Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Peru- Machu Picchu

Craig Writes;
23/03/13. Shuttle bus to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Machu Picchu. Great little town with the Urambamba river coursing by on it's way to join the Amazon, it's the last stop for people who are walking the 40km Inca Trail and it's where the road finally runs out. It's only trains from here. We're 2800 metres up. In the Inca days this was the place where the nobility lived and was a personal estate of the Emperor.  During the Spanish invasion this was one of the last strongholds. There are many dwellings being used today that date back to the 15th century. Our train ride was only about an hour to Aguas Calientes where it's a short bus trip up the Hiram Bingham bus route to the ruins. Hiram was the American explorer working for Yale University who rediscovered the ruins in 1911. 

We met a lovely couple from South Africa on the train here. Hello Sergio and Estelle if you get to read this. Yes we will let you know when we're heading to South Africa and hopefully we can catch up.
Train food cuisine..yum
I have to mention our hotel here, The Andina Luxury. In a span of 50 metres they have crammed in a sidewalk, a train track, another side walk and a hotel. Bloody marvellous piece of planning. Your room is either facing directly onto the train tracks which run from 4.30am to 10pm, regularly, or onto the Urabamba River which screams and shouts it's way  literally at the bottom of your balcony 24/7. We chose the River thinking, being a regular noise we'll get used to it.  We did, and the view was spectacular.

The view from our balcony 
Path, train track, path, hotel in less than 50 metres...brilliant
The building of Machu Picchu  started in 1450 and was never really finished. The quarry at the top near the Temple of the Sun has unfinished monoliths and piles of stones separated and ready for use. It was inhabited from the beginning and construction continued around the residents over more than 100 years until they suddenly left in 1572. The population was small, only around 800, excluding the thousands of villagers who came and went during the building process. It was a place for intellectuals, philosophers, doctors, astronomers and scientists. Not a place for the ordinary person. It is thought the Spanish conquest of neighbouring Ollantaytambo spooked them and they left and headed to the Amazon. Ironically  the Spanish never discovered it and to this day you have to wonder if they ever would have and what could these people have  achieved if they had stayed.

Us and Machu Picchu

WOW !!
We arrived via a very narrow bus route, several times stopping and reversing to let other buses pass. The drop down the side is too far to even contemplate. A bit like the line to get in when you finally reach the top.
It's a long drop
But, like you would expect of Peru's major tourist  attraction and one of the new Wonders Of The Ancient World, it's well organised and things move quickly. The city is divided into two sections, urban and agricultural as well as an upper town and a lower town.  The religious temples were in the upper town. 
There are about 2500 people a day visiting Machu Picchu but the city is that vast that you can easily find a quite corner to sit and contemplate what life must have been for these incredible people. It could have easily accommodated more people and they grew up to four times more food than they needed, becoming experts at long term storage of grains and potatoes. 
The lower buildings weren't to fancy but they're still standing after 700 years
All made out of one massive piece of stone.
You can not get a blade between these joins.
What stands Machu Picchu apart from say, the Roman Forum, Angor Wat, Angkor Thom or just about any other amazing ancient ruins you can think of is the geography. The city is at 2500 metres and sits in the saddle of two mountains, Machu Picchu, the old mountain, and Huayna Picchu, the young mountain, with another massive mountain to it's back. It looks down two valleys with the raging Urubamba river forming a loop at the bottom. The site was chosen because it looked east and the Sun God was their most important and powerful god. It also didn't hurt that there was a natural spring at the top of the mountain which would gravity feed all of their water requirements. They built an ingenious aqua duct system to deliver water to sixteen major points in the village.

