Heading Home from Peru

We knew the drill very well by now.  If we were with a Gate1 tour, and if we were traveling to another place and another hotel, we would have to put our suitcases outside the door by a predetermined time in the morning for pick up by the bellboys.  This time would be well before we actually left the hotel.   When we returned to the rooms after breakfast, the bags would be gone. The next time we saw them would be at the next hotel room.

We went through the routine for the last time during this trip to Peru.  And then we went down for breakfast.  I should mention that breakfast in this hotel included quinoa juice, something we had not tasted at any of the other places that we had stayed in.  People seemed to like it, but I could not handle the somewhat glutinous consistency of the drink and the way it felt in my mouth.  To each his own.

It was another early start for the day since our flight to Lima was from Juliaca, the town we had passed through on our way by bus to Puno, and the flight was scheduled to depart mid-morning.

Juliaca, uniformly, has a very bad reputation as a city for tourists.  It is generally  recommended that tourists not linger there longer than necessary. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get out of town quickly.   It is apparently a place for smugglers. Street crime seems to be a significant issue.  The city government is not very functional.

Puno is a tourist town because of its location, but Juliaca still has a larger population.  We were told the the airport was in Juliaca and not Puno because of the geography of the area.  Another article mentioned politics as a reason for the location.  In any case, the airport is small, and there are very few flights out of it.  The whole place was almost empty when we showed up for our LATAM flight.

The only commercial airports that are at a higher altitude than the one in Juliaca are in China and Bolivia.  Juliaca also has the longest runway in South America.  This is because of the altitude.

We ended up being joined at the airport by another tour group from Gate1 that was heading back to Lima. (There was a suspicion that these folks were a part of a more expensive tour package, and that they might have stayed in the prison/hotel in Puno.)  Gate1 customers took up a significant number of seats on this flight.

The security process was a little different than I am used to during recent travels.  The security check was in a small space, and the single scanning machine was apparently not very sophisticated.  I had to open up up my computer bag and all of its pockets to show what I had in it.  But they did not create a hassle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASitting in our aircraft seats prior to departure, we noticed a few sheep being loaded into the cargo compartment.  What fate awaited them in Lima?

The aircraft departed the terminal area without having to to be pushed back. It turned around and headed straight for the runway.  And then the aircraft was rolling down the runway.  And we kept rolling down the runway as if we were going to remain on it for a while.  Finally, after about 40 seconds, the plane gently lifted off the ground.  I know the time because I measured it.  (We had been warned about what to expect ahead of time!)  It all had to do with the thin air at that altitude.

It was an uneventful flight over the Andes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon, we had landed in Lima, and we were back to sea level – breathing in the heavily oxygenated, but perhaps more polluted, air.

By the time we got from the airport to the hotel and had our lunch, there was not much time left for further explorations of Lima. We took a walk along the cliff that ran along the coastline at Miraflores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It was going to be difficult to get down to the beach itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked to a supermarket not too far from our hotel to buy some local goods.  Got some Kiwicha for breakfast and local chocolate bars.

Back at the hotel, we got on a bus and headed out to a restaurant for our final dinner as a group.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe said our goodbyes back at the hotel.  We had made a few friends during the trip.P4270471.jpgOur tour manager was also heading home to be with his family in Cusco.  He would not be seeing us off at the airport.

We had to leave the hotel before well before daybreak in order to catch our early morning flight to Orlando, Florida.  We were accompanied to the airport by a local agent from Gate1.  Everything went smoothly.  I was surprised that the aircraft that we flew out of Peru on was a small one.  It was packed with kids, most probably headed out to see Mickey and friends.

With customs and immigration taken care of after landing in Orlando, we were back on ‘Merican soil.  There was a vague sense of being back in a familiar, and even comfortable, place,  but the sense of adventure and expectation that comes with being in a new place had also come to an end.  You could feel the senses immediately beginning to dull.  The rest of the trip was going to be very predictable – even if there were any issues that cropped up during the rest of the trip home.

We got back home in time for dinner.  There was nothing in the fridge that could be consumed immediately. Our regular standby, California Tortilla being closed, we had to settle for the 24 hour Wendy’s close to home.

And then it was over.

