Tag Archives: independent travel in Peru

50. Cusco to Aqua Caliente

50. Cusco to Agua Caliente

We drive out through the Sacred Valley to Ollatatambo. 

sm-08-9521-pigs-in-the-cocheraFirst we must walk down to the cochera and awaken the proprietor, in order to ransom El Bandito, the quatro por quatro [visible up there in the background of the photo to the left].   Selma sm-08-9523-selma-photographing-pigdoes so [in photo at right].   Eventually we pay him, then go back up to the Hostal Qorichaska to pick up Ragna. 

sm-08-9539-near-pisacsm-08-9533-near-pisacThe drive begins with the same long, slow climb up from Cusco, and the road to Pisac.    [These two pictures and the one below left show the view down toward Pisac. ]

sm-08-9537-near-pisacPisac today, a market day but not a Sunday, is somewhat different.  The market takes up a smaller proportion of the town’s streets, and in the Plaza de Armas most of the market stalls aimed solely at locals aren’t there.   sm-08-9546-pisac-mercado-vendorsm-08-9549-pisac-marketToday’s market quite obviously exists because this is one of the days on which tour-buses appear in Pisac during the morning.  It’s less crowded, and not half so interesting sm-08-9550-pisac-vendorsm-08-9553-pisac-market-food-vendorphotographically.  We stop long enough to have a quick walk around the Plaza and stop at an ATM.   The vendors look lonely.  At least one of the little old ladies is making a little money by having pictures sm-08-9555-pisac-mercado-vendorsm-08-9561-victor-and-little-old-ladytaken of her.    We drive back up into the hills toward the ruins at Pisac, which are just a few km.  up a steep mountain road. 

The ruins must command a magnificent view; but there are an obscene number of tour-buses parked by the side of the narrow road for several hundred meters.   We consider parking and walking in, and would do if the place weren’t so crowded; but instead we drive back out to the main road, knowing that among the things we don’t yet know is where we’re going to stay in Agua Caliente.

sm-08-9570-near-pisacThe Sacred Valley is a pleasant drive.   It would be pleasant to spend a few days here.   There are ruins and small villages and nice countryside.   We don’t have the time to explore it as it deserves.   

At Ollatatambo we drive down toward the train, only to learn that there is no provision for parking a private vehicle at the bottom of the hill near the train station.   The traffic cop points me to a certain driveway blocked by a big sheet of metal, and tells  me to bang on it, but no one responds.   I do find a nice-looking hotel on one side of the street, and a small restaurant and hostal on the other.   Being a budget traveler, I try the smaller one, where our request to park the car for a few days, and pay for it, is so unusual that the young lady in charge has to phone the owner.  He consents.   We park the car as far into the corner of the very small parking lot as possible, then start the hike down toward the train.  

If you need to know, it is possible to buy some food and coffee and use a clean toilet at the little train station.   The train is just two cars long, at least in this season, and very clean — and nearly empty.   Peruvian music plays during the 35-minute ride along a river at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon.  The uniformed attendants serve a snack-box, although not a very helpful one if you don’t eat meat. 

sm-08-9585sm-08-9588-view-from-trainThe view is beautiful, although photography is difficult.   The train moves at a moderate speed past river, forest, occasional farms, and a few other buildings, all dwarfed by the high peaks on both sides of us most of the way.

Suddenly we are there.  

Our exit from the train is a confused rush through a maze of market stalls from within which we haven’t a clue which direction the main part of town is in or whether we’re meant to be going uphill or downhill or sideways.    We’re also carrying a bunch of stuff.   I’m trying to glance at the Lonely Planet guide-book, call budget hostals, and walk at the same time, unable to hear because of the noise all around me.   I also don’t yet know where I’m going, so at least I stop walking for a moment and ask.   It takes several calls to locate an affordable hotel with a vacancy, and the vacancy turns out to be an extremely crowded three-bed room with its own small bathroom.   Hostal Bromeliad.

We find the place, check in, and shower, then wander out to explore Agua Caliente and get something to eat. 

Opinions vary concerning Agua Caliente.   It’s an odd place, because the main purpose of its existence is for everyone to hurry from it to somewhere else.   It’s dedicated to tourism, but because of a combination of factors — the fame and beauty of the place, the rugged mountains, and the availability both of luxury tour-buses and difficult treks — the tourists run the gamut from the very wealthy, some of whom can even afford to spend a reported $1,000 per night to stay in a hotel just outside the gate of Macchu Picchu, to the poor but determined, some of whom camp out then walk up the incredibly steep and tall mountainside to Macchu Picchu.

The evening has an odd feel to it, somewhat festive.  Maybe that is because there are so many places to eat and drink, all of them with

La Plaza

La Plaza de Armas

balconies overlooking streets or the small Plaza de Armas, and most of them with shills out front announcing that one particular restaurant has the others beat all hollow.   Maybe it is because we are excited by the imminence of our visit to Macchu Picchu.  Maybe it is because everyone is either anticipating a morning visit to Macchu Picchu or celebrating a day spent at Macchu Picchu (or the end of a trek).   Maybe it’s because at the restaurant we choose [the one to the left of the three fronting on the opposite side of the Plaza from the Bromeliad], the food is slow in coming but the Pisco sours are not.  Soon I’m on my third, feeling a general benevolence toward my companions and all the people crossing the Plaza or taking each other’s pictures by the statues there, as the local folks wander in and out of the church across the Plaza.   



Ragna & Selma

Ragna & Selma

The music is loud and the air is clean.  I laugh a lot, take ridiculous pictures of Selma and Ragna at the table, and fall silent a lot too, just thinking.

sm-08-9654-ac-plaza-de-armassm-08-9657I do wander down into the Plaza for a moment to play with the camera, long after dark.   Eventually, when the food comes, it tastes wonderful, perhaps because it is and perhaps because I am hungry and perhaps because I am working on my fourth Pisco sour.

We turn in early because the train for Macchu Picchu leaves at 5:30 in the morning, and the line starts forming about an hour before that.

Travel Notes:


We stayed in the Hostal Bromeliad, which was adquate and relatively inexpensive.

Agua Caliente boasts a quite varied set of accommodations in various price ranges.  Still, I’d recommend booking ahead of time, even if you usually don’t do that, because (1) it’s the sort of destination place it is, without much through-traffic for locals, values are different, and you’ll pay more for a particular sort of room here than you usually would elsewhere in Peru, and (2) arriving there in the afternoon was a real zoo.  Agua Caliente was crowded, and probably is crowded at all seasons; the lobby of the Bromeliad was a madhouse, with all sorts of folks begging for accommodations, and I was glad I’d at least managed to call from near the train station to book our room [and even so got just a three-bed room, with the right to switch to two rooms the second night]; and because it’s a small village that sees many tourists, you could find the budget places full and end up paying a lot more than you want to.   As anyone reading this blog knows, we rarely booked ahead, preferring to arrive and form our own impression of the hotels and their surroundings.   I wouldn’t try that again in Agua Caliente.


The place we supped in was good, although service was slow.  The place next door was not as good — and I’d guess some of the better restaurants aren’t on the Plaza.  There are plenty of restaurants to choose among in Agua Caliente, all within a couple of blocks.    The two we ate in faced the plaza.  Looking across the plaza from the church, the one we ate in the first night would be the one on the far left among the three or four establishments on the opposite side.


