Wednesday 12 June 2024

Cusco of the Incas and the Sacred Valley

We made it! We have finally reached the one and only... Cusco! I've been waiting for this since Dan and Ioanna told us about our trip to South America! I can't quite believe we are finally here!

What can I say about Cusco (or Qozqu as the Incas called it)? Personally, I think Cusco's name should be Cusco of the Incas. And that's because, everywhere you look, there are so many churches, houses and generally buildings built on top of old Inca walls. It's like the Incan history is the base for the whole city. That's why I think the Incas need to be acknowledged somehow in the city's name. Don't you agree?

We've been to so many big cities in our trip but Cusco has to be right there at the top for me! We spent three days with our friend Maro and one day on our own. I can tell you that much...four days were enough to see its beauty, but also how unique it is. But four days were definitely not enough to visit all the places and cites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. There are so many places! Saqsywaman, Puka Pukara, Pisac and many many more.

A bit about its history: Cusco was the centre of the Incan empire. The city of Cusco created by the Spanish was built on blood. That's because the Spanish forced the Incas to take the stones from their temples and use them to construct churches and homes. How is that different from what the Incas did, I hear you ask? I am not sure but I think the difference for me is that, in the Inca period, the city of Cusco was built to show how strong and magnificent their empire was. You see, the Incas were primarily an agricultural empire and so dedicated 6 months of the year to farming. The other six months were dedicated to building and construction. For them, their constructions were a show of strength that could be used to intimidate their enemies.

I am only going to give you a little flavour of how amazing Cusco is by describing Saqsywaman because to tell you about all the sites we visited would literally take many many posts.

Saqsywaman is an old Inca "fort" on the edge of Cusco. Saqsywaman or (in its true name) Saqsyhuaman means puma head, as the city of Cusco was planned to look like a puma, the animal that represented our earth for the Incas. When the Spaniards arrived in Cusco and discovered Saqsywaman, saw its looming tall terraces and strong walls, they immediately thought that this was a fort. What was it really? A temple and ceremonial centre. I have to say that I don't blame them because the whole site looks magnificent and, in the eyes of someone who doesn't know, well-defendable. But if they knew a bit about the Incas and their belief system, they could have realised that Saqsywaman was absolutely not a fort. Unfortunately, the war-like Spanish saw Saqsywaman and thought that this is a fort and immediately began its destruction. 

On the site, there are three terraces: the top one is represented by the condor or the Hanan Pacha, meaning the overworld; the next terrace is represented by the puma, or the Kay Pacha, meaning our earth; and the lowest terrace is represented by the snake, the Uchu Pacha, meaning the under world. There's a part of the middle layer where huge stones have been arranged in a puma paw - and a snake design in the lower layer.

Saqsywaman has some of the best Incan stone masonry, with huge blocks cut to precision, and is considered a feat of human engineering. On the other side from the terraces, there is what archaeologists now describe as the 'stone rainbow', where the Inca king, his family and high ranking lords and priests would sit during the winter solstice celebrations on 21st June, the most important day of the Inca calendar. 

I know I haven't been posting very much recently because we've been travelling and moving a lot. But, fear not, it's going to get very busy and very soon! Bye for now...

Friday 7 June 2024

Visiting some pretty old archaeological sites: Caral and Chavin de Huantar

I have to say it is amazing how rich Peru is in terms of its history. Before starting our trip, I mainly knew about the Incas. But now, I can see it's so much richer than that. In today's post, I will tell you a bit about our visit to the ancient towns of Chavin and Caral.

Caral and Chavin are pre-Inca sites and some of the first human settlements in South America.  Caral, in particular, is considered to be the start of all South American culture (from around 3,500 to 1,700 BCE),  a large cultural complex from 1,500 years before the first complex Mesoamerican Olmec culture. Caral was 60 hectares in total and populated by 10,000 people at its peak. Though no pottery or art has been found in Caral, its main achievement was in its architecture and construction. It had anti-seismic temples of large stepped, square topped pyramids and large sunken circular plazas. As well as Caral, the Norte Chico (or Caral) civilization constructed several sites along the Supe river, which we didn't visit but we were told that they are also impressive. The site was discovered in 1948 but only properly dated around 25 years ago!

