Friday, May 30, 2008

Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

As you may know now from reading previous blogs, we love our Andean camels. Sure there have been some some incidences but mainly our encounters have only endeared us to them further.  On our bus ride from Puno to Cuzco we would see the most interesting kind: the llama. Read on to see just how many varieties we saw along the way.
Sometimes we had to pay for the privilege of posing with them...
Sometimes we could play with them for free. Although in this picture it's hard to tell which one the llama is. They both seem to visit the same barber.
Sometimes the llamas were only interested in us if we gave them gifts.
or fed them...
But this one wasn't interested in us at all. No matter how we called him, offered him flowers or food, he just would not budge.
In Peru, we noticed a disturbing item on food menus, the guinea pig. Later we learnt that these creatures are not only of religious significance but they are also pretty tasty when deep fried. We cannot verify this but generally anything deep fried tastes good so we would not be surprised if this was true.
It was the Incas who first domesticated the guinea pig and used them for food. At this time, people used to worship animals, especially those that were domesticated. After the Spanish arrived, the guinea pig was incorporated as a religious symbol. It is not uncommon to see depictions of Christ and his disciples dining on guinea pig at the last supper. 
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If you had to guess what the picture below is of, what would you say? An ant hill? A pile of rocks? A ruin? If you guessed the world's smallest volcano you would be right. Unfortunately, we did not stop and have breakfast here. If we had, we would have been able to learn the subtle art of frying eggs using the heat of the volcano.
Below is a picture taken at Raqchi - a remarkable Inca construction made from adobe and built on volcanic rock. The photo on your right is part of the Wiracocha temple which was an impressive 100 meters tall.
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After our meanderings through the living quarters and storage rooms in the ruins, we wondered through the markets stalls outside.
There was only one thing we were interested in buying - freshly squeezed orange juice. Here Jez demonstrates how to turn orange peel into spaghetti.
Finally, after 7 hours we arrived in Cuzco, the mythical city of the Inca empire. However, this place feels more like the tourist capital of Peru. Although very attractive, we could not wait to hop on a local bus and discover the secrets of the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley is a horticulturalist's dream. It is a stunning and dramatic landscape with ideal climatic conditions and fertile land. It is easy to see why this valley was chosen as a settlement point for the Incas. And of course why it is a favoured spot for day trips. We were not interested in a whirlwind tour. We wanted to take our time and stay in the valley for a night. After working out the chaotic local bus system, we made our way to Pisac. Here they have wonderful markets and a hill which we could climb to see some Inca ruins.
TZ took a small breather (or rather a large breather considering how thin the air was) while Jez went for a wonder. He discovered what looked like a miniature version of Machu Picchu. He asked someone to take a photo of him so he could come back and show me what I was missing out on.
Unfortunately, one must be very careful of who they ask to take their photos. A peril all travellers are subject to.  As you can see by the photo above, it was almost impossible for TZ to really understand what the big fuss was about. But as you can see by the photos below, the valley and agricultural terraces creeping up the mountain slopes are stunning.
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That night we made our way to a place called Ollantaytambo. (For what its worth, we recommend trying to say this name. It's quite fun when you get your tongue around it.) Anyway, this town is very beautiful and was built on top of original Inca foundations. It is particularly famous because it is the only town that the Spanish did not conquer.
Behind the town, is an Inca religious site. It was very convenient that the site was only 10 minutes from our hostel. You can see behind these buildings the steps leading up to Temple Hill. We happily left our trusty compass behind that day.
That said, our hostel owner had a dog...and so you probably know by now that if we are about to go out and a dog is anywhere near us*, he will naturally escort us.
*See similar dog stories here in Salta and here in the Colca Canyon.
When we arrived at the sight we organised a guide to take us around. Our dog was very happy to share guiding duty, patiently waiting for us to catch up with him where ever he was.
While we relaxed on a rock, our guide told us how the temple was built using enormous rocks which people carried up the hill from a nearby area. You can see these rocks below. Notice the grooves in them which were created so that walls could be built up with interlocking rocks. Not mortar was used between the rocks. This was the ingenuity in Inca architectural.
