Tag Archives: culture

Lima: The City of Kings

The best thing about this city is the food. We finally found something worth eating – ceviche, the delicious dish that is the star of Peru’s culinary repertoire.

A sample of ceviche.

Wandering along the coast line, stopping to drink wine and eat seafood is a pretty awesome introduction to any new place. We decided to stay in Miraflores, the seaside suburb of Lima, and stopped for lunch at ‘La Mar’, one of Lima’s best cevicherias. Here we were treated to a selection of different ceviche dishes (variations of raw fish, chili and onions marinated in lime juice). Ceviche, where have you been all my life!?

Lima is also the home of the Pisco Sour, a cocktail that is popular along the west coast, and the Lima Sigh, a wonderfully sweet desert. A stop at the Gran Hotel Bolivar, where the Pisco Sour was conceived, is mandatory, and any decent restaurant around the central squares will spoil you with a Lima Sigh.

We weren’t in Lima for long, but we did manage to catch up with old and new friends, as well as wander around the shops and city streets. A referral put us onto a city tour bus, which we thought was the easiest and cheapest way to get around and see the sights all in one afternoon.

We went through the old squares in the center of town and saw the glamorous buildings from the colonial era, which still look magnificent.

The tour finished at the Museo Larco, which has one of the most incredible collections of Inca art anywhere in the world. The museum is a beautiful building of white washed walls and red flowers. Established in 1926, the Museo Larco hosts a vast collection of around 45,000 artifacts excavated from northern, central and southern Peru.

Photo taken from the courtyard.

Peru is one of the six cradles of civilization and the museum exhibits cover the many tribes that rose and fell over the last 5,000 years. Over time it is possible to see how the art became more sophisticated and how the different cultures influenced each other. The apex of this art is represented by the Incas, who amalgamated all of these influences as the empire spread across Peru.

We learnt a lot from the visit, and as it happens many of the best pieces from Cusco’s Museo de Art Pre-Colombino are on loan from this museum. We were so impressed with the collection that we bought a photographic book published by Museo Larco (which Mark used to design a tattoo on his back).

Lima itself was rather grey due to a haze that hangs over the city from April to November. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we were getting travel weary and were keen for some sunny beach time. So we boarded a dreadful overnight bus and escaped to the surfer’s paradise of Mancora!

The hazy shades of Lima.

 

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Machu Picchu

Llama photo bomb!

Machu Picchu. You have seen it all before. But don’t be put off by the touristy cliché, it is amazing, and it is one of the world’s top tourist destinations for a reason!

Seeing the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was something we had been looking forward to for years and we were really excited about it, despite aforementioned food poisoning. Everyone at our hostel seemed keen to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. However, we had read that the mountains are usually covered in a morning mist that blocks out the sun, so we decided to sleep in to a more respectable time.

Arriving at the top of the mountain, looking down to the Urubumba River.

It is possible to hike to the entrance from Aguas Calientes but as we weren’t feeling well we decided to just catch a bus up. This was cheap and easy and got us to the entrance to Machu Picchu at around 9am.

When we arrived it felt like we were lining up to enter a theme park, but the lines moved quickly despite the hundreds of people pouring off buses all at the same time. After a quick bag check we had our passports stamped and we were on our way!

First glimpse of Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu.

This was actually a perfect time to arrive, as the mist was lifting and the ruins were starting to show us their full glory. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After having seen thousands of images of Machu Picchu over the years, we were worried that we might be underwhelmed. However, this was definitely not the case as the sheer scale and location of the ruins were breathtaking!

We wandered around for a while, took a few photos, and pinched ourselves. Hikers started to appear covered in mud from multi-day treks, and even though that would have been an incredible way to arrive, we were just stoked that we made it at all!

Machu Picchu: morning and afternoon.

