Cusco Campvibes & Magic Floating Islands // Peru > click the photo below for full story <
It is not safe to drive thru the Middle East. (This is also what we were warned about Mexico.) You will be killed. Meet a few new friends (and their amazing array of adventure mobiles) who have done it and lived to tell us many a beautiful tale of their time in this oft poorly stereotyped region.
Thomas & Sabine from Germany departed in 2009 and overlanded thru Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan and a bunch of other ‘stans into Russia, Mongolia, thru 7 Asian countries before shipping from Indonesia to Canada. Rosemary & Bill from the UK, lived in the Middle East for 20+ years, overlanded in Africa for a few years, and are now in South America for some more adventuring in their Land Rover TDI. Wolfgang & Hildegard from Germany custom built their adventure mobile 20 years ago. Prior to this vehicle they also had a VW that Hilla built out the interiors herself. Karin & Coen departed The Netherlands in 2003. Their time in the Iran & Pakistan was filled with beauty, kindness and adventure. They overlanded throughout Asia and have been enjoying South America since 2007. We immediately had a great synergy with these two- sharing stories and many meals together. Thanks to their pressure-cooker addiction, Emily now has it on the must-get list. Our time in Cusco was much enjoyed as we would walk down to town in search of a Pisco Sour, or 4.
After 8 months on the road, we were tired of living out of suitcases, having to rummage thru the back to fetch a sweater or toiletries. Adam, being the resourceful craftsman that he is, set to building out the interior to better suit our needs for daily use. So, out with the old & in with the new! If we were in Los Angeles, it would have been a short project… but us being in South America without access to a proper workshop, we are at the mercy of the lumberyard we searched for and finally discovered. All said, it took us 3 weeks to design, locate the materials, beg the machinists to have the pieces cut, assemble & install the cabinets. So far we are super-stoked, thanks babe!
The original back closet layout didn’t really work for us, so Adam redesigned it, incorporating the framework into a whole new closet.
While having the rear brakes done, we discovered the post holding the back spring in place had popped off. Here, the first of three welders attempting to get the job done. We had to stay in a hotel because they were unable to sort the van out before closing time. The next day at a proper welder got it done, and we were back on the road.
A few of us overlanders gathered for our near nightly fire for naughty decadence and true tall tales of adventure. Vally liberally sprinkled sugar or a sacreligious dose of aguaymanto jam onto the tall stack of freshly made crepes, Emily spiked the camp-made hot cocoa, Pascal barbequed some salted alpaca.
Cusco is unlike any other city we have yet to visit. It is super-touristy, but instantly likeable. This thin-aired cosmic center that attracts spiritual explorers like Varanasi in India or old hippies to Woodstock. A place filled with foreign money, attracting young Quechua girls in multilayered skirts holding baby lambs in brightly colored bonnets ready at any moment for a picture. They come to sell baskets brimming with freshly baked rolls or guinea pigs that they raise in their homes, fed on bundles of green wheat; international hitchhikers carry trays of empanadas or not that tasty chocolate treats- “just 1 sole” they plead. The streets are filled with endlessly honking taxis, with minibuses packed like sardines going to every possible direction going and coming to Cusco like bees to a hive.
Barkers kindly inviting you with a smooth wave and well-practiced English to their overpriced tourist trap restaurants, on Sundays locals gather at one of Cusco’s many plazas offering steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup for 3soles that includes refills, cauldrons of white rice to be topped with a freshly fried egg and a side of French fries, plastic tubs of fermented quinoa drink, bright carrot juice or the sweetened purple corn refreshment chicha morada. On these crowded steps are midway games of skill & chance; Colette has some success tossing coins into the center of the partitioned squares, winning a few more coins as a crowd gathers. We play until she throws all the coins back to the 10 year old that’s manning the booth.A circle of men gather round a gent, who alternates between jubilant shouts and whispering secrets that draw the guys closer. Karin & I look on from an acceptable distance with raised eyebrows, peeking for a moment at a pile of talismans, dildos, rosaries, and graphic pictures in plastic lamination sheets. “Guy stuff, no ladies allowed” we laugh to each other, roll our eyes and set off to watch the comedian that has gathered 200 onlookers.
