Finally…..Columbia!

We have been dying to get to Columbia since just about everyone we have met has not stopped singing this countries praises. We also only managed to get our hands on a Lonely planet the day before leaving Ecuador, making our entry into the country even more suspicious as we really weren’t quite sure what to expect.

The actual crossing of the border is a pretty sketchy affair…we had read that the area around the border is actually quite dangerous particularly at night due to all of the bandits active in region; it’s for this reason we went through the border by day.

Since there are no international buses from Ecuador to Columbia, you have to get to the border towns and take taxis to and from either side, which in itself feels a little sketchy. It is made even more precarious with a handful of doggy characters flashing large wads of cash, pestering you to change some currency.

The small town of Ipiales is the first bus terminal you come to after crossing. It was there that Andre’s friend (who lives in Columbia) decided to send us an email letting us know that his friend was shot in the head by bandits that robbed her bus doing the exact same route only last week!

Given that we were only a couple of hours away from sunset we both secretly began to panic a fair bit, so decided to just get to the bigger town of Pasto before dark; continuing our journey through the cocaine region (where the FARC are present) by day the following morning.

[After hearing such a horrific story, I thought it would be a good idea to educate myself a little more about the FARC and more generally the guerrilla situation. Whilst I was aware that Columbia had been a ‘no go’ country for travellers in the past, I was surprised to hear that it has only been as recently as the past five years where it has been considered safe enough to actually travel through; even more alarming is that there are still large parts of the country (particularly in the mountainous regions) that remain off limits.

Before attempting to explain what FARC actually is, it’s important to understand a little about Columbia’s history which like most (in fact all) countries on this continent is full of bloodshed and violence; a direct result of the inequalities born from the Spanish conquest.

One would have thought that independence from Spanish rule (via Simon Bolivar in 1819) would have seen the end of oppression for the people of Columbia. Sadly the creation of two vehemently opposing political parties not only led to the demise of this great liberator but also planted the seed for a new inglorious page of Columbia’s history.

Fierce rivalry between the Conservatives (centralist tendencies) and the Liberals (federalist tendencies) resulted in a number of civil wars throughout the 19th century. The liberal revolt at the turn of the century turned into the Thousand Days War, resulting in the death of over 100,000; it also gave way to America effectively seizing control of Panama and with hindsight control over the entire continent with the building of the canal.

(side note: Gran Columbia had included Venezuela, Panama, Columbia and Ecuador during the time of independence)

The turn of the 20 th century also saw the most destructive of Columbia’s many civil wars, known as La Violencia which claimed over 200,000 lives lasting until as recently as the 1950’s. The incomprehensible brutality stemmed from generations of Colombians being raised as either Liberals or Conservatives, which to my mind, has helped shape this beautiful countries most recent era of terror. La Violencia had left over two thirds of the rural mestizo and indigenous underclass in poverty, widening the forever present gap between them and the wealthy hang over of the colonial era and so laying the foundations of the emergence of extremes groups of both sides.

The first of these groups to become more organised where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia (FARC),who were soon joined by other armed groups including fellow Marxist rival, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ECN).

As communism collapsed around the globe, the political landscape for guerrillas shifted increasingly to drugs and kidnapping as a source of finance with paramilitary groups being allowed to be involved with drug cartels as long as they kept after guerrillas…can you see the vicious cycle forming here!

The UN has stated that one in every 20 Colombians have become desterrados (dispossessed or displaced) since the 80’s, making Columbia home to more displaced persons than any other country except Sudan.]

Although the city of Pasto (in the heart of FARC territory) is set in a luscious green valley, this city is a bit of a shit hole which didn’t really do much for the shifty first impression we had.

Thankfully the next morning started off well with a great traditional breakfast; huevos pericos (eggs scrambled with tomato and onion) with baked plantain and my favourite so far, arepa ( a thick corn tortilla with melted cheese).

The journey through the south of the country to Cali was beautiful, passing some of the most dense tropical jungle we had seen.

Finally we were beginning to experience the Columbia we had heard so much about. This feeling was however short lived, since our coach was pulled over by a paramilitary group who were patrolling our particular stretch of the pan American highway.

Initially I thought they would just get on the bus and have a look at passports etc, however we soon realised that all the men where being asked to leave the bus for a search!

It was here where I would have preferred to have been a usual ignorant gringo, since I was overcome with fear in the thought that these men with huge guns were in fact a guerrilla group disguised as the military. Thankfully the solider didn’t notice the moistness as he asked me to spread em’ against the side of the bus!

Of course, Andre wasn’t even phased by the whole situation; even going so far as giving the soldiers attitude due to their rudeness!

Thankfully everything seemed to be in order and after about 15 minutes we were back travelling through the most stunning scenery with the most idyllic lunch time stop serving the most amazing food.

This was the view from our table

Although we didn’t manage to take a picture, we saw about 30 Andean condors (Columbia’s national animal) flying just over head as we ate lunch. This put us both in an even better mood, since we had been attempting to see such a large group since arriving in Patagonia.

Although we have only been in Columbia for a day, I think this is going to be one the places you simply dream about going to; creating some unforgettable memories

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Ecuador – a quick dash through

With the realisation that we haven’t really got that much time left and now also have a good part of Central America to get through, we have decided to be a little more vigilant with the places we choose to see, as such we only really spent 5 days in Ecuador.

Whilst there is a lot to do here it is all quite similar to what we have seen; preferring to get to Columbia to make our way to Caribbean Coast as soon as possible.

The first stop was to do a trek that is described as a highlight of Ecuador called the Quilotoa Loop. It’s basically a three-day trek in the Andes around a volcanic area known as Cotopaxi.

The trek combines various bus journeys to surrounding villages as well as a pretty tough trek up to the rim of a dormant volcano that has a beautiful emerald blue lagoon inside that the locals claim is bottomless.

Since we are still in the rainy season the valleys do get very overcast at times making visibility very poor. However, when there is a break in the clouds, the scenery is pretty breathtaking. The big difference with the Andes of Ecuador compared with other countries is, that they look more like the rolling hilltops of the countryside in the UK. Agriculture across the entire region gives it a beautiful patchwork look with miles and miles of varying shades of green.

One of the highlights was staying in a pretty lush hostel high in the mountains called Cloud Forest. As the name suggests you sleep in wooden cabin style rooms that along with the surrounding lush environment are engulfed in the clouds making for a mystical experience.

