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Archive for August, 2009

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(February 2009)

This region is the Inca heartland and has been on my travel list for twenty plus years! Cuzco, aka Gringo capital of Peru has a population of approximately 320,000, and you cannot walk or sit for more than a few minutes without someone trying to sell you something. Nonetheless, this remarkable city, the oldest continuously inhabited one in South America, makes a great base and I stayed in the area for about 10 days.

The city is a stunning blend of Spanish architecture, Inca stonework, grand and not so grand churches, museums and shops and, oh, so many steep streets. That first day curiosity pulled me into Qoricancha at Santo Domingo Cathedral. During the Inca reign the site housed the Gold Palace, Temple of the Sun, Solar Garden, and Temple of the Moon.

Over the next few days I checked out the Museo de Arte Precolombino and the Museo Inka and wandered around the city, sometimes purposely and other times aimlessly, before buying the 10-day tourist ticket. While walking around the city I came upon a few fiestas and observed the participants consume food and beer, dance to the accompanying bands and then, meal over, parade off to somewhere else. There seems to be some religious significance attached to the events.

One morning, a small girl decided to accompany me on my way to the Plaza de Armas. Once there, we sat down and she requested some change, which I gave her. The city really is dependent on tourism and, for better or worse, I guess this was her take on it.  When I met Gladys, a woman from Chinchero, it was raining. She was roaming around the tourist area with her two children trying to sell decorative carved gourds and woven belts. She was so persistent that I did buy a belt from her. Gladys spoke English quite well and in the following days we would chat each time we met.

Ready to visit the Sacred Valley, I headed off to Ollantaytambo after purchasing train tickets for Machu Picchu. The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo were an astrologically-aligned strategic fortress and a temple. I hooked up with a few Spanish-speaking tourists and we purchased the services of a guide. 

I spent the rest of the day exploring the village. The old Inca streets are fascinating and the villagers are very friendly. I chatted with an American woman who was volunteering in a textile shop/education centre. In another establishment I read about health and social initiatives, one directed at the importance of learning Spanish as a way out of poverty for the Quechua-speaking children. I watched the locals socialize in the square and later party through the evening with the aid of the resourceful liquor seller and her trusty cart. It was a perfect excursion and my favourite day in Peru!

I woke very early the next morning and headed down the dark road to catch the 5:30 am train to Aguas Calientes. At first I was a little apprehensive about walking down a deserted road. Soon though, I was enjoying the walk and the moment and felt very content. About halfway to the station, I encountered other people and a couple bicycle taxis. As I neared the train station solitude and silence gave way to long ticket lines and vendors with hot coffee and food. Seems that I just made my way down the road a little later than others.

I arrived in Aguas Calientes, purchased a bus ticket and was on my way up to Machu Picchu. It was raining and the mountain was covered in a thick blanket of fog! However, the rain soon stopped and the fog slowly lifted enhancing the grandeur and mystery. Despite the tourism aspect of Machu Picchu, exploring the ruins of this precariously situated city is still humbling and inspiring.

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(Late January 2009)

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city and also known as the “White City”, is in close proximity to El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu volcanoes and it intrigued me during my research. I arrived early in the morning and checked into La Casa de Sillar. I had read about the Cafe Casa Verde, which is run by street kids, and I strolled over there for lunch.

I wandered through the very memorable Monasterio de Santa Catalina. The nuns lived there in seclusion for 391 years before it was opened to the public in 1970. The architecture and design is very impressive. The monastery is like a self-sufficient secluded city within the city. In centuries past this must have been a very good life for the women who inhabited the community. I find it both appealing for its sanctuary and repelling for its isolation.

The next day I visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos. This is where the frozen Inca bodies discovered on Ampato Volcano are housed. Juanita, the best preserved and well-known, is not on display between January and March so instead I viewed the remains of Serita. Serita would have been between 15-17 years of age when she died. The child sacrifice was to appease the gods after a volcano eruption and is believed to have been a very solemn and important undertaking. Children were of noble birth, although Serita’s status is uncertain, and the actual death seems very cruel – a blow to the head. The culture believed in duality and objects accompanying the bodies were found in pairs. The Inca’s recorded their stories with fabric cords and these were found with the bodies. The film re-enactment of the sacrifice ritual is quite interesting and points out the fact the Inca’s would have been expert climbers.

I looked around for a tour to Colca Canyon. I considered the 3 day/2 night adventure in which you go down into the canyon and camp and a similar one but you stay with a family. I think either of these trekking tours would have been a satisfying experience but I was worried about my fitness level and thought getting back out of the canyon could be too difficult a challenge. The tours were also relatively expensive in comparison to the conventional 2 day/1 night tours. So, being a mild-core adventurer on a budget, I opted for the standard tour offering the creature comforts of a hotel room and hot water.

