Local Dress: Some observations
I thought I might start this post with some observations on national dress. I had made the comment while in Guatemala that the women, and sometimes men, had maintained a strong national dress tradition based on the 33 Mayan City customs. But as we moved from south Colombia into Ecuador, and then Ecuador into Peru, the presence of a national dress becomes more obvious, although once again, primarily in the female population.
The key elements are a wide, softly pleated skirt below the knee. The skirt can be in solid plain colours (blue, red, yellow, orange etc) or patterned. On the top, usually a woollen (Alpaca) cardigan or sweater, often a short waist length jacket, and a hat. The hat, depending on the region, may be a white or beige top hat, a homberg style hat or something resembling a bowler hat. On the legs, usually some form or woollen leggings especially in the high altiplano where the temperature is lower.
A key part of the traditional dress is the brightly coloured shawl worn diagonally from left shoulder to right hip on the back. This is a general purpose garment which sometimes holds an infant child, but equally may hold firewood, harvested maize crop or just about anything. To counter-balance the load the women lean forward at the appropriate angle for both the weight and the steepness of the surface they are walking on. The gait is not so much one of walking as a short-stepped trot, at which they move quite quickly
Although some women are obviously dressed in traditional attire when attending a tourist location, as with this woman spinning alpaca yarn in the square in Chivay, it appears that traditional is very strong especially away from the main towns and cities.
Another observation I have made is that there is a strong tradition for dancing also. In the train arriving back from Machu Picchu there was a dance recital of a local native dance, and then at dinner last night we were also treated to an exhibition of indigene dancing.
Cusco – Puno: 245 Miles: High plateaux, street dancing and The Lake
The ride through the Altiplano continues much as yesterday. We left Cusco by a different route and followed a valley for about 40 miles then up and over the valley head into the high plateau where we stayed most of the day.
The road leading to Puno rises to reveal a panoramic view of Lake Titicaca, or Lake “Titikaka” as it is often spelled here. This is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,800 metres above sea level (or 12,500 feet).
Dropping into the city of Puno and the older central district where our hotel was located, we heard music. Quite by chance we had arrived on the first day of a 5 day celebration of the founding of the city in 1668 in which the population turn out in great style or dance and play music for more than 6 hours through the streets of Puno. At this altitude I was struggling to breathe while walking around through the sometimes steep, narrow streets, while these people were dancing for hours seemingly effortlessly.
Puno: A rest day and time to explore Lake Titicaca
Everyone knows of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca from numerous travel programs on the TV, or from postulated transfer of technology from ancient Egypt to South America as suggested by Thor Heyerdal. The reason for being in Puno was indeed to visit the Islands of Uros and see them first hand.
A short ride on a tourist launch through a channel in the reed forest which extends just offshore from Puno and in 30-45 minutes we are on the edge of a large, artificial island of reeds, with a number of smaller islands separated by a lagoon in the lake.
Seemingly each tour company has a favourite island to visit with their party and we step off from the launch onto a bed of reeds, which gives slightly under our weight and feels altogether like walking on a water bed!
Our guide explains that the basis of the island is the root system of the reeds, with a lattice of reeds laid out on top to form a platform. This is then anchored with ropes to stakes driven into the lake floor.
Every year, at least twice, a new bed of reeds is laid down to counteract the natural sinking of the island. Within the island, which represents a single family or family group, there are a number of single room dwellings. Each house may hold a couple, but more likely a family group of up to 4 children with parents.
The main occupation is fishing in the lake, but we are told that 20% of the income comes from tourism and sale of handicrafts. We later took a short trip on a reed boat, rowed by two women of the island, to the main island where the school house sits. The remaining women on the island we had visited, sang us a series of farewell songs in their native language, Spanish and English.
It was clear that the island we had visited was created for tourism as a short walk behind the school house where tourists are not encouraged to venture, revealed an altogether less sanitized, and in fact somewhat squalid version of island living. The sinking reeds, less well maintained, and what looked like a shanty town of corrugated metal roofs and timber framed shacks. The origin of the floating islands is not exactly clear it seems, but one must imagine that it was probably a mixture of some kind of persecution or lack of land rights, and also a community which relied on fising for sustenance.
