A trip to the Peruvian Andes

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(As part of his research for a book he's writing on microfinance, Bob Harris took a trip through the Peruvian Andes, including Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, where he studied the architecture, refused to try corn-and-human-saliva beer, imbibed in coca tea ("maybe the best damn thing I ever drank"), and visited with people who live on floating islands made out of reeds. His photos and comments are fascinating. — Mark)

We begin in transit, killing time in the Lima airport. I hope you'll enjoy the titanic clashes of cultures…


The culture shock of being faced with difficult, obscure translations…


… later on, inscrutable symbols beyond an outsider's comprehension…


… and the occasional midnight bathroom scorpion:


Our arachnid friend was in the town of Ollantaytambo. In the loo of a sweet little guest house. Right by the toilet, middle of the night, exactly like in my nightmares when I was little. The joys of travel.

I probably should have asked for a non-scorpion room.

Anyway, let's get some standard tourism out of the way. Here's a sight famiiar to anyone who has ever visited the travel section of a bookstore:


This young lady is one of many who eke out a living in tourist areas by posing for pictures for one nuevo sol (about 35 cents USD). You're surely seen guidebooks with a similar image on the cover.

I wonder how many guidebooks and magazines actually pay their subjects more than $0.35 for the profitable use of their image? (Come to think of it, what should I have paid for this free online use? I honestly have no idea. My bargaining skills in Quechua being non-existent, I gave her considerably more than her usual rate. I hope it was enough. But I also hope I didn't accidentally incentivize a job that doesn't develop other skills that would help her improve her life. I mention this because seeking a solution to such questions is what my next book is largely about.)

Speaking of Quechua — in which "Rimaykullayki" means "hello" — it's the living language of the Incas, still spoken (with major regional variations) by about 7 million people throughout formerly Inca lands from southern Colombia to northern Argentina. In Peru, it has official status, so some Andean street signs are multilingual — here's "Avenue of the Sun" in Spanish and Quechua:


Of course, it's not just the languages — you see Spanish sitting physically on top of Inca pretty much everywhere you look.

Historians currently peg the beginning of Inca civilization's greatest expansion roughly around 1493 — just months after a Spanish sailor named Roderigo de Triana first sighted the New World from a ship called La Pinta.

(As a side note, Roderigo dutifully shouted the news to his captain, Christopher Columbus, who promptly claimed that he didn't see anything. This may have been because the expedition's financiers had promised a huge reward to the first person to see land. Sure enough, a little while later, Columbus announced that he himself finally saw land, and he was given the reward. Roderigo soon converted to Islam, moved to Africa, and disappeared from our elementary school history books. Columbus went on to become substantially less nice to the people he was about to meet.)

After Columbus came firearms, armor, smallpox, and eventually Francisco Pizarro, who executed the last Inca emperor in 1533. When the conquistadors reached Cusco, the grand Inca capital, they made a point of de-Inca-fying everything, plopping their Spanish stuff right on top.

The results are abundantly visible all over the place:


The Spanish building at top center was for many years the local Archbishop's palace — constructed directly atop the walls of the palace of the Inca emperor.

Down the street, here's what was once the site of the Temple of the Sun, one of the holiest spots in the Inca Empire — until the Spanish razed the original edifice and built the Church of Santo Domingo atop its foundations:


The surviving Inca stonework here has to be seen to be believed. For example, major earthquakes in 1650 and 1950 severely damaged the Spanish structure, but the Inca bits remained almost perfectly intact. These windows, for example, still line up perfectly, even after the whole building around them fell twice:


Back at the old archbishop's place, here's the famous 12-sided stone, only the most rococo of thousands of massive, ludicrously shaped rocks that jigsaw together so well that you generally can't even slip an index card between them:


The Incas moved and shaped these stones, most of which are bigger than you are, and then built hundreds of such walls — all of course with no power tools, no known use of the wheel, no draft animal bigger than a llama, and no written language beyond intricately knotted cords.

How huge did Inca stonework get? Here's Sacsayhuaman, a fortification in which some stones are up to 20 feet high and may weigh nearly 200 tons:


Sacsayhuaman was intended to protect Cusco. Right up until the Spanish cornered the defenders inside, slaughtered them, and then began quarrying the non-huge rocks for imperial construction projects.

After executing the Inca leaders, selling the survivors on Christianity involved a different form of building on existing foundations. Take a look this small slice of the main cathedral in Cusco:


In Inca mythology, the most powerful earth deity, Pachamama, was frequently represented by a triangular shape symbolizing the mountains. Coincidentally enough, on the local Catholic god guy… a big triangle for a halo. (Pachamama, being an earth mother, also led to representations of Mary wearing garb so voluminous as to become triangular herself.) Mary and Joseph, meanwhile, have big spiky sunburst halos — which just coincidentally resemble Inti, the Inca sun god.

