Peru Part 2

From my holiday in Peru - August 2009.


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Essexgirl09 on March 15, 2010

Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the main attractions to the Peruvian colonial town of Arequipa. Technically it is a convent, and was founded in 1580. Although there are some nuns still living there apparently (I didn’t see any, they are in another part), it is actually a very popular tourist attraction and is also available to hire for private parties (they were preparing for one on the day we visited). The architectural style is manly colonial with some native features. It is located just a few blocks from the central plaza and is easy to walk to.

The convent is large, much larger than I expected, it is like a mini-town within those walls. Wealthy and prestigious sixteenth and seventeenth century families sent their daughters here and they paid a handsome dowry to the convent. They would also send gifts to their daughter and many nuns also had several servants. You tour the convent with an official uniformed (female) guide and she will show you parts of the convent where the nuns used to live. This is when you discover why the convent is so large. Originally there was a dormitory for the nuns but this was damaged in an earthquake, so the nun’s families paid for them to have individual cells or rooms. Whilst some nuns would just have had a small private room, some actually had small houses with servant’s quarters and kitchens. These privileged nuns would have been sent fine bone china, rugs and other decorative gifts from their families. At one time there were parties held there often with musicians invited in from outside. The nuns themselves didn’t actually leave the convent once they were admitted fully, they were cloistered, but their servants left to visit the market and get everything that they needed. The convent remained cloistered until 1970.

It wasn’t all wild parties; there was one Seventeenth century nun who is in the process of being officially given sainthood. She allegedly performed a number of healing miracles and predicted disease, healing and death in others. Our guide also told us, in reverent tones, of how one of the past nuns (if not the sister awaiting beatification) had stigmata (where she bled from the palms of her hands as if she had been nailed to the cross like Christ), but God healed her scars so no one could see them. Cynics among you may wish to draw your own conclusions! Come the late Eighteenth Century a strict Dominican nun was sent by Rome to reform the monastery. She sent the dowries back to Rome and servants could either leave or join as nuns, hence forth the monastery took on a more traditional role. Come 1970 the convent was in dire need of funding and took the decision to open its doors to the public.

Our guide was very helpful and informative, and spoke very good English. She was happy to answer our questions and to give us time to take photographs. She was conscious of another tour that started around the same time as ours, and made sure that we went a slightly different route, and at no point were we rushed or held up. As I have mentioned above, the style of the buildings does have a strong colonial Spanish influence, the coloured stucco walls look bright and welcoming and very Mediterranean. The restored parts look clean and very pristine, even a bit antiseptic, especially if you take into the consideration of the hustle and bustle beyond the walls. Apart from some of the older, earthquake damaged sections which are no longer used, the buildings are well maintained. It is perfectly safe to visit the damaged rooms now, as they have been made secure. The grounds are well looked after, and include a small courtyard orangery. You can go up on one of the roofs and admire the view of the city.

There are reasonable toilets, a charming but expensive gift shop, and a small café on site The monastery is open every day and costs 30 soles (approx £7) which I think represents good value as this includes a guide and we were here approximately an hour and a half. You don’t need to have a guide if you wish, but I think it was helpful in this instance. I recommend arriving booking an early slot when it is quiet and cool.
Convento de Santa Catalina
Calle Santa Catalina 301
Arequipa, Peru
+51 54 229798

R.I.P. Juanita

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Essexgirl09 on March 15, 2010

A few minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas of the Southern Peruvian colonial town of Arequipa is the Museo Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, also know as Museo Santury. It is essentially an anthropological and archaeological museum, looking at the lifestyles of the ancient Incas of the regions and their piece de résistance is the ‘mummified’ corpse of the Inca Ice Maiden Juanita. Technically she isn’t a mummy, as she was frozen rather than bandaged and embalmed.

Museum tickets cost about 20 Peruvian soles (£4.50), they don’t allow you to take bags into the museum, or cameras. Depending on that time you arrive and how many people there are speaking your language also waiting, you may have to wait a short while in the courtyard before you can go in. The museum is flat and suitable for wheelchair users; however it is kept quite dark in order to preserve the artefacts. Your visits starts with a fifteen - twenty minute film in English (other languages available) about the journey of the woman who has subsequently become know as Juanita. I have to admit, we’d had an early start after a late night, and as they dimmed the lights I was expecting to doze off whilst watching some boring, stuffy archaeological film. Far from it - the film didn’t just show hard work and struggle by the scientists who found the remains of Juanita, but reconstructed her journey in an emotive and sympathetic way.

