The Cultures and Vultures of Peru

“That’s a lot of potatoes.”

She didn’t exactly sell it to us, but by then it was too late. A woman on the plane from Gatwick to Lima set about terrorising anyone in earshot, denouncing Peru as a perilous land of thieves and hoodlums. Thankfully I’m hard-wired to discount the ranting of a posh witch who lives in a gated community to protect herself from ‘delinquency’. If anything she raised my level of intrigue for a place, if not off the beaten track, then certainly kipping in a lay-by off a B-road.

That said, there were still enough scare stories about Peru’s capital to have me hiding 100 soles notes in a special belt with a hidden zip on it, that crooks weren’t likely to relieve me of in a darkened alley. But it turns out Lima’s not the cistern of villainy it’s made out to be – at least its centre. Our only full day in the city involved a walking tour of the pleasant areas of Miraflores, Barranca and the Centro Historico.

Lima is universally disliked by every Peruvian we subsequently met on the trip, and by my hardy travelling companion. I thought it was fine, though as with anywhere you wouldn’t want to check out that alley, and the vultures circling overhead were a bit disconcerting.

But we didn’t come to Peru for Lima; we were soon on a plane to Puerto Maldonado, a post-apocalyptic sort of a place but the gateway to the Amazon. We were to catch a boat up the Tambopata river to a pair of lodges deep in the jungle, to spy creatures and sweat very much.

The Peruvian Amazon has latterly been protected by the government’s ecological measures, but only after countless acres of it were lost to gold mining, a serious scourge. As Brazil and Bolivia’s rainforests burn, Peru finally now stands ready to receive the wildlife that will doubtless flee those countries for a safer spot in the shrinking canopy.

Macaws and parrots are the main spottable creatures and by Christ do they make a racket. A monogamous pair of macaws (all the classics – red and blue, green, and my favourite, blue and yellow) make a fearful row, bickering their way across the sky like Den and Angie. Massive insects trundle slowly by, sounding like biplanes. We also spotted numerous other birds, a couple of tarantulas, many monkeys, one adult caiman and a few babies about the length of a school ruler, and some bizarre looking beasts called capybara – in essence, giant hamsters. Swimming!

Any stay in the jungle is humbling, as you remember there’s so much more to the world than petty human wants and concerns. Gold mining my arse. I can’t claim the Peruvian Amazon was quite the teeming menagerie of Costa Rica, but it was with some sadness we shipped back down the river towards our next destination: Cusco.

This is the ‘ancient’ capital of the Incas, though you can turn nearly any corner in London and see somewhere older. The Incas were the primary civilisation in Peru and neighbouring lands from 1483 until their defeat by the Spanish…about 50 years later. That they were so short-lived surprised me, given their fame, and since that’s not really that long ago it’s not obvious why they seem to be held in such international esteem. 

Still, you can’t blame Cusco for playing up Inca culture to hoover up the tourists. And as soon as you land you’re bombarded with imagery of spear-wielding lads in gaudy headwear. Not that I noticed much of it, given I was busy having a heart attack.

All right, that’s a small exaggeration. Cusco is at 3,400m above sea level where the oxygen thins out and breathing becomes a chore. (Other exciting effects include tiredness and headaches, fearsomely vivid dreams and stupendous burping. Don’t believe me? Get up there and have a lager.) For the past couple of weeks I’d been dealing with shoulder pain that was starting to creep down my left arm. Recent events had perhaps encouraged a touch of temporary hypochondria in me, such that I was sure I’d keel over after ten minutes at altitude. I didn’t.

It’s not outlandish, though. We made a pilgrimage to the Hotel Monasterio in central Cusco. It’s a place I hate, but I had to see it. For years and years I swore I’d never come to Peru because of this place. 

Because here, 15 years ago, in the lobby of this hotel – just through the glass doors there – John Peel died.

Of a heart attack no less. But to blame Cusco for a legendary old man’s poor health would be a tad harsh. Met by a guide named Willington, a cross between the actor Omar Benson Miller and Penfold, we explored a baffling Inca temple called the Coricancha. Willington told us the story of the Incas, and it soon became clear that it is, in the main, utter shite.

In reality, the Incas were farmers who never developed a written language, let alone any form of weaponry that might repel conquistadors. But as they tell it, they were a mystical people who worshipped, well, basically everything. Almost anything bigger than an Inca was regarded as a god, so you can imagine what they thought of the Andes. All gods required sacrifices so you wouldn’t have wanted to be a llama or especially angelic child around here in the late 15th century. 