Be sure to buy your ticket for Macchu Picchu.  If you arrive in Agua Caliente without one, go immediately to the ______ and buy one, if you plan to go to Macchu Picchu early in the morning.  Note that you will also need a bus ticket, but you can purchase that early in the morning, as your partner waits in line.

I mention “early morning” often for at least three reasons: (1) Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people, and since most folks capable of it would like to make that climb, they’re in line early, and you might miss it if you snooze; (2) since most of the early birds are headed for Huayna Picchu, the early morning is a great time for you to experience Macchu Picchu in relative solitude — and you won’t have to spend quite so long in Photoshop zapping the human forms in your pictures; and (3) as a photographer, I like the better light of early morning or very late afternoon.    In addition, since some big tours give their cattle just a couple of hours in Macchu Picchu in the middle of the day, either early morning or late afternoon means a quieter and more enjoyable experience of the place.

To maximize enjoyment of the early morning, make a sharp left turn uphill at pretty much your first opportunity, about 100 yards after passing through the gates where you show your ticket.

For the truly budget-minded, there’s a “back-packer special” train from Cusco that’s much cheaper than foreigners pay otherwise.  The authorities don’t exactly advertise it, but it’s there.

I’m not sure that if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have left the car in Cusco and taken a tour bus.  (That’s assuming you don’t hike in on the Inka Trail, which Ragna wouldn’t have considered.)  Mostly I prefer to drive.   This particular route I might have been better off riding, getting let off near the various ruins, seeing what the experts thought I should see, and not having to figure out where to park.   Maybe.   In a perfect world I’d have done that, and then returned a few days later to explore the area by car on my own.


49. Cusco I; Pisac


XLIX. Cusco

    Cusco is a marvelous city.   (I cannot disagree with the oft-voiced complaint that it begins to resemble Santa Fe in New Mexico, St. Miguel de Allende in Guanajauto, and other great spots now top-heavy with tourists; but it’s still beautiful, it still has a wonderful feel to it, and there are still places in the area where you won’t find so many fellow foreigners. )  My own experience and account of it were marred by personal issues, which I mention only to explain why this and the next several posts will not provide as much detail on this fine city as I might like.   (The post is in draft form because some further information from my notebooks isn’t available to me right now but soon will be again.  Note also that two additional posts, after our return from Macchu Picchu and from Puerto Maldonado, will concern Cusco.)

    Cusco is also the gateway to Machu Picchu — as well as to Manú and Puerto Maldonado.    The presence of numerous agencies [including the eight entitled to take you into Manú itself] within block of the Plaza helps with comparison shopping.   If you aren’t locked into a particular days, you can select the tour that most fits your taste and budget. 

 We spent our first day or two in Cusco looking into possible trips to the interior.   Selma’s departure schedule nixed several attractive possibilities, and Ragna wasn’t interested in anything that involved camping out at night, and we ultimately settled on a five day, four-night trip to Corto Maltes on the Rio Madre de Dios.   This would allow us a day or two in Puerto Maldonado before and after the jungle.    [Posts to follow will describe that trip.] 

We also lazed around the Hostal Qorichaska, which I found to be a very reasonable budget lodging in a convenient location.   The thick walls made some rooms silent as tombs at night; the courtyard provided a pleasant and sometimes warm spot in which to enjoy the complimentary breakfast and read or write or gab with other travelers; and the kitchen allowed for saving money by making one’s own meals.    

Pisac Mercado

Sunday we set out reasonably early for the Pisac market. From Cuzco we drive through beautiful mountain countryside that would delight us even if it were not full of Inca ruins and small villages, and were not called the Sacred Valley.

Pisac is crowded and chaotic, as we’d expected. The market itself fills the Plaza de Armas and extends a long way along two of the eight streets that run outward from the Plaza. We enter in the corner where folks are selling vegetables and meat, and I start shooting like crazy, as I always do in markets. Most vendors and customers don’t notice or don’t care: they’re accustomed to foreigners from all over the globe photographing them. A few put up there hands or cover their heads with their hats, and of course I immediately apologize and move on, not trying to steal a shot of them. Some, including children, extend a palm or say, “Propina.” Of these, some say it with stern faces, to dissuade anyone from photographing them without paying; some say it smiling; and a few, who perhaps have not yet tried this and aren’t quite sure they can earn a few extra soles so easily, say it shyly, giggling.

So here are a few faces from the marketplace.   Some were candid shots in which the people weren’t aware of being photographed or more or less ignored the fact.   Others — like the girls with the lambs — were in the market specifically to be photographed, and particularly to be paid for being photographed.  So, I think, was the old lady in her chair.  When I visited Pisac again on the way out to Macchu Picchu a couple of days later, she was in the same chair in the same spot, and some fellow from New York was photographing her.

sm-08-9131-woman-in-pisac-mercadosm-08-9144-woman-in-pisac-mercadosm-08-9152-woman-in-pisac-mercado sm-08-9151-woman-in-pisac-mercadosm-08-9153-woman-in-pisac-mercado1



Despite the tour-buses parked back at the entrance to town, this wasn’t a tourist market.   It was extensive, and there were certainly jewelry and clohing stalls aimed at tourists; but I also saw plenty of fruit and vegetables, meat, sandals, tools, and what-not, as well as a few food-stalls where locals, but no foreigners, were chowing down.    Again, a quick sampling:


At one point we see a couple of little girls and a third, smaller child, each of the two older girls carrying a tiny lamb half hidden in her jacket. Of course we want to shoot that picture, and willingly provide the requisite propina. What a neat image! Of course, after we see the girls two or three more times, circulating throughout the market to have their photos taken by tourists, and see at least two other pairs or trios of girls with tiny lambs also wandering around for the same purpose, the image loses a little lustre.

We eat lunch at an outdoor table in one of the restaurants on the plaza.

Later I get talking with some expats from the U.S. who live around here.  They’re at the ______ — an eaterie on the Plaza that’s almost hidden by all the mercado tents.   The talk is of healers and shamans and the countryside here.  One of them runs a local b&b, the _________  — and proudly introduces me to ____ and ____, two large, friendly dogs sitting at his feet.  (Memory claims that the b&b was called the Thunder and Lightning, and that the dogs were, respectively, Thunder . . . and Lightning; but I need to check my notes.)  In any case I enjoyed talking with the guy who runs the place, and a couple of other expats who lived in the Valley; and they were serious about healing.   If you plan on visiting the area to see a shaman or drink ayahuasca, those folks would be reasonable folks to contact about that. 

We drive back to Cusco in a light rain. In the evening we dine at ____ on the Plaza. It ain’t cheap, but the food’s fine and for awhile there’s a floor-show, five or six musicians in local garb playing old Beatles tunes and some classical music on local Andes instruments, and some dancers (who dance together then circulate and invite diners or drinkers to dance with them – beware!). . .

Travel Notes:

After a long search we end up at Hostal Qorichaska, which we recommend. [see below].

Aurelio, our landlord in Arequipa, had recommended S on El Sol, and it sounded appealing:

But the evening we arrived it had limited availability. We called several other possibilities, and visited a number of them. ______ was in a location that was appealing [very high up, nice view, far away from everything] but impractical [cochera a good hike away, the last portion of the road up to the place a one-lane, cobblestone street that we weren’t sure taxis would choose to go up, having to back down 100 meters or so].

