Arequipa, Peru – The convent Santa Catalina: A true story in parts

April 3rd, 2012

After they strode through the archway, they had to zip their lips and spend their life in formal silence. The novices of the convent Santa Catalina spent four years before they took their vows or returned to their families, which undoubtedly would have brought disgrace on their families. During colonial times it was customary among upper-class families that the second born son or daughter entered ecclesiastical service. The Santa Catalina convent was founded 1580 by a rich widow who carefully choose her nuns. The came only from the best Spanish patrician families and had to pay a considerable dowry and yearly alimony.

Here the second part of the story begins: Normally this would have meant at least for the daughters a life in a convent’s chaste poverty. Not so in Santa Catalina. After taking their vows the poverty and silence rules weren’t applied that strict any more. Visitors were allowed, although separated by a grille. But behind the convent’s walls 150 privileged women lived it up. Each one of them had one to four mostly black servants or slaves, they lived in relatively magnificent rooms, equipped with kitchen and finest porcelain, according to the wealth of the nun. They invited musicians, made parties and lived their usual rich life.

Part three seems inevitable: After three centuries of hedonistic excesses pope Pius IX sent sister Josefa, a strict Dominican nun, to straighten things out. Like a tornado she swept through the convent in 1871, sent the party nuns home, and freed servants and slaves. Some of them stayed as nuns. The fourth episode of the Catalina saga on the other hand stays a secret of the Catholic Church. For a hundred years not a word leaked to the public until the convent was opened to the public in 1970 – not least because of the mayor’s pleading – and the fifth and temporary last phase began.

The 20.000 sq m big construction is a city in the city, a fortress with streets and squares, surrounded by an imposing wall. After the violent earthquakes of 1958 and 1960 the buildings weren’t completely restored, the rebuilding of the second stories was relinquished. Many of the partially comfortable cells are open for public viewing, as well as the kitchen and the bakery, the nuns’ bathtub, the laundry place, the lower choir where nuns could joint the mass unseen, the art gallery with numerous paintings, and the cloister. Today’s remaining nuns live in a small remote more modern part of the convent. Like ghosts they sometimes dart through the walks. They still bake sweets to sell and salacious sweet fatty tarts that are offered in the café belonging to the establishment. Joerg manages two pieces, I struggle with one.

The convent Santa Catalina is the attraction of Arequipa, although with 35 PEN admission (13 $) not very reasonable. To go without a visit would be a pity since the mood is mythic, the memory of the daring nuns vivid, and there are endless images for photographers to be taken. A guide (in different languages) is 20 PEN per group, the tour takes an hour. It skips many cells that can be visited later on individually. We prefer to go alone. At the ticket booth we received an exact map where each cell is marked that can be visited, and getting lost is nearly impossible. Plan two to three hours for your visit. The convent is opened Tuesdays and Thursdays until 8 p.m. and atmospherically illuminated by lanterns then.

Arequipa, Peru – The Holy Week starts

April 1st, 2012

The young woman’s voice sounds clear and high, she sings heart-rendingly. Unfortunately we can’t say that of the following bishop’s sermon. He recites his psalms monotonously, listlessly and quietly. As the first believers start to doze we leave the cathedral. We accidentally burst into the mass, lured by the angel’s voice and the boredom of the endless delay of the procession. It was said to start at 4 p.m., at 5 nothing goes on, and at last at 5:30, as the light dwindles, first activities show. Then we sit drinking beer on one of the restaurant’s balconies around the plaza with view from the first row long since.

The Semana Santa, the Holy Week, is in the entire Latin America the most important feast of the whole year. Depending on the region people make holiday, celebrate, drink abundantly, or they go to church according to the regulations and walk in processions. The Easter festivities in Arequipa are regarded as especially splendid. The parades already start the weekend before Easter. The bishop tortures his flocks a bit longer, and then the soldier corps may enter the cathedral. The 28 soldiers come out with wavering steps, a larger-than-life statue of Jesus on a wooden tableau on their shoulders that looks very heavy. Then an even larger group of believers carry the Holy Virgin of Chapi, the city’s patron saint. Music from a loudspeaker or a moaning singer provide the dramatic background.

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city with nearly a million inhabitants and offers a beautiful, tightly structured historic centre. The colonial buildings around the central Plaza de Armas with fountain and old stand of palm trees are made from light-grey Sillar, a volcanic rock that brought Arequipa the byname “White City”. One side of the plaza is occupied by the large cathedral, the other three are covered by the arcades where the municipality, shops and restaurants are located.

The city is towered over by some mighty snow-covered volcanoes: the perfectly cone-shaped El Misti, Arequipa’s 5,822 m high landmark, the higher and more rugged Chachani to the left and the lower Pichu Pichu to the right. The perfect postcard motif is taken from the balcony of the municipality (ask there for permit), where El Misti appears exactly between the cathedral’s two towers.

Arequipa, Peru – Big birds

März 30th, 2012

Peru isn’t really blessed with wildlife. The coast is inhabited or plastered with chicken farms. The Andes are emptied by hunting and eating. The more we enjoy our ride through the mountains. Now and again shy vicuñas cross our path and three condors circle for us completely free. A small flamingo colony lives on a red salt lake. After crossing several passes close to 5,000 m the road descends slowly to the Pan Am, crossing several climatic zones from mountain grass via trees and cacti to just desert.

Despite the crazy Peruvian drivers we make it without accident into Arequipa’s centre where Hostal Las Mercedes offers camping on its parking lot – there aren’t many options in town. The hostel is situated favourably close to the city centre, unfortunately also close to a heavily used main road. The grassy camping zone is behind a wall neighbouring this road, but the receptionist allows us to camp next to the hotel building behind a kind of embankment. That’s not only further from the road, the embankment protects from the noise. Furthermore we have full Wi-Fi reception here that declines towards the camper are. Uniform price incl. water, electricity, bathroom, hot shower and internet are 22 PEN per person and night. Staff is friendly, campers are treated like regular hotel guests. Hostal Las Mercedes, Arequipa: S 16°24’02.7’’ W 71°32’31.2’’.

Cañon de Colca, Peru – The real king of birds

März 29th, 2012

Condors don’t stick to timetables and travel guides. Nothing is going on at 7 a.m., not more at eight. Just at 8:30 it is warm enough that the first one slowly spirals upwards. The majestic birds need thermal to fly, since with up to 3.2 m wingspan flying needs too much energy. Elegantly gliding nearly without any effort the world’s largest raptor (Californian condor’s “big brother”) is lifted into elevations of 5,000 m and more, looking for carrion. Still the Andean condor is a bird of prey and can strike a sheep or a young cameloid. Therefore it was nearly extinct since the Spanish conquest, but the bird definitely prefers carrion.

The black-grey birds stay for long time with us. Even at noon they spiral into the air. It’s hard to leave, so we only make 60 km in the afternoon. We take the southern exit dirt road, along uncounted terraced fields that are kept in top shape since Inca times. South of Huambo there is an old unused landing strip where we choose to stay overnight. It doesn’t take long when it knocks at the cabin wall. It is the police that is relived that we are harmless tourists. They tell me the area was dangerous, and cattle theft, poaching, robbery, and even murder happened here. It might be a long time that something happened since they let us stay and just tell us to be careful and lock the door well. Now that we know they go on patrol we can sleep with an easy mind. Who also dares to sleep here: S 15°44’40.3’’ W 72°06’46.1’’.

Cañon de Colca, Peru – Access to “Cruz del Condor”

März 28th, 2012

The entrance station to Colca Canyon is Yanque where admission has to be paid. The boleto turistico costs 70 Nuevo Soles (26 $), the Latino charge is 40 PEN (14.50 $). You have to find a good reason why you want to pay the Latino charge instead of the foreigner charge, but sometimes it works… The ticket is valid for some ruins, the Valle de los Volcanes where you can see lots of volcanoes with good weather, as well as for the Cañon de Colca where you can climb down.

