6 September 1996
Soon after our Morrocoy trip, my sister and I were off again, this time eastward-bound for a change. The traffic thinned out after Puerto La Cruz and we were able to enjoy the beautiful clear views of island-studded bays and the classic Caribbean beaches of Mochima National Park, and the threatening black cloud and distant thunder never quite caught us up.
|Sucre, Venezuela (Arraya Peninsula, Playa Medina, Turuépano National Park, Cueva del Guácharo)
Our picnic lunch on pretty but crowded Arapita beach was followed by dessert of
cobitos from one of the many roadside stands (cobitos are a small orange fruit, new to me, which I decided tasted a cross between a tangerine and a peach). We made Cumaná by mid-afternoon, so I decided to venture onto new territory by taking the ferry across to the Araya Peninsula. By some amazing quirk of luck, the day's ferry was just leaving as we arrived (apparently they follow a very erratic schedule, sometimes not running at all for several days), so we and eight trucks set off on the hour-long crossing. We were treated to a frolicking display by some dolphins, before reaching the desert of Araya, its forbidding barren hills softened along the coast by several palm-fringed oasis beaches, all completely deserted.
In Araya town, we were lucky enough to find a gas station (in my haste to make the ferry I had forgotten we were running so low), and went off to
explore on foot the 17th Century Castillo de Araya. This proved to be largely in ruins, but still commanded good views over the pleasant hot little town, and over the multi-coloured waters of the salt pans the castle was originally built to protect. From there our route took us past one of these lakes, its purply-pink water contrasting starkly with the yellow sand hills and intense blue sky beyond, almost like a science fiction painting. The road varied from perfect black-top to rough track and followed the north coast through some fascinating multi-coloured desert scenery.
At one more or less random point we decided to make our way on foot through a spiny jungle of cactuses and up onto one of the pink domes of rock. At close quarters, we found the hill was composed of a whole jumble of different types of rock in small, loose pieces, with some parts looking distinctly like petrified wood - probably a geologist´s paradise, and it certainly kept us occupied for some time speculating on how it can have originated. In fact, so long did we speculate that darkness had fallen before we even rejoined the mainland of Sucre state, and the last couple of hours of our journey were completed in darkness, the last part following an old banger of a car with no less than four kids travelling in the propped-open trunk, (with presumably several more bodies inside) - the various limbs and body parts hanging out made quite a bizarre sight.
Luckily the posada (which I had chosen from its description in a book - at best
a doubtful technique) turned out to be quiet and pleasant despite its cheapness, positioned right behind the lovely, wild, but shadeless, Playa Copey, in a real ghost-town of a village just a few kilometres from Carúpano. Next day, after a huge breakfast and a morning constitutional along the beach, we headed straight off to Playa Medina. After our last idyllic visit, it was something of a shock to see how busy it was, and that they were charging for car-parking. We spent some time sun-bathing and swimming, but when the first drops of rain fell we were the first to retire to the beach bar. We bought some wonderful sweet corn from a passing vendor, who rewarded us with a beaming smile when we called him over for seconds - I think we had probably just single-handedly met his quota for the day). By this time it was lashing down with rain, complete with thunder and lightning, and we had one of our questions answered when the traditional thatched roof of the bar started to leak in several places simultaneously.
When the rain cleared we headed off through the lush jungle and cacao plantations of the coastal mountains in search of a German farmer, who, we had heard, organised boat trips into the wetlands of Turuépano National Park, just to the south. This friendly character suggested that we deal directly with the boatman instead of going on one of his expensive tours, and so with the boatman's first name and the name of his village we headed down dirt roads deeper into the strange marshy area between the uplands of Sucre and the vast jungle of Delta Amacuru. Eventually we found the typically poor Indian village and, soon after, the boatman, who was more than willing to take through the maze of caños at zero notice. By now most of the village had turned out to see what we were up to, and we set off in a small aluminium boat (not one of the unstable dugout canoes we saw scattered around in varying states of disrepair) amid a throng of brown bodies.
