On The Road Archive

You’ve got 72 hours to get the #*%& out of my country

There’s always an excited dread when approaching a border in South America. Anything can happen. Your papers could be wrong. You could get a bribe extorted. Or you could end up in a dank Bolivian jail cell (fortunately this didn’t actually happen). In our case, once we finally get the go ahead to cross the border, you can hear the Collective exhale inside our car. And then there’s a whole new country unfolding in front of you, littered with endless enticing detours and imbued with the profound excitement of the unknown.  Oddly, crossing into Paraguay from Bolivia at the town of Ibibobo, which is located in the vast, dry Chaco, there were only Bolivian officials to stamp us out. Paraguayan officials decided to set up shop three hours inside their country, so we had three hours of held-breath anticipation before Paraguay delivered her verdict on our entry. It was harsh.

We were informed by a very snippy (though granted correct) official in his mosquito infested lair that Americans need a visa to visit Paraguay, and unlike Bolivia this visa could not be purchased at the border (not even the actual border that happened three hours before). We were left with two choices:  first, return not just back to Bolivia, but to the nearest large town 8 hours back to get the needed visa. The second option, offered up after much negotiation, was to “get your ass out of Paraguay within 72 hours and into Argentina before we sic on you the dogs that bark out angry bees and the sticky hugging mimes” or something like that (nothing more infuriating than an official pointing out a gross oversight). We opted for the latter.

From Bolivia to Paraguay through the vast, unforgiving thorn forest of the Chaco.
Visiting the inappropriately named Laguna Chaco Lodge wildlife reserve (not open to tourists) with local NGO, Fundacion Ecologica??

Hour 1: Sly Paraguayan cop tries unsuccessfully to get a bribe because we don’t have the proper import papers for the flat-tired bike strapped to the roof of our car. Very sneaky.

Hour 2: Arrive at Lomo Plata, one of the Mennonite communities that had made its home in the Paraguayan Chaco (presumably because the land was dirt cheap). Mostly coming from Russia and Eastern Europe (some via Canada), the Mennonites have created a series of lovely and functional towns in the middle of a dry landscape of shrubs and thorn trees (and some very beautiful hardwood trees called Palo Santo). Among a population largely of indigenous descent, it was a shock to see flocks of blonde children bouncing to school and hear German spoken in all the local establishments.

Hour 14: Visit the Laguna Chaco Lodge, an oddly named (no lodge) natural reserve with our local guide Milciades, who is part of a non-profit helping to preserve the essential ecosystem. The seasonal lake in the reserve (which disappears during the dry season) serves as an important stopping point for the migratory Chilean Flamingo. Due to a three year drought, the lake has not restored this year. Milciades fears that this drought could be part of a larger change in the local climate which would doom the wildlife in the reserve that depends on the lake for water.

Our guide Milciares Pacce, Fundacion agronomist

The parched Chaco soil after three years of drought, endangering this vital ecosystem

Hour 18: Arrive at Laguna Capitán, for some camping. Swim at dusk in their warm, sulfury lake.

Hour 30: Wake up to a Mennonite mass at the campgrounds and head towards Asunción.

Hour 40: Cross the bridge spanning the Rio Paraguay into Asunción. Asunción is blazingly hot and surprisingly devoid of people. Many of the buildings near the central Plaza de los Heroes are colonial beauties that are, sadly, falling apart, which gives the city a feeling of decaying splendor. Just past the plaza a long road lined with trees and benches follows the Paraguay River. Much to my surprise, the area just across the river from the town center is largely undeveloped green wilderness, lending a small town, sleepy feel to the large capital. The city generally has an appealingly quirky vibe. I feel certain that the gentlemen of leisure sitting on benches in the various city squares are all famous South American authors. Asunción feels lost in a separate world without feeling lost to modernity.

Strong mirage of water on the dry Laguna Flamenco lakebed. In years past this was all water.
We find the only patch of water on 14 square kilometer lakebed. The lake is a vital resting point for migratory birds like the Chilean Flamenco and Caracoas??
This friendly turtle is bigger than he seems, more than 2 feet long.

Hour 44: Eat delicious local fish, surubí, at Bolsi Restaurant and then delve into the excellent Asunción nightlife.

Hour 60: Spend Sunday afternoon wandering the center and discover the joy of tereré, an ice cold mate (try saying it to the ESPN theme. It’s oddly satisfying). Those locals that haven’t retreated to cooler pastures all have tereré with them, complete with leather adorned thermoses and tall varnished maté cups made from cow horns or the elegant wood of a Palo Santo tree. Andy decides that if he ever had to run from the law, he would come to live in Asunción as it has the appropriate combo of most pleasant and most forgotten place for a man on the run.

