As we approached Lima, the shanty towns seemed to stretch on for miles down the dry and dusty hills near the coast. The last time we had been here, some 27 years earlier, it certainly had its share of cardboard slums. At that time, a large part of the middle class had been decimated by the collapse of the economy. Inflation was rampant and the Peruvian currency was being devalued on a daily basis. The Shining Path was just getting started. There was a general railroad strike going on, and the only train that was still being operated, between Cuzco and Machu Pichu, was run by the army. Badly run I might add. What would normally have been a three hour trip took us about four times that because the train derailed a number of times. We didn't crash, but I still remember the engineer and conductor standing outside and striking matches in the middle of the night to see where the train had gone off the tracks. Each time they managed to get it back on the rails, but it was excruciatingly slow. When we derailed again a few miles outside of town, at about 2 AM, we decided to walk back rather than wait for the train. We never knew whether it was simply the incompetence of the army, or whether the striking train workers, perhaps in cahoots with the Shining Path, were involved in acts of sabotage. Machu Pichu was well worth the hassle of getting there, however this time we did not feel the need to return.
On our first trip we had spent several days in Lima and despite a few interesting museums, had not found the city very appealing. Since then it has become larger, dirtier, and more dangerous, so our plan was to spend the night and then head to Arequipa, the second largest city, some 600 miles to the south.
For $100US we decided to fly and meet our younger daughter there, instead of Nazco. We headed straight for Casa de Mi Abuelo, complete with swimming pool and beautiful gardens, a comfortable oasis about five blocks from the center of town.
Outside Our Room
Located on a plain at the foot of El Misti at 2380 meters or 7500 feet, the city generally has a temperate, sunny climate. When we were there however, many of the mornings and some of the afternoons were cloudy.
The Plaza del Armas in the center of town reminded us very much of the plazas of Spain.
With its long colonnades, 2nd story restaurants, 17th century cathedral, as well as a large green space full of tall palm trees, it was a comfortable place to while away the hours and watch people, tourists and locals alike.
The buildings of the Plaza and many of the surrounding streets are colonial, and made out of a greyish-white, local volcanic stone known as sillar. The walls are frequently several feet thick to protect against the all too frequent terramotos, (earthquakes).
Many have been rebuilt or repaired after being damaged. Nearby are upscale shops, art galleries, and several smaller plazas with fountains and bougainvillaea.
There are many restaurants of course, and we found the food to be better than most other places in Peru. In addition to the more expensive eateries, there were a places that catered to Peruvians, where the Menu del Dia at lunch time, a complete four course meal, could be had for about four soles, about $1.25US.
A few blocks from the center and well worth a visit is the Santa Catalina Convent.
Isolated from the rest of the city, it was previously home to several hundred nuns who lived in seclusion, and functioned more or less as a self sufficient town within the larger community. Now there are few nuns and they live in a small section of the convent. The rest has been turned into a unique museum, with period furniture, cobblestone streets, and alleys with brightly painted walls of blue and orange, full of red potted geraniums.
There is also La Recolleta, a Franciscan monastery built in 1647, with its interesting cloisters and similarly whitewashed and brightly colored walls. It has a library with ancient religious texts.
La Compania, the main Jesuit church, is quite beautiful as well. We spent several days wandering these places, and many other 17th and 18th century churches and houses.
When we got tired of the city we took a couple of day trips to the surrounding countryside. One was to a mill, Molina de Sabandia,. Over 400 years old, it has been reconstructed and operates mainly for the benefit of tourists, but is a nice spot to spend an hour or two and look at the llamas.
From there we began walking on the winding paths around terraced fields to a few nearby pueblos.
We got into a conversation with a middle aged shopkeeper. She was surprised to see us wandering on our own and asked where we were from and where we were going. When we indicated a certain village up the road, she told us that it was okay to go there, but that we should go a particular way, as there were often malos hombres, banditos in another village if we went the wrong way. We were grateful for the information and were happy to help her teenage daughter practice her English. Perhaps because of her advice, we did not run into the banditios.
On another trip we took a collectivo an hour outside of town to a pueblo close to El Misti.We again walked amidst ancient terraced fields, oxen, braying donkeys, the occasional llama, and assorted dogs of all sizes barking furiously as we went by.
