PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco: A Magical, Surreal Ride on the Andean Explorer

Last time I wrote about our trip to Peru, I stopped in Lake Titicaca. But there is more! When we went to the lake, we took a day-long bus ride from Cusco. The tourist bus stopped several times along the way, offering mini-excursions. It was interesting, for a bus ride, but unremarkable. After our visit to the Floating Islands and our home stay on Amantani Island, we decided to take the train back instead. We didn’t expect much from the trip on the PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco, also known as The Andean Explorer.

Twenty-something years ago, I’ve ridden several “luxury” trains in China. I expected the train in Peru to be something similar: vinyl benches, crowded cars, a chicken or two roaming about, and a cart with unappetizing food passing along every couple of hours.

From the outside, the train was undistinguished, except that the crowds I was expecting didn’t materialize:

But when I got on, instead of a Chinese sleeper train, I found myself on the Orient Express!

Imagine my surprise and shock when we were lead into a beautiful, bright car, and seated in wide, comfortable armchairs set around white-tablecloth-covered tables! My kids got their own table, while my husband and I had our own. An unexpected mini-date that included a vase with fresh flowers on the table between us! My mood, which was pretty sour following an early wake-up call, improved drastically and instantaneously!

Let me give you a tour of the Orient Express of the Andeas:

The train had three passenger cars: A Dining Car, A Bar Car, and an Observation Car.

The dining car, in the above picture, was where we were originally seated. There were less than thirty five of us (the allowed maximum): tourists from all over the world. Throughout the ride it felt like staff members outnumbered us.

The Bar Car had more armchairs, arranged two by two around little round tables.

In the corner it had a fully-equipped bar:

The Observation Car had long benches in the middle. It was only half covered, with big windows all around allowing a panoramic view. Since it was Christmas, it also featured a tree in one corner.

I don’t usually show you pictures of bathrooms, but even the toilet on this train felt luxurious:

The looks and ambiance of the train greatly lifted my spirits, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Without knowing it, we were about to embark on the train-ride of a lifetime!

On-Board Experiences:

Shortly after the train started moving, the stuff distributed snacks and drinks. Alcohol in the morning does wonders to your mood! Needless to say, the ice between us passengers was broken fairly quickly. Tourists intermingled, chatted and became friends.

A couple of hours into the ride, a live band began playing Peruvian music in the Bar Car. Soon, we got to see some Peruvian dances as well:

This was followed by a fashion show, with a male and a female models showing us some high-end Peruvian alpaca fashion:

In the meantime, while we were greatly enjoying ourselves on the most luxurious train I’ve ever been on, the real Peru passed by outside our windows: arid grasslands sparkled with mud huts:

Small mud-built villages:

Little towns:

And the most remarkable of all: a bustling urban market set along the train tracks! Since there are only two trains a day, with predictable schedules, people had booths and merchandise set on the tracks. They removed everything when the train approached, then put it back up the second it passed:

The three-course lunch felt like a visit to a five-star restaurant:

In the afternoon, the guys at the bar demonstrated how to mix pisco sour, the Peruvian national coctail. All the adults got to taste it, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The band played again. By then everyone was happy enough to rattle along, clap, sing, and even dance!

The band, in fact, was quite amazing! At first they played hours of Peruvian/Latin music. Later, per the audience’s request, they moved on to Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and even Pink Floyd!

It was a truly surreal experience: riding a luxury train, complete with white table cloths, drinks, live music and fun entertainment, while dressed in unwashed hiking clothes and hiking boots. It felt rather odd to pass through a poor countryside full of friendly people, many of whom, both old and young, waved at us, while listening to “The Wall:”

Yes, there was even an afternoon tea service!

I truly hoped the ride would never end! I was actually sad when we arrived at our destination…

Only many weeks later, after I was already home, did I learn that The Society of International Railway voted this train as one of the 25 most luxurious in the world! Ready to go?

Lake Titicaca Islands: What to Expect from a Home Stay on Amantani Island

I haven’t had much time for sewing this week. Temperatures in California have been record-breaking high, which meant my fruit trees started coming out of winter dormancy earlier than usual. I therefore had to spend a couple of days in the garden, pruning, spraying, and fertilizing. In addition, I had to care for a sick child. In between, I tried to stick to working on my countless unfinished-projects, and spent hours ironing interfacing. No wonder I find it more interesting to reflect, once again, on my recent trip to Peru!

Today I would like to tell you what to expect if you decide to try a home stay on Amantani Island, a small island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

Home Stay on Amantani Island

The House

Unlike the man-made Uros Floating Islands, the island of Amantani is a real, solid island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Seeing it getting near after several hours on the reed islands and more time on the rocky boat was a relief…

When we planned our trip, we decided to try a home stay on the island. We thought it would be interesting not only to see how people in other parts of the world live, but to also experience living like them, even if just for one day. I expected to sleep on a living-room floor in someone’s hut, and eat the foods they normally eat. The reality turned out to be a bit different.

When our boat reached the dock, a group of women was waiting to greet us. They were all dressed in traditional black clothes embroidered with colorful flowers. We later learned that these were their formal frocks, reserved for special occasions, and that husbands traditionally embroider their wive’s clothes. One of these women turned out to be our host. She asked us to follow her uphill to the village.

Luckily for us, the house we stayed at turned out to be not too far from the docks. Once there, we were greeted by the rest of the family, and were introduced to everyone: our hostess Lucrecia, her husband Richard,and their young daughter Diana Isabella.

To our surprise, instead of the modest hut we expected, we found a large, two-storied building, with an entire newly-built guest wing. We weren’t going to sleep on a floor in a living room after all. The entire upper floor was dedicated to tourists, and consisted of three comfortable guest rooms, two for us and one for our guide.

