Travel journal: Peru
Copyright holder(s): Name withheld
Wed. 17th June 1999
The trip started on the evening of 17th June with a flight from São Paulo to La Paz, capital of Bolivia, with a stop-over to change planes in Santa Cruz. The carrier was Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, which doesn't have the best of reputations, but the journey was smooth and the inflight meal was of high quality for an airline - either a kebab-like meat dish or pasta with ham and chicken.
We arrived in La Paz after dark, collected the two large pink sacks the tour company (Climb) had asked us to put our luggage into, and took the coach into La Paz.
La Paz is a rambling and ramshackle city, now spilling out of a bowl set deep into the Andes. The airport is on the lip of the bowl, so our first sight of the city was a galaxy of electric lights, way down in the darkness below us. Soon, though, we were driving through streets crowded with cars and pedestrians, and before long we arrived at our hotel, El Presidente (5 stars!), an unexpectedly luxurious place to stay (2-room suite, jacuzzi and cable tv). Then to bed.
Thursday 18th June 1999
(La Paz to Lake Titicaca)
Rose fairly early on Thursday morning and spent some time rearranging our luggage for the short trip to Lake Titicaca. Our hotel room (1008) was on the tenth floor - the view gave out directly onto the brown stone façade of the Church of San Francisco dominating the square below, and beyond that, rising steeply up the mountainside, a myriad of tiny houses in warrens of streets.
After breakfast in the hotel - papaya, fruit juice, egg and waffles - we headed out to wander around the Centre and browse the many handicraft shops and stalls.
The streets were busy - huge, ancient and brightly-painted Dodge buses competed for business with packed Volkswagen vans. Out of each leaned young boys who banged the side at each stop and yelled the destination. The native population is largely Indian, and many of them are 'cholitas' - women in brown or black bowler hats, sometimes set at a jaunty angle, and wide, traditional skirts. The fashion for bowlers began long ago, apparently, when a cargo of hats for colonial Spanish men fell into the hands of native women, who were delighted with them and have worn them ever since.
Many cholitas tend the stalls which surround the Church of San Francisco, and wind steeply uphill to the so-called Witches' Market, where various herbal remedies are on offer. We took that as our destination and laboured slowly uphill, feeling the effects of the high altitude: a light head and heavy legs! The streets were thick with shops selling pullovers, cardigans, ponchos, hats and craftwork. We eventually bought a star-spangled blue cardigan of lambswool for [CENSORED: forename], and a Peruvian shirt and alpaca fedora for me.
The Witches' market was a narrow, stall-filled thoroughfare and - true enough - amongst the handicrafts were a fair proportion of herbal cures, vividly-illustrated boxes containing aphrodisiacs, and - gruesomely enough - dried black llama foetuses of different sizes which are used in ritual offerings. For example, before a new building is begun some tokens - alcohol, coca leaves, and a llama foetus - are buried in the foundations for good luck. La Paz is a city built on llama foetuses.
We took a quick and delicious sandwich in a café overlooking the main square, then returned to the hotel to rejoin the group and take the coach to Lake Titicaca.
The journey lasted about 90 minutes. To begin with, we climbed slowly out of the city, to ever more impressive views of the high Andean peaks in the distance. At the brim we passed through a few miles of poor box-like constructions in bare brick - all the buildings seemed half finished. This is El Alto, a growing slum on the edge of the city. Beyond that, we drove steadily along the narrow Panamerican highway, which apparently goes all the way to the Pacific in one direction, and all the way to São Paulo in the other. On both sides the flat expanse of the Altiplano - a broad, brown, parched plain of land cultivated for a variety of cereals - was bordered by a range of mountains, snow-capped and craggy on one side, lower and darker on the other.
I dozed a little on the bus, but was awake by the time we reached Lake Titicaca - the highest navigable lake in the world and a stark, deep-blue contrast to the dry brown landscape around it. Our next hotel - Inca Utama - was situated on the southern shore. This hotel was more basic than El Presidente but obviously had ambitions: inside was a spa area with sauna, treadmills, exercycles and a stunning view of the lake; while outside they had constructed an 'Andean village' plus two small museums, one of local culture, and the other of native herbal medicine.
Before dinner we explored the museums and 'village' meeting one of the Indian designers and builders of Thor Heyerdahl's boat 'Ra II', which successfully sailed from Morocco to the Caribbean. A full-size replica, made of reeds, and many models were prominently on display. The rest of the 'village' comprised of llamas, and an old bowler-hatted weaving woman, who posed for photos in return for a few coins.
After a pleasant dinner of corn soup and baked trout in white wine sauce, we were led into the cold for an audio-visual show at a makeshift observatory - explaining (in Spanish) Inca cosmography. After the show, to our astonishment, the guide started a motor and half the roof slid back - just in time for us to witness two shooting stars! We were then led back to the hotel, outside of which an ex-NASA telescope had been set up. We queued in the bitter wind to see Alpha Centauri II and Mars multiply amplified. While we waited we patted our freezing hands together, rubbed our ears, gazed up at the Southern Cross and tried to distinguish the Constellation of the Llama amidst the billions of stars of the Milky Way.
Friday 19th July 1999
This was the day of the cruise. After breakfast we boarded the hydrofoil 'Sun Arrow' and headed off on the smooth clear water of Lake Titicaca. As we departed, our boat-builder friend paddled alongside, in bright, traditional costume, and in a reed canoe.
As we sailed along, the steeply terraced hillsides sped by us, dipping occasionally to afford a view of more distant, snow-capped peaks.
The first stop was the quiet lakeside town of Copacabana. Its main claim to fame is a series of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary - and its main feature, accordingly, is a huge church in the centre of town. It was a strange mixture of styles - a white, bleached Moorish exterior disguised a romanesque interior and baroque altar. A bus from the hydrofoil deposited us at the church, and, after a look around, [CENSORED: forename] and I decided to leave the others browsing the inevitable handicraft shops and stalls, and head instead for a conical hill on the edge of town, which promised views over the town and lake.
The hill is also a goal of pilgrims, who climb to the shrine on its summit on their knees, measuring their progress by the large stone crosses that mark the Stations of the Cross. No pilgrims were in evidence today - only a large tethered pig, which squealed by the wayside until fed by a child who appeared from a shack.
Climbing felt like a penance even by foot, mind you. We were still feeling the effects of the change in altitude, and every step set our heart racing. We reached a mid-point plateau and rested, took a few photos, and watched a couple of locals nearby, intent on a mysterious ceremony which involved smoke, and sporadic clapping and bell-ringing.
I was ready to stop there, but having recovered her breath, [CENSORED: forename] was happy to continue - so we zigzagged up the rocky steps to the hilltop, where we were indeed rewarded with spectacular views over the town and lake - out to the Isle of the Sun and beyond. After some more photos and catching of breath, we quickly scrambled down to catch the bus at 12.30.
Back onto the 'Sun Arrow' and onwards to the Isle of the Sun for lunch. We landed and climbed some more steep stone steps to a restaurant which commands one of the world's great views - out across the lake to the high Andes beyond. The food couldn't match the view - no food could! - but it was an adequate and welcome cereal soup and fried fish.