Colca Canyon was for long time thought to be the world’s deepest canyon with 3,191 m, at least the deepest one in the western hemisphere. A few years ago it was discovered that the neighbouring Cañon del Cotohuasi is 150 m deeper. Still the 100 km long Colca Canyon is twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but no comparison, since you only look down 1,000 m to Rio Colca and the surrounding mountains tower another 2,000 m high – a beautiful sight anyway.

Main attraction is the viewing point Cruz del Condor where condors can be watched. There is no checkpoint on the access road from south, but tickets are regularly checked at the miradór. Camping is said to not be allowed on the parking lot, but nobody bothers us there: S 15°36’45.0’’ W 71°54’14.5’’.

Sillustani, Peru – The burial towers of Sillustani

März 27th, 2012

They were belligerent people that admired their nobility so much that they built towers for their last journey. The Colla once dominated Lake Titicaca, after their “integration” they became the south-easternmost group of the Inca and continued the tradition of the burial towers on a higher construction level. Such round towers are found everywhere in the area. The largest and best preserved so-called chullpas are located in Sillustani on a hilly peninsula in Umayo Lake. The higher the position of an aristocrat has been the higher the tower was. Whole families with all their belongings and even food found their final resting place there.

The older burial towers are lower and roughly made from unhewn stones. The Inca artists instead used accurately fitting blocks that they built up to 12 m hight and partially decorated with animal reliefs like lizards or snakes. The burial objects were lost to grave robbers long before science or tourism arrived. Admission to the burial towers of Sillustani was recently raised to 10 PEN. But it’s allowed to camp complimentary on the parking lot behind the barrier (S 15°43’26.2’’ W 70°09’03.4’’) as long as the admission ticket in paid in advance, as we did yesterday evening.

On the way back to the main road we visit one of the Indian houses in the so-called Pukara style. The locals open their houses to foreign visitors. A wall encloses a square courtyard with two or three small buildings in adobe style in the corners that are used as residential or warehouse. In a corner that would be vegetable garden we learn the use of traditional agricultural tools. Here the guinea pigs are kept as well. The fireplace is outside and the most common crops are shown: Quinoa, different kinds of potato, oca, another starchy tuber, and chuño, a bitter potato that grows up to 4,500 m and is preserved with the Indigene chest freezer process. So they are non-perishable for years and easy to transport. Arcilla is another curiosity, edible clay, served as sauce with boiled potatoes. There is no entrance fee levied, but a donation or purchase of a souvenir is expected. Our nightly camp will be at Laguna Saralocha close to Lucia (S 15°48’47.8’’ W 70°37’18.7’’).

Juli / Lake Titicaca, Peru – The village of the dacaying churches

März 26th, 2012

Juli is a pretty village on Titicaca shore. The lake is the earth’s highest navigable lake in 3,800 m elevation, up to 274 m deep and slightly bigger than Lake Nicaragua. The amount of the unusually decayed colonial churches seems disproportionally high for the small village. But Juli was the base for Christianisation of the Aymara and Inca folks at the lake in the 16th and 17th century. Jesuit monks were prepared for their task here. The churches are slowly restored nowadays, but only few are accessible.

One of the exceptions is San Juan de Letrán, today a museum for 6 PEN pp. The church is a colonial gem. Huge paintings cover the walls. The carved thick wood frames are gold-plated, their patterns continue below chiselled in stone. The main altar and the two side chapels are also made from finest carved stone. Alabaster windows with also voluptuous golden frames bathe the nave into smooth light. Taking photos is forbidden, but there is one guard only. Here is the point for us to turn round and go back before crossing the border to Bolivia, because this is for later.

Puno / Lake Titicaca, Peru – Shocking commerce: the Uro’s swimming islands

März 25th, 2012

There is one thing you shouldn’t expect: authenticity. Prepared for the worst you might be able to understand the people’s need for a better life, to earn money the easy way,and to see which damage tourism can cause. It is interesting to see the see the Uro’s swimming islands once and especially to walk on them. What is show and commerce today started with bitter seriousness. The small Uro nation originally lived at Lake Titicaca’s shores. Escaping the aggressive Colla, then the Inca and finally the Spaniards they built boats first and after the swimming island to protect their culture and to live their traditional life (they might have lost sight of this aim).

The islands consist of totora reed that abundantly grows in the shallow shore areas. Each island is made from many layers that rot at the bottom and have to be replaced from top. The traditional boats are made from reed as well and last only few months. Totora is also used for building of the houses – the traditional tipi shapes as well as the modern square ones. Partially the roots are even edible.

Puno is the starting point for excursions to the Uro islands. A roundtrip by boat costs 10 PEN plus 5 PEN island access and takes 30 minutes (altogether the trip takes 2.5 hrs). There are boats every hour or more often. Several islands are situated in a circle in a reed clearing and resemble one another. Walking on the fluctuating ground is very strange. One of the women explains us the construction of the islands, how they are pegged down to not move away. The suspiciously unused looking house is demonstrated first, then the souvenir stand where we are expected to buy handcrafts, but at least we can take photos free of charge. For another 5 PEN we are offered a ride on one of the elaborately made reed boats to another island where more souvenir stands and a restaurant wait. The island’s girls sing a traditional song and “vamos a la playa, oh-oho-oho”, a perfect moment to throw a screaming fit, but we bear it with a lenient smile. There are still more traditional islands, but only reached by expensive private boat rides.

The only camping option for RVers in Puno is Sonesta Hotel Posadas del Inca. The better known El Libertador doesn’t accept campers any more. For using the parking lot with hooting morning train the hotel asks for 15 US$ (we might use bathroom and showers), with electricity 20 $ (S 15°49’26.2’’ W 70°00’19.6’’).

Tipón + Santa Rosa, Peru – On the way into the Altiplano

März 24th, 2012

The fields gloom dark red, the stalks sway softly with the wind. The beautiful cereal is called Quinoa, looking a little bit like millet, just poofier and coloured. The traditional corn grows in elevations up to 4,000 m and might be called Kiwicha in Quechua. We leave Urubamba and Pisac behind and are heading to Lake Titicaca. We circle around Cusco and reach Tipón on its south-east side. Here we find beautiful Inca terraces with perfectly constructed supporting walls and irrigation systems. The lavish terracing counteracted erosion of the earth’s surface and assured the Inca higher crops, but is rarely used today – too much maintenance is needed. Access to the archaeological site of Tipón with boleto turistico or for 10 PEN pp (S 13°34’17.9’’ W 71°47’03.6’’).

Following a smooth valley we climb nearly imperceptibly without sharp bends and steeper slopes into the height. The snow-covered Cerro Cunurana, 5,443 m high, rises into the thin air. The Abra La Raya, a 4,360 m high pass, doesn’t only mark the route’s highest point and the watershed between Atlantic and Pacific, but the beginning of the Altiplano, the extensive plateau in around 3,600 m that extends far into Bolivia.

Just few kilometres south of a town called Santa Rosa we find a gravel road that is basically a dead end with a peaceful private campsite for us on a murmuring river: S 14°46’44.5’’ W 70°43’51.0’’.

Munaychay, Peru – Goodbye from the hearts’ project

März 23rd, 2012

We put things away. Everything has to take its place if we want to move again. Many emails and analysis have to be written, the driver of the children’s village receives a tool set for his workshop that we bought for him in Cusco. On Friday night the aid organisation invite us to the pizzeria in Urubamba. But the employees have another delightful surprise for us: A letter of thanks, a snapshot of Joerg shuffling the mud for the road, and a notebook, handmade an painted by the village’s kids. Thanks to all!

