get a grip. This was nothing new for us and we speak the language. After asking the cell phone vendor where to buy booze, we were given the same directions and found a corner stall doing a booming and obvious business. We bought a bottle of wine for each night’s dinner and were on our way. That night at the hotel restaurant, I brought the wine in my handbag and asked the waiter if they were able to open and serve it to us. He was very gracious and assured us it was no problem, but then tried mightily to get us to give up our seller. He told us how incredibly high the fines were and that he couldn’t believe we found anywhere to buy it. I couldn’t decide if he wanted to turn the vendor in or stop and buy a bottle for himself! (Yes, I recognize that this highpoint says something about me, but apart from being happy to have wine to enjoy with our dinner, the highpoint came from the fact that we actually knew about this law and could navigate everything in Spanish. It made us feel like we really had lived in Peru once upon a time.)

The next day we headed to the pier for our trip on the lake. We soon realized that we had paid way too much by booking in advance, but we got over that pretty quickly. We were ushered onto a speedboat that was closed and comfortable, particularly when compared to the Galapagos ferries. We were excited for our trip as we headed to the first stop, the Uros Islands.

Our excitement started to wane when we reached the islands about 20 minutes later. Island after island had the same scene – reed houses, a tower, a traditional boat, solar panels and colorfully garbed ladies trying to flag down our boat.

The floating ATM was a dead giveaway of the shakedown yet to come.

ATM

ATM

We eventually stopped at Khana Marka Mayku and disembarked on the squishy reed island. It was like a moon walk at a county fair. A bit unsteady, we were herded to the communal area where we were introduced to the family that lived on this tiny island and greeted with a song.

The traditional garb was bright and colorful, the people were smiling and friendly and the overview of life on the island was interesting. We learned that the island is made by first hacking though the reeds to turn them into reed-root blocks that are tied together to form the base of the island. Layers of fresh reeds are placed on top and fortified every few months with new reeds tossed on top to counteract the decay. The islands are secured to the bottom of the lake so they don’t float away, but can be up-anchored and moved. Family units live together on the islands and have communal cooking, eating and living areas and private sleeping areas. The government provided solar panels, but there was some concern over what the monthly charges would be as they hadn’t been disclosed. There were two island schools – one public and one run by Seventh Day Adventists – and a soccer field. Families rotate which islands are open for tourism.

We learned that the families mainly eat fish, birds and reeds in addition to what they buy with the money from sale of these items and the tourism trade. We were invited to try the reeds and assured by our guide that they were safe to eat. Given my subsequent illness, I think I should have passed on the reeds.

After the demonstrations and information came the sales pitch. First the women showed their lovely textiles. I am a sucker for textiles and was prepared to buy one or two to support the local economy. Before that happened, we were separated into small groups and “invited” into a home by one of the women. This is where the hard sell occurred as we were shown each of her wares and pressured to buy. It gave me flashbacks to being 20 and locked into an upper room by a Moroccan rug merchant! This time, I had cash and was happy to make a few purchases to spring our early release.

After everyone had bought a suitable amount of souvenirs, we were invited for a ride (at an extra cost) on one of the traditional boats. Most of us gamely climbed on board and Matt and I secured an upper deck seat. They women sent us off with a song and a cheesy “Hasta la vista, Baby!” shout.

Once on deck, 8-year old Israel and his pouty, 3-year-old sister Rosa made their way up top to entertain us. He told me about taking a boat to school, what he studied and pointed out the floating soccer field. He was sweet and cheerful while his sister was a terror who spent most of her time punching him. I couldn’t imagine living on an island with that little monster and wondered how harmonious their island life was. Israel ended with a song after which he and his sister hit us up for money. We complied but were later told by other tourists that they were specifically instructed by their tour organizer to not give money to the children. While I understood, I would have felt worse not giving money to Israel and a few bucks wasn’t going to matter to us while it might to them.

We were dropped off on another island for a short, low pressure shopping stop before heading to Taquile Island, about a 2 hour boat ride away. The Uros Islands were interesting, but the staged, orchestrated affair had none of the charm of our home stay in Sibayo. In Sibayo we were also offered goods for sale, but we did not feel the shake down of the island, nor were the children used to beg from us. We also were unclear: how much of this Uros lifestyle we saw was genuine and how much for our benefit? Matt and I were already toured out for the day and hoped Taquile would be a better experience as we settled in for the boat ride there.

El Condor Pasa – Cruising the Colca Canyon Part III

Soaring

Soaring

The main reason most people travel to the Colca Canyon is to see the Andean condors soar through the valley and we were no exception. While we enjoyed all of our trip: hikes, homestay, bird watching, hot springs, cave art and more, the main event was watching the condors.

