written by
Margie Goldsmith

To the pre-Incas, the condor represented the upper world, the puma symbolized the middle world and the snake the lower world. I’ve come to Peru mainly to see the condors of the upper world and figuratively, the pumas of the middle world.

Lake Titicaca, once the umbilical cord of culture and presently the world’s highest navigable lake, is shaped exactly like the gray pumas the pre-Inca cultures saw here 1,000 years ago. The word Titicaca comes from two words: Titi (puma) and kaka (gray). Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and said to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, is where condors with 10-foot wing spans soar so close you can hear their wings flap.

Lake Titicaca

The early morning sun filters through the floor-to-ceiling windows of my spacious room at Titilaka Hotel, the highest luxury hotel in the world. From my bed, I look out at the cerulean waters of Lake Titicaca peacefully lapping against the wooden dock where a young boy stands with a donkey. Next to him, a woman in a long skirt and colorful top from the neighboring Uros village (a culture which goes back to pre-Inca times) kneels by the water’s edge and pulls out silvery sardines. She throws them onto a woven blanket where another boy pushes them in a huge pile. Further out in the lake, a fisherman in a wooden rowboat throws his net into the water.

I grab my camera, exit the hotel, and walk down the path to the lake. It seems incongruous that my five-star hotel with modern plumbing, electricity and Wi-Fi in every room, is less than 50 feet from the lake on one side, whereas on the other side is a small Uros village with a smattering of adobe thatched-roof houses and bright blue outhouses (each village chooses the same color), and with a culture that has been living the same way for centuries.

“Hola,” I say to the woman at the lake’s edge. She smiles. I hold up my camera. “Permisso?” She covers her face with her hands, so I put my camera away. The same thing happened yesterday. I got out of the car to take a photo of a woman farming in a field, but she turned away. The Uros people don’t like their picture taken.

For breakfast at the hotel, I have fresh fruit and quinoa pancakes, as good as last night’s black quinoa tabbouleh with vegetables and fettuccine with smoked trout. Meals, happy hour, wine and guided excursions are all included in this five-star resort. The floor-to-ceiling dining room windows overlook the same unobstructed lake view as my room, so I watch as the woman and boys lift the sardine-filled bundle onto the donkey and walk up the path.

When my tour operator, Ker & Downey, set up this private trip, I thought they’d lost their minds, suggesting a hotel in the middle of nowhere; but that’s what makes this place so special — in the middle of nowhere I can ride on the 35-foot sailboat, hike or mountain bike to beaches and archeological sites, visit local weavers, row through the totoro reeds, or take the Titilaka boat to traditional and floating isles.

I decide on a guided excursion to the island of Taquille, about an hour way. Here, 1,500 islanders of Quechua origin live surrounded by the snowcapped mountains of the Cordillera Real. My guide, Julio, leads me up a steep dirt path where crops of sweet potatoes, corn and fava beans are growing in agricultural terraces dating back to 200 B.C. We pass a farmer turning over the earth with a crude wooden implement. His wife sows seeds from a burlap bag and their three children play happily. They all wave hello. Further along, women dressed in colorful skirts and black shawls are weaving on the ground using long looms, creating the same intricate designs they wove thousands of years ago. Life here is a step back in time. There’s no electricity, little water and only solar energy. The men fish and farm, and the women weave. We pass a man laying out fish to dry on a rock. He smiles. His mouth is stained from chewing coca leaves.

“Our fast food is coca leaves,” Julio grins. “Did you know that the coca leaf is the most medicinal food in the world? Chew it and you’ll be very healthy.”

Two young girls skip down the hill leading a flock of sheep. Each family is allowed only 30 sheep in order to be in harmony with nature; there are no llamas or alpacas here because the Spaniards kicked them out when they invaded in the 15th century. Julio knows a family, so we climb to the top of the steep hill to their home. They serve me lunch outdoors: spicy quinoa soup, lady potatoes cooked on open fire, spicy ceviche and cheese. I sit happily, looking out past the red soil and terraced green fields to the intense blue of Lake Titicaca.

The next day Julio takes me to the Uros Isles, 50 pre-Inca floating villages anchored to the shores of Lake Titicaca and made entirely of totora reeds that grow in the lake. Everything on the islands is made of totora: houses (less than the size of a one-car garage), gondolas and catamaran boats, and lookout towers. Once upon a time, the islanders’ men fished and the women wove, but today tourism is the main economy. A girl in a bright red jacket and long black braids ties up our boat and takes me for a ride on a gondola made of totora reeds (plastic bottles in the hull keep it afloat). We drift past row after row of totora houses, outdoor kitchens, and crops of mint and potatoes. Everything grows in the totora roots, even flowers.

Colca Valley
As I ride through the Colca Valley with a guide and driver, I am mesmerized by the endless snowcapped Andean volcanoes. Every few minutes I yell Stop! to the driver, jump out and take photos of vicunas, llamas, or alpacas, so close I can hear them chewing. We pass rocky outcrops filled with different types of cactus: corotillas, cholo heads, chiri-chiri, and the cojin de suegra cactus, which means “mother-in-law cushions.”

We drive through the checkpoint of Chivay, the gateway to Colca Canyon. In the town square, women vendors sit at outdoor stalls selling alpaca scarves, wooden flutes, woolen backpacks and inexpensive jewelry. They are dressed in their native costume: glittery blouses, skirts and sequined cowboy hats which go back to pre-Inca times when they purposely deformed their babies’ skulls to represent the shape of the volcanoes and appease the gods. Today, their hat is the representation. We drive past eucalyptus and cypress trees and suddenly everywhere there are 1,500-year-old terraces where crops of quinoa, sweet potatoes and corn hug the steep mountain terraces, all watered by the same canals from the volcanoes that their ancestors built.

My accommodation at Las Casitas del Colca is a spacious casita with an unobstructed view of the Colca Valley, a private plunge pool and large terrace. I take a dip, wrap myself in a fluffy robe and sit on my terrace, mesmerized by the view and the breeze rustling through the eucalyptus trees. Then, I put on sneakers and take a walk around the property, which includes a farm with animals such as llamas, alpacas and hundreds of guinea pigs. For dinner, I try the five-course tasting menu: ceviche, alpaca, caramelized scallops, pork ribs and gooseberry cheesecake, then walk back to my room under a universe scattered with stars.

It is early in the morning as I head out with my guide and driver to 11,155-footdeep Colca Canyon, an ideal place for the condors to live because they can hide their young in cliff nests, catch the thermals to lift their heavy wings into the air and easily find food, especially as many cows plunge over the cliffs to their death. At Cruz del Condor, tourists of every nationality already line the stone ledges above the canyon. We find a spot and wait. After about a half-hour, a black speck flies above a granite ravine; first, it is a shadow, then it’s a condor sailing in the distance. Everyone screams and points to the bird. Ten minutes later, a second condor soars in the distance, and just as far away, a third bird rises from the cliffs.

The other tourists, thrilled, leave. I am a little disappointed because the condors were so far away.

“Do you want to leave?” my guide asks. The Incas lived by the rhythms of the sun and rain. I live by my instinct, and I have a feeling that without the crowd and noise, we might get to see a condor fly closer. We sit patiently. After a long time, a condor glides above the ridge and circles, so close I can see the ruff of white feathers at his neck and his wings spread out like fingers in the cloudless blue sky. I hear the whoosh whoosh of his wings before he soars into the heavens and it is silent once more.

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