Then we had our first near mutiny, as the guide wanted us back on board sharpish, while most of us wished to explore the island more. There are famous Inca steps and a Temple of the Sun elsewhere - but we had no time to seek them out. We reached a compromise by negotiating an extra fifteen minutes and spent the rest of our time scrambling up the steep hillside paths, past girls and children selling woven goods and pleading to pose for photographs, for a few cents. We reached a point high on the hillside - then it was time to go down, for the hydrofoil was blowing its horn, ready to leave.
In compensation for the brief visit to the Isle of the Sun, we stopped at the Isle of the Moon, a smaller island where the ruins of an Incan Temple of the Virgins had (just) survived further twentieth-century depradations - its stones have been cannibalised in the 1940's to build a concentration camp on the island and again in the 1970's to build a prison during the dictatorship then.
Little is left of the temple - the foundations and one wall, part of which has been partially restored - but the site is still deeply atmospheric. Two of the women in the group meditated cross-legged in the main quadrangle while the rest of us milled around taking photos. This seems to be quite a mystically-oriented group - when we landed on the Isle of the Sun most of the company accepted the invitation of one to form a circle and chant, in order to 'rearrange the chakras'. [CENSORED: forename] and I felt the need for food to be greater than that of chakra-rearranging, but as we climbed the stone steps to the restaurant the sound of 'ohms' drifted up from below.
From the Isle of the Moon we sailed back to the hotel, where we boarded the coach to return to La Paz. As we left, the sun was setting over the sacred lake, the water was golden and the mountains on one side were deep red, and on the other, darkening blue. We stopped the coach to take photos in the dying light, then sped back to La Paz. The day was not yet over.
Our guide, Marcello, who kept us informed with a sometimes repetitive barrage of information, recommended to us a restaurant in La Paz with typical food and Bolivian music and dancing. Around twenty of us took him up on his recommendation, and so after an hour or so back at El Presidente, we set off again into the night.
The restaurant - Huari - did not look promising at first sight. There were two diners other than us and the room was a dimly-lit den of weird Inca costumes and satanic masks. We were ushered to a long table on the left-side adjacent to a tiny stage and dance floor, and our orders taken. I decided to go ethnic and - to [CENSORED: forename]'s disgust - chose Mixto do llama as my main course. This turned out to be a huge dish of pleasant meat and fried pepper, onion and rice. She contented herself with a Spanish omelette.
As the food arrived, so did the musicians and dancers. Again the start was inauspicious - a raucous, loud and relatively tuneless carnival number - but very soon they proved to be excellent musicians. There were two groups - we bought a cd featuring the first one - and at times they were joined by four young members of a dance workshop, in traditional costumes and masks. They sometimes pulled us up onto the floor - and Brazilians do not need to be invited twice to dance! The evening soon developed into a frenzy of music and dancing, which ended around 11.30 - for some. Some of us trudged back to El Presidente, exhausted but happy, while a small hard-core headed off to salsa.
As I got ready for bed I switched on the TV and caught the final minutes of 'Brideshead Revisited', dubbed into Spanish and broadcast on Chilean cable television. It was an oddly out-of-place finish to a truly marvellous day.
Saturday 20th June 1999
We had to waken early to catch the morning flight to Cusco so we were pleased we hadn't overindulged in alcohol the night before. I was particularly pleased not to have taken up the owner's invitation to drink a liqueur from an enormous glass containing an equally enormous snake. The guy on my right-hand side did sample a small, evil-smelling glass of the clear fluid, and to date he has shown no ill effects. But my courage has its limits.
Even the salsa party made it to the coach on time, and the flight to Cusco went smoothly. We arrived at the Royal Inka II hotel by lunchtime and went out to catch a bite to eat. [CENSORED: forename] knew a small café on the main square and we ate there, entertained once again by an excellent young band playing - this time - Peruvian traditional music.
We rejoined the group in early afternoon for a guided tour of some of the city's main attractions. Our new guide, Ayul, is from Cusco and speaks Spanish, but clearly enough even for me to catch his drift. We visited three places this afternoon: first, the Museo Archeológico Qorikancha, or the Church of San Domingo. This was the major building of the Inca period when Cusco was the centre of the empire (15th Century). The building was an immense fortress with huge sculpted boulders fitted neatly one with another. The walls incline and the foundations rest on round riverbed stones - all to withstand the severe earthquakes which affected the area. Below the fortress was a garden which in its heyday boasted golden representations of birds, animals and insects. Most is gone now - one of the acts of cultural domination by the Spanish Dominicans was to tear down, build over and refashion the fortress to destroy the symbolic power of the Incan civilisation. A church was built on the site, but archaeological investigations have unearthed some of the original structures and rooms. The gold is all gone, of course, melted down by the conquistadors. I knew much of this in theory, of course, before I came here, but it's not until you see the sites largely destroyed by colonialism that you realise the scale of the cultural aggression of the period.
From the Museo we proceeded to two Christian sites - first, the Church of San Blas, high above the city, distinguished by an elaborate wood-carved pulpit which features 'heretics' - Calvin and Luther! - face down at the base, presumably staring into the depths of hell. Then we walked down the narrow streets to the Cathedral in the main square, past ceramic wall decorations which showed Spanish noblemen and women - and saints - with the elongated necks of llamas. This apparently was a case of pictorial convention overcoming observation when native designers stopped portraying animals and turned to portraiture.
Finally the Cathedral - now being restored. This huge edifice contains various shrines and paintings, mainly by native artists from Cusco. It is impressive if only in terms of scale and rendered eerie because much of it is under repair and in semi-darkness. The usual baroque altars and alcoves with representations of suffering saints were in evidence. The elaborate, carved wooden choir stalls even contained a beheaded saint serenely carrying his dislocated head on a bible.
The cultural tour ended and we threw ourselves back into materialism and the handicraft shops, where [CENSORED: forename] bought a new Inca-style bumbag.
After he excesses of the previous evening, we decided to have a quiet evening, and we joined perhaps the quietest members of our group - an elderly couple of Japanese immigrants to Brazil - for a meal at a nearby Japanese restaurant. During the meal the lady was very talkative and we learned that they are orchid dealers who moved to a city near São Paulo 41 years ago. [CENSORED: forename] says their Portuguese is still fairly rudimentary - and they admitted to not understanding our new guide's Spanish. The meal was pleasant - and conducted in Portuguese, English and Japanese - and afterwards [CENSORED: forename] and I wandered around the main square for a while before turning in.
Sunday 21st June 1999
Today started with a morning tour of some of the main Inca sites just outside the city of Cusco. A coach took our group first to Pukapukara, a fortress which forms one of a boundary chain with others more distant. Each fortress is within the distance a packed llama can travel in one day - that was the measurement of length. Today the old fortress is practically razed to the ground, but herds of llamas still graze around it.
From there, through the green wooded hills to Tambomachay, an impressive, tall Incan temple. Fountains still carry purifying water in channels of stone from the top level of the temple to a stream below. Probably the temple was used in fertility rituals - water being worshipped as the origin of life.
Next on the tour was Q'enqo - an amazing place. Behind an amphitheatre centred on a massive natural rock is a warren of passages, one of which conceals a sacrificial chamber where a llama would be slaughtered on a smooth stone table, by sunlight reflected from the surface by a large golden disc.
One of our group, Bet, is deeply into the mysticism of Peru, as are a number of others. At her suggestion an incense stick was lit and we breathed deeply and chanted three 'ohm's' - which must have scared the daylights out of those still on the surface!
