Actually, our trip to Peru started in Arica, Chile so this is where I will start this chronicle also. We flew in on the red-eye flight from Santiago arriving at 4:30 in the morning. Luckily we had booked a hostel that accepted such early checkin so we headed directly to End of the Trail hostel near Chinchorro beach. The hostel had an empty room so we even got to go lie down and try to catch up on some sleep.
At breakfast we met the other guests and quickly lashed on to Mel and Paul from GB - another 1st retirement couple out to see the world (just like us!). We got on well so decided to go down to the beach for lunch together. We found a very nice buffet style restaurant right on the beach - great salads, BBQ meat, salads and wine. I think they lost money on us... after 3,5 hours they had to tell us that they were closing the restaurant!!
Mel and Paul were off the same evening so they went back to the hostel while we headed into town. Arica is an isolated desert town in the north of Chile. Next town south of Arica is Iquique - over 700km away. But Arica has the warmest sea water in all of Chile (the only beaches without freezing cold water) so it is blessed (?) with beach tourists and surf culture. It actually made for quite a nice atmosphere I think. The streets were lively and friendly. A nice change from busy Santiago.
Next day we braved into the strong sun and visited the museum located in San Miguel de Azapa. The Azapa valley is famous for olives and well, this museum. The museum houses the 10.000 year old Chinchorro mummies - some naturally embalmed while others have been artificially preserved by the old indigenous people. It was a really well worth visit and I found the whole thing extremely interesting.
Back outside in the heat again we headed into the village to visit the graveyard. Azapa is a green oasis (although artificially irrigated) in the desert so to avoid taking up precious land the graveyard was located on the slope of the valley. I am not sure how to explain the visual attack on my senses.... it was colours and plastic everywhere. To top it off we had lunch at Pica del Muertito right next to the graveyard.
In the afternoon we tried to find a dive center for me to end my two-year dry spell but no luck (it was after 18:00 so they were closed). We also decided against a tour to the altiplano due to the large altitude difference we would be subjected to - 4500m in one day. We expect to see something similar from the Bolivian side later on where the increase in altitude in one day will be less. Instead we went for a jog on the beach along with all the other people enjoying the cooler evening temperatures. Nice to see people using the beach, playing rugby, volleyball, jogging or just enjoying the games set up for the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Next morning we were off to Peru through crazy landscapes. Huge canyons, 50 shades of desert grey abruptly pierces by a green valley here and there. I think the biggest surprise for me was the amount of farming taking place in a seemingly barren land. Where do they get the water from?
The bus trip was a couple of hours longer than expected and unfortunately the bus didn't have AC. But after about 10 hours of travelling (collectivo, border crossing, bus and taxi) we arrived at our hotel in Arequipa.
It took me a little while to warm up to Arequipa. It wasn't until the last few days that I appreciated the atmosphere of the place. Maybe it was the altitude which played tricks on us on the beginning (it definitely was), maybe the never ending tour agencies or maybe just the traffic. Fact is that I was a little indifferent to Arequipa in the beginning. The centre is fairly small and due to shortness of breath we kept within a 6-by-6 block area. We had travelled from sea level to 2350m in one go so needed time to adapt. We were also at this time planning to go on a tour to Colca canyon so spent some time visiting tour agencies. In the end we decided against Colca because we just couldn't be bothered with the agencies and their weird pricing. Instead we focussed on the city's attractions such as the Santa Catalina monastery, the Archeological museum with the frozen Inca mummies and the walking tour. Of these three the frozen mummies were the highlight for me. It may be a little freaky studying the corpse of a human bent but it is also a little mind blowing how time has stood still for them. I can imagine the thrill an archaeologist would experience upon discovering something that gives such deep insight to life 500 years ago.
The monastery was interesting as well. Basically a city within the city, nuns have occupied the streets and homes within for over 400 years. Now they only live in a small corner of the grounds (as they are only 20-something nuns living there currently) and have opened up the remaining areas for visitors to support their existence. Still, they do not appear to have very much contact to the outside world.
