A holiday in Peru (2011-10-07 to 2011-10-24)

Creative Commons License

A holiday in Peru, and all the linked pictures
, by Andy Pepperdine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

For several years, I've had a casual interest in the old civilisations in Peru at the time the Spanish arrived to demolish the structures aided by a civil war that had just broken out. They had no writing, no money, no beasts that were useful, no wheel, and yet in about 100 years from 1430 to Pizarro's arrival in 1531 they extended their influence from north of Quito in present-day Ecuador to south of Santiago in what is now Chile a span of over 4,000 km. Their centre was the so-called Sacred Valley in modern day Peru, in the high Andes. The autumn of 2011 gave me the opportunity to see the terrain and get a feel for the engineering that had been done and see how extensive it was, including, of course, a trip to Machu Picchu.

An early morning flight from Heathrow meant I spent the Friday night in a hotel, and at the airport, 6 of us found one another before boarding the short hop to Paris where we rushed through to the transatlantic flight, where we waited on the aircraft for half an hour. The 12-hour flight to Lima was uneventful, and the group was met by our guide, Efreim. Two others had made their own way to the hotel, and the group of eight, plus guide, got together for our first supper. (I'm behind the camera). As you can see, there were seven women, me, and the guide.

The following day, Sunday, we had a bus tour of parts of the town. Lima is divided into about 24 independent "boroughs". Our hotel was in Miraflores, and we also saw parts of San Isidro and Lima, seeing the Spanish colonial legacy and churches and the cathedral (example). At the National Museum, the local guide (whose name I did not record) gave us a brief history of Peru as far as it is known. The displays are well organised, and it is a pity I was still suffering a bit from jetlag and did not take it all in. There were some examples of stone carvings, and a description of the Inca empire, Tawantinsuyu, as a federation of four separate regions, set in a comparative chronology.

The word Inca applied only to the ruler of the whole empire, and the Spanish referred to it as the Inca Empire. The people called themselves Quechua, and spoke the Quechua language and its dialects and derivatives.

In one of the squares in Lima, there was a piece of popular art, a step up from the graffiti of most places.

Lima is on the top of a cliff at the sea's edge, where there is one of the most renowned parks called the "Love Park". The main sculpture (El Beso) follows the theme, and was created by Peru's principal artist, Victor Delfin. From the park, a pier can be seen on which there is a restaurant, serving very fresh sea food, and many crabs were visible as we walked to it for lunch.

Almost all of Lima is now post-colonial in nature, but there are some earlier remains, like the Huaca Pucllana made of mud bricks, and dating possibly to 1500 years ago to the Lima culture.

Monday saw us on the plane again, this time to Cusco early in the morning, but after a brief visit to the main square, we took the bus to Urubamba, which is at a lower altitude to acclimatise better, and our first stroll in the Sacred Valley. Our hotel, Eco Andina, was just outside the town.

The next day, Efreim showed us his own village, Yucay, where he was brought up. Quechua was his native language, and he had to learn Spanish at school in order to be educated in other subjects, all of which are taught in Spanish. The walk included a track, between retaining walls. The level of the fields was at the top of the wall, and these walls are still standing after centuries, so good is the drainage to prevent a buildup of water behind the wall. Every now and then, we would stop for a talk on how a particular plant was used, for a dye, medicine, soap or shampoo, for example. The Incas knew how to make the most of everything that grew there.

Their water management skills were also clear. Here is a deliberate cascade to reduce the splashing and wear when water drops to a lower level. In this area, there is enough flat space to have recognisable fields of crops.

Later we took a bus to Pisac (or Pisaq). The Quechua language was never written down before the Spanish arrived, and even today there is no agreed spelling - the letters c, k and q often seem to be interchangeable, although it may reflect local dialect and pronunciation. Lunch was outside at a sort of small square with its own civic decoration. The shape on the left with a hole is considered a good omen and was seen in many guises and places. Guinea pigs, a local delicacy, were also being kept on site, fed by a type of grass that is farmed and harvested for just this purpose.

