Ollantaytambo – a place not to miss

Ollantaytambo wasn’t on our original schedule, but we had a spare week or so because Tacna didn’t appeal to us and Peruvian miners blocked our way to Lake Titicaca. Having chosen a pretty posh hotel at £50pn and deciding to go for the best room (terrace overlooking the mountains, spa bath and a massive bed), we arrived at Ollantay from Cusco. In two hours, we passed over soaring hills, the roaring Orubamba river, colourful fields of vegetables, and skirted the side of mountains over 5000m high in what must be one of the most spectacular taxi, or any other car journey, we have ever taken.

Ollantay is at a reduced altitude (only 2700m!). There is also a lot of history to this place, including a pretty rare incident for Inca history in which they defeated the Spanish conquistadors. The tourist part of the town is basically two streets, one main road and one road down to the train station, with various shops, reasonably basic but good restaurants and a few decent hostels/hotels. It is in the Sacred Valley on the way to Machu Picchu and, from what we have seen so far, is a very pretty little town. Conveniently, for us anyhow, there are engineering works on the Cusco to Machu Picchu line and all trains now start at Ollantay. Most people, therefore, pass straight through here and probably just stop for a coffee waiting for their train.

ollay2 ollay3Ollantay’s main attraction is a very well preserved Inca archeological site, with mighty terracing and that is where we headed on Saturday. When visiting the tourist places, there’s always a bit of a dilemma: do we get a guide or not?  Experience so far has been good, but the Inca language was only spoken, not written, so any Inca sites are still a little bit of a mystery. The general advice for Inca sites is that a guide is often not much better than reading a book and some will make up facts to inject a little more interest. Fortunately, we randomly chose (i.e. she asked whether we were interested) a fantastic guide this time. Ninakuru was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and happy to talk about everything and anything. In absolutely perfect English.

ollay1 ollay6We found about the site being occupied well before the Incas, how the quality of workmanship got better the further up the steps we went (did I not mention steps before now? there were flipping hundreds of them…), seeing the big ramp up the mountain where the massive stones were brought from surrounding mountains and that Incas were a little like The Borg – they took the best parts of cultures that they defeated and assimilated knowledge to improve themselves. We climbed up to one of the highest points of the whole sight and wandered around for a good couple of hours.

ollay7 ollay4Ninakuru, who was from a mountain area where the language commonly used by the Incas (Quechuan) is still spoken, also gave us insights into being brought up at 5000m altitude. One great story was about when she did the Inca trail (with ease) as a small, young Peruvian woman, totally showing up the cynicism of the local macho porters. For those who don’t know, the Inca trail is four days of pretty difficult trekking that normally turns even experienced, big and strong westerners into a gibbering mess.

ollay5 ollay8We also found out that climbing steps at this altitude is SO much easier than in Cusco, what a difference 500 metres makes!  It gives us confidence that going to Machu Picchu will not involve getting there and just looking at a partial view of the spectacular wonder of the world from the comfort of the overpriced coffee shop at the entrance.

Overall, at the minute, we are very glad that schedules allowed us to stay in Ollantaytambo and if you come to this part of the world you should make sure it is in your schedule. And the view from this deluxe room at Tunupa Hotel will take some beating on this holiday or any other to come – breathtaking in a nice way for a change.

 

Cusco and Soroche

We have spent around a week in Cusco, some of which was a little recovery time for me (Allan) from some bug or other. All good now, but before describing what we’ve seen in Cusco, a special mention to altitude sickness.

a_cusco1Altitude sickness is not a good name as it’s really only the extreme cases where any sickness occurs. The Spanish name, soroche, seems so much a more pleasant word. We’ve both been affected in Cusco. The altitude is 3399m (11152ft), which equates to having just 65% of the normal amount of oxygen as compared to sea level. We have not been able to sleep more than four hours a night, there are odd times where we have to remember to breath, doing the most simple uphill climbs (such as the 42 steps up to the roof terrace) is an effort that leaves us out of breath and we need to drink a lot more water than normal. We are very glad that we’re staying fairly much in the centre of town as we can see nightly dread on most of the other tourists getting ready for their walk up a very steep hill back to their “guesthouse with a great view” after their dinners. There’s a reason why even the locals walk very, very slowly here and soroche is that reason.

