Part 3


Pre-inca terraces, Colca Valley.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


We visit one of the gods




Our trip to the archeological museum in Arequipa gave us an introduction to the Inca cosmology which included the mountains themselves as well as the snake, the puma, and the magnificent Andean Condor. In fact, The main reason many tourists go to the Arequipa region is to visit the Colca Canyon. Until a few years ago, this was considered the deepest canyon in the world. The discovery of another canyon in the area that is deeper still has not dimmed the Colca's appeal, for the Colca is home to the Cruz del Condor (condor's crossing), an area where the endangered Andean Condor still soars.



Woman offering traditional crafts, Colca Canyon.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


To get to this remote area, we first traveled by car for 4 hours to the town of Chivay; half of the way was paved, but the other half was a very bumpy dirt road. We passed through the Salinas National Reserve, an area where the scarce and delicate looking vicuna are sheltered, and on to the literal high point of our trip, the pass at Ampato, at 15,948 feet above sea level. We stayed at Chivay that night, at an altitude of 12,500 feet, and felt our first taste of altitude sickness, experiencing headache and lack of appetite. A trip to the natural hot springs helped alleviate some of the symptoms, and a good night's sleep rid us of the remaining effects of breathing the thin air.

By the next morning we were much better, fortunately, for we had to rise at 5:00 am and travel another 2 hours over dirt roads to reach the Condor Crossing. As we waited in the cold with the other 50-odd spectators, I couldn't help but wonder if the effort was really worth it. Then, as the sun heated the air, the condors rose on the thermal currents, and I realized that we were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only did we see the huge birds soaring past on their 9 foot wingspan, but two young condors decided to land about 10 meters from us and proceeded to perch and preen for our cameras.



Ampalo, highest point along the road to Chivay, at 15,948 feet.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


Once acclimated to the altitude, we were ready to try the alpaca steak and the special dish of Peru --cuy -- roasted guinea pig. Actually, Steve was the adventurous one; I just took a bite of his. However, I was more than willing to sample the national drink, the Pisco Sour, and enjoyed it so much I brought home a bottle of pisco to try out on my friends. Steve, meanwhile, made an in-depth study of the various Peruvian beers. I also enjoyed the "panquaques" , covered with fruit and filled with chocolate sauce, but neither of us got around to trying --are you ready for this? --the alpaca pizza. Still, I managed to gain 2 pounds on the trip, so I can vouch for the quality of the Peruvian cuisine.

After 3 days in the Andes, we were well accustomed to the altitude, so Cuzco, at 11,500 feet, didn't worry us. However, we did get hit with Montezuma's -- well, I guess it should be Tupac Amaru's --revenge on our third day in Arequipa.. I had tried to be very careful, always drinking bottled water and not eating salads, but something caught up with me. Fortunately, we had each gotten a short prescription for Cipro from the travel clinic before we left. I took mine as soon as the symptoms struck and was much better by evening. Steve waited to make sure he was really sick, and as a consequence had eaten nothing for 48 hours when we tackled the Royal Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on our third day in Cuzco.



Condor over the Colca Canyon.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


Fortunately, our first two days in the Sacred Valley were not as rugged as the Inca Trail. We visited the art museum in Cuzco, which was full of intriguing paintings that revealed the odd blending of the native Andean beliefs with the new religion of their Catholic conquerors. There was one of Christ on the cross, dressed in an embroidered skirt. Another had Christ on the cross trampling on grapes, bleeding into the vat, with wine pouring out of the vat. There was a statue of Christ sitting covered in blood over every part of his body: a not-so-subtle representation of how the Incas were treated by the Spanish. But my favorite, by far, was the mural-sized painting of the Last Supper, with Christ and his disciples seated around the table, the center platter filled invitingly with roast guinea pig.

We went to a folkloric show that evening in a local theater that works to keep the native music, dancing and costumes alive. It was very instructive. We listened to the William Tell Overture done with pan flute, llama drum, and mandolin. I discovered that the most famous Peruvian composition, "Flight of the Condor," was the obvious basis for Simon and Garfunkle's "I'd Rather Be a Hammer Than a Nail". I learned that small children are just as restless watching such shows in Peru as they are at home, and that they also like to kick the back of the seat in front of them just as much as children do here. And best of all, we got to see the "Dance of the Horny Alpaca." It was quite memorable.



Weaving demonstration at the Pisaq ruins.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


I would certainly recommend travelling around the Sacred Valley with a good guide, and a driver. The roads for the most part were paved, a decided improvement after Arequipa. But believe me, with one-lane hairpin turns, steep drop-offs, and llamas being herded down the middle of the road, you want your driver to keep his attention on his driving, and not be turned around looking into the back seat to explain the sights to you. Our guide explained to us the amazing complexity of Inca construction, at once extremely practical as well as aesthetic, yet filled with religious symbolism and purpose.

Many of the ceramic and stone statues for sale in the Pisac market made a lot more sense after his explanations of what each creature represented. I brought home an iron sculpture of a Condor on top of a Puma on top of a Snake. This was not something extremely kinky, as you might expect, but rather the Incas' way of representing the next world, this world, and the mother earth conjoined. On the other hand, if you want something kinky, check out (as I did) the chinchero, the erotic drinking vessels used for fertility rites. (Imagine a male statue in the shape of a watering can, and figure out which body part is the spout.)



The Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


Inca planting techniques were remarkable. Not only was every available surface terraced, with some terraces no more than a few meters wide, but the planting areas were prepared with layers of good soil, then sand from the river, broken pottery, small stones, and then large stones, providing extremely efficient percolation. The Inca apparently recycled their garbage, probably using it as fertilizer. Anthropologists have found mounds of Spanish refuse, but no Inca garbage dumps. The irrigation system was the most impressive of all. Water was channeled from the mountains to every cultivated area -- and all of the channeling was underground. These stone aqueducts, covered with earth and stone to keep the water from evaporating, are still in use today.

The grand allure of Cuzco, though, is that it is the closest major city to Machu Picchu, the famous Inca ruins uncovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Set on a plateau surrounded by high peaks, the stone walls, terraces, and buildings were covered in vegetation and hidden from all but a few of the local farmers who took advantage of the Inca irrigation system to grow their crops.

Next month: Ancient mysteries





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