And after Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu and the whole spectacular jungle trek with all its funny, sometimes scary experiences, we finally departed Aguas Calientes aboard the PERURAIL train heading for Ollantaytambo. A high roofed, comfortable and smooth train with complimentary peanuts and mate de coca and tables for every seat, this felt like a luxury ending to an amazing few days. The feelings of exhaustion kicked in as many passengers on board nodded off, only to arrive to chaos in Ollantaytambo for the final bus ride back to Cusco.
Memories and moments that will live with me forever. What a trip.
One can´t help but have some preconceived ideas about a place, especially somewhere like Cusco which is an absolute hub for backpackers in South America and has so much literature on the city and its surroundings.
Maybe it was the general bleurghy feeling following a fifteen hour overnight bus journey, but as we arrived into Cusco I really felt quite flat. I guess I expected architectural wonder and beauty right from the outskirts, but it just didn´t deliver. It was the same dusty streets and brown buildings with corrugated tin roofs and litter lying around that I´d seen repeatedly since arriving in Peru.
But then Cusco is a city, and all cities have their grubby, dirty sides. Yes, I was probably just feeling a bit travel tired.
To add to my frustrations, the taxi driver couldn´t find the hostel and tried to charge extra as a result. The hostel was expensive, nice, but outside of my budget. The next one seemed much more like it: dorm beds starting at S/.13 (£3.08). But it was a bit of a dive and smelt musty and if I´m honest, I was too quick to dump down my bags and sign up for the night. Lack of sleep drove the decision.
Fed and watered, I quickly found a better place to stay – clean, affordable and friendly – so I checked out of the first place. Even the half price they charged me was worth the switch. I looked forward to a night in a comfy bed with crisp linens. Oh, sweet luxury.
The turning point came a day later with a free walking tour of Cusco. I met my guide, Yonathan, and a bunch of other travellers at Eco Packers hostel. Beaming and full of beans and information, Yonathan was the key to understanding and appreciating the city.
Starting in the main square, Plaza de Armas, I learnt about the Inca sacrificing of virgins, and about the impact of earthquakes on the city (not as much as there could be due to anti-seismic structures).
In Plaza Recogijo, the Inca church foundations still stood strong despite Spanish attempts to rip down what they saw as a place of Pagan worship, only to rebuild it in their own style. ´Inside this church, it´s a more genuine experience,´ explained Yonathan, ´less fancy and touristy.´ All churches in Cusco open their doors to the public for free between 6:00am and 8:00am and Yonathan suggested we take a look inside this one at some point, particularly to look closely at the deity of the virgin Mary and observe that this statue was in fact… a barbie doll. ´And we all know that there is nothing virgin about Barbie,´ he said, before going on to explain typical religious festival parades led by girls in mini skirts followed by marching bands and religious idols carried carefully with pride. ´It´s a strange mix of traditions and ideas,´ he added.
The concept of a plastic doll as an idol is not totally unexpected. Peru seems to encourage and embrace all things kitsch (another good example of kitsch in full swing is in The Fallen Angel, a bar and restaurant glitzed out in gold and floating angels and bathtub tables and strokable furnishings, the ´gayest place in Cusco´, apparently).
Fallen Angel, Cusco
In San Francisco square I learnt about the botanical properties of the plantings, including the muña tree whose leaves provide natural altitude relief when rubbed together and breathed in deeply.
In the San Pedro market I sampled a fresh juice from one of thirty or so fruit stalls, and noticed how huge chunks of San Pedro cacti were on sale (I was also offered ayahuasca). I indulged in an ice coffee shot in Cusco Coffee and tried chocolate tea in the Choco Museo, a cute little set-up offering a wealth of information on the chocolate making process alongside chocolate making workshops (S/.70).
Steps and alleyways in Cusco
Wandering up old streets and steep, difficult steps nearby Plaza San Blas, we arrived at one of the highest parts of Cusco´s centre offering wide views of the city and overlooking a park in the process of being completed. Peru´s history came back for a modern bite. ´It – the park – is funded by the Spanish´, smiled Yonathan, ´they guilty for what they do to us.´
Views down over Cusco
We made our way back down cobbled streets and by pretty, tiled street signs, back down to the hassle and bustle of Plaza de Armas. It had been three interesting and fun hours of discovery and making new travel friends. Now was the time to tip. (Tipping guides seems to be common practise in Ecuador and Peru, how much is up to you. In this case, many people gave between S/.5-S/.15).
Cusco, I like you more already. Let the days roll on and the romance blossom.
Lima boasts the biggest fountain park in the world, Circuito Mágico del Agua (The Magic Water Circuit ). I had pretty much no idea of what I was going to see. My great-aunt had told me that I really should visit the park whilst I was in Lima, that it was great, and that it was best to go in the evening. Listen to one´s elders.
