N is for Nasca Lines
One of the great mysteries of Peru, the Nasca lines, these enormous patterns and designs in the desert were created by removing all the dark stones and exposing the lighter sand below. They’re fascinating to see, and sure to have you asking, but why? No-one seems to know, but they did seem to form part of pre-Incatraditional rituals which also seem to have included beheadings, either before or after death, based on tombs and skeletons found. Given they were made by the Nasca civilisation some time between 200BC and 600AD, I was bemused that the rather odd goggle-eyed human figure is called the astronaut, unless of course the Nasca met some form of intergalactic space traveller, but I suppose it gives the ‘made by aliens’ conspiracy theorists something to talk about. The hummingbird and condor were my favourites. The 30 minute flight over the lines doesn’t sound very long, but believe me, once it starts rocking from one wing to the other & swooping in spirals to give everyone in the 8-seater planes a view, it soon feels like plenty long enough!
O is for Ollantaytambo
The train to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu departs to and from this quaint town with its own Inca ruins, so I jumped off after my trek and spent a night and day here. The main ruins include a large barracked area, with sweeping views both up and down the valley, making it a great place for a fortress. There is an impressive Sun Temple site, which was never quite finished, but still some impressive classic stonework. Across the valley, a steep climb up to the old storehouses provides a great view of the town and the ruins on the opposite hill. I couldn’t quite believe these ‘qolcas’ were original Inca buildings, they were so strongly reminiscent of an old Victorian warehouse or factory. At the unassuming looking Blue Magic Café in Ollantaytambo, for just 15 soles (less than £4), I had a quite scrumptious three course lunch of a perfectly seasoned creamy, vegetable and cheese laden quinoa soup, meltingly succulent pan-fried trout with perfectly crispy skin, chocolate brownie and a large glass of ice cold home made lemonade. So good. So a big thumbs up to Ollantaytambo.
I once brought a bottle of pisco home from Chile but never quite managed to replicate the fine balance of pisco, lime, sugar and egg white of Peru’s national cocktail. Despite growing grapes a plenty in the Pisco to Ica region, local wines are pretty sweet. But a good pisco sour is a mighty fine thing, and I made sure to drink quite a few. Taken neat as a shot, Pisco slaps the back of your throat like a roughed up cheap brandy on a revenge mission – but swilling it in your mouth before swallowing, in the mode of a taster, creates a satisfying tingle on the tongue whilst taking the fire out of your throat. That there is not even an artisanal and micro-distillery to be visited in the town of Pisco itself (the main one is in Ica) is surely an opportunity in the waiting for some entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe Toby Fairbrother should ditch the gin still in Ambridge and head out there.
Potatoes. What can you say? There are an estimated 3000 varieties in Peru, they’re served in every format in pretty much every dish, from carroty looking sweet potatoes to purple ones, dried ones, fried, mashed, boiled, layered with cheese and baked. During the trek in Colca Canyon potato soup was followed by potato stew and rice for three days. Bread and potatoes are pretty much what I was brought up on due to my mother’s inexplicable fear (yes, not just dislike, actual fear!) of pasta and refusal to cook rice, so this girl felt well at home come potato laden meal times.
PS For Pisco and potatoes, a word of homage to Pachamama, wonderful Mother Earth who also nurtures the puma I didn’t see as well as the penguins, pelicans and piqueros (or Peruvian boobies) I did. The ruins of Pisac were part closed due to landslides, but still impressive. The sea breezy heat and laid back vibe of Paracas was so good after the chill nights in the Andes.
P does Peru proud.
I usually try to learn a few phrases in the local language, if only to see the look of surprise on someone’s face if you actually stumble on the correct pronunciation, which in Quechua I found more difficult than usual as it’s so different from any language I have ever learned. It’s rightly one of Peru’s official languages, alongside Spanish and Aymara, with an estimated 8-10 million people across the Andes speaking it, including 13% of Peruvians. The words coca, condor, quinoa, llama and puma all originate in Quechua. My favourite phrase in Quechua was the farewell greeting we were taught by our guide and porters on the Inca Trail: “tupananchiskama” roughly translates as “see you in this life, or in the next”.
R is for Rosa of Lima
She’s Latin America’s patron saint and I always thought she was a nun as she dressed like one, but in fact she was a lay Dominican and ascetic who built her own little hermitage in the garden of her parents’ house, where she claimed regularly to have had visions of the child Jesus. She practised all sorts of self sacrifice, including tying her hair to a nail on the wall at night to keep herself awake, as she only allowed herself two hours sleep (no wonder she kept Having visions!), and also donned a crown of metal thorns. She made and sold needlework to raise money to give to the poor of Lima, and came to be seen as an advocate by poor communities. She died aged just 31 in 1617, and is now buried in the crypt of Santo Domingo convent in Lima, alongside San Martin de Porres and San Juan Maceo but her old house is now a sanctuary where I watched people young and old, male and female, writing long and impassioned letters of supplication or thanks to Santa Rosa, many on illustrated notelets reminiscent of my childhood toy post office sets, which were then thrown down her well.
Fascinating how this strange hermit-like 17th century woman’s example inspires such fervent devotion in modern day Peru.