_______ was in a nice area, also high up, but convenient to Plaza ____ and some nice-looking restaurants, and the man who showed us the rooms was pleasant and helpful, even walking with us to another hostal and then providing directions back down to the Plaza de Armas] but there were a lot of dogs barking in the area, and on this particular day a couple of the rooms we saw suffered from the effects of a cat having been accidentally locked in the room for an extended period. However, there was a restaurant and courtyard area, and the price was right. The nearby ____ was also a possibility, but we decided we felt like being closer to the plaza.

The Hostal Qorichaska is an old building with thick stone walls, and we’d highly recommend it as a budget hotel, although the rates were a good deal more than those at the ones we saw higher up [and much further from the Plaza de Armas]. We slept marvelously every night. Calle Nueva Alta gets little late-night traffic, and almost no sound penetrates to our room [which was ground-floor and not hear the front gate]. The courtyard was a great place to breakfast, or to read or gab or catch a few rays during the day, or to drink a glass of wine at night. The rooms were adequate in size and cleanliness: undecorated, but pleasant. The place was convenient to the Plaza, a very modest walk or a quick cab-ride. The staff was generally friendly and helpful, and laundry was done and returned fairly quickly. Phone number, I think, is 228 974 – from elsewhere in Peru, preface that with (84) for Cusco; and from outside Peru, (51)(84) 228 974.

[to be inserted]
Other Points:
1. Read Garcilaso  de la Vega.   Not surprisingly (since he was the son of a prominent conquistador and an Inca princess , and was writing of a childhood spent in Cusco just a few years after the Conquest) his account provides a uniquely direct feel for the Inca civilization and Cusco.
2. Independent travelers: note that Cusco and Lima are the only cities in Perú in which the South American Explorers Club has a clubhouse.   The one in Cusco, just a short walk from the Plaza de Armas, has a library of other folks’ accounts of travels to Manú, the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers, and other remote locations, with reviews of different tour operators. 
3. Ayahuasca.  I didn’t have a chance to participate, but friends and acquaintances gave me ample first-hand accounts for me to have the names of two people in mind whom I’d talk to if I wanted to drink ayahuasca.   Diego, in the Sacred Valley, and Antonio, in the Puerto Maldonado area.  More about Antonio in a later post, as one morning I talked for awhile with Antonio.    I had a good feeling about him; and he recommended Diego, whom a couple of friends had also visited for ayahuasca ceremonies.  One difference is that Diego is more [Buddhist] religiously oriented.   The night before I spoke with him, a South African couple I spent several days with in the jungle had been up all night with Antonio, drinking ayahuasca for the first time, and they spoke positively of the experience;  and he’s a serious man I tended to like, respect, and trust.    As I added this note, I googled “Sacred Valley” and ayahuasca, and there’s plenty on the ‘net to read about this stuff.  One site,  http://natureofmind.org/44/ayahuasca-information-and-retreats/ recommended the same two guys, Diego and Antonio.

48. Puno to Cusco

XLVIII. Puno to Cusco

We get a late start from Puno.

I’m up early to drive down to the docks with Selma to give Simon the food and gifts we had bought for them the previous evening. We have two bags full of stuff.  The moment we arrive, a couple of guys approach us to try to sell us boat tickets, then call out to Simon for us.  Simon introduces his son Elvis, and asks whether we’d left a camera on the boat. We think not but can’t be sure Ragna didn’t, so we tell him we’ll take a look at it.

He’s happy to see the extra food. He and I carry it to the boat. Then in the office he and another fellow show us the camera: Ragna’s videocamera, out of its case. We thank him profusely, and take it with us. I’m thinking I should have rewarded him – particularly if the reason the other fellow was standing there was that he had actually found the camera. Even with Simon, although we’ve stayed at his house and become friends with him – circumstances that would make a monetary reward almost insulting if we were in the U.S. or Iceland – the gap between our financial situations makes that all hypothetical. The video camera is worth a great multiple of Simon’s monthly income, and its return before we even noticed it was missing is an honorable action that should be rewarded. Although they must think it nice of us to have bought all the additional food and brought it to them, how careless we must seem to have lost something worth hundreds of times anything they own besides the boat, failed even to notice we’d lost it, and then greet its return with merely a [profuse] “Thank you”!

Thus after I stop at the bank, and while Ragna and Selma are finishing their packing, I drive back down to the dock. This time I find Simon standing near the entrance with Elvis and his younger daughter, the one Ragna and Selma had earmarked some food for. They point to the black plastic bag with that food in it, to show me she has it. I tell him that obviously the return of the camera – whether by him or by his friend – should be rewarded, and give him S./ 200. He doesn’t say much, but I sense that he too was thinking it wrong of me not to have offered a reward earlier. We say good-bye again, warmly on both sides, and he urges us to recommend his boats to my friends. I tell him I will, knowing I have no friends likely to visit Lake Titicaca any time soon, but also that I’ll mention him in this web-site.

A further delay ensues when we start to load the car and Ragna discovers that the chicken, in a separate plastic bag Selma and I hadn’t noticed, is still in the car. It’s too late to take it to the docks, as Simon will have left at 8:30. We finally take it back into the hotel, explain that Elvis will come for it, and resolve to e-mail Elvis from Cusco.

We stop in _______, famous for making Los Toros — the little bulls on top of all the houses around here, notably every house we saw in or near Atuncolla a few days ago.

We don’t see a particularly appealing restaurant in Ayaviri, but we do feel like exploring the market with our cameras, and we do.   I shoot a lot of useless photos of kids shooting pool at the outdoor tables, and even win some cookies at a shooting gallery.   Eventually I meet up with the ladies.  Ragna is looking for a bathroom, so we throw ourselves on the mercy of the folks running the hotel on the Plaza de Armas,

Waiting, Selma and I hear music and see a parade coming, so we tell the woman at the hotel to tell Ragna we’ve walked down to the corner to shoot.   It’s Aymiri’s Fiesta.   Dancing girls, people in masks, musicians and horseback-riders, everyone having a good time, and we don’t need to know why, so are we.  The only problem is that I’m stuck with a set lens, slightly telephoto, which makes it hard to shoot a lot of what I’d like to shoot in the midst of a crowd watching dancers.







sm-08-8661-portrait-of-woman-ayaviri sm-08-8676-man-on-horseback-ayaviri-fiestasm-08-8670-an-on-horseback-ayaviri-fiesta

sm-08-8694-woman-girl-ayaviri-p-de-aBut we enjoy the fun.

Shooting a few more pictures in the Plaza de Armas, I spot an old couple sitting on a bench.   They might as well have a moonbeam from heaven shinining on them, they so completely capture my attention the moment I see them.   I photograph them, and the little dog who seems to be with them, moving ever closer, but they only have eyes for each other.   There’s plenty of noise and pedestrian traffic around them, but they’re completely unaware.


Maybe it’s their complete attentiveness to each other that draws my attention, maybe it’s their body language, maybe it’s the presence of such love [or so it seems to me, at least] in two so deeply lined faces.   sm-08-8761-woman-of-ayaviri-old-couplesm-08-8759-man-of-ayaviri-old-coupleIn any case, I shoot a boatload of images of them, and then even individual portraits.   Interestingly, to my eye the individual portraits, while nice enough, lack the zap of the earlier shots — as if without the other, some life goes out of each face.

