04 August 2011

Border run to Bolivia: day one

The extra-long weekend (for Peru's Independence Day celebrations) couldn’t have come at a better time for me as my visa was about to expire and I needed to leave the country and come back in to get a new visa. The easiest way to do that from Cusco was to head to Copacabana in Bolivia via Puno and Lake Titicaca.

I’d always wanted to see Lake Titicaca anyway, so I planned an itinerary to enjoy the lake from the Peruvian side and the Bolivian side – 60% of the lake belongs to Peru and 40% to Bolivia. Our first day was the journey to Puno and rather than travel there on the overnight bus as so many border runners do, I thought it would be much nicer to see the countryside during the day. So, Kiri, a volunteer from Australia and my travelling companion for the long weekend, and I departed Cusco aboard the Inka Express to Puno at 7.30am on Thursday 28 July.

It was a 10-hour bus trip from Cusco to Puno, broken up by 5 stops along the way. The first was at the small town of Andahuaylillas, where we visited a wonderful colonial church built by the Jesuits. Inside were beautiful frescoes and paintings dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside but I got a shot of the external frescoes, currently being restored. Next to the church was a small museum, housing mummies and skulls excavated from an Incan site near the village. The skulls showed the intentional cranial deformation practised by the Incas. By enlarging the frontal, occipital and parietal bones, they forced the growth of the Roland Fissure, the primary centre of creativity in the brain, and in other skulls they enlarged just the parietal lobe, which controls the brain’s motor functions. Weird, but true!

Our second stop was at Raqchi, an archaeological site that includes the Wiracocha temple, Inca terraces, baths, and aqueducts. This wasn’t the usual Inca construction of massive fitted stones – here the stonework foundations were topped with an enormous two-storey roofed structure made of adobe. The temple measures 92 metres (302 ft) by 25.5 metres (84 ft), with the central wall reaching between 18 and 20 metres in height. To the north of the temple are living quarters for priests and local administrators, to the east are about 100 round storehouses for the grains used in Inca ceremonies, and to the west is a section of the 11,000-kilometre-long Inca Trail. We didn’t have long to explore but it was certainly a remarkable site.

The third stop of the day was for lunch, at the small town of Sicuani. We didn’t see anything of the town but the buffet lunch was generous and delicious. We both went back for seconds. Sightseeing is hungry work, y’know!

From Sicuani the route climbed steadily upwards until we reached our fourth stop, at La Raya, the highest place in the world I’ve ever been. It’s 4335 metres (14,222 ft) above sea level and set amidst the beautiful snow-covered mountains that surround the highland plateau. Of course, wherever the bus stopped, there were souvenir sellers – and this place was no exception. To mark this ‘high’ occasion I bought a beautiful, warm, multi-coloured alpaca and llama wool scarf, which was to prove most useful in the cold temperatures of Puno. Kiri and I also paid the small fee to have our photos taken with a lovely local girl and her llama. We had seen llamas grazing in the fields nearby so it seemed appropriate.

Our last stop before reaching Puno was at Pukara, another site of archaeological interest. Pukara was the first great civilization of the Andean Plateau of Lake Titicaca area and the base of a large pyramidal structure is located nearby, though we didn’t get to visit it. Pukara is also where most of the ceramic bulls that adorn the rooves of houses in the Cusco region are made (for more on that, see my previous blog). We stopped briefly at a small local museum, with some impressive Inca stone carvings, and some very vocal geese in the yard of the beautiful church across the road. They proved to be an amusing interlude in a long day.

We were late arriving in Puno due to a half-hour stop for roadworks but our travel company rep was waiting to transfer us to our hotel, the Colon Inn – I kid you not! I presume Colon in this instance means colonial – we were hoping it wasn't a portent of intestinal problems to come!

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