Q'enqo is an awesome site, nevertheless, whose actual function is a mystery. What impressed me about the place most was the way architecture and nature had been blended - the place seemed to be part temple, part complex of caves.
More impressive still was our final stop, the fortress of Saqsaywaman, on a hill high above Cusco. After a brief visit to a handicrafts outlet - where I purchased a pullover and T-shirt and [CENSORED: forename] bought a Peruvian shirt for Pedro - we came to the largest of the local Inca sites: a truly massive complex which must have dominated the skyline before the conquistadors dismantled much of it to build their churches. What remains is still huge - probably too huge to be dismantled. Great sculpted boulders form a set of three parallel walls, zig-zagging about as far as the eye can see. Huge Stonehenge-like lintels rest on top of doorways.
In front of the fortress, dancers and musicians were rehearsing for the solstice festivities. Opposite the fortress, low hills have smooth lava formations that function as natural slides for children - I tried one and got a blistered left hand for my pains!
Perhaps the most unusual event was again related to the site's mystical associations. We were led as a group, hand-in-hand into a tunnel of complete darkness inside the mountain - inside Pachumama, the Earth Mother. When we emerged into a large stone circle, Bet led us in another meditation sequence which at one point had us lying, chanting in a circle with our feet touching, much in the manner of a Busby Berkeley musical. This must have bemused the young local children who came to watch. Apparently the meditation session was to celebrate our rebirth in the womb of Pachumama, and it ended in everyone else - and to my astonishment many were weeping.
A quick cigarette seemed to calm the most agitated, and we proceeded at [CENSORED: forename]'s suggestion to the summit of the fortress, where we had marvellous views over the city. There, there is another circular stone formation which might have been the base of a grain store, a water tower - or an astronomical calendar... depending on your preferred theory.
Then it was back to the bus where the group prevailed upon Ayul to lead us to "a typical restaurant." This Ayul obligingly did, but it turned out to be too typical for [CENSORED: forename] - very crowded with local Sunday lunchers, noisy, none too clean, and full of waiters bearing trenches of dubious-looking meat whose stench filled the room.
We made our excuses and left, finding instead a pleasant rooftop restaurant that did three vegetarian courses plus a soft drink for about a dollar seventy cents. After a pleasant late lunch, then, we headed back to the shops (another sweater, some gloves), and then back to the hotel for a rest.
At nine we rejoined the group for a drink in a very chic converted monastery (a fruit drink cost twice as much as lunch had cost!) and then we slipped away for a quiet pizza.
This was the day we also made contact with civilisation - on passing a cybercafé we sent a message to my Mum and to Gabriel. It seems - it is - a whole world away.
Monday 21st June 1999
This was our rest day - that is, a day spent in Cusco, browsing and shopping. After a late breakfast in the hotel, we wandered down to the Plaza de Armas, the main square, to write and send postcards. This being the winter solstice, the place was crowded, and processions of dancing children in folk costumes snaked around the periphery of the square, in front of the Cathedral and the church of La Compañia on its right. The air was filled with drumbeats and the shrill cry of pan pipes.
We sat for a while, writing, occasionally interrupted by boys selling postcards, offering to shine our trainers, or simply asking for money.
This done, the serious shopping began. Since this was to be our only free day in Cusco, we wanted to buy gifts, and so much of the day was spent wandering in and out of shops of various kinds. In a pleasant jeweller's we bought earings and a bracelet for Alison, and a brooch for my mother. There was also a blue pullover with a white condor pattern that [CENSORED: forename] couldn't - and didn't - resist. Alison's bracelet showed the Peruvian zodiac, based on the Nasco lines in the desert, and the earings were supposed to be her sign, which we were unreliably informed was the sign of the monkey.
Later we learned that she actually falls under the sign of the lizard, but no lizard earings being available we exchanged the monkeys for llamas in lapis lazuli and silver.
Other purchases of the day included books on Cuzco and on Andean art, a baby alpaca shawl for [CENSORED: forename]'s mother, and an alpaca woolly hat and gloves for me - bought with nights on the Inca trail in mind. [CENSORED: forename] also bought earings for Dada, who arranged this holiday, a T-shirt for Isabel, and an Inca-weave camera strap for Gabriel.
In between our orgy of conspicuous consumption, we managed to see quite a bit of Cusco - particularly the white-bleached Mediterranean-style streets above the Church of San Blas. From vantage points, we had some lovely views of the city - its terracotta-brown roofs and parched mountains in contrast with the brilliant blue, near cloudless sky.
On our travels we also popped into a small museum dedicated to a ceramics artist called Mercedi, born in 1929. This is actually the man who originated the style of portraying people with elongated necks - like llamas - so my theory of a few days ago was wrong - the style is more mannerism than naivety. The museum houses originals and copies of his figures, among which the Three Wise Men, rising like giraffes from the diminutive camel, horse and elephant they're riding, stay in the memory.
We lunched in a trattoria off the main square, where the dancers ended their parade, so we had a good view of the various costumes - some of which had elaborate straw head-dresses.
In the evening we ate in the same place - I indulged in creole soup followed by a tasty chicken kebab, while [CENSORED: forename] had a large trout soup which was accompanied by potato and rice.
Outside, in the night, in front of the illuminated churches, the children were still dancing.
Tuesday 23rd June 1999
After Monday's 'rest day', we set off at 9am in the group bus, for a day's tour, climbing once more the steep hills out of Cusco. We were heading for the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and before long we had more stunning views of the Urubamba river, meandering through the high Andean peaks. The coach stopped for the obligatory photo opportunity, and then we drove down into the valley itself.
Before long we stopped at a poor little village, where black pigs and piglets wandered grunting down the dirt roads. The village was nevertheless bordered by a large tourist market, where I bought an ethnic waistcoat, and [CENSORED: forename] purchased a woven bottle-carrier for Patsy and Zé.
Just when we thought the shopping was over, we drove on to an even larger market, this time in the centre of another poor-looking town called Pisac. Pisac is nestled at the foot of the mountain-range, alongside the Urubamba, and the market is a warren of stalls and tiny adobe shops radiating out from a massive tree in the middle of the town square.
Our first stop was actually a yard, at the far end of which was an open oven where people were baking empenadas - hot bread filled with melted cheese, tomato and onion. Delicious!
Then it was browsing time again - and, of course, fending off the mendicant vendors of shawls, sweaters, shirts, jewellery, ceramics, etc. One of the adobe cubicles housed an art shop boasting watercolours of Incan symbols, folkloric masks and demons. [CENSORED: forename] again fell prey to temptation here, and much of our free hour was spent in negotiating a good price for a watercolour of a carnival mask, part of which represents a condor.
Outside, I found silver lizard earings for Alison - her Nazca zodiac sign. So those may replace the llamas - or possibly complement them. We bought chimes too.
The sun shone bright on the market bustle - a clear, warm day in the middle of winter. We have to use moisturiser and suntan lotion freely in this dry climate - and chapstick for cracked lips. Still, the Incans regularly lived to 75-80 years, so it can't be too bad!