But the memories of this exciting trip will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

The Bus Ride to Puno

Our room on the fourth floor of the hotel had views of some of the mountains surrounding Cusco.  This is what daybreak looked like.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was going to be one of the longer travel days of the trip.  We were about to go on a bus ride that was expected to take about 8 hours.  We were going from Cusco to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The trip started off in a small bus that was to take us to Gate1’s bus depot closer to the edge of town.  It seems that their bigger buses were not allowed into the area of town where the hotel was located.  We were going to transfer to a bigger bus at the bus depot.

Here are some street scenes along the way.  Billboards like the ones below are a characteristic of cities all over the world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Inca Kola, advertised on the delivery truck below, is the national soft drink of Peru. For some reason or other, the significance of Inca Kola to the Peruvians had not been noted by the tour manager or any of the guides.   Some folks from our tour group did try the drink during this visit.  The general consensus was there was nothing noteworthy about it.  Maybe the management had a good reason not to talk about it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could not help but notice the mess of cables on the lampposts lining the city streets.  This is fairly typical, not just in Peru, but in many developing countries.  I have no idea how people keep track of where particular cables go, and for what purpose.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was surprised by the size of Gate1’s bus depot when we arrived there. There were many vehicles in the facility, pointing to the existence of a very big operation out of Cusco.  The bus that we got on for our onward trip to Puno was big and comfortable.  It even had a restroom that we could use while the bus was moving – so that we could minimize bathroom stops.

We got out of the city of Cusco, and on to the highway to Puno, shortly after we left the depot.  In a little while, we entered a big and wide valley with mountains on both sides.  The valley was quite lush, but it was also better visible from the other side of the bus from where I was seated.  The others who had the view seemed to be enthralled by it.  I was enjoying the view of the green mountainside beside the bus.  There were plants and trees, and flowers of the fall season, and even little streams.

The first stop was at the village of Raqchi.  We first visited a school that Gate1 supports financially (for equipment and buildings) .  Gate1 supports 28 schools in all in Peru.  We met with the kids and interacted with them.  This was an elementary school setting.  There were children in a range of ages.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a fun time.  They sang for us and we sang to them (try singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”).

We visited the ruins of the Temple of Wiracocha in Raqchi.  This huge structure used to once have a roof over it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt looked very different from the other temples we had seen thus far in Peru, which were usually open structures on tops of hills.  This is what remains today of the temple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOther structures have also survived from the time of the Incas in Raqchi, including warehousesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand some living quarters.

We passed by the small village plaza and the open air market area. There were shops lining the pathways, manned by locals selling small trinkets and souvenirs to the tourists. I also went to the small church that bordered the plaza.  It was an addition to the town from the 20th century.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a wall in the church was a picture of the Last Supper at which cuy was being eaten.  If the reader has been following my blogs about Peru, he or she will remember that we were not able to see the more famous version of this picture in the cathedral in Cusco.  So, it was a very nice surprise to see this particular picture here, in a humbler setting that seemed more appropriate.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn old caretaker silently appeared from the back of the church as I was walking around.  He started talking to me in Spanish.  I did not understand a word he was saying.  He might have also indicated that I could give some money to light a candle, but I was not trying to follow carefully.  I regret that I did not do that.

All of us got boxed lunches as we boarded the bus once again to continue our trip.

The railroad track from Cusco to Puno, and the Urubamba river, also ran through the valley, and beside the highway, we were traveling on.  The Urubamba looked like a modest stream at this point. It was hard to imagine that it grows in volume over distance to become a significant tributary of the great Amazon river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA short while after that, we passed the place where the Urubamba river begins.  There was smoke from a fire that somebody had set in the vicinity of that location.  The place that was pointed out to us had the look of the remains of an old crater. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon after that, we reached the Continental Divide and the highest point of the bus ride.  We were at an altitude of 14200 feet.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeing a railroad fan, it was a great thrill for me to see the train from Puno to Cusco stopped at that location.  It looked like a regular stop for the train, and it also looked like the train was going to be stopped for a while.  Passengers had gotten out of their carriages and were walking around.  This train is meant for the tourists.  It is considered one of the highest railroads in the world.  Considering that the train does not operate every day of the week, I was very fortunate to see it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPano - Peru Rail.jpgWe continued our bus ride on the Altiplano, the high plains of the Andes.  Dramatic and wide open landscapes lay before our eyes.  The place looked lightly populated.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe did pass by a few small villages and towns.  Here are some random pictures.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAP4250170.jpgI am quite sure that the people who live in these parts, at these altitudes, are very hardy. I wonder how tough life is for them.  I wonder if they are a happy people?