The narrow caño led through luxuriant jungle growth, past trees with the most intricate and convoluted mass of roots growing out of the water's edge,
and some of the tallest palm trees I have ever seen. Within minutes our man had pointed out a mapanare snake and some perfectly-camouflaged bats roosting on a tree trunk. Later as the caño broadened and the river-edge vegetation became dominated by mangroves, we saw several troops of monkeys swinging around in the taller trees behind, as well as many water birds picking their way through the brackish swamps. In places the boat needed coaxing through the mud as the tide was very low, and in others we were caught by short but torrential rainstorms.
On the way back, having only touched on the edges of the National Park in the time available before dusk, the boat stalled and the boatman calmly
proceeded to take the engine to pieces (luckily he fixed it because we were still an hour - with motor - from the village). As dusk approached hundreds of screaming parrots were coming home to roost, and on arriving back at the village there was more squabbling as most of the youth of the village were claiming to have looked after the car while we were away. I left them some money and an empty plastic water bottle (apparently a prized possession) and let them sort it out between themselves. More by luck than judgement we found our way back to civilisation, well satisfied with the day's achievements.
The next day we climbed through the coastal mountains into Monagas state, much clearer now than on the rainy day when I had first visited the area almost two years before. A new view opened up around every corner, and my sister was already way past her allocation of film when we arrived
at Cueva del Guácharo National Park. Like the beaches the cave was very busy, even though we had hardly seen a soul in between, and we were able to join straight onto a tour through the muddy, smelly domain of the strange, blind, oilbird. Our guide, clearly a "high-season guide" was short on hard information but long on cave formations which, with imagination and some accurate lighting, resembled breasts, penises and other body parts, which he insisted on describing in lurid detail despite the young children on the tour. However, we did see a couple of the birds themselves, ugly and cowering from the guide's lantern, and some of the cave's other denizens such as crabs, mice and spiders, and for the equivalent of 70¢ the two-hour trip was still well worthwhile. We rounded the visit off with a walk through the surrounding dense vegetation to an impressive waterfall, only slightly marred by the obnoxious members of a school trip who had arrived there just before us.
By the time we had found something reasonable to eat in Caripe, it was mid-afternoon and we decided to abandon our adventurous plans to continue on to Maturin and back via Caripito. Returning by the more direct route, we had time to detour to a couple of the lesser-known beaches on the Sucre coast west of Carúpano, including another pink Playa Colorado, this one totally wild and deserted and covered in beautiful shells, and for the first time on the trip we made it back to the posada in daylight. The return journey back to Caracas the next day was long and uneventful, although we made sure we stocked up on cobitos.
After some gross over-eating in Caracas while a friend from Canada was passing through, we started our next trip with the evening plane to Lima. My sister's first taste of Peru was a late-night hair-raising taxi journey through the chaotic streets of Lima to our overnight accommodation (and she thought the driving was bad in Caracas!). Just a few all-too-short hours later, we were back in a taxi to the airport, this one slightly more restrained but taking us through all the obscure back-streets he knew, so that we had no idea where we were until we miraculously popped out just a few blocks from the airport.
|Cusco, Peru (Sacsaywamán, Valle Sagrado, Chinchero)
During the short flight to Cusco, there were unexpected spectacular views over the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Andes, and even a totally unexpected aerial view of Machu Picchu itself. I felt quite an amateur tourist compared to many of the Americans on the plane, bolting from side to side of the plane, brandishing their video cameras with gay abandon. I had not seen so many gringos in one place since our last trip to Miami. Elena was reasonably good on both flights, but started playing up soon after our arrival in Cusco, where we were subjected to the first of what were to be many such barrages of touts, each trying to recruit the newcomers to their travel agency for the many profitable tours they had to offer. Old and wise, we accepted their taxi service to our hotel, half-listened to their spiel, and took their leaflets to peruse at our leisure.
Once through the shabby modern part of town near the airport, Cusco (or Qosqo, its official Quechua spelling) is a magical little island of colonial architecture, almost completely unspoiled by modern intrusions. More than that, many of the colonial buildings are built on, over and around Inca walls, arches and doorways, and many of the narrow streets in the centre of the town are lined with original Inca stonework, with its typical inward slope and perfect mortar-less joins, now serving as the foundations for more modern dwellings or churches (Cusco was the capital of the vast Inca empire - one of the world's greatest planned societies - from the 11th Century to its death in the early 16th Century). Surrounding the city and its red roofs, rise stark, beige-coloured hills and mountains. Its inhabitants are mostly Quechua Indians, directly descended from the Incas, many dressed in the colourful traditional dress of the area.
