Peru – Puno to Mancora

So, having hiked for days, and unwound in Cusco with a soccer match and some miscellaneous clubbing at Mama Africa (the old Inca capitol seemed an odd place for a shout to the motherland, however there were just a lot of drunken tourists and drug dealers, as well as a slight bit of reggae, but more techno, and definitely nothing distinctively African except for the color scheme: red, green, black and yellow), Marisa and I headed down to Puno, which is on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. The bus ride down was a first for both of us in Peru, and although we were not surprised that people got on selling shit (as I mentioned before, Peru without people selling kitsch would be like swiss cheese without the holes in it: highly unexpected, but not necessarily unwelcome), we were somewhat annoyed and shocked by the extent of it. The first vendor was apparently also working for the bus company, and after he dealt with our luggage, he started screaming a well rehearsed speech, most of which I missed, about his sales efforts. Sounded very polite, though. Despite the fact that it was top volume. Literally, at first I thought he was announcing an immediate evacuation due to rapidly progressing explosions, but it turned out that he was instead selling small candies, out of a bag that looked like it had been his seat cushion for years. Women also got on selling bread, drinks, choclo (corn), and premade sandwiches (not delicious). But the kicker was a woman who got on in half Andean dress with a woven duffel bag lined in plastic and paper, big enough to hold a decent sized child of 14, that was steaming. And smelled like meat. Because it was meat. Lots of meat. She opened the bag up on the bus, laid her entire Alpaca over the makeshift serving tray at the top of the stairs, and went to town on it with a butcher’s cleaver. Apparently it is sometimes hard to cut through alpaca (possibly the bones?), because not only could you hear this knife singing as it sliced the air, but each cut came with a massive, dull thud. And sometimes the sound of bone breaking. This alpaca meat was served in a plastic bag, with a baked potato. Almost everyone on the bus (Peruvians) partook, but I was not feeling that well, and it turns out that I do not really enjoy alpaca. It tastes somewhat like mutton (sheep), which is not my favorite meat. On later buses we would also be offered a whole mess of trout (we could not tell whether it was cooked or not), and gigantic wheels of cheese, starting the size of an old vinyl record and growing. But the alpaca lady took the cake. She was amused that I took a picture of her, but how could I not?

In Puno, we booked a trip to some floating islands made of reeds, and a local indigenous population that still lived more or less as they had for “centuries”. Both of these tradition-carrying-on throwbacks seem to make their living through selling shit to tourists (in Peru? No!). Which they pointed out kept them off the streets, where they would be begging or selling drugs, I assume, though he all but said it. These locally made handicraft did appear to be exactly the same as the crap they tried to overcharge me for in Cusco, and at the market in Lima, and everywhere in between, before and after, but I am sure that they made it themselves. I should also point out that I had come down with Peruvian Plague at the time, and was not at all happy to be in boats or on islands, floating or otherwise, with people trying to sell me shit. So, I may have been missing the beauty of the situation somewhat, due to nausea. Anyway, the floating islands were just that: islands that floated. The reeds’ roots float, so if you strap a bunch of them together, and lay more reeds on top of them, you have a floating island. They did say that in their reed boats they now put empty and sealed plastic bottles for buoyancy, but swore that they did not for the islands. I didn’t press the issue. But, these islands were how they kept away from invading hordes or some sort (everyone has had their own invading horde, it seems) during some point in history, and kept their local culture. Although they did not speak their native language anymore, but a similar one instead. And they wove blankets. Titicaca means grey puma, in case you were wondering, and not, as our tour guide mentioned that tour guides said on the Bolivian side, the English equivalents, “titi for the bolivian side, caca for the peruvian“. I didn’t see the bolivian side, nor a grey puma, but I did spend a lot of time in bed. The three days there were mostly spent recuperating for me other than that tour, and by the end, I at least was starting to feel better, so we moved on.
Arequipa, where we bussed to next, is the second biggest city in Peru, and had a certain cosmopolitan air to it. Granted, this is all relative, but Marisa noticed that the women were slightly more fashionably dressed, and I was pleased that there was slightly less flute music. As an aside, I am sure that the indigenous tradition of flute music was something that was really special at some point, especially when there were limited options for live music. I love live music, and nothing beats witnessing someone play something well. That said, if I ever see someone whip out one of those flutes again (not even a flute really, like the two rows of bamboo pipes), I will destroy him, to some degree, depending on the weaponry around, and make the flute playing stop. Forcefully. For the love of God, when I am sitting somewhere eating, and you come into the restaurant and play 5 minutes of “music” my first reaction is that I am grateful that it was so short. Do not ask me for a tip for the entertainment. I would have been happier had there been no music at all. All I can think of is how nicely that flute would look broken into its component parts and on fire. As I danced and sang. Would you tip me for that? And I should mention that Marisa was not as bothered by the fluting as I was, but when I start to hear a CD playing in a store that has the guitar intro of GnR’s Sweet Child of Mine, or something by ACDC or Metallica, the last thing I am hoping for is someone playing a flute instead of the vocals. And when it is a Celine Dion song, I am just conflicted. I hate it, but at the same time I am grateful that it is not Celine Dion. And that just confuses me. Happy/Sad, Grateful/Enraged, Relieved/Blisteringly-Angry-and-Suicidal. Don’t ever do that again. Ever. So, Arequipa has good food, a nice Plaza Mayor, flutes, people selling kitsch, and close proximity to some outdoor activities. Instead of the mountain, we went with the canyon, Colca, once thought to be the deepest on earth from top to bottom, but possibly not thought so anymore. The guide was less than clear on that. But we spent the whole first day hiking down. Which always makes me worried about the up that is coming later. But we saw some different kinds of fruit, one of which, called “Tuna”, is actually the fruit from a cactus. Delicious. We spent the night down there, where we met some interesting people, two of whom it turns out knew each other biblically and were dating since the time that young miss was young sir’s English teacher. I called that one, too, and knew that was how they knew each other, and beat myself up for about an hour for not guessing it out loud. Anyway, there was a swimming pool at the bottom of the canyon, and then a hell of a climb up. At one point, Marisa told me in all seriousness that she was not going to make it all the way up, and that I should just leave here there, and not to worry. But I had heard that one before, and was not buying it. The hike ended up being about 2 hours of straight up that afternoon, mostly up steps and rocks, which tend to make you more sore than going up a hill, but we made it, thanks to snickers bars and twix. (As an aside, I had never before appreciated the deliciousness of snickers, but I now do. For a hike, there is nothing better.) At the top, we saw condors flying around, which are somewhat hard to take a good picture of, since they won’t hold still, and don’t get very close. Busy eating carrion, or some such deceased animal. And soaring. Lots of soaring. The hiking was good, but we were getting shorter on time, and still had not been to a beach, so we decided to bust out of there with a quickness. Liked the town, though. Oh, and we spent some time at a nunnery. I tried to get Marisa to join, but she was not having it. Maybe I need to sell it better.

