Archive for the ‘Peru’ Category

Colca Canyon

The day after Easter I left Arequipa and went on a two-day tour of Colca Canyon.  During this trip I learned about the power and weakness of humanity.  We can permanently change the world around us, but in the end are still at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves.

Colca Canyon

I started out my tour by waiting in front of the tour agency.  After about 30 minutes, I started to realize that a big part of any tour involves waiting.  Because I lived so far from the center of Arequipa, the tour company asked me to wait in front of their offices for the bus to pick me up in the morning.  I was supposed to be there at 7:30 with the promise that the bus would pick me up first.  I arrived at 7:20 just to be safe, and by 8:00 I was worried that the tour company had forgotten me.  When the bus finally pulled around the corner, it was a relief!

We started out by pausing on the outskirts of Arequipa.  I had seen the outer edges of the city during my ride from the airport, but was still shocked by the level of poverty.  Past a certain point there is no running water, electricity, or garbage collection.  Very dirty little children play on or next to piles of trash while stray dogs are search for food in the garbage.  It is not a pretty picture and contrasts starkly with the spectacular mountainous scenery that surrounds the city.

Misti Volcano

We stopped briefly to take photos of the volcanos, to buy cocoa candy at a local store, and to use the bathroom before our long ride.  At this bathroom stop I found out that, for some reason or other, the majority of public toilets do not have seats.  Fortunately I already knew that there would be no toilet paper!

We then began to drive around the mountains that surround Arequipa.  There are checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, I guess to protect the tourists? but our bus ran into a bit of trouble at the first checkpoint.  The driver had all the papers, but his name wasn’t on the company list.  I am pretty sure the police wanted money (I heard them mention 60 soles) but neither the guide or bus driver were willing to pay up.  After about 45 minutes of calling and waiting around, the police finally let us through.

After driving for another hour we made it to the Reserva National where we saw some Peruvian camels.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The animals we commonly know as lamas or alpacas are in fact a type of camel.  There are a total of four different types of camels in Peru.  Only the lama and alpaca are domesticated and none of the camels are strong enough to carry humans.

The Vicuñas

We stopped along the side of the road to look at the wild vicuñas.  They are relatively small compared to lamas and alpacas and are now federally protected.  It is illegal to domesticate the vicuñas and they are only rounded up once a year and sheared by local people.  I got very excited seeing the vicuñas because it was my first time seeing camels outside of a zoo.  Little did I know that these animals cover the countryside of Peru.

Our first actual stop was next to this cliff side that had rock formations that look like houses.  I can’t remember the exact name in Spanish, but I think it is something like Casa de Piedra (House of Stone).  There were also some ladies sitting in a group selling handicrafts.  Like with the lamas, I did not realize at the time that people selling ¨genuine¨ baby alpaca scarf, rugs, gloves and hats practically littered the countryside.  Indeed, at almost every stopping point along the tour there were people calling out to me (and the rest of the tourists) to buy their items for only 30 soles, 20 soles, 5 soles, amiga!  There is always the opportunity to get un discuento!  Seriously, I have no idea how much all of the stuff they are selling really costs.

The rock ¨houses¨ on the side of the mountain.

While we were at this little stopping point, our guide Maria-Elena told us to drink some cocoa tea.  At that point, I did not believe that cocoa tea did any good, so I decided not to have any.  This was the biggest mistake I made during the entire trip.

We continued on driving through the mountains, moving higher and higher above sea level.  By the time we reached the highest point of the trip, I was feeling the pressure.  We got out of the bus to take some photos and to (yet again) look at the handicrafts.  The view was spectacular, but it was difficult to walk without feeling fatigued.  All of the tourists who had stopped there in the past made little piles of rocks.  We then got back on the bus and began our descent down to the Colca Canyon valley.  Here the terraces began.

Rock piles at the highest point of the Colca Canyon tour.

Very few mountains surround Arequipa and there is actually quite a bit of flat land. This means that the people living in Arequipa city did not need to create terraces.  However, in the Colca Canyon area all of the fertile land is located in the mountains.  The basic need to grow crops enough to feed an empire led to the well-known Incan terraces.  The terraces both drastically change the landscape and are integrated back into it.  Because they are natural, they do not seem like something imposed on the land.  The Incas built their terraces in locations where they could irrigate water from the mountain to flow directly to their crops.  These terraces were so well-built that they are still used today.

