I am sitting by the pool in beautiful, lush countryside 8 hours west of Bogota. I am still absolutely wired from overdosing on Columbia's finest and most famous export, which is absolutely everywhere. But this is, after all, the 'Zona Cafeteria' (you knew I was talking about coffee, right?). It really is stunning here, and I'd love to talk about it, or about our wonderful few days in Bogotá with Inder and Carolina, or our 5 day bus mission from Ica, fastidiously ignoring Ecuador from the bus window. But it has been ages since I posted anything and there is a month's worth of Peru to cover, so I must cast my mind back...
Instead of visiting the floating islands (which we had heard and read- even in the town's tourist website- are agonisingly commercialised and touristy) we decided to kick off our Incan adventure early, by visiting a nearby site at Sillustani- a place of huge, stone burial chambers, both Incan and pre-Incan. The location was pretty lovely, but I couldn't help but be a little underwhelmed. Embarrassingly and ignorantly, I suppose I had always thought the Inca empire truly ancient, but it was really in full swing only five or six hundred years ago. This realisation weighed heavily on me, and as our guide eulogised about the mind-boggling exactness of the stonework, I couldn't help but think of better examples, from earlier, in little old England*. But that is lovely, because travelling around should make you aware of what you have at home, as well as what you find abroad.
* An aside: I have since mellowed on this rather jingoistic point of view. I suppose the quality of the stonework is surprising to us because it comes from a culture completely alien to a traditional notion of history, by people who were at one point (and, in some places, still) thought to be 'savage'. And if i may flirt with nerdiness, the sophistication of their drainage infrastructure and agricultural methodology was, actually, quite amazing. And finally, the magic of the places comes as much from the surrounding landscape, and the structures' interaction and relationship with such stunning scenery, which will explain more generous descriptions later*.
From Puno we descended to Arequipa, off the altiplano and into 'Canyon Country'. Arequipa itself is a lovely city, bustling and frantic yet friendly and fun. It has a big, slopey main plaza with empirically stepping arcades on three sides, all absolutely lovely in the local bright white granite. The market is a huge cornucopia of wonderful smells and sights, where I had a fruit smoothie made with dark beer and a plate full of delicious raw fish, rice, chicken and potatoes, like a plate from a proper-nice wedding buffet. And it has a little city-within-the-city, a convent which takes up a couple of city blocks and is a maze of squares, streets and stepped alleyways, all festooned with geraniums. It is now a museum, but until a couple of decades ago the nuns lived in cosy little houses, with kitchens out the back and guinea pigs on the roof, for food. It looked like a lovely place to live, I wondered why they had moved into their new, more modern accommodation. We went at night, and it was especially atmospheric, the hundreds of nun's homes, still containing original furniture and iconography, lit with gas lights and candles. Wandering around was so lovely, and reminded me of the hours we spent pacing around the cemetery in Buenos Aires.
The Colca Canyon, near Arequipa, is one of the deepest in the world. i struggled with this fact, a bit, because it isn't exactly clear to me when a 'valley' becomes a 'canyon', and this 'canyon' looked a hell of a lot like a 'valley'. But it was very jungly and pretty 'valley/canyon' and Hes got her closest yet view of Andean Condors, just a few metres above us and hugely impressive. I found the green, terraced slopes of the lower hills around the 'vallyon' more interesting- the landscape completely re shaped by the Incas into meandering terraces and bowls. Though the terraces would have been filled with different crops in their day, they now look beautiful covered in grass, like the sculptural efforts of my favourite landscape architects today.
We only had a day to scope out the area because we were hot-tailing it to Huaraz to go trekking in the Cordillera Blanca before our long-reserved Inca Trail (which, due to demand, must be booked months and months in advance). This area in central Peru is supposedly the range which features on the Paramount Studios logo, and I warn you, whenever I watch a Paramount-produced film I will be saying 'been there' at the start. It may get annoying but it will not stop. Alas the central mountain was completely obscured by cloud on the day we might have seen it, but this is by-the-by.
The four-day trek was not a complete success. I think for Hester it may have been a rather low point. It rained every afternoon, a situation not helped by the fact that our tour operator was, it turns out, a pretty shoddy outfit with even shoddier kit- all the tents leaked. Every evening the combination of dropping temperatures, wet tents and wetter trekkers was pretty grim. For me, though, apart from a particularly soggy few hours tramping through what could have been Dovedale on a drizzly February afternoon, it was a pretty amazing experience. Most interesting was the sheer difficulty of climbing to and crossing a mountain pass 4750m above sea level- though the path was not hard nor steep, the sheer lack of oxygen made it a Herculean task. There were tears in the group as almost everyone struggled with exhaustion and debilitating headaches.
On the night we got back into Huaraz we wearily climbed onto another nightbus, bound for Cusco to meet up with Eleanor, our mutual friend, who was coming to join us. Ah Cusco. I hadn't expected much from it, thinking it was perhaps just a jumping-off point for Macchu picchu. And it is true, Cusco is principally a tourist town, but what a beautiful place. Over the next couple of weeks we left and returned three times and it was always lovely coming back to a base which felt so homely. Its buildings are gloriously colonial but houses inca treasures, it is compact and mazey, safe and friendly. I really loved Cusco and I don't care how gringoey that makes me. I even ate a guinea pig there. You can't do that in London or New York.
Eleanor arrived jet lagged and sleep-deprived early in the morning- so what better than to whisk her off on a 48hr tour of the Sacred Valley? She coped brilliantly, and the sights we saw were quite stunning. My favourites were the terraced water courses of Tipon, a really beautiful and inspiring landscape. We also enjoyed the huge agricultural installations at Moray, if not our guide's utterly incomprehensible explanations of what exactly the site was for*. We spent a night in a beautiful little hotel in Ollantaytambo, the place whose name no gringo can pronounce, overlooking the huge fortress which looms next to the town, and visited various markets through the valley. The valley is a beautiful place and visiting the stunning structures constituted a good appetiser for the Inca Trail and 'main event' of Macchu Picchu.
* Another aside: we have had a lot of guides recently, after only two or three for the first six or seven months of travel. I suppose it is in the nature of the places we have been visiting- fewer expansive landscapes, more things of zoological or historical interest. Most have been lovely but I shall be glad to live my life without a guide for a while. There is a certain level of bullsh*t to be cut through from each, and it takes a certain amount of experience to identify when they are 'winging it'. We have heard directly contradictory 'facts' from different guides, which would be ok if they weren't delivered as gospel truths. And most seem to have a disconcerting habit of belly-laughing at my honest attempts at answering their occasional questions. At the same time, though, it has been genuinely sad to say goodbye to some of them because, as with our fellow tourists on many excursions, close bonds can be formed in a very short time when you are experiencing wonderful things.
With that I am going to go and get ready for dinner. The sun has dropped behind the mountain and it is getting a little chilly. Hester is wandering round, open mouthed, with her binoculars and camera, agog at the bird life here. It really is beautiful and we have all day here tomorrow, so I'll complete the Peru missive then.