After lunch, a walk among the terraces of Pisac was an introduction to more typical paths and topography of the Sacred Valley. The ruins began to give us a feel for the extent and type of building. In one place, were more important buildings, as could be seen from the care of the shaping of the stones for the walls, like this example of a corner in which can be seen stones that are carved to go around the corner in an L shape. Here is a picture to show the height of the terraces.

Wednesday started with a visit to the market in Urubamba, where you could get anything. Zooming in on t he red shawls of the men in the distance shows that they have woven into them strips of patterns. Each family will record its history as a series of mnemonic diagrams, since the local languages are not written down. These strips are that record. Here they are on shawls, other groups will use belts to hold the records.

Then we went high up to Chinchero and beyond to about 3,800 metres above sea level, where from Raqchi we had a good view of the valley below. Also from there we could see the proposed site for a new airport to replace the one at Cusco which cannot be expanded further. One of the difficulties with the present one is the altitude. When tourists arrive there, and stay in Cusco it can be too high for easy acclimatisation. this new one is even higher, but is much closer to Urubamba, which being at about 2,800 metres is normally much easier for new arrivals. It is also closer to the centre of the Sacred Valley where most tourists are heading anyway.

Also in this photo you can see some eucalyptus trees. These were introduced about 100 years ago and grow quickly and straight. They can provide good building timber as well as wood to burn. The native qeuña tree cannot provide wood for fuel in such quantity, nor is it suitable for pillars in buildings. So they were thought to be a great blessing and the locals obviously make the most of them and they are found in many places. However, they also remove any water that is around and can starve local plants. In addition, the oily leaves do not rot in these foreign lands. Consequently, the government has now banned any new plantings, asking them to plant qeuña instead. Needless to say, this not a popular measure, although understood.

As we walked down towards Urubamba again, we had a diversion to hear about the natural dyes used to colour the yarn. The principal one is cochineal, and by mixing it with other things, like lemon juice, various shades of red can be made. They claim 20 different shades. Other colours, blues, yellows and greens, can be obtained from various plants in the area. Undyed, alpaca wool comes in white, black, and shades of brown in between.

Later, there was yet another example of good Inca engineering. There's a lot of it about. and still standing even after earthquakes that frequent the region. The tracks are well-kept and often restored after heavy use. And if you are sceptical about the seismic activity, what about these vertical rock strata. Not all of the water channels are of ancient origin, new ones are concrete, and reminiscent of the levadas of Madeira.

The next morning found us at Ollantaytambo. One of the most striking features was the old food store, The walls are punctured with many open holes, but this is thought to be a primitive cooling method. It happens that there is almost always a westerly wind blowing cold off the Pacific at this location, and the swirling air currents would keep the contents dry and cool. Another example of the Incas knowing what they were doing.

Stone carving was their speciality. They even carved alcoves out of the very rock of the mountains. Or angle pieces, possibly for corners of buildings. But how they did it is apparently a mystery. The only metals they had were gold, silver, copper and tin, and these are not hard enough to chisel out the hard granite of the rocks, 7 on Moh's scale according to the guide. Bone and wood are obviously not hard enough either. If you have any ideas, don't tell me - talk to the archaeologists.

In the afternoon, two of us started the hike along the Inca trail with our guide Jaime. The Peru government has tightened up on the regulations controlling who can use it, and how. Each guest should be accompanied by at least two porters. Each porter is allowed to carry no more than 20kg plus 5kg of his own possessions. At the start and occasionally along the trail, there were check points to make sure that the weight limits were adhered to.

Soon we could see the mountain known as Veronique, or Sacred Tears. The legend is that the last Inca when he was retreating from the Spanish, climbed to the top of the 5,800 metre peak to see Cusco one last time. It is probably false, as I later discovered the peak is not visible from Cusco. Only the very highest peaks have any snow this close to the equator, and the high peaks are in a range that is not visible from most of the Sacred Valley.

The Incas took observations of the night sky very seriously. Along the extent of the Milky Way, more visible in the southern hemisphere than the northern, there are a number of black patches, which we now know to be caused by occluding dust. But to the Incas, they were important, and they had given them names of animals, such as condor, puma, snake etc. They mapped these onto the range of the Sacred Valley and devised towns along the river associated with these animals in the same sequence as the along the Milky Way. They even planned them in similar shapes. Here is one of them, the snake, which can be seen in the lower part of the picture.

