The salt flats of Maras

Maras is a town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, 40 kilometers north of Cuzco, in the Cuzco Region of Peru. The town is well known for its salt evaporation ponds, located towards Urubamba from the town center, which have been in use since Inca times. The salt-evaporation ponds are four kilometers north of the town, down a canyon that descends to the Rio Vilcanota and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream.

The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds.

it was a beautiful sky

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I went for a walk to find the center of the city. My first morning in Cusco and the weather was great. I was staying in the historic district, and was only 3 blocks from the Plaza de Armas, where the majority of these photos are taken. It’s a busy, touristy place, but still a bit thrilling. If you can only visit one city in Peru, skip Lima and come here. It’s not as large as Arequipa, but felt more metropolitan. And with so many things to see and so much history, you could easily do day trips from here for a week.

My first view of the Plaza de Armas.

From The Only Peru Guide:

Cusco’s main square – Plaza de Armas – is a busy and vibrant space that marks the colonial center of the city. The plaza, which features wide stone pathways and well-kept colorful gardens, is home to two iconic buildings: the Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compañía de Jesús.

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas covers part of the area that was once the Haukaypata – The Great Inca Square. Today however, Spanish colonial buildings and long stone arcades dominate the architecture of the plaza, but many of the precisely carved Inca walls remain as foundations.

The plaza is where many of the city’s most important gatherings, events and festivals take place, including Inti Raymi – the Inca Festival of the Sun and the religious festival of Corpus Christi.

The plaza is always bustling with activity whatever time of the day (or night), and is great place to soak up the laid back atmosphere of this Andean city.

The plaza also has a wide variety of restaurants and eateries, which offer everything from traditional Peruvian food like cuy (guinea pig), lomo saltado (a Chinese inspired stir fly) and aji de gallina (chicken in a creamy yellow pepper sauce)  through to more well-known international cuisine like pasta, pizza and steak. Indeed the plaza is home to some of the city’s best restaurants like the up-market Limo or Gaston Acurio’s new gourmet burger restaurant Papachos.

Unlike many cities around the world Cusco is buzzing every night of the week, and if you are looking for nightlife you simply need to head to the plaza. Norton Rat’s Pub is a favourite of both locals and tourists alike, who harmoniously drink the night away whilst playing darts and pool. Paddy’s Irish Pub is also another great place to meet people from around the world, whist enjoying exceptional homemade food and drinking few local Cusqueña beers. If you want to dance there are also many cool clubs and lounge-bars dotted around the plaza; Mushrooms and the famous Mama Africa are to name a few.

When wandering the plaza expect to see local vendors (often children) selling everything from day trips to Machu Picchu to wooden carvings to paintings and alpaca clothing. If you are not interested simply say “no gracias.” Be warned, many vendors can be persistent, but simply ignore them or repeat “no gracias.” If you think it’s annoying, then think of the poor ex-pats that live in Cusco and are asked by the same people day in day out if they want to buy a finger puppet!

My hotel and neighborhood.

This was my hotel, Suenos del Inka–Dreams of the Inca. I was here for about 5 days, so I got to know the area well. Just 3 blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Notice the rainbow flag. That’s not a gay pride flag. It’s the flag of Cusco.
There were many flights of stairs in my hotel–I had 5 just to get to my room.
The dining room. They served a very nice breakfast.
Just outside my hotel door.
Even the alpaca has to cross the street.
It’s a lovely city, with lots of small parks with fountains and statues. This was my favorite city in Peru, but only the historic center.

This is just a small courtyard, but isn’t it lovely?

Driving from Puno to Cusco, Peru

This is a very common site at almost ever hotel I stayed in. There’s a pot with hot water, instant coffee, various bags of tea and a bowl of leaves. Cocoa leaves, actually. And everyone drinks cocoa tea, chews the leaves–grandmothers, children….but especially tourists who are feeling the effects of seroche–altitude sickness. It’s only mildly stimulating and seems to have a lot of minerals and micro-nutrients. It’s not cocaine. It’s just cocoa.
This woman turned out to be from Atlanta! We knew many of the same areas of the city. I enjoyed talking and lunching with her and her husband. She said something very interesting about finding balance in relationships. Imagine that there are 10 people in your life that you’re close to–family, friends. At any one time, four of them won’t be happy with something you’ve done. Four is normal. You can’t please them all. Try not to piss off more than 6 at a time, though.