The cultural innuendos and humorous subtleties are lost on us, so we set off to find the cabinet bolts we have come seeking… oh yeah, we were supposed to look for bolts today. Somehow the magic of Cusco combined with the ease of friends has evaporated the whole afternoon, and we wouldn’t prefer it any other way.
Inti Raymi, Festival of the Sun, is upon us, the ancient party marking winter solstice- the shortest day of sunlight in the year. The festival stopped in 1535 as banned by the invading Spanish. 400 years later in 1944, the festival began again! It is Cusco’s most popular celebration of the year, drawing thousands of tourists from across Peru & around the globe, by some assertations nearly 200,000 souls! After waking at 6am, then hiking into town, Coen wrangles his way to the front of a mob to snag a beautiful, free book on the history of Inti Raymi.
We walk towards the Temple of the Sun, where naturally the festivities begin. A thundering orchestra of conch shells announce the Sun King, who walks out onto the balcony, exciting the crowds into a mild frenzy. Jostled by elbows and knees, we sat front row curbside, hearing the heart-tone beat of the drums long before we saw the first dancers appear. Adam meandered the the street dodging police that tried shooing him from the main artery to the curb.
photo by @photocoen
The performers came clustered in groups of 20 to 50, each tribe wearing their own costume, dancing to their own beat of flute and drum, celebrating the same Inca god Inti. Adorned in daisy chains or feather crowns, the performers represented the all corners of the Inca empire, from the Amazonas to the highlands. Swinging thuribles of palo santo and copal incense dance on a breeze, sweet and pungent. Mama Occla, the Son of the SUn’s wife is a great honor.
When the last of the groups passed, we nudged our way into the packed Plaza de Armas, then shortly took our leave to join the hoards weaving 2km uphill to Saqsaywaman (pronounced like “sexy woman” drunkenly slurred) where the parade will lead to, and the official celebration will commence. In the ancient stone fortress, the crowd amiably set up their picnic blankets and baskets. Vendors ambled about peddling ice creams from styrofoam bins, visors and umbrellas to block the intense winter sun or offered trays of lukewarm sodas & mystery meat sandwiches. They stood roadside with small tables laden with pyramids of tangerines and bananas, set up fryers for French fries, chicken, chiccharon or chifa (Chinese style) fried rice. An old maid carries a tray roped around her neck like an old-time cigarette girl at the theatre, offering brand name gum and cheap tasteless chocolate bars, cigarettes by the pack or single. If permits are required for anything in this town it is surely not enforced- everyone has something for sale.
Rows of bleachers sat perched near the center-stage, apparently they sell for $100 US dollars a seat. The rest of the festival is free to all, the hillsides pulsing with the calm and happy presence of visitors and locals alike. The dancers file in, creating geometric patterns on the ancient plaza. Speeches were delivered from the priests and representatives of Suyos- the Snake representing the underworld, Puma representing the life on earth and the Condor for the upper world of the Gods- the Inca trinity if you will. Mercado central de San Pedro has a slice of just about everything Cusco has for sale. A row of souvenir stalls (sweaters, llama topped pens, hand knit beanies, cheap synthetic ponchos, postcards and the ilk) is followed by a row of vintage singer sewing machines crowded by pleated layers of women’s skirts waiting for purchase and their made-to-measure alteration. We had a lady assist with some repairs. Certainly not the straightest stitches ever sewn,but it got the job done. Fruit stalls one side and dried sundries ready for your hike to Machu Picchu on the other, herbs and vegetables here and potatoes the next- with so many varieties, they merit their very own stall here. Behind a mountain of fruits the juice-ladies smile their hands casually resting on their blender, ready to summon your hearts desire, we opted for orange-papaya-carrot.
Cheeses and jams down the next aisle, skinned cow heads the next… wait, say what?! That’s right folks, entrails, brains and whole heads line the gnarly butchers alley alongside whole chickens, frogs both skinned and live, blood sausages and cow halves. If it was on an animal, you can find it- no part left behind.
