Choose your guides. Choose your itineraries. Choose your experience.
And then we were off.
Why do we travel if we don't want an experience? To touch, to see, to taste, to smell. If all we want is a brief peek from a tour bus and a recited spiel from Buddy the Guide then why not just stay home, save your money, and cruise YouTube? If you're going to do it; book off work, get your typhoid shot, board a plane, max your credit card, and potentially get diarrhea - then we say DO it. Get in it. Have YOUR experience. Not half of one and not someone else's. This is our challenge and pursuit.
Lake Titicaca connects Peru and Bolivia at a breathless height, is the largest lake in South America by volume and considered the highest navigable lake in the world. It is home to the Uru indigenous people who continue to operate communities on its islands and thus attract a TON of tourists. Every five minutes, tour boats of 10-20 leave the starting town of Puno and head out on hurried courses, desperate to fit in all the sites the massive lake has to offer.
We set out on one such boat, munching coca leaves to cure our splitting headaches and stubbornly manning the cold while perched on the roof deck. Blue water stretches out under bluer sky. We are going to Uros, the floating islands. 86 small islands each with a family of 10-15. Man-made entirely of reeds: the buoyant roots tethered tightly together, and the stalks layered two feet high to form a sturdy(ish) ground. The houses are also made of reeds, in fact almost everything is including the hand-crafts sold to camera snapping tourists on drive-by visits.
Our guide for hire who came with the boat invites his "friends/amigos" off the boat for "no more than ten minutes, ok?" and we line up in a row to jump from boat onto spongy ground. Women sit around in traditional dress and we get a Cole's Notes of the local culture by the "Chief". Someone buys a pan flute. Everyone takes pictures. Chief offers a ride - literally 15 metres over to the next island - on a traditional and beautiful reed boat for 10 bucks. It's paddled by young girls one way and motored back sans tourists. When we are two of only four to decline, he offers us a secret discount. We still decline. We have a better idea for how to support the local tourism.
On the neighbouring island the tour stops again, this time for eight minutes, and re-boards the boat to presumably do the same thing a few more times before returning to Puno. We have decided to stay the night. We've never been on an island made only of reeds before and 18 minutes is not enough for us to get our fill. We arrange with the head of the local family to stay in a small reed hut on a simple straw mattress piled high with heavy alpaca wool blankets. The other tourists look at us like doomed members of the Titanic who didn't make the life boat as they sail away. We smile and wave.
This is it. It's fucking freezing and our heads are pounding but the view is unreal. The brilliant sun is setting over 85 islands adorned with colourful straw huts, the lake shimmers, and when we climb a small wooden mirador we turn around to see an ocean of reeds. They stretch for miles, seemingly as far as the big mountains in the distance, and playing tricks on our eyes, they look like the most pristine plain of summer grass we've ever seen. Suddenly we're lost, not on a lake but in the middle of a far off field. It's so quiet that the singular bird in the distance can be heard singing as if he flies overhead. Perhaps it's the headache or the strength of the sun but just a moment with this view and we wipe tears from our eyes.
We understand that the traditional costumes are just for show. Underneath the long skirts the girls wear jeans and they chat happily in Spanish, not the ancient Quechua put on for the tourists. They are probably all from Puno. But we are happy. These are Peruvians and we are here to see Peru. As we sit down in plastic deck chairs to sip hot coca tea and eat delicious fried trucha and trucha ceviche caught that day, we are joined by Miguel, an exuberant eight year old who wants to have dinner with us and show us his magic tricks. He pulls up a deck chair and helps squeeze lime on our salads. After, we kick the football then sit silently (really difficult for Miguel) by the edge of the water and stare up at the endless constellations. Perhaps if we stretched our arms long enough we could just graze the Southern Cross with our fingertips. Puno glitters in the distance like a Greek island. We're floating on a tiny pile of reeds in the middle of a giant lake and we can't get enough.
That night a huge thunder storm rolls in and as we lie in bed listening to the deafening roar we swear we can feel the ground swaying beneath us. If this had been an "ancient" island experience we would surely be soaked underneath a roof made of straw. Thank goodness for plastic tarp.