They seem a couple who have been long together; but also I think of the couple in Love in the Time of Cholera, reunited after decades of separation.

sm-08-8793-countrysidesm-08-8812-house-and-snow-capped-peakThen we are on the road again, climbing toward Abra La Raya, the highest pass on the road to Cusco, enjoying the countryside.

sm-08-8857-old-woman-portraitsm-08-8841-old-lady-by-the-side-of-the-road2At some point we pause to glance at some odd-looking little houses on the right, unsure what they are.  As Ragna and Selma are photographing them, a woman materializes on our left, staring at me with what might be fright or curiosity.   Her face is interesting.  So are the structures.    And she clearly has a moment to assist us.






I give her a generous propina: I think I’ll like the pictures, she went out of our way for us, and she looks like she needs it.   Ragna, unaware I’ve done that, gives her a second propina, probably even more generous.

Within moments we are at the pass.   It’s cool and scenic.



A vendor at the peak had dolls for sale . . .


. . . but the cutest probably wasn't for sale

sm-08-8942-four-alpacaWe keep playing around until we lose the light, then have more than an hour’s drive through the mountain roads in darkness, sm-08-8997-countrysideand Cusco’s big enough that, approaching it at night, it takes us awhile to figure out where the hell we are.   Then the search for a place to stay begins; and although we’re all cooperating, it takes forever.   The place we’d planned to stay only has a three-bed room for the first night, and that gets vetoed; another sounds great in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I call, and try to follow their directions, but at a point where the map showing the road continuing the hill, that isn’t the whole truth: the road does continue, but as steep stairs that even the heroic Mitsubishi isn’t likely to climb; a third has a lovely view, in a nice neighborhood, for a low price, but cats have accidentally been locked for a few days in the room Ragna and I would get, and have done what they needed to do.  Eventually we try the Hostal Q’oriaska.  It’s back down nearer the Plaza de Armas, on a dark cobble-stoned street, and the front’s all locked up and unwelcoming, but it’s a find.   A haven.   Simple but adequate rooms, with hot water; very nice people; and a central courtyard in which to breakfast or drink a before-bed glass of wine or sit in the warm sun at mid-day.  And affordable.

We’re tired, but we’re home.

Travel Notes:


Hostal Q’uriaska.  458 Nueva Alta.  (I spent so much time there that the address comes instantly to mind weeks later, finishing up this page.)   We liked the place.   Although it doesn’t look so when you first arrive, it was homey and welcoming.   Rooms quite adequate, for a very fair price.   A kitchen in back, so that you could keep a little food in the refrigerator and eat in the courtyard (or the common room with the TV, off the kitchen) when you wanted to.   The people were very kind and good-humored; and we stored a lot of stuff there, first when we went to Macchu Picchu and then when we went down to Puerto Maldonado, and it was all there when we returned.    Too, it’s reasonably convenient to the Plaza de Armas; the central courtyard is one of those places where you may get into pleasant conversations with other travelers; and the rooms I stayed in were extraordinarily quiet, protected by the thick old walls from the street noise.


Other Points:

1. Not discussed in this Post, because I didn’t visit it until weeks later [Post Cusco III when I put it on here], is the Catedral.  The sort of place I might not even bother going, but was very glad I did.  It was quite interesting.

2. Cusco might be the best place in Peru to buy a camera or a lense.  Certainly the shops there had a much greater selection of camera stuff than what I’d seen anywhere else outside Lima.  They quickly repaired my damaged zoom lens.

Not di

47-C. Amantani – Taquile – Puno

XLVII-C. Amantani to Taquile to Puno 11 Sept.

sm-08-7911sm-08-7930-mother-and-child-morning-amantaniMorning on Amantani is fresh and cool after the storm.   I wander out early with the camera.

Soon after breakfast we walk with our hostess down to the docks.   The harbor is quite active in morning, with all sorts of vendors and boats and people sending things and going places.



Selma naps

Selma naps

It isn’t all that far to Taquile.   I ride up top, gabbing with other travelers again and enjoying the bold light on the blue lake.


a small island on the way


Isla Taquile


Isla Taquile


approaching Taquile


Simon as we land at Taquile


Simon as we land at Taquile


Taquile’s harbor is far below the town.


Taquile steps

 sm-08-8103-taquile-stepsFrom the harbor, it’s 500 stone steps up to the town.  I can’t say I counted, but I believe the number.  The steps are old, and some are big.  (Above left, some folks start the climb.)

Selma is still feeling altitude sickness, and doesn’t even start up. Ragna starts climbing with me, but soon realizes she’s forgotten something and goes back down.


Taquile and its harbor


Ragna descending


another view from the Taquile steps


a woman works in the field; a sense of Lake T


already, it's a long way down

I continue alone.  It is a long, slow climb.   I enjoy the views back down toward the harbor.  Because I was delayed waiting to see what Ragna and Selma wanted to do, I’m way behind everyone else, and thus alone — to my delight.  I can see Ragna and Selma alone down there, and later another boatload of tourists maneuvering for space in the little harbor.   To the side, the view is of a hillside of fields, then more blue water.  The view upward is less appealing, but is the one I need to attend to, so I do.


the view upward


Lake Titicaca from the first arch

Reaching the top, I make my way to the left and then toward what looks like it might be the Plaza de Armas.



toward what looks like the Plaza de Armas


a woman knitting - Taquile

It’s still a walk to the Plaza.  When I reach it, it’s lively.   The local people are colorfully dressed.  Many of them are knitting or weaving.   There are a fair number of foreigners walking around.  There’s a church and a huge place that seems to be a textile cooperative.    I wander around the Plaza.

On the lake side of the Plaza, several young men sit knitting, and talking animatedly.  Dressed in local garb, they sit on the old rock wall beyond which the land drops away sharply down toward the blue lake.   






I shoot a few pictures, then greet them and talk a bit.  I give them a propina for the photographs, quite sure that’s the norm here, and one says something about buying a coke with it.  I feel good sitting here in the hot sun.  After a moment I go to get myself a drink — and five cokes for them.

sm-08-8261-taquile-knitterI return with five cokes – shrugging an explanation to the sixth knitter who has now joined them – and a juice for me. They are pleased. I am pleased. We stand there kidding around, in the warm sun. After awhile I fade into invisibility again and shoot a few more photos of them, closer now.

sm-08-8268-tourists-photographing-little-girl-taquile I am far from the only visitor wandering through the Plaza de Armas with a camera.


The view from where they sit . . .


. . . is wide, and easy on the eyes.

sm-08-8342-photographer-taquileTo my left and behind me a traveler – Swiss, as it turns out – sits in the shadows with a long lens. A good place to shoot from. Of course I shoot him too.

To my right, other folks are photographing a sign that gives the mileage to various cities around the world.

So many of these photos, although perhaps evocative, seem to me too external to their subjects. A woman, faceless beneath her black shawl drawn tight, sits before the church across the Plaza.  sm-08-8310-woman-taquile-plaza-de-armas, Another woman, expressionless, passes with her child, without greeting the faceless woman. sm-08-8316-taquile-plaza-de-armas  In the corner, a third woman cheerfully spins.  sm-08-8379-woman-taquileIf their costumes or colors or shapes evoke some image of an earlier or different time, fine, but we do not see them. We do not even, for the most part, see their faces.

sm-08-8353-girl-taquilesm-08-8352-taquile-plaza-de-armas-swiss-guy-photographing-girlA young girl stands near the Swiss with the long lens. He photographs her, probably a set of extreme close-ups given that lens and that distance. She waits patiently, then approaches him for a propina. He brushes her off like bird-shit on his sleeve.

sm-08-8355-girl-taquileI call her over, and buy one of the wristbands she is selling for S./ 1 apiece. I do not know who would want them, but now I have bought two of them in as many days. Resolving to keep them, but knowing they will fall in and out of pockets and suitcases long enough to disappear, eventually.