Back at Quinta Lala camp, life with the overlanders is fun. Having met such an amazing community of like-minded individuals and families, we rally for a Saturday potluck & bar-b-que. Represented are Germany, Switzerland, France (and French-Canada and Saint Martin), Belgium, the Netherlands, just us from the USA and our hosts from Peru.
Mid-afternoon snacks and drinks lead easily into the late afternoon feast. Thomas in the blue Land Rover parked next to us made some super creative rice salads. They were fun & tasty!
As the sun sets, more drinking (and snacking) is welcomed with not one, but two crackling fires. Multiple languages are heard, but the universal sound of laughter sparkles brightest around the flames. Many of us overlanders thought we would have ample downtime to catch up on reading and lounging, but it turns out these varied vehicles we drive all require a little maintenance and a lot of love. There is always something to do at camp.
Kimberley & Andy’s GM van used to be a Swiss firetruck. On the road for 4 months, they are surfing as well and heading north!
Stylin’ with our new cabinets finished and the best of Cusco’s festivities ended, we were itching to hit the road. Colette eagerly jumped into her car seat as we set off down the trail to do another 24Hour Bazaar. This is how we stay on the road- by curating a selection of artisan crafted items we deem cool enough for your eyes and emailing it directly to YOU! If you are interested in receiving our PDF catalogs, email your information to email@example.com.
Shipping day! Fair-trade artisan goods leaving Peru, from us to you!
We crossed paths with a wedding party taking a New Orleans style parade around the block. As onlookers threw paper confetti into the cool air, musicians serenaded us all if only for a moment.
The Capachica peninsula of Lake Titicaca, as recommended by friends, was mellow and welcoming. A thin finger that extends into the north-west of the largest by volume lake in South America, the peninsula is dotted with hamlets of people living the simple life as it has been lived for thousands of years. We camped in Llachon at the south end, after our arrival at a village further north was met with constant loud tweeting of whistles and barking dogs. In the morning, one shepherdess stopped while Adam was checking the oil, inquiring what this and that of our many belongings were, interested but not fawning. The genuine ease of these hellos seemed a far cry from the tourist hungry shores of Cusco. We are so stoked with our GoWesty pop-top 3 window roof tent. It allows us the ability to lounge in bed with any view you could imagine. This morning we woke to an amazing crisp morning on the highest navigable lake on earth.
We drove the bouldered dirt road as far as we could, then parked and slowly hiked to the headlands end. Lago Titicaca straddles Peru and Bolivia as Lake Tahoe does California and Nevada, but at 12,500 feet it is double the elevation of Tahoe. Wowza- no wonder we were taking it easy! Clouds, like 50’s era meringue desserts, broke up the infinite indigo of the sky and lake pairing. We sat on boulders, partaking the favorite local pastime of staring at the lake. Bees buzzed in blooms on bushes, straw silently swayed, boat trails slowly melted back into an aquatic oblivion. Time stood still. The iconic local style of hat, commemorated in a cement archway, marked our exit from the peninsula.
On the road to Puno, the Peruvian tourist hub on the lake, is the pre-Incan burial site of Sillustani. These funerary towers were built by the Colla people, later appropriated by and further built upon by the Inca, then raided by the Spanish. Someone is hiding! Hint: she has straw colored hair and likes to giggle. Noble families were buried in the fetal position within these stone fortresses, the opening to the east, where the sun was reborn each day. At 36 feet this tallest chullpa, which translates to ‘houses of the soul’, is among the best preserved of the altiplano region. Cows wade in the shallow lake to feed on the floating water plants. Some went as deep as their chest- now that is a first!Stunning houses of the campesinos, who make use of their best local building material- stone. Fed by 5 rivers, there are some 41 islands in the mystic lake Titicaca, many inhabited and many more manmade. Yes, that is right, manmade islands. No, not Styrofoam houseboats, but bouncy ecological structures of totora reeds, which grow abundantly in the lake shallows.