Unfortunately we didn’t book our tickets in time to hike up Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins – numbers are limited to 400 people per day and they sell out quickly). We were however able to get tickets to hike up the higher peak, Mount Machu Picchu, which overlooks the postcard view. The mountain is ridiculously steep, and combined with altitude and remnants of food poisoning, pretty tough! The last part was more like rock climbing than hiking but the views over the valley were spectacular and gave us a good idea of the layout of the ruins as well.

The steep climb up Mount Machu Picchu.

Looking down over the ruins from Mount Machu Picchu.

Mount Machu Picchu.

We brought our own food and had lunch on a grassy terrace overlooking the ruins. The mist had slowly cleared and we had perfect views of the whole valley. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins with our guidebook in hand, feeling like explorers. Every now and then we latched on to a tour group to hear their explanation of certain sites, but it was pretty easy to get around and by 3pm most people had left. One of the best tips we had was to stay two nights in Aguas Calientes so that we didn’t have to rush off to catch a train back to Cusco. That was great because it meant that we had access to the ruins without being surrounded by hundreds of people, and it was easy to just catch a bus back down the hill when everything shut at 5pm.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon, minus hoards of tourists.

Just before we left we went on another walk to see the Inca Bridge, which is precariously placed on the side of a cliff. It is no longer possible to get too close (a tourist died trying) but it's still interesting to see how they would have controlled these access points as a security mechanism.

Inca Bridge at one of the entrances to Machu Picchu.

After a long day we headed back to the hostel, quickly got changed, and wandered up to the thermal springs to soak our tired bodies in warm pools. The complex was really nice and it was the perfect way to finish off the day!

 


Horseriding Through Inca Ruins

Getting sick while travelling is never fun. We were struck down with a combination of the flu and food poisoning, and were forced to lie low in Cusco for a few days feeling sorry for ourselves. Luckily we were staying in a really beautiful old colonial building near the main plaza (Ecopackers Hostel), which had a great TV room full of lounges and beanbags so we didn’t do much apart from rest there.

When we started to feel better we felt like we needed to see a few things in one go so we were pretty happy to find a half-day horseriding tour that goes to all the main archaeological sites around Cusco. This was a quick and easy way to tick a few things off the list ($35 booked through the hostel) while having a bit of fun riding horses past some beautiful scenery.

Scenery around Cusco.

Our fifth horse ride in South America was lovely. It was a nice change to ride a horse that wasn’t starving or looking like it would collapse underneath us!

We started by driving out to pick up the horses and rode in a loop to visit the Qenko ruins, the Salapunco moon temple, the fortress of Puca Pucara, and the water temple of Tambomachay. We finished up the tour with a quick visit to the famous archeological site of Sacsayhuaman before the sun set.

Traditional Inca dress.

Qenko

While not the most impressive of Incan ruins, we were excited because these were the first major ruins we had seen. It looked like a pile of rocks from a distance, but up close you could see that the rocks had been cut and placed there for a specific purpose. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed much of the Incan architecture but it is possible to see that there were huge rock statues of pumas at the entrance to these ruins. There is also a carved stone that apparently casts a shadow of a puma’s head when the sun rises on the winter solstice.

Qenko ruins with what once was a puma statue.

Our guide also pointed out several significant ceremonial sites, including where the Incas performed sacrifices (mostly llamas). One rock had a platform for the sacrifice, with two crevices cut into the base below for blood to drain through. Apparently the Incas used this as a way to tell the future depending on which path the blood flowed down.

Channels cut into the stone for ceremonies.

Salapunco

Not far from Qenko is Salapunco, otherwise known as the Temple of the Moon. Again it just looked like a giant pile of rocks and we wouldn’t have taken much notice if it wasn’t pointed out to us. The entrance inside the cave had snakes carved into it and led to a small chamber. This chamber featured a platform that was lit by a crevice in the roof. Apparently the Incas would perform rituals here when the full moon passed over the rock, casting light into the chamber. You can see where the script writers for Indiana Jones have been geting their ideas!