Puno – Chivay: 200(+16) miles: Altiplano at its best
Today could have been one of the worst. The route notes indicated that the last time the group past this way in 2009 there were long sections of the road which were deeply pot-holed, very rough and coincidental with the highest part of the altiplano which we have seen so far. Our experience of the altiplano is that the weather can change from sunshine to rain to snow very quickly and roaring gales sweep down from the adjacent mountains making stability of the bikes on the twisty hill sections a real cause for concern.
Not so today. Leaving the city of Puno by 7:45, with the night revellers still wandering the streets, smelling strongly of cigarettes and alcohol, we headed back towards the city of Juliaca which two days ago we had found to be so unattractive, dusty and chaotic. But before reaching Juliaca we turned off the main road to see the tombs at Sillustani. This was only an 8 mile detour and the tombs sounded interesting. However upon arrival at just after 8 AM, there was clearly not a lot going on, and the well organized parking was a full half mile from the 300 foot hill leading to the tombs. The thought of walking a mile at 13,000 feet altitude, and then climbing 300 feet on a dirt path in motorcycle boots was enough to convince us that it would have to be absolutely stunning to make it worth the effort…. So, of course we remounted and headed back to the main road!
On the way back we stopped at one of many family compounds for a photo. The rock walled compounds often had arched doorways and contained a number of individual buildings, perhaps indicating a multi-tier family structure.
Passing this time through the centre of Juliaca in the morning rush hour, the traffic was again chaotic and roads rather worn, but we did pass through the old town square and main church which looked altogether quite ancient and worth a visit…had we not been in a hurry to get to our destination, not knowing what road conditions or weather we were to encounter today. As we are on the cusp of the rainy season and so far it has rained almost every afternoon, an early arrival is always our goal.
Leaving Juliaca we started to climb on a well paved, almost traffic free road, into the alitiplano. Llamas, Alpaca, sheep and cattle dotted the flat to undulating landscape of the altiplano plain, with rounded topped mountains on the horizon all around. The sun shone, the temperature was a cool 13C and the wind quite brisk, but the scenery, the road surface and the blue skies all contributed to make this an excellent start to the ride today. We continued rising along the broad valley which made up this part of the altiplano, until reaching the valley head, then crossing the ridge and dropping down into the adjacent valley.
We continued crossing a series of ridges and valleys climbing ever higher until reaching 16,020 feet above sea level…or having risen from 3,800 metres at Lake Titkaka to 4,800 metres, before dropping fairly rapidly again into the town of Chivay in the Colca Canyon National Park.
The road was almost flawless throughout and the moonscape potholed surface we feared had been asphalted recently leaving just a few patches of rough ground which we could steer around easily. The sun remained shining, the traffic remained light and we arrived in Chivay at just after 2PM having had a delightful ride in stunning scenery. The wind had remained keen and with windchill kept us with our jackets and thermal liners throughout the ride.
Chivay is a tourist town where people come to view condors in the adjacent Colca Canyon. And that is just why we are here too, apart from the fact that it is on the way to Arequipa which is our destination tomorrow.
Chivay to Arequipa 100 (+52) miles: Bird watching in the dirt and mistaken first impressions
I rarely volunteer to drive on dirt roads unless there is a good reason. The 26 miles of dirt road drive each way to Colca Canton was optional, but as I was curious to see condors, I decided that this was the best chance. We were told that the best time to see condors is around 8 AM. Also that because there were many tour buses doing the same thing, and that the rough dirt road Is very dusty, it is better to go before the buses depart, at 6AM or else risk being stuck behind a bus covered in blinding dust. So up at 4:15, shower, dress, prepare bike and on the “road” by 5:45. It was already quite bright in the early morning sun, but also at this altitude of around 12,000 feet, quite cold…about 4C or 37F.
The first 5 miles were paved then the remaining 21 miles unpaved, but fairly hard-packed dirt with a gravel top. With my now increased competence and confidence on unpaved roads I was fairly happy to slip along, standing on the foot-pegs to concentrate weight on the front wheel, in 3rd gear at 25-30 mph, except when we hit a landslide area and then it was 2nd gear, 15 mph and fish-tail the rear wheel through loose rock, giving it more throttle to stabilize the line.
Colca canyon is well known, not only for its condors, but also as a deep and long canyon.
Arriving at Condor Look out point we sat on the rocks and waited. Slowly the condors started to rise out of the canyon depths on the thermal currents as the sun’s rays penetrated to the inner canyon walls and warmed them. While these birds can grow to a significant size, the scale of the canyon is such that only with a good zoom lens can you appreciate them.