Armed with water and plenty of sunscreen, we loaded onto the local collectivo boat for the 5km ride to Uros group of islands. For 10 soles ($4) each and Colette rides free, we got round trip passage and a tour with the locals. In a passing 3 meter boat, we counted 15 people! Our wake came dangerously close to filling their tiny tin vessel with a single splash. Luckily, it only topped the brim, as they smiled & continued their belabored voyage to the shores. The guardians of the Uros islands checked ticket stubs & counted their community cash, welcoming our barge of visitors as their main source of income.
The magic of the floating islands have led it to become a top tourist attraction, and rightly so! These islands are made completely out of reeds, ‘knitted’ into blocks which form the bottom. As the reeds decompose, the off gasses assist in the floating capacity. Continuously maintained from the top, new layers of dry totora are added, keeping the island fresh and bouncy. The Uros are genetically some of the oldest people in South America, their bloodline of lineage from Polynesia, as opposed to most indigenous peoples that came from the north. The people retreated onto the islands to isolate themselves from warring tribes that wanted their fertile lands. The last speaker of Uros’ ancient language died in the 1970’s, now locals speak Aymara as well as Spanish. We visited Chumi island (the collectivo rotates where they drop tourists off) to learn firsthand about the locals’ lives out on the water.
Most essential to life on the lake is the totora reed – it is used for building not only the islands, but homes & boats, made into handicrafts sold to tourists (us included) and also eaten as food. The fresh green stalks are peeled back at the white base and eaten raw or added to soups. Somewhere between celery and heart of palm, the fibrous reeds are crunchy, Colette requesting seconds then thirds of the mildly salty snacks, with her assured toddler proclimation “mas por favor”.
The islanders also gather eggs from the many birds that nest on the waters. They also hunt the ducks and waterbirds, catch trout and small fish. Rice and other grains are traded (now purchased) from Puno.
Tethered to prevent drifting across the lake, the islands gently sway with the current. Rising on imported wood beams are ‘telephones’ which locals climb then shout their message from one island to the other.
“Umm, do they not see we are about to hit this other boat?!” Adam questioned. I shouted down to the backwards facing rowers, their navigation of the floating community apparently based on memory. They looked forward in jaw-dropped wonder as we hit our unsuspecting victims for the great Lake Titicaca collision of 2013. The lounging German in Rasta Adidas turned around with the greatest surprise, as our flat 2 story reed houseboat played bumper-boats with the 4 foot thick reed canoe he was being rowed about in.
Laughing on the encounter, we disembarked on the spongy shores of the main island of Uros, which has nearby a community health clinic, an all-in-one schoolhouse and a few restaurants. From the boat behind us we heard a large splash, followed by some cheering in English. We looked on as a brave lady swam the 50 meters from her boat to shore. Her laughs interjected with bursts like “It’s sooo cold” and “Oh my god”.
Ever wondered what an outhouse on a floating island might look like? Well, here you go friends. Stilts raise the double stalled banos above the sinking end of a specially crafted small island surrounded by live totora reeds. Inside an amazingly clean toilet- seriously, one of the cleanest we visited in quite some time. To flush, dunk the small bucket from outside into the 50 gallon drum filled with fresh lake water, tossing it into the bowl, where it drains directly into the lake below.
Even the chickens get their own island here!
Inside one of the few restaurants, we sat down for almuerzo, lunch- the main meal of the day, at a spot overlooking the quiet backside of the island. Emily ordered a vegetarian soup, but it came with a small fishy friend inside it… well, since Adams fried trout meal came with soup, we simply slid it across the table. Adam remarked his freshly fried trucha was the best he has had on the trip. Happily breaking his rule of not paying for trout, it could literally not have been any fresher.The locals clearly know they have a captive tourist audience- we would have paid the same price for a meal at an average place in LA, but then again, we would not be on a floating island in the middle of gorgeous Lake Titicaca!
The monotone city of Puno grew closer as we departed the colorful island community. We felt blessed to have been welcomed into their strange and wonderful life on Lake Titicaca, their floating islands in the highest navigable lake on earth.
As our 90 day visa in Peru was nearing its end, we shouldered off the friendly shores and headed for the long desert drive thru the northen-most reaches of the Atacama desert, the worlds driest. Looking towards Chile, our hearts were better for having visited Peru.