On: Lake Titicaca

A hand-made Uros reed boat.

We finished up our last day of work on Friday, which means our Peruvian life is quickly coming to an end! Early Saturday morning, Kyle and I raced to catch our bus to Puno where we would be meeting another Brittany teacher, Ieva, and some other friends. Apparently Puno is the second-most touristed city in Peru after Cusco, but not because of the charms of the city itself. People come to Puno from all over the world to see the beauty of the world’s highest navigable lake (and biggest lake in South America): Lake Titicaca.

Giggle-inducing names aside, Lake Titicaca truly is worth a visit. We spent the first day resting and acclimating to the extreme altitude of Puno at 12,566 ft. We booked a tour for the next morning to visit the islands of Uros and Taquile for S35 (less than $14), which was only S5 more than if we explored the islands using public transportation instead of with a guide. Normally, Kyle and I are all about independent travel because it’s cheaper and you don’t have to wander in a big group, but in this case we went with the convenience of not having to worry about how we were going to get to and from the islands.

Islas Uros, the floating islands.

The next morning, the six of us that traveled up together from Arequipa barely made it out of our hostel in time to catch the 6:45am van that would take us to the dock where we would begin our tour. We were loaded onto a boat with people from all over the world (our friends from Spain and Lithuania, me and Kyle from the States, and then people from Singapore, England, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Germany, Canada, Australia, Ecuador, and one person from Peru) and set off for the half hour boat ride to Islas Uros, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.

Learning how the islands are built.

After being ushered onto one of the floating islands of Uros, we were greeted by the Aymara-speaking people of Uros and given a demonstration of how the islands are built by the president of that particular island. Totora reeds, which the homes, boats, and islands themselves are made out of, grow in abundance in Lake Titicaca. Once they reach a certain maturity, the roots float up to the top of the lake and make a cork-like substance (the dirt brick in the picture) that the forms the foundation of the island. Wooden stakes are driven into the cork, which is usually only a foot or two thick, and then nylon rope is tied around the posts to keep the island together. In antiquity, ropes made of woven grass were used to tie the cork together, but nylon rope has made the islands much more stable and secure for the islanders. Totora reeds are then piled on top of the island in a cross-hatch pattern, with a new layer replaced as a layer underneath rots away. The houses, also built of totora, are then placed on top. Totora is also eaten regularly on Uros, and we were each given a reed to peel like a banana and chew on the root of to try. It tasted a bit like styrofoam to me, but I suppose you get used to the flavor since islanders of all ages were eating it.

We were then invited in groups of three into the islanders’ homes to get an idea of how they live. The men typically work on the mainland during the day while the women stay home to watch the kids and cook in special ovens on the island. Both men and women make beautiful handicrafts to sell to the visiting tourists. The women embroider gorgeous textiles and and the men make mobiles of totora reeds of Uros families as well as model boats and paint typical scenes from Uros on pieces of cloth. You can find such handicrafts on the mainland at much cheaper prices, but they are generally of much poorer quality. It’s better to fork out for a trinket or two, since tourism is often the families’ only source of income.

Tourists can pay S10 to take a ride in a totora boat.

Uros society has a long history since the Uros people are one of the oldest, if not the oldest tribe in South America. Hundreds of years ago, they chose to leave the mainland and create these floating islands in an effort to escape the warring tribes that surrounded Lake Titicaca at the time. They have been living that way ever since, although they don’t entirely eschew modern technology. Most Uros use motorboats to get around and there are even solar panels on the island to heat water tanks. The house that we visited was entirely made of totora reeds with a bed also made of reeds, but they also had a car battery powering a tiny television on the floor and a light strip on the ceiling. The Uros culture has survived because of, as well as for, tourism, but its heritage is starting to fade. The last Uros language-speaking person died in the 1970s, and now the community speaks Aymara and Spanish.

Me at one of the several arches on Isla Taquile.