After an hour or so, I was “condored out”, and wondering if I would ever in England drive 42 miles of dirt road to go bird watching!
Driving back to Chivay to pick up with the rest of the group we ascended the same mountain we had come down the day before, rising from 12,000 feet to 16,000+ feet in less than 20 miles through constant switchbacks and hairpin bends. The views were magnificent as yesterday, but with a narrow twisting road, nowhere to stop and
take a photo. We did, however, have to stop and let a pack of suicidal alpacas cross in front of us.
After 50 miles of retracing our path from yesterday across the high altiplano we turned south toards our destination for today, Arequipa. Stopping for coffee at the junction we saw the volcanic mountains which fringe Arequipa, still another 5o miles away. Mount El Misti is 5,800 metres high, and last spewed significant lava out some 4,000 years ago. But an ash eruption 2,000 years ago left deep white deposits also across the landscape. Occasional puffs of white smoke are still visible on the volcano top. The adjacent volcanoes are much older but indicate a chain of volcanoes stretching back in time.
The volcanoes are key to the existence of Arequipa in that the snow caps provide a supply of fresh water for drinking and irrigation, the volcanic ash provides a fertile soil and also the easily worked building stone which makes up this “white city”.
The ride to Areqipa dropping several thousand feet to the desert again was not as enjoyable as yesterday’s ride. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because the wind was keen and cold and this time not from the side but directly against us. Maybe because the traffic was heavier with more heavy trucks, or maybe because I was not yet ready for more dusty, sandy barren desert. It was a short ride, just 50 miles more, and approaching the outskirts of Arequipa past the immense cement plant and then through dirty, dusty and traffic choked suburbs, I was wondering just why we had chosen to stay here for two nights. I was grateful for the satellite navigation system to lead me to the hotel on the edge of the old town.
The daily administration ritual of shower and washing clothes completed, I quickly checked the internet for “what to do in Arequipa”. Hmmm….cathedral with rebuilt bell tower after earthquake, Convent and monastery both of international fame, restaurants, bars and night clubs and adventure sports. I wandered out on to the roof terrace near my room and caught sight of the twin bell towers of the cathedral, just a few blocks away. Also saw the volcanoes towering above the city. Taking a map from reception and asking directions to where I might find a motorcycle washing service, I set off down a cobbled street towards the old centre.
I was wrong in my first impressions……the old centre of town is richly endowed with hundreds of attractive stone buildings, mostly well cared for, and dating from 17th – 19th centuries. The cathedral occupies one side of the main square, Plaza de Armas, and has been restored to its original glory after the earthquakes which toppled the bell tower. Many other historic buildings line the narrow streets surrounding the Cathedral including the Convent of San Francisco and Monastery of Santa Catalina.
A short walk to the river and I found the car/bike washing location and made an appointment for tomorrow. Also found good laundry to wash biking clothes which my now were caked in dust and mud from several off-road sections. Choice…wash off mud or plant potatoes in it!
A pleasant dinner on a terrace overlooking the cathedral and off to the evening briefing before dropping into bed at 9PM!! It had been a long day.
Arequipa: Rest day and a reality tour
We were offered a “reality” tour of places not seen by the tourist. I was sceptical at first, but in retrospect it was probably one of the most enriching experiences of the entire trip. I have commented before that one regret I have of this trip is that we barely touch the lives of the people we see on the drive through. We wave, sometimes talk when we stop, but to actually experience anything of their lives we do very little. Today changed that.
The reality tour was organized through our van driver who used to be a tour guide in South America. You won’t find it on any tourist brochures as it takes you to the places that tourists don’t go. Organized by a sociologist who is dedicating himself to helping the poorer elements of society we first visited a street market in the barrio areas where the poor people buy their food.
Many of the poorer people live from day to day being paid as casual labourers or domestic help on a daily basis. They then go to the market to buy food to keep them and their families until the next day. I was in fact pleasantly surprised at the variety and presentation of the fruits and vegetables available. But the meat lying openly on wooden counters, covered in flies, left me a little less enthusiastic. Potatoes feature heavily on the diet and some potatoes are freeze dried in the mountain air, shrinking to one third of their size, and turning white like stones. Soaking for 3 days restores them to original size. Black maize is available but only for animal feed or to make a potent alcohol if boiled and left to cool and ferment for 4 days.