Cusco stands at 3,310m above sea level, and so in addition to altitude sickness (which hit us all in different ways, and for some reason more so than in other places we had visited of even higher altitude), dusk brought quite cold temperatures, for which we were more or less prepared, but which still came as a bit of a shock to the system. Our hotel was central, but basic, because hotel prices in Cusco (due to its status as tourist Mecca of Peru, and its ability to attract the rich Americans and Germans) have gone through the roof. They had promised a cot for Elena (one of the few I rang which did), but almost predictably when we arrived they bowed and scraped and maintained they had not been able to get hold of one, so we improvised a spare bed in a corner with pillows. However, whether due to the bed, the altitude, the cold, or other unguessed factors, Elena slept badly throughout the whole trip, waking us at least two or three times a night, and fighting hard against going back into her cold bed each time. Consequently as the week wore on, we wore out - even my sister in her separate room had problems sleeping due to the cold and the altitude.
The first day we did very little, trying to acclimatise, and the next morning we also limited ourselves to some easy strolls around the centre of town. The main square, the Plaza de Armas, is quite beautiful, despite the major repair and maintenance work going on in its centre and around the edges. It is dominated by the early 17th Century baroque Cathedral, and the equally ornate Jesuit church on one of its other sides. The other sides are lined with stores, tour agents and houses, fronted by colonnaded walkways, many having ornately-carved wooden balconies at first floor level. From the square radiate narrow streets and alleyways, many cobbled, leading to other smaller, more peaceful, squares, and to numerous other colonial churches. Even when we explored further afield on subsequent days, there was very little modern development to spoil the overall effect
On the afternoon of the second day, we had booked to go on a half-day tour of some of the main attractions in and around the city, the kind of thing we had never really done before, but it seemed to be the easy way of doing it, and turned out to be good value. During this we visited the Cathedral, with its magnificent solid silver high altar, and elaborately carved stalls and side chapels. It is also chock full of 17th Century paintings (many in quite bad repair, it has to be said) by the local school of artists, including a version of the Last Supper featuring local foods and tropical fruits, a famous black Christ, and many other treasures. The other main stop in the centre of town was Santo Domingo Church, built over and around Qorikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, which features some of the best Inca stonework in Cusco, with niches for statues, and the typical, other-worldly, sloping walls and trapezoid-shaped windows and doorways, as well as astrological constructions.
From there, the bus took us up out of Cusco onto the cold, windy hills which overlook it, where the first stop was the huge archeological park at Sacsaywamán. Here we saw some of the grandest and most impressive Inca walls anywhere, with huge, irregular-shaped rocks weighing up to 130 tons fitted together with absolute precision. The site appears to be a fort with its massive, multi-layered bastions and connecting walls, but it was apparently also the Incas' main ceremonial centre, and even today the dramatic and colourful festival of Inti Raymi is celebrated there on 24 June each year. A clipped condor seemed to be a favourite attraction for most of the tourists, although I could not but find it sad and callous, especially considering the grandeur all around.
Next stop was Qenqo (strange how difficult it is to write a "Q" without a "U"), which means labyrinth in Quechua, and indeed there is a natural labyrinth carved out within the convoluted shapes of the rocks on the cliff-top. But Qenqo was also a ceremonial place and there is a sacrificial altar in a chamber hollowed out within the stone, and there are channels cut into the rock where blood mixed with the local corn liquor ran down in order to predict the next year's harvest - all fascinating stuff, although as well as animal sacrifices, human volunteers were also asked for in times of great stress or famine.
By this time, having started the tour late and having waited around for stragglers at the preceding stops, dusk was fast approaching, and the final stops at the great fort of Puka Pukara, and the Inca's Bath at Tambo Machay (all part of the Sacsaywamán archeological park) were short and only the ultra-keen got out to poke around in the dark. We managed to have the "family from hell" behind us most of the time, and when the spoilt brats were not jumping around and shouting the place down the parents were holding everyone up as they bargained ferociously over every little gew-jaw being sold at every stop by the ubiquitous Quechua hawkers. But even so, we felt we had already had much more than our $5 worth, and were still reeling with the views, the history and the grandeur of the whole Inca outlook.
