Monday, 21 September 2009

Hard to dislike, impossible to like

(Friday-Saturday, 21-22 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

Google map:,+peru&sll=-13.516836,-72.05246&sspn=2.627549,5.603027&ie=UTF8&ll=-13.523179,-72.191162&spn=2.62749,5.603027&z=8&iwloc=A

The Inca legacy is everywhere in the Andean trail, from north Argentina and Chile to Ecuador, but visiting Cuzco and the surrounding Sacred Valley is like being in the epicentre of the virtual earthquake that their rapid ascent and collapse was for the human and natural landscape of the region.

And being in that epicentre brings great and awful things…

Cuzco was the Inca state capital, but virtually nothing of their city survived to our days, with the historical centre now being of pure colonial character. I guess you should consider the centre of Cuzco beautiful. OK, I grant you that: it’s beautiful. But all the modern construction that surrounds it is just to forget. You can blame the consecutive earthquakes that hit the city over and over again (as so many other cities in Peru, what helps explaining the urban architectural disasters that you constantly see by travelling in this country), but the truth is that it’s hard to ignore so much ugliness. At night the artificial light helps dissimulate the chaotic urban design, and you almost forget the slum-like look of the houses growing uphill. You almost forget it, but you don’t completely, as the next day the sun will always rise…

But worse than it all is the touristy feel of the city. So many foreigners come to Peru only to visit Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and the nearby Machu Picchu that in the middle of August the town looks more like a Disney theme park than anything else. There are tourists everywhere, in big tours. Tourist shops. Kids selling souvenirs to tourists in the streets. Tourist restaurants. Employees with menus in their hands at the entry of those restaurants, trying to get you through the door, sometimes more insistently than others. Indigenous women and children, dressed in traditional costumes and with lamas by their hand, posing for “picturesque” photos by important monuments, in exchange for a dollar or two.

The entire city is inundated by tourists at this time of the year (and probably during other periods too?), and it just doesn’t know how to deal with it. Or better said, it deals with the crowds in the most uninteresting, unappealing way. There is no visible attempt to provide a well-informed stay: the museums are ridiculously content-less, every store and tourist agency (there are so, so, so many of them!) is offering the very same, and everyone – locals and tourists alike – seem not to bother with such superficiality and such mass-market, undifferentiated experience.

Yes, we got nice pictures from Cuzco. And, as I said, the centre of town is beautiful. But if it’s hard to dislike this city, for me it was impossible to like it either.

Beautiful images from an awful trip

(Friday, 21 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

A 14-hour bus ride from Nazca to Cusco. Very long, and very uncomfortable. With stupid movies voiced-over in Spanish being played the all time, including during the night sleeping hours, and always very, very loudly. A bus attendant ignoring your requests to lower the sound bits just a little, or worse, stating that no-one else onboard seems to be complaining, and deciding to increase the volume even further.

But then a random stop somewhere in the Andes. A lovely family selling tasty food. And really curious about your sunglasses.

A surrealist experience is...

(Wednesday, 19 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

A surrealist experience is being in an awful Peruvian city in the middle of the desert, famous for nothing but some geoglyphs created more than a millennium ago, hitchhike a ride back to centre of town from an archaeological site in the outskirts of town, getting in a very old car while a tourist couple stares at you with an half-scared half-admired look as inside there is a group of youngsters looking like proto-delinquents, some with an irreverent afro hair style oddly combined with a spotless white shirt and a red tie, and then have with them a nice conversation about Portuguese culture, what “saudade” is, and how unique of a concept it is. All that in a suffered but understandable Portuguese, with Brazilian accent.

What the f*ck?

So, who did this?

(Tuesday-Thursday, 18-20 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

Google map:,+peru&sll=-14.789489,-74.940491&sspn=0.62406,0.88028&ie=UTF8&ll=-14.125922,-75.327759&spn=2.503532,5.603027&z=8

What leads one to come and visit a place like the famous Nazca lines? Or other world-famous places, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal or, as we are in Peru, Machu Picchu? Is it a willingness to tick boxes, to say you were there?

No way, man: it’s all about the context…

In addition to the very bumpy and motion-sickness inducing flight over the lines, what really surprises you in the air visit to Nazca is how different the sand & rock lines seem when you see them in their natural context, in contrast with what you may know before, from TV documentaries or textbooks.