For those who are unfamiliar with her, I shall précis her journey. Juanita was a teenage girl from a local Incan community circa 1450. She had been chosen by her community to be sacrificed to appease the Gods and ensure a good harvest, it would no doubt have been an honour for her family, but who knows what was going through her mind as she climbed 6100m Mount Ampato in her sandaled feet. It would have been freezing cold up there, the altitude would have made it hard going and she would have known she was facing her death. Analysis of her stomach contents showed that she had been drugged to sedate her. After the ceremony at the top, she would have been killed by a blow to the head and left on the mountain (actually a dormant volcano) to die, if the blow had not already killed her. As she was arranged in the foetal position (the Incas believed in life after death and this would expedite her on her way to being re-born) it is likely she was killed outright. Various artefacts and offerings of quality were left with her which reflects the high status her family held within the community. A subsequent snowfall almost immediately after she died meant her body was frozen and preserved. She remained like this for some 500 years before being discovered in the mid-1990s, after ash from a nearby volcano landed on her burial site and melted the snow.

After the film you go into the main part of the museum where you are led by a guide (tipping is expected) who will take you through three rooms and explains the main features of each. All rooms relate to the excavation of Juanita or other sacrificial beings, and you will see skulls, clothes, jewellery, cups and other items which were found in these nearby sites and some others. The final room contains Juanita at the back. She is not the only corpse that was found in the region, but is the best preserved and one of the most important, as her tomb taught the anthropologists so much about the Inca way of life. She is only on display for about eight months of the year and is sitting up, with her knees to her chest, in a glass case in a dark, curtained off section of the room at -20C (the case, not the room – although it is chilly around that part due to the air-conditioning). The rest of the year (January-April) she is kept in a special -40C case away from nosy tourists in order to preserve her better. It’s worth noting that other mummies do replace her when she is away, and she also goes ‘on tour’ sometimes during May-December, so if she is the lady you want to see, you may want to check this. It may not bother you that the real Juanita is not there, but so much of the museum is dedicated to her and her journey as such, that it would be a shame to not see the Ice Princess ‘in the flesh’.

The museum has a certain macabre appeal to it, even without the Inca history and not knowing Juanita’s story, most of our group wanted to go to see the ‘mummy’. However the museum does a really good job, in my opinion, of telling her story, bringing her to life and humanising her, so that you come out of the museum feeling a bit sad for the young girl who died, cold and afraid at the top of a mountain all those centuries ago.
Museo Santury
Santa Catalina 210
Arequipa, Peru
+51 54 200345

Home From Home

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Essexgirl09 on March 16, 2010

Lake Titicaca is situated on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It is approximately 190km long and 80km wide, and is situated at an altitude of 3800m. I visited the Peruvian side during my visit. The main Peruvian town on the lake is Puno, which is a busy industrial and commercial town, very busy and not particularly attractive. This was our access point to the lake. For our first day we were going out to Amantani Island for a home-stay. The journey on the lake was about four hours and was very relaxing if a bit dull – bring books.

Upon arrival we were welcomed by some of the villagers and taken to one of the chief’s homes. Here our party was divided up amongst the other families in the village. Different villages take it in turns to house tourists. Our host was a young lady called Maria, and she took the three of us single females back to her house. Although the village had its own dock and was close to the lake, Maria’s house was a smallholding a little bit further up a hill and it a bit of a scramble across fields. It was quite hard to orientate yourself, but Maria had a goat in her garden and that helped us identify where we were heading as the land was terraced and properties hidden behind walls and trees. We were only here for an overnight visit so there wasn’t much need to unpack. We had been concerned what to buy our hosts as a gift, but our guide said that cash would be appreciated so that they can purchase what they need. We also had some chocolate and biscuits that we gave to her; I don’t think she shared these with her family! The host families are given grants to develop their homes to welcome visitors, so we had a fully equipped bathroom – although the water was only turned on for a few hours. Our bedrooms were basically furnished with a beds and blankets, and a dresser, with thin curtains at the window, there is no electricity in this room, although the village shares a generator which is used for a few hours a day. We went in August, so although it was sunny with clear skies, it was also quite chilly. At night it dropped below freezing so be sure to wrap up warm.

