The Inca tunnels under Lampa, Peru

Coca leaves, money, smokes, and skulls. What better memorial?

Luckily we made a quick detour on our way to Bolivia otherwise we would have missed one of the most bizarre sites we have visited on this trip (and that’s saying a lot). Ten miles down a dirt road past herds of alpacas and tumble-down buildings brought us to the rose-colored adobe town of Lampa, Peru. Dominating its central square is the 400 year old Church of the Immaculate Conception. At first glance it resembles one of the finer cathedrals in Cusco: gold plated altar, ornate wooden pulpit, bloody Jesus statues in glass boxes, and Virgin figurines in glittering robes. Things get weird when you descend down a claustrophobic stairway to the Inca tunnels below the church. Skulls and bones decorate the entrances to tunnels that supposedly lead all of the way to Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno (over 100 miles away). The story goes that years ago people tried to follow the tunnels to find out where they led…and they never were seen again!!! The tunnels have now been sealed off, so we’ll never know. Climbing back out of the catacombs we next visited the newer chapel that was built when the church was restored in the 1970s. The architect thought it appropriate to dig up the bodies that were buried under the church so their bones could be used to decorate the temple. He then reserved the space at the bottom of the temple for his eventual final resting place. Interesting choice. Tomorrow we head for Bolivia.

Peering in to the depths of the tomb

Through the heart of a former empire

Huge stones carved by the Colla people lie around Sillustani
Heading northeast from Puno towards Cusco, the road winds between remains of civilizations that fell to the Incas in the 1400s. The Inca civilization began in Cusco and quickly spread north to conquer Peru and Ecuador, then south to conquer Bolivia and Chile. In less than 100 years, they became the most powerful empire in South America. We first visited the funeral towers, or chullpas, of the Colla people who were conquered by the Incas in the early 1400s. Current-day descendants of the Colla around Lake Titicaca still speak Aymara, their pre-Inca language. While all of the towers at Sillustani have been looted and many destroyed, the remaining intact sections were built from perfectly carved stones and towered stories above us. We then continued our drive through the yellow landscape as mountains rose around us to snow-capped peaks. Even in this seemingly inhospitable environment, Inca agricultural terraces climbed the hillsides, evidence that people had been farming this land for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish. After briefly passing through Cusco, we stopped at the Inca site of Pisac. This impressive fortress, farm, and ceremonial center is thought to have defended the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley and the route from the Inca empire into the Amazon jungle. We marveled at the beautifully carved and perfectly fitted stones that formed the terraces and buildings. As the sun dipped behind the valley walls, we left Pisac and drove along the rocky river to our final destination.

The picture everyone has to take when they visit Machu Picchu – for good reason
We concluded our journey in the small town of Ollantaytambo, deep within the Sacred Valley. One of the best preserved and oldest continuously occupied towns in South America, we wandered its alleys to admire the Inca stonework. Many houses had characteristic Inca foundations topped by adobe walls, and drainage paths cut through its cobble-stoned streets. Towering over the town is an unfinished Inca ceremonial site that was hastily converted into a fortress upon arrival of the Spanish. Huge terraces cut by narrow steps climb to the hill’s peak which is crowned by an enormous monolith of pink granite. Primed by all of this Inca history, we eagerly awaited our trip to the crown jewel of Inca architecture, Machu Picchu. While it was raining and foggy as our train chugged through the valley in the early morning, by the time we fought our way through the lines for the bus up to Machu Picchu and the entrance gate, the clouds cleared to reveal the stunning vista. Immaculately carved aqueducts directed water through channels and under buildings, trapezoidal windows framed green valley views, and steep terraces surrounded the amazing site. While the Incas were by no means a peaceful people, we still rooted against the Spanish when we discussed their 40-year resistance to the conquest.

Sure, you have to pay to take their picture, but who can resist baby lambs?

After gorging ourselves on Inca ruins for several days, we returned to Cusco to explore its colonial history. While Inca influence in Cusco is still evident in the perfectly crafted stone foundations, narrow alleys, and locals speaking the Inca language of Quechua, many of the spectacular sites in Cusco are found in its ornate churches and cathedrals. We spent a leisurely day admiring the silver- and gold-gilded altars, intricately carved wooden pulpits, and gold leaf embossed religious paintings. This last day in Cusco was bittersweet though. After a full two weeks of exploring southern Peru with my mother, her visit had come to an end. We said a sad goodbye at the Cusco airport and headed back to our hostel. Our car feels quite empty now without her in the front seat navigating.

