I touched down in Lima with a sense of excitement. I was looking forward to visiting its most prominent cities, its plethora of archeological sites, trekking in the spectacular and spectacularly challenging Andes, checking out its time forgotten rural communities, sailing around Lake Titikaka and eating lots of potatoes. Peru is home to this humble vegetable, boasting some 300 varieties.
Nothing during my month disappointed. I soaked everything up in my sponge-like way and could write even more than I’m about to but I appreciate you all have busy lives to lead so I’ll keep it to a few thousand words!
I’m less and less interested in big cities, usually finding that the second or third largest city is more agreeable and manageable. So, whilst Lima’s historic centre had highlights such as the Church of Santa Domingo and several well-preserved colonial buildings with cedar wood over-hanging balconies and intricate wrought iron work, I preferred the Miraflores area, walking along the cliffs past the Gaudi-esque gardens watching surfers doing their thing way below.
The highlight of Lima was the Museo Larco which has a fascinating collection of pre Inca ceramics housed in a lovely whitewashing building covered in trailing bourganvilla. It also has a garden and a restaurant and a gallery of erotic ceramics (pre Incans were very into carnal pleasures both with the living and the dead!) , the whole lot being open until 10pm.
For people like me travelling solo often there isn’t much to do in the evening therefore being able to have dinner and stroll through the museum after dark was a treat in itself, but the delight was that the objects on display and the accompanying explanations gave me a heads-up into the cultures (Moche, Chimu, Nazca, Ica) I was to discover on my Peruvian odyssey.
Heading north I stopped off in Trujillo and, traffic chaos aside, much enjoyed this small coastal city with its brightly painted buildings, especially those in the Plaza de Armas. Many cities in South America have Plaza de Armas where government buildings and the main church or cathedral are situated.
Peruvians love their brass bands and I mean really love them! Every Sunday each city puts on a ‘Flag Raising’ parade, which involves several bands and specific groups marching round the Plaza. In Trujillo it was the turn if schools and colleges (the following Sunday in Arequipa it was armed forces). Those taking part were clearly delighted to have been chosen and wore their uniform or traditional costume with pride. The little children were particularly divine and took their role very seriously.
It also happened to be the feast of El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles). This involved more brass bands and a procession of hombres in purple robes with a white rope belt and shields carrying the palanquin while white-veiled mujeres walked backwards in front of the palanquin swinging incense. The procession lasted all day as it went from church to church, brass bands playing all the way.
I ask myself, why don’t we have these parades and processions? I know religion can be overpowering and oppressive but on balance it has to be good for communities to come together; singing, dancing, clapping (catholics do this a lot nowadays) and generally supporting each other. From what I’ve witnessed in both SE Asia and in S America it seems to me to make for safe, happy living and I am just a bit envious as I think how we in the west have by and large lost all sense of community.
Around Trujillo are several impressive ancient adobe temples. The Moche (500-900A.D.) built a vast city with two temples – Sol y Luna, strategically positioned beneath the mountain close to the sea. Sol has both old and new temples. The old temple was all but destroyed by severe flooding so the Moche built a high wall around the new temple as a barrier to daily sand storms and flooding. Interestingly, approximately every century they constructed one layer on top of another, covering intricate wall paintings and burying all artefacts. They also buried the dead below so that in effect each layer had the deceased of the previous dynasty. Excavations have uncovered many graves (at its height up to 5,000 people lived in the city), artefacts and beautiful paintings and it has been discovered that each brick carries the mark of the manufacturer, which could possibly be a precursor to writing.
Until 1998 visitors ended the Sol y Luna tour by sand surfing down the dunes. Now that archaeologists have unearthed a whole civilisation beneath the dunes, surfing has stopped! The site has yet to earn UNESCO status, but given that they know there are hundreds more in-tact graves to be uncovered it is likely to receive it, and thus significant financial support, soon.
