Backpacking through southern Peru

Laguna de Huacachina

An altimeter goes crazy just as a seismograph would register an earthquake. Once again something blows my eardrums and a half-empty bottle of water in my backpack contracts itself. An overnight trip brings me back from a height of more than three thousand meters directly to the sea level. Backpacking through southern Peru I happen to meet many happy and playful kids, all sorts of random people, among them butchers and coffee sellers dedicated to their work. Small welcoming towns make me stay a bit longer. All is left behind as I enjoy nature, endless deserts, oases and hidden ruins of ancient civilizations. I am going to visit Cusco and experience the magic of the world’s highest navigable lake Titicaca.


Caballitos de Totora

With not much of a problem I find the principal marketplace early in the morning. My attention goes to rich homemade fruit juices. It’s almost a hundred percent thick puree of papaya, apples, pineapples or any other fresh fruit of your choice.

Isn’t it the right time for a bit of history? I visit the pyramids Huaca Arco Iris and the Chan Chan. the ruins of the largest city in South America in the pre-Columbian era. Numerous wall sculptures are carved in a simple brick made of clay, sand, water and an organic binder. The images represent the nature and various forms of marine life. Clearly the proximity of the ocean has been an inspiration for the artists of that time.

Chan Chan covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometers. The complex was built by the Chimu civilization prevailing here in the years 900-1470 AD. Worth to mention that Chimu build up on some remains of even more ancient Moche civilization, which occupied the area in the period of 100 -800 AD. The city has survived many centuries, until the conquest by the Incas around 1470. It is estimated that the city of Chan Chan was inhabited by 30,000 people. At this time of history, the power of Inca empire was increasingly improving.


Located just off Trujillo the Haunchaco beach is a great surfspot enjoying long, regular waves. It is worth mentioning that in this part of Peru the water temperature is still relatively warm. Were you to move a little bit to the south, the ice-cold Humboldt current might surprise you.

The place is famous for its traditional fishing boats that have been used in this region for more than 3000 years. Caballitos de Totora are raft-like boats made ​​of reed. Literally translating, these ‘little horses of reeds’ took their name after the fact that fishermen sit astride with legs partially immersed in water,  thus saving the inside of the boat for fish.

This ingenious invention is well used until today. It is one of the first ever known boats that give the possibility to float over the waves.

Laguna de Huacachina

A wind-swept sand dune

I satisfy my appetite for visiting big cities just by bypassing and not visiting Lima, the capital of Peru. Instead I arrive to city of Ica. The first confrontation with a street vendor of grapes results in a special deal we strike. I stock up with a massive lot of grapes for less than fifty cents a kilo. For the following couple of days I shall I eat incredible quantities of these grapes.

Laguna de Huacachina is a small oasis fantastically located between giant sand dunes. I climb one of the dunes and admire views of the oasis and shapely wind-sculpted sand. The desert is fantastic and for this reason I decide to spend the night on the highest dune to keep the vantage point for myself.

At dusk I am accompanied by the light of the moon already emerging from behind the opposite summit. The ascent with my heavy backpack is much more difficult than I thought. As I go up, the sand becomes deeper and traversing the ridge becomes tedious. I take off my shoes and constantly wading through the sand up to my ankles I reach the summit.

A the top, lit Laguna de Huacachina and the vastness of the desert appear to my eyes. I find a small hollow area to I make a provisional block with my backpack to support sand-screen  made with my sleeping mat. I lay my sleeping bag on the wind-swept sandy bed. The scenery fades and lots of stars fill the sky. Sometimes during the night a strong gust of wind would scatter sand and recall the thought that perhaps I should pitch a tent, nevertheless I still prefer clear sky full of stars. During the blizzard I hide myself in a sleeping bag and when the wind dies away, I enjoy the atmosphere of the desert and sand dunes again.

I wake up at 5:30 half-buried in sand. The sand is everywhere, in my hair, shoes, my backpack and even in a perfectly sand-secured camera. A pink glow of the rising sun gently appears on a warm horizon. Oasis gradually comes to life. I pack my equipment and start walking down.

I am going to try sandboarding, so I rent a board to climb and downhill ride the neighboring dunes for several times (with no luggage it is much easier). Out of the sports I know, the sandboarding technique is very similar to snowboarding. However, it is definitely a hotter and much slower variety, although the basic jumps and rotations can be quickly mastered. Around 9 am the sand is extremely hot and shortly after climbing bare-footed with a sandboard is like stomping on red-hot coal bricks.


Heading south

A giant American-made sedan with a front mask the size of a pool table takes us towards Nazca. We stop at a vantage point to see the supposedly famous “lines”. The Nasca lines are numerous shapes of different sizes (from several to a few hundred meters) represented on a flat ground. Their origin up to date is inexplicable, however undoubtedly those who made it centuries ago must have had the knowledge of geometry. The lines were created by removing hard, stony shell from perfectly flat ground, thus revealing a fine layer of sand giving proper contrast.

The intention of creators is also unknown, so a handful of different theories attempt to justify the reality, some of them getting more supporters or opponents. The question I ask myself is what actually is so special about these lines, which do not even resemble lizards, trees or frogs. To create your own lines you may just need a giant protractor, a ruler and enough hands to work.