As we entered the cave we disturbed a group of people who had apparently been meditating in the caves for several days. Cusco and the Sacred Valley attract a lot of spiritual tourists and these temples were no exception!

The Temple of the Moon.

The platform underneath the hole in the roof of the Temple of the Moon.

Puca Pucara

The ruins at Puca Pucara are a collection of stone buildings overlooking a valley. While no one really knows exactly what it was used for, there are theories that it was either a fort or checkpoint along an Inca road leading to Cusco. We do know that the Incas used to tax farmers by demanding a portion of the seasonal yield be donated to the empire. It is likely that Puca Pucara was a site for storing this food and tallying the contributions from neaby provinces.

People may be interested in knowing that the Incas did not write or use paper. Intead, they would send messages using quipu, which recorded information using multiple chords that would feature several knots. These would be interpreted in a similar fashion to morse code and allow basic accounting. Messengers would transport these records across the empire, on foot using a relay system. Apparently the runners were renown for their speed and stamina.

Tambo Machay

We were running out of time if we wanted to make it to Sacsayhuaman before it got dark, so we tied the horses up to a fence and caught a minivan up the hill to the water temple. There are ruins everywhere along the road, with the remains of various temples, lookouts and fortresses scattered throughout the landscape. After walking a short distance up the hill (which is harder than it sounds because of the altitude) we came across the ruins of Tambo Machay. This temple has carefully cut stones that channel fresh water from a spring in the mountain down through the terraces to a fountain. Nice.

Sacsayhuaman

The giant stones used to construct the fortress of Sacsayhuaman have left many people perplexed. The stones at these ruins are so massive that they have caused some theorists to conclude that they must be the work of aliens. Some stones have been discoloured from people touching them after claiming that the rocks have a particular energy that emanates from them – or it could just be that they are in the direct line of daily sunshine, which heats up a massive black surface and generates heat…either way, there is no denying that it would have been a huge undertaking to cut such giant pieces of stone and place them together so perfectly (the largest stone is 8.5m tall and weighs 361 tons). Apart from their size, there are also archways and patterns in the stones such as snakes and llamas.

Giant stones placed together at Sacsayhuaman.

Stones placed in the shape of a llama (looking right).

The Spanish Conquistadores destroyed most of Sacsayhuaman when they were trying to overthrow the last of the Incas, but it is possible to get an impression of how imposing it would have been. Something also impressive about this site is that the zig zag shape of the fortress forms the shape of a puma head, which is connected to Cusco, whose original shape was that of the puma body and legs. Clever!

Sacsayhuaman.

 


The Pisco Museum

So we had heard about this pisco stuff when a mate of ours visited Chile some years ago. However our stint in Chile was pretty short so we were stoked to learn that pisco is also popular in Peru. In fact, the two countries have been arguing for a long time over who invented it first.

Fortunately a couple of entreprenuers have started up a Pisco Museum in Cusco. We were expecting something low key but the museum could be more accurately described as a cocktail bar.

That's a lot of pisco.

A Cholopolitan and an El Majeño.

There's all sorts of information on how pisco is made but we recommend having a go at the degustation. There were several options, we went with a tasting of four bottles. To our surprise this came with a talk from one of the staff (cheers Sergio!), who walked us through how the various varieties are made. The service was excellent and it was a lot of fun.

The bottles in the degustation have been hand picked by the museum owners. That must have been quite a task as there are many, many producers.

In brief, there's a bunch of different varieties, distinguished by whether the grapes are red or white. Production involves a staged distillation process that is periodically 'paused' to control fermentation of the grapes, resulting in a sharp, crisp product at the end. Would love to say more but pisco consumption got in the way of note taking…

Here's the low down on the tastings. The type of pisco is listed after the name of the producer.

