Not a pet…

Guinea pig (cuy, in Peru) is a much prized delicacy in Peru, eaten on special occasions, such as parties, celebrations, or festivals, or even as a treatment for a particular malady. Our tour guide repeatedly emphasized to us, “you turned our food into your pets; we did not turn your pets into our food”.  In fact, wild guinea pigs, which can be still be found in farm fields in the Lake Titicaca area, and I suspect elsewhere in Peru also, were a favorite food item of the Incas back in the 1400-1500s.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

A Peruvian woman gets ready to prepare fresh guinea pig for her guests — us! After humanely euthanizing the animal, she removes the hair and the guts, then places it in the frying pan on her wood-fired stove to cook.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

Divided among about 16 people, there is not much more than a mouthful of prepared guinea pig to taste, but it proves to be quite mild — just like chicken!

Guinea pigs are farmed in Peru today, much like you would raise chickens.  They sometimes occupy the attic of a house, or larger numbers are raised in guinea pig barns, provided with fresh greens from the field daily, and their manure collected to fertilize gardens.  They are not related to pigs, but are rodents native to the South American Andes area.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

We visited a farmer who started with 25 guinea pigs and now has a population of 300 he is raising to market in the barn built just for this purpose.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

In the interior of the guinea pig barn, pens separate individual families and weaned offspring from each other so there is minimal fighting.  The guinea pigs are provided with fresh greens daily, but don’t seem to require water in their diet.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

Farm-raised guinea pigs are white, tan or brown, or brown and white, with very soft fur, although their wild ancestor has more of a hoary, grizzled coat of rough hair.  They reach market size at about 3 months of age.

Wild guinea pig, Peru

Wild guinea pig from lake Titicaca.  Note the difference in the fur and eye color.  Selective breeding has changed the appearance of the animal.

Guinea pig farming provides a good income for farmers; the animals might sell for $8-10 a piece, are marketed to restaurants as far away as Lima, thus raising the farmers’ monthly income substantially.

The preferred preparation of guinea pig is roasted in a wood-fired oven, but families without oven facilities can bring their meats to a “Baker” whose large capacity wood-fired oven can handle baking breads, meats, etc. to order on a daily basis.

Peruvian baker with roasted guinea pig

A third generation “Baker” with an order of fresh roasted Guinea pig ready for pick up.  

Guinea pig is so popular, you can even find it for sale on street corners in larger towns.

roast guinea pig for sale in Peru

A young girl advertising roast guinea pig available at a local restaurant hopped on our bus briefly.

An unwanted invader

The European Hare is one of the most widespread mammals on earth, due not only to its ability to thrive and reproduce in a wide variety of habitats, but also to its intentional introduction to new geographical areas by humans.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We saw this European hare in a small farming community on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

For example, 36 hares were intentionally released in central Argentina in 1888 and just 20 years later, they were so widespread in Argentina, they were considered a major agricultural pest. Another intentional release of hares in southern Chile in 1896 may be the source of animals that have subsequently invaded Bolivia, and more recently, the southern tip of Peru, where they were first discovered as recently as 2002.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

A dozen or so hares scampered through the brushy fields intermixed with small crops, fleeing as soon as they saw us.

The mixed grassy field-small crop production areas, broken up by thickets and stone walls are perfect for this little invader, which seems to do well from sea level to high altitude zones.  The only barrier to its rather rapid rate of dispersal in South America so far is the humid and complex tropical Amazon region and densely populated urban areas.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s brown, tan, black and white blotchy fur pattern blends well with rocky areas of the same color, giving the hare some ability hide in plain sight.

The spread of European hares in these small farming communities where plowing, planting, and harvesting is all done by hand on small plots would have a great impact on farmers’ yields.

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca, Peru

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca are ripe for harvest by fast multiplying European hares.

In Argentina, hares are a favorite prey of Puma (cougar), but top cat predators are absent in this area of Lake Titicaca.  It’s possible that avian predators in this area might take young hares, but adults are large, long-legged, fast runners with great endurance for escaping predators.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Run, rabbit, run…

So for now, the European hare has an open niche to exploit, from coastal to high altiplano farms and fields in Peru.

the road to Puno

We set out from Cusco to the city of Puno in the southern part of Peru, where the Andean plateau widens and rises to about 12,500 feet and continues as a wide expanse into Bolivia and Chile.  This is the second largest and highest plateau in the world, after that in Tibet.

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Along the road to the La Raya pass at 14,200 feet, wide expanses of green are broken up by small agricultural plots of beans, corn, quinoa, and other vegetables.  Large herds of llamas and alpacas, a few cattle, and some sheep are more prominent here than they were in the lower valleys near Cusco.