By the time we finally descended the winding road down to the valley of Colca Canyon it was about 4:00.  I was dropped off at my hotel in the miniscule town of Chivay.  After about an hour I met up with my tour group for the final activity of the day which was at the natural hot springs located in the valley.  I had never been to hot springs before and was pretty excited.  The first thing that greeted me upon entering the hot springs was the smell of rotten eggs (better known as sulfur).  We were advised by our guide not to go into the super-heated hut but to try the pool outside.  After getting in, I realized that the outside pool was definitely hot enough for me.  While in the hot springs I got to know this British girl named Kara.  She was on vacation and traveling alone through Peru.  For me, one of the advantages of traveling with a tour group is that there is the opportunity to connect with different people.  So far, I have been lucky and have made new friends on each and every tour.

The hot-springs pool.

As I mentioned earlier, I was waiting a long time for the bus to pick me up at the start of the tour.  Well, this continued to be a theme throughout the first day.  Everyone was on time except for these four Peruvian people who, I guess, thought that it was OK to be late.  After the checkpoint delay, we really had no time to spare and our guide became very frustrated.  She lectured the entire bus in Spanish and then, at the end of her speech said that she didn’t need to repeat herself in English!  It was seriously one of the funniest moments of the entire trip.  Almost everyone on the bus spoke both Spanish and English, so it was no secret that she was lecturing the Peruvians about their tardiness.  Her words had the desired effect, and after that they were incredibly punctual.

As part of the tour we went out to dinner at a restaurant that included a traditional folk music and dance show.  Up until this point, I was feeling a little odd, but after the second dance number I began to feel seriously ill.  I don’t think I have ever experienced a headache that strong before.  I knew that it was because of the altitude, but I did not have any of my altitude pills along.  For some reason, I was under the impression that after a month in Arequipa I would be just fine.  I was so very wrong.

A cute condor place mat.

I sat at the table, unable to eat with my headache growing more and more fierce with each drumbeat.  I began to feel nauseous and laid my head down on the table.  My friend suggested that I leave the restaurant and head back to my room.  At that point, I was worried about throwing up at the table.  I stumbled out of the restaurant and managed to make it back to my room.  Without changing my clothes, washing my face, or brushing my teeth, I fell face first onto the bed.

The guys who were playing for us. For some reason they picked the shortest guy to play the biggest instrument.

At 3am I woke up without a headache and brushed my teeth.  I had planned to take a shower, especially after the egg-smelling hot springs, but I could not muster the energy.  At 5am I woke up and my headache was just as strong as before.  Fortunately, I did not feel like throwing up, but I was not going to push it by eating breakfast.  I did, however, drink some cocoa tea.  Scarcely ten minutes later I experienced a minor miracle: my headache vanished completely.  For the rest of the tour I drank cocoa tea religiously and was not affected by the altitude!

I went out to the town square to wait for the tour bus at 6:00am.  While there I took some pictures of the local church and then noticed that something strange was going on.  There was this constant stream of people walking back and forth from the central fountain to the local market.  At first I could not understand why they were doing this, until I saw that they were carrying buckets.  The people who worked in the nearby marked were using the free water from the fountain.  The fountain also served as a drinking fountain for the stray dogs who lived in the town.  While I don’t know anyone in the US who would use a public fountain for personal use, people here in Peru are much more thrifty.  If there is a cheaper way to do something, they will find it.

Try and spot the water-carriers!

Our first stop that day was at a little village called Cabanaconde that had a very old church.  There were (of course) people selling stuff to tourists.  Because we were about to head up to the Cruz del Condor there were a lot of very ugly plastic condor figurines for sale.

The road to Cruz del Condor is not paved, nor is it very wide.  In fact, I am sure that when it was built they did not have tour busses in mind.  At times, not all four wheels were on the road.  Donkeys, lamas, alpacas, sheep, and cows roamed onto the road from the mountainside.  Even considering how nerve-wracking the journey was, seeing the condors was worth it!

The beginning of Colca Canyon.

I remember seeing condors in Brookfield Zoo, but they are incredible in the wild.  We were the ones invading their home and they carefully observed all their visitors.  The day I was there about 20 condors were flying around.  There were a lot of people, but it was very quiet.  People were too busy watching and trying to take pictures of the birds to talk.  The condors flew a lot closer to people than I would have expected.  For me, the combination of the scenery and the animals together was incredibly beautiful.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit Arequipa, I strongly recommend traveling to Cruz del Condor.

