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Guinea Pig for Lunch, Disneyland meets the Inca & other Strange Tales of Lake Titicaca, Peru

9 Feb 2002
I am now writing from Cusco, the old capital of the Incas, an empire that was equivalent in size to the territory of the Roman Empire north of the Mediterranean. I will be going to the great Inca monument, Machu Picchu, tomorrow. A pity that the Inca Trail is closed in February 2002 for maintenance. I will be doing an alternative 2-day trek instead.

I have been busy the past 2 weeks in eastern Peru, travelling from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon – where I saw five condors in a normally "condorless" season – and then on to Puno on Lake Titicaca. I met some interesting people, made some great friends, and ended up spending 6 days in a small city where many travellers only spend 2 days.

Now in Cusco, at 3300 m above sea level, despite having spent so much time in Puno close to 4000 m, I seem to be stuck in a sudden bout of indigestion and dizziness. I will try to relax more today, having cups of coca tea in my hotel balcony in the Bohemian district of San Blas, overlooking the rooftop of what is the best-preserved old colonial city in Peru.

As I might have mentioned in my last entry, I had a drastic change of plans and decided to rush to Puno from Arequipa after hearing about the Fiesta de Virgen de la Candelaria, the greatest folkloric festival and carnival in Peru. I arrived in Puno at 1 a.m. – I have been led to believe that the bus would take 12 hours, but thanks to ex-President Fujimori's new highways, I reached Puno in 6 hours, at such ungodly timing. Touts operate even at such hours though, and I went to Hostal Don Julio, which didn't seemed like value for money. I stayed one night and then moved to Hotel A., where I met B., a pretty Puneño of mixed Mestizo and Quecha parentage, with large exotic bright eyes and a cheerful outlook; I also met her friends, all of whom work for the hotel's travel agency. We were to have a great time together in the days to come. Puno, a city I had never thought much about, would become a special city for me...

Puno, like most of Peru's cities, was founded by the Spanish on the ruins of older Inca settlements. It is the largest city on Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigational lake (the highest lake is Lake Chungara in Chile, which I visited recently) at almost 4000m above sea level. Puno is also where the Quecha and Aymara peoples, both descendants of the Inca nation, meet.
More local dancers on the streets of Puno.

As explained earlier, the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Canderlaria was a highlight of my stay in Puno. On the first day of this two-week fiesta, the icon of a miraculous Virgin was carried through the city with a colourful procession of local ethnic costumes. On the second day, 53 dance troupes (in the most exotic, colourful costumes plus occasional llamas and sheep) from villages around Lake Titicaca staged an 8-hour tribute to the Virgin in a stadium beginning at 7am, followed by a march past in the city's streets once they have performed in the stadium. And not just one circuit round the streets, but endless circuits till 10 that night. They danced round and round, often with a bottle in the hand, taking a sip from time to time; as a local puts it, "they dance till they drop."

As time passed, it became clear that many were losing their dance steps, and some were occasionally hugging the many tourists watching this colourful all-day procession. This is Carnival, Altiplano-style, for you.

All is not completely well though, as pickpockets abound at such concentration of tourists. There was an attempt on me. Nothing was lost, but my shirt was smeared with a generous portion of chocolate ice cream, and my cool was temporarily lost.

The fiesta is an excuse to try a great Peruvian delicacy: the cuy, or guinea pig. This animal has always been reared as a food animal by the people of the Andes, but for some bizarre reasons turned into a pet by North Americans and Europeans in the 20th century. In fact, in the Cathedral of Cusco, one finds a famous painting of the Last Supper, with Jesus and the twelve Apostles feeding on a guinea pig.
Cuy - Having a grilled guinea pig for lunch!

Today, the cuy is a meat for special occasions. Most Peruvians will tell you they last ate a cuy during a birthday celebration. Frankly, there wasn't much meat in a cuy. At least the one I had was nothing more than a deep-fried bag of bones, with the eyes, small teeth and nose intact, spread-eagle style across a large plate, together with rice and fries.

Apart from visiting assorted Inca (such as the Fertility Temple of Chuicito, where one finds statues of giant erect penises) and pre-Inca ruins around Puno, I joined a two-day tour of the islands of Lake Titicaca. The visit included the floating islands of Uros – they are made entirely of reed, by descendants of an Inca tribe who were fleeing Spanish conquistadors looking for slaves for the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia. Today, Uros are little more than a floating Disneyland, with little real economic activity except for locals selling coca cola, alpaca sweaters and miscellaneous tourist trinkets, while kids ask for money for photos.

Amantani Island is a more inspiring place. I spent a night on the island, joined locals in a late-night party, folkloric style. My landlady, like other islanders, was entirely full of stamina; she could dance endlessly. In contrast, many of us were out of breath after a short while, given the altitude of the lake. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable experience, really fun and full of local colour. My only complaint was that my landlady didn't have any live guinea pigs running around her house, unlike my other fellow travellers... hmm... I demand a refund.

We also visited Taquile Island, another island with its own unique history and customs. Everyone there wears local costumes, the types of which are regulated by tradition. I christen this isle the Socialist Republic of Taquile! Tourism on the island is strictly controlled by the island council of elders. The elders decide where visitors should stay or have their meals, and are strictly decided on a rotation basis among the islanders. We joked that they should have an electronic monitoring system too, such that for instance, you know which shop has sold the last coke, so that the next visitor who buys a coke buys it from the right shop, on rotation basis.

After almost a week of fun in Puno, I left for Cusco, centre of the Inca civilisation (not before a pseudo-melodramatic farewell at Puno's bus station). I shall write more about the coming days of adventures here. For those who had written to me, forgive me for being slow in replying. I will, eventually, write to you. Given all the exciting things happening here, my current lead time in replying to emails seem to be one month. In any case, keep your emails coming!

Good Bye, and Happy Chinese New Year!

>> Continued

 

Tan Wee-Cheng http://weecheng.com

 

Copyright Tan Wee-Cheng. All rights reserved. Story reproduced with kind permission.

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TREKKING IN PERU: Classic Inca Trail / Short Inca Trail / Salkantay / Ausangate / Lares / Choquequirao / Vilcabamba / Huaraz 

DESTINATION GUIDE: Lima / Cusco / Machu Picchu / Sacred Valley  / Arequipa / Puno / Huaraz / Nazca / Iquitos / Manu / Tambopata

RECOMMENDED HOTELS: Lima / Cusco / Machu Picchu / Sacred Valley / Arequipa / Puno / Huaraz / Nazca / Iquitos / Jungle Lodges

  

 

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