We decided to cut out the last day of the trek which was to a town called Zumbahua for a local market in order to make it up to Otavalo for their famous market .

This proved to be the right decision since this is the largest market in South America and a definite highlight of our trip. We had a 4am start from Quito to get there in time for the animal section of the market which was the most bizarre and authentic thing we have ever seen.

Andre on the other hand made a very bad decision with his choice in footwear that morning!

If you’re wondering why the are so many guinea pigs, it’s because they’re classed as a culinary delicacy across most of the Andes (called cuy). Sadly we didn’t manage to actually try it since it was really quite expensive in most restaurants.

After seeing and smelling as much as we could we tried a traditional breakfast which consisted of a chicken curry thing and rice!

The market takes over the entire town on Saturdays and sells pretty much anything and everything.

Seeing the Otavalenos in itself was worth the trip, since they have a very distinctive look; the men don’t cut their hair, looking more native American Indian than we have seen throughout the Andean region. As you can see from the pic below both the men and women have a distinct fashion sense.

Since we didn’t really spend that much time in Ecuador it was hard to dig too deep into the culture here, although as with all of the countries that surround the Andes, the culture is dependent on the altitude. Serranos (people from the mountains) and costenos (people from the coast) can spend hours telling you what makes them different (i.e better) than the other. Largely rooted in the historic rivalry between conservative quitenos (people from Quito) and the more liberal guayaquilenos (people from Guayaquil). Serranos call people from the cost manos (monkeys) and say they’re lazy and would rather party than keep their cities clean. Costenos, on the other hand, say serranos are uptight and elitist.

Ecuadorians are definitely some of the most friendliest people we have come across on our travels, who seem genuinely proud of their country, clearly happy to see foreigners enjoying it too.

Teh indigenous population makes up about 25% of all Ecuadorians, however there are a dozen distinct groups in Ecuador, speaking some 20 different languages. The largest are the Quichua of which the Otavalenos are one of the best known communities. Straddling the border to Columbia in the province of Esmeralds there are many Afro-Ecuadorian. descendants from the slave trade.

The capital Quito is divided into two; a historical centre and the new town which is where all the gringos seem to stay. Thankfully we stayed in the historical center which is really the only area worth spending some time in.

The Monestary of San Francisco is one of the most impressive buildings in Quito. It also shrouded in one of Quito’s most famous legends, that the indigenous builder cantuina, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to help him complete the church on time. The story goes that on the last day of the deadline, he removed one of the stones to keep it unfinished and so duping the devil; the pic above is my representation of what happened to him after having dealings with the devil…silly I know

Finally another interesting little fact is that one of the most widely played sports in Ecuador is volley ball, however they do have a slightly different take on the game since the net is about 3m high. This is supposedly to make it harder and stop people power slamming, which I find quite ironic since no man is taller that 5’6 and would have a pretty hard time power slamming anyway! (and before you say it I know that’s a little rich coming from me!)

Pan American highway

With another 39 hour bus journey to look forward to, I was delighted to finally get over the food poisoning that left me hugging a dirty toilet for the best part of the weekend.

Having spent the past 2 months zigzagging through the Andes, it felt like a real luxury to be on a flat straight coast line road where the nightly temperature doesn’t feel sub-zero as you attempt to sleep…usually unsuccessfully!

Those of you who have been following our blog will know from previous long haul journeys, something was bound to go wrong for us; this time it was the return of filthy Argentinian hippies that were the main source of our discomfort.

As usual we went for the cheapest company but thought we would spoil ourselves to what they called “Royal Class” being lucky enough to grab seats 1&2. Normally seats 1&2 on the top decks of busses tend to have the most leg room; an important requirement for my ergonomically challenged friend. However this bus was unlike any other we had been on before; the first two rows were replaced by a ‘communal area’ with our seats being the first row behind it.

Whilst space wasn’t an issue the animals that decided to occupy the area for the entire journey to Mancora from Lima were. There are many examples I could give to explain their complete disregard for others but I will resist the rant…let’s just say this time the bongo box was replaced with a flute!

This particular stretch of the Pan American highway (which connects the whole of the Americas, beginning in Seattle/USA and ending in Southern Patagonia/SA) provides some stunning scenery as it cuts through large sand dunes that plummet directly into the Pacific.

Given that we have been craving some more beach time since leaving Brazil we couldn’t resist a stop in Mancora which the Lonely Planet describes as,

” the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast…to rub shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set”

After traveling for so long we have learnt not to always trust what this supposed Bible says, preferring to make our own minds up after hearing about places from other travellers. The party loving travellers have all agreed with the Lonely Planet so we were prepared not to like the place but thought we should check it out first before completely driving through.

We literally stayed for a couple of hours to have a swim whilst waiting for our next bus across the border to Ecuador, which I think says it all really.

In hindsight we should have stopped off at a pop up beach town called Asia aka Km97. It is basically a series of white wash summer houses along private stretches of white beach where the elite of Lima come to party the weekend away with DJs setting up along the beach, with no restraint on how long or how loud they can play their tunes. Interestingly the entire town is literally only there for a couple of months of the year (Jan-Mar) giving it a true pop up status!

The border crossing into Ecuador was interesting in that there wasn’t really a border! Instead there is a pretty hectic town which I never quite figured out what country it belonged to? The whole experience was quite hectic and involved erratic back and forths between immigration offices and several squashed cab journeys – all under the patronage of a stressed Peruvian immigration support officer who seemed to be on a strict time limit! 1.5 hours later and we were on our final overnight leg to Quito.

Lima

At first glance, Lima looks nothing more than a sprawling city clinging precariously to dusty cliffs, engulfed by the vast shanty towns that overspill into the surrounding hills.

It’s for this very reason that most travellers simply pass through the city. Thankfully we were stranded there over the weekend in order to get our visa for Cuba which meant that we were forced to peel back the layers and enjoy the many different areas beyond the usual historic centre.

The Spanish founded Lima in 1533 naming it the City of Kings; making it their viceregal capital. Strictly speaking they re-founded it since there was an adobe indigenous settlement of over 200,000 people prior to their arrival. However as you can imagine given the importance of the city, a series of mud shacks simply wasn’t the correct image, so the city was completely rebuilt with some of the finest colonial squares, palaces and mansions.

Despite being devastated by multiple disastrous earthquakes as well as being ransacked by Chile during the War of the Pacific (1879-83) it remains truthful to the image its founding fathers had aspired it to be.