The first campsite was at Llactopata. The site had tents for each to sleep, for us to eat, for the chef to produce wondrous tasting soups and meals, and even a toilet.

Friday entailed a climb from about 2,800 to 3,800 metres, steady all the way, but not steep. As it happens, there was a poster showing the altitude profile of the trail, and we would go this day from about the 5km mark to just short of the highest point. Later in the day, we could see it, the Dead Woman Pass (Warmiwañusca). The walking was along well maintained tracks the whole way, until we camped at Llulluchupampa.

The following morning, we got a better of view of why the pass has its unusual name. It is not because of any unfortunate fate that a woman suffered, but simply because of its appearance with the head on the left, and the breast on the right. We had only a brief rest at the top of 4,200 metres (here looking back the way we came) before continuing into the next valley before climbing again to a lower pass at about 3,900 metres. The feeling was of a valley a little more moist with a waterfall supplying it. It was also more misty and cloudy. As we approached the pass, there was an old Inca guard post with a good view of the path below.

Into the next valley, and the vegetation became greener. But the path undulated, through a natural cleft in the rock, until we were greeted by the usual llamas at the final camp site at Phuyupatamarca.

Dawn on Sunday showed us the clouds lying in the valley where we were heading, but I had to be quick to take advantage of the opportunities for photographs as the mists swirled around us. We had a short ritual to thank the porters and provide them with some extras in a raffle that the guide organised. Even then, one of them had taken his load and left to carry some of the things down to the hotel where we were staying that night in Aguas Calientes.

As we descended into the jungle, it was noticeably more humid and warmer. Butterflies abounded, including some very large ones (up to 20cm wingspan according the the books) of a type called Morpho. There are many species in this genus, and the one we saw twice was large, and had an iridescent translucent blue and yellow hue - very striking and attractive, but flying too fast to get any pictures. We had an early lunch at Wiñay Wayna. This was not discovered until 1956 by an archaeologist who was chasing an employee who he thought was slacking when he stumbled on it in the jungle. It has now been cleared, but you can see in the background the trees that could easily cover it or other ruins. It consisted of the usual high standard of stonework and had a commanding view of the valley below.

We do not know the name the Incas would have given this place. The present name means Forever Young, because of the orchids of that name that grow in the district. The legend is that there was a Romeo and Juliet -like couple from opposing tribes who eloped and drowned in a river when they were found by the following armies. Where their bodies were recovered, this orchid, and another that grows in association with it, were found in abundance and the name was given to commemorate the lovers.

Eventually, we got our first view of the ruins known as Machu Picchu. The road you can see snaking its way up the hillside is the way that tourists are ferried in buses up and down all day. The picture was taken from Inti Punku (the Sun Gate). We also got a good look at the steepness of the sides of the valley through which the river ran. In the evening, we met up with the rest of our group, and had a superb dinner at the Indio Feliz, one of the two best of the entire holiday.

On the Monday, the two of us who had walked the Inca Trail, went early to Machu Picchu for a guided tour before the hordes of tourists arrived. The place was larger than I expected, and it is full of interest almost everywhere. The Incas had carved the moutain itself, and built it into their structures. Their walls varied from straightforward dry stone construction to accurately carved strong walls for important places. Where the roofs of the sleeping accommodation had to be anchored to the gables, they had rings made of stone. They shaped the rock to channel the water. Even some of the steps were manufactured on the spot.

Some of it was decorative, like this stone shaped to match the skyline behind it.

An attempt has been made to re-construct the huts to show what they might have looked like with roofs of grass supported by short local wooden poles.

Leading off from the main site, is a track to the "Inca Bridge". The engineering of the track is astonishing in both the height of the stonework to support it, as well as the difficulty of how to form the foundations on such a sheer cliff side. Beyond the bridge, the path traces the green line across this cliff side. The bridge itself spans a difficult section of the track, and the central part has wooden logs across it. The public was not allowed onto the bridge, nor onto the track beyond it!