Hour 68: Internet noodling at the Mall of Insipid Blandness.

Hour 71: Cross the immense bridge over the Rio Pilcomayo into Argentina as the gathered hoards of Paraguayans chant nationalistic anthems in relief and victory at our departure within the allotted FU timespan (note: exaggeration. Paraguayans were generally some of the nicest, most welcoming folks we’ve met in our travels).

Mausoleum spires and Baroque fascades in Asuncion’s Cementerio Recoleta.
More from the cemeterio

Hour 72: Safely across to Argentina where our possessions are searched twice within the span of half an hour, for good measure, with the help of an eager-beaver Jack Russell Terrier.

While it would have been nice to move at a more leisurely pace through Paraguay, the 72 hours forced us to appreciate and digest as much as possible in that short period. Our haste, though, may have dealt a deathblow to Mango 1.0. More on that to come.

-Drew, Photos by Elliot

In Asuncion, do as the Paraguayans do: lounge and drink ice-cold mate (Terere) to ward off the brutal Sunday afternoon heat.

Border Crossing: BOLIVIA – PARAGUAY

Romp through Bolivia

We cross into Bolivia at such a high altitude that we have to drive downhill to reach the world’s highest capital city, La Paz. Descent becomes a running theme for our romp through Bolivia. From our point of entry at the backpacker’s oasis of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca to our official exit at the delightfully named Ibibobo military outpost in the dusty Chaco lowlands, we drop a whopping total of 12,306 feet. In between, we drive through five major ecosystems – the high Andean altiplano or puna, the woodlands and savannas of the Cerrado, Bolivian montane dry forests, the southern Yungas evergreen forests, and the hot, semi-arid Chaco thorn forests – over asphalt, cobblestone, raised gravel, dirt, and riverbed, and with veggie oil from hamburger stands, Bolivian criolla joints, pollerias, and Chinese restaurants.

Mango boards raft to cross Lake Titicaca, domain of the Bolivian Navy

The only match for Bolivia’s diversity of climate and landscape may be its people. We stay in four historic colonial cities jammed with indigenous street vendors, ancient, rainbow-colored buses, serious men in button-down suits and stout women in bright ponchos and smart bowler caps. In the highlands we visit dozens of Quechua and Aymara villages, adobe and thatch-roof huts surrounded by open fields where stoic, copper-toned Indians herd llama and sheep. In the lowlands of Bolivia’s southeast we drive past lush fields of corn and rows of peach and mango trees, and take a detour to the wine-soaked Valle de la Concepcion, which feels more like Argentina than Andean Bolivia. We get a glimpse of Bolivia’s vast forests in the southern Yungas on our way out of the mountains, before dropping into the empty, foreboding thorn forests of the Chaco.

Big sky in the alitplano

Spending so much time in descent, we find out that Mango has a fifth gear: neutral, downhill. She tops out around 53 MPH on flat ground but she’s such a tank she easily clears a heady 65 MPH on a downslope. We also discover she has shitty breaks. No mechanic seems to have a solution, so we try to replace breaking with downshifting. It’s a hair-raising combination, but we have to make up time and conserve fuel somehow. Of course, Bolivia isn’t all downhill. The Andes are too indomitable for that. From Cochabamba to Tarjia we ride the cordillera’s spine up and down like mad men, pushing our rolling tank uphill when she stalls due to lack of oxygen and screaming down mountain passes with the engine off on the other side. Mango comes out worse for the wear, and by the time we approach the lowlands she’s seen her fair share of mechanics. We camp under spectacular night skies on the side of the road and survive on crackers, tuna cans, and the last of our scotch whisky when she strands us in the middle of nowhere. On the open road we pack fist-sized wads of coca leaves into our mouths to keep up energy levels and morale. Perhaps Mango’s best trick of all comes on the way out of Tarija, when she decides to sporadically shut off her headlights as we’re driving through forested mountain passes, at night. Yes, at times we are sure Mango and the Andes are conspiring to kill us, but it’s a helluva ride.

Bolivia, land of street markets
Bolivia’s elite import Europe at Cochabamba’s Palacio de Portales

Get your cow heads here!
Delicious homemade gelato – mango and strawberry
Conquerors get no mercy in the indigenous village of Tarabuco

Coca leaves by the sack full at Potosi’s miner’s market
Andean fashion
Rockpile #3 at roadside campsite on highway to Tarija.
Andy contemplating the sunset during a Mango hissy fit
Wine-tasting at eclectic Hostería Valle D’Vino part hostel, part organic vineyard

Valle D’Vino’s treasure trove, always under lock and key.
The road out through the unforgiving Chaco

Torotoro: Jurassic Jaunt

Fording a river on the way to Torotoro. yes we did make it…

Welcome to Torotoro National Park.

