Wednesday, March 31, 2010

El Sorroche

View of the Plaza Mayor of Lima

For my 50th birthday I went to South America for five weeks. It was an amazing trip. Three countries, lots of cities and a lot of altitude. My plan was to slowly ascend, starting at Lima and gradually going to cities of higher altitude. Lima was a bustling cosmopolitan city and Miraflores was a nice neighborhood to live in.

Paracas Mantle

Next stop Piste with side trips to the Ballestas islands and Paracas park, where the indigenous people created a culture in the driest climate on earth. On to Nasca where the lines in the desert are amazing but the plane trip is more like a carnival ride and not really in a good way. The next stop was Arequipa, a proud, beautiful city built of white volcanic rock with an altitude of 7800 feet. The Santa Catalina Monastery was a wonderful peaceful interlude in the city and it is kept in wonderful photogenic condition.

Santa Catalina Monastery

From there, a side trip to the Colca Canyon took us to new heights. The overnight was in Chivay at 12,000 feet. La Calera natural hot springs outdoors were fantastic. We arrived at twilight and sat in the steaming water chatting and watching the moon rise. The next morning, it was up early to go to watch the condors ride the thermals rising from the Colca Canyon. These giant birds were worth the wait. They are the largest flying land bird with a wingspan of 9.2 to 10.5 ft. It's not really surprising the Inca people believed this bird to be was associated with the sun deity, and was believed to be the ruler of the upper world.
Leaving Arequipa had to be postponed one day, because, although I didn't know it, I was getting altitude sickness. The Sorroche as they call it, has vague symptoms. You can have a bad headache or just feel cruddy. I slept a day and felt better, so it was on to Puno on Lake Titicaca which sits at 12,500 ft.

Puno Cathedral (My hotel was right behind this church.)

Lake Titicaca is so large it can be seen from space. I visited the Uros islands, built entirely of reeds, rode in a boat made of the reeds and tasted the reeds. (Kind of a cross between celery and Styrofoam.) We also went to Taquille where our guide announced that he hoped we were acclimated to the altitude because we had to climb up to the village for lunch. One other traveler and I had a very slow trip with children stopping us and encouraging us to try a small herb, muña, to crush and inhale. It did seem to help but not enough to make the climb anything but exhausting.

The fabulous Lake Titicaca

Following my days in Puno came a spectacular bus ride to La Paz, Bolivia. The scenery was simply gorgeous, the mountains, the sunshine, the blue, blue lake. We stopped in Copacabana for lunch and I found it charming and wished I'd planned to stay there for a night or two. Bolivia is a land locked country since the War of the Pacific in 1879 but it still has a navy they took us and our bus across the lake at a narrow spot. May was a lovely time to be traveling in South America. It was harvest time and huge piles of freshly harvested potatoes sat in the fields. The quinoa was ripe and beautiful. And the sun shined almost every single day.

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz is situated in a bowl surrounded by mountains with an altitude of 9,840 ft to 13,450 ft. I lived on Sarganaga Street near San Francisco Church and the Mercado de Brujas (Witches' Market.) And lots of shopping. Day one, a trip to Tiwanaku with a bus ride so beautiful we almost forgot about our destination. The mountains are beautiful and the landscape is singular. That evening our hotel had Andean music and the folks I met on the tour and I agree to visit the San Pedro Prison in La Paz the next morning.
San Pedro Prison is quite unique. Our guide was a Canadian in prison for drug infractions. We go first to his tiny cell where he offers us cocaine. He then shows us the various sections of the compound. It was once a series of convents and it was quite rickety in some spots varying all the way to quite nice where the richer criminals were able to secure housing. The prisoners buy their cells and have to sleep out in the courtyard until they have one. There are businesses inside and even kids live there and go to school each day from the prison. Our guide encouraged us to visit his wife's restaurant, on the outside, as we left.
The next day I completely hit the wall. I am feeling very bad and call a doctor in my guide book. I take the taxi down, down, down into the bowl of La Paz to Hospital Methodista where I will end up staying two nights with oxygen shooting up my nose at an alarming rate. In fact, half my bill is for oxygen. The nurses are kind and pleasant and once I'm hooked up to oxygen I start to feel better right away. Sweet relief. There is even a TV in my room and I watch Bolivian music videos between naps.

Upon release from the hospital, I whip out my MasterCard on Calle Sagarnaga and do some power shopping. The baby alpaca shawl is mine as well as the beautiful heavy sweater.
From La Paz to Cuzco by plane from El Alto airport and if you've never taken off at 13,325 feet it's a little scary. It just doesn't feel like the plane will get off the ground in the rarefied atmosphere, but it does. At last.


