Tag Archives: Peru

In search of the world’s largest bird

When you think of birds, what usually comes to mind?  For me, it’s cute little feathered things like hummingbirds, cardinals, or wrens.  Rarely do I think of owls as birds although I guess technically they are.  Then there are large birds like eagles and vultures, but I rarely see them.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

When I heard that the world’s largest bird was in Colca Canyon, I made it my mission to not only see it, but also find out all I could about this magnificent bird.

It’s often hit or miss to see these birds, but there is a stop on most tours to the Colca Canyon at the Cruz del Condor.  It’s often the best place to get a glimpse of the bird in flight.

Fast facts about the Condor

  • The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet.
  • It can live to to be 70 years old, but the average lifespan in the wild is about 50 years.
  • The bird can weigh up to 30 pounds and is nearly 4 feet tall!
  • Due to its size, it prefers an environment where loft can assist its flight. Under the right conditions, the bird can fly to a height of 18,000 feet.
  • Both parents care for the babies and baby condors stay with their parents for 2 years.
  • They reach adulthood around 7 years old.
  • The condor mates every other year and only lays one egg at a time.
  • The condor eats carrion and eggs; it is not a threat to any type of wildlife.
  • Condors are currently on the endangered species list due to over-hunting.
  • The condors, are more specifically, the Andean Condor, is the national symbol of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

and my favorite fact about these massive birds…

  • Condors mate for life.

In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

Wandering around Lake Titicaca

I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times.  Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner.  What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions

After a spontaneous 100 km trek to  Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia.  On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet.  Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno. 

Look at that amazingly blue water

Puno,  a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.

Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course,  visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively  inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.

The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.

The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia.  He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.

How the Floating Islands are made Lake Titicaca Puno

The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork.  Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.

After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house.  In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…

The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner.  I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted.  I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it.  Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.

Reed boat construction is rather fascinating.  The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.  But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles.  Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in  Peru.



Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.

 

Finally getting to Machu Picchu

I arrived in Peru at the tail end of February 2010 in preparation for my awesome Machu Picchu trek leaving the first of March.  That didn’t happen.  I was a little bummed about not getting to see Machu Picchu, but in true adventurous spirit said to myself “I’ll be in South America for a while… we’ll see what happens.”  I explored Cusco and Arequipa.  I went on a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca.  And went sand-boarding on the dunes in Huacachina.  I flew over the Nasca lines and marveled at the shapes.  And then I put Peru out of my mind.  I started on my first volunteer project in Cartegna and promptly put my missed opportunity at hiking the Inca Trail out of my mind.

But when meeting other travelers the conversation always seems to go somethitng like this:

Random Traveler:  How long have you been traveling for?  Where have you been?

Upon hearing that I have already been to Peru but did not get to see Machu Picchu, it inevitably goes like this:

Random Traveler:  Dude!  You have GOT to go to Machu Picchu.  It’s EPIC.  Your trip will be nothing if you don’t get to Machu Picchu.

At this point I don’t even bother trying to explain that a natural disaster occurred not long before I was to hike Machu Picchu and that I am grateful that said natural disaster did not occur while I was hiking Machu Picchu.

More time passed and I helped build eco-friendly hiking trails and count howler monkeys in the dry forest [which is a total misnomer since it’s soaking wet 6 months out of the year]. I catalogued orchids in a cloud forest.  I tagged turtles on the Galapagos Islands.  I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador. I caught malaria in the Amazon Rainforest.  I volunteered in a health clinic and taught classes on respiratory infections, influenza, and tuberculosis. I chilled out and took surfing lessons on the coast.  I went hiking in Keulap and Chachapoyas.  I met up with friends in Cajamarca.  I rented an apartment and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with and for travelers.

Kuelap view
Kuelap view

And then my roommate asked me this question. In Novemeber.

 “Someone just cancelled in my tour group to hike Machu Picchu.  Do you want to take their place? It’s the first week of December.”

Did I?  After all, 8 months earlier I came to Peru a month earlier than my first volunteer assignment required for the sole purpose of hiking Machu Picchu.  But was that still a goal?  At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, Machu Picchu was becoming just another box to tick… just a way to impress my fellow travelers. I wasn’t helping anyone by climbing it. I wasn’t learning Inca culture and this wouldn’t be a culmination of assimilating all that knowledge. I had done so much more than I had originally intended to do, and I still had a half of a continent to explore.