  • Don Zacarias, Quebranta (no date). Made in Lima. Strong sharp taste. Fruity. Pronounced, lingering aftertaste.
  • Ferreyros Acholado, Cosecha (2011). A mix of red and white grapes. Smoother, more body to it, easier to drink. No pronounced aftertaste. Made in Ica.
  • Estirpe Peruana, Puro Moscatel (2008). A bit sharp but not as much as the Don Zacarias. A mid-step between the two; still an aftertaste but not as strong, still a bit smooth but not as smooth as the Ferrey. Tasted better on the second mouthful.
  • Don Amadeo, Torontel (2012). Tastes a bit like a muscat. Made in Lima. Fruity, not too sharp with a strong aroma. Added lime, became refreshing and easier to drink.

This experience kickstarted a whole lotta pisco concumption while we were in Peru. We mostly stuck to Pisco Sours, the national cocktail. It originated in Lima and Mark actually visited one of the hotels that helped make it popular, the Gran Bolivar Hotel. The drink uses quebranta pisco and is mixed with egg whites, limes and sugar syrup. As it settles the egg whites seperate from the mix resulting in a layered cocktail. Very refreshing on a hot day.

We've had a few goes at making them with mixed results. It is probably a good thing that they aren't easy to replicate, best to go straight to Peru!

Here's a picture of bacon with chocolate sauce. It was delicious. Get on to that. Now.

Tasty snack from the museum.

 


Cusco

Cusco (also spelt Cuzco and Qosqo) is essentially base camp for anyone looking to explore the heart of the Inca empire. A picturesque World Heritage Site, it hosts both impressive inca ruins and cobbled colonial suburbs. It is rich in history and one could spend a comfortable week exploring the town and it's immediate surroundings.

The Cathedral, Plaza de Armas.

The city centres around Plaza de Armas, an impressive square flanked by old colonial shop fronts and two impressive churches, the Cathedral and the Jesuit's Church. The former is a must visit. The Cathedral features a massive basilica with ornate wooden carvings, shrines and great stone pillars. The Cathedral hosts the remains of Gasilasco de la Vega, the Spanish chronicler of the Incas, and you will also see the famous Last Supper painting with a slight twist – roast guinea pig has been added to the table.

Top: The Cathedral at left and the Jesuit's Church on the right. Bottom: Shops overlooking Plaza de Armas.

Plaza de Armas at night.

The Jesuit's Church.

Plazoleta de San Blas.

Although the Spanish did their best to tear down most buildings of significance to the Incas, it is still possible to seethe remains of the Qorikancha, the Inca's principle Temple of the Sun. Garcilasco de la Vega reports that the Temple was an awesome site to behold, with the inner chambers lined wall to ceiling with plates of gold. Apparently each Inca emperor competed with his predecessor to make the Temple more impressive. At one point it featured a garden of silver and gold plant sculptures and hosted a wall size golden image of the sun.

Of course Pizarro and his thugs raided this with rabid glee, melting down the metals and using the gold to build their fortunes and that of the Spanish empire. To help further break the spirit of the Incas the Spanish built a church and convent on the site. Today only the foundations remain.

The site of the Qoricancha. There is a museum underneath the lawn in the foreground.

While we were there several parades popped up in Plaza de Armas. They wore elaborate costumes and played drums and wind instruments. We never fully understood why so many were staged or by whom, but they were fun to watch and proof of South America's love of festivals.

Of course any visit to Peru requires a tasting of guinea pig. This animal has been cherished as a food source since before the Conquistadores so Mark was keen to give it a go. Some friends of ours were also in town so we met up with them at a locally recommended restaurant.

Roast coy with stuffed pepper and spaghetti.

The meat was tasty, sort of a cross between mutton bird and lamb. Mark enjoyed it but of course Saskia abstained!