After the markets, we drove on some more miles, the Brazilians singing merrily, till we stopped at a roadside restaurant (one of many) for a buffet lunch. I had soup and a chicken kebab for the second day running, washed down by green, bubblegum-tasting Inka Cola. Once more we were regaled by a group who added the novelty of a double bass to the usual drums, pan pipes, charanga and guitar. We wandered afterwards down to the banks of the Urubamba to take a photograph, braving a host of squealing piglets and a few protective sows.
After lunch it was swiftly on to our ultimate destination - Ollantaytambo - another poor village which happens to lie in the shadow of a magnificent Inca ruin. It seems to have served a dual purpose as a temple and fortress. The temple area lies on top of a great series of stone terraces, built for vegetation - nitrogenous root vegetables at the top helped fertilise maize and corn on the terraces below. When you climb - breathless - to the summit, the cultivated fields below still preserve the shape of a pyramid leading to an apex at the site itself. On top huge boulders, snugly fitted one to another, show faint traces of a carved sun and carved puma. The boulders were rolled from the mountains opposite and carved into shape. To cross the Urubamba an artificial island was created - the river was blocked in one channel for the boulders to roll onto the island, then the channel was opened and the other channel blocked for it to roll off. The island is visible still, far down the river.
It was all a bit overwhelming. The mystics in the group had hived off to perform some ritual together, but sitting amidst the ruins, looking down the Urubamba I did feel the need for something approaching meditation - some minutes of silence and peace to take it all in.
After a while, I rejoined the group and we worked our way down through more terraces and ruins. At the foot of the hillside, a natural spring which had been hitherto channelled underground (to avoid the risk of poisoning by rival tribes) still bubbled to the surface and was led down stone irrigation channels.
Amazingly, the temple was never finished. Around a hundred and sixty Spaniards attacked it, but despite their defeat there, the empire was already crumbling. Today the village is still achingly poor - we were led down its narrow streets to visit one of the dark, smoky one-room houses, decorated by a niche in the wall which visibly contains the skulls of the family's ancestors - tokens of good fortune. The one-room houses also contain litters of guinea-pigs, the staple meat diet, and piles of multi-coloured corn-cobs. The houses give onto an interior courtyard, full of children and free-range hens.
Ayun, our guide, then took us to the small town square where he persuaded a young woman in traditional dress to sing us two Quechua songs for the reward of a few solas. She obviously does this for the busloads of passing tourists but still managed to seem shy and giggling. As well as entertaining us, she drew a small crown of gawping children and sceptical local adults.
Then it was back to Cusco, by a slightly different route, winding up hairpin bends on one side of the Urubamba valley, as the sun set gloriously behind the peaks on the other side.
On the bus back, one of the group announced there would be dancing at the Ukuku Club at 9.00pm. This turned out to be preceded by a pizza at Bella Napoli - nice vegetarian topping but the base was a bit floury - where our group made up virtually all of the customers. At our table a gay exotic flower arranger from Matto Grosso in an arguable toupée and a diamond earing held court about... exotic flower arranging in Matto Grosso.
Afterwards a hard core of five of us ended up in the Ukuku Club, a dark dive lit by the usual masks. We danced to the Stones before the six Peruvian Indian traditional musicians arrived. They were less than inspiring so three of us sat out, drinking mineral water, margharita, an a three-coloured cocktail called Macchu Picchu, until the disco started again. Then the place erupted into life, but we had to leave since most of the group is going by train to Macchu Picchu tomorrow, leaving at 5.30am.
On the way out we met Silvio, the company owner, and some others from the group, who had arrived but were hidden by the darkness. So, just after midnight, we strolled through the squares, back to the hotel.
Wednesday 23rd June 1999
We got up and ready for a 9am start this morning - the non-trekkers were scheduled for a 5.30 am start to catch the train to Macchu Picchu for their day trip.
At 9 sharp the mini-van with guides arrived to take us rafting on the Urubamba. We drove round to a few other hotels and picked up a couple of Peruvians, and a party of young medical students from John Hopkins University, Baltimore - mainly cliqueish Americans but among them a Peruvian and a Trinidadian. As we left the city, the roads were being closed off and people were gathering for a day-long party.
We took the long and winding - and spectacular - mountain road to Urubamba that we'd returned on by night the previous day - in the daylight the fields were like patchwork and small pyramidal haystacks testified to the work of manual harvesters. Every so often you could see an ox-pulled plough turning over the fields.
After a short stop so that one of the Peruvians could be car-sick (ironically, a local woman), we eventually arrived at a spot on the riverbank, beyond the village of Urubamba, where the rafts were launched.
The launching site was a hive of activity - two or three vans were already there, guides were pumping up rafts, and rafters were milling around, looking determined or worried, depending on experience. Most of us looked worried.
We changed into the jerkins, protective helmet and lifejacket provided, and eventually were gathered riverside for the briefing. Our guide gave us the basic safety drill in basic English - we were mostly anglophones - 'left forward mean right back; right forward mean left back - ok?' We then piled in - the Americans into one and a motley crew of Brits, including a Scottish woman, a New Zealander, [CENSORED: forename], Christiane and myself into another. None in our raft - except [CENSORED: forename] - had done this before. I found myself in front, on the left, alongside Jeff (or Geoff) the New Zealander, on the right.
We set off and spun gently towards another raft as we practised paddling to our guide's shouted instructions: 'Left forward! Stop! All forward! Stop! Right forward! Stop!' Then, unexpectedly, as we reared the raft ahead: 'Defense!' We suddenly realised what the jerkin was for as we found ourselves drenched by the other group splashing their paddles. We quickly retaliated, giving as good as we got. The cry of 'Defense!' was a regular feature of the early part of the voyage and had the benefit of relaxing us and getting us laughing.
The experience was wonderful - we did three or four sets of smallish rapids, paddling furiously (and often paddling fresh air) as the raft plunged and rose on the white water. The rest of the time we paddled past Incan terraces, beautiful mountain scenery, and eventually Ollantaytambo, which we'd visited the day before. We even paddled past the artificial island the Incas had created to ferry giant boulders to the temple from the quarry on the far side of the river.
The trip took about two hours and ended with a picnic prepared by the guides - hot tea and a tasty chicken salad as we dried out and changed clothes. Then, around three, the vans left once more for Cusco, arriving around five.
It was an incredible day out, but very tiring. We rested, and then had a briefing meeting with the others trekking to Macchu Picchu. This broke up around nine and [CENSORED: forename] and I went off for a soup and ravioli at a nearby restaurant. Cusco had been celebrating all day and the streets were full of revellers, the air full of the stench of spilled beer and urine. The party was still going strong when we got to bed and we quickly fell asleep despite the distant sound of agitated singing and throb throb throbbing drums.
24 June 1999
(Cusco - Festa do Sol)
We were all due to gather in the hotel lobby at 8.00am to set off for the Temple of the Sun (or San Domingo) in Cuzco for the start of the day's celebration of the festival of the sun. As usual, South American time stretched, but we were all pretty much in place amongst the crowds at the scheduled starting time of nine. We could see the Incan ramparts and the ruined garden if we stood on tiptoes and craned our neck, but for an hour all that was to be seen was the occasional body in Incan dress or Monkish uniform dashing from door to door. The crowd began to show its impatience with sporadic clapping and whistling - then there was the sound of conch shells being blown, the pounding of drums and the show began. Very impressive it was too - processions of Incan soldiers (apparently played by the Peruvian army), temple virgins and dancing girls were followed at last by the appearance of the Incan emperor himself. He stood on the old Incan wall and greeted the sun, then to more music the processions disappeared, and the crowd dispersed to line the route of the parade to Praça dos Armas. We caught the very beginning of the parade as the warriors, virgins and dancers appeared to process down to the main square. The Emperor appeared again, at the end, and was carted off on a 'golden chair'. The crowds made to follow them to the main square, but we decided to do a little shopping and go back to the hotel. There, I rested and practically finished reading the book - "Cells of Knowledge" - which I'd been looking at when not cruising, shopping or viewing ruins and churches.
