SARASOTA, Fla. (Feb. 13, 2017) – A seasoned traveler with treks through Europe and Central America already under her belt, 18-year-old USF Sarasota-Manatee student Olivia Epstein couldn’t pass up a chance to explore another culture.
So when an email circulated last fall promoting a two-week trek through Peru, Epstein quickly packed her bags: “It was an opportunity to travel to a place I had never been to before and the timing, between semesters, worked out perfectly.”
The offer turned out to be equally enticing to 13 others – six advisors and seven students, including two from USF Sarasota-Manatee and one from New College of Florida. Stops would include Lake Titicaca’s floating islands, the colonial cities of Puno and Cuzco and, toward the end of the trip, picturesque Machu Picchu. Tucked in between, travelers would visit historic and cultural sites including an archeological dig and an alpaca farm.
For Epstein, one of two USFSM students, the trip represented a chance to explore a corner of the world she knew little about.
“I’ve just always liked traveling,” she said. “I was fortunate to have parents who liked to expose their children to different cultures and new experiences. At first I didn’t know much about Peru, but the more I learned the more excited I got about going.”
The group left Dec. 11 and stayed 13 days. A unique travel destination, Peru offers a mix of modern and traditional. Visitors can one day bounce along by taxi through bustling capital city Lima and the next explore ancient ruins high in the Andes.
Organized by USF World, USFSM’s Global Engagement Office and USFSM anthropology instructor Dr. Theresa Gilbertson, who studied Peruvian textiles and culture, the trip presented that and more as the students and advisors would trek through colonial cities and pre-Columbian ruins, eye colorful vendor stalls and explore floating islands on Lake Titicaca.
That’s not to say the trip didn’t come without glitches. For one, intense headaches from altitude changes afflicted many, and throughout the trip the group was forced to observe strict prohibitions on unfiltered tap water and certain foods. Between headaches and dietary issues, one student, in particular, endured a difficult trip.
“You have to remember, we weren’t born into this culture,” Dr. Gilbertson said. “We haven’t been acclimated to this place. If you’re coming here, you have to be careful about what you take in.”
An “island culture” unlike any other
Aside from the headaches, the tour seemed to live up to its “once-in-a-lifetime” billing. Touching down in Lima, the group boarded a plane the next morning for colonial Puno, 12,500 feet high in the Andean mountains. The city abuts Lake Titicaca, famed for its immensity – 120 miles long, straddling Peru and Bolivia – and the 87 man-made islands that dot the lake.
Constructed from thick layers of totora reeds harvested along the shore, the islands support living quarters and communal areas for a people known as the Uru. The Islas Uros, as they’re called, extend miles into the lake forming a kind of an archipelago. Those nearest to Puno function largely as tourist stops where, in addition to thatched structures, visitors can examine tables piled with alpaca hats, blankets, necklaces, wood carvings and other items.
Farther out, the Uru live a more traditional lifestyle in totora-constructed homes furnished simply with a handful of essentials – pots, pans and bedding – although in recent years some of the island families have added water-filtration systems and portable solar panels gifted by the Peruvian government, universities and non-profit organizations to power TVs and recharge cell phones.
The Uru’s history is tricky to pin down, Dr. Gilbertson says. They seem to have emerged from the Amazon in pre-Columbian times hundreds of years ago and created the islands as a refuge from the Inca. Today, the Uru live a kind of hybrid existence with feet planted in both the traditional and modern, living on fish, birds and duck eggs gathered from the lake, but also from the proceeds of handicrafts sold to tourists.
Dr. Gilbertson said she intended the students and advisers to visit the islands to learn more about anthropology and culture of the Uru and to deliver five solar ovens after learning several years ago that a cooking fire accidentally engulfed one island.
In addition to Epstein, USFSM student Shealyn Spencer, chemistry instructor Dr. Ken Caswell and Martin McGuire, an information technology support specialist, joined the trip. Stepping onto the island provided the group with a unique experience, like walking on a giant waterbed.
“The houses, boats and furniture were all made of reeds,” McGuire noted. “The surface was very soft and it was a wobbly feeling stepping onto the bundles of reeds that made up the islands.”
The Uru people, while enterprising, turned out to be, “very welcoming as we learned their ways,” he added.
The group alternated between trips into Puno and visits to the islands to demonstrate the ovens, which had to be precisely angled toward the sun. One day, the students visited an elementary school. Carrying armfuls of colored pencils, pens, coloring books, stickers and other items donated by Director of Global Engagement Amela Malkic, they were surrounded by two dozen school children who rushed to greet them.
“The kids were amazing. They were so excited,” said Jennie Robinson, a Latin American studies student from USF in Tampa. “Immediately they started coloring. Some were running around with the stickers. They were almost losing their minds.”