There's tons of this sort of syncretism all over the place. Here's the Last Supper as portrayed inside the cathedral (cribbed from the web, since photographs are forbidden):


In Cusco, the Last Supper seems to have included potatoes (unknown outside the New World before Columbus), a homebrew corn-based beer called chicha to drink (see below) and local chinchilla instead of lamb as the main dish.

Let's take a minute to digress on local beverages. Chicha is a local corn-based homebrew beer as ubiquitous as it is kinda gross — the fermentation is accelerated by enzymes in the maker's saliva:


That colorful plastic on a stick is the local signal that the occupants inside — puh-tooey! — have just brewed up a fresh batch of corn-and-spit beer. Mmm-mm.

Nasty as it sounds, it's also cheap as… well, corn and spit. So for poor folks with no better way to enlarge their livers, its a cheap buzz, and for the homeowners, it's an easy profit.

In some neighborhoods around quitting time, there can be almost as many chicha flags as there are buildings:


Since I'm not doing one of those Man Eats World-style cable shows, I didn't try chicha myself. Sorry to disappoint. Just, well, eww.

Besides, I was too busy getting buzzed on the coca tea:


Just take loose coca leaves, add boiling water, let steep, add sugar, and drink. Maybe the best damn thing I ever drank.

It tastes sort of like sweet spinach, but with the stimulant kick of good coffee and an analgesic effect I'd place somewhere between naproxen and vicodin. (I have a bad back, so I feel confident in my ability to scale analgesics.) One pot, and pretty soon my head felt better, my feet felt better… hell, my childhood felt better.

Seriously, it's fantastic medicine for that altitude and climate. Too bad putting a handful of those leaves in my pocket could get me arrested back home, thanks to the War On Some Drugs.

Anyway, back to the cathedral. Let's step back into the square for a wider look. Check out the flags:


On the right, the national flag of Peru. On the left… a rainbow flag, remarkably like pride flag used by the North American gay community since the 1970s.

Here, it's not a gay thing. It's simply the Cusco city flag, said to be inspired by banners flown by Incas fighting the Spanish. There's spotty evidence for the claim, and Cusco only adopted the flag in 1978 — the very same year Gilbert Barker designed the gay pride flag in San Francisco. Still, in Cusco, rainbow = Inca, flag-wise.

Does this lead to confusion? Oh dear god yes. In moments of broad comedy that sound more like an episode of Family Guy than real life, I've been told that American tourists are sometimes shocked on arrival to discover that the entire city of Cusco is so totally Out. Others pose happily in front of the flag, demonstrating solidarity with a culture they are misunderstanding completely.

The city of Cusco periodically discusses just changing the whole thing.

Moving on…

It's all well to criticize the Spanish destruction of the Inca empire, but let's also disabuse ourselves of any assumption that the Incas were morally superior. After all, they probably didn't get to be the most powerful empire in the hemisphere by asking nicely.

Let's move a few hundred miles south, to Lake Titicaca near the Bolivian border, and meet the Uros people, who were at one time oppressed and even enslaved by the Incas.


Lake Titicaca is at about 12,500 feet — about 2.4 miles up in the air. By comparison, Denver is at 5280 feet, altitude sickness starts affecting sensitive people at just 8000 feet, and the MacBook I'm using is only rated by Apple to function up to 10,000 feet. (Above that, the thin air can supposedly cause a dynamic imbalance in the spinning hard drive.) Lake Titicaca is, in a word, somewhat high.

As a result, it's one of the most vividly colorful places on earth. You're missing almost two and a half miles of air that normally stand between you and the sun god, plus you're near the equator, so Inti is bashing you pretty straight on. So the blue is BLUE. The green is GREEN. My camera couldn't possibly do it justice. The colors are so bright they almost vibrate:


And on this beautiful lake — several kilometers out, just, like, floating out there — live several hundred members of the Uros, a people whose culture predates the Incas.

Roughly half a millennium ago, the Uros were under such frequent and violent assault that many finally fled onto the lake itself, building floating pontoon islands out of the lake's abundant totora reeds.

Centuries later, many of the Uros are still there. Floating on their reed islands.

They're still raising their kids in reed huts, paddling reed boats, and constantly weaving and re-weaving the whole kaboodle, since water and weather are constantly eroding most of their world.