At 12.20 or so we were called to say the group was waiting, so we hurried down and were whisked off to Saqsaywaman, the Incan fortress above Cusco, to see the main part of the festival. There we had privileged seats amid the other tourists - the locals lined the surrounding hills. The benches we occupied formed a square around a large grassy space in the centre of which a raised stage had been erected. The bus trip there was slow and tortuous and at one point the bus edged into a parked car, shattering its windscreen.
We reached the performance area early enough to see nearly all of the procession - again the warriors, virgins and dancers appeared. Two of the dancers wore only an elaborate head-dress, a skimpy leopardskin bikini... and a live boa constrictor. Soldiers bearing banners lined the fortress walls and golden effigies of the Incan totems were paraded in and out of the performance area. There followed an extended ceremony in Quechua, part of which included a 'mock sacrifice' of a black llama. Conch shells blew, drums drummed, and dancers danced. Finally, the whole procession lapped around the area and disappeared. Then a succession of acts took the stage, many tourists left, and the locals were allowed into the ticketed area. A surge of humanity, from aged grandparents to their tiny grandchildren made a dive for the empty benches, many rooting around in discarded lunchbags for leftovers. After a short while we too left, joining a vast throng winding its way on foot down the hills and narrow streets to the main square.
After this we had only time to run a few errands - like getting copies of some of the photos Christiane had made of the rafting - and then it was time to pack again - sorting the gear we intended to take to Macchu Picchu into the rucksacks and leaving the rest in the case and bags. At 9pm we went down to the hotel dining room for an end-of-holiday dinner, since we won't see most of the group (the non-trekkers) again. That was a fairly painless affair, and around eleven, we bade our farewells and retired to try to get some sleep.
25th June 1999
(The Inca Trail)
Day one of the trek started early, with an alarm call at 4.30am. After our last shower for 4 days, we had a quick breakfast and began to gather in the lobby. Two of the women - Solange and Yamara - had not appeared for breakfast and an urgent call to their room found them still asleep. They said they hadn't got their alarm call, and hurriedly got themselves together.
At last we piled into the minibus and headed for the railway station, arriving in good time for the 6.30am train to Macchu Picchu - a tourist express whose wagons were painted a pleasing red with a thick yellow band in the centre. The train pulled out of Cuzco, tackling the gradient by zigzagging backwards and forwards up the steep hill. From the top we chugged back into the Sacred Valley, stopping briefly at Ollantaytambo village again. Thinking we had five minutes or so to unload, I stepped onto the platform and wandered along to photograph the engine. I'd just managed to get a good angle when the siren blew and [CENSORED: forename] appeared alongside, visibly agitated. The train was leaving - we rushed back to our wagon and got in just in time.
Our final stop wasn't even a village - just some shacks beside the railway lines, offering provisions, Coke, Fanta and Sprite. Here we left the train to bear its tourists to Macchu Picchu - we were doing it the hard way! Or not that hard - we only had small backpacks because our porters were following us in a cheaper, local train with the rucksacks.
Anyway, we loaded up at the railtrack and made our way to a bridge across the Urubamba, where the trail started. Our local guide, a native woman called Hayde, led us in a ceremony which called for a good trip and protection in the mountains. We took three coca leaves each, presented them to the mountains and breathed on them. Then we dropped them into the Urubamba as an offering. And then the climbing started.
We took it slowly - Silvio the guide insisting on small steps and frequent rest breaks. It is tiring, climbing at this altitude. The reward - as ever - is incredible views of craggy mountains and occasional Inca ruins. The largest was another agricultural complex of walled terraces, topped by the remains of stone houses - perhaps for the original workers, but also (given their sophistication) perhaps for Incan nobility stopping over on their way to the sacred city.
Onwards and upwards we toiled, reaching our camp, beside a small adobe house and thatched shelter, early in the afternoon. We waited in the shelter till our porters arrived with the luggage and set up the tents, and made us lunch. We bought some biscuits and tinned tuna to eat while the porters arrived - then lunch turned out to be tinned tuna, onion and potatoes! Meanwhile the skies had been darkening with storm clouds and - untypically for this time of year - heavy rain started to fall. It cleared long enough for [CENSORED: forename] and I to stroll a little up and down the path, to a sizeable mountain stream - but otherwise we stayed in the shelter in the growing cold and darkness watching the rain beat down and the clouds obscure the view. It was a lot like Scotland.
After supper by the light of a single candle set into a beer bottle, we retired to our tent, shattered and freezing, around 8 p.m. I spent a restless night on the hard ground, waking at 1.00 and frequently thereafter.
26 June 1999
(The Inca Trail)
Perhaps because of my restless night, this wasn't my happiest morning. The clouds had disappeared and the morning sky had cleared. We were given an enormous breakfast (omelette and a kind of porridge laced with cloves) and then we set off on perhaps the hardest part of the four-day hike. As we climbed further and further up the trail, out of shadow into strong sunlight, I began to feel queasier and, like the climber in Alan Bennet's 'Take a Pew', I was suddenly and violently sick. Almost immediately I felt better. We'd slowed down and fallen behind most of the group - only Hayde, a porter called Jesús, and a large, older woman called Angela who was deeply into the mystical part of the trip, were behind us. When they caught up, Hayde radioed ahead that I was unwell, and Angela offered to lay on hands. It seemed impolite to refuse, so she invoked some cosmic energy and imparted it to my irritated abdomen.
After that, I continued my journey with renewed vigour, which was just as well. We climbed about a thousand metres today - apparently the micro-climate changes every 50 metres, and we saw tropical flowers - bromelias - as well as increasingly close snowy peaks.
Towards the end of today's hike - between 1 and 2 pm - [CENSORED: forename]'s energy was beginning to give out. She'd insisted on taking the heavier backpack and the last hour was a struggle.
Still, it was worth it all in the end. The campsite was high on a mountain pass, opposite a great snow-peaked mountain, over which a gorgeous full moon slowly rose. After a light lunch, I sat with [CENSORED: forename] in the tent, looking over this amazing site, and writing the first part of today's entry. Then I dozed for a while. Then Hayde invited us to bathe our feet in coca leaves and massage our legs with scented water, which males and females did separately in a larger tent that serves as our dining-room. Later she invited us out again, in the dark now, to make an offering to Pachamama.. Some ritual tokens, and our written wishes, were gathered together by two of the guides, who intoned a Quechua incantation over them before taking them away to be burnt.
Now, I sit in the 'dining tent', writing this by candlelight as we wait for our evening meal. Tonight I'll let it digest before hitting the sleeping bag!
27th June 1999
(The Inca Trail)
I certainly slept better last night, only waking to change position. [CENSORED: forename], however, slept badly and - worse - we woke before six to hear the light patter of rain on the tent, and unzipped the opening to find last night's view obscured by grey clouds. Breakfast was a quick pancake and strawberry jam... and off we set. We had a long day ahead.