The Incas built several storehouses on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo. They were constructed at high altitudes, where there is more wind and the temperatures are lower. This helped defend the contents against decay. It is a little hard to tell from this photo but there really is a store house on the side of the mountain!

The best bit was yet to come. Click on the video below to view the method in which the purity of a person could be tested. Those that were not deemed pure were prohibited from entering the temple. Turn the volume up loud to hear over the gushing water.
Note: Our puppy followed us down here and just as we were about to shoot the video, he decided to take a bath in the sacred waters.
Around Cuzco there are some other interesting ruins to see.  Read the following sign (a few times if necessary) to see why TZ is posing below.
Saqsaywaman (the ruin) is considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was an important religious site for the Incas. It is constructed with enormous boulders that were put together perfectly again without using mortar. The heaviest bolder weighs up to 125 tons.
And sitting on his throne is Saqsayman.
Did you miss the llamas already? Here is another photo. After we snapped this guy rounding up his llamas he insisted we pay him!
A little further down the road, we lunched at a restaurant that had its own trout farm. The owner had several staff to clean the algae infested swamp of a lake. At the same time, he sold food so that people could feed the trout. That's one way to solve the unemployment problem...
In a separate excursion, we visited a very interesting place called Moray. Here there is a rather unusual land formation - circular shaped terraces in an amphitheatre of sorts.  The site was apparently an Inca agricultural research station designed for experimenting with crops at various altitude.
We did some experimenting of our own. How would Jez fare at the very bottom layer in the middle?
He was faring a little too well, slowly turning into a crop. You can see just the head of him at the back...
So TZ came to rescue Jez.
Since we were in the area, we heard there was a salt mine nearby which was worth checking out. We could not really imagine a salt mine being that interesting but we decided to see it anyway and were thoroughly blown away...
This salt mine was not the big hole in the ground we expected. It was giant rectangle bodies of salt water. What was mad about this place is that it was a free for all. No evidence of health and safety rules, no physical barriers of any kind to keep visitors clear of the salt pools. We could literally walk around and do what we wanted. So Jez took the liberty of adding a little of his own salty water to the mix...
Did you start to miss the llamas again? Ok. We will leave you with one more.
Coming up next, the grande finale of our South American adventure. Our four day pilgrimage to see the breath-taking Lost City of the Incas - Machu Picchu.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Beside the sparkling clear visibility, the deep blue hue, and the fantastically high altitude (3812m), the most remarkable feature of Lake Titicaca is the group of 40 or so floating man-made islands collectively called Uros. Made entirely of floating reeds called totora, these islands are home to several small communities. To visit them is another matter all together. We had to take a tour - and if you have been following our blogs you will know by now we like to do our own thing at all costs.
So we found a tour agency that got a big tick from the Lonely Planet and were told that they were different from other companies as their guides were university educated English speakers with outstanding local knowledge. This was all very well, if of course you know who and where your guide is. We sat on our tour boat enjoying the pan pipe show looking around for someone who looked university educated and English speaking with outstanding local knowledge. But no one on the boat fitted that description.
Our guide finally materialised when we arrived half an hour later at the first floating island. He showed us where we were on the map and described how the islands were made and what they were used for. There is some conjecture as to the original purpose of these islands but ultimately they provided a safe haven from savage mainlanders - such as the Incas or the Spanish.
It was a little easier to describe the making of the islands with a demonstration. Below you can see one of the locals had built a replica of the island, complete with little figurines and houses.
First you need to find a big clump of floating reeds. These are normally attached to the river bed but in time the wind dislodges them. Then, take a huge quantity of cut reeds and place on top. If you can walk on it without falling into a hole and drowning, you have successfully made a floating island. By the way, walking on the island feels a bit like walking on a water bed.
Once you make your island, then you should make a boat or two. And the good news is, the boats are also made out of totora. Beware, just because you put scary faces on the boats, doesn't mean tourists will stay away.
