05.02.08 - Qosq'o (Cuzco)

Inca Adulation

There are few places which innately "feel like" the center of the known world and this is one of them.  Greek mythology places the navel of the earth in Delphi, where its powers equipped the oracle with foresight.  Polynesian culture settles the planetary belly button (also an "outtie") on the coast of Easter Island, while the Inca cultural belief endows the first Inca (ruler), Manco Capac, with finding the "qosq'o" right in the center of what Spanish colonization has linguistically morphed into the city name of Cuzco.  From the 12th century until conquest by Francisco Pizarro in 1533, Qosq'o was the capital and literal center of the Inca world.


It is not "corny" to aptly describe the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America as "grand". Qosq'o has become an amalgamation of firm Inca foundations, topped with colonial architecture.


The Spanish conquistadors took pride in leveling each Inca cultural center along the pillaging path, and where deemed appropriate, replaced native structures with imperial icons.  Such is the case with the cathedral of Cuzco, placed on the foundations of the razed 12th Inca's ruling palace.  


If one can set aside the conquistador bludgeoning of the Inca populous, the Plaza de Armas is stunning.  The central garden is the best kept I've seen in South America.  If you can find an open bench, sit and soak in the ambiance.  Anytime of day is perfect and you just might need the rest from the less dense oxygen availability at this altitude.  (I couldn't decide which "cathedral picture" to post, so you get them both.)


Look up to catch a glimpse of exquisitely crafted towers, ...


... or enjoy a fountain-side moment.  The senses seem to be stimulated by the emitting energy of this former capital city.


Befitting any major Spanish colonial center, there is no shortage of very large churches.  "Kitty corner" to the cathedral is the equally impressive Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus.  (I hear the tour is worth the effort, but we were all "big churched out", opting to enjoy the external architecture.)


Three main squares anchor the downtown and Plaza San Francisco could easily be spotted from Plaza Regocijo by sighting the bell tower of Iglesia de San Francisco.


We had three main objectives for the day:  (1) explore, (2) buy rail tickets to Machu Picchu, (3) find better accommodations.  We were well under way on the exploring front and found that Qosq'o has incredible restaurants and I mean that in a local and metropolitan comparison context, i.e. no holds barred this was good food, 4 stars at 2 star pricing.  So, filled with brunch we headed to find a hotel and the train station.


Historic Qosq'o is charming for a street plan hundreds of years in the making.  By modern standards, each street would be a tight single lane, which could even make a European flinch.  Taxi's and locals manage by driving extremely small cars and squeezing up to the sidewalks to pass stopped vehicles only on select streets.  For comparison, this was the broadest street I could find, which led down to the central market.  (Note the linguistic "middle ground" spelling on the hill side of "Cusco", replacing the Spanish installed "z" with the phonetically Incan "s". )


Western Qosq'o is known for artisan neighborhoods.  Hand crafted doors, painted in a blue familiar of the Mediterranean and the Moroccan Rif mountain town of Chefchaouen, pronounced their electric presence on the white building  backdrop.


On the way to the new hotel, Hotel Los Ninos, we passed through quadrangles dedicated to tailoring and then entered the music guild neighborhood.  (Note the harps carved into the balustrades above the entrance.)


After securing rooms, we headed back through the Plaza de Armas, and on to the train station offices, for information on train tickets to Machu Picchu.  Our backpacker sense of monetary perspective was STUNNED.  For instance, first class train fare is over $600 USD round trip or a more manageable $140 USD for "backpacker class".  Believe it or not all these tickets were sold out for literally months in advance.  So, our choice had become "find a way to the town of Ollantaytambo and catch a train from there for roughly $60 USD return.  The actual ticketing process takes hours of multiple quaying opportunities, but in the process we met a couple of Dutch guys and decided to split a cab tour of the Sacred Valley with them on the way to Ollantaytambo.  Success!  Now we were only a single day of touring away from one of life's great aspirational moments, climbing Machu Picchu.


05.01.08 - To Cuzco

Inca Indoctrination

Crossing the border from Bolivia to Peru one thing is definitely clear, the Peruvian tourist industry knows there's a difference between "cattle class" and "courting currency class".  For around twenty dollars one can take an ultra-modern tourist coach from Puno all the way to Cuzco.  I'm sure during "high season" this bus is packed, but for the less than a dozen passengers boarding today, it was portable luxury.  One ticket provides not only transportation but tour guide, multiple "point of interest" stops and a buffet lunch.  As much as I loved the rustic nature of Bolivian travel, "Vive la contrast!" 