Another curious stall was the traditional medicine stall. Cheaper than a doctor’s visit and steeped in superstition also, traditional medicines of herbs and other items are very popular. One such item is the petition to Mother Earth. A small plastic wrapped package asking for the Earth Goddess to provide money, a good harvest, a match for a son or daughter, health or whatever is prepared. Couple with this is a foetus of an animal which is associated with the petitioner…like a totem. These are buried and the Mother Earth Goddess is then favourably disposed to grant the wish.
We have seen coexistent religions in other places too.
Crossing the road to the “poor poor market” where only the cheapest cuist of meat are sold, we encounter the odious smell of rotting meat anbd fish. One market stall selling cows’ stomachs, genitals, lungs, brains, and all manner of body parts not always associated with food!
The next stop was the stone quarry. Arequipa is known as the “White City” because of the native stone – a kind of volcanic ash which make an easy-to-cut material. Unofficially children below 10 and adults into their 70’s work the quarry on family patches hand cutting up to 10 building blocks a day for which they may receive about £3 or $5. Enough to feed a family of 5 of very basic food. But the stone is not prized as a building material, and only the poorest of houses will use it. Better off people prefer mud brick or clay brick.
They live in self built basic one room houses near the quarry but do not own the land they live on. They can acquire the rights to the squatters land after 5 years of occupation if they can afford the paperwork.
The next visit was to the cemetery. The graves were mostly decorated with new flowers as we have just celebrated All Souls Day when the dead are remembered. We were told that there are areas set aside for “grandparent suicides” in unmarked graves as the Catholic Church does not recognize the right to end one’s life by one’s own hand. But extreme poverty sometimes calls for self-sacrifice to remove mouths from the table. But the bodies are returned to Mother Earth as the traditional religion demands. I did not get out of the bus as I felt this stop was altogether too voyeuristic.
Our final stop was to Wawa Wasi – a semi orphanage/day care centre for young children. This is a neighbourhood self-help organization to protect children. Our guide explained that a very high percentage of girls will be forced into prostitution by their own fathers to help support the family, or indeed will be sexually molested by family members. The resultant offspring are cared for in these centres while the single mother tries to work to support the child. This is one of the organizations that are supported financially by the “reality Tour”.
We were also told that the original shanty towns were set up during the Sendero Luminoso “Shining Path” terrorist times. A Marxist/Maoist communism and terror group would kill the male head of the family, impregnate the women and steal the children as child soldiers. Many of the women in outlying mountain villages would therefore secretly leave and come to Arequipa to settle the barrios and protect their children. These days the Sendero Luminoso is more focused on protecting the cocaine industry we were told. Drug money is laundered in factories and mines providing not only well paid work for thousands of workers but also tax revenue for the government. We never hear about this side of the drug wars, eh?
The government attempt to help the poor people championed by President Fujimori when in power provided funds to build a single story house. As the family grew, additional rooms were added vertically. Hence many single storey buildings with re-bar extending upwards in anticipation of future building when/if money is available as the family grows.
Today’s “reality tour” has been enriching, challenging, harsh but has brought us to a sensibility for the lives of the common people of Peru.
Arequipa – Arica (Chile) 270 Miles: Border crossing, back to sea level
Today was a day to move on from Peru to Chile. I think that having spent more than a week in Peru, and especially having taken the “reality tour” we have come to know Peru more than perhaps some other countries where we have spent just a few nights.
With only 270 miles, it was not a “big” day, but including a border crossing there is always a sense of the unknown. Arequipa is at around 8,000 feet above sea level, and leaving the city we almost immediately began to drop in elevation. Crossing a series of plateaus and crossing a series of ridge and valley features at an oblique angle, we fell from 8,000 feet to sea level at the border.
Arequipa to Arica border crossing with Chile: 270 Miles: Desert…and more desert!
The day’s riding can be summed up very easily. Miles and miles of desert, dry, dusty, and windswept with a cool temperature regardless if being close to the equator and at low elevation. We dropped from 8,000 feet top less than 1,000 feet only to rise up again to 4,500 feet before again dropping to lower elevations.
The border crossing was the best we have had so far, with less than an hour to process personal passport control on each side of the border and also the temporary import documents out of Peru and into Chile. The roads continue to be excellent through the barren desert and we leave Peru in the much the same was as they way we entered it – through dusty, sandy, desert devoid of any plant life and with a cold wind blowing from offshore.