Hope, Bones and Natural Beauty in Puno, Peru

The main reason for my trip to Perú was work.  And there were projects for me to visit to see firsthand how the projects my organization executed helped combat deep poverty by improving economic livelihoods, health care, education, sanitation, etc.  I was about to see people that as I tourist I would likely not get to see, rural areas most tourists do not visit, and understand how real life is for the millions of people in areas less accessible than the more known Machu Picchu, Lima, Cusco, etc.

What follows are snippets about what I got see during the project visits in the Puno region.

It’s Not Skin & Bones – It’s Just Bones

But, as often happens (happily for me), on my way to visit various projects, the local colleagues like to show anything of interest along the way as it both serves to showcase their land and history but also as good breaks for pit stops. Much appreciated, my friends!

One of the MOST interesting things I saw was a church in a town called Lampa. The church is the Immaculate Conception and the town’s distinguished former residents hang around even after they pass away…

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Lampa, Peru

Church of the Immaculate Conception in Lampa, Peru

Visit to a School in San José, Azángaro

Education is key for the success of children but can be a hardship in the short-term to the families.  In this part of Peru, it is likely that the families speak Aymara or Quechua as their home language so the question is how kids learn best.  One of the theories favors bilingual education so assimilation and other aspects of learning are faster or the learnings stick better (I am not an academician on this so take my statements as a layman’s approximation!).  My organization was involved in helping local rural schools develop and sustain educational programs that tap bilingual education so I was taken to to visit a couple of schools – where the children were thrilled to see a visitor sit in their classroom: I became the attraction as the picture below betrays!  What surprised me the most was the children’s chapped faces. You just want to apply lotion all over their dried out skin except that would not be really helpful if it is not sustained.  I have to say they were as happy as they could be though some of the them walked a couple of miles to get to school each way…

Happy kid with very wind-burnt cheeks 🙁

Kids lining up in the schoolyard – some walk miles to get to school…

Fattening Bulls to Make a Better Living

One of the projects I visited (in Huancané) dealt with improving economic livelihoods. In this case this was pursued by improving fattening of bulls that the locals would sell so 1.  they weigh more when they are sold and 2.  they get to that weight faster. In addition, farmers were being empowered to sell the bulls directly to the market instead of relying on intermediaries (who typically mislead them and take a big chunk of the proceeds).  From the 1-2 yrs it was taking them to fatten a bull to the size needed to sell it, it now takes them 2.5-4 months which means they quadrupled their income.  If you consider the money they don’t have to pay intermediaries (minus the costs they incur to sell the bull), their take is even higher.  These folks usually start with one bull and slowly grow to have 3-4 at a time after doing this for a few cycles.  An improvement indeed!

A bull being measured as part of the project’s activities

They emphasized over and over in the various areas I visited how this has helped them get from extreme poverty to just poverty.  They can now send their kids to school, for example.  The way the fattening time was sped up was by simply introducing protein in the diet of the bulls. The cool/smart thing was that the farmers already had most of what they needed in the form of waste created after collecting the various crops they grow.  Stems, leaves, etc. of different crops that remain after the core product is harvested used to be burned.  But some of these actually are highly nutritious for the bull and are part of the recipe for the new feed.  The only thing they have to buy is molasses and some powder (I forget what it was).

Myself with the project coordinator and a participant in the project near the home of the participant

Interestingly, I learned that one of the ingredients used in the feed is urea.  During one of the visits the locals prepared a demo for me of the mix being created.  There were about 9 women and each would pour an ingredient.  The molasses, the urea and the powder were mixed in a small tub by a woman with her bare arm and hand.  Then that mix was poured over the big pile and all the women stepped in to mix it all, again, with their bare hands! Imagine me standing there, having shaken everyone’s hands upon arriving and knowing full well I was to shake their hands when I left!