Elevated by the potential of the day, Puno actually looked picturesque, passing by through UV tinted windows and low spectrum morning light.


Over the first rise, the shallow bay side depths of Lake Titicaca spawned thick groves of totora reeds. The volume needed to serve as a useful resource for crafting boats, houses, and floating islands now came into perspective.


La Raya, which is the highest mountain pass in Peru, was our first tourist stop of the day.  This location provided the first opportunity for bus drivers to "stretch their legs" as aside from the view, this gravel turnout is solely populated with eager craft vendors.


"Picture? Picture? ... Two dollars."  Well that's true if you stand with the actual llama.  This distance shot elicited a dollar donation to the cause.


Who couldn't help support the mother of this cute little girl.  It was perfect, we both spoke Spanish on the same level, so life was good and I got to learn all about her doll "Pedro".  She was so tiny, it was almost as if a "live doll" were carrying a plastic one.  However, there was no doubt as to which one was truly animated, with her child-like excitement and care for her "nino" companion.


Another hour and a half further down the road we stopped at a regionally impressive Inca (local spelling Inka) museum, where photography was strictly prohibited, with two exceptions.  First was the production and installation of "good luck" bovine caricatures along the roof line.  Hey, Germans cut a sapling and nail it to the highest point in a roof under construction, so who's to knock the Peruvians for having a differing luck avatar.


The other photo point was this historic timeline of native civilization, as compared to "Western" cultural development.  It was actually really informative, so feel free to "zoom in" and take a look at the parallels. 


Peru continues to be an arid land.  Maybe all the lush green pictures of Machu Pichu and the excitement to see this wonder have led to a visual "tourist bias".  With a little expectation clarity, the desolate ranch lands of Southern Peru are really quite spectacular...


... in the same way that the American Southwest draws its own beauty.


The day's schedule included almost hourly stops along the way.  Compared to the drone of a non-stop route, we welcomed the diversions and cathedrals would soon become the theme.


Architecturally, these stone and mud-brick structures dominate most of the small town skylines.  The detailed four-hundred year old effort caught both the sun and our eye.


Once inside, we learned a few cultural points from our local guide.  (FYI, "English Speaking Guide" is a very relative concept, but since we were traveling on a national holiday the "Spanglish" effort was appreciated.)  The "upside" of non-traditional guiding was to receive a slightly less edited perspective.  Our guide pointed to Spanish conversion efforts, as a controlling mechanism of the local populous (similar to the Potosi efforts in Bolivia).  In a convenient belief blender Mary was elevated as the Inca replacement for Pacha Mama or the deified Mother Earth.  Shiny objects, such as mirrors, were embedded in the altars to mystify the locals.  Ultimately, according to the guide, religious efforts were really about management and control of a native people as a submissive labor resource in the wealth mechanism of the Spanish Empire.


On a lighter note, Lipika and I were captivated by this blond stray puppy.  He was so good and cute we just wanted to... send him to a Vet, get all needed rabies shots, have him bathed, flea dipped, groomed... and then we might pet him... haaa.


Lunch was provided at a quite good buffet restaurant and came accompanied by our first real dose of the cliche Peruvian Pipe band.  Yes, you can hear a similar group playing "The Condor Passes" at any shopping area literally all over the world, but somehow hearing the music while actually being physically located in Peru was soothing.


Andahuaylillas was touted as the "Sistine Chapel of the Americas", by our tour group anyway, for the compliment of hand painted fresco walls.  It is good to be proud of local assets, but by this point, lunch had made many of us more interested in the museum facilities next door.


In the museum we caught an actual glimpse into an Inca nobility practice.  For some reason, the Inca thought it a sign of beauty and social standing to shape the skull into an extended conical design.  This process started with "binding boards" strapped to an infants cranium and continued until the post adolescent skeletal formation was complete.  That couldn't have been comfortable.


Our next to last stop of the day was Raqchi, the Inca temple grounds dedicated to the god Wiracocha.  The complex entrance was flanked with a beautifully sturdy volcanic stone Catholic church.  In moments, the source of material would be clear.


A maze of craft stalls slowed progress, but "high traffic" tourist locations provide for less aggressive vendors, leading to greater purchase intent.  Free to browse, I bought my sister a couple of curios for her "world travel" shelf.  The similarities of dress and physical manifestation between the truly native Peruvian people and Chinese mountain peoples is still striking.  The coloring and design of this hat reminded me of the Nashi women of Western China near Tibet.