Our host family, it turned out, did not use any of these rooms. They were reserved for tourists, and were comfortable, clean and well maintained:

The beautiful view was a bonus:

The View from our room on Amantani Island

Still, I felt a bit disappointed. This was more AirBnb than a home stay.

The Food

After a short rest we went down to the kitchen, the only common area of the house. There, our hostess, Lucrecia, and her sister Nelly were in the midst of preparing our lunch.

The food was vegetarian, and restaurant-quality:

We later realized that the meals we got during our home stay were tailored to tourist tastes. Our host family didn’t eat with us at the large table at the center of the room. Rather, they sat in another corner of the kitchen, and ate different food.

This work of art decorated the kitchen/dinning room wall. I found it quite special:

The Village

After lunch our tour guide took us on a hike. As we walked through the village, we realized that the entire settlement was in the midst of a building boom. Many of the houses had new wings, just like the one we stayed at.

And, indeed, we saw group after group of tourists climbing up the trail leading from the dock:

The day we were there, the entire population was working on paving the trails crisscrossing the village. They were trying to complete the work before Christmas, as they were all promised a bonus if they managed to meet this deadline. This was exactly what the expression “it takes a village” was coined for.

The Temple

Our guide took us up one of the two mountains on the island, to an open temple dedicated to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Pachamama is a pre-Inka goddess, and many people in Peru still worship her. The climb was taxing. Lake Titicaca is in high elevation, and the mountain we climbed was even higher.

I was struggling to catch up with my kids. Our guide gave me a few dry coca leaved to chew on, to help with elevation and give me some energy. They tested like grass, and I am not sure whether they actually helped or not.

I did make it to the peak, however!

The view was well worth the effort:

The open-air temple was also interesting. It is usually closed, and only opens a few times a year, when the entire community gathers there for celebrations.

The Dinner

By the time we returned from our hike, the women already changed out of their formal wear and into their everyday clothes. Everyone was wearing hats, since the evenings in Amantani are rather chilly due to the high elevation. The houses on the island don’t have heating.

The food was Western, and as delicious as before. After dinner Richard joined us at the table, and we all got to know each other a bit better, and learn about each other’s lives.

The Departure

The next morning, after a fine breakfast, our host family insisted on dressing us up in local clothes. We then took a few customary tourist pictures:

As we were about to leave, our hostess took out some souvenirs she said she made. Some didn’t look handmade, and the rest looked suspiciously like souvenirs we saw everywhere else. Still, we bought something.

The Effects of Tourism

Traditionally, the inhabitants of the island live off the land. The island is covered with terraces, and to this very day crops are grown on every possible piece of land. We saw some people working the land on our hike up the mountain:

The island’s inhabitants also raise farm animals such as sheep, pigs and donkeys. Nowadays, however, it seems that the local economy heavily relies on tourism, as it does for the Uros people. Tourism is physically changing the island, and is responsible for the wide-spread expansion of houses and the quick paving of local trails. It also changes people’s daily routines, with more and more families spending much of their time catering to tourists. Our hostess’s daughter and her cousin were playing with toys that former tourist-guests gave them. The changing of local diets and other habits is probably just a matter of time.

The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru

Lake Titicaca is the largest fresh-water lake in Latin America. It is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, with Peru owning the larger part. The meaning of it’s name is unclear. The locals like to joke that Titi is for Peru, and Caca (or kaka) for Bolivia. The formal explanation is that the name possibly meant “Gray Puma” in an old local language, after the animal that used to roam the region (or maybe after the shape of the lake, which, with lots of imagination, reminds one of a puma).

Like many other tourists, we visited Lake Titicaca on our recent trip to Peru for its unique floating islands.

Why Floating Islands

According to our tour guide, the ancestors of the people now living on the floating islands, members of the Uru (or Uros) ethnicity, were fishermen living on the lake’s shores. These people realized early on that the reeds growing in the shallower parts of the lake (totora) are very buoyant when dry. They harvested them and used them to make boats.

After the Incas conquered the area and started taking men to the army, some families escaped on their boats to the middle of the lake, where the new rulers could not reach them. They began living on these boats, sustaining themselves from whatever they could get from the lake. Here is a model of one such boat:

The community grew with time, but remained in boats even after the Incas fell, to avoid suffering in the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. After several hundred years living on boats, they began building floating islands in the middle of the lake. They moved closer to shore fairly recently, in the 1980’s, with some communities remaining in the more remote parts.

How the Islands are Built

When the reeds die, their root balls detach from the bottom of the lake and float to the top. The Urus collect these root balls, and use them as the base for their islands. They put sticks in the middle of each root ball, and then use a rope to tie the different root balls to each other:

After the men tie many root balls together, they use saws and long-handled knives to cut reeds:

They pile reeds on top of the root balls, then keep piling them in different directions:

Once there are 2-3 feet of reeds covering the root balls, they use more reeds to build bases for huts, and then build reed huts to put on top, as in this model:

And there it is, a finished island:

The men add new layers to the top of the island as needed. This is what the ground looks like:

When you walk on them, the islands feel squashy and wet! In fact, the bases built under each hut are meant to keep the water away from the huts themselves.

Life on the Floating Islands

Generally, the Urus live in communities, with many islands gathered close together, around an open space of lake. There are several such clusters:

People drag and move the Islands as needed. If families in neighboring islands quarrel, for example, one of them can take their island and move it elsewhere.

Each of the islands is the home of a few families. Usually, every nuclear family has its own hut:

As you can tell, they now have solar panels to charge their cell phones (!).

There is a communal kitchen:

Men hunt and fish. The women care for the children, and cook meals, usually together. The meals consist of roots bought from the shore, as well as of fish and fowl caught on the lake:

People also eat the reeds. We were told they keep people’s teeth healthy, strong and white. The locals believe that one particular potato-like root, oca, protects them from skin cancer:

It is common for young men and women to live together before marriage. If either decides they don’t like their partner, they are free to leave and choose another mate. Once children are born, however, they usually get married.