Cusco was good fun, the architecture is fantastic and there is a lot to see with many museums, restaurants and shops. This is a good place to buy alpaca textiles that would be considered fashionable back home, just be prepared to pay a higher price for it. There is also a lot of art for sale, we recommend stopping by at the Puna shop for music, graphic art and books (we bought several cds, including a fusion of electronica and cumbia by Dengue! Dengue! Dengue!).

 


On the Incas

Equatable with the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas made a significant impact during their empire's brief reign. They were the apex of Precolombian civilisation on South America's West Coast and Cusco was the heart of their empire.

Cusco remains to be a highlight of the trip. We were so excited to be there, we'd read so much about the Incas and we were keen to go deep. We spent two weeks in and around Cusco exploring ruins, visiting museums, learning about the culture and planning our trips. The fact that we had friends in the city at the same time just added to the buzz.

But before we get into the adventures some may appreciate a bit of background on the Incas. This was important for us because, although Saskia had always wanted to visit, I (Mark) had always viewed it with some skepticism. Basically I tend to approach popular spots such as this with wariness – does it really deserve to be popular or does everyone head there simply because it's the done thing? So one of the first things we did when we arrived in South America was buy a couple of books on the Incas to work out why Machu Picchu is important and find our own reasons to go there.

Statues of the Incas great ancestors, Manco Capac and his sister Mama Ocllo. They stand at the base of Escalera del Inca on Isla del Sol.

The Rise of an Empire

According to Inca mythology the first Incas came to Cusco from Isla del Sol. This creation theory is important because the island was considered by many tribes to be the origin of the sun god and therefore the Incas were the sun god's descendants.

Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas, Cusco.

The general consensus, however, is that the first Incas lived in the region around Cusco. Their quest for empire was triggered by an unsuccessful invasion from a neighbouring tribe, the Chanca, in 1438 AD. The Incas' unlikely victory inspired a belief that they were supported by the gods and a new visionary leader, the famous Pachacutec, came to power.

Pachacutec drove the Incas to build an empire, which would be called Tawantinsuyu, with Cusco as its capital. They first expanded south into Bolivia and his son, Tupac Inca pushed north into Ecuador. Through a mix of subjugation and alliances the Incas were able to extend their empire as far south as Santiago and as far north as Quito. They cleverly maintained power through forced relocation of tribes and the use of Inca tribesmen to act as governors in conquered territories. In this way they reduced the risk of rebellion and created a reigning elite based on Inca bloodlines.

To borrow a quote, “within a generation the Incas had grown from an anonymous small tribe of the Cusco valley to become the dominant force in the Andes” (A. Stewart, 2011).

Inca Sites and Network Theory

Pachacutec's vision was of a giant network of sacred centres connected by a system of roads. At each of these sacred centres he constructed large towns or fortresses. These served as centres of worship, commerce and symbols of dominance for the empire.

He recruited talented masons and constructed the gold plated sun temple Qorikancha and the fortress Sacsahuaman. He has also been attributed with building Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.

Example of Inca stonework. No mortar is used.

His stone road network, the Capac Ñan, is estimated to have covered up to 30,000 kilometres, or 20,000 miles. The famous Inca Trail is actually part of this network but you will find restored sections of road in many parts of the Andes.

We will talk about this a bit more in latter posts but what is really impressive is the alignments between the towns, sacred geological landmarks and winter and summer solstice lines. Pachacutec was a genius who designed an empire that had an intimate relationship with nature and the gods.



Art and Religion

Prior to the Inca assumption of power several small civilisations existed along the coast and the Andes. These cultures, which go back over 5,000 years, developed art and religious concepts that were eventually adopted by the Incas.

Ceramic pot depicting the head of someone significant.

The primary and enduring concept was that the world was divided into three realms: the subterranean, the earth and the heavens. Each of these had deities ascribed to them in the form of the serpent (subterranean), the feline (earth) and the bird of prey (heavens).

Religious beliefs were also linked to nature with worship of the sun and water and a reverence for the elements. These civilisations also conducted ceremonies and sacrifices (mostly llamas but also people) that aimed to appease the gods and ensure the seasons were favourable and the land produced bountiful crops.