“Oh and this isn’t the standard 4day/3night trek This is a 9day/8night 100km hike”

holyfuckingshit…. that’s a long ass hike I thought. And my roommate… she used to climb mountains. For fun.  And for fun I like to sleep. And then before I realized the words were out of my mouth “I’m in,” and I had a paltry 6 weeks to get my ass into shape. There was no turning back after that.  My previous longest hike was a measly 2 day 16 miler in Chachapoyas.

Kuelap 1

Did I go?  Oh hell yeah.  Was it amazing?  Incredibly so.  Was it the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my life?  Without a doubt.  Was it worth it? 

inca trail 3

machu_picchu_07

peru
Abso-fucking-lutely.

Machu Picchu fail of epic portions

So perhaps you all are waiting to hear about how cool Machu Picchu is. Well, I hear it’s pretty awesome. I mean a lot of people have told me how awesome it is.   How spiritual it is.  How life-changing it is.  I wish I could say the same.  I wish I could say Machu Picchu fucking awesome.  But alas, I cannot.  At least not today. My first attempt to hike Machu Picchu in March 2010 and experience the amazing-ness that is  Machu Picchu was a big-time epic failure. [spoiler alert: I finally did make it to Machu Picchu]

peru

Machu Picchu, alpacas, hiking, amazing scenery, volcanoes… This is what I had in mind when I booked my flight to Peru and arranged my trek to Machu Picchu. What a perfect way to celebrate turning 30. The universe; however, had other plans. In January, there was a massive mudslide related to heavy rains in the area. The mudslides knocked out the train tracks and washed out some of the roads to the area. But this was January… surely everything would be fixed by end of February/first of March, I reasoned. But it was not to be. In typical Latin-American fashion, it took the government well over two months to restore the tracks and roads. Machu Picchu is by far one of the biggest sources of tourist revenue for the country. Around 2500 tourists per day visit Machu Picchu so you’d think opening the tracks would have been a bigger priority.

cuszo walkabout 2

But no, it was still closed when I arrived in Cuzco, and my dreams of hiking Maccu Picchu dashed. I kept hearing different reports of when they would reopen, but turns out the roads/tracks re-opened in April… far later than I would have liked. The upside was that there were almost no tourists in Cuzco, and I had the city basically to myself, which was awesome! It was also a lot cheaper too. So yay for saving money.

cuszo walkabout 3

So what do you do when your dreams of exploring Machu Picchu on your birthday are dashed? Drop back and punt, so to speak. Enter Cusco. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat; there’s more to the sacred valley than just Machu Picchu.

cuzco walkabout 4

Cusco is an incredibly historic city. Back in the day, it was the capital of the Incan Empire, and is home to some pretty impressive Incan ruins other than Machu Picchu. It also has some impressive Spanish colonial architecture.

cusco walkabout 6

cusco walkabout 5

But there are some really cool sites around Cusco that I don’t think get the attention they deserve.  First up Písaq. The Spanish built the present-day town of Pisac along the Urubamba River half a century after the conquest, but the surviving terraces of its predecessor, Inca Pisaq, are still draped across the mountains above less than three miles drive away.

The signature terraces – stacked 40 high –  are visible throughout much of the switch-backed drive from the market.  Their design takes advantage of mountain runoff by channeling it through the fields on its way to the river below. The terraces also served to prevent erosion and landslides, and contained rich soil hauled from the valley below that enabled Inca farmers to produce crops otherwise unsustainable at these altitudes. The buildings are scattered across nearly two square miles of the slope, and include fortifications, aqueducts, granaries, homes, and ceremonial spaces.

Pisaq 1

The ramparts of the Q’allaqasa – the citadel – contain 20 towers that overlook the site from a perch on the ridge above the terraces.

What appear to be the mouths of small caves in a nearly inaccessible hillside across a ravine from the settlement are actually the face of an Inca cemetery not yet fully excavated by archaeologists. pisaq-ruins 3
Incredibly enough, skeletons are still visible in some of the open-air crypts.

Next up, Ollantaytambo.  In my opinion, Ollantaytambo is where Inca ruins come to life. The town is much bigger and better preserved than Písaq.  Several Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants. Ollantaytambo boasts some spectacular scenery, as well as agricultural terraces, well preserved Inca walls, as well as a partially constructed sun temple at the top. Built by the emperor Pachacuti, and a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, it was eventually conquered by the Spanish. Ollantaytambo fell into to decline and ruin, although native Inca continued to live there and was rediscovered by European explorers in the 19th century.

Ollantaytambo,_Peru

Ollantaytambo_2

So my amazing Machu Picchu trek where I hike for miles and commune with nature and have a spiritual experience was a bust, but it wasn’t a totally wasted trip to Peru. I did get to learn a lot about Inca history and it was the perfect jumping off place for my 16 month trip around South America.