A few hours North of Arequipa is the town of Ica, and off of it is an oasis called Huacachina, which is a favorite among backpacker types. Basically, it is a lagoon the size of a football field with buildings around it on three sides. That is it. Surrounding these buildings are massive sand dunes. Now, while the sand dunes themselves are fully entertaining, I have absolutely no idea how all of these people I have met managed to spend weeks there. There is one cafe/restaurant that gives out weed instead of after dinner mints (not joking), and that is something that people seem to talk about all around Peru, but come on. That is not good for weeks of entertainment. It is sunny, warm, and pretty, but oh so small. We took a ride on some dunes in a buggy, which is somewhat nerve racking (they like to drive straight up them, then straight down, as fast as they can) mostly due to not really having fully functional seat belts, but you had to get to the top of the dunes somehow. Because then we strapped into some sand boards (somewhat like a snowboard, but smaller and made of wood, though I hear the nicer ones are more like snowboards) and rode them down. It turns out to be somewhat hard to do standing up, and you can’t really go so fast on these wooden boards, so instead, we rode them down on our stomachs, which meant some serious, serious speed. Much more fun that way.

From Huacachina, we took a madrugada (pre-dawn) bus to Pisco, where we were set to spend a day visiting the “poor man’s galapagos” and the Reserva Nacional there. We were not allowed to get off the boat on any of the islands, much to my dismay, and got thoroughly soaked looking at some birds from far away, a couple of sea lions, and a whole lot of guano (that would be bird shit). Apparently, the guano is so concentrated and fertile that they send groups of men out to mine it for agricultural purposes every year or so. Smells fantastic! One of the birds in particular is said to be particularly good at producing guano. Luckily, none was produced into the boat. Although the birds were cool, and I always like sea lions, the telephoto on my camera was not sufficient to get any good animal shots. But there is a huge candelabra carved into stone on the side of one of the islands that they say has been there for centuries (how? why? there are many myths, involving sailors and the claim that it points due north, but none have been substantiated by me), but the Reserva was far more interesting. Mostly because it was pretty. And I could take pictures. The desert meets the sea, and the colors are nice. Apparently once it was a jungle, but that all dried up long ago, and now it is protected habitat of some more animals, none of which we saw.
So after almost a month without any good sun or beach time, we decided that to wrap up the trip in Peru we would go to a surfer beach a little south of Lima on the way back, which was called Punta Hermosa. Getting there proved to be slightly inconvenient, as what we actually needed to do was board a bus for Lima, and ask them to drop us off when they passed through Punta Hermosa. We did this, and asked them, but somewhere along the line they forgot to tell us to get off. About 10 minutes too late, I walked up to the driver, and inquired if PH were getting close, which received the reply: “Oh, is that where you wanted to go? We passed it.” So, they stopped on the freeway, and let out a girl who had happily been selling chips and sodas on the bus to walk us across the somewhat busy freeway to board a bus in the opposite direction. So, after dodging traffic, and hauling onto the next bus going back to where we came from, we kept asking every five minutes if we were there yet. And, eventually, we were. There, of course, was the side of the freeway, with a sign that announced that PH was about 5 kilometers toward the coast from there. So, we hiked out through some shady abandoned lots and dark territory and finally made our way into “town” which was mostly deserted. But we were finally there, the beach! Unfortunately, though the hostel was great and run by a former world champion surfer as well as full of friendly Brazilians, there was not so much sun in Punta Hermosa. Nor was it hot. The beach season in Peru had long since passed, and we were told to find a hot beach, we would have to take a bus 18 hours North of Lima to Mancora. So, with three days left before Marisa had to go home and leave me on my own again, we made the most of the beach, Marisa managed to get sunburnt through the fog, and we returned to Lima. Marisa had to return to San Francisco, and the real world, while I still had two more countries to see, and a tan to get. It was sad saying goodbye, but my trip was more than half over, so it would not be long until I was home again, too.