From our visit to Caral, we saw the large sandstone temples/pyramids (pre dating the pyramids of Giza) and our guide told us that inside the walls, to prevent seismic collapse there are stones in bags made of totora reeds that move around during earthquakes. Some of the larger temples had sunken circular plazas with painted mud lathered over the stone.

The sites of Caral and Chavin are not contemporary as after the downfall of the Norte Chico civilization its population spread and wide becoming: the Chachapoyas, the Nazca, the Moche and eventually the Inca. They also became the Chavin culture who venerated the Puma and are even believed to have used blood letting and human sacrifice in their ceremonies!

And now a little bit about Chavin de Huantar. Chavin was the religious centre at its time and was located three days walk from the coast, three days walk from the Amazon, and positioned in the middle of the mountains making it an ideal meeting point. To make it even more central, Chavin was at the joining point of two rivers, the Mosna and the Huachecsa rivers and in the centre of the valley. Chavin was constructed as early as 1200 BC and was occupied until 400-500 BC. 

We thought that Chavin's architecture was amazing, especially if you think how old it was. What I really liked was that the main temple's design reflects the Andean belief of duality as one side of the plaza is made of black granite and the other white. This can also be seen in the portal of the falcons (or main entrance).

There were also several underground galleries we could enter. The most impressive was one where there was a huge stone in the shape of a dagger with carvings of a Chavin god on it. There were huge ventilation shafts leading out to give air to the chambers and underground canals bringing water into the temple.

I also found it funny that our guide used to live in Chavin before it gained the UNESCO World Heritage Site title. His dad was a guardian and he apparently played football in the main ceremonial plaza when he was a little boy. Imagine that?

We are making our way up to Cusco now and the Sacred Valley, for more hiking and more archaeological sites of my beloved Incas. Things will get even more exciting and I can't wait!

Saturday 1 June 2024

Cordillera Blanca: A hiker's paradise

Hello from up up up the Andes!

We are up in the Cordillera Blanca, spending a week doing the most crazy hikes. The Cordillera Blanca surrounds the mighty Huascaran Mountain (the highest costal mountain on Earth) and is made up of lakes, grassland and high, snowy peaks.

We spent a whole week here and we've done a number of amazing hikes, all very different but all very (and I mean VERY) high up. I'll tell you a bit about my three favourite ones.

First up, we climbed up Laguna 69 which is at 4,600 meters above sea level and is definitely worth the 6 hour hike, up and down, to a small but stunning turquoise lake with amazing views of the glacier above, feeding the lake daily with freezing, glacial melt. The walk was rewarding with beautiful views from above and and bellow. There were several tour groups with other people hiking up and we kept overtaking and being overtaken as we trekked up the valley of grassland, crossing two other lagoons, up a hill then into the mountain with Laguna 69 at the end to top it all. The lake had this amazing turquoise blue colour, as blue as blue can be, and looked almost like the Greek sea...but much much colder. 

My second most favourite hike was the one we did the day that our friend Maro came and just before she arrived. We did a speedy 6.5-hour hike to Laguna Shallap, which was at 4,300 meters high. We walked (or should I say ran?) through a wonderful green valley, with a few gigantic boulders and many cows enjoying the greenest grass I've ever seen. A little puzzle for you all: how can cows survive in such high altitude? Amazing really. 

When we arrived at the usually bright green lake, it seemed a bit dull and faded in the gloomy cloudy weather, but it was very atmospheric. Also at the end of the hike, right next to the lagoon, waiting for us were some curious (or aggressive?) cows so we had to flee the battle/cow field as quickly as we could. It was a wonderful hike through the valley and up the lagoon, and though we raced the last bit to get back to town in time for Maro's arrival, it was a lot of fun.

Finally, we did Laguna 513 with our friend Maro, who seemed to acclimatise to the high altitude really well as this 4,400 hike was on her second day in Huaraz (our home base which was at 3,050 meters above sea level). Isn't she super-strong or what? The hike started as a walk across swamp land and grassy areas until we entered an odd forest of gnarled twisted trees, then into a more rocky area until we reached Laguna Rajupaquina the first of the two lagoons.