When a young couple decides to establish their own household, the father of the family takes a saw and cuts off a chunk of the island for them to take away. They are then free to drag their new island anywhere they want.

The Uru And Tourism

A minority of Uru people still live in the middle of Lake Titicaca, far from the peering eyes of tourists. The majority, however, moved closer to shore, to make tourist access easier. In fact, it seems as if nowadays most Island People rely on tourism for a living.

As in the case of the weaving communities, what we want to believe and what actually is are not necessarily the same thing. Today, the Uru no longer need to fear Inca recruiters or conquistadors. They no longer have a real reason to stay on floating islands, save for the fact that they do not own lands on shore, and that the world seems to want them to stay there.

An entire economy relies on the existence of the islands: tourists are excited to see this different, exotic lifestyle. Numerous tourist guides, boat operators, tour agencies and so on make a living off of visiting them. Even the Peruvian government benefits from advertising their uniqueness. In fact, it feels as if the entire setting exists for the sake of tourists.

There are many islands, with many families living on them. We were told that there is a limit on the number of boats that are allowed to visit each day. The islands supposedly take turns hosting these boats. This ensures that the income that tourists bring is divided equally and fairly among the different families. We were told that each family hosts tourists once a month or so.

However, that didn’t seem to necessarily be the case. For one, we saw quite a few tourist boats scattered around the islands. This, for example, was ours:

The locals are warm and hospitable. They are also very used to guests. As our boat neared, they were waiting for us on shore, singing and dancing:

The islands are very small. Yet, props for tourist explanations take up a large, central space:

There was also a permanent-looking craft booth:

When we went to see the inside of a hut, it was too-tidy. Items for sale filled it up. Local costumes waited for tourists to try them on. I wondered whether anyone actually lived there:

At some point, our hostess began embroidering:

Within minutes of picking up the needle, her husband showed up with finished works we could buy:

Needless to say, we couldn’t really leave without getting something, another addition to the pile of textiles we will never actually use:

We paid extra to take a ride in a local “Mercedes Benz,” nicknamed that because it’s a money-maker. The “Mercedes Benzes” are reed boats, redesigned for tourists. They consist of two boats put together, often shaped like pumas, with a platform built between them. A motor boat pulls them. The locals, for their own needs, only ride motor boats.

While riding our “Mercedes,” two little boys entertained us by singing songs in foreign languages, obviously without understanding the words. When they finished singing, they walked around asking for money.

I felt as if us tourists replaced the Incas as far as keeping the Uru people on their islands. This didn’t feel good, because life on the floating islands did not seem healthy. The residents, especially the women, did not seem to be getting much exercise. There is hardly any room to walk. Women cook and embroider while mostly sitting. To leave the islands, people have to ride boats. Life is quite sedentary, and many adults are over weight.

The high elevation and glare from the water make avoiding the sun impossible. People get very tanned. The ova might not be enough to protect them from skin cancer. And the reeds didn’t seem to keep everyone’s teeth healthy, either: sadly, it seems that the younger generation doesn’t chew enough of them. The kids that sang for us, for example, had many rotten teeth, perhaps another side effect of too many tourists giving too much candy.

Peruvian Textiles and Tourism

About a year ago I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a post from TAFA List made me pause. The post advertised textile tours to Peru, and featured a beautiful picture of amazing textiles in vivid, bright colors. I clicked on it and started drooling.

For a while I considered taking one of the tours, but the dates didn’t work out for me, and I also didn’t want to leave my family for too long. Hence was born the idea of dragging my kids, yet again, to South America.

Luckily for me, everyone enjoyed our Ecuador trip so much, that they were eager to explore the region further. And so, this past December, my family and I found ourselves in the Cusco province of Peru, the Mecca of textiles.

After we arrived, my kids got one day to rest and acclimatize in Cusco city. The very next morning a bus belonging to the tour company Apus Peru came by to take us down to the Sacred Valley and some weaving communities.

Apus Peru is a relatively small tour company specializing in cultural tours. This was the company that operated the textile tours I saw on Facebook. They employ knowledgeable, English-speaking guides, and engage in culturally-responsible tourism. Apus Peru actively give back to the communities they take tourists to, not only through financial support, but also by providing training and education to local groups.

Our original plan was to go to Pizaq Market and ruins, and then up the Andes to the weaving community of Chayhautire. The trip down to the valley took about an hour, however, and involved some windy roads. My daughter started suffering from motion-sickness, and I myself felt the unpleasant effects of elevation. The thought of an hour or more of driving up a narrow, windy dirt road suddenly didn’t seem that appealing, even if it was leading to a remote weaving community…

So we changed plans. We went to the ruins first and the market later (Pizaq Market, supposedly the Otavalo of Peru, turned out to be a little disappointing). Then, instead of up to Chayhautire, we drove on a relatively straight road to Chinchero, another weaving community.

This change of plans turned out to be a lucky stroke, as on the way we came across a local procession in honor of the Conception Virgin. This involved costumes, music and dance, and turned out to be very interesting:

Chinchero is a small town with several weaving centers. Our guide took us to Balcon Del Inka Centro Artesanal, which, he claimed, was the best one.

Being at the top of the hill overlooking the town, it certainly had the best view!

Women form several local families run the Artisan Center. The Center has two areas designed to show tourists how wool is prepared. It also has a small outside market. Women don’t actually weave on the premises. Everything is nicely set, however, and the English explanations are clear.

The Making of a Peruvian Tapestry:

Women gather wool from the desired animal. This could be a sheep, or one of the four camelid animals of Peru: ilama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuñaa. Ilama wool is rather course. Alpaca is softer, and baby alpaca is even softer than that. But the softest wool of them all comes for the undomesticated vicuña. This wool is hard to gather, and is therefore the most expensive on the planet.

