What sweeter news is there than hearing your flight has been rescheduled from a reasonable 7AM to the middle of the night? I relish nothing more than waking at the witching hour, and so it was with a merry and well-rested heart that I flew to Lima. Fortunately, I was able to share my joy with my mum (henceforth known as Sal), as I got into her hotel room at 4am.
Using a forklift to stretch my eyes open, we took a slow taxi to the old town. Founded in 1535 by Francisco Pizarro (in a fairy bloody fashion), the peaceful squares, cathedrals, and government palaces of this ‘City of Kings’ make this historic centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ornate wooden balconies extend from imperial, wedding-cake buildings of rose, cream, and pale lemon, most dating from the viceroyalty era. Buildings range from original 16th century constructions, such as the Archbishop’s Palace and the House of Aliaga, to French-inspired 18th century churches and houses, to the more recent 20th century developments, which slip in neatly in neo-classical elegance.
We ate in El Condor, one of Lima’s oldest bar-restaurants. Standing in polished-oak grandeur since 1905, waiters drift around slowly, like honey-soaked bees, and food is simple: thick jamón sandwiches, cerveza, jugos de fruta. This rest prepared us for our first travel challenge together: catching the bus back. Although approximately 9million of Lima’s 11 million – strong population seemed to have joined us, it was a speedy triumph. Dinner at Mama Lola: novo andino fusion of Italian / Peruvian cuisine, and the first of many pisco sours.
Sunday took us to Cusco, via another early wake-up. After crepes for lunch at the museo del Café, just off the central plaza, we set off for some sight-seeing. In the afternoon we went to Korikancha, considered one of the most sacred buildings of the Inca Empire. As with many Inca sites, it is now combined with a Catholic cathedral, the Santo Domingo church, but was originally devoted to the worship of the Sun God. Inca ruins are still largely intact, and you follow a circuit around the central courtyard of the Colonial church. Squat, powerful Inca walls of clever interlocking patterns are broken by neat, slanting window-holes, all placed at the exact same positions in the walls, so you look through a long tunnel of space.
Our tourist trip continued into the main Cathedral, and a Jesuit Church in the Plaza de Armas, both decorated with subtle, tasteful amounts of gold:
A quick stop in a café overlooking the square, then dinner in a colourful organic restaurant, accompanied by more Pisco sours.
We spent all of Monday in Cusco, visiting museums in the morning. The glorious Museo Precolumbia boasted vast stocks of exquisite Inca art craftwork, divided by material: oro, plata, madera, textiles. The Museo Inka was more scrappy, but had a room of carefully preserved Inca mummies, and bright collections of rainbow-coloured grains.
Hoping to visit some Inka sites in the afternoon, we set off in good faith to the tourist office. No, you have to go here, said the woman at the desk, stabbing towards a ‘Free Information’ sign a little way up the road. If nothing more than rather inauspicious outside, the interior was a cave of sadness.
Face furrowed in a dark, damp corner hidden away from the sunlight of the street, a man greeted us with a glare as we enquired about nearby tours. Eso no será posible, he growled, looking as though he was deciding the most painful way to murder us, preferably in a way that would make it seem as though it were our fault. Could we visit it by taxi? No. Bus? Very difficult. What time does it shut? (What time will they shut up?) Eventually, we negotiated a tour around the nearby Inca sites. Be back at 2.40, came a voice from the jowly depths. We didn’t stay to find out what would happen to us if not. A light jog back to the hotel, with pleasant 35 celsius degree heat and a relaxing near-vertical incline, we returned before our deadline (Sal is a teacher, after all), passports, soles, tourist tickets, and IDs in hand.
Our tour guide met us by the Santo Domingo church. It soon transpired that we were in the presence of a man a few trapezoidal niches short of a temple wall. He appeared to be attempting a Guiness World Record for the fastest bilingual speech per minute, troubling himself not with explanations or reflections on the wonderful sites we visited, but rather deploying the (not) tried and tested technique of ‘Pointing at things’ and ‘saying Who Knows what Happened Here? Not Me’. It was as if the Inca Ruins had been a great scene of crime, and he was the accused perpetrator in court claiming his total ignorance. Sal rebelled several times and simply walked off when she got bored or frustrated, and also managed to incite me into doing the same. (Obviously I’ll be writing a full letter of concern to Bootham School, signed Concerned Observer).
