Monday, April 30, 2007


We are in Lima now...and almost home. We will home dinner time May 1st! Although we heard lots of bad things about Lima, we have enjoyed our time here. By chance we were in the main square when we caught what we thought was a changing of the guard at the presidential palace. However, it turned out to be a giant military parade and traditional dance show because the president of Peru himself showed up to give out prizes to race car drivers. We were 20 feet away! How bizarre and unexpected.

The soldiers did a super cool marching sequence/dance show. Lots of rifle throws and spins and fancy footwork. I was impressed. They were pros, completely in sync at all times. The traditional dance was pretty strange though. The dancers like to beat on each other dance style (this is the second time we have seen this now too). We joke they are doing the domestic abuse dance. One of the dancers accidentally got his pant pulled down too by one of the female dancers beating on him. It was a good laugh for the hundreds of people. Poor guy.

The main square with one of the race cars that raced around it after "el Presidente" waved the checkered flag.

Alan García Pérez.

Marching band and riot policeman who we grew quite fond of since he stood looking bored or chatting on his cellphone throughout the whole show. Felt bad for him too though because no one listened to him. Much to our amazement (since riot police, assault vehicles and water canons are just a little threatening to us as Canadians), a little old lady who kept wanting to get closer to the president gave him quite a stern talking to and then promptly ignored him completely and walked right past him.

I am not sure if you can see much in the above pictures...but I will explain them anyway. We went to a Franciscan monastery with a very cool crypt. There were piles of bones, 10 meters deep. Seems to me though, for some reason, there were 10 times as many femurs as pelvic bones, skulls or anything else. As Lima's first cemetery, the crypt holds the bones of 25000 bodies. Strange how monks like to organize and even "decorate" with the bones.

So, I think this will the entry in our blog. Thanks to everyone who read it and we hope to see you all soon!

Another flora picture from the Inca Trail...I can't help myself.

Our last day in Cuzco we hired a guide for some of the near by Inca Ruins. These massive blocks are from Sachsayhuaman, some of them weigh as much as 300 tonnes. Cuzco was designed in the shape of a puma, and these ruins make up the head of the puma. In this picture you can see a puma paw in the stone work.

Mike and I at Machaytambo, a sacred space once dedicated to the water cult in Inca religion.

From Cuzco we headed to Arequipa. I expected Arequipa to be less touristy than Cuzco but it was worse! People bugging us everywhere. That is the worst part about Peru in general, everyone seems to want to take advantage of tourists. Despite this, we really enjoyed Arequipa. We went to a really interesting museum about Inca sacrifices, such as the famous mummy "Juanita" found nearby in the mid 90s, Her discovery was made possible by an erupting volcanoe that melted the glacier on the mountain where she was sacrificed. She was only a child, 12 maybe, when she made the trek from Cuzco, fasted, was drugged and given a death blow on the side of the head in hopes of appeasing the gods and preventing natural disasters. Other child mummies met the same fate, although some were strangled rather than beaten to death. Juanita wasn't on display when we were there, but another mummy, known as "Sarita" was instead. She is less well preserved than Juanita (whose knuckle creases and fingernails can still be seen and whose organs are just frozen, but fully preserved) but is interesting because she is the only mummy who wasn't found in the fetal position (preparation for birth in the next life), she has crossed legs instead. Experts aren't sure what to make of that exactly


Also in Arequipa, we went to a convent which was absolutely fascinating. The Santa Catalina convent was sealed for almost 400 years until 1970 when the city demanded that all buildings have running water and electricity. The convent then opened it's doors to tourism to fund the upgrades. Prior to that, the only contact nuns had with the outside world was through double wooden grates which allowed them to see out but their visitors only to see their silhouettes. We toured the nuns' chambers, which varied from richly decorated to spartan depending on the era in history the chamber was from. In fact, we visited the cell of one nun from the 17th century who has since been beatified. They are awaiting two more miracles before she can be sanctified. A city within the city, the convent has kitchens (some for making the host to be sold to local churches), a garden, a laundry area, a cemetery, three separate cloisters...the place was once completely self sufficient. Upon first glance, the idea of isolating oneself from the world seems antiquated and even repulsive, but after seeing the convent I can understand why a woman might have preferred that option to marriage given only those two options in life.

From inside the convent.