Set within Parque de la Reserva, it´s only since going that I´ve found out how much of a Lima highlight it is: it is one of the most visited attractions in the city and has won the Guinness Record for the largest water fountain complex. The city is clearly proud of the parks 2007 regeneration, hostels advertise it on their walls, Time Magazine say it is one of the main things to do in Lima and my great-aunt thinks it rocks. What´s stopping you?
My visit started with the 7:15pm Fuente de la Fantasia (Power of Imagination) show, a feast of colour and 3D projections in sync to a range of musical tracks (something to suit each family member, a little flamenco, some pop, some classical). A ballerina danced around to Swan Lake. She was eerily ´there´, far larger than life, the water droplets allowing definite detail to be seen. A man and woman were projected dancing the tango.
Couples watching the show cuddled in closer; a dusky, mystical setting prime for romance. But the whole thing was, despite the visual spectacle, a little on the kitsch side and reminiscent of the shows at Disneyland and Disneyworld. Not that that´s a problem; those shows and places bring in the punters. I enjoyed it but at the same time found it a little too much. Personal taste, and all that.
Following on from the show came observation and play time: a wander around the various fountain displays, walking through tunnels of curved water shoots, running into the centre of the Fuente Laberinto del Ensueño (Labyrinth of Dreams) and getting wet and dancing about. The latter was the most fun.
Children jumped across the momentarily dormant water jets, often too late as the spurts regenerated and drenched them through. Some adults also took up the challenge of getting to the centre of the maze. Smiles and laughter and magic were in the air. And soggy clothes characterised the park exit.
It was definitely a place to take in some man-made beauty, to enjoy the manipulation and amalgamation of light and colour and water and sound. People watched in awe, they clapped, they wandered around and chatted and ate churros and candy floss and went home smiling.
The park is open from 6:00am-1:00pm Mon-Wed and 3:00pm-10:30pm Wed-Sun. Shows are Wed-Sun at 7:15pm, 8:15pm and 9:30pm. Admission to the park is S/.4, under 5s go free.
Imagine that you get robbed in Lima. Your beloved mobile phone / MP3 / laptop / whole backpack (delete as appropriate) has been stolen and you’re feeling bereft. What to do? Simple. Go down to the thieves market in Tacora, Lima and buy it back. One traveller had his camera nicked only to spot it there on a stall a few days later. He called over a police officer, demonstrating that it was indeed his camera, evident by the photos that were still on the memory card. The policeman shrugged. ‘If you want your camera back, you can buy it’, he said.
‘You shouldn’t go to Tacora’, said the guide at the Museo de la Inquisición when I asked for information on taxi prices. ‘Tacora es muy peligroso. You no go’. (Sound familiar?) Once we’d hailed a taxi, the driver raised an eyebrow. ‘Tacora? Si. S/.8. Tacora es muy peligroso’.
I felt a bit nervous. Why was I going? I was hoping to pick up a daypack on the cheap (having promised myself that if its rightful owner turned up at some point on the remainder of my travels, I would do the honourable thing and hand it back over), but my curiosity was also whetted and thus far, all warnings of danger had been pretty fruitless. I wasn’t looking to be mugged or to put myself in a dangerous situation, but so far my experience of Lima had been very Westernised and straight and… boring.
Lima’s scenery changed on the approach to Tacora. Well-pruned roadside plantings and clean streets made way for rubbish and beaten buildings. The place was heaving with buyers and sellers. There was not a gringo in sight. High, black metal gates surrounded the market area itself and once inside, stalls lined the street edges and spilled inside to a maze of traders.
Hunks of dead snake meat, snakeskins and ointments were for sale. A man paraded his dressed up monkey, entertaining the kids. A group gathered around a television screen showing chulas fighting. They cheered and laughed as the stocky women wrestled each other.
Throughout the market there was a mass of street food available (particularly choclo and churros) and bags of grain and vegetables were displayed out on the kerb. Household goods of all sorts – pots, pans and Tupperware – could be bought for a measly amount. There was clothing on sale, but none of the carefully crafted ware more commonly associated with the tourist markets.
Nearly everything appeared to be new, so where was the thieving evidence?
The most likely seemed to be the electronics, with many, many stalls selling slightly tired looking mobile phones and chargers.
So why give it a miss? Overall, it was nothing extraordinary. It was hectic, there were some dodgy characters lurking about, but for the most part, people were bargaining and buying for their day-to-day life. Tacora is known for being dangerous, for being rife with pickpockets. I was cautious and lucky. Sure, there was some police presence, but, if tales are to believe, the role and reliability of the police is at times questionable.
