When we were in the north of Peru we often felt quite alone. As we went days on end without seeing another traveller. However, once we hit Lima, we were well and truly back on the gringo trail.
Gringo trail: noun ~ exists in Lonely Planets ‘must see’ places of South America. A gringo is generally described as a foreigner who identifies themselves as one or all of the following: professional climbing enthusiast, white water rafter, walking stick carrier, camel back wearer, sky diving instructor and marine biologist in spare time, (usually American)ready to take on South America with a KABOOM! Often outfitted head to toe in expensive, zippable? adventure gear, spotted wearing said gear in sports drink aisle of local super mercado.
Funnily enough, and I say this without judgement (honestly), we have met many of these people and have yet to see or hear them doing any thing that requires the outfit and equipment. But instead its the guys you see at the top of the mountain, carrying a swisse army knife and wearing sandals that are the real adventurers. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need a particular ‘adventure outfit’ to travel this continent – that is a BIG myth I like to debunk. Trent and I opt out of the adventure uniform and instead go for our usual look of homeless chic. You may judge but we are 4 months on the road and mugging free!
Anyway – after a luxurious 22 hour bus from Lima we arrived in world famous Cusco. We spent a couple of days exploring the old Incan empire which was beautiful, historic and still maintains a lot of ancient charm. Much of the old town is still uncovered by archeologists today as the city is quite literally, built on ruins. Our walking tour guide told us his friend was building a new house and they came across Incan ceremonial jewellery, of course the kept it and sold it on the black market. We spent a few days walking around the steep cobbled streets, learning the inside scoop from a dedicated and passionate Cusquenian, drinking potent Pisco Sours and eating delicious (non peruvian) food. We also reunited with our Danish friends from Merazonia which we didn’t think would happen so soon after saying our goodbyes! After a few days of exploring the city, we set off for Machu Picchu (see separate post) and returned on Trents 25th birthday after a long day in transit, not surprisingly all we could think about was a frosty beverage. We met up with the Danes for dinner, hoping to have a few drinks (get wasted) but alas to our utter devastation this plan was soon shattered. The hilarious and exciting lead up to the Peruvian election (which we had witnessed for weeks) had finally come to it’s main event – voting weekend. Voting is compulsory in Peru and the government are fearful that citizens would have one too many and forget to tick the right box so all alcohol is prohibited! The entire weekend! Even for tourists Cusco was dry as a bone, you wouldn’t even read about it! Safe to say the birthday boy was utterly devastated. Boozeless we still had a great eve and decided to head south as a group the next day.
Nb: We have since found out that Peruvians do a roaring trade on the black market to gringos during these weekends – damn!
From Cusco, together with our Merazonia buddies we headed 8 hours south east to the city of Puno, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca – the largest navigable lake in the world and also the highest, at a whopping 3’800m above sea level. It is the main pull for the area as Puno is a shitty and dirty city. The next day we booked a cheap 2 day tour and headed out on a boat to visit the Floating Islands of Uros. Famous, shockingly, for being islands that float! Crazy construction process of tying, anchoring and weeving that is too indepth to explain but it is very cool! Especially to walk around on the tiny island, roughly the size of half a basketball court, and feel the reeds squish and squash beneath your feet. There is about a meter of reeds separating you from sinking into the lake! What wasn’t very cool was the ‘It’s a small world after all’ type cultural display to the tourists from the locals. There are a few things written about the islands, namely that tourism has destroyed them and the locals are an act (pretty rough) but it so hard to know the truth when there is different information everywhere. But when you are being shown the traditional terracotta pot and dried fish that they supposedly cook in, which are laying next to a pile of plastic Coke bottles and chip packets – you feel like you are being taken for a bit of a ride. After a talk from the ‘chief’, a sales pitch of wares from the women and a ride on the homemade reed boat, it was time to go. The song and dance type act is generally the type of tourism that Trent and I try to avoid and sadly, without knowing it, we had ended up encouraging it. We wouldn’t have cared if we simply sailed past the islands, or if the locals were in board shorts, watching tv and drinking beer just relaxing. But the costumes and performance was very forced and quite unsettling and the more we were there the more I saw the negative affects of tourism to the what I’m sure were once beautiful islands.
Back on the boat and sailing deeper into the lake for a couple of hours we arrived at the Island of Amanti, home to the native Aymara people whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years. The island is 3 hours away from the mainland and therefore the communities are very much isolated from the modern world. Stepping onto the island was like stepping back into time. Firstly we were greeted by our 4 and a half foot Mammi wearing traditional dress. Amanti is made up of 7 Aymaran communities and along with their daily life in the fields and around the home, there is a roster system for taking in homestays. We walked 45 minutes up through the island, which was pretty wheezy work at 4000m above sea level, to get to our house and our Mammi didn’t break a sweat. The women and men of the island still dress very traditionally: women wear white embroidered blouse, colourful shirt, sandals, long plaits and a shawl draped over their heads and the men wear colourful ponchos and warm hats as it gets very cold at night. Once we arrived at our home, we shared lunch in the small kitchen that was made on an open fire. Quinoa and vegetable soup, grilled andean cheese, boiled potatoes and rice. It was so simple but delicious and was served with andean mint tea in terracotta cups. Communicating with our host family was interesting at times, the Aymarans have learnt Spanish to interact with tourists but it is not their native tongue, at times it was difficult to tell if it was a comfortable or uncomfortable silence. But through broken conversations we learnt our host mum was 26 years old and had a four year old, and along with her mother they made textiles to sell to tourists. We met her husband once and lets just say ‘you are a lazy piece of shit’ is an international language and we were picking up some strong vibes. I think he needed to help out more around the house and spend less time drinking beers after work with his andean pipe band. He was in an andean pipe band and played for us. The Grandpa and only name we remember(Maximo) was lovely and very interested in interacting, whereas the women preferred to sit in the corner and talk to themselves. Don’t get me wrong everyone was lovely but Maximo was a bit warmer. Maximo (68 years old) who was shorter then most 10 year olds I know, spent his days chiselling rock down at the lake and walking all the way up the mountain (about an hour) with kilos of stone strapped to his back to create new pathways. His body had had a tough life but you couldn’t tell in his face, he was warm and welcoming and a real old dad. Maximo was very interested in knowing where we had been and where we were going and as we told him he responded with shock and excitement and laughed as he talked about how rich we must be. One of the things we are forever thinking of when we would meet locals interested in our travels, an overseas trip to a far away land like Australia will simply never be an option. This trip has taught me many things but most of all how incredibly lucky I am to be in the situation I am in. That night the community had a party for us, we were dressed up in traditional clothing and danced with our families to the sound of hits from the andes. The next morning after breakfast Maximo showed us gifts he had received from previous Australian home stays: a Swisse Army Knife and a Kellogs Cornflakes watch (we just smiled and agreed how Australian they were), having nothing on us Trent gifted his Aboriginal flag hat pin and gave it to Maximo. We let him know that it was the flag of our native people and we could tell it was a good gift. We said our goodbyes and made our way down to the port with Mammi leading and way and spinning her wool. Three long hours later we were back on the mainland in Puno and ready to move on. The lake was to be our last stop in Peru as we made the last minute decision to pop on over to Bolivia.
Crossing the border into Bolivia I saw that we had spent just over a month in this crazy country. Woah – what a month. Altitude, beaches, mountains, deserts and everything in between Peru had been a treasure trove of adventure. It really is an incredible, mysterious, gritty, inspiring and beautiful country. There really is so much more to Peru then Machu Picchu and we definitely got to explore a little slice of that. Hasta luego Peru, I’m sure we’ll be back. Xx