One of the most beautiful places I visited in the Peruvian highland jungle was the Blue Lagoon, Laguna Azul (La Laguna del Sauce). The name is slightly misleading, as there is no white sand, turquoise water and half-naked Brooke Shields running around with Christopher Atkins.
Instead, there is a peaceful lakeshore surrounded by jungle vegetation, perfect for swimming, fishing or kayaking under clear, blue sky. And if you are lucky enough to see a rainbow over the lagoon like we did, you will soon forget about false promises of Shields and Atkins.
To access Blue Lagoon, you will most likely pass by a small town called Sauce. A Macondo type of place where you feel like the time has stopped existing, and which alone is worth visiting. You can arrive by car (there are taxis) from Tarapoto, and switch to a mototaxi in Sauce -the whole travel will take about 40 minutes. Life is at the street here, and inhabitants take their time to observe the visitors. Men walk around with their rolled up t-shirts, displaying proudly their round bellies -perceived as a sign of prosperity in the jungle. Women selling chupetes de aguaje -plastic tubes filled with frozen juice of aguaje fruit - and children carry around their pet monkeys. On the street, horses and hens mix with pedestrials and mototaxis.
When you arrive from Tarapoto, you need to cross the river Huallaga, which is part of the Amazon basin. When I saw the wooden ferry boat in the turbulent river water, I had my doubts about ever reaching the other side. Alive, I mean.
Our transport to Sauce
Turned out that the ferry was rather solid, and four cars were easily carried to the other side. The service on board was excellent: they served coconuts, fruits and pastries, for just in case that someone gets hungry on that two minute journey. I immediately bought myself a machete opened coconut and enjoyed the ride with a beautiful scenery. Sooner than it took me to finish the coconut we were already on the other side.
Driving through Sauce to our destination at Laguna Azul, to a bungalow place called La Cabaña de Lago, turned out that our driver Yoni was quite a storyteller. We share the car with a couple of other passengers, and they were asking him to tell the story of the lagoon. "Ok" agreed Yoni, and turned down the volume of the tunes of Lambada. "There is a mermaid living in the lagoon" he said. "Unlike other mermaids in the world, she actually has legs. She looks exactly like a human and she is a beautiful woman. Only when you take a look at her feet, you notice that the feet are tied together, and it is in fact a fishtail."
"This mermaid loves to lure men into the lagoon. In the night she appears and she looks so attractive that men want to follow her. But she takes them deep down at the bottom, and they never appear again."
"There is one thing though" Yoni said, enjoying the attention of his listeners. "The mermaid only likes single young men. For this reason, no women or married men have ever drowned in the lagoon." "You see, she does not want to get in troubles with married men" he added, with a look that suggested he knew a thing or two about extra-marital relationships.
Laguna Azul, Sauce, Peru
Laguna Azul seen from a hill in Sauce
In the series of posts titled ”How to survive...”, let me introduce you some tips on how to survive a native American sweat lodge ceremony, known as 'Temascal' or 'Temazcal'.
There is a lot of mysticism around the ceremony, so let's demystify some facts!
The ceremony does not include drinking or smoking any hallucinogenic substances! The tobacco smoked for cleansing purposes is pure, natural tobacco and you can only take a couple of hits or not to smoke at all. I'm sure that the smoke from the bonfire alone is cleansing enough. Do not expect either to have a peek on the private parts of the other participants: I suppose that like us, most of the time in this ceremony people wear their swimwear.
In the beginning, all the participants (we were 11) of this ceremony gathered around a bonfire that had been set up earlier that day. One of the participants was burning aromatic Palo Santo wood and Manush, a Canadian with some North American native Indian ancestors told us stories about how the ceremony usually goes in his tribe. For example, our group consisted of both men and women, but in his tribe it was more common that men sweat in their own group and women sweat in their own. In some cases, warriors form a third group and they sweat apart. The sweat is considered as an offer and the ceremony itself is an offering ceremony to honour the ancestors, Mother Earth and the elements of nature.
