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November 3, 2007

Paru Parte Dos: The Sacred Valley

The cliche

Cuzco is the heart and beating soul of the tourist scene in Peru. It may be covered in hordes and every second store on the plaza may be an aplaca shop or a tourist agency, but the town is still has its moments and if you peel back the layers it is possible it can show you a side of itself that is really gorgeous.... It just might be hard to see past the number of pizza shops or tourist buses sometimes.

When the Spanish arrived at Cuzco, dizzy with gold fever, they demolished the temples and the town Saqsaywaman up hill and hauled all the large stones down to reconstruct the Inca capital in Spanish style. Eventually they got bored and 15 years later the capital was shifted to the new setlement of Lima. But what a 15 years! The huge Catherdral is a marvel and they plonked it right on the original palace and temple to make sure the heathens werent going to be worshiping any more savage gods. The inside is covered with plundered gold and silver and so ostentacious you wonder seriously what Jesus would say, had the man who threw the rich/money lenders out of the temple seen what is being made of his image these days.

The cobblestone alleyways lead through mazes of 500 years old buildings, all on orginal inca bases. Large pot hatted woman in large colourful traditional dress bump and mingle with the gringos or settle on the streets selling vegetables or knick knacks brought in from the countryside. (That, or they carry baby llamas and charged stupid gringos for photos.) And its usually grey and fucking cold.

I sell potato

Once settled, we bumped into old friends from Colombia and on their recommendation booked a 3 day rafting trip in the nearby valley. Rafting was a real treat. Descending out of the mountains the sky became clear, the temp rose and the canyon which we wound our way down into was beautiful with huge vertical walls. The rapids were 4-4plus with some super technical parts that we needeed to walk through. The sandflies were murder on my legs but the trip is highly recommended. We even managed some standing wave surfing. Rafting is going to be something i ll try and make a habit of when I get back home.

After I was back in Cuzco and we d had our fill of milling about the old city, we went to explore the old ruins of the nearby Inca cities sacked by Spanish conquest. Ollytaytambo is an incredibly cute little pueblo still laid out in traditional Inca planning with huge 500 year old stones forming the basses of gorgeous slanted houses arranged in straight, narrow cross sections and long alleys. Apparently it is the oldest continuously lived village in S America. It actually kind of reminded me of ancient Japan. And towering above on the mountains the actual old city and citadel that the Spaniosh destroyed. This was the one city where cunning town planning and defenses funneled the Spanish invaders through tight passes and the Inca defenses wreaked havoc on Spanish forces and they suffered numerous defeats before finally conquering the natives.

Little House on the Cliff

We stopped at Pisac another ruined hill top city with a thriving colourful sunday market in the small pueblo below. We ascended the 4 km uphill trail late and by the time we were atop marvelling at the sheer size and height, most of the tour hordes had left and we had this wonderful old ruined mountain top to ourselves. Very special indeed. The Incas developed highly intricate aqueduct systems and huge terracing for agriculture that could spill 100s and 100s of ms downhill to sheer cliff drops. Why on earth such vast cities were erected on top of mountains instead of in the warmer and more agriculturally friendly valleys I have no idea.

Because of our tardiness on top of the mountain exploring the ruins, it was dark by the time were back down in the town and fist fights were breaking out for the last precarious positions crammed inside the few remaining buses passing through the town. After an hour of waiting and watching world records broken for most human beings crushed to death in a tiny van, we took the sensible option and taxied it back to Cusco.