The Trail here snaked forever up a mountainside, towards the first of two mountain passes. The cloud was low and dramatic - occasionally opening to tease us with views of distant mountain ranges ahead and the ever more distant valleys below. The rain was sporadic - [CENSORED: forename] in her new plastic rain-cape (already ripping at the neck) was labouring and at her lowest ebb. As we trudged on we periodically rested and looked back - the line of trekkers had now increased so that it seemed like an entire Incan army was threaded along the narrow stone path. The mix was international - many Americans (including our rafting companions), English, German, Israeli and New Zealanders were prominent - and especially a white haired New Zealander who was certainly into her seventies, striding up with the assistance of two walking sticks. We nicknamed her 'Supergran'. Most of the locals were porters, bent to an angle of 45 degrees, carrying boxes, rucksacks, tents, food, all roped together in loads of impossible sizes. Some were children, whose lighter loads still outweighed ours. A few led donkeys, but most were on foot, their feet protected mainly by light sandals. They sped by us at intervals, some nearly running. Our own porters would stay behind after breakfast, clear the site, load up, outpace and pass us, reach the next site, set up, and prepare a meal. It was like being on a Victorian party of exploration. The food was surprisingly good too - lunch and supper started with soup of various kinds, usually followed by variations on tuna or chicken (occasionally some kind of minced meat). There were desserts at suppertime: flan, half a syruped pear, a chocolate whip and some kind of syrup made from a dark berry.
Around mid-day, after four hours' trek, we reached the first of our two mountain passes, the higher of the two, over 4000 metres above sea level, just under 14000 feet. We rested with the other jubilant trekkers for some time at the top, taking photographs of the valley that had opened behind us. Before us it was still shrouded in cloud. [CENSORED: forename] began to look much happier.
Now began the long descent to our lunch site, a place called Runquracay, which resembled the hospital site in MASH - wooden huts, mud, and dripping gringos. We huddled in a row outside one hut and ate as the rain and cloud passed over us. A glum Israeli read Dostoevski in Hebrew. To the startled cries of the Brazilians a tall American stripped down to his green Inca-design boxer shorts and took an alfresco shower under a pipe which diverted a mountain stream. It wasn't the naked flesh that shocked and amused them so much as the cold.
After an hour's rest we set off uphill again, past a small semi-circular ruin called... oh, I've just realised that the ruin was Runquracay not the campsite below, which has no name. After another photo-shoot there, we trudged further uphill, reaching the second mountain pass (3860m or around 12600ft). Here we passed through a kind of portal in the rock and the real Inca Way - the stone footpath actually built by the Incas - began.
The clouds were clearing in the late afternoon as we trekked downwards - the scenery was achingly beautiful as the sun broke through the mist. As the path grew narrower and the drop steeper, one of our group, Solange, had a brief spell of vertigo, probably caused partly by tiredness. She, too, had had difficulty sleeping.
Still, we photographed our way downwards, briefly stopping by a large, impressive hilltop ruin, Sayacmarca, a fortress complex reached by ascending a treacherously steep set of stone stairs. By now, around 5pm, it was getting dark, so our visit was short.
We made the final half mile or so to our campsite in virtual darkness through a wooded area. We arrived at last at the tents, laid out in a semi-circle, with the dining tent set up some yards away across some boggy clumps of moss. The full moon rose on the right, and lit up the far, snowy Andes in the distance. It was a most beautiful place. We ate, washed at a nearby rudimentary 'banho', and a few of us sat chatting for a while at the dining tent. One of the women, Christiane, persuaded the porters to bring us a cup of hot tea laced with aguardiente, a kind of pinga or rum, and after that welcome beverage, we burrowed into our tents.
28th June, 1999
This morning dawned clear and bright, thankfully, and after breakfast we set off, at around eight. The night had been cold and there was a film of ice on the tents, and frost on the ground. In the distance, though, the early morning sunlight had illuminated the ruins of Sayacmarca, and by the time we started out the sun was warming the nippy air.
We started off by climbing more gently, the high Andes in the distance, our stone path leading us upwards gradually. Finally we reached the ruins of another hilltop fortress - Phuyupatamarca.
The fortresses seem also to have been religious sites. Most including this one are built around still-functioning fountains and stone channels lead the water into bathing chambers which may have had a purification purpose. One theory is that the nobles and priests who made the pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu underwent a series of purification rituals in the temple fountains on the way.
[NOTE: autographs here of the 10 trekkers]
Our guide, Hayde, who is quite into the mystical side of the trip, led four or five of the group in a ritual bathing procedure while [CENSORED: forename] and I watched from an upper terrace. Behind us, discreetly secreted in a stone chamber, a tall and lanky Israeli trekker had indulged in a little ritual of his own, involving a marijuana joint. He had to be discreet - if caught in possession of drugs in Peru you apparently don't get the right to a trial.
For some time now we had been in sight of the sacred river, Urubamba, part of which we'd been rafting on a few days before. Now it meandered way, way below us, at the bottom of sheer cliffs thick with vegetation. And from the fortress-temple of [NOTE: word missing here] we began the long descent towards the river.
They say the Incas built three thousand stone steps on the way to Macchu Picchu. I don't know where they started counting, but it certainly felt like three thousand steps after the last ruin. Our legs and knees certainly felt the strain of several hours of continuous descent, but again the beauty of the scenery distracted us from our aches and pains. It was also incredible to think of the Incan workers, five centuries ago, hewing rocks from the cliffs to build the mountainside path that was leading us to the hidden city.
In the morning, Silvio had told us that he planned a surprise, and, late in the morning, as we rested, he told us what it was - for seven dollars we could exchange our tents for a bed in a dorm which had a shared toilet and shower. This news was greeted with whoops of celebration, much to the bemusement of a couple of English trekkers who were sitting not too far away.
Morale boosted, we continued down the path, which changed from stone to dust the further down we went. Eventually we arrived at Mount Caruso, a complex of dorms plus restaurant and showers, built to cater for trekkers who cluster there on the night before the final push to the Portal of the Sun, and Macchu Picchu. Above the complex, in the mountains to the left, a newly-discovered set of ruins was being cleared - the distant terraces had the appearance of an upturned green beehive, set into the dense vegetation - the luxuriance of the trees, bushes and flowers was one of the surprises of the trip. I'd expected the mountains to be dry and sparse, but at this level there were multicoloured orchids, bromelias, begonias and flowers that looked like lupins and irises.
The dorm was rudimentary but welcome. We claimed two smaller rooms on the right of the entrance, one sleeping six in three-storey bunkbeds, the other, four. To the left of the entrance was a much larger room, sleeping perhaps another twenty. The shared shower and toilet were in the middle. We started a rota for showers after our porters had cooked and served us our lunch in the restaurant area.
Before it was my turn to shower, Hayde led the group to the ruins of [NOTE: word missing here], five minutes' walk away, tucked into the hillside away from the dormitory complex. Here a large arena of terraces spread out from a spine of stone bathing chambers, still served by a natural spring. The chambers stepped down the mountainside to a series of ruined buildings which looked onto a large waterfall opposite. The Urubamba flowed below. Some English trekkers, male and female, stripped down to their bathing trunks and showered themselves in the cold water of the natural spring. Hayde again explained the significance of purifying yourself in the water before continuing to Macchu Picchu, and some of us had a token splash.
