Riding high into the Andes

Riding high into the Andes

PUNO, PERU — High in the Andes, the sunlight bounces off the calm waters of Lake Titicaca, creating a mesmerizing visual that freezes me in my tracks for a few special moments.
The lake, considered sacred to the Incas, is the place where the creator god Viracoca supposedly rose up from the lake to create the sun, moon, stars and the first human beings. At least that's the legend. Recently, though, a large temple, estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 years old, was discovered submerged in the lake by archeologists, adding to its mystery.
I dare say, the area does possess a certain magical quality that defies reason — some even say that aliens and angels live here. I didn’t see any myself, but I certainly did feel angelic floating in a Uru vessel (a.k.a. fat boat ) made of reeds.

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Above: The majesty of the Andes and Peruvian life is framed in the train's window.


The Uru, or Uros, are the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia who still live on one of the 120 floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. The purpose of the islands was originally defensive — if there was a threat, the island could be moved or abandoned. It’s a way of life the Uru still maintain today.
As I stepped ashore on one of the islands, carefully helped off the boat by islander Diego, I felt my feet slightly sink into the reedy ground.
“Don’t worry,” Diego assured me, “you won’t sink, and neither will the island.”
The Uru use bundles of dried totora reeds to make their islands, the largest of which can house about 10 families.
Diego and his compatriots demonstrated how the islands are constructed and maintained. The bed is made from the dense roots of the reeds, which are tightly interwoven into a bottom layer that are about one to two metres thick. They are then anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the lake bed.

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Above: Andean Explorer chugs up a mountain with the Andes as a backdrop.


The bottom reeds rot quickly, so every three months new reeds are added to the top.
Each island has a lifespan of about 30 years. Then the process begins again.
Tourism has become the main source of income for the Uru and visits always involve a show-and-tell of exquisite hand-embroidered tapestries, quilts, woven fabrics and other handmade crafts.  The constant traffic over the reeds, however, means maintenance needs to be done more frequently these days.
During my visit, three women — matriarchs of their families — were preparing a flamingo for dinner. It’s not a bird that they would normally dine on, but the bright pink specimen got itself caught in some fishing lines and thus was going to be stewed for that night’s meal.
“They’re tough,” one of the women said as she plucked the pretty pink feathers. “So we’ll boil it for a long time and let it get tender. Add enough chilies and it will be eatable.”
Half the fun of my excursion to Lake Titicaca was the trip here from Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the incredible historic site Machu Picchu, to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We made the journey aboard the Andean Explorer, rated the most luxurious train trip in South America and one of the best of its kind in the world.
Designed in the style of the Pullman trains of the 1920s, this service earns five stars in every way. From the exquisitely comfortable wingback chairs, the meals served on fine china, the linens that grace the tables that are topped with silverware and crystal glasses, this train exceeds all expectations. Not to mention the impeccable lunch prepared with a fusion of local ingredients and served by attentive and informative staff.
That’s what’s inside the train. The real star of the show, though, is what’s framed in the carriage window. The high Andean Plateau is indeed eye candy for the soul.

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Above: The train brings you to places to see Andean lifestyle played out in real time.


The train features an open-air observation car at the back, which allowed us to take pictures of the majestic views all the while enjoying live performances of classical Peruvian Highland music and dancing in the lounge.
There are a number of trips available on the Andean Explorer — the two- and three-day trips feature sleeper cabins that look more like luxury hotel rooms. We opted for a one-day excursion aboard the PeruRail Titicaca.
During the 10½-hour ride, we made a stop at Urcos, high in the Andes, where we were treated to a local market where men and women sold their hand-knit alpaca and llama sweaters, mitts, hats and gloves, brightly-coloured woven fabrics and other handiworks, like traditional Peruvian Highland hats and regalia.  There were also plenty of local snacks and sweets. But for me — an obsessive knitter — it was the yarn that stood out in the stalls. Hand spun and dyed, the alpaca fibre was extraordinarily squishy and soft. I can’t wait to knit it up!
It was also in Urcos that, according to another legend, local chieftains hid the Inca’s gold to prevent it from falling in the hands of the Spanish invaders. But that’s a whole other story.

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Above: A Peruvian market is always a special place to visit.


As we boarded the train and set off again, we climbed to 4,320m — the highest point along the trip — where even in the summer months snow falls and covers the Andean peaks. Descending from the high plateau, we saw what appeared to be a never-ending stretch of pastures filled and shepherds, seemingly lost in time.
Women — some had babies strapped to their backs — and men were wearing traditional Peruvian highland garb as they tended their sheep, llamas and alpacas. I could see other workers in the fields digging up one of the over 3,800 (you read that right) varieties of potatoes that are native to Peru. Potatoes, you see, were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia and the Spanish brought them back to Europe in the 1500s.
Also originating in the high Andes is corn — there are the 55 varieties in Peru alone — as well as chilies, tomatoes, peanuts, pima cotton, cassava and pineapple. Peru also grows five main varieties of quinoa and has identified 20,000 species.
No wonder the food in Peru is so amazing.

JUST THE FACTS

• Cost for the one-day Andean Explorer starts at about $210 (U.S.), with three-day trips starting at $3,000. Cost is determined on time of year. https://www.perurail.com/

•  Air Canada offers direct flights from Toronto to Lima. https://www.aircanada.com

•  For information on Peru, go to https://www.peru.travel

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