The condors flew so close!

This was the best and most dangerous view of the condors. Behind me is a sheer cliff.

On the journey back we made several more stops to gaze at terrace-filled landscapes.  Every time I see the terraces I am amazed by the control the Incas had over the land and their submission to the natural geography.  The Incas did not try to destroy the mountainous terrain of Peru, they improved it.


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I have had the opportunity to visit some pretty amazing places while here in Peru, but my real purpose for being here is to study Spanish.  When choosing a Spanish school in Arequipa, I looked for a school that was flexible with time and had good home-stays.  I initially committed to CEPESMA for two weeks, but then decided to stay through the end of April.

Me with my teacher Rene in our patio classroom.

At first, I spent four hours a day studying with my teacher, Rene.  During this time I was also applying for teaching jobs, so I did not have a lot of time to sight-see.  By the end of my time there, I switched to three hours a day so that I could have some time to visit the places I wanted to in Arequipa.

My going-away party.

Cecilia and Rene

The school is run by a woman named Cecilia, and one of the options is to have Spanish classes at her house.  Because my home-stay was only two blocks away, I decided to study there.  It was a very short five-minute walk for me every morning, which was nice because I am definitely not a morning person.  The only issue was that my home-stay was located pretty far from the city center: a 10 minute taxi ride or 50 minute walk.  I heard some horror stories about people getting robbed in taxis, and so I normally walked to the city center and back.

The individual attention I received by attending CEPESMA was very helpful.  Many of the mistakes I used to make while speaking in Spanish are diminished, thanks to Rene.  My time studying at CEPESMA definitely improved my ability to communicate in Spanish.

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La catedral

La catedral, or The Cathedral in Arequipa, is one of the principal buildings.  Clearly this is how the church leaders wanted it, because it is built in the center of the city.  The other three sides of the Plaza de Armas all point visitors towards the catedral.

My view of La catedral from one of the many balcony restaurants.

I must have seen the outside of the catedral at least 50 times, but I waited to go inside because I thought I would have to pay.  During the week before Easter I was finally ready to go in, unfortunately they closed the catedral for religious preparations.  I did find out that there was a museum on the left side of the catedral, but after finding out that I could not actually go inside the main part of the church, I decided not to take the tour.

La catedral at night.

An interesting piece of history that I do know about the catedral is that one of the towers (I’m not sure which one) was completely destroyed by the earthquake in 2001.  A year later, the tower was completely rebuilt.  The work was so good that it is impossible to tell which tower is new and which is old.

The left tower. The museum entrance is to the left of the photo.

I finally did get to go into the church late one Sunday during mass.  By that time, I had already been inside a number of churches in Arequipa and was expecting more of the same.  I was surprised to find out that the catedral was completely different from all the other churches.

The columns had white marble at the base and the ceiling was incredibly high.  In the middle of the arches were round holes that, during the day, would let in natural light.  What I thought made the church incredibly beautiful was the color scheme: the walls were painted a light peach color.  I was not expecting this, but it made the whole building seem ethereal, almost like being in a cloud.  Because mass was going on, I was not able to take any pictures, but I have copied a photo from someone else’s website.

Inside the stunning cathedral.

In the very back of the church there is a huge organ, one of the biggest in South America, that was sent over from Europe several hundred years ago.  From what I have learned (although I do not know if this is still true today) the organ suffered water damage on the passage from Europe and so, while incredibly beautiful, was painful to listen to.

Part of the plaza directly across from the cathedral.

For me, the experience of visiting the catedral in Arequipa was a good one.  The religious images were not over-done and I was able to see how the church functioned during a mass, including communion.  It is one of the few churches in Peru in which I have felt comfortable.

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Del Moral Mansion

I visited Del Moral Mansion during my last week in Arequipa.  It is a beautiful old house that has exchanged hands many times.  The property was originally owned by the church, then later purchased by private land owners.  Now it is owned by BCP, one of the largest banks in Peru.  For the most part, it is like any other colonial house: artifacts are prominently displayed that show the best of how things used to be in the city of Arequipa.

History of the Del Moral Mansion.

