Peru is our last stop on our round-the-world trip! Our plan is to do part of the "gringo trail", going to Cusco/Machu Pichu, Arequipa and Puno/Lake Titicaca before heading to the Northern Highlands (Cajamarca). This is the rainy season so we could not do the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Pichu... can't say whether I'm happy or sad about this!
We stayed in Lima just one night - everybody we'd spoken to, prior to travelling to Peru, told us to minimize our stay in Lima. So other than seeing parts of Lima (such as the rich suburb & beaches of Miraflores and the Plaza del Armas), we did just that. Flights in Peru are very easy to get - several competing airlines keep the prices low as well - the opposite of what we saw in Brazil. The only memorable thing about Lima was the heightened warning in our guide book about crime in Lima. We were warned not to take any valuables with us. We followed orders.
We immediately took a flight to Cusco or Qusqo, the legendary capital of the Inca civilization. The Inca empire was divided into 4 zones (N, S, E, W) and Cusco was the center of this empire - Cusco means 'navel' in Quechua, the Inca language. Quechua is alive and well today as a language, as is Aymara which was spoken by the Pre-Inca civilizations. Castillian Spanish is the uniting language in Peru.
Cusco is built on hills and has several beautiful historic sites, mostly dating from the Spanish conquest, as opposed to Inca or Pre-Inca times. We saw the Cathedral, various Inca walls (which is all that's left of the Inca structures - see photo to the left), the Inca Museum, Coricancha Museum and various other museums. Needless to say, we were quite museumed-out by the end of this day! We were also accosted at every corner by vendors selling sweaters, finger puppets, woolen hats and other handicrafts-quite cheap compared to what you see being sold int he tourist shops. And finally, we slowly got acclimatized to the altitude - Cusco is at a height of 3800 meters - this is the height at which we spent two nights on Mt. Kilimanjaro as we were all getting severe headaches.
We also went to see a dance program put on by the cultural institure of Cusco. Several traditional folk-dances were performed, with colorful costumes, including the beautifully embroidered skirts & hats worn by the women. It was still a bit odd to see the women wearing what looked like bowler hats... Several dances involved sticks...hmm Inca dandia, anyone?
We also went to see four Inca sites just outside Cusco - Sacsayhuaman (pronounced "sexy woman"), Qenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay. Sacsayhuaman is an Inca fort which was the site of the last stand of the last Inca (Manco Inca) against Pizarro's conquistadores. Puca Pucara is an interesting rock, with caves and sacrificial altars. It has zigzag channels leading away from the sacrificial altars, presumably to carry away the blood (see photo on the left)!
The highlight of our visit to Cusco was the trip to Machu Pichu, of course. We took a 4-hour train to Aguas Calientes (30 minutes from Machu Pichu). The magnificent Uribamba river (which empties into the Amazon) was raging along beside us - the rainy season had increased its water volume greatly. The Peruvian national railway has a monopoly on the train to Machu Pichu (there are no roads whatsoever) and therefore charges monstrous prices. Our train broke down along the way - the Peruvians have a separate 'tren local' or local train for the non-tourists where the price is much much lower. Our carriage had a huge bunch of Japanese tourists plus various other South Americans and North Americans. On our RTW trip, other than Paris, this is the one place where we've seen US tourists. Many of the tourists had come to Peru just to see Machu Pichu - they were not visiting any other place in Peru!
It was raining but the mist cleared up enough for us to see the site and the two mountains bracketing the site. It´s quite a spectacular sight - various temples (Sun, Moon, Condor etc.), houses, terraced fields and more. Nobody quite knows what the purpose of Machu Pichu was as the Incas did not have any written records. The site itself was discovered in the early 1900´s by a professor from Yale University - he carted off all the valuables back to the US.
Our guide at Machu Pichu insisted on telling us that Machu Pichu is becoming a very important stop for people interested in mysticism. Apparently, the center of mystical energy on earth is moving from the Himalayas to Machu Pichu this decade - he followed this up with a resounding "Om." He made us put our heads inside the alcoves/niches of the walls of Machu Pichu and say whatever came into our heads in order to hear the echoes and reverberations. He also gave us a mini-lecture on the seven chakras of the human body. I´m quite impressed that this idea from India has travelled all the way to Machu Pichu!
The guide also showed us the site where women were sacrificed to appease the gods. Apparently, the most beautiful women were chosen, starved for a couple of weeks, drugged with chicha (local alcoholic brew) and then sacrified with a blow to the left temple. 80% of the skeletons found buried ceremonially in Machu Pichu are of women. The photo to the far left is of the Temple of the Condor (the beak is at the front and the two rock formations in the back are supposed to represent the wings). The photo on the right is the hilltop where they did their sacrifices.
We saw several llamas grazing on the terraces of Machu Pichu. No need to let the grassy terraces go to waste, I guess! We also took a 30 minute walk to an Inca drawbridge that seemed to go nowhere! I almost got vertigo just looking at the precarious location of the drawbridge. The drawbridge is the black & white photo to the left.
Moving on from Machu Pichu, our experience with food here in Peru has been pretty good. The photo is of our time at a great restaurant called Witch´s Garden in Cusco. For Smruti, there has been fresh juices and vegetarian adapted Peruvian food (including lomo saltado made with soy, etc. and of course she got the recipe). As for me, I´ve had alpaca steak (alpaca is a cameloid just like the llama) and ceviche (raw octopus, clams, fish, etc. served with lime and onions). There is much more (cuy or guinea pig, etc.). I am a bit leery of going beyond this though, especially after one Japanese tourist whom we met insisted on telling us that he was on a six-month gastronomic trip around the world where he had eaten fried tarantula legs (in Vietnam), dog, camel, snake, frog and finally, in Nairobi, elephant, zebra, crocodile, lion, and peacock! I typed "fried tarantula" into google and actually got a bunch of listings, including a treatise on the vitamins and minerals in tarantula. Too much information! In case you are interested, here are some of those links on tarantula: passport, weird foods and treatise. Yuck!
And if you´re still wondering what the title of this blog (Ucan sutipa'h Machu Pichu) means, it is an Aymara phrase for ´It is called Machu Pichu.´