After the somewhat stressful series of bus rides of the previous few days, and the overall experience of getting used to traveling alone in the previous two weeks, taking the plane from Lima to Cusco and spending the week with Elizabeth around Cusco and Ollantaytambo was a welcome period of relative relaxation. It was funny how comparatively easy and natural going through the airport seemed, given that there was a real order to things that I was actually familiar with, instead of the chaos and unfamiliarity of every other form of transport I’d used since leaving Tiputini. Also, being with someone who generally knew the ins and outs of the area we were in made for a different experience, as there was no longer the need to constantly stick my head in the guide book or ask every helpful person I could about what to do and where to go.
We spent a night and a day in Cusco, which is a very pleasant city with narrow, cobbled streets and neat architecture. It was the capital of the Inca empire, so there are a lot of ruins and museums in and around the city providing a taste of what the empire was like. We visited Korikancha, which was an important Incan temple that the Spaniards built a church on top of, and also snuck up to the Saqsaywaman ruins (essentially pronounced ‘sexy woman’) outside of the city at night after it was closed. Visiting the ruins in the dark was very cool, especially since it gave us a spectacular view of the city lighted up at night, and it was also kind of eerie and exciting because we weren’t really supposed to be there and the darkness made the massive stone architecture a kind of otherwordly feel. Thankfully there was a huge illuminated statue of Jesus looking over the city close by, and I think he was looking after us to make sure we weren’t overcome by any sinister Incan spirits.
While Cusco is definitely a neat place, the day we spent there was probably enough, as the city is also appropriately called the capital of Gringolandia because of the overwhelming number of tourists around. When walking around the main plaza in the city, its hard to go more than a minute without someone coming up to you trying to sell you something (“Inca massage? Special price just for you!”), and in parts I’d say the ratio of gringos to locals is about 50/50. At first the number of other gringos was a bit comforting, because for once I didn’t stand out as a total minority, but as I spent more time in the city the overpowering atmosphere of tourism got pretty tiresome. There is a wall on one of the streets in the city with a 12-sided stone is supposed to an example of the skill of the stonework from Inca times, and there is always a crowd of tourists taking photos and a man dressed up in traditional Inca garb surrounding the stone. We must have walked by the place a dozen times, and this rock is honestly not that interesting in the first place, but the whole scene just seemed more and more ridiculous every time we walked
by, because without knowing anything about the rock it would honestly look as if a bunch of people were continually staring at and taking pictures of a rather unremarkable stone wall.
Elizabeth and I got plenty far off the tourist track the next day as we embarked on a two day hike not from Ollantaytambo, where she’d been volunteering for the summer. Our routed started at the tiny little town of Huaran and took us up a beautiful valley to the even tinier little town of Cancha Cancha, up and over a beautiful mountain pass, and down another valley dotted with lakes and a lovely waterfall and eventually to the slightly larger town of Lares, which was significant to us only because it had a hot springs. Seeing Cancha Cancha, and spending the night camping there, was quite an experience. The town was really just a collection of traditional stone houses with thatched straw roofs scattered throughout a half mile section of the valley. I would guess somewhere between 100 and 200 people lived in the whole area, and the easiest access to their home was the trail we spent 4 hours hiking up on the first day. We arrived shortly before sunset just as it was starting to get cold, and the place was pretty empty other than two two girls who were probably 13 or 14, and who looked very amused and intrigued that two strange-looking white folk had wandered into their town. We walked around a bit trying to figure out where we would set up camp for the night, and ended up getting an offer to stay in the field right outside of a house by a cheery and excited-looking 10 year old girl, with the okay of her older sister. The young girl looked on with fascination as we took out our tent, took out headlamps and began purifying our water, and excitedly asked to help us set up our camp. Several times she offered to show us into her house to get out of the cold, and at first we said no as we didn’t want to intrude, but as it got darker, windier and a whole lot colder, the idea of a sheltered place where we could cook our dinner seemed a whole lot more attractive, so we obliged.
Two side by side stone buildings, each no larger than a good-sized bedroom made up their home, and the one we went into was illuminated only had a fire at one end where the mother was preparing dinner. She spoke only Quechua and no Spanish, but through her daughters welcomed us to her house and explained that their father had died, so it was just her, her two daughters and the baby the eldest daughter had wrapped up in a blanket. They offered us a seat by the fire and even gave us some of the potatoes they had cooked up to add to our dinner. We tried making conversation, asking about what their life was like in Cancha Cancha, but it was a little hard to know what to say so mostly we just thanked them a lot for their hospitality and ate our dinner in silence, listening to the squeaking guinea pigs that were running around the room. After finishing our meal, saying good night to the family, and heading out into the miserably cold night to our tents, Elizabeth and I both felt impressed by the ruggedness of their lives. There we were, shivering like crazy and depending on our fancy gore-tex, gas stove, tent, sleeping bags and headlamps to make it through the night, and this 10 year old-girl was happily following us around in sandals without access to any electricity, living day in and day out in the bitter cold, her family surviving by growing potatoes in some impossibly unproductive land.
