Sunday, 27 September 2009

stunning Andean scenery at Machu Picchu

the Earth Temple, an example of ingenious Inca masonry technique

do you recognise the llama?! we named him Nathan, after our tour member who couldn't make it to Machu Picchu

26.09.09 Last Day of Inca Trail - Machu Picchu

After thanking all the 23 porters who carried our luggage and tents, yesterday evening Carlos ran through with us our options for an early start to Machu Picchu. As there are many tour parties departing from our campsite on the same day, it’s imperative we secure our space in the queue at the checkpoint. We opt for rising at 4.00am, skipping breakfast and heading off at 4.30am to be well ahead of the other groups for when the checkpoint opens at 5.30am.
It’s pitch black at that time in the morning and I feel like we’re all off on a school trip by the rising excitement that’s growing through our ranks.
When the checkpoint opens, it’s getting light, and the race is on to arrive at the Inca Sun Gate as the first rays of morning sun shine through towards Machu Picchu.

climbing the steep stone steps to the Sun Gate

The Sun Gate is the point at which all weary travellers and pilgrims first encounter the panorama of Machu Picchu, nestled amidst stunning Andean mountains. Greg and I are fortunate to catch a glimpse of the city before clouds descend and hide it from view.
At first I am a little disappointed by the sheer number of trekkers covering every step of the Sun Gate, however the atmosphere is one of excitement and anticipation as Machu Picchu reveals itself through the cloud one last time, and there is a sense that we all made it.
This is what we’ve travelled thousands of miles to witness. After resting and awaiting the remainder of the group we begin our descent to the city. Unfortunately one of our group, Nathan, is unable to trek with us today, because he is very ill with food poisoning. A stretcher team is called to carry him down the mountain as he is too weak to walk and one of our tour, Corey, who is a doctor, stays with him until he is transported to the local town of Aguas Calientes for some much needed re-hydration treatment. We have so much sympathy for the bad luck he’s suffered, having to miss out on the highlight of his South American tour. However, we come to the conclusion that, although the precarious setting of Machu Picchu on top of the severe craggy mountains is stunning in itself, the actual city is not as remarkable and the hoards of tourists make it seem like a bit of a theme park. We have to jostle past hundreds of people who have journeyed by train and we have a distinct resentment towards them because they haven’t struggled as we have to be there. The place is, in effect, spoiled by the winding road up from the train station bringing all the daytrippers on loud coaches. Carlos explains that there is no limit to the numbers allowed into Machu Picchu each day. It is dictated by the train company, whose backhanders to the Peruvian government, allow the national park to be open 365 days a year. However, Machu Picchu may not be around for very much longer. Geologists have discovered that beneath the mountain’s surface there are many hollows of air and, in fact, the whole place is subsiding. This can be seen in the cracks which are appearing in certain sections of the Inca walls.
Hiram Bingham discovered the lost city of Machu Picchu in 1911 after much investigation into Inca culture. He was in fact looking for the imperial city of Villcabamba when, after asking a local farmer about the area of the Urubamba valley, he was led to the top of the mountain where the remains of the great Inca city lay under masses of overgrown vegetation.
The position of the city was most definitely chosen for its proximity to the sun, high in the uppermost mountain passes, and the presence of a natural spring which would provide much needed water for the settlement.
The Inca himself had a palace here alongside three important temples of the sun, water and earth. The Inca celebrated the environment around them and treated the elements of life with great respect. The temple of the earth displays incredible Inca masonry with carefully cut stones fitting perfectly between two natural rock formations. Again the dedication and patience of the Inca stone masons is made evident to us. The white granite was quarried from the mountainside itself but it was dangerous work and many must have died in the process.
Machu Picchu was abandoned by its inhabitants when news arrived that the Spaniards were on their way to conquer. It is said that the gold, silver and jewels which adorned the buildings were smuggled by the Inca to be hidden somewhere in the jungle, to avoid the fate that had befallen other royal cities, where the Spaniards had looted all metal and had had it melted down.
Legend has it that there is still one undiscovered Inca city which has the shape of the underground god, the snake. Cusco was built in the form of the earth god, the puma, Machu Picchu in the form of the heavenly god, the condor, and therefore the missing city of the snake is still a mystery. Perhaps it’s hidden in the Amazon jungle.
As we’re bussed down the winding mountainside road to the little town of Aguas Calientes, we’re taken aback by the sheer height at which Machu Picchu sits, and we’re also sadly reminded that this is the end of our Inca Trail adventure. Although we’re exhausted and in need of a good shower, we wouldn’t have journeyed to Machu Picchu any other way. The four day trek has been a challenge we’ll never forget.