After Arequipa, we headed to Nazca and immediately upon arriving headed to the airport to see the famous, mysterious, Nazca lines. The flight itself was horribly nauseating. The power of positive thinking alone kept me from woofing my cookies. The lines themselves are quite faint and sometimes hard to distinguish because there are lines everywhere. Barely any of the desert is free of shapes and tracks of some kind. Although the animal shapes are most interesting, there are trapezoids and just plain lines all over. Although experts aren't sure exactly why, the Nazcans created these shapes and lines using overturned stones whose undersides contrast with the sunscorched stones next to them. The most bizarre aspect of the lines is that their size on the flat desert floor makes it possible only to fully appreciate them from above. So why then, in a time before flying, did the Nazcans make the lines? A film we saw while we were recovering from the 30 minute flight suggeted that shamans used hallcinogenic drugs that made them think they could fly and therefore see the designs. It also suggested that the lines were walkways for ritual processions, a form of prayer. What is most interesting of all is that all the lines lead to sources to water or to mountains (representations of water sources). It seems that the lines were pleas to the gods for water, crucial in this area where there hasn't been significant rainfall since the last ice age.

We didn't look quite this spry after the flight...

The figure refered to as the "astronaut" (extra terrestrial theories about the lines abound by the way)

The monkey...can you see it? It is very faint. Strange, since monkeys aren't found anywhere near here. The Nazcans must have had contact with jungle peoples.

The hummingbird.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Machu Picchu

We made it to Machu Picchu after our 3 days of hiking. It is quite dramatic, as on the fourth day we all got up at four in the morning, in the pitch black to hike the last couple hours to arrive at the sun gate for sun rise.

Our guide was a keener, so we were among the first to make it to the sun gate, which was good, as it filled up with tourists rather quickly. We got our picture and moved on. The ruins appeared and disapeared through a dense fog bank throughout the morning.

Leanna had to push 8 tourists off this rock in order to get this picture. They fell several meters to their deaths.

On the other side of Machu Picchu, which means old mountain (I think) is Huayna Picchu, which means young mountain. There are more Inca stairs which climb 300 meters to the peak for another view of Machu Picchu. After the Inca Trail, most people give it a pass, but I figured what the heck, and climbed it with Gita, a woman we met on the trail. Meanwhile Leanna got lost in the ruins, sat on an altar and watched the lizards.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Look at all the pretty flowers!

The best part of the Inca Trail:

Monday, April 23, 2007

Inca Trail

We're in Cusco, just having finished the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was an exciting four day trek over Inca roads, through dense forest and over high passes. The trail is approximately 45 kms, and is somewhere around 20 hours of walking spread over the four days. The scenery is amazing; high mountain forest.

Every so often along the trail we hit Inca Ruins. They are mostly tambos (resting places and food warehouses for pilgrims, messengers and other travelers along the trail) some with terracing for growing potatos and cereals.

At the end of each day we arrived to a camp sight, to find our tents already setup, and preparations being made for dinner.

As there are no roads in or out of the area, or pack animals allowed, all our provisions had to be brought in by porters, and all of our garbage hauled out. Our group of 14 tourists had 21 porters and two guides. The porters were amazing! Each morning, we were cooked and served breakfast (including tea in our tents), then the porters would take down the campsite, overtake us on the trail and have the next site setup for us by the time we get there. And they did it carrying up to 20 kgs (seems more to me). Our favorite porter, Miguel, with a mouthful of gold teeth, is a part time porter and full time local farmer. Incredibly he is 58 years old and still races past all the tourists on the trail! We were told actually, that in a race, one of the porters did the whole 4 day trail in 3 hours, 45 minutes. Wow!

The trek in itself is not overly difficult, but the altitude makes it a rough go for a lot of people when you are climbing the irregular, rocky stairs. On the second day the climb to the summit of dead woman's pass at 4200m was about as difficult as it gets, with the down hill part of day three called the gringo killer being a close second.

Me at Dead Woman's pass

A temple we visited along the trail

I have to say that the terraces, which really contrasted with the surrounding forest were my favorite sight.

We did the tour with Peru Treks, and we really enjoyed it. The food was always good, and there was always tons of it. They even applauded when each tourist made it into camp, which was a little embarassing, since they all did the trek in much less time than us, and with way more weight on their backs.Machu Picchu is going to have to have it's own entry. Coming up.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Hi Guys,
I am writing from Puno, Peru where internet is cheap and traveling easy. We are definitely on the "Gringo Trail" now. To get anywhere you just have to follow the whities with fanny packs and giant backpacks.

So, after Potosí, Mike and I headed to La Paz. La Paz is a bustling big city (we felt remarkably safe however) filled with people going about their business and open air markets everywhere you look. In the shadow of Illimani mountain, La Paz fills a valley, and homes crawl up each of the walls. The most interesting market we saw was the "witches market" where amongst others things, they sell llama fetuses at almost every stall, ranging in scope from keychain sized (with unformed shrimp like tails) to about a foot long. Our guide book said not to take pictures there unfortunately but it was quite a site to see.

