Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rampant in Peru

And so this past week found me in the land of the Andes, of llamas and alpacas, of distant peoples speaking Quechua and Aymara, of towering mountains and misty coasts, of that most mystical mountain redoubt known as Machu Picchu, and of mind-blowing headaches, which was what I endured, when I went to Peru.

I handed in the final dissertation, having pulled through an unhealthy week of too little sleep and too much chocolate, before setting of across the oceans to Lima, where my tour was set to begin. The country had suffered a devastating earthquake only a fortnight ago, but the damage was limited to the south, with my itinerary hardly affected at all.

As for me, all seemed fine, even with the delayed arrival into Lima – which proved to be a more modern and Americanized city that I had expected. The next day, we flew to Juliaca, up in the Andean highlands, before taking a bus journey to Puno, nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, located at the Peruvian-Bolivian border.

I had long heard of this most magical expanse of water, situated high up, and reputedly the source of the mighty Incan civilization, which reigned supreme throughout much of the area, before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century and began their ferocious ravage through these ancient lands.

But it was in Puno, at an elevation of more than 3800m, where the problems started. My head began to thump and thump ever harder, and I felt increasingly dizzy and nauseous. So this is what altitude sickness feels like. It was certainly not what I expected, and I proceeded to have a rotten few days. This being the South American winter, the freezing temperatures did not help as well.

Pumped full of Aleve, Advil and altitude sickness pills, I got myself in shape for a cruise on the following day, marvels most magical greeted us. The Uros islands, such as they were, were not even real islands, but floating reed-based platforms, on which communities have long settled. The scene which greeted us could have existed for centuries, if one took out the odd solar panel from the perspective in front.

Taquile Island, however, was a real land mass, and we had to trek up a few hundred meters, my heart pounding crazily, as I gasped for breath in the thin air, before reaching a central plaza, where lunch was to be had. An interesting area, looking out to the wondrous expanse of blue water under a brilliant blue sky, but perhaps not worth the near heart attacks I had to endure.

We left the following day for a trip to Cusco, lower down at 3300m, and formerly the capital of the Incas. Little from that era survives today, however, with the Spanish having stamped their presence. Their typical modus operandi was to plonk a church right on top of indigenous sacred sites, such as the Monastery of Santo Domingo, built on top the Incan Temple of the Sun.

Give the conquerors their due though. Cusco now has a very attractive central square, the Plaza de Armas, with a lovely La Compañía de Jesús church and a magnificent Catedral – housing an interesting Andean version of the Last Supper portrait, featuring Christ and his apostles dining on a roasted cuy, or guinea pig. What the rest of us regard as household pets are eaten with aplomb in Peru. Having once owned two guinea pigs, I could not bring myself to even contemplate tucking into one of these loveable creatures.

One had to head out of Cusco to find remnants of Incan life, such as the fortress of Sacayhuamán – universally pronounced as Sexy Woman – and also Ollantaytambo, which we visited the next day during an extended tour down what is known as the Incan Sacred Valley. There was also Pisac, with a lively market in the colonial town nearby.

The Incans were an amazing civilization, accomplishing much, reaching at its height from the jungles of present-day Columbia southwards to northern Chile. And they managed rather well, despite not having invented the wheel, which was pretty redundant, given the rough terrain of the area, and despite not having devised a written language.

The meant that most of what we now know of the Incans come from contemporaneous Spanish chronicles, many of which were drafted to serve the purpose of empire, rather than for disinterested scientific research. Certainly, the tale of how the Spanish crushed the Incans is no bedtime fairytale, filled as it is with harrowing accounts of duplicity and deception, masking outright aggression and sheer greed.

The exception to this tale of domination was Machu Picchu, which represented our focus for the next couple of days. Those so inclined to take a four day trekking trail, hiking through the forests. But I was a lazy tourist, and already, I felt that the journey there was long enough. We had to take a train from Ollytaytambo and then spend a night at Aguas Calientes, a little town at the foothill of the impressive city, whose entire existence seems to be to support the throngs of travellers who have journeyed there to behold this wonder of the world.

The way things worked out, I was able to tour Lima, the capital, only at the tail end of my visit to Peru. It’s a large, sprawling city, with many different districts, some more upscale, and others less so. My base was in the prosperous Miraflores district in the south, but many of the sites were clustered around the colonial core, including the delightful Plaza San Martin, and the prominent Plaza Mayor, with its stately yellow colonial buildings and imposing cathedral and presidential palace.

During my time in Peru, the epicurean in me was keen also to try out the local booze, particular Pisco Sour, the national cocktail, which comprises Pisco, the Peruvian brandy, and a heady concoction of lime, egg white, syrup and dash of bitter. A much easier drink was the Cusqueña beer, of which I consumed copious amounts. I tried chica as well – a corn based beer with a low alcohol content.

It struck me that, counting Spain itself, Peru represented the seventh Spanish-speaking country I’ve visited, and I wish I’ve picked up more of the language through these joruneys. Yes, I can certainly order some leche to add to my coffee, and demand my mantequilla, when I get my toast, but when it comes to haggling with the souvenir sellers, I have quite a bit of ground to cover. Well, till next time...

Travel Notes: I flew to Peru on American Airlines, transiting in Miami. The ground tour was arranged by the Canadian-based G.A.P. Adventures, which I would recommend highly. During the trip, our tour leader introduced us to a series of excellent restaurants, including the Fallen Angel and Witches Garden in Cusco, and also Mangos in Lima.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! I am so jealous.

Looks like you had a fab time.

See you soon in S'pore ... :)

3:39 PM  
Anonymous lazy weekend said...

Now I am seriously thinking of heading to Peru during my winter break! Man, the scenery is to die for...

4:24 AM  
Blogger Tricia said...

it was perhaps foolhardy of the tour company to just plonk all of you at 3800m suddenly. it's usually best to ascend gradually.

anyway, am glad you recovered once you descended and enjoyed the rest of the trip!

6:32 AM  

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