There are anywhere from about 45 to 60 of these islands at any time, generally housing from 2-5 families each, depending on population and who is getting along with whom. (A bad family spat, for example, may lead to the construction of a new island.) The island in the above picture was abandoned shortly before I arrived; the elderly couple who had previously lived in the house on the right had recently passed away.

The islands are squishy to walk on, something like trying to stride across a mattress. If you stomped, you could put your foot right through the matting. So you walk carefully.


Say hello to Olympia. She and her husband were born on one of these pontoons, are raising their children out here, and will probably live much of the rest of their lives in the same small hut:


Olympia invited me into her home and showed me around. (She surely does this with travelers almost every day.) The whole hut is probably about the size of your living room.

Here's where they cook, just outside:


These are their three daughters:


It may not be clear in the photos, but everyone looks kinda sunburned. A scientific survey completed in 2006 determined that this general region receives the highest jolt of UV radiation of any continuously inhabited place on earth. And nobody here can afford frequent sunscreen.

I brought (as any traveler should) pencils and paper as gifts for the kids, since school supplies are way expensive for these folks; their only income is from selling crafts and trading fresh fish, handicrafts, and other goods with non-lake-dwellers. Speaking of crafts, that handwoven mat that Olympia is sitting with, above — that's currently sitting on my couch here in L.A., awaiting a frame. It's gorgeous, it tells the story of the Uros, and it was the biggest thing she had for sale. I will treasure it.

The fishing is done primarily with what the Uros call "plastic boats," since they're not made of reeds:


But they still make traditional reed boats like the one below, which took five men two months of labor to build, and lasts only two years before the lake water eventually reclaims it:


These boats are more for making a few bucks by taking visitors like me out for a lap. Fair enough. Cesar here manned the oar and was kind enough to share a few more details of life here:


He's 25 and commutes by boat to the lakeshore city of Puno for school, medical care, and other things most first worlders take for granted. He's also not actually a full-blooded descendent of the Uros — nobody here is. Over the centuries, the Uros eventually intermarried with neighboring Aymara-speaking peoples, and the Uros's language disappeared long ago. Uros traditions continue, although it's all getting harder to maintain as the living standard on the shore continues to lure people away.

The government is now heavily subsidizing the Uros, partly for humane reasons, and partly because they're increasingly a tourist attraction. As my own presence here confirms. This is strange to contemplate. Another generation or two (if not already or very soon), and people may only live here to attract visitors, reducing an entire centuries-old culture to little more than a publicity stunt.

I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to have all of your traditions and culture, handed down for hundreds of years, collapse into a tourist trap that rapidly — to grow up while that's going on, and then wonder who your children will even be. I'm trying, and failing, to imagine that.

I hope that buying the beautiful weaving from Olympia will help her family and support her work, and not encourage her to continue an unnecessarily hard way of life they will someday maintain only for show.

Moving on.

Further into the lake (and with a beautiful view of the Bolivian Andes), is the island of Taquile:


Thanks to physical isolation, Taquile has yet another distinct culture. Possessions are generally collectivized — even the sheep feeding on the Inca-era terraces:


Family lineage is identified by color-coded clothing:


Conflicts on the island are resolved every Sunday in lengthy group discussions in the main square:


Too bad Copenhagen couldn't be organized this smoothly. I can think of some people who could seriously learn from Taquile.

Heading back to dry land, however, things got less inspiring for a while.

The nearest airport is in Juliaca, a city just slightly larger than Akron, Ohio. Not the most enticing place I've been. To give you an idea, this Peru tourism website, whose whole point is to make things sound as appealing as possible, has this to say about Juliaca:

very unattractive… [it] competes with Chimbote on the northern coast for the title of the most unpleasant city in Peru. Most of the buildings in the city are very ugly… the bitter cold winds make being out at night almost unbearable…"


As a bonus, cars, 3-wheel cabs, motorcycles, pedicabs, bicycles, and pedestrians compete in a downtown oddly bereft of traffic lights, so everyone just sort of shoves their noses in and pushes. I've been in third world traffic from Cairo to Bali to Kuala Lumpur, and this was as hostile as anything I've ever seen. Before becoming congealed in traffic, my taxi driver almost ran over a dog, a teenage school girl, and an elderly woman, all within a two minute period — accelerating, honking, daring them not to dive out of the street. This seemed to be the etiquette; other drivers did the same. When I asked him to please slow down and not risk hitting people, the driver pulled the car over and began yelling abusively.