For those of you who question if I ever eat, I’m pleased to report that post Sol y Luna I had an awesome quinoa soup followed by a gigantic avocado stuffed with langoustine, cheese ice-cream and an eye-wateringly strong Pisco Sour, in a cafe overlooking the ocean.
My next destination was Huaraz (pronounced Waraz), the not very inspiring town which is the gateway to the magnificent Cordillera Blanca – the highest mountain range after the Himalayas with one peak used in the Paramount Pictures logo. Think snow-capped peaks, glaciers, turquoise lakes, fertile valleys, stunning vistas, very few people and you have trekking heaven.
The only thing to contend with, other than the challenge of the treks themselves, is the changes in temperature from about 25 degrees daytime to 2 degrees at night. For longterm travellers like me this poses a problem in the wardrobe versus available space stakes. Thermals, padded jacket, Alpaca sweater, scarf etc take up a lot more room than t-shirts and shorts. However, you need both because everywhere you go in S America (unlike SE Asia and Indonesia), there are extremes of temperatures within a 24 hour period. Thankfully the under-pressure zip on my backpack is hanging in there and eventually when I make it to the warmer climes of Brazil I can eject the Alpaca sweater – much as it’s become my dear friend, and the other gear.
There is a town near Huaraz called Yungay which I am pleased I took a day trip to visit. On 31 May 1970, 10,000 ton of rocks and silt travelling at 80kmp took just 3 minutes to completely bury the town, killing all but 309 of the 25,000 inhabitants. 300 children were at the circus in the stadium on the outskirts of the town and ran to safety. Nine people were in the cemetery up on the hill and they too were spared. The only building left standing was the north tower of the church which was protected by 4 palm trees. In the aftermath of the disaster, Yungay received no external aid because there was nothing for aid agencies to help with but all of the children were adopted, mainly in Europe. A new town has been built within sight of the old town which is preserved as it was in the aftermath of the disaster, making it a living reminder of everything and everyone buried below.
Every 6 weeks or so I need to recharge the batteries – unpacking my suitcase and staying put for several days. Since arriving in Colombia in early August I had only managed 5 consecutive days of relaxation which was whilst on the cruise in Galapagos. For the first time in nine months on the road, I felt below par, arriving in Arequipa with an eye infection, earache, cracked heals and my first dose of food poisoning.
Fortuitously the ‘white city’, so called because of the white volcanic stone or ‘silla’ of which it is largely built, was my favourite city in Peru. It boasts the country’s widest cathedral (flattened twice by earthquakes), a beautiful walled monastic city within the city, three impressive volcanos, excellent cuisine and various non-strenuous day trips.
It was here I ate my first and last guinea pig, flattened by a heavy stone and deep fried it tastes slightly like rabbit. I also tried Alpaca steak and Alpaca a la Bourguignon – both deliciously tender. Alpaca is a vital animal to the Peruvians. Each one costs about $150 and can yield 10-20 times that for its meat and wool. Is there a single traveller who doesn’t own an Alpaca jumper?
Sticking with food, I spent a fun afternoon learning all about the humble cacao bean and making my own chocolates. The best beans come from Peru and Venezuela and are exported to Europe and the USA where the premium chocolate is produced. Did you know that the purest chocolate has only 4 ingredients: cacao, cacao butter, raw cane sugar and, if its milk chocolate, then powdered (never liquid) milk? If you love your chocolate as I do, it’s worth reading the packet to see what other crap is in there before buying.
I also visited the home and gardens of the house of the founder of Arequipa, Don Manuel Garcí de Carbajal, which he built for his mestizo mistress and their Down Syndrome son who died age 15 having never interacted with anyone than his mother and maid. Such a sad story.
Suitably rested, my next plan was to spend a few days hiking in the stunning Colca Canyon – twice the size of the Grand Canyon. The bus ride was a memorable one because sitting opposite me was a woman chopping vegetables and expertly filleting a piece of meat, presumably for the family dinner. Task completed she wiped her knife on the headrest and fell asleep!