Our guide, Salome, planned the viewing perfectly: we left our hotel at 7:30 to travel to Condor Cross and arrived shortly before 8. Only a few tourists were gathered. The bus tours stay in a town farther away or come from Arequipa, so we were able to sleep in, if you consider getting up at 6:30 am to be sleeping in, and still arrive before the masses.

Salome quickly got us situated in a prime spot she had shown us the previous day and immediately directed our attention downward where 5 condors were gathered (we only spotted 4, but Salome leaned waaay over and saw a fifth). We laughed that none of the other tourists had noticed them and then nicely showed them where the condors were resting.

And then we waited. And waited. We were now inundated with other tourists, but held firm to our prized positions. I bushed off some very rusty Italian and chatted with a friendly, Italian-speaking Swiss tourist. A hawk flew by and got us all excited until we realized it was only a hawk. Then one juvenile condor, followed by a second, took off and began soaring through the valley. It was breathtaking to watch them glide and drift through the canyon on the air currents. Eventually, the adult condors got in on the action and other condors also appeared to provide us excellent, live entertainment.

We Have Lift Off!

We Have Lift Off!

What goes up, must come down…

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After about an hour, we started the short hike to the van. I was delighted with having seen 6 condors at that point, but on our return hike we saw another 8 condors. Every time we stopped watching to walk a bit more, another one or two would appear. We felt incredibly fortunate especially because the Belgians we met at the homestay only saw two condors the day they visited. Lilian later teased us and asked whether we would brag about how many condors we saw if we ran into them in Lake Titicaca. We did not see the Belgians again, so we were not tested.

Our day’s fun was not over. On our way out of the canyon we stopped in Maca to enjoy a colca sour  – a pisco sour made with cactus fruit (sancayo) juice. While I normally skip street food due to a sensitive stomach even after living in Peru, I wasn’t passing up a colca sour! Salome knows the owner, so we also got to see the skull of a family ancestor. They don’t know exactly who the person was but found the skull when tilling the family field. They named it Juan (I think) and treat it respectfully (if charging a small gratuity to see it counts as respect). Note his elongated skull of the Collaguas people.

Maca was set up for tourism, something that gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not begrudge anyone from making a living, particularly from tasty cocktails, and if we can help drive a local economy, I am happy to do it. On the other hand, there is a fine line between sharing one’s culture and turning it into a tourist trap. Our homestay was a genuine experience, Maca was borderline and Lake Titicaca was the worst of its kind.

After our drink, we visited Santa Ana church. We had visited a handful of mountain churches on our trip, but after the grandeur of the Arequipa churches and monasteries, we were a bit churched-out. Maca’s church had been damaged in an earthquake but still retained much of its spectacular, gold-leafed interior. It also had an impressive display of statues, most with gorgeous embroidered clothing. Salome pointed out the indigenous and Spanish influences in all of these mountain churches. She also told us how the main statues used in processions would get new clothes every year and how families would try to outdo one another with the grandness of the clothing.

Finally, there were these crazy statues in the town square.

Salome tried to ask a local about the action-hero guerrilla on the woman’s back but all the man would say was that the statue wasn’t a correct depiction. When Salome asked what the proper depiction should be or what the folktale was behind the statue, he kept complaining how the statue wasn’t done correctly. Eventually she gave up, but Matt and I felt vindicated. We feel like we have these bizarre conversations often in Spanish and always attribute it to our lack of language skills. But no, sometimes people just spend a lot of effort repeating the same non- answer over and over again!

We left Maca and made our way out of the canyon with one final scenic stop to view the mountains. Then we were on to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca where Salome and Lilian left us to make their long drive back to Arequipa to be home in time for the obligatory elections the next day. What a great trip we had with them!

Going Native – A Homestay in Sibayo (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part II)

I am wearing an embroidered, gathered skirt, heavy shawl and too-small hat as I dance around a fire in a small, cobblestone courtyard – no easy feat in hiking boots and at an altitude of 12,730 feet (3880 meters) above sea level. Welcome to a homestay at Samana Wasi, in the Peruvian town of Sibayo.

After our stop in Sumbay (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art), we continued through the canyon with a few stops along the way, most notably at the Castillos Encantados (Enchanted Castles) where we took a short hike to enjoy the rock formations.

We arrived in Sibayo and were greeted by Nieves and Vesevio, the owners of Samana Wasi. In an effort to assist communities with maintaining traditional lifestyles, the government has promoted “experiential tourism” in towns like Sibayo. Guests stay with a family and see a traditional way of life and the tourist income allows the locals to continue that life. The Peruvian government fronted money to improve the infrastructure of Sibayo with new cobblestone roads, a quaint town square, a lookout pavilion that doubles as a community center, statutes and paint in cheerful colors to liven up the homes. Several families formed a cooperative to host tourists and initially guests booked through a central agency that placed tourists in the various homes. But Vesevio told Salome that the co-op system has broken down because some families had very poor accommodations and tour agencies began booking directly with the better homes. Vesevio was proud to say that his home had the most bookings, a fact confirmed by our tour agent who made a point to tell us that we were staying in the best home in Sibayo.

