Through the Inca Heartlands of Peru

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The minibus struggled up into the mountains overlooking Cuzco.

We passed the ruins of the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman, whose stones the conquistadors looted to build the colonial town below, crashed over epic potholes and burst out into beautiful countryside. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed at the side of the road, tended by Quechua ladies in felt hats and voluminous skirts.

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A few switchback bends down the mountain road, we stopped to gaze over the Urubamba Valley, popularly known as El Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the Incan Empire. I said no gracias a few dozen times to the hawkers who held up alpaca jumpers and chullo hats, and water and sun cream, and CD’s of Andean music.

We stopped again at one of the weaving villages dotted about the mountains, and an embarrassed young woman demonstrated how to clean and dye alpaca wool, and older ladies worked a handloom. Their llamas and alpacas let me stroke their ears, but one of them spat when I tried to take its photo.

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Then on to Pisac, to climb Incan terraces which step up the mountain to the ruined fortress at the peak. The Incas dominated the western half of South America before the Spanish arrived, expanding from the Sacred Valley across Peru and into present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They built complex structures which have withstood centuries of earthquakes and impress engineers to this day. Yet they never devised a system of notation; they invented the wheel but could see no use for it except in toys; and they were still sacrificing children around the time of the European Renaissance.

Back on the bus, driving through little towns laid out along dirt roads with single-storey adobe buildings, whitewashed and painted by hand with the name of a proprietor, the nature of his business and perhaps a familiar logo, like Coca Cola or Repsol Oil.

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I was intrigued by the names carefully signwritten across the walls of houses: the same ones on house after house, “Humberto” or “Miguel Morales” in huge red letters, shaded in blue. It turned out that they were local politicians.

I climbed more Incan terraces at Ollantaytambo, where the Incas fought the conquistadors and won. The terrraces are impressively straight, impressively uniform, and the enormous blocks are shaped and slotted together so snugly, without mortar, that you would not slide a feeler gauge between them. The Incas did all sorts of ingenious things to get the blocks to the site, including diverting a river. But they would have made things a great deal easier for themselves if they had seen the potential of the wheel.

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There is an ethereal air about the town below with its adobe walls and trapezoid doorways, despite the trucks which bully their way with blasts of their horns along lanes meant for carts. The Andean people have lived there continuously since before the Incas came, let alone the conquistadors.

In the morning, I took the train to take the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

© Richard Senior 2016

Peru between the Sights

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It was a dark restobar with a wobbly iron staircase, terracotta floor tiles and stacked Coca Cola crates.

Two old men were having a one-sided fight outside. The first lurched onto the street and hit the other on the shoulder in the way that you might greet a friend. The second took it badly, started shouting and pummelling the drunk man’s shoulders. He kicked him in the arse and he fell over and lay as helpless as a beetle on its back. A policeman saw them, strode over, helped the drunk man up and sent both of them on their way.

Aguas Calientes began, a century ago, as a camp for railway workers and still looks as if it might be abandoned on half a day’s notice. The buildings seem to have been put up in a hurry and occupied before they were finished. The only road out leads up to the mountains. The railroad alone links the town to the rest of Peru.

The tracks serve as the high street and shops and restaurants open straight onto the platform. When the train approaches, a man in a cap strolls out of a bar and onto the track and waves a red flag and pedestrians shuffle aside. The train passes and whistles and the man with the flag goes back to his drink and the pedestrians pick up their journey.

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I had reached Aguas Calientes the hard way, via the Inca Trail, and seen a glimpse of Machu Picchu at the end. I got back on the bus to the mountains in the morning to see it properly.

There had been a landslide a few days earlier and there were rocks the size of houses at the side of the road. A team was working to clear them but progress was slow; sledgehammers made little impression on rocks of that size. There were more rocks overhanging the road and it seemed as if a sneeze might dislodge them and if one had fallen with the bus underneath there would have been nowhere for the driver to swerve.

There was a boulder in the middle of the road near the top, blocking it to traffic. The bus stopped and disgorged the passengers and we walked round the corner, up the hill, to another bus which took us the last few hundred yards.

Around lunchtime, then, I took the two buses back to Aguas Calientes and bustled onto a train to Ollantaytambo, just as it was about to leave, and gazed out the window at the angry river, an Amazon tributary, and the verdant mountains either side, and adobe villages with political slogans painted on walls, and Quechua ladies leading llamas, and tethered donkeys and free-ranging pigs, and a dog trying to face down a bull which was roped to the ground from a ring in its nose.

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The station was a chaos of bewildered travellers and persistent vendors:

“¡Taxi! ¡Taxi! ¡Cusco! ¡ Taxi!”

“¡Choc-o-late!”

“¡Cusco-Cusco-Cusco!”

“¡Empanadas!”

“¡Taxi, amigo! ¡Taxi!”

I forced my way through and got on a bus to Cuzco. I had stayed there before but had only seen the Centro Historico and the scenic route out past the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman. The western suburbs are nothing like that, with rubble and weeds where the pavements should be and houses of unpainted concrete and rusty rebar sticking out of roofs and people buying provisions through bars on the doors of the shops.