25.09.09 Third Day of Inca Trail

I slept very well last night and I think it was partially down to the Te Macho with a splash of rum we were all offered by Carlos, our guide, before bed. Te Macho is fruity and sweet and very welcome in the cold climes of the mountain tops. We were camped in the middle of nowhere and, even when we awoke, the cool mist still surrounded us accompanied, unfortunately, by clouds of midges. We walked mostly downhill this morning, navigating the steep Inca steps. It rained softly at first but quickly turned heavy. I figured, as long as my feet weren’t wet, I’d be happy enough. The rain symbolises life to the Inca, as water makes life possible, so I couldn’t grumble too much. The cloud was thick around us again, obscuring what was most definitely spectacular panoramas. However, as yesterday, it created a mystical cloud forest, with spooky jungle trees emerging through the mist, which was extremely atmospheric in itself. I got separated from the fast walkers in front and the slow walkers behind, but I enjoyed the solitude, listening to the peacefulness of the forest and contemplating again the idea that this journey is a pilgrimage, a quest for a clean conscience. And, as if by magic, the mist began to clear to reveal the sun’s warm rays, as I descended under the cloud line. Haybri, Corey and I sidetracked to an Inca agricultural settlement which gave us fabulous views of the valley. From here we can hear the faint choo choo of the Machu Picchu train, which runs along the valley floor, bringing the ‘cheaters’ as we call them. In other words, the people who haven’t walked for three days to get there!
At our campsite we are treated to a hot shower and lunch indoors although, the gigantic electricity pylon in front of the site and the distinct sounds of Bob Marley blaring from the restaurant, kind of spoils the tranquillity of the area. I guess this is the price of tourism

24.09.09 Second Day of Inca Trail - Dead Woman’s Pass

We are awoken at 5.30am this morning with a hot cup of coca tea, freshly brewed by the SAS porters cum chefs. I didn’t get a great night’s sleep because the tent was pitched on a slight slope and I continually slid down my sleeping bag. It rained just as we were getting up but fortunately stopped when we set off. It wouldn’t have been fun to walk in the rain.
The hike is intense. It becomes so that I am only concentrating on my breathing and pulling myself up the steep stone steps using my trusty walking poles. Previously I’d been sceptical about the usefulness of walking poles but since starting the Inca Trail, I’ve changed my mind about them and have begun to rely on them to take at least 30% of my weight.
Dead woman’s pass is swathed in mist. It is a dip in the crest of the mountain line and represents to us the uppermost point of our trek today. We pass an Inca lookout point, circular in design with many small rectangular windows facing both valleys. It was discovered in 1915, four years after Machu Picchu had been uncovered from the onslaught of jungle vegetation.
Over the crest of the mountain we descend down steep stone steps through clouds of mist to our campsite for lunch.
After lunch, we’re informed that we are travelling on 60% original Inca pathways. They constructed the trail by building supporting walls along the cliff face, filling the gap with soil and creating a stone path on top using locally sourced rocks. This trail is one of two to Machu Picchu. It is the longest and was built as a way of pilgrimage for the Inca to journey to the sacred temple, cleansing their souls as part of the ritual. The second trail is known as the ’commercial’ route and is much shorter, used by messengers and for trading purposes.
Also we learn of the significance of the Southern Cross constellation in Inca culture. The Southern Cross indicates the position of the South Pole and the Incas adopted the four point cross as an emblem for their spiritual beliefs. In between the points they added three steps to represent the Inca Trilogy- the three spiritual worlds, the world of the living, the dead and the afterlife, which were also symbolised by the animals puma, snake and condor respectively. These three steps appear regularly in the Inca temples as altar places.
As we again climb uphill through clouds of dense fog, I can’t help but wonder how many pilgrims have taken these steps, including those who had to carry the Inca’s litter.
We visit some more ruins, just off the trail which are eerie in the thick fog. They are perched on a hilltop, another lookout most probably. Corey, a member of our tour, plays a trick on us by throwing a stone from behind a doorway. She hides while we try to decide where the rock came from, then jumps out much to our surprise. It’s like a set from a horror movie up here in the mist.
Evening darkness descends and we have to significantly pick up the pace to our campsite if we’re to make it before it gets pitch.

23.09.09 First Day of Inca Trail leaving Ollantaytambo

I sit here in the dinner tent set up by the SAS porters who’ve been carrying most of our baggage all day, at the end of our first day of trekking. I must say it’s been an endurance test. The hot chocolate we’ve just consumed was very welcome as it turns cold pretty quickly up here (3,200m). Our cosy tents are waiting for us- they were also erected before we arrived at the site by the porters, who virtually ran up the mountains, each carrying approximately 20kgs. They are extremely fit, but tragically don’t have a terribly long career span due to the nature of their job. Although I wish I could help, I’m finding it tough carrying only 8kgs including 1 ½ litres of water.
We have a hard day ahead of us tomorrow, but at least after that the going is not so difficult.
And so to bed…

22.09.09 The Inca Trail - The Sacred Valley (Pisac)

The Sacred Valley gets its name from the richness of the produce which is grown there. It’s fertility is due to the microclimate of the area, allowing otherwise arid land to be heavily cultivated with maize and potatoes. Naturally the Inca used this ecosystem to their advantage, creating thousands of farming terraces covering the steep mountainsides. We visit the agricultural village of Pisac where the ruins of the Inca houses sit atop a craggy hilltop for protection.

