Thursday, 23 June 2011

Goodbye to Lima...and on to the Incan capital!

Hello everyone! We're now in the ancient Incan capital city of Cusco, in the Andes, and it's beautiful here. But before I tell you all about it, I still need to fill you in on our final days in Lima at the Karikuy project. In particular, we paid a visit during our last weekend to the San Francisco Monastery and catacombs, right in the centre of Lima. It was built in the 1600s, and the first thing you notice about it is how ornate it is. There are carvings and paintings covering every surface, including one huge painting of a Peruvian version of the Last Supper scene, in which the disciples are dining on Peruvian dishes such as 'cuy' (guinea pig) and spicy rocoto peppers. My favourite room of the monastery has to be the famous library, which is lined with dark wooden shelves and spiral staircases leading up to second-level walkways with thousands of books dating back to the 1400s. Here is the outside of the monastery:

But the visit got really exciting with a trip underground into the somewhat grisly catacombs. These crypts contain the remains of over 25,000 burials (although this is an estimation since it has not been completely excavated). The catacombs were used up until the early 19th century, when their use was banned in an effort to stop the spread of epidemics. The catacombs have several sections: first the bodies were stacked on top of one another in one area and covered in lime to reduce odour and disease. Aftre they had decomposed, the bones were then moved to an ossuary, where they were stacked more compactly (I don't envy the people who had that job). In these catacombs, the bones were (rather creepily) arranged in concentric circles in sunken wells which served as ossuaries, and some skulls were hung from the walls. There was a remarkable equality in all this: people from all walks of life were buried here, rich and poor, from servants to monks, all piled in together. Walking through the dark catacombs with their low ceilings, there were so many skulls and bones everywhere that it was hard to take in that these were all people from centuries ago.

An ossuary well full of remains. We were told that the bones in this one were ten metres deep:

The centre of Lima is full of beautiful colonial architecture, which is a nice antidote to the sprawling grey of most of the city. Here is the parliament building:

Another view of the main square:

The above picture also gives a good indication of the weather most days in Lima. It is winter here at the moment, but also Lima has a sort of microclimate of its own, so that it is often overcast and grey here when elsewhere in Peru the sun is shining!

Another outing during our last weekend in Lima was for ceviche, which is a famous part of Peruvian cusine. Basically, it's raw fish marinated in lime juice and spices. (Being veggie and also ill at the time, I didn't have any, but Stu assures me it was delicious.) Here is the huge platter the guys shared, with fish, squid, langoustines, oysters and crab, decorated with a celebratory umbrella:

(One thing I won't miss about living in Lima is how hard it is to get anything vegetarian. In the more touristy places in Peru finding veggie food isn't a problem, but we were living in a non-touristy area where meat-free meals were virtually unheard of.)

During our last few days in Lima it was Julio's aunt's 79th birthday. She lives in the flat below us, and all the family came round for a little party. We were lucky enough to be included, and it was lovely to see how important family is in Peruvian life. Most of Julio's family lives within five minutes' walk, and the house was full of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Everyone was fed and there was enough cake to feed everyone twice over!

On our last night in Lima, Julio and the other volunteers surprised Stu and me with a cake of our own:

It says 'Feliz Viaje', which means 'Happy travels'. We really weren't expecting anything and I actually felt a bit tearful about saying goodbye to our friends here.

Here we are with the delicious cake (Kate, me, Julio, Stu and Naysi, Julio's girlfriend):

After a quick internal flight we arrived in Cusco, which was the capital of the Inca empire and is today the jumping-off point for trips to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. But Cusco is much more than just a gateway town; although it is very touristy, it is a beautiful city in its own right. There are beautiful colonial plazas and buildings, and many of the colonial buildings were built by the invading Spanish colonisers on the remains of the Inca buildings they demolished, so the sturdy Inca stone walls are still very clear. It´s very hilly, and our hostel is up a steep cobbled alleyway that gets you a bit out of breath to walk up in the thin air (Cusco is at about 3400m altitude).