From the deepest canyon to the highest lake

Women of the Uros Islands singing a farewell song as our boat pulls away
While the city of Puno is not terribly interesting on its own, it is graced by Lake Titicaca. Prone to hyperbolic descriptions (highest navigable lake, South America’s largest lake, largest lake in the world over 2,000 m) the lake really is a marvel with its rich pre-Hispanic culture and floating islands. On a day-long boat trip to explore the lake, we first visited the floating Uros Islands. The Uros people may have originally fled from the mainland to these islands to escape persecution by invading Incas or Spaniards. Now about 2,000 people live on these floating islands, which undulate disconcertingly under your feet when you first step on to them. The Uros people construct their floating islands, homes, and boats from the abundant totora reeds that grow in the lake. They fish and raise cuy (guinea pig) and navigate the waters of the lake on fantastical reed boats. A family showed us their small reed house, dressed us for pictures in their typical clothing, and we purchased some brightly decorated trinkets from them as thanks for their hospitality.
Touristy, yes, but fun to wear the clothes of the Uros Island people

Two more hours across the placid blue waters of the lake took us to Taquile Island. Huge snow-capped mountains of Bolivia towered over the southern coast of the lake as we climbed off the boat. This island is home to descendants of one of the last groups to resist the Spanish conquest of the Incas. To punish the rebellious Taquileños, the Spaniards forbid them from wearing their traditional clothes. As a result, the islanders still wear the Spanish peasant clothing styles their ancestors adopted over 500 years ago. After a typical lunch of quinua soup and fried trout atop the breezy island, we were treated to a weaving demonstration and some music. We then made our way through the cobble-stoned main square, crossed under gravity-defying stone arches and walked back to our boat. The sun set as our boat slowly chugged back to Puno and the temperature plummeted below freezing. Tomorrow we head for the Sacred Valley and some of the best Inca architecture in South America.

Traditional songs of Taquile Island

Canyons, camelids, and condors

Herd of camelids on the road outside of Colca Canyon

Leaving Arequipa we headed for one of the deepest canyons in the world, Colca Canyon. We first ascended through broad plains home to herds of wild vicuñas. I had been hoping to see vicuñas ever since our visit to the Alpaca 111 factory outlet in Arequipa where I fell in love with their cousin, the alpaca. These graceful animals look somewhat like a cross between a llama and a deer, and they skittishly watched us as we stopped to take their picture. Further along the dusty potholed highway, we climbed to 4,900 meters and the highest pass of our trip. While we were slightly plagued by headaches, we stopped to admire the strange yareta plants growing along the road. Resembling fluorescent green boulders, this odd plant thrives in desolate environments over 4,200 meters. Because of the harsh environment, it grows about 1 millimeter a year and many of the plants are thousands of years old. We then descended below yareta territory and into Colca Canyon. Plunging 3191 meters from its highest point to the rushing river valley, it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Colca Canyon is home to the Collagua and Cabana people who tamed the wild hills of the canyon 1500 years ago by constructing endless terraces to make agriculture possible. After living in the canyon for at least 2,000 years they were conquered by the Incas in the 1400s, with the Spanish hot on the Inca’s heels less than 100 years later. Each of the small towns that is spread throughout the canyon is now home to 300-400 year old picturesque churches. After the Spanish conquest, the canyon was largely cut off from the rest of Peru until roads were built in the 1970s. Because of this isolation, the people of Colca Canyon have retained many of their traditions, still farming the ancient terraces for potatoes and corn, decorating their llamas and alpaca with colorful yarn, and wearing intricately embroidered dresses and hats.

Llamas on the road from Cabanaconde to Chivay

We spent a quiet day in the small town of Cabanaconde near the end of the road that winds through Colca Canyon. In the morning we watched condors soar over the canyon. Considered a sacred animal by the Andean people, these amazing birds have a 9-10 foot wingspan and can soar for hours without flapping their wings. Sensitive feathers extend from the tips of their wings and are used by the birds to monitor the thermals and winds they ride. In the afternoon we took a short hike over to canyon’s mouth. Drunken switchback trails cut across the canyon’s steep walls to small villages accessible only by foot, and ancient terraces were etched into the hills all the way down the river.