The town of Aguas Calientes is a small tourist trap, reckoned to be the most expensive place to live in Peru because the only way of getting in and out is by train. There is no road, and the river is not navigable. Since the way to the station is through the market, I thought of the place as a museum with "Exit through the gift shop" as its motto. But the restaurants were first rate. It has a pleasant little square at its centre, while the buses to ferry the tourists up to and back from Machu Picchu form a continuous conveyor, and one of the water features is full of fish. Then we left by train and minibus for Cusco.

The next morning we visited Saqsaywaman, which looked like a set of terraces to seat giants as they watched games in the space between two small hills, one of which had a quarry from which the stones to build the walls on the other side were taken. The scale is monumental. One estimate goes as high as 200 tons for some of the stones. Even so, the corners were built with extraordinary care. On the way back down to Cusco, the size of the town of 500,000 inhabitants became evident, as it spreads over the natural bowl and up the hills.

After lunch we learnt how to tell the difference between the various qualities of alpaca and acrylic fibre at a factory specialising in weaving alpaca wool. And then on for another short stroll past the Temple of the Moon, now to be restored or conserved. The Incas held their empire together using four main trunk routes, this one is the shortest, leading eastwards into the Amazon jungle.

Over dinner we were regaled with a music and dance show with bright costumes.

Wednesday found us on a long pleasant walk, with lunch in a delighful glade of eucalyptus trees. Later we passed kilns where the Spanish fired their roof tiles, and everywhere there were traces of the terracing left behind by the Incas.

Three of us were to go on to Lake Titicaca, and we had Thursday off to investigate Cusco. It started to rain a little, but not seriously. The place has several civic art works, like this water sculpture, and a fountain in the park. Along the Avenida del Sol outside the Palace of Justice, there are guards to prevent people crossing the road. Further down is a gigantic mural in bold strokes and colours portraying the history of the region. There are a number of museums in the town, but not as many dedicated to the history and indigenous cultures as I expected.

On Friday we boarded the "Orient Express" south to Puno. It's a 10-hour journey to cover about 350km. We left Cusco on a wide plain but soon drew into more mountainous terrain as the track slowly climbed to the highest point of the holiday at 4,300 metres at the pass of La Raya, where we stopped because there was a market, and a chapel. On resuming, we dropped 400 metres down onto the altiplano which looked dry and not suitable for many crops, and this went on and on and on, flat and uniform under a cloudless sky, until we reached Juliaca. This is a frontier town with a reputation for lawlessness. Being close to the Bolivian border, cheap imports of everything from machine parts to DVDs, from woven goods to mobile phones was available in the market, which the train went through the centre of. This picture was taken from the train as it squeezed slowly past the stalls with inches to spare. Then on to Puno where we met our guide Cesar, an Aymara speaker who knew Quechua as well.

Saturday was Titicaca day. It started with a trip out past the reed beds to the floating islands of Uros, where the locals maintain their way of life by assigning part of their time to playing to the tourists. It is the only export they have from the area. To attract the fee paying visitors, they continue to make reed boats, but now they do so in pairs and put a wooden frame between them so they can carry more passengers. They also said they now fill them with empty plastic bottles to aid buoyancy.

We had a lecture on how to make a floating island. They start with squares of cut root balls of the reeds whcih grow in water 2 to 3 metres deep. These roots are so light, that they float like cork. By lashing them together with cords they can create the basis for an island, which is then topped up with reeds laid along and across it until the total depth is about 1.5 metres. On top of that simple houses can be built. Where we were, the island floated over 18 metres of water.

The next stop was on a real island, Taquile, where lunch was accompanied with a dance showing the rituals associated with planting. Taquile has a Quechua speaking population, and all the restaurants serve the same menu at the same price; they do not want competition. It has a town square near the top of the hill, but is otherwise rather unremarkable.

We then returned to Puno, which has a couple of small squares, one of which had some simple decorations. Otherwise it has the appearance of a small town struggling to attract the visitors it relies on for a living.

The last day of the holiday started with a flight back to Lima from Juliaca, followed by a trip round Lima with a new guide Erica, when we saw a few places we did not see on our first day in Peru, such as Barranco. And some we had seen before, like San Isidro's olive groves.

Then onto the long flight back to Heathrow via Amsterdam, and home.

Andy Pepperdine


Creative Commons License
A holiday in Peru, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.