When sheered, any wool is rather dirty:

To clean it, the local women grind a jabonera plant root that, with water, froths like soap. Local nickname it “Andean Soap.”

Women then wash and scrub the wool:

Once washed, the wool is clean and ready to work with:

Women spin the wool into thread. During our stay in Peru, we’ve seen women walking and spinning, working and spinning, cooking and spinning, caring for children and spinning. Women, in fact, seem to always multitask…

After it is spinned, the wool is ready for dyeing. Many women in Chichero and the vicinity still use natural dyes, made from local plants. In the picture below, you can see the different colors and the plants that make them. I especially loved the purple wool, dyed with purple corn:

The biggest magic, though, involves the color red. Red is made from a parasite that dines on one of the more common cactus species in the area:

When collected, this parasite appears white, as it is cocooned in a web-like fluffy substance:

But here is where the fun begins, and our hostess delighted in showing us some magic: when squished, you see, a vivid, blood-like red fluid appears:

Mixed with a bit of lime, this fluid gets an orange tint:

Mixed with salt, it becomes more purple:

Playing around with these various shades, the weavers can tweak the colors to whatever shade they like. The number of times a piece of wool is dipped in the dyeing pot, and the length of time it stays there, determine the final color:

The result is beautiful, vividly-colored wool:

Women then pull the wool onto looms. Looms are easily portable, allowing women to weave in their homes or outside in the fields.

Here are some finished pieces, at the market part of the Center:

Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying something. This is our new table runner, with the artist who claimed to make it:

How Tourism Complicates Things

Textiles are historically an integral part of the Peruvian culture. However, after a few days in the country, I realized that the locals don’t actually wear traditional textiles, nor do they use them. In fact, tourists are the only ones walking around with vividly-woven fabrics. The locals wear jeans, t-shirts and the like, like the rest of us.

The few women and kids who roam about the old city of Cusco dressed in traditional clothes, often carry sheep or alpacas, and are there to take photos with tourists for money. Even in the more remote areas, the people wearing traditional clothes are mostly doing so for tourists (and wear synthetics). People told me that in really remote villages people still dress like that for real, but I haven’t been to any of those. The few houses I visited in different parts of the region didn’t have traditional textiles as home decor. If they had any textiles at all, they had the cheaper, industrial/synthetic kind, most likely imported from China.

The beautiful, traditional textiles, it seems, are made for tourists these days. They are also sold at tourist prices. These textiles are not cheap, even in American standards. Tourists have to splurge on them. The locals can’t afford them at all.

In fact, it seems that the art of weaving in Peru, like many traditional arts around the world, began to disappear. Even natural dyeing almost gave way to the easier, industrial kind. That is why several local and international organizations, The Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco and Apus Peru being some of them, intervened in an effort to save the craft.

Weaving is a very time-consuming task. Even when selling their work at tourist prices, weavers still make little per hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many try to cut corners, by using cheaper, synthetic fibers, for example, or by selling sub-standard products. Many tourists can’t tell the difference anyway. The money that textiles bring, therefore, leads to all kinds of gray areas and dishonesty. Read this post to get an idea about some of those problematic issues.

So, as much as I enjoyed learning about textiles in the Centro Artesanal, I couldn’t but also realize that the entire place was a nicely-set illusion. The ancient craft shown was artificially kept alive. The entire display was a myth that tourist companies and the fashion industry spread, and which tourists, myself included, really want to buy into. The  tourist industry in a way re-invented the old traditions. This includes the descriptions given to explain the different designs, that often have very little connection to the actual historical origin of those designs.

In fact, in order to appeal to tourists, even the traditional patterns have been changing. Many of the fancy boutiques sell items with patterns and colors that appeal to Westerners, as do fashion houses selling Peruvian clothes in the West. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and the textiles are still beautiful. I just found it interesting how the economy surrounding tourism preserves old traditions while, at the same time, profoundly changes them.

 

 

Cusco, Peru with Kids: Things to Do in the Capital of the Incas

Thinking of visiting Cusco, Peru with kids? I would strongly urge you to do so! The city itself can easily entertain families for a few days, and it can also serve as a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions. The following list is but a selection of what the city has to offer, and can serve as a starting point for your own explorations.

**If you plan to go and would like some tips about packing, click here.**

Things to Do

Walk Around, Get Lost, Explore

Most tourists visit the old city of Cusco, and this is the part of town I will concentrate on. This area consists of narrow lanes built around several squares. The biggest of these squares is Plaza de Armas, which once housed the palace of the Inca, as well as the palaces of the nobility and a few important temples. 

I was surprised by how similar this square was to the the one in Quito, Ecuador, which we visited last year. Except in Cusco the main square has not one, but TWO cathedrals. It is also more up-scale and tourist-oriented than the one in Quito.

As in Quito, many of the plain-looking facades along the city’s alleys hide rich and interesting interiors. There are numerous inner courtyards, now hosting boutiques, stores and restaurants. Make sure to walk into some–you never know what you might find!

As you walk down the streets, take a moment to lift your eyes from the cobblestones (only when it is safe to do so!) and look at the walls, doors and windows. They all have character, and probably many stories to tell, too! There are numerous naturally-occurring works of Arte Poverta / abstract art..

Visit Museums

There are several small museums in Cusco. They are fairly modest, but are a good place to start if you’re interested in local history. Before you visit, make sure to buy a Boleto Turistico, a pre-paid ticket which gives you access to the most popular sites in Cusco and surroundings, and which is valid for ten days (plan accordingly). Children under 12 get in for free.

Museum-visiting is a great, slow activity for your first few days in the region, when your body still acclimatizes to the elevation. On our first day we stopped by Museo de Historia Regional, which has some pre-Incan as well as Incan artifacts.

