Escaping from Sydney a few days before New Year’s Eve, a motley group of friends and family headed to South America for a month of adventuring. First Peru and Machu Picchu, then cycling in Cuba for 2 weeks, followed by 10 days sailing the Galapagos. A triple bucket-list trip!
After a night in Lima with plenty of Pisco sours (pisco, sugar, lime and egg white), we headed to Cusco, the staging ground for Machu Picchu.
At 3,400 metres above sea level, no sane person goes beyond Cusco without altitude (or is it attitude) adjustment, unless they like being dizzy, getting headaches and feeling sick. With acclimatisation time on our hands, we explored Cusco, ably led by our fantastic guide, Darwin Mendoza.
Cusco is fascinating place of stark contradictions – old Spanish wealth, religion and power and pre-Inca (prior to 1300) and Inca culture and buildings.
Poverty runs rife and tourism’s gone mad. Hill people come to the city to try to capture some of the tourism dollars and everywhere people grapple to make a living, educate their children, and conserve their heritage. Perhaps conserve is too passive a word – it’s more like reclaim their heritage.
A visit to Sacsayhuaman, the historic capital of the Inca, was our first taste of the Inca might. Built on a hill, overlooking Cusco, Sacsayhuaman was first occupied in 900, then taken over by the Inca til the 1500s, then partly demolished by the Spanish who used the stones to build Cusco.
Groves of Polylepis, a gnarled tree with flaky red bark, have been established. An intensely slow growing tree (0.1mm per year), it survives in the cool mists and thin air of high altitudes. Previously covering much of the Andes, only small fragments remain. The trees are used for wood and medicine, including assisting in childbirth.
The market gave us a taste of daily life in Cusco with its fruit and vegetable stalls (2,900 varieties of potatoes – husband was in heaven!), cheese, corn, bread (all of which we had for lunch), pigs’ heads (ahh, no thanks), guinea pig (hmm – brother-in-law was game).
ABOVE: Market sights, tastes and smells. Over 2,900 varieties of potatoes, fresh produce, cheeses, beans, grains and lentils (the price of quinoa has gone up in Peru as much is now being exported), protein of various sort…,
Off to Machu Picchu – via Chinchero, the Sacred Valley of the Incas with weaving and dyeing lessons on the way. The textiles are exquisite, made with llama wool and natural dyes. We had a wonderful demo of the whole process, from spinning to weaving to dyeing by our beautiful hostess.
ABOVE: Beautiful hand spun and woven textiles made with natural dyes. I came home with stunningly warm and vibrant scarves and wall hanging (or baby carrier pm the right).
Shutting my eyes was the best way to deal with the hair-raising set of steep winding roads which took us Sal Natural y Ecologica (salt pans). Set in a deep valley, the salt pans have been producing for thousands (probably millions) of years. What a sight, though the salt eliminates all but the toughest plants.
Granaries high up in the mountains stored the community’s grain at an unfinished fortress at Ollyantantambo – good thighs required. Lucky I’d been doing yoga.
Stunning and delicate cloud forest plants abound. Cloud forests are tropical forests covered in mists for much of the time, which filters light and adds humidity.
After an overnight sleep, a train, a long queue to get a bus ticket, and then the bus (up the hill with another set of hairy hairpin bends), we were there. Among the bromeliads – cliff faces covered.
We were lucky – not many crowds in January, and plenty of time to wander the ruins, explore the rocks and paths and see the plants. Macho Picchu touched me spiritually – the connection with Mother Earth, the reverence of the massive boulders, discovering civilisations past. There was the grandeur of the old buildings and the fascinating of the vegetation.
An extraordinary mini-trek along the path to the Inca Bridge showed the full diversity and density of the cloud forest plants…
Then back to Cusco and a flight to Lima. With a few hours to spare, we visited Museo Rafael Larco Herrera. Founded in 1925, it houses a remarkable collection of artefacts dating back 3000 years, including gold and silver jewellery, pots and erotica and surrounded by lush plantings.
Garden at Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, Lima
Darwin Mendoza, our guide, gave us access into the world of Peru, both past and present. He was a master of knowledge (places and plants), gracious, accommodating and fun. He helped us make sense of the “why’ of Peru as well as the ‘what’. If we ever considered doing a longer trek in Peru, I’d be asking for Darwin.
Next, off to Cuba, for 2 weeks cycling and (oh well) being on a bus.