Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Country Review: Peru

Dates there: 6th December 2013 to 4th January 2014, 20th to 24th February 2014: 35 days

Peru's Wonders: Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines

Also visited: Winay Wayna, Saksayhuaman, Arequipa Cathedral

On the Longlist: Ollantaytambo, Kuelap, Moray, Choquequirao, Chan Chan

Danielle was very impressed. Usually, she is regarded as more petite than most, but in Peru she became a giant. The average height of a Peruvian woman is 4 foot 11½ inches (151cm) but remember, this is just the average. Many are much less. If you're short in stature and are fed up of feeling that way, go to Peru.

What Peru lacks in the height of its citizens, it makes up for with its Wonders. Peru is stuffed full of long lost civilisations, with mysterious ruined cities scattered across its high mountains, its plateaus, its deep valleys, and even as far as its beaches. It is fantastic. We spent five weeks and barely scraped the surface. While these days, Peru is a poor country that keeps a pretty low profile (it's only won four medals ever in the Olympics and hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1982), for well over a thousand years it was a beacon of civilisation. Or civilisations, plural. It's covered in them. And some of them left pretty impressive stuff.

The Incas are the best known, by some measure. We kickstarted our travels in Cuzco, once upon a time the Inca capital, before the Spanish strolled into town and tore it all down. It remains an attractive city, colonial in style, based around a central square filled with shoe-shine boys and tourist cafes.A grubby but grand cathedral overlooks it all. At 3400 metres, it is high (the altitude of the city, that is, not the cathedral. A 3400-metre-tall cathedral would be quite something). Two-and-a-half times the height of Scotland's highest mountain, Cuzco is wedged in the dip between some higher hills, and is a literally breathless place to walk around. Except for when stuffed into an aeroplane, I'd never been so high up before, and for some days Danielle and I found ourselves quite out of breath, though we deftly dodged the worst that altitude sickness is known to bring. We took it easy, just strolling around town, and adapted after a few days.

The Incas liked to build with large blocks of variably-sized stone, which they fitted together with exquisite precision like a big boy's jigsaw. In Cuzco itself, this is occasionally still evident in some buildings where the Spanish reused the stone of the Inca structures they destroyed, but a climb into the hills has better examples. Saksayhuaman is the most notable nearby one. It's easy to remember - as soon as someone tells you it sounds like "sexy woman" the name will be safely lodged in your mind. Saksayhuaman... yeah, it's ok. It's so ruined, you really need to use your imagination, though the irregularly shaped and massive blocks are still impressive. We spent a very, very rainy day wandering down from the higher Inca site of Tambomachay, through some more ruins, and finished in Saksayhuaman, utterly drenched despite our ludicrous ponchos, but with a sense of satisfaction.

All of this is a set up for the Inca Trail. The Inca Trail isn't just a wander along a 500-year-old stone path, through the mountains. It is this, of course, but to our surprise it's also an engrossing archaeological trek past an amazing host of Inca ruins.

The best, naturally, is the finale of Machu Picchu, but just before that the ruins of Winay Wayna would be a worthwhile visit in their own right. They are named after the 15th Century royal duo, Queen Winnie and King Wayne, hence the name, and combine the Inca love for steep mountain terraces with their equal love for forgetting to put roofs on their buildings. Oh, if only they'd built better roofs. Maybe they'd still be around today.

I'll forgive them though. Because the mountaintop retreat Machu Picchu truly lived up to the hype. Currently at number 3 on my list, I think it's safe to say it's one of the world's Seven Wonders. Even without roofs.

Ok, enough of the Incas. After 14 days in Cuzco and the Inca Trail, we moved onto to another civilisation, the Nazca. The modern day town of Nazca is a fully uninspiring dusty desert town, with that overpowering sense that desert towns have that nothing much at all is happening. Because it isn't. Even though the tacky main square with its lets-pretend colonial church was full of people and bustle, it still felt like nothing much at all happening. Being the desert, it was bright and sunny, but far too hot to sit back and relax. We were in nowhere. But we weren't in Nazca to sample its fine pleasures, we were there for Peru's other Wonder - the Nazca Lines.

