July 11, 2004

the Lost City of the Inca

July 11 today....Happy July 11th! One month from today I fly back to Canada. Three weeks from today Frank arrives in Argentina, and suddenly I feel as though I hardly have any time left.

For those of you out east, I'll be staying in Toronto the night of August 12th, so if you're in the area then let me know. And for those of you in Vancouver, I'll be home the afternoon of Friday the 13th. Jonny's back.

I spent a couple days in Arequipa checking out the sites, as tourists are wont to do. There are two of note: the Monastery of Santa Catalina, and the museum with the frozen body in it.

The Monastery has a pretty funny history. The place was home to a group of nuns that came from upper-crust society and who didn't exactly fit the general Mother Teresa image of the nun. Basically the place turned into a big party. Now Im the first to admit that I have absolutely no idea what that means. I've never been to a nun party. I'm not really sure if we're talking Animal House or if someone just threw red socks in with the laundry, but it was enough that after a couple hundred years of debauchery, the Pope had to send someone over to stop them from misbehaving.

The place is around 400 years old but just opened to the public back in 1970. The architecture in the place is incredible - I would try to describe it but my architectural jargon consists of "roof" and "walls". It had both in places. They were painted pretty colours. I'll try and get some pics up (I have MANY).

And now what you've all been scanning quickly to get to: the frozen body! A while back - I forget when - an expedition up a local mountain came across the frozen tomb of an Incan girl, about 9 years old, who was sacrificed atop the volcano. She was dubbed "Juanita, the Ice Princess" and was transported to Arequipa, where she was deemed fit to spend eternity in a clear-walled freezer, her icy gaze endlessly peering out over a parade of soulless tourists. If a few cultures had envisioned that this was the eternal life mummification would bring, I'm sure we'd have uncovered a few less pyramids and a few more cremation urns.

Arequipa is close to the Colca Canyon, the world's second-deepest at around 3100m deep, and that's where I headed next. The world's deepest canyon, the Cotahuasi, is in the area too, but is 200km in a straight line and 16 hours by bus from Arequipa, so I opted for the Colca.

What do you do when you visit the World's (second) Deepest Canyon? You hike to the bottom and then you hike back out, of course. That was great.

The views were actually pretty impressive, not least of all the sight of condors swooping over our heads on our climb back out. Those immense birds are a sight to see - gracefully circling the canyon, riding thermals, never beating a wing.

After Arequipa, I hitched a night bus into Cusco, the Peruvian city close to the ruins of Machu Picchu. I hate Cusco. It's a nice city - colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, yada yada yada. The main problem is that it's full of tourists in unbelievable numbers. And with tourists come street vendors - you can barely take four steps without somebody new accosting you to buy socks or eat at their restaurant or go on their ridiculous tour.

The ruins around Cusco, however, are something to see. There's not just Machu Picchu - there are countless other sites in the vicinity. Even Cusco itself was a pretty major Inca centre, and a lot of the colonial buildings are built on Inca stone foundations, which have survived remarkably well.

What is interesting about the tourists is that there are a lot of American tourists. Backpacking around, you run into very few Americans. The hostels are full of people of every nationality - Canadian, Australian, all types of Europeans, but extremely few Americans. It seems their culture just doesn't breed backpackers - they are definitely more of the all-inclusive guided-tour see-the-third-world-through-a-fishbowl type. Cusco was packed full of them, and Machu Picchu was absolutely mobbed.

I had wanted to do a trek of some sort to get to Machu Picchu, but it proved pretty much impossible. The famous Inca Trail fills up weeks in advance, and the idea of hiking on a crowded trail wasn't that appealing anyways. There's another trek that I had wanted to do, the Salcantay, but weird weather had snowed in the pass, so no go there either.

What I ended up doing was catching the train to Aguas Calientes, a made-for-tourists town in the valley below Machu Picchu itself that can best be described as the Whistler Village of Peru. The morning after arriving, I got up at 4 in the morning to hike up to the ruins by daybreak.

Machu Picchu was incredible. I'm pretty sure I was the first person there, and the ruins were deserted. It was cloudy unfortunately, but the effect of the mists swirling between the buildings was probably even more effective than sun could have been. I spent hours wandering between the ancient houses, through the temples, past the altars and among the terraces. What a place. All the while, you're surrounded by steep forested Andean peaks rising up from the steep-walled valley below.

Almost as interesting as the ruins themselves were the tourists. I had a few hours in the morning where the place was fairly empty, but once the tour groups started arriving, the place turned into a giant ant farm. The conversations I overheard were worth the price of admission. There was the guy walking around the ruins talking about what type and how many cups of coffee he drinks at the office, the girls pondering whether harder rocks "have more mineral in them", and the guy on the phone explaining that Machu Picchu isn't in a cave. Too funny.

Posted by major at July 11, 2004 04:26 PM
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