Miguel joins us for an egg and rice breakfast and his little sister timidly climbs onto a chair, absentmindely spilling her warm milk. When we ask to take the row boat out Miguel jumps in too. He's a master sailor and mans a huge paddle, instructing us how to row and calling out corrections as he steers us around.
Soon the parade of tour boats begin to arrive and some excited teen Kiwis exclaim that you can get your passport stamped with UROS for one peso! Some of them don't have time as the boat is pulling away; a thousand more sites to see in just three hours. Before heading back to land with one of the boats, we bid farewell to Miguel. He kisses us on the cheek and runs off to help his dad fish for more trucha. This little boy gave us a truly unique experience. Maybe he wasn't able to tell us the history of Lake Titicaca and maybe his row boat couldn't sail us more than four islands far but to us we had found a true "friend/amigo" and the best guide for miles.
Choose your guides. Choose your itineraries. Choose your experience.
Post Island adventure and before catching our bus and crossing the strange deserted border (a no man's land between Peru and Bolivia, then a lake crossing where the bus travelled by barge!) we stopped briefly in the little town of Puno. A town in construction, from what we saw. Cold, incredibly sunny, with dust settling in empty cobblestone and dirt streets. Large boulevards open up into the bright light and are filled with market vendors selling everything you can think of: fruit, seeds, ropes, and ties. We stopped for some more ceviche and played with some children running around the side streets.
And then we were off.
Arequipa is a beautiful city, the second largest in Peru and, due to its colonial architecture and proximity to nearby Colca Canyon, a major tourist destination. For us, however, Arequipa was simply a waypoint; a stop on the road towards Bolivia that broke up 16 hours on a bus. But by choosing to skip the packed tours to the canyon and by seeking out local eateries instead of the kitschy gringo joints outside our hostel - we turned our quick waypoint into a full experience.
In the middle of the city lies the Santa Catalina Monastery; a 20,000 square-meter convent opened in 1579 that continues to function. After several earthquakes destructed its facade a reconstruction in the 1990s left a stunning architectural site and art museum open for the public to wander. We took a good four hours. The bones alone are gorgeous enough; high vaulted ceilings made of silar, a white volcanic stone that defines Arequipan architecture, and cobblestone pathways that wind and twist through the tiny cells that housed hundreds of nuns many, many years ago.
We walk along the outdoor paths running our hands over azul blue and adobe red facades and look up to see colourful religious scenes depicted across the ceilings of the covered terraces. One passage leads us to a collection of small rooms with checkered wooden screens built into the stone walls where nuns could communicate with the outside world and trade items through a sort of rotating wooden Lazy Susan. The small shaded chambers lit only by simple skylights are heavily evocative and as music plays around us - Renaissance polyphonic choral - shivers run over our skin.
Each nun's cell is simply furnished and would fit easily into a modern day decor magazine: a low wooden bed with colourful woven blankets, an antique wooden chair, a dusty altar celebrating a pretty, painted Madonna. Some cells access private outdoor gardens or stone kitchens. The nuns were famous for their baked goods and sold them to civilians to profit the convent.
In one room, intricately carved wood, bed-like coffins sit under eerie portraits of deceased nuns, eyes closed, painted just before interment. In another room, an immense kitchen and pantry with huge scales and an old flour mill. A small schoolroom demonstrates where young girls in need could come for lessons in Spanish, Maths, Music, and Religion. Giant terracotta pots broken into halves are lined up on their sides in one square: once an al fresco laundry. A small museum displays the different art created in the convent including embroidered clerical robes that took six months a piece, and life size dolls depicting biblical scenes. Everything is preserved and laid out with few restrictions so that visitors can wander alone through each area. As if wandering back through time.
Arequipa is famous for its spicy food and its unique and traditional picanterias are the places to go to find it. Picanterias are large eateries filled with communal tables covered in plates piled with delicious food and pitchers of chicha; a fermented corn drink. They got their start in rural communities when old abuelas opened their homes to hungry travellers and grew into the local staples they are today. We ventured far from the city centre to La Capitana, a hidden away piquanteria we could only find by repeatedly asking the neighbourhood locals. The atmosphere was full and friendly and a man played latin guitar in the corner. We ate the plata Americano - basically everything on offer that day crammed onto one plate: locro stew, ocopo, rocoto rellenos, and chupe de camarones. We left happy and ready to burst.
