I’m not sure when we started talking about a trip to South America, but I know it started off very vaguely. As we skipped around to locales that had a sense of familiarity — Europe, Mexico, even Australia — the entire continent to our south felt like a vast, mysterious land. We knew we wanted to venture down there, but had no idea where to start.
When we mentioned this to our friends Adam and Karina, their excitement was piqued and Karina enthusiastically pressed, “Let’s go to Peru!” and it was done. We were going to Peru.
With Karina’s help (part of her enthusiasm was that of a return trip — her third trip, in fact), we put together a trip plan with a Peruvian tour company. Other than a few complications with booking our own flights, including domestic Peru connections, I barely gave the details a second thought until the morning we hit the early morning flight to Fort Lauderdale, connecting to Lima.
Our group excitement was buzzing as we spent a brief layover in Florida, enjoying our first vacation meal and wondering what we were getting into. When we touched down in Lima, late that night, it was still somewhat difficult to discern that we were in such a different country. Settling into the comfort of an airport hotel, our first official “day” of vacation was a blur of airplanes and travel.
The next morning, we were almost immediately hit with the realization: We are in Peru! Perhaps it was a night of sleep, or maybe it was just seeing this foreign land in the light of day, but we were nearly instantly immersed into Peruvian culture — even just by stepping on another airplane. This shorter flight took us from Lima to Juliaca, and was on a smaller, domestic Peruvian flight. We settled in and enjoyed our first local beers as we gazed out at the landscape below.
When we landed in Juliaca, we were greeted by our first tour guide, Maria, and our driver, Julio, who would bring us to our first Peruvian sights. We meandered through the airport town of Juliasca, which we were told was a center for commerce and education. The town was quiet and strikingly run-down, with half-finished construction nearly at every turn. We learned from Maria that builders/owners receive significant tax benefits by delaying the completion of buildings, so there are many that are never even intended to be finished. Many families are living in concrete buildings with rebar still sticking out the top of unfinished roofs.
Quickly, however, we had exited the town and were smack dab in the Peruvian country side. The mountains loomed on the horizon, but otherwise the landscape was vast and flat, speckled with the occasional (very skinny!) cow or flock of sheep. As our 45 minute ride toward our first destination drew to a close, we started to get our first glimpses of llamas and alpacas, and were quickly schooled on the difference between the two. For what it’s worth, my takeaway was that llamas are taller with longer necks, and alpacas are shorter and fluffier.
Our destination that afternoon, and our first taste of Peruvian culture, was a site called the Sillustani Burial Towers. I’ll spare you all the history that we received on the pre-Incan civilizations that built the towers, but in general the thing that is most fascinating to me about ancient architecture is simply the level of effort combined with the attention to detail that allows these structures to stand the test of time. After thousands of years, you still can’t find an open seam between the monstrous blocks through which to slip a thin piece of paper.
After a short hike up to the towers, we also enjoyed the views while our guide told us about the island in the lake that holds a protected flock of vicuñas, a rare relative of the llama and alapaca family, and their caretakers. As luck would have it, we rounded the corner to find the caretaker with a 4 month old vicuña named Johann, which I was not about to pass up the opportunity to hold.
On our way out, we stopped by a café for a cup of local coffee, and to gaze at the local handicrafts in a small market. I also got to meet my first baby llama — this first day would start off a trend of me squealing at baby fuzzy animals when I was supposed to be enriching myself in ancient history.
After leaving the burial towers, we stopped by a local farm for a quick visit. Maria seemed to stop by often, and knew the drill — as soon as we pulled up, the lady of the house gathered the family and retreated into the compound to prep for visitors.
We entered the middle courtyard, and the woman emerged with a variety of home-grown and cooked potatoes, and some homemade cheese. It was an odd offering, to eat with our hands, but it felt rude to abstain, so we all shared a bite while she showed us around her home. The potatoes tasted like, well, potatoes, and the cheese was actually quite good! (I’m not a girl to say no to cheese…). Her and her husband also gave us weaving and farming demonstrations, while Anthony fed the kids chocolate and we checked out the guinea pig they were growing for dinner (!).
When we’d bid the family adieu, we were starting to get a little tired from travel, and ready for a proper meal, and headed to Puno where we checked into our hotel. Right on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at the hotel before we spent the rest of the evening drinking the obligatory pisco sours (the local beverage) and playing games in the lobby, reflecting back on our first full day in Peru.
Day three saw a tired group at our hotel buffet table. All of us had been kept awake by the sounds of dogs barking through the thin walls of our hotel. A cup of coka tea (made with the coca leaf — but it’s NOT cocaine — they love the stuff there and I thought it was quite nice myself!) and a good breakfast and we were off for more adventures.
Today, we loaded up into a boat and headed out to the Uros reed islands out on Lake Titicaca. We passed hundreds of small islands, each containing one or several families, living literally on the lake — their land and homes are all built by reeds found in the water, and have to be added to every three weeks, and reconstructed every couple of years. We enjoyed some time in one of these communities, learning about their lives, and observing their handicrafts, before they took us on a ride out on one of their reed boats. We visited the “capital” of the islands and got our passports stamped in this protected area.
From the reed islands, we settled in for a longer boat ride across the lake to another island, Taquile, a Unesco heritage site. After our two-hour boat ride, we hiked up a steep mountainside to round the island, discovering an idyllic and peaceful place with some of the happiest people I’ve ever encountered. As we meandered across stone paths on the sunny mountainside, among quaint farms and wandering sheep, we passed men knitting their traditional hats and women weaving while their babies rested nearby. It was a pretty serene setting and such a different way of life than we’re accustomed to, that it is hard not to wonder who really has it better. Could it possibly be these folks living in homemade lean-tos and virtually untouched by modern technology and consumerism, or those of us completely tied to obligations and electronics? Certainly not the last time I had such a thought during this trip, and it was an eye-opening exploration.
For lunch, we stopped at a small patio café for a well-received meal of quinoa soup, followed by fish, rice and potatoes, relaxing in the sunshine and overlooking the view of the surrounding water. After lunch, a quick hike back down the other side of the island brought us back to our boat, and a much-needed siesta as we sailed the two hours back to our hotel. We couldn’t resist another delicious meal in the hotel restaurant, and opted to stay in after such a busy day, rather than heading out into the rainy evening to explore the town of Puno. That night, Anthony and I were able to stay in a room across the hall, and had a much better slumber, ready to awake the next day for another flight — this time headed to Cusco! More to come in Part 2!