The Peruvian highlands: Guinea pigs are NOT pets!

As I struggled up the steep island hill, hindered by low oxygen, trying desperately to avoid any livestock that could be lurking in the night, I wondered exactly how my life had ended up here, and, more importantly, why I had paid for the pleasure. Oh, and did I mention I was clad in traditional Peruvian national dress?

But before I get into all that, let’s go back to the beginning of my adventure in the Peruvian highlands, starting, of course, with a minor list of…

Things I learned in the Peruvian highlands:

  • The mountains taking your breath away is not just a figure of speech. Oxygen is beautiful.
  • Everywhere you will ever want to go will 100% definitely be uphill
  • Describing mountains as sentient beings is totally normal
  • There are more mountains in existence than you ever thought possible
  • The only animals that matter are llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs
  • Even if the menu says there are no potatoes, there will be potatoes.
  • When in Peruvian national dress, I am HOT STUFF

We started our venture to the highlands in Arequipa, which loosely translated means “I’ll stay here” in the Inca language. The Spanish influence in Arequipa is huge, with latin-style buildings lining the streets, and most of the main tourist attractions centring around Catholicism. This city was also the place I saw a fellow traveller devour an entire guinea pig head, and therefore is not a place I will easily forget.

Contrary to my prior knowledge, guinea pigs are not cute, squeaky pets for kids; they are actually a delicacy in the Peruvian highlands. Our guide – who was from Cuzco – told us it was a common sight in family kitchens to see a whole host of guinea pigs scampering happily around until a fateful knock on the door from an esteemed guest, at which point one animal would be killed, cooked and served on a platter. As a ‘vegetarian’, I have avoided sinking my teeth into this particular dish thus far, but others in my group tell me what little meat is on the guinea pig tastes ‘gamey’, while the brains (another delicacy) have the texture of pate. I am so sorry if you were eating.

From Arequipa we ventured up to Chivay – a tiny mountain village that is higher than Machu Picchu. This seemed to be some sort of altitude sickness test before we braved the Inca Trail, and as we passed “the highest toilet in Peru”, sure enough I became very drowsy and developed a pounding headache, not to mention not being able to breathe. I was taking glaucoma meds for my altitude sickness, but one – much more local – cure is chewing coca leaves, which actually work wonders, but sadly taste disgusting, or in other words, taste exactly like you would expect chewing on leaves to taste like. For the benefit of tourists’ unaccustomed palates, coca leaves (which are what cocaine is derived from) are also made into biscuits, candies and tea. Apparently to achieve the same effect cocaine would have, you would have to constantly chew bags and bags of them – and there was no worry about me doing that.

Upon arrival at Chivay, we headed for the hot springs, which is basically a murky swimming pool where water is heated by volcano to around 40 degrees C. We soaked in the mountain views as we sat around the pool, which felt amazing as the temperature plummets the higher you get. Chivay was also the first time we really experienced how stunning the mountain scenery was – although there was plenty more where that came from. Basically everywhere you look in The Andes is like a postcard, or if you want a comparison more relatable to my generation: A windows screensaver.

From Chivay we headed to Colca Canyon to spot Condors, stopping on the way to look at some llamas and alpacas, which dotted the mountainside the same way cows and sheep do at home. Colca Canyon provided some of the most incredible views of the trip, and we also learned a lot about Condors, so the trip was a double win really. Here are some Condor facts for all you bird watchers out there: As babies they are grey, they turn brown in childhood, and when they turn into adults, at the grand old age of TWENTY SEVEN, they turn black and white. We were incredibly lucky to see around ten condors of the 40 that live in the canyon. Who wasn’t so lucky was the dead donkey at the bottom of the canyon that they were all there to pick at. The biggest thing I took away from this trip was the sense of my own youth. After all, if I was a Condor, I would still be a child.