First, they are HUGE (some are more than 150 meters wide!) and quite subtle in the way they come out the rocky desert soil – you need to pay close attention to spot them…

Second, they make TOTAL SENSE in their surroundings. I mean, the Nazca lines were made by clearing the more superficial (and darker) desert sand, and then marking the contour of the resulting lighter-coloured lines with small stones, creating an effect that in much resembles the natural lines made by the rain, when it flows down from the mountains into the desert plain. Seeing it all from the bird’s (or the airplane’s) perspective makes you think that the decision of the Nazca people to draw these lines was somehow a natural consequence of climbing up the mountains, looking at the surrounding basin and… just replicate – or should I say celebrate? – what nature had done before them. And really well, I've to say.
Another very interesting aspect of the Nazca lines is how they evolved overtime: from the earlier figurative drawings, of humans and animals, they progressed towards more abstract polygons and lines. The beautiful ceramics this people created followed a parallel evolution over time. There are some crazy theories that try to explain those more recent and abstract lines, ranging from landing airstrips for alien spaceships, to codified communication with the gods. But, if you ask me, what we witness here is just the fine artistic evolution of a very talented civilisation, from a more figurative towards a totally abstract period – just like it would happen with the western art, many centuries later. Just brilliant!!

Funny enough, it won’t be nothing of this art theory bullshit that I’ll remember the most from Nazca, but rather a priceless comment by an American tourist, who was sharing the flight with us in the small 7-seater. As the pilot prepared to take-off, and everyone was excitedly anticipating the experience, this lady, with clearly above-the-average culture, asks: “So, please tell me: who did this? Were it the Inca?”.

Jesus, lady…

P.S.: Thank you to AeroCondor for the free flights over Nazca (no more details on that here, as I haven’t left Peru yet and don’t want any disturbing questions asked at the airport passport checkpoint…)

The most recent Nazca lines: landing airstrips...

... or macro-scale abstract painting?

Figurative lines: the man...

... the spider...

... and the humming bird, or colibri (extra points if you can find it)

The "natural" Nazca lines... If you would see this scenery from the top of the mountains, wouldn't you feel like doing some lines yourself?

English grade for the Nazca airstrip management: fail

Other perspectives on Nazca: publicity wallpaper (surprisingly) looking like fashionable street art...

... retro cars...

... really odd-looking mannequins (what to say of this?!?)...

... and the Plaza de Armas, seen from the balcony of the best BBQ restaurant in town, and also the best spot from where to watch the noisy and ridiculously chaotic (as it is also far from being too intense) city traffic. Pity this is a photo and not a movie clip: you're missing unique sound & movement!

Friday, 11 September 2009

Living with your back facing Eden

(Thursday-Tuesday, 13-18 August 2009 – in retrospective…)

Google map:,+peru&sll=53.800651,-4.042969&sspn=12.791842,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-9.332542,-77.34787&spn=0.666712,1.400757&t=h&z=10

The 8-hour long trip from Lima to Huaraz offers you fantastic views of the coastal desert, then the transition to the rocky Andes, through a green valley, to finally get you to the uniquely snow-capped Cordillera Blanca. Not that we could see much of this the first time around, as we did the second half of the journey already after sunset. We’d have to wait for the return trip to fully appreciate it.

The Cordillera Blanca, along with its southerner “sister” Cordillera Huayhuash, is a premium spot for trekking and mountaineering, second only to the Himalaya range. It offers plenty of peaks above 6,000 meters and an incredibly vast, inhospitable and beautiful show of white mountains coming out of the yellow-dry rocky plateau, creating an effect that in my mind resembles a dinosaur’s dorsal emerging from the water (not that I've ever seen one, of course!). Its contrast with its easterner neighbour, the Cordillera Negra, equally high and rough but just not snow-capped as it "absorbs" most of the heat and humidity coming from the Pacific, makes it even more beautiful.

I think we could only comprehend its full size and splendour once leaving Huaraz by day, when the road went up a few hundred meters further up, and you could see it from the birds’ perspective. If I already had my mind on the idea of returning here later on, in September, to finish my Latin America travels with a long hike across this beautiful range, the sight of the Cordillera Blanca shining at far, in daylight, completely convinced me of that decision.

I came here wanting to share one of the most impressive experiences of my travels through Latin America up to then: high altitude hiking and mountaineering. The unique view of glaciers all around you; the noise and sight of ice breaking and falling; having nothing but gigantic mountains surrounding you – for days in a row. Having nothing but two landscapes a day to appreciate - given the scale of the mountains and valleys, and the speed at which you walk, that’s all you manage to achieve. Having nothing but two landscapes a day to appreciate, but still be amazed at every inch of variation in the perspective you have of the ice and rock colossus in front of you.

We had a glimpse of that. But, first, we had to survive the urban disaster of Huaraz...

