On: Camelids

Kyle feeding a pushy llama.

Work is keeping me busy, busy, but luckily we have just a week and a half left at Brittany and it’s off to explore more of this beautiful country! Plans are forming for some incredible destinations and experiences before I head back to LA, and I can’t wait! In the meantime, we have been checking out various sights in Arequipa on the weekends, and last weekend we went to a place called Incalpaca.

Nothing exciting in terms of the touristy, over-priced Alpaca goods store, but I wanted to go for the chance to see the four types of camelids of Peru they keep in the back: llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.

Llamas are the most well-known outside Peru, but alpacas are also really common here. They are the furriest of the camelids, so most of the knit goods are actually made from alpaca wool (which is SOOOO soft!!).

A white alpaca.

This white alpaca was posing majestically with a brown and white llama behind him and a black alpaca in front. None of these guys were labeled or anything, so I could have this not quite right, but the hair kind of gives them away to me.

 

Pretty little vicuña.

The vicuña is the most graceful and deer-like of the camelids (who all definitely have camel faces). This one was hanging out in a pen all by itself being shy, but it came out for a photo op after a little bit. The vicuña are endangered in Peru, and are not nearly as common as llamas and alpacas. They can still be found in the wild in various national parks, like Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve which is just outside Arequipa.

Solitary Guanaco.

The forth type of camelid in Peru is called a guanaco, and they are all but non-existent in Peru these days. I can’t say it’s true for all guanacos since this is the only one I’ll probably ever see, but this one was quite grumpy. He kept yelling at us and wanted nothing to do with the grass we were trying to feed him. I managed to capture his yells on tape:

As Kyle aptly put it, it’s kind of like a whinny from a horse crossed with something from Jurassic Park.

An alpaca version of Baby James.

This particular alpaca happens to have hair and ears that are quite similar to our Scotty-dog back home, who is named James (but is still called Baby James, even though he is four now). This alpaca was reserved around strangers but was eventually won over through our offerings of food, just like Baby James.

So there you have it, folks! All four types of Peruvian camelids, all living in the backyard of some store in suburban Arequipa.

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On: Plaza de Yanahuara

View of El Misti.

The Plaza is always a happenin’ place to be. During the day, it is crowded with families and tourists. At night, the Plaza is filled with couples looking out over the city lights and middle-aged people sitting on benches and sharing a flask. On weekends, it’s home to concerts of all types. The Plaza is also one of the favorite locations in the city for weddings, which usually happen two or even three at a time.

Rental car waiting for the wedding couple.

Old cars like these are hired by wedding couples from all over the city. They wait outside the church for the couple, and then drive off with “Just Married” written in English on the back. The couples are also served champagne by the driver, who pours it for them while he is driving. Service.

Church of Yanahuara.

The church of Yanahuara, found on the southern side of the Plaza, is a favorite with tourists and locals alike.

The Plaza at night.

Part of the setup for a three-day long concert in the Plaza one weekend. It is just as pretty at night as during the day, although lately the lights have taken to flicking off and on at regular intervals of about four seconds. I know it’s just typical Peruvian engineering, but I like to pretend they’re setting up for Halloween by making it creepy. It’s been that way for nearly a week now, and who knows when they will get around to fixing it, but it’s just part of Peru’s charm.

I spotted this little moment on the way to work one day, where I stumbled across a band filming their music video in the Plaza. Unfortunately, the video doesn’t give much idea of their music, but the dance moves are pretty sweet. You never know what you’ll see around here.

On: My Walk to Work

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View to the south on Calle Misti.

I walk to work twice a day, five days a week. I have a class that I teach in the morning, and then I have to come back to teach three more at night. Luckily, I really enjoy my walks and wanted to share them with you!

I live on a pretty busy street called Calle Misti, and that’s where I start. I cross the street and turn the corner onto Cuesta del Olivo, which takes me onto a side street that looks like every other one in Yanahaura:

Cuesta del Olivo and one of many stray dogs.