The Inca Museum is not included in the Boleto, but is worth a visit. It has mummies that might impress (or scare) your kids, interesting artifacts, and a video presentation showing the fate of the last Inca (hint: it wasn’t pretty). For the textile lovers among you, the museum also has a room dedicated to Incan weaving:

There are also live weavers working in the courtyard for you to watch. You can buy their work on the spot, too.

Finally, the museum has a store with some beautiful, unique woven textiles that replicate pre-Inca designs. No cheap finds here, though, but some really amazing stuff.

The Chocolate Museum is a fun place to visit when you need a break from all the other museums. It is not really a museum, but rather a fancy tourist trap where you can learn about chocolate-making, as well as taste different chocolates and chocolate jams (!). You can also take classes, and buy pricey chocolate bars and other products. The museum also has a small cafe, where you can sip hot chocolate and dine on chocolaty comfort foods. As you might imagine, my kids loved it, and I bet yours will, too!

Climb Up Saksaywaman

High above Cusco lies the impressive fortress of Saksaywaman, fondly known to tourists as “Sexy Woman.” A pre-Incan culture built it around 1100 AD, but the Inca expanded and rebuilt it. Reaching the site required a steep climb, so give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize before you try it. Once there, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city, as well as with an introduction to some impressive Inca architecture.

If your legs haven’t turned into jello by the time you are done visiting this site, you might wish to go to  the nearby hill to get a closer look at the White Jesus statue overlooking the city:

Visit Convento Santo Domingo

After you learned a bit about Inca architecture and seen a few ruins, go visit the Church of Santo Domingo. The Spanish Conquistadors built this church on top of and around Qurikancha, the most prominent Inca temple complex. By doing so they wanted to both benefit from the spiritual power of the place and erase/symbolically suppress the earlier Inca legacy. Nowadays the structure is a strange mash of Inca, Spanish and modern architecture.

Ignore the later two, and concentrate on the Inca structures. The reason I suggest going there only after you’ve seen other Inca ruins is that you will not be able to appreciate the finesse of the temples otherwise. The complex housed the Temples of the Sun, Moon, Thunder and Rainbow. The Inca-period builders built them with stones so closely put together, that some of the seams are hardly noticeable (even a sheet of paper will not fit between the stones). The walls are very smooth, and were once completely covered with gold and silver (which the Spaniards stole).

When still a working temple, the complex housed the mummies of several Incas, as well as life-sized gold statues of lamas and other animals and plants. An onsite model helps you understand what the complex looked like at the peak of its glory.

Visit the Textile Museum

When you’re done visiting Convento Santo Domingo, walk a couple of blocks down Avenue El Sol. This will bring you to the Center of Traditional Textiles of Cusco. You don’t need to be a textile lover to enjoy this little museum. A few days in Cusco will be enough to convince you of just how central textiles are to the local culture. The museum will give you a deeper understanding of what making Peruvian textiles involves.

The Center has a nice showroom showcasing the process of spinning, dyeing and weaving. It also displays examples of weaving from different regions (sadly, picture-taking was not allowed). The museum is attached to a store piled high with beautiful pieces of woven cloth from all over the Cusco area. Several weavers work inside the store, allowing you to glimpse the process at work. Prices are very reasonable.

Shop

Cusco is full of shops and boutiques selling Peruvian handicrafts in all price ranges. High-end boutiques surround Plaza de Armas, selling alpaca clothing and silver jewelry. Lower-end shops loaded with many kinds of colorful items fill every alley and courtyard. You and your kids might enjoy browsing this huge array of shops. San Blas, another city square, is known for its artisan workshops, and is a fun place to look around.

It is true that after a while many stores start looking alike. It’s also true that not everything is handmade, or even made in Peru (think China). But every now and then you might come across something special. One day, for example, I found a beautiful, unique piece of tapestry in a store hidden inside an out-of-the-way courtyard:

On our last day, we delighted in finding Ceremonias Ayahuasca San Pedro at the back of a courtyard on 338 Triunfo St. This store was filled to the brim with what appeared to be genuine, locally-made handicrafts of various kinds. Prices were pretty high and no bargaining was tolerated, but many of the items on display were high quality and truly unique. We couldn’t afford the stone dragon, carved from one piece of stone, with each link of its chain moving separately:

But we absolutely loved the huge array of unique masks, and were able to buy one of the smallest ones for our collection:

Go to Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market)

This covered market, located a couple of blocks from the central square, is a bustling center of commerce. It caters mostly to local shoppers, and has anything you can think of. A visit there will stimulate all your senses. There are food stalls of all conceivable kinds, flower stalls, chocolate stalls, household-goods stalls and souvenir stalls, to name some.

There are also aisles filled with fresh juice stalls, and aisles dedicated to mom-and-pop stalls cooking fresh food on the spot. Here you could get an entire meal for less than 5 soles ($1.5). And if you want to shorten your pants while you eat, or alter your skirt while you shop, local tailors are waiting right there to accommodate to your needs:

Eat

Cusco is bustling with restaurants of all kinds. Numerous eateries serve tasty, fresh food in huge portions. You can easily find tourist-oriented restaurants that will cook familiar foods from home, but it will be more fun for you to try some local dishes.

Pachapapa Restaurant on San Blas Square offers some genuine Peruvian foods alongside Western staples such as pasta (in case some family members are not in an adventurous mood). This is a good place to try cui, the local specialty:

This is what it looks like when actually tried (no, I didn’t eat it. I’m vegetarian!):

It’s also a good place to sip pisco sour, the Peruvian national drink. I did try that 😉

For vegetarians, Greens–right off plaza de Armas–is a culinary heaven (though not so much for local dishes).

Finally, Know About Local Clinics

Clinics and hospitals are not places you want to see while on vacation. If you’re travelling with kids, however, you should at least know about them.

Rest assured that Cusco has at least a couple of medical centers whose mission it is to help tourists. These centers are open 24/7, every day of the year, and provide good, Western-standard medical care. Their doctors speak English for those of us whose Spanish is not up to par.