The city – which, making things worse, is not that small – is surrounded by a truly spectacular landscape, but manages to make you feel like you are in Beirut, after the worse bombings of the Lebanon war. There’s zero urban planning and the streets grow chaotically. The buildings look only half-built, with bricks & mortar still on show, cast-iron frames step out from the flat roofs, aiming high at the sky like TV antennas, and waiting for the house owners to have enough money to build its next level. The traffic is, as usual, crazy, and you cross the occasional river bed that looks more like an open-air dump than a natural geographic formation.

And, worse of all, the city lives with its back facing the marvellous peaks right next door, just like they don’t exist. The buildings’ few and small windows face everywhere but the mountain range. You cross the all town in search of a pleasant café where to drink a nice hot drink, while facing the glaciers at sunset, but there is no way to find a damn place with a decent terrace (apparently there’s such an oasis around, we found out later; will need to look for it even more carefully next time!).
WHAT A WASTE!! People of Huaraz: I know this piece of Eden is no news to you, it has always been there and you may not look at it the same way I do, but…

In addition to the urban disaster of Huaraz, we had to survive my quasi-intransigent demand for independent travel and trekking, which means hiring no travel agencies, cooks, mountain guides or mules to carry stuff for you. (Please don’t ask me why: it’d take me long and strong words to express myself - perhaps at a later post). But well, we managed to meet my childish demands while keeping the physical effort of the hikes manageable for all… :-D

We decided to escape depression in Huaraz and went for a few nights’ stay at a very cosy lodge at the entry door of Cordillera Blanca, 45 minutes away from town. Electricity was supplied only a few hours a day, by generator, what ensured dark-clean skies at night. The place was pretty much empty – at times we only had the local dogs and the owner as company – and the location was perfect for both the views and as an entry point for short walks in the surrounding mountains.

With this nice stay and a couple of day-long or two-day long treks in the area I think we had a taste of the glaciers and I managed to share a bit of my recent passion for high-altitude hiking and mountaineering.
But I couldn’t but leave wishing we would have done much, much more… I felt we only experienced the tip of the iceberg of what this region has to offer, and of what my previous experiences in the Andes had provided me.
But well, we had to make a trade-off with other things we wanted to see and do in Peru, and I guess I was still getting used to a new paced of travel - a shared one, but also clearly time-limited.
That's something I had to learn bit by bit during the upcoming weeks: travelling for 7 months in Latin America as a "job" is not the same as enjoying your only month of vacations in Peru, is it? Your mindset is necessarily different, what you look for is also different, and you just have to live with the constraints and limitations that reality brings.
Was I being a bit self-centred when I didn't fully realise that back then?

. Huaraz: an ungly urban landscape, facing its back to the mountains...

The mountain lodge: beautiful setting, candlelight and perfect sky at night... and dogs as company, treks included

=== 1-day trek to laguna Churup ===

Common sight around here: blue-green lagoons facing glaciars

Yep, dogs as company, from the lodge all the way to the lake, and then down again. Pity we had to carry her on the steepest parts of the trail. Not too much of a guide dog, is she?
=== 2-day trek to laguna Pulcacocha ===

All geared up for a chilly night in the mountains

The cow & the mountaineer: encounter #1

The glaciers of the Pucaranra peak at sight; it looks like just next door, but as usual in this kind of landscape your eyes trick you and the bloody lagoon was still a good 3 hours or so from here

The cow & the mountaineer: encounter #341

The peaks and the glaciers are a tad closer here; but still a good 1 hour walk away...

Finally the lagoon - for the gnome and everyone else


Camp-fire at the mountain refuge where we stayed for the night: very handy given how cold it was. It was only us, the snow-capped peaks and the stars. Ah! And not as poetic: a lot of cow shit around too...

Second visit to the lagoon and the surrounding glaciers, this time in the morning of the second day. Great idea to go there and see the sunrise behind the peaks... but it took so long for it to happen that we were close to freezing and gave up after 20 minutes of waiting. By the way, do you see that small dark dot? That's me by the lagoon. Now you can get a feel for the scale of the glaciers... It tricks you, doesn't it?

Now a bit closer, but I still look ridiculously small against the mountain... From there we were lucky enough to see and hear ice cracking and falling. Nice!

Looking cold, very cold... There was a reason to it: look at the ice on the knife, below. By now we had gotten back to the refuge (20 minutes away from the lake) and waited for the sunrise there...

Heading back... Once the sun hits directly, the weather warms up incredibly and it's ok (actually, it's advisable) to walk on shorts and t-shirt. That's how the weather is like here: hot with the sun, bloody cold without it

Saying farewell to the amazing view

Back to the lodge, back to canine company...