The opposite cliff face is dotted with the holes of ancient tombs, which again have been looted of their treasures buried with the dead. The valley is impressive and I feel it is the most ’Peruvian’ we’ve seen so far. By this I mean the Andes peak in sharp pyramids with huge sister mountains rising up behind to the final snow-capped tips. The weather is fantastic and we hope tomorrow will be the same as it’s the first day of our epic trek up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

NB: On leaving Cusco, we make a stop to view the city fort, Saksayhuaman, the most impressive example of Inca stone masonry.

21.09.09 Cusco, Hotel Calhuide

We found an excellent breakfast joint, 'Jack's'. Greg's having hot chocolate and I'm tucking into a lemon and ginger tea. Our huge breakfasts will arrive shortly!
Notice the bronze llama we have just purchased from a street vendor. It will be our companion on the Inca Trail!

Cusco was the capital city of the Inca empire and there is still evidence of it in the polygonal stone walls that are commonplace throughout. Polygonal masonry involves fitting stones together without any mortar, chipping away at the stones’ angles in a laborious task of trial and error. It must’ve taken a long time and much man power. The Spaniards utilised these polygonal stone walls as the basis for many of their buildings, adding to them to complete a very attractive colonial style, finely rendered with colourful wooden balconies and terracotta pan-tiled roofs. Cusco is a tourist magnet and we suffer continuously from hassling salespeople, artists offering poorly executed original watercolours for 20 soles (£4), ladies offering massages and little girls offering finger puppets for 1 sole.
Ooricancha is the main spiritual area of the city, incorporating an Inca sun and moon temple and city cemetery. The Spaniards unfortunately used the site and many of the temple stones to build their own church on top of the hill, which seems to be a recurring theme throughout our trip. They looted and pillaged all Inca temples and graves, using the materials for their own gain.
We come across several antique shops containing many replicas and some original pieces of Inca pottery and other artefacts, and of course we are tempted by the prospect of owning something so old. We settle on a replica of a Mochika pot, which is itself in excess of 250 years old, and an original Inca wooden cup, which could’ve been used for drinking chicha.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

19.09.09 Juanita the Ice Mummy - Arequipa

Juanita gets her name from the archaeologist who discovered her on top of Ampato Volcano, near Arequipa in 1995, John Reinhardt. She was sacrificed by the Incas 500 years ago and has remained frozen in the ice until in 1995 the neighbouring volcano began to erupt causing a rise in temperature and the glacial ice to defrost. This uncovered many remains of the Inca sacrificial rituals, including markings representing graves. John excavated Juanita, whose body is still intact having been frozen solid very soon after she was killed. After autopsy it was determined she was killed by a severe blow to the side of the head. It was probable she was given chicha, a strong hallucinagenic drink before the ritual was performed. For her, being sacrificed to appease the volcano god was the utmost praise since she had been chosen as the most beautiful and the most innocent and would be guaranteed eternal life with the gods. Her journey to the top of the mountain would've been a highly stressful one though, having to travel hundreds of miles across difficult terrain. She was adorned with fine textiles and jewellery including a feather headress and was buried with many small idols made of gold and ceramic as gifts to the gods. A little further down the mountain two more bodies were found, of small children, who'd also been sacrificed, but their location further down the mountain meant that they were not as pure and worthy as Juanita.
We are fascinated by the story and look forward to learning more of the Incas when we visit Machu Picchu next week.