Back in Lima on my own, I encountered something of a money issue, as in I had some, but did not have access to it. So, I quickly got a job bartending at the hostel where I was staying, which got room and board taken care of (when they hadn’t sold all of the dinner they made to guests. bastards), but left me with a lot of time and not much to do. I had planned on staying in Lima not at all, just heading up to Mancora, then into Ecuador, but it ended up taking three weeks to get access to my funds again, but which time I had learned a few things. First, nobody drinks like kids in hostels who can charge their hooch to the room tab. Hoo-boy, those kids got ripped. Nightly. Second, there was more to Lima than I had previously thought. I got to visit the Plaza Mayor twice, and see some catacombs in a cathedral off of it. Apparently, the archaeologists who were responsible for cataloguing all the bones they found inside (if you were rich back in the day, you paid for your burial to be inside a church, that much closer to God) decided that it would be good for visitors afterward if they rearranged the bones in geometrical formations, so upon entering you would look into an old well pit, and see a ring of skulls, surrounded by a spiral of femurs, with radii and ulnae zigzagging across the border. The effect was disconcerting, to say the least. I got to go back to my favorite crepe place a few more times, where I always attempted to discuss philosophy and psychology in Spanish with the waiter there (his day job was as a university professor), including trying to wrap my head around his claim that there was a halfway point between everything, including being and not being, and at this point, you would find the truth. I thought I had some examples of things where this was not the case. He disagreed. And I found these eateries around the corner where for 5 soles (or about $1.60) you could have Lomo Saltado, my new favorite dish, which was steak stir fry, more or less. Third, I got to meet and run into many, many people. I ran into people I had met everywhere else I had been in Peru, as well as some English girls I met in Manaus, in the middle of the jungle in Brazil, and Chris, an Englishman I met the second night of my trip in Buenos Aires. Loki Lima is one of those hostels where everyone seems to pass through who is going up or down in South America. Good location, nice place, lots of space. I met so many cool people that I couldn’t possibly start to name them, and the other kids I worked with were dope as well. And I got to be in a place with a sports bar nearby that played the Warriors playoff games while they lasted (damn are they fun when they are winning!), so all in all, despite being stuck, I had a great time. But as soon as the plata was sorted, I was out. To the beach.

Mancora is a tiny surf town with one road, the Panamerican Highway, going through town. I stayed, for $5, on the beach, in a room by myself, with cable tv. It was low season there, so the place was somewhat empty, but that was fine by me. There were amazing places to eat, it was sunny almost every day, and there were few enough people in town that you met everyone. Locals, other backpackers, everyone. It is the only place in all of Peru that is warm pretty much all year round, and I spent pretty much every day on the beach, reading, and listening to my ipod. I started this quest to listen to every song on my nano (there are 901), and got to about 500 and change before it mysteriously restarted. So, I am doing it again, and have gotten to 840 this time. While I am sure I will feel some sense of accomplishment, the level of said feeling may not turn out to match the amount of frustration and blinding rage I have been feeling at not being able to listen to whatever I want to without starting the shuffle over. Want some Arcade Fire? Can’t have it. How about the Ramones? Better just wait and hope. Anyway, I finally got a tan, and enough taste of beach to remember how much I love doing nothing in the sun and surf all day long. Can’t beat it. This is probably why I head to beaches even when I hear that they are not that sweet. So, I stayed there a week. It was amazing, and a perfect way to wrap up a country. Peru had been great, and though it trended a little on the touristy side (without any of the expected amenities, such as easy travel), two months there was unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable. It is the one country I have been to on this trip so far where I felt like I didn’t skip anything I really wanted to see. So, the times were good, but after a week in the sun, I was ready for a new place, and a new currency. If only I could get across the border…

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