As so often, the bits which the tourists see have little to do with the lives of ordinary people who live there.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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The train rattled alongside a furious river hemmed in by mountains as Andean flute music wafted from speakers above. Then it stopped, nowhere, just like a British train…except that this one was meant to.

Excuse me, sir, you need for to get off

What?”

You do the Inca Trail, no?”

Oh, yeah.

There was no station, no platform: we just opened the door, dropped to the track and crunched through the gravel until we got to a bridge more rickety even than any I saw in Laos. It swayed and creaked as I hurried across the rotten slats, expecting, any minute, that one would give way and leave me dangling over the river.

It takes three or four days to walk the length of the Inca Trail, but we were cheating and starting two thirds of the way in. That still left a long day’s hike. The trail led relentlessly upwards, snaked round the mountain, and continued upwards, until we had left the valley we started from way below and the river was but a scribble and the train track a toy shop display. We scrambled up Incan terraces, passed waterfalls which plunged gorgeously down the face of the rock, and looked across at the neighbour mountains carpeted with trees, and paused to contemplate flowers which erupted from the ledge in shocks of yellow and orange, and pink and red. Once we saw porters from the four day trail, running down the mountain with mules-worth of weight on their backs. They carry the tents, the chairs, the stoves, the gas bottles and food so the tourists need not worry about weight.

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It started to rain and the clouds slipped down and filled the valley like expanding foam and, for an hour or two, we were walking above them.

Bepe, the guide, kept stopping so we had a chance to catch our breath and he had a chance to share his passion for orchids; but I wanted to press on and did, until I came to a sign with a picture of a bear and some text I did not understand and jumped to the wrong conclusion. I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he worries his way along the Appalachian Trail thinking about bear attacks. But there are no grizzlies in Peru, it turns out, just the spectacled bear: a shy little thing you would expect to have petite-bourgeois manners from the fifties and a bag full of marmalade sandwiches. The sign was urging the walkers not to bother the bears, not warning the walkers that the bears might bother them.

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I went ahead again, and passed a hard-looking man who glared from a step, and I remembered something I had read in a guidebook about muggings along the trail. Three more men emerged from shelter when I climbed up the steps of Inti Punku, the last but one of the ruins on the trail. “Buen’ dias,” one growled and I looked back with relief to see Bepe and the others at the foot of the steps.

Who were those dodgy buggers?” I asked after we turned the corner.

“The rangers,” Bepe said.

“Oh.”

“They’re making sure that nobody is still walking when the trail closes.”

“Ah.”

We would, he said, have had a good view of Machu Picchu by then, if it were not for the clouds. I thought he might have kept that to himself. But as we walked on, the clouds dissolved and the iconic image materialised before us, just as it is in the brochures. It was a magical effect.

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© Richard Senior 2015

A Bus to Puno

The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop. Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.

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But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.

I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

Cuzco: Shadows of the Incas

“The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is evocative,” said Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. “Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like the disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch its bottom”.

Even Matthew Parris admitted in his often curmudgeonly book, Inca Kola, that it is “worth seeing”.

It has the same raffish charm, the same flyblown pomp as the ancient towns of Sicily. Smarter, grander around the Plaza de Armas in the middle of town, tattier, poorer the further away you go from it; but all of central Cuzco has character. Few walls are freshly painted, few have their stucco intact; many are plastered with the tattered remains of several generations of fly poster. But you will want to walk those cobbled streets for hours, for days, forever.

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There is a bustle in the streets surrounding Mercado San Pedro, and an indifference to outsiders.  Sacks of beans are piled to the top of doorways, chicken’s feet claw out of windows. The butcher hacks up a carcass to order on a slab right out on the street front. Andean ladies with dirty fingernails squat on corners selling fruit. One has a basket filled with whole roast guinea pigs, a delicacy in Peru. Honking cars burst from every side street and converge in the stalemate of a main road. Mangy dogs quietly thread between them. A policewoman blows a whistle, more in frustration, I think, than in hope of bringing order.

The street food is good and cheap, and every few steps there are ladies grilling sausages and anticuchos*, or else kneeling with a bundle of empanadas.

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Cuzco was the Inca capital once, and it is an important centre for their modern descendants, the Quechua people. Ladies in fedora-like hats, voluminous skirts and Nora Batty stockings carry their babies in rainbow papooses and walk their llamas on leads. Some are there touting for business – “fotto, amigo, fotto please” – but most keep to themselves, huddle in the shade and chat.

The Spanish built on top of the structures they found, and often you spot the big, interlocking stones of the Incas at the base of colonial buildings. The Andean people adopted Christianity in much the same way, superimposing it onto, incorporating it into their traditional beliefs. While eighty per cent of modern Peruvians declare themselves Catholic, many nonetheless worship Pachamama** much as the Incas did.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

*marinated beef heart kebabs

**mother earth