Now I’m going to tell you a story about mountains. Humans seem to have an innate desire to need to worship something, and for the people of Colca Valley, the mountains, with their unearthly beauty, were their deity of choice. But the path of religion never runs smooth, and there was some conflict as to which mountain was most deserving of their worship. Back in olden day Colca Valley, one tribe worshipped a tall volcano that reached up into the clouds, while another tribe decided to throw their prayers behind a flatter mountain range. So, how did they decide to show their allegiance to their two mountain Gods? THEY DEFORMED THEIR BABIES’ HEADS OF COURSE! In a very literal act of worship, the volcano tribe sported long, tall skulls, while the other tribe went for a flatter, more stretched out look. The Spanish conquest in Peru changed a lot, and these days the vast majority of people living in these mountains are Catholic, but they still wear different hats to show which area they come from, as a less painful alternative to head shaping.

After bussing back to Arequipa, we flew to Cuzco before heading up to Ollantaytambo, which is not just fun to say: it is the jumping off point for the Inca Trail. If you’re interested as to how I coped with that gentle 4-day hike, you can see my blog here.

On the way to Ollantaytambo, we stopped by a woman’s weaving plantation, where we learnt how cloths are cleaned, weaved and dyed from alpacas. People in Peru are also really into knowing who is single and who is married, and we were told the women wearing their hats ‘inside out’ were unmarried, while the others had spouses. On the day we were in the village there was just one apparently single woman judging by the hats – and Bridget Jones thought she had it bad!

In the days after the hike up to Machu Picchu, I spent some time doing the ‘Inca Trail shuffle’ around Cuzco, which mainly involved walking from the hip and avoiding stairs (both up and down) at all costs. After a couple of days, however, I went on a bit of a pub crawl (involving Paddy’s pub – the highest 100% Irish-owned pub in Peru) and drunkenly decided I had recovered sufficiently to attend a local salsa class. It’s worth noting here that Peruvian bar people tend to favour the ‘free hand’ method to using measures when pouring shots.

Cuzco at night

The view of Cuzco at night

Salsa is HUGE in Peru. Our guide told us that if you don’t know salsa in Peru, you would never get a girlfriend. And he had a girlfriend so he definitely knew what he was talking about. When we walked in the club, there were a number of local salsa-ing couples on the dance floor and they were amazing. In a bid to remain unintimidated, I reminded myself I once got a Highly Commended in a ballet exam and thought if it all goes to pot I can at least wow the Peruvians with my triple-wing time step. The class was loads of fun, although the subsequent attempted partner dancing was disastrous. What can I say, I’m a lone wolf on the dance floor. The night finished with our group grooving to western wedding disco classics with Peruvians looking on and our guide leaving in (what I assume was) shame and embarrassment, citing late night ‘paperwork’ as an excuse.

We had three days to explore in Cuzco, so we went to the most glitzy cathedral I’ve seen in my life – and believe me I have seen a LOT of cathedrals. Among the grotesque statues of Christ, and numerous Catholic artworks is the church’s most famous piece: a huge painting of The Last Supper. However, instead of feasting on the bread and wine, in true Peruvian style, Our Lord and his 12 disciples were chowing down on a delicious guinea pig (or chinchilla, depending on which art expert you believe).

Cuzco also features a statue on the hillside WHICH IS DEFINITELY NOT A FAKE VERSION OF CHRIST THE REDEEMER BECAUSE IT WAS THERE FIRST. From this vantage point, you can see the whole of Cuzco spread out below you, which is more interesting than you might think, as the Incas decided to shape the city in the form of a Puma, which represented one of the levels of earth inhabited by superior Gods.

The mountains may be beautiful, but sadly they do not make internet access easy and by this point we had had access to only incredibly sketchy wifi for a couple of days, and it was clear most of us were dearly missing the cold embrace of the internet. At one point I actually walked in on a couple of people from my group discussing which internet connection had been their favourite thus far on the trip. However, the internet situation was only to worsen as we headed for Lake Titicaca…

From Puno we got a boat across Lake Titicaca – ‘The Highest Navigatable Lake on Earth’ to visit the famous Floating Islands of Uros. This huge lake is intertwined in Inca Legend – it was thought the Inca’s sun God was born there – and everyone wants a piece. Peru claims 60 per cent of the lake is its own, giving Bolivia just 40 per cent ownership, while Bolivia claims the direct opposite.