Our street in Cusco. You can see Cusco´s rainbow flag here (not to be confused with the Pride rainbow flag):

Murals in Cusco´s streets:

We chose a great time of year to visit Cusco, since June is a month of celebrations. The week we arrived there was the Corpus Christi Catholic festival for a couple of days, followed on the 25th June by the Inca winter solstice festival, Inti Raymi. And the week after we leave marks 100 years since Machu Picchu was ´discovered´ by American explorer Hiram Bingham and made known to the wider world. So we arrived straight into a week of parades, brass bands in the streets, decorations, dancing and all manner of festivities. (Actually, as I write this now a parade is going past this internet cafe with loads of folks in costume playing drums and panpipes.) Our hostel has a lovely roof terrace with a great view of the main Plaza, but we also headed down into the mayhem to have a closer look.

The Plaza de Armas during Corpus Christi, with one of many statues of saints being carried in the foreground, and the cathedral in the background:

On the day of Inti Raymi, we walked up the steep hill behind our hostel to the Incan archeological complex of Sacsayhuaman (which I´m ashamed to say still makes us giggle like teenagers because it is pronounced ´sexywoman´). This is where the main part of the festival takes place in a big square. The festival is a recreation of the traditional Incan winter solstice ceremony, in which the sun god is worshipped. There are a few changes: traditionally a llama is sacrificed and the high priest holds aloft its bloody heart in honour of Pachamama (Mother Earth) - these days this is acted out but the llama isn´t harmed, thank goodness! You can buy tickets for a seat with a close view of the proceedings, but we opted to do as the locals do and sit on the hillside overlooking the complex for free, albeit faraway view. It was a swelteringly sunny day, and we got there a good few hours before it started to bag a spot to sit. As the day wore on it got more and more crowded, as entire families squeezed into any free gaps on the steep rocky hillside. Vendors climbed about selling drinks, hats and snacks. It great to get a taste of this big day out, but it was far from comfy! Finally the festivities started, and dancers in traditional Andean/Incan dress paraded in formation across the square in time to music which blared out out over the speakers.

The procession comes down through the Sacsayhuaman ruins into the main square. In the square was a stone plinth, on which the man portraying the Sapa Inca (which is a great honour) overseas the proceedings:

Our seat on the crowded hillside, looking across to a second crowded hillside:

A taste of the music and dance. The costumes were great, and several of the spectators were in traditional Andean dress too:

Finally Stu and I got so uncomfortably overheated and squished in the crowd that we decided to make a break for the exit. This was actually quite difficult, as we had to climb over everyone else to get out! But we managed it, and headed back down the hill to get a well-deserved ice cream from a street vendor. (The were loads of markets and snack vendors on the walk between the town centre and Sacsayhuaman, including several stalls selling charred-looking guinea pigs on sticks - yum.)

We´ve really enjoyed Cusco, which is a great place to hang out, eat great food, and buy souvenirs. But the real reason we came here was, you guessed it, Machu Picchu. And not just Machu Picchu itself, but the four-day trek along the Inca Trail to get there. But that story is for another post...

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Lima Life

After our adventure in Ica we settled into the routine of working at Karikuy, the volunteer placement we're doing here in Peru. It's run by Julio, who's from Lima but has lived in New York for most of his life. He founded Karikuy (the name means 'to live life with an open heart') a couple of years ago. A couple of days after we got back from our trip to Ica, Julio's friends Sal and Jill left and for a week or so it was just Julio, Ania and myself. The project we're doing involves researching and writing articles for Perupedia, an English-language online database on everything involving Peru. For some examples, check out Ania´s article on an ice mummy (mentioned in our previous blog post) and my article on the Peruvian cocktail, pisco sour! We also write posts on what we've been doing in Peru for the Karikuy blog. You can check it out by clicking here. Of course there will be some overlap with this blog, but you can also read the articles by our fellow volunteers. It's a nice insight into what life is like here!