Semana Wasi was a small lodge with traditional single story stone buildings with thatched roofs surrounding a courtyard. Our room was…rustic. If this room was the best in town, what were the other rooms like? The plain furnishings, less than spotless blankets and cement floor were not a complete surprise, but the stench was overpowering. We had an attached bathroom, but the promised shower wasn’t there and the bathroom had a 3/4 wall between ours and another bathroom. We stood in our room a bit stunned for a few minutes not wanting to offend anyone. But how could you miss the smell of shit? Ultimately we closed the bathroom door and held our breath any time we needed to use it. No shower? No problem as we wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in the bathroom anyhow. Once again, my years at the cottage with an outhouse served me well. We ultimately decided that the plumbing must not be hooked up properly (or at all) and chalked it up to another adventure.* We met fellow lodgers – a group from Belgium – who told us that they were booked into a hotel but decided to stay another night at the lodge. Apparently their rooms didn’t stink or they weren’t as particular as we are.

But while the room was lacking, the hospitality was not. After a stroll through town, we joined Nieves, her daughter-in-law (whose name I never caught) and Dulce, a rejected 1-month old alpaca, in the kitchen as our meal was made. Nieves and the other woman were friendly and we had a nice conversation about Dulce and the food that was being prepared. We also learned why the women wore different hats. Nieves and Lady (Nieves 13-year old daughter) wore tall, white hats with some shiny bling and a flower or two. Nieves daughter-in-law’s hat was lower with embroidery as was one of the other woman’s hats. The women wear the traditional hat of their culture: Collagua or Cabana. Both cultures practiced skull shaping until it was banned by the conquering Spaniards. The Collagua forced skulls into a taller, narrower shape and the Cabana forced skulls into a squatter, broader shape. Once the practice was banned, they demonstrated their cultures through their hats. The Collagua wear white, tall hats, and the Cabana wear low, embroidered hats. Marriage does not change the hat one wears, which is why the daughter-in-law still wore the hat of her ancestors, and the type of hat is determined by the mother (so the daughter of a Collagua man and a Cabana woman would wear the Cabana hat of her mother’s culture). After our visit in the kitchen, we sat down with the friendly Belgians to enjoy a traditional meal of fresh tea, quinoa soup, pancakes and rice.

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

That evening we were treated to a traditional Pachamama (World Mother or Mother Earth) ceremony. Honoring pachamama through traditional rituals remains common and Salomé’s family still engages in the practice despite living in Arequipa. Offerings are made to Pachamama to ensure good plantings, harvests, travel and health. Vesevio asked for good travel for all of us and good health for an ailing guest during our ceremony, which included offerings of coca leaves and other herbs being passed around the circle and offered to the mountain apus (spirits). It was very interesting but we did not take pictures out of respect.

Then the party began. We were dressed in traditional garb and the local musicians showed up. Soon we were all dancing. And what would be a dance without some shots?

Shots!

The Belgians had a 5:30 wake up call so the party ended around 9. We crawled into bed and were thankful for the heavy alpaca blankets as it was about 50 degrees in the room. We slept well until a rooster started crowing at 3:30. Yep, we were back in Peru! We had a simple breakfast and then Nieves escorted us on a walk through the town to a suspension bridge. Sibayo’s people were famous for the long treks they would make from the mountains to the coast. They would pack up their mountain goods, trade them along the way to the coast where they would collect seaweed (needed for iodine in those days) and trade it along the trek home. The round trip took about 3 months. There are still some older villagers who made this trek in their youth.

We continued past the square, to the suspension bridge and then up to the lookout. Our conversation lagged a bit, but then Nieves and I began to talk about the plants she was collecting and their uses. It was very interesting to hear how the plants are still used to treat all common maladies and made me want to learn more about their medicinal properties. Back at Samana Wasi, we said goodbye to the family and headed on our way through the canyon.

We enjoyed a unique experience with a wonderful family who made us feel welcome and at ease. It is odd to view someone’s lifestyle as a tourist attraction, but this visit was very comfortable and it felt as though the family was showing us their normal activities and not a “show” for the tourists. A few days later we would experience the “show” when we toured Lake Titicaca, but we left Sibayo with a warm feeling and an appreciation for the life they continue to lead there.

