Seeing the world, one country at the time

Dancing in the Streets of Puno



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A cacophony of drums and brass instruments welcomed upon our arrival in Puno. After standing in line for our bags, we were accosted by a tour guide at the exit, who asked if we needed a taxi. I said yes because everything was dark, wet and confusing. Outside the station gates, loud music blared as a bright-costumed parade whirled before my eyes. The girls were really tour guides trying to hawk hotels. After showing us two mediocre hotels without hot water or atmosphere, I lost patience and found a public phone to call a nicer hotel with heating. I spoke to an older, kindly woman. For only five dollars more, we thought we deserved some quality while we recovered from our various maladies. It was a nice place and felt at home from the start. The woman welcomed us like family, making us tea. Our cozy room had heating and hot water, soap and towels! These little things can make backpackers so happy. We felt more at home in Puno than in Cusco, a tourist paradise.

Despite our late arrival, we decided to walk downtown and watch the parades of university students on last night of their festival. There was a lot of noise and rhythm. Some students wore marching band costumes,
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a mix of bordello and baton twirler; all glitter and high boots and corsets. Others were disguised as big gorillas. Everything shone as the participants danced in line in their impressive costumes (conquistador-style with jangles or typical chola dresses). A big gorilla grabbed me on one of the main pedestrian streets and we danced for a whole block, between the onlookers. Lars took photos as the procession passed by the main church. People were lined up shoulder to shoulder throughout the city’s walking streets.
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We went to our neighborhood bakery to buy bread, but after passing by a crowded chicken eatery, we decided to go there because the locals did and it was only three soles each. I found one black hair too many in my fries. One guy stared at us the whole time, clearly not used to seeing Gringos in his favorite dining hangout (or possibly not comprehending why Gringos who are “all rich” would want to eat there). Back at the hotel, we were treated to a hot shower! We kept the heater on full, but then the dry air kept us from sleeping. Lars’ throat hurt and I couldn’t breathe.

The next day I had to find eye doctor. My eye, which became infected on the Inca Trail, was worse and very painful. Our hotel owner helped me find somebody to see. It was a mere 20 soles to see the doctor for an initial check up and follow up. It cost more to call my Amex medical travel insurance to ask them to cover it. He made me feel better even if he said I have eye ulcers, which he hoped would get better, and gave me enough prescriptions to empty the pharmacy.
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While we could have walked, we decided to hire a bike taxi to the bus station where we caught a “colectivo” (van bus) to Chicuito. I felt so sorry for the old man carrying us, who huffed and puffed his way across town for one measly sol. We had an interesting ride out there in our van with locals. It was much better than tour buses. We squeezed in the back between cholas with their telltale felt hats. I asked one why the hat and where it came from. “You can buy them in Desaguadero”. But why the different styles? “This is the fashion now. The tall one is passť.” I was no closer to understanding this custom and from where it originated. Her husband, a very talkative man, was fascinated by Lars’ camera and wanted desperately to buy it, to photograph his family and the landscape. They were in Puno vacationing. He wouldn’t let up and I had to interpret for them. Lars tried to take pictures of his family. His wife refused.

We were dropped off in the main plaza where a few women sat by their food stand. It was quiet and the air was clean. I asked vendors where the “Inca ruins” were and one responded “the temple of fertility?” in a very playful voice. They must have thought Lars and I needed help. Chicuito is the site of an Incan fertility temple, which looks suspiciously like a field of tall gray penises. They are contained in an Inca style enclosing, with Imperial-style stone walls. Most were buried in the ground, fertilizing Pachamama, the Mother Earth. A lamb came running up to us, then got scared and ran off. When we arrived, a group of tourism students standing there started giggling. The girls came up one after another and asking me to take pictures with them. Their friend “Rano” (Frog) snapped photos with his antiquated camera as we posed by the biggest penis, which was attached to a supine man.
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Three kids poked their heads in, wanting to give us a “tour” in very broken English. The smallest one, Manuel, was two years old. He played in the dirty puddles and peed on himself. The second one was named Alexander, and the oldest, Maite. I tried to pawn a fake sol coin off on them, which someone had given me, but they noticed it right off and asked me to exchange it. I said no and took it back. After considering the options, they finally decided to accept it and pawn it off on another tourist. (Sorry, whoever you are!)

To return to Puno, we found a colectivo driver wanted to give us an “express ride”. “How much will you pay?” he asked. “One sol”, I replied. “Oh, you want to be a regular passenger with express service.” “That’s right, a passenger. We’ll come back when you’re full.” They normally don’t leave until they’re full. Instead, we found another full colectivo and climbed on. From the end station in town we got another creaky, unstable bike taxi to take us to the market to get lunch. Everything was closed and wouldn’t open until three pm! When do these people eat lunch? We finally found a bakery near our hostel with a banner advertising “cheese burguer” with a menacing teddy bear wielding a chainsaw and grinning. Maybe their burgers are that hard to cut up? It screamed Chucky Doll, so we skipped the burger and opted for saltenas and empanadas, five for five soles.