Peru Part 2:"You want fries with that guinea pig?"

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Friday, November 16, 2012

Part two of Peru is probably the part we have been looking forward to most of all, whilst on - and leading up to - this journey. It includes, of course, the number one target on so many travelers' hit lists: Machu Picchu.

We based ourselves in Cusco, one of the most beautiful cities we’ve ever set foot in, and spent a day or two exploring for information; gathering maps like squirrels gather nuts.  A few circuits of a town centre can usually put one in good standing of where things are. We soon discovered the gem of Cusco, its main plaza (generally, the gem of any town here is its plaza – they always exude an unbelievable amount of pride, whether artistic, religious or nationalistic - a town’s plaza is always a shining example of the best and most beautiful that can be achieved).

 Two great cathedrals dominate the north and east sides of Cusco’s square, each vying for the eyes’ attention, and each succeeding equally. The centerpiece of the plaza is a golden statue of an Inca warrior proudly standing atop a gushing fountain, holding his spear in one hand, and with the other pointing indignantly into the distance, possibly towards the city’s nearby Inca ruins of Saqsayhuaman (sounds a little like "sexy woman"), of which much of Cusco’s beauty has to offer its thanks. Many of the rocks that built Cusco were looted from the nearby Inca fortress when the Spanish arrived and started their fisticuffing back in the year doodah hundred and whatnot. Having fiercely seen the locals off, the conquistadors then proceeded to dismantle the hefty walls and lug the rocks down into the valley to construct more Mediterranean – and therefore less heathen – structures.

A trip up the hill to the agelessly solid looking and still very much intact and undisturbed “ruins” of Saqsayhuaman is a breathtaking testament to the abilities of that ancient, vanquished civilization: that there are so many of these giant boulders still in place (some weighing up to one hundred and twenty five tons – we overheard someone else’s guide telling them) - carried, carved and laid so accurately together by the Inca - that are almost un-pull-down able. ;Many of the toothy gaps left by the Spanish in Saqsayhuaman’s walls have been recently filled in, you might be pleased to know, using our superior, modern techniques… well, I say that… brick-sized rocks have been cemented in snugly amongst the behemoths by local labourers; seeming somewhat out of place and time against the original ancient stone sentinels, but also impressively showcasing contemporary man’s skills at Tetris.

We wandered around these ruins for ages, marveling at the sheer damn size of the rocks, and the craftsmanship and mathematical genius it must have taken to assemble the place; and taking in the views of Cusco, spread out like a blanket below us. There are three other sets of ruins in the same direct vicinity of Cusco, none of which had quite the same staggering effect of Saqsayhuaman , so I shan’t go into any details about them. Though we did have a lovely picnic in the shade of one of them’s walls. It was a hot, hot day, and shady picnics are lovely on hot, hot days.

Another trip we took from Cusco was to a town called Pisac, sitting in the heart of the famous Sacred Valley, and below an amazingly well preserved set of ruins (known simply as Inca Pisac) perched atop an overlooking hill. We took a taxi up to the starting point of the ruins, and took a couple of hours to walk along the top of the cliff (and at one point even through it, down a dark, narrow and blessedly cool tunnel), passing more and more impressive parts of the ancient city as we went, and eventually ending up heading back down into the valley, and the town from which we started. At the point where our trail overlooked the town itself, the sky quickly clouded. The rain that came was merely an aperitif to the hail which promptly followed. Just so you know we’re not always having fun. We tried not to let it dampen our spirits any more than our socks, and were soon down in the town enjoying empanadas (deep-fried pastries or bread filled with cheese or ham or both or something) by the heat of a large stone-bake oven. Inca Pisac was one of the best examples of an ancient city we came across, and the Sacred Valley is completely deserving of its namesake. It’s a glimmering green valley, rich of soil and blessed by weather; protected down its length (or at least as much as we saw) by tall, steep, equally-green slopes. It’s easy to see why anyone would want to build fortresses in this place.

So, our next item on the agenda was to get to Machu Picchu. We bought the thirty-three quid tickets in Cusco, and found that the cheapest way to get there (without paying the extortionate train fair) was to catch a local bus to the small town of Santa Maria, another bus to the equally small town of Santa Teresa; stay the night there; hike to the town at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain, Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu Town, as it now calls itself); stay the night there and then get up the hill and see all those famous walls early the next morning.  And so we left the bulk portion of our possessions in Cusco, and set off early on a Friday.

The bus ride to Santa Maria was a stunning spectacle; our bus pulled wheelies around hairpin bends as we looked down over the edge at the far below valley floor, carpeted with trees in rich shades of green. I exaggerate this ride a little (no wheelies were really pulled – though our imaginations filled in the blanks) in order to draw attention from the subsequent journey between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa; frankly, as near-to-death an experience as we might ever have had. The road had been crudely bulldozed out of the mountainside, possibly by road building experts, possibly not; winding around the valley not on its safe and logical floor – oh no, that would be boring - but at least halfway up the side of the surrounding mountains, overlooking naught but the tiny, wee, winding river below. Often it felt like we were jutting out so far that the river was actually underneath us, bringing to mind the image of a fat man trying to look at his feet, straining forward until the inevitable unbalance occurs, and Humpty dumpty falls. This (two pound fifty / thirty rand – hour long) ride was given to us not by any licensed taxi driver, but – as so often we’ve seen here – by just a local guy in his car, who seemed to know the roads well enough to slip, slippery slide his way around the edges, spitting dust and gravel behind him.

