Pondering Peru

June 2, 2008 - Cusco, Peru

When most people think of Peru, they think of Machu Picchu and the luscious huge green mountains. But there are 32 sub-climates in the world, and Peru has 28 of them, making northern Peru very different from its southern counterpart. In the north, you can drive for hours through desolate, undesirable, foggy expanses, with little vegetation and shocking poverty. It´s the kind of place where you would expect bandits and hope that you don´t get a flat tyre. Just inland from the coast, the unwelcoming barren mountains continue on as the road winds its way toward Lima. However, the coastline is underdeveloped (or should I say not ruined by tourism yet) in many places, and the beaches can be quite lovely. Phosphorescent algae washes up on Punta Sal at night, leaving yellow dots in the wet sand wherever you walk.

Further down the coast, remnants from a pre-Inca era are being uncovered. The mud brick ruins of Chan Chan and the pyramids of the sun and moon near Trujillo and Huanchaco are well worth investigating, although due to the material, a substantial portion has been remade, and it was a little off-putting walking past new mud bricks and scaffolding (all ruins I´ve visited this year have had a portion of reconstruction and repair).

Apparently it never rains but it´s always foggy in the capital, Lima. Definitely the smog and fog are a major feature of the Lima landscape. The Spanish colonial buildings are just about overcome by the bleak city, but there are jewels to be found, including the catacombs and old library in the San Francisco Convent.

South of Lima, the landscape changes quickly, with many marine animals including sea lions and Humbolt penguins calling the Ballastras Islands home. Inland, the massive sand dunes tower over the town of Huacachina, and make a fantastic adrenalline-filled diversion from the long hours on the road. Camping under the stars on the dunes was a magical night, bettered only by watching the dawn break and marvelling at the intricacies of Mother Nature.

Intracacies of other forces were under the spotlight in Nazca, where it´s definitely worthwhile splurging for the flight over the world-famous lines. All rather distinctive, these lines and their origins will test your imagination. Nazca is also the burial place for many Incas, and a nearby cemetary contains mummies and sacrifices on show in their burrial plots.

The most famous Inca sacrifice is Juanita, a twelve-year-old girl found frozen in time in the mountains near Arequipa. She now resides for most of the year in a museum in Arequipa (except for a few months when she´s taken to the US to have more scientific tests conducted). The preservation of Juanita and her clothes is quite astounding. Usually cloth does not survive harsh conditions, but in this case, it´s possible to see Juanita, her clothing and several gold, silver and copper offerings in the museum. The accompanying story about how she walked, possibly from as far as Cusco, to the top of the mountain, knowing that she would be sacrificed is quite harrowing.

Arequipa is one of my favourite cities so far. It melds Inca and Spanish history with religion and tourism. The cathedral is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen; not opulent or covered in gold leaf, instead a huge organ stands at one end, the altar at the other, and everything is in its place. The Santa Clara Convent is equally impressive; this city within a city used to be home to up to 80 nuns. Girls from wealthy local families would enter the convent at the age of 13 and were not allowed to speak until they became a nun a few years later, never leaving the walls again. Needless to say, things have changed a bit since the 1600s, but the convent still plays an important role in Arequipan society.

The scenery changes again around Arequipa and its easy to marvel at Mother Nature as you travel through valleys and high mountain passes. Vicuñas, llamas and alpacas could be seen in small herds on the sides of often quite-dry mountains, without much vegetation although the animals always looked in good health. Snow-capped peaks in the distance, the temperature was often below zero, especially at night.

Meanwhile, condors caught thermals in one of the world´s largest canyons, soaring just overhead. Colca Canyon is a massive, wide formation made even more special by the appearance of these huge birds. Flying close enough to see their fingered feathers and hear the wind beneath their wings, the birds looked like they were dancing on the thermals, putting on a show for our benefit.

Inca ruins were at the forefront of our visit to Raqchi, about two hours from Cusco. The largest Inca storage houses were at Raqchi, and their remains helped to put in context the planning and thinking of this civilisation. Immersed in the traditional ways and clothes, the local coca leaf ceremony ensured we were safe in our future travels.

Much of Cusco is built on Inca foundations; there are Inca walls throughout the city, including in our hotel! Cusco was originally designed in the shape of a puma (representing life on earth in Inca beliefs, with the condor representing heaven and the serpent representing the afterlife), and the sacred Inca ruins of Sacsaywaman sit adjacent to a large Christ the Redeemer statue above the city. This really is a place where Inca and Catholic belifs are intertwined.

Even more beautiful than Cusco, Ollantaytambo sits at the base of huge ruins that bare its name. The departure point for many people taking the glass-roof train to Machu Picchu, this small picturesque town is good preparation for the beauties of the lush green mountainous scenery and the ´lost´ Inca city. Rounding a bend, a huge snow-capped mountain looms ahead as the river flows beside the railtrack.

This scenery differs from the Lares Valley, where people farm the mountains up to about 4500m. Small potato crops (apparently there used to be about 5000 varieties of potatoes in Peru before the Spanish invaded), and herds of sheep, llamas and alpacas are the norm here, with locals spending their spare time weaving and playing soccer (one village where we stayed had a few mud brick houses with dirt floors, a school and two soccer fields!). Grass gives way to rocky mountain tops, and at the highest point, small collections of rocks are pilled high in a ritual for good luck and to thank Pachamama (Mother Nature).

And as for Machu Picchu - the serenity of the lost city is surpassed by none. It is breathtaking in its beauty and simply a marvel of architecture. Like all Inca buildings, the rocks are fitted together like a jigsaw, without cement, making this place even more amazing. Standing the tide of earthquakes and time, it truly is an amazing place to wonder at with awe.

1 Comment

June 8, 2008
Brings back such wonderful memories - thanks for sharing your story with me!!
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