Perhaps the most well known aspect of Inca art was their obsession with gold and silver. The stories from the Conquistadores are hard to believe but the Incas decorated their temples with extravagant displays of gold. The Qorikancha, their main sun temple, was apparently a marvel to behold and featured a garden of plants sculptured out of silver and gold. The lords and nobles also used metal adornments such as hats, ear plugs, nose rings, necklaces and arm bands. Cusco must have been an amazing place before it was lost.

The Conquistadores

Many will be familiar with this story so I will keep it brief. In 1527 AD the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish 'entrepreneurs' first came into contact with the Incas. The meeting was relatively minor and it was not until 1532 that Pizarro was able to meet with an Inca of high nobility. By this time the Inca empire had reached its zenith and was in decline. The empire had been torn apart by the rival sons of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, grandson of Pachacutec, who had died of a pestilence introduced from Europe (smallpox). The war and disease had left the empire weakened and Pizarro saw an opportunity.

The heads of war clubs used by the Incas.

A meeting was arranged with the victorious Atahualpa in Cajamarca, northern Peru. It was here that Pizarro and his company of 168 men met with Atahualpa's army of 80,000. Reports state that the Spaniards were not prepared for such a large, well organised army, and spent their first night planning how to survive the next day. Astonishingly, they decided to try and ambush the emperor and hold him to ransom. They had camped inside the town of Cajamarca, which had been deserted. Pizarro ordered his soldiers inside the surrounding buildings and to wait for the order to attack. The Sapa Inca was lured into the central plaza in the belief that the Spaniards could be easily dominated. The trap was sprung. Using cannons, rifles and swords, the Spaniards massacred Atahualpa's retinue and took him hostage.

Pizarro's plan worked and he was rewarded with a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver as ransom. Buoyed by this victory, Pizarro slaughtered his captive and began the shockingly rapid and ambitious destruction of an empire and its culture.

By 1572 the Incas had effectively been subjugated, their gold and silver plundered, their cities burned and religious sites desecrated.

Fortunately the Spanish did not completely erase all trace of the Incas' great accomplishments. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered and are held in museums in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Many ruins have been excavated and much of the stone work and aqueducts have been preserved.

Recommended Reading

We had a great time exploring the area and it really helped to have read a bit about the Incas beforehand. There is so much more going on than Machu Picchu, and even if time restricts you to that site alone, these books will give you a better understanding of its design.

Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, 2011. An excellent recounting of Hiram Bingham's discovery of Machu Picchu. Sheds new light on the design of the site and is an indispensable guide to the Incas.

Kim Macquarrie, The Last Days of the Incas, 2007. In-depth, easy to read narrative on the conquest of the Incas. Kim has the talent of making history feel real.

Alexander Stewart, The Inca Trail: Cusco and Machu Picchu (Trail Blazer Guide), 2011. Excellent guidebook that provides hiking information on the many significant Inca sites around Cusco. Also provides great maps of the ruins, which meant that we didn't need to hire guides. A must for independent hiking.

 


The Hit List: Cusco and Surrounds

We thought it might be helpful to share our list of places we wanted to visit in and around Cusco. This list was based on reading both Mark Adam's Turn Right at Machu Picchu and Lonely Planet's dedicated 2013 chapter on Cusco.

Cusco City

  • The Museum of Precolombian Art
  • The Inca Museum
  • The Pisco Museum
  • The Cathedral
  • The Cusco Planetarium
  • Qorikancha
  • Sacsayhuaman

Sacred Valley

  • Pisac
  • Ollantaytambo

Huancacalle/Vilcabamba

  • Vitcos*
  • Yurac Rumi*
  • Espiritu Pampa*

Machu Picchu

  • Llactapata*
  • The intihuatana shrine near the hydroelectric station
  • Machu Picchu

Others

  • Choquequirao*

It was an ambitious list but it was only a wish list. Those marked with an asterix were places we were unable to reach. We'll still cover them to explain why they are significant.

