Sunday, 16 May 2010


(Chrissy and Mei write)

So.... Peru. Many drinks and a nasty hangover later, we crossed the border and reached Cusco, the bellybutton of the world. We spent a couple of days being proper tourists on tour buses, our Argos pink Pentax bouncing off our bellies, viewing the amazing Incan ruins at the Qorikancha (unforgettable for its architecture) and Sacsayhuaman (unforgettable because of the size of the stones and cos the name sounds uncannily like ‘sexy woman’). Cusco is one of those places like Luang Prabang (in Laos), Hoi An (in Vietnam) and Bath (in England) that is touristy in a good way. When the Spanish arrived and found this home of Inca civilisation, it was like Dick Whittington’s vision of London. Gold everywhere. And, OK, they melted it all down and shipped it all home as the rightful property of the King and the Catholic Church, but at least, when they finished destroying almost everything that the Incas had built up, they replaced it all with squares and churches that were the equal of anything back home, as if to say, “OK, the Incas may have been good with big, smooth, oddly-shaped stones, but we know a few tricks of the building trade too!” Even though Cusco’s citizens may not all have held a warm welcome – the guy who spat in Chrissy’s face, for example (more on that later) - it is still one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Of course we had to go to Macchu Picchu and we opted to do the cheapest and last-minute-bookable four-day trek there. It involved a three-hour hurtle down a mountain road on bikes (Mei safely stowed in the minibus, finishing reading The Damned United) on the first day, then two days of trekking over Incan trails and more mundane roads until we arrived at Aguas Calientes, bruised and knackered for a four-a.m. dash up to Machu Picchu in time for the sunrise and the chance to climb to Winay Picchu.

There is no point trying to describe Macchu Picchu which has probably become the image that most people associate with South America. It’s just enough to say that it looks just like all of the photos you’ve ever seen. Familiar yet awesome. Of the whole trek a personal highlight for me came at the end of the first day’s trekking. After several hours of toe-blistering walking and a tasty supper, we found ourselves in the central square of tiny Santa Teresa (where we spent the second night). The plaza was full of kids, the boys chasing a football and the girls playing netless volleyball. We (the Gringos) divided ourselves along similar gender boundaries (apart from Shirelle, a tidy striker from Texas) and we took on some of Peru’s finest preteens! Let’s not dwell on trivial details such as the final score which was influenced by the fact that many of the Gringo Grown-ups were forced to play barefoot on concrete due to our flip-flops hampering the skills we had developed on the streets of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Builth. The real winner was football (with sore feet coming a close second).

There were a few problems on the way home with bus drivers refusing to believe that our incompetent tour company had reserved seats back to Cusco for us, but we crawled into our hostel beds twenty-four hours after we had got up to see the sun rise over Macchu Picchu, and it was all well worth it.

The lowlight of our final day in Cusco happened as we walked from the indoor market, where we enjoyed our first ceviche since leaving Buenos Aires, intending to take a local bus to Pisac which apparently has Inca ruins to rival Macchu Picchu and a great artisanal market. Unfortunately we never got there, as Chrissy got – understandably – upset when a guy with a mobile phone and a football shirt decided to spit directly in her face.

I was walking slightly in front of her when I heard a shriek. I turned around expecting that she had been stung by a wasp, but saw a big, unmistakeable gob on her cheek. At the risk of punning in poor taste, I must point out that Chrissy was so calm that the perfect adjective to describe would have to be “phlegmatic”. After the initial yelp, she just said, “He’s just spat on me. He wants to rob us. Keep walking.” Being the type to value the contents of my wallet above a lady’s honour, I did what I was told, and it only later occurred to me that perhaps I should have thumped the blighter!

By this stage in our trip, we are beginning to realise that, if we intend to reach Mexico City ready for our home flight without resorting to too many time-saving flights, we will have to miss some places on our wish-list and take some long bus journeys. Cusco to Lima was 21 hours. And windy. But the roads have smoother surfaces than Bolivia’s dirt tracks so it was bearable. One night in Lima felt like enough to eat more lovely, cheap seafood and visit the catacombs in the Franciscan monastery with a tour-guide who either needed a strong coffee or new job to keep him awake. We also took a tour of Lima’s Museum of the Inquisition which provided yet more reminders of the special gifts brought from Europe – religious oppression, torture etc. Here the tour guide managed to at least look awake although the monotone she used created some pretty weird juxtapositions: “This is the rack on which the limbs of heretics would be stretched until they confessed. And above, you may admire the carvings on the beautifully restored ceiling.”

By now we were rushing to reach Ecuador, but knowing we had not done Peru any justice, we chose one more destination: Huanchaco on the north coast. As well as beaches and great seafood, there was the promise of Chan Chan, the ruins of an adobe city that predates the Incas. I’m not sure what the attraction of visiting ancient ruins is, but if you’re looking for a reminder of how time lays civilisations to waste Ozymandias-style, then Chan Chan, crumbling in dust beside the ocean, is perfect.

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