This will just be photographs. I spent a lot of time on buses during this “Grand Tour” of Peru, but it’s a great way to see the countryside. The drive between the cities of Puno and Cusco is roundly 390km (240 miles), but the road is good and the bus was comfortable. We even had hot drinks and a bathroom on board. Unfortunately, there were no cold drinks, as I found out when I asked for a soda. Room temperature is considered “cold” in these parts. No ice.

And here we have one of many statues of someone holding a head.
Some of the many pre-Inca civilizations in the area.
Pueblo of Pucará Or Pukara, depending upon who you talk to. There is a museum and archaeological ruins at Pukara. Pukara is famous for the sale of toritos or bulls made of ceramic which adorn the roof of homes in Peru. The word for bull is toro, but these are small, so they are called toritos–little bulls. Most homes have tile roofs with two bulls and a small cross between them on the top of center of the roof. It’s to bring good luck.
This is the center of town, and by far the largest building.
Leaving town, it was flat with mountains in the distance. This is the altiplano.

There are some small gardens, but it’s mostly a grazing area for cattle, sheep, lamas and alpacas.

The towns are very small, just a few buildings along the highway. I rarely saw a person.
The small towns don’t have a lot to offer.

It was a relief to finally go over a river. Water is scare here.

This is very similar to the road side altars in the USA. Usually the spot marks where someone has died.
Traditionally dressed women. Often their hats seem too small. I don’t know how they stay on. And everyone carries things–even children–just like this, wrapped in a colorful blanket.
It’s dry and there are few people, but I’m impressed that the entire area has a sidewalk. I couldn’t get a sidewalk in my Atlanta neighborhood!

At what is presumably the highest point along this road and conveniently about half-way, the bus pulls over, as you leave Puno region and enter Cusco region. A roadside sign indicated we were at 4335 metres above sea-level! The only visible purpose of this stop, however, seemed to be the rows of stalls of souvenirs being sold. Why this spot, aside from an arbitrary point where the two regions meet, I do not know.
According to the website DangerousRoads:
“Abra la Raya is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 4.350m above the sea level located in Peru. The pass marks the divide between the Puno and Cusco regions.
The road to the summit, also known as Apu Chimboya, is called Carretera 3S. It’s asphalted. With such a high summit altitude the road can be closed anytime due to snowfalls. The zone is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions. Avalanches, heavy snowfalls and landslides can occur anytime, being extremely dangerous due to frequent patches of ice. The climb is simply terrible, with a notorius lack of oxygen that tests the organisms and a high degree of steepness. Most people feel altitude sickness at around 2,500-2,800 meters.” Whoa! Glad I didn’t know all that at the time!

This is possibly the highest point in Peru–the boarder of Cusco and Puno “states” (called divisions, here).
This woman sold me a sweater. I’ve been using a ratty old one for quite some time, but now have a new red, patterned sweater of baby alpaca.
Almost as soon as we enter the division of Cusco, it got greener. We started descending too, so breathing was easier.
It’s spring planting time here. And some of these fields were cultivated by tractors. Up to this point, the fields were small and worked almost entirely by hand.
Look how clean those fields are. they probably are already planted in potatoes. There are over 3,000 varieties of potato–most for Peru and surrounding Andean countries.

There were many more people, too. And nicer houses…..
…though they weren’t all occupied.
This is a school and it’s very large compared to the ones we’ve passed the last few days.

But there’s always the mountains……
….and always churches.
Side roads are dirt, even in town, but the highway the bus was traveling on was quite good.

Virtually every small town had “signs” like these in the side of the mountain. A guide told me that they are usually businesses, churches or schools.