Every story was laden with myth. Now, I love history and even did a degree in it at a pretend university, but don’t be trying to palm mythology off on me as fact. The Coricancha was a heavily rebuilt structure – earthquakes have caused carnage here over the centuries – which offered little in the way of coherent history and frankly it made no sense to man nor beast. 

Surprisingly I had more time for Cusco’s cathedral, mainly due to the artwork. The Spanish brought Catholicism with them, but local artists did the painting. As a result you get the highly entertaining image of the Last Supper, but with the dish in the centre not bread or gruel or whatever Leonardo conjured up but, hilariously, what a Peruvian artist assumed was a delicacy worldwide – Guinea pig. More of this directly.

On our second day in Cusco we did a tour of some local ruins. At Pikillaqta (‘picky actor’) it was possible to imagine the Incas as real people, rather than garishly dressed caricatures. And at Tipon we had our first view of the famous Inca terraces.

I’d previously thought the terraces were some kind of decoration or glorified seating area, but what a daft notion that is in hindsight. The terraces – you’ll see them all across the area and they’re often quite spectacular – were for agriculture, as now seems obvious. How else is someone meant to grow crops on a mountainside? Given the complicated layering of different soil and stone they used to build them, to aid drainage and fertility, they’re pretty damn ingenious really. Fair play to the Incas – maybe writing is overrated after all.

They used these terraces to start Peru’s famous potato heritage. Willington explained with great pride that Peru has developed 3,500 varieties of potato. Why?

Perhaps to go with the Guinea pig. Listen, I’m not going to sugar coat this. While away, we like to try local food. Guinea pig is a dish they eat on special occasions. They stuff it full of herbs and cook it whole. You eat it with your hands. It looks like this.

Yeah, I ate that. My reward was food poisoning of the type that would have literally killed me a few months ago.

Thankfully my arse just about held it together the following day, as we headed out to what many will suggest is the highlight of Peru: Machu Picchu. The small town of Aguas Calientes is the nearby tourist hub, far less tacky than it might be, and from there you get a winding bus up a mountain to the famous citadel.

Before you arrive you’re warned that the tourism authorities are very strict about the hour slots of entry tickets. They funnel everyone around the site in one route, and there are no toilets at all on the site. It all sounds a bit nightmarish before you get there. Both of us feared it might be anti-climactic.

Nope.

In fact the authorities marshal the site in the best way imaginable, making sure there’s a steady stream of entry and exit and that people aren’t wandering about aimlessly, getting in each other’s way. The suspicion that the lack of toilets is to get people out of the site faster is blown out of the water when you realise there’s nowhere you could put a portaloo that wouldn’t spoil the aesthetic.

It’s not other-worldly or magical in any way, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s just bloody impressive. We wandered around a surprisingly sparse late-afternoon Machu Picchu without a guide, which means even now I don’t know what made the Incas build a sodding great bastion on the top of a mountain instead of somewhere more practical. But I don’t care why it’s there, I’m just happy it is.

There are actually a couple of unadvertised paths you can take away from the main site, and she made me do both. Yes, fine, I’m now glad we went up to the Sun Gate, but at the time, oh dear God. Too high, too far, too hot. I’m supposed to be on holiday.

Thunder over the towering mountains added to the sense of awe. We went into the site for a second day; earlier and busier, but some lovely views from different angles. Thankfully we managed not to be pushed off the mountain by the llamas wandering around. Machu Picchu had been a superb place to visit – though, as a theory of Peru began to develop in my mind, not quite as impressive as either Petra or the unlikely-to-be-beaten Angkor Wat.

Back to Cusco, and more ruins, each enjoyably different. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman (‘sexy woman’), where enormous, smooth stones have been dragged here to build a temple, from a very long way away. Incas didn’t use the wheel. Again the life of the llama is shown to be an unhappy one.

In town we were treated to a spot of competitive Scran Nagging. If you’re new to this fine sport, it’s where two Peruvian women, employees of neighbouring restaurants, spot potential tourists 50 metres away and sprint at them with menus and pleas. Just because one gets there first, doesn’t mean the other won’t come bounding over to extol the virtues of their identical menu. They’ll follow you to your hotel if you feebly claim you’ve already eaten. Peruvian kabaddi.

I won’t deny it: I like trains. Do I like them enough to get a ten-hour train from Cusco to Lake Titicaca? You’re bloody right I do. I read an entire book on that train, occasionally peering out at increasingly impressive scenery as the train edged across the Andes to Puno. At Juliaca were had the remarkable sight of a big train going through a small market – the gap between the opposing stalls was only wide enough for the tracks, so once a day the stall-holders simply stand back between their wares and watch a massive locomotive trundle through, honking.