 I wonder how many slipped over the edge trying to build those terraces
The original Inca aqua-duct still runs today
It was a perfect day to be there, warm but not hot and with clear blue skies. We went back in after lunch and the crowd had thinned considerably making the experience seem just that little more personal.
24/03/13.The next morning when we thought we'd get up early, 4.45am, to catch the very first bus up before anyone else got there. HAHAHAHEHE. What were we thinking. For a start it was raining so we had to buy some plastic poncho rain coats. Good to see capitalism at work here. A poncho in the hotel was 3 Sol, at the bus stop it was 5 Sol and once they had you up on the mountain it was 7 Sol. Brilliant. We got to the bus stop a little  before the first bus was scheduled to leave and joined the back of a cue a couple of hundred long. Still, a couple of hundred was going to be better than a couple of thousand.  It didn't take long as we surged up the mountain side to see that this was a vastly different day to yesterday. The morning mist from the river had risen to completely shroud the city. It was like the place had been packed away in cotton wool for the day. I felt sorry for those who had made the four day trek to breach the Sun Gates and see....nothing. But isn't Mother Nature a tease. A soft breeze would come through or a light shower and there she would be. Mystically appearing through shedding veils, slowly revealing herself to you, then, just as quickly, gone. Consumed by the mist. It is such a magnificent site to see in broad daylight. For us it was different. We were seeing both sides of the mountain and the city.  We have been so fortunate on this trip with weather, opportunities and the people we have met. This was another great blessing.
Pity the poor buggers who trekked four days up a mountain to see this.
What a difference a day makes
A travel day today, we leave the Andina Luxury in Aguas Calientas for a train trip back to Ollantaytembo and then a bus ride up to Cuzco for an overnighter. Next stop Ecuador and the Galapagos.  Well silly me for thinking it was going to be a simple little train ride back to Ollantaytempo. I don't know why no has thought about it before, but what do you do with a train full of captive potential customers in the middle of the Peruvian countryside. Why you pull over off onto a side track and stop, crank up the Peruvian pop on a crappy sound system that sounded like the one I had in my bedroom when I was ten... and put on a fashion parade. Oh yes indeedy. A fashion show.  $100 to anyone who that's happened to before. But, before they could shake their little toush on the catwalk, a guy dressed up in a clown suit with Christmas tree beads hanging off him, a giant Spider man logo on the back and a clown wig and face straight off a Steven King novel came and did a little gig up and down the carriage. Not content scaring small children he starts pulling unsuspecting women, including the foxy one, from their seats to do the Spidey Boogy.  Sorry I didnt get a shot of that one.
Scary Spider guy
After "IT" had emotionally scarred everyone under five and disappeared into the toilets it was a quick change of dress for our cabin attendants into the latest in Baby Alpaca fashion. "Here mister feel how soft this jacket is". So I did and then ran my hand up his arm and gave his bicep a little squeeze. " Ooh such big muscles I said", he smiled nervously and moved off, quickly. When he came back I told Christina I was going to go for one off his pecs but she said no. And that's how it was for the next fifteen minutes. Up and down, more jackets, scarfs and shawls. Finally, the train started to move, but it didn't stop there. Oh no. Next came the big sell. They started wheeling clothes racks down the isle and if you had been foolish enough to say " yeh that's really nice", or "yeh I like that", during the Milan in Peru show they were on you like snow on Santa. I told Christina if he didn't go away I was going to squeeze his inside leg.  Fortunately he finally took no for an answer and saved us both a bit of embarrassment.

Finally a bit of crap comes our way. We get dropped off in the centre of town at the wrong hotel on the eve of El Senor De Los Temblores, the biggest Easter Procession to hit Cuzco. The place is starting to fill up and we cant get a taxi to take us close enough to our hotel. Much ringing around, many frowned looks and furrowed brows later we get our agents in Peru, Condor Travel, to change our reservation to a hotel just down the road. We wait "patiently" on the narrow road side where the ratio of carbon monoxide to air would be 50 - 50 at best. Finally a little fella pushing a whopping big trolley comes weaving down the sidewalk, throws our four suitcases on with the ease of a circus strongman and we follow him duck like back up the path to our "new" hotel. The Procession sounds interesting so we lock the boys in their room with water and Pringles and head off the few blocks to The Plaza De Armes where the crowds are starting to gather.
The crowd slowly starts to gather