As it happened, all three of my kids ended up using those medical services. And on the two least-convenient days of the year at that: Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Local doctors treated them for an ear infection, a sever travelers’ diarrhea, and a laceration that required stitches. They all returned home safely.

Your hotel is most likely to be able to help in case of a medical emergency, but keep the number of Oxigen Medical Network handy just in case:084-221213 / 225407.

Visiting Cusco, Peru? What to Pack and Things to Notice

My family and I just returned from an amazing vacation to Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca empire. Cusco is a great place to visit, and is also a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions.

A rather large city, Cusco has many shops with pretty much anything you could need. But there are some things you might like to bring from home, just in case.

What to Pack

Medicines

Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 ft). Anyone coming from lower altitudes will feel the effects of this high elevation. Every hotel in the Cusco region offers free coca-leaf tea for guests. Peruvians believe that coca leaves reduce elevation sickness. Many chew on the leaves directly.

Numerous stores offer an array of other coca products as well, to the same end:

However, you might find that drinking coca tea or sucking on coca candy isn’t enough to make you feel better. Before coming, therefore, you might want to consult with your doctor and consider bringing pills to relieve altitude-sickness symptoms (we brought and took Acetazolamide).

Note: if you are vegan or vegetarian, these pills might not be enough. As I learned the hard way, your diet might not have enough iron to allow your body to create the additional red blood cells that high elevation requires. Bring iron and vitamin B12 pills, and take one of each every morning. This will speed up your acclimatization.

Your body is probably not used to the germs in Peru. It is possible, therefore, that you will suffer from an upset stomach even if you take all the necessary precautions (such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding uncooked foods). Make sure to bring some medications for upset stomach, or even some antibiotics.

There are pharmacies all over the city, but it’s always safer to bring whatever medicines you take regularly, or those you think you might need. If you are taking dietary supplements, bring those as well. We traveled with a portable pharmacy of our own, and ended up using much of it…

Clothes

December is summer in Peru, but because of the high elevation weather in Cusco can be very unpredictable. Locals joke that one can experience four season in one day in this city, and they do not exaggerate! Prepare for layering, with clothes for all possible weather conditions! Rain gear is a must, although you can buy rain ponchos everywhere, for as low as 5 soles a pop (around $1.5).

If you plan to visit Cusco in winter, realize that temperatures will be frigid . Some (but not all) hotels have heaters, but no central heating. Hotels provide warm blankets, but the rooms can still be cold. Long underwear and warm pajamas will keep you happy.

Streets in the old city of Cusco are cobbled, and sidewalks can be very narrow. Nearby sites have a rugged terrain. Good shoes, preferably hiking boots, will serve you well.

If you are planning to do some hiking (even if only to the nearby fortress of Saksaywaman), walking sticks will make your life easier.

Other Items

You need to keep hydrated at high elevation, and therefore need to drink a lot. Unless you want to keep buying bottled water (thus contributing to world pollution), bring your own refillable water bottle. We filled ours every morning with water we boiled at least three times (tap water is undrinkable). We still ended up buying bottled water, but a lot less than we would have had we didn’t have our own.

Remember: Use boiled (or bottled) water for teeth brushing as well!

Due to the altitude, you might get sun burnt even on overcast days. Bring sunscreen and put it on daily before you leave your hotel. If you peel layers after applying sunscreen, make sure to cover the newly-exposed areas as well. We’ve seen plenty of very pink tourists (and got a bit toasted ourselves as well…).

Not all public bathrooms have paper. Always carry your own toilet paper just in case. And remember not to flush any paper down the drain. The sewage system cannot handle it, and you don’t want to be responsible for a flood (or worse: get caught it it’s path!).

Advice on Luggage

Everyone has their own travel style, and every trip requires its own kind of luggage. While we usually carry suitcases, we chose to bring backpacks to Cusco. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the streets of old Cusco are cobbled and narrow, and not so suitable for dragging wheeled suitcases. Also, you will most likely need to carry your luggage up and down stairs. In addition, many people use Cusco as a base to explore other parts of Peru. You might find yourself changing hotels frequently, and lugging your stuff into trains, buses or boats. Light, small and carry-able luggage will therefore work best.

The last time I backpacked, some quarter of a century ago, I carried a regular backpack. I still remember how hard it was to find things or reach the very bottom. This time, at the advice of our frequent-travelling friend (thanks, Arturo!), we took eBags and loved them. The fact that we could expand the bags turned out to be a great plus, as we didn’t quite expect the amount of loot we ended up purchasing…

Finally, Some Interesting Things I Noticed

Last year, when we first arrived in Quito, Ecuador, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. The thing that stood out to me in Cusco was the cleanliness of the streets. We hardly saw any graffiti, and hardly any littler.

The second thing that stood out was the abundance of dogs. Canines were everywhere, in front of every door and every house. Big dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs and short-haired dogs. Dogs of every shape and color.

At first I mistook them to be feral dogs and found them intimidating. Soon, though, I realized they were all pets. Almost every household in Cusco and beyond owns one or more pets. People keep cats indoors, but let the dogs roam outside. The dogs in Cusco were the most mellow, well-behaved creatures I have ever encountered. They all minded their own business, and hardly ever glanced at passersby.

If you lift your eyes up to the rooftops, you will see that almost every house in Cusco has a pair of bulls on the roof. Sometimes there are just bulls. Sometimes there is a cross between the bulls, or some other decoration:

These are guardian bulls. They are protecting the house and the family within it, and also symbolize fertility. One of our tour guides told us that in pre-Spanish times, houses had lamas on the roofs. After the Spanish brought bulls to South America, their image pushed lamas aside. For a while I wondered why two (obviously male) bulls would symbolize fertility. I later realized that the fertility people were hoping for was the fertility of the fields, which bulls help plow.