We took a wrong turn on the way to Torotoro National Park in Bolivia. To regain our path, we were sent down a shortcut, which took us through a farmer’s fields. This shortcut, much to our surprise, was actually a main entrance for the road to Torotoro. The road itself was at its best cobbled and at its worst a series of ditches and small rivers. Mango managed the road with elephantine grace.

The jagged teeth of Torotoro

The landscape leading up to Torotoro was desolately beautiful: valleys of red bare earth with sparse bright green bushes were crisscrossed by clear blue rivers; steep hills gave way to jagged brutal peaks sometimes sticking straight out like the prow of a ship. Dotting the land was the occasional simple adobe village. The town of Torotoro, located in the center of the park, was lovely with cobbled streets and stone buildings built alongside a river. We set up camp on its banks and were often visited throughout our stay by children who left the river to stare at our outlandish looking van.

Footsteps in prehistoric mud. One theory is that these dinosaur tracks were preserved when the mud solidified to stone

The park looked straight out of the Jurassic period. The land alternates between green rolling hills and reddish brown mudflats that had hardened over the millennia. Surrounding the park were triangular mountains. These mountains were surprisingly evenly spaced, reminding us a bit of sharks’ teeth. Our wanderings on the first day took us through a canyon of brightly colored rocks that ends in a waterfall. On our second day, we took a guided trip to Umajalanta Cave. Along our way we were shown dinosaur tracks that had been left in rock when that rock was mud (a competing theory is that the footprints we made in cooling lava). The tracks varied in size and shape depending on the species, which included the voracious Veloceraptor. The largest of the tracks in the park is from a dinosaur that resembled a brontosaurus.

Into Pachamama’s earhole to try our hand at spelunking

The formation of stalagmites and stalactites from water dripping over thousands of years

The Umajalanta cave was a series of large chambers connected by slippery and sometimes claustrophobically small passageways. One passageway involved shimmying on our sides through an opening about a foot and a half wide. Tragically, people have knocked down many of the stalactites in the cave to sell them in La Paz or even just for their own amusement. Growing at a rate of about a centimeter a century, the stalactites and stalagmites in this cave will take eons to regrow.

Slipping through some tight spaces with expensive video equipment

Filing past the famous chandelier stalactite formation


We finally see the light

On our way out of Torotoro, Mango developed an amazingly irritating pair of ailments. Mango wouldn’t start except by jump starting her with the help of a hill. Coupled with that, whenever Mango went on too steep a hill she would stall out, thus requiring a jumpstart (backwards in those cases). This came to a head when Mango stalled out on a rock in the middle of a river. This was bad, very bad. On top of that, we had picked up a woman hitchhiking with her daughter. They thought we were completely crazy. In the end, a truck had to haul us out. On the steepest hill in the park, we unloaded Mango of all baggages and ourselves so that Mike could maneuver her up the hill (she barely made it). Thus, Elliot, Andy, and I had to haul our bags up the steepest hill out of the park. Finally we made it out, although I think we pushed her about a 1/3 of the way.

Atlas goes Bolivia

Mango gets stuck in a river on our long journey out of Torotoro

-Drew; Photos by Elliot

High-flyin’ La Paz

The first thing you notice walking around Bolivia’s high-flying capital is your lungs. They are working twice as hard to pump half the oxygen you are accustomed to into your brain.  Just ask FIFA, which once banned high-altitude soccer over games like this. The concept of flat doesn’t exist in the old city, built up the sides of a deep canyon that runs down from the Bolivian altiplano. Walking a few blocks up and down the city’s tangled cobblestone streets is a workout. La Paz, like the country it administrates, is worth the effort however. As a traveler, you’ll be hard pressed to find another city, country, or culture that makes you feel further from home in all of South America.

For two weeks, we cruised the city’s endless street markets and rubbed elbows with locals over 30 cent stews while investigating Andean glaciology and attempting and failing to summit imposing Huayna Potosi peak (more on that later). Among our best finds were Eddie and Cecilia Valdez, who adorned Mango’s backside with a crusading Pachamama, and the quirky Coca Museum, which recounts the history of the sacred Andean leaf and recreates a modern-day artisanal cocaine laboratory. Besides the headaches and traffic jams caused by Mango’s inability to climb the most banal of La Paz’s soaring streets, our lowest low may have come at the hands of one of the city’s famously tempermental cholita street vendors, who employed a banana projectile to remind Elliot that the act of taking a photograph can be lost in translation.