Our next point of interest was Macchu Picchu and being unprepared, as Juliet and I tend to be, the inca trail was of course out of the question. Every allocated spot on the well heeled trail books up months in advance and so we instead opted for an alternative downhill bikingslashhiking option which proved probably much more pleasant and easier on the knees than the traditional route. We decided to go with my rafting company because they were so professional and well prepared , but a dodgy office assistant without the very reputable managers notice bumped us onto another tour group which was plauged by ill-maintained equipment, crap hostals and bad food. None the less, our guide was awesome (if somewhat an alcoholic -each night after discharging his duties he consumed something akin to 9-10 long necks and still made it up fresh and spritely each day by 7) and the scenery rocked. After the huge downhill biking descent on dirt roads into the valley, it became warm enough to remove jumpers and we got harassed by sand flies. We trudged a few kms uphill along some terrifying cliff edges and then followed the river to a natural hot springs spot and spent the night there. Our group was large, but everyone got on well and despite reservations about her fitness Juliet charged ahead of the group , which I put down to her introduction to cocoa leaves, but it may have just been the drop in altitude. The third day we followed the valley further up stream and as we entered the Macchu Picchu sanctuary from the north, the rough, rocky mountains suddenly gave way to lush jungle and greenery that clung to towering vertical cliffs. It was as if the Incas had chosen the only lush and most breathtaking corner of the valley for their Summer city get away. We followed the train tracks from their termination near the hydro project and the forest grew closer and richer as we approached Aguas Calientes, the disgusting tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. Overpriced and jumbled with tacky souvenir/hotels this town is a definite low point on the whole Macchu Picchu experience. And its a real shame as the location is stunning.

At the Bridge

So early at 4 in the morning we began the one and a half hour hike to Macchu Picchu, hoping to get the sunrise and beat the hordes of tourists that arrive once the tour buses start up. And with low expectations Macchu Picchu before the tourists was stunning. The ruins are extremely well preserved and the floor/terraces a lovely blanket of green grass kept in check by resident llamas.

Different levels of the city house different structure and despite being incredibly well preserved , you can tell theyve done a bit of patch up work: as in the Incas did a much better job with foundation blocks and structural integrity. A couple of years ago a film crew filming a beer advertisement smashed the main shrine area when a crane fell onto the old stone work. The patch up job wasnt quite as authentic.

Machu Picchu

No one still really knows the purposes of Macchu Picchu or why the city was abandoned before the spanish arrived, but speculation runs rife. As our tour guide told us when he found it difficult to come up with any real hard fact and referred to each area he pointed to as an idea or theory of use. Frankily it must be quite entertaining guiding tourists around MP and just constructing wild and illogical theories for the remaining structures and city.

The heat was kind of oppressive and once the hordes of tourists showed up, we cut our losses and headed back to the tourist town below for the train back to Cuzco. The next day we met the same friends again who reaveled a horrific experience they had had on the Inca trail with a very expensive company who failed to provide water and three square meals, and so we drank to their losses but scooted quickly off to a bus we had to catch that was making its way to Arequipa

Arequipa is Peru´s second largest city, but is by far its prettiest. The weather is far milder than chilly cuzco and the volcanic porous stone work dotted about the plaza is quite pretty. Juliet in particular loved the city, but I think it was just being back in sunshine and having a little "civilisation" at her finger tips again. Due to time restrictions we gave the nearby Colca Canyon a miss ( I have already had a far share of canyons on this trip thus far) which was reportedly quite pretty and dotted with places to see endangered Condors, but noneless very similar to Canyons I had seen in China. It is aparently the deepest canyon in the world, but I guess it will wait for my next visit to Peru.

We plunged back into the chilly mountains again to cross the border into Bolivia and stopped at the Lake titicaca town of Puno. The lake is heavily commercialised and the amazing reed floating islanders have practically given up traditional lifestyle in order to occupy their time with souvenir selling. The Floating Islanders have lived on reed islands they have to replensih themselves for hundres of years, but the coming of tourists in the 80s has pushed tourism ahead of their traditional fishing activities.Its still an amazing site to visit, but once youve come to grips with the island itself, things become a little monotonous. Our unreliable boat conking out for and hour and a half didnt help things either. So late in he day we said Adios to Peru and would our way along the Giant lake to Bolivia, the country both Juliet and I had been hungry for.

Lake Titicaca

Posted by alex at November 3, 2007 5:36 AM

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