Luckily for us it was the city’s 479th anniversary that weekend which meant the Plaza de Armas transformed into an explosion of colour and music demonstrating Peruvian culture at its best.

In an attempt to be more factually correct, it was really only lucky for Andre and Helen since I was sick in bed for the best part of 48 hours, missing the entire celebrations thanks to a seafood Chinese meal at one of the many chifa restaurants in Chinatown.

To be fair, the food was actually amazing and cheap as chips; it was simply a bad judgement from my part to go for the seafood.

Since the city is so huge, getting around by foot is impossible (outside of the historical centre); with taxi rides being quite pricey we were delighted to discover a brand spanking new train line which was completely free in a bid to get the locals more familiar with using it. Given the novelty of actually using a train the locals seemed to ride it just for fun, taking pictures along the way, which obviously included pictures with the 6’5 blonde gringo that has hair on his legs!

The instruction leaflets handed out when you entered a station were equally amusing.

The city is playing catch up with its infrastructure since its population has dramatically ballooned from 600,000 in the 1940s to over 9 million today. A result of the influx of poor rural families seeking a better life, explaining the huge shantytowns that hold this otherwise beautiful city to ransom.

The area of San Isidro is home to just about every embassy; as with most other cities this area was like being in another country, full of modern buildings and beautiful country clubs with a thriving (and clearly wealthy) expat community.

The areas of Miraflores and Barranco which hug the cost line feel more like L.A than Peru. Obviously where the rich and famous live, these areas are full of swanky Michelin restaurants, clubs and shopping malls to appease the sea-view penthouse types as well as the American tourists!

The city is also rich in culture with hundreds of museums and galleries that can rival any other major city in the world.

Our favourite was the Museo de la Nacion which housed one of the most moving exhibitions I have ever been too; a must see for anyone going to Lima.The building itself is a great example 70s architecture with the harsh concrete rooms of the 6th floor being a sobering backdrop for the permanent installation called Yuyanapaq.

With most of our time sent in the above mentioned districts it’s easy to forget that Peru is still one of the poorest countries’ on the continent with the average Peruvian earning a mere $2 a day. Yuyanapaq brought the harsh reality of Peru’s tragic resent history crashing home. The name comes from the Quechua language meaning “to remember”and is a photography exhibition created by Peru’s Truth &Reconciliation Commission as a tribute to the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000.

It was the first symbolic reparation which played a significant role in the long road to national reconciliation. Any community that comes out of a history of violence faces, several dilemmas, one that is inevitable and radical:to remember and forget. However the expression on most rural people’s faces leads me to believe that things have not yet been forgotten and the 70,000 people who died have left behind a legacy of widows and orphans that will forever remember the atrocities that occurred during that period.

If you have been completely oblivious to Peru’s very recent history; which I was, I urge you to do some research on the origins of the conflict. Even after learning about it as I have, I find it hard to draw any conclusions or opinions as to who was is the right or who was in the wrong. It’s a complex and delicate history that is born from the discrimination of the indigenous people who although started with the most noble of intentions ended in tragedy for everyone. The sad thing is that in spite of all the bloodshed this discrimination is still ever-present in Peru today.

On a more lighter note the other standout museum was the MALI (Museo de Arte de Lima) which had a particularly insightful exhibition by Fernando Brice called drawings of modern history.

If these establishments weren’t enough to appease our thirst for culture enlightenment, our hostel (Hotel Espana) felt like a museum since it is an old mansion stuffed full of baroque art and the most stunning garden roof deck with what seemed like a whole zoo running around freely

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Sandboarding en route to Lima

Since my last few posts have seemed to develop into mini dissertations I am going to keep this one short and sweet.

With time against us we are going to make our way north as quickly as possible with Lima being out next stop. To break up the 22 hour bus ride we decided to take a one night stop over at an oasis called Huacachina.

The journey from Cuzco was pretty interesting since you literally feel like you have entered a different country after passing the Andes. Overnight the landscape seemed to go from lush green rainforest to dusty, desert mountains of sand!

It’s these huge sand dunes that are the main draw of Hucachina since you can sand board down them which is a lot of fun. Getting to the top of the dunes in gas guzzling beach buggies driven by crazy Peruvian was actually more fun!

The oasis itself is a bit of a shit hole that has been set up for the gringos. It’s about a 5 minute taxi ride from the next big town (Ica), the inhabitants of which seem to dump all their rubbish in the area. Unfortunately the place is full of plastic which blows across the dunes; one day stop over is more than enough in this place!

We decided to skip the town of Nazca since it looked pretty dead and is only really worth going to if you are interested in getting in a plane to see the world-famous Nazca lines.

These mysterious lines were created by the coastal Nazca culture (who are famed for producing highly decorative ceramics) and were largely ignored untill another American ( Paul Kosok) flew across the desert and noticed them etched into the earth. Initially he thought it was an Inca irrigation system; obviously there is more to them than simply watering the plants, but nobody really knows what their purpose is.

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Machu Picchu – Inca Jungle Trek

Given the popularity of the official Inca Trial we decided to take an alternative route up to Machu Picchu in an attempt to avoid the hordes of tourist and get a cheaper deal.

We ended up choosing a company called Adventure Peru based on the sales pitch of the English-speaking agent, which in hindsight should have been a clear signal to keep on looking. Whilst the organisation of the 4 days wasn’t bad I wouldn’t choose them again the second time round.

Our group consisted of seven male Argentinian pre-med students that could hardly speak a single word of English and a Chinese student originally from Hong Kong but studying in the US called Leo. Thankfully we had still been travelling as a threesome with our Australian friend Helen so could at least be our own little group within the group.

The thought of spending the next 4 days and three nights with this group was at first a “bit of a downer” but by the end of the trek we grew quite fond of the Argentinians who were like a merry band of brothers that really looked out for the group. I wish I could say the same for our dear friend Leo who was just a complete drag on everyone.

To be fair to him, he did come down with a fairly bad case of altitude sickness that saw him at times vomiting uncontrollably and not eating a thing for 3 days. After 3 days of complete silence from him and his constant moping around, the group had just about lost all patience, preferring that he just accepted defeat and bowed out of the trek.

At times I had to stop Andre from punching him at the dinner table when he would order the food only to move it around the plate whilst coughing over everyone and their food! Considering Andre is turning more into the Machinist with every passing week, wasted food is just a little bit of a slap in the face for him.

