New Heights

Chilled Out Cusco

I had a great few days alone. After a somewhat bleary start, having woken up in the early hours to wave Sam off on his trek, the hovelling-myself-away strategy began to bear fruit and my writing picked up pace. I cooked a couple of large batches of pasta so that I wouldn’t forget to eat whilst writing, and spent a lot of time in the apartment, scribbling away. To make sure that I didn’t become such a hermit that moss began to grow on me or my ability to speak to other humans became impaired, each day I went for a wander. I visited San Blas, the artsy neighbourhood of Cusco, specifically to see the famed pulpit of the church there. It was indeed an incredible piece, painstakingly carved out of one trunk of cedar wood over more than twenty years during the 17th century, and combed catholic figures with more local aspects of life, such as Peruvian fruit, to appeal and relate to the indigenous population. Another day, I had a pampering afternoon, with a relaxing massage and manicure. Those of you who know me well will realise that me having a manicure, with my intense dislike of coloured nail varnish, is almost certainly the thing which has most pushed me most out of my comfort zone in the nearly nine months of travelling, even if I did wuss out a little and opt for clear nail varnish.

A very achy and slightly sunburnt Sam returned to me after four days, and we stayed in Cusco a little longer. In the evenings we enjoyed the night life, whilst exploring further during the day. We went on the free walking tour, an activity which I have really enjoyed in other cities, but though we visited a couple of places new to me, such as Bellas Artes, the art school of Cusco, I have now visited the city a total of three times and knew most of the details the guide told us and had visited the majority of the points of interest. I hadn’t, however, made it into the cathedral yet, a beautiful building on one side of the main plaza, which turned out to be a complex of three churches. The main cathedral sat in the centre, nestled on either side by two smaller churches. It was a vast space, with a ceiling made of a continuous series of arches, the grand goldwork usual of Latin American altars, and huge bunches of flowers placed around life size figures of saintly virgins.

The most unusual activity of our last few days in Cusco, was a trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas with a bit of a difference; instead of a sightseeing tour (as both of us were feeling ‘ruined-out’ after countless Inca sites), we opted to climb the Via Ferrata, a series of iron rungs drilled into the mountainside by professional climbers. At the bottom, we were given helmets and strapped into harnesses. Cesar, our guide, showed us how to clip ourselves into a safety wire running alongside the rungs as we climbed, so that if we slipped the fall was a maximum of five metres, rather than several hundred.

It took us over an hour to ascend three hundred metres up the vertical mountainside. Having both been rock climbers back at home, the experience of climbing the rungs was in some ways more nerve wracking, as we were used to climbing with our centre of gravity as close to the rock as possible, rather than up a ladder which required us to pull out from the rock face. Midway up, we shuffled across a wire bridge with a heart-stopping drop beneath us. At the top we sat on a ledge, still clipped into the safety wire, and ate our packed lunch whilst Cesar rigged up the rope for our descent. Our way down was a hundred metre abseil, a bouncy affair hopping from foot to foot down the rock face as Cesar lowered us each in turn.


Two Cities for the Price of One

After a couple of weeks spent in Cusco, we were ready to move on and pick up the pace, with Christmas imposing more of a time limit than we’re used to and forcing us to actually plan ahead a little more. Our next stop was the colonial city of Arequipa. The city centre was focussed around the most beautiful main plaza I’ve yet seen, with trees in blossom, a centre fountain of three tiers, each brim adorned with pigeons, a cathedral made of the white volcanic rock the city is famous for, an extremely large, glittery, and most certainly artificial, Christmas tree, all overlooked by the three volcanoes which surround the city.

The free walking tour was excellent. Our guide, with gestures even more flamboyant than Sam’s as Sam pointed out himself, led us a little way out of the city centre, across the bridge of Drawbridge Street. We walked along a boulevard lined with beautiful large houses, once the homes of Arequipa’s aristocracy before they up and moved to Lima in the 1970s, and came to the Yanahuara neighbourhood. This was a particularly charming district of the city, the buildings made of sillar, the white volcanic rock, adorned with hanging pots of geraniums and street lanterns with swirly designs. We slowly climbed the steepest street to a viewpoint, to take in the city and its volcanoes from a better vantage point. Next to the viewpoint, the façade of Saint John church had a subtle local addition: the traditional figure of the Baptist, carved out of white volcanic rock, held in one hand a guinea pig. We made our way back towards the city centre, passing a traditional local restaurant where dead guinea pigs, previously flattened by stones, were hung upon a line like stiff items of laundry. We bought a scoop of the local speciality, queso helado, from a street vendor. Literally translated, the name means cheese ice cream, but it is derived from the fact that the concoction looks like cheese, and thankfully tasted nothing like it, with hints of coconut, cinnamon, vanilla and clove.