After 9 days we were ready to high-tail it out of La Paz, only to find the road blockaded for three days by striking bus drivers. Their quarrel with Big Brother Evo? A new law cracking down on bus drivers who drive drunk.  I couldn’t make this stuff up. The hiccup gave the crew just enough time to stare down the Grim Reaper on Bolivia’s famous Death Road.

-Andy, Photos by Elliot

La Paz, city in a bowl

Your average La Paz street corner. Handbags and mustaches are so 2010.

Plaza San Francisco under the bright lights.

Red Hot Chili Peppers. Making great music since 1984.

Bananas can be weapons. A vendor threw one at Elliot for taking this picture.

Bowler hats. The lynchpin of cholita fashion.

Golf-ball sized hail. Summer is the rainy season in the Andes.

Rubbing elbows with locals and eating well for 30 cents at the public market.

It goes on and on and on…

The cup spilleth over: here reside more than 20% of all Bolivians

La Paz’s death road enclosed in fog. All the better for contemplating impending doom.

The death road crew. Andy biked the road in 2008 and is too cool (poor) to do it again.

The first of many border crossings to come

In the interest of hurtling our readers forward into the present and beyond into the future, the next few posts will be a series of photo collections, short flics and anecdotes about some of the beautiful places we’ve visited over the past few months. That’s right, we haven’t been wandering the Peruvian altiplano since Carnival, but are currently motoring towards Brazil’s Pantanal and onwards to our greatest challenge yet, the unruly Amazon. We promise to go back later and recount our most transcendent travel experiences with the kind of in-depth analysis to which you’ve become accustomed.

Meanwhile, enjoy this video of the Collective kick-starting Mango on our way to the Bolivian border. She tends to faint in high altitudes.

- the Collective


Mango is a fruit. No, Mango is a fish or a cat. Mango’s a supersonic boxship. Discussion’s over. Mango is a canvas.

In La Paz, Bolivia, we met Eddy and Cecilia owners and creative minds behind Mama Coca, a shop selling masks and other artwork made by the two owners.  We had been toying for a while with the idea of some Mango adornment. The idea of getting local artists in the cities we visit to add a design to Mango was appealing. Impressed by the amazing masks the couple had created, we decided to inquire further.

Eddy and Cecilia’s design came back and was spot on. The video above is the full description of their vision for our car, but to give a sense, the idea was Pacha Mama, the Bolivian vision of Mother Earth, shielding the two main ecosystems of Bolivia, the highlands of the Andes mountain range and the forested lowlands, under her flowing dress. Behind her, a scorched a devastated landscape expands outside her protective fold. Yes! Hippy-correct? Check!

We dropped the car off on the top of an absurdly steep street in La Paz. Five days later we returned to claim our Mango in her revised glory. She has taken a new full name: Pachamango.

Taquile: A different kind of Carnival

A Tale of Two Islands
By Andrew Whalen

Trading beer for coca leaves with our new friend Bernardo and clapping my hands to the beat as a sea of dancers twirled, bobbed, and weaved in the main plaza on the island of Taquile, I realized that we’d stumbled on something special. There are two rules I’ve found true while traveling in the Andes: the locals are as stoic and difficult to befriend as they are said to be, and you as a tourist are typically seen as a potential source of income before all else. High up on Lake Titicaca, the island Taquile broke both those rules. Unfortunately, our spin through Uros islands (map) on the way back to the mainland put them right back in place.

The rules are the rules for a reason. The Andean region is one of the poorest in South America, and this poverty, the barren landscape, and the history of colonization have left their mark on the people. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tourists flood the region each year, to drink in the beauty of Machu Picchu citadel, the sapphire blue waters of Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian salt flats, and dozens of other spectacular travel sites. It should be a major generator of local wealth, right? Not quite. Like all other lucrative industries down here, foreigners and local elites run the show. Cuzco is, again, a prime example. The British company Orient-Express owns the only rail service up to the famed Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu and the only hotel located next to the ruins. Foreigners and carpetbaggers from Peru’s capital of Lima also own most of the tourist agencies that run treks up to Machu Picchu. I remember doing a story on the porters of Cuzco’s Inca trail and asking one of the Quechua Indians what he’d be doing if he weren’t hefting tents, trekkers’ baggage, and entire kitchens up and down stony mountain paths. He said back home, subsistence farming. “Up here there are only two economies: tourism and nothing.” Currently, there is a movement in the travel industry away from outside exploitation toward local-controlled sustainable tourism – known as community tourism, eco-tourism, eco-ethno-tourism, CO2rism in rainforests and more, depending on your pleasure. In the Andean region, this means putting control of the industry in the hands of local Indians. Taquile and Uros displayed both those extremes.