The archway at the end of the street is where I walk through to get into the Plaza de Yanahuara. Most of the streets in Yanahuara look like this, one-lane roads with cobblestone paving that taxis and personal cars get into face-offs over who is going to back out to let the other pass.

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Mirador de Yanahuara, El Misti in the background.

I come into the Plaza de Yanahuara through the far left arch of the mirador (lookout). The arches—and many of the older buildings in Arequipa—are made from the local white volcanic stone called sillar, which gives Arequipa its nickname of “The White City”.

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Eastern half of the Plaza de Yanahuara.

The Plaza de Yanahuara is so pretty, and there is ALWAYS something going on. I’ll go more into the plaza later, this post would be really long if I tried to address everything. It is divided into two halves, separated by a street. I cross through the eastern half which is right next to the mirador, and turn left onto Calle Lima between two queso helado (cheese ice cream) vendors dressed into traditional skirts and blouses who have rival carts on opposite corners.

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Kindergarten on Calle Lima.

This kindergarten is more than halfway down my walk of Calle Lima, but it’s a pleasant part of the walk since I get to see cute little niños in matching uniforms and hats being dropped off at school by their parents. This one brother and sister pair always make sure to say, “¡Hola! ¡Buenos días!” to me and wave with big silly grins.

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Work!

Less than ten minutes after leaving my house, I arrive at Brittany where I have to change out of my battered, ancient Rainbows sandals and into my professional shoes. I had to buy shoes from a Peruvian version of Payless called Bata, but it turns out Peruvians don’t have half-size shoes. So I had the option of shoes that are so small they hurt my toes, or so big they fall off when I walk. So I walk in sandals, and work in shoes. Everyone seems to find this very funny both at my work and on the street, which is why I look forward Casual Fridays when I get to wear sandals in class.

On: Buses

A common model of in-town bus.

Around Arequipa, my preferred method of transportation are my own two feet. My work is less than a ten minute walk away, downtown Arequipa is only twenty minutes away, and most of everyone we know lives somewhere in between. If we are going longer distances, or went grocery shopping and now can’t carry all the food back, then we take taxis. Yanahuara is such a safe neighborhood that we have never felt uncomfortable walking around, even at 4am (again, not recommended, but wholly possible). However, when we were in Cusco, we were living in the outskirts of town which was nowhere near walking-distance of downtown. Instead of taking an expensive taxi to and from downtown everyday, we got used to riding the buses.

It is a great idea to ask a local which bus is the right one to take to any given destination, because if you jump on the wrong one, you will end up really far away from where you meant to go and likely will have to flag down a taxi to take you to the right place. Some buses have where they are going painted on their sides, most just have a person standing in the doorway and shouting the street names at you. You have to learn which bus companies go to which districts via which paths.

As with the combis, the bus fee is usually not very clear. The posted prices are generally not the accepted ones, and be careful to give as exact change as possible since it’s common to not get any change back from the overworked doorman. You can flag down a bus at basically any point, but technically they are supposed to only stop at marked paraderos, or bus stops. You have to memorize your route and shout to the driver the stop before yours where exactly you need to get off, or else they might blow right past your stop. You either pay as you get off the bus, or if it’s really busy, the doorman will come to each person to take their fare and give you a little ticket to show you paid.

Sometimes you get in-route entertainment in the form of a person trying to sell the whole bus goods, magazines, or even their own CDs. We had one guy bring a portable amp onto the bus and play Christian pan-flute music for us, and then came around asking for money. You really don’t have to pay them seeing as how you didn’t ask them to try to sell you something.

Rush hour bus rides are miserable. There is generally only standing room available, and there are so many people stuffed into the buses that you are always getting elbowed in the face and people pressed against you and you have to breathe the same air someone else just exhaled since they don’t open up bus windows. It’s especially gross when people are coughing right in your face and there is nothing you can do about it. And then Peruvians like to blame illness on cold soda because drinking it warm is supposedly better for you.

Arequipa city tour bus.