And we've got a primo spot to watch
It's still two hours away and all the restaurant balconies around the square are filling up. We spy a gap at the Plaza Grill and Pancake and steam on in just squeezing in front of another couple who had the same idea. Here we settle overlooking the square drinking Pisco Sours and eating Chorizo and fries and caramel pancakes with coffee.  By the time the Procession starts there must be 100 to 150 thousand people crammed into the square. It's like someone kicked an ants nest.
We were expecting a Mardi Gras of floats
They are swarming in from every side street and they don't stop till people in the middle start popping out the top. And the big attraction? No big fancy floats with spectacular nativity scenes or giant rabbits dispersing Easter eggs to the masses, not even a benevolent looking Jesus look alike waving to the crowd and uttering heavenly blessings.  Nope, just a giant illuminated Black Jesus being carried by about 40 people, very slowly  around the square of The Plaza De Armes.
Black Jesus makes his big entrance
Being a card carrying "non believer" of your commercial brands of religion, the religious significance is lost on me but the spectacle of so many people coming together to share their faith is very powerful. While I don't share their beliefs I do have a great respect for faith, in whatever form that takes. 

Nothing day, flew then flew some more till we landed in Quito, Ecuador. If God had a Lego set and a lazy sunday arvo he would have built Quito and stuck it up on top of this mountain.
Another lazy day, packing for Galapagos, got some laundry done, just the two of us went out and I ended getting a new hat and foxy got a new ring. Coffee and chocky and back to journal. Early start tomorrow. 4.50am pick up so alarm set for 4.20am. uuurrrggh 
New hat :)
New ring :)

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Peru, Buy or Die; The Smiling Assassins of Chinchero

Craig Writes:
20/03/13, We spent a night at the The Dorado Plaza in Iquitos before an early morning flight back to Lima Airport, a quick transfer and onto Cuzco. Wow, what an amazing contrast to Lima. While our previous views were mountains of grey dirt towering over plains of grey dirt, the feast for our eyeballs was now towering snow capped mountains, lush green valleys and fields, small scattered lakes dotting the landscape and terraced hillsides stretching way up the mountain sides. 

The air may be thin up here but it's sweet and pure
We were met at the airport by Eduardo, a trainee guide who has forsaken a career as a lawyer to become a travel guide. Nice to see someone following their passion and not just the big bucks. Cuzco is high at around 3500 metres. Our plan was to go down to Urumbamba at 2800 metres to try and alleviate the dreaded altitude sickness that hits most tourists. Head aches, dizziness, vomiting and shortness of breath can hit you a little or a lot. We got a little of each, except the throwing up, but a couple of cups of Coca tea, made from the leaf of the local Coca tree, a couple of Coca lollies and some Nurafen and all was well.
On our way down the mountain, Eduardo made the customary drop into a weaving workshop in a small mountain side village called Chinchero that produced and sold a range of quality Alpaca products. Hats, gloves, scarfs, jackets, shawls, bags and much more. 
Just a fraction of the stunning things you can do with Alpaca
We're bringin' sexy back, oh yeah

They clean the wool, spin the wool then dye and weave it the way their ancestors have been doing for centuries. At the final stage the wool is threaded through the shuttle with a human forearm bone.  Apparently it belonged to the last tourist that came through and didn't buy anything from the shop. Our young stocky host fixed me with her deep black eyes and smiled when she said it and all the old girls around her gave a cackle.  We bought a heap of stuff anyway, just in case. 

Washing the freshly scalped "wool"
Beware the innocent looking nanna ninjas 
The finely honed bone of a tight tourist? We weren't taking chances.

On the drive to the hotel we passed cows grazing on the road verge, fields of corn, barley, oats and terraces full of potatoes stretching hundreds of metres up steep mountain sides. There are over 70 different varieties of spuds in this region and they cook them 70 different ways. An old man with a stock whip in one hand and a long switch in the other casually pushes a handful of scraggly old mules and a couple of large black bulls along the roadside. The housing is rustic and the roads a bit shambolic but the air is clear and there is a nice casual energy to the place. Things are a little different once you get into the township.
The prettiest thing about Yanahuara are the green slopes of the giant mountains surrounding it. Apart from that, The town is dusty and a little broken down.  The Casa Andina is an oasis of lushness amongst it all. Very modern restaurant, good well equipped gym and beautiful grounds. Our rooms were waayy up the back but no complaints. We had the Mountainous Andes surrounding us on three sides.