Talking of which, let me tell you about our time here. We´ve all been living in an upstairs flat in a two-storey building in a neighbourhood or barrio called Planeta in Lima. Ania and I have been on the road for nine months now. Mostly we've been moving on from places every two or three days, but every so often we've unpacked our bags and had a base for two or three weeks. Our days at Karikuy have been one of these occasions. Julio's family live downstairs and as part of the programme we have our meals with them three times a day Monday - Saturday. Julio's aunt is quite elderly but she has help from a sweet young girl called Magna, who helps with the cleaning and cooking, making us delicious soups, stews, salads, rice and all sorts of other tasty Peruvian food. They’ve made us feel right at home and I particularly enjoy hearing from Julio’s uncle, who usually has lunch with us. He’s from Venezuela and my Spanish isn’t good enough to catch everything he says – Ania and Julio always translate for me – but he’s really friendly and enthusiastic and it’s always a good thing when you hear him bellowing, ‘HOW ARE YOU?!’ before a meal! It's been great to see real family life in Peru.

The neighbourhood, Planeta, is not touristy at all. I think it’s seen some tough and even dangerous times in its past. And it’s definitely still a little rough around the edges, but that’s all part of its charm. Because it’s not a touristy place, gringos are not exactly a common sight around here, but I feel pretty comfortable and welcomed. Sure, when we walk down the street the girls in our group may get whistled at – it’s annoying, but Ania and I have seen far worse ‘machismo’ (read: ‘sexism’) in South America. The Karikuy house is in a gated street with a security guard on duty at night and of course we have Julio’s two dogs: Killer (who I wouldn’t mess with) and Pisco (who probably isn’t a threat, unless he’s hiding secret powers!). The security’s a comfort and I wouldn’t take a walk down a dark road on my own at night in Planeta, but then I probably wouldn’t in most cities in the world, some parts of London included. On one of our typical daily walks to get some food, some bottled water or visit the lavanderia (launderette), we’ll mostly encounter families with young children playing football in the street or clutching at their mothers’ skirts.

There's also a market nearby and great street food is sold everywhere, including delicious hot churros (long, thin donuts) filled with manjar blanco (a caramel-like substance that's a bit like dulce de leche). We seem to have developed a rather crude way of naming the local street food vendors, using a basic formula of 'what they sell+their sex'. So we have Churro Guy, Cake Lady and Rice-Pudding Woman (yes, that's a real one). Our other favourite is Hamburger Man, who sells… you guessed it: burgers. But these are Peruvian style! Man, they’re good. Choose your burger: beef, chicken or chorizo (pork sausage, the best one in my opinion) and they put it in a bun with chips and salad. We always ask for ‘todas las cremas’: all the sauces! Delicious! They also cost 2 soles, about 45p each!

Julio eyeing up my Hamburger Man burger:

I should also mention a local soft drink that we've really enjoyed here. I'm not a huge fan of fizzy drinks, even at home, so when I first saw Inca Kola I didn't think it'd be my kind of thing. Check out the colour of it (see below)! Julio tells me that in Peru it outsells Coca Cola. This annoyed Coca Cola, who bought it up! Inca Kola has a very artificial bubblegum taste and there's something a bit 'mediciney' about it, but I like it!

Most mornings we play basketball after breakfast (got to work off those burgers!). We usually get an audience of local kids or old people who stop to watch us. Sometimes they even join in! It's great to get some exercise and I'm enjoying playing basketball. I haven't played since I was at secondary school and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy it!