The fascinating community of the Floating Islands lives on artificial islands that they build themselves using layers and layers of reeds, they eat a lot of fish, and once a week go to market to trade fish for other goods they need to survive.

Cons of living on fake islands: Keeping your island afloat apparently takes a lot of maintenance

Pros of living on fake islands: If you hate the people who live on your island, you can just saw up the the island and float in different directions (this actually happens).

From here we went to lunch on a real island, and after lunch we were expected to dance with the locals, which, from what I’ve seen, is an occupational hazard of hanging around in Peru. On these islands, if a man has a red and white hat, he is single, but if he has a fully red hat – symbolising ‘more responsibility’ – he is married. Apparently “the ol’ ball and chain” is an international sentiment. To avoid any confusion, those living with partners but not yet married wear a single man’s hat but also carry a special rainbow pom pom bag. Interestingly, the women on this island took to the section of Spain’s culture that is left over from the muslim religion; despite being Catholic, they are quietly spoken and don veils. However, in a slight departure from Islam, these veils also feature rainbow pompoms – the size of which will tell a potential suitor whether they are available or not.

After lunch we hopped back on the boat to our home stay, which was to take place on one of the islands of Lake Titicaca. After a game of football, being wrapped up in national dress by our hosts, and a spot of vigorous pompom-centric dancing with the locals, we all headed up to our homestays.

And THIS is why I was walking up (because of course it was up) the island, in pitch dark, struggling to breathe and wearing four brightly coloured skirts, a black jacket, what is best described as a cummerbund, and a teeny tiny bowler hat. And since you’ve made it this far into my blog, I will reward you with an extremely humiliating picture of the scene:

Dinner in the home stay that night was where I learned that awkwardness is an international language. My roommate Tiffanie has no Spanish, I am frankly an embarrassment to my B-grade GCSE Spanish, and our hosts – an older lady and two 20-something guys – spoke no English whatsoever. When I ventured “Mi Espanol es muy, muy bien, si?”, our hosts lolled their faces off, but after a tea of quinoa soup and potatoes, it was straight to bed at seven o clock. Further awkwardness was therefore happily avoided.

The next day we were up at 8 to work on the farm. I will not insult the actual farmers on this island by describing what we did (herding sheep, picking herbs, and feeding the bulls) as actual ‘work’ – but as a committed avoider of livestock since I got chased by cows in the first year of uni – this was a very new experience for me. Others from our group harvested potatoes and peeled long beans, and two unlucky girls saw a sheep suicide when one of their flock got stuck, head first, in a watery hole and drowned. The family’s children apparently responded to this sad scene by poking the poor, waterlogged sheep. I knew I wasn’t cut out for farm work when I met our flock of sheep, and upon seeing the solo black sheep at the front, immediately thought “oh that would make a great stock photo”.

Our homestay

I don’t mean to go all ‘travel-y’ on you, but seeing how these people lived from the land, and how hard they worked just to be able to eat made it seem a BIT ridiculous that at home, we have everything we want on tap. When I want my trademark egg mayo with crisps sandwich, I don’t have to harvest and crispify (I don’t know the process tbh) the potatoes, make the bread and chase chickens around, I can just pop into one of Leeds’ 20 million Greggs. Here’s to Greggs!

After the home stay, we were all knackered, despite doing not even a fifth of the work the people on the island would be doing that day. And it’s time to say goodbye to our guide, and goodbye to Peru as we swap our Sols for Bolivianas, and cross the border into Bolivia! Peru has been incredibly interesting, but I’m hoping in Bolivia we’ll be reacquainted with at least a bit more oxygen, and less dancing will be demanded of us. And, to be VERY honest, I wouldn’t mind not seeing some mountains for a while.

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