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  You are here: Home > Travel Stories > South America

Travel Story by Ian Reynolds

  Following the gringo trail in Peru

The locals on Taquile island

After a week in the mountains of Northern Peru it was time to head south to the desert regions and follow the well-beaten gringo trail. At Nasca I took a flight over the world famous 'Nasca Lines' as you do!

Straight lines, abstract designs and outlines of animals are etched on the dark desert surface revealing a lighter coloured soil beneath and are visible only from the air. Some designs represent a variety of giant animals, such as an 180m long lizard, a 90m-long monkey with an extravagantly curled tail or a condor with a 130m wingspan.

Images of birds predominate but there are also outlines of a whale, a dog, a spider and a tree. The lines were not 'discovered' until spotted from above by aircraft in 1939. They are thought to have been drawn by the Nasca civilisation (which reached its peak about 700 AD).

There have been numerous theories about why the lines were drawn. Maria Reiche, a German mathematician who spent most of her life studying the phenomenon, believed they formed part of a giant astronomical calendar. The more eccentric Eric Von Daniken attributes them to visitors from another planet.

As many of the lines are orientated towards water sources, many people now suggest that they are likely to be processional routes designed to be walked upon as part of the ritual worship of water (a very important commodity in the desert).

The best way to see the lines is to take to the sky. Flights over the lines leave regularly throughout the day on small planes, which take, between 3 and 5 passengers.

The 40-minute flight was quite bumpy with the pilot doing steep banks and turns in order for us to obtain a good view of the images. Several of the passengers felt sick and were unable to look down. As for me I thought it was terrific fun!!

The flight over the lines was combined with a visit to Chauchilla cemetery. Here you see bones, skulls, pottery shards and fragments of cloth dating back to between 1000 and 1300 AD. Mummies can be seen inside 12 open tombs below the ground.

From Nasca I took the overnight bus (Royal Class!) to Arequipa. Talk about comfort – it was easily the most comfortable bus I have ever travelled on. The seats were nice and soft and reclined all the way back which meant you could stretch out (as if in bed) and get a good night’s sleep.

Arequipa is well known for its glistening white buildings made from sillar, a white volcanic rock, which gives the city its nickname 'La Ciudad Blanca' or 'The White City'. The city is surrounded by three volcanoes including El Misti, still active at 5822m.

In Arequipa I visited the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. It’s not actually a monastery as the name suggests but a convent. The convent is a complete miniature walled colonial town in the middle of the city. There are flower filled gardens, spacious patios, granite fountains as well as arches and narrow streets. The tile-roofed buildings are painted in traditional white, brown and blue. About 20 nuns still live in a section of the convent, which once housed up to 500.

I also visited the museum where ‘Juanita, the ice princess’ is exhibited. This is the frozen body of an Inca maiden sacrificed on the summit of a nearby mountain over 500 years ago. In 1995 it was discovered almost perfectly preserved due to the icy temperatures. She is now displayed in a glass walled freezer under carefully monitored conditions.

Arequipa is a good base for taking tours to the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons. I arranged a two-day trip where I stayed overnight with a family in the small village of Yanque on the edge of the canyon. It was very peaceful with no other gringos around and I went for a nice long walk in the surrounding countryside. Beautiful unspoiled Andean villages line both sides of the canyon. There were great views of the smoking Sabancaya volcano, one of the America's most active volcanoes, and the many traditional pre-Inca agricultural terraces that line the steep valley sides. At the end of the walk I recuperated in the thermal springs.

The high point of the Colca Canyon trip was the early morning visit to La Cruz del Cóndor. From this natural observatory I was able to see into the deepest part of the canyon, and witness the majestic flight of the Andean Condor, rising on the morning thermals.

Next stop was Puno. I arrived at my hostel just in time to see England’s opening match of Euro 2004 against the defending champions, France. What followed was scarcely believable as England looked like holding out for a 1-0 win until the dying moments when they contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Zidane netted twice in the space of a minute to give France an undeserved win but England only had themselves to blame after another missed penalty by Beckham. Fortunately all the Euro 2004 games were televised live in Peru so I was able to keep up with events until my return home.

Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, is the main attraction that draws people to this part of Peru. This amazing deep blue lake, 195 km in length with an average width of 50 km, is the largest lake in South America and the largest in the world above 2,000m.

The main draw, the floating islands of the Uros people are constructed of many layers of reeds. Many of the inhabitants of the islands still practice the old traditions of fishing, trapping birds and living on the lake plants. The totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca are used for their boats, houses and to build the very islands on which they live. The result is a strange springy surface which requires care when walking - it's easy to put your foot straight through!

A visit to the islands can seem like a very commercial experience with the islanders’ main interest being your money. Many tourists have dubbed them the 'floating souvenir stalls'

Taquile and Amantani are much more interesting islands to visit. The latter is tranquil and unspoilt with no roads, vehicles or dogs! There are six villages and ruins on both of the island's peaks, Pacha Tata and Pacha Mama, from which there are excellent views. There are also temples and on the shore there is a throne carved out of stone.

I stayed with a family on the island of Amantani for one night. After dinner I dressed in the local attire and spent the night dancing with the locals in the village hall.

And then it was on to Cusco for the final leg of my Peru adventure.

Cusco, with its impressive Inca foundations and Spanish colonial architecture is a great base for which to visit Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and a host of other Inca sites in the area.

The first thing that hits the newly arrived visitor to Cusco are the Inca walls, enormous granite blocks carved to fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar beds. Many of the walls were simply built upon during the construction of a new Spanish city. It is a tribute to the Incas that their anti seismic design has survived the test of time while the Spanish colonial architecture has been rebuilt several times following a wave of earthquakes that have hit the city. It is an attractive city with an impressive cathedral that dominates the Plaza de Armas.

There is much to see and do in and around Cusco and many people end up staying longer than anticipated. A day was spent visiting the nearby Inca Ruins of Sascayhuaman, Qenko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay.

Then it was time to put the finishing touches to my preparations for the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail.

Click on photo to enlarge

Uros floating islands, Lake Titicaca  The Astronaut - Nasca Lines  Cusco

Date Submitted:
02 Apr 2007

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