Here's Ania and Julio on the court:

Lima is a big city and it's not really walkable. We've taken a few cabs or combis (cheap minibuses that take you around town) to see the more touristy areas such as Barranco and Miraflores. On our first weekend here Ania and I went into Miraflores to meet up with our friends Sophie and Tim, who we met in Bolivia. They were heading off to the airport to get to Brazil, so after a quick breakfast we said goodbye to them and went exploring. One of the things we've loved about Lima is its proximity to the sea. Being Brightonians, it's weird not seeing the sea all the time, so in Miraflores we sought it out and enjoyed seeing the Pacific. It was quite a gloomy day, but we saw people going surfing and even found an English-style pier!

The view from the cliffs with surfers amongst the waves:

Ania in front of Miraflores pier:

In our second week a third volunteer came to live at the house and that's when we met Kate. Kate is from Boston in the USA and studied archaeology at university, so on our first weekend with her we went to Pachacamac, about an hour's drive south of Lima. Pachacamac is a pre-Incan site that was built in 200AD. Kate's written a Perupedia article about it which you can read by clicking here. Meanwhile, here's some photos from the day:

As you can see, the site is beautiful and there were some striking juxtapositions. Firstly, the location. Pachacamac feels like it was built in a desert and in a way that's true. Sand everywhere and dry-looking brickwork. But glance up and you're right next to the sea, some lush vegetation and the Andes mountains are in the distance!

One of the many views of the sea from Pachacamac:

Secondly, the buildings themselves. As I mentioned above, Pachacamac originated in pre-Incan times, but it was used by the Incas and other civilisations too afterwards. There's even some modern brickwork mixed in with old stuff. The most memorable part of the day however, was making some finds of our own. A site like this in places like the UK or the States would be well looked after, with sections roped off and barriers up. In Peru, it seems they just don't have the money. The three of us walked down a less-travelled path and Kate spotted two pieces of skull (we think they belonged to children), a huge leg bone and some vertebrae: all human! A few moments later we found out we were on a path next to what had been a cemetery. There were vultures circling in the air in the distance too. Spooky! Ania and I were so glad to have Kate with us, we probably wouldn't have spotted the bits of person lying by the side of the road.

Kate and I find a bone:

A human vertebrae:

An enormous leg bone! The girls got up close to this and turned it over, finding a pool of suspect looking liquid. There's skin on there for Pete's sake!

Kate and I examine another find:

The next day we continued our Indiana Jones-style adventure by going to another site in the middle of Miraflores in the city of Lima. Huaca Pucllana is about 1500 years old (again, pre-Incan). We had lunch in a fancy restaurant right by the site before doing a tour with some American tourists (quote of the day from one of them: 'Do alpacas still exist?'. Brilliant.). Again, the site was cool. So strange to see one in the middle of a capital city.

From L-R: Julio, Ania, me and Kate at Huaca Pucllana:

They also had a small wildlife pen at Huaca Pucllana, where we saw some live Peruvian delicacies-in-waiting! Have a look at this:

Another of our favourite areas of Lima is Barranco. We've been there a few times and it has nice bars and places to eat. The buildings and other scenery are just really cool and it's a great place to spend a day or night! We went here during our first weekend in Lima with Julio and his mates from New York. We visited a bar called Ayahuasca - in the top 5 bars in the world apparently - and drank unabashedly pretentious cocktails!

From L-R: Alex, Jill, Julio, Neysi, Ania, me and Sal

The basement at Ayahuasca:

A couple of weeks later we returned to Barranco with Julio and Kate. Here´s us enjoying some desserts. I´ve got passionfruit cheesecake and Ania has a ´suspiro de limeña´, a traditional Peruvian dessert:

One of Barranco´s many beautiful buildings:

Some turkey vultures roosting on top of a house:

Ania enjoying the wonderful views from the Barranco viewpoint:

The final thing I must mention is our trip into
the centre of Lima to visit the Park of the Reserve, home to the world’s largest water fountain park! This aquatic attraction seems to have many names. Julio tells me the locals just call it ‘Parque del Agua’, although it’s also known as ‘El Circuito Mágico del Agua’. In English, this translates into the slightly underwhelming title of the ‘Magical Circuit of Water’, which I think sounds like a descriptive term for the plumbing at Hogwarts. Don’t be fooled by the bland names though, the park is nothing short of spectacular and if you visit Lima I’d say this place should definitely be near the top of your ‘must-see’ list! We headed out on a beautiful, clear night with a bright full moon in the sky. After leaving Karikuy Towers, Julio, myself, Ania, Kate and our newest member of the team, Alfonso, crammed into a taxi and headed into the centre. We were met by another of our volunteers, Jacqui and her friends, at the park.