Essentially, it is a local market for local people, and being the only tourist there made me uncomfortable because it felt voyeuristic, which, to some extent, puts the whole travelling thing into question.
Yes, it was closer to the real Lima that I had expected to encounter. It was rough, busy and rundown. I’ve read about a few volunteer and church projects running in Tacora, indicating a need for support in the area. But me going there, what did it really do for people of the area? I probably just looked like a lost, loaded tourist and in a reverse situation, I might well think about robbing me.
I was glad to get a taxi out of there. I had bought nothing but a juice. Was it worth it? No. On so many levels.
- There are three tribes remaining in Ecuador, two of which are nomadic and don’t want any communication with the rest of us. The third, the matriarchal Wuaorani tribe, allow contact. I wonder whether having a female chief affected the decision to be more open about sharing their culture (the other tribes are polygamous and maybe the male chiefs are more concerned with spreading their seed than spreading the word)? (I know, far too simplistic, and I do appreciate the difficulties in managing modern world contact to avoid adversely affecting national and cultural traditions.)
- In Inca times, when a chief died, his wife was given a drink containing a strong, lethal dose of mescaline so that she could go to ‘sleep’ with her husband and enter the next life with him.
- The size of the earrings of tribe members signifies their importance within the tribe, hence the leader will have some serious holiness going on. It made me think back to British tribes – modern day ones – where there seems to be a similar hierarchy in relation to the amount and size of the piercings (and tattoos).
- Huge, heavy four and a half metre blow pipes are still used today (I had a go with one; it’s difficult to hold but fairly straight forward to line up). A muscular anaesthetic, found in the jungle and supposedly utilised in modern western medicine, is placed on the darts. It paralyses the animal, usually a monkey, but doesn’t contaminate the meat.
With two days until the equinox where there would be no shadows present on the equator line, it seemed like a good time to set off with another newbie traveller to check out the Middle of the World, aka Mitad del Mundo.
The journey itself was a bit of a faff, starting with a twenty minute walk across town from La Mariscal to the Semanorio Mayor station, stopping off along the way for water (I can’t seem to remember to drink enough, others swear by at least 2 litres a day) from a fully barred, secure shop. A really fast, half hour bus ride took us through the vast spread of Quito to the end of the line Estacian Ofellia for $0.25, followed by a quick switch and a final fifty minute bus trip from Ofellia to Mitad del Mundo (clearly signed on the bus and they shout you off), a further $0.25. This final section of the journey took me out of Quito itself and into the surrounding sprawl of scrubland mixed in with modern gated communities, crumbling buildings splattered in graffiti (gotta love the happy Jesus!) and past the military base and police academy, all against a backdrop of mountains whose tips were hidden by low cloud.
On board the bus there was the usual intermittent sales patter and, not having been quick off the mark, I eyed the oranges that the woman next to me had bought. A guy placed a bracelet on each passengers lap to allow everyone to observe the craftsmanship and become a little attached to the handicraft before he returned with a demand for payment. Entrepreneurial touch. My favourite moment – or item – was the t-shirt that the girl selling ice-creams was wearing, which stated ‘Cristos es mi pasion’. It seems that Jesus Christ gets everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder whether, for a teenage girl, that Christ was in fact a good ‘passion’ or whether it was a temporary distraction before hormones got to her. Or maybe, more realistically, it was just a job, and just a t-shirt.
Arriving at El Mitad del Mundo you have the option to visit the official monument marking the equator, or the more quirky museum Inti ñan, which has now been recognised as having the actual equator line running through it. Finding it was a bit of a mission but we finally got there with half an hour to closing time.
We toured around the gorgeous gardens full of hummingbirds and games and local information with an American couple who, true to Slumdog Millionaire form, tipped the guide heavily (only later did I discover that it is customary to tip the guide). I learnt about the three remaining tribes in Ecuador, about old and new customs. I discovered that Ecuador used to be called Quito but that this was changed after they became independent of Spain in 1822, and that Ecuador means equal time with the sun rising and 6am and setting at 6pm every day. I revisited information about the Acceleration of Coriolis, about the cancelling effect of tornados and hurricanes on the equator, about the doldrums that frustrate the hell out of sailors. I walked the equator line with my eyes shut, I balanced an egg on a nail (successfully! – a certificate proves this fact!) and poured water down a plughole on both the northern and southern hemisphere.
It was touristy, but it was an hour of interactive fun with a good guide who led you through the experience.
On the way back, there was some confusion with buses and we ended up getting off at some random intersection as dark closed in. Not clever. A man in a suit would surely have been a good option to ask for directions, right? Wrong. He rattled something in Spanish before turning away, clearly not wishing to help us out. Thank goodness then for the traffic cops who gave us a pointer and taxi advice. That’s more in the Ecuadorian spirit to which I’ve become accustomed.