a_cusco2On to Cusco. There’s definitely something different about this place compared to anywhere else we’ve been in South America. Amongst other things, it is the first place where English seems to be the most common language spoken. This is mainly due to Cusco being the starting point for hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans of all ages to visit Machu Picchu. OK, we’ve only seen the centre of town, but all menus, the tourist information and even the hassle from touts are in English. There’s even a couple of English pubs and one Irish pub. It is also noticeably more expensive, prices seem to be 50% more than than the rest of Peru, but it’s all relative, we’re staying in a nice hotel which is around £40pn and a steak dinner at one of the best restaurants in town came to around £50, including a nice bottle of good Peruvian red and an even nicer tip for great staff at Uchu.

a_cusco3

 

Hotels and food are not the only budget challenges. A special tourist ticket, at £30, is needed to enter almost all the museums here and there’s retail therapy on every street corner. We’ve also been to the Inca museum, where Mr. Head Inca persuaded us to dress up as an Inca prince and princess. There is a photo, it will never be seen. The popular art and the contemporary art museums were both interesting viewing.

 

 

a_cusco4Cusco is located in a spectacular location, surrounded by alpine scenery. The main square is beautiful and just wandering around is good fun – well, wandering around very slowly and trying to avoid steps (that’s not trying to avoid Steps the band, that would be a tragedy). City walls constructed by the Incas over 500 years ago are still in existence and looking absolutely perfect, there are fantastic alpaca and llama wool shops – around £1,000 for a vicuña scarf anyone? – and very colourful textiles and prints available everywhere.

 

We are now off down to the depths of the Sacred Valley – a mere 2700m altitude for the next six days. Considering the soroche, we are very pleased we decided to stay in a nice hotel and get the train to Machu Picchu, instead of attempting the classic, but we imagine very challenging, four day Inca trail trek.

P.S.  We had our first rain of the entire holiday here. That must stop, right now!

Riot police, hot chocolate and culture wars

cusco09With Allan still feeling a bit dozy from the altitude, I decided to have a bit of an explore by myself today. Cusco is one of the major tourist destinations in Peru, being the jumping off point for Macchu PIcchu and the Inca Trail, so it’s pretty hectic. Which is why stepping out into a quiet street, without clouds of exhaust fumes or screaming car horns, was pretty…spooky.

I made my way to the main square. There was no shortage of pedestrians – hawkers, shoe shiners, newspaper sellers, tour operators, food vendors, restaurant touts, even the odd tourist trying to navigate through the commercial jungle – but no cars. Not one.

It turns out that today is a taxi strike, and around 90 per cent of cars in central Cusco are taxis. There is a demo downtown but, just in case the taxi drivers decide that burning brightly coloured hats with earflaps is their best political tool and descend on the crowds of young American backpackers, the local force has deployed a massive six riot police complete with shields. They were rather dwarfed in the large Plaza de Armas, so just hung out in a line outside Kentucky Fried Chicken.

cusco07My first stop was the Museo Histórico Regional. A beautiful sixteenth century manor house, it was home to Garcilaso de la Vega, also known as El Inca. He was a famous historian whose work inspired Tupac Amaru II, who lead the uprising against the Spanish in the 1780s.

The ground floor traces some of the history of the people who inhabited the Cusco region from 5000BC until the Spanish invasion.

The second floor is dedicated largely to religious art, including a Last Supper in which Jesus is depicted chowing down on guinea pig (which makes sense, since it’s a local staple).

cusco03A bit more wandering about and (somehow) I found my way to the Museo Choco, a cafe-come-chocolate-factory, which displays a brief history of chocolate on its walls. The tiny balcony has a great views of the little plaza out front and the mountains rising behind the city. How could I not stop for a hot chocolate?

From the extensive menu, I chose a Mayan-style. It came as a small bowl of softened chocolate, a jug of hot milk, honey and chilli – simply mix to taste. Delicious. While sipping, I discovered that the Mayans actually drank their chocolate very bitter and very spicy. I was glad for the updated version.

A peaceful wander back through the main square, still no cars, and a chance to contemplate the bronze Inca statue placed on top of the central fountain a few years ago.

cusco04He shines handsomely in the sun, looking proudly and serenely up towards the ruins of Saksaywaman beyond Cusco. However, he has become symbolic of a culture war going on in the city.