Condor soaring over Colca Canyon

The next day a bumpy ride along a rocky dirt road took us across the canyon and through several small towns. Cobblestone roads led into simple squares graced with elegant old churches. Outside of the towns adults and children in colorful clothing herded burros, alpacas, llamas and sheep. After a quiet night in the chilly town of Chivay which was ringed by jagged snow-capped peaks, we continued to Puno and Lake Titicaca. On the way we took an interesting detour through the ghost-town of Sumbay to visit ancient cave paintings. A crooked sign directed us 10 km through the windswept landscape to an unmanned gate. A rusty metal arrow pointed us further along the road, where we met the caretaker along the trail to the 8,000 year old cave paintings. After showing us the ghostly paintings of pumas, people, and deer, we gave him a ride back to ‘town.’ Now home to only six lonely inhabitants, remains of many buildings and a church are slowly being reclaimed by the high plains. Closer to Puno we had to wait alongside the road for two hours as protesters had erected a roadblock. Miraculously the broken glass and rocks were quickly cleared off the road, and we entered Puno after nightfall.

Three days in the White City

Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Arequipa

The city of Arequipa is nestled high among the dramatic volcanoes and mountains of southern Peru. It is known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) as its buildings are constructed from the white volcanic stone, sillar, that is widely available in the area. Arequipa is also casually referred to as the ‘Berkeley’ of Peru, because of its leftist, secessionist leanings and frequent street protests. Fulfilling this reputation, crowds complete with paper mache effigies of political figures and banners took over the streets several times a day (and strangely, in the middle of the night). After picking up my mother at the tiny airport, we set off to explore Arequipa’s dramatic cathedrals, plazas lined with arched colonnades, and dodge the aggressive cabs that own the streets. At one intersection, the city tried to give pedestrians a slight advantage by installing a stoplight with an electronic singing ‘walk’ sign. It was a mostly unsuccessful experiment as cabs ran the red light for over half of the time allotted for pedestrians. We took a peaceful break from the hectic traffic by visiting the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. For its first 250 years, the monastery operated partially as a repository for rich, protected girls of the Arequipa upper class. Many of the ‘nuns’ had ornate tapestries and chandeliers to decorate their ‘cells’ and servants to cook and clean for them. Upon instituting austerity reforms in 1870 the monastery changed its hedonistic ways and became closed to society. In 1970 the small group of remaining nuns moved to a newer convent, and the monastery was opened to the public. This giant cloistered 400-year old monastery takes up a complete city block. Winding through its narrow alleys between bright orange and blue adobe buildings, the sounds of honking horns and hawking vendors were blissfully muted.

Arequipa’s main cathedral at night

The next morning we visited the Inca Ice Maiden Juanita at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. This museum displays the incredible tombs that were unearthed high on the peak of Volcan Ampato near Arequipa. 500 years ago several young girls were sacrificed to Inca mountain gods and buried with various gold statues, dolls, and vessels. The tombs were covered by snow and the bodies of the sacrificed girls were preserved frozen for hundreds of years before volcanic eruptions melted snow and exposed the tombs in the 1980s. Juanita now resides in a -20 C freezer in the museum surrounded by dimly lit display cases containing offerings that were buried with her. Her skin and hair is still intact, and she is curled up in a position that I often adopt when reading a book in bed. Inspired by the Inca handiwork in the museum, we next spent many hours trolling the various trinket shops, clothing stores, and antique vendors that fuel Arequipa’s booming tourist trade. We also visited the Alpaca 111 factory outlet to shop for some bargains and visit their small menagerie of camelids. To keep us warm in the chilly Peruvian highlands we bought some baby alpaca sweaters and hats. We also admired the super-soft vicuña scarves, but they were only for touching, not for buying, since they would set you back over $1500 USD. Vicuñas are a wild relative of alpacas and llamas, and were near the verge of extinction until Peru instituted strict protection laws. Alpaca 111 is the only store licensed to sell vicuña products in Peru. I quickly decided that I want a small herd of alpacas after cooing over their teddy-bear faces and fuzzy soft wool. Tomorrow on our drive to Colca Canyon we will pass through the natural habitat of camelids, so we hope to see some wild herds of vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas.

Alpacas at the Alpaca 111 factory outlet