Santa Teresa – once we had finally made it and I had peeled my fingers off the seat in front of me - was a very nice, very small town with about as many hostels as residents, and a great place to start our hike to Machu Picchu. We set off early the next morning, and experienced seven hours of the most beautiful hiking we’ve ever known. Leaving Santa Teresa by crossing a shaky rope bridge, there was then a short but steep and crumbly path heading vertically upwards, thankfully not lasting too long before leading us to another recently carved “road” with nerve-wracking parallels to the previous day’s vertigo-inducing drops. Luckily, this road didn’t climb to quite so lofty heights as its predecessor, and before long we were back on river-level track, straining our necks to look up and around at the squat, rock giants that surrounded us every step of the way. For the majority of this hike we were actually walking along railway tracks, twice having to deftly jump out of the way of a passing train. In a way I really love that lack of Health and Safety rules. Where I come from, some Hi-Viz wearing dipshit would be barbed-wire fencing those tracks off, putting up surly signs and sending policemen with nothing better to do around to schools to scare kids with stories about Little Jimmy; who lost his legs playing on the railroad tracks, and had to woefully hang his beloved soccer boots up forever on the back of his bedroom door, boo hoo – stupid Jimmy! I’m smart enough to know to get off the tracks when I hear this rather distinctive and piercing “choo-choo, whoo-whoo!” noise whistling through the air – that’s quite enough of a warning for anyone deserving enough of their place in the gene pool.

Anyway, to conclude this walk, the last hour or so of it turned out to be circling around those very ruins, somewhere high above us, that we’d come so far to see, although the citadel was (and is) practically unapparent from below. By the next morning, when we had arrived at and explored Machu Picchu itself, we felt very confident in our orientation of the surrounding area, and would excitedly point out below us the paths we had been on. This was probably the best reason for doing the journey the way we did; while we may not have done the more well-known Inca trail (to be booked waaay in advance, with a large wad of cash), we had certainly some knowledge of the lay of the land, and felt we had earned that little piece of the story that we took away with us.

Machu Picchu, as we found early the next morning, is like a Disneyland of history and mystery. It is not without its share of popularity, wouldn’t you know. We arrived before 6am, jostling for position in a queue, as we waited for the gates to open. Normally, this would be my nightmare of choice. Queues of pushy people do nothing for my patience; but once inside, what greets is worth all the elbows and smelly armpits. Everyone knows what Machu Picchu looks like, and being there is like stepping into that famous image. What you imagine it to be like is what it’s like. I’m not taking anything away from the experience; it actually kind of felt like I would imagine Disneyland might feel; the energy and that buzz in the air. And there’s enough of the actual site - and surrounding terraces and paths - to be able to explore for hours, climbing to a (reasonably) empty spot to sit on a rock and soak up the ambience. I nearly can’t be bothered to describe it without the usual clichés: The discovery of a lost world, and all that; guessing the meanings and fathoming the methods of such sacred, secret empires that have risen and fallen through the sands of time, from dust to dust; the futility of man’s greatest endeavours, and the fickle nature of his power, and even existence… and so forth. You don’t need me rambling to endorse this place. We had a tough time whittling down the pictures from our favourite forty to a modest twelve.

You might have guessed already that, whilst in Cusco (we made it back the next day, via some other ruins in The Sacred Valley called Ollantaytambo – but you’ve heard enough about ruins), we finally managed another of the things I have personally been looking forward to; the sampling of the tempting national dish: Guinea Pig. At about three times the price of any other dish on the menu, it’s not been easy choosing a time and place for this delicacy, but we decided to just bite the bullet and get it done. When he/she arrived on my plate, I looked at her/him for a while. That toothy, bared snarl on that wrinkled brown face wasn’t the most tempting of sights; and the shriveled-up body with four dinky, clawed paws jutting out of the side were a long way from the plump and juicy crouching morsel I’d imagined straddling my chips, but at that price (about twelve quid, or one hundred and fifty rand– expensive here) I tucked straight in. The skin was pretty stretchy, and the majority of the meat much like chicken but with its own pleasant flavour; but there was a delicious area between the throat and belly with lots of black-pudding-like goodness. I guess I was eating some vital organs or something, but it was definitely the most delicious part (the brain – usually the tastiest part of an animal - was too hard to get to encased in that solid little skull). Kez opted for the Alpaca steak, which turned out to be a slightly tougher version of beef, with a hint of some venison-like flavor.

So, lots of walls this week. Walls have the power to keep us out, or keep others in; they may be tall, short, or papered with your favourite cartoon characters; they might stand the changes of the ages, filling future civilisations with wonder, or fall in an instant and take everything we own with them. Who knows? For more information on the walls near you, consult your local library, or ask a policeman; they’ll always be happy to help. Enjoy walls!

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Mindy on

Wow, guys this all looks amazing. You seem to be having a magnificent time and you know everyone at home, reading the blogs are just a tad bit jealous not a lot but a little.......hahaha.

Have fun......


Cindy on

Amazing guys, the tetrus really made me laugh, and all those beautiful sights and your whistfull looks, I hope to be there one day soon

A.G. on

Nice entry! The riff on walls at the end was hilarious. Loved it!

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