19.09.09 ‘Reality Tour’ Arequipa

Miguel, our Reality Tour guide, was a shanty town kid and is now a sociologist specialising in the politics and social circumstances of the poor people of Peru. He started up the ‘Reality Tour’ three years ago in order to tell the other story of Peru, the side of the country people don’t normally see or choose not to see. The story of the poor people and how they live day to day. We visit a stone mine in the outskirts of the city where many families work on a daily basis cutting and chipping out bricks for the house builders of the city. The volcanic stone is soft and therefore can only be worked by hand, not machine. Entire families, husband, wife and children as young as six work 12 hour days here making only 1 sole per brick (equivalent to 20p). It takes them 1 hour to make 1 brick so they manage to make only 12 soles a day (£2.40). They ‘hire’ part of the stone cliff face for 50 soles a year and it’s theirs to work, however they have to break away large chunks of the rock first which can be very dangerous as they have no safe tools. Miguel tells us that on several occasions he has made the decision to ‘kidnap’ children from the mine to send to the army. At first I am appalled at the thought of him taking these children away from their parents without their consent but, when he explains that in the army the children have the chance to learn many skills and that they want to leave the mine, I am a little more understanding. When they have completed their training, they can then find a better job and contribute to their parents again.
Miguel tells us that many Peruvians live on a ‘what I make today will feed me tomorrow’ way of surviving. We pass hoards of young men and women standing by the side of the road and he explains they are what’s called ‘daily workers’. They have no job but they come here every day to wait for work. Someone may need their house cleaning so they will stop by the side of the road and barter a price between the workers. One worker will offer 4 soles to clean, another will undercut and say 3 soles, so you can see, they are desperate and will work for virtually nothing. They are illegal workers who are adamant that their hard earned cash does not go to the state in taxes.
We continue to the shanty town where many mountain people live, who have been forced from their homes in the hills because of the threat of violence by terrorists. About twenty years ago there were many terrorists who targeted the mountain people, as they knew that these people had no say in the running of the country. The government simply forgot about the jungle and mountain dwellers, so when the terrorists offered them a voice, saying they would represent them and get justice for them, they greeted them with open arms. It was only when they started recruiting their children to train as terrorists, and would kill them if they refused, that the people began to realise it was not safe to stay there. They chose to move to the towns because there were more police and therefore a safer place for them to live.
One project which has proved a great success is the community soup kitchen and creche we visited. Widows from the mountains needed a place for their children to play while they looked for work in the city so they each contributed 20 soles and set up the creche which soon developed into a restaurant to feed the community. Every day the women journey to the markets in town to buy the produce (they have no refrigeration) to cook for the lunch. Children are fed first, then pregnant ladies and anyone with disabilities, then everyone else. It costs 2.50 soles for adults and 1.50 soles if you’re pregnant or disabled. They charge because, as Miguel explains, it’s not a good idea to give it out for free, and they merely want to break even, so any money they make goes directly to buy the food the next day. It is an example of a local community project which works and according to Miguel, this is the way people can help themselves out of poverty, on a local level. I try to ask about bigger organisations and whether I should donate to them, but he shoots me down saying they are not a good idea, as they don’t spend the money correctly. He believes the people need to do it themselves and prove they can to the rest of the world. If we give money in the wrong way, it will only be used for the wrong things, drink, drugs etc. I am a little confused but I’m very glad to have heard his viewpoint.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

17.09.09 - 18.09.09 Mini Tour to Colca Canyon, Colca Valley

Giardino Tours pick us up from our hotel for an overnight mini bus tour to Colca Valley three hours outside Arequipa. The desert landscape is dramatic, the land covered in harsh shrubs and spiky grasses, which is the staple food of the llamas, alpacas and vicunyas which live in these areas. We stop to photograph wild vicunyas, which are the smallest of the Andean camel family. They have soft padded feet which do not harm the earth. These animals historically provided a sole source of sustenance for the people of the Colca Valley, using their wool, meat, milk and oil for cooking. An ancient llama reproduction ritual is still practised twice yearly wherein a shaman sacrifices the best llama of the flock to the mother earth (Pachamama) and cooks the liver to make a soup which everyone takes, in order to pray to the volcano gods for more healthy llamas. Misha, our guide, says the people tend to take these things too seriously.
The Colca Valley is covered in Pre-Inca farming terraces, dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, some of which are still used today. They were constructed as a means of successfully farming the steep hillsides and providing good irrigation channels for the crops. The water would drain down from the snow-covered mountain tops and through all the irrigation channels to the valley below. Large boulders with ‘architectural’ carved notches have been found which display the planning involved in the design of the terraces- the notches were used to determine the flow of water down the boulder (hillside). Most of the terraces higher up the mountains are no longer used for two reasons, firstly the climate in Peru has become hotter and drier and there are less rains and therefore there is not enough melt water to irrigate the uppermost terraces (the lower terraces can be irrigated from the Colca River) and secondly the population of the Colca Valley has dramatically reduced due, in part, to the Spanish conquistadores who forced people to relocate into towns and cities so that they could control more easily their new subjects. Misha informed us that the colonists enslaved the indigenous population and caused many to die from diseases they had brought with them from Spain. They introduced eucalypts, goats and sheep, whose hard hooves in fact caused destruction to the land they grazed. What is now left of the population of the Colca Valley is a number of small settlements evidently impoverished from the basic nature of their houses. Many are descendents of the original Cabana and Collagua cultures of the 11th and 12th centuries evident from the ladies’ hats and dresses which they wear on a daily basis. They are elaborately embroidered and I can’t resist a red one for 50 soles (£10).
We take a dip in the local hot springs, which prove again to be very restorative and the following day we make an early start to view the famous Condors of the Colca Canyon. We are extremely lucky to see at least ten of the forty which inhabit the canyon. They are an endangered species and number only 2,000 across the whole of South America. They are giants of the sky with a wingspan of over three metres.
After lots of oohing and aahing and lots of photos we journey back to the city of Arequipa for the night.
NB: Colca Valley gets its name from the stone storage ’pots’ built by the Cabana and Collagua people to protect their produce from thieves. They are built into the side of the cliff faces, far from the farmlands and terraces.
Colca Canyon was formed 800,000 years ago from a geological event. It sits on a major fault line and there continues to be land shifts and earthquakes in the valley. The drop from mountain top to valley floor is 3,600m.