The Swiss man has probably taken a better and more intimate-looking photograph of the young girl, a close-up of her face, sharply focused and properly exposed. I feel very comfortable in my skin, though. Not because I gave the girl a sole and he didn’t. Who cares? [Well, she, for a moment.] He moves with a hint of resentment, even anger. Of mixed and unacknowledged feelings about his surroundings. I see it often. These people live differently and more simply than we. For some of us, that is a terrible indictment we do our best to evade. That the girl asks him for money is outrageous, not because he begrudges her the money but because it interferes in some fashion with his illusion regarding their relationship. He doesn’t need one sole, more or less, or he wouldn’t be here, and wouldn’t own that lens. But he needs something. Whether it is to not quite admit their poverty and need, or to deny his own middle-aged, middle-class circumstances, or to suppose he is Curtis among the redskins, an artist capturing a wholly foreign world, I can’t know.

He is indeed in a foreign land. It makes inconvenient demands on him. It reminds him that whoever he may suppose he is, he just looks wealthy to these folks. Whatever he supposes his camera is, they see that it’s a way he uses them, and a fair source of income for them.

Then it’s time to make for the boat. It’s late enough that I’ll have to move fairly fast to be back on time. I stop briefly to buy a couple of bottles of water, a sprite for Ragna, some peanuts, and a couple of mandarin oranges for her and Selma. Then I start moving, hoping not to be late to the dock.

On the way, I do shoot a couple of quick pictures, and my zoom lens quits on me.

Though I don’t immediately think of it, I may have made a mistake letting the Israeli fellow handle it; but more likely it’s just cumulative wear from how much and how rapidly I’ve used it.

My immediate concern is that we’re a long way from anywhere, although at least there’s some hope that Cusco might have an adequate repair facility.

Meanwhile I rush for the boat, seeing a few pictures I can’t take, cursing when the plastic bag breaks and the oranges and snacks bounce down those big rock steps ahead of me, and hope my knee doesn’t quit on me. It doesn’t, and I get back down, more or less on time and well before a couple of others.

The boat-ride back is not the best part of the trip. It’s hot.   Sleeping in the sun is a bad idea because of sunburn.  Sleeping inside is a better idea, but it’s very hot there too, and most of the seats are taken anyway.

I take no pictures on the ride back.  The camera’s worthless with this lens on it, and the other I brought to Peru is in the hotel in Puno.

When we reach Puno, if it were up to me, I’d rest; but Ragna, whose heart is as big as Wyoming, won’t have it.  We have lots of food and other gifts, such as notebooks and pens, to buy for Simon and Clara and their family.  We must go immediately to do that.  (I agree we need to do it, of course, but would nap or write in my notebook for a while first.)  So we do that, even buying a chicken as a special treat.  Fortunately my contribution is mostly the driving and the money, so everywhere we go I sit in the car while Ragna and Selma do the real work.

42. Arica, Chile / return to Arequipa

XLII. Back to Arica, then back to Arequipa:

After a sleepless night, I guess one can’t accurately begin, “We awakened early .  .  .”   But we get the hell out of bed as soon as it’s remotely likely that the proprietors will be awake to take our money, perhaps feed us, and open the gate so we can drive away.  And we don’t much care about the feeding part.

We do eat some breakfast, almost entirely in silence, and are quickly on the road.  The white peaks looming over Putre are still in shadow.  It’s a beautiful morning, and within minutes it gets more beautiful.  We come around a curve and find this fellow perched on a hill just above us on the right:

I quickly stop to photograph him. He is astonishing, particularly in the early light. The moment is so beautiful it almost dissipates the emotional cloud filling the car.

Nor is he alone:

In awe, we share the early-morning silence with them.  To our right, except where small hillocks like this stand just beside the road, there’s a long drop into the valley, while to our left stands a higher plateau, and eventually we realize that there are many more vicuna on the plateau, and these fellows want to join them – or are awaiting their company to wander further downhill together.  Whatever their purpose, we’re extraordinarily grateful.  I know that I’ll be extremely fond of my photograph of him, and feel humbled: no one should be so lucky as to have such beauty wander in front of his camera as we’ve experienced in the Chilean mountains.

After that, the drive down is anti-climactic, although we do have to stop to use the extra gas, and stop again much later to enjoy the fog beginning to eat the road on which we’re about to descend to sea-level.


When we reach Arica we decide to check out a hotel that’s right on the beach, but also quite near the road and the city. Hotel Bahia. We’ve noticed it before, but I feared that it would be both expensive and noisy.  I’m delighted to learn I was wrong.

It is quiet, pleasant, and nearly deserted. (Since we got up early and drove about three hours, it’s also still just late morning.) The place has the air of a somewhat down-at-the-heels resort that the family who owned it is sm-08-4525-hotel-bahia-our-roomtrying to improve again. We take a room with a balcony overlooking the water.  Within moments we end our quarrel as all quarrels should be ended, and afterward we lie around for a long time, just listening to the sm-08-4543-ragna-in-curtain2breeze and the birds and the soft sound of small waves rolling in, then sm-08-4542-view-from-hotel-toward-boats1walk on the beach.  When we return, we start looking at the stuff we shot up in the mountains.

sm-08-4599-harbor2We make a quick visit back to the harbor, for a sunset that doesn’t really happen and a word or two with our old friends, the pelicans — who, here, look like the “three wise men” of legend.



Supper is simple. We get so immersed in editing video and processing stills that it’s dark all around us before it occurs to us that we’re hungry. We dress and go look for the other good restaurant in town, Tierra Amado.   Perched part way up a hill near the church, it’s a much more modern-looking place than El Maracuyá.   We eat very well, and enjoy the place and the decor.

We sleep marvelously, a wonderful night’s sleep that almost erases from memory the previous night.

In the morning, the sky and the sea are differing shades of grey, and the sea is so still it might be a lake.   Even the smallish waves we saw yesterday have disappeared, but the birds are crying as loudly as ever.   Pelicans and others, excited by morning and by men fishing and by life itself.

There’s also a very pleasant coffee house in which we breakfast one morning, chatting with the owner and other guests at the counter. The owner is simpatico, and not merely because it’s part of his job description. On the wall he has [in Spanish, of course] a poster with the famous quotation from Borges (who lived a notoriously sedentary life, partly because he suffered from a hereditary disease that limited his sight and eventually blinded him) about how much riskier and more exciting and contemplative he would live life if he could begin again.

That Ragna is Icelandic generates a conversation at one point about Iceland’s former President, Valdis Finnbogadóttir, one of the earlier female Presidents in the western world. The café owner tells us that Valdis visited Chile years ago, and much impressed people. “And so you copied Iceland,” I interject, having read that Chile now has a woman president. We discuss the two, and eventually, of course, Pinochet as well.

Discussing Pinochet is more moving than I might have anticipated. Our host (a bookish gentleman, friendly and intelligent) was arrested twice, once when he was very young and then once again at 26, when his wife was pregnant. Too, the government’s treatment of his father contributed to the man’s early death. He recounts all this, in a quiet tone but with a trace of tears in his eyes, before noting that things are surely better now – but adding, without a hint of swagger, that the police will never again get near his family, that he’ll kill any policeman who invades his house. He says it not boastfully, but with resolve. With the memory of pain.