Finally, when in Cusco you will notice the rainbow flag flying from poles and balconies.

You might think you know what it means, but you will most likely be wrong. “We are not gays,” all of our tour guides insisted. They explained that the gay-pride flag has six colors, whereas the Cusco flag has seven. Also, the colors on both flags are in the opposite order. Locals believe that the Cusco rainbow flag was the old flag of the Inca Empire, symbolizing its seven parts. Whether true or not, people take great pride in it.

Taiwanese Arts and Crafts: A Mix of Traditional and Modern

My family’s summer trip to Taiwan was rather short, so we tried to squeeze in as much as possible. We visited tourist sites, of course, as I mentioned last week. But I also took advantage of every opportunity to drag my reluctant kids to see some of the local Taiwanese arts-and-crafts-related shops and markets. They didn’t always like it, but that’s what happens when your mom is a textile artist and believes the arts to be an expression of local history and culture… Perhaps they will appreciate it one day (or not!).

There is an interesting, exciting, vibrant mix of traditional and modern arts and crafts in Taiwan. We got to see but a small sample of it. I am sure there are many other interesting things we didn’t get to. If you know of any, please feel free to add them in the comments!

Traditional Crafts

Traditional Chinese arts are very much alive in Formosa, and are evident everywhere. In museums, temples, shops, markets and more. I will not discuss the exquisite displays in museums, or the more common ones in temples or architecture. Instead, I’ll talk a little about the workshops, shops and markets we encountered.

While walking down Dihua St. in Taipei, for example, we came across a small traditional paper lantern store. The Lao Mian Cheng Lantern Shop has been operating since 1915!

We saw many small carving stores, where you could have your name carved on a chop, for example. But the most impressive display of carvings we encountered was at the pricey, upscale jade carving store on top of Taipei 101. Every visitor to the building has to exit through this lavish tourist trap:

In Tainan, the center for traditional crafts, we accidentally found a wood-carving workshop while walking around town. I believe it produces furniture for temples:

We also hiked a really long time in blazing heat in search of a Chinese embroidery store I read about in a guidebook. The Kuang Tsai Embroidery Shop is owned by Mr. Lin, one of the last remaining silk embroidery masters in Tainan. It ended up being so unremarkable from the outside, that we nearly missed it!

The owner was very nice, though, and let me observe his employees at work and also photograph them:

This is some of their finished work:

Luckily, there was a boutique coffee shop right next door, with air conditioning, ice-cream treats and an English-speaking owner to compensate my kids for the hike 🙂

Modern Crafts

After visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, we stumbled upon the nearby National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. This interesting round building is part artist studios, part craft museum, and part gift store. When we visited, the second floor featured an exhibition of modern bamboo art called “Bamboo Traces”, which was quite impressive:

The store on the first floor includes both traditional and modern items at a wide range of prices, and is therefore a great place to look for gifts. Another good place to check out is Taiwan Handicraft promotion Center.

There is also a vibrant and growing community of modern artists and crafts people in Taiwan. In Taipei, many rundown old neighborhoods are gentrifying, filling up with new boutiques and crafts markets. We visited a few of them, but unfortunately couldn’t see all. Some of the places we did visit include Dihua St., which has a few interesting shops; an artisan market right across the street from the Flower Market (that for some reason doesn’t appear in any guidebook); Red House in Ximending; and Songshan Culture and Creative park. In Tainan, the 1930’s Japanese-built Hayashi Department Store now features a host of contemporary artisan boutiques.

Taiwanese Aboriginal Crafts

One thing that surprised me on this trip was the widespread display of Taiwanese aboriginal culture. When I lived in Taiwan nearly a quarter-century ago, the majority of Han Chinese hardly ever mentioned the native aboriginals. In the rare times they did discuss them, it was with much disesteem. Taiwanese aboriginals were considered backwards, uncivilized. Now, however, aboriginal culture is celebrated everywhere in Taiwan. When we went to get breakfast at the famous breakfast resturant Fu Hang Soymilk, for example, we stumbled upon a stall selling aboriginal crafts at the small, run-down and smelly Huashan Market on the bottom floor of the building. When we went into the National Museum of History right near the above-mentioned National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, we discovered an entire floor with a beautiful display of aboriginal artifacts, including many gorgeous textiles:

Then there is the new  Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines across the street from the famed National Palace Museum. This small-yet-pleasant museum has illuminating, educational signs:

Displays of raw materials and tools:

Outfits the way they were worn:

As well as many amazing textiles:

There were even examples of aboriginal bags!

Taroko Gorge has a little museum dedicated to local aboriginals, which includes displays of houses and costumes, among other things:

There are even Taiwanese aboriginal theme parks (which we didn’t visit), as well as tourist traps selling aboriginal crafts in villages around Sun Moon Lake (where many aboriginal tribes still live).

I enjoyed learning about the aboriginal culture, and seeing it being, finally, integrated into the general story of Taiwan (even if, at times, in a commercialized way). And I was most impressed with the detail and beauty of the aboriginal textiles!

Taipei With Kids: Suggested Family Activities in the Capital of Taiwan

Now that school is finally in session, summer is beginning to feel very far away. Before it’s memory fades completely, I wanted to write a post (or two!) about my family’s trip to Taiwan. I want to begin with some suggestions for things to see and do in the capital of Taiwan, just in case you find yourself in Taipei with kids and some free time 🙂

Important: when booking accommodations, make sure the place you will be staying at has working air conditioning!

Essential Things to Take on a Summer Trip to Taipei

Summer in Taipei is HOT, humid and often rainy. You can know all of this in advance, yet still not be prepared for the wave of heat and humidity that will engulf you the minute you get off the plane (or out of the air-conditioned airport).