It was surprisingly difficult to get to Taquile, despite the fact the island was celebrating its carnival festival. All of the local tour agencies only ran overnight tours to the island of Amantaní, with a few hour stop the next day in Taquile. We missed the only community ferry to Taquile that left at 9 a.m., so we had to jump a boat mid-lake and pay extra to get there. Arriving in Taquile, we were surprised by how few tourists were there for the carnival. Our 2005 Rough Guide called Taquile the most popular island on the Peruvian side of Titicaca. We started asking around for hostels, only to find that Taquile played the whole tourism game by a different book. With no hostels in sight at first glance, we decide to grab lunch and ask around. Just 15 minutes after I asked the lunch joint’s owner about lodging, a spry, pleasant man dressed in traditional Spanish peasant clothing decorated with hand-woven Andean textiles – an outfit Taquileños adopted in colonial times – introduced himself as Jesus and said we would be staying in his home with his wife Esperanza, “Hope,” and their two children. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when a local schoolteacher turned politician, enter Bernardo, shoved coca leaves in my mouth and Pisco down my throat and decided to take me under his wing in the heat of the Carnival festivities that I got an explanation of what the heck was going on.

Taquile had been an early model for community-based tourism, explained Bernardo. As long as he could remember, islanders had rotated hosting tourists in their homes and also pooled sales of their UNESCO anointed textiles, sharing the bounty of the industry according to the ancient Quechua values of collectivism, ayni and ayllu. A Taquile representative recruited tourists in Puno and brought them over on a community-run ferry in the morning, and then delivered them to the family they were to stay with on the island. But Taquileños lost their grip on the industry in recent years, Bernardo described grimly, after agencies run by outsiders worked out a deal to bring  tourists to Amantaní. That left Taquile – which refused to let the agencies control profits and prices – as an afternoon trip on the way back from Amantaní to the mainland. Taquile still runs its morning ferry to the island, but the islanders get beat by the professional agencies’ advertising and sheer manpower in pushing their package to backpackers in hostels and at the local pier. Thanks to that sad turn of events, negotiations with the agencies had come to define the island’s politics, Bernardo explained, and that was the main reason why he, deputy mayor of one of the island’s six communities, wanted to run for a big promotion: mayor.

Local politics aside, Taquile is probably the most original, welcoming, and non-Western corners of Peru I’ve found as a traveler, not to mention one of the most beautiful and clean. The islanders took us in with open arms and let us participate, learn, and mix with the locals during one of their most important religious festivals, no questions asked. There was none of the begging for money off tourists or angry haggling with locals trying to give travelers the “gringo price” (take the local price and double it) that can be so common in other parts of South America. I firmly believe that this is not only due to the fact that Taquile is separated from the rest of Peru by a big blue lake, but also has everything to do with the islanders’ knowledge that the community controls the local industry and that the entire island shares in its benefit.

We were sorry to leave Jesus and Esperanza’s home the next day, but once we did, we decided to swing by the Uros floating islands. We had missed them on the way out in our hurry to get to Taquile. The famed floating islands, made of matted reeds on floating sod, have long been one of Lake Titicaca’s main attractions. But our reception was like night and day compared to Taquile. As soon as we were dropped off at one family’s floating home, the family’s unbathed children started crawling all over us. As their parents sat in the background, uninterested, the girls launched into a little routine: they would curtsy, smile, and say “take a picture!” and as soon as you did, they would stick out their hands for money. Once that got old – we stopped taking the pictures – they started a song and dance routine that ended with the same hand-extended pose. Over the din, we finally convinced one of the elders to give us an explanation of the islands’ origins. He whipped out a laminated poster showing how the islands float, and ran quickly through an uninspired presentation on the Uros with one of the young boys acting as his assistant. Of course, when it was over the boy came over and stuck his hand out for money. The whole experience was a huge shock coming from Taquile, where we’d played with Jesus and Esperanza’s son Edgar all day, laughing with him as he tried to film us with Mike’s video camera and snapping pictures of him and his friends posing in the plaza, with nary a mention of money. It was all out of a genuine, mutual interest in getting to know how each others’ world worked.