I want to apologize to him for my country’s involvement.












Then we return to the harbor.   Arica’s is a real, working harbor, with fishing boats and freighters and people who make their livings on them.   It has the scents and sounds of the sea, and the unpolished feel I remember from fishing villages in my childhood, in New England.  There are plenty of photogenic pelicans hanging around, and occasionally someone else pokes a head up out of the water.

We eat an excellent chowder and fish sandwich in the shack-style restaurant overlooking the water, then explore.  We’re told that there are “lobos” (wolves, the term here for what English calls sea lions) in a nearby area, and we walk over there.

sm-08-4034-sealThe lobos are extremely lazy, but occasionally stretch and yawn and preen (as if for the cameras, but perhaps for lobos of the opposite sex, or just for their own amusement).  Once in awhile a quarrel breaks out, and there’s a flurry of snarls, but within seconds they’ve either resolved the dispute or dozed off and forgotten it.  Once when I start back toward Ragna and pass too near them, one lurches at me, roaring, but he isn’t interested in pursuing me more than the step or two I quickly put between us.







It’s the kind of slow, sunny day on which you take your time and watch old friends gather slowly to tell stories:


Even when the place is crowded, there’s always room for one more:







sm-08-4304-flying-pelican-with-judgesSometimes it even seems, at least to a frivolous mind like mine, as if the older pelicans are judging the quality of the younger ones’ landings and takeoffs.

The drive back to Arequipa is uneventful. 

Travel Notes:


sm-08-4525-hotel-bahia-our-roomWe stayed at the Bahia Hotel, a relative bargain, where we were about as comfortable and happy as we could be. Right on the water, though not overlooking the most beautiful beach or the most dramatic waves breaking. Also quite convenient to town, although quite quiet despite its proximity to a main road.  I think we spent 22,000, but it’s possible at certain times to get a room as low as $23 per night.  In any case, it had a nice feel to it.  Ocean breezes and views.  And sounds, though the waves whisper rather than roar.  And scents. (Good ones.)


Tierra Amado, part way up the hill from the street the Eiffel-designed church is on, is a modern restaurant that serves good food. We ate well and enjoyed the evening, for 31,600 pesosm including wine. Note that to reach it on foot, you walk with the front of the church on your left, and continue uphill at the corner. The restaurant does have a parking area, so no need to park elsewhere and walk unless you want to.

We also loved La Maracuyá

 — as noted a post or two earlier.  Great food, great service, and a great location right out over the waves, a bit south of town.

Other Points:

If driving up to Lake Chungará, particularly in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, take extra gas.

XXX. Nazca 18-19 June

XXX. Nazca

After the Museo Regionale in Ica we make the short drive to Nazca, check into a hotel, drink some coffee in its very pleasant walled garden, then go for a drive.  Nazca itself is not terribly appealing, but the hotel is pleasant.  In the morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we pack all our stuff and head for the airport to fly over the Lines. 

The Nazca lines are one of the things you’re really supposed to see in Perú. As a photographer, I’m less than excited.

Since before coming to Perú I’ve heard about the lines.  Fashioned long before the Inca era, these mysterious lines have spawned various theories about their creation. Extensive line drawings of various figures, they are visible only from the sky.  Because the Nazca culture lacked airplanes, it’s interesting that whoever built the lines could envision how they’d look from a vantage point no one on earth had yet enjoyed (unless, as some have hypothesized, visitors from some other planet were involved). It’s impressive that someone imagined it, and could create the lines; and no one truly knows why someone built them. For the Gods to see, or perhaps even the Sun [the Incas’ primary deity, though the Incas did not build the lines]. They’re a legitimate mystery.

Once here, though, I might almost pass on seeing them. We won’t be able to go until mid-afternoon, which will be flat, uninteresting light. We have a long way to drive to Arequipa. And the cost seems inflated – and has certainly increased a great deal recently. At the airport, lacking reservations, we find we’ll have to wait more than an hour to fly.

Ragna waits at the airport

I’ve seen a few pictures, and our landlady in Lima had several colorful tiles on the wall with graphic reproductions of the lines on them; but from the air, flying over desert with plenty of natural patterns and lines to camouflage The Lines, it ain’t easy to spot the first one when the pilot tells you it’s down there on the right. I turn in my seat and look, and do find it, but by then we’ve almost passed it, and he’s returning to give the woman sitting on the left a better look.

Strapped in the passenger seat of a small plane, it’s a struggle to spot the figure, organize a shot, get proper focus and lighting, all the time shooting through a window that’s going to limit the quality of the shot. I’m impressed by the lines, but no more than I was by the idea of them. Struggling to take what I know will be mediocre pictures at best, I don’t get to contemplate them. It’s nice enough countryside, the lines are unusual, and flying in a small plane is generally fun, although unsettling to some stomachs.

nature added many lines to "the Lines"

one line close to the highway from Ica


As we fly back toward the airport, I’m phrasing in my mind what I want to say about this: don’t take your camera. All my life, I’ve heard the old complaint that you lose the quality of an experience by photographing it. Usually I disagree. At Nazca, that complaint has more to it.  Not because the Lines are so spectacular or moving but because the photography is so difficult, and the potential returns so limited, that even the most avid and capable photographer ought not to bother. There are undoubtedly decent pictures, perhaps excellent pictures on sale. The reasons not to shoot more yourself begin with the fact that it takes a moment or two to distinguish the figures from the natural lines and patterns left by the centuries and the occasional rains. By the time you actually spot The Lines, you may not have time to frame and focus. If you could then shoot a marvelous photo, you’d want to do it; but: (1) you’re probably not there at the ideal time of day, and thus not shooting with the most favorable light; (2) you’re shooting through a window; (3) you’re high up, at the altitude at which they normally fly tourists; and (4) the pilot’s on a bit of a schedule, and although he makes a second pass at each figure so that all the passengers on each side of the plane get a good view, and might make a third pass at one if you requested it, you don’t have a pilot who’s wholly at your command. Also, the Lines aren’t like, say the Lincoln Memorial, where you might get lucky and shoot a juxtaposition of the right person or sign or object with the Memorial itself. From so many meters up, you ain’t gonna catch a burro or a llama in front of the lines, or a live condor perched by the drawing of a condor. So why bother?

With all those impediments to making a photograph you’d even bother to print, why not leave the camera at home?  Instead of fussing with it, look at the damned lines, wonder about them, observe something of them.  Concoct your own theory on their origins. See what they make you feel.

B. Chauchilla Cemetery

    By now it’s getting late to start driving, but even so we can’t resist stopping at the Cemetario about 30 km. south of Nazca.  After a 7 km. drive off the Pan-American Highway on a fairly easy dirt road through the desert, the Cemeterio turns out to be a dozen or so of what look like cellars with no houses on top of them.  Each is a rectangular hole in the ground, with rock walls, no ceiling, and a wooden structure above to provide shade.  Each is populated by one or more mummies, often with skulls, bones, cups, and other objects surrounding them.  Glancing down, one has almost the feeling of looking through a window into a family’s living room or kitchen.   But all the folks inside died a very long time ago.   Several hundred years before the Inca’s became the big deal in western South America.  These mummies are from the Nazca times.  Grave-robbers had scattered them around while rushing off with more valuable finds, but then someone  collected them.



















