Monday, 26 March 2007

Culture in Cusco

Cusco itself, the majestic capital of the Inca empire, has a unique charm and a relaxed atmosphere. It is as though someone took the idea of a picturesque town square, found an ideal location for it and then dipped it in a vat of aromatic culture. There are so many sights, sounds and flavours coming together in the heady atmosphere of this compact city that every day is an experience.

I was "fortunate" enough to be ill when I arrived in Cusco. OK, being hospitalised was no fun, but the outcome was that I was forced to spend a week recouperating in Cusco. WIthout this I would, like so many travellers before me, have moved quickly on, to Machu Picchu and beyond. Had I have done so I would have missed a real treat.

The central plaza in Cusco is the Plaza de Armas. The center point of the Plaza is an ornate fountain and the surrounding area is always beautifully maintained with bright flowers bringing a splash of colour. The Cathedral is located on one side of the Plaza. At night the Cathedral is majestically lit up and takes the focus of the square. There are many churches in and around Cusco, but the Cathedral must be seen. The platform of the construction is built in the shape of a latin cross. In side are Beautiful works of local art. The wooden pulpit is intricately craved, by hand, and the statues and decor are all in amazing good repair.

Around the Plaza are an array of bars, restaurants and shops, though they are charmingly hidden among the arches and traditional architecture. If you are after a lively night out where you will mix with locals and travellers alike, then Mamma Africas provides a mix of local tunes and modern disco and an atmosphere which will keep you dancing into the small hours. Standing in the Plaza facing the cathedral, Mamma Africa's is directly to your left. The best restuarants and quieter bars are found in the labyrinth of small alleyways leading off the main square. Half the charm is in discovering a gem of a place to eat which you never knew was there.

It is the people of Cusco though that really make the magic. They are wonderfully friendly and though Cusco is a very poor city financially, there is not a great deal of begging. Many Cusquenians are enterprising and you'll see plenty of children and young adults around the square offering shoe shines, selling postcards or promoting tours/excursians.

Don't shy away from these. We are all weary of the "time-share" salesmen or hard-sell/beg that we experience in many cultures across the globe. I found the people of Cusco to be refreshingly different. The shoe-shine lads were chatty and genuinely interested in where I was from, what my plans for travelling where and what I thought of their city. The best tourist advice I got came from postcard sellers, who would tell me all about the museums, churches and temples shown on their postcards. For a couple of soles (about 30p) I would spend an enjoyable hour chatting away whilst I had my shoes shone and bought some postcards to send home. When I allowed a young man to take me to the tourist agency he was promoting I got a fair deal on an excursion in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. One of the days two boys even directed me to a market and came with me to help me the best price on the local merchandise I wanted. The money they saved me with their local knowledge and bargaining skills more than paid for the small lunch I bought them in appreciation.

Check out the local food sellers as well. On most street corners you'll find someone selling churros, chicha morada or other local delicacies.
Obviously higene has to be accounted for, but I found most of the fare to be clean, tasty and culturally satisfying as my soles went directly to where they were needed rather than the rich western owner of one of the large restaurants or shops.

If you've enough puff then venture up to San Blas. UP is the important word. Take the lane to the right-hand side of the Cathedral and you walk up a seeming never-ending line of steps. On your way you pass aladdins caves of art and antique shops and locals selling textiles and souveniers.
The heart of this area is San Blas church in San Blas square. The church was founded by the Spanish and its understatedness is part of its beauty.
San Blas is a melting pot of the arts. In San Blas you will find sculpture, pottery, painting, jewellry, textiles, woodcarvings, stonework, religious arts and antiques. It's also a great place to wander round, especially in the mornings before it gets too busy. There are plenty of alleyways, shops and cafes to find.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Discovering The Lost City

Peru's biggest tourist draw is undoubtedly Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail.

Macchu Pichu is located 80Km to the NW of Cusco, in the Vilcabamba Mountains.
Machu Picchu is the amazingly well intact remains of a self-contained Incan city. Built at the very top of the mountain it is an architecural miracle.

The stone for the buildings would have needed to have been quarried from the near-by mountains and moved by HAND (some of these blocks would have weighed well over a tonne), possibly using wooden poles as rollers to move them up the mountainside. Machu Picchu contains houses, farming terraces and worship sites. It is estimated that a maximum of 750 people lived in Machu Picchu at any one time and rather than a conventional city, it was likely a country retreat for Incan nobility.

It is estimated that Machu Picchu was built from 1440 and occupied until the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532. It lay hidden from the outside world until 1911 when the American historian, Hiram Bingham III was led there by locals.

Machu Picchu was abandoned in a sudden and mysterious way. No real evidence exists to explain its abandonment, but it was possibly abandoned to protect it from the Spanish invaders. Due to it's remote and secluded location the fortress was able to remain undiscovered, known only to the small circle of the Inca's immediate retinue.

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu, either by the tourist train or via a 4-day hike along the Inca trail.

The trail is the purists way to see Machu Picchu. 4 days hiking through the sacred valley with a guide brings to life the history and the natural beauty of the area. One reaching the Sun Gate where you look down on a mist shrouded citadel, whose glory is magically revealed to you as the morning sun melts away the mist, you feel a real sense of achievement, a sense that you have made the pilgrimage and this mysterious city is opening up its arms to welcome you.

The train is the easier and faster way to get to Machu Picchu. The train leaves every day from San Pedro Train Station (near San Pedro market, which is a good place to browse local merchandise and grab a traditional lunch for about the same price that a bag of crisps costs in England). Do be careful of what you are wearing (leave jewellery in the hotel or well out of site) and keep your money in a money-belt or a hidden money bag if possible. Pick-pockets operate around the market and the busy train station.

There is further information about Machu Picchu on :

Friday, 16 March 2007

Lima - Like London in the 1950's

Now, I don't expect to be posting many negatives to this blog, as Peru is a cultural paradise on earth. However, Lima is a smog choked, crime infested, run-down, dirty boil on the face of princess Peru.

If possible don't go there. Just don't, get a connecting flight and get on to Cusco, Arequipa, Puno, wherever you are ultimately headed.

If you do need to stay over in Lima, then the Miraflores area is the most acceptable. Sure, that means it's a little more pricey, but this is one place where you've got to bite the bullet and shell out those extra pennies or really face a quite wretched experience.

In Miraflores you will find a number of "Chifas" (Chinese restaurants) which do a reasonable fare for a good price. At the seafront there are amusements, more restaurants and a bowling alley as well as some reasonable shops.

The best time of the year to go is December to April, as the smog lifts somewhat and the temperature is beach weather.

The beaches in Lima itself are pretty uninspiring, so head North along the coast if you are looking for sun and surf.

The Plaza de Armas is the centre of the city, surrounded by what would be grand buildings, if they weren't so run-down. The cathedral is worth a quick whizz round and a trot round the square in a horse-drawn carriage gives some photo moments.

Do not wear visible jewellery, carry large amounts of cash or wander around after dark in Lima (unless you are in a group or with knowledgable locals) and be very careful of what taxis you get in. Again, staying in Miraflores is probably your safest option and getting an aeroplane out to anywhere else in Peru is even better.

Now that I've got the one negative out of the way, look out for my tips and reviews of the beautiful, friendly, culturally rich areas of Peru that are a MUST for your travel itinerary.