Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Nazca Lines, Peru – the Final Destination!

The Nazca Lines were created by three peoples – the Paracas (900-200 BC), the Nascas (200BC – AD 600) and the Huari settlers from Ayacucho (AD 630). The lines are so baffling because no one knows why they are there; some say it’s an astronomical calendar, others reckon they formed a running track and it is even thought that they could represent weaving patterns. However, none of these, nor indeed many other theories about their creation, stand up by themselves with absolute certainty, which I suppose adds to the mystic of these strange lines and paintings swept across the dry and arid Colorada Desert.

These enigmatic wonders that have baffled the world for an age drew us towards them like magpies to shiny things. It was yet another tourist site which we felt we must visit; we couldn’t leave Peru without seeing the Nazca Lines! So, as it would be our last bit of serious tourism we decided to treat ourselves to a trip with El Huacachinero hostel which involved spending 4 hours in a taxi, 4 minutes on a viewing platform and, as they are best seen from the air, 40 minutes in a light aircraft. Anticipating that we’d enjoy every moment of the $200 trip, we imagined ourselves deeply contemplating the significance of the historic wonders and we boarded the plane, albeit slightly nervous as Andrew tapped the structure remarking: “it sounds like a baked-bean tin”! We settled into our bucket seats, studied our ‘line maps’ of 18 numbered sand drawings and as the engine chugged into action we smiled with excitement!

Unfortunately, we had not reached number 4 of 18 before we were clutching our stomachs and the colour was rapidly draining from our faces. The plane hit air pocket after air pocket as the pilot turned at right angles to give the best views of the huge drawings of spiders, spacemen, condors and hands starring up from the desert below. We struggled to take photographs as the tin can bounced up and down like a rubber ball and at number five my only thought was how on earth I was going to get through the next thirty-six minutes stuck in a sweltering bean tin with severe nausea! Still it continued, the pilot enthusiastically pointed out all eighteen drawings. He also took the supposedly kind action of taking us an extra lap so that we could see a bird etching that wasn’t on the map, yay! Like everything though, we knew it had to end and that thought kept us going until it eventually did. The tin can bounced along the runway, the windows opened and we screeched to a relieving stop.

During our world tour we’d been stranded on New Zealand Glaciers, suffocated by tourists at more icons than desirable, clostrophobed in Thailand's caves and now we could add narrowly avoiding death by stupidly small plane to our list of misadventures! So, on the runway, I came to a conclusion - “that’s it for me and tourism” I declared to Andrew, “fine by me”, he responded contently. So when our taxi driver pointed out the Maria Reiche Museum on the return road to Huacachina, asking “you go?” “No!” was our unified and resolute response. She may have spent her life working tirelessly on these ancient enigmas and it’s all very interesting, but we’d literally had as much tourism as we could stomach. So finally, we admitted defeat and gave up to spend the afternoon sitting by the pool, ah heaven! 

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

La Oasis de las Americas – Huacachina, Peru

Arriving in Huaccachina after a five hour bus ride from Lima felt a bit like stepping out of Doctor Who’s tardis to find ourselves standing in the middle of a surreal tourist settlement, surrounded by trees and something which resembled the Sahara desert! The tiny village, with a population of just over 100, sits on a murky sulphuric lake said to have healing properties in South-Eastern Peru. The village is the creation of a legend which saw a beautiful native princess having a bath in the dessert, only to be disturbed by a hunter who frightened her so much that she ran away leaving her bath (the lake) and the sand dunes (said to be the folds of her cape) behind for tourists keen to enjoy one of two, or possibly both the following opposing activities – a) sand boarding or b) a bit of relaxation away from all the other hectic touristy places in Peru.

A few colonial buildings left over from the town’s early twentieth century hay-day line the pedal boat lake, along with the modern pizzerias and bars, which aren’t so pretty. Our aim in Huacachina was to relax and that we managed quite well by ambling around the lake and reading books by the pool in El Huacachinero Hotel, the most luxurious place we’ve stayed in South America! In fact, we managed to completely avoid overexerting ourselves apart from on two occasions – one involved a climb to the top of one of the 300 meter sand dunes to watch the sunset and the other, participating in one of the famed dune buggy and sand boarding trips which was wonderful fun and a great final adrenaline blast for our trip!