One of the views from our front balcony
While the hotel is great you are pretty isolated. Outside the gates of the hotel the roads  are dusty, bumpy and unfinished. It all looks a little dodgy. When the guide says, " it's probably best you stay in the hotel", it's probably best you do. If we were staying here again we would definitely investigate accommodation at Ollantaytambo. It's the little town those doing the four day Inca Trail Walk leave from and only 25 minutes from Yanahuarra. While bustling it's not been over cooked with tourists and oozes charm and affability. There's lots of restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

21/03/13. We weren't getting picked up 'til nine so we all took the chance of sleeping in before we met our new guide, Abdon. An older softly spoken fella with a vast amount of local knowledge and one of the few in Peru who still spoke Saskatchewan, the original Inca language. Our first stop this morning was the Ancient Inca Fortress of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is approximately 100km long and runs from Ollantaytambo to Pisac. We're going to both today.

Girls from the local netball team in Pisac
Ollantaytambo wasn't originally a fortress. It was one of many scattered villages of the Inca Empire where village life was more about growing crops, studying the night skies and holding religious ceremonies. The village was at the base of a set of massive terraces where crops were grown. On top of the terraces were the main priests quarters and the centre for the religious ceremonies. They worshiped the mountains, the rivers, the water, the trees, the sky and various other deities. Although they worked in gold, silver and bronze these were just as adornments and as religious symbols. They had no currency and held sea shells in higher regard as a trading or bartering item than anything gold or silver. They also had no written language which is why they are such a mystery today. The complex itself is an amazing feat of engineering. The massive Porphyry Pink Granite blocks were bought from a granite outcrop on a mountain some seven kms away. Some of these blocks weighed several tonnes. The Wall of the Six Monoliths and the massive Platform of the Carved Seat were made from single blocks of this beautiful stone. 
Our first taste of the world of the Inca
What could they have achieved if they'd just been left alone?

We climbed it once and were knackered, they did it every day, often.
It is estimated it took 20,000 to 25,000 people up to 35 years to build. But these were not slaves or enemies in bondage. They had a system called minas where people from surrounding villages would come and work for 6 - 8 months, leave and be replaced by others until the job was done. The village when complete only had about 500 residents.  The outstanding feat of engineering here was not just how they managed to transport such massive blocks down one side of a mountain and up another, but the construction itself. The joins between these huge blocks were perfect, you couldn't get a knife between them. The granite edges were rubbed smooth using a stick, sand and water. It is inconceivable to think how long it would have taken someone to sand the rough edge of a block of granite  to a smooth flowing curve...and hundreds and hundreds of metres of them. 

The village was only transformed into a fortress when the Spanish arrived. Originally when the Spanish came to town the Incas greeted them with open arms because they had been further north wiping out other indigenous tribes who happened to be Inca enemies. It didn't take long though before they realized that the Spaniards lust for gold and conquest included them. Three years later they were in a war which was to last 38 years. A war they were to lose and that would eventually end Inca civilization and culture.

The Incas were a small ambitious nation who's roots stem from the tribes of Lake Titicaca in the 12th century. They came into their own in the 15th century when they started to win some key battles against larger neighbours. At the end of the 15th century the Inca civilization had conquered all before them becoming a great nation and at it's height had a population of between 12 and 15 million people. Many being members of conquered nations who rather than being slaughtered in a wholesale manner were assimilated into Inca culture. By the time the Spanish had finished their conquest, raping, pillaging and murdering their way across the country, 90% of the population had been wiped out. Many falling victim to introduced diseases. They must feel very proud. The Spanish Conquistador system to introducing Catholicism was to enter a country, steal the resources from that country, murder or enslave it's occupants, outlaw and demonize their religions and destroy their temples and houses of worship. When that's all done and their depleted and on their knees then start to evangelize them in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy F@#king Spirit. I wonder if at anytime during their Holy Crusade to enlighten the "savage" they stopped to pray for the souls of all the men, women and child slaughtered in the name of their rotten as a dead fish religion? It makes me mad just thinking about it but they weren't the first or sure as hell aren't the last to do despicable things to others in the name of religion. Short sermon over!