We also went to extremely biased, anti-American Coca Museum dedicated to the revered coca leaf. As unbalanced as it was (I guess it is to be expected when it is a museum dealing with a plant that when in drug form is a scourge on (American/western) society) it was very interesting. Did you know for example, that coca paste, the first stage in making cocaine, is made by stomping on the leaves, just like with grapes being made into wine? The coca leaf is also apparently quite nutritious and used, even now, in Coca Cola's secret recipe.

La Paz was a day to relax for us however, so we went and saw the movie 300 (brand new here but I bet it has been out in Canada for quite some time), which Mike has since become obsessed with. I think he knows everything these is to know about it now, from details about the battle of Thermopoli to the actors work out regime. Anyway, as much as we enjoyed our day in La Paz, we raced on to Copacabana...we really have to move now, we only have 2 weeks before we come home!

The hillsides of La Paz

Copacabana is nothing like it's namesake in Brasil. It is a small city on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It is touristy, but has a nice vibe. I was particulary impressed by the kindness of one local woman I was talking to who insisted on running to her apartment and making Mike apio tea (parsley I think) when she could see that he wasn't feeling well.

Overlooking Copacabana from a pilgrim's lookout on the top of a cerro

We took a boat from Copacabana to Isla del Sol, Island of the Sun, a long hour and half away from the city. Most tourists do a quick jaunt out to the island, leaving them not even enough time to even climb the many stairs (no small feat in this took us almost an hour) into the town of Yumani proper on the Southern tip of the island. Luckily, we decided to stay the night. Actually, we stayed in the cheapest place we have stayed in yet, 15 Bolivianos each, just less than $2US, although we probably should have spent a little more for the luxury of a real flushing toilet. The first day we hiked to Pilco Kaina, ruins of an Inca temple. Unfortunately, this part of the island has been inundated by tourists and little kids run around commanding you to buy their wares, take their picture for payment or give them candy. It is quite sad actually, although we found that the children become quite friendly and like to teach you words in Aymara once you insist that you will not pay them for their picture and do not have candy.
Yumani was a neat place though, despite all the tourists. The whole town is built on a steep slope with stairs which made walking back to the hotel in the dark (no street lights) a little precarious, especially considering the amount of llama and donkey poop all over that we had seen but could only smell in the darkness.

Inca temple of Pilco Kaina on the island
The next day we headed out for the northern part of the island, a three hour hike along a sometimes non-existent trail--we ended up in the middle of farmers fields and having to jump a fence to get out of someone's back yard at one point. It was an absolutely beautiful hike and we didn't see another tourist the whole way. Locals were completely different than in the south as well. Everyone we encountered gave us a hearty, friendly hello as they passed, often with a caravan of donkeys or a small herd of cows. The best part of the trek though, was the puppy who followed us the whole journey. Young, still a little clutzy and afraid of the livestock we passed, "Gringo" as we named him was the cutest, sweetest little guy.

Gringo leading the way past a maize field and a traditionally dressed woman

Still a puppy!

When we made it to the North of the island, we found out there was only one boat leaving for the south that day and we didn't have enough time to see the ruins, the reason we had made the trek. The ruins we didn't get to see are where the Inca's claimed the sun was born. It is too bad but Mike pacified me with the promise of many more ruins to come in Peru. It broke my heart to leave our new found travel companion so I asked if we could take Gringo back to Yumani where I assume his home is. Although the boatman was willing, poor Gringo was too scared of the spaces between the boards on the pier and wouldn't even be bribed by food. However, when the boat finally left, he forgot his fear, and ran out on the pier after us. Poor guy wanted to come. We can only hope that he follows some other tourists back the other direction or makes it back on his own.

From Copacabana we headed to Puno where we have been taking it easy so that Mike recovers from whatever bug he's got. We relaxed all this morning and then went to the floating reed islands, made out Tortora reeds that grow in abundance here. Although extremely comercialized now, the 40 or so man-made floating islands were quite a peculiarity. Each island of up to about 10 families has its own president and the ancestors of the Aymara speaking people who live there now built the islands to flee the conquering Incas. It also worked out rather conveniently when the Spaniards arrived since they managed to avoid working in the mines of Potosí. Now however, they seem to make a living pushing souvenirs on tourists. The islands are anchored but can be moved, joined and separated as need be. They are soft and springy to walk on and apparently have to be constantly maintained as the reeds on the bottom rot away.

Boat made out of Tortora reeds

A view of a few of the islands

The local version of coke. The colour is a little off-putting (any one take multi-vitamins?), but tastes like the fizzy valentines hearts. Not bad actually.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


We almost didn't stop in Potosí, but I am so glad we did. Just like Bolivia on a whole, it unexpectedly ended up being an incredible experience. Potosí was once, along with Lima and Mexico City, one of the most important cities in colonial South America because of its fabulous wealth. Overlooking the city is the Cerro Potosí, more commonly known as Cerro Rico, or "Rich Mountain." The local Quechua people mined the silver on the surface of the cerro prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Starting in 1546 however, the Spaniards began large-scale mining. The cerro has been mined continuously ever since and it shows. Not a single inch of the cerro is untouched and the battered and beaten mountain and the miners it swallows (hundreds every year even now and millions during the colonial era) stand testament to the greed that fueled colonialism...and fuels society today.