Feeling suitably relax we headed back to Lima, or rather attempted to! On our fated departure day we arrived at a very quiet bus station in the nearby city of Ica to discover that there was a roadblock on the Pan American Highway. There would be no transport to Lima that day. When we asked if we would be able to travel the next day, “quizas” was the received response. “Maybe” is not a word you want to be hearing when you are due to fly home in two days! Still we headed back to the hotel for the night, crossing absolutely everything and hoping that the university students causing the roadblock would either get their demands met or get bored as soon as possible!

The Lost city of the Incas – Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is one of those ‘places to see before you die’ and has even been named a new “wonder of the world”. Naturally we were intrigued, still although we knew we wanted to go there, our understanding of the site’s significance was minimal. In Peru however, we managed to learn a few things, including that Machu Picchu was built as a royal Hucienda for Inca Yupunqui-Pachacuti during his reign (1438-71) and that Hiram Bingham was the first foreigner of the post-colonial era to come across the site in 1911, guided by a local farmer and his son. He is accredited with ‘discovering’ Machu Picchu, however we could not help to wonder how much the farmer may have had to do with the ‘discovery’!

Nevertheless, to Bingham the discovery is accredited and Peru rail, the company who monopolise rail travel to Machu Picchu, have even named their elite train service ($500 a pop) after him! Needless to say $500 was slightly out of our price range but thankfully they have a “backpacker” service, at a mere $48 each way (tone: tongue in cheek). So, we hopped on for a three-hour journey through stunning Peruvian countryside to Aguas Calientes, where we would spend the night in order to get up extra early for Sunrise at Machu Picchu.

We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the afternoon rain, so arguably we saw the town in its worst light. However it is my opinion that it’s not possible to see Aguas Calientes in a positive light – a town built only to serve tourists. Set in beautiful mountains, they might have gone to some effort to blend the tourist trap into its surroundings, but no, they’ve whacked up these horrendous, haphazard buildings with breezeblock facades and called it a day. We reluctantly spent a whole afternoon and evening in Aguas Calientes - a crime against nature, beauty and the environment!

Having totally copped-out of the four day Inca Trail hike we got up at 5 am the following morning and walked up the steep hill to the ruins, in order to feel at least some sense of achievement! It was a gruelling couple of hours to say the least but walking up Inca steps through the trees was enchanting. We entertained the ridiculous notion that we’d be stepping into the past visiting Machu Picchu, only to have our dreams shattered at the top of the hill by a jewellery shop, a buffet restaurant and an entrance kiosk which would not have looked out of place at Disney World!

Still as for Machu Picchu itself, all the photographs would not substitute seeing it for the first time with our own eyes. We spent our time at the ruins trying to find quiet spots from which to contemplate the magnificence of this archaeological feat. This proved to be far more difficult than anticipated in amongst the masses of tourists discussing everything from the strength of the Euro to their jobs and I am sad to say that Machu Picchu failed to move us in the way that we wanted it to. Perhaps because of a lack of knowledge or because we are coming to the end of our trip and running out of steam, but try as we might, we just didn’t get the awe-inspiring feelings that we thought we would from being there. That aside however, as the visit to our last big tourist icon goes, it was magnificent and a great place for a bit of people watching –God knows there were plenty of us there!

Cusco, Peru

“’It’s amazing how the place changes so quickly”. Andrew said as we passed from the rubbley, dusty Cusco outskirts, bustling with everyday life into the colonial city centre of churches, cathedrals, up-market restaurants, hotels, museums, markets and even a McDonalds. We chose to stay on top of a ridiculously steep hill and at over 3,000 meters that presented problems in terms of making it up the hill everyday whilst retaining the ability to breath! Still, from the “Walk on Inn” we had a lovely view of the city and the surrounding green hills covered in disorderly orange roofed homes constructed with little consideration for neighbouring houses, the builders apparently thinking only of the best angle for the sun!

Cusco has a reputation for being the gastronomic centre of Peru, a title well deserved. So between lovely food (frequently at the Inka Grill!) and Christmas shopping in the markets we managed a little bit of good, honest sightseeing. Our most interesting escapade was a tour of Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús, A Jesuit church built on top of an Incan Huaca. We wandered around looking at alters covered in gold leaf and, as we gazed upon paintings of crucified Christs, all seemed very normal and church-like, up until the point that was, when the guide revealed that that the particular the painting we were looking at was of “the Jesus of Earthquakes.” Now even with my brief stint in Sunday school I knew that there was only supposed to be one Jesus and it soon became apparent that Peru has a dual belief system that combines ancient beliefs with the Catholicism which the Jesuit’s brought to Peru. So to retain aspects of their traditional religion, the Peruvians masked their Gods with Jesus’s, Mary’s and a whole host of angels. We thought it showed amazing resilience and ingenuity!