That’s Leo at the dinner table which is what he looked like for the most part of the trip. The most frustrating part of it all was that we found out on the last evening that he had a British passport and could speak fluent English! Clearly he was simply choosing to ignore our offers of help.

The tour was a combination of trekking and adventure sports including a 3 hour bike ride from the highest peak at San Luis (4350m) to our first stop for the night at Santa Maria (1250m).

Given that we had just done the most dangerous road in the world (La Paz) this wasn’t as impressive as you would have thought. However it did at times feel just as dangerous; parts of the road simply ceased to exist due to the many landslides that occur at this time of year.

If driving down along the cliff edge with the fear of a huge piece of the mountain killing you with one clean swoop wasn’t enough to cause an aneurism, coming up to the scene below was!

The thought of strapping myself into a car, driven by a crazy Peruvian and sailing our way through this fast flowing river didn’t sit very well with me. My state of mind was plunged further into disbelief after witnessing the cutest Labrador getting swept away by the force of the water into the abyss of the rapids below!

Whilst still being in a mild state of shock over what I had just witnessed there was some glimmer of hope as the little fella managed to save himself by seeking refuge on a rock.

The afternoon of day one was spent white water rafting down the Urubamba river which in parts has class 3/4 rapids. Andre was initially not going to do this part because of his back, however he strangely changed his mind at the last-minute. Can you see why from the pic below?

The first thing our guide said to us when getting into the boat was that it was a team effort which would had been fine if the team could speak the same language. After doing a dry run of some of the simple commands, I honestly thought we were doomed. Thankfully the international language of fear quickly brought us into sync.

The town of Santa Maria was our starting point for the two-day hike up to Machu Picchu. Our first stop was a lot sooner than we expected since it was only 5 mins up river at the original town of Santa Maria. Tragically in 1997 the town was devastated by huge landslides and the breaking of the river banks after 3 days and nights of heavy rain. The incident claimed 127 lives and displaced the entire town for years with many families being forced to live in tents for over a year.

I was surprised to learn that it took the government so long to come to the aid of its indigenous people, particularly since the town is so small and so not a huge financial burden on the state. The local guide then informed me that it was the same time that Chile had a huge earthquake; White government officials in Lima decided to deploy their resources there instead of helping their own. Alarmingly, it took over 10 days to begin evacuating people; which I thought was an interesting insight into the social divisions between the white criollos and local indigenous still present in modern-day Peru.

The remainder of the tour was spent hiking through the jungle along parts of an actual Inca trail. Although the first day trekking was the toughest with an 8 hour trek that at times felt more like rock climbing, it was the highlight of the tour, producing some of the most breathtaking scenery.

The picture above shows us walking an actual Inca trail which is only a small section of over 40,000km of trails that cover the former Inca empire. This network of trials that all seem to lead to the site of Machu Picchu was used as a form of communication across the empire.

The Inca had an army of trained soldiers called chasquis, who were basically trained runners. They were stationed across the trails and would run for 2km intervals similar to that of a relay race to deliver a message. It would take them just seven days to do the 1600km trip from Quito to Cuzco. Considering it’s taken us 4 days to do a mere 43km this is pretty impressive.

Although they didn’t have an actual written language, they had developed a form of a binary system using different coloured nuts on pieces of string . These coded messages on what’s known as a Khapu remain a mystery to this day.

The jungle around this area (called Pisspatue) was particularly beautiful since it was full of the most amazing flora with every type of exotic fruit imaginable, simply growing naturally along the side of the path. We quite literally ate our way through the trek; I could recognise mangos, oranges, papaya, avocado, bananas and pineapples but there was a whole host of fruit that I didn’t.

Thankfully our guide took sometime explaining a lot of the produce in this area which haven’t really changed since the times of the Inca.

Coffee – when the beans turn red they are harvested by hand before being skinned, cleaned and dried for 3 days before being roasted. Ironically a good coffee is hard to find in Peru and in the most of South America for that matter.

Corn – The Inca had developed over 300 types of corn which were nearly completed eradicated by the Spanish. Thankfully there has been somewhat of a revival with many being grown again by local farmers.

Cacao – which is the main ingredient for chocolate

Potatoes – Another staple in the Peruvian diet with hundreds of different varieties used for just about everything, even drinks.

The most interesting plant was the Acheote plant which has been used for centuries as a form of colouring. The red seeds are also used as a natural insect repellant and would be used to paint children’s faces in Inca times, supposedly to warn off evil spirits. Today the fruit is used in the production of lipsticks.

Given that I am probably boring most of you by this point, I will just mention one final plant that produces the Inca peanut. Inside this star-shaped fruit is a small nut which bizarrely tastes like fish! It actually has similar nutritional properties to fish with good omega oils. Farmers here are attempting to export this to the international market so look out for it in your local Holland & Barrett soon!

Being in the jungle I would have expected to see more animals than we did. We only really saw two which were obviously domesticated for the gringos on the trail.

This little fluffy thing is the second largest rat in the world called a Piccuro. It may not look like much now since this was just a baby but these can grow to the size of a dog!

Along the whole trek Andre seemed to be a magnet for the cutest little puppies which seemed to follow him where ever he went….after this trip I think we are edging closer to the next stage in life and settling down with a family…us and two dogs 🙂

The one type of dog we definitely won’t be getting is the pre Inca bread native to the Andes called Perron biringo or naked dog. Interestingly they are used by people who suffer from rheumatism and act like a live hot water bottle given that their body temperature is so much higher than normal dogs!

The final night was spent in a really touristy town called Aguas Calientes which is at the base of Machu Pichu. The walk up to the town felt like something out of the film stand by me since it requires you to walk up the train tracks through the valleys. With the twelves plugged into my iPod I marched through this 2 hour walk with ease.

The next morning was a very early start (4am!) to make the final climb up to the actual site of Machu Picchu.

Thankfully arriving at the entrance for 6.30 means that you can miss the bus loads of American tourist that seem to arrive on the site from 9.30 onwards. Unfortunately after taking 4 days to get there I had the squirts making for a pretty uncomfortable experience that morning 😦

We did a two-hour tour seeing the various temples and agricultural sectors of the site which to this day has a number of theories floating around regarding its purpose. Some believe the site was founded in the waning years of the last Incas in an attempt to preserve Inca culture or rekindle their predominance, while others think it may have already become inhabited, forgotten city at the time of the conquest.

The site’s director believes it was a city, a political, religious and administrative centre. Its location, and the fact that at least eight access routes have been discovered, suggests that it was a trade nexus between Amazonia and the highlands.