It was still an impressive place to be. I can't wait for Machu Picchu. From here we stopped for lunch at a very nice little place with Alpacas and Llamas, to see, not eat, and they had not one, not two, but five enormous beautiful Macaws. 
The most beautiful birds in the world
Ten bucks if you can spot Callum, twenty if you find Charlie too.
The food was great and I had to buy a couple of CD'S from the guy blowing his pan flutes in the lobby. Nothing says Peru like a  few pan flute tunes . From there we were in the car for an hour or so  to the other end of the Sacred Valley to Pisac to visit the markets there. Nice enough but just another set of markets. Highlight for me was I found a natural health foods store down a little alley that sold genuine Peruvian Macca powder, Camu Camu and Chia seeds. Three of mother natures greatest gifts and I've missed them since leaving on our journey.

Today we are off to the old Inca sites of Moray and Maras. We are back up to 3500metres and you notice the difference. Not only in the shortness of breath but also that your now looking across the fields to the clouds and in some cases down a valley into the clouds. Moray is another example of what these amazing people could have achieved in the long run if they had been left to develop the obvious talents they had and not been forced to spend their efforts and lives trying to protect what was theirs. In a large depression in the ground, which they excavated further, they build a multi-terraced experimental agricultural station. The temperature difference between the top and the bottom was 15 degrees C allowing them to experiment with crops that would not normal grow in the colder temperatures of the Highlands. Here they would propagate new seed varieties that if successful could be taken out to the fields and planted. It had it's own irrigation and drainage systems and showed remarkable foresight.

Yes, that's us in the middle
I hate to rant but really, how clever is this
These steps maybe not be up to code but they'll be here in another 1000 years
After Moray we headed back down the dusty narrow track to Maras. A dodgy bit of road if ever I've been on one, and with a several hundred foot drop of the edge if you're not too careful. Abdon said he has had clients in the past who have started down the road then told him to turn back rather than risk the full journey. We thought we would take our chances so on we ventured.
This place is incredible. Approximately 3000 small salt ponds, all about four metres square and no more than 30 centimetres deep. Since pre Inca times salt has been harvested from these salt ponds. They support the local village where every family is allocated it's own salt ponds to work and harvest. We were allowed to walk a small trail to the source of the warm salty water that has for many many centuries supplied countless tonnes of pure salt to those sturdy enough to harvest it. It is the most unassuming little hole in the ground with a slow regular flow forming a stream no wider than two hand spans and one span deep.

From this tiny hole...
And this tiny stream...
That's it, and the flow has not changed in centuries.  While many have tried to find it, and every one has a theory, the source is still unknown.

Comes this..
And this...and for over 1000 years.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Amazon Pt Three; WARNING; Contains nudity and poo

Craig Writes, 18/03/2013. When we arrive at Monkey Island the rising waters of the river have flooded it to knee height so it's off with the shoes and roll up the shorts.  This is a sanctuary island to help restock the numbers of some endangered species and as a refuge to monkeys recovered from the black market.

Monkey Island
We met and played with Spider monkeys, Howlers monkeys and Woolly monkeys and the most bizarre looking thing called a Red Faced Bald Uakari. Looks straight out of a Star Trek episode. We got to feed them and had them jumping all over us. I was wearing one as a hat for a while. 

This guy just cracked me up
By all means throw something up, but I'm not comin' down
This one ended up in my back pack
Monkey mooning
We got to hold the most adorable little Saki. Put your grandfathers face on a tiny kitten and add a really long fluffy feather duster for a tail and you've got a Saki. Cutest monkey you'll ever see.

....with a nice chianti and some fava beans, hey Clarice
Alas poor Jack Fruit, I knew him well
Cute and cuter
Geez, you'd give this guy your last breath, wouldn't you?

The curator at the sanctuary then bought out an eight week old Woolly monkey that looked like a tiny little gorilla. Every one wanted to hold her. She was so affectionate, so adorable, showering us with love and poo in equal amounts.  Callum held her first and for his troubles received the most "love", then, unaware at this stage of the special gift being deposited handed her to me where more "love" was deposited down the front of my shirt. All of a sudden everyone else became less interested in holding onto gorgeous miss monkey pants. 

Beware the cute clinging monkey
Told you!

