As we made our way from the parking lot, squinting under the bright sunlight, we crossed towards the first of what would be many stalls set up by the colorfully attired local women. Dark hair in twin braids down their back, tipped with tassels, and beautiful multicolored skirts and blouses, topped with complimentary aprons. Faces deeply lined from the sun, they hopefully offered us refreshments and local souvenirs.
The guide had mentioned a special type of caramel on the drive up that was known to be great for altitude sickness and headache. I eagerly asked around for the candy, but the first few women were sold out. Having given up my search, I concentrated on the surrounding charm of the small town. Large sun baked red clay bricks made up the modest homes lining the main pedestrian street. The rusticity of the homes contrasted sharply to the commercial looking central promenade we now walked on. Chickens accompanied us as we strolled to the beginning of the park, hoping for crumbs to fall from a candy bar or cracker.
Distracted as the guide repeated himself in English and Spanish, I continued to gaze around, unable to believe the natural beauty present. A small lake was nestled nearby, tributaries carved into the earth to nourish the nearby crops. Paired songbirds flirting shamelessly, flying around our heads. The guide mentioned that we were blessed to have such a mild summer day, kissed by the sun and nuzzled by the breeze. He emphasized that the area was known to have capricious weather.
I unwrapped a coca caramel and handed one to Joe, feeling devilish to be having such a treat. Luck was with me just before we entered the sacred grounds, and I had sneakily purchased a small bag of candies from the last stall just before we entered the grounds. I just was trying to test the medicinal properties, since coca is great for altitude concerns. It was a green candy, grassy on the palate, with a slightly gritty texture to the tongue. We would go through nearly the whole bag on this tour, they were that delicious.
Ascending the hill on a switchback path, we paused to learn about the various alters and sacred circles along the way. Certain areas were important astrological viewpoints, with the sun and the moon having their own special stone circles. Each was created with stones that had been carved to mimic three steps. The first representing the past, the second the present and the third the future.
The group had moved on, as I quickly climbed inside to stand in the center of the sun circle. Making sure to climb up using a stone that still had all three layers intact, I walked to the center where perhaps a shaman of the past might have stood in the small indent in the center. Turning, surrounded by indescribable beauty and feeling incredibly tiny in such a sacred space, I took a deep breath, locked the moment in my memory and left making sure to respect the space and leave on the same stone I had entered.
I don't know if it was the energy of the place, my excitement at being there, the candy or perhaps a combination of all three, but by the time we reached the top I was surging with energy. The wind had picked up by now, and grey clouds started moving in from the west. The guide mentioned rain, and said we had better hurry, but by this point I was engrossed in my own world.
Wandering around these stone towers, finding even the wildflowers and sage enchanting I hurried to the other side to catch a better view of the coming storm. Winding amidst spherical towers of various shapes and sizes, I realized that there were lightening rods dotting the landscape. Looking ahead to the dark mass ahead, I saw lightening strike, a thrill formed in the pit of my stomach.
The opposite side of the hill presented a sheer cliff overlooking another much larger lake. Directly below me, a restless lake lapped a rocky beach. Buffeted by the wind, feeling charged from the energy of this place. I closed my eyes and reopened them, taking in the hills, the storm and the churning lake. Directly in the center of this body of water is a flat topped hill that is home to one of the rarest relatives of the llama. One of the last precious places on earth they are found in the wild.
Alone, having left the group, I pondered how to best capture the moment. Pictures did little justice, and I haven't seen the video I took as of yet. So, I just soaked it in with my eyes, capturing the sunlight peeking through splits in the clouds nearest to me as a veil of rain obscured everything in the far distance. Periodic violet flashes rumbled through the darkest clouds to a chorus of rolling thunder.
Goosebumps decorated my arms as I reveled in the power of this place multiplied by the coming fury.
My moment shattered as the guide herded us down the hill to the transportation, he didn't want us gringos getting electrocuted on his watch. I realized the vastness of the second lake as we descended a different way than we had come, it wrapped around the entire back side of the hill we were atop, making the first lake appear a mere puddle. The first raindrops hit my neck as we hustled down the stone steps and hoped to make it back to Puno to watch the storm from our hotel room, but had no idea how quickly it was moving.
After loading up and beginning the trek home, we made a pit stop at one of the beautiful homes we had seen from the road. Various sheds and the main home were all connected forming a courtyard in the center. Connected by the same red clay bricks we had seen in town, the entire home blended in seamlessly with the surrounding beauty.
The family had 4 species of llama, and I attempted to take pictures of our over stimulated van-mate Charlie as he tried to hug the large beasts that were spitting at him. After several semi successful attempts we proceeded into the courtyard. The family had made us a light meal of traditional foods, and we ate, happily surprised.
With one eye to the sky, I ate fresh cows milk cheese, delicious quinoa cakes and boiled potatoes. The potatoes were accompanied with a traditional sauce made from a local clay. Eager to try the clay, I dipped my potato in quickly and munched away, surprised at its complexity. It was quite savory and had an almost sweet finish. Joe surmised that it must have had a high percentage of organic matter, leading to the edibility and overall deliciousness. I just ate it and didn't ponder for too long what might actually be in it. They said that it is a medicinal clay, and should be eaten often when not feeling well.
The rain began to come down in earnest, and a small group of us hightailed it to the van, exciting its car-alarm as we clamored inside, laughing at the fact that we had been such sissies. The rest of our group soon followed suit and after a silent ride, everyone lost in their own thoughts, we made it back to Puno.
We beat the storm there, and I realized that I wanted pizza more than anything for dinner so we had pizza accompanied with one dollar cups of mulled wine. After our quick meal we hightailed it to our hotel and opened the shades, leaving the lights off. We beat the main part of the storm and sat in front of the windows for the entire length of the show. Completely mesmerized by the flashing lightening, we counted seconds before the thunder to figure out how far away the lightening actually was..
Bizarrely, not long after the storm began, and throughout its entirety, what sounded like a mad marching band was playing with full force and gusto from the plaza just around the corner. Deciding that our dryness and warmth were at a premium at that time, we decided to not investigate and instead be serenaded not just by Mother Nature, but the queerly blasting marching band. It only paused once while the lightening and thunder were crashing down together from above us. They soon picked up from their break to continue playing until the rain stopped. We will never find out if they always play songs when it rains there, or if it was just a special occasion.