Rushing back along the dirt road to the paved road South, we pass a Christian cemetery we would likely have ignored, but for its contrast with where we’ve just been.

Travel Notes:

We stay in the Oro Viejo, at S./ 130 rather pricy for Peru, but not for Nazca. It’s a pleasant place, with a nice garden, and we’d recommend it. The S./ 130 included breakfast.

We ate at a lousy chifa, a block or two back down from the Plaza de Armas toward the hotel. Don’t.
Other Points:
Overflights of the Nazca Lines cost us U.S. $90 per person plus S./ 11.50 per person tax [ plus S./3 for parking], and involved waiting nearly two hours and flying for a half hour. 
As I recall from New Mexico, afternoon flights over this sort of country can extricate your lunch from your stomach.  Neither Ragna nor I was sick, although the thought occurred to each of us, but months later a couple of young women from Canada regaled everyone with a detailed account of how quickly and urgently they needed to use the bags provided each passenger in case of airsickness.  If you’re at all prone to that sort of thing, or haven’t flown in small planes and don’t know, consider a light lunch or none.  Or taking a pill.  The foregoing is particularly true if it’s a warm afternoon.
Unless you’re flying very early in the morning and have some special reason, don’t take your camera on the plane with you – or at least, don’t take the lens cap off. The Nazca Lines are interesting and a historical/philosophical/archeological mystery; but trying to capture a good photograph of the damn things will distract you unnecessarily from just seeing and contemplating them – all for lousy photographs. If you want photographs of the Nazca Lines, buy ‘em – unless you’re there long enough and sufficiently enamored of the lines to fly several times, at different times of day. Obviously with some knowledge of the lines and a pilot you could ask to adjust his flying to your photographic needs, you could photograph them, and maybe a plane without a window blocking your view; but if you’re just flying over them once, and you’re not getting paid for your pictures, lose the camera.

XX. Leimebamba to Celendin 25 May


mummy - Leimebamba
mummy – Leimebamba

Leimebamba to Celendin 25 May

mummy - Leimebamba
mummy – Leimebamba


the guardians

the guardians

The museum in Leimebamba is two or three kilometers out of town, in the direction of Celendin. You can’t miss it. In fact, I think you can see these characters from the road. And you shouldn’t miss it. It’s in a nice setting, and has a lot of interesting content.

A chart explains which people were ascendant in each of nine geographic regions of Peru in each century from pre-Christian times to the 16th Century. What stands out is that we do not see the Inca at all until near the end of the period, and then suddenly they appear ascendant in every region except the “Selva Baja” – the lower jungle, the Amazon basin. I hope to learn why they failed there, or didn’t bother. Perhaps they didn’t care for the climate; perhaps the dense lower jungle held nothing of interest for them or was difficult to conquer because of the terrain and the inherent advantages indigenous people had there.

I feel annoyed with the Inca, as I often do – rather the way I hated the Yankees, perennial winners for whom my father rooted, when I was a kid growing up in New York. But I can admire their accomplishments [as I never did with the Yankees]. Within just a century they conquered some very extensive real estate (from Colombia down well into Argentina and Chile), much of it desert or rugged mountains, without the benefits of modern weapons, transportation, or communications; and at least in Peru and Argentina, they ascended many cold, high peaks (peaks that were not climbed again until the last two decades of the 20th Century, by people using gear the Incas could not have dreamed of) and stayed up there long enough to leave human and other sacrifices to placate the mountains, which [or whom?] they regarded as gods.

The chart also places the changing peoples of the Peruvian regions in context, showing what was going on in Europe, Asia, and North America at the time, such as the life of Buddha, the Roman Empire, and the birth of Christ. It is interesting to note that the Incas conquered most of Peru at roughly the same time that Genghis Khan conquered much of the East.

There are also various bits of clothing, pottery, musical instruments, and the like, as well as a kiosk where several of the musical instruments are set near buttons you can push to hear the music made on the particular instrument. Flute music echoes through the room, enhancing the experience.  

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

And there are mummies. (Even a mummified cat with a ring in its nose, showing that it was domesticated.) Many mummies, as well as information on mummification and the difference among various kinds of mummies. 

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

We ask the woman why the mummies look as if they are in so much pain. “Gravidad,” she replies. As the mummy is left in a sitting position, the lower jaw falls. She points to one, and to his hands crossed high on his [or her?] chest, and explains that

mummy's head - Leimebamba


they were placed that way to hold the lower jaw from falling open, but that with time the jaw slipped down anyway. Around another mummy, some kind of rope was used to keep the lower jaw in place.  There too, gravity won out, over time.

figures near museum - Leimebamba

figures near museum - Leimebamba

As we climb away from it, the museum and the valley it occupies grow smaller and greener. At switchbacks we pause and look back.

In a green field near what feels like the top of the earth, I spot a woman and a girl washing clothes and buckets, and we stop. The woman smiles, and starts to come up to the car, but I explain we need nothing, have stopped only because it is a beautiful and peaceful place, and that with her permission we’d like to photograph her. She laughs. We do so, although even when she goes back to her task she watches us more than what she’s washing.

We hear music. Haunting, unfamiliar music, coming from an unseen source. We ask whether it’s from a radio or something else. She explains that it’s from the church, a small building nearby that we hadn’t noticed or that stood out of sight from the road. It’s Sunday, she adds. I explain that with all the traveling we’d lost track of that fact, and she laughs. We stand listening for awhile. The sound carries well in the thin air, and the music haunts us, but we have miles to go before we sleep, and do not retrace our steps for a closer look.

Moments later, after long green high-mountain meadows, drier mountains, and fewer isolated homes, we reach the pass. On the other side is sudden stark beauty, with clouds hugging the peaks. The countryside is quite different, and hard to photograph effectively. Below, very far below, is a green valley.

Again we marvel at the Incas. How the hell did the Inca go all over this country and conquer it all?   Even now with roads it’s difficult. This is not the first time we’ve stopped in awe at the adventures of the Incas and the first Spaniards. The Incas did not even have horses – and although there were llamas in Peru, I haven’t heard that the Incas rode them, though they used them to carry things. How, I’ve wondered, did they know where they were going; how did they keep themselves fed when on the march, and have enough in reserve to attack and conquer someone when they reached their destination? Once they’d conquered a people, how did they communicate with sufficient clarity and speed to deal with local problems in a variety of places?

Our sympathies almost waver – in a ball-game that was won and lost nearly half a millennium ago.

We come around a corner and suddenly see a small group of people, most on horseback. Beside them, the land drops away sharply, and behind them clouds cling to the peaks. We stop, of course. Ragna walks several meters away to photograph the view, then the people. One of the men, not on horseback, holds a bottle they have been drinking from. He offers me some, and I cannot think of refusing. I glance at Ragna, who might be concerned that a little “white lightning” could endanger my ability to negotiate the mountain roads, but she’s filming the view. I drink a bit, more for the fellowship than for the taste or effect, and afterward keep thinking about the peaceful Sunday they are enjoying, in such an isolated and beautiful environment. The hamlet is called Achupas. The folks on horseback have come to this spot from some even more isolated farm the roads do not reach.

the view from Achupas

the view from Achupas

Soon afterward, as I am thinking how fine and green and peaceful the countryside is, we pass a sign on the road: Fundo for sale. I wonder, almost passionately, how much it costs. Not with any practical intention, but what a dream it would be to be in such a place for significant chunks of time!