Most of our group paid S10 to take a totora reed boat to one of the neighboring Uros islands, but we took the motorboat and met them at a larger island with a tourist market and a place where you could get your passport stamped with a Uros island stamp (which is apparently against the law to modify your passport with non-country stamps, but we got ours stamped at Machu Picchu and would have done it at Uros but didn’t have them on us). Then we embarked on the two-and-a-half hour boat ride to the natural island of Taquile.

View on Isla Taquile.

We landed at the eastern dock of Isla Taquile, were told to get off the boat, and then hike up a stone ramp to the top of the island where we would be served lunch by a local family. As if being in Puno wasn’t hard enough, the hike to the top of the island put us at over 13,000 ft above sea level (now officially the highest I have ever been on land, and I’m not eager to go back up that high again anytime soon) and left us headachy and woozy. The views were really incredible though, and it was amazing to see how nearly the entire island was covered in pre-Incan terracing.

Kyle making friends with the locals.

As Uros islands rotate its visiting tour groups so that all families have equal opportunity to profit from the tourism, Taquile families rotate feeding the incoming groups for S20/person. The lunch was more than Kyle and I are used to paying for a meal, but it was delicious. Each person is served bread with a type of salsa like Pico de Gallo but made with the local spicy rocotto peppers, quinoa soup, and their choice of cheese and vegetable omelette or lake trout served with rice and fried potatoes as well as cup of coca and mint tea. Yum!

At lunch, we were taught about how the locals dress on Taquile and what each outfit symbolizes. Then men wear different hats to mark whether they are married or single, if they are part of the community-elected officials, and pass each other coca leaves that they carry in their colorfully knit bags. The culture of Taquile was explained a bit further to us as we learned that there are no police officers in Taquile, nor do the islanders pay any taxes or receive any support from the Peruvian government. They run their society by the ancient Incan rules of “Don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy” and “Today you help me, tomorrow I help you”. The knitting in Taquile is done exclusively by men and the weaving is done by women. The weaving of Taquile is supposed to be the best in Peru, and as a knitter myself, I was awestruck by the gorgeous craftsmanship of the men’s knitting.

The view west from Isla Taquile.

After lunch, we had to go down over 540 stone steps to get to the western side of the island from which our boat was leaving. As to be expected, it was much easier to get down than go up, and the hearty meal complete with coca tea helped alleviate the worst of the altitude sickness. Once we got down to the dock, our tour guide jokingly said he would give us time to swim in Lake Titicaca if we wanted. A British guy and a Canadian guy both actually jumped in, but given that I am from SoCal, the idea of jumping in a 50 degree lake when it was less than 60 degrees outside didn’t sound all that appealing.

Taquile man taking a siesta.

We spent the longgggg three hour boat ride back to the mainland on the roof of the boat instead of in the main cabin to enjoy the sun and open air. Our tour also seemed to play taxi for a few Taquile islanders, one of which climbed up onto the front part of the roof with no handrails and napped the whole ride there. We eventually got back onto the mainland at 5pm, exhausted but pleased with our trip. Island-hopping tours are really touristy, and it is hard to snap a good shot of anything with the hundreds of tourists milling about, but it was still a really educational and beautiful experience and one that I would suggest to anyone planning a trip to Peru.

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On: Pizza!

Pizza crust, sauce, and mozzarella cheese.

I have had to change my eating habits since I moved here due to the fact that food that is cheap in the States is fairly pricey here, and vice versa. The good news is that fresh fruit, juices, and vegetables are pretty affordable. Downside: yummy delicious bad-for-me food is hard to come by and/or expensive. Peanut butter, snack food, and bake mixes are pretty steep here, as is pizza.

You can order pizza from the upscale restaurant of Pizza Hut (not being sarcastic at all, Pizza Hut is way nicer here than in the States, serving wine and everything!), or from local pizzerias like Presto and pay S40-50 (and can often only choose from three options of Hawaiian, Ham, or Pepperoni). You can buy a pre-made pizza from the store for S30-40. Or, you can make your own pizza for a grand total of S14. Yum!

Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Pick up a pizza crust for S6, mozzarella cheese for S6, and a bag of tomato paste for S2.

Step 2: Manually light your oven by turning on the gas and then holding a lighter up to the little hole above the door.

Step 3: Guesstimate the temperature to preheat your oven to since it’s in Celsius.

Kyle spreading the sauce.

Step 4: Squeeze sauce globs on the premade pizza crust and spread them around with a spoon.

Step 5: Sprinkle the cheese as evenly as you can onto the sauced-up pizza.

Putting the pizza in the oven.

Step 6: Place the pizza directly onto the oven rack while praying the mid-quality crust doesn’t rip down the middle.

Step 7: Keep an eye on your pizza since your oven doesn’t have a timer and you’re not sure what temperature it’s on anyway. The pizza is ready to come out when the cheese is evenly melted.

The delicious finished product.

Step 8: Carefully remove pizza from the oven. Cut with a knife since you don’t own a pizza roller, serve with the only bottle of ranch dressing you managed to find in the local supermarket, and enjoy saving some soles!

On: Toro Muerto

Toro Muerto with Corire in the background.

On Sunday, we actually managed to get out of town for the day. We took a $5 bus at 7:45am into the town of Corire, which is three hours away from the city of Arequipa, but still in the region of Arequipa (which is massive). Unbeknownst to us, there was also a shrimp-fest going on that weekend, but we came for another reason: the 1200 year old petroglyphs of Toro Muerto scattered over 3000 volcanic sillar rocks.

Just a small portion of the rocks.

We took a three minute combi ride from the town of Corire to a drop-off point along the main highway. Luckily, our friend Marta (from Spain) was with us, so she could translate the muttered directions of the combi driver. The dirt path lead through a small town, and then into someone’s animal pens with a very angry peacock squawking at us. After trying to surreptitiously follow two other Spaniard tourists we saw along the way, we finally joined forces and had to knock on someone’s front door. A very friendly man answered, shook all of our hands, and opened a gate for us to pass through to the next village along the path. We were then chased down by some random guy who told us we had to sign in, and gave us a hand-drawn map to get to the petroglyphs and sent us on our way with such helpful directions as, “Turn right at the electricity pylons, and then a slight left and the destroyed white house. You will see the rocks in the distance.” And man oh man, were the rocks in the distance.

Kyle and Marta checking out some petroglyphs.

After over an hour’s walk from the highway and uphill hike from the village through the desert, more and more drawings started appearing on the surrounding rocks. Although no one is totally sure, it’s generally believed that the pictures are around 1200 years old, which puts them as being made during the Huari culture. The theories behind why they are there are nearly as numerous as the petroglyphs themselves, but the reason that nowadays the location is called Toro Muerto (“Dead Bull”) is from all the livestock that died of dehydration while being herded from the mountains to the coast.

Peruvian engineering.

It was so hot in the desert, and the altitude only made the sun even more powerful. The loads of sunblock we put on may have kept our skin happy, but it didn’t change the absolute lack of shade. The one shade hut we came across seemed to have fallen down long ago, but as is the Peruvian way, no one has gotten around to repairing it. Kyle and I still managed to find some shade, while the Spaniards tried to keep cool under the shade of their own hats.

Me in front of more petroglyphs.

After an hour’s exploration and only not even one quarter of the rocks explored (I have over 100 more photos of them, and that was just a small portion of all to be seen), we decided to head back into town. It was another hour’s trek back down the mountain and through the villages, and then we hit the main road and just had to keep walking. There were no combis to be found, so we walked another half hour into the valley seen in the first photo. Exhausted and hungry, we realized it was Sunday which meant that nearly all the stores in town were closed. After finally finding something to eat, we tried to get a bus ticket home and were told that because of the shrimp-fest, only tickets for the last bus (at 7pm, three hours from when we asked for tickets) were available. So we spent a long time in the Plaza de Corire watching the world go by and getting mauled by bugs.