The next day we restricted ourselves to Cusco, and in between buying our train tickets to Machu Picchu, and other administrative details, we visited a few of the other Cusco sights included on the multi-site tourist ticket we had purchased for the previous day's tour, including two or three of the many religious art museums, and San Blas Church which featured a stunningly intricate pulpit carved in 1680 out of the then common cedar wood, now all but disappeared (it was here that we made the mistake of asking an innocent question of the custodian, and in return received a half-hour lecture on every painting and carving in the church, followed by a none-too-subtle request for payment).
We had already found out the two or three excellent and impossibly cheap vegetarian restaurants in the town and were finally eating well, although our subsequent stomach complaints probably arose from these tiny little places with their very basic sanitary facilities. Other than breakfast, Elena was not eating so well, and we were resorting more and more to our emergency cargo of sloppy baby food, which probably also contributed to her subsequent diarrhoea, a problem we seem to get every time we go away for more than a couple of days. It made her cantankerous and, with our lack of sleep, we were not responding too well either.
The day after that, we were signed up for the bus tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which took in several of the main sites along the Urubamba Valley. First stop was a little mud-and-thatch village called Ccoroa, its main attraction being its tourist-orientated market, where the usual range of colourful textiles, pottery and carvings were available. After a couple of photo-stops with wide views over the deep, fertile Urubamba valley, we arrived at Pisac, a dusty red-roofed town down in the bottom of the valley, hemmed in by mountains. From above we could see the blue plastic awnings of the famous market, but luckily (for me at any rate) we headed straight through town and then steeply up a deep side-valley. We could see the massive Inca terraces stretching from the valley floor to about halfway up the mountainside, and we parked near the
top of theses and started walking along old Inca trails to the ruins of a large Inca fort and temple complex, overlooking the two huge valleys from its vantage point on a rocky spur. Although they are ruins, what can be seen of the Inca masonry there is still impressive, and on a large scale, and its Temple of the Sun has interesting carved stones to mark the solstices and other important astrological events. The overall effect was spoilt somewhat by the crowds of tourists (for some reason the tours are only done two or three days a week, and all the companies do the same route at the same time), and we were beginning to weary of the women and kids (however picturesque they may be) constantly bothering us to buy something. We did, however, take a picture of Elena with some llamas and brightly dressed locals for posterity.
Our lunch-stop was in Calca, which boasts the largest sweet corn in the world (although they still do not taste as good as smaller varieties), and from there we headed (predictably, behind schedule) straight along the main road through Urubamba, the area capital, and onto the small town of Ollayantambo. Ollayantambo was built on and out of the stones of an older Inca town, which Manco Inca successfully defended against Pizarro in 1536, so we were into a part of the Inca empire which was never actually conquered by the Spaniards (Machu Picchu, further long the valley was never even discovered by the conquistadors). We trailed up hundreds of steep stairs, linking an impressive system of terraces, and a complete irrigation system carved into the almost sheer rock face. On the facing mountain across the side valley were large and apparently well-preserved Inca constructions dug into the steep mountainside, which we were told had held food stores for times of emergency, war or famine.
Retracing our steps back to Urubamba, we then took a different route, straight up the side of the huge valley, and near the top, we were treated to views of the snow-capped Urubamba range of mountains dominated by the huge bulk of Chicón. With dusk approaching fast, we made it to the last stop of Chinchero with just enough light to see the traditional old mud-brick village with its church and village square at the top of the hill (we were at 3,760m here). The market in the square was
still in full swing, however, with the colourful Indian women sitting around on their patches of cloth, selling their even more colourful wares. It was a shame the light was so bad, and that we had to feed Elena (who was starting to play up again after having been quite good for most of the day), as we felt we could have spent quite some time there, despite the cold. In fact, we decided that we could quite easily repeat the whole trip sometime, but over two or three days to better appreciate the grandeur and the culture. But, once again, it had been a very well-spent $8.
As the holiday started to draw to a close, we still had the highlight to look forward to. A 4.30am alarm call saw us packed and ready at the train station for the 6am "tourist train" which was to take us the spectacular 3½ hour journey to Machu Picchu, one of the few places in the world designated as both a Natural and a Cultural World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Presumably by coincidence, we were just a few seats back from the big front picture window of the train, so we had a grandstand view of the journey.
