07 December 2012

Cusco & Sacred Valley of the Incas III

Bright, bright morning…the hotel looked even nicer in the morning. The courtyard had itsown mini market with stalls selling artisan crafts. I bought really cute, hand knitted finger puppets of animals. After breakfast, visited the chapel and saw something very unique – a cross dressed up in the local handcraft textile!
We leave for the Quechua village of Chinchero. The meaning of its original name is lost, although, today tradition knows it as the "land of the rainbow" because over here the K'uychi (rainbow) is frequently seen in the rainy season and the rainbow was a special deity among Incas. Till today in many regions of the Andes people respect, fear or even revere it and it has been said that "... It is not possible to watch the rainbow, they say superstitiously, without covering the mouth because it rots the teeth. Neither it is possible to point it with the finger because it undermines the bones. Maidens run away from it because if it catches them in the countryside, it has children with them".

First stop is at a weaving seminary for a weaving and dying display. The lady there had a fantastic sense of humor…she shows us a bone and asks us what it is…we make some wild guesses but with a serious face she says – bone of a tourist who didn’t buy anything from here!!! An insightful demonstration follows – creating the wool from the raw material, followed by the dying process and then the weaving process. They use all natural ingredients to dye the textiles, wool and even make their own makeup – lipstick and rouge!!!
Chinchero features a Catholic church built atop Incan ruins. As with most of the towns or temples near Cuzco, Chinchero was wrecked when Manko Inca after his campaign in Cuzco decided to discharge his soldiers so that they could go back to their farmlands and take care of their families. He went towards Ollantaytambo passing through Chinchero and burning it so that the invaders who were persecuting him could not have either food or lodging. Subsequently in 1572, Viceroy Toledo founded the "Doctrine of Our Lady of Monserrat of Chinchero" and ordered construction of the present-day Catholic Church that was finished possibly in 1607. The whole church was built using as foundations the finely carved limestone that belonged to a great Inca palace and it in the 1960s that the Incan palace was discovered under the Catholic Church. On the western side of the church there is a wall containing big trapezoidal niches that can easily let a person stand up inside; they must have been used to keep the nobility mummies and idols that presided over ancestral ceremonies.
Mateo Pumakawa was Chinchero's Quechua chief, Official and Warrant Officer paid by the Spanish army who fought against his own people and Tupaq Amaru II helping to bring about his defeat in 1781. After the Tupaq Amaru defeat, Pumakawa had his victory painted in frescos over the church's gate: by the middle is the Monserrat Virgin, to her right is the victory celebration that coincides with the Thanksgiving procession and the presence of Saint Paul, and Saint Peter holding in his hand the heaven's keys. Toward the left side of the Virgin is the battle representing chaos and Tupaq Amaru's faction.
Near the church a group of women are enjoying a meal of eggs and potatoes. Some of us feel odd taking pictures but they don’t seem to mind us taking shots of their hairdos.
We pass through the local handicraft market and I get to see the gourd art I had been admiring since Cusco in action - a craftsman is busy engraving on a large gourd.
Far off in the mountains we notice snow…and a melted patch right in the middle in the shape of a heart!

As we pass through the village we notice these houses having a stick with polythene tied on it stuck in the ground. The guide tells us that it indicates that these houses have a bar and alcohol is available there.
Next stop is the amazing Inca agricultural terraces at Moray, believed to be an agricultural experiment station. It consists of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is about 30 m (98 ft) deep with a very sophisticated irrigation system. Their depth and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C between the top and bottom. This large temperature difference was possibly used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. It is believed that the terraces, built over containing walls filled with fertile earth and watered by complex irrigation systems, enabled the Incas to grow more than 250 plant species.

In the soil the guide shows us some shells, indicating that millions of years ago these mountains were under the sea and all the geography lessons on the tectonic movements of the earth causing massive changes become so much more believable.