It was additionally memorable because the ATM swallowed my bank card. Luckily the bank was still open and after producing various documents the card was returned to me. I really was lucky because, had the bank been closed, I would have had to return to Arequipa (4hour bus ride) where I had left my luggage, carrying only a small back-pack.
I spent a blissful two days on my own, hiking for around 5 hours each day down to the bottom of the canyon. One day I talked to a shepherdess and I had a couple of dogs for company for a while but mostly I enjoyed the vast expanses of mountains and gorges in solitude. At the end of day one there was a strong wind which caused rocks to tumble down the path and the last hour was a long slog but I made it to the comfort of Casa de Virginia where my namesake gave me a warm welcome, fed me delicious homemade food and provided hot water for me to wash before inviting me to plunge into the icy river then soak in the 39 degree thermal baths – bliss for aching muscles. Going to bed by candlelight and waking in the middle of the night to a moon so bright I could have started walking again by its light, I felt transported to a world far, far removed from everyday life.
At breakfast (6am), Virginia talked a bit about how she survives in the middle of nowhere with at best two or three hikers a day but sometimes no one for days on end. Aged 58 she isn’t receiving any government subsidies, has to pay for her own health care, and the way she is ensured a pension at 65 is that the state taxes her two sons 100 soles (£25) each per month for her. She also told me that as she lives in such a remote place with no TV, internet or mobile signal, her children and grandchildren only visit her once a year during the annual January- February holiday period. For me, passing through, it was a rural idyll but I could appreciate what a precarious and often lonely life she was living.
The magic of my time alone was shattered when I had to join about 40 people making the three hour climb up out of the canyon at 5am to catch a bus back to Arequipa. But never mind, those two special days are ingrained in my memory……not least because three of my toe nails suffered sever bruising and will probably fall off!
I’m in the minority in not warming to Cusco. It felt overrun with pushy tour operators using mediocre guides, choked with cars and tour buses, shabby in the downtown area where gangs of kids hang around the streets – apparently underage drinking and drug taking and teen pregnancies are a big problem, and overcrowded at the city’s main historic sites.
The Rio Urubamba Valley, known as El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley) was a different experience altogether. My first exposure to the Inca culture made a huge impression – most notably the enormous fortresses of Ollantaytambo and Pisac which dominate the countryside.
I also loved Chinchero. Thought by the Incas to be the birthplace of the rainbow, it is a typical Andean village combining Inca ruins with a Spanish colonial church and a colourful Sunday market with folk in local dress descending from mountain villages for genuine ‘trueco’ (bartering) – the Inca system of reciprocity. Lastly, the amphitheatre-like terraces of Moray, each one said to have its own microclimate for growing different crops, was hard to comprehend but showed just how agriculturally advanced the Incas were.
I have been travelling for 9 months now but don’t feel weary. I am still excited by each new experience and no more so than at the prospect of visiting the jewel in Peru’s crown – Machupicchu.
With no idea as to when I would be in Cusco I couldn’t book the Inca Trail which requires about 6-months’ notice. Instead, on the advice of many fellow travellers I booked the 4-day, 50km Salkantay trek.
We were a group of 13 people, 5 crazy Peruvian cousins, 5 EU exchange students, 2 American women and me. Despite freezing temperatures, no hot water, basic tents and mediocre food the trek was incredible. Being woken at 5am with steaming Mate de Coca to ward off altitude sickness, we would start trekking whilst the moon floated between the glacial mountains. We climbed to 4620m to be greeted by flurries of snow at the Salkantay pass, descended to 2850m to follow the babbling brook, chatted to the packhorse drivers, offered gifts to Pachamama (mother earth) to keep us safe, and on the final day walked through dense forest before entering Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machupicchu, along the train tracks.