Apart from Palo Santo wood, Agua Florida was used for pre-sweating purification. Agua Florida is simply flowered water that is used in many religious ceremonies in South America. I have bought myself a small bottle from the market, because I like the smell. You can find it any market, basically, and it will cost you something like two US dollars for a small bottle. So we just splashed some Agua Florida on our hands and faces like cologne, as a part of the ritual.
A small bottle of Agua Florida
Next, we moved towards the door, one buy one. One of the leaders of the ceremony greeted and guided everyone at the doorstep, with some more burning palo santo and after she had passed the smoke all over one's body, you were allowed to enter. The tent had a small door and it was a bit dark inside. We entered clockwise by the walls of the tent, without crossing the hot stones that were placed in a hole on the ground in the middle of the tent. Inside of the tent it smelled good, for the floor was covered with eucalyptus leaves.
Once we were all in and sitting in a circle, we started singing and some participants played instruments too. The ceremony includes four 'doors'. It means that the door of the tent -which by now was closed -was opened for times, each time to bring more hot stones into the fireplace. Each door represents one element of nature: the water, the air, the earth and the fire and the stones represented the spirits of the ancestors, Every time the door open and new hot stones were brought in, we greeted them by saying all aloud 'A-Ho!'. ”A-Ho Ancestors”, ”A-Ho the Great Spirit”!
In between the stones we were singing, and every one could think about someone to offer his or her sweat, either quietly or by sharing with the others, or address a prayer. Anybody could also propose a song. I must admit it's not always easy to sing along in many different foreign languages....But there were two simple songs we were singing probably the most, and in fact, they knd of got stuck in my head for quite a long time, so I will share the lyrics here as I remember (or don't):
Bienvenidos, bienvenidos abuelos (---a part that I don't remember---), mensajeros de la paz
Translation: Welcome, welcome ancestors (---), messengers of peace
Tierra mi cuerpo, Aire mi aliento, Agua mi sangre, fuego mi esprítu.
Translation: Earth is my body, Air is my breath, water is my blood, fire is my spirit.
Before the ceremony I was worried that it may get too hot in there and I would start to feel dizzy, despite the fact that I love saunas and hammams and I am very used to them -being a Finn and having spent quite long periods of time in Morocco- I was suspicious of sitting on the ground in a relatively small tent with some smoke inside made me feel claustrophobic. But there was absolutely no need to worry, and it did not get too hot at all. On the contrary, at some point I had to approach the stones, because I felt cold air at my back, entering from under the tent and it did not feel pleasant. Thinking of it now, that was the only unpleasant aspect of the whole ceremony.
Once we had gone through all the four doors and sitting in a tent for about two hours, it was time to go out. The plan was to go back to the bonfire, rince ourselves with water where some flowers had been cooked for the whole day, then dress up and stay sitting at the warmth of the bonfire. But unfortunately, while we were sitting in the sweat lodge it had started raining (abuelos, you heard us? Did someone in the group pray for the rain?), so we just quickly grabbed our clothes and went inside to take a shower and change.
The ceremony had the relaxing effect of a sauna, and I had the best sleep that night, and quite weird dreams as a bonus. Ancestor trying to communicate something?
A tent for Temascal ceremony, Sacred Valley, Peru
PS. I was reading here at Style.com about the latest spa trends...Some of them include energy-cleansing rituals with "Shaman prayers and meditation mantras, and the burning of herbs to remove low frequencies of negative energy". Will Temascal be the next spa trend?
From Cusco we continued our way towards the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Valley of Urubamba.
It was Easter Week, known in Peru and other Catholic countries as Semana Santa, the Holy Week.
The time in the Christian mythology when good beats the evil, light gains over darkness and all kind of miracles and mystic experiences may happen.
From Cusco we took a combi bus down to the Valley, which was about one hours drive. It was already dark when we arrived in Urubamba, but we managed to find a taxi to take us to the final destination.
Soon we saw that something is happening on the road and car had to stop.
It was an Easter parade, and the road was crowded with people carrying Christ statue, candles and singing psalms. Someone was burning incense.
We left the car and walked towards the crowd. It was impressive: the whole village was out on the street and the rest of the Valley was all quiet.
After what felt like a small eternity we were able to get back to the car and continue.
The moon was almost full and surrounded by a strange halo effect. What had so far been a road became now a narrow and very bumpy path.