The sleepy atmosphere of Nazca gives the impression that the city during the day is completely deserted or even ghost-haunted. The situation changes in the evening, there are street-sellers opening their stands, some are preparing banana pies, other fry chicken or make greasy pig ears snacks ready. People meet in the park and while their children play hopscotch together, parents may prattle and gossip a bit.

I’m unable to find someone selling emoliente, but I happen to meet a guy offering a similar hot drink of alleged medicinal properties. The drink called una de gata is served in a glass mug, Directly translating, it means “cat’s claw”. Out of curiosity and perhaps out of the unwritten journalist’s duty, I always try all sort of street foodstuff. So is this time.

I enter jugeria, a shop where fresh juices are prepared. An owner having a clearly painful facial expression is a nice, slightly overweight person in his 50s. He sits comfortably in a chair next to a pile of pineapples and juicy oranges. As he wipes the sweat from his forehead with one hand, holding firmly a bandage to his swollen check with the other hand, he says: “Sorry my friend, today I do not prepare fruit juices, because a wasp bit me” . It is kind of a charm this sleepy little town has. Such a situation, I presume, if far from possible in any of the stressful shopping centers nowadays.

Another 15-hour bus ride takes me from the sea level back to a height of above 3300 meters. Stones are falling right on a driving lane, it occasionally forces us to drive on the roadside. The mountainous landscape filled with dangerous landslides reminds of the ongoing rainy season.

The Empire City

Stone foundations are the remnants of Inca empire

The Spanish colonizers upon visiting Cusco saw something entirely more beautiful than anything else ever known in the New World up to that date.  As befits the colonizers, the Spaniards did not waste a minute on looting completely the precious treasures, gold and unique historical decorations inside the city. Today, Cusco may not have its glory from the past, but with no doubt it stands on the solid Inca foundations. It is worth noting that Cusco is the longest continuously inhabited city in the whole South America.

The city went through many changes due to the influence of the turbulent history over the centuries, but some elements remained intact. Historic center with its cobbled streets, stone arches, aged buildings and monuments one next to another will overwhelm every visitor. Interestingly, despite the absolutely gigantic, unseen anywhere else massive volume of tourists, the city is relatively pleasant. The prevailing architecture of white walls and red tiles with narrow stone streets build up enjoyable charm. Cusco’s focal point is Plaza de Armas, from where Calle Mantas leads to the next square called Plaza San Francisco. Continuing this way you will find a colorful and lively marketplace.

I live on a hillside from where I can take a number of narrow paved passageways and steep historical stairs. I enjoy running the stairs up and down just as Rocky Balboa does, the major difference is the fact that exercising at the altitude of 3500 meters with no acclimatization is much harder to breathe than in Philadelphia.

Let’s take a look outside city center. I visit the places where people live and work. Most trading is done on the street. Depending on how well the individual business is going, it might be a small portable stand, a makeshift roofed stall or a modest but practical indoor premises, often occupied by craftsmen offering simple services, such as repairing shoes or clothes. The homeless, the sick, beggars and some other people searching through piles of rubbish are also trying to make living here. Visibly, even in Cuzco not everything is posh and upscale. In fact, the redistribution of money spent by millions of tourists annually doesn’t reach the hungry and those who need it, instead it ends up in pockets of a few big fat, already overeaten people. A predominant problem of contemporary economy around the world.

Lake Titicaca

Children on a floating island of Uros

More altitude traveling ahead. Traversing mountain pass in a countryside the bus barely makes it uphill to finally reach the height of 4338 meters. Fortunately, afterwards we continue downhill . Puno is a city located at an altitude of 3870 meters. At first glance it looks like an industrial ghost-city, but the point of view certainly changes when you visit the city inside. Plaza de Armas, a lively pedestrian walk, some green areas and the proximity of lake build up a pleasant charm of Puno.

We take a short boat ride on the Titicaca lake to visit Islas Flotantes (floating islands) inhabited by the Uros people, once displaced from the shore by the aggressive Incas. At present it doesn’t have much to do with their traditional life, because “people of Islas Flotantes” in reality live on land and visit the islands only to show the tourists how they used to live back in the days. Nevertheless, it is an interesting visit and it gives some inside thoughts about Uros people and the place itself. The usage of reed for housing and its solutions for living are noticeably impressive.

The ground of the island is formed by a several inches thick root-base which is then covered with reeds. It serves not only as floor, but has plenty of other universal applications, being the basic material to construct thatched huts, boats and some household items. The main food for Uros people used to be fish . The most common species found in Titicaca is trucha (trout). The lake and the floating islands also provide cereals and corn, however not so much of fruits or vegetables.

Our boat crosses through abundant reeds growing on the lake. The landscape of rocky hills and puffy clouds together with contrasting deep blue sky is magically reflected on an intact green and turquoise surface of the lake. At this point it is worth mentioning that situated at an altitude of 3909 meters, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake of the world. Therefore, the hills I mentioned, in fact are four to five thousand meters high mountains!

January 2012

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