The Incan shower was infinitely preferable to the dorm shower. By the time I reached it, the water was cold and the floor was flooded and filthy. Still, it was the first shower for four days and the feeling of cleanliness afterwards was welcome. We sat on the step outside, chatting, and then (since the restaurant below was becoming crowded, boozy and confused) our porters brought the evening meal up to us and we ate alfresco.
At this altitude the weather was much warmer, even though the sky was clear and beautiful. For a few minutes we watched the full moon rise on our right, appearing from behind the mountain tops like a luminous basketball, it rose so quickly. Lothario was ready for it with his digital camera, snapping it at 30 second intervals or so, until it was full in the sky.
After supper, three or four of us staggered down to the restaurant to check out the action. There was actually fairly little - groups of fairly drunk but good-humoured young trekkers of different nationalities occupied different sections, laughing, joking or saying grateful farewells to their own porters (we'd done this after supper). Brazilian music alternated with disco on the loudspeakers but no-one had the legs to dance. After a soft drink we made to leave, but then [CENSORED: forename] and I ran into the American rafters, their aloofness melted partly by the drink, partly by the excitement. They insisted we join them, which we happily did for half an hour or so, till the restaurant closed (at 10pm) and we returned to our dorm - they to their tents.
Some of our group was still sitting on the dorm steps, conversing in whispers. We stayed there too for a spell (during which [CENSORED: forename] managed to lock us out, and we had to wake Christiane to open the dorm door), then we too retired. The bunk bed sagged, the sheets were dubious, Lothario and Isabel snored gently in the lower bunks, but it was better than the hard ground and I was soon asleep.
29th June, 1999
Most trekkers rise before dawn and stumble the final few hours to the Portal of the Sun in the dark, so as to see the sunrise on Macchu Picchu. Silvio didn't advise this, and so we were happy to get up after most of the others had left and have breakfast in a near-deserted restaurant. The downside was that we were last to make use of the toilets, which were suffering from the previous night's excesses. We were as happy to leave them as we had been to arrive!
We left Mount Caruso after watching the sun rise over the mountains opposite, its first rays illuminating the newly-unearthed ruins behind us. The Incans clearly did combine astronomy and architecture: you could follow the beams from the far mountaintop down directly to the terraces behind us. Again, we set off around eight.
The dirt path continued much as it had the day before. Our legs were stiff and hurting by now, and mercifully there was little climbing, though as we approached the Portal of the Sun there was a steep set of stone steps which led up to a small ruined watchtower.
The Portal of the Sun is a small stone temple set at the entrance to the valley in which Macchu Picchu lies. As we approached it, Silvio and Hayde stopped us, gathered us together and told us this was a solemn moment, to be treated with respect even if we did not believe in the spirituality of the place. They asked us to link hands and close our eyes, which we did. They then led us, eyes still shut, into the Portal, and positioned us at the gate. Then they invited us to open our eyes. I took off my hat and sunglasses and did so.
I'll never forget that moment - the shock of seeing the sacred hidden city of Macchu Picchu spread out below us in the clear morning sunshine. While the ruins on the way had been impressive, but they had been complexes: fortresses, temples, houses and the agricultural terraces necessary to sustain them. This was a city. Beside a large, grassy square, a pyramidal temple was the central focus. Opposite, sprawled workshops and houses, receding down the mountain. On the same side as the pyramid were other buildings, and what seemed to be a quarry area where rocks were shaped for building. Terraces fanned out far above and below. High above the city was a small thatched watch-tower. Nearby, llamas grazed.
Some of the group were in tears, and we embraced each other and stood for a while before the inevitable photography began. Then we sat on the low stone walls, drinking in the view before setting off, this time in groups of two or three, down the mountain path towards the city. There were still a couple of kilometres to go, winding down the mountainside with ever-closer views of the city.
We joined up as a group again at the entrance and went first to the small thatched Guardian's Hut, a watch-tower with good views over the city. There we sat on the grass and were liberally bitten by mosquitoes as Hayde explained in Spanish something of the (arguable) history-cum-mythology of the city. It seems to have been a religious centre - there are temples and observatories - and perhaps was populated by priests, nobles and women. It seems to have been abandoned after the Spanish destruction of the Incan empire, although the Spanish never reached Macchu Picchu - other than perhaps one solitary traveller, but his account was ignored or forgotten. In 1911 an American historian, Hiram Bingham, was led to it by locals who knew of it, and his photographs led to an archaeological investigation by Yale University - where much of the content of the city (ceramics, mummies - no gold!) is now deposited. The city was covered with dense vegetation, and over the years that has been cleared and many of the buildings are being restored - some are being dismantled stone by stone, the stones numbered in white paint: A1 for the first stone on level one, A2 for its neighbour laterally, B1 for the one on top, etc. Some houses are being re-roofed with thatch.
From the Guardian's Hut, we went down and climbed the central pyramid, the Intihuatana, on top of which is a sundial where, it is said, the sun is anchored. By this time it was past mid-day and [CENSORED: forename] was feeling strong hunger pangs, so three of us left the group and wandered down to the main entrance for an overpriced and average sandwich at the only snack bar. Here, beside the Macchu Picchu Hotel, the buses, which had wound up the hairpin bends from Aguas Calientes, the town 6 kilometres downhill, disgorge the daytrippers. We eventually saw the rest of our group take a bus down to Aguas Calientes, for lunch, a shower and probably shopping, but [CENSORED: forename] and I decided to return to the ruins. In the late afternoon sunshine the city was quieter and more tranquil - weary trekkers stretched out on the main square and on the terraces, resting. We wandered through the streets and passageways some more, photographed some more, saw a nest with a couple of large chicks burrowed into a crack in one of the Incan walls (the mother, a kind of blue swift, popped back and forth, feeding them), and eventually we too rested on a terrace. Then we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes.
The first sight of Aguas Calientes was a shock - as you leave the bus, vendors immediately urge you to buy souvenirs and you find yourself deposited in the midst of a ramshackle market. Astonishingly the market crowds into both sides of the railway line to Cusco. As we arrived a train was leaving, the local rather than the tourist train, with passengers hanging on for grim life at each doorway. After the calmness of the mountains this was the chaos of the third world.
We found our way to the Macchu Picchu Inn, a brand new, spotlessly clean, spacious - indeed luxurious - oasis in the midst of the jerry-built town, registered, dumped our bags and grabbed our bathing suits and towels. We'd heard about the hot springs at the top of the town and wanted to try them out.
We trudged up a surprisingly pleasant street full of nice-looking restaurants and handicraft shops. At its end the squalor re-asserted itself and we stumbled in the near dark towards the baths.
Two nissan-like huts preceded a series of open-air baths, full of men, women and children. The huts were the foul-smelling male and female changing rooms - we changed and handed our belongings in a green plastic bag to an attendant. [CENSORED: forename] was not at all sure about this but we gingerly stepped down the stone steps onto the sandy floor. The water was hot, indeed, and we began to relax into the experience. The stars shone above, children played around us, and a party of Brits and Americans arrived and ordered beers, pisco sours and cokes which they drank in the baths, while swapping sceptical comments: 'Is this the hot water jet, or is that young boy peeing?' Eventually the dead mosquitoes in the water and the occasional whiff from the changing-rooms got to me, and I suggested we leave. We returned smartly to the Macchu Picchu Inn where I had a thorough hot shower - bliss!