Preparing the bull-fattening mix – a demo for me

Well, God has a sense of humor. As I was a special guest and they are very hospitable folks, they prepared some roasted potatoes and white cream, and also served cheese they had made. I was expected to eat; otherwise, I would be rejecting their humble hospitality (actually more than a rejection, it would be interpreted as they had not offered something good enough for me – something I would NOT do to them).  I had seen a woman rinse her hands so I talked myself into believing they had all sterilized themselves before preparing the food and dug in to eat what I thought was the safest of the fare: the roasted potatoes. I had to try the cheese given how it was given to me but I successfully skirted the white cream (or liquid). Who knows what that was!  Cow puke (don’t think I exaggerate…)?  Curdled milk?  I didn’t want to find out.  I figured I had done 2 out of 3 and that was a stretch enough!  Plus I didn’t need a case of Inca-revenge on the long drive back…

Locals preparing roasted potatoes in Azángaro, Perú

Sewage Plant

Another type of project I visited were water treatment plants for “dirty waters”.  In one visit, they walked me around the tanks explaining the treatment process.  They also explained that beyond building the plant, a key component was to ensure the plant would be maintained and kept “sustainable” without external assistance when the project was over (a lot about local governance, fees, and training folks to do the maintenance on the plant).

Azángaro - Water Treatment Plants, Perú

See that pool in the picture above, the one where EVERYTHING comes in?  They made me walk the ledge of that pool to get to the other side.  I kept thinking “how many HOURS away is my hotel if I fall in??”  “what if the earth quakes??”

After one of the visits, a local TV crew was waiting to interview me.  I am guessing it was a small station because we were quite far from the town of Puno in the middle of Azángaro. I was asked what I thought of the water treatment plant. Mind you, I know zilch about water treatment plants – except for what I had just learned.  I guess they thought the foreign visitor must have been an expert if I had come so far to see it…  So, I had to ‘with camera on me’ be spontaneous and say something half smart. I said that it was a great benefit to the town, etc. and some words about ensuring it gets the right maintenance because it is valuable to all the citizens, etc.  I hope I sounded smart but I missed the broadcast and didn’t get to Tivo it!  I do think I emphasized the right things.  Pat, pat.

The Beautiful Lands around Puno

I have to talk about the scenery here. The land is incredible. There are vast plains surrounded by mountains and the cloud was a perfect blue. That area may normally be called a valley but the expanse is so great that “valley” doesn’t conjure the right image. Since it was early winter and it was the dry season, the grass was browning but I still saw some green.

I could see a biking circuit for ecotourists being developed in that area to go visiting small towns and nature areas. But I guess too many tourists would spoil the sense of “real” the area gives. I left Puno by plane flying back to Lima wishing I could spend more time in this great land.

I have been very fortunate that I got to go off the beaten path and that I got to see undeveloped territory and the beauty of the land as it has always been. They say this area looks a lot like parts of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. The province of Azángaro is by far the one I liked the most in a very competitive field!  Ever since my childhood I have been fascinated a bit by Lake Titicaca (OK, more by the funny sounding name in Spanish…)  Now, having seen the beautiful landscape around it and its deep blue waters, I am definitely fascinated by it and understand how this part of the country is much more than the famous lake!

(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

A Miniature Fair by the Shores of Lake Titicaca in Puno, Perú

My work trip to Perú was going to take me to a three different regions of the country:  the better known Cusco and Lake Titicaca regions and the lesser known Ancash region.  But while the Lake Titicaca region is well known due to the lake, the hinterland behind the lake is fascinatingly beautiful and less explored by the average visitor.

Map (mapa) of Peru by its regions

Puno is the region in the lower right

This is the Puno province which sits at about 12,420 ft (3,860 m) above sea level.  Remember, Denver in the U.S. about 5,280 ft.  Puno is also higher than the highest point in many U.S. states!  Puno completely borders the lake on the Peruvian side,  and shares a land border with Bolivia and the jungle zone of Perú (Madre de Dios, a totally different climate zone).  I was not quite sure what to expect from the trip and the area but the natural beauty and the amazing people of the highlands of Perú definitely took my breath away. The area of Azángaro in the province was especially beautiful.