This shepherd is bringing his flock of sheep up the side of the mountain on a narrow footpath.
Another Seventh Day Adventist church. Hummmmm.

I saw at least three fires this day–probably cleaning land. One was very out of control. In an area with little water, a fire that gets out of control is a huge issue.

Taquile Island, in Lake Titicaca, Peru

Our first look at Taquile Island. You can see from the terraces that this is heavily farmed. It is early spring here, so planting is just starting.

Taquile (Spanish: Isla de Taquile; Quechua: Intika) is an island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca 45 km offshore from the city of Puno. About 2,200 people live on the island, which is 5.5 by 1.6 kilometres (3.4 by 1.0 mile) in size, with an area of 5.72 km2 (2.21 sq mi). The highest point of the island is 4,050 metres (13,287 feet) above sea level, so climbing to the top left me breathless! The inhabitants, known as Taquileños, speak Puno Quechua and Spanish. There are no cars and I didn’t even see a bicycle! Though, since the ground is so uneven and there are so many stairs, a bike might not be very helpful.

I took a boat on the all day excursion around Lake Titicaca. Mine is the farthest from the end. Notice how you have to walk over three other boats to get to the small dock.

In 2005, “Taquile and Its Textile Art” were honored by being proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. It is the men who do the knitting, however. In fact, in order to marry, a man must make his own hat to prove he can weave and support his family.

The blue water looks clean, but pollution has been a real issue.

Taquileños are known for their fine handwoven textiles and clothing, some of the highest-quality handicrafts in Peru. Knitting is exclusively performed by males, beginning in early boyhood. Women spin wool and use vegetables and minerals to dye the wool to be used by the community, however. Women are also the weavers of the Chumpis, the wide belts with woven designs worn by everyone in the community of Taquile. In preparation for marriage, a woman will weave a belt for her new husband that includes images of all the things they want for their lives together.

And now we start climbing to the top of the island. This is the highest I’ve ever been, and the air is THIN. I really wanted to grow a third lung. I made it to the top, but had to stop and catch my breath several times, hence the photos!

Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled sustainable tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, lodging for groups, cultural activities, local guides and restaurants. I’d like to stay a week here and see if I enjoyed the peace or went crazy! Ever since tourism started coming to Taquile in the seventies, the Taquileans slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans. Taquile community have their own Travel Agency Munay Taquile has been established to regain local control over tourism.

Lots of sheep as well as plants.

Taquileños run their society based on community collectivism and on the Inca moral code ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, (Quechua for “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”). The island is divided into six sectors for crop rotation purposes. The economy is based on fishing, terraced farming (mostly potatos), and tourist-generated income from the approximately 40,000 tourists who visit each year.

….and chickens.

The majority of the inhabitants of Taquile are Catholic. They adapted this religion, harmonizing Andean religion with the syncretic Christian culture. The mother earth (Pachamama), the principal Andean deity, directly controls harvesting and fertility; the island is home to four Apus, Andean mountaintop deities. People make several offerings to these deities each year, and they offer three coca leaves prior to each activity or trip. God is present throughout the year in the festivities. The two Catholic churches are in Centre and Huayllano; a Seventh-day Adventist church is located in Huayrapata.

Yeah, still climbing….see that guy in front of me, hidden behind the large sack? He passed me, carrying a load I’d have had trouble with a sea level. And the man had to be old enough to be my father. These folks are in good shape and have actually developed lungs that can take in much more oxygen. Many have barrel chests to accommodate the extra lung capacity. Color me jealous!

Taquile has a radio station and is equipped with generators. Islanders have elected to use solar panels to generate energy.

Flowers and trees on the Island include Kolle, the tree used to roof the houses and for firewood, the Cantuta flower (the national flower of Peru), the Chukjo (used as detergent), and Muña, used as natural medicines.

I thought this arch meant I was near the top. Not so.
These plots are worked by hand. There are not tractors, cars or motorbikes.

