Llama, llama, llama, splat; Here Comes The Sun...
Trip Start May 05, 2011
19Trip End Sep 08, 2011
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A few decades ago, in the magical era that was the 60s (or possibly the 70s - I forget; it was magical, after all) there was a rather infamous British Deputy Prime Minister. This Deputy PM (who will remain nameless) was known throughout the land as an upstanding man, but he liked a tipple and - dare I say it - he was actually a bit of a drunk. One day, said Deputy PM was in Lima, Peru, attending an ambassadorial function. It was a marvellous ball - a wonderful affair - and of course our infamous Deputy PM was drunk as a skunk on champagne within minutes.
After a while, the Deputy PM sidled (lurched) over to what he thought was a beautiful Peruvian woman in a stunning purple dress. Music began to play. Addressing her with the utmost courtesy, he said:
'Excuse me, my dear lady, but would you care to dance?'
The object of his affection looked uncertain for a moment, then sighed, and replied:
'I'm going to have to decline your kind offer, for two reasons. First, sir, I'm the Archbishop of Lima, and I don't think it would be appropriate. Second, this IS our national anthem...'
Ah, British abroad. What a reputation we have...
Alrighty, on to the last week. And to Machu Picchu, that stunning historical site! I awoke at around 6am on Wednesday (and thus began my incredible sleep-deprivation) and headed off to the train station in Cuzco. Machu Picchu is actually a fair bit away from Cuzco, so you need to take a 4-hour train just to get to the village next to the site (Aguas Callientes). On the way, I was sort-of adopted by an Argentinian family, who were day-tripping to the site (and I have a feeling that I promised a tour of Oxford to their son's whole rugby team when they visit England next year, but I may be wrong). It was a beautiful journey, through the mountains, across upland rainforest (such a contrast with all of the desert highlands I've seen so far). Moreover, I had interesting company - and thus no opportunity to sleep. We finally snaked our way into Aguas Callientes at around 11am, and I went to find my hostel (I was not due to head up to Machu Picchu until the next day). As it was a beautiful day, I soon found my way outside in this altogether-too-touristy town, and headed downstream, towards incredible natural scenery, in the hope of finding somewhere to continue to read 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' (and feel utterly South American and dramatic).
Turns out, I accidentally wandered past the guardpost for Machu Picchu (and started wandering up the hill to the site), because the next minute, a guard was chasing after me, warning me that if I didn't have a ticket, he would tackle me (presumably into a ravine). It was good research, though, for the mad dash the next morning. For you see, everyone is keen to get into Machu Picchu as early as possible, for 3 reasons: 1) To see the dawn over the ruins 2) To get tickets to climb the nearby mountain (Wayna Picchu) - which are limited to the first 400 that arrive at the gate 3) To see the site unspoiled by the other tourists. My recconnaisance allowed me to get ahead of the game, so that when I woke up at 3:30am the next morning, in the pitch dark, I had one advantage over pretty much everyone else heading that way.
When I did rock up at the guardpost the next morning, there was a bit of a line, but I was fairly far forward. At 4:25am the gates were flung open, and all of the (mostly 20-somethings) raced up the hill. Literally. It was the hardest climb I think I've ever made, up Inca steps, at 2,500m, at breakneck speed, for 45 minutes. I think I probably almost died twice, but doing it all in the dark brought a crucial advantage: we were unable to see how far we had to go, and as a result, we kept ourselves going with the optimistic lie that 'it was only a little further'. And our reward: being allowed to climb yet ANOTHER mountain later. Arg.
Once we got into Machu Picchu, it was pretty incredible. The ruins have been reconstructed a bit, but quite a lot of what is there survived 400 years unharmed. Anyone who has seen the typical pictures has seen some of the most incredible views, but being there meant I could also get up close, and get a real feel for the place as a large city-complex. The number of houses, the school rooms, the fountains and baths, the astronomical rooms, and even the prison, were a masterpiece of planning and were truly awe-inspiring. Of course, given the number of tourists, it was hard to feel the sense of history and mystique that comes when you are alone in a great histoical monument. Nonetheless, it was pretty outstanding (and tiring).
Midway through the day, I climbed Wayna Picchu with some really nice Kiwi ex-army guys that I met (who actually ran most of the way, so I was soon left behind). The way up was fraught with dangers (in a way, the morning climb to Machu Picchu was a bit like a test) and there were some area where people must fall and injure themselves, when their footing fails or they lose their grip on the metal cables on the genuinely climbing parts. On the top of the mountain was a carnvival atmosphere, encompassing all those who conquered the climb. Off to the side of the mountaintop, sat a Spanish colonial building, with the best views in the world, of Machu Picchu and the valleys below. Imagine waking up to that in the morning!