Finally, we arrived in our final destination: Yoga Mandala retreat center where I was about to start a four days ashtanga yoga retreat.
It was late and you could see hardly anything in the dark. From somewhere close you could hear the sounds of a waterfall. A bit further, some people were sitting by a campfire.
Suddenly, a man dressed in a shaman outfit appeared from the darkness. He was wearing an impressive feather headwear and spoke with a strong Brazilian accent: "Hello friends, did you come hear for the Ayahuasca ceremony?". Eh...no, I came here for yoga!
Turns out he is waiting for another group of people. We moved on to get our room, to have a look around (as much it was possible in the dark), and then we sat by the campfire. Oops: a mistake! Our energies were not meant to cross with the energies of the sacred medicine plant. We moved further to a table outside and decide to eat a picnic dinner there, with some whiskey to warm up as the night has got chilly.
The (almost) full moon surrounded with a halo effect and a candle as our only light, and the rhytmic sound of shaman drumming and chanting as a background music, that was probably the most mystic dining experience I ever had in my life.
Later on in my warm bed, I smoothly fell a sleep, escorted to the dream world by shamanic chanting.
It was raining heavily on our first night in Cusco.
Rainy evening in Cusco
Yet, we left the comfort of our room to find something for dinner and hit the town.
The city of Cusco -or Qosqo, as it's called in quechua language - is located in southeastern Peru, in the altitude of about 3 400 meters above the sea level. Unless you are a professional athlete who frequently trains in the altitude or a local with native American origins, you will most probably feel the effects of the height in your lungs when climbing up some of the numerous stairs of this city.
Despite all the obstacles that Mother Nature, Pachamama, was placing on our way ( = the rain, the altitude and the general laziness of human being) we were well motivated to go and explore the city.
Streets had gone all quiet when it was raining. It had been 12 years since my first and last visit to Cusco, so I was curious to see how different it would look like now.
More shops, more restaurants, more tourists. More of everything, in fact, including that now there was a double-decker red buses for sight-seeing, like in any tourist destination in the world.
But the city still had its charm. Cusco has been the capital of the Inca empire, it has hosted the Spanish conquistadors and today it has a very international vibe.
The Andean Trilogy: Puma, Snake and Condor
After enough of walking in the rain it was time to get something for dinner. But where to get something quick, cheap and cheerful, when most of the restaurants were already closing their doors?
From my first trip to Cusco I remember that the solution most often was small hamburger stands that were to be found in basically every street corner.
Chicken shawarma on Drug Street, Cusco
So what would be a typical cusceño snack today?
Today, almost every street corner in Cusco seemed to host a shawarma/falafel restaurant. Yet another example of the Andean synchretism and capacity to adapt to foreign influences!
Cusco Cathedral, built by Spaniards on the foundations of an Inca temple
Tel Aviv? Nope, Cusco!
We ended up eating in a small place on the Drug Street.
Why it's called Drug Street? I don't know. I can only guess.
No matter how much I try to pack light, I always end up looking like an ekeko.
Bolivian ekeko. Photo: Wikipedia
Ekeko is an ancient god of good luck and prosperity in Andean Aymara culture.
Not more about that now, just using it for a metaphore for my packing methods.
I have to go now, off to some secret hotspots in Northern Peru.
Will report later, when the holiday is over (instead of blogging first and then trying to force my holiday to go as blogged -it never works).
Chau chau until then!!!
The local rumours have it that flying saucers have been seen at the Chilca beach, South of Lima.
I don't know how true is that, but I must say that paranormal activities are a good source of business ideas, as the Helados Ovni can witness. UFO ice creams? Who would have thought!
On your way to the beach you can in fact spot at the roadside many bars and restaurants selling with the UFO (or OVNI, as they say here). We ate an OVNI empanada with cheese, which was not bad at all and for the modest price of couple of soles you can enjoy the theme decoration.
The place is easy to spot when driving by as there is a giant alien doll standing there and I don't think I'm the only one wanting to pose with her.
The UFOs are not, however, the main reason to go to Chilca (or well -for some it may as well be). But for most people I know the reason to go to Chilca is either to surf or to bodyboard.