Wednesday, 15 October 2008, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
We spent 2 more weeks in Cusco after returning from the trip to the jungle, but not really out of choice. The virus we were all struck down with proved to be particularly virulent! None of us, including our neighbours (Inga and Maja), felt like doing very much at all. We spent quite a lot of our time sitting in the sun (when there was sun) sharing our particular woes. But by the end of the two weeks we were so sick of being sick that I think we all moved on just to change environments. During our respective illnesses we managed to get out of the campground on a few occasions. The first of these was to walk a several hundred metres up the road to Sachsayhuaman for a festival called Warachikuy. It is apparently a re-enactment of the initiation rituals of the Incas, brought back to life to encourage the young people of today to connect with their roots. It was a spectacular, colourful display and very enjoyable, since we only had to sit and watch.
We also left the campground occasionally for the town, and usually included a visit to a restaurant to eat something relatively healthy that we didn't have to prepare. One of the restaurants we visited is called Fallen Angel, and one needs to see it to believe it. I do wonder what sort of a mind can produce such a strange and unusual décor, which included tables made of bathtubs full of water and goldfish, with glass tops!
One day we were distracted for a few hours when one of the local women brought her flock/herd of llamas into the campground to 'mow the lawn'! And in the midst of the misery, Juergen and I re-acquainted ourselves with the German card game, Doppelkopf. Inga and Maja are enthusiastic players so we whiled away a few early evening hours in the relative comfort and warmth of the hut provided for socialising at the campground.
In the few days before we finally left we made an effort to go into Cusco to visit the area of San Blas, which is the most historical section of the town. It has some beautiful old buildings and very narrow streets. We then visited the Convent of Santo Domingo which is so blatantly constructed on an Inca site that the Incan stonework is the main attraction of the building.
When we left Cusco, it was to head in the direction of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. On the way we stopped at yet another ruin site - Raqchi - which was interesting with its masses of circular storage buildings that were reported to be full at the time of the Spanish invasion. I can imagine that the Spanish made short work of those supplies! We begin to think that perhaps we are almost 'ruined' again, as we became in Mexico last year. After so many spectacular sites it becomes more and more difficult to remain enthusiastic. But it may also have been a product of our still not feeling really well.
The road to Puno runs along the Altiplano at heights between 3800 and 4300m. Although the scenery is really more of the same, we were still moved to some level of excitement by views of snow peaks, or cleverly constructed stone houses with thatched roofs, and we were particularly impressed by our first view of flamingos in the wild. Despite this we were more than keen to reach lower altitudes than we had been in recently, and at around 3800m, we weren't really anxious to spend very long at the lake either. In Puno we discovered a couple of very different, but also most interesting, historical sights. The first was a restored ship, the MN Yavari, which is the oldest ship on the lake. It was transported in pieces by ship from England in 1861, around Cape Horn to Arica. From there it went by train to Tacna and then by men and mules up to Lake Titicaca. This took 6 years! It was launched in 1870.
The other sight was really amazing - I had heard of the floating islands in Lake Titicaca, but had no real concept of them until we took a boat out to visit them. They are islands constructed solely of reeds which grow in the lake. The result is a floating mass which feels quite spongy to walk on. Any minute you expect water to come up through the reeds - but it doesn't happen. They also use the reeds to build their houses and boats and anything else they need. The local people have lived on these islands for hundreds of years.
With little else to interest us in Puno, we left in the early afternoon after our trip to the islands, to visit Sillustani, which is yet another ruin site in easy reach of Puno. This site is quite different than anything else we have seen. It is a collection of Pre-Colombian funeral towers on a peninsular in Lake Umayo. Although they date from Inca times, they are actually burial towers of the Colla tribe. It seems that the engineering involved in their construction is more complex than anything the Incas built. It is a most impressive site and well worth the detour. Along the way we also saw the most remarkable housing compounds we have seen anywhere. They are constructed totally with rocks, except for the thatched roofs, and usually comprise several buildings incorporated into one compound. These homes were obviously well-cared for and the owners, often seen in front of the dwellings, greeted us with very friendly smiles and waving hands. On the way out of Sillustani the next morning, we were even invited, by hand motions, to enter one of these compounds, but we had a long drive ahead and didn't really feel it was the right time to stop. In retrospect we probably missed an interesting opportunity.
Our journey that day took us to Arequipa - another long drive across the Altiplano at heights of up to 4450m. Arriving in Arequipa which lies at 2400m was a real relief to both of us. The altitude had been a very exhausting experience for us and it felt great to be able to walk without struggling for breath. The effects of high altitude we have both experienced are shortness of breath (sometimes simply eating something makes one gasp for air; sometimes feels like somebody is sitting on your chest - oxygen helps and can be purchased in handy spray cans), lack of energy, headache (Inga describes it as like wearing a motor bike helmet all the time), dizziness, lack of appetite, bloody noses and the dry air makes your skin crack (face, lips, hands). Even so, we are lucky not to have suffered from extreme altitude sickness which can be life-threatening.
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