However, "picture window" was soon to take on a whole new meaning, as the young Japanese guy sat next to my sister made a dive (no exaggeration) for the front window as soon as the train set off, and stayed there crouched uncomfortably for much of the rest of the journey. He was snapping away with his little point-and-shoot, and was clearly not willing to move for anyone else to take a photograph. He was obviously a train freak, as he was writing down the exact times of each station and signal we passed, as well as some other presumably pertinent statistics and observations. Eventually, after a few other passengers had tried to no avail, the stewardess had to ask him to return to his seat, where he perched craning his neck, and making jerking movements like a caged animal - he was obviously in almost physical pain at being denied his window. Now he would make lunges for the window from time to time, pushing past anyone in the way, almost oblivious to their presence, and then skulk back lingeringly to his seat. What a sad state to get into, we thought.
We had thought the journey off to an ominous start anyway, when the train ground to a halt at a litter-strewn dead-end in the outskirts of Cusco, and then started reversing. However, it then soon stopped again and took a different track off to the right. When the same thing happened again, we began to realise that in this way the train was actually switching back up a series of zig-zags (four in all) in order to ascend the very steep hills which surround Cusco. Once up, the going was much flatter and easier, across a more or less flat, cultivated, high plain, with hills in the distance and the odd glimpse between them of snow-capped mountains further beyond. Further still, we started to descend along a steep, winding, rocky gorge, which eventually brought us out in the main Urubamba valley we had visited the previous day by road.
Continuing from there along the Urubamba valley, the mountains hugged the tracks closer and closer as we descended gradually with the clear, bubbling glacial waters of the river. At each station, Indian hawkers thrusted trinkets and keepsakes up towards the foreigners in the train, which really highlighted for me the income differences between us - a single sale to a rich, naive foreigner would probably set them up for the day. Soon we were down at an altitude where the vegetation was more tropical and the mountains green with trees, and in fact Machu Picchu station is only 1,700m above sea level. The ruins themselves, however, are some 700m up the mountainside from the station, so we all piled into some rickety old buses which struggled up the dirt road which zig-zags its way up to the ruins and our hotel.
As we ascended, the views over the valley and the extraordinary near-vertical mountains crowded together above the deep chasm became more and more spectacular, so that it was easy to miss the proliferation of purple orchids and other tropical flowers growing by the roadsides. The road, which due to the number of tourists it serves is under constant repair, was indeed under repair, and we had to get out and walk, bags and all, up one section and pick up another bus which ferried us to the top. Having had to cope with Elena at the same time, we were glad to be able to flop down in our hotel room at the top. Even though I had only been able to book an incredibly expensive triple between us, and even if Elena's cot was not there as promised (they did find one eventually), it was at least clean, pleasant and warm, especially in comparison to our Cusco digs, and we all luxuriated in warm showers and room service.
We still had most of the day before us, so after a basic (and also incredibly expensive) buffet lunch, we bought our tickets for our first real contact with the ruins themselves. Machu Picchu is probably the best-known and most spectacular archeological site on the continent. Apart from a few locals, no-one knew of the existence of the "Lost City of the Incas" until Hiram Bingham stumbled on it almost by accident in 1911, and then returned to clear the thick forest which had overgrown the ruins. It was certainly a complete city, perched on a saddle connecting two high mountains, with residential and agricultural sections and terracing around the edges. But its complete function is still unclear as it was obviously also a major ceremonial site, with several altars and a quality of stonework which suggests higher designs than just subsistence, and its position and strength also suggest it was something of a fortress too. Because it was never found and decimated by the Spaniards like most other Inca sites, (indeed it is still not clear exactly why it was abandoned although it does seem to have been deliberate), it is still in comparatively good condition.
We wandered at random among the stone staircases, terraces, temples, palaces, towers and houses, remarking on the several different style of stonework exhibited, although all beautifully executed and all without the aid of mortar. I eventually found the vantage point from where most of the photos of the ruins are taken, with the backdrop of the dramatic peak of Huayna Picchu (apparently not too difficult to climb, but we never quite found the energy or the time). For me at least, the ruins - impressive though they are - almost pale into insignificance against the spectacular mountain setting, and I spent hours just watching the play of light and shadow as the weather changed, as it did from bright sunshine to a humdinger of a rain-storm.