Most supplies to the school are donated. Founded by a local woman who became the principal, the school is comprised of two wooden structures topped with corrugated metal. The children, preschoolers and adolescents, some barefoot, gather at long tables and arrive by boat daily from the various islands, plying the lake’s frigid waters an hour each way in some cases.
So grateful were the children for the gifts, they serenaded the group with a traditional song. “That was kind of a special moment,” Robinson said, adding that the group was warmly embraced at another island, as well, after donating 100 pounds of fruit. “They were overjoyed to receive that,” she said.
Convincing the villagers to embrace the solar ovens was more difficult. The group, including Robinson and Epstein, successfully demonstrated the technology, but the students and advisers couldn’t be certain the villagers would use the ovens once they left.
At one island, a villager said her daughter in Puno had borrowed their oven, which prompted Dr. Gilbertson to call for its return that day so the women could be better trained in cooking with the sun. However, at another island, they found the women had started to experiment with their oven, preparing a meal of fish and rice.
“That was one of the most meaningful moments for me because I knew that at least on that island they were going to use their oven,” Dr. Gilbertson said.
Alpaca, sunken farms and ancient ruins
The students spent five days at Puno and Lake Titicaca then boarded a bus for Cuzco, 200 miles northwest.
In between, they visited a number of Pukara and Incan sites as well as a colonial church among the most beautiful in Peru. The Pukara was the earliest culture on the Peruvian Altiplano, predating the Inca by more than a thousand years.
The group spent three nights in Cuzco, one of Peru’s oldest cities with roots stretching to the Spanish conquistadors and Inca. The city retains much of its colonial architecture despite a devastating earthquake in 1950 that destroyed a third of its buildings.
“Cuzco was fun to visit because it is more of a tourist destination than the first city we were in, Puno,” Epstein said. “I was able to eat some amazing food, shop and walk around town squares with other students. The change of pace was nice coming from Puno, which is more of a quiet town.”
Known as Qusqu to the Inca, the city thrived as the Incan capital from the 13th to early-16th centuries until it became embroiled in a four-year civil war. By the time conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1533, they met little resistance. The Inca were out-matched by the Spaniards’ weaponry, and Pizarro and his troops overran the city looting the temple and Incan palaces of gold and silver. A siege 10 months later to retake the city ultimately failed.
Fifty miles outside Cuzco, the students toured the Sacred Valley of the Inca where they perused cultural landmarks and an alpaca farm. Smaller than llamas, alpacas are bred for fiber to make hats, sweaters and blankets. Their diet includes grass and leaves, and the students took turns feeding handfuls of shrubbery to the animals.
Extending along both sides of the Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley served an agricultural center and enclave for Incan families, including wealthy estate owners. Aided by warm temperatures and a lower elevation than Cuzco and Puno, the region earned a reputation for maize production. Remnants of that vocation exist today: Tourists can descend terraced, circular farms designed to trap heat and moisture.
“They figured out that these little pockets in the highlands made perfect places for agricultural experimentation,” Dr. Gilbertson said of the sunken, circular structures. “Even at 12,000 feet, the Inca replicated crop conditions along the coast by noting that it became warmer the deeper they went.”
A couple days later, the students were aboard a train bound for Aguas Calientes, the village at the base of Machu Picchu. There, they clambered onto a bus for the last leg of their journey – a series of steep switchbacks that leads to the ancient city.
Rimmed by jagged, verdant peaks, Machu Picchu unfolds across a high plateau, an assemblage of grey, dry-fitted stone walls and footpaths interspersed with manicured, terraced lawns. The students lucked out, arriving on a day with clear visibility, making for a stunning vista.
“It really was breathtaking,” Robinson said. “Taking in all of it together, it was just really overwhelming.”
Historians are divided on Machu Picchu’s function, but the prevailing theory goes that it served as a trading post or repository for taxes and tribute to Incan overlords who controlled the local populations. The terraced areas were used for agriculture to make the city at least partially self-sufficient.
“I’ve read about it and seen the pictures, but to stand there and experience it person, it was just incredible,” said Epstein, who ascended a nearby peak, Huayna Picchu, for a better view. “I felt lucky just to be there, to see that history. But aside from that, it’s just a beautiful place to see. There’s nothing like it in the United States. My parents were definitely jealous.”
The students returned to Florida Dec. 24, weary and pleased to be home. Epstein said she’d like to return someday to hike the Inca Trail, a four-day walk from Chillca to Machu Picchu, and spend more time exploring Lima and Cuzco.
“I’d like to explore the scenery. I just like doing that, exploring other cultures and seeing what I can discover myself and not have an agenda.”
Dr. Gilbertson spent two years in the 1980s living in Peru, but is still moved each time she visits.
“The people, the varying cultures, the food, the geography, and the amazing archaeological ruins and artifacts combine to draw me back to Peru over and over again,” she said.