Above we have another type of city bus which is much more favored by tourists. These tour buses are one way to explore the city and see the sights, if being removed from the local population or not having any adventures is your thing. There is one tourbus model that is even worse than this, at least tourists are forced to share the same air as the locals with the open-air buses. There are ones that are entirely enclosed, allowing the tourists to view the sights from above while enjoying being seated in an air-conditioned bus removed from all interaction with anyone who doesn’t speak your language. Honestly, the only reasons anyone should take these types of tours are if you have limited mobility, health issues, or unable to walk long distances. If you are in good health and have decent mobility in your legs and are seeking a guided tour of the city, at least take the walking tour.

The bus we took from Máncora back to Lima.

The third type of bus you will find in Peru are the long-distance buses, like the one above. They come in one- or two-level models, with the lower level having fewer seats and being more expensive. The bus company above (Etti) was terrible choice and not at all recommended. But there are many excellent bus companies that travel all over the country and into other countries as well that provide excellent service and security, and usually meals, too!

Like the country in general, the buses run on Peruvian time which means they will depart whenever and get to your destination whenever. There are always posted times for the bus schedules, but generally expect to leave anywhere between half an hour to two hours later and expect to arrive at the least an hour later (often 2-4 hours later). But definitely the most affordable way to travel about the country since planes are trains are incredibly expensive here!

On: Colectivos and Combis

Not the newest type of colectivo.

Taxis are the most expensive form of public transport for short distances. There are other options that are much more affordable, but by no means are for the faint-of-heart. For those on a budget, you can also take a colectivo or a combi.

Colectivos are how we got from Cusco to the various towns and ruins of the Sacred Valley and back. They are much cheaper than taking a private taxi—what would be a S70 trip in a taxi is about S4 in a colectivo. They were also a welcome alternative to taking a mototaxi from Máncora to the nearby town of Los Órganos in our (fruitless) pursuit of waves one day.

How colectivos work is essentially a bit like hitch-hiking, but slightly more formal. There are no marked stops for colectivos, so you have to ask locals where they usually depart from. For example, colectivos heading into Pisac were found in a totally different part of Cusco than ones heading into Chinchero. We had semi-clear directions from my friend’s mom who we were staying with on where to find them, “Just jump off the bus when you see a light-blue building under construction, then make either your first or second right, ignore the first group of vans yelling ‘Pisac!’ and find the second group of vans farther up the road.”

Once you find the colectivos heading to your destination, you just jump on and wait until the van fills up. Then it takes off and drops people off wherever they want along the road. Every single time we ever took a colectivo, we were the only white people onboard. Most other tourists will fork out for taxis or expensive guided tours with private vans or buses, but let me tell you, it is much more fun this way. After a day of getting lost in the mountains in Pisac for four hours, we finally found our way back into town, and were just starting to wonder where we could find a colectivo back to Cusco when a man in a white Mercedes van pulls up and asks us, “Cusco?” and the problem was solved. He then drove around for half an hour looking for other passengers to fill the van, yelling into businesses and restaurants to visitors and workers alike. He also managed to back up into one of the passengers when she was crossing behind the van to get in. He then dropped us off in the middle of nowhere in Cusco with some garbled instructions on how to get back to the Plaza de Armas, and left us to sort out the rest ourselves.

No matter when you take a colectivo, you will have a bizarre experience and story to share. My main advice is to find one with an older driver, since the younger guys take serious driving risks. The road rules are only suggestions here at best, but the younger drivers are the ones more likely to take the risks of driving on the wrong side of the road around blind turns, passing trucks with a car coming in the other lane, and flying around turns so fast that the tires squeal and the passengers (with no seatbelts available in the car) slide around and bang into each other. The only other thing I can offer is if you get off the train from Aguas Calientes (or “Machu Picchu Pueblo”, it’s only accesible by train) and you want to take a colectivo back to Cusco, try not to be the first ones on the colectivo. Look for one that is already nearly full, because we ended up waiting for three hours and three trains to come and go before the one we waited in filled up, which meant we ran out of time to see the terraces of Moray. The drivers will tell you they are leaving soon, but there are no schedules to speak of, so expect none of your plans to work out quite as you expected.

