Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 14 PERU —  AREQUIPA TO CUZCO

Arequipa

Arequipa is a lovely UNESCO city which is made distinctive by its buildings which are built from white volcanic sillar rock. Its architectural blend of indigenous and European methods is known as the ‘Arequipan school’ which is high praise indeed. The city is nestled in the centre of three volcanos most notably El Misti which stands at 5822m above sea level. It last erupted in the 15th century around 2000-2300 years ago, it has reawakened and started emitting gas again which very bad news. The government have released a warning to stop building close to the volcano and the evacuation procedures should the worst happen. The other two volcanoes are the much smaller and less active Chachani and Pikchu Pikchu.

It is the second most populated city in Peru and second in terms of industry and commercialisation. Its most famous ex-inhabitant is Mario Vargas Llosa. Mario Vargas Llosa is a writer and politician who ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990. His literary credentials are substantial and he has written essays, political thrillers, historical fiction and comedies, unsurprisingly he won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2010. Several of his novels have been adapted into feature films.

The day after we arrived we got up very, very early for a trip to the Colca Canyon. It is almost a four-hour trip both ways along bumpy roads. This canyon is apparently the third most visited tourist attraction in Peru. This surprised me because I would’ve thought that it would be beaten by a great many different historical sites.

The countryside is, of course, beautiful, I think that perhaps most people only visit the South of Peru as they come to discover Machu Picchu. The North is well worth visiting as it has so many great sites in its own right, none admittedly as fantastic as MP itself.

Colca is one the deepest canyons in the world, amazingly twice as deep as that load of rubbish The Grand Canyon (not really). It is still beaten by the Cotahuasi canyon which is deeper and also in Peru. CC is along a fault line on the Earth’s crust and was ‘dug’ in the volcanic rock by the Colca River.

The CC still has steppe terraces that are farmed by indigenous people. The Incas married into the existing Wari and Aymara cultures when they came, the Spaniards then arrived and forced people into distinct village areas which still exist now. It is now inhabited by the Cabana people who speak Quechua. 

We stopped at the Cruz del Condor or the ‘Condor Cross’ where you view the near threatened Andean Condor. We didn’t have any binoculars but what a bird! Its name comes from the Quechuan word ‘kuntur’ which means condor. 

The condor only nests every other year which does not help it as an endangered species. As a parent raising such a massive bird is no small undertaking. They nest on mountain ledges but they are unfortunately hunted for ‘medicine’. Mining and industry have negatively affected its population as environmental degradation to air, water and soil have lessened and/or poisoned its prey supply. It is currently being captive bred in order to be reestablished. Given the chance, it is one of the world’s longest living birds and can make it up to 70 years plus.

The condor is a national symbol for most South American countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador as well as Peru. Vultures around the world are in grave danger due to secondary poisoning by substances used to treat farm animals called diclofenac.

After seeing the condors and having some food, it was time to return to Arequipa for a bit of rest before yet another bus journey to race up to Nazca as the last stop before Cuzco and the Inca Trail.

Nazca Lines

On our way to Nazca on the bus, a woman asked if she could put her bag under our seat. Steph said yes as she is so nice but I was immediately suspicious as it was a small leather bag and they had loads of much bigger granny bags (you know those multicoloured plastic ones that look like old checked sacks and used the whole world over by grannies). 

My suspicion turned out to be correct because the bus was raided by police who immediately headed upstairs and went through all the granny bags. They obviously had some kind of tipoff as they didn’t search anyone else’s stuff.

One of them spied the leather bag and asked if it belonged to us, our fingers shot out in the direction of the woman and the police found what they wanted and dragged them off the bus. As gringoes, the woman knew we wouldn’t get searched so in fairness it wasn’t a terrible plan to make it look like the bags was ours.

We reached Nazca at an ungodly hour in the morning and headed to the airstrip to sit in the dark with our bags until it opened. One of them let us in at about 6 and we agreed to tour with them.

If you think that you can have just about as good a time watching the Nazca Lines on Google Earth than you can from a light aircraft then you are absolutely right, you would also avoid being ripped off and getting airsick. 

There is little or no explanation for what you are seeing, and anything that is said is pretty self-explanatory as all but the most naïve of us recognise a primitive drawing of a monkey or a dog. It is almost as if the Nazca Desert is a chalkboard that has been crayoned all over by a small child sadly lacking in artistic panache or credibility. That is not to say they are not culturally important.

If someone told me that it was some sort of crop circlesque trick to draw in the tourists or some sort of ancient practical joke I would well believe them. I will, however, give you the history of what we do know about these geoglyphs (Latin for scribbly pictures).   

The lines are of course a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are situated on the Pampas de Jumana, between Nazca and Palpa (type that into Google Earth). They were created by removing the pebbles to reveal the pale ground beneath and they are in fact quite shallow designs. The designs include seventy animals such as birds, fish, llamas, a jaguar, a monkey and human depictions (zoomorphic) and plant life is represented by various trees and flowers (phytomorphic). 

