Thursday May 29th to Wednesday June 25th
From Bolivia to Peru
We travelled to Peru by bus from Bolivia along the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. The crossing was uneventful which was fortunate. The teachers were on strike in Peru and the farmers and nurses had come out in support. They had blocked many roads with their tractors (the farmers that is, teachers and nurses in Peru don't seem to own many tractors) and the bus the day before had been turned back at the border. A state of emergency had been declared and civil rights suspended. We later met gringos who told us stories of pooling money to pay to get through picket lines and of travelling at night, crossing fields and changing buses in the middle of nowhere in order to get across the border. We were lucky.
We arrived safely in Puno which is the largest city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In Puno we got our first taste of the hassle that was about to come throughout Peru. There are touts everywhere and they constantly nag you to buy their postcards or handy crafts, let them shine your shoes (well, scrape the mud off our boots in our case), ride in their taxi or eat in their restaurant. Puno is the resting place of the famous Yavari iron hulled steamship. It was manufactured in Britain in kit form in 1862, transported by ship, train and mule and then all 1383 pieces were reassembled on the lake. It is because of this ship that Lake Titicaca is called the highest navigable lake in the world.
The next day we took a short boat trip to see the Uros floating islands. The Uros people, centuries ago, resisted assimilation by the Incas by moving onto the lake -- literally. They used the tortora reeds that grow abundantly around the edges of the lake to build floating islands. These are the same reed they had been using for centuries to build their boats. On these islands they build their lightweight houses, keep birds and small animals and live their entire lives. The reeds at the bottom of the island slowly decompose so every couple of weeks or months (depending on how wet the weather has been), they have to add another layer of dried reeds to the top. To do so they pickup their house, move it, add the new layer of reeds, and put the house back. If they should ever have a disagreement with a neighbour they simply move their house to the other side of the island. The islands really are floating. When a large boat went by, we could see and feel the waves passing under us -- it's kind of like being on a huge waterbed. The "ground" is soft and spongy and is damp just below the top, dry layer of reeds. They use the reeds for everything: the islands, their boats, houses, baskets, etc. The reeds are even edible and taste a little like celery -- quite nice. We then took a ride on a reed boat to a larger island (the reed boats are strictly for tourists now, wooden boats last much longer). Here, the government had built a school and people were building new boats (both kinds).
We really enjoyed the quiet, peaceful, warm, soft and interesting floating islands. Upon our return to Puno we heard that there had been riots by students who were supporting the teachers. The police had shot into the crowd and, depending on who you believe, between one and eight people were dead and dozens injured. We were in the right place at the right time.
That evening, for dinner, Jackie ordered the traditional Peruvian delicacy of "cuy" -- that's guinea pig to you and I. It is simply grilled and served whole. It looked like road kill and tasted like chicken. Jackie put a slice of cheese over its face -- there's something about having your meal watching you eat that is a little off-putting. Once was enough.
The next day there were lots of noisy protests and many marches but the police were keeping a low profile so there was no violence. The day after, as we were leaving on the bus, we saw the mess the rioters had made -- there was glass all over the roads and burnt out fires that had been roadblocks.
At 3326 metres above sea level, Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. Much of the Inca town planning still exists today, with narrow cobbled streets which are lined with Inca stone walls forming the foundations for colonial and modern buildings. The main plaza and surrounding streets are well maintained and very pretty. Although, that could have been due to the recent visit by the presidents from all the South American countries. The primary language of the locals is that of the Incas - Quechua, not Spanish. The primary industry is that of sucking as much cash as possible from every passing tourist.
Whilst in Cusco we visited the Sacred Valley. Here the Rio Urubamba runs through a picturesque, green and yellow valley full of farms and fields. They have hundreds of varieties of potatoes, corn and maize and many have been grown here for centuries. Along the valley are many Inca towns and villages. The first one we visited is near the colonial town of Pisac. We explored the well preserved agricultural terraces and temples. We also passed through a stone tunnel carved into the rock and saw a hillside honeycombed with hundreds of Inca tombs. Unfortunately they had been plundered and no bodies or “treasures” remain. We also stopped for a little retail therapy at the colourful Sunday market, where there are lots of great souvenirs. It’s a pity we were backpacking.
Then it was onto Ollantaytambo. This is a major Inca site and is one of the few places where the Spaniards lost an important battle during the conquest. The terracing and temples are built on a hillside. The stone used for these buildings was quarried from the mountainside 6km away and high above the opposite bank of the Rio Urubamba. Transporting blocks from the quarry was a stupendous feat, involving the labour of thousands of indigenous Peruvians. The ramps used are still evident today. Like many Inca sites they are laid out in the shape of an animal – this one is like a llama. Of course, they have to be seen from a helicopter and a little imagination needs to be used.
Our last stop in the Sacred valley was Chincheros. This is a traditional Inca town where the locals still wear their colourful, traditional clothes and also have a Sunday market, yet more shopping.