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Llama herd on the road to Puno, Peru

Alpaca herd, Andean plateau, Peru

This herd of alpacas was tended by a single herdsman, without the help of fences or dogs to control the herd.

Train to Puno at La Raya pass, Peru

A train runs between Cusco and Puno over the 14,300 foot pass. Talk about taking your breath away…

The scenery on either side of the pass is as dramatic as any mountain scenery anywhere, especially realizing that the base of the mountains here is 12-14,000 feet.  Only the most hearty and well acclimated can survive and prosper in this thin air, where the oxygen content is just 60% of what it is at sea level.

La Raya pass, Andean plateau, Peru

I’m guessing these peaks might be as much as 19-20,000 feet.  It’s a stunning landscape.

Chilly Chinchilla

Long-tailed furry little mammals leaping long distances between the rocks at Machu Picchu were a surprise.  Their color and body shape hid them well between the rocks.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

What is this? A picture of some rocks? No there is a chinchilla in the middle of the frame.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

Long ears, long tail, and about the size of a rabbit, Chinchillas were highly valued for their soft, dense fur.

Two species of Chinchilla are native to the Andes mountains of South America.  Once widespread throughout the higher elevations in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, they were over hunted for their fur, and now are found only in remote parts of Chile.  Chinchillas have the most dense fur of any land mammal, most likely an adaptation to the cold temperatures of their high elevation habitats.  As a result they overheat very easily at moderate temperatures and are difficult to keep in captivity.

They are highly social, living in large groups or herds, in rocky crevices in the mountains, which makes them difficult to spot as well as capture.  They look like easy prey for raptors, but have the unusual habit of spraying urine and releasing clumps of fur when attacked.

Eating off the land

At Machu Picchu we saw how the Incas farmed steep hillsides with terraces reinforced with stone walls, but today’s Peruvian farmers cultivate flatter valley and lake bed soils using the same community effort their Incan ancestors did.

Harvesting potatoes in Chinchero district outside Cusco

The deal was, we could take photos of the farmers if we helped harvest the potatoes. This is not easy work at 12,300 feet, in the Chinchero district about an hour’s drive from Cusco.

Chinchero district outside Cusco, Peru

Small plots of potatoes, corn, oats, alfalfa, and mustard belong to individual farmers, but are harvested by all members of the community.

Chinchero district outside Cusco, Peru

Beautiful rolling countryside, framed by high mountains just an hour from Cusco.

Farm in the Chinchero district, near Cusco

This farmer raises everything he needs to feed his family, but to buy school supplies for his kids, he had to sell one of his pigs. This is a small plot of lima beans and two varieties of quinoa.

Farm in the Chinchero district, near Cusco

The kids get to take care of the new-born calf.

Near Chinchero, Peru

Terraces are still used for farming in some places outside the town of Chinchero, Peru.

the llamas of Machu Picchu

We were fortunate to see the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu on an almost clear day for at least two hours before heavy rain settled over the area.  I was surprised to find so many llamas wandering through the site, but they created great photo opportunities.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas are quite social and usually occur in groups. This one must have been entranced with the scenery.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas come in a variety of colors, from white to brown to black to spotted, probably as a result of selective breeding. Their wild relatives, the vicuña and guanaco, have uniform brown and white color patterns.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

The gestation period for llamas is 11.5 months, but female young develop quickly and are ready to breed in one year, while young males take as much as three years to become fully mature.

Llamas actually originated in North America, and migrated to South America about 3 million years ago when the Panamanian land bridge was established.  Today, there are no wild llamas, since they were domesticated soon after humans reached South America about 10,000 years ago and began to do more farming than hunting and gathering.  Some say the conversion to agriculture would not have been possible without the use of llama dung as fertilizer.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Like other members of the camel family, llamas are grass eaters and digest their food in a multi-compartmented stomach with the aid of bacteria there.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Two pair of Incisors on top and bottom help them crop grass close to its roots with a yank of their head as they bite down. Nice long eyelashes too.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

What a beautiful place to live…

Into thin air

We traveled from sea level Lima to Cusco (11,150) feet and than down to the village of Pisaq (9500feet) in the Sacred Valley, the bread basket of the Inca.

As we huff-and-puffed our way through the Pisaq archaeological site, I began to appreciate the amazing engineering feats the Inca achieved in creating tillable land, bringing water to their crops, and bringing stones to their architecture.  Pisaq was in fact the finest example of the terraces built for agriculture.