Creating them was no small job as some of them are 200m across, there are various theories surrounding their purpose and the most popular amongst academics is that they have religious significance or at the very least that they have spiritual meaning. 

It is believed that the geometric symbols could be used to summon water and the animals could be fertility symbols, other theories are that they were used as giant calenders or for irrigation purposes. It is the continuous climate that has preserved these lines as they are, although they are occasionally affected by an extreme weather change or by travellers who have in the past years started to set up camps in the area. 

They can be seen by the surrounding hills and they were discovered by the Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe in 1927. He gave news of their existence to fellow academics at a conference, although it is assumed that they had been seen before by local travellers before they became public knowledge. The wooden stakes that were used by the Nazcas to create the lines have been discovered in subsequent expeditions by scientists from American universities. The Japanese research centre in the religion has uncovered over 100 more geoglyphs in total from their extensive and ongoing research. 

There are some fun theories about the reasoning behind the construction of the lines, including the astronomer Phyllis Pitluger’s idea that the lines represent the constellation of the stars of Orion. Jim Woodmann believed they were made using a hot air balloon and my most favourite alternative theory is that of Erich von Däniken who concluded that the lines were old aeroplane runways for aliens who the Nazca people believed were their gods. 

All conjecture aside, a preservation issue that is coming to light is that climate change and deforestation in the surrounding areas are beginning to leave the geoglyphs at greater risk of erosion. 

As we went on the flight so f—-ing early we then had all day to wait in the town until the night bus to Cuzco arrived. There is really nothing going on in Nazca as the lines are the big draw…….

Anyway, we chatted with a few other bored as heck tourists and found out we’d overpaid for the flight which did nothing to improve my mood. There is an Inca graveyard nearby and I wanted to go there but Steph didn’t and I couldn’t be bothered to go on my own. I wish I had as it would have been better than sitting in a cafe bored with a limp spag bol which is what we actually did.

Eventually, we sidled to the bus station to continue the wait. The ticket woman had her toddler in a playpen next to her and Steph played with her while we waited. This was a nice thing for her to do as the Nazca bus station is no place for anyone, let alone a baby.

Cuzco

We finally got to Cuzco in the morning after another overnight bus and stayed at The Point hostel. We had a couple of days before our tour started and we needed to go to the tour agency to get sorted out as well as the important business of looking at ruins.

During this short jaunt in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we visited Sacsayhuaman first as it is really close to Cuzco and you get good views of the city from it. People say different things about Sacsayhuaman (sexy woman). It is said to mean either ‘satiated falcon’, ‘speckled head’ or ‘city of stone’. So like most ruins, she is veiled in mystery.

The fortifications were started in 1100 have been added to by different cultures over the years. The fortifications were so large that what you can see today, although large, is only 20% of the original building.

The stones were apparently pulled there by ropes which is impressive because the SW rocks are very big and very square. I didn’t notice but apparently, some of the gaps between the stones have been ‘filled’ with regular rocks by idiot people – something which understandably enrages tour guides and people of a historical nature. 

There is a whole trail of ruins that you can walk and bus between and we managed to do a couple which was good work considering the altitude. 

The first one that you come across on your right-hand side after SW is Q’enko (other spellings are available). This site is a place of ritual sacrifice and it believed the channels were filled with chicha (traditional corn drink) or maybe even blood. The centre of the site is a large pointed boulder and there is an underground channel containing altars beneath it.

We continued along the road and although we didn’t really explore Pucu Pacara, we did technically see it before we entered Tambomachay on the other side of the road. Pucu is a large fortress so it is on the same side as Quidco looking out into the valley. The name means ‘red fortress’ after the red granite used to build it and it is essentially a guard post on the way to one of the Inca ‘burbs to stop the Amazonian ‘peasants’ from entering Cuzco. It isn’t as well built as other fortifications which suggests it was built in a hurry to protect against the imminent threat of Amazonian invasion.

We did wander around Tambomachay which is known in Spanish as ‘the bath of the Inca’ or El Baño del Inca. It is made up of a collection of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that run along various terraces. 

It is not known if it is an Inca shrine to water or a military outpost. It could be guarding the other side of the road to Pucu but I like to think its some kind of Inca spa. We caught the bus back to Cuzco as the altitude has knocked us both out, especially me as I was the weak one. 

I really struggled with the altitude and I didn’t like Cuzco as my experience of the city was overshadowed by the fact that and I felt sick and I really didn’t love the hostel we stayed in.

It was cold but the showers were scaldingly hot, there was nowhere to sit and it was full of loud, idiotic people who were getting fucked up the whole time when people like me were going on the trek and needed sleep. The bar was also rubbish and we would have stayed in the Loki hostel if it hadn’t been booked up. Excitingly, we were finally here and the Inca Trail awaited us.

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