Cuzco, to the Incas, was the navel of the universe and now exists as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Historical Capital of Peru. I stayed right on the main square and met my travel agent who would arrange my travel from there immediately.

Sacred Valley

A day trip to the Sacred Vally of the Urabamba river took us to Pisac for the market. It was large and easy to get lost in. Some of the prices were shockingly low. The site of Ollyantatambo was fascinating as the city still used some of the water routing features from Inca times.

"The bath of the princess", a fountain at the base of the ruins.

Finally, the train to Machu Picchu! I plan to stay there for three days in Aguas Calientes and visit the site every day. I want to really soak this place in. We are taken directly to the site and dump our luggage for a tour of the site. It really is amazing. They have a garden with the flowers and vegetables used at the time the site was inhabited. Again there are water features. There is a series of baths were the water still trickles through. The springs have been diverted for the hotel near the site but this miracle of engineering is still evident.
Many here climb Huyana Picchu the taller peak for a panoramic view. It is a tough climb and I forgo the pleasure.

View of Machu Picchu from Huyana Picchu

I try to arrive early for the sunrise on day two but just get there early instead. The clouds are still hanging low over the peaks so there was really no sunrise to miss this day. A few of us climb to the caretakers hut for the money shot.

The money shot

I run into someone I'd met earlier who told me that the Trek on the Inca trail was "too hard". This was a very fit Scandinavian so I'm sure I would have been left for condor bait. The clouds lift...

Machu Picchu wreathed in clouds

I spot a Treker taking a well deserved nap after three days of hard work...

Panama hat man

My third day I decide to try hiking up to the sun gate where the trekkers enter the site at sunrise on their last day. After about 45 minutes of uphill climbing and getting about half way there, I decide I'm satisfied with the view and turn back to commune with the llamas who are here for the tourists.

Local llamas view Machu Picchu

The stone work is one of the Inca's trademarks. They were master stone carvers and masons. Many of the boulders at the site are carved in place into monuments or features of buildings. Stones are set so well that they have survived nature and geology and are still standing and in use in cities today.

Typical beautiful Inca stone work

My travel agent has helped me to find the studio of the famous Peruvian photographer, Martin Chambi I had discovered before my trip. I met his daughter, also a photographer, and was able to see some of his photos in person. They were out of my price range so I loaded up on post cards.

Jugando al sapo en la chichería. Cuzco, 1931 ~Martin Chambi

Next, it's back to Lima for some sea level and museums. I see the National Museum, where I am treated to an earthquake drill and an orchestra rehearsing. As well as national treasures. Also, I go to the Gold Museum. This is privately owned and massive quantities of gold on display in the basement of a building. Fascinating in a creepy way.
Next stop Quito the home of eternal spring to the Incas. I change my money and the exchange rate renders me a millionaire! I have a stack of Sucres that makes me feel rich!

5000 Sucres

I drop my luggage and take a small travel bag to Otavalo, home of a Saturday market in the mountains. I've been waiting to splash out at the Hotel Ali Shungu. All the travel books rave about it and it is lovely. Wonderful food in the restaurant and Andes music in the evening on Friday. Ecuador is very green after Peru and Bolivia. It is a big player in the world floral market and you can see green houses everywhere.
First thing Saturday morning is the animal market in Otavalo. It's pretty chaotic and when the big hogs get cranky, everyone gives them a wide berth.
Later, the market in the town square offers up handicrafts galore. Lots of shopping going on and my wallet deflates rapidly with my purchases.

Selling crafts at the market

We took a rickety van around to several small villages near Otavalo to see the craft people at work. We saw knitters, weavers, hat makers, doll makers and basket makers.
The countryside was beautiful and most of them took pride in their work and were happy to share some time with us. The conditions were rustic and some had sad stories. One mother has lost her husband since the last time our guide had seen her. It was heart wrenching to see her sitting knitting with her children all huddled around her.

Demonstrating spinning sisal

After a lovely weekend in Otavalo, I return to my hotel in Quito and sign up for a city tour. The old part of the city was one of the first Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978.

Quito Av Venezuela

We also go to a high peak and see the winged statue of the Virgen Mary. The city is ringed with green mountains. Later, we go to the Mitad del Mundo, the site of the equator. The clerk from my hotel is driving and we chat about her son living in Chicago. She snaps my photo with one foot in each hemisphere!

My flight departs at 11:00 p.m. and the next day I'm back home with Andean music playing in my head.

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