Around Cuzco there are more Inca sites. Sacsayhuaman (or “sexy woman” as many people call it) is huge. Massive stones form a zigzag wall as a strong defence (although there is debate amongst the archaeologists whether or not it was ever intended to be a defensive building). At one time three towers stood above the wall as well as many temples. This was the site of one of the most bitter battles of the conquest, between the Spanish and Manco Inca. The Incas narrowly lost and retreated, although most of them were killed. The dead attracted flocks of Andean condors, which is why there are eight condors on Cusco’s coat of arms. We also visited the smaller sites of Qenko, Tambo Machay & Puca Pucara.
In town we visited the impressive Cathedral. Among its many treasures is a huge painting of the Last Supper with a guinea pig being served on the table. We also visited the Inca museum and the Coricancha (Golden Courtyard). In Inca times this was lined with 700 solid gold sheets. There were life size gold and silver replicas of corn which were ritually “planted” in agricultural ceremonies. Today only the stonework remains, the conquistadors took the rest. Coricancha was used for religious ceremonies, mummified remains of the Incas were kept here and brought out into the sunlight every day. Food and drink were offered to them and then ritually burnt. The site was also an observatory, where priests kept track of major celestial events. Sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans also took place.
In the main plaza two flags fly. One is the red & white Peruvian flag and the other is the rainbow flag of Tahuantinsuy (the four quarters of the Inca empire). However, this flag is also claimed by the international gay community and controversy reigns over who actually “owns” it.
On Peter’s birthday we celebrated with a couple of cans of Guinness in an Irish pub (we’ve definitely hit the gringo trail now). They were expensive but sure tasted good after months of bog standard lager.
The Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is undoubtedly the most famous and popular trek in South America, and for good reason. Every year, tens of thousands of people walk along these ancient roads and climb the thousands of steps that were built over 500 years ago.
This four day trek can be quite a struggle with all the steep stairs and the high altitude and many people call it "The Inca Trial". We went with a company that took care of the food, tents and equipment. As we chose to hire a porter for our personal gear and we had spent the last month at high altitude in Bolivia, we found the trek to be a piece of cake. Sure, we huffed and puffed going up through Dead Woman's Pass (4215m) but it wasn't gruelling so we enjoyed it thoroughly. With someone else doing the cooking and carrying, this was like a luxury cruise compared to some of the other treks we've done.
En route we passed through farmland and high, lush jungle and saw many apus (sacred snowcapped mountains), mystical Inca ruins and some incredible scenery. We watched a football game at 3000m between the locals and the gringos, no need to ask who won. Although the gringos could have argued that the chickens and dogs on the pitch were interfering with play. As we climbed higher we no longer saw pigs, cows and chickens but llamas.
There was a wide variety of buildings along the trail. The Incas built with different levels of quality depending on the purpose of the building. Common homes and store houses were made with ordinary rocks with mortar. Military control points or minor religious places were made of shaped rocks or cut stone blocks without mortar. The most important and sacred buildings were made of large, polished blocks of high quality, cut granite stone using their famous, tight fitting mortarless construction. The Incas used a number of special construction techniques. They include: trapezoidal windows and doors, inward leaning walls, metal clamps to connect blocks and interlocking blocks (inside the walls). The combination of these techniques made the buildings highly earthquake resistant (there were two earthquakes while we were in Peru). The Spanish built their churches on the tops of Inca ruins. When the inevitable earthquakes came, they collapsed while the Inca foundations survived.
On the last day we got up at 3:30am, breakfasted and were on the trail by 5:00am. We arrived at the Sun Gate at 6:00am where we caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu spread out on a hilltop below us. On the summer solstice the sun firsts appears in Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. As it was June 6th and closer to the winter solstice (and, incidentally, the 4th anniversary of our engagement) we descended to the city to watch the sunrise through a notch in the mountains. A magical experience.
When the Inca empire fell to the Spanish, Machu Picchu was lost and forgotten. The Spanish did look for a lost city that they had heard of but, as Machu Picchu is in the jungle, it was quickly overgrown so it was missed by the Spanish when they passed by 36 years after the conquest. Hence the city was never mentioned in the chronicles kept by the colonizing Spaniards. These chronicles served as a written archive of unrecorded Inca history (the Incas never had a written language).
Machu Picchu was “discovered” in 1911 by American Hiram Bigham. The actual purpose and function of the city is still a matter of speculation and guesswork. Perhaps it was founded in the waning years of the last Incas as an attempt to preserve their culture. It may have been a religious site or it may have existed all along at the peak of Inca glory. Whatever the truth is, it is an incredible place.
We spent many hours exploring the city – the Hut of the Caretaker, the agricultural terraces, the Temple of the Sun (a curved, tapering tower containing some of MP’s finest stonework), the Royal Tomb, the Sacred Plaza, the “Sundial” and much more. Often we would find a spot to sit and just absorb the scene. To see this place was a dream come true for Jackie and she wasn’t disappointed. Reluctantly, we had to say cheerio and head down to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, where we spent the night. Here we also visited the thermal baths before taking the train back to Cusco.
Click here for Peru Part 2