Saddened to leave our new, cute friends behind, but excited to be on the road, we caught a bus to our next destination: the city of Ayacucho. The journey took about eight hours, moving south-east along the ridge of the Andes mountain range. Although we had the luxury of a tarmacked road the majority of the way, it snaked with the contours of the mountains several hundreds of metres above a milky-blue river. The narrow road pushed our wheels so close to the edge at hairpin turns that we were afforded excellent views of the near vertical drop, accompanied by the speedometer’s urgent beeping, helpfully reminding us that we were approaching these bends over 90kmph. When we met a vehicle coming the other way, invariably a lorry or large bus to make the challenge all the more testing, even the locals sat up and watched with trepidation as we very slowly squeezed past. Luckily, neither of us are faint-hearted, and the edge of danger only served to make the incredible views all the more gratifying.
Upon reaching Ayacucho, and after trudging between four hotels and hostels which were all fully occupied, we found a beautiful hotel, housed in a colonial building centred around a courtyard. Ayacucho is the first slightly touristy place we have been so far together; even in Lima, we stayed in a non-touristy area and only spotted two gringos in a week. When we went to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, even with its balcony overlooking the beautifully illuminated main plaza, we could hardly stop staring at a WHOLE TABLE of gringos.
Whilst the city centre was picturesque, with narrow cobbled streets, colonial buildings, and a plaza of geometric grass triangles and flowering trees, bordered on one side by the 17th-century cathedral, its touristy sightseeing was minimal. We visited the two main recommended attractions: the Museo de Arte Popular, which consisted of one room of retablos (painted, wooden boxes depicting religious, rural scenes), and the cathedral, with its intricate goldwork altar, and threw in a trip to a viewpoint on the slope of one of the surrounding mountains, all within two hours.
As a contrast to the relaxing pace of these initial wanderings, the next day was full on and long. By 6AM, a minibus was driving us out of the city and high into the mountains. After a breakfast stop, we came to an area of blossoming Puya raimondii, the world’s tallest flowering plant. These plants live for up to a century, flowering only once in their lifetime, after which they die. They produce a flower spike, which can be up to 10m tall, adorned with eight thousand tiny white blossoms. As we walked amongst these giants, we saw examples of the different stages; some plants were brown or even black, having evidently flowered and decided to exit this world, albeit slowly, whilst a few, excitingly, were blossoming, the flower spike rising like a green bristle from the spiny leaves of the plant. Due to the fact that this plant is only found in the Andes, and at high altitude, it is also known as Queen of the Andes, as well as Dinosaur Plant by locals, as it is (incorrectly, I believe) thought to have survived from the same era as the dinosaurs.
The next stop in our tour of the area was Pumacocha, or Puma Lake. We climbed the mountainside to walk among the administrative and religious Inca ruins there, which featured the beautiful stone masonry that the Incans are famous for, as well as an observation point, a bathing area, explained to us as a place of purification for the ‘Incan and his wife’, a sun portal, and a stone on which offerings were placed. In a number of places, small sacred animals were carved into the building blocks of the stone walls; a puma, a llama, a snake; or else the large blocks themselves were arranged in such a way as to camouflage the form of a llama within the wall itself. The ruins overlooked the lake which the place was named after due to its apparently feline shape.
Our final stop of the day was the Incan city of Vilcashuamán. The ruins of the city have been built around and upon, so that a town, and its inhabitants, merge with the ancient architecture. Next to the main square, the ruins of two adjacent temples, one dedicated to the sun, the other to the moon, had been improved upon by the addition of a colonial church plonked at the centre of the worship site. Nearby, however, a ceremonial, five-tier pyramid remained intact, which we climbed to sit in the stone double throne, pretending to be the aforementioned Incan and wife admiring the surroundings.
The Road through Nowhere
Having enjoyed Ayacucho and the surrounding area, we spent the next few days working our way further south-east along the ridge of the Andes, with the odd, often out of the way, stop-off. We spent a couple of days in the city of Abancay, where tourists are such a rarity that whilst eating lunch in the garden of a restaurant one day, I turned to catch a fellow diner photographing us; you know, gringos out of their natural habitat. We had a travelling admin day, and enjoyed the fineries of a pizzeria, complete with wood-fired oven.
Nearby, we visited the Stone of Sayhuite, a large Incan boulder sat next to the ruins of a former temple. The stone was intricately carved with geometric patterns, mountains, rivers, the forms of animals, and I have since found out that the site was dedicated to the worship of water, so the shapes carved into this monolith depict the flow and life-force of water.
