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...

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