Peru -pre Inca, Inca and colonial cultures

Peru, land of majestic undulating mountains, mysterious lines from the Nasca era, plunging canyons, active volcanoes, condors in air currents, dry arid coastal desert, stunning colonial cathedrals and of course Cusco and Machu Pichu, the crowning glory of the Inca empire.

Simon Bolivar did not believe in democracy, at least not at the point he had liberated six American countries. His view was that a benevolent dictator with perpetual power would be the best form of government post liberation, he felt the people were not yet sufficiently educated to hold democratic elections. El Dictador is the name he is affectionately referred to sometimes, but in the context of South America, it is more a term of endearment than any reference to autocratic behaviour (there is even a Colombian rum called El Dictador). As I watch the outcome of the US general election from my hostel room in Paracas, I wonder if, in the 21st century, we still lack the education that helps us decide what is good for us. But I career again off course into politics.

After doing the nature trail in Ecuador, I am back on the music trail, and joining the Inca trail as I head down to Lima – on a 26 hour bus journey, which actually took 28 hours. New country, new currency, (Nueve) Peruvian Sole now.

The first thing that hit me about Peru was the amount of human litter everywhere, not just in the cities but in the rural areas and the pan American highway that straddles the entire west coast of South America. Civic society or the government waste disposal function is clearly failing. But Lima is a different story, at least the streets of Mira Flores, where I am staying, are remarkably clean. Moreover this part of town is also very safe and family friendly, refreshingly different from Peru’s neighbours to the north. People generally advised me that Lima is a dull city. Perched high on a cliff, the city entertains surfers and romantic strolls in the Parque de Amor. While it is not a museum city it is certainly much lived in, plenty of life in the streets as Limayans eat drink and listen and dance to music. Love this scene I stumbled across while lazying on a Sunday afternoon …

And it is not short on street art. Colourful frescos adorn colonial architecture now faithfully restored in the Barranco district…

The Peruvians love to dance, anywhere anytime. I took in a couple of live music events in Lima. While not the most happening events in town, and a bit too touristy for my taste, the energy with which Peruvians of all ages shapes and sizes get up to dance to anything vaguely danceable was a delight to watch.

I headed down towards Arequipa, the place, I am told, to see condors flying in the air streams in one of the most spectacular canyons in the world. I decide to go via Paracas, home to over a million birds and with a wildlife sanctuary, deep desert sands, wild flamingos in brackish waters, taking in a real desert oasis at Huacachina, and the mysterious Nasca lines on route to Arequipa.

Paracas…

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No one has yet come up with a comprehensive theory behind the enigmatic Nasca lines, and perhaps there isn’t just one theory as they were made over several generations of people. Best way to see them is from one of the many small aircrafts that fly over the lines.

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The lines were ‘built’ by the Nasca people somewhere from 100bc to 600ad and are a combination of the more obvious animals (birds, spider, whale, lizard, monkey, etc) and humans and the more enigmatic straight lines varying in width from long thin lines to what could otherwise be described as landing strips. Various theories abound (astrological guides, religious rites, agricultural sign posts for water, landing sites for hot air balloons, for example), but no one theory can explain all the lines. So I leave Nasca, and the many pre-Inca burial grounds, in awe and humility at the scale and wonder of these ancient lines, the mysteries of which may never be solved.

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After Nasca I chose to stay a few nights in Arequipa because a) it is purported to be a beautiful city, b) to see the elegant condors gliding in the air waves of the Colca Canyon nearby, and c) it is on route to Cusco and the must see Machu Pichu. I was not disappointed on either fronts.

Arequipa city – built largely from white volcanic stone, and nestling in the basin surrounded by active volcanoes (!)…

One of the finest pieces of architectural beauty, the Santa Catalina convent in the heart of the city …

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Potted and other flowers in the convent against terracotta walls…

I also chose to trek down into the Colca Canyon, a steep rocky descent of over 1.3kms followed by a trek in the canyon floor, and a 1.3km hike back up to the rim, over 3 days. Breathtaking scenery, gut rumbling and vertigo defying narrow canyon paths, and a volcanic eruption at the start of the trek…

I found the limits of my physical endurance after the first day’s descent! With battered toes (I am still recovering) and discovery of muscles not used (didn’t realise walking downhill could be so hard!), I took a mule for days 2 and 3, and wonder which is the lesser of the two evils, struggling against gravity or precariously balancing myself on these four legged creatures on the narrow Andean cliff paths.

I arrive in Cusco via an overnight bus, hoping to rest the toes and get some much needed sleep. Cusco means “the naval of the world” in Quechua, the Inca language. It was the centre of the Inca empire which extended in four directions from Cusco (at their height they covered all of Peru, most of Bolivia and Ecuador, parts of Chile and Argentina and even the southern tip of Colombia). It is also the base for all hikes to Machu Pichu, the Sacred Valley and other Inca and pre-Inca archeological sites. Tourist friendly but not overbearing, surrounded by high hills – its current location was once filled by a lake before the waters mostly seeped into the earth. Many modern buildings are built on original tapering Inca walls – many Inca sites were replaced by colonial structures, temples replaced by churches, for example. The end result is a stunning city with splendid colonial architecture built on sturdy and (virtually) earthquake proof Inca foundations.

With my battered (but recovering) toes I chose to take the train / bus / overnight stay at Aguas Calientes combination to Machu Pichu – the fortress summer hangout of the Incas, abandoned by them following the Spanish conquests. It is interesting that it was only re-discovered as recently as 1911 – much effort has gone into excavating the site as it now sits, resplendent with agricultural terraces, sun temples, homes for the royalty and supporting staff, common squares for rituals and ceremonies – in all a must see in Peru.

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The Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba river and along it are several archeological sites, rural folks making a living from growing potatoes (the Incas have bequeathed over 5000 varieties of potatoes!), corn and domestication of lamas and alpacas (for textiles as well as the meat). Stunning terraces, used in the modern day as well as ancient Inca ones of archaeological importance adorn the valley – including the stunning nurseries created by the Incas at Moray, and the salt pools at Salinas de Maras.

Having satiated my appetite for ancient civilisations, I now plan my onward trip into Bolivia. But before I go, here is a brief summary of Peruvian music.

There is much more to Peruvian music than Andean pipes and El Condor Pasa (I vowed to strangle the next Peruveano playing that song on the pipes!). A not so new genre, Afro Peruvian, is making a come back, though it could be argued that it never went away. Sounds of Afro Peruvian in the 50s came from the likes of the waltzy Los Kipos, with the exemplary sound of Eva Ayllon, samples here …

Susana Baca is a more contemporary performer – see her wonderful performance here…

Susana Baca – Encuentro en el Estudio – Programa Completo [HD]

An especially popular dance form is La Marinera, rooted in Creolo Peruvian form, a hybrid of flamenco Latino and gentle Afro drum beats. Some sample music …

But my favourite takeaway from Peru is the more contemporary electro afro peruvian sounds, for example Novalima or Peru Negro…

Of course you can hear these and so much more on the playlist I am compiling as I travel through South America on Spotify called The London Jukebox – in South America at …

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