During our further explorations of the city, the two of us also visited its most famous museum. In the early 1990s, the body of a young girl was found in the crevice of one of the volcanoes surrounding the city. Extensive archaeological investigations unearthed the bodies of four children in total within the same mountain, as well as many pieces of ceremonial pottery, figurines, and items of clothing. Similar finds have been discovered all over the area which the Inca Empire covered, with fourteen bodies found in Peru in total, all aged between 6-17 years old. The children are believed to have been sacrifices made by the Incas to the gods to stop natural disasters, handpicked from an early age specifically for their apparently appeasing good looks. When the time was right, they climbed the mountain along with priests, and after certain rituals it is thought a blow to the head ended their life and they were buried in a foetal position. The exhibits, such as the geometric designs and colours of the pottery, the small figures of llamas, the figurines of each of the children found buried alongside their bodies, and the incredible weaving of llama wool for their clothing, were amazing to see but Juanita, as she has been named, the most preserved body of the four children, was definitely the main attraction. She was housed in a darkened room, in a glass case especially designed to preserve her, half frozen over and curled up in the position she would have been buried in, her hair still amazingly intact, her skin stretched across her face, her teeth in place, her hands and fingernails shrunken but perfect in every detail. It was a strange and somewhat eerie thought to imagine the thousands of people who file through the museum every year to peer at the dead body of this young girl, especially when the culture which sacrificed her has long since died out.

While Sam had a more chilled out afternoon in our hostel one day, I chose to visit Santa Catalina Monastery. It was an incredible site, an extensive monastery spread across a whole block, a 20,000 square-metre complex, described as a city within a city. I began by walking underneath the silencio archway, which novice nuns passed under to begin their vow of silence. Throughout the complex, I passed through a number of courtyards, surrounded by arched walkways and with orange trees, crosses or fountains in their centre, and wandered along narrow streets hung with flowerpots, the walls either side painted either bright blue or a dusty red. I only saw a few other people as I looked around, so it almost felt like I had the place to myself, especially when I climbed up to a viewpoint and looked across the ‘city’. The buildings themselves were open to view, so I let myself get lost in a maze of quite large cells, kitchens, and the living quarters where the richer nuns would have lived along with a number of servants.

Another unusual and, for me, extremely exciting feature of Arequipa was an international book shop. I bought a couple of translated novels by a Peruvian author, to add to the collection of works by Latin American authors which I am devouring during the course of this trip, and I literally skipped out of the shop happily swinging the bag containing my new purchases.


The Colca Shuffle

The other reason to visit Arequipa is to trek the nearby Colca Canyon. The horrendously early start of 3 a.m. almost put us off entirely, but we napped along with everyone else in the minibus and arrived at the breakfast stop feeling a bit keener.

Once our minibus had entered the reserve, we were driving along towards the starting point of our trek when it suddenly pulled over and we all clambered out. With the fervour of the paparazzi, we began snapping photos of five condors circling on the currents close enough to us to see the detail of their eyes and the lumpy combs on the top of their heads.

At the starting point, our guide Omar introduced himself and the canyon. With a depth of 4200 metres, Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, and has a length of 120 kilometres. Our small group set off and were quickly greeted by breathtaking views down into the gorge and across the mountains of the range. The hiking of that first morning involved a steep descent into the canyon. Incredible magma formations in the rock revealed themselves as we dropped lower, like vast church organs or waterfalls frozen in stone. Unfortunately, only two hours in, I slipped on the loose rubble and fell. An already aching knee became a painful injury, and seeing as the next couple of hours were solely downhill, so that I repeated the same action which caused my knee to give way in the first place, I was in a lot of pain and had to go painstakingly and frustratingly slowly. By the time we reached our lunch stop, we were all extremely hungry and grateful to sit down.

