The final travel email before finally starting The Mochilera Diaries. Maybe meeting the lovely Alex from Alex in Wanderland was the final push I needed! Written from Cusco, Peru, December 15th, 2013.
“I knew you were all dying to know what I’ve been up to between Halloween and my arrival back in Cusco so here’s the follow-up email I promised.
“After Halloween, the group I’d been traveling with on and off since we met in Quito (a guy from England traveling solo, a pair of sisters also from England, a Dutch girl and an Israeli girl) parted ways. I still had things to explore in Peru, and they were heading for greener pastures (quite figuratively) in Bolivia. Well, my friend Matt stayed with me through one more city–my next stop, Puno.
“Puno sits on the northern shore of Lake Titicaca, “The World’s Highest Navigable Lake” (weird title) at 3,830 meters (12,556 ft). Lake Titicaca is the cultural gem of this region of Peru with several indigenous groups populating the islands (and building some!) on the lake. Puno itself is nothing to write home about, but having taken the advice of another friend, we planned our arrival to coincide with Puno’s anniversary celebrations, a 3-day festival jam-packed with parades, religious ceremonies, music and dancing in the streets at all hours of the day and night. This time around, Matt was the one with a limited schedule; he had a huge list of things to see in Bolivia and about 3 weeks to do it, so Puno didn’t merit more than a few days in his mind (or mine for that matter–probably less had we not been there during the festival).
“We booked a day tour to a few of the islands, the first being one of the many floating islands of the Uros people. This was one of the more fascinating things I’ve seen in Latin America. The Uros are a pre-Incan people who build islands using the roots and stems of totora, a reed that grows abundantly in the lake (which is also edible and less-than-delicious). They have to add fresh layers of reeds every week and their islands can last for nearly two decades. After some traditional songs, a demonstration of how the islands are built and a ride in a huge reed boat (for a gringo fee of 10 soles per person), we headed to the island of Taquile. This is a much larger island with a population of just over 2000; here, the men and women wear garments that indicate their marital status. The details of the women’s attire is escaping me at the moment, something to do with the size of the fluffy balls that dangled from their hoods. The men wore knitted hats, either of one single color (married) or two colors (single). The men exclusively do the knitting, and a poorly knitted hat could mean a man will never be considered eligible for marriage. They also employed an interesting system of finding a compatible mate…a man and woman will co-habitate for a trial period of 3 years…if they come out of this period and are still happy, they marry. If not, they separate and look for a better match (pretty logical, eh?). Oh, and of course they are obligated to marry if a child results from this trial period, as is many times the case. Ha.
“After Puno, I was left on my own to head to my next destination, the colonial city of Arequipa. A bit south of Puno and further west toward the coastal desert, Arequipa is blessed with gorgeous sunny weather most of the year. This was a very welcome change from the high altitude cold of all my previous locations and a bit of a trap for me. I ended up spending a week and a half in this beautiful city. I made some immediate friends in our shared cab from the bus terminal and spent much of my time with them, two lovely girls from New York, Zoe and Alex. We celebrated Alex’s birthday at an up-scale Peruvian restaurant called Zig Zag where I tried the most delicious alpaca steak and drank a cocktail from an ostrich egg. I don’t splurge often so it was fun to indulge for a special occasion.
“One of the main draws for tourists to Arequipa is its proximity to the Colca Canyon, a truly breathtaking place. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to a large population of condors, it’s a popular hiking destination. Alex happens to be a travel blogger and she has very wittily and eloquently chronicled our hilarious and haphazard trip into this unassumingly harsh environment, so if you’re NOT sick of reading yet, follow these links for more details about our adventure or even just to look at her lovely photography (I’m featured in a few).
“I parted once again with my new friends–Zoe flew back to her new job in New York (designing book covers for Penguin books…why didn’t I go to art school??) and Alex bussed back through the mountains to meet her Danish giant of a boyfriend in Cusco–but we promised to meet again a few weeks down the road. So far, Arequipa has been the southernmost point I’ve reached on this continent. I was actually only 6 hours from the border of Chile, which is NOTHING in South America time. But, I headed back north to the REAL desert of Peru to have a go at sandboarding. The hostel I stayed in is located on a tiny little oasis called Huacachina. It’s a literal oasis…surrounded by palm trees and towering sand dunes…a very surreal experience. The day I was supposed to hop in the dune buggy and zip down the dunes face-first on a slab of wood, I woke up feeling miserably ill for pretty much the first time since I’ve been traveling. Determined not to miss out, I guzzled water all day and lounged (fell asleep) by the pool (= sick + sunburnt) and managed to drag myself along with the group. I’m so glad I did- this was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done. I laughed, I cried, I ate sand, I weed myself a little. Amazing experience.
“Still feeling a little ragged, I was excited to have some quality time to recuperate in my next destination where I would volunteer at a hostel for a little more than two weeks. Paracas (or more accurately, El Chaco…Paracas is the name of the region) is on the Pacific coast, 4 hours south of Lima. I had contacted the hostel beforehand through a workaway site I joined before my trip and agreed to stay on staff for the minimum time of 2 weeks, with flexibility to stay longer. The hostel itself was gorgeous…covered in colorful and sometimes provocative artwork and right on the beach. In exchange for working 5 shifts per week in the bar, I got free accomodation 7 nights a week, a 40% discount on food and drinks and some free drinks on my shift days. It was fun learning some new things, including how to make two of Peru’s most famous cocktails (pisco sour and chilcano) and nice to save a bit of cash for a change. I made some amazing friends in my 2+ weeks in Paracas, learned how to slackline, and got a tan. I even got to see Alex again when she passed through with her man and some of his friends…it is ALWAYS nice to see a familiar face.
“Leaving Paracas was bittersweet as the hostel had come to feel like a home and a family, but El Chaco is absolutely miniscule and city girl here started craving the excitement and energy of something a bit larger. Cue: my return to Lima. This time I actually had the opportunity to get a feel for the enormous city, and as a cherry on top, my friend Katie from my travels in Colombia had FINALLY broken free of the amorous grip of the Colombian salsa instructor “boyfriend” she’d acquired in Quito, Ecuador, and had made it to Peru. We explored the city together and at times had the extra assistance of her couchsurfing host and felt accomplished at the end of the weekend.
“One horrendously long, sleepless bus ride and a couple B-grade movies later (couldn’t justify springing for a flight this time) and I’m back in Cusco. I’m currently taking 10 hours of one-on-one Spanish classes per week and patiently awaiting the arrival of some friends to ring in the new year, and loving being rooted in one spot for awhile.
“Ok I really think I’ve covered it all now. The tentative “plan” for after the new year is to head through Bolivia and northern Argentina to arrive in Buenos Aires around the end of February. That will probably change, but for now it’s my best guess. ¡Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo a todos!”