The remains of the the massive Inca temple are few but towering.  Foundations are built from darker volcanic rock and sand stone, with true elevation gained from courses of mud brick.  This five story center wall must have been very impressive over five-hundred years ago.  (Currently, all historic brick walls are capped with tile roofing to help preserve the remains.)


The load from massive wooden beams would have been shared with supporting columns.  Note the volcanic stone base and transition to earthen bricks.  What is important about this is that the nearest source of this type of stone is over ten kilometers removed.  So every piece of stone was hand carried over six miles to this position.


Other, smaller buildings adjoin this main temple.  These structures are about two and a half stories in height and served as dormatories for temple virgins who attended religious instruction.  Similarly to the Greek custom, selection as a temple virgin granted very high familial esteem.    


Most of these "trainees" would not make it through the culling process. Many would be returned to their families, a few would be chosen as secondary wives to the Inca class of nobility, and equally remote were the dual possibilities of either becoming a polygamous wife to the Inca ruler or living as an "actual temple virgin".


The Inca civilization was socialist in many aspects, believing in certain "communal rights". Pivotal to successfully managing power was to insure that the populous was fed.  So harvest, by and large, became the property of the state, stored in time of abundance in anticipation of dearth.  Below are grain silos designed for the dry, high altitude, conditions.  Only the foundations of a few remain from over a hundred original buildings, hence the easy source of building supplies for the church building conquistadors. 


Last on our full day tour was a minor gift shop, home to a few incredibly soft alpaca.


Who could resist the opportunity to feed this bundle of white fluffiness.  (Check out the white eye lashes.)


If you've never had the opportunity to touch a baby alpaca, go out of your way to try it.    


There's nothing so soft and plush to be found in South America ...


... unless, of course, you are a lover of guinea pigs... but we all know what they are used for here.  (I don't think there will be any temptation to repeat last night's dinner any time soon.)


It is always an honor to be greeted by royalty, even if it is a 30 foot bronze Inca.  After a leisurely bus bound day, we were excited to be in the Inca capital of the world.  The setting sun added to the mystery of the location.  The thrill of exploration had returned!


And now for those who persistently pester for more moments of in depth "travel reality", here you have it.  Way back in the Bolivian Amazon Basin... a bar tender who had been a native of Cuzco recommended that we stay at his friend's hotel.  Well, in the tourist and backpacker heavy Inca capital, twenty bucks will get you a cot with transparently thin sheets, itchy wool blankets, no running water (actually intermittent) and a local family partying until four in the morning.  Yikes, we needed to do better.


04.30.08 - To Puno

Can You Peru?

The Bolivia / Peru border was surprisingly "right around the corner" from the city limits of Copacabana.  The bus stopped not more than ten minutes into our journey on the Bolivian side, where of course I was extorted once again by uniformed Bolivian officials.  Upon entrance, along with my $120 USD dollar visa ($100 official tax & $20 that the official demanded to complete the process in less than a week, realistically a two minute procedure) an entrance card should have been given.  With no entrance card it was difficult to make an exit.  No worries, the official simply charged me twice the posted fee.  Unfortunately, I only had about one and a half the amount in a mix of US and local currency, which he accepted without hesitation.  Enough, a simple walk through the arch and this petty thievery would be reduced to less than an inconvenient memory.


So, Peru received an open entrance gringo smile.


Hassle and Visa excise free Lipika seemed unfazed by the boarder crossing with an EU passport, focusing instead on a perky pup wanting a handout.


On the drive to Puno, we encountered an interesting phenomenon.  To the untrained eye, one wouldn't know that this was a major passenger van station.  It literally was a straight portion of road where vans pulled off on either side to exchange north and south bound goods and passengers.  Never mind that this was the only trade and passenger route north, we waited for the better part of 20 minutes for the vans to settle down and then allow southbound traffic to flow, before we finally started for Puno once again, via this artificially constricted single lane gauntlet.


I really wish that my perspective on the day could have been more positive, but in reality we definitely wished for more time in Copacabana.  So as needed as yesterday's rest had been, the palliative recuperation wasn't complete and we were both a little "cranky".  So Puno was reduced to just another town with a "Plaza de Armas" adorned with requisite cathedral, ...


... another "Parque" celebrating Spanish independence, ...


.. relatively historic rail lines, ...


... and a crappy hotel that would never live up to the Copacabana Cupola.  Interestingly enough, the tradition of making miniatures of what one desires and getting it blessed in Copacabana is alive and well in this neighboring city of Puno, Peru in spite of the necessary border crossing.  (Funny that the concept of wealth is still in US currency.) 


