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!

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