Munaychay, Peru – The Machu Picchu question

März 21st, 2012

Machu Picchu is Peru’s greatest sight and South America’s most famous ruin. It is the Inca’s best-known construction – never discovered by the Spaniards it was never destroyed and sank into oblivion until its “rediscovery” in the beginning of the 20th century. The purpose of the building is shrouded in mystery to this day. Theories talk about a royal retreat or a country palace close to Cusco; others speak of a political, religious and administrative centre. Machu Picchu was built in the middle of the 15th century to the end of the Inca reign.

Today the archaeological find is Peruvian tourism’s centre of attention. Maximum 2,500 visitors are allowed to visit daily, and they do it. As a result Peru lost somehow appropriateness – supply and demand dictates the price, as it does for Cusco’s attractions and the already described boleto turistico. Since there is no road to Machu Picchu to this day, a railway line was built. The government wants to be paid too dear for all of this. Only the entrance fee gives you 60 US$, in addition to the expensive train ride and the bus ride. More inexpensive train tickets demand an overnight stay in the last town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, which means financially more or less the same.

For the two of us the visit would cost altogether around 400 $ – quite a bit for some old stones. Especially as the ruin itself isn’t said to be the world’s best, although its location is usually described as particularly beautiful. Eventually we emulate so many other globetrotters and relinquish Machu Picchu visit and boycott the impudent prices. Nonetheless we don’t want to withhold our collected information from other travellers. There are many ways to Machu Picchu:

1. By train: The train starts from Cusco, Urubamba or Ollantaytambo (more inexpensive with lower distance) to Aguas Calientes. Differently comfortable trains can be booked for different prices. From there you’d have to continue by bus (or on foot) to Machu Picchu. Tickets and info under Advance booking is absolutely necessary (also at the train stations or in Cusco).
Car park options:
Cusco: Camping Quinta Lala, S 13°30’20.8’’ W 71°59’06.3’’, info see blog entry 09.02.2012
Urubamba: Camping Los Cedros,
Ollantaytambo: bus parking, S 13°15’32.6’’ W 72°15’57.5’’, guarded, 5 PEN/24 hours

2. With own vehicle: From Cusco via Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Chaullay to Santa Teresa. Camping / vehicle parking at Genaro Moscoso Laforre’s campground, S 13°07’55.4’’ W 72°35’46.9’’. The distance is 250 km one-way and is a dirt road from Chaullay on – 4WD recommended, and in rainy season often blocked by land slides. Calculating fuel costs for 500 km there is probably not a big difference to the train ticket. From Santa Teresa one takes the train to Aguas Calientes – or follows the rails walking. Then one continues by bus or on foot to Machu Picchu as mentioned above.

3. By bus: From Cusco take a bus heading to Quillabamba, get off in Santa María and change to a collectivo to Santa Teresa. From there continue as described above. This is the most economic solution.

4. The Inca Trail: The highly praised Inca Trail is only one of meanwhile 12 discovered Inca trails to Machu Picchu, the best-known though, and therefore source of revenue for the Peruvian government. The Inca Trail can only be walked in company of a licensed agency, only that costs 350 to 500 US$ pp. Since the 43 km steeply lead over three mountain passes, one can only do without porters with interstellar fitness, what additionally costs. Guides, cooks and porters need to be tipped. Even the budget friendly travel guide Lonely Planet estimates the costs for the Inca Trail with at least 1,300 US$ pp. What is more is that 500 persons are allowed on the trail daily. If you can really enjoy the scenery with 499 people around you remains an open question. Furthermore you’d have to use outhouses used by thousands of other people in the past few days. The insufficient waste disposal increasingly causes – not only optical – problems.

5. On foot via alternative Inca Trails: There are different agencies who offer different routes, all of them are involved with high costs. Examples are the 2-days-Inca-Trail, the Lares Valley Trek, the Salkantay Trek, the Inca Jungle Trail as well as the alternative Inca Trail from Mollepata.

An additional word to the Wayna Picchu topic: If you want to climb the mountain at Machu Picchu you nearly can’t get out of a pre-reservation of the Machu Picchu entrance ticket together with the Wayna Picchu ticket. The number of hikers is limited to 400 per day – 200 at 7 a.m. and another 200 at 10 a.m., hence spaces are limited. If you don’t feel like climbing steep stairs together with so many other tourists, you might want to hike the incomprehensibly little known Cerro Machu Picchu. That takes a bit longer, isn’t limited, still lonelier and shall offer the better view to Machu Picchu together with Wayna Picchu. Get exact hiking directions e.g. from Lonely Planet travel guide “Peru”.

Munaychay, Peru – Got through

März 18th, 2012

We nearly got through. No, not the time in the children’s village, we even extend for a week. We are talking about the rainy season. It’s nearly over. The sky presents itself more and more in deep, nearly night-dark blue, interspersed with pretty white clouds. There is rain only every few nights now. Therefore it appears that here are only two kinds of weather: grey rainy cool or unpleasant piercing hot sun, where even sunscreen doesn’t really help.

Our excavation work is also done. The garage access received a fine gravel layer; some more drainages were made to allow rainwater to run out so that the track doesn’t silt up any more, then we go on to joiner’s works. The hamlet Huilloc above Ollantaytambo is also supported by Corazones para Perú. The school receives support, a proper health centre was established, and a trout-farming built. Soon a fish restaurant shall be set up to create new jobs and to bring tourists in this remote corner. Currently a computer training room has to be furnished. 11 new PCs were bought, and today the computer tables shall be assembled, which were made in the proper carpenter’s workshop in Santa Rosa.

The cabinet maker, Joerg and I screw them together and afterwards lacquer them the Peruvian way: A kind of huge wad of cotton wool, made from cotton fibre, has to be dipped into the varnish with the hand (the surgeon’s gloves dissolve after few immersions). After a few trials we have got the hang of it how the single fibres don’t stick to the table but stay at the wad. With this technique we are so close to table and nitrocellulose varnish that I can take a proper breath of it each time. I have to seek fresh air in between times. Next day I feel like having a hangover. Sniffing doesn’t seem to be anything for me.

Next we shall take care of the children’s village fleet of vehicles. The benchmark figures are sorted out in a meeting, and then we set off: On one day we visit Cusco’s car dealerships to compare prices and performance of new pick-ups, the next day we check the second-hand car market. Like in most developing (or still nearly developing) countries with strong import restrictions used cars are sought-after and excessively expensive, and in addition run-down by mining companies. Speedo- and odometer are disconnected on time between 40,000 and 70,000 km, so that nobody can detect the exact mileage.

On Sunday eventually – we don’t have always a weekend – the driver of the children’s village receives a driving lesson. Certainly he is able to drive, but he doesn’t know what for is the gear reduction of the 4WD gearbox. But it is ideal on these steep mountain sections and in these high elevations, and downhill it goes easier on the brakes. Joerg draws up a vehicles’ maintenance plan for the driver, and that has to be discussed and explained. Another week has passed in a flash and we have to worry about how and when to leave Peru, since the Unimog’s temporary import permit for three months will expire soon.

Munaychay, Peru – The Peruvian Gulag

März 11th, 2012

The whistle sounds shrill. Not again. Cusco is full to the brim with policemen who shall convey security to tourists. They whistle and wave totally senseless when traffic lights show green, and lift their arms stopping the traffic with red light. Wasn’t a traffic light enough or couldn’t they have spared the set of lights instead? But sometimes the officers whistle after drivers who made something wrong to issue a ticket. Like now. We made a u-turn in a quiet side road. The policeman comes and reprimands us immediately. That’s not allowed! We didn’t endanger or obstruct anybody, besides it is ridiculous to forbid u-turns without signs, but that doesn’t matter, a Peruvian policeman is always right. I leave the car: blond woman, trusty look. “Oh, we are so sorry, we didn’t know that. We are volunteers and have to pick up food in this shop for the poor Peruvian children of the children’s village Munaychay.” “From which organisation are you?” “Corazones para Perú.” “It’s all right then.”