S is for Semana Santa
Peru certainly breaks out into religious fervour during Holy Week – no mountains of pagan chocolate Easter Eggs or gold foil wrapped candy bunnies here, but plenty of processions of enormous ornately clad statues, people dressed up in the streets as characters from the final biblical scenes in Jesus’ life, from Pontius Pilate to Mary Magdalene: near the Plaza de Armas in Lima a blood stained Jesus was being thoroughly mobbed by people wanting selfies. Meanwhile, the much more orderly and respectful queue to get into the Cathedral on Good Friday stretched for four or five blocks, and the streets all around were filled with hawkers making and selling elaborate palm offerings, often complete with full crucifixion scenes. I mostly gazed, trying to take it all in, whilst munching on a traditional ‘guagua’ or sweet bread loaf in the shape of a large baby with currants for eyes. Just a few blocks away from the hubbub and crowds on Easter Saturday as the sun was setting, however, I stumbled upon a modestly reflective service in a half empty church, and enjoyed the peace away from the pomp and ceremony.
The world’s highest and largest navigable lake is mind bogglingly vast: 175km long and 75km across at the widest point, giving it an 8560 square kilometre surface area. It’s also quite beautiful when the sun is shining, and the air is clear, with extremely fresh water with just a 0.01% salt content, despite its sea-sized appearance. Apparently despite the altitude and often sub-zero temperatures it enjoys its own micro climate, and never freezes over. There were great views across to the Bolivian side from the island of Taquile, where the men knit too, and married men wear red tasseled hats whilst women have multicoloured pom-poms and red tops – the paler colours are used to show who is still single. The name literally means stone puma, although the regularly told joke in Peru, to which 60% of the lake belongs, is that Titi is the Peruvian part, and Caca the shitty Bolivian side! In Bolivia of course they have the same joke, the other way round.
They’re fascinating to visit, but I definitely would not want to live for too long on one of Lake Titicaca’s legendary reed islands. It was raining when we first arrived on Diasmani & Anna’s island of Titino Corazon, and it was pretty squelchy underfoot. However, there is no doubting the ingenuity of these floating islands, cleverly afloat on the roots of the reeds, held in one place by being impaled with long sticks – if you fall out with the neighbours, you can literally “up sticks” and move your entire island to a more peaceful spot! The reed houses and boats are pretty solid for 2-3 years, but then need to be replaced. We took a ride in a reed boat – Ana joked that their “Mercedes Benz” was big enough for 30 Americans or 35 Japanese visitors, and told us it was 10 soles each for the ride, to be paid only if we safely returned to the island – suggesting they may take a one way trip with us all aboard to Bolivia, we wouldn’t have to pay! These families, who also do a mean hard sell on their pretty reed crafts, are certainly entrepreneurial, and installation of solar panels on the tiny reedy islet means they now have TVs in their otherwise completely artisanal huts. Around 92 of these islands home to around 2000 Uros people, each housing between three and ten families. Not all islands and families welcome visitors, but those like Diasmani and Anna who do certainly seem to be making the most of the unashamedly touristic income opportunity it provides.
V is for Vicuña
It’s the most expensive wool in the world, making cashmere look like a bargain, and wow, is it soft. Having almost plummeted to extinction, the vicuña is now a highly protected species in a number of designated upland national parks such as the land surrounding the high pass between Colca Valley and Puno/Arequipa, where I saw them in the wild. Naturally a rich caramel colour, when shearing time comes around the whole process is overseen by ministry of environment officials and the police, and has become quite a spectacle. The round up of these precious camelids is doing by the creation of a massive chain of people slowly closing ranks, effectively creating a human corral. I was shown a simple large shawl or cape in the Arequipa alpaca and wool store which would set you back a cool 13,000 soles, more than £3000.
W is for Warmiwañuska
At 4215 metres, it’s the highest pass on the Inca Trail, arrived at after a stamina-testing hour and a half of relentless stone steps and uphill grind. It was the part of the trail I had feared the most, but in the end for me at least proved slightly less gruelling than the climb out of Colca Canyon the previous week, and the feeling at the top was a heady mixture of triumph, relief. And slight lack of oxygen. The name means Dead Woman’s Pass, which would be a reasonable description of the state I felt I was nearing during the climb, but is actually inspired by the profile of the rocks which looks like a woman reclining on a large pillow. As it’s the highest pass, you’d think it would be all downhill from then on, but not so. Having descended to 3600 metres to our campsite, the very first thing we did next morning was climb back up to 4000m again!
OK, so I’ve cheated and used a Mayan word. But I couldn’t skip the subject of cocoa and chocolate, which originated with the Mayans and spread through the Andes, and during my chocolate making workshop in Cusco we did make the traditional spicy cacao drink too, and mixed it by pouring it numerous times between two jugs. We then went on to make a Peruvian version with milk painstakingly eked from the native cuy (how those little critters do squeak during milking 😉)! Peru has plenty of fine organic cacao and also makes some pretty decent chocolate, so this chocoholix has been a happy Easter bunny.
Not to be confused with the spiky yucca plant at home, this is the local cassava, a tuberous starchy root which is still a staple for many Andean communities, just as it was long before Columbus hit these shores. Cut into wedges or thick chips and deep fried, then dipped into a classic hot and peppery yellow ají or rocoto sauce, a great alternative to potatoes, washed down with a crisp glass of Cusqueña or in Lima, a Barbarian beer!
Z is for Zarcillo
Described to me as a gull, it doesn’t look like any gull I’ve ever seen before. In fact this charcoal grey-black tern-like bird with its flamboyant white moustache with a yellow streak stole my heart. It sports a fierce looking dark red beak like a Chough, and equally vermillion legs. Watching them skim the waves near the Ballestas Islands was a true birding highlight.