The mansion is actually rather beautiful; with a huge central patio and a spacious (for Arequipa) backyard.   Like in the monastery, there is a trench that carries water.  This one, however, does not run through the house.  It starts in the street,  passes through the courtyard, and finishes by watering the plants in the backyard.   There is a larger trench that runs along the back wall of the garden that  I suppose used to furnish water to city residents.

When I went to Del Moral Mansion, I decided not to hire a guide.  While I  probably would have learned more about the history of the house, there were a lot of signs posted and I preferred to wander around on my own.  Because the guide started with another group in the main parlor of the house, I  picked a room at random and went in.  It just happened to be one of two thoroughfares that connect the main patio and the backyard.  There were a lot of old colonial maps hanging on the walls that displayed the artistry, if not the accuracy, of colonial map making.

A drawing of Cusco.

Directly to the right was a tiny passageway connecting the  thoroughfare to the main dining room.  I think this was favorite room, purely because of the portraits.  I have never seen any portraits quite like these.  Whoever commissioned them almost surely commissioned the frames first.  The people who should have been the focus of the work were very much overshadowed by the size and brilliance of the frames that surrounded them.  It was kind of like the modern-day ads that go over the top to capture the attention of the audience, but forget to name their product.  Everyone remembers that they saw something impressive, but they don’t have any clue who paid for it.

I then ventured into the dining room.  It was filled with beautiful paintings and furniture.  From what I remember, everything was imported from Europe and was perfectly preserved.  It is amazing to think about these fragile, and expensive things traveling all the way across the ocean and through the mountain passes so many years ago.


A bowl from the side-table.

After finishing in the dining room I headed out to the garden.  The door was framed by the figures of praying angels.   While I am not sure that they were always there, the angels definitely are part of the decidedly religious theme that  permeates artwork in Peru.  In fact, it is almost impossible to find artwork that does not have either prominent or subdued religious themes.  The other interesting part of the garden were the stairs that led up to the roof.  I was not (and am not) sure that people are allowed to climb on the roof, but I went up anyway.  There was no railing and the stairs were not very straight, but from the rooftop was a nice view of the nearby cathedral.

From the garden I went into another room that seemed almost like a mini church.  I am sure that when the house was actually in use the room was functional, but as a museum it houses the many religious objects and paintings that I suppose would not fit in the rest of the house.  As I have said before, the religious iconography is laid on thick in Peru.

Next I visited the master bedroom.  It is a good-sized room with more religious artwork and an intricately carved desk.  I spent only a couple of minutes there admiring the carvings before heading out to my final room: the living room or parlor.  This room was   stylized much like the dining room with beautiful paintings everywhere.  In fact, there were four unique paintings on the inside of a cabinet that served as a room divider.

The carved desk in the bedroom.

One of the paintings in the cabinet.

I left the Del Moral Mansion with a better idea of what life must have been like for the  extremely wealthy in colonial society.  While it is an impressive example of colonial architecture and life, I know that it was just a dream for the majority of people.  In fact, there are parts of Peru where people still do not have access to running water or electricity.  It just goes to show you how deep the divide is between the haves and the have-nots.

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Coming Soon…

I want to say a big thanks to all of you who have been following my blog.  I realize that I have not written as frequently as I should have.  For a while, I was traveling and  before that I became frustrated by the speed of the Internet in Arequipa.  Now I realize that the slow service there was actually lightning fast compared to what it is like in Cusco.  At times it takes several hours to upload a few photos.  However, I do plan to write about my experiences here in Peru over the last few months.  The topics you can look foreword to reading about are:

Del Moral Mansion

The Catedral

My school in Arequipa

My visit to the Colca Canyon

Puno and Lake Titicaca

The bus ride from Puno to Cusco

Any adventures I have while in Cusco

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Easter in Arequipa

I did indeed celebrate Easter while here in Peru.  Because most of the population is Catholic, I had a lot of company. The Easter holiday begins over a week before the actual Sunday.  In the Plaza de Armas, stations are set up, that show the progression of the life and death of Jesus.  I happened to be in the Plaza on the evening of the 15th and took some (blurry) photos of the stations, but I think you get the general idea.  All traffic is routed around the center, and people listen to the sermon that is given outside the main Catedral.  I walked around for a while and looked at all the stations that were in the main plaza.

The Catedral at night.

One of the altars around the main square.