The site itself was only discovered about 100 years ago in 1911 by an American professor from Yale University called Hiram Bingham who was actually in search of another site called the lost city of Vilcabamba. Given its remote location and the secrecy of it from the invading Spaniards, it was pretty much unknown about. Although local farmers in this remote part had been aware of its existence, the extent of the lost city were only truly realised once they began excavating the site with the help of National Geographic.

Interestingly the government and Yale have been in a messy and length y legal battle over the return of over 300 artifacts that to this day are still sitting in the labs of Yale.

Whilst I won’t go as far as saying that this trek was a spiritual experience (like some other assholes I have met) it was to date the best one I have done and a must for anyone coming to Peru.

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Cuzco – Capital of the Inca Empire

One of the main reasons for choosing South America over any other continent when planning this trip, was in part due to the little I already knew about the famous Inca civilisation and a childhood dream of one day visiting Machu Picchu.

After arriving at Cuzco, I soon realised that the little I did know from the junior school history project I had completed over 20 years ago (my god that makes me feel old!) doesn’t even scratch the surface!

Cuzco is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on the continent and formed the centre of South Americas greatest empires. It’s name comes from the Quechua word qosq’o meaning the navel of the earth.

Following the fall of the Inca empire in 1533, the city had become just another colonial backwater town behind the new capital, Lima. However there is no doubt that it remains the countries undisputed archaeological capital.

The city itself is set within a sacred valley which carves through the surrounding lush green Andes, providing some of the most picturesque and somewhat mystical city scenes we have seen so far.

The city is equally as beautiful by night given that it positively glows, showing off some of the most ornate architectural detail that can revival that of any major European capital.

My first night there was spent at the Loki hostel; those of you in the know will understand why that led me to ending up in a local night club, ‘the Groove’ to do just that until the early morning hours. After actually missing out on a whole night sleep and realising that I was the oldest person in the room by some considerable margin, I finally came to my senses and checked out to join Andre in a more relaxed hostel in the heart of Cuzco’s artistic neighbourhood, San Blas.

The main reason for coming to Cuzco is to begin a trek to Machu Picchu to see the famous Inca ruins. The only problem with this is that so does the rest of the world! The only downside to this beautiful city is that it is simply overrun with two week holiday makers, community gays, fat Americans and loved up Essex couples who will of course return to the UK either engaged or expecting their first child!

The Peruvians have also taken every opportunity to capitalise on this, with just about everyone trying to sell something to the thousands of gringos that seem to only stay within a few blocks of the main Plaza del Armas. It’s this very square that gives the Peruvians the reputation of treating the tourists as ATMs.

The most striking thing for me was the fact that, what remains of the Inca architecture in Cuzco simply bewilders that of the Spanish conquistadors . Its ingenuity and pure simplicity makes for some truly elegant buildings with the most precise stone work I have ever seen.

The city also appears to be the most gay friendly city in the world since every establishment seems to have the gay flag on it!

We later found out that the flag was in fact that of the Incas!

Before beginning the 4 day Inca Jungle Trek (which we just booked once we got there for half the price we were quoted online) I thought it would be wise to do some background reading on the Inca Empire.

Given that I had not heard of any other civilisation in the ‘New World’ apart from the Incas, I was surprised to find out that it was only really in the last 100 years before the arrival of the conquistadors that they had become a truly formidable empire. Up until the reign of the 9th Inca (king) Pachacutec, the Incas had only really dominated a modest area close to Cuzco.

I was also surprised to discover that there were many other local civilisations prior to the Incas that dominated, namely the Chavin, the Wari, Chimu and the Chan Chan to name but a few. The reason why little is known of these other civilisations is because they didn’t seem to actually write anything down and so disappeared once preceded by the next ruling power.

The only reason we have so much information (although by no means complete) on the Incas is because the invading Spanish chronicled everything.

In the most part the growth of the Inca Empire is similar to that of any, in that it involves an awful amount of bloodshed. However, the most interesting part for me is the epic way in which it drastically fell with no real resistance to the invading Spaniards!

By the end of the 11th Inca (Huayna Capac) the empire hand reached as far north as Quito, Ecuador. He unexpectedly died, presumably from one of the many new European diseases such small pox which swept down from Central America, ironically reaching the Incas before the Spanish actually did. Similar to any good Roman Empire epic, the king split the kingdom into two for his two sons to rule over. As with any good sibling rivalry, neither really wished to share power and so an Inca civil war ensued.

Whilst this was going on, Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro had marched into northern Peru and was making his way south to Cuzco without any resistance since the two brothers were far too busy to worry about a small band of foreigners. A fateful meeting between Francisco and the ruler of the south would prove to change the course of South American history.

The brother (Atahualpa) was captured with thousands on indigenous people killed by the superior horses and weapons of the Spanish. Despite offering a room full of gold and silver taken from temple walls, he was murdered anyway. What followed was a series of so-called puppet Inca emperors with a few minor attempts at rebellions until the full power of the was Spanish army was in force and they turned their attention to building their new capital in Lima.

The only other real momentous event that has effected Cuzco was the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 which turned the city from a quite provincial town into Peru’s fore most tourist hub.

I can also personally confirm that this is a massive tourist hub since I fell into the biggest tourist trap there is. Being a city boy I couldn´t resist taking a picture with what I thought was a baby llama…it was in fact a goat and this picture cost me more than a meal!

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Arequipa & Canyon Country

Our first real experience of modern-day Peru was the southern city of Arequipa. Coming from the small towns of Bolivia and more specifically Lake Titicaca, it felt strange to be in such a huge city again.

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, known as the Ciudad Blanca (White City) due to the grey/white volcanic rock used to build the beautiful colonial buildings that occupy its historical centre.

The city itself is surrounded by some of the wildest terrain in Peru. This southern tip is a land of active, snowy volcanoes, high altitude deserts, thermal hot springs, last but not least the world’s deepest canyons.

A trek down the worlds largest canyons is the main reason for coming to Arequipa, as such we didn’t really spend too long in the city itself. Even though it was a relatively short stay it was a city that played host to a number of ‘…first time that has happened…’ experiences.

It was the first time we were actually able to eat some vegetables since coming to South America! Coming from Bolivia, which has to have just about the worst food on the continent, we were delighted that all the great things we had heard about the food in Peru where in fact true!

It was also the first earthquake I had ever felt! The area is known for its seismic activity and regularly experiences earthquakes, which is in fact one of the reason for all the buildings only being one story high.

