Trying times in Peru
03.02.2009 -17 °C
With the experience of the Death Road still fresh in our minds we packed up and once more hit the road.Our destination was Peru, arguably the most popular country in South America for a myriad of reasons and the assured highlight of our entire trip.It is a travellers paradise that caters to every impulse within a landscape that is as varied as any in South America.From roaming the dessicated deserts of Nazca in search of its famous petroglyphs to hiking in the canyon country that is Arequipa; enjoying the many cosmopolitan delights of capital Lima to revelling in the sheer sublime beauty of Lake Titicaca; to climbing in the sheer mountain ranges of the Cordilleras or boating lazily downriver in the lowlands of the Peruvian Amazon; Peru really has it all.Nowhere in South America will you find such a diversity of landscapes, people or activities.
But it is its ancient capital of Cuzco that draws visitors first and foremost.Cuzco had been the seat of ancient Incan rule up until its sacking during the Spanish conquest and still contains many relics of its bloody and tumultuous history.These alone would have made Cuzco a must see for any self respecting backpacker but there is one reason above all that guarantees it an essential place on the Gringo Trail checklist: its proximity to Machu Picchu.The 'lost' city of the Incas and one of the most famous and well preserved archeological sites in the world.For many tourists a chance to wander among its many ruined buildings in such a famously scenic setting is reason enough to come to Peru. Every Gringo worth his salt was either setting off to see it or just getting back.
We, of course, were only setting out.La Paz, Bolivia to Cuzco, Peru is about a 14 hour bus ride but we were making a quick stopover in the large town of Puno, itself a popular backpacker destination.Its position on the main highway to Cuzco ensures it receives its fair share of visitors but Puno's popularity mainly stems from its setting on picturesque Lake Titicaca.At an altitude of 3,812 m Titicaca is South America's highest navigable lake and with an area of 8,372 km2 is also its largest.The lake is shared almost equally between Bolivia and Peru and can be visited from either side of the border, Puno being the preferred point of entry from the Peruvian side.
The reason for this are the incredible floating reed islands of Uros.The high point of any trip to Titicaca, these artificial islands are woven together from the totora reeds that grow in abundance in the lakes waters.The people who live there have done so for hundreds of years and originally built them as an original method of defense.Now they let the public come over and marvel at their unique way of life in exchange for small gifts of fruits and bread.Most of the tours to the islands leave from Puno and we planned to make a quick day trip to see them on the way to our eventual destination of Cuzco.
And so we left La Paz in high spirits, bidding a fond farewell to the lofty capital that had unexpectedly become our favourite city so far.The bus took us over some impressively high and rugged terrain and before too long we reached the border crossing at Desaguadero.After some confusing border formalities we finally had our passports stamped and entered the country.We were now in Peru!We found our connecting bus amidst the chaos and after another few hours reached Puno in late afternoon.During the journey we'd learned of an ongoing national dispute between farmers and the government that effectively closed the roads from Puno to Cuzco.It seems the government were trying to introduce reforms that would charge farmers for the water necessary for crop irrigation.The farmers were up in arms and reacted by erecting blockades on available routes to Cuzco and other major cities in the hope they could force a change of policy.This sort of thing went on all the time in Peru apparently.
This was bad news for us; we had no choice but to in Cuzco by that weekend.The world famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu hiked by thousands each year is limited to 500 people per day, including guides and porters.This is done in an effort to maintain the Trail and not to let it become too overrun.What this translates to is that each hiker has to book his or her place on the Trail by way of a visa months in advance.We had booked ours before leaving Ireland and our start date was rapidly appraching.Miss it and we would lose our only chance to hike on one of the most famous trails on the planet, a trek that was said to be as impressive as its final destination.And since we'd already paid the expensive fee this was clearly not an option!