Guide aside (though it was so difficult to put him aside, as his monotonous stream of imperatives would follow you at every turn – mira, venga), the sites themselves were of great interest. Sacsaywamen, Moray, Chinchero, Q’engo, Puka Pukara.
Our guide successfully delivered us back to Cusco an hour late, where we had a dinner of udon noodles, wine, and sweet potato crisps.
Another bright and breezy dawn rising to worship la Pachamama / catch the train was worth it, as our beautiful Machu Picchu train journey took us through quite sublime landscape. The train track twists through a lush valley, where steep mountains of jungle loom from either side, and a little river pushes through ancient ruins, over whose stonework and centuries-worn steps the grass now grows. Snow-capped peaks glance through the milky air of the cloud-forest.
Stepping off the cool train into the steamy humidity of Machu Picchu, our guide, Julio, met us at the gate of the station. We dropped off our bags with a man from our hotel (which delighted Sal beyond measure, as she had been using this event as an excuse to use the word ‘bellboy’ approximately 10 million times on the journey, with a faint sense of noblesse oblige).
A bus takes you to the base of Machu Picchu, and from here it is a short, steep walk up the mountain. The path is rocky and the climate stiff with wet heat; but the sheer beauty of the views cuts through any discomfort. A few steps around a corner, and suddenly that great, self-contained, near-perfectly preserved site reveals itself to you. From every angle it is magnificent: the vast, arrow-headed mountains soar over the jewel-like ruins, dignified in stony silence on the ground flattened over generations of labour. Thick stone walls make up the skeletons of houses, storage spaces, and temples, the grey structures tracing the foundations of this lost society.
We spent the whole morning here, weaving through the former streets and plazas. It is divided into two main areas: the agricultural terraces, neat lines carved into the sloping mountainside, where crops of corn and potatoes would grow; and the urban area, where the daily business of trade, worship, and family life would thrive. A further sector is the Royal Terrace, a series of well-built houses for the nobility. PArticular highlights include the House of the Condor, where two ovals and a flat stone structure make up the body of a condor in flight, and the
The architecture of Machu Picchu is highly advanced, and there is more information on it here. Irrigation systems allow for waste removal and a constant water supply, and buildings of firm triangles, constructed without any concrete or cement, are held together by the neat patterns of stones, carved in quarries just beyond the residential area. It feels like walking through pages of an unconventional mathematical textbook.
After much exploration of the sites, we took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, and rested.
On the second day, Sal and I returned for an independent wander. We blagged our way into the Casa del Sol, perched on the top of the hill, where the remains of a great sundial mark where the time once passed. Gently nudging llamas out of way, we also took the narrow path to the sun-gates, which perches vertiginously in the sky, looking over the main site. Our walk finished with grenadilla and maracuya ice cream before a quick visit to the museum, and a hot 25 minute walk back to town.
A lovely lunch of pizza, with a waiter who performed magic tricks, then the beautiful train back to Cusco.
On Thursday we caught a colectivo to the nearby town of Pisac. Thwarted only briefly by another person seemingly determined to both a) be in heavy contact with tourists, and b) devote life to annoying, confusing, and detesting said tourists, we were soon on our way across narrow mountain passes in our little van.
Delicious lunch looking over the central mercado, where women walked around with baby lambs under both arms, and vendors hawked their products. Pisac is known for its impressive Inca ruins, so we took a long, hot walk around the site. Carved into the side of a mountain, the houses are largely intact, and the area is much quieter than Machu Picchu. The Temple is particularly cool.
Here, one of us felt a bit funny and heavily implied she had heat stroke. One of us was accused of being slightly heartless, due to not believing in heat stroke at 25 degrees celsius.
Dinner in the artsy San Blas district, where I persuaded Sal that it would be perfectly legal to have just starters for dinner, that the tourist police would not descend upon us. As it was Halloween, the plaza de armas was crammed full of people, police, and spooky costumes.
Friday was the tragic severing of the umbilical cord, as I flew back to La Paz, and Sal to Paris. What an incredible week.