After a bit more time in Machu Picchu, and some frolicking with llamas that had been (strategically) placed in a good photo-location on the site, I headed down the mountain. And following yet another long but interesting train journey (where I learned the status of New Zealand's contribution to the war in Afghanistan, courtesy of my new amigos) I was ready to fall down dead with sleep. Consequently, I was not amused when my hostel told me that they had lost my booking for that night. Fortunately, I remained obstinate and angry, and as a result got a bed for the same price in a smaller dorm. The trials were not quite over yet - when I got to the room, another of my dorm-mates warned me that her friend (who had checked-out days before) had been sleeping in my bed, and so I had to arrange a quick change of the sheets - without giving the game away. (This meant a rather vague complaint to reception that sounded a little bit too goldilocks for comfort - 'someone's been sleeping in my bed - I think'.) Eventually, I passed into the blissful oblivion of rest.
The next morning was the first day I woke up ravenous. I had eaten only Pringles and biscuits all the day before, and so the first thing I did was head down to the bar and order a very satisfying fry-up. Next, I had to move hostels, even though as I was leaving they discovered my reservation (I had already put a deposit on another place). Truth is, I wasn't that sad to be leaving Pariwana! My new hostel was a little older, but nicer, and had regular hot water (!) Thereafter, as it was 24 June - Inti Raymi, the Winter Solstice and festival of the Sun God - I headed into town.
Now, I don't want to put a downer on my description of the celebrations, buuuuuttttt....first thing that happened when I hit the square was that I was pickpocketed. It was extra-annoying, too, 'cos I was extremely aware of the danger, and was keeping my hands by my sides at all times. But when the procession of dancing Incas rushed off, and I reached up my arms to take a photo, somebody must have sensed their opportunity. Ultimately, though it was immensly frustrating, I was lucky not to lose my camera or my phone (which were also in the pocket, and which are more irreplacable). Moreover, since I am way too sensible to put anything of value in my wallet, all they got was around 20 pounds (half of which was in British coins, and thus will be useless to the thief) and my international student card (ISIC), which I guess I will replace in New York. Annoying, though.
I refused to let that incident ruin my day, however. After getting a new wallet, I headed up the hill (with pretty much the rest of Cuzco) to the Saqsaywaman Inca site (meaning satisfied-falcon site, universally known by travellers by the nmuemonic 'Sexywoman'!) where the major events were taking place. I was in time to witness some incredible histoical recreations in the main stone arena, where Peruvians dressed as Inca high priests rushed back and forth chanting, whilst warriors danced around. Finally, it came time to sacrifice the hapless llama (well, we have to keep the sun rising somehow!) Unfortunately, since Peru has joined the modern world, the sacrifice was staged - badly. The llama was led out, all the high priests gathered around, they pretended to plunge a knife in and emerged with red hands...and then the llama was sheepingly led off, surrounded by a group of priests attempting to disguise its vitality. It was great, nonetheless! And this wonderful bit of acting was a great end to the week of festivities I had already witnessed.
Next day, I took the 20-hour overnight bus to Lima, which has proved a bit of a revelation. It's actually a really nice, modern city. I met up with my Kiwi friends (who were staying in the same hostel) and first thing we did was head out in search of dinner. Guinea-pig dinner...(I kid you not). we had to trek a fair way, but it was worth it. It arrived on out plate, guinea-pig shaped and deep fried, looking a bit like roadkill...No doubt a few days before it was frolicking on a hillside somewhere. Or possibly in a little girl's room. Whatever its provenance, it was a good meal, and tasted (unsurpringly) like rabbit. The kiwis were even more into it than me - eating its heart to gain its strength, scooping out the eyeball to get that 'interesting' taste. Beats army food, I guess!
Later that night, I caught a film with the kiwis, then retired early. Yesterday, I saw the city. Central Lima is really nice, and sort of European, even though tourist police are always on hand to warn you not to linger too long, and to remind you of the danger of muggings. I wandered into the museum of the Inquisition (accidentally) and got a free private tour with a very nice Peruvian guide, who loudly diaspproved of the American tourists near us in the museum. After that, I went up to the Peruvian Congress, where they told me tours were only for groups. Nonetheless, I obstinately and sadly stood there until they brought me my own personal guide, and so I got to see YET ANOTHER South American Parliament (this is getting dangerously instructive). Unfortunately, I was unable to see the chamber of the Deputies or the Senate room, because there has recently been an election in Peru, and apparently after each election these chambers are redecorated according to the new President's whim (interesting approach - maybe we should adopt it in the Commons...) And, lastly, I took a tour of a Franciscan Monastary with a pretty incredible crypt - which is filled with the bones of over 100,000 monks - and that was morbidly fun. Lima is proving a surprisingly interesting place...
So - this is the end of my time in South America! In an hour or so I'm heading up to the airport to catch a flight to New York - the Capital of the World - and thereafter, on to the States, for another 2 months of epic exploration. I'm not so sad to be leaving Peru - it has, after all, been fraught with disasters - but I did enjoy myself. Nonetheless, a fresh start sounds great. And - thankfully, I'm off to a country where we speak the same language - America. Well - maybe I shouldn't speak too soon...(!)