We had spent quite some time in the valley and I was feeling a bit ruined-out. All the sites were kinda blurring together and I was thinking if I would be able to tell one pile of rocks from the next, and so our next stop at the Maras Salineras(salt mines) was a nice change.
These salt evaporation ponds have been in use since Inca times when salt was obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream and the flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient polygon shaped terraced ponds. As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated and salt precipitates as various size crystals onto the inner surfaces of a pond's earthen walls and on the pond's earthen floor. The pond's keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry.
Within a few days the keeper carefully scrapes the dry salt from the sides and bottom, puts it into a suitable vessel, reopens the water-supply notch, and carries away the salt. Color of the salt varies from white to a light reddish or brownish tan – all these varieties were being sold there. The effect of sunlight reflecting from the maze of ponds was quite stunning and till now they really stand out in my mind.

Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet…can you tell me how to get, how to get to Tanupa restaurant….(to be sung to the tune of Sesame Street)…guess it was the rumbling tummy doing the singing.

Tanupa was another cute little restaurant with awesome food, infact one of the largest spreads I have ever seen in a restaurant. Comparable only to a Dilli ka hi fi Panjabi type wedding it included a live sea food counter, an array of veg and non-veg sushi, countless starters/appetizers and at least 15 types of dessert …woooooo!!!! As we walked down to stairs towards the entrance we were greeted by macaws that seemed to say ‘Hello’ to Meeta and Sumi!!! There was even a little chapel inside the restaurant complex! After a yummy meal, we moved to the back of the restaurant which overlooked green fields with Llamas and Alpacas grazing peacefully and leading to the Urumaba River flowing by. And of course there was a local playing the Pan Pipes! While some just sat on the steps enjoying the scenery and the music, some of us decided to walk down to the gushing river.
After a relaxing time there it was time to move to Seminario Cerámicas – the workshop /mini factory of internationally known local potter Pablo Seminario for a tour through the entire ceramics process. As we start the tour they point to a wall mounted collection of dented and smashed pots – an accident says the guide! It looked so artistic and nice. The collection was beautiful and I wanted to buy so many things…it was only the baggage allowance that stopped me.

 Totally tired by now, we return to our hotel to call it a day as we have to leave really early the next day for Machu Picchu. After 3 days in the Sacred Valley, what I loved the most was Peruvian culture - so full of liveliness and bright colors.

29 October 2012

Cusco & Sacred Valley Of the Incas II

A visit to the Cristo Blanco statue for panoramic views of Cusco’s cityscape is a must before we leave the city for exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas or Urubamba Valley - a valley in the Andes of Peru. The statue of Cristo Blanco (White Christ) is located on top of a hill high above Cusco and depicts Christ extending his arms to the sides, not unlike the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio.
However, the Cristo Blanco is not nearly as tall. Built by a group of Christian Palestinians that were seeking refuge in Cusco in 1945, it was a symbol of their gratitude toward the city.

As we buss around Cusco and the Sacred Valley, one of the things that we notice is little bulls sitting atop the roofs of many of the houses. There is a cross situated in between the two. There's a legend that says that Amaru, ancient god with the shape of a snake, emerged from the bottom of a lake and turned into a bull, an animal characterized by its strength and size which is always willing to help them plow the soil. This brought fertility and wealth. In order to honor Pachamama (or Mother Earth), the natives celebrate a ceremony in which they make lacerations on a bulls skin to make it bleed (without killing it), then put hot peppers (rocoto) on the bull's nose and set it free.
This makes the bull run freely towards the sacred mountains while spilling its blood on the soil, which was believed to make it fertile. In order to obtain fertility, some people put little ceramic bulls on their roofs when the houses are first blessed. This sculpture is known as Torito de Pucará (Pucará is a town where the bulls were originally sold). The bull represents happiness, wealth and fertility, while the cross keeps the bad spirits away. The cross is usually made of iron to stop the negative energies of lightning.

We stop at a viewpoint for our first view of the sacred Urubamba River. Locals are selling some amazingly beautiful handicrafts here – horns with intricately carved handles, handcrafted Clay Whistles/Ocarinas and board games – chess with Inca warriors, ludo with alpacas and llamas. And even seed of quinoa, kaniwa etc. I was tempted to buy some stuff, but we were told to wait as we are heading to the Pisac market where we would get more variety.