16.09.09 Arequipa

Arequipa is called the ‘White City’ for two reasons, one; because the majority of its buildings, including those in the main plaza are made of white volcanic stone and two; because, when the Spanish, who were white, conquered the city they inhabited the central area. The city is home to one million people and sits at a high altitude of 3,250m, surrounded by volcanoes. The main plaza is an impressive square or arches on three sides and the customary Catholic church on the fourth. We visit Santa Catalina convent, which was founded in the 16th century, and, although it sits just off the main plaza, it’s a sanctuary of silence, a self-sustaining compound behind high stone walls. The second daughter of every family was obligated to become a nun and give her life to prayer, bringing with her to the convent significant wealth in the form of fees and pieces of furniture for her room. She was required to spend all her waking hours studying the bible in silence and was only permitted conversation with the other nuns for two hours each day. She could only contact her family through an antiquated screen system; wooden ‘meshes’ separated her from her visitor and light fell from behind her to ensure she was in shadow in order that her visitor could not actually see her. She was not allowed out of the convent walls except to visit a doctor. Needless to say it was a hard life and, nowadays, there are much less who choose to pursue this life and they now live in a separate section of the convent, closed to the public. The convent buildings and streets are beautiful though in their rustic simplicity. Strong cobalt blue and terracotta natural pigments are used to coat the walls and bright red geraniums offer a fantastic contrasting colour.

15.09.09 Road trip to Nazca Lines and Nazca Cemetery

This morning we are greeted at our hotel door by three growling American muscle cars, two 1980s Dodges and a Ford, to take us on a road trip to the famous Nazca Lines. Driving across the Peruvian desert on the hazy Pan-American highway we felt like we were in some old American movie. Our chocolate brown Dodge chugged along at a fair old speed but it was obvious not all cylinders were firing as we dragged behind on the hills.
From an old American muscle car straight into an ultra modern micro aeroplane to tour the Nazca lines from the air. The Nazca culture pre-dates the Incas by 1800 years with initial evidence dating back to 300 BC. No one yet knows why they drew such elaborate designs in the desert. Many have tried to explain with theories such as ‘the designs were used as an astronomical calendar which mapped the constellations’ and ‘the designs were not actually Nazca, they were mapping a giant alien runway’.
Both theories have been dismissed and it is more the case that the Nazca made the designs to represent the flora and fauna they saw around them and the immense lines form a map of the natural aqueducts under the sand which they used for irrigation.
In any case the designs took hundreds of years to complete; the desert floor is actually more like a mix of rock and clay as opposed to sand, and the Nazca made the lines by moving the rocks. This dedication would suggest that the lines’ purpose was more of a higher, spiritual one, perhaps as an offering to the gods above.
The Nazca desert cemetery, ‘Chauchilla’, is an eerie link to the ancient civilisation as it reveals the mummification techniques and burial practises used by the Nazcas. We are able to view the bones and mummified corpses purely because the entire site was looted by grave-robbers in the 1940s who were after the precious metals, ceramics and textiles which were buried with the bodies and they left the remainder scattered across the 2km site. They were able to identify the graves because the Nazca had marked the desert floor with squares and circles indicating their presence. As we walk from tomb to tomb the surrounding desert is littered with human bones and shards of pottery. Our guide explains the ritualistic nature of the Nazca, a culture which sacrificed women and children to their gods as a prayer for more rain and better crops. They decapitated them, their heads being buried separately to their bodies. However, when the victims’ bodies were buried, a pumpkin ‘head’ replaced their decapitated one, as it was believed they may need a new head for the afterlife. Other gory practises included binding babies’ heads across the forehead in order to deform their skulls into growing in an elongated form. This was reserved for only the important families in the community in order to distinguish them from their lowly subjects. And, to demonstrate their strength in warfare Nazca chieftains would ‘wear’ the decapitated heads of their defeated enemies on their belts as a warning to any other would-be warriors.
A perfectly preserved woman was excavated and her skin, hair and nails are all intact. The Nazca used a similar mummification technique to that of the Egyptians- binding the body in layers of cotton which absorbed the water from the skin therefore preserving it.