Cusco also has a reputation for being a bit dangerous, our guidebook, for example, told us that “strangle muggings and rapes are frequent”; not just that they happen (scary enough) but they are frequent! Fortunately, however, we never felt intimidated in the city, despite venturing out after dark every evening (something which the guidebook warned against). We did, however, get the feeling that the police were holding something off as they stood, guns in holsters, on every corner.

As with all tourist centres there’s a lot of hassle in Cusco – workers wanting you to eat at their restaurants, stay at their hostels or be massaged by their masseuses! Little girls wanting you to take their pictures with baby alpacas, little boys selling painting, greetings cards and shoeshine, women selling textiles and men selling tours and Ray Bans. You can’t escape it and it all adds to the atmosphere!

Cusco is a beautiful city full of interest, yet our initial journey through the outskirts led us to the realisation that it was a city whose most beautiful face was reserved for tourists en-route to Machu Picchu. The local people, who held greatest claim to it are relegated to the half built houses we’d seen on the way in a few days previous and that left us, as tourists, with some awkward feelings to deal with.

Monday, 21 December 2009

To Tour or not to Tour? That is the Question – Puno to Cusco, Peru

Taking part in tours whilst travelling is a topic hotly debated within traveller’s circles and we felt that our journey from Puno to Cusco presented the perfect opportunity to reflect on the nature of bus trips. Sites of interest on our ten hour, 228 mile “Inka Express” tour bus included San Sebastian museum; a photo stop at the 5,700 meter Andean peak Apu. Chimboya; Wiracocha’s palace, Raqchi and Andahuaillias – “the American Sistine Chapel”. We have even come up with a list of bus trip pros and cons for travellers based on our Inka Express experience, here they are!

The guide: shares the historical and cultural background of sites visited, which greatly enriched our understanding of Peruvian culture. Our guide spoke both Spanish and English and flitted happily between the two.
Bus toilets: that actually worked and got serviced!

A high level of security: which meant we weren’t worried about being robbed on a route, an issue for some people we’d met.

Seeing things we wouldn’t have had we been on a local bus: the Incan town of Raqchi was particularly impressive!

Feelings of inadequacy: As we boarded a bus full of people on their two week Peruvian break we suddenly felt extremely self conscious, in ripped jeans, surrounded by people significantly better dressed than us!

Molly-coddling! There’s lunch, tea, first aid, a ton of oxygen and, had we not had a place to stay in Cusco, they would have helped us out with that too! Whilst these things are pleasant, we don’t think we would have enjoyed being ‘looked after’ like this for our whole trip, as figuring out how to do things for yourself is all part of the travelling experience.

Cheating? The word travel comes from the French ‘travail’ – meaning ‘to suffer’ and over months of travel we’ve come to understand why this is the case! Still, ever since Thomas Cook took his first tour group to Loughborough in 1841, tourists have been able to avoid some of this inherent suffering through handing over the cash! As “backpackers’ we were haunted by awkward feelings that organised tour = cheating and we found ourselves in a sort of cash for honours type scenario. Somehow it didn’t feel hard enough when the harsh reality of travelling had been removed.

Bleeding: Don’t get us wrong, we like contributing to the local economy, but there were so many opportunities to part with money on the tour that it became comical. At every stop were souvenir sellers and even when we stepped inside the church at San Sebastian the ‘donation’ box was forcefully thrust in front of us. At lunch at the, on-route, purpose built restaurant, we were subjected to a really contrived traditional Peruvian panpipe/guitar performance which consisted of two guys in traditional dress banging out favourites such as Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’. Afterwards, of course, we were much obliged to give a tip before the men changed back into their jeans and baseball caps and went home!

So, to tour or not to tour? That is the question. We certainly would have had a different experience of Peru if we did it all by tour. Still our little Inka Express trip was quite pleasant, it didn’t break the bank or do any permanent damage to our travelling street-cred. However, after travelling for nearly 11 months, that little bit of luxury just may have helped to keep us sane!