Finally it was the first time we were lucky enough to stumble on a military procession which made the already beautiful Plaza de Armas even more memorable.

Cola Canyon is about 6 hours from Arequipa, requiring you to spend the night at a small rural village at the top of the Canyon called Cabanaconde. The journey itself was pretty interesting since we passed through a village that was having a big festival where the surrounding towns compete in a traditional folk dance.

Given that public transport between the towns is pretty scarce, the bus was completely overtaken with drunken revellers attempting to get home which proved to be an interesting insight into the culture of rural Peru.

As in Bolivia the women in these parts wear traditional clothing (although not as religiously as in Bolivia) which is very different to what we had seen previously. This particular region of Peru is occupied by two conflicting groups, the Cabanas and the Collague. They used to distinguish themselves by performing cranial deformations. Thankfully these days they prefer to simply wear differently shaped hats.

In the Chivay areas east of the canyon, a White hat is worn usually made of straw and embellished with lace, sequins and medallions.

Whereas the women that occupy the West end of the canyon wear rounded hats made from painstakingly embroidered cotton.

As you can imagine given the festivities, the bus soon stank of alcohol which clearly both the men and women are particularly fond of. The men (as with Bolivia) were completely paralytic and all seemed to act like teenagers; the women were no better either, giggling relentlessly like group of japanese girls.

The canyon itself was pretty spectacular; being 100km long set among volcanoes that are over 6300m high, the canyon can reach depths of over 3000m, making it the second deepest canyon in the world! Second only to neighbouring Canon del Cotahuasi which is just over 150m deeper. To put this into context both are amazingly twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the US.

At the base of the canyon is a beautiful oasis which was home for a night after spending nearly three hours making the steep decent down to the bottom.

It was the type of accommodation that caused the first of many arguments since Andre felt that it was far to touristy for his liking preferring to solider on through the canyon to the next remote town on the other side.

Helen (our new traveling friend) and I preferred to stay put for the day, topping up the tan by the pool which was set amongst the most beautiful backdrop.

Ironically they next town ended being too far away for even GI JO Andre to make within the same day meaning that the stubborn mule had to return and spend the night anyway!

Since our next place would be Cuzco (to do the famous trek up to Machu Picchu) we decided to skip out the remaining circuit of the canyon which would have taken the best part of the next two days and made our way back up the way we came down. This proved to be one of the hardest treks I have ever done (considering it was really a vertical climb of over 1000m) which as you can imagine didn’t do much for the tensions between us! Not withstanding the tensions between Andre´s spinal discs which took a pounding on the way up nearly forcing him to quit. Thankfully I was there to save the day and carry both the bags for us:)

A bus delay of over 4 hours, topped off with the bus needing a new tyre half way through the journey back meant that we missed the last night bus back to Cuzco requiring us to spend another night in Arequipa.

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Bolivia – the beggar seated on a throne of gold

Leaving Bolivia was a bitter-sweet experience, since I have had a truly amazing time traveling through this geologically diverse country over the past month (it has been, by far my favourite country in South America).

As I crossed the border into Peru (to the town of Puno) I was surprised with how little things had really changed, everything felt extremely familiar; there were the same markets in similar looking towns, with women wearing pretty much the same traditional wear.

After learning more about the Lake Titicaca area I began to understand why. It’s not that as countries, Peru and Bolivia are or ever have been similar; they have simply shared the same beginning.

Until the arrival of the Inca civilisation (surprisingly only 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1531) the entire area surrounding the Andes was effectively made up of many different indigenous tribes (some of which, although small, were civilisations in their own right).

The Incas were the first of these many different tribes to actually expand and build an Empire (something the Europeans had been doing thousands of years prior). The United Kingdom of Peru actually included Bolivia (known as Alto-Peru) and spread as far south as Chile and as far north as Columbia.

Given that the Incas beliefs were very similar to that of Bolivia ( the Tiahuanaco people) in that their gods had risen from Lake Titicaca, I can understand how such a unification was possible and why I have noticed so many similarities.

However, as I traveled further into the interior of Peru, I have quickly realised that culturally they are in fact very different. My initial impression is that the Peruvians are generations ahead; dare I say it, more civilised even.

This has led me to want to attempt to understand why there is such a divergence between these two countries. Given that a country is really its people, I thought a good place to start would be to understand the Bolivian Culture.

I apologise now for such a wordy blog update (it does go on and probably doesn’t read very well) but it is my attempt to try to understand why Bolivia (the poorest country in South America) is what it is today based on what I have seen and my experiences here.

When we first entered Bolivia from the southern region of the Atacama desert , we had a very different impression of the Bolivians than we do now. Our first exchanges with the locals were by no means pleasant ones. Initially we thought they were simply a reserved and shy lot, however we soon began to feel that they were simply extremely rude. I would even go as far as saying that some were in fact racist towards us; giving us the distinct impression that they didn’t want us there and were not fussed about our business.

This type of reception, in addition to some other observations (listed below) led me to a fairly harsh initial conclusion; that Bolivia is the poorest nation on the continent for no other reason than the Bolivians themselves.

1. Generally we felt that there was no real business acumen; in spite of all of the produce and the thousands of markets around the country, everyone is selling the same products at the same prices, with no one willing to negotiate on price. It’s no wonder that the business is spread so thinly across every market trader which in turn keeps them all poor.

2. Their unwillingness to open up to the rest of the world has left them isolated. Having seen first hand how rich the country is, in terms of its natural resources, I couldn’t understand why the country was not exporting more and riding the wave with the rest of South America. After spending time here and seeing the many different protests about pretty much anything and everything, I got the distinct impression that the general public see most foreign trade as the selling of their riches that should be kept for their own people and no one else, irrespective of whether they have an internal demand for it or not.

3. With such strong protests regarding national resources, you could easily be mistaken to believe that Bolivians are really patriotic with a true respect/concern for their wonderful land.

This I can tell you is not the case at all; we have been appalled by the way we have seen locals treating their environment. Some of the most naturally beautiful places in the world are covered in litter with no attempt or desire to clean it up. Towns and cities across the country simply dispose of all their garbage at the end of town. Now before you think that this is simply bad management by the state (which of course in part it is) the people themselves piss and shit everywhere, even in their own rivers!