We then went out for a meal at a nearby restaurant - again the meal was surprisingly good: I started with a garlic soup and followed up with a steak; [CENSORED: forename] had a cream of corn soup followed by a trout in an impressive sauce. As we were leaving, Jesús, the chief porter, passed by with a mate. We waved him to join us, not realising he'd had a few drinks already. He accepted a beer and talked non-stop and repetitively for 20 mins, apparently turning our trek into oral narrative in his own head. In another fifteen years it might be myth.
And so to bed.
30th June, 1999
Today we decided to return to Macchu Picchu and try to climb the steep footpath up the mountain of Huayna Picchu behind the city. We didn't manage to persuade any of the others in group to join us, so after an elegant breakfast in the Macchu Picchu Inn, we reboarded a bus and took the winding road up to the ruins.
The daytrippers were just arriving from the early train from Cusco as we made our way across the main square, heading for the far side of the city. There, you wrote your name, age, sex, nationality and signature into a registration book, along with the time of your departure. We left at 10.20am. The track up the mountain was a narrow stone path, much narrower than the Incan Trail, sometimes deteriorating into a near-vertical scramble aided by rope or steel handrails. Our weary legs were protesting but we consoled ourselves with the positive reports of those few coming down.
After about fifty minutes of steady climbing, we emerged onto a high plateau, where some men with long-lensed cameras were excitedly shooting something in the valley behind the city. We looked down and saw - a condor! Only for a few seconds, there it was, drifting on black wings tipped with white, letting the breeze carry it out of site.
The view of Macchu Picchu here was excellent, and I clambered up on a rock to get a better camera angle, only to find a sign saying 'continue', which made me realise our climb wasn't over. I called to [CENSORED: forename] and we carried on upwards, through a dark and narrow tunnel, squeezing through to the other side to find a whole host of fellow tourists clambering about the topmost rocks on the mountain. The Incans certainly knew of this place; even at the top of the mountain there are traces of small cultivated terraces. Since it seems unlikely that anyone would have troubled to create agricultural land up here, we guess that these were among the decorative terraces that Hayde talked earlier about - certainly the mountain would have looked even more spectacular with flowers colouring the summit.
Now, lots of tourists of different nationalities - Australian, American, British, Brazilian - were balancing precariously on the rocks, taking photographs, oohing at passing butterflies and swatting stinging insects. We stayed on the rocks for a while, admiring the view and chatting to the other tourists, and then climbed down a slightly different route. Half-way down we spotted the condors again, away in the distance, again only briefly. Then we got to the bottom again, checking out at around one. We strolled for the last time around the city, taking a few more photos, and then caught the tourist bus back down to Aguas Calientes. The bus was full of Japanese, and as it zigzagged down the hillside, it was raced by a young boy in Incan costume who yelled 'Sayonara!' at every corner as we passed. At the foot of the brae the driver let him on and he collected coins from the passengers. Our coins were running out, so we gave him a bottle of orange juice which [CENSORED: forename] had purchased at the market, but we hadn't drunk after noticing that the plastic seal had been broken. 'He'll have the antibodies,' [CENSORED: forename] observed.
We made our way through the bustle of the market and found a trattoria Silvio had recommended - Pachamama - which did an excellent pizza for lunch. After that, we had to collect our luggage at the Macchu Picchu Inn, rejoin the group, and make for the railway station. While we were waiting for the train, [CENSORED: forename] nipped back down to the market to buy a textile wall hanging, showing a market scene. She returned in good time to take her seat, and the train chugged off to Cusco.
I spent most of my time on the train writing postcards - then at Ollantaytambo we transferred to a minibus that we reckoned would get us into Cusco about 90 minutes before the train. Some of the group had returned from Aguas Calientes by helicopter earlier in the afternoon, and we arrived at the Royal Inka II hotel at around 7.30 to join them for a final meal in Cusco. Then we packed again for the trip back to La Paz, putting most of our luggage into Silvio's large pink sacks, and our clothes for the next two days into our hand luggage. We got to bed around 1am.
1 July 1999 (La Paz)
This morning we were up at seven, breakfasted, and at Cusco airport by nine. At the airport I found a book on Bolivian Quechua (an intermediate coursebook in Spanish and English) and I snapped that up for 12 dollars. Then it was the one-hour flight to La Paz and the transfer back to the good old Hotel Presidente, this time a really nice room on the twelfth floor.
We popped out for a bite of lunch at the same Italian café we'd visited in the first days of the trip - Il Profuma di Caffé - and met its owner, a young Italian woman from Turin. [CENSORED: forename] then popped into a sports shop to buy football shirts for her nephews, and we rejoined the group for a tour of La Paz with our new guide, Juan Carlos.
It's difficult touring a city with nothing much to offer the casual tourist. We went round the main square (Congress and the Hotel Paris) and then headed out to the 'Valley of the Moon', an area where the rainfall had eroded the clay landscape into allegedly interesting shapes. The interest value of this area was offset slightly by the sight of garbage trucks offloading nearby. It was like sightseeing in a huge refuse dump.
Back we went to La Paz itself and drove through a vast and fascinating street market, our bus narrowly avoiding pedestrians and cars on the narrow streets. Here street stalls sold all sorts of food, household goods - and the characteristic clothes (wide, pleated skirts and bowler hats) of the many 'cholitas' who were much in evidence. We would have liked to get off the bus here, but our guide advised us that it would be too dangerous. We were eventually released once again amidst the dried llama foetuses of the Witches' Market. From here, I strolled off to check out the second-hand bookstalls while [CENSORED: forename] headed back to the handicraft shops.
The bookstalls were largely unexceptional (which was just as well, as I had no money left for purchases) and from there I walked across the main square and into the Church of San Francisco - a dim, ornate and subdued interior. From there I returned to the hotel, to catch up with this diary, watch BBC World Television, and wait for [CENSORED: forename]. The TV news was mainly doom and gloom - mass graves in Kosovo, stalemate in the Northern Ireland peace talks, tension in the Middle East - but I was pleased to catch a brief item on the opening of the new Scottish parliament.
[CENSORED: forename] arrived with a new, grey, alpaca sweater, and we showered and got ready for our final evening meal. We joined most of the others in the hotel restaurant for a very pleasant meal (spaghetti marinara for me; trout for [CENSORED: forename]) which was marred only by the tacky organ music being played in the background - various bossa novas, 'My Way', right through to the inevitable climax, 'Feelings'.
We had little packing to do tonight, since the bulk had been completed last night, and so it was reasonably early to bed.
2nd July 1999
(To São Paulo)
So here I am, fighting to stay awake on the first leg of the flight back to São Paulo (via Santa Cruz). Our alarm call was at 4.30am and we were breakfasted and off by 6.00. The flight left at 7.00am.
It has been the most wonderful and exciting trip - full of weird and magical moments - and I can't wait to see the photographs. Meanwhile, I think I'll put this diary away, put back the seat, and dream that once more I'm walking the royal Inca way, among the cloud forests of the high Andes.
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Travel journal: Peru. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 1 March 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1524.
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