Monday, 28 November 2011

Peruvian highlights

The mysterious setting of Machu Picchu.
Peru is a country that everyone knows at least a bit about – mainly thanks to those Inca guys – and one that is on every South American itinerary. I too hit the main sights, but that’s not to say they weren’t special.

First up was Cuzco, a ten hour bus ride from Bolivia. To get there however, we first had to deal with the usual border procedures, which are never predictable. In this instance, my travel companion, R, had misplaced her immigration slip. This small square piece of paper is issued upon entry and is destined to be filed away for eternity when exiting. It seems to be entirely useless, other than to enable border police to inject a little excitement into their otherwise repetitive day of stamping passport after passport. R stood helplessly at the door to the immigration office on the Bolivian side as the policeman shook his head at her, implying there was going to be some sort of diplomatic incident. Eventually, she was beckoned into a dark room containing a serious looking policeman. He sat there thinking for a moment, obviously weighing up the severity of the situation. He looked up.

“Coca Cola,” he stated. “Buy Coca Cola for us.” Perplexed but in no position to argue, R went outside and purchased a two litre bottle of the ubiquitous brown stuff. The policeman seized it with a big smile. Stamping her passport he paused, then wrote something down on a separate piece of paper. He handed it over. It was his email address. “Tell me when you come back to Bolivia,” he said. “We will meet for a drink.”

The route to Puno, the main Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, was rather devoid of notable scenery, save for the occasional glimpse of this incredible body of water. Other than that it was flat and bleak. I spent much of the time fretting over what would happen in Puno, since the agent I’d bought the tickets off in Copacabana had failed to reserve the seats on the bus and was nowhere to be seen when we were due to leave that morning. The bus driver had let us on out of pity, but had made it clear we would have to sort it out in Puno. Fortunately, the Bolivians leave nothing to chance. The driver dragged me round to the stall of the agency in the Puno bus station and demanded that the attendant issue us tickets to Cuzco. He obliged silently.

Cuzco is touristy. Very, very touristy. Its centre is built around impressive colonial cathedrals and other buildings, and some foundations of destroyed Inca constructions, the stones of which were used to construct said cathedrals. There are some reconstructed Inca walls, one of which contains an apparently important twelve-sided stone. (I was more fascinated by the massive crowds it attracted, of whom I doubt anyone knew what they were looking at.) There are also little lanes linking a few pleasant, quiet plazas in which sing evening choirs. But just outside the centre one finds no tourists, and an abundance of local eateries serving three-course meals at a fraction of those in the tourist area. They were less than a £1.

Cuzco centre
Booking our Machu Picchu entrance tickets and train tickets online, we made our way by local minibus into the sacred valley and the village of Ollantaytambo. Evidently one of the passengers was in a rush because she shouted at the driver to hurry up, who was already careering his way along the worryingly narrow mountain lanes. He slammed his breaks on as vehicles approached head on. I tried not to look.

We made it alive and after lunch in Ollantaytambo caught the Inca Rail up to Aguas Calientes, the nearest settlement to Machu Picchu. The route took us through lush green valleys, past conical mountains and rushing rivers. We entered the mist and were swamped in it by the time we arrived. Aguas Calientes is set in a wonderful location amongst the hills, and one can smell the cool freshness of the thick forests in the air. The town itself is merely a cluster of boring hostels, hotels, overpriced restaurants and shops selling tat. We stayed in a damp, noisy room with a photo-shopped picture of llamas on the wall.

On the Inca Rail up to Aguas Calientes.
It wasn’t a long night. We were up at 4.15am and straight out the door to go and stand in the pouring rain to wait for the first bus up to Machu Picchu at 5.30am. Others decided to walk; we passed them on the way and they looked decidedly tired, unhappy and wet. We were first through the gates and hurried along the path for that perfect sight. And what was there to greet us? Cloud. A lot of thick, white cloud. Great, thought I, a world wonder lying beneath me, but it may as well be on the other side of the world.

The Inca gods must have heard my frustration, for at that moment a gap appeared in the blanket of fog. Small at first, then slicing its way across the mountainside, it grew wider and lifted the curtain up, ushering gasps as the show began. It rose completely and suddenly there I was looking down on Machu Picchu, a picture I’d seen a million times before, yet so breathtaking in reality as to make me gawp in astonishment. The construction itself is incredibly intricate, with room after room linked by walkways, but it’s the setting that produces the sense of mystique, of grandeur, of what-the-hell-is-this-doing-here. I stood transfixed by the vision below me, unable to quite comprehend its beauty.

Machu Picchu revealing itself.
I climbed up Huyana Picchu, the mountain in the background of all photos. It was tiring and utterly pointless, for the clouds had rolled in again and obscured everything, as if it were only a dream. I spent the rest of the day wandering through the complex, trying to get llamas in shot with the stones, and pretending to be sacrificed.

The funny thing about the Incas is that they weren’t around all that long ago, just from the mid 1400s to the mid 1500s. This was around the time that the Roman Empire was already falling apart and a few hundred years since the Magna Carta. The reason, I suspect, why they’re so talked about is because of the mystery surrounding them and especially Machu Picchu – why exactly did they go to the trouble of building there at some 2430m above sea level. And what caused them to abandon it? Whatever the motivations and truth, it does nothing to detract from the utter awesomeness of the mountaintop hideaway and its ability to move you, deep inside yourself as you stare in wide-eyed wonderment.

More Machu Picchu
We left Cuzco by overnight bus for Nazca in the west of Peru. Despite the poshness of the bus (fully reclining leather seats and wifi), I slept not a wink because of the tremendously twisty roads leading down from the mountains. This was the first time in a long time I was down at near sea level again, but the sea is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Pan-American Highway cuts across the dry desert – and across some ancient, massive drawings: the Nazca lines. Of course, the constructors of the road didn’t realise. Indeed, the scale of these lines is not fully appreciated except from the air. So this is what we did, taking a flight over them.

The Pan-American Highway cutting across the Nazca Desert.
They really are quite a bizarre sight. There are huge drawings of monkeys, hummingbirds, humans and other animals, as well as perfectly straight lines and trapeziums crossing each other, some for up to 1500m. Created by the Nazca people between 400 and 650AD by moving the darker surface rocks away to reveal the lighter rock below, their meaning is not fully understood. There are theories connecting them to the stars, water sources and rituals, but no-one really knows. Many of the shapes are composed of just one continuous lines, which often connects to other shapes, suggesting that they were meant to be walked along, perhaps during ceremonies. Perhaps the Nazca people themselves forgot why they did these things.

The Nazca Lines - a spider!
The two Peruvian highlights I had dreamt about all my life out of the way, I was free to see some lesser-known sights. I’ll describe those in the next instalment.

1 comment:

  1. haha that is classic, Coca Cola for a passport stamp. Those ruins are amazing even if they are also a little too famous. I'd really like to go one day.