Arequipa with Mom

It’s been nearly a year and half since I left the States, since I last saw mom. We’re close, and as this trip drags on and I don’t know when I’ll eventually return for a visit, she’s agreed to schlep down here to see me. Nice! We decide to meet in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and one that I hadn’t seen yet. Unlike Peru’s other large cities, Arequipa is quite beautiful. The colonial architecture is built primarily of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, from which Arequipa gets it’s nickname “The White City”. They’ve done a nice job integrating the historical buildings into modern banks, cafes, and shops. Arequipa is also framed by three massive volcanoes normally shrouded in mist, but when they do make an appearance, it’s spectacular.

Sandra kindly arranged for us to stay in one of the hotels of her chain, a step up from the kind of place we would normally stay. Huge buffet breakfasts and higher thread count sheets than I’ve seen in ages. Oh, and our room has a view of El Misti, the largest of the three volcanoes at 19,800 ft. The city is walkable, the weather is warm and sunny, and we spend the next five days exploring, talking, relaxing. There’s not a whole lot to do in Arequipa – honestly, you can see most of the sights in just a couple of days. So we stretch things out.. it’s great having relaxed time to just sit over tea and idly chat about our lives. Arequipa is known for it’s cuisine, although neither of us are real “foodies”, so we didn’t really seek that out.

We begin our sightseeing by popping into the tourist office and asking where the market is, so mom can see indigenous culture first-hand. They give us directions to what turns out to be a modern American-style supermarket! “No, no, where is the real market – where everyday working-class people buy and sell?” “Oh you shouldn’t go there, it’s not safe.” Naturally we take that as an invitation and march directly there, and of course it turns out to be perfectly safe. In fact, it’s the cleanest and best organized market I’ve yet seen in Peru. The iron building itself was designed by a French architect named Gustave Eiffel.. I think he did some big tower in Paris. Despite being clean and organized, the market is still wonderfully funky and interesting. To whit – I see a sign advertising “FROG JUICE – FOR THE BRAIN”. That must be a metaphor, right? We wander over, and sure enough, there is a small aquarium containing live frogs, behind which sits a juicer. The manual kind with a big lever that you’d normally use for oranges. I’m still not believing this. Am I on Candid Camera? A customer walks up and orders a juice. The proprietor takes a frog out of the tank and begins to skin it in preparation to juice it. I turn away at this point because I’m going to wretch. Crazy tourist office – why would we travel 10,000 miles to see a supermarket like we have at home when we could see such a spectacle as frogs being juiced?

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Floating Reed Islands & Virgin of Candelaria

Carnival in Latin America is a not-to-be-missed experience. Last year I was in Barranquilla, Colombia – what they said is the second-largest Carnival celebration in the world (after Rio’s) and much less expensive and commercial. I had a fantastic time, and was naturally wondering where to go this year. Lo and behold, people around here say that the second-largest Carnival in the world after Rio’s is in Oruro, Bolivia. So my plan was to go down there for a week, cross back into Peru to meet mom in Arequipa in late February, then return to Bolivia in early March to continue my trip.

Just a few problems with this scenario. One, Bolivia charges Americans a $135 entrance fee (visa), which I wasn’t excited about paying twice. Two, I hate crossing borders. Gee, maybe it’s my bad history of having things stolen or being personally violated, but border crossings just creep me out. So I’d prefer to minimize the amount of them I have to do. Three, the more I read about Carnival in Oruro, the more it sounds like a real pain in the ass. Fun, to be sure – tons of dancing, parades, celebrating, live music – but also all the negatives that come with an overly-hyped event in a small town: prices skyrocket, hotels book out, thieves multiply. Sandra helped me by calling a number of hotels and what few had rooms left were outrageously priced. One poster on the message boards seriously told me that cardboard boxes on the street were selling for $5/night.

Then I found out that Puno, a town in southern Peru on the shores of Lake Titicaca, has a similar celebration a week before. It’s nearly identical – the same dances, same music, similar parades – but on a smaller scale.. less crazy, less expensive, and less hassle. And I wouldn’t need to leave the country. Done and done. The best part was that Sandra was able to take a long weekend and join me for the excursion! Fantastic.. events like that are so much more fun with a partner in crime.

We take the night bus from Cusco and arrive an hour early (!) at 4am. Wake up the hotel to let us in, settle into our room for a bit of sleep, and get woken up an hour later to marching bands tromping down the street. Uh-oh.. are we going to get any sleep this weekend?? Still, their passion is infectious. What possesses people to carry large heavy tubas down cold dark streets at all hours of the night blowing their lungs out? For three to eight days on end. 10 – 16 hours a day. How do their lips not fall off? Are they deaf by the end of the week? These people are dedicated.

And that’s just the musicians. The dancers are wearing hot, uncomfortable costumes – many in high heels or platform shoes, others in 2-foot thick layers of foam rubber and fake hair, sweating under the hot sun.. dancing for miles along different parade routes every day, from pre-dawn until well into the night. Day after day after day. They all deserve medals.