4. As a people they only appear to be looking out for themselves and have no sense of civic duty. Bolivians are not simply one race, the country is a complex mix of many different indigenous groups which have all had some form of infighting over the course of the country’s history. As a result there is a huge amount of prejudice internally, especially between the Cambas (lowlanders) and Kollas (highlanders).

5. A lost generation of men? The men of the country don’t seem to actually do anything. Whilst I appreciate that this is a huge generalisation, we have only really seen the women actually working (i.e in the markets, in shops etc). The men simply seem to sit around and get completely shit faced on 98% alcohol on a daily basis. What’s even more bizarre is that it seems to be totally accepted with mothers and wives somehow encouraging it! A Bolivian man is very much a mothered child. From the day he is born to about the age of 6 he is held close to his mother (using traditional cloths tied around their backs). This I believe sets the foundations for a lazy man; every child should be walking on their own from the age of 4 at the latest!

However, over the course of the month (as we moved further north), we had begun to see a very different side to the Bolivians; beginning to understand them more with every local interaction. Ironically, despite our first impressions (which are still valid) we have left Bolivia with a real appreciation of the locals and their rich, fascinating culture. I would even go as far as saying that it was the actual people who were the highlight of the time we spent here. Which when you consider the many natural wonders of the world found here, is a true testament to the people of Bolivia.

If you think this sounds like a massive contradiction; you’re right it is! The country is one big contradiction hence the reason it is known as ‘the beggar seated on a throne of gold’.

In order to even attempt to explain this further I think it’s important to understand a little more about the history of Bolivia.

Since independence in 1825 via liberator Simon Bolivar, it has shrunk to a quarter of it’s size at just over a million sq km, with only 8 million inhabitants that earn as little as $2 a day.By way of comparison, Germany fits into Bolivia three times having in excess of 80 million inhabitants earning over $80 a day.

Two major defeats have helped define Bolivia’s national identity, the loss of the access to the pacific to Chile in 1879 and the loss of the Chaco region to Paraguay half a century later.

Ironically these important loses helped to finally unify and integrate its indigenous minority to finally become a true nation-state which is still really in its infancy.

Another important consideration, is the fact that at any given time, up to one-third of the Bolivian work force has been dependent on the coca industry. With the help of a fascinating Coca Museum in La Paz, I began to understand why the country’s history and the culture of its people is so interlinked with that of the humble Coca plant.

As you can imagine, given that there is a dedicated museum to this one plant, there is an awful amount of information to get through. In light of its importance in understanding Bolivia today, I have attempted to pullout the main points below.

Coca

The coca leaf dates back well before the conquest of the Incas some 4500 years ago.During the Incas, the coca leaf was the centre of magic-religious activities.

It was used by the Spanish to support slavery since they found that the chewing of coca leaves stimulated the starving slaves and gave them relief from their pains becoming known as ” the secret potion”. Ironically, before the Spaniards had realised it made the indigenous slaves work harder, it had been band since they considered it to be satanic and an obstacle to Catholicism.

The Spanish even went as far as making its consumption obligatory by the mine workers who were forced to work 48 hour days without adequate breaks or food, other than the coca leaves to chew.

(the chewing technique has been developed over the last 4500 allowing the consumer to extract over 90% of the leafs contents by adding an alkaline substance (llycta) to the mix)

As with most things, the Spanish conquistadors seized control of coca production, requiring the indigenous people to effectively sell their souls to the devil to obtain it.

During modern times, coca’s stimulating and anaesthetic attributes became known world-wide, becoming transformed into one of the primary pharmaceuticals employed. This paved the way for history to effectively repeat it self as Bolivia’s secret conquistadors scrammed to seize control of its production once again. Although land was given back to the indigenous once Bolivia became a republic, control of the coca remained in the hands of foreigners, as it did in colonial times.

In 1886 coca formed the main ingredient of a soft-drink launched in the U.S.A by Dr. John Pemberton called Coca-Cola. Interestingly it was Dr Sigmund Freud who was the first cocaine (in which a paste derived from coca leaves is treated with kerosene and refined into powder) user in history (1884) which helps explain a lot!

The fate of Andean villages effectively did not change – instead of coca being controlled by the Spaniards, now it was large multinational corporations who controlled it.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t big business that gave coca production back it’s “satanic” reputation. That was due to the laws of the United Nations and the “Harrison’s Law” in the U.S.A which prohibited the legal use of cocaine in 1914.

However, it was only really since the 1950s that the actual coca plant was considered harmful to society, after an American banker (Howard Fonda) declared that “…the chewing of coca is responsible for (mental slowness) and poverty in Andean countries”….which of course is a preposterous statement to make, but then again it doesn’t surprise me considering he is an American banker who probably worked for Goldmans.

What was even more ridiculous was that the United Nations decided at the Geneva conference in 1961 that coca should be eliminated based on this one bankers absurd theory! Of course they allowed the continuation of its growth by industry (for the obvious monetary benefit of their own nations).

This set the stage for the “War on Drugs” (which was fuelled further by the crack epidemic in the U.S in the 1980s ) which I feel has played a crucial role in Bolivia’s modern-day culture. If foreigners know one thing about Bolivia and its neighbouring countries, it’s their affiliation with the coca leaf and the refinement and trafficking of cocaine. It is far and away the most lucrative of Bolivia’s economic mainstays; estimated to generate more that $1B a year, of which less than half actually stays in the country!

‘The U.S represents 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes 50% of the cocaine that exists on the planet.’

It’s should then be no surprise that the U.S has given Bolivia hundreds of millions of dollars in form of credit to fund the Bolivian anti-drug policy. I find it somewhat ironic that the Bolivian police, who have already limited resources of their own, are forced to rely on international aid in order to enforce a Geneva Law! Even more ironic is that the actual problem of cocaine exists outside of Bolivia!

Interestingly the chemicals used to actually make cocaine are illegally imported into Bolivia by well-known, legal manufactures in the U.S and Europe! These companies deliver the chemicals directly to the drug manufacturing plants in the Bolivian jungle. Without them being delivered through Bolivia’s international airports, there is little the police can do to counter the import of the chemicals and so the production of the actual drug. If this war on drugs is really focused on getting to the root of the problem, why isn’t more being done to regulate the production of the actual chemicals?

It also makes me question the war on drugs in general. For the first time in history, our society has prohibited an illness ( that being drug addiction) and even declared war against it, using guns and entire armies perhaps causing more deaths than the illness itself. I can’t help but think this is really a war driven by big business that with the help of governments goes on under the disguise of the drug being enemy.