Pisac is a picturesque Andean Village and very well known for its local market. If we didn’t have the fear of excess baggage on our last leg to El-Calafate, we would all have gone berserk.
Such beautiful handicrafts – woolies, jewellery, pottery, etched gourd art, musical instruments… just loved browsing around there. Particularly intriguing were the Chas Chas - a Musical Instrument made from goat hooves, the engraved gourd Maraccas and the local dolls!
Soon found myself outside a community hall where some locals were waiting to perform a local dance. We hung around chatting with them and not to be missed was a 2 or 3 year old sharing his Inka Cola with a little girl…so cute. But their program seemed to be getting delayed and we needed to leave for lunch and Ollantaytambo.
The drive from Pisac to Ollantaytambo was really scenic …. Purple quinoa fields just stood out. We reached the restaurant in Urubamba – my favorite on this trip for many reasons. We are welcomed by the most colorful plants. It was open air – buffet with small umbrella covered tables, the weather was just perfect that day and the food absolutely yummy. They had a section on the Original Inca Food – so many varieties of potatoes!!!! And to top it all…a live band playing the local instruments and the most soulful panpipes.
Next stop is Ollantaytambo for a visit to the spectacular ruins of the Inca fortress which protected the strategic entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley. The Fortress, contrary to its name, was a religious complex that housed many temples. There is a set of steep mega sized terraces looking like staircases for gods or giants that lead up the mountainside from where one can enjoy wonderful views of the valley.
To the left of these terraces are the principal religious structures, including the famous unfinished Temple of the Sun formed from six blocks of pink granite that make a wall. Like other Incan temples, the wall runs from east to west. The steps seem a bit intimidating but I do need to see the temple. And it’s worth it – what a great display of building technology, architecture, water design and astronomy.
There were numerous rocks and stones with a variety of indentations and grooves that may have been used for astronomical observations. The most remarkable of these is a vertical rock face with protruding knobs that some say is a solar clock that marks the December solstice and the zenith of the sun.

This is also one of the starting points for the three-day, four-night hike known as the Inca Trail. As we descend back from the top, we walk a bit of the Inca Trail!
On the way to our hotel, we stop by a small quaint and traditional place. Huddled into a smoky room with some intriguing curios lying around, we are shown the process of making local chica peruvian beer - corn and  starwberry variant – colorful pink and yellow. Quite tempting to look at…but oh…so very strong! There is a smelly room at the back where they were breeding guinea pigs...it seems Fried guinea pigs is a delicacy here. And the backyard had the most amazing garden overlooking the valley. One of those places where one can sit for hours sipping coffee.
In the front yard we are introduced to the Sapo - a common bar game. You throw small weighted disks onto something that looks like a tall nightstand. There are holes in the top, and compartments in the drawer underneath are assigned point values. You get the highest scores if you can get the disks into hard to hit places on the top, such as the open mouth of a small frog statue. While all of us struggled, Mini seemed to be a born Sapo player!!!

Some Sapo playing and we are ready to leave for our hotel - Sonesta Posada del Inca Yucay, which is a refurbished 18th century colonial-style monastery. What a cute little place it was. The food was not so great here but who’s complaining. Just loved the ambience of the place- mountains are all around, and the grounds resembled a private sanctuary, its own little chapel, a courtyard like a magical little village and what lovely colorful flowers in the gardens overlooking our rooms. 2 shops – one of designer Peruvian jewellery and one for other handicrafts. The rooms still had the monastery look and feel. The door knob and the room key – huge, skeleton, olden types - are the original things that the nuns used to have. We wandered around to a portion of the hotel which still seemed to have retained the charm of the monastery– a courtyard with a huge tree in the middle, wooden staircase and a church bell. The doors of the room were really small…only 5 about ft!!!
Very surprising but really a coincidence – we found the entire Bangalore gang in the hotel lobby in the evening just lounging around….it was time for some Pisco Souring before calling it a day!