Arequipa is rich in culture and history thanks to its early Spanish roots dating back to 1540. Tucked into pretty stone courtyards are dusty antique shops full of old religious relics, juke boxes with Sam Cooke and Patsy Cline, and yellowed home photographs from the 1950s stuffed into overflowing apple boxes along with dated postcards of photoshopped llamas on mountaintops. If Peruvian hipsters exist this might be their Mecca.
The best place to spend one's money is behind San Fransisco Cathedral. The otherwise unremarkable church shadows a small stone courtyard that houses a handful of local artisans. The majority of "hand crafted" goods in South America are definitely factory made and most likely not of the "genuine" material advertised. A popular favourite among the Argentinian tourists are colourful striped pants while the Americans unfortunately have a penchant for the ear-flap beanies; articles we soon use to distinguish between nationalities. So far we've been unimpressed and kept our wallets closed. But in this square everything is good. Hand-made, well priced, and certified. An old man sits by his loom weaving giant wool blankets in oranges, pinks, and reds and sells soft cable knit sweaters of baby alpaca. We return three times to a jeweller selling precious stones, simply hewn and set into gorgeous silver from nearby mines. Turquoise, lapis lazuli, and opal for a fraction of the price back home. And after the big shop? Queso helado (the creamiest of ice creams) and fresh alfajores (shortbread with dulce de leche).
So how did we make the most of a simple waypoint? We sought out food away from the centre of town - the more people crammed in the better. We walked everywhere - you never know what charming neighbourhoods or hidden squares you might find if eyes are kept open. And if we learned anything from Latinos, we learned to take our time. Even a rushed trip through a city can carry weight if you pause to use your senses; smell the spices, feel the stone, strain to hear the drifting notes of faraway music. Stop moving. Stand still. Forget schedules. Pretend you have all the time in the world.
Faced with the option of sleeping on our bags beside three men sleeping on cardboard in the corner of the dingy Arequipa bus terminal, or getting a cheap hotel - we chose cheap hotel. On our night out of the city we missed our bus - or rather for the first time ever in Peru; the bus was sold out.
It's midnight. We tell the the cab driver we just need a quickie hotel, a bed to sleep in until the next bus at 6am. Perhaps quickie was the wrong word. He tells us he knows just the place and whisks us away while persistently inquiring if we would like to accompany him for a cerveza. No. He drops us off beside the highway outside a dark building lit only by the absinthe green sign flickering "hotel" into the night. Cerveza? Pisco? No? Ok. One more thing. Make sure tell girl you need only until 5am. Important.
The girl is adamant: 5 am on the dot. One minute after and we get charged full day rate. Shit. We're in a sex hotel. Our room has a big window with a view of the hallway. Another smaller one opens into a type of outdoor air shaft we share with 15 other rooms. Can't wait. Someone has used the bed blanket to put out a pack of cigarettes, left his toothbrush in the shower, and forgot his hair on the pillow. It's smells like wet concrete and immitation Febreeze. But we are exhausted and at least the toilet has a seat. Mercifully there is no noise. We've slept on a bench, we sure as hell can sleep on top of a sheet.
We wake at 4am to the official sex hotel soundtrack above us and struggle to fall back asleep. It's pretty gross and we mumble an agreement: never again. Heeding the receptionist's warning we make it downstairs just before 5 and hail a cab next to the woman from upstairs. Good thing she made check-out.
Bleary eyed and surprisingly hungry we scarf down a quick egg and palta on toast at the terminal then sit outside watching the sun come up and waiting for our bus to board. Though we'd absolutely never go back to the green sex hotel, or any rent-by-the-hour for that matter, we cannot regret the night; for we've stayed true to our goal. On the dirty roads you sleep where the locals sleep and always try anything once.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.