During the bus ride we were shown some videos to keep us occupied.  They were all related to Peru.  We saw a movie about Thor Heyerdhal and the Kon-Tiki expedition.  In the 1940s, Thor Heyerdhal sailed the Pacific Ocean for the first time in a raft that had been designed to the specifications of the ancients of Peru, i.e, their indigenous people.  He managed to sail from Peru to the Polynesian Islands, depending primarily on the ocean current for movement.  Thor was attempting to show what the people of South America (and more specifically, Peru) could have populated the Pacific islands, and might have even brought elements of their culture with them.  Apparently, there is even some suggestion of ancient South American building practices inherent in the design of the statues on Easter Island.

A second video that we saw was about the practice of child sacrifice among the ancient religions of South America.  The indigenous people believed that the mountains are gods. In those days they used to sacrifice children to them and bury them on mountaintops.  The bodies of these children are being uncovered in recent times by archeologists. It was difficult to watch this video.  While many of the practices of the old religions seem to invoke the human connection with the forces of nature and the earth in a somewhat harmless way, this particular aspect of their practices was in my mind extremely cruel, and, in the end, hard to even understand.   I had a hard time just swallowing the fact that the child who was about to be sacrificed sometimes knew what was going to happen to it, and reacted in a way you would expect scared children to do.  There is evidence in this regard in some of the remains that have been found.

Our next landmark during the bus ride was Juliaca, a commercial town. Juliaca was also the location for the airport that we were going to fly out of to get back to Lima.  The town was not very impressive, and we were told that the local government was not very functional.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn ice-cream seller on the street in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Bajaj autorickshaw service location in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrowded street in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring this trip, I began to notice little structures like the one below all along the highway.  I confirmed that these were memorials to people who had died in accidents.  These look a little more permanent than the roadside memorials we see in the US.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got to Puno descending one of the hills that surrounds it.  We got our first view of Lake Titicaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe city looked big.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause of the city’s narrow streets, we were dropped off a few blocks away from our hotel.  We had to do the walk between the hotel and the spot we had been dropped off every time we needed to catch the bus or return to the hotel.   Walking the streets gave us a little better feel of the town.  It certainly looked commercial.

Our hotel was next to the main square of the town.  For dinner, we walked from the hotel across the square to one of the two restaurants that had been recommended to us by our tour manager.  The two restaurants were next to each other, and it was an amusing situation, with folks from both restaurants trying to entice us in.  We selected one, telling the other person that we would go there for lunch the next day (and he did remember us the next time were on that street!).   The dinner was OK, but the loud, live, music, was disruptive.

It started to rain heavily as we were having dinner.  We had to wait for any small break we could get in the rain to make a dash back to the hotel.  It was an adventure crossing the streets that had now turned into swiftly flowing steams with a large volume of water.  We had to do this while dodging traffic that did not want to slow down either for the rain or for the people walking across the street.  But we made it back to the hotel in one piece in spite of the challenges presented.

Puno is a big city.  Like I mentioned earlier, it is also very commercial, similar to Juliaca.  We were told that this is so because of the closeness of this area to Bolivia.  There is a lot of trade across the border. There is also a lot of smuggling that goes on, and an “illegal” contraband open market exists in Puno that the authorities turn a blind eye to. In fact, the authorities apparently shop at these places themselves.

Puno is supposedly not that well developed for tourists. We were warned a few times to be cautious about the nature of the food that we consumed, and the water that we drank.   We got a daily quota of bottled water from Gate1 to keep us safe and hydrated at the high altitudes.  We did have a few people in our group get relatively minor upset stomachs at some point or the other during the travels.  One person in our bigger tour group had severe stomach problems (that actually seemed a little scary) towards the end of the trip.

Puno is at an elevation of 12,500 feet, which makes altitude sickness more of an issue for visitors than in some of the other places that we had been to.  The hotels have oxygen tanks to help visitors with their breathing if needed.  We saw the tank in our hotel being used in the lobby.  We had folks in our group who were feeling the effects a little bit.

More adventures await us tomorrow.