At Puno, the trip derailed.

We were due to spend one night at a hotel by the highest navigable lake in the world, and leave on a day trip to Arequipa the next morning. Unfortunately the workers of Puno had chosen the next day to strike – understandable complaints about over-mining and poor working conditions, but their chosen method was to lock the entire town down.

Our driver therefore informed us we’d have no way out of the city unless we left at 4am. No sleep later, we were up in the dark to get out of Puno. There are two roads out – the main one, and a dirt road that everyone avoids because ‘there can be bandits on there’. And at 4am, the main one was already blocked by strikers. So off we went down the other one, in the dark.

Cue over an hour of two petrified English people shitting it at every murky movement along a gravel track in the middle of Peruvian nowhere. Having survived it, in silence, the driver turned to us and asked us if we’d managed to get any sleep. My trousers weren’t brown when I got in here mate, so shut up and drive…

…us through some of the most astounding landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’ve mentioned the Andes twice so far without bursting with enthusiasm, but no more. The simple grandeur of this mountain range is glorious to see, with every mountain unique, huge flat plains between them, valleys and enormous peaks, snow-capped giants and others with whole faces sheared off by weather, earthquakes and quite probably the sheer weight of llamas, alpacas and vicunas that roam about.

In the Andes I threw my first ever South American snowball. There were salt flats, and there were flamingos. I’ve never seen views like those in the Salinas National Reserve. It looks like a mega Iceland, or Mars with plants. In short, I love the Andes. 

As we flew by these breathtaking panoramas, our driver Julio took us through the last few decades of Peruvian politics. The endemic corruption of the place is summed up by its recent presidents: Alejandro Toledo, arrested in the US last month, set to be extradited; Alberto Fujimori, jailed for setting up death squads (!), pardoned, pardon annulled and jailed again; Alan García, killed himself when about to be arrested; Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, impeached for buying votes; Ollanta Humala, currently up on bribery charges. Since 1985 the only president who’s not been done in some fashion is Valentín Paniagua, and that’s probably only because he’s dead.

On our way through the Andes we also visited the Stone Forest, which inexplicably very few tourists bother with. 

It’s an eerie place, staffed only by Peru’s strange fox/rabbit hybrid, the viscacha. If I understood our guide correctly, the Stone Forest is a large field of standing stones created through the weathering of rocks made from larva spat out of the ring of volcanoes that tower above our final destination, Arequipa.

We’d planned very little in this last city, opting for a couple of days where she’d hopefully let me lie on ma erse a bit. Arequipa’s main tourist attraction is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which with a name like that you can only assume is a…convent. It’s a convent. I don’t know what else to say.

A little beer, and suddenly a selection of brightly dressed 11 year olds wander by, seemingly to perform in some sort of dancing contest in Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas. You couldn’t have paid me an acre of Acorn Electron games at their age to dress like that. Not all of them seemed keen.

The dancing itself was shoddy as each kid whirled about to a time signature of their own. It was like watching a bad school play where none of the kids are yours. There was some entertainment to be had from the tallest boy, the one who’d just hit puberty, warily glancing about as he half-heartedly gangled from side to side, caught between having parents to please and mates no doubt filming it for piss-taking purposes.

For our final night in Peru we chose, perhaps belatedly, a food tour. Our excellent guide Alonso walked us through dishes in five different restaurants and gave us the history of each meal. Peru prides itself on being one of the culinary centres of the world, and I have to say rightly so; we didn’t go anywhere, not even the jungle, where we weren’t impressed by the food. Alpaca is an exceptional beef substitute (whisper it, but I might even prefer it to the sacred cow), and some of their pork dishes are marvellous, chicharron in particular. There’s a lot of chicken, and most menus have a trout section rather than a fish section. But ceviche! Ceviche!

And I now love a pisco sour, though I can take or leave the chicha morada: a ‘purple corn drink’, though not the oddest thing at the end of our trip – that would be the garbage truck reeking out the main square while playing, and why not, the theme from the Little Mermaid.

Back at Lima airport there was a general feeling that we’d done Peru pretty well over our nearly three weeks, and yet we weren’t exactly desperate to get home.

It’s a large and varied place, a fine balance of culture and nature, and yet nowhere exactly stood out. Yes, Machu Picchu is remarkable, but I’ve seen better ruins. The Peruvian Amazon is lovely, but the second best jungle I’ve been in. No city stands out, but each was pleasant and quite unique. But as a whole package it’s a wonderful place to visit, and if anyone ever asks my favourite mountain range I’ll now have an answer.

I just might think twice before ordering the grinning roadkill next time.

 

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