We had a really nice day today, although we didn´t do that much, it was relaxing, enjoyable and enlightening.
First of all, at this altitude, I am sleeping and don´t wake up with a pounding headache, and that alone is cause for joy. In the morning we arranged the next few days of our trip with the help of a local travel agent. They are thick on the ground in every town we´ve been to, and the easiest way to arrange local transport and tours.
The prices for a small group trip to the nearby canyon country are downright cheap. A two-day tour, including hotel and breakfast, and an English-speaking guide, for US $25? How does anyone turn a profit at those prices? The price was so low, and our budget doing so well, that we asked about a private trip, and it turned out to be affordable. So we booked both a private trip to the canyons, as well as the next leg of our journey, to Nazca, to see the famous Nazca lines, then spend the night in Ica, on the coast.
Next, at a corner store, a woman sold us a used cardboard box and helped us tape it up, taking great care so the sweaters, fabric and other gifts might have a safe journey to Canada. At the post office, we proved we are not transporting anything illegal, then paid a large pile of soles to ship our package. But we´re very glad to free up room and lose any potential packing troubles.
We wandered over to the main square, yet another Plaza de Armas, as it has been called in every city or town we´ve visited. It´s strikingly beautiful, landscaped with flowers and palm trees, filled with pigeons (identical to the ones in New York and Toronto), and lined with an enormous Catedral in the sillar style, a white volcanic rock. The Catedral de Arequipa is the only one in Peru to take up an entire side of a plaza, and is one of a very few basilicas authorized to fly the Vatican flag. It´s almost monumental in size and appearance, with Corinthian columns and huge arches.
The restaurant hawkers, vendors and beggars aren´t quite as insistent and numerous here as they are in Cuzco, but they are still ominpresent. It amazes me how quickly my feelings towards them changed from pity to annoyance. There are just so many of them, and if you engage with any of them, others descend in a flock. No one takes no for an answer, they push papers and hands in your face, and it doesn´t feel particularly safe.
In a little snack lunch, we tried a local specialty that we´d read of: papas rellenos, or stuffed potatoes. The potatoes are soft, like mashed potatoes, with a crispy crust, and stuffed with various things, like cheese, spicy ground beef or bits of hard-boiled eggs. Yu-um.
In the afternoon we saw one of the most fascinating things we´ve seen on this trip so far.
In 1995, after a nearby volcano erupted, some mountain climbers discovered the wonderfully preserved remains of a 13-year-old girl. More than 500 years ago, this Incan girl, accompanied by priests, had trekked from Cuzco, and climbed a mountain, where she was offered to the gods.
She was surrounded with treasures, wrapped carefully in valuable clothing, and buried on the mountain, where the ice preserved her for centuries. The volcanic eruption melted the snow, and her grave and her body were suddenly exposed.
The museum that houses the mummy is very well done, and must be a highlight of a trip to southern Peru. We saw a National Geographic -produced film about the discovery, what the sacrifice probably meant to the Incas, and the amazing wealth of knowledge the mummy yielded. Volunteer guides who are part of the perservation work give tours in every conceivable language.
The artifacts found buried with the mummy were incredibly well preserved; there was a piece of fabric that could be sold in Arequipa tomorrow, it was that brightly coloured. The faces on the figurines look exactly like the people we saw all around Cuzco and Puno. The mountain the mummy was found on is as high as, for example, Denali (Mt. McKinley in Alaska). People first climbed Denali in the early part of the 20th Century. The Incas climbed these volcanos 600 years ago. Wearing sandals.
The mummy herself has a full set of teeth, long hair, long fingers that must have been very beautiful, and she is wrapped, in semi-fetal position, in a special shawl held together with a ceremonial pin. She is only on display from May to August, so we are very lucky indeed: this year´s display began only four days ago.
Three other mummies were found in the area, all children. The Incas didn´t practice human sacrifice on a regular basis, but in very difficult times of dangerous volcanic activity or drought, they tried to give their mountain gods something very special in exchange for their mercy and protection. There is evidence that these sacrificed children were raised from birth in special conditions, that they might possibly be sacrificed if needed. Some 50 mummies have been found in the region, in Argentina, Peru, Chil and Ecuador, which were all part of the Incan empire.
The exhibit was positively fascinating. It made the Incas real to me in a new way.
If you´re interested, the museum´s website is here. You can also google something like "Juanita mummy Arequipa Peru" and get a lot of good info. (The mummy was dubbed Juanita, in a female and Spanish version of the first name of the discoverer, Johann Reinhard.) There´s a Wiki entry about it here.
Tonight we´re having Argentinian steaks for dinner. Peruvian food is interesting, but so far the very best food has been thin-crust, wood-fired oven pizza. Go figure.
Our guide for the canyons picks us up at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. We´ll take just our backpacks, and leave our suitcases in the hotel (La Casa de Melgar) in Arequipa, then stay there again when we return on Saturday night. My next entry will either be Saturday night or Sunday morning.
Whoever is reading this, I thank you, and I hope I´m not boring you all to pieces. Even if there are only 2 or 3 people reading now, I´m so enjoying writing this travel diary, that it´s worth it for me alone.