We were so put off by the Uros islands that we decided we couldn’t wait another two hours for the communal ferry to go back to the mainland. So we paid a gentleman from the neighboring floating island to taxi us back in his fishing boat. It turned out José, our boat driver, was actually not an Uros Indian, but a Quechua from northern Peru. He had married a woman from Puno and moved to Uros to open a fish restaurant and hostel on the island. We asked him if all the islands were as touristy as the one we just visited and he scoffed. Nope, he said, only five of the 35 Uros communities host tourists. Everyone else refuses them, he said with a smile and a shake of his head that made you know he thought their decision to refuse tourists was both foolish and to his benefit. It was the smile of a certain type of person known here as a vivo: those street-wise Peruvians who know how to make a quick buck and will dance around scruples with a smile to do so. Just then I was struck by a tidbit from the elder Uros’ presentation: that the Uros migrated onto the floating islands centuries ago to escape assimilation into the dominant Quechua and Aymara cultures. As we motored back to shore in a boat driven by a Quechua, dodging the wake of a big white ferry whisking another boatload of tourists off to the floating islands, I thought to myself that I couldn’t blame those Uros who refused to host tourists.

Awash in Tradition, Drowned in Color:
Carnival in Taquile
By Drew Straus

To my right, a pile of corn, beans, and dried fish cover a blanket laid on the cobbled floor of the courtyard, as women pour the food from their brightly colored knapsacks. Meanwhile other members of the community dig into the food by the fistful. Across from me an elderly woman rests her head on a relative, crying while wailing a monosyllabic tune. To my left, a drummer continues to play the ubiquitous beat of the day, too drunk to notice that the party is on break. I’m on the island of Taquile for Carnival, one of their biggest festival days of the year. We’ve danced our way to the community center of one of the seven communities of Taquile after being taken under the wing of Bernardo, a leader of that community. Moments before, Bernardo jovially handed Andy his scepter-like baton, a symbol of his authority as community leader. For a few awkward moments, Andy held on to the baton, before a horrified woman noticed and snatched the baton back for the swaying Bernardo. On festival day: community ritual, endless dancing, bright colors, and an island imbibed and imbibing.

We started out our day in the town of Puno, Peru, on the west shore of Lake Titicaca. After a confused exchange at the port, we finally took the 3-hour boat to Taquile, an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. From the approach, Taquile looked like a giant whale on the surface of the water. One big hill dominated the north side and then gently sloped down to the flattened west side. Getting closer, the whale became ridged as the agricultural terraces that cover the island came into focus.

Once on the island, we climbed up to the town square. Along the cobble path, neat stone houses with corrugated steel roofs marked a striking contrast to much of rural Peru where the houses are made of dust-colored adobe and brick, and often look on the verge of crumbling. Another notable feature of the houses was that most of them had a solar panel on their roofs, since Taquile has no other source of electricity. This also meant that the island has no electrical wire or towering telephone poles to mar the pristine sky. The main square sits in the center of a cluster of taller stone buildings and narrow cobbled alleys and opens on one side to a cliff and the lake.

The day was blazingly bright and was amplified by the surrounding water. Talking to some locals we discovered that today was the first and most important day of Carnival. The seven communities of Taquile were slowly making their way to the central square where the festival would take place. Already in the distance we could hear many flutes and drums slowly growing louder. While we awaited their arrival, we discovered the amazing textiles of Taquile. Named a World Cultural Heritage in 2005 by UNESCO, Taquile’s textiles are brightly colored and intricately patterned. The figures depicted in the woven belts and scarves represent important aspects of life on Taquile. One type of belt is even a calendar. We would later discover the textiles are woven on looms made out of interlocking branches. Shortly afterwards we got to see the textiles in full action.

The first of the communities of Taquile paraded into the main square in a whirl of color and a flurry of flutes. The women were dressed in many layers of skirts each a different electric shade: blue, green, orange, yellow, and red. On their backs they wore crimson woven knapsacks. The men wore black pants and shirt; everything else was a blaze of color. Their belts, knit hats, and shawls were all covered with intricate loud patterns. Each wore many small, brightly striped bags, tasseled in neon rainbow. The men in the community each played an instrument. Drums of many sizes tolled out a 20 second beat, accompanied by a wide variety of flutes, some almost as tall as the player, as well as whistles, ox horns, and conches all playing the same 20 second melody, which was repeated, without stop or diminished gusto, throughout the entire day. The women danced along to the music with quick small steps. At the crescendo of the rhythm, the women all spun braided ropes covered in balls of colored string over their heads while twirling in unison.