After scraping the affections of our little friend off our shirts and giving them a good old fashioned Amazon wash we headed back to the boat for a great wind in the hair, cool ya down and blow your cares away ride back to the lodge. It's lunch in  a while and then off to a local village to get fitted for a customized blow pipe.

The Yagua's are an indigenous tribe who have lived in the area for many centuries. We were greeted by their chief who gave us a firm handshake and a toothless grin. The tribe is small, only about 30 people. A smattering of young men, bare breasted women with suckling kids on their hips, another around their ankles and the rest made up of elders.

The communal hut
Passing on the skills
Some gratuitous nudity disguised as ...something else
They were in their traditional grass skirts but I was a bit surprised when Orlando said this was just for us. When we go they will put on normally clothing. Kind of burst the bubble a bit.  Still, they were full blood tribes people which is rare and we did learn how a blow pipe and a dug out are actually made. We also got to blow a few darts from the chiefs own blow gun.
Damn these are long. If your dart didn't hit it you could just whack it with the end of your blow pipe

And the only one to actually hit the target.. nice blowing baby

There was a traditional dance in the enormous communal thatched hut but it seemed a little contrived and was lacking a bit of enthusiasm.  I tried to inject my own energy to get the thing grooving when they got some of us to join in but they didn't come along with me.
You cant say no when a topless chick asks you to dance
19/03/13 Up at 5.30am this morning, last morning on the Amazon, to catch the morning chorus as life on the river starts to wake. We grabbed a coffee and went and sat in the hammock house. A beautiful thatched roof open aired hut.

A stunning Amazon morning
A sliver of jungle separating it from the fast moving waters of the Amazon. 
Even as we walked down from the lodge with steaming cups in hand the eruptive sound of countless cicadas was astounding. Imagine the roar of a 100,000 soccer fans erupting and not stopping.  A family of eight Saddle Back Tamarind's came to play, jumping from tree to tree like tiny long tailed circus performers. Tupak came to visit, sniffing out some local vegetation to eat whilst waiting for the breakfast scraps. 6.10am. Almost on cue, the chirping of the cicadas stopped. The jungle appeared quiet until your ears started to suddenly pick up the myriad of sounds the dominance of their chatter had overshadowed. The odd little Wood Creeper with it's long beak and flipping tail feathers that folded in and  gave it the impression of having an actual tail. It had a beautiful song. Oro Pengula, a beautiful chestnut coloured bird with a bright yellow tipped tail, another glorious singer and the Lineated Wood Pecker with it's dazzling red Mohican head crest.  They all came out to say hello. Then life on the river starts. A young fella in a small dug out comes paddling quietly along the shore followed by two others in a larger one. It's not long before the zinging of the outboards kick in as some off the early morning tourists head out for the long journey up the river to ExplorNapo lodge for the canopy walk. It was glorious to sit there and see the mood of the jungle change as the sun rises and the nocturnal and daytimers change shifts.  

Our last boat trip out on the river this morning. We met Orlando at the Meeting House and headed off to see a natural lake which formed last year when the river rose.  The water lilies here are spectacular.  They're well over a metre wide and can grow double that size.

Giant Water Lillies
The local guides have reinforced the sandbank and added overflow pipes to maintain the lake in an effort to keep the turtles and caymans, the Amazon equivalent of a crocodile, in the lake.  If not for the reinforcing, when the river rises they will all flow into the river where poachers and locals are likely to hunt them. A guard house has been built to watch over them and is constantly turning hunters way.  The conservation spirit is alive and well here but they face an almighty battle.

Back in the boat and it was a general trip around in and out of various tributaries looking for that something special. It didn't take long.  The sharp eyes of our guide and driver spotting the invisible.  Way way up perched 50 metres on top of some branches catching a few rays was a full grown Iguana, easily 6-7 feet long. The branches barely look strong enough to hold a small Woolly Monkey, yet there this massive thing sits, still as a statue.

How the hell... this is easy 50 metres of the ground
Further down in the small cleft of another inlet, once again high up in the canopy was another Three Toed Sloth. But, not the small stationary juvenile we saw the other day clinging like a termite mound to the side of a tree, this full grown fella, easily four feet tall was hanging up side down by his toes fifty metres from the ground scratching himself, rubbing his head and swinging gently from one side to another. An absolute classic.