Phew, that was faster than expected. Faster even than yesterday, as we made a u-turn at a green traffic light on a four-lane road with divisional island and without forbidding sign. Same problem: that’s not allowed. Nobody can know this! Then we had a Peruvian with us, the organisation’s dentist, who had to discuss and crawl to the policeman for five minutes until the officer relinquished to issue a ticket. We had to show all vehicle registration and insurance papers and even the International Driver’s Licence. Well the Peruvian misses the blond hair, the trusty look and … let’s forget about that.

On Monday and Tuesday we went to Cusco to purchase food and computers for the children’s village and a public computer school room. And I had to pick up a parcel from the post office with some small spare parts, new guidebooks and dictionaries, and of course keenest missed German chocolate. On Monday I didn’t get the parcel after two hours of waiting since an authority was missing. But on Tuesday I was successful and I didn’t even have to pay customs duties since presents up to 100 $ are free in Peru.

On Wednesday we couldn’t dodge the task any longer: The muddy access to the carports has to be cleared and cleaned. Road construction by hand with a four-man/woman team in three and a half thousand metres / 10,000 ft is very heavy labour. We feel a bit like transferred to the Russian Gulag, only in Peru. Nevertheless handwork is faster than expected, with enough people not slower than with machines. We are just not used to that any more. We have to remove the mud and the upper wet layer of earth until we find firm ground and stones. In the evening my hands are swollen and full of blisters, but we get the job done and can fill up the road with coarse gravel next day. This’ll have to set until Monday before we can add a layer of finer gravel. On Friday Joerg gravels over the workshop floor and I write some analyses regarding the vehicle fleet and do some internet researches, and then it is already weekend that we – at least felt to – have earned.

Munaychay, Peru – Week two in the children’s camp

März 4th, 2012

The rest of the 70 children arrived, because tomorrow’s Monday school will start. 70 pupils between six and 17 years live in the children’s village, 10 children and adolescents each in altogether seven houses with a “mother” each, called tia, aunt, and some substitute aunts. The children are orphans, semi-orphans, or other cases allocated to the facility by social security office or court. The children get a home here, food, clothing, and education, everything they need for a future. Some of them go home to relatives during the vacations, but others don’t have a home or nothing they would call so. There is a separate home for infants and another one for adolescents from 18 years on who are still in training. The public schools attended by the children are supported by the responsible body Corazones para Perú financially with food, materially e.g. with furniture, and personnel with teachers and psychologists.

Half of the aunts are nurses, the other half teachers. Not an easy job though, because they have to spend 24 hours daily with the kids for three weeks, and are a week off then. Most of them have own children who are big enough to care for themselves or a husband or grandmother who cares for them. And of course kids from a home aren’t automatically well-behaved, especially if they partially come from difficult social conditions. Here teeth cleaning is left out, there cutting the nails. The TV room is opened only Saturdays, but if you really would like to watch telly, wouldn’t you do anything for that? The kids are extremely curious, and if something is lying around, they might need it. We shall lock everything always. Kids, just normal. But ten of them, somebody else’s kids to boot and this 24 hours a day. Respect, and honestly, being tia wouldn’t be my dream job. The tias are supported by volunteers, young people between school and university or those doing their community service, and salaried employees.

We finished the workshop, although everything is a bit slower in South America, well, nearly finished since the gravel for the floor was missing. It arrived yesterday, and it is enough to gravel over the whole access road to the carports. Now we only have to care for equipping the workshop with tools and spare parts. In the meantime we began to examine the fleet of vehicles of the children’s village and carried out one or the other smaller repair, to draw up a list of defects and to evaluate if the vehicle shall be kept or sold. And so it goes on, we could spend weeks and months here – there would be enough work.

Munaychay, Peru – Sunday roast from the children’s room

Februar 29th, 2012

The topic persecutes me for quite a while, but I didn’t want to expect dealing with it of my highly strung readership. Now I can’ prevent it any more. Because we did eat guinea pigs: the small cute mammals, lonely company of even lonelier people, only children’s playmates, cheeping woolly pigs. Most people might have heard of the odd Peruvian custom to eat our living toys. But it isn’t known how widespread this habit really is.

Guinea pigs were brought to North America and Europe in the 16th century. They were kept and bred absolutely for culinary purposes, but could never gain acceptance compared to traditional animals kept for meet production, and slowly they became just pets. In South America (and Africa as well) they are liked eating especially in Peru and the bordering countries, among them mainly Ecuador and Colombia. There is evidence that the domesticated form of guinea pigs exists since at least 900 BC, but probably much longer, since over 5,000 years. In former times they were the poor man’s protein supplier, but in recent years they developed into a delicacy and became expensive (around 15 US$ per piece), so that people think of the rodents as a good source of income.

The humanitarian project Corazones para Perú has a chicken and guinea pig breeding in the agricultural holding Santa Rosa beside the children’s village Munaychay partially for personal needs but mainly for sale. Employees and volunteers can get a prepared guinea pig for 30 Nuevo Soles (12 US$) with side dishes. We ordered two of them for dinner and will soon share the opinion of most other travellers: nothing special. It doesn’t taste like chicken as some claim, the meet is darker and more intense without having the fine game taste of pheasant or wild hare.

The skin is thick and tough as old boots, actually not edible. There is nearly no meat at the chubby rodent. The animal seems to consist more of intestines and fur. Therefore the innards are always part of the meal to fill the eaters’ bellies. The preparation may be another reason for our lack of enthusiasm: The roast has been in the oven for too long time, the meat is dry, and besides oversalted. Well, we’ve tried it, think it’s o.k. to eat though not worth striving for. The village’s dog Meilo who suffers more than the rest of the village from protein deficiency will take pleasure in the leftovers tomorrow.

Munaychay, Peru – The first week

Februar 26th, 2012

Hard physical work is even harder in three and a half thousand metres elevation. My post-Inca carries rocks and shovels for all one is worth, but sleeps at six. Our first project is a workshop for the fleet of the children’s village. Walls and roof are there, but floor and walls are wet from water running in. Initially we excavate the floor to find the water drain. We built a form from wood to make a new drainage, mix concrete by hand in a wheelbarrow and carry it in buckles down a stairs, and pour the channel.

On the next day we mix more concrete, lay a water pipe, and pour more concrete to get the entrance area waterproof and to form a lid for the drainage. This takes some days with a two man/woman-team, consisting of Joerg and me. Furthermore if we have to run around looking for tools or the responsible person who might know where they are, and mostly they aren’t where they are expected to be; like the bricklayer’s trowel that is in the hen coop’s window because it’s used for scraping off the chickens’ faeces.

Meanwhile the children can’t get enough of our cabin. But we have to admit that they usually don’t stay too long, especially the bigger girls take responsibility and order the younger “Let’s go now!” Generally, they have a lot of responsibilities. They help cooking, cleaning, and wash their clothes themselves; by hand and with cold water of course. That has nothing to do with child labour. There’s still enough time for school, learning, and playing. It’s just preparation for real life. Something’s partially lost in our societies.

We apologize if there are fewer photos from the children’s village than expected. Taking photos is limited here because there are some victims of violence among the children whose identity shall be protected.

Munaychay, Peru – Dragging stones and potato pasta

Februar 21st, 2012

Joerg picks, hoes, and chisels. I shovel, drag small rocks and roll the bigger ones as long as my power permits. From stones dug up and grass sod we build a ramp for Arminius. That’s our first task in children’s village Munaychay. There is a piece of unused meadow with a perfect view to the snow-covered peaks of Cordillera Urubamba on one side and to the green Cordillera Vilcabamba on the other. That’s where we want to settle down for the next four weeks.