We slowly made our way closer to the base of the volcano. The upper part of the mountain was most often in clouds, though we got an occasional glimpse of the snowfields. The bottom was enormous and seemed to stretch on for miles without trees or villages. It was easy to picture where the lava flows had last been. In the distance and a few thousand feet below, we could make out the outskirts of the city in the haze. We met an old man and his younger companion on the trail. They wore jeans and cowboy hats, and smelled like woodsmoke.
“Buenos Dias. Does it usually rain here this time of year,” I asked, as the weather was starting to look more threatening.
“No, not usually, but the last few years it has been different. We have had some rain almost everyday for the past few weeks. It looks like it will rain later today in the afternoon.”
“It doesn't seem like the weather is the same anywhere.”
“No, it has been different here for a while. Every year there is less snow on the mountain and more rain here.”
“Global warming, I guess.”
“That is what they say,” but I wasn't sure if he knew what that was or was just trying to be polite.
“Do you live around here?”
“Yes in the village over there,” and he motioned with his hand. “And where are you from?”
“The United States,” we said in unison. “Nueva York.”
“Ah,” he nodded thoughtfully. “How do you like Peru?”
“ We like it very much. We were here many years ago and now we came back for another visit.”
“And the people here, have they been good to you?”
“Yes. They have been very nice to us, especially in the countryside.
“That's good. What is the weather like where you live?”
“It is very different. Things are much greener and it is much colder in the winter time. There is often snow in the town we live in.”
“Not just on the mountain eh. That must be difficult.”
We nodded. “That is why it is nice to be here, especially this time of year. This is when it is very cold in New York.”
“Then it's good you are here then.”
“Yes it's good we have this opportunity. Do you know where does this trail go from here?”
“It goes to the other side of the mountain, quite a long way, and to other small villages.”
“Do you know where we can get the collectivo back to the city?”
“Yes. You have to go back down to Chiguata over there.”
“Thank you. Con mucho gusto de conocerles. Very nice to meet you.”
“ Con mucho gusto,” he replied.
We continued walking up for a while and then returned to find the path toward Chiguata after a few sprinkles of rain came down. It was exciting that my Spanish had progressed far enough to have these kind of conversations, simple though they were. Another small bridge in the cultural divide? I wondered what the old man thought.
Chiguata, which was not far from where we were initally dropped off, had its own small charms, including a small church made out of sillar. On one side was a very bloody looking picture of Jesus.
They take their suffering seriously around here, maybe because there is so much of it and their lives are difficult. We had to wait for the next collectivo, and we sat in the small plaza across from the church. In this tiny town, there were three or four small tiendas, each selling the same packaged food. I wandered up to one of them to get a snack, and asked a scruffy looking man who was standing there, “Do you know when the bus is going to arrive?”
“Not exactly. The last one left about ½ an hour ago and they run about every hour.”
“Thanks,” I said, munching on my chips.
“What are you doing around here”, he said, somewhat suspiciously I thought.
“Oh nothing much. Just taking a walk to see the mountain and the nearby villages.”
“Not very much to see. Are are you from the US.?
I nodded. I guess it was obvious from my accent.
“Your country has not been good to us. We especially don't like su presidente, Bush. “
“Yeah, neither do I. I can't believe people voted for him twice. Well the first time they really didn't vote for him. He more or less stole the election.” After I said this he seemed a bit more friendly and open, glad to hear that I agreed with him about El Presidente. “What do you think about the government here?”
He looked disgusted. “ A bunch of thieves and morons.”
I nodded. “Do you live here?”
“No we are from Ayachucho, home of the revolutionaries,” he said and put up his hands in the shape of a rifle to make sure I understood.
“Are there any revolutionaries there now.?”
“No, they have all laid down their arms, for now at least. You see that guy over there,” and he motioned towards his friend with the guitar. “You see his hair. He used to be a revolutionary.”
I wondered what long hair had to do with being a revolutionary, but didn't say so out loud. Perhaps all revolutionaries in Peru were trying to emulate Che. Maybe this guy was just goofing on a gringo. Quien sabe, who knows, I thought.
“Well nice talking to you, I said.
“Yeah, nice talking to you.”
I went back to where Nanette was sitting to tell her about this conversation. Eventually, the bus arrived and we noticed we had a female cobrador for the first time. Women's liberation in Peru. Somewhat wistfully I thought about my own brief stint as a cobrador in the high sierra. Before we got on someone showed up with several heavy bags of potatoes and I helped to hoist them onto the roof of the bus. Not quite the same as being cobrador, but at least I could do something useful.
Some of the Huge Terra-Cotta Pots Around Town