According to the locals I spoke with, much of the economy is built around contraband of many varieties — Peru and Bolivia maintain no border controls on Lake Titicaca, creating an enormous smuggling route for anyone trying to get stolen or illegal goods from the rest of South America into Peru for sale or export. And Juliaca is the hub.

For what it's worth, the lone cop I saw looked like a total prop:


Yes, the cop stayed in a little box on the sidewalk, blowing a whistle and waving at traffic that barely paid the slightest mind. Yes, the box was provided by Inca Kola. And yes, a man is about to urinate on the wall.

It's not really a law-and-order place, I guess.

On Christmas Eve of last year, someone threw a tear gas grenade into a nightclub here, where 1200 people were dancing in a room built for half that many. In the confined space, five people were asphyxiated and 10 were severely injured in the rush to flee. The police never found out who did it, but it's believed to have been a prank by some teenagers. For fun.

Outside, neighbors who lived near the nightclub took advantage of the situation and tried to set fire to the building, the better to rob the panicked, fleeing survivors.

Afterward, seven people were arrested for trying to steal valuables from the dead bodies.

Tough town, this Juliaca.

A couple of years ago, a poor man was discovered stealing cooking fuel here. A mob tied him to a lamppost with wire and burned him alive.

A couple of months before that, the mayor of an outlying village was accused of corruption, and the entire town beat him to death.

That said, they do have a giant slide:


So there's that.

Let's get back on the road, shall we?

Here's the Altiplano, Peru's answer to the South African highveldt — a high plain often seemingly as flat as a putting green for as far as the eye can see:


Occasionally you hit a speed bump at a toll station. These are accompanied by the following warning:


The sign is meant to communicate that the large bump may destroy your suspension if you don't slow down. My crappy Spanish, however, always interpreted the sign more literally — as Spring Break.

Cool! Turns out it's Spring Break in Peru every 50 miles or so.

Moving on.

This is the central wall of the Temple of Wiracocha, a pre-Inca ruin 80 feet high and 100 yards long. Prior to the Spaniards doing to the Incas roughly what Juliaca does to propane thieves, this central wall supported a church the size of an entire football field, surely one of the largest structures on the continent when the Spanish arrived:


The sheep is a comparatively recent addition.

Further north, we pass Cusco and enter the Sacred Valley, a vast fertile swath along the Urubamba river that was to the Incas what California's Central Valley is to modern supermarkets.

It's gorgeous. Depending on your altitude, the Sacred Valley can look like anything from the most fertile bits of Appalachia…


… to a drive through the back roads of Utah:


Next stop, Moray, site of what may have been a massive Inca crop laboratory, 14 stories deep and 150 yards across:


The theory goes that all those concentric circles create different microclimates, with the center several degrees warmer than the outermost rings. Many scientists now believe that in addition to using the center for various religious rites and sacrifices, the Incas also used the entire area as a microcosm for the terraced hillsides throughout the valley — and a laboratory for determining which grains would grow best at which altitude and direction of exposure to the sun.

I would not have thought that an Inca crop lab would be so cool. But then, I'd have also said the same about this Peruvian salt mine:


Normally, somebody says "Peruvian salt mine," I'm not thinking, wow, cool. But this was:


About 600 years ago, the Incas discovered a natural spring that provided a constant trickle of extremely salty water. With some careful terracing, they created this massive field of 3000 evaporation pools. The trace mineral content varies from pool to pool, with distinct applications in agriculture, animal husbandry, and human consumption.

If you own one of the plots, you get to the actual salt by just walking out onto the terraces and harvesting it. This feels a lot like walking on snow when it's 80 degrees outside:


The only similar experience I'd had was crunching around the Gilmore Girls set during a Christmas episode being shot in Burbank in October. But if I'd lost my footing there, I wouldn't have gone careening down the side of a mountain.

Moving on.

Nearby, here's Ollyantaytambo, site of an Inca fortress the Spanish never conquered:


At its feet, the town of Ollyantaytambo is among the best-preserved Inca villages in Peru:


Many of the residents of Ollyantaytambo speak Quechua, retain some elements of traditional dress and custom, and live in Inca-built dwellings along Inca-built streets, eating potatoes and corn grown from hybrids and techniques pioneered by the Incas. It's pretty damn Inca here.

If you're planning a visit, the Casa Del Scorpion guest house is just out of camera range here to the left.

Watching the train to Machu Picchu chug past these half-millennium-old terraces was oddly jarring — like watching two widely-spaced centuries overlap right before your eyes:


Speaking of Machu Picchu… let's go.