The afternoon trek began on a more positive note, as a large portion was either uphill or flat, so I wasn’t persistently straining my knee with the same motion. We climbed up the opposite side of the canyon from our morning descent, taking in the views as the light began to fade. Omar taught us about local fauna, weird fruit and poisonous plants which he spotted along the way, and we even sucked little red pepper corns, which were surprisingly sweet tasting to start with. We then came to a long section downhill, to reach our stop for the night, so my pace slowed to a near hobble and when it became clear that darkness would reach our end point before I did, Omar instructed Sam to carry my rucksack and he piggybacked me for the last ten minutes.

Our stop off for the night was a gathering of small bungalows built in the lush greenness of an oasis in the canyon. Omar had me down there in time to relax by the pool, just before darkness fell, with the rest of our group who had, unsurprisingly, arrived quite a while beforehand. As the oasis had no electricity, once it was dark, the starry sky was extremely bright and incredibly beautiful.

An extremely early bedtime meant that the 5 a.m. start the next morning wasn’t as bad as it might have been. The lack of breakfast, however, became the killer. I had refused to take a mule up to the end point of the trek, stubbornly insisting that my body could cope. The final stretch of our trek involved an ascent of 1000 metres in altitude, an incredibly steep and heart pounding exertion, made more of a strain by the altitude. Upon discovery of a packet of biscuits in the side pocket of my rucksack, given to me by my best friend during my brief visit back to the UK two months ago, we hungrily munched down the crumby remains and had enough energy to push on to the top. The moment that the pathway eventually levelled out, the group felt unbelievably triumphant and after a sit down, we proceeded to the nearby village for the breakfast we had very definitely earned. The rest of the day, the minibus drove us back towards Arequipa, breaking up the journey with stops. We stopped by a market where we tried sancayo, the very sour fruit of a cactus. Our achy muscles were somewhat eased by an hour relaxing in some thermal baths. Later, during lunch in a small town, a parade in honour of the Immaculate Conception passed us by as we ate overlooking the main plaza. Each group of women, all dressed in the beautiful and intricately decorated local costume, was led by men dressed in the exact same clothes, a tradition derived from a time when men had to be creative in order to make their advances on the women without being noticed by the parents. We also climbed out of the minibus very briefly at the highest point during the journey back, which is also the highest altitude we have yet been on this trip: 4910 metres.


Plane Geometry

Slightly worse for wear but still in good spirits, we left Arequipa and moved on to our next stop, dropping to our lowest altitude in weeks and making our way nearer the coast, to the city of Nazca.

Nazca has one main attraction, a sight with which I have been slightly obsessed for the last five years, ever since I first visited Peru during my gap year travels.

The next morning, we were picked up and transferred to a very small airport where we watched a video about what we were going to see, then the two of us boarded a tiny, two-passenger plane, along with two pilots. We took off and levelled out over the Nazca Desert, and the pilots began pointing below us.

For the next hour we flew over the famous Nazca Lines, and the less famous and more recently discovered Palpa Lines. Even after decades of research, the lines remain a mystery. Vast figures, often hundreds of metres in size, have been created by lifting the reddish pebbles of the desert to reveal the white-grey ground beneath. These depict geometric patterns, human figures and animals, and are believed to have been created by the Nazca Culture between 100 BC and 700 AD, because funeral pottery found close by were decorated with very similar shapes (as an interesting side note, the Nazca are also believed to have practiced human decapitation as a sacrifice to the gods, due to collections of hundreds of severed heads also found in the area, as well as a grave containing a headless body). We circled over more than twenty figures: a whale with its mouth wide open, a monkey with a curled tail, a hummingbird recently scrutinised due to a publicity stunt by Greenpeace last week  (yes, you could see the damage to the surrounding ground), a condor with outstretched wings, a dog, a tree, a pair of hands, a spider, a figure commonly referred to as the astronaut which looked like a human with an owl head, figures depicting a man and a woman, and a small collection which looked like a family. What I had never realised before was that between all these figures, the desert and mountains are marked with thousands of kilometres of lines, crisscrossing and intersecting. The aerial view across hundreds of square miles gave us an appreciation of the sheer coordination and vision that would have been needed to create these figures and lines, and the fact that no one knows exactly what purpose they served makes them all the more enigmatic.


We will be back for another update after Christmas, but seeing as we are not sending Christmas cards around the world, we will sign off with this photograph by way of a sort of e-Christmas card, taken of a nativity set we found by the viewpoint in Arequipa. See if you can spot the subtle, local additions to the scene…

HAPPY CHRISTMAS! (ANSWER: a llama, alpaca and flamingo)


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