Yeah, they're just a bunch of lines drawn in the desert. And a few pictures too.

The Nazca Lines are very intriguing, but they're not really much of a spectacle. Danielle was notably less impressed than me, especially with the flight that takes you over the desert so that you can see the lines from above if you look really, really closely. I'm happy I went to Nazca, but I can't imagine wanting to return.

Christmas followed, and we spent it at a beach resort at a place called Puerto Inka. Yes, more Incas. This was where they went on holiday, to get some sand and sea and a break from the 3400-metre-plus altitudes. Actually, it was a small coastal trading town, now totally ruined, situated amidst some astonishingly alien-like rocky scenery. Going for a walk was like being on the set of Star Trek, the original one before they had a budget. Making it more freaky were the many... well, it looked like tombs. Open mass graves. With bones. Human bones?

The resort was basic, but lovely, and very serene until a busful of "adventure" travellers turned up. God, I hate these kind of people. Fortunately, the adventure travellers were too scared to venture more than 20 metres from their bus, so they didn't spoil our Christmas peace.

I also managed to get burned. It turns out that Peru during the day isn't just hot, but the sun has a special extra power. Or maybe it's the Incas.

Red raw and with my clothes sticking to my skin, Puerto Inka was followed by Arequipa. Overlooked by a fantastic mountain-shaped mountain - I'm talking a proper, classic mountain shape, like all mountains should be - Arequipa was a unexpected pleasure. We spent over a week there which was probably a little too long, but the centre was a pretty place to hang around in, and there were plenty of pleasant bars and cafes catering to obvious tourists like us. At the heart of the city, facing the main square, is Arequipa Cathedral. It might not be the best cathedral in the world, but it's still a handsome and impressive cathedral, and a great feature of a great city.

Peru ended with an overnight stay in Puno. Many people use Puno as a launchpad for the supposed delights of Lake Titicaca, at the shore of which it rests. We didn't. It sounded eminently awkward, moving from island to island, politely declining dead-eyed locals' efforts to sell you bits of carved wood or whatever, and perhaps having an uncomfortable authentic homestay with some other bored locals. I think Lake Titicaca might have been fun about a hundred years ago, but these days it sounds like a traveller-trap. I am supremely grateful that Danielle was in full agreement with this and so didn't make me go. She could have, you know. I made her go and see all these Wonders everywhere, including making her almost sick on the Nazca flight, so she had the right to suggest places she fancied. Which is why we followed up Peru with Bolivia (I'd probably have gone straight down to Chile). A good decision, as it turned out.

In fact, Peru didn't quite end with Puno, because two months later we passed through Lima for a couple of days, en route from Rio to Los Angeles. The capital of Peru, it's a dismal letdown. A vast sprawl of noise and chaos with only small pockets of minor charm, like small currants in a vast stale bun. The people seemed a little taller too. The only highlight was staying in a hostel reputedly built by Gustave Eiffel, the man who built... oh, I forget. I'm sure he's on Wikipedia though.

Peru has plenty of other amazing sights. Among them are the ruins of Ollantaytambo. We passed through the town on our way to the Inca Trail, although we didn't have time to visit it. They are Inca and probably not essential, but look fairly interesting.

I also know that there are loads of other ruins in the general area, and I could very easily bolster my Longlist with many more. After all, Winay Wayna barely ever gets a mention, and it's great. It's the tip of the iceberg. A very quick online search, as it happens, has just reminded me of two more places - Moray and Choquequirao.

And in the north of the country - we only ever ventured into the southern part - Peru also has Kuelap, which is nothing to do with the Incas and which the Lonely Planet describes very positively, as pretty much second only to Machu Picchu. I'd love to go back to Peru one day and see it.

And just in case you want even more ruins, there's Chan Chan, yet another ruined city from yet another lost civilisation.

We had a great time in Peru. The sights are interesting, the beer and cocktails are cheap. It has Pisco Sours, which quickly became one of my favourite cocktails ever. We ate a guinea pig (in a restaurant, not wild). It's a poor, shabby country, but a vibrant one too. It is a country with depth. And small people. What more could you ask?

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