When leaving Arequipa again it becomes very clear that the city is much more than the old historical center. Away from the centre it quickly becomes bleak. Lang he river Arequipa is a very green city but in the other direction you are reminded that the city basically is a desert town. Heading north in luxury (VIP class bus) we climbed up to over 4000m through progressively more and more spectacular landscape. All of a sudden there were lakes and llamas everywhere. What we thought was a short stop to appreciate the scenery turned out to be an emergency stop as one of the passengers became ill. I didn't feel too hot myself and a near-miss with another bus didn't help the situation much.
Cruising through Juliana we quickly noticed that we had made a wise choice to not stay overnight there. It reminded me of when I passed Tijuana many years ago, just after the city had seen a large flooding... it was grim. We didn't pass the city centre so maybe it is a very nice city ... we just didn't get that impression. Puno was our destination instead. After checking in to our prebooked hostel in Puno we set out to explore the city. The city was bigger than I had expected however the centre of the city only comprised of the Plaza de Armas and a few blocks of pedestrian street between the place and the rather dirty Market. Even though small in size, Puno literally took our breath away. Located at 3810m above sea level it takes some time to adjust to the thin air. Both of us felt lightheaded the first day, second day Paula wasn't feeling grand and third day was not great either. Paula's pulse was pretty irregular and generally fast but luckily the pharmacy had some good remedies so we at least got to visit the Coca Museum, the "Mall" and the harbour. The small pedestrian street had restaurants and tour agencies side by side as any other respectable Peruvian town on the gringo trail, but I found that Puno has less tourists per capita (in the town centre) than Arequipa and Cusco. Maybe it's all in my mind but I liked the slight edge it has.
On the 4th day we took a collectivo boat to the Uros (floating islands made of reeds) and the island of Taquile. After half an hour on this slow-boat we arrived at the Uros just as the rain rolled in so it was decided to skip this stop and do it on the return journey instead. We had initially thought to stay overnight on one of the Uros but seeing the size and the commercialism of the islands left us unconvinced. But we would have a bit of time to consider as we were first staying overnight on Taquile.
From the boat landing on Taquile to the village square it's a healthy climb. There are no vehicles nor donkeys on the island so no help to be had. Paula was out of breath again and we made it up to the top at absolute minimum speed. 30 minutes to catch our breaths and check out the island's male knitter's handcraft shop and we were guided to a restaurant up the road for lunch. The stable tourist food on the lake is trout and quinoa soup and this time didn't fail. We ended up staying with the family who owns the restaurant in an extra room they have. Pretty basic room with cold outdoor bucket shower if one really felt the need to clean up. But with a nice view. We had a lazy walk to some old ruins after the other tourists had left the island again. The island is very quiet when the day trippers have left but the islanders are very welcoming and friendly. They manly speak Quechua but most will be able to converse in Spanish also. Returning to the main square we met Laura and Martin - the only other overnighters on the island. They had also been wandering around, wondering where they could find a little action (the island is VERY quiet) and figured that the main square would be the place. They weren't completely right but at least they stumbled upon us and we quickly got on well and spent the remainder of the afternoon together.
Back at the restaurant for dinner we started chatting to the host family - grandparents Helena and Percy, son-in-law Benjamin and 3 granddaughters (Benjamin's nieces). Instead of eating at the restaurant we were invited to their kitchen to eat with them. I write kitchen for lack of a better word... Anyway, in the beginning most of the talking took place in Quechua with Benjamin translating however after about an hour Paula had won over Percy and he switched to Spanish. It was a privilege to be there and talk to this family. They may live in humble conditions (although their house is huge) but they are surprisingly well informed about the outside world. Percy was aware of the political problems in Korea and had himself travelled to France twice - once with Helena. They had gone there together with 12 other musicians from the island as guests of a French cultural institution. We got to show them some photos of my last work projects which they found very interesting. Even though windturbine installation offshore is very far removed from their daily life they understood many of the technical issues better than many people I talk to about my work. For us it was quite a remarkable evening ... unfortunately followed by a very uncomfortable night (very poor mattresses).
Next morning we had breakfast in the other "kitchen". In the evening they cook with gas but in the morning with wood. I never never stood why. But soup and pancakes were prepared over fire fed by dried cow dung and branches/leaves. Interesting and not really worth too much worries over hygiene, but the food was excellent.
After breakfast we met up with Laura and Martin and headed for the beach before leaving the island on the 14:00 slow-boat ... but not before an emotional farewell to Helena and Percy. And not to speak of the havoc the 550 steps down to the boat landing caused to my knees!