The other communities arrived in the main square one by one, each claiming a section of the plaza. While all the communities played the same melody and rhythm, they made no attempt to synchronize with each other. As the square filled to capacity, the groups slowly circled the plaza with the effect of a gentle cacophony of clashing flutes, irregular drums, and spinning colors with the backdrop of a brilliant vast lake and the barely visible mountains on the shore.

We rapidly discovered the source of the seemingly limitless energy of the people of Taquile. Each bag or pouch contained a bottle of pisco and an ample supply of coca leaves. The mayor emerged from the town hall with fanfare, bringing with him crates upon crates of beer and an enormous mound of coca leaves, which he laid out on a table above the square for the enjoyment of the community. Watching from the sides of the square, we began talking with two men from Taquile both surreally named Cesar. We quickly found ourselves pulled into the party as we shared beer and pisco, which they drank by draining full cups (or caps in the case of pisco) before passing it on to the next person. The feel of the day had changed as we were brought around and introduced to other festival-goers, usually (and much to our surprise) by being taken by the hand from one group to another.

The tone of the festival, I realized, though heavy on traditions, was lighthearted -thoroughly about the enjoyment of the communities of Taquile. This realization somewhat relieved my creeping suspicion that, dressed in preppy shorts, a striped shirt, and a straw hat, I was at least an eye-sore if not a turntable stopping, toe stomping, all out party-crasher. Interestingly, as we continued our somewhat bewildered rounds with the Cesars, we were introduced only to other men. Almost uniformly, we were welcomed to Taquile and offered something to drink, even from the older members of the community with whom there was no common language other than a sly nod at an outheld bottle. The most common topic of the day (aside from some brief “we love beer too!” formalities) was how much the people we were able to talk to loved Obama.

Soon the dancers prepared for the inter-community dance-off, judged by the mayor. Up until this point, I had been entirely unable to tell the difference between the garb of the members of the seven communities. While the dance competition went on, I noticed small distinctions, a style of hat or a particular color of ribbon in the hair worn only by one community. I should mention that this was the only distinguishing factor about the dance competition. All the communities performed exactly the same tune, rhythm, and dance moves as before, this time just one group at a time. A winner was declared (God knows how) and we ended up standing near the area reserved for the island officials.

Bernardo, one of the island officials, began talking to us and offering coca. Taking a liking to Andy, whom he wanted as his assistant on his run for Peruvian congress, Bernardo pulled Andy by the hand over to where a group of whirling, fluting, Taqilians were making their way out of the plaza. The rest of us followed and soon I found myself marching through the cobbled streets and down the hill with a huge marching band drum strapped to my stomach and no idea where we were going. We took turns trying to get the beat down right before we were stripped of our drum and Bernardo motioned us up a hill towards a large stone building.

Without realizing it, we had been invited back to Bernardo’s community. The building was the community center and in the courtyard, the dancing and playing continued. At this point, almost everyone in the community was so inebriated that no one noticed the women bouncing off walls or the flute players who had moved on to play their own solos. As I sat down and the evening meal was laid down on a blanket to my right I realized that this was the most colorful, probably highest participation level party I’d seen unfold. As a place not too far off the tourist map, I was surprised by how few tourists were there and, likely in turn, the openness of the people of Taquile.

I should mention too the wonder of the couple that we stayed with for our night at Taquile. Jesus and Esperanza run a wonderful B&B in addition to being the most impressively named couple in Peru.

We join the party. Hail Cesars!

“Bout that time, eh chaps?” “righto

Many layered skirts of Taquile women

The many bags of the Taquile men. All filled with booze & coca leaves.

We bring the funk.

Potatoes, beans, fish, salsa, and other Andean goodies: the holy spread of Taquile’s Carnival.

Rockpile #2: at the top of Taquile’s highest peak.

Up and Down Colca Cañon

During much of our driving into Colca Canyon, across a high pass, I thought it was raining out, at least a little bit. Small rivulets of water kept running down the windshield so I figured it was doing something out. Finally, near the peak our windshield became extremely cloudy every time we used the windshield wipers. As I went to clean off the windshield, I realized to my horror that there was no rain, mist, hail, or other precipitation. I touched the windshield and discovered that vegetable oil was leaking out of one of our reserve tanks that we store on the roof of the car and coating the entire front of the windshield.

Veggie oil sunset. Rivulets of oil after our spare tub sprung a leak on our roof

After creeping down the rest of the hill, we arrived, covered in veggie oil, in the town of Chivay before heading to the town of Yanque to stay at the home of Reth, our friend from Arequipa. Both towns have primarily cobblestone streets arrayed around a tree-lined central plaza.