After we had put our bags down on our beds we walked back to the main house so we could join the other members of our party for a sunset walk to the top of one of the two mountain peaks on the island. The whole island seemed to be a mountain but at an altitude of 3800m I am not much of a mountain climber (nor am I normally, but the altitude was a good excuse). Some of us decided to stop and rest by the local school and basketball court and wait for the others. Although I adjusted quite well to the altitude without any sickness, I tended to find that walking upstairs or uphill required the use of an oxygen tank.

Back at the main house we had a simple local meal of vegetable soup, followed by fish, rice and potatoes. As a veggie I just had the latter. There were beers and soft drinks available to buy. The meal had been cooked collectively by the local women whilst we were on our walk, and after they cleared it away and washed up. Then Maria came to find us and took us back to her house. I was quite convinced I wouldn’t be able to sleep due to the cold – I had thermal leggings and a long sleeved vest under my pyjamas, thick socks and even my woolly hat. The hat fell off in the night, but I slept beautifully, my body heat trapped under the covers meant I was comfortably toasty.

Maria woke us by leaving a basin of hot water outside our door for us to wash in. We then joined her and her mother for breakfast (although they had actually eaten many hours before) in their simple kitchen. The floors and walls were stone and bare, apart from a a few newspapers on the wall. The furniture was a small wooden table covered in a clean, colourful cloth and a bench seat with a wooden backing. They cooked on an open fire. This was the first real chance we got the chat properly to Maria, she lived with her elderly parents and her younger brother. Her older siblings had all moved to Puno and I get the feeling she would have liked to have joined them but they needed her to help out on the farm. She was only in her early twenties, but looked at least ten years older. The native language around here is Quechua, which has no bearing on any other language you many have heard. Maria was taught some Spanish at school and fortunately one of the girls I was sharing with spoke Spanish so we managed a little conversation, otherwise it would have been difficult. They grew mainly vegetables on the farm but they did keep guinea pigs, known as cuy, which were a regional delicacy for special occasions.

Our breakfast was Koca tea (helps with altitude sickness), flatbread, hard-boiled egg and pancakes. This seemed quite standard and what they have been told will suit a Western visitor. Don’t expect any milk in your tea though. We then had some time to explore the island, you could help build a potato oven outside the main house if you wanted, although I chose to relax down by the beach in a little suntrap I found, out of the wind. We had lunch here, before leaving, it was similar to the previous evening but this time they dressed us up in traditional costumes so we could pose for photos and play some music.
Amantani Island (Isla Amantani)
Lake Titicaca
Peru, Peru


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Essexgirl09 on March 16, 2010

Lake Titicaca is situated on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It is approximately 190km long and 80km wide, and is situated at an altitude of 3800m. I visited the Peruvian side during my visit. The main Peruvian town on the lake is Puno, which was our access point to the lake. After our visit to Amantani Island, we took our boat to the Uros Islands.

The Uros Islands are floating man-made reed islands. The Uros residents have dwindled of late, but they receive grants if they decide to remain on the islands which fund solar panels – the homes we saw had TV and satellite equipment. The first island we visited was owned by one family and had two homes – for the parents and the son and his wife, plus a cooking hut. They worked as fishermen and the women made reed crafts and jewellery to sell to the tourists. The father and his son demonstrated how the islands were made and our guide translated. Each island is one to two metres thick, but the older bottom reeds rot, so new layers need to be added fairly regularly with an island being completely replaced every ten years or so. You can also eat parts of the reed (not the tastiest thing I have ever eaten – a bit bland for me, and a very weird texture) and other parts are used as a natural medicine. Walking on the reeds felt quite odd, a bit spongey, particularly when you first step on the island as you could feel it move. There was also a watchtower made of reed you could climb for views but I wasn’t brave enough!