Inca terraces, Urubamba Valley, Peru

To give a sense of scale, those orange dots in the center left of the photo are the helmets of workers cleaning the terraces.

Terraces were supported by 10-12 foot stone walls, then a thick layer of gravel was added to the base, followed by a deep layer of sand and dirt, repeated many times up the mountain side.  Different combinations of soil mixtures were added to compensate for the microclimate growing conditions of north-facing vs south-facing slopes.

Urubamba Valley , Peru

Today, the valley floor is intensively farmed, in place of terrace agriculture. Mostly corn, some alfalfa, and other farm vegetables are grown next to the river.

For safety from potential invaders, the Inca villages were placed high up on the mountains, and usually had the full complement of apartments, military citadels, cemeteries, and astronomical observatories.

Pisaq archaeological site

Entering the Pisaq archaeological site

Pisaq archaeological site street vendor

Street vendors are found everywhere in Peru. For the unskilled labor force, this is one of the only ways to make a living.

Pisaq archaeological site street vendor

The haunting melody of the Inca flute accompanied us into the archaeological site at Pisaq.

Above the rainforest canopy

A series of 14 bridges carry you from big tree to big tree at the Explorama canopy walk just a short walk from Napo lodge on the Napo river, one of the Amazon tributaries.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Successive walkways gain height until you reach a height of 117 feet above the forest floor.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Netting strung between cables provides hand holds for a shaky bridge. The floor of the walkway is two side-by-side boards covering ladders laid horizontally end to end. Longer bridges shake noticeably, but are safe, and checked every day.

Few birds were active in the middle of the day when we did the canopy walk, but the views were magnificent.

Explorama canopy walk, Napo lodge, Peru

Bromeliads covered the top one third of the tree trunks. These “air plants” capture rainfall in the canopy and provide breeding sites for frogs, lizards, spiders, and insects, which the birds then feed upon.

Black-bellied Cuckoo, Amazon, Peru

A Black-bellied Cuckoo rested in the shade at tree top, escaping the mid-day heat.

White-tailed Trogon, Amazon, Peru

A White-tailed Trogon alternately panted and looked around from his high altitude perch in the canopy.

Canopy lizard, Amazon, Peru

This canopy lizard would have made a nice meal for the cuckoo, but the birds were too hot to hunt. And so were we!

Monkey faces

La Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) is a rescue operation for the thousands of baby monkeys sold in local markets as pets or for bush meat.  The island is about 20 miles down the Amazon river from Iquitos, where many of the animals have been rescued.  Once rehabilitated to the wild, the monkeys are free to roam the 450 hectare island, which has been planted with a variety of fruit- and nut-bearing trees.  A few of the local monkey faces…

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Yellow-bellied spider monkey

Yellow-bellied spider monkey hanging by his fifth appendage.

Over 200 monkeys have been rescued so far, but the Center estimates that hundreds of thousands of monkeys enter the pet trade each year.

River dolphins

The Amazon river is a vast and impressive highway, carrying people and goods to and from Ecuador to Peru to Brazil.  It is also home to hundreds of fish, amphibian, and caiman species, as well as the pink river dolphin.

Amazon river dolphin

A river dolphin breaks the water for a look around before diving back down

River dolphins in the Amazon are the largest of the fresh water dolphins, with males weighing up to 500 pounds and growing to almost 9 feet in length.  There is pronounced sexual dimorphism in this species, but unlike other whales and dolphins, the females are about one-third smaller than the males, instead of larger.

Amazon river dolphin

Unlike dolphins at Sea World, these dolphins did not exhibit any gymnastic leaps and flips for us.  Their heads barely broke the surface and we could barely see their dorsal fin and tails as they dove again.

Males have pinkish bodies and often show battle scars from competition with other males for females during the breeding season.

Amazon river dolphin

A bite out of the dorsal fin indicates this individual may have seen some battles with other males.

Amazon river dolphin-

Males get pinker with age, females and juveniles are gray.  Older dolphins may fade to white.  Photo from

The huge melon on their forehead is fatty tissue that helps them direct their sonar echolocating beam.  River dolphins emit a small amplitude click that helps them locate nearby objects and prey in the muddy Amazon water.  A longer beam like that emitted by oceanic dolphins would echo back too much confusing information in such a visually obstructed environment.

More than 53 species of fish, river turtles, and crabs are food for river dolphins, with an individual sometimes sharing food with another.  Dolphins may hunt with other species like river otters, putting increased pressure on their prey in a cooperative hunt, but dolphins and otters tend to specialize on different species in the hunt.