We quickly made a decision; skip Puno and Titicaca for now and head straight to Cuzco if possible.We'd be returning this way later anyhow and the priority was obviously seeing Cuzco and Machu Picchu.We checked every bus counter in the terminal before eventually finding one that sold us tickets.It was for a bus that night and due to the blockades it'd be taking a long circuitous route through the mountains that effectively doubled the journey time.However, we had second thoughts when I happened to read a horrific account of a bus accident that had occurrred only days before.A night bus traveling from Cuzco to Puno had veered off the road and crashed when the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.More than thirty people had been seriously injured and a young German backpacker had been killed.The article concluded with a severe warning against traveling at night when these sorts of incidents were more likely to occur.
Bus crashes in Peru are unfortunately not rare.In fact, they're very much a fact of life here and we'd already heard plenty of the horror stories.In a panic we cancelled our tickets and made arrangements for the next morning instead.After a fitful nights sleep we found our way back to the terminal and boarded our coach, very appreciative of the fact that we'd be travelling by day.Our coach took a winding path through small rural villages and over sparse mountain fields on a road that had long since ceased being paved.The journey was slow, boring and uncomfortable, with no tv or meal service, but we settled back into our seats just happy to on our way.
Just as we were enjoying a spectacular view of a lake filled mountain valley the coach shuddered to a stop.A huge tailback was right in front of us and from the look of it had been there some time.We got out and learned that the bridge ahead was blocked off and there was no way through.We spent a good two hours waiting around in frustration until the farmers finally relented and backed off.The road was cleared and the traffic started back up and continued on, only to be foiled once again by a much larger bridge that wasn't blocked off but completely burnt out!By this stage the Peruvian Army had come in to assist and erected a makeshift bridge that enabled vehicles to safely, but slowly, cross over.The scene was like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie, all spotlights and chaos!We waited another couple of hours for our coach to get its turn and by the time we were back on board the sun had well and truly set.We drove through the night and arrived in Cuzco well after 2 in the morning, waking our hostel manager up only to find out he had no record of our booking.After the long and tiring day we had just endured this didn't surprise us in the least but we convinced him to give us a room all the same.The traverse may have taken us more than 14 hours but we'd finally, thankfully, made it to Cuzco.
Cuzco was the capital of the once mighty Inca empire that ruled over much of Peru and even as far north as Ecuador and as far south as Bolivia and parts of Chile.Inspired by Cortez's recent success in Mexico, a Spanish expedition led by the tenacious Francisco Pizarro struck forth into the southern recesses of the Americas in search of fame and fortune.Their arrival happened to coincide with a civil war between the sons of the previous Incan Emperor, Huayna Capac, who were fighting for his title after his untimely death.Pizarro's small expedition took advantage of this state of civil unrest to penetrate deep inland where they were amazed by the Inca's advanced engineering skills they encountered, particulary their methods of crop irrigatation and their obvious mastery of stonemasonry.From interrogating the locals that they came across, the Spanish learned of the existence of the newly crowned Atahualpa and of his whereabouts in Cajamarca.Making contact with a messanger from the Inca, they arranged to meet in the town square.The Emperor arrived with some 7,000 unarmed soldiers in contrast to the 170 men that comprised the Spanish troop.In an audacious move probably brought about by sheer panic, the Spanish attacked and slaughtered many thousands of the Inca's soldiers before they could properly react and captured the Emperor.This unlikely outcome was due in part to the Spaniards' superior weaponry, including guns and cannons, near impenetrable armour and mounted horsemen (which the natives had never encountered before).
Holding the Emperor ransom the Spanish demanded unreasonable amounts of gold and silver, much of which was stripped from temples in the capital of Cuzco, some thousand miles away.Once the ransom was paid however, the Spanish saw Atahulapa as a dangerous liability and had him unceremoniously executed.They then marched on Cuzco, enlisting the service of Atahuapla's enemies and in a series of battles, took the city in 1533.Despite several spirited rebellions over the years, the Inca's never reclaimed their capital and with it, they lost their power and ultimately their way of life.Over the following years the Spanish systematically set about destroying any remnants of the Incan Empire, including any vestiges of their religion, which focused on worship of the sun god, Inti.Their conquest of Cuzco and eventually Peru virtually eradicated an entire Empire in less than a hundred years.