So you plan to live on the island? Well you will need a house. And guess what? You can use the same reed to build it! Totora can also be used for cooking fuel and treatment of minor ailments. Best of all, you can even eat it! Well only the heart of it anyway. Now for the bad news. After three or four months, the reeds start to rot and loose their bounce-factor. So you need to get in your boat and go find more reeds to replace the rotting ones.
If you insist on still being connected to the real world, then you can even have your own TV.
When the islanders aren't doing domestic chores, they are making products to sell to tourists. They make various weavings depicting events from their daily lives. We are now proud owners of some of their works.
Twenty years ago, a newly married couple would have built themselves an island, naming it after themselves. Now settlements are larger and many of the little islands have been abandoned and left to rot.
We farewelled our colourful islander friends and headed to another floating island to indulge in more shopping.
We hopped on the boat hungry and ready for lunch. We were told that we would have lunch when we reached Amantani Island. What we weren't told was that this island was still another two hours away.
Amantani is home to about 3600 Quechua speaking people - so our Spanish would be of no use here. The island is free from modern day conveniences like electricity or cars. It was on this island that we would stay the night. On arrival a tribe of mums arrived to greet us. Each ready to take a small group of gringos into their homes. We were supposed to bring a gift like fresh fruit or rice but do you think our guide told us this? No.
We carefully followed our mum back to her house making sure we never took her eye off her as all mums on the island look the same from behind!
Her home was quite far from the shore. She shuffled in her well-worn sandals over rocks and hills, through farms and alleys until we reached her home.
While we settled into our new room, our mum prepared lunch for us. We could not believe her kitchen. She had no electricity, no cupboards and no tables to prepare the food on. We marvelled as this little old lady slowly moved around her smokey kitchen constantly bending down to pick things up.  
Finally our lunch was ready.
Lunch was a tomato, a piece of cheese and various incarnations of potato. Although very tasty, somehow we were more hungry after eating than before.
After lunch, we climbed up a hill called pachmama (mother nature) to see some pre-Incan ruins.  When we arrived at the top, we could take a walk around the ruins 7 times to bring us luck. And as luck would have it by the time we were done, we could watch a beautiful sunset.
That night we were in for a big surprise. Our mum came up to our room with a big bag overflowing with traditional clothes for us to wear. She dressed TZ in layers upon layers of big colourful skirts, a white shirt, a belt and the customary black scarf. Jez was dressed more simply in a poncho. And finally to top it off, some interesting beanies - which we later bought for some extortionate amount.
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We walked silently and quickly in the cold night towards the dance hall. When we arrived we had a quick photo shoot.
And then the festivities began. Panpipe music was played and our mums grabbed us and showed us some moves. It occurred to us that this kind of dancing was very similar to Israeli dancing. Big circles of people moving round and round the floor. People stepping on each others' feet. Never certain of when the circle will change direction or close in on itself. Click to see a video of TZ and our mum dancing.

The following day, we visited the Island of Taquile. This island was used as a prison when Peru was a Spanish Colony. Now this curiously dog-free island is inhabited by 3000 Taquiles. 
The Taquiles have a very interesting society. You can distinguish their status by the clothes they wear. Leaders wear black chullos (caps). Married men wear red ones and single men wear red and white ones. Women's status by contrast can be distinguished by the size of the pom poms on their skirts.
And now for a test: is this guy married, single or a leader?
There are 3 rules which govern the community. No lying, no cheating and don't be lazy. TZ wondered about these rules. She was concerned that there was no mention of murder or rape in the 3 commandments but on reflection perhaps there is sense behind it. Maybe the rules they have apply to transgressions which humans are more likely commit on a daily basis. Perhaps by focusing on these sins, a more honest society can be cultivated. 
Sadly, we did not have time to see more of the islands in a less touristy fashion. Now fully acclimatised to the altitude, we could enjoy a few days in Cuzco before embarking on a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu - our final destination in South America. 
While you wait for the next blog, we will leave you with this video of some naughty dogs we filmed from our hotel window.