Naughty Nuns of Santa Catalina

It’s no secret that I’m a history nerd. Throughout school, history was always my first choice of electives.  Need a religion credit– Catholic History and the secret lives of Monks and Nuns was a much better choice than Old Testament 101. My favorite time period depends on my mood and sometimes my location.  I have written a thesis about the Mayans of Mexico, a lengthy paper about the Witches of Salem, and traced Spanish explorers around the world.   My interest in English history began while exploring/ living in England and German/Prussian/Austria-Hungarian history while hanging out in those countries.  I was a kid and somewhat remember the Yugoslavian conflict and was fascinated while walking around Belgrade/Zagreb, Serbia, and Montenegro.  Italy is a history nerd’s dream, and Greek military history is fascinating [and a perfectly good reason to visit Greece]. My year long plus jaunt around South American had me dabbling in history of its countries, and there is much more to the continent than Incas, narco-terrorists, and dictators.  Enter Peru and its colonial history.

Arequipa is a #historynerd’s dream and is a great place for anyone who loves history.  If you don’t love history, but like pretty buildings, it’s good for that too. And if you’re overloaded on all things Machu Picchu, come to Arequipa; it’s like the Incas never existed. I went without any fixed plans and was content to wander and enjoy its colonial structures.  Arequipa might be my favorite Peruvian city. Lima, the capital, is rough, gritty, and crowded. Arequipa is more refined. Cajamarca, in the north, has interesting history as well, but overall  Arequipa, having better infrastructure, is just a bit better suited to travelers; it’s quieter, cleaner and moves to a slower pace.  It is just my style.

I always thought that had I been born in a different time and place I would have been a nun. Not necessarily because I’m a devout Catholic or would honor vows of purity, chastity, or poverty, but because nuns were the original bad-asses.  In societies where marriage was a means to an end, nuns spat in the face of that. And they were bad-asses in the health care arena too.  Yep, had I been born in the 1500’s, a nun was a much better deal than serf or some lord’s wench.

It’s with that mindset that Santa Catalina was high on my list of places to visit on my stop in Arequipa. Built in 1579, the monastery is a huge mini city within the city that was founded by the Dominican Second Order nun, Maria de Guzman. The Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena was initially meant for rich upper-class women from Spanish families [I would have had to settle for a bit more spartan monastery] and each family would have to pay a dowry upon their daughter entering the monastery. Some dowries were as expensive as 2,500 silver coins which would be the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency.  For their dowry, each nun got up to 4 slaves to do their daily chores but were also required to bring things like paintings, intricate tapestries, clothes, and other things would make the environment quite luxurious.  Nothing like the message “God is #1, but luxury is a close second.”  Maybe they didn’t get the memo that avarice was one of the seven deadly sins.

But gluttony and lust were equal pursuits

It was also pretty common for the nuns to throw extravagant parties in their quarters and rumor has it there are tunnels that connect to a local church so Mother Mary wasn’t the only invited guest.  On even more scandalous note, there are stories of pregnant nuns and monk baby daddies were fueled by the allegation that a baby’s skeleton was found encased within the monastery walls. [The Catholic Church denies the claims.]

The Santa Catalina Rave raved right on for nearly 300 years until 1871 when Pope Pius IX sent a strict nun [read: not part of the cool kids] to shut down the party at the Santa Catalina social club. Uncool nun also freed all the servants and slaves [OK, that part was cool] and sent all of the coins, paintings, tapestries, ect back to the Catholic Church in Spain in order to  reform the monastery.

The monastery is constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone quarried locally and painted blue and orange within. The convent is considered the most important and impressive colonial structure in the city. Since Peru is known for its earthquakes, these continual earthquakes and tremors have forced changes in the structure of the monastery and thus is has some singular architectural characteristics.

In the 1960s, the monastery suffered significant structural damage due to two earthquakes that struck Arequipa. The 20 remaining nuns voted to open the monastery up to the public as a tourist attraction; it was opened to the public on August 15, 1970–a mere 430 years after the city of Arequipa’s founding. The nuns used the funds to pay for restoration costs, install electricity, and install running water.

These days #historynerds like me can freely roam around the beautiful grounds and learn about the naughty nuns that loved to have a good time. And for the navigationally challenged– there’s an interesting twist.   From the instant you walk in – you can only make left turns. I spent 5 hours wandering the monastery only making left turns.  It’s impossible to get lost, and for someone like me, who likes to wander and not pay attention to which direction I came from, it’s a godsend.