Though Maro and Ioanna had acclimatized well they decided to turn back from there while Ismene, Dan and I continued onwards. Annoyingly, after a while I had to stop as I was getting a horrible headache from the altitude. But Dan and Ismene went on and they said Laguna 513 was really pretty and very different from all the others we've been together. On the way back, Dan and Ismene picked me up and then we raced down and arrived at our car to find Ioanna and Maro two hours later.

But hiking was not the only thing we did in Cordillera Blanca. We also walked up to a glacier - yes, you read that right... an actual glacier - called Pastoruri. Luckily for us, Pastoruri is one of the glaciers you can actually walk to in just one hour from the road. Unfortunately, the glacier has receded by more than 60% in the last 20 years, revealing several lakes that look like should have some sort of dinosaurs' tails sticking out of them. We read afterwards that it is actually not even considered a glacier anymore because it doesn't now accumulate enough snow in the winter - so it's a dying glacier. Despite all that, and despite feeling like my head is going to explode from the altitude (5,200 meters high!), it was very cool to be able to actually see a glacier from so close. Dan read that all the tropical glaciers in South America will disappear by 2050. I found that very sad...

I think the next couple of weeks will be very busy as there's a lot of places to visit, a lot of kilometres to cover and even more adventures to be had. But now we are five, nothing else matters!

Tuesday 28 May 2024

The end of the Inka empire and how the Inka king met the Spanish

Time to Inka this blog up! Now that we're in Peru we're going to see a whole lot more Inka and this post is about the story of how the Inka king met the Spanish in a town called Cajamarca and...of course a bit about our time visiting the town.

So how about that for a story: In 1532, Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca and with 200 soldiers against several thousand, he lured emperor Atahualpa to a feast in his honour. The cheeky Spaniard then opened fire on the unarmed Incas. The following months after the Battle of Cajamarca, Atahualpa was eventually captured and 'converted' to Christianity. Unfortunately for them and despite a massive ransom demand being paid by the Incas (a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver), Atahualpa was executed. Though the Spanish established colonial rule, exploiting Inca resources and imposing their culture, religion and language, Atahualpa became a symbol of resistance inspiring several later uprisings against European rule. I find this a fascinating story; isn't it odd that although they forced Atahualpa to convert to Christianity, they then killed him?

We stayed in Cajamarca for one night and saw several clear examples of colonial rule. The main square was built over the old Inca square and was beautiful with two colonial churches on either side. We also visited the thermal baths that Atahualpa was bathing in when he heard the Spanish had arrived in the area.

But Cajamarca felt special for one more reason. While we visited, it was Mother's Day in Peru. Ismene and I didn't know about this until we arrived in the city and saw all the advertising so we didn't have time to do much. But luckily Ioanna got to see all the celebrations they had in town with a band playing near Mary's Church in Cajamarca and see all the lit candles on the steps to the main hill. It was really beautiful and made it just a bit more special. I guess we have the whole year to make it up to her....:)

Friday 24 May 2024

Discovering Kuelap

Dear (pre-Incan) diary, 

I haven't written in ages, but I have had such an exciting time, yet a cloud hangs over my family. My Grandad died two days ago. As you know, Asiri was my favourite grandparent with his wife Yma Sumac a close second. It is a time of grieving for our whole family yet Asiri would have been glad to be laid to rest next to the walls of Kuelap. As it happens, he was killed by an illness and my heart is heavy for I no longer hear his laugh or his voice around the house.

We were journeying to Kuelap to get him a blessing, and I tell you dear diary, I've never seen anything like it. There were so many people wondering the streets and the walls around it were so high and strong. I asked my dad Antay if Kuelap was a fort when he shook his head and told me to bow and, then, we entered. I don't know if you know what bow means but for the Chachapoyas (our people) we lower ourselves to one knee and bow our heads. The head priest used many healing herbs and said he had done all was possible for grandad Asiri. 

