Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Condors & Yarns

First of all, a shameless plug for my friend Skip Horner, travel guide extraordinaire, who is putting together a Peru trip for January 23-29 of 2010. The trip features Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, done in high style. The highlight will be a couple of nights at Machu Picchu, in the exclusive hotel at the site, a luxury few travelers experience. It’s expensive, but worth it, to be able to wake up and creep into the site before the busloads of people arrive, to watch the sun first warm the mountaintops, and then slowly illuminate one of the most impressive views on our planet. (Ollantaytambo, one of the overnight stops on the trip, was also one of our favorite “finds” when we were here 20 years ago).

There are cheaper ways to visit Peru and Machu Picchu, either with a group or independently, and of course we’ll help you with suggestions and advice if you choose to wait, but we can say from experience that any trip with Skip has serious Trip of a Lifetime potential. Check it out at his website. It would be fairly simple to add a few days to visit us, from Lima taking an overnight bus (16 hours) or flying to the lovely city of Arequipa. (For the few extra bucks, flying would be worth it!) Chivay is another 3.5 hours by bus from Arequipa.

That said, we’ve begun to see a little bit more of our neighborhood, and we’re beginning to engage with the people on a slightly deeper level. The fiesta in Canocota, about half an hour up the road, is an example—it’s a very small town, but every small town in the province throws a big bash on its anniversary. These are not tourist events—it’s just what’s going on. So when we show up, it’s impossible for us to be tourists—food is thrust at us (a large bowl of soup featuring a major appendage of a recently-deceased alpaca, and some long-deceased potatoes), beer and/or chicha are offered (disrespectful to turn down . . .), and very soon we’re drinking and dancing to the local brass band along with most of the town. Chévere.

OK, so drinking and dancing with the locals isn’t exactly deeper engagement, but at least we’re recognized now as more than tourists, especially when we’re seen hanging out with our Peruvian acquaintances on the street or in their shops.

We’ve also begun a program of spending a few hours with each member of our artisan association, visiting them in their homes, watching them work on their embroidery, weaving, painting, or knitting, then having lunch with them (more alpaca, more potatoes, maybe some sheep ribs—very hearty, if not heart-healthy). It’s costing us, because we end up buying something from nearly all of them, but it’s a great way to get an idea of what their lives are like and what we might help them accomplish.

Jean has begun knitting a hat of alpaca yarn with the help of one of “our” artisans, a nearly-impossibly cute 40-ish woman who sets up her table of wares in the Plaza de Armas most days. They sit and chat amiably, Jean learning Quechua and Melina learning how to say her prices in English. Jean is also now rocking a traditional hat from the region, which is getting her a lot of street cred in Chivay.

At the invitation of a guide who is thinking about offering it as a tour, I biked from Chivay to Cabanaconde, 58 kilometers through the heart of the Cañon del Colca. I think he wanted to see if a gringo could survive the ride. It was a long day, made longer by the fact that he had an actively malicious bicycle, the dirt roads are poorly maintained, and he wasn’t as experienced a rider as I am. It’s largely downhill, but it does involve a rather long, hard climb up to 12,500 feet, to the major tourist attraction of the valley, Cruz del Condor. “El Cruz” is an overlook where you can appreciate both the depth of the canyon—roughly 10,000 feet of relief—and the condors themselves, who hang out there in improbable numbers. When we arrived at 3 p.m., the tourist vans were long gone to lunch, and we had it to ourselves. It was quiet enough to hear the wind passing through the wings of these “majestic lords of the Andes” as they played the updrafts to eye me. After 40 km. of biking, I have to admit I probably smelled like something dead. I already felt that the stunning scenery—a combination of mountains and pre-Inca terraces—was justification enough for the ride, but the condors were certainly the icing on the cake. The cultural and historical lore that my guide stopped to impart gave him a chance to catch his breath and added to the pleasure of the trip, too. We arrived in Cabanaconde after 11 hours of biking, and he immediately set about revising his business plan.

Jean and I still don’t have a shower, so we do the “bucket bath” thing on the patio every few days, then every week or so go to La Calera, the hot springs to shower and soak. We went last Sunday, when it’s free for the locals to use the “baño del pueblo,” (not as nice as the “gringo pool,” but certainly not icky) but the ticket-taker at the kiosk didn’t want to let us in. We had to convince a higher authority that we’re really “del pueblo.” Of course once we sauntered in, heads turned, first in our direction to take in the wonder of two gringos in the “locals only” pool, then away to avoid the harsh glare of the sun reflecting off our pale skin. It all turned out fine, of course. We figure it’s best for everyone to get used to the idea of having us around . . . because we’re here for a while, yet!


  1. I've looked for the YouTube video of you waltzing to "Thriller" with no result. Anybody else find anything?

  2. I did find a YouTube video of Peace Corps volunteers dancing to Thriller, but I couldn't spot Russ or Jean. This may be a totally unrelated group of P.C. volunteers.

    Russ and Jean! What a treat to read your posts! I spent a day in Leadville, CO recently, which is only at 10,000. I can only imagine what it's like at over 12,000 (wheeze, wheeze, pant...)! If you get a chance to post a photo of the alpaca hat Jean's working on, I know a few Hamilton knitters would be interested in seeing it! Have fun at the hot springs!