About 20-30 minutes later we reach a stretch of road that is straight and level for 100 meters or so, with a sheer drop and splendid view on our right and steep hills climbing from just off the road on the left. There’s a house further down on the right, with a white horse tethered by the cliff, admiring the view. On the left, where a pipe brings water from some stream in the hills, a little girl has been washing clothes, surrounded by pigs. As Ragna gets out to photograph her, her older brother stands by the car and chats with me.

sm-08-3914-nenemias-chanchilloHis name is Nenemias. He is 11. He has lived here all his life. He walks up the hill for an hour each day, perhaps to Achupas, to attend school, and walks back in the afternoon. Does he like going to school? “Si, como no?” He would like to be a mechanic when he grows up. I talk to him for a while, without enough Spanish to ask the questions I’d really like to ask, or understand the answers. I think of the girls at Karajia. The sweetness of children in remote places. Cities can be a kind of poison.

In a hamlet just past where the kids live, we pick up a hitchhiker. He rides with us for awhile – he is going to Maranon and Balsas. With my limited Spanish, I understand that there’s a big river there, and guess that Maranon and Balsas are two small towns at either end of a bridge over the river.

The long descent is through country that is nearly as dry as the world gets. As we near the end of it, the valley looks impossibly green. It reminds me of Moab: of reaching the town through hot, dry desert and parking my motorcycle behind a wide river with greenery on both sides; then, of being naked and alone and swimming the dryness and desert heat out of me. This town, though, isn’t nearly as inviting as Moab, and I don’t see a good restaurant or bar. Or anything air-conditioned.

Marranon and Balsas are not two towns separated by a bridge, but a wide, brown river (the Marranon) with high rock cliffs on the far side, with cactus on the tops of them, and a small town named Balsas on the near side. A small, dusty, hot town with simple bars and restaurants. We enter one – with lots of tables and a refrigerator, but otherwise empty except for a woman napping on a blanket on the floor. She rises and puts on her sandals, and a dog wanders out from the back room to see what’s going on.  We buy a couple of cokes.

Another thing we do not see is a gas station. We ask about buying gas. Two little girls follow us everywhere, and when we reach the shop we’ve been told sells gas, it doesn’t look promising.

There is no one in the shop. Her attention drawn by the girls or my “Hello?”, a woman makes her way down the stairs from the second floor. I ask if gas sells itself here. Yes – but just 84. That will have to do. I ask to buy two gallons, hoping that’s enough and that the lower-rated gas won’t seriously screw up the car. She unlocks a door and draws the gasoline from a metal drum into a pail, and we go outside to the car. She holds up a huge funnel, and places its narrow end in a big plastic coke bottle, out of which a part of one side has been cut away to accommodate the process. She nods to the can, which I hold up and pour into the funnel, and the gas passes cleanly through it and down the coke bottle into the tank. (As I pick it up I suggest that Ragna might want to videotape the process, which she does. Later I suggest that it might be one of the most interesting bits of video to some in Iceland, particularly men; but she points out that in remote mountain spots in Iceland, things might be very like this at times.)

We buy a few snacks and some fruit, and approach the bridge, but a barrier blocks our way. A helpful fellow from one of the bars runs over to the police station to get someone to lift the barrier, and we cross.  People are swimming in the river, just outside of town.  As we drive the switchbacks on the other side, we keep looking back at Balsas, getting smaller and smaller. This side of the river is appealing, in a barren sort of way, but almost totally unpopulated.


At some point we see a man waiting for transportation.  He makes a slight gesture toward us, and we stop, and move stuff around to make room for him.   

Ragna and I continue our conversation, but then she says it’s impolite to ignore our passenger, and that I should talk with him. I’d be just as happy to leave him alone and concentrate on the road, rather than trying to make conversation in Spanish, but I acquiesce. His name is Hippolito Chacon. Does he live in Celendin or back where we picked him up? Back there, but higher up. He has a chacra. What does he grow to sell? Avocados; wheat and corn; yucca. Why is he going to Celendin? Near as I can make out, to buy things. Also, he has a son studying medicine there. He has five kids, all in their twenties. He is 58.

Am I right that he has no road, and would have to ride horses or walk? Yes, he walks. And no electricity? None. Is life hard? Yes, he says cheerfully, volunteering that the walk to and from the chacra takes an hour and a half.

We look across at a small peak, extending upwards like a thumb.  There are green fields on it, on terrain that looks so steep one might fear falling off. (It’s a green thumb.) Hippolito says it’s wheat. It is beautifully green – and the folks who work the field must have a hell of a view.

I photograph these fields, but Hippolito owns one. [Why do I not ask him how much such a place sells for?!] I wish we could return and rent mules and ride to his chacra. I wonder how it is to live so far from everything. We write down his name when he gets out of the car in Celendin, but I can’t imagine that even if we drive this road again some day we will have his name with us.

We reach Celendin – coasting the last several kilometers down into town, because I’m not completely confident that we have enough gas to make it otherwise. We let our friend off at a side street that leads to where his son lives.

The Plaza de Armas is nearly empty. At the far corner we find the Hostal Celendin.



Travel Notes:


We stayed, and ate, in the Hotel Celendin.   A night’s lodging was S./37.50 [about U.S. $ 13-14 at the time], for a pleasant matrimonial room with a view of the Plaza de Armas, and places to sit on the balcony overlooking the courtyard.

All was not perfect.  Ragna was pretty repulsed by the bathroom, with a barely-functioning drain full of long, black hair and walls marred by stuff from previous tenants’ noses.   She spent a lot of time cleaning it, we had to get a guy up to the room to fix the drain, and various things such as drinking glasses and a second towel were absent.   On the other hand, it’s a lovely hotel, with a nice courtyard, a promising restaurant, and a balcony overlooking a quiet plaza, but it is not as clean or well-appointed as it might be. For S./ 37.50 I’m disinclined to complain!


The hotel’s restaurant appeared locally popular.  We sat at tables in the courtyard we could see through the kitchen window folks lining up to buy food to go.  We found it adequate, but a little disappointing in light of the pleasant site.   Walking in the morning,we saw places we guessed served better food.

Other Points: 

About the road: it’s a fairly full day’s drive, but we spent much of the morning in the museum, stopped fairly often to shoot photos and video, and still reached Celendin well before dark on a winter day.   There’s not a lot on the way, in terms of restaurants, gas stations, or even small stores.   Tank up before leaving Leimebamba, and take sandwiches and drinks along. 

As noted, the museum in Leimebamba is worth stopping at, particularly if you’re interested in the various civilizations in the Central Andes at various times, and/or if you find mummies reasonably fascinating. 

A FAQ concerning the mummies would be why they look so nightmarish, rather like the famous Norwegian painting, The Scream ; not because they were in great pain, or suffered great fear or humiliation or anguish as they died, but simply because the lower jaw, over time, drops.   Therefore the embalmers attempted various means, including placing the arm or wrist in a position to help hold up the lower jaw, to counteract gravity.  Gravity usuallywon, eventually.]




the guardians

the guardians


near Leimebamba

near Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba









mummy - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy's head - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

mummy's head - Leimebamba

mummy - Leimebamba

figures near museum - Leimebamba

figures near museum - Leimebamba

figures near museum - Leimebamba

figures near museum - Leimebamba