This arch wasn’t at the top, either. Still going up!
Finally! The town square!
You can tell by the red and white hat that this is a single man, heading off to hoe his garden. He was the only single man I saw.
…and the view from the top is almost worth the climb.
The church.
Want to know how far you are from home?
The sign says Men’s Weaving–Unisex. Yes, the men are the weavers here.
Inside, you can buy just about anything you want made of alpaca. We quickly learned that EVERYTHING is marked “Baby Alpaca” which is the highest quality wool. But you have to be careful. Some places mix synthetic fibers to make what the guides call “Maybe Alpaca.” But I honestly think the quality here was very high.
An example of the men’s colorful hat and wide belt.
Main Plaza
Married women wear black.
I wanted a photo of the boy, but he was very shy.

We follow our host to lunch..but wait! More climbing?

Lovely views from the spine of the island.
This leads to the port on the other side of the island. Our boat will meet us at the bottom after lunch. But we are warned there are about 350 steps down. NOW, you warm me?!?

Here’s our host for lunch. We’ll be eating in his back yard. You can tell he’s married by the fancy, colorful hat.
This photo is from the gate of our host’s property. What a site!

You’d think it was the ocean, right? We Lake Titicaca is about the size of Puerto Rico.
The tree in the back yard grew tumbo, a common Peruvian fruit I’d never heard of before I came here.
A nice canopy, good food and a view of the lake. What else could you as for?
These sisters from Canada were a hoot!
Quinoa soup is a common first course here–tasty and grown locally. This was also has some squash. I love it.
Here’s something you’ll see served often in Peruvian restaurants–trout. No, it’s not native to the area. In fact, this Smithsonian article explains how it got here: “The North American lake trout came to South America with the blessing of Uncle Sam in the 1930s. Peruvian and Bolivian officials at the time saw the lake as an economic opportunity, and they reached out to the U.S. government for help. The United States responded by sending M.C. James from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Fish Culture to Lake Titicaca.
James studied the area during the winter of 1935-36, a very short period, and then made a very consequential recommendation. He suggested—for reasons not clear today—stocking the lake with North American fish.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-are-north-american-trout-doing-lake-titicaca-180957472/
There were a small group from Japan, though they did speak some English. One of the women had these crazy nails!
After dinner we were served munia tea–a type of local mint. Though this was the first time I saw it, I heard a lot about this plant later. It discourages insects, so was used to help preserve both stored food and bodies!

The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

You can see almost the entire island that we are going to by boat. The residents are waiting for us in their very colorful costumes.

As part of my day excursion on Lake Titicaca, Peru, I was honored to see the Floating Islands, a completely new concept to me. To this day, the Uros people maintain and live on these man-made islands, depending on the lake for their survival, and are a large tourist destination. Dragon Boat racing, an old tradition in Puno, the nearest city, is a very popular activity for tourists.

This is what they call their “fancy” taxi–the Mercedes Benz. It’s used mostly for tourists. They have small canoes for their own use.

The “Floating Islands” are small man-made islands constructed by the Uros (or Uru) people from layers of cut totora reeds, a thick buoyant reed that grows abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The Uros harvest the reeds that naturally grow on the lake’s banks to make the islands by continuously adding reeds to the surface.

There were only about 8 huts on this island and you can see that they have small solar panels. Huts today are square, but traditionally,they were round.

According to legend, the Uru people originated in the Amazon and migrated to the area of Lake Titicaca in the pre-Colombian era, where they were oppressed by the local population and were unable to secure land of their own. They built the reed islands, which could be moved into deep water or to different parts of the lake as necessary, for greater safety from their hostile neighbors on land.

They have large rolls of reeds–couches–for us to sit on as they describe their daily life.

Historically, most of the Uros islands were located near the middle of the lake, about 14 km (9 mi) from the shore; however, in 1986, after a major storm devastated the islands, many Uros rebuilt closer to shore. As of 2011, about 1,200 Uros lived on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands, clustering in the western corner of the lake near Puno, Titicaca’s major Peruvian port town. The islands have become one of Peru’s tourist attractions, allowing the Uros to supplement their hunting and fishing by conveying visitors to the islands by motorboat and selling handicrafts.