After paying the more than reasonable entry fee of just four soles each, we went into the park to find the first of many illuminated fountains. For me the star attraction was the appropriately-named Fantasia Fountain (Fuente de la Fantasia): a huge line of water features with different coloured lights that you can see in the photo below. It’s 120 metres long! The show was set to music, mostly dramatic classical pieces which worked perfectly. They also threw in some traditional music from around the world and I think as we approached there was a crazy ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ style song playing too!

Some of the pieces of music were accompanied by a projection of a dancer. I didn’t notice this at first, there’s so much going on after all! Once you notice it though it’s really special!

It felt like our group stood for ages watching the show. It was mesmerising and I just couldn’t stop taking photos! After breaking the spell we went over to the park’s tallest fountain. This one is called ‘Fuente Mágica’ (Magic Fountain). In the centre is a jet which shoots water to a height of over 80m! Certainly not as showy as the previous lot, but the giant jet of water in the middle was pretty cool. Next up was the brilliantly-named ‘Tunnel of Surprises’! As you can see below, this was a red-lit tunnel of water that you could walk through. Our group had some fun taking photos and videos inside and emerged out the other side relatively dry. But for some of us that was about to change…

After the tunnel, we went to one of the park’s interactive pieces. This was a circular maze of fountains that you could run inside. They were on timers that kept changing and there were big jets of water shooting across the middle too. You could attempt to navigate the maze or just try to run to the centre when the water was briefly turned off. I got a bit wet having a go at this, but Ania and Kate did a lot better:

Next we walked through a tunnel (of concrete this time, not water) to the other side of the park, seeing lots of information including how people use water in the modern world and how much of the human body is made up of water; before seeing one final fountain and making our exit.

The night was like the aquatic equivalent of a fireworks display! El Circuito Mágico del Agua is a beautiful tourist attraction that provided us with one of the most memorable nights of our entire nine-month trip so far.

So lots of information there, blog fans. Our time in Lima flew by, and now I see that´s because we crammed so much in! Thanks as always for reading.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Incan mummies and witches, oh my!

Having escaped the protests in Puno, we made it to Arequipa - hurrah! Arequipa is Peru's second-largest city, and the central part that we stayed in was really pretty with huge colonial buildings and plazas filled with pigeons and palm trees. We stayed in a really friendly hostel (Wayra River) that deserves a mention - we could go out and sit on the rooftop outside our room, from which there was a beautiful view of the city and the several snow-capped volcanoes that surround it:
It was also a treat to have come down to a lower altitude, so it was warm and we could put away our woolly hats and gloves for a while! Here is the central square:

We spent a couple of days just recovering in Arequipa which was really nice, but there was one excursion we did that certainly deserves a mention: we visited the 'Museo Santuarios Andinos', a university-run museum, in which there is an exhibition of a 500-year-old Incan mummy that was preserved in the ice at the top of a nearby mountain. She is known as 'Juanita the Ice Maiden', and was a young girl who was sacrificed in the Incan tradition. The exhibition was really fascinating, and included lots of artifacts that she was buried with, such as golden Incan statues (there are not many of these left in the world, as the invading Spanish melted down all the Inca's gold they could find). I wrote a more detailed article on Juanita here for 'Perupedia' (more on this project later).