The Mayor is keen to bring back strong Incan influences, which he has tried to achieve through more visible street art, festivals and performances. He is opposed by those who regard this as ‘fake’ culture, pointing out that Cusco as it is is, essentially, a colonial city in the Spanish-style.

The battle rages on, we tourists merely gaze.

Pu-NO, Cus-GO!

arequipa18We were up before dawn on Friday, ready to catch the early bus to Puno for Lake Titicaca, only to discover the road had been shut by a mining demo. They were expected to continue for a day or two and, we were told, the police were not guaranteeing anyone’s safety.

Mining has a fractious history in Peru, around employment rights, social responsibility and environmental damage. This week, with action around the country, there’s a strong political focus on many of these issues and the Government’s response has been to deploy an extra 5,000 police not known for their diplomacy-first tactics. We decided to find another way out of Arequipa.

While Allan tromped around town trying to find the best value plane ticket to Cusco, Chloe embarked on a far more vital mission. Tickets for Gallifrey One went on sale at midday local time. We had expected to be on the road but, oh happy day, instead the opportunity to crouch over the laptop waiting for the page to go live. Don’t worry, tickets were procured. This year, tickets went in 75 minutes, completely vindicating her paranoia about a early sell out. Now we just have to work out how to get to LA again next February (oh, and find out whether Allan actually wants to…)

Another unexpected bonus was the stunning sunset over Arequipa, above.

cusco01Truman-style, we were up before dawn on Saturday to catch our 7.30 flight to Cusco. This time, though, all went as planned and by 9.30 we were checked into our lovely hotel, Andenes al Cielo. There seem to be various ways to translate this, but Allan’s favourite is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (of course). At over 3,000m, Cusco’s pretty high and we can feel the altitude, which makes those stairs slightly less welcome, but anything for a Led Zeppelin reference.

We’ve been in Cusco for barely twelve hours and, frankly, a lot of that has been dozing. However, we’ve still had time to wander down to the main square, have our boots cleaned and polished, find a lovely cafe to sell us chicken soup and strawberry/lime smoothies, watch sunset from the roof of our hotel and, now, sit by a log fire sipping coca tea and typing our latest entry.

To round off our successful day, Allan heard about Papiss Cissé’s 95th minute winner. The US of Dave must have loved it.

Looking for today’s Peru

Dream Caught

Dream Caught

A bit up to our ears in historic sites, we fancy a taste of modern Peru so take ourselves off to the Museo de Artes Contemporaneo.

A short fifteen minute stroll from our hotel, the museum is in a grand old mansion opposite Arequipa railway station. There used to be trains from here to Lake Titicaca, but the service has now been suspended. However, the attractive station buildings are still maintained (the odd tourist charter still leaves from here) and it’s a bustling bus station now.

Confusingly, the gates are locked when we arrive. It seems the permanent exhibit is being reconfigured and the upper floors are shut, but we’re invited to view the temporary exhibition for free. How lovely.

Piety

Piety

Luckily, the temporary exhibit showcases the best young artists from across Peru. The work is exclusively sculpture and other 3D pieces, and we love it. There’s a strong thread of pop culture, referencing science fiction and the Spice Girls (Chola Power!) There’s  also exploration of religious and social themes, especially around cultural and ethnic identity.

A beautiful garden, housing an old, wooden railway carriage, complete with Coca Cola logos, and an abundance of flowers, completes the short but perfectly formed tour. We think the pictures will say it better.

 

arequipa16 arequipa15 arequipa13

The Ice Maiden and the Volcano

Juanita museumMaking up for lost time, as Chloe’s been under the weather, we head straight for the historic centre of Arequipa and the Museo Santuarios Andinos. The main exhibition focuses on an example of extreme archaeology. It is at once bizarre and very human.

Back in 1995, Mount Ampato near Arequipa began erupting. One of the effects was that the snows at the summit started to melt. This gave archaeologists a rare chance to explore the very top of the volcano, already known to be a site of human sacrifice. They had to ascend to 6,000 metres on foot, an incredibly tough journey even with modern equipment and clothing. What they found was extraordinary.