After this island, we were taken to the main island of the group on a reed boat – this holds a primary school and a type of community centre and medical centre, and what seemed to be an impromptu gift shop! Like on Amantani, the younger children are educated on the island, but older children would then go to Puno. There is also a separate toilet island – we didn’t visit! Although the islanders trade their fish and reeds, these days the main income is from tourism. There have been some reports of islanders going back to the mainland at night, after the tourists left, but we were there late afternoon and didn’t see anything like that. Certainly the family we visited were living in there – we saw their clothes hanging up on the walls and their TV equipment. It’s a basic living, but it seems to suit them.

After this we returned to Puno as darkness fell. I was pleased to see the simple lifestyles of the people who lived in this area, and the beautiful lake. I was pleasantly surprised by the way of life of the Uros people, and that it was less touristy than I expected in spite of the tourist souveniers for sale. I was glad to leave the cold behind however!
Uros Floating Islands (Islas Flotantes)
Lake Titicaca
Puno, Peru

Flight of the Condor

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Essexgirl09 on March 17, 2010

Colca Canyon in Southern Peru is one of the deepest canyons on earth, in fact at one time was considered the deepest, but a nearby, less accessible canyon now takes that honour. The canyon reaches a depth of 4160m in places which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We visited as part of a tour group. We have over-nighted near the hot springs town of Chivay and had an early start the next morning to Colca Canyon, whose main attraction, other than the scenery and natural wildlife, is the Andean Condors who use the rising thermals to glide around the canyon on their early morning hunts.

This is an area of high altitude (well over 4000m in parts) so strenuous walks are only for those who have acclimatised and have a reasonable to good level of fitness, you can do 2-3 days walks if you so wish and want to really explore the canyon and its indigenous peoples (the canyon is inhabited and farmed). Unfortunately this is the only chance you will get to see ‘real’ locals in action in this particular area, the rest sit by the side of the road in traditional dress selling mass produced crafts and trying to persuade you to have your photo taken with a baby llama. The part of the canyon that you need to see the condors is known as Cruz del Condor.

We did a short walk totalling about 30 minutes but broken up into different condor viewing spots, mainly on the same level, but some steps and uneven paths were involved. As it was early morning, although sunny, it was quite chilly at this altitude so I recommend wrapping up warm as well as wearing walking boots/trainers, plus you will need sunscreen and water. As far as the condors were concerned we were very lucky. I don’t know if we just timed it right (morning is supposed to be the best time, and it was fairly busy in places) or if they are always around this much every morning. It is always a risk when travelling specifically to view a form of wildlife that they may just take it upon themselves not to turn up. Not so the condors on this day. I’m not sure how many different ones we saw, possibly only 6 or 8 in different parts, but they all put on a show. Quite frankly I don’t think I could have got better photographs if they had been trained! They flew quite close to us, sometimes right over us (I like to think it amused them when we all almost toppled backwards trying to get a photo), and glided gracefully over the warm air currents showing their three metre wingspans off to us grateful tourists.

Not all the condors we saw were full grown adults, there were some juveniles whose feather are brown, rather then the black of the grown-ups. All have a white feather ‘collar’ around the neck; some older ones also get white feathers across the backs of their wings, but at a distance they look all black in this part. Condors are scavengers so usually pick up dead prey; they have sharp, hooked beaks and beady eyes in order to spot their prey far below them. We did see some swoop down towards potential prey, but the steepness of the canyon walls in this part, meant we could not see where he went – and I suspect our eyesight would have been lacking anyway.

One grown-up perched, for a good fifteen minutes, on a ledge right above us in order for us to take his photo. If you have a good guide with you he will point out other birdlife, but I have to say I’m not much of a twitcher, and can barely identify more than half a dozen British birds, let alone South American ones! However, bird lover or not, the condors are magnificent and you can’t fail to be impressed, especially if they were as obliging as when we visited. If you can, bring binoculars and a digital camera with a good zoom. I would also recommend familiarising yourself with the multi-shot function on your camera (the one that takes many shots back to back) as they fly quite quick and you don’t really have time to focus before they are out of shot again. This way you have a chance of getting a few good shots every time they fly past.

There is an admission charge for tourists to come into the canyon, I am not sure of the price as it was included in my holiday. If you are travelling independently you can get tours from Chivay or Arequipa. Arequipa is quite a bit further away, so you may need to book an overnight tour to ensure you get to see them at the best time.
Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon
Arequipa, Peru

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