We put the lengthy journey behind us and spent the next day or two taking it easy and seeing the sights.Cuzco is quite a magnificent city to behold, once you ignore the constant hassle from the street vendors who throng the sidewalks.When Francisco Pizarro arrived he was stunned by the beauty and splendor all around him and wrote to the King that "it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain".
Cuzco's history and charm is such that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.Its archictecture is a bold mixture of Spanish style churches and narrow Incan streets that wind up into the hills surrounding it.The historic Plaza de Armas is the city's heart and its' picturesque setting is the home to the imposing Spanish built cathedral that dominates the area, while cafes and restaurants litter the remaining sides of the plaza.The cathedral was built on the site of an older Incan palace using blocks from nearby temples and forts.Much of the city was rebuilt by the Spanish in the same way, destroying in the process much of the original buildings although there are still some examples of the fine Incan stonework that remain intact, particulary the hugely impressive Inca walls along Loreta.We wandered through the narrow streets and up the many steep hills enjoying the sights; llamas being paraded around by girls in traditional costume; the artisans and painters working in the open air by their shopfronts; the many hidden niches that contain stall after stall selling the finest llama wool and ironic Peru T-shirts.Sure, its touristy, but its exciting nonetheless and we loved every minute of it.
Apart from the magnificent cathedral in the main square, Cuzco also boasts a wide array of historical buildings and museums that demand a visit.Among these are the Spanish built churches, including the adobe style Iglesia de San Blas whose pulpit is an astounding display of superior woodcarving; its creator's skull is said to reside in the top part.The museo Inka has great examples of Incan metal and gold work, pottery, textiles, mummies and more.They have a great replica of a Incan burial site complete with grisly bones and skulls that is more than a little creepy.
Also worth a view is the museo de Arte Religioso which contains an extensive collection of period paintings and fantastic woodcarvings from the colonial era, showcasing in particular the style of the Spanish conquistadors.
Our time spent exploring the city was pleasant enough, but, like every other Gringo that crowded into Cuzco, we had come primarily to see Machu Picchu and its a fact the locals are well aware of.Every second doorway you pass is draped in colourful advertisements for the Inca Trail while outside on the streets sellers push leaflets into your hands.But while the trip to Machu Picchu is the main event there are many other activities to spend your money on in and around the city.Rafting, mountain biking, horse riding and paragliding are all on offer while the surrounding countryside contains some splendid ruins that are also well worth visiting.We hired a taxi for the day to take us to the nearest few which included the sprawling fortess of Saqsaywaman (pronounced 'sexy woman'), an amazing example of the Inca's mastery of stonework with colossal walls made from gigantic interlocking stones.We also visited Q'enqo (zigzag) a large limestone rock riddled with niches and caves; Tambomachay, a ceremonial stone bath that still channels clear spring water; and Pukapukara, a commanding ruin with spectacular panoramic views of the valley.
As entertaining as these sights were we were eager to begin the trek.We'd met with the company rep that day to finalise the itinerary and pay off the remaining costs when she informed us apologetically that there was a small problem.While the Inca Trail is a tough four day hike from its starting point the return journey is a relaxing train ride from the small mountain town of Aguas Calientes (the town nearest MP) in the Sacred Valley back to Cuzco.This is included in the cost of the trek but yet again the Peruvians had scuppered our plans.Peru Rail, the company responsible for all rail travel in the country had just announced a strike in support of the farmers and it was due to start the day of our return.Typical!We discussed options and concluded the only choice was to go ahead with the trek and hope our guide could arrange some transport for the return.A little disheartened, we returned to our hostel to pack whereupon I began to feel suddenly feverish.Cursing my luck and my weakened immune system I popped some pills and crawled into bed to sweat it out, praying I'd have enough energy to begin the Inca Trail the next day.
Despite its charm and allure, Peru, I decided, was beginning to seriously piss me off.