Peru Part VIII: From Picchu to Puno

Visiting Macchu Picchu and the city of Puno

I figure we are out of luck when we arrive at Macchu Picchu’s cloud gate. Typical for the wet season, a thick mist covers most of the ancient city. But when we descend and step through the sun gate, the fog dissipates before our eyes. We watch the ruins of the Inca empire’s last stronghold with a sense of awe and respect; to see this, we’ve been climbing slippery steps for the last three days. We get only a few moments of clear view before the dense clouds hide the secretive jungle city once more. Walking further down, we are greeted by the first hordes of day tourists coming to see this wonder of the world. The mystical sense of ancient times is somewhat spoiled when we arrive at the foot of the city by a long que to visit the first clean bathroom since we left Ollantaytambo. After refueling with some caffeine and going through security, David leads us around the site. Even though the place is bustling with people, the strong connection with the sacred town returns. It is not hard to imagine what life in Macchu Picchu must have been like right before the ruthless conquistadores arrived. The most special place for me is the Temple of the Condor, where the Incas have moved and carved tonnes of granite to display an abstract symbol of a giant condor. The temple makes clever use of the illusion of depth to create an image that automatically silences the beholder of this divine bird. Important dead people would be buried under this condor’s wings, or in its ‘stomach’, so the messenger of the gods would carry them up to the sun. If visiting Macchu Picchu is not yet on your bucket list, you should definitely consider changing that. Although I am a person that will often reject religion as being useless and ridiculous, I think the spiritual connection that the Inca’s had with the sun, the mountains and the plants and animals around them is a beautiful way of thinking. It was essentially a religion that placed sustainability and the circle of life in the center, something that religion-inspired societies of today fail to do. The Inca’s fall came from the Spaniards, but we might be creating our own spiral to collapse.

I can’t get enough of the ambiance that is radiated by the meticulously carved stones, but we eventually take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, a small town that has profited greatly from Inca tourism. Together with other trail finishers we recognize from before, we have our final lunch with David before we part ways. A beautiful train ride takes us back to Ollantaytambo and by car we ride to Cusco. A long night’s sleep has to wait until later, since the next morning is an early one. After four days of being outside for hours on end, I now have to suffer through a ten hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno. The occasional stops at historic sites are overshadowed by the feeling of being trapped in a bus for eternity. The things that make me survive the trip are the beautiful landscape, Hiram Bingham’s Inca Lands and watching Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World twice on Netflix. When we finally arrive in Puno, the surprise of another early rise is not a welcome one…

Puno is built on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a huge body of water that crosses the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is the home of Telmatobius culeus, a very interesting species of frog commonly named the scrotum frog, due to its many skin flaps. It needs this extra skin to absorb enough oxygen out of the high altitude water of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately, its numbers have drastically lowered in the past years; 10.000 dead frogs were found in October 2016. Pollution is most likely the cause of this great dying of the extremely cute amphibians. A successful breeding program was initiated near Puno, but we weren’t able to visit. Other famous inhabitants of the lake are the Ouros people, the biggest tourist attraction in Puno. For more than a thousand years, they have built their homes on floating islands made out of reed. They discovered the touristic appeal not long ago and have been milking that udder extensively. Nevertheless, it is still an amazing look into these people’s cultural heritage to walk around on one of these islands. To create such a home for some twenty people, they first cut blocks of living reed roots that are stuck together with wooden poles. The roots grow together to form a strong base on which many layers of reed are placed to make a comfortable and dry floor to build on. Ten heavy stones are used as an anchor to prevent the island from floating away. After 30 years, the reed base is not safe to use anymore and a new one needs to be built. But the Ouros do not only use the plants for construction, they also eat it. Supposedly it has very high nutritional value. Although that might be true, I found that the flavor resembles what you imagine a wet heap of compost tastes like.

After spending some time on the small island of Tequile, the boat takes us back to Puno’s harbor. As my mom and I have some unused energy, but running outside on the streets of Puno does not feel safe, we end up in a greasy place called Gymnasio Buffalo. Well, imagine what you would think the average gym owner looks like. Now take the complete opposite of that. Gymnasio Buffalo is owned by a Sunday suit wearing elderly couple with the physiques of heroin addicts. Only a faded picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us that we are in fact in an actual gym. After some language difficulties, we both get to pick a machine. I take off on a treadmill and am quickly joined by my mother when she finds out the elliptical is in fact not plugged in. On multiple occasions I am strongly urged by one of the owners to turn down the speed of the treadmill, and after half an hour I absolutely have to stop running for reasons unknown (we are the only costumers at the moment). I decide to give the spinning bike a go, but discover that there is no way to set the bike to a higher gear. I am frantically pedaling to keep up with the out of control fitness machine before I’m saved by the grumpy old owner. After a few more minutes on a frictionless elliptical, we decide to call it a day.

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Pukara is an ancient city on the way from Cusco to Puno. Not much is left, but a nearby museum gives an interesting insight into the live of the frog-worshipping pre-Inca culture that lived here.
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A colorfully dressed Ouros woman in a traditional reed canoe on Lake Titicaca.
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As you can see, it will be long before the Ouros run out of construction material.
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