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!

21 October 2012

Cusco & Sacred Valley Of the Incas - I

Dream up!
See the shooting chaskas?
We dreamed a dream and it was Peru.
Held safely in the belly of the Andes,
We found this is who we were born to become.

In ceremony, bells twinkle like fairy energy,
Pachamama comes to possess our souls
And kawsay sparkles in our auras.
Fire smoke signals the mountain Apus,
A rainbow ignites and bridges us to Inti Taita.

We ride the rattle to parallel universes
Where the Spirits speak and fires burn bright.
We step through the portal into the heart.
Love wells up so strong it overflows
To fill our cups with promises.

Sojourn on the sacred pathway
With slithering serpent and puma paws.
Cartwheel through the sky with condor.
Come dream the sami into being
Come join the juicy mystery
And “wake” us up as we become “kin” of the land.

On the Inka terraces we receive the rites
Pampamesayoq, Altomesayoq, Kurek Akuyec,
All spill into our energy body, our blood, our genes.
In turn, we radiate out to the world to fertilize and catalyze.
Spirit lives better in us now
And our bodies feel different on us.

Dream up!
Catch a falling chaska.
Like a starburst our commune-ity leaves on the four winds
Traveling independent paths of reintegration.
We stretch the threads we wove in the Andes
To share at our home shores.
It was Peru that taught us
How to dream up

~ Drake Bear Stephen

Legend tells that in the 12th century, the first inca, Manco Capac, was charged by Inti, the ancestral sun god, to find the navel of the earth (qosq’o in the Quechua language) –the spot where he could plunge a golden rod into the ground until it disappeared. When at last Manco discovered such a spot, he founded the city that was to become the thriving capital of the Americas’ greatest empire.
Puma Shape for Cusco

So it is quite natural that when visiting the Sacred Valley, you always start in Cusco. Cusco with its famous puma shape is at 11,200 feet in the Andes and is the center of Quechua culture, the indigenous people that were once the spiritual advisors to the Inca.

But 11,200' also means altitude sickness and loads of advice from people on how to handle it. I was a bit breathless at first and since I couldn’t take the medicines, what I did was just take it easy with slow steps and deep breaths when we landed and on reaching the hotel, had the local coca tea called "Mate de coca” and slept off for 2 hrs! Woke up refreshed, energetic and ready for the sightseeing. Thereafter I did ensure that I had regular cups of the Mate de coca and the Cocoa sweets that we bought at the airport and I didn’t have any problems during my stay there.
A Lively Procession
A Lively Procession
 As we wait for the guide near our hotel, we are surrounded by locals selling us all touristy stuff. A gent comes along - he has clicked snaps of us at the airport and now pasted them on postcards of Machu Picchu , Cusco etc and selling them for just 5 Sols (2 USD!!!). I had thought that I wouldn’t get any such snaps on this trip – I have collected so many from my previous trips, but I was quite amazed at his novelty and so I did get one!

Ronaldo comes along and introduces himself adding that he is often called Romeo…not sure if that was the case or something he made up seeing 24 women! And we head out to the 1st of the archeological sites - Saqsaywaman just 2 kms outside Cusco atop a steep hill. Just before we reach there we see a small procession of people carrying a statue of Jesus and we are introduced to the liveliness of the Peruvian culture.
The Llamas
We walk across the greenest grass to the ruins and have our 1st close encounter with Alpacas and Llamas. As some of us stray away to play with them, the guide gets upset that we think that the animals are more important than the ruins.

The walls leaning inward.
Every time Romeo said Saqsaywaman, it sounded like Sexy Woman!!! So I thought this must be a temple dedicated to a goddess. Was surprised to know it means house of the sun and because of its location high above Cuzco, its immense terrace walls, the labyrinth-like quality of the complex it is thought to be a fortress!!!!
The total area of the site is 3000 hectares but the best-known zone is the great plaza and its adjacent three massive terrace walls. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are huge and polished and each boulder has been carefully cut to fit together tightly without mortar. They display such precision of fitting that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cusco.
At the exit of the site, local children and old women wait with their llamas and for as little as a sol one can get photographs clicked with them. A visit to “Inka´s Expression", an art and textile workshop followed where brightly dressed women show us the various natural raw materials. Their clothes as well as the woolies and handicrafts that they were selling reminded me a lot of Himachal. 

Photo OpLocal at Inka's Expressions
PHOTO OPLocal at Inka's Expressions
From there onto Kenko, an Inca religious site with underground caves and temples. Many rituals are believed to have been performed here and in one cave there was a huge stone slab, cold to touch that was supposed to have been used as an altar during the mummification process. Creepy!!!!
We return to the town center to continue our tour. As we walk across the Plaza de Armas towards the Cathedral, I feel that I could spend days here. It’s one of those places where you can walk aimlessly just admiring the intricately carved wooden balconies and windows in between window shopping at the quaint little shops. There is a lot to see in terms of beautiful buildings and intricate Inca stonework.
As we were crossing over to the cathedral, a pageant of brightly dressed men and women dancing comes by.
These were the traditional Cápac Colla dancers with such beautiful masks and costumes. The women’s skirts are made with excessive amounts of thick fabric, gathered at the waist, a perfect design to flare up when the women spin, which they often do. The men wear snug white knitted masks and accessories in the rainbow colors of the Quechua flag. Very upbeat and jovial. I was enjoying it so much that didn’t want to leave.
It was only the irritated look on Romeo’s face that made me move towards the Cusco Cathedral. The cathedral with its carved woodworks, altars and paintings was very beautiful. The top wall outside with its carved figures was particularly impressive.

Our last stop for the day was the Koricancha/Qoricancha or Temple of the Sun. Quri Kancha meaning Golden Courtyard in Quechuan), also called the Inti Kancha (Temple of the Sun) was the central site of worship for the Incas. The Spanish conquerors, built their Christian church, Santo Domingo, on top of the ruins though they kept a lot of the original Inca walls. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and its adjacent courtyard was filled with golden statues. This temple highlights the incredible mortarless masonry of the Incas with its earthquake-proof trapezoidal doorways, curved retaining wall, and exquisite carving all exemplifying their artistic and engineering skills. Particularly impressive were the 3 Trapezoidal windows - in one of the chambers one can stand on a small platform to admire perfect symmetry of openings so that all the 3 line up so that the sunlight flows through. A series of Inca stones displayed reveals the fascinating concept of male and female blocks, and how they fit together. The underground archaeological museum there contains numerous interesting pieces especially the calendar.

After dinner, Meeta and I decide to cross over to the artisan market across the road from our hotel which we found quite a reasonable place to shop. There were lots of stalls to browse through and I managed to pick up my curios from Peru at a bargain!