The melting snows had uncovered the body of a young girl, sacrificed to the volcano 500 years ago. The cold, dry atmosphere at that altitude had preserved her body to an incredible degree. Hair, skin, teeth and internal organs were all intact. Scientists transported her body back to the university in Arequipa in great secrecy – archeologists expected to find more graves at the summit and looters would quickly descend on the area once the discovery became public.

JUANITAThe girl was named ‘Juanita’ and her body is kept at the museum (part of the university) as the centrepiece of an incredible collection of artefacts from similar graves across the region. Perfectly preserved fabrics, ceramics and metal pieces, in a condition one could only dream of in damp Britain, are displayed in a reverent and softly-lit atmosphere.

Juanita’s story, pieced together from the evidence, is quite chilling. Raised in Cusco, specifically chosen at a young age to be part of a pool of potential sacrifices, the call came when she was just 12 years old or so. A ceremonial procession on foot, from Cusco to the mountain that looms over Arequipa, would have taken weeks and taken her to extremes of altitude and cold she had never before experienced. Despite being dressed in the best vicuña wool tunic and cloak, the elements would have taken their toll. Towards the summit, fasting except for doses of corn beer and sedative herbs, her last moments would have been woolly until the final crack on her skull descended.

Juanita herself was not on display when we visited. She spends three months of the year undergoing extra preservation and offering research opportunities to historians and microbiologists alike. Instead, a different body was in the frozen glass case. Another young girl, this time not from a rich background, dressed in a thin tunic. The Incas had many reasons to offer human sacrifice. It’s thought this poor victim was killed because a local noble had fallen ill.

We saw some unique and almost unbelievably well preserved items at the museum, but what lingered was the very respectful way the collection was presented. Juanita and her partners in death have not become ‘things’ – there is a very human heart to this exhibit.

Pope Pius IX said “we’ll have nun of that”

nuns5nuns6We move onto a visit to Arequipa’s number one attraction, according to Tripadvisor, the nunnery, or to to give it its correct name, Santa Catalina Monastery.

This is no ordinary religious building. When built in 1590-ish, it was a separate little village from Arequipa. Even at the start, it was a very exclusive retreat for the 450 people who lived there (well, the nuns anyhow). Entry fees for the nunnery were in excess of £100,000, so only very rich Spanish parents sent their second-born daughters here.

nuns3Inuns4nside the imposing city walls lie streets, courtyards, chapels and gardens. It feels a little like being in a cartoon or some sort of movie as the colours are blue, rust-brown and white, whilst the gardens are lush and green. Quite striking. The nuns’ rooms were surprisingly spacious.

 

And now the problem. The nuns here clearly had a lot of money. They had local girls as slaves, as many as five for each nun. They imported pottery from Europe, including the finest English porcelain. Whisper it very quietly, but it is rumoured that some had far too much of a good time (for nuns), with pregnancies and babies appearing and those children being taught in the school specially founded inside the nunnery. Much wine was consumed, at least twice a day my guide said. Their reputation was such that Pope Pius IX sent a representative in 1871 to investigate and much was changed after the visit from the papal representative, with slaves freed, excesses curbed and I’m sure a few stern words to all concerned.

nuns2 nuns1In 1969 the whole place was shut down. Only 30 nuns now occupy an adjacent building, making chocolate and doing community work. However, on the last part of the tour, a worker was bringing out the rubbish from the nuns’ building – there were more empty wine bottles than a busy wine bar at closing time. My guide just said, “well, they do now have access to the Internet, go on chat rooms and they still do like a drink”.

Même merde, année différente as they say in Peru.

 

The Birmingham of Peru

arequipa5Arequipa is Peru’s second city, so we have just landed in the equivalent of Birmingham. I am expecting to have to project manage an equivalent of the Office of the Public Guardian into a new building whilst here. Arequipa is recognised, amongst other things, for its cuisine; especially cheese, alpaca steaks, ice cream and chocolate. It is known as the white city, but there are definitely a lot of blue buildings as well as white, so maybe it is Birmingham after all and they are all City fans here, there’s definitely no claret or light blue in sight.

arequipa1On arrival, after a short 30 minute hop on a plane from Tacna, the first thing you notice is that we are definitely back at altitude (around 2500m), with three big mountains looming over the city, and then you notice adverts on the mountains. Yes, someone has decided to mark out in 25m high letters adverts for a cellphone company and a café just around the corner from us, amongst others. We must go to the café and ask them how they did it. As with all photos on hardcowtravels, you can click on them to open a bigger version in a new window – this one is definitely worth it to see the adverts.

