Saturday, 28 December 2013

Days 276 to 280: Christmas at Puerto Inka

Christmas was spent on the burning beach, surrounded by the bones of the Incas.

With Christmas approaching, Danielle and I realised that we needed to find somewhere nice to spend the festive period. Dusty Nazca was definitely not that place, and Peru's second-biggest city, Arequipa, was an overnight bus trip away. After our 15-hour overnight from Cusco we weren't keen for an immediate repeat. Therefore we thought we'd save Arequipa for New Year and break the journey up with a pleasant beach holiday. The guidebooks are fairly scant on details but after some research I came up with the resort of the Puerto Inka Hotel, located near a town called Chala, about three hours from Nazca. As a bonus, it appeared to be next to some old Inca ruins. I was sold.

The site and hotel of Puerto Inka is situated in a scenic, attractive bay about 10km from the town of Chala, and I'm happy to say is considerably more lovely than that squalid backwater. Chala is not an appealing place. We arrived by colectivo (a kind of large, shared taxi) from Nazca and were immediately glad we weren't staying. Mostly comprising of a series of clutter and shops around the main highway, the men seemed to all leer at Danielle, and each street corner smelled of piss. Chala is backed by rocky desert and is set upon a high bank overlooking a large arcing stretch of beach, and in a different universe could be something special. But in this universe, it's falls short even of mediocre, and is best represented by the dirty nappies and torn-up mattresses that litter its beach wasteland.

The best that can be said of it is we were spoiled for choice with taxis ready to take us to Puerto Inka. Fifteen minutes later, we were there. Upon a sandy beach set in a bay, flanked by a rocky coastline, and with the remnants of Inca settlements clearly visible on both sides, the hotel is an immediate oasis in very arid surroundings. In itself, the hotel is nothing special. It's fairly basic but does the job, and despit having a monopoly on food and drink, everything was reasonably priced. Our beach bungalow wasn't award-winning but had hot water and a lovely view.

For Danielle, the selling point was the beach. For me, the selling point was the ruins. And there were plenty of these.

There doesn't appear to be a great deal of information around about the historic Puerto Inka, but it appears to have been a coastal settlement for the Incas, where fish was caught and stored and then relayed up to Cusco. The largest ruins are of the storehouse, which is surrounded by lots of stone-reinforced holes in the ground which were also used as small stores. Some homes are nearby also. Most surprisingly, near the main settlement but also on the other side of the bay, were small stone-built shelters, kind of like hollow stone mounds. Inside these, bones were scattered. They were tombs! At first, we weren't sure - were they animal bones, or fake bones? But a sign said "tumbas" and other, much more remote, sites also had clusters of very old-looking bones. It seems that these really are ancient Inca burial sites.

Neither of us slept well that first night.

In fact, we were the only guests on the first night, giving the place a very remote and isolated feel, especially when darkness came. The next day, Christmas Eve, this changed. At first, an Argentinian couple appeared, and while this smashed my illusion of having Christmas with Danielle in our own private beach resort, it was hardly an intrusion. But later that afternoon, while climbing some rocks, this appeared:

An "adventure" bus. It stopped, a group of Australianesque youths jumped out and ran squealing into the sea, and my Christmas bubble was burst.

As far as I can tell, the adventure bus is a dressed-up coach holiday for youths who want to pretend to be adventurous but are too scared to actually be adventurous. They pay lots of money and get toured around Peru under the banner of intrepid adventure, without ever having to make any decisions for themselves. It's travel, but without the experience of travelling. You can bet that I got into full sneering traveller mode when discussing it with Danielle, tearing into the youths' lightweight mode of travelling, saying I could think of nothing worse than being locked in on someone else's schedule with a bunch of youngsters who all think that they're the cutting edge of bohmenian chic. Next up: Thailand! Danielle, of course, rightly told me to shut up, but you can't knock me off my high-horse that easily, and I continued ranting for some time. At least old people on coach tours know they're on a coach tour and don't have pretensions of being travel pioneers!

In fairness to the adventurous youth, I never actually properly talked to any (they very much kept themselves to themselves) and so none of them ever purported to being adventurous to my knowledge. And also to be fair to them, they didn't cause any disruption with wild youthful partying, crazy hi-jinx, or deliquent behaviour. They were actually very dull, almost entirely keeping to their pack of ten next to their tents set up by the bus. To my knowledge, they didn't even explore the Inca ruins clearly visible nearby. In fact, they showed very little in the way of independent spirit, preferring to maintain a tight cluster over Christmas Day, as if defending from possible attack from any side. I ended up feeling a little sorry for them. In the only exchange I had with one of them, I was told that Christmas was a "day off" for the group. A day off? From what?

I also feel quite sorry for them that they showed little inclination, as far as I could tell, to explore beyond their small stretch of beach. Because even aside from the Inca ruins, the rocky desert scenery all around was incredible. It truly was like walking on an alien planet, a mixture between Mars and a set from the original series of Star Trek. Barren and sandy, with clusters of red rocks scattered, it was an eerie place to amble. I felt like the last person on earth after the apocalypse.

Nearer the coast, the red rocks began to dominate, allowing dramatic views across the bay. Spookily, by some quirk of acoustics, sound from Chala appeared to carry, meaning that every now and again we'd climb a peak and be met with the vague, distant sound of music. It was like the sirens calling, although I can't imagine the sirens of Chala being terribly alluring (I imagine them as fat and apathetic, with a fag drooping from their lips and a soiled baby by their feet).

Relaxing on the beach, spotting the bones of Incas, and walking through alien scenery were the mainstay of our four-day Christmas beach holiday. We celebrated Christmas Day with some champagne on the beach for breakfast. Well, it wasn't exactly champagne, but it was fizzy and alcoholic and had a cork that popped. Close enough.

Christmas Day was also the day that I fried. It wasn't my fault! I'd been careful with the suncream, but went for an extended swim. After that, I headed to our room, but it was being cleaned. And the girl took ages. Not knowing how long she would take, I waited outside, with my top off. It was probably for no more than 20 minutes, but the Peruvian sun is a mistress that does not forgive easily. And the damage was done.

A patch under my knee appears to be the only bit the Mother Sun of Peru spared.

Needless to say, this was all very painful, and Boxing Day was spent feeling very sore. As I write, on a 7-hour bus from Chala to Arequipa, it's still very sore and putting on a backpack is not at all fun. Danielle has been mostly sympathetic, between short bouts of laughter, because she wants first rights on the peeling.

So, Christmas at Puerto Inka. It was fun. Except for the pain.

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