The following day we have an early start for our boat trip to the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Paracas, 50km from Ica. It seems this also is a favourite tourist pastime as crowds of gringos fill the motorboats for the 2 hour cruise. The Islas Ballestas are granite protrusions which have been eroded into tunnels and arches. They have been colonised by seabirds- pelicans, gulls, boobies and penguins, whose guana is collected and used as a fertiliser. This is, believe it or not, one of Peru's main exports hence the islands are protected and manned by live in guards. The smell of ammonia is overpowering to say the least. Aside from this rotten distraction we are able to witness hundreds of sealions basking and playing on the rocks and in the caves and, on the way into shore, we are treated to a display of dolphins.

13.09.09 - 14.09.09 Huacachinero Hotel, Huacachina

Huacachina is an oasis resort in the middle of the Peruvian desert. It has been, for many years, attracting holiday makers because of its unique situaton perched around a tiny lagoon, with gigantic dunes in every direction. After we arrive off a five hour bus journey from Lima, we relax by the pool for an hour or so before our optional excursion, dune-buggying and sand-boarding. The dune buggies themselves are loud monsters of vehicles with huge tyres, no chassis and a domed roll cage just in case. We're strapped in tight and zoom off to the entrance to the dunes on the other side of the lagoon. It makes a hell of a racket but it can get up to speeds of 80kmh plus. Our driver, we learn, is a thrill junkie as we rocket up the face of one dune after another and down the other side, sometimes at an incredibly steep angle. It's like a giant rollercoaster only it's the momentum of our vehicle which is gluing us to the side of some of the immense sand mountains.

We arrive at our sand-boarding slope having been sand-blasted to oblivion on our ferocious journey. We take turns to slip and slide down, some having more success than others. Our outing is aptly timed to capture the sun setting over the far off dunes before rumbling noisily back to our hotel to wash out the sand which has made it into every oriface!

11.09.09 - 12.09.09 Lima, Hotel Kamana

The centre of Lima is an impressive grid of authentic colonial streets punctuated by and plazas with fountains and bronze statues. It's very busy at street level being home to more than 8 million Peruvians. Anyone can be a taxi driver in Lima but it seems you need not to be able to drive safely or in the right lane at any time! We visit Miraflores, the expensive end of town, to a myriad of 'Inca' markets selling pretty much the same stuff as all the others.

The following day we explore the San Francisco monastery including the catacumbs underground where 24,000 Catholics chose to be buried encased in lime mortar and whose bones have been excavated and are piled up to view. It is odd that their skeletons have been sorted into femurs, arms, skulls and miscellaneous!

Saturday, 12 September 2009

18km Hike- Huascaran National Park

We started trekking at 3,050m and finished up at a glacial lake altitude 4,700m. Quite a jump in altitude and everybody felt the effects of less oxygen. In both Greg and I it took the form of heavy limbs and a slight dizziness after every few steps. We had to take it slow, but it gave us the opportunity to appreciate the glacial scenery that surrounded us 360 degrees. A monstrous U-shaped valley with steep black crags gave way to a rocky climb with views of icy waterfalls in the distant rockfaces and incredible snow-capped peaks in every direction. I was impressed by the variety of flora we encountered on the way, from lime coloured rock lichen, bright yellow dandelions to lilac blue lupins and bright red flowering cacti. Each ridge produced yet more stunning scenery and I couldn’t help wishing that our parents, who also appreciate such alpine scenery, were here to see it with us. A turquoise glacial lake, rich in minerals, was our final endpoint and it was not a disappointment. Glacial meltwater gushed down the sheer rockface on the opposite bank from the frozen mountain tops above and, as we watched, an avalanche of small rocks created a faint echo round the otherwise still crater.
An excellent day and sufficient training for the Inca Trail.

09.09.09 – 10.09.09 Huaraz, in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range

Stepping off the night bus into the cold mountain air of Huaraz at 6am was quite a shock to the system, having journeyed from the coast. But by 11am the sun was scorching and we had to peel off the layers of winter clothing we thought we’d need at this high altitude. Huaraz is surrounded by the ice-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, the highest of which, Huascaran, stands at 6,798m. Huaraz is an authentically Peruvian mountain town with local markets and the epitomous Quechua indigenous peoples of the area trading their produce. (It was severely devastated a major earthquake in 1970 and the streets and buildings are still being re-built.)