Unfortunately a sort of modern rural Inca wall with heavy weight blocks bar our way, but nobody has got something against us removing a part of the embankment to create an access. There are suspiciously few watchers during our works. Fortunately nobody is bothered by women lugging rocks in Peru. As we finished few hours later they come nodding around the corners: “Well done! Good work!”

We committed ourselves to volunteer in the children’s village Munaychay for some weeks. The village is located close to Cusco, in a side valley from Urubamba, and belongs to the private humanitarian project It attends mainly to education of children, developing of workplaces to dam migration to the cities, and self-supply. Potatoes and vegetables are grown on fields in the open air and in greenhouses; vegetables, chickens and eggs are sometimes even sold on the market.

During our journey we realized that we are extremely privileged. I don’t mean only us world travellers; I talk about most people in Central Europe and in North America. As far as we are concerned we want to dedicate a part of our vacation time and work capacity for a good cause and chose this small unbureaucratic project. Like usual we’ll look behind the scenes with an amused and a critical eye. At the same time we aren’t too angry to pass rainy season in the mountains this way and to get through the waiting time for our new tyres, which aren’t even on the way, since we didn’t overcome Peru’s bureaucratic import obstacles yet.

At 1 p.m. our stomachs rumble from hard work in 3,400 m elevation, and I go with my pot into the kitchen. The cook is sceptical. “You want to eat???” she asks. What else shall I want in the kitchen? Tissues, shampoo, flea powder? “Yes, lunch for two, please.” She still doubts and lifts the pot’s lid: „But we only have this.“ She points at pasta mixed with whole potatoes. I don’t think I look like something better with my worker look: dirty jeans, muddy boots, and tousled hair. “That’s fine” I ensure her whereupon I receive a portion good for a family of four. The pasta-potato mix isn’t bad in terms of taste, and it even contains trace elements of onions, peas, carrots, meat, and substantial oil to be filling.

In the evening the kids can’t resist any more. The horde chose one of the older girls to be the speaker, and she asks politely if they may enter. I guess we can’t prevent that permanently, so yes. The children go into raptures over our cabin, and they have clear priorities: Where is the bed? Kitchen? Stove, clear, oven, whoa, and look, a refrigerator! That has to be investigated. A sink, and see, there comes even water. Bathroom? Here. Shower also? Whoa. And where are the clothes? The closet has to be checked. Where are the shoes? At the door. The kids are satisfied, although very curious and a bit invasive. Some of them are really bright, they think about things even adults usually don’t think of. “Do you have electricity? Where does the water come from? And where does the water of the shower go?” Respect, girls. One of the boys wants to know: “Do you have a TV as well?“ “No, we have books. For reading.” “Oh…”

Moray + Salinas, Peru – Inca terraces, salterns, and carnival

Februar 18th, 2012

Research institute, open-air laboratory or simply field? Some of the famous Inca terraces are located at Moray, but in a very certain shape. Perfect concentric circles (some not less perfect ellipses are also there) are arranged in a huge natural “bowl” like an amphitheatre. The individual terraces are propped up with walls and become smaller down in the bowl. To get from one level onto the other some larger protruding stones were mounted, which serve as a stairway. The terraces have irrigation respectively drainage as well.

My agricultural engineer contradicts the theory that this site was a research institute where the Inca tried to find out which fruit grows best in which elevation. The differences in elevation were too low to support this theory. But we have to admit that there is a special mild micro climate in the depressions. We agree more with the idea that wild plants were domesticated, hybrids cultivated, or plants from warmer climatic zones became acclimatized here. Or plants were grown here that otherwise wouldn’t thrive in this elevation. The circular terraces of Moray are accessible with the complete boleto turistico, the partial boleto for the Sacred Valley, or for 10 PEN single admission fee.

The so-called Salinas are reached from Moray via the village of Maras – all on good dirt roads. Thousands of salterns were constructed by the Inca on a slope to gain salt. A salty hot spring rises from a mountain, is diverted into shallow pools, and evaporates. The salt was originally used for animal licks, but today we can buy it packed in 350-g-bags for 2 Nuevo Soles – more expensive than in the supermarket, though natural. Admission to the Salinas is 5 PEN (S 13°18’14.9’’W 72°09’14.4’’). The carefully built pools with the narrow footbridges and the channels for the salt water belong to the most beautiful sights in the Sacred Valley.

On our way back to Cusco we have a short side trip to the village of Umaspampa close to Laguna Piuray. Usually here are weaving presentations and artisanal markets. But today the village’s population is busy with other matters: February is the month of carnival. A band plays percussion and wind instruments, accompanied by flautists. Two men in women’s clothing dance. They take off one skirt after the other, then the hat, and eventually they have to put back on everything. Their performance suffers slightly from increased alcohol consume – actually the main point of having such a party. In towns and cities people like to throw “bombs” onto inattentive passer-bys, balloons filled with water or flour. Gringos are preferred victims.

After finished round trip we return to the closed Quinta Lala camp ground where manager Milagros awaits us. After the recent rescue operation we have unhindered access to the site.

Ollantaytambo + Moray, Peru – Water journey

Februar 17th, 2012

Rio Urubamba, the river that accompanies us through the Sacred Valley, is alarmingly swollen. There is no continuous rain, still precipitation nearly every day. Ollantaytambo ruin (another boleto turistico site) is located on two hills with storehouses on one and terraces on the other side. I find the village more exciting, which is inhabited since 1300 AD and origins from the Inca: streets paved with river pebbles, drainage channels in the middle of the alleys or on the sides – it must have rained a lot as well at that time. The brickwork for the village’s common people – farmers, tradesmen, workers – was not as fine as for the higher ranks: some course rocks, filled with clay, thatched roofs on top, ready.

We continue to Moray, but like always we can’t take the normal road, trails through the mountains magically attract us – if we were already in the mountains. Four kilometres east of Ollantaytambo an orange coloured bridge crosses Rio Urubamba. Then keep to your left, cross the rails and turn immediately left again into a small dirt road, crossing the rails another time, so that the river is to your left and the rails to your right now. It doesn’t take long and we see why the train to the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins had to stop operating for a short time: The overcrowded river rushes downstream in its bed, controlled only by the banks. It nevertheless partially burst its banks respectively pushes the ground water up. The gravel road doesn’t exist any more, it turned into a river as well. The bottom of the track bed course is completely washed away. When will the next train to Machu Picchu start?

Initially we cross underwater sections of some dozens of metres with dry islands in-between. Then we reach a sport where we can’t make out any end of the river-road. For what do we have a Unimog, and Joerg drives off. It’s only nasty that one doesn’t know and can’t see in that red sludge how it looks under the surface. Only once we subside into a big pothole in the road until the water reaches our entrance steps at two feet; it doesn’t become worse. After several kilometres of our water journey we come upon a narrow suspension bridge, suitable for small vehicles, cross the rails again and yet we drive up a winding road high into the mountains, from 2,800 / 9,200 ft to 3,600 m / 11,800 ft. It starts to rain again and we are glad to leave the river area. Only that the actually good mountain trail becomes slippery now. Andes’ drivers know: The red stuff is worst, that’s like soft soap.

20 km past Ollantaytambo we reach Moray, another Inca attraction. We ask the guard if we can camp here over night – no problem. Inca site Moray: S 13°19’48.2’’ W 72°11’39.2’’, free of charge, no service, bathroom during opening hours.