Despite the number of foreigners there (mainly English, German, French and American), Elena, who still inexplicably sports blond hair and quite a pale complexion and has retained a few of her more endearing habits such as running around with her hands flapping in the air, elicited the same "ooh"s, "aah"s and "que lindo"s from all the locals as she had throughout the trip, and we had long since stopped bothering to explain that she was a girl, and trying to coax out of her some of her repertoire of cute words. "Inca", "llama" and "coca" were some of the useful Spanish words with which she was supposed to impress Maritza on our return, but the words she used most were "biccy" and "water" (pronounced "mortar" now), and at times she would scream the house down if she did not receive one or the other forthwith - by this time we had abandoned any dietary education we may have considered, and were willing to give her whatever it took to keep her quiet, in the hope that Maritza could un-spoil her in the subsequent weeks.
The next morning was overcast, and so although we were already up with Elena in time for the dawn (which comes relatively late given the curtain of mountains around the place), we did not bother going into the site for some sort of spiritual experience. As it turned out, it soon rained anyway, and there were some very wet and very spiritual people at breakfast. We went back in at mid-morning, however, and spent a very hot, sunny mid-day in among the ruins. By 2pm we were back on the bus down the hill, along with the BBC Holiday Program film crew with whom we had spoken quite a lot during our stay - they filmed us getting out of the bus and walking mid-way down the road, with Elena, wearing her favourite baseball cap, perched on my back-pack (to which she had inexplicably taken quite a liking during the holiday), so, who knows, we may have documentary proof for posterity of her first trip to Peru.
The return trip was very much an anticlimax, especially as it essentially marked the end of the holiday (the next day being fully devoted to getting back to Caracas). Without warning we were transferred from the train to a bus halfway, and, cramped by all our luggage, and with Elena in none too great form, the even clearer views across to the snow-capped mountains were somewhat lost on us. By then we were all dog tired and irritable, and we hardly bothered with dinner that night, concentrating on packing, paying bills and doing everything we could to make the next day a little more bearable. As it turned out, both the flight back to Lima, (where we said goodbye to Julie who was staying on for a few days for a business trip), and the much longer flight back to Caracas passed comparatively easily - Elena obviously sensed that we were close to breaking point. That night we all slept like angels, and by morning most of the stomach upsets and headaches were either gone or much improved. My sister left for England the next day, physically wrecked but spiritually a better person no doubt, and Elena and I returned to our routine of Baby Gym, playgroup and Barney videos, as though nothing had happened.
After her very mixed performance in Peru (where, to give her the benefit of the doubt, the altitude and cold probably took their toll), Elena launched herself headlong into the "Terrible Two's": at least once a day, and often several times, she would have a screaming fit of such ferocity that she forgot completely what it was about, locked almost hermetically into the world of her anger. There was absolutely nothing we could do about it (God knows we tried) other than try to break the chain by changing the subject, distracting her, and cuddling her until it stopped, which could be from five to twenty minutes. The reasons for such tantrums may be more or less obvious: sometimes there was no apparent reason at all (other than maybe tiredness - she was rejecting all attempts to put her to sleep during the day, however tired she may have been); sometimes it was due to frustration at not being able to do something, however pointless that something may have been. An example of this is when she found she could not carry all her crayons in one hand (she would not accept solutions such as using both hands, or carrying them in her little basket, and was too upset to have her attention distracted by any tricks I tried: the only way I found to solve that one was to surreptitiously hide a few of the crayons so that she could eventually carry them).
Thankfully, Elena's tantrums did not last too long (this time around, at least), and she has recently learned to pass upto an hour quite happily playing with her crayons. Not that she draws with them, or anything of the sort - she just moves them around onto different articles of furniture, individually, en mass, or in conjunction with other items: the permutations are almost endless, and she is rapidly working her way through them. She also started swimming lessons: the first time she howled at the instructor throughout, despite the assurances I had given him that she has always loved the water. Subsequently, she behaved slightly better, though we still decided that, for all our sanities, we would abandon formal lessons for a while - she still seems to be progressing well enough under our own tutelage.