Is it any wonder that the people of Bolivia are weary of the outside world; a world that has only ever raped the indigenous community of their country. On top of this the Westernisation of the cities and towns are threatening their unique indigenous culture. The west’s growing appetite for cocaine is also one of the main reasons for the insane amount of corruption within the government. The corruption is at every level of government and the police force and is crippling this country. I honestly do believe that this is one of the major factors causing Bolivia to be behind the rest of South America.

The pics below paint an interesting take on this particular issue.

Within this context when evaluating my initial conclusion; If a society has no real democracy and foreign involvement tends to be at the root of most problems, it is easy to understand why characteristics I had previously outlined exist. Yet in spite of this I have the culture here to be a loving and welcoming one where people simply crack on with the situation at hand, making the most out of it.

They say a picture paints a thousand words so although I have probably written over a thousand, I will finish this post with a beautiful mural that I have seen in La Paz which really does help explain why Bolivia is what it is today.

Lake Titicaca

After burning the candle at both ends in La Paz, a couple of days rest in Lake Titicaca was a welcomed change. We headed south with Helen (Oz) and Amy (Kiwi) on short bus ride which was to set the tone for the next 3 days since we seemed to laugh the entire way; usually at Amy’s uninhibited traveling style as well as her inability to start a sentence…and not just in Spanish!

I won’t even attempt to try to explain why the entire journey was so funny because you simply had to be there; the one thing I will say is that Amy’s wacky tobacco had a part to play 🙂

Funny Amy

Even without the smoke, it is hard not to find this place truly amazing. Set high in the Andes, the lake feels more like the ocean which is totally trippy considering you are at over 3800m above sea level!

Covering an area of over 8500 square meters; 170km in length and 60km in width (making it the second largest body of fresh water on the continent) you can see why it has always been seen as a somewhat of a mystical place.

The pre-Inca people believed that both the sun itself and their bearded, White leader, Viracocha had risen out of its mysterious depths ( FYI in parts it’s as deep as 250m), whilst the Incas believed it was the birth place of their civilisation.

The lake sits in between Peru and Bolivia; split 60/40. Our first stop was on the Bolivian side to a town called Copacabana. Whilst the beach doesn’t even compare with its namesake in Brazil, it is still a charming place that is centred around a large moorish style cathedral.

Interestingly there is a daily ritual that brings in Bolivians from all over the country known as Benedicion de Movilidades, which directly translated, means blessing of the automobiles. It is a truly colourful affair that sees a monk/priest bless the cars which have been decorated with flowers for a mere £1 donation….the locals call it their insurance policy which is quite ironic considering no one here actually has insurance!

The other main reason for the influx of Bolivian tourists is to climb to the summit of Cerro Calverio which has become somewhat of a pilgrimage since there are 12 stations on the way up (which I think represent the 12 apostles or some form of commandments…kind of got lost in translation) which they all pray to. Specifically around New Year, people pray to the household god called Ekeko by offering miniatures of items them would like to acquire during the following year. As with most things in Bolivia it involves a lot of alcohol and coca leaves supposedly as offerings to the god!

All I want for Christmas is a big house and a car!

Any excuse to have a drink!

Most travellers only treat Copacabana as a means to get to the Isla Del Sol which is about a 3 hour boat ride from there. Before I move on, I just have to mention that whilst there isn’t an awful lot to do there, it’s a must if only for the amazing trout you can eat from the little restaurants on the beach; without a doubt the best fish I have ever tasted.

We spent one night, two days on the Isle del Sol, which was absolutely beautiful and the birthplace of the funniest night I have ever had in my life as well as the best pizza I have ever tasted. Again whilst the great company had a lot to do with it, the tobacco from the Argentinian hippies helped set the foundations.

The island is also thought to be the birth place of just about every god including the sun it’s self. To this day most Aymara and Quechua people’s believe this is the place where they were all created.

You can see why from the pics below;

The journey back to the mainland was the only downside to the excursion since we were trapped on what can only be describes as an oversized paddle boat with the scummy leftovers of a hippie NYE festival that took place on the island. Despite being surrounded by clear, natural waters, these dreadlocks (French/Argentinean) folk had clearly not bothered to wash for some time, preferring to chant ridiculous songs along to the monotonous sound of their silly drums.

If this wasn’t enough to kill me, the choppy waters were! Even though it is a lake, there were parts of the journey around the northern side of the island that were as voracious as the ocean. To say I was shitting myself is an understatement; the only way I managed to get through it was to plug-in some of the calming sounds of Adele in an attempt not to scream. As you would expect, Andre wasn’t even phased by the entire situation, preferring to simply lay out on the front of the boat (outside of the safety barrier I might add!) getting sun burnt as he slept his way through the entire saga.

After that experience I was grateful to be leaving Bolivia for the Peruvian side of the lake since I had heard that their safety record for things like this is a lot more robust.

After crossing the border (which you had to do by foot) the next town along was Puno, which we had heard was no real beauty. Given that the bus was over two hours late (mostly due to the standing around at the border) we decided to spend the night and head to the first major city in Peru (Arequipa) the following day.

The only real thing to do in Puno is to see the floating islands in the middle of the lake. We had heard that they were massively touristy these days and so Andre and Helen decided to get an early bus to the next city. Given that we were already there and that I am more of a ´box ticker´ than Andre, I decided to stay on with Amy to see them and then join Andre and Helen later that evening.

The islands themselves were really interesting, although the rumours of them being a tourist trap where true. There are over 2,500 inhabitants on these floating islands made from reeds, which in addition to being the main building material are also eaten when green as their main source of calcium.

There are 40 separate islands, each of which will have between 10-15 families living on each one. They live as a commune, electing a President of each island who will represent the families. There are two primary schools on the islands with teachers travelling daily from Puno. Given that secondary school and university are on the mainland, this culture is sadly slowing dying out with every generation.

The main mode of transport as you would imagine is by boat which are also made from the reeds. These days they have modernised some what given that they also have motor engines. The government also gave each family a solar panel about 5 years ago which means that each house now has electricity.

The locals told us that they move the islands every year during high tide since they need to be in the shallower waters to ensure that they do not simply float away. The reeds are added to daily and go down as far as 10 meters with the roots of the reeds (which float) used as the foundations.

This particular island had a trout farm in the middle of the island, however due to the pollution the fish levels have fallen dramatically over the years, which in addition to the modernisation and the effects of tourism are unfortunately threatening their unique way of life.