Things you need to pack:

  • Hot-weather cloths. I recommend mostly tank tops and sleeveless clothing. Loose-fitting is a plus. Anything too tight will stick to your body. Even a t-shirt will feel like too much!
  • Water-proof sandals (your feet will get wet).
  • An umbrella
  • A rain jacket (optional).
  • A small, preferably waterproof bag to carry essentials as you walk around the city.
  • A spray water bottle, to both keep you hydrated and cool yourself with.

Kid-Friendly Sights

Must See Sights:

The National Palace Museum. If you have only a few hours in the city, this is the one most important place to go to. The Palace Museum contains a vast collection of treasures from the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. The Nationalists brought the collection with them after they lost the civil war in 1949.

There is a lot to see: paintings, porcelain, bronze and much more. You will need many hours to see everything, but your kids might lose interest long before you do. So it might be worth while to chose which exhibitions you want to see first, just in case… The museum has brochures, which tell you what the most popular items are. Go early if you want to see them up close. The exhibition halls do get crowded! And don’t miss the jade cabbage, though I still don’t understand why it’s so popular:

Some exhibitions are kid-friendly. We spent way too much time at the digital painting- manipulation exhibit, by far the least impressive of them all. But it had screens, and my kids got to paint horses! There is also a small kid-playing area in the basement.

If you’re done with the Palace Museum and still have time, cross the road to the opposite Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. It’s a lot smaller, but interesting, low key and informative.

Chiang Kaishek Memorial. This is another place any local host will take you to. Soak in the vastness of the space and grandness of the architecture–it is meant to impress.

And if you’re there at the right time, your kids might enjoy seeing the change of guard at Chiang’s statue.

Taipei 101. This is the tallest building in Taiwan, and one of the tallest in the world. You can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Once inside, you can go to an observation deck on the top, and see the damper that helps keeps it stable even during typhoons. If you want, you can mail a postcard from the top. And you have to leave through a huge store full of incredible (and incredibly expensive!) jade carvings. For some reason, my kids loved this building. I think it’s actually the only thing my son remembers from Taipei!

A great place to take kids to is the Taipei Zoo. We did not expect much of the zoo, and it pleasantly surprised us. In fact, it is one of the nicest zoos I’ve been to (and I’ve been to a whole lot!). It has a few pandas, held in an indoor, air-conditioned enclosure:

But the other, open-air pans were a lot more interesting, I think. I enjoyed the tropical vegetation as well. It felt like a combination of a zoo and a botanical garden.

If you go there, make sure to take the gondola. The view from above is magnificent, and your kids will love it!

Must Experience Sights:

Temples:

You can’t be in Taipei without visiting a few temples. One of the more famous ones is the Buddhist Lungshan Temple. The structure you see now is a mid-twentieth century rebuild.

You cannot visit this temple without going to the nearby Snake Alley. This night market really does sell snakes (to eat!). We didn’t buy any, but seeing them for sale left a huge impression on my children.

Many other temples and shrines dot the city, both big and small. Go into some of them and look around. Smell the incense. Observe people worship. Listen to the sounds. With time, you might start distinguishing between Buddhist and Confucian temples.

Markets:

Night Markets. For a genuine Taipei experience make sure to visit a few of its bustling night markets. These will utilize all your senses: there is a lot to see, hear, feel and smell! Stop by some stalls and get local street food. It’s likely to be nothing like anything you’ve had before. If you’re brave, try the stinky tofu!

If you can be in Taipei for a weekend, the weekend Flower Market is a must. Operating in a parking lot under an elevated road, this is a heaven for plant lovers.

It has a vast array of tropical plants of all kinds. Bonsai pots of all sizes, bamboo arrangements, and amazing orchids that will take your breath away!

Once you’re done with the flower market, go visit the nearby Jade Market. This market, too, is open only on weekends, and holds a big selection of trinkets, jade, beads, antiques and other interesting curiosities. Bargaining is expected.

Food!

Taipei has an amazing array of food of all kinds. Taste as much of it as you can! Try the street food, go to different kinds of restaurants, both cheap and more expensive. Experience different kinds of cuisines.

For special treats, try the following two places recommended separately by two of our Taiwanese friends, Siyen and Peisun. The first is a great breakfast place called Fu Hang Soymilk. It offers simple but delicious breakfast staples like fried dough sticks, soy milk and shaobing. When we went there, the line was already very long at 6:30 am, but it did move relatively quickly. Don’t go on your first day! You’ll appreciate the place a lot more if you have other breakfast restaurants to compare it to.

For lunch, try Din Tai Fung, considered the best dumpling restaurant in Taipei. We waited in almost one-hundred degrees for over seventy minutes to get in. The dumplings were good. My kids still fantasize about the chocolate ones!

They also have a branch in Taipei 101, although we didn’t try it.

If you still have time in Taipei, there is yet more to see.

Lesser Sights:

There are many small museums in the city, that can keep kids happy for a while. We enjoyed learning how to make paper at the Paper Museum.

The Ama Museum, dedicated to comfort women, was more somber but educational. The attached cafe was very pleasant, too.

The museum is located on Dihua St,, an interesting place in as of itself. The street, which has some old architecture and a fun mix of shops (some traditional, some new and fancy), is a great place to engage in another nice Taipei activity: strolling and shopping. The street has, among other things, a paper lanterns store that we enjoyed, and a bamboo-product store where we were unable to resist temptation.

Oh, and the best part for the fabric lovers among you (sorry, I just have to put this in!): at the end of the street there is the ginormous Yongle Fabric Market, an absolute heaven for sewers of all kinds. It truly has anything you can think of. The vastness of it completely overwhelmed me!

Finally, If You Have Time to Leave Taipei:

Taroko Gorge is beautiful, and offers hiking trails for all difficulty levels.

Xitou Nature Recreation Area has some amazing bamboo forests, as well as other kinds of vegetation. It attracts many local tourists, and offers shops and restaurants in addition to nature hikes.