Part III – The Condors

* Note: I mentioned the plumbing problem to the tour operator who said he would tell the family so it could correct the issue.

Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art

Las Ventanas del Colca - the Windows to Colca

Las Ventanas del Colca – the Windows to Colca

We were happy to be back in Peru: we had dinner with friends in Lima, revisited Machu Picchu the easy way and not after a 4-day hike, relaxed in Cusco, and enjoyed the great restaurants and colonial streets of Arequipa. Then we hopped into a van with our driver Lilian and our guide Salomé, left Arequipa and headed for the Colca Canyon, hailed as the second-deepest in the world at 3,400 meters (11,155 feet)  and “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon,” for a 3-day adventure.

What a fantastic time! We lucked out with the weather – the rain came as we drove (not lucky for Lilian) or ate lunch. I generally hate car rides, but Salomé was an entertaining and knowledgable guide and Lilian an excellent driver. The roads on this trip were well maintained by Peruvian standards and I had none of the terror our trip to Kuelap had induced. (Roadtripping and Kuelap – The City in the Clouds posts) We enjoyed the views and a few hikes back at high altitude. It was great to be in the Andes, breathing the fresh mountain air and enjoying the vicuña, alpaca and llama sightings as well as the mountain peaks.

Apart from seeing the condors (subject of an upcoming post), my other goal quickly became to finally learn to identify the difference between alpacas and llamas. Confession: for the 2 years I lived in Peru any time I had a camelid picture, I would run it by my cousin Maureen who raises alpacas to get the proper identification (thanks Maureen!). Salomé gave me more specific identification pointers and, after 3 days, I felt fairly confident. Until we learned that some of the confusing ones were likely cross-bred and thus a combo alpaca-llama. So here it goes: llamas have bigger, curvier ears and pointier faces while alpacas have straight ears and less pointy, smaller faces. I had been told that before, but things like “bigger” and “smaller” are relative, so it helps to have both animals to confidently distinguish. Then I got the definitive factor – look at their butts. Llama have tails that poof out and up and alpaca tails are against the body. At last, an easier method!

Salomé - left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Salomé – left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Our next destination was to see 8,000 year old cave art in Sumbay. Sumbay is at an altitude of 14,429 feet (4,397 meters), so we first stopped for some coca tea to counter the effects of the high altitude.

We headed off the main road down a a rutted, rocky path, the worst of the entire trip. “Are you sure you don’t want us to walk?” I asked Lilian as I had visions of the van bottoming out and being stuck in the middle of nowhere. She assured us it was fine and navigated the so-called road. Salomé explained that during a mining boom the railroad stopped in Sumbay and the town was thriving, but subsequently better roads were built, the railroad ceased and Sumbay became a ghost town save one lone holdout who literally has the key to the caves. As soon as we pulled into the abandoned town, there was José. We initially weren’t sure whether he was irritated that we were there as he stood with his arms crossed over his chest in a somewhat aggressive pose, but it became quickly apparent that he was anxious for the company and happy to show us around. He told Salomé that he was halfway up the mountain with his grazing animals and when he saw the van on the road, he ran down the mountain so he could be waiting for us. A race we didn’t even know we were having! I found José as interesting as the cave art: why would he stay isolated in Sumbay when his family and village had all moved on? Like most people, José didn’t want to leave the life he knew. He had animals to care for, the cave to protect and he found Arequipa, where his wife and children lived, to be too chaotic and busy. So he lives alone, with occasional visits from his family and one or two tourist visits a week.

After some conversation, we set off on a 20 minute hike into the canyon to see the caves. Along the way we saw this cute viscacha skipping over the rocks.

Viscacha

Viscacha

We arrived at the caves and José unlocked the chain link fence so we could get close to the art. Most of the figures were camelids and it is believed that the pictures depict the domestication of the animals. There are some hunting and domestication scenes as well a couple of pumas and some rheas, which are American relatives of the ostrich and emu.  It was a spectacular sight tucked away in the valley. José was a capable guide and pointed out all of the notable figures to us. After hiking back to the town, we said goodbye to José after tipping him and giving him some of our snacks. We would have bought provisions for him had we known the isolated life he leads.

And that “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon” claim to fame? Well, it’s a bit misleading. The canyon’s depth is measured from the tippy top of its highest peak, not anywhere tourists are going to hang out. In some places, the top of the canyon is pretty close to its bottom. It doesn’t have the wide, open expanse of the Grand Canyon, and the vertical drop-offs aren’t as steep. The canyon is habitable and pre-Incan and Incan cultures created terraces for farming the land. While the Colca Canyon is spectacular, the majesty of the Grand Canyon is still tops in my book.

Farmland in the Valley

Farmland in the Colca Valley

Next Stop: A Home Stay in Sibayo