We are touched by the thoughtfulness of our tour companions- they chip in to buy us strawberries and champagne in aid of our third anniversary. This date is said to have mystical value, we’ve heard that gatherings of ‘spiritual’ peoples are taking place- needless to say we didn’t attend any! Instead, choosing to enjoy a pretty tasty Italian meal and an early night.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon)

murals depicting Ayapaeka
Mochika Culture, near Trujillo

Pre-Chimu were the Mochis who date back to 100 AD. Two of their temples, including Huaca de la Luna weren’t uncovered until very recently in 1990. The site is nearby Trujillo in the shadow of the Mountain Blanco, which they believed protected their settlement. A Mochika town is being excavated between the two temples. The Mochika were a more ‘brutal’ culture, sacrificing the weaker members of their community to their main God, Ayapaeka (who appears depicted on all the walls) and to the moon.
relief depicting Moche people being led to be sacrificed
Many human remains were found in the sacrificial pit, having had their throats slit for consumption of their blood and their bodies butchered. It is notable that a female ruler was excavated entombed holding double weapons, tattooed on all limbs, bejeweled with 32 nose ornaments and displaying stretch marks to indicate she had been with child.
The Mochika culture and Chimu culture unfortunately had no written language so it’s difficult to interpret all the evidence associated with them. They did, however use the art of pottery to convey everyday life, including their fascinations with physical disfigurement and disabilities. It is fascinating to see the colourful decoration still intact in the temple, the most impressive of which is centred round the priest and priestess’ ceremonial room where they would perform the ritualistic drinking of human blood in front of the crowds of Moches, watching below.
Our guide, Edith, explains that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the richness of archaeological history in Peru. Further to the north they have only recently discovered the remains of the Carral culture. We will be faced with Macchu Picchu soon, seat of the Incas, but it is worthwhile to remember that they came about only at the very end of a long line of fascinating Peruvian cultures.

08.09.09 Chan Chan Ruins, Trujillo

Staying at Hostel Naylamp, Huanchaco coastal resort

Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimor Empire, the realm of the Chimu culture, which dates back to 800 AD. It spans 20km, incorporating nine walled citadels, reservoirs, residential areas, stores and tombs. It’s the largest adobe city in the world and is still being excavated to uncover more. However, it has suffered from erosion by wind and rain (El Nino), been looted by the Incas and Spanish invaders and therefore is now an endangered site. The walls are being carefully re-plastered with a clay mix to strengthen them and to replace what’s been eroded in order to bring it back to life. Archaeologists discovered a set of tombs but have decided to leave them buried for now until they are fully prepared to excavate and have covered the tops with pebbles to try and avoid any further erosion.
The Chimu were agriculturalists and fishermen who worshipped the moon, as opposed to the Incas who worshipped the sun. The moon was more symbolic to them because it affects the tidal rhythms, influencing their fishing practices and the night brings the stars, which they used for navigation. The sun, on the other hand, represented a more destructive power with it’s intense heat bringing drought to the Chimu’s farmlands.
We enter one of the city’s citadels through the only gateway in the high, trapezoidal walls which form a great rectangle around the city’s most important area. There was only one door to control the crowds and it faced away from the ocean for protection from the high winds. Inside the citadel there’s a main square with a central platform. There is belief that this area was designed for rituals and ceremonies as opposed to a public space because the original floor was plastered, indicating that it was not to be heavily trampled. The fish corridor, as its known, depicts waves of fish along its length, which could have simply been a good luck charm for the fishermen. There is no evidence that any of the Chimu decoration was religious in any way, instead depicting the animals, fish, birds, and natural symbols which were most important to them. The adobe walls were constantly being re-constructed as erosion took place and it is possible to see a new wall design being adopted over the top of an old one.
The diamond shaped lattice structure to some of the interior walls represents the fishermen’s nets and has a function- when left open, the diamonds give light and air to interior rooms and when closed, offer privacy. A central tomb was reserved for the Chimu king and when excavated there was found the remains of eighteen concubines who’d been buried alive and a dog to assist him in his passage to the afterlife.
The Chimu were an ingenious culture who invented means of irrigation through digging deep reservoirs providing valuable fresh water in times of drought, which were frequent in the arid Peruvian desert. They traded gold and silver for shells and peanuts, which were deemed more valuable due to their scarcity and fished in well-designed tortura reed canoes, ‘Cabillitos’ (little horses), which are still used today, for catfish and manterey.

Ecuador - A Summary

Ecuador feels like a small country to me. By this I mean I feel comfortable here- nothing is too big or too scary. Perhaps this is because I have been sheltered from underlying issues and therefore I am unaware of many of the pressures Ecuadorian people are under. Or perhaps it is because I have developed an intense appreciation of the landscapes of this country and the undulating mountains and valleys remind me of home and evoke in me great feelings of awe.
The Andes stretch the length of Ecuador and define it’s rhythm of life. Indigenous farmers use the rich, volcanic soil on the mountains’ slopes growing everything from corn to bananas and yucca and the energy produced from fast flowing mountain rivers provides valuable hydro electric power, not to mention the mystical benefits of living surrounded by the protection of giant hills. This reminds me also of the power of the rainforest, it’s lushness and life-giving qualities. Jungle dwellers use the rainforest as their home, provider of sustenance and medicine cabinet. Many hold great respect for the natural habitat that surrounds them, however, it has been brought to my attention that this is not the case for a great many Ecuadorians, including the government, who opted for a controversial oil pipeline to be routed through endangered forest, even though another, less destructive route had been suggested.
Corruption exists throughout the police force in Ecuador. It is possible to pay off any crime and a scary fact we encountered was that it is possible to have someone ‘taken care of’ for a few hundred dollars. This fact, along with some others picked up along the way, including the general suppression of indigenous people’s right to earn decent wages, have contributed to my impression of Ecuador as a relatively fragile country, living on the cusp of democracy and long term servitude to the leaders.
I leave with an admiration for the pride indigenous people still take in their appearance and continuation of their traditional way of life and a great fondness for the humanitarian nature which is demonstrated by the vast majority of Ecuadorians.