Different altars were set up around the entire square.

The next part of Easter came on Palm Sunday.  The gate in front of the main Cathedral was decorated with palms and there were people selling crosses made of palms at every street corner.  I bought one for myself along with a chocolate bunny from Iberica, the local chocolate producer.  One food I really wanted to have for Easter was jelly beans, but they do not sell them here in Peru.  I guess I will have to wait until the end of May to buy some.

Palm Sunday at the Catedral.

Throughout the next week there were processions and different Easter rituals.  On the Thursday before Easter people visited seven churches, then on Good Friday there was a major procession.  I waited around in the Plaza for the procession, but my family told me 7:00 when it really started at around 8:30.  While I was waiting I got a chance to read some of my Harry Potter book (in Spanish) and talk with a family visiting from the Chilean border.  Unfortunately, during the procession my camera started malfunctioning, but I was still able to take a few pictures.

The small Mary figure.

The procession started out with a figure of the pope.  He was life-size and carried by a group of men. Behind the pope were different city dignitaries, firemen, and generally important people.   Following them was, for me, the most interesting part of the procession.  A group of men carried a glass coffin.  Inside the coffin was a life-size replica of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.  I wanted to take a photo of the coffin, but my battery died and then my camera refused to work for the next ten minutes.

Notice the people walking with the candles.

After Jesus came a man who I assume is an important church figure, followed by a Mary figurine.  After Mary, were all the normal people who wanted to join in the procession.  They walked carrying candles.  Finally, the (and from what I gather) most important part of the procession: a larger than life Mary draped in black.  She was absolutely huge.  I noticed that some of the men carrying here were struggling under the weight.  This was a bit dangerous because there were lit candles on the platform.  Following Mary was the band that ended the procession.

The only photo I managed to take of the coffin.

The huge Mary figure followed by the band.

While I was watching the procession go by, I noticed that there was a loud noise that sounded like a horse hoofs.  It actually turned out to be a man swinging two pieces of metal.  His job was to determine when the procession should move.  There was an altar at which each major piece of the procession paused.  He had to wait the appropriate amount of time before telling the procession to move on.

Angelica, Brenda's mother and my companion while in Arequipa.

Brenda, my host in Arequipa.

Jeovana, Brenda's sister who was visiting during the Easter holiday.

At last, the final days of Easter.  Saturday is not special at all, but on Sunday I went to a small church and had lunch with my family.  I bought them a bouquet of roses from the market, and they insisted on taking all of our pictures with them.   I was so glad to be living in a family home during this important holiday.   While their Easter celebration was very different from ours, I was happy to spend time with people who knew me and cared about me.  Most of all, though, it made me appreciate the way my own family celebrates Easter and the wonderful circle of friends  we share the day with.

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Looking towards the congregation.

On April 15th, I visited the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.  I unfortunately decided to enter the Church just as mass was beginning.  Not at all discouraged, my guide proceeded to tell me about the paintings along the back wall of the Church over the sound of the organ.  I must say, I can’t remember a lot about those paintings.

The vaulted ceilings.

Fortunately, the historical part of the church was separated from the main part, so I was able to hear what she was saying.  The tour really started in what is currently the changing room for the priest.  In this room there were more ancient paintings, detailing the life and death of Jesus.  Now, before entering this church I did realize that Mary is an important religious figure, but not how holy she is considered.  In one of the paintings, Mary is shown ascending into heaven.  I don’t remember reading about that in the bible, but apparently it is in the Catholic version of the bible.

The hallway out to the courtyard.

The Courtyard.

The old library. Notice the skull.

We then went into the courtyard and looked at some old robes and an old library.  I do realize that a lot of the items she was showing me were very and special, but I could not get over the gaudiness of it.  I am used to churches that have very simple decorations, if any at all.  However, this church was full of figurines, gilt and altars.

One of the many, many Mary figures.

The main altar.

I think the altars bothered me the most.  There were huge plastic statues of Mary surrounded by plastic pink and purple flowers.  Everything was gold and bright colors.  For me, all of the prayers and altars and flowers and candles for Mary seemed to distract from the fact that she was not the savior of the world, her son was.  Jesus was represented, but he seemed to play a more minor role.  After visiting this church, I decided to not visit many more churches in Arequipa.  In fact, I only entered into two more and do not have photos of the interiors.

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