The following morning, feeling refreshed after a hot shower, hot food and a comfy bed I couldn’t wait to see Machupicchu. It blew me away with its sheer size and the complexity of its structures. So many exquisite temples: Condor, Sun, Sacrifice; the Royal Burial Chamber, the Three Doors, the canals and fountains all mathematically designed to work in union with the sun, the moon and the seasons.
Hot and dusty I spent 10 hours walking round the site, climbing to the Sun Gate and then the Inca Bridge, wandering the terraces dotted with llamas and watching the changing colours of the stones as the sun made its way across the sky. I was so mesmerised by the place that I returned the following day to climb Machupicchu Mountain to see the site from 1km higher up. The photos don’t do justice to the absolutely amazing views.
So little is known about Machupicchu. Why was it built in such a remote place? Who was it built for? How many people lived there? Why did they abandon it? With no written recorded it’s impossible to know for sure, which means the guides tell different stories! However, what they all agree upon is that Machupicchu rightly deserves to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
My final destination in Peru was Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world. I took a slow boat through narrow channels to reach the floating village of Urus. The village is made of 20 blocks of peat earth tethered together with layers of reeds. It was a weird sensation walking on the spongy reeds and it was even weirder being encouraged by the village chief to don his wife’s traditional costume to pose for a photo together.
Leaving Urus in an ancient reed boat I arrived on the island of Amanti to be met by my homestay host Martina and her 3 children – Fabrizio 4, Annabel 10, Juliana 12. From her humble but comfortable adobe home in the fields I could see the mountains of Bolivia across the lake. Martina fed her family from the crops she produced and relied on her husband, working on the mainland, to send money for clothes, school books etc. I showed the children photos on my ipad of the animals and fish I’d seen on my travels. They were mesmerised, and I was reminded how many children in the world have never watched TV or seen a film when they had said they didn’t know Nemo.
That night Martina invited me and the three other guests to dress in the islanders traditional skirt, embroidered blouse, cummerbund and cloak to go to local dance. What a party! The band was terrific and got us all up learning traditional Peruvian dances with local men and women to guide us through our paces. Best of all was dancing round and round and in and out of a circle, not easy at altitude and certainly not something I usually find myself doing on a Saturday night. But then how many of my experiences bare any resemblance to life back in London!
Waking to a braying donkey and clear blue sky over lake, I took a short boat ride to Tanqil island, where I spent a happy hour at the kindergarten and junior school, impressed with their knowledge of basic English. I was less impressed by the secondary students humping bags of cement up the hill to help built their new classroom. Health and safety would have something to say about that back home!
On this conservative island, married women wear belts with small coloured tassels while unmarried women where big, brightly coloured tassels. Married men wear multi coloured hats and wear pouches for carrying coca leaves while unmarried men wear red hats with white tips and don’t carry pouches. Men and women alike spin wool and knit; they are never idle.
Young couples live together for 3 years after which, if they are happy together, a council of elders fixes a date for the wedding ceremony. If they aren’t getting on so well they can go their separate ways but once married it’s for life i.e. NO divorce.
And so, with the sound of the island’s brass band practicing for a regional competition, I took the boat back to the mainland and a powerful hot cocktail of wine, pisco, orange juice and cinnamon before heading across the border into Bolivia.
Just before I leave Peru, I need to talk about HATS. They fascinated me and may yet prove to be the basis of a Phd.
Each village or town has its unique style – Panama, trilby, bowler hat, top hat, stetson, bonnet, flat hat with a scarf on top, hats with feathers, hats with flowers. Every style has a meaning. In Huaraz for example a red top hat is for married women while white is for single women. In the adjoining village it’s the reverse. In other villages a single or a double flower donates single or married and so on. It’s a simple way of knowing who’s available and who’s taken but if you don’t know your villages it could get embarrassing.
What an amazing country and how much longer I could have spent there. There is so much more hiking to do, so many more archeological sites to visit, and of course the Amazon and the unfathomed Nazca lines.
So thank you Peru and thank you Peruvian people for an amazing month. I will miss you but I’m sure I’ll be back.