03.09.09 – 05.09.09 El Bucanero Hostel, Punta Sal Beach Resort, Peru

Border crossings can be pretty dodgy places. A few years ago, the point at which we crossed into Peru was renowned as being the most dangerous place to cross with an area of no-mans land where rules didn’t apply. However it’s much safer now.
The landscape changed almost instantly as we crossed the border into Peru. Gone were the rolling hills of lush, green vegetation. Now there came a vast desert of dry scrubland, loosely vegetated with a few dry bushes. We arrived at our beach resort, Punta Sal, with clouds covering the sky, but by the following morning, the sun had broken through and we were able to enjoy a full-on day at the beach, complete with a game of water frisbe and volleyball. Punta Sal seems exclusive, as it’s made up of a few fine beach condos and there aren’t the crowds that you find at nearby Mancora. We do sample the delights of Mancora nightlife however, as it’s Ruth’s birthday and she is up for a good party. After top-notch steaks at a grill restaurant on the main strip we head down to a beach bar and dance the night away. Notable to this night out however is the ‘interesting’ tuk tuk rides back and forth to the town through a military check point, scanning for drug-trafficking. Peru was the main supplier of cocaine until Columbia took over but the matter of transporting illegal drugs is still a big issue, and the heavily armed police are there to check every vehicle.

The day after our big night out we sleep in til we’re awoken by Heidi, doing the rounds to get everyone ready for surfing. Robbie, our surf teacher, guides us out into the waves one by one and helps us to get up on to the board. It’s tough to stand upright and I manage it only once. Greg finds himself being pounded by the waves and hit on the head by his board while he’s down. Needless to say he prefers windsurfing and sailing. We’ll need to give it another go though when we get to Oz. A highlight though is catching a glimpse of a humpback whale just metres offshore.

Fishing off the Coast of Punta Sal
The Captain of our boat, Hujo, reminded me of a dark-skinned Paul Newman, only a bit more rugged and weather beaten. He spoke no English, but knew the words 'fish' and 'rock', which we frequently used to determine what it was we thought we'd caught. It was surprisingly easy to get a catch, maybe because the sea was teeming with fish rather than our fishing skills. I enjoyed the primitive nature of our little trip- the boat was old and had many notches in the wood where the lines had eaten away and we had no rods, only line wrapped round blocks of wood. Hujo was very accommodating, helping us all in turn, when we either thought we had a fish, had gotten tangled up with someone else's line, needed more sardine for bait or got our weight wedged in between rocks. We caught 16 in total, averaging 3 each, many which were pink snapper types, one which had poisonous spikes and one of which Greg caught that was like a huge mackarel. A good haul for only a couple of hours fishing, especially since we had to contend with our rival fishermen- the pelicans, boobies and gulls!

For lunch the hotel chef kindly barbequed our prize catch for us, which we enjoyed before a nice long walk along the beach and back into the sunset.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

01.09.09 ‘Pailon del Diablo’, Cable Car Across Pastaza Valley

Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron) is ferocious and frightening, as I stood, mesmerized by the force of the water, on a small stone balcony being sprayed with waves of waterfall mist. Next was a tight fit through a small tunnel on the side of the cliff to reach another balcony under the waterfall itself. I felt like Gollum from Lord of the Rings as I scrambled through on hands and knees and was soaking wet by the end of it.

After lunch, we went with Emer and Mark across the valley on a rickety cable car to visit the cascadas and indigenous farming communities on the other side of the Pastaza Valley. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, which we enjoyed from the back of a truck on the way back to our lodge. We’ve become accustomed to hitching on pickups, as it’s a great way to view the scenery having no roof over your head.
Later on in the evening we all headed out to Banos to visit it’s most famous asset, the hot springs. La Piscina del Virgen is a set of hot and cold sulphurous pools which have been filtered to remove some of the chemical. It was a busy Monday evening with many locals enjoying a hot soak followed by a freezing dip in the neighbouring pool to get the blood circulating. The hot pool must’ve been 45 degrees centigrade. They tap into the thermal waters beneath the volcanic earth and the subsequent waters are deemed to be of great health benefit and I must say, the water felt very ‘soft’ in my hands.
The Central Sierra has been a stunning, mountainous region and tomorrow we journey south to Cuenca.