He then turned to my dad and asked "Would you like for your son to be a priest?". "Yes", my father answered, "but he has not yet reached the required 15 years, he's only 10." He was right, I am only 10 years old but I really wanted to be a priest, I really wanted to live in Kuelap. "He will have a space ready for him in five years", the priest replied. I could hardly believe my ears! Thank Unkurunku, the jaguar god, that the priest is so kind, and may Kuntur, the condor god, give him grace and a long life.

After exiting the priest's house, Antay explained that Kuelap is more of a religious centre than a fort and the walls around it are to make it flat for ceremonies and dwellings.

I have to get to bed as tomorrow is a big day.


P.s The Chachapoya were around from 500 to 1470 A.D. Kuelap is the most important archaeological site in northern Peru - sometimes called the Machu Pichu of the North. Although it looks like a fort and sits on top of a massive, steep hill, archaeologists now believe that it was a centre for pilgrimage, gatherings and celebrating the dead. There's one huge structure which looks like a keep but actually has the bones of many people hidden inside.

About 3,000 people lived there in circular houses on stone platforms. Many of the houses of Kuelap were reserved for the elite, top-level families. Not only Kuelap but the surrounding La Barretta mountain are sacred as lots of bones of the dead are placed inside the mountain. We also saw some amazing mausoleums and sarcophagi built into the cliffs nearby. 

Access is much easier now than it used to be (a 4 hour hike) with a cable-car taking visitors up the mountain. We stayed nearby and were the first up in the morning and had the whole site for ourselves for an hour or two!

Sunday 19 May 2024

A speedy hike to the fifth highest waterfall in the world: Yumbilla

Hello everyone! How are you all? We have now crossed to northern Peru, moving fast and Dan is having to do a lot of driving. We have to get to Huaraz to meet Ioanna's best friend (Maro) on the 19th May. Exciting times for us all, we'll get to talk to someone else apart from each other! 

Because we move so fast and drive through so many different places every day, it's hard to get some time to write on the blog. But I had to tell you about this bit because I am sure you will enjoy it. 

Since we started our trip, we must have seen over one hundred waterfalls by now. In every single country we've been, in every single region, there is a waterfall to be admired at or a waterfall to hike to. There is of course no doubt that Iguazu will always be the most impressive waterfall of them all, but I think the Yumbilla waterfall is definitely the second. However, this is for a different reason: not because of how big it is (like Iguazu), but because of its incredible height.

Yumbilla is the fifth highest waterfall in the whole world - and it's hardly known or visited, in the remote northern cloud forest of Peru. Although it is broken into three tiers, it still counts as one waterfall. 

Did you know that Peru has two of the ten largest waterfalls in the world:

  • Yumbilla, 896 meters tall, the fifth largest waterfall

  • Las Tres Hermanas, 914 meters tall, the third largest waterfall (but you can only see that by aeroplane!
What I really liked about the Yumbilla waterfall is all the stories and legends that come with it. For example, it is regarded by the indigenous people as a river spirit and they warn those they see to approach the falls with respect lest the guardian put a curse on them. 

Dan and I did the two-hour hike to Yumbilla while Ismene and Ioanna stayed behind. Our plan was to be as quick as we could so they wouldn't wait long but also because we had a lot of driving to do afterwards. Before we started the walk, a passing shower came down adding to the cascade of water falling from the waterfalls. On the way to Yumbilla there are two more waterfalls you get to pass and we had a lot of fun walking behind and beneath one.

The path twisted through the cloud forest, and we weaved through tree arches and climbed over rocks.

It was hard but also good fun, and I was glad to have another adventure with Dan.

When we got to Yumbilla, I was amazed by how high it was and it seemed like the gushing water gave it an almost angry and imposing look. We got to a viewpoint to see all three tiers which was great because we didn't really have time to get very close. It was very impressive!

I will be posting again soon, but I think next time it will be a very different post. Watch this space!

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Back in Ecuador: Cloud forests, volcanoes and high mountains

We're back in Ecuador (and almost out of it), and I must say, it feels very odd; maybe because we won't come back or maybe because we're visiting the mountains more or maybe both but it feels great, peculiar and familiar in equal measures to be back.