After a couple of days we headed onwards to Lima (a 15-hour bus journey, but a really comfy one that was probably our best yet - good food, movies, and comfy reclining seats: luxury). We arrived at the apartment that would be our home for the next three and a half weeks, and soon met Julio, who runs the Karikuy project that we would be taking part in. The project involves writing wiki articles for an online database of information on Peru ('Perupedia'), and blogging regularly about stuff we do in Peru. But before we started work in earnest, we went on a two-day trip to Ica, about 5 hours south of Lima. Julio's friends from school in the US were visiting him, and their final couple of days here overlapped with our first few days. We all got on really well, and they invited us along on their final jaunt before they headed home.

Ica is a fairly average city, but just outside it is the oasis town of Huacachina, which is where we stayed. The town has a lake in the middle, and is surrounded by enormous sand dunes on all sides:

The Ica region is also a grape-growing region, where numerous bodegas make wines and pisco, which is a Peruvian grape brandy. We visited a couple of these for a tour and some tasting sessions. At the first bodega, 'El Catador', they have a centuries-old grape press and original clay pots for aging the wines. We learned about the process of making pisco, and then got to try several of the many varieties, along with some locally-made fruit jams. Then we were off to a second bodega, the 'Bodega Lazo', for more tasting. This was an especially characterful bodega, full of historic collectors' items displayed by the owner such as stuffed animals, paintings, pre-Columbian artifacts and Peruvian textiles. The owner poured out the wines and pisco from the ceramic pots using a hollowed out bamboo stick. Here I am trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about:

Now, I should mention that pisco is about 40% alcohol, so after two tasting sessions we were all feeling a bit merry. It seemed like the natural thing to do to buy some more pisco and have a few at the bodega like the locals. Except, we couldn't keep up! The pisco is sold in classy-looking 2-litre plastic bottles - we barely made a dent in it. From left to right, here is Jill, Sal, and Julio next to me:

By this point the sun had set, and we set off on a spooky night-time visit to the nearby village of Cachiche, which is famous for its history of witchcraft. According to legend Doña Julia, Cachiche's first witch, was known to practice good magic, curing and helping villagers with her spells. A nine-year-old boy called Diego materialised out of the darkness to give us an excellent tour of the sights and an account of the legends behind them. The tale that has stuck with me the most is that of the seven-headed palm tree, which we went to see. The story goes that a group of witches chose one among them to be sacrificed in a ritual ceremony. Understandably, the chosen witch disagreed about this, and she ran away towards a nearby palm tree. The other witches chased her, threw a spear, and the palm tree was split into seven parts. The witch leaped from branch to branch, evading her captors, and during the chase one of the seven limbs broke away. The witch made a curse, declaring that if the seventh limb ever grew back, Ica would be destroyed. To this day, the inhabitants of Ica make sure to cut back the seventh limb of the tree (although in 1998 the seventh head started to grow again, and there was serious flooding in the area). The tree is an incredible sight, with many twisting limbs growing out from a single point in the centre at impossible angles:

We also paid a visit to a nearby museum where you can get your fortune told by tarot or by palm reading. I had my palm read, and left assured that I would be around for a long time yet - hurrah! Here is one of the museum's black cats (disclaimer: no animals drank cocktails during the making of this blog):

The next day we headed out into the dunes to try a bit of sandboarding! We hopped into a dune buggy and were driven up and down the steep dunes at breakneck speed - brilliant fun, like a rollercoaster ride!

Our dune buggy:

The dunes stretched on for miles and miles - an amazing sight:

Then we pulled up at the top of our first slope which, incidentally, looked absolutely massive and scary. Without much further ado (and almost no instruction whatsoever), we were told to lie down on our boards and zoom down the slope on our tummies. Here is my first go - the blood-curdling scream is entirely genuine:

This turned out to be brilliant fun and not actually that scary, so we drove around to a few more increasingly high slopes and did more of this for a while before rushing back to Ica to catch our bus home to Lima. The sandboarding was the highlight of our trip to Ica - highly recommended!