Peru has beautiful mountains, jungles, deserts and plains, but my favorite part of this South American country is the charming Peruvians themselves.
If I could name the best thing about my 14-day trip to Peru it would be the people of Peru. Whether it be farmers in the Andes Mountains, shopkeepers in the small towns, vendors on the streets of Cusco or the local guides on the different legs of our trip — there was never a wall between the touristas and our gracious Peruvians hosts.
The best example of this is when my six singular travel companions and I ventured to the Altiplano, the high plains of Peru that surround Lake Titicaca. This enormous lake, at 12,500 feet above sea level, is the world’s highest navigable body of water and has more than 40 islands, many with their own unique culture.
After we boarded our van in Cusco for the seven-hour drive to Lake Titicaca, it seemed odd that as the Andes Mountains flattened out, we were actually climbing in altitude. The Altiplano, Peru’s great highland plain, is higher than the more dramatic, ruggedly steep mountains we’d seen on our trek to Machu Picchu. So when we reached the La Raya Pass (14,300 feet above sea level) and got out of the van to ride our mountain bikes, it was no wonder we were gasping for breath as we peddled down the road. Yet there’s no better way to see the beauty of Peru, unless you’re on horseback. It was enchanting to bicycle past grazing sheep, llamas sipping from clear mountain streams, ancient adobe houses and smiling Peruvians bundled up in brightly colored caps and coats.
When we arrived in Puno, overlooking Lake Titicaca, we found a city with a shantytown look, a result of the Peruvian practice of leaving the top floor of every structure only partially built. The beginnings are there, but a finished roof is a rare sight. Instead, iron reinforcement bars poke skyward and there’s only the beginnings of walls. Yohn, our Peruvian guide, said it was to show intent — intent to grow their family, intent to prosper in their business, intent to finish … mañana. That evening we went out for pizza, readily available in Puno’s tourist zone at the center of the city. Yohn is quite the character, a mountain biker extraordinaire who speaks almost perfect English and, most importantly, is pure Peruvian with a passion for his people. We developed a close bond with Yohn and loved to tease him with endless questions.
The next morning, we boarded a small cabin cruiser that took us to some of the islands in Lake Titicaca. Our first stop was the small Islas Flotantes (Floating Islands). These are man-made islands fabricated from big blocks of reeds. The inhabitants, known as Uros, cut chunks of reed turf, dry it out and then use big stakes to connect the blocks until there is enough material to create an actual floating island — which the Uros began constructing hundreds of years ago as a way to escape their enemies.
The next island, Taquile, a real island, was a two-hour boat ride away. Its people are known for their intricate, handmade textiles. Reaching the village, where we enjoyed a lunch of delicious lake trout, involved climbing a huge stone staircase. The memory of the Inca Trail was still painful and I wondered how many millions of stairs I’d climbed since arriving in Peru! During lunch, our guide explained some interesting facts about the Taquile people. For instance, the knitted hats worn by the men indicate their availability to the opposite sex. A tassel tossed to the left or to the right meant the difference between being married or single — and those tassels are often flicked one way or the other depending on who’s looking!
Then we were off to Amantani, the island where we would spend the night with a local family. Amantani, like the other islands we’d visited, has its own distinct culture. We were greeted at the boat dock by village women with long braids, colorful skirts, white embroidered blouses, and black shawls trimmed with brightly embroidered flowers. Three of us were assigned to Elsa, a 30-something wife and mother of two with brown sunburned cheeks and a ready smile. We followed her as she mercifully walked slowly up the steps to her village. She knew we were unable to match her usual mountain-goat pace.
Elsa led us to her charming home, a simple and clean abode. Yohn explained that her husband was working in Puno while she stayed home to work the family’s farm and raise their children. She showed us where we would spend the night ― a room with three beds, a rough wooden floor and a magnificent view of the lake below. The kitchen was downstairs and the bathroom was an outhouse in the yard next to the garden ― quite modern by Amantani standards, even though it required filling a bucket with water to flush the toilet.
Then it was up more stone stairs to the soccer field, where the men in our group had an appointment to play against the local boys. The altitude took its toll, and despite a valiant effort, the boys of Amantani reigned victorious over their sea-level competitors. That wasn’t the last activity of the day. No, there was a dance planned for that evening. We were all going to dress up in Amantani gear and head down to the community hall for a Peruvian hoedown.
But first, our hostess Elsa served dinner in her humble kitchen. We sat on wooden benches at her kitchen table, dressed in parkas and scarves because of the cold. The floor was smooth dirt. A fire pit burned in the corner, and Elsa’s teenage daughter prepared tasty soup and a main course of rice, beans and vegetables. After dinner, we handed out the toys we’d brought as gifts. Ronnie, Elsa’s 10-year-old son, was thrilled with the baseball caps, soccer ball and Hot Wheels cars we’d been carrying since our arrival in Peru some 10 days earlier.
Elsa gave me an outfit to wear to the dance, layers of colorful dirndl skirts, a beautiful hand-embroidered blouse and a black shawl like the ones all the women in the village wore. We trekked down the steps to the community hall, following the beam from Elsa’s flashlight. We entered the hall and saw that the entire village was waiting, so despite being exhausted, we had no choice but to dance. So dance we did, frenetic steps to a four-piece band of two ukuleles, a big bass drum and a wooden flute, that evolved into a crazy “crack the whip,” with all of us holding hands in tow, weaving in and out at a breathless pace. It was wild and exhilarating, and I wondered what the villagers thought of their pale-skinned visitors as we spun madly together in the freezing night air.
When it was over, Elsa led us back up the path in the darkness, and we slept well in our beds that night, weighed down with layers of woolen blankets, our noses poking out from under the covers to breathe in the cold, clean air. In the morning, Elsa served us pancakes and herb tea, and I was reminded of the luxury we enjoy in even the simplest American home. Elsa didn’t have electricity, but she lives her life in peace, free from the buzzing distraction of TVs, computers and handheld devices — a life not unlike the lives of women in her family three generations ago.
I wonder sometimes, now that I’m back in Los Angeles, what Elsa is doing. She’s thousands of miles away, yet she is there, in her own world, maybe tucking her boy into bed or looking out of that same window that I gazed out of just a few months ago. And Yohn, our guide, who stayed with me on the Inca Trail as I walked at a turtle’s pace. Is he safe tonight? Is he in Cusco with his family, was he out on the trail with another group of tourists? Wonderful Ruben, who valiantly carried me on his back to the campsite when I could no longer walk — where is he tonight — is he safe? And the lovely Yordana, who joyfully showed us the treasures that live in the Amazon jungle. Is she looking up at that blanket of stars, so visible under the equator?
I send you my love, my Peruvian friends. I think of you often and will remember you always.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.
SURPRISES IN PERU
Peruvians love animals – no skinny, sad creatures here. Dogs are well fed, free to do as they please. Spay and neuter clinics? Highly unlikely.
Fast wi-fi Internet connections abound.
Toilet paper cannot be flushed and can also be in short supply – so bring a spare roll, just in case.
Make sure your U.S. currency is in mint condition. The tiniest wear or tear will render it worthless when you try to exchange it for Peruvian soles.
Tap water is not safe to drink and should not be used – not even for brushing your teeth.
Guinea pigs, called cuy, are considered a delicacy. They roam freely in the kitchen and live in tiny “dollhouses” until it’s time to become a meal.
Make sure you have enough cash on hand to pay your departure tax when you’re flying out of Peru back to the U.S., about $30 per person. Credit cards are not accepted.
If you have a chance, check out the Miraflores area of Lima and treat yourself to the best ceviche in the world!
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