Progress towards these "blessed" goals is moving in the right direction.  The first two floors of the actual hotel are complete, so maybe the future floors will follow in time.


In reality, we hadn't come to Puno for the town but to visit the resourceful Uros People.  After decades of invasion and looting from the Collas and Incas the Uros took to Lake Titicaca.  The surrounding bay is filled with totora reeds, which have a natural buoyancy.  So instead of waiting until morning we joined a chartered evening cruise.


Along the channel our vessel passed a much more historic craft, the Yavari.  What makes this ship so impressive was its path to creation.  The Yavari is a British commissioned iron hulled, coal fired (or here in Peru dried llama dung fired) steamer, entirely reconstructed on the shores of Lake Titicaca from crated materials sailed around Cape Horn, delivered to the town of Arica and then delivered by train to the foothills of the Andes.  At that point, the thousands of parts were packed on mules and delivered to Puno, where it was reassembled for launch in the year 1870.  The Peruvian Navy abandoned the ship to mothball and rust until a non-profit acquired the vessel for conservation and reconstruction.  The hope is to have the roughly 140 year old ship ready for floating tours in a few years.


Safely off the coast of Puno, the Uros strategy (similar to that of the Venetians) was effective in limiting the raiding potential of their warring enemies.  A few hundred inhabitants still live on five main floating islands.  The central island comes complete with school and local government.  Guide books tout the tourist experience as "shockingly commercialized" and the exposure did have the marginal authenticity of a Waikiki luau.


As the boat pulled up along side the island, no one seemed to question the durability or seaworthy nature of the floating grass layers.  Ignorance may be bliss, so what the heck, I jumped off as well.


A local guide helped to shed some structural light on exactly how this aqua terra firma was constructed.  As it turns out the actual reeds are just a "top dressing" for the true firmament, a naturally occurring and harvested "peat layer" under the water fields of totoa reeds.  Closer to shore, buoyant cubes of root bound peat are cut, culled and towed by boat out to the floating islands.  The reed top layer is then pealed back and a new layer of peat is added and sown into the floating mass.  When a level layer is completed, then the top treatment of cut reed is replaced.  The deepest, under water, layers continually erode, so the replenishment process is continual and systematic.  Interestingly, the islands are not fixed but anchored via a system of ropes to the lake floor, therefore making them theoretically mobile.  (Structural demonstration model below.)  


The reeds are naturally moist enough for cooking ember placement directly on top of the surface layer, without fear of setting it or the peat layer afire. 


Despite commercialization by the Uros, a setting sun scene was really quite beautiful, releasing imagination of what historical "true life" might have been.


For today, could one expect anything less than electricity and televisions, even in this isolated waterborne environ?


I suppose the efficiency of solar panels makes a lot more sense than stringing underwater electrical cabling out to a moving populous target.


Technology advances in all forms, with lumbering reed boats being replaced by more nimble rowboats.  


As long as the tourists will spend a dollar, blame really can't be lain for the cultural equivalent of "strip malls" adorned with trinkets and hand woven goods.


And if the "strip mall" is fair game, then so is the "mom and pop" convenience store.


Lipika thought long and hard about this hand woven tapestry of native design, but ultimately "backpack space" prevailed and we left the island physically empty handed...


... but not without a few decent shots.  This red-eyed bird was practically tame and a beautiful specimen.


What's not to love about water, a setting sun, and reflections?


We were treated with a visual contrast of the historic man-powered reed boat (in the foreground), and the relative ease of a family pram, propelled by a single ten year old girl guiding her bow sprawled younger sister.


In spite of the "Disneyland Affect" the local Uros people were friendly and easy to release a smile, which at least made the experience for two sceptical gringos go a little more smoothly.


Back in Puno, this Cuy couldn't muster a smile, but not many things can after being deep fried.  Every year I try to eat something completely different and fried guene pig should fit the annual bill.   


Actually, in Peru, Cuy is a specialty food for celebrating festivals or special occasions.  Unlike the locals, who prize the skin and fat layer beneath, I stuck strictly to what dark meat could be found.  This was not exactly a filling meal and one not recommended for the gastronomically questioning.


Lipika was absolutely "not game" for the experiment, which is totally fine, however the highlight of the day was meeting up with Morgan and Kelly once again.  I love how travel plans can naturally overlap in continental travels, especially with good folk like these two.  We had traveled together in the Pantanal of Brazil and Samaipata, Bolivia.  They are fun natured Aussie's who tried one fried and one baked Cuy between them.  I think the general consensus was to "go for fried".  Smiles all around and that was a good way to end the day!