At one time, the silver that was mined from Potosí was 99% pure right out of the rock which resulted in the saying "valer un potosí", "to be worth a potosí" meaning to be worth a fortune. Most of the veins of mixed silver that are visible today were ignored in colonial times simply because much purer silver was abundant. However, today, the productivity of the mine has diminished significiantly and the miners mine the mixed silver as well as zinc and lead.

Our experience going into the mines began in the miner's market where we bought gifts for the miners we were about to encounter. The miner's market is a street when the miners buy (or the tourists buy for the miners) bags of coca leaves, rough, filterless hand rolled cigarettes, 96% pure sugar cane alcohol and dynamite--all the "necessities" of mining. I felt conflicted buying supplies for such an unhealthy, chemical dependent lifestyle, but it was explained to us that miners simply won't mine without the coca leaves (they numb the cold and prevent the miners from feeling thirst or hunger since they anesthetize their stomachs) and the cigarettes and alcohol are used not only for celebration and relaxation but for offering to the gods that govern the mines. And, of course, the playdough-like mixture of nitroglycerine and wood pulp that is dynamite is a necessary part of the business (there are hundreds of explosions each day on the cerro) that the miners have to pay for themselves since although they are technically part of a cooperative, they each work for themselves and are paid for the minerals that they mine individually and every gift of dynamite lowers their expenses. So, after we bought the supplies and got suited up we headed up the cerro for a demonstration explosion (all the tourists who wanted could have their pictures taken with the lit dynamite...not me however!) before we entered the mines.

Cerro Rico, not a single inch unscathed

Hi-ho, hi-ho, off to the mines we go!
Inside the mine was not a very pleasant experience. A few times I had to conciously remind myself not to panic when I realized my pulse was starting to race. It was the sound of an explosion from the inside and floating dust I was breathing in that bothered me the most (particularly the thought that it is the same toxic dust that I was breathing that causes silicosis in the miners lungs) but the climbing down rickety ladders, hunching through low passages and and scooting around black holes leading into the unknown deep wasn't exactly my cup of tea either.

We talked to some of the miners at work, one of whom was only 16 years old. They told us that they enjoyed their work in the mines. It seemed to be a source of pride. They also informed us that they mine about 9 bags of minerals a week worth on average 80 Bolivianos each, which translates to about $100us a week which I think is relatively good money for Bolivia. Apparently though, the miners are known for being hedonistic with the money they earn since it isn't all that likely they will live past 50.

El Tío watching the miners' every move

In colonial times, the local native population provided the labour needed to mine the silver which was needed to finance the Spanish monarchy and their costly European wars through a system known as mita, which in reality was virtual slavery. As the local population diminished as a result of hard work, disease and general demoralization, African slaves were brought in to make up the labour shortfall, however it was found that the African slaves were even more susceptible to the horrid underground conditions (workers lived underground for months at a time) and died at a disgustingly high rate. The Europeans themselves could not stand the conditions either and only monitored the output of silver from above ground. Eventually, without any direct supervision, the labourers stopped working very hard. To motivate the workers, the Spaniards tried to instill the fear of god into them and set up life size figures underground representing Satan, who was always watching them. The workers decided that if Satan was a punisher and enemy of the Catholic Spaniards he must be a friend of theirs and began offering him gifts, like the cigarettes and alcohol that tourist now bring, in hopes that he will fertilize Pachamama (mother earth) resulting in the minerals that are their livlihood. Syncretic religion and superstition is major part of life in the mines. Every year a llama is sacrificed at the entrance of the mine and it's blood smeared on the rocks to pacify the hungry Pachamama in hopes that she will be satiated and not hungry for miners.

After all was said and done, going into the mines was a fascinating experience even though at various times througout the tour I had to wonder if it was a good idea. The city of Potosí itself is studded with grand churches and we were lucky enough to be there over the Easter weekend. We witnessed a procession where Jesus (in several different forms) was paraded through town although oddly enough, the procession was military in character as much as religious.

Creepy looking Jesus statue on the Easter parade through Potosí

We also went to a museum here where Potosí's silver was made into coins, although the most interesting part was the anthropology section displaying remnants of life, including these dead Spanish babies found in the cemetery here. They are remarkably well preserved down to the baby fuzz on their heads.

Mike with the machinery once used to make coins