This is the chief–he’s voted into his position, but since these are typically small, family based islands with just a few inhabitants, in practice, the chief will be the leading male of the clan.

Additional information, according to Wikipedia: “The Uru’s islands are located at 3810 meters above sea level, and just five kilometers west from Puno port. Around 2,000 descendants of the Uru were counted in the 1997 census, although only a few hundred still live on and maintain the islands; most have moved to the mainland. The Uru also bury their dead on the mainland in special cemeteries.

Food is cooked with fires placed on piles of stones. To relieve themselves, tiny ‘outhouse’ islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbs the waste.”

Everyone stayed busy, even during the tourist presentation. They women worked on embroidery. None of the inhabitants wore shoes, though it gets quite cold at night at this altitiude. The ground was very spongy, like walking in a barn of loose hay. And you could feel that you were on the water. You needed “sea legs” to walk around!

If you’d like more information, I found this great article from Atlas Obscura, The Uros People of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca has small fish, a stable of the Uros’ diet. There are also Canadian Trout released into the water.
The Uros also shoot birds, such as duck, and eat eggs. The reeds themselves are edible, and contain high levels of calcium and other minerals.
This is the “mat” or block of floating turf that makes up the base of the island–it’s mostly the roots of the reeds, tied together.
When the Uros first lived on the island, they constructed boats with a small round house on them. Later, they constructed the islands to give them more room.
This is hard to see, but in the center of the island is a large hole. It’s usually covered by a pot. The hole goes all the way through the bottom of the island and served as a well. Here, the chief is throwing a long pole into the well to show us how deep it is. They did not appear to filter their water in anyway, though it is possible that they boiled or sun treated the water.
So colorful and friendly.
This is a map of Lake Titicaca. We visited the Winay uta, a small family group from the Uros tribe.
You can’t just make a big fire on a flammable island! The kitchen is just a large flat rock with this clay “stove” placed on top. A small fire is built in the base of the stove and pots fit on top for cooking.
Several of us were invited into the house. Though all the conversation was in Spanish, I understood most of it. The tiny house has a large bed, but no other furniture. Most of what you see on the side of the house is for sale.
The owner of the house explained that she and her husband lived here, but there was another, small hut for the children.
The tribe sells crafts for cash, but catches fish, birds and eggs for food and barter.
Their handicrafts are lovely.
You can see behind the hut that we are near the edge of the lake. The island is anchored, just like a boat, to the shore. Otherwise, the chief told us, they’d end up in Bolivia!
Golden in color, many of the islands measure about 15 by 15 meters (50 by 50 ft), and the largest are approximately half the size of a football field. Each island contains several thatched houses, typically belonging to members of a single extended family. Some of the islands have watchtowers and other buildings, also constructed of reeds.
This is the edge of our island, but the next one is just beside it. That island group has a very fancy tourist boat. When a family group grows too large, or their are disagreements between the group, they simply extend the island, cut it in half and go their separate ways.
To show us how they lived, the chief, with translation help from our guide, used these small scale items to show us how to build a floating mat, cover it with reeds, then build houses and live on the island.
This is the traditional shape of homes. It is tiny and people slept sitting with their legs under them to keep warm. The natives claimed their only health complaint was rheumatism–due to cold, wet weather.

Now let’s board the tourist boat! for 20soles, I got a 20 minute boat ride and met some lovely people from Mexico and Bolivia!
A view from the top of the boat, to the adjacent island.
The ladies even sang to us as we sailed off. Their last words were “Hasta la Vista, Baby!”
This is the Seventh Day Adventist Primary school. I am surprised at how many churches I saw of this denomination in Peru. I’ve rarely seem them in other parts of the world.
Here are some of the “dragon” boats.
Aren’t they colorful?
The tourist boat took us to another island, where we could get some refreshments. This is our boat, docked along side.

Coffee? Tea? Coca leaves?
This island DID have a water filtration system. I wasn’t able to inspect it closely, but it did seem to have at least a course filter and a sedimentation section.