Puno and Juliaca are the key towns in the Puno province with the latter town having the main airport and being known by locals to be a place where one is easily robbed (why they emphasized it so many times to me is beyond me as I was going nowhere near Juliaca…)  Puno (with about 100,000 inhabitants) is by the lake (Juliaca is inland) so it is the gateway to Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side.  I visited most of the province except the 2 northern and 1 southern regions (that I know of! a lot of my travel was on country roads).  (Read about my visit to the islands in Lake Titicaca here:  http://ilivetotravel.me/2012/06/25/floating-islands-going-to-heavens-doors-and-a-challenge-in-gender-id-in-lake-titicaca/ )

Mapa (map) of Peru and Puno province

Map of the Puno region; Azángaro is towards the center, right above the lake

On my way there

I made my way to Puno from Cusco where I had just concluded field visits as well as squeezing a day and a half of local tourism.  My method of transport was a bus ride that took about 6-7 hours – a welcome change from airplane rides but most importantly because I would be able to admire the landscape along the way.   The road was very well built, the terrain fairly flat (though rising over the distance), and pretty much a straight road so not a lot of wild curves to make me dizzy.

Highway between Cusco (Cuzco) and Puno road, travel

The way to Puno from Cusco was beautiful and far from scary (unlike the Lima to Huaraz route!)

The local office had arrange a pickup at the bus station for me and I went straight to the office to meet some of the local folks, hear about their work, and the visits they had planned for me.  I had been itching to get to the hotel as I was tired and the altitude had increased from Cusco so I was feeling the lack of oxygen.  I had also asked ahead of time for help in planning some tourism activity for the weekend since I was getting there on a Friday evening and there were no field visits planned for the weekend.  We finalized those plans at the office and I was ready to get to the hotel.

A Miniature Af-fair

However, one of the locals offered to take me out that evening to see a special event celebrated annually in Puno:  the miniature fair (Feria de las Alasitas).  I was quite curious and decided it would be probably something to see so why not.  I dropped my stuff at the hotel and met her to go check this fair out.

Puno is nestled between hills and Lake Titicaca so there are a lot of steep streets except right by the waterside sort of where the fair was going to take place.  The town looked quite charming at night, especially near the hotel on a very lively street with a lot of eateries.

We approached the fair and I couldn’t quite believe the amount and diversity of miniatures of all kinds.  Any object you have in real life is sold in miniature.  The idea, belief, or tradition is that whatever you buy there in miniature will come true for you real life (and real size). Examples:

–        Want to get married?  Buy a miniature groom (if you are a woman), bride (if you are a guy), or  wedding cake

–       Want to come into some wealth?  Buy miniature dollars, euros, Peruvian soles (if you want to have money)

–       Want some good possessions?  Buy a car, laptop/PC, canned goods, etc.

–       Want a better roof over you?  Buy a house, apartment building, etc.

There actually is ritual sprinkling of the miniatures and prayers that are part of the tradition.  People sometimes assemble baskets with a variety of these items and take them home.  Besides getting their miniatures, they seem to enjoy walking around the different booths, picking out the items, and socializing.

Puno Peru miniature fair travel folklore culture arts photo

Some of the miniatures from the fair

The fair was mostly locals only and I greatly enjoyed the atmosphere as everyone seemed to be out and about enjoying the night, the fair, and each other. One of the funnest local festivals I have been to.

Puno, Peru, Lake Titicaca, miniature fair, good luck, tradition, culture

Just in case… I bought lots of “euros”, a house, and a car!

I also enjoyed walking around town at night – Puno was very lively and given its location had a good number of tourists.  It is definitely a great base from which to hit the lake and to hit the hinterlands of the Puno region!

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