Even though we all didn’t get back home until 10pm, beat and itchy, it was well worth getting off the beaten gringo path for a day and checking out a fascinating piece of Peruvian history in the middle of the desert.

On: Exploring Cayma

The Church of Plaza de Cayma.

Weekend explorations also led us to the neighboring district of Cayma, which we had yet to wander around. After ten minutes or so, we found ourselves in the main square of Cayma, bordered by this lovely little church originally built in 1718. Many of the surrounding buildings date back to 1786. Being from the west coast, I’m still not used to standing in buildings older than my country.

Cute little Plaza de Cayma.

The Plaza de Cayma was empty but for us, which is quite a change from the Plaza de Yanahuara. However, there were still the two competing queso helado carts with girls in traditional dress. Kyle, in his love of all things cheese, gave the cheese ice cream a try the first time we came to Arequipa. It tastes a bit like tart frozen yogurt, but still pretty sweet. However, it made him really, really sick for three days afterwards. So a tip to anyone heading to Arequipa: if you want to try queso helado, try it at a restaurant and not on the street.

Oddly-located playground.

From the Plaza de Cayma, we walked east back towards the Río Chili and the Mirador de Carmen Alto, a well-known viewpoint in Cayma. We came out into huge farming fields surrounded by high-end apartment complexes and houses, and found this vacant playground right next to a busy street. And yes, we did play on the see-saw since Kyle said they are disappearing from the States.

Cayma cows.

We continued on through Cayma, and eventually noticed the streets were covered in what we thought was horse poop. Kyle couldn’t figure out why anyone would ride horses on the sidewalks, and then I pointed out the solution to the mystery which was crossing the street in front of us. Farmers were leading their cows through a really upscale neighborhood, and across the street into the agricultural fields. I can’t say I see much of that back home.

View of the Chachani volcano.

We finally got to the Mirador de Carmen Alto, located in Cayma on the west bank of the Río Chili, and it was worth the walk! The views of the ancient pre-Incan terraces that are still in use today, as well as the canyons and volcanoes surrounding Arequipa are just incredible. However, you do have to enjoy the views surrounded by various tour groups hopping on and off buses and speaking all different languages. Kyle and I like to hang next to the Spanish tours and get all the same information as the paying tourists without anyone realizing we understand what is being said.

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: Cooking Breakfast

Cookin’ Up Quail Eggs

Even buying eggs is different here in Peru. In keeping with the Peruvian fear of all things refrigerated or iced, they don’t keep their eggs in the fridge in supermarkets. Typically, they are found right next to the cash register, and they are basically always brown chicken eggs.

In addition to the room-temperature brown eggs, quail eggs are quite common here. They are often sold on the street in carts filled with cheeping birds and eaten raw. The yolk is sucked out and the white of the egg, which is apparently the potentially unhealthy part, is left behind. You can also find them for less than $2 for 18 in a supermarket, and Kyle was really keen to give them a try.

So here is how you prepare quail eggs in Peru:

1) Make sure your gas is turned on underneath your counter. When I first came to Peru, I didn’t understand why there were so many delivery boys on bikes carrying propane tanks. I just assumed Peruvians were really into barbecuing. But nope, this is where you get your household gas from.

At least you don’t have to worry about a gas bill at the end of the month.

2) Turn on the gas on the stove and then light the flame with a lighter. The button that sparked the flint went out our first week here, and of course no one has come to fix it. But at the end of the day, lighting the stove with a lighter is still very common in Peru. In fact, I have yet to see a single stove in the whole country that lights itself without aid of button or lighter.

3) Heat some olive oil in a pan, and then add quail egg. (Note: the glass lid for the stove comes standard with every single stove I have ever seen in Peru. Theoretically, it is to be closed once you are done cooking to keep dust and so forth from gathering on the stovetop, but really it just seems more of a hinderance than a help.)

4) Realize that the inner membrane of the egg ends up shooting yolk everywhere if you don’t break it first. Learn your lesson and stick a knife in the egg to release the pressure.

5) Get it right this time, fry up the mini egg, and enjoy!