By a convoluted method comprised of collectivo (shared taxi) and private taxi, we made our way to Cconoc, a tiny outcrop set close to the bottom of a valley in the absolute Middle of Nowhere, only known to us because of its thermal baths. We booked into a room at the basic hotel there, and went to check out the water. Various pools were cut into and staggered down the side of a slope, with natural, gravelly bottoms and filled with water which can, at best, be described as lukewarm. We floated around for as long as my under capable body could heat itself, admiring the spectacular views. The next day, however, with its blazing sunshine, the baths really came into their own, not for their apparently thermal characteristic, but as a cooling relief. Evidently this fact was well-known, with the weekend bringing local families and a truckload (literally) of school children, so that each pool was full of jumping, splashing kids. We made a number of friends, from Peruvians visiting from nearby cities to a group of kids whose first language was Quechua (an indigenous Andean language), who crowded in for photos on the GoPro camera, which was initially guessed to be a whirring device to repel mosquitos.
A dodgy stomach made the three-hour journey to the city of Cusco one of the worst yet, despite its brevity, but eventually we were knocking on the faded, unsigned, blue door of Renacimiento, a small colonial building set around a courtyard which has been divided up into a number of apartments, which the low season has made affordable to us. We were shown to ours, a lofty white space with large windows, a royal blue wall at one end, mini kitchen at the other, and ensuite.
We took the next few days of sightseeing around Cusco at a leisurely pace; interspersed between the touristy activities we cooked our own food and relaxed in our apartment, wandered around the historic city centre with its beautiful main square and narrow, often steep, cobbled streets, and perused out-of-the-way markets we discovered accidentally, as we searched for necessary items for Sam’s upcoming trek.
We hired horses to explore a number of small ruins outside the city, hacking around the site of a large old fort. The view alone, across the city and surrounding mountains as we rode along, made the ride worthwhile. At a set of ruins where only one wall remained intact, we followed pathways worn into the ground between the rocks, to explore many small caves. At another site, we entered a ceremonial area inside the hill to see the slab carved out of the rock where llamas used to be sacrificed.
We visited the Qorikancha, once the richest temple and absolute centre of the Incan Empire. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they destroyed the majority of the site, alongside many hundreds of others across the city, and built a church and convent. As we wandered around the inner courtyard, the most striking feature, therefore, was the mix of stonework and style: Incan walls, made of stone cut so precisely that no mortar was needed and famously earthquake-resistant, merged with colonial archways and pillars.
There was a large collection of religious art from the time that the colonisers were converting the indigenous people, which demonstrated the intertwining of Christianity with local tradition: the Virgin Mary was depicted with a body resembling a mountain, as mountains were believed to protect the local people, or saints had a bulge in one cheek, from the coca leaves they were chewing. There were also a couple of pieces of more recent art. One depicted the Qorikancha as a bright white centre, with sacred lines, known as ceques, streaming out across the entire Inca Empire, marking the hundreds of sacred points, for example, a mountain, river, or temple. The other showed the milky way, much revered and observed in the Inca time, especially for its dark constellations (a type of constellation that does not feature in Western astronomy), such as a big black llama, shepherd, fox, or condor, which were believed to be inextricably interlinked with the agricultural harvest each year, and were therefore worshipped.
The importance of astronomy to the Incans was demonstrated by an evening trip to Cusco’s small but impressive planetarium. The place was a family-run enterprise, and the passion and enthusiasm of our guide made the evening one of our favourite experiences so far. We began with a short explanation of basic ideas. The Incas created the city of Cusco in the shape of a puma, believed to be a sacred animal, with a fort built at the head and the body crouched between two rivers which met and flowed together to form the tail. Within the city there used to be various astronomical sites, which focussed primarily on channelling the rays of the sun, to an incredibly accurate degree, on the most sacred days of the year, primarily the winter solstice, when the sun is farthest away and the Incas requested that it return to help their harvests.
We then moved outside to use a telescope. We looked at the moon, which elicited a gasp from each of us as at the beautiful clarity of detail, the view being close enough to see its cratered surface, as well as various others stars and clusters.
Finally, we moved into the dome, where we sat in the dark gazing at the bright constellations of the night sky projected all around us. Our guide used another projection to show us the constellations outlined with shapes, explaining the zodiac of mythological beings and animals, and then the constellations of the southern hemisphere in particular. Incredibly, the Incas’ stargazing was so accurate that they could predict the El Niño phenomenon (warming in the Pacific Ocean which occurs every two – seven years and has a profound, often destructive, effect on ocean life and weather conditions across the globe). Science nowadays has theorised that due to increased cloud cover as caused by a warm air current from the Pacific, the visibility of the night sky is affected during El Niño years. The Incas were so attuned to nature that they observed and understood the meaning of the reduced brightness and clarity of constellations.
I’m now gearing up for a few days of what will probably end up being extreme hermitude, as I hovel myself away in this beautiful apartment to write, having waved Sam off in the very early hours of this morning, for his few days trekking through the mountains along the Inca trail to reach Machu Picchu.
*Coming soon* Sam’s Section: the Extended Cut