Colca Canyon is stunning. The road is somewhat rough but the landscape is truly breathtaking. We passed through Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca and spotted a few vicunas – they are wild and their wool is  much more expensive than alpaca. We did see an awful lot of domestic llamas and, unlike their Ecuadorian cousins, they were not the least bit curious about us. After an over-priced buffet in Chivay we checked into our hotels then met up again for a splash in the hot springs pools. For dinner we attended a traditional music and dance pena.

Chivay was cold and wet and the following day it was up early to head for Cruz del Condor. We stopped at a couple villages along the way and arrived there around 9:45 am. Much to our awe and satisfaction we spotted several condors and were able to spend some time watching these majestic birds. The Andean Condors live 60-70 years, are about one metre in length and have a wingspan of 2-3 metres. They are simply magnificent! On the way back we stopped at a couple miradors to marvel at the Inca terracing. Shifting our gaze up the mountain beside us, the guide informed us that important Inca’s were buried in the rock.

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IMG_3938astronautMy bus arrived in Nazca around 10 pm and I let a tout talk me into staying at the hotel he was representing rather than the hostel I had in mind. I also purchased my Nazca flight through him and the hotel. My rationale was that it was too late at night to go comparison shopping for the early morning flight. I probably paid a little more because of this but what I didn’t find out until I was at the airfield was that I could have booked the flight directly with the airport. Oh well, then I would have had to pay for a cab. It’s definitely a very busy little airfield.

Flying over the desert is surreal. I had first read about and been intrigued by the Nazca culture back in the 80s but now I was relishing the moment. I’m intellectually stimulated by the lines and the puzzle they represent – my unscientific opinion is that they were created in homage to the highest of the three levels of gods in Nazcan mythology, the condor. I’m equally fascinated with experiencing this otherworldly view in a small craft – a four-seater plane and I was in the co-pilot seat! (One of my childhood ambitions was to be a pilot.) The pilot pointed out the figures and geometric abstractions and as I tried to isolate them in my camera’s viewfinder I missed most of the shots. I fared better than the other two passengers though – upon exiting the plane they became sick. It’s important not to eat breakfast prior to the flight. By 8:30 am the 20-minute flight and adventure is over!

Nazca is very hot with no shade cover. Hotel checkouts are in the morning. My next bus isn’t until 11 pm. I decided to pass on the countryside tour to the ancient cemetary where you can view mummified remains. No doubt, it would have been interesting but the whole tout experience had put me off. I walked around and visited the very good Antoni museum, dined on the special of the day, replenished my thirst several times, chatted with the locals, and was happy to leave that night.

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IMG_3796limalovers

(Late January 2009)

I arrived in Lima late in the evening and the taxi ride from the airport to Miraflores, an upscale suburb, was expensive. I had reserved a dorm at the Flying Dog Hostel near Parque Kennedy. The park was alive with people – parents and kids in the playground, people walking and sitting about, restaurant patios full – all in all it had a welcoming vibe. The weather was amazing, too! I had gone from mostly springlike temperatures to hot and humid and I embraced this heat. After finding the hostel, there are three Flying Dog locations in Miraflores and the taxi driver let me off at the wrong one, and checking in, I ventured back out into the square for a refreshment and some people watching. I also noticed a lot of cats – the first I had seen in my travels.

The next day I wanted to explore the centre and asked for bus directions. I was told a bus is too dangerous and advised to take a cab. The woman at the hostel also told me what the fare should be. I flagged down a taxi and the price the driver quoted was higher than what she had specified so I flagged another only to get a higher quote and tried again with the same result. I decided to pass on it and checked out the tourbus. I ended up taking two tours – one of Miraflores, which was great for getting my bearings, and one of Central Lima, which included a tour of the San Francisco Catacombs. It’s estimated that 25,000 people are buried there under the cathedral. Walking through the catacombs and viewing so many bones is a reminder that life is short and fragile.

Lima is a large city and has a metropolitan population of about 8.5 million. I’m glad I took the tourbus as it would have been difficult to get around on foot. The trade-off is that I didn’t get the same sense of place I experienced in other towns and cities. The city has some beautiful architecture, both historic and modern, the streets are bustling, and there are many contrasts between wealth and poverty.

I spent the evening in the park. There was a dance and some of the participants were very good dancers. My eyes kept going back to this one couple who were a joy to watch – they epitomized grace, skill, and passion!

I stayed in Lima for a couple more days. I didn’t get back to the city centre and missed out on the country’s best museums as the allure of Miraflores with its shops, parks and the Pacific won out. From small souvenir pieces to the large Lovers sculpture in the park overlooking the ocean Peruvian culture is very sexually explicit. I did something very uncharacteristic and went into the mall – well, it is built into the cliff! I sat on a restaurant terrace with a beer and light lunch watching the surfers and paragliders.IMG_3819limactrtrainIMG_3866limapacific Summertime in Lima is satisfying!

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