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Written by in: Peru | Tags: , , ,

More from Cusco and the Sacred Valley


I’m sure you’re dying to hear about my new girlfriend, Sandra. As I left off in the last post:
A few days before Christmas, I met a lovely woman named Sandra through Couchsurfing. We spent a few days getting to know each other as friends before the romance bloomed. And a week later, we moved in together! Unlike most Peruvians who live with their parents until they have a family of their own (and even then, often all live together in the same house), Sandra has her own apartment. A lovely one-bedroom with lots of light, plasma TV, and a kitchen.. something I’ve sorely missed having.

Sandra grew up in Cusco, then spent a year and half living in the States as an au pair to a wonderful American family that took her on vacations. She perfected her English while living in the States, which is great for me since my Spanish is still not conversational. After returning to Peru, Sandra spent nine years living in Lima. She prefers the opportunities of the larger city, but moved back to Cusco when her company transfered her. Moving quickly up the corporate ladder, she is now the front desk manager of a large, fancy four-star hotel here in Cusco. I’m really impressed with the company and the way they treat their staff and run things – the management style is exactly the opposite of the company and boss that I left.

Sandra has high aspirations and a strong drive. Although she’s quickly being promoted and will probably become general manager soon or be given her own hotel to run, she wants to move overseas – perhaps Asia – and gain experience in larger and even more luxurious hotel chains.

It’s wonderful visiting her at work. Although I used to stay in places like this when I was touring, I’ve spent the last year and a half staying in cheap dives.. so it feels deliciously decadent to sit and have a cocktail in the well-appointed bar with the roaring fireplace and attentive staff. Peru recently celebrated Pisco Week, and the hotel bar obliged by creating some wonderfully inventive cocktails, such as pisco infused with eucalyptus. Yum.

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Christmas in Cusco

Let’s get the spelling question out of the way: Cusco is often spelled Cuzco.. they’re equally (in)correct, since it’s a transliteration from Quechua. The official spelling is Quscu (which translates as “Navel of the World“, isn’t that a lovely image?)

I figured Cusco would be a good place to hole up for a few weeks during the holidays. My idea was that by taking Spanish classes, I would integrate into a family and a community and thereby not be alone for Christmas. Things turned out rather well..

Introduction to the city

Wandering around lost after walking from the bus station (since I eschew taxis), I ran into a young American couple that I hung out with in Vilcabamba (Ecuador) many months ago. Grace and Cody – they were the ones who stayed so long there because they were making more money from the poker games than they were spending on daily living. Amazing that we should bump into each other here after so long. We were only able to hang out a couple of nights together as they had to finally get back to the States. But they recommended a Spanish school for me to attend here – FairPlay. Back to that in a minute.

I’m glad it was a sunny and warm day when I pulled into town otherwise I might never have stayed so long. The weather this time of year is generally rainy and cold, particularly chilling to the bones owing to the fact that none of the buildings have insulated windows nor heat. I would have difficulty living here if only for that reason. The beds have heavy wool blankets which means that you’re warm by the morning, but it’s freezing until your body heats up the bed. Large, strong hail is surprisingly common here. And yet, the climate is surprisingly dry for the amount that it rains. I suppose it’s due to the thin atmosphere at this high altitude – there just isn’t anything there to hold the moisture. When the sun does come out, things dry out incredibly quickly.

A couple of other odd things about the altitude (3,600m/11,800′) – fires don’t burn very well, due to the lack of oxygen. The matches are huge in an effort to stay lit. On the plus side, that means forest fires are never a problem. On the flip side, if you’re trying to start a fire or keep one going (for a BBQ, say, or in a fireplace), they require contant tending and blowing. Also: since water boils at a far lower temperature up here (88° C vs. 100° C at sea level), there is some debate as to whether boiling water actually purifies it enough to drink. Oh well, I haven’t gotten sick yet.

It only takes a few hours of walking around in the warm sun to fall in love with Cusco. I finally understand why it’s such a tourist destination (nearly a million tourists a year!) – stunning architecture abounds at every corner you turn; romantic views from every hill; and surprisingly gentle and kind residents, uncommon for such a touristed place. Even the touts are not as aggressive or ornery as elsewhere. The central area is refreshingly clean and free of stray dogs – a welcome respite.

This will sound odd, but Cusco reminds me a bit of Istanbul. Built long before cars, many of the streets are just narrow alleyways and pedestrian-friendly plazas and passages. Far more approachable and livable than modern cities with their traffic-clogged avenues designed solely for vehicles, not for people.

The buildings are a sight to behold with their red tiled roofs and foundations dating back to when Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. The Spaniards came and did their damndest to erase the existing culture, but a lot of it survived. In a classic case of empiralism, the Spanish built Catholic churches on top of Incan houses of worship in an effort to wipe out the existing religion. You can see this all over Europe as well – in some cases, three or four layers/cultures/religions built one on top of each other.

The matching red tiled roofs and uniform height of the buildings here are no accident – it’s the law. A welcome change from the usual hodge-podge, haphazard, and function over form of most buildings in Latin America.

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