arequipa2We are staying at a hotel very near the centre, only a five minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, and decided to treat ourselves to the most expensive room in the place at around £40 per night. It comes with “special” breakfast, which ended up including a ham or bacon omelette on top of the normal fare, but special mention goes to the coffee. Yes, actual real filter coffee, instead of the nescafe/instant that all of Chile seemed to live on. Very exciting. There is also a lovely garden where people are learning Spanish, how to cook Peruvian food, practicing traditional dancing or just getting some high altitude rays.

arequipa3Speaking of the Plaza de Armas, on three sides of the square there are walkways that could be straight out of Turin. I found myself muttering under my breath in a Michael Caine accent, “This is not a Plaza, it’s a Piazza”. It is very nice main square, with plenty of greenery and extreme topiary and an imposing massive church on one side. There are a lot of touts asking whether I want “tour of the city”, “3 day tour of the Canyon”, “money changed” or “genuine Gucci sunglasses for 20 soles (£4)”, but all seemed good natured and not too persistent.

Right, I’m off to get my snap, before I go yampi. No, I mean, I’m off to dinner before I go mad. This place is turning me Brummie.

Thanks Chile, hasta la vista, baby!

chile1We liked all the places we went to in Chile, from the views on the way down from the Argentine border right away to the border town of Arica. Mix in seeing Chloe’s old schoolfriend, the spectacular San Pedro scenery and some stunning gourmet food, we had a great 2 weeks – it felt longer, but in the nicest possible way. There is so much that we haven’t seen, especially south of Santiago with the lakes & mountains and the big giant heads on Easter Island. We must come back one day.

 

There will be a photo album appearing soon, the tricky bit is not to have 100s of photos and bore the pants off everyone. Will try and keep it to 40 at maximum, but it’s going to be very very difficult!

 

Arica-ca-ca-ca (*)

aricaca1Apologies for the radio silence for the past 3 days, this is nothing to do with no Internet, but down to simply doing very little at all. We were due to leave San Pedro de Atacama at just after 8pm dreading our overnight bus journey to get us to Arica which is near the Chile/Peru border. The bus left almost on time and arrived almost bang on time at 6.30am. It was not called El Rapido, maybe that’s why. Surprisingly enough, we actually did sleep on the bus and was actually pretty comfortable; comfy seats that nearly went flat, blanket & pillow provided and a smooth journey. Tur Bus, so far, gets our approval.

 

aricaca2Arriving at 6.30am, but hotels surely don’t allow you to check-in until around 2pm?  Well, maybe not, Hotel Ponderosa said absolutely no problem, check-in whenever you get here. This hotel is around 5km out of town and totally out of the way. We’ve liked it, not least because the owner, Fernando, runs a very chilled out place where no-one is in a hurry, where the staff seem like they are now part of his family and he’s happy to drive us to the supermarket, restaurants and the bus station. The rooms are massive and the showers are hot. It is next to a bird sanctuary, so the only noise is the sea, squark of birds and the bark of Max the dog when chases (always unsuccessfully) cyclists that are riding past.

 

 

aricaca3 aricaca4So, what of Arica?  We didn’t see much, partly due to the isolation of this place but partly that we were so relaxed in the hotel that a journey out was simply not necessary. However, we did try both the best rated and second best rated restaurants in Arica. First up was no.2, Rayu, with Pisco Sours to knock your head off – and we had 2 each – and enough big prawns to feed a family, excellent. Last night was no.1, Akun, with more tastier (and weaker than the night before, thank goodness) Pisco Sours and excellent steak and pasta dishes. Both get excellent reviews and rightly so, Akun also wins the best steak of the holiday so far, yes, even better than Buenos Aires.

Arica also has a victorian-era Cathedral although a big church would be a more accurate description of the size. Churches aren’t our thing really, but this was very pretty indeed, all painted wrought iron. Cathedral San Maros is definitely worth a visit. So, pop-pickers, a question for our readership, what links this church with Paris?

Next stop is crossing the border and catching a short flight to Peru’s second city of Arequipa and coping with going back 2 hours in time.

 

 

(*) – in tribute to Vic & Bob