Cusco + Pisac, Peru – The Unimog, the rescue vehicle

Februar 16th, 2012

The campground colony disperses. At least it tries, and the occurring difficulties are planned. The owners of the seven vehicles coordinate their departure time with one another, in other words they leave when Arminius leaves, and this is today. There are surprisingly many vehicles on the campground for low season, where there is land under water in the meanwhile. We get the Swiss Landrover out with sand boards and pushing as well as the Austrian motorhome that stands on almost firm ground. It works excellently with our six and two more glass fibre sand boards that we put on repetitively. Those are flat, light, easy to pack away, extremely flexible, indestructible, and they always jump back into their original horizontal shape. Unfortunately this system doesn’t work any more with the campers in the very back in soft mud. We’ll have to winch them out. But at first Arminius has to leave its place and reposition. Will we make our way through the swamp?

We reduce tyre pressure, the Unimog starts moving and nearly hovers over the wet meadow. We pull the two of the others from 50 m distance without completely ploughing up the campground. The manager is relived. The Mercedes bus with 4WD stands in a good position and manages alone with the sand boards. Only one more Landrover remains, but it’s situated on firm ground. Done! Not only the rescue operation, but we are done as well. To unroll the wire cable and coil it up over and over, and repetitively put the boards isn’t chickenfeed in 3,600 m elevation – thanks to our active helpers as well whom we meet for a group photo. After our departure the camp ground closes for the rainy season.

It is already lunchtime when we start our round trip through the Sacred Valley. We first pass the Sacsaywamán and the Q’enqo ruins. We can’t visit any of these finds without a boleto turistico (130 Nuevo soles per person, resp. 70 PEN for a partial boleto) which we think to be a kind of rip-off, but we can see the remaining Inca walls from outside as well (the Spaniards didn’t leave so much). In Yuncaypata village houses are decorated with animal-shaped stucco and ceramics cows on the thatched roofs. Pisac is one of the more interesting Inca sites, admission with boleto turistico only.

We need some relaxation, so we head to Club Royal Inka in Pisac town. This hotel has a huge park with different facilities where camping is allowed for 20 PEN pp. Use of the facilities is included to the price: Olympic-size 50 m indoor pool (closes at 4 p.m.), ponds, and sports / pick-nick / barbecue fields. The swimming pool is a pleasant change although lane swimming in 3,000 m / 10,000 ft is pretty respiration stimulating. Bathrooms and warm outside showers are far away from the campsites, and with a long cable you might get hold of electricity. The facility is a bit down-and-out the Latin-American way and doesn’t live up to its reputation any more but offers better camping than most of the other places in this country. Club Royal Inka, Pisac, S 13°25’21.6’’ W 71°50’29.6’’

Cusco, Peru – Take your money and go to Cusco

Februar 14th, 2012

On Cusco’s Plaza de Armas everybody only wants our very best: our money. Indígenas sell souvenirs, restaurants wave with their menus and somebody wants to give me a massage at each corner. Street traders offer umbrellas and rain ponchos. If you ever wanted to know your fate from coca leaves, here’s the place to do it. Each shoeshine boy in Cusco offers me today at least once to clean my muddy hiking boots. This doesn’t make sense when I have to wade later again to our camper through the inches deep mud on the campground. The impertinent beggars are most brazen since they want to have my money without any consideration, just because of the fact that I have more than they do. What’s actually correct, and they look like they really could need it.

The Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s central plaza, is a running the gauntlet for the soft-hearted, but a pulsating lively piece of history hundreds of years old. Here is the unavoidable cathedral, whose ornate interior can be visited for stiff 25 PEN per person (you can buy the boleto religioso for 50 PEN instead that opens the doors of most churches in town). I would have been interested, but I assume that the Catholic Church doesn’t need my money after robbing the Incas. La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is situated on the bordering plaza side and looks even more elaborate than the cathedral.

Arcades and even more churches adorn the Plaza de Armas, and there are more plazas with more churches and more arcades in town. People bustle about in-between, too many cars force their way through the alleys, and there are covered market in places. Cusco is a definitely beautiful and especially interesting city although it’s difficult to experience tourism in such a pureness anywhere else on this continent. Despite low season the number of visitors seems to exceed the number of inhabitants in some places.

Especially interesting are the old Inca walls that reach up metres high everywhere, mostly in the pedestrian alleys, until they are superseded by colonial stonework further up. Calle Hatunrumiyoc is a very good sample where a 12sided stone can be admired, which was perfectly fit into the surrounding blocks.

Cusco, Peru – Incas’ stonemason art without gaps

Februar 13th, 2012

700 plates of massive gold shall have covered the walls. The garden was filled with life-sized corn plants, llamas with herdsmen, babies, altars, a sun, trees and bushes, birds, snakes, and butterflies – all of them made from pure massive gold and silver, decorated with precious stones. Qorikancha with all its art treasures is said to have been the richest temple in the entire Inca Empire. Then the Spaniards arrived, robbed the treasures, melted them down and razed the walls to the ground as far as they could. They used the quarry to build church and convent Santo Domingo on the temple walls and plastered the rest discreetly. The temple sank into oblivion, and until 1950 Santo Domingo was a normal church and convent. Then a tremendous earthquake shook Cusco, and Santo Domingo collapsed. But some of the walls remained standing, and the humiliating realization goes: It was the Inca walls that weren’t torn down at the time.

Today Santo Domingo / Qorikancha is a museum, an odd combination of Inca architecture, colonial church, religious museum, art exhibit, and flower garden. The Inca walls were cleared of the rendering and can be admired in their entire perfection. The stone blocks are so perfectly worked that they could be assembled without any mortar. Not one sheet of paper can be pushed between them. All lines show lintel. Windows and doors narrow further up, even the walls themselves aspire to each other. Some of the blocks are exhibited to show the highly complicated dovetailing of the rocks. With annihilation of the Inca culture the knowledge about this earthquake-proof method of building was lost. During the earthquake of 1950 only one single stone in the remaining Inca walls moved for some millimetres.

Ten very rewarding Nuevo Soles per person brought us into this bizarre temple-church. It is not allowed to take photos of the exhibited oil paintings and the clerical robes. But who cares in the face of this stunning pre-Columbian stonemason art?

Cusco, Peru – The hub of the universe

Februar 12th, 2012

Sun god Inti looked to the earth and decided men need some organisation. He created the first Inca Manco Cápac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo on Isla de Sol in Lake Titicaca in the 12th century. Manco received a golden rod with the order to settle down and subjugate the people where he could sink it with one blow. This should be the world’s navel, qosq’o in Quechua. Manco found this place, founded the first Inca Empire and made the city we know as Cusco today its capital. (This is the legend, at least.) Herewith it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas, but proofs suggest it was inhabited long time before the Inca.

After Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro arrived in November 1533 he knocked down the town – built by the Inca in the shape of a puma – in infinite detrimental delusion and forever destroyed its celestial beauty. But he managed to carry out his plans only partially. The famous Inca’s method of building without gaps and with meshed blocks prevented complete demolishing. Still today many houses and even churches are constructed on Inca foundations. Gold and silver was melted down and taken to mother country.

Eventually the Spaniards turned their attention to the newly founded capital Lima, and Cusco disappeared from the radar of the world’s interest – until Machu Picchu was “re-discovered” in 1911 and Cusco was catapulted from the quiet one-horse town to the crucial point of Peruvian tourism.

Cusco, Peru – Camping in Cusco

Februar 9th, 2012

We heard it must be difficult to find the only campground in Cusco and were warned to follow the GPS. We don’t completely succeed in finding the way immediately, we still drive strangely, but a motorcycle policeman seems to await me. He offers to go ahead for a while. He can’t drive, he stumbles again and again, turns left where it’s not allowed, goes through red lights, and finally manages to lose us. Who cares, we ask around, and before we can get mislead by the GPS another time we find our friend again. He gestures that we just have to go straight now – well, nearly. To find camping Quinta Lala is another story. It is outside city centre close to the Sacsaywamán ruins, isn’t signposted, and the GPS wants to take a country lane. It is pitch-black since Cusco centre, so we don’t even find the nondescript wooden entrance gate. But yet helping hands point, helping mouths shout, a helping mother runs, and we stand on the crooked lawn.

