Last known location: London, England

Music, Masks and Machu Picchu

From Copacabana we followed the shores of Lake Titicaca north, and were soon at the border with Peru. Another stamp in the passport and we were into the 16th country of our now 7 month long trip. Our first destination was Cusco, the capital of the ancient Inca empire, and one of the oldest cities on the continent.

We spent our first couple of days exploring the narrow, twisting cobbled streets and alleyways of the old city, all built on top of the Inca buildings they replaced. In some places you could still see the solid stone foundations that were left behind. We were staying in Barrio de San Blas, up the hill from the centre so we got plenty of exercise wandering around! During our wanderings we encountered three women with baby Llamas, purely for tourists benefit obviously, but Gem couldn’t resist having her photo taken with them, as you can see above! It was a beautiful city to wander around, even if the altitude (3,300m) meant we were out of breath most of the time!

The centre of the city is the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by colonial arcades – the balconies above are mainly occupied by bars and cafes, so a scenic spot to stop for a drink. Also on the square is the Cathedral, built on the site of the Inca’s palace, and which apparently took 100 years to build. It was definitely the grandest we’ve seen in Latin America so far, full of elaborately carved decoration and huge paintings, including one of the last supper where the main course is Guinea Pig!

On our second night in Cusco we had a good Peruvian meal at a tiny restaurant on our street (capacity approx. 12) and then spent the night at a bar opposite our hostel called 7 Angelitos, where a live band was promised. They did eventually emerge just after 11, and happy hour beforehand had helped pass the time! They weren’t bad at all, with their Peruvian interpretations of Nirvana and Radiohead, and we only had a short stumble across the road to bed!

One of the most spectacular sites on the continent (and one of it’s busiest tourist spots) is Machu Picchu, situated on a mountain-top in the Sacred Valley, 45 miles north-west of Cusco. A popular way to reach the site is by trekking the 3 day Inca Trail, but there are limited permits every day and when we there the earliest you could do it was early August! Our experience of hiking at altitude on the Isla del Sol a few days earlier also dampened our enthusiasm! So instead we caught the scenic train up to Aguas Calientes, the small town down in the river valley below Machu Picchu. It was a picturesque journey following the Rio Urubamba along the valley floor, and we also met Michelle, who was from Tenby and who’d been to uni in Wycombe – her and Gem had plenty to talk about!

We’d opted to spend a night in Aguas Calientes – visiting Machu Picchu at dawn is evidently the thing to do – so we had an afternoon to kill in the tiny town, which exists exclusively to serve tourists, but was pleasant enough. Even though it was raining we managed to spend a few hours at the outdoor Hot Spring baths on the edge of town. The water was a little bit murky but warm enough! Having not done any trekking we weren’t sure wedeserved it but it was very relaxing!

That evening we started hearing fireworks being let off – not an unusual event in South America, even in the middle of the day – but this time there did seem to be a reason for it! It turned out it was the Fiesta de la Cruces (Festival of the Crosses). We’d heard that inorder to get Catholicism to stick in Peru the missionaries had basically made it into a reason for a regular shindig, and this seemed to be one them! There were various different processions through the town – men in brightly coloured woolly balaclavas, others with plastic masks with huge noses, and the weirdest which was a man in modern soldiers uniform dancing with another man in drag. Quite what the story was behind each group we never found out, but it was good fun, with plenty of music and noisy fireworks, so we didn’t complain!

The next morning we were up at 4.30am for the main event. We’d booked the whole trip as a package (train, hotel, park entry etc.), which meant that we had a guide to help us make sense of the place! After a brief but very windy bus journey up the mountain we arrived just before 6am with the rest of our group – two Canadians and an American. Once we were inside, the view over the whole site as the sun rose over the mountains was spectacular to say the least, with the remains of a city perched on a mountain top with sheer drops off either side, surrounded by a river deep in the valley below on three sides.

Machu Picchu was rediscovered by an American in 1911, who promptly carted everything he could carry back to the states – the Peruvian government is still in dispute with Yale University about getting most itreturned, although apparently this is now happening! Ever since that time, people have been trying to work out why the city was founded in such a difficult location and what exactly went on there. There’s still a lot of uncertainty but our guide sounded convincing enough and did a good job of showing us round! We saw the temple of sun, aligned exactly so that sunlight shines through the windows at dawn on the Summer solstice every year, as well as tombs, temples, shrines and plazas. Amongst all the tourists were a few roaming Llamas keeping the grass manicured!

After a couple of hours with our guide we were left to our own devices, and climbed up the terraces to the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock. From here you get the classic picture postcard view over the ruins which didn’t disappoint! We then went on a slightly precarious wander round the back of Machu Picchu mountain to the Inca Bridge, on a path built into the cliffs. We had to give our names and passport numbers before we were allowed to go in case we never came back – there wasn’t much to stop you falling off the edge!  Gem ventured onto a very narrow path which I wasn’t thrilled about but she came back in one piece!

By early afternoon we’d done our exploring and headed back down to Aguas Calientes and caught the train back to Cusco. With all the big attractions you always wonder if they’ll live up to the hype, but Machu Picchu certainly did!

We still had one more day in Cusco, and we didn’t do much to be honest! We did take in Qorikancha (Golden Courtyard in the local Quechua language) which in the time of the Incas was an important temple and observatory, the entire interior of which (walls, floors and all) was literally covered with gold. When the Spanish arrived they stripped the place bare, melted everything down and demolished the temple! A colonial church and monastery was then built on top of what was left, so now you have a strange mix of the two.

That night we boarded an overnight bus to the coast, which would take us back down to sea level for the first time in a couple of weeks – we were beginning to get tired of constantly being short of breath!

1 Comment:
  1. Rose 15 May, 2011

    That path looks very scary Gem! You wouldn’t have got me walking along it! Love the llamas. Machu Pichu looks stupendous.


    Mum x x x

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