 

 


Isla del Sol

We ended our time on Bolivia with a visit to Isla del Sol, the Inca's mythical birth place of the sun and the god Varacocha. It is from here that the first Incas are said to have journeyed to Cusco to found the Inca empire.

The island can be found in Lake Titicaca, the largest high altitude lake in the world. To get there we took a boat from Copacobana, a small town on the eastern edge of the lake.

This was our first time getting up close with a significant Inca site so we were pretty excited. We opted to stay a night on the island to catch the sun set and sun rise, which as you can see above turned out to be a great idea.

Yumani Village, Isla del Sol.

Things got off to a comical start. We stayed at Yumani Village, one of two main drop off points on the island (the other is Cha'llapampa). Our hostel was on a ridge but we hadn't realised how steep the hike up would be…

Old Inca terraces used for agriculture.

At 3,808 metres altitude the hike, with all our bags, had zero appeal. We retreated to a nearby café and tried to work out what to do. Saskia in particular has a hard time with altitude and was a little distressed.

As we waited and took in the view we saw several herds of donkeys being shepherded down the slopes. We found out that the donkeys carry supplies up to the restaurants on the ridge…the answer to our problems! So, we paid six dollars for two donkeys and headed up the ridge with our pack animals in tow.

Isla del Sol features several sets of ruins and minor sites but the two main attractions are arguably the terracing and stairs at Yumani and the Chincana complex to the north. These sites are linked by a picturesque half day walk along the island's ridge line, which we tackled the next day.

The stairs, known as Escalera del Inca,.

We really enjoyed the walk, although the thin air made minor slopes feel like hills! The views are sensational. It actually looks remarkably similar to the Taupo region in New Zealand and Mark had to keep reminding himself that this was a serious Inca site.

A small village on the ridge line.

Looking south towards Copacobana.

Piles of stones. In the background you can see the Andes, which pass on the east.

The big draw for Chilcana is the sacred rock, the site where the sun is meant to have emerged. The site also contains a small ceremonial plaza and dramatic ruins that once housed the priests and caretakers of the rock.

To be completely honest we thought the rock itself was a disappointment. We walked straight past it several times and it was only through deduction that we worked out which one it was. They really need to put signs in there, but regardless we couldn't understand why that piece of the landscape was singled out.

What's the big deal?

Opposite the rock is a small patch of cleared ground with a ceremonial table. Not sure whether the area has been restored but that was slightly more interesting.

The ruins a few metres north were far more interesting. They are a small, labyrinthine complex that provided accommodation and food storage for the priests. Perched on the edge of the hill, they look down onto a tranquil beach and provide a good view of the lake.

Note the wall insets in the left. These are actually very common in Inca architecture and apparently are where religious artefacts would be placed, as well as mummies.

After a bit of a rest here we headed down to Cha'llapampa to catch a boat back to Yumani. It's a nice spot with am interesting museum. Apparently there's an underwater village just north of the island. Not sure how old it is but they've recovered pots etc and put them in the museum. Worth a visit while you wait for the boat.

Kids pretending to go fishing.

One thing we really loved were the boats made out of reeds. They look like old viking boats. The locals on the Peruvian side actually make islands out of the reeds as well as boats. We considered paying them a visit but heard the area has become heavily commercialised, so we skipped it and headed to Cusco instead.

And so ends our trip to Bolivia. We have one more dispatch on Death Road but it will take awhile to pull together (Mark has an hour of footage). All in all we really enjoyed our five weeks in Bolivia. The altitude got the best of us in the end but it was definitely worth the time. If pushed for time make beelines for Rurrenabaque and Sucre, they are great places to stay and offer plenty to do in the region. Don't linger in La Paz, it's not worth it!