First off, it's been great to be back in more mountainous areas. Thinking about it, in Colombia  I found the coast a bit hard (sorry Ioanna). The heat was a bit too much and I wanted to walk, yet it was too hot. Of course, it would be wrong to say Colombia wasn't mountainous; I mean look at Ciudad Perdida and La Mojarra.  But the truth is that we didn't hike as much as we are here.

Several of the wild, forested areas we've been to during our second time in Ecuador, are Maquipucuna, and (again) Podocarpus. Maquipucuna is an area within the Mindo valley, just off Quito. What's special about it - and made Dan very excited - is that is a unique bird watchers paradise. When the annual bird count is held, people flock to Mindo, and the area has won the world record six times! We even had hummingbirds eating out of our hands!

At Maquipucuna, we stayed for three days and camped in the reserve's grounds. We hiked every day and in our second day we got a guide to take us to the primary cloud forest in the reserve which was amazing. It felt wild and endless! We even spotted many fresh puma tracks on our way up, and then on our way down, we saw newer tracks and puma poo which probably meant that a puma was following us. Yikes!! Also, the birds were just insane: toucans, hummingbirds and so many other new species. Dan was constantly adding birds onto his bird list. It was truly amazing. And did I mention anything about the rain....? We were up a cloud forest after all! This was not just any rain, it was tropical, pouring, sky-on-our-head, 'where-is-Noah-with-his-boat' kind of rain!

But Maquipucuna was not the only cloud forest we visited, we also went back to Podocarpus National Park. And I say 'again' because the attentive readers of my blog would remember that this is our second time visiting Podocarpus, the first one was just after Christmas. Podocarpus was even more amazing than I remembered it the first time. The range of diversity in vegetation has earned the park the nickname “Botanical Garden of America" due to the fact that there are over 4,000 species of vegetation inside the park’s boundaries. This super diverse ecosystem is also home to lots of wildlife. Some of the rarer sightings include jaguars and spectacled bears, although in Maquipucuna spectacled bears are much more common and can be seen every single day during the autumn when the bears come down to eat their favourite fruit which is a small kind of avocado. Sometimes you might even see a mountain tapir (although we weren't lucky enough to see them). 560 birds also nest or migrate through the park and approximately 6% of the world's species can be found in the park while 40% of Ecuador's list of species can be seen within the park's terrain

In Podocarpus, we repeated and finished the hike we started when we visited the park after Christmas. And, just as our first attempt, we got wet, very wet...again! After making our way through the forested part of the park, we reached the park's ridge, and because it had not yet started raining, the view stretched for miles around. At this point, none of us would guess that we would be soaked to the bone by the end of this hike. Or as the Greeks say...'as wet as a duck'! It was brutal but it was still amazing to walk through miniature ecosystem underneath your feet, or as Dan described it 'an incredible fairy garden'. 

Apart from cloud forests we also visited more mountains, and in our case, volcanoes. First off, we drove up to Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi, is one of the most important volcanoes in Ecuador and it was amazing! It has large glacial sheets around it, its lower flanks are a reddish rock dropping into a beautiful paramo were wild horses and llamas roam. We were very lucky as we were reaching higher up to the volcano, the clouds started to suddenly clear. For a few minutes, we had the perfect clear view of the towering volcano top, and I can tell you that was magnificent!

To finish it all off, we did a two-day hike up to the Quilotoa volcano, one of Ecuador's most popular hikes. The hike was long and hard, especially the last day, mainly because it was always steep uphill or steep downhill, getting us through small traditional Andean villages (with many many dogs to ward off). When we finally reached the crater, at nearly 4,000m above sea level, the views down to the lake were so rewarding and hard to believe what you were looking at. You heard me right, inside Quilotoa's crater is an awesome, bright blue lake which was formed when the volcano erupted 800 years ago!!!

We're crossing to Peru in a couple of days and I can't wait for more mountains, crazy archaeology, insane history and many, many more adventures!!!!