The camp ground is rustic, but well organised. Four-page instructions in English inform not only about the camping prices (per night 10 PEN per person and vehicle = 30 PEN for us, electricity 3, internet 5), but the services as well: e.g. two organic eggs from the hens freely going around for 1 Sol, 1 large bottle of beer 6 (if available), one washing machine 5-6 kg 10 PEN aso. Where do I find the supermarket, the best restaurants, dark bread, or Dutch cheese? Where can I repair my overland truck or vehicles of certain brands, or fill my gas tank? Where do I find English speaking physicians? On which ways do I reach Machu Picchu? This and more is answered by the manual.

Quinta Lala campground is usually closed during rainy season, because the lawn is impassable then. This year it had rained much less than in other years, but 2WD mobiles plough the meadow anyway. Nobody in Cusco knows Quinta Lala. Ask for Sacsaywamán ruins and turn left before the ruins in a right-hand bend, following a sign Hotel Inca Tambo – just if your GPS goes crazy as well (S 13°30’20.8’’ W 71°59’06.3’’, 3.619 m).

Chauchilla + Pampa Galeras, Peru – Eerie rasta mummies

Februar 8th, 2012

There they are huddled in their holes, the few scraps, once noble cloths, tugged around them, the eyes hollow, the teeth bared, the matted braids must have extended to their knees. The mummies sit in their open graves in the archaeological graveyard of Chauchilla, also part of the Nasca culture. The place has been discovered by grave robbers who distributed human remains, clothes, quarry pottery, just everything they didn’t need in the desert. Archaeologists had to laboriously assemble everything again.

Now the spooky hirsute mummies are back to their today open graves built from bricks, together with not mummified skulls, bones, and bone bundles as well as few remaining burial objects. Some children are among them. The antique resting-places are shadowed by roofs as some of the parking lots are. A visit of Cementorio Arqueológico de Chauchilla gives you 5 PEN, time request about half an hour. Signed turnoff from Pan Am 25 km south of Nasca: S 14°58’55.5’’ W 74°59’31.8’’; parking lot after 7 km good trail: S 14°58’59.2’’ W 74°55’41.3’’; camping at the site or nearby should be possible.

Heading back to Nasca and east then we cross after 120 km on PE 26 the Reserva Nacionál Pampa Galeras, a natural reserve that most notably offers home to the endangered vicuñas. Here seems to live a healthy population, there are herds everywhere. It is the best place in Peru to watch these rare camelids.

Nasca, Peru – With the Cessna above the Geoglyphe

Februar 7th, 2012

The plane could do with some more horsepower. It accelerates infinitely slow, but suddenly, faster than expected we take off. The Cessna C 172 – the world’s most produced plane type – seems to stand in the air, so slow it flies, but that’s good for taking photos. At every figure the pilots move the wings once to the right and once to the left so that every passenger – in this case Joerg and I – can take pictures. That’s why we were told not to have breakfast before the flight, but our stomachs are resistant.

The Nasca scratched a monkey with ringed tail into the sand, a condor, a hummingbird, a dog, a spider, and a parrot. Other figures include a tree, hands, a flower, and a whale. A man with goldfish glass head is tended to be called an astronaut, others claim it’s a shaman with owl mask. Some of the Geoglyphe are well to see, others only on closer inspection. Even more questions than the figures prompt the surfaces and the numerous kilometres long lines that are at a tangent, cross, intersect, or come from a common midpoint in regular angles like rays. Why one would go to all that trouble?

The underground aqueducts of Cantallo, built by the Nasca and essential for the fields’ irrigation still today, can be visited by tourists now only from outside. The spiral-like entrances that are still used for cleaning the channels by locals can be seen from the air. When floating above the runway the pilots forget to advice us to fasten our seat belts again. Doesn’t matter, the landing is as soft as the starting was.

Ocucaje + Nasca, Peru – Presidential donations and the mystery of the Nasca Lines

Februar 6th, 2012

The president doesn’t appear, but the First Lady who conveniently is the Minister for Women at the same time, and the Production Minister. They show up at 11 a.m. But people are waiting, waiting for the donations to come in big black plastic bags at 12 a.m. The show is over soon.

20 km north of Nasca (or Nazca) where the mysterious lines are situated Maria Reiche erected a lookout tower (S 14°41’37.1’’ W 75°06’49.6’’). For two Nuevo Soles we can climb it and watch two of the figures, the tree and the hands, but we only get a sketchy impression from here.

1500 years ago a pre-Columbian folks that we call Nasca scratched over 800 straight lines, 300 geometrical figures (trapezoids, rectangles, and spirals) and around 70 plant-, animal- and manlike drawings into the sand of a 700 sq km / 270 sq mi desert landscape. Those figures up to 300 m / 330 yards long respectively kilometres long lines are called Geoglyphe. Most of the lines are only 20 cm wide and deep as a thumb, but that was enough to remove the darker surface sand, oxidized by humidity, and expose the lighter ground below. The figures are clearly discernible only from the air. Why the Nasca created ground drawings that they couldn’t see themselves and for which purpose is still unclear.

Despite some of the lines were known earlier German mathematician and geographer Maria Reiche (1903 – 1998) devoted her life to exploration of the mysterious drawings from 1946 on. She found calendrical usable lines, but her theories didn’t provide conclusive evidence. Besides some unconventional assessments like the lines are procession paths or even a space centre at least a partial truth seems to crystallize: The Geoglyphe are connected with worship of water, since some of the lines show the route of underground watercourses. Ironically we guess today that not the merciless aridity of the region (20 minutes rain per year in the average) made the Nasca culture fall, but flooding caused by climatic phenomenon El Niño. Still today water is Nasca’s enemy. The increasingly occurring rainfalls that go along with climatic change threaten to cover up the lines.

South of Nasca town on the opposite of the Maria Reiche Airport from where the circular flights start Hotel Maison Suisse offers camping in the courtyard. The tidy sum of 20 PEN per person becomes clear since this is the only option (Nido del Condor is closed). There are showers, bathrooms, water, Wi-Fil, and electricity if parking on one of two lots further down in the garden where it is quieter. We think the additional 20 PEN pp for swimming pool use are impudent, but manager and staff are very friendly and helpful (S 14°51’02.3’’ W 74°57’30.7’’). The free camping night with a flight booking isn’t available any more. Most inexpensive flight booking is directly at the airport (same price for all airlines): 30-minutes flight above 12 Nasca figures 95 US$; same tour in a private airplane (2 pilots / 2 passengers) 100 US$; 35-minute-flight with the same plane above 14 figures plus the aqueducts of Cantallo 110 $.

We decide for the latter with Aero Moche. All airplanes for four to six passengers dip their wings right and left to make every passenger see the figures, but the smaller planes can fly lower and are better for taking photos. The flight should be early in the morning because the lines are seen best with low sun. We book the first flight at 7 a.m. There is an additional fee of 25 PEN airport tax (cash only). The airlines take 10 % surcharge if paid with credit card.

Huayraccasa + Ocucaje (Ica), Peru – The world’s highest drivable pass?

