Friday, June 11, 2010

Heading into the Andes

[Note:  Forgive me if there are spelling mistakes in this post, this computer has its spell check set on spanish, so every single word is coming out underlined in red, so I´ve got no help!]

Arequipa surprised us with its size, spreading out in all directions through a huge valley surrounded by snow peaked mountains.  I´m not sure if the city is technically in the zone of the Andean mountains, but if not it is right on the doorstep.  We had come here for two reasons, the first being to give our bodies a chance to acclimate to the altitude.  We have been at high altitudes several times throughout the trip, and although we´ve never had a problem with altitude sickness, we have definitely noticed decreased endurance at times.  With all the hiking through high Incan ruins coming up, giving our bodies a few days to pump out extra red blood cells seemed prudent.

The second reason was Colca Canyon, which we intended on doing as an overnight trip.  But the Sarah´s let us know that June is a month of festivals in Cusco, and in a time when things are already busy, it gets even more crazy as the locals come in to celebrate.  Never afraid to change our plans, we decided just to stay two days in Arequipa and head straight to Cusco, hitting the canyon on the way back to Lima.

First we did a little shopping, buying some much needed Levi´s and coats to prepare us for that cold Andean air.  We hadn´t needed or wanted denim in the heat of Central America, but we were already feeling the chill through our lightweight pants and fleeces.  Then we did a little eating.  Along with the Sarah´s we went to a great restaurant up a massive amount of steps up to the roof of the building, overlooking the Plaza de Armas.  (It seems instead of calling the main square the Main Square, in Peru they are always called the Plaza de Armas.  There has been a lot of fighting in their history, obviously.)  The plaza was beautiful enough during the daytime, with a huge cathedral and arch on one side, the other three sides lined with columned buildings.  But overlooking the whole plaza at night all lit up was a spectacular view.  Being outside it was quite cold, even in our new blue jeans.  But the waiter was prepared, and brought us each a thick poncho to wear while we ate, and it made all the difference.

The menu was extensive, but David and I had our eyes (and stomachs) ready for something a little more unusual, cause it is always fun to eat the local fauna.  David ordered an alpaca steak, which pretty much tasted like beef.  I ordered cuy, which is guinea pig.  My food spanish is mediocre, so I wasn´t sure how it was going to be prepared, but much to our delight it came whole, head and all, just fried.  The Sarah´s had no intention of eating it, but they seemed to enjoy living vicariously through us.  Or at least they enjoyed laughing at us as we tried to pick the meat off the creature.  We took some photos of the poor thing, teeth and all, which I´ll post as soon as I can find a reliable internet connection.  All I can say was it tasted like chicken, although being fried it was so greasy that I can´t really give a good description.

We also joined the Sarah´s on a tour of a local convent.  The history of the convent was interesting.  When it opened up, it was custom for every family to send their second child, male or female, into the service of the church.  The families would send with their daughter a large dowry to cover her expenses.  This particular convent only selected novices from the most prostegious (and wealthy) families.  The nuns would then invite musicians and artists to give performances for them, and generally lived it up much as they had before they were nuns.  They even had slaves!  After 300 years the Pope finally sent someone to look things over.  All the money was sent back to Europe, and the slaves were freed - many of whom stayed on to become nuns themselves!  Anyway, today a few dozen nuns still live there, and instead of living off their wealthy families, they have opened up the majority of the convent to the public.  It cost a whopping $10 entrance fee, but we got to look around the old living quarters, kitchens and assorted other rooms.  Of course it was all ornate and beautiful.  One room was my favorite, the room where they used to lay out the nuns that had died.  Surrounding the room were paintings of the dead nuns, as it would have been unacceptable for the artist to paint a nun while she was still living.  The artist had like 24 hours or so with the body to make his painting, so they were all pretty basic.  But, kinda cool.  There was also the infirmary, complete with a wooden operating table.  And forgive me for being unsensitive to Catholicism, but apparently there are those who hurt themselves in order to remind themselves of their sins or something.  On display was underwear made of barbed wire that the nuns would wear.  I can´t imagine what that is about, but it seems completely horrible.

The other museum we went to was to see Juanita the Incan Ice Princess.  She was sacrificed to the mountain gods, where she laid frozen and preserved until a nearby volcanic eruption sent ash that melted the snow around her, revealing her to some archeologists.  She is a fantastically preserved mummy, complete with hair and clothes and most of her skin.  They keep her in a glass case that keeps her frozen solid, which isn´t always on display but we were lucky.  The rest of the museum was good too, just the right size to keep interesting without becoming repetitive.

Our last day we decided to get pizza for lunch.  It was a vegetarian restaurant, so we figured it would be good, and when it came it looked great, all melty with cheese and big slices of tomato.  When we started eating it something seemed weird though, until we realized that for the sauce, they had just used ketchup!

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