Of course in reality such a life is simply what the people of Cancha Cancha have grown up with, and what they know, and they are clearly well adapted to such a life or they wouldn’t still be there. But there were some elements of sadness to their life that were more than the difficulty I had comprehending a traditional life style so different from my own. The next morning before we took off we wanted to thank the mother for the family’s hospitality, but the eldest daughter told us she was drinking (it was 7:30 in the morning), and we soon after saw a man enter the house, who was likely there to provide the alcohol. We also asked the daughters what they were going to do that day, and while the younger one had school, the older one (who was 19) said she would just stay in the house because there was nothing to do. That painted a sort of dismal picture of what life in Cancha Cancha was like beyond the harsh conditions and lack of development: life didn’t seem to offer these people many options for other than drinking, sitting around the house doing nothing, or leaving home like their brother apparently had to find a different lifestyle. And it seemed that whatever education the youngest daughter was receiving wasn’t helping create any opportunities for her future either. If I were to feel okay imposing any values on a society and culture totally different from my own, it would be that the people there ought to have the opportunity to engage themselves and improve their quality of their lives, whatever that improvement might mean.
The challenge of improving the lives of rural urban communities connects to an issue very much present in the volunteer work Elizabeth had been doing for the Sacred Valley Project. The project runs a dormitory in Ollantaytambo for girls who live in rural areas (similar to Cancha Cancha, though not usually as remote) to stay in so they can attend secondary school, since such schooling is unavailable to them near their homes. The project also provides tutoring assistance and extra instruction since the girls’ rural education generally leaves them behind when they arrive at their school in the city. So the idea is that through increasing the upcoming generation’s access to education, the project empowers members from the rural communities to themselves improve the quality of life of their rural homes. Through
talking to Elizabeth and spending some time at the dormitory itself, I saw the sorts of problems such a project runs into despite its good intentions. The most significant seems to be a widespread problem with education, and that is the disconnect between what the girls are learning in the classroom and what actually might be useful for them in the real world. There’s something very strange about a 15 year-old who comes from a town that just got electricity struggling to figure out how to balance an equation in order to get a passing grade in her algebra class. And then beyond the subject matter, there is the sense that the girls are learning more about how to do schoolwork rather than how to think for themselves or be creative and original. This was evident during an english lesson that I helped Elizabeth teach, where the girls were quick to copy down a large list of verbs in english and spanish, yet struggled to act out those verbs in a game of charades they played to help them learn the words. In general the girls seemed serious about schoolwork and did have aspirations about their future, but whether their school and their environment would actually allow them to achieve such aspirations was unclear. In reality the challenge of improving the lives of the rural communities in the areas and helping them adapt to a modernizing world is much larger than simply getting them to school.
I’ve gotten sidetracked from talking about how the rest of my time in Peru went, but since I’ve already written so much I’ll let my pictures do the majority of the talking from here on out, first starting with the rest of the hike that took us through Cancha Cancha. Below on the left is a view we had on our way out from Cancha Cancha, and the right is a view we had about an hour later, as we made our way up toward a pass to the right of the peak seen in the picture.
As we continued up toward the pass, more peaks came into view, each one seemingly more impressive than the next. I forget the names of the peaks, but the highest of them were well above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), and I think we were around 4,500 meters at our highest.
Eventually we were able to look over into the next valley, and our route took us by some pristine blue lakes and a beautiful waterfall, before eventually dropping us at a road several kilometers from Lares. We were pretty tired and those last kilometers on the road weren’t that scenic and were a bit of a pain, but we were rewarded with a relaxing in the hot springs outside of town.
Lucky for us, the only bus out of Lares the next morning was at 4 am in the morning, as they close the road during the day for repairs, but we eventually made our way back to Ollantaytambo where we relaxed for the day before our next adventure: Machu Picchu. Rather than paying 40 dollars each way to take the train to the site (in addition to the 50+ dollar entrance ticket to Machu Picchu itself), we opted to hike the 28 kilometers (16 miles) along the train tracks, which was actually fairly pleasant and not a bad way to spend the day for a budget-conscious traveler.
We camped the night outside of Aguas Calientes, the touristy town before the ruins themselves, and then arrived amid the huge flock of tourists from all over the world to see the ancient Incan ruins. It really is a pretty remarkable site, and the question that immediately came to mind as I got my first view of the ruins was what on earth motivated the Incans to build such an extensive city with its temples and terraces for crops on top of a such a massive hill. As we find out, getting information about the ruins is actually somewhat difficult if you haven’t already arranged to be part of a tour group. Not wanting to shell out more money for a private tour, we tried latching onto some other group tours, but for whatever reason these tours were ‘private’, so the guides refused our request to join up the group for a little extra cash.
We felt better, however after one guide told us that all the guides just make up stories anyway, I think there might be some truth to that, which could be why its so hard to get information about the ruins at the site, since most of it is speculation. We entertained ourselves by making up stories about different parts of the ruins and their significance to the Inca back in the day.
In the picture below on the left you can see Huayna Picchu, the peak beyond the ruins, which despite the steepness of its slopes you can actually climb up. We did this and it was definitely one of the highlights of the day, as the views were spectacular and there were actually a decent number of ruins on top of the peak itself. How the Incas managed to build them I have no idea, but I suppose their existence was pretty good evidence that the Inca were both extremely intelligent and resourceful, and also probably a little bit crazy. The picture on the right is the view of Machu Picchu from the summit of Huayna Picchu.
In all, it was a pretty fantastic time in Peru, and it would have been nice to stay longer and explore the country a little more. But the monkeys in Argentina were calling me, so after Machu Picchu and another day in Ollantaytambo, I set off for Formosa on a marathon series of bus rides that would take me through Bolivia to my next research destination. I’ll write another entry as soon as I’ve settled in in Formosa.