The next posts will be a series on the Incas, including trips to ruins, museums and general stuff we learnt. Will mark them all with the 'Inca' tag so that they are easy to pull up for those interested. Looking forward to going back over the material.

As always thanks for reading. We've clocked up over 450 subscribers, which is both flattering and humbling. We get a real buzz looking at which countries our readers are based in, very cool! This blog has exceeded our expectations and we hope everyone else is enjoying this as much as we are.

Kind regards,

Mark and Saskia.

 


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Bullfighting)

Part of the festival celebrations involved bull taunting – a cross between a rodeo and a bull fight. We sat in a makeshift stadium (that looked like it would fall over in a strong gust of wind) and watched with a mix of awe and horror as the event unfolded. It was a total free for all on the field. Most of the guys were drunk, fighting each other to ride the bulls, only to fall off and get trampled. Several people were injured, some seriously. There was no security, no management or control. The treatment of the bull was completely cruel for the frightened animals. The only saving grace was that the bulls were not killed like they are in Spain, and at least some of the bulls evened the score.

As the afternoon progressed and the alcohol sank in, the bull fighting degenerated and more and more people started getting injured. There were so many people on the field that the bulls had no option but to plough into someone who was too drunk to get out of the way fast enough.

There was one old guy, affectionately known by us as Stumbles the Drunk, who could hardly stand and spent his time zigzagging across the arena, occasionally waving his shirt in the general direction of the bull. He didn't seem to know where he was and occasionally looked up at the crowd with confusion. We knew this wouldn't end well. Sure enough, a bull ran straight for him, he froze and they head butted each other. Poor old Stumbles ended up unconscious on the ground and was carried off by his arms and legs to a waiting ambulance.

Stumbles the Drunk, the people's champion.

The more drunk they got, the more the guys had to show off how macho they were. Shirts came off, insults were fired, people clawed at each other to get onto the bull first and pulled the slow ones off. Then they started actually throwing punches, which involved crowds of people joining in and quickly forgetting about the bull running loose behind them. All chaos broke loose when a second bull came free of its tether and ran into the crowd!

Macho men.

Fight!

Towards the end of the afternoon a bull ran at the fence line where men where clinging to the side hoping to avoid contact. Unfortunately, one guy was punctured in the stomach by the bull horns, thrown in the air and then fell to the ground. A crowd surrounded him and we couldn't see what was happening until they tried to carry him to the edge of the field. Only then did we see a pile of intestines lying on his bare abdomen. He was quickly put in an ambulance and taken to Trinidad (3 hours away). We asked around the next day to see what had come of him. One person said that they managed to put his intestines back inside him and sew him up, but another said that they thought he had died. We never found out for sure.

After this incident, people began to lose interest and the general drunken behaviour took over from the revelry of the earlier celebrations. The bullfighting was wrapped up, followed by more parties late into the night. Some people came off second best but to be honest, we didn't feel too sorry for them after the way they were tormenting the bulls. The safety standards are not what you expect elsewhere, but that's Bolivia in a nutshell!

Chaos on the field.

 


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Fireworks)

At night the party really kicked off. The plaza was packed and bands competed with each other across the streets.

The action was centred on the church, where Achus were running through the crowd with fireworks spinning on their hats. The sky was also being lit up by fireworks, which were paid for by two wealthy families that compete with each other every festival.

It was great fun being there. There were dangers though – people were throwing small fireworks into the crowd. This, along with the Achus, was causing chaos as people scattered in all directions. At one point a small firework barely missed a child in a tree but instead hit the father in the face. Amazingly he wasn't hurt and despite this experience he left his child sitting exposed in the tree!

We left around midnight but the fiesta kicked on to around 4:00 am. Some people were still drinking the next morning and others had passed out on the sidewalk. This was easy to ignore though and the bands kept a good vibe going the next day.

Here's a recording of two songs played by the guys in the photo below.