Please note all the people pressed against the windows of this large combi.

The other cheap option is a combi which I refuse to get in. No way. A combi is something like a mini-bus, but always really, really packed and generally really, really scary. There is supposedly safety regulations that combis have to meet, but they are basically ignored. I have seen combis in all states chugging along the roads filled with people: ones with front ends missing, huge dents on the sides, and doors or windows taped back into place. Unlike colectivos that only allow as many passengers are there are seats, combis allow as many people as can physically fit into a space. Kyle and I have seen people cram into combis so tightly that they cannot close the doors behind all the people standing and have to take off down the road with people holding on for dear life half-hanging out the open door. I have never once heard a combi or a bus worker say, “Nope, sorry, we’re full.” They let everyone on.

Combis don’t have to adhere to certain prescribed routes or stops. They typically have the street names of where they go painted on the sides of the van, and then a worker who hangs out the door or window and shouts the stops it makes to people on the street. “Ayachucho! todo La Cultura! Puente Grau! Amapato!” in rapid-Spanish comes flying at you from the road. And if you do decide you want to jump onto a particular combi, they stop for about two seconds so you often have to catch them at a bit of a run while the worker yells, “Sube! Sube! Sube!” (aka Climb up!) at you as you try to force your way on. The fees are also pretty arbitrary. They usually have a posted list of their prices, but you have to ask the worker because it is usually actually less than the posted price. All that headache and insanity, but you only pay S0.50 to get to just about any place in town.

The buses here work in much the same way, but they are bigger so even when they do get packed (which they do and it’s gross, but that’s how we got about town in Cusco) it’s not so suffocating since there are more windows and actually enough room to stand. But more on that next time.

The normal size of a combi. Basically, a van, which fits like 20 people.

On: Taxis

Insane Peruvian driving can yield some pretty grim consequences.

To be quite honest, I have intentionally been putting off writing about forms of transportation here. Despite all the crazy culture-shock moments we have had and language barriers we’ve bumped into, transportation in general has been the biggest change in my life since moving here. Everything about it is so different from what I am used to back home, that I really don’t even know where to begin. Nothing I can write will fully describe the surreal experience that even a taxi ride can be in this country, it honestly just has to be experienced. But I’ll try to give you an idea.

Being that I am from the greater Los Angeles area, the concept of public transportation in and of itself is foreign to me. In LA, nearly everyone has their own car and drives themselves everywhere. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable and not necessarily the safest way to get around LA. Heading into a foreign country where personal cars are a status symbol and not a necessity has been pretty bizarre from the get-go.

The first mode of transportation I’ll try to cover is taxis. The most familiar to Americans and reliable form of short-distance transportation, it is also the most common form of transport for tourists visting Peru and well-to-do Peruvians alike. There are literally thousands of taxis in any given major city in Peru, driving in circles and just waiting for someone to flag them down.

Unlike the States, taxis in Peru do not have meters. When you flag one down, you have to tell the driver where you are heading and then negotiate a price before getting in. If you forget to agree on a price beforehand, he can charge you whatever he likes upon arriving at your destination and you cannot dispute it. As a whitey with not an entirely full grasp of Spanish, the taxi driver automatically raises the price for me assuming I do not know any better and will pay whatever he asks. From the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, one taxi driver tried to charge us S30 (roughly $11.50) for the short trip to the nearby ruin of Tambomachay. Luckily, I had done my homework ahead of time and refused to get into his taxi until he brought the price down to S12, which was a fair price since the trip should have only been like S10. So caution fellow travelers when taxi-ing about the country! They will take advantage of you in a most obscene manner, so make sure to ask around how much is the appropriate price to pay to get to various sites.