View from la casa de Reth

After what felt like a quick nap, we woke up at 3am to visit a reservoir project by an NGO called DESCO in the highlands above the Colca River canyon. Lack of water supply and sanitation is a serious problem for Peru, which costs the country more than $1 billion annually. It’s a problem environmentalists warn could worsen as climate change melts tropical glacier and shifts rainfall levels across regions. The Peruvian government has promised to heavily invest in reservoirs up and down Peru’s desert coast to mitigate the potential costs of climate change, so we tagged along with DESCO to check out some of their pilot projects. We found their approach to be extremely interesting. Water reservoirs are not enough to stabilize the water supply on their own, they found, because they encourage migration back up to the highlands and overgrazing by alpaca and llama herded in the region. Overgrazing consequently leads to a drop in vegetation and soil quality, which reduces the ecosystems natural ability to retain water. Thus, Desco came up with a two-pronged approach: couple investments in small-scale water reservoirs and canals with capacity training to teach communities how to breed alpaca to produce more and finer wool. The idea is, if each alpaca produces better wool, individual families will need less of them, overgrazing won’t happen and the water supply will be improved. For more info, check out their website at http://www.descosur.org.pe/ (Spanish speakers only).

The women on each side of the valley wear their own distinctive style of hat.

Friday market finest.

On our return we were taken to two remarkable stops. First we stopped in the town of Callalli on what happened to be their market day. People from all over the area had come to town donned in their finest. The women were wearing particularly colorful dresses with intricate patterns in bright hues of green, pink, red, yellow and blue. The defining feature of the women’s outfits were their distinct hats, which fell into two types, a brightly colored fedora or a flat top hat with a large cloth flower on the side. Second, we went past a locally famous spot known as what translates to the Mystical Castle. Out of the top of a hill rose, almost straight up, a rock formation that looked like a set of serpentine walls.

The mystical castle

Flatbed montage from water reservoirs above Colca: Coca chewers & windblown hair

On the following day, joined by Reth, we visited Colca Canyon. The canyon is one of the deepest canyons on the planet.  At 10,725 ft deep, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Viewed from the top, the Colca River, which runs along the bottom of the canyon, is little more than a faint line. We spent the morning at Condor Point or Cruz del Condor (a slightly odd translation, we know), one of the deepest parts of the canyon and a great place to spot condors that slowly rise out of the depths. With a wingspan of up to 10.5 ft, these huge birds rarely flap their heavy wings, and instead circle gently looking for hot air currents rising along the walls of the canyon.

Condor Point. Colca is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon

Madrigal and Lari pueblos huddled above pre-Inca terracing, also known as Andenes

The peaks of Ampato and Sabancaya tower over a sunny Colca landscape

Drew pondering the abyss

Cabanaconde: top of the world. Place of legend. From there we began our 1800m decent to the floor of the canyon. It went like this. At the bottom, alongside the river, were several similar lodges. Ours, the Paraiso lodge, was just about right – simple thatch cabins, a communal lounge/dining area, and a crisp, cool pool built with a giant boulder forming one of its walls. A visit to the river revealed relatively calm, slightly brownish water, which was hard to imagine as partially responsible for the massive canyon. As Reth explained to us, upriver a series of locks were built in 1970 to feed the giant reservoir we had seen from Callali and to keep the river’s flow down especially during the rainy season when the river swells massively. We were viewing the river during a calm period. During the rainy season, its rapids are so intense that it remained an unconquered rafting challenge until the 1980s.

The descent: 1800m from Cabanaconde to Paraiso Lodge at the bottom of Colca Canyon

Our return climb, though strenuous, was somehow less body abusing than the descent. Upon reaching the top, we went to the thermal baths at Chivay. Set alongside the river, the baths are in a tile and stone building with one very strange feature: they have separate baths for foreigners and locals. Thus, as our host put it, we ended up ‘bañando en sopa de gringos,’ bathing in gringo soup.

Reth & the crew after the grueling return to Cabanaconde. 2:20 from bottom to top

Mike showing some victory skin, Whalens gently perspiring. Some subtle good touch bad touch with a rock

Rock towers abound at the viewpoint above Chivay. Our instant classic.

Written by Drew Straus

Photos by Elliot Whalen

And We Are BACK!!!!

The Verdant boys are back in town. Where were we, you ask? Well, it’s a long story. For now, suffice it to say that dozens of mechanics got to feel Mango up under the hood and the crew was too distraught to put fingers to keyboards. We promise to recount that harrowing tale and many more in minute detail right here, same Bat time, same Bat channel: www.inverdant.com

-The Collective

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