A night in Puno with Laura and Martin and next morning off to Copacabana in Bolivia. The border crossing went OK although Paula was still feeling the effects of the altitude. As a curiosity this is the first time I have had to supply a copy of my passport myself when crossing a border. Maybe the immigration officers are good pals with the small business owner next door...
As we arrived to Copacabana Laura and Martin were not to be found at the agreed spot. I wasn't expecting anything else as it was raining and the "bus terminal" was just the street next to the main square. As its a small town we figured we'd meet them somewhere during the evening. Sure enough, there they were at the second hostel we went to! But it wasn't until the 5th or 6th query that we found a hotel with availability. And even then we had to move room as the roof didn't stop the rain. It was a pretty bad hotel and I had my worst night sleep there so far but at least we had hot water in the shower. And that's more than what Laura and Martin had in their place. They didn't even get a proper door in their shared bathroom! But the climax came when Martin accidentally locked in the key to their room. When they asked the owner for assistance he just asked why they had done that, refused to help and closed the office door in Laura's face! Friendly people! As luck would have it, the neighbors Feli and Mauricio had a small vice grip that did the job. I must admit that our first impression of the Bolivians has been poor. We expected them to dislike Chileans due to the outcome of the Pacific War (over 100 years ago) but we are surprised to see that they treat all other nationalities with the same indifference and even rudeness. As an example Martin was asked to lower his voice in the hostel at 11am (he is Agentinian) but then the hostel restaurant played loud live music until 2am. Paula lets me do the public relations here to not flag her Chilean origin but they don't really treat me differently. Hopefully the rest of the country will be different - I am writing this on a bus from Copacabana to La Paz so we have only experienced a small part of Bolivia so far.
But back to Copacabana: this place is Bolivia's Riviera. Paddle boats, jet skis, beach bars ... they've got it all. Big cars cruising the streets alongside smoke emitting antiquities. Streets lined with artisan shops, tour agencies and restaurants with the same menus (quinoa soup and lake trout). Not really my thing but as a stepping stone to the islands it can be difficult to avoid the place.
After a bad night 's sleep we grabbed breakfast at the local market and headed off on a slow-boat to Isla del Sol with Laura, Martin, Feli and Mauricio. Isla del Sol is according to (the most popular) legend the birthplace of the Inka empire. Many people apparently visit the islands for spiritual reasons but that was difficult to imagine when we arrived to the northernmost of the three settlements on the island. A small village fully committed to tourism but without facilities for other tourists than backpackers. 95% of these backpackers were Argentinians looking for a good and cheap time. Camping and bonfires at the beach. As we were still adopted by our Argentinian friends we had a great time for a couple of days. I think we would have otherwise felt a bit as outsiders even though Argentinians can be exceptionally open and inclusive.
While on the island we had plans to walk the 14km to the southernmost settlement but for various reasons we never got around to see it. We did go on some smaller (and less arduous) walks - the most spectacular one being to the palace ruins at the northernmost point of the island.
One thing which I found slightly funny but also alarming was how close to the villagers the domesticated animals lived. We had to pass right by three tiny smelly corrals to get to our hotel and cows, chicken, donkeys and pigs could at any time be found on the beach or in the village. Jokingly I called it the Swine Mafia as they seemed to be the only large animals to be allowed to roam free. It's not unusual to be approached by a dog or cat while on the beach somewhere but it's the first time - for me anyway - to see pigs wander around the various beach goers.
After a couple of beach days we had had enough, said our goodbyes to Laura and Martin and headed back to Copacabana with Feli and Mauricio. We stayed overnight (laundry stop) while they headed to Cusco in the evening. Next morning we got on a local bus together with 100+ kg of lake fish! The expectations were low but it turned out to be a pretty good 4,5 hour bus ride to La Paz. We met an Irish couple on the bus who gave us some good pointers for La Paz. Although the approach to the city was horrendous (!) the city centre is very pleasant. Many people call it hectic but so far we are pleasantly surprised. Amazing food - we came across a Lebanese and a Swedish cafe (Cafe del Mundo) today and they were just what we needed. Far from lake prices but also waaay delgicious'er.