(Warning: my words are going to completely fail. So will my camera. Most of these pictures will look just like every other picture of Machu Picchu. Some things — Iguazu Falls, the pyramids of Giza or Teotihuacan, the Grand Canyon, etc. — are just they're too big and wonderful to encapsulate in a snapshot.)

8000 feet in the air, in the saddle between two bullet-shaped mountains far enough into the Peruvian jungle that neither cars nor planes can take you to the spot…


… there's a 550-year-old ruin larger than Times Square. Constructed entirely of rocks that seem to have no earthly business being there.

Archaeologists aren't even sure what it was for. Possibly a retreat for the emperor Pachacutec. Whatever it was, the Spanish never plundered it — heck, they never even found it — so the whole thing is unusually pristine.

The place is often overrun by tourists, but if you look closely, you'll see that I lucked out and almost had the whole deal to myself. It was a random Thursday at the beginning of the wet season. Must be a good time to visit.

The view above is taken from a small building theorized to be a sort of observation post, now known as the Caretaker's Hut. Here's a look back up from what would be street level, were the town still active:


To give you a sense of scale, each one of those terraces is about 5 feet high. So climbing up to the hut from here is like taking the stairs on a 20-story building.

Here's the most sacred spot in the place, a stone called Intihuatana ("hitching post of the sun"):


Despite its simple appearance, it's oriented to point directly at the sun on the winter solstice, with the travel of its shadows subsequently providing an excellent guide to the seasons. This stone and the temple around it may have been the center of all Inca social and political planning.

And here are what seem to be the primary caretakers, keeping the grass neat with their grazing:


They also line up single file to use the stairs, which was more civilized than any human act I saw in the entire city of Juliaca.

A lot of tourists don't want to visit during the wet season, but if you like dramatic shifts in mood, it's the way to go:


And when the mist clears, rainbows appear in the valley below:


500 feet over the rainbow would be a good place to end this entry… except there's one thing even more beautiful that I want to show you.

It's the real reason I went, the main thing I was visiting in Cusco, and the actual subject of this chapter of my book on microfinance. (The rest is just window dressing, really.)

Here's the loveliest place I visited in Peru:


Arariwa may not look gorgeous, but it's a microfinance institution that brings financial resources to the working poor throughout the region — craftspeople not unlike Olympia, say. Plus farmers and tradespeople and small businesspeople of every kind.

Microfinance is changing millions of lives — so much so that its biggest pioneer, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Unfortunately, it's not yet very well known in America. So for my next book, I'm taking all the money I made swanking around doing luxury travel reviews last year and putting it to good use — funneling every dime into backing a bunch of loans* (1036 as of today; eventually I hope to do many thousands) in more than 40 developing countries. I'm using Kiva.org as my primary investment platform so far, but I'll be checking out include Babyloan.org, MYC4.com, and MicroPlace.com, among others. (They're all a little different, but generally in the same ballpark.)

And I'll be spending much of 2010 following the results in a half-dozen interesting places, then writing about what I see, learn, and occasionally fall off of or getting bitten by on the way.

That's the next book. Peru was just my first stop.

About 35 of my Kiva loans are to borrowers hooked up via Arariwa ("guardian of the harvest" in Quechua), and while I was in Cusco, I met some of the good folks at Arariwa who get the money to the people who need it, teach them how to handle it, offer health and reproductive information, and devote their lives to equipping the poor to, basically, not be poor anymore.

Want to know what was really gorgeous in Peru? People like Clotilde here, the head of education (and caretaker of a gazillion other things) for Arariwa, and one of the sweetest people I've ever met:


Clotilde here kindly opened her office, offered her time and support, arranged for me to visit with a few borrowers, and put up with my crappy Spanish. You just can't ask for more than that.

(Also, a grateful shout-out to Kiva Fellow Sheethal Shobowale for introducing me to Clotilde, shepherding me around more than once, and frequently making my Spanish comprehensible to others. This was all above and beyond. It was a privilege.)

I'd just like anyone reading this to get the feel for how real and cool and normal and important this stuff is. And in a way, how totally ordinary. Clotilde is an exceptional person — but I also think everyone reading this is in their own way, too. (Yes, I get how sappy and contradictory that sounds. Deal with it.)

And that's it from Peru. Next stop will probably be India and Bangladesh in a few months. Will send more from there.

Thanks for reading! May your chicha be fresh, your island well-thatched, and your loo scorpions slow-moving.

*Sticklers may want me to clarify that a "Kiva loan" is typically the refinancing of an existing loan already made by the local lending institution. To which I say, whoopty. It's still helping to get food on the table where it's needed.