Taxis costs are pretty variable, even to the same destination, based on the level of safety you seek. For example, the taxi shown above is a type that should be avoided as much as possible, but is also the cheapest kind around. These tiny little hatchbacks are nothing but tin cans, providing very little safety, and unfortunately are the most common style here in Arequipa. Toyota Yarises (what I drive back home!) are also a very common taxi in Peru, and a safer bet. If you are traveling with loads of luggage, be sure to flag down a sedan. Taxi drivers will say anything to get you in their cars, and the little hatchback owners will always promise that you and all your stuff will fit. The next thing you know, you are crammed with your backpack above your head, your laptop at your feet, and your luggage on your lap with no space to even breathe. But Lord knows, they got it all to fit!

There are also very few “official” taxi companies in Peru. Official taxis are generally safer, but much more expensive. Most often, the taxis are unofficial cars with advertisements stuck to them and no safety regulations to adhere to. Because they do not have to report to anyone, the taxi drivers often trick out their rides however they please. I have seen taxis with strobing headlights, blue interior lights, various horn sounds, and back-up chimes that play songs rather than the traditional beeps (nearly all cars here have back-up noises, not just big trucks like in the States). If you are poor, like us, and opt for the convenience and reasonable price of unofficial taxis, try to be as friendly and kind as possible to the drivers as you can. The odds are very low, but there is always a possibility of the unofficial taxis taking you to a bad part of town and then robbing you blind. My idea is if I can build a positive relationship at the start of the ride, maybe any potential thieves will have second thoughts about robbing people as nice as us. I always make sure to tell them how much I would love to see more of their beautiful country, but we are too broke to do anything but teach and explore the city.

Another way for taxis to get supplementary income is to pick up tourists from the airport or bus station, ask them where they are staying, and then tell them their hotel/hostel is all booked up and suggest another (where they get paid a little commission for bringing new clients). Unless you really don’t have a place to stay, always tell the drivers you paid for your room in advance and will lose money if they don’t take you there. Also, take care to watch what streets they take. Often, drivers will take the longest route possible, saying that they are avoiding traffic or construction, and then ask you for S15 more than the agreed-upon price once they arrive at your destination (happened to us our first day in Arequipa).

Rear seatbelts are rare for taxis, as are safe and patient taxi drivers. Most of them speed around corners, come to slamming stops, and merely lay on the horn while flying through intersections instead of slowing down to check for incoming cars. There is no numerical limit to how many people can get into a taxi, merely spacial limitations. We have managed to fit 6 people into those tiny yellow taxis, which was necessary due to the sheer lack of van-sized taxis, but not recommended.

Many tourists (including ourselves until this very weekend) have no idea of another service provided by all taxis, but the locals frequently make use of it. An arequipeño friend told us about how Peruvians will flag down taxis, any time of the day or night, and then pay the drivers one Sol to light cigarettes for them from their car lighters. Apparently no one finds this little cultural quirk at all noteworthy, but as far as I know, that is not a common practice for taxi drivers in the US.

Kyle and our friend Rachel in a mototaxi in Máncora.

In certain smaller towns, such as Máncora, taxis are pretty few and far between. In their stead are the little cousins of taxis, the mototaxi. They are essentially a motorcycle with the back half cut off and a three-seater bench with two wheels beneath welded on. The ones in Máncora are open-air like in the photo, but there are also ones with zipped-up doors in other towns in Peru. These are usually hot and bumpy rides, so it is better to catch a colectivo (glorified hitch-hiking in a privately owned van with a bunch of strangers) for longer rides or you’ll have a sore butt for hours after.

On: A Symbol of Brittany

“Brittany Twister” on the floor of our lobby.

The first thing I noticed when we walked into Brittany to inquire about teaching positions was the earless deadmau5 faces grinning at me from the floor. Supposedly this is Brittany’s school symbol, but I’m not sure how coincidental it is or if they just really, really like deadmau5.

Over a month after that first day, I finally got around to asking my bosses if they were familiar with deadmau5. They said they were actually big fans (apparently he’s made it here to Peru, as well), so at least I wasn’t finding myself trying to explain in Spanish about a man who wears a big mouse head while playing shows for hundreds of highly enthusiastic people.

Next stage in deadmau5’s look?