Februar 5th, 2012

From 5,000 to 0 (m). Or from 16,400 to 0 (ft). It’s not recommended the other way round. To be exact we drive from 3.150 m / 10,335 ft to the 5.059 m /16,600 ft high Huayraccasa pass and back to the Pan Am close to sea level. If the Abra Huayraccasa is really 5.059 m /16,600 ft high and if it’s really the highest drivable pass in the world – opinions differ in this point. Faultless altitude determining is still a problem in our age. Altimeters have to be calibrated at a known point (e.g. sea level). The weather mustn’t change during the ascent, since analogue and digital altimeters are controlled by air pressure. Even most modern GPS devices don’t necessarily deliver exact readings. Depending on the amount of received satellites the elevation details can differ for several dozens of metres, even if precise coordinate fixing is possible with few satellites only. The pass is definitely more than 5,000 m /16,400 ft high, and in case it is the highest, we drive over just to be on the safe side to have made it.

We first follow the very narrow road glued to the mountain to Santa Inés, whose pavement just creates the feeling of being able to fall more civilized into the depth. At the pretty lakes Lago Orcochocha and Laguna Choclococha we head to Huancavélica (Peru’s poorest town), before a sign points right to Huachocolpa. From here on it becomes narrow, wet and muddy, but a semi-trailer driving ahead and another one oncoming a few hundred metres away tune us positive. The two trucks constantly approach, ignoring turn-outs, until they face each other – senseless, brainless. To express it carefully: Peruvian drivers aren’t the smartest. Foresight is a kind of unknown thing. On of the truckers is desperately shunting in the muddy ditch, nearly slipping, and miraculously makes his way out again afterwards.

The crew of the oncoming lorry gesticulates we shall turn round. After few kilometres we reach the summit where a mining company kindly put a sign (S 13°04’34.7’’ W 75°01’38.0’’). We didn’t shoot all our photos yet as the semi-truck that has been in front of us returns the opposite direction, shouting that the road is closed. Anyhow, we only wanted to get to the pass. We head back, but take from Santa Inés the eastern route via Pilpichaca (asphalt, wide) back to the main road Pisco-Ayacucho and then again to the Pan-Americana close to Pisco.

This route isn’t that spectacular as the way there, though entertaining. Like everywhere in the mountains we share the road with varied livestock herds with cows, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, and pigs. Some of them just stroll alone, sometimes a cattle drover stays on the other side of the road in a safe distance from his herd waiting for the car driver to resolve the difficulty.

In elevations between 5,000 m / 16,500 ft to 4,000 m / 13,000 ft camelids graze. Wild vicuñas nimbly zoom off, but the domesticated long-legged llamas and the stump-legged wool providing alpacas can run surprisingly fast if they purse their thick lips and stretch their head on this oddly long neck forward. They wear coloured bows on the ears as a tagging to whom they belong. In the same elevation Viscachas roar on rocky grounds looking for shelter in their burrows. The lively mammals belong to the Chinchilla family, can grow up to 40 cm / 16 in with a 20 cm / 8 in rolled up tail and are very cute. They look like marmots with a rabbit’s face and too long tail. Their soft fur is much sought-after.

Back to the Pan Am we pass the city of Ica (not too inviting). The oasis Huacachina nearly became a suburb of it. Surrounded by high sand dunes an underground river from the Andes surfaces and feeds a lake that nourishes a green palm tree oasis like in the Sahara. The culture shock isn’t a long time coming. Masses of people wend their way up the dunes, dune buggies with 20 seats rush with local and foreign tourists up and down the slopes, loud music booms from everywhere, and on the parking lot cars press panicking. We hardly found a space to turn round as we take flight.

The sun is setting and we hope to find the urgently needed overnight place in wine town Ocucaje, 30 Pan-American kilometres further south. Truck-stop-camping along the Pan Am is only for deaf persons. Ocucaje arouses a somewhat down-and-out impression. A policeman offers to stay the night in front of the police station. We decide to park behind the building where it is more levelled (S 14°20’46.3’’ W 75°40’16.9’’) and I let another policeman know. Nevertheless it knocks on our door only 15 minutes later, the Capitano himself. He asks us to follow him into his office with our passports and vehicle registration documents. There is no problem, he convinces us. We can camp there, and checks the documents just superficially. He doesn’t write down or copy anything. If we wanted to do any harm to the Peruvian president they probably wouldn’t remember us properly. The President is said to come tomorrow at 9 a.m. to Ocucaje to distribute donations. The village was stroke by several earthquakes, the last one six days ago. That explains the village’s bleak condition.

Islas Ballestas + Llacas, Peru – Poor man’s Galapagos

Februar 4th, 2012

Five million guano producing birds live here, sit enthroned on rocks and islands, the pebble beaches are occupied by not less stinky sea lions, and below the surface of water dolphins romp and billions of anchovies or at least as many as the fishing fleets of the fishmeal factories leave. Once there was way more birds, but the world’s fishmeal hunger to use the cheap animal product to fast and effectively raise herbivores is unbroken.

It is not permitted to enter the islands, they can only be visited with a boat trip. The speedboats get very close to the animals anyway. Among the feathered inhabitants are Peruvian pelican, Peruvian booby, Guanay cormorant, and Humboldt penguin. In the middle of the 19th century the Islas Ballestas, very close to Reserva Nacionál de Paracas, granted Peru considerable earnings. The birds’ muck rich in minerals was regarded as the world’s most precious fertilizer. Today guano is suppressed by artificial manure besides a small percentage.

The Ballestas Islands are jocularly called poor man’s Galapagos. We don’t know if they can really withstand a comparison with the Ecuadorian islands but they make for a rewarding trip. Tours start daily at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., the morning trip is better due to calm sea and clearer visibility. Make sure to book one day ahead, better directly in Paracas than in Pisco. The speedboat trips are recommended, take two hours, and range between 30 and 50 PEN per person. First stop is the candelabra Geoglyphe on the north side of Paracas peninsula. A 170 m high, 45 m wide and 50 cm deep figure was carved into the sand. It was discovered only in 1902, origin and originator are unknown. It reminds of three-armed candelabra, other theories talk about a cactus or a navigational aid for sailors. Then an hour is spent around the islands before the launch heads back.

Another road trip into the Peruvian mountains brings us back to Pisco and then east into the Andes. The Inca ruin Tambo Colorado seems less interesting. We take a paved side road to Santa Inés. To avoid altitude sickness we park on the sports field of the hamlet Lllactas at 3,150 m: S 13°23’19.9’’ W 75°21’57.0’’.

Pisco + Paracas, Peru – About Pisco and desert parks

Februar 3rd, 2012

The wine is terribly sweet, really undrinkable, the Piscos though not bad and pretty reasonable for 20 to 40 PEN per bottle. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, and we are having a wine and Pisco tasting with Viño Los Reyes in Lunahuaná (km 41,5, S 12°56’47.0’’ W 76°08’07.8’’, camping not possible), one of the larger and better-known wine-makers in the area. Yesterday evening it was already closed. The wine cellar seems a bit more rustic than its North American counterparts, but not unprofessional. The tasting is complimentary, and so we drive two bottles of Pisco, a tiny bit of alcohol level, and a good portion of good mood richer back to the Pan Americana and then south.

A bit further we pass Pisco, famous name giving schnapps town where nobody voluntarily spends a night. Shady dubious figures stagger between gloomy market and dirty fishmeal factories around, the atmosphere of the nastiest port is prevalent although Pisco is no more than a harbour village. There are more friendly places on earth like Reserva Nacional de Paracas. For 5 Nuevo Soles admission we can tear up the desert landscape to our heart’s content, visit beaches, and even camp for free. The park’s beaches had and have safety problems at night due to Pisco’s proximity. The administration advises against camping alone because of violent robberies in the past. This danger doesn’t exist on weekends on the popular beaches La Mina and Yumaque: complete tent cities grew here in the manner of corrals. We prefer to follow the advice of the rangers to park beside their station at Playa Roja. Not so much on account of safety but silence. Here we are the only ones, far away from the party seeking folks from Lima: S 13°53’32.1’’ W 76°18’26.4’’.