Sunday, November 29, 2009

Peru part 4: Inca Pisac

I'm going to backtrack a little. My last post left off with us descending into the Sacred Valley but I forgot to share the second half of our trip to the llama farm. It was a demonstration of weavers that had come from all the surrounding areas to show turistas like us how they weave and their traditional dress.

Click image to view full size

The weaver in the middle photo is a young 14 year old boy named "Jonathan". Our guide Fredy was a little surprised at this but went on to say that in some of the villages male weavers were more common and a man that knew how to weave was desirable as a mate. Traditionally women did the weaving though and textiles held as much value as gold in prehispanic Inca culture.

After visiting with the weavers with translations from our guide, we were herded into a gift shop full of weavings. This shop was different in that the sales went to benefit the local weavers we were told. But it was a gift shop nevertheless.

We continued on our way to the Sacred Valley. At one point our tour guide, Fredy, had the bus stop by the side of the road to watch and visit with a local farmer, named Vincente, who was threshing wheat using donkeys. This was a completely impromptu stop and a lot of fun.

The Sacred Valley
Click image to view full size

Soon we were back on the bus descended into the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba river and headed to the town of Pisac or Pisaq.

The Sacred Valley
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Pisac is about 19 miles northwest of Cuzco and is a major archaeological park in the region. In truth there are really two Pisacs. The ancient Inca town (ruins in the archaeological park) and the modern colonial town, which is the living town today.

The ancient town of Pisac dates to pre-Inca times. The site today is dominated by curving terraces built into the hill sides allowing the Incas to take advantage of every bit of sun light. Another advantage to building on the hillsides was the views that allowed people to see any approaching attacks. There seemed to be a concern about attacks coming up from the Amazon river area, which was one of the four large sections of the Inca empire called Antisuyo, from which the name Andes was derived from.

Terraces of Pisac
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If you view the image full size by clicking on it you can really see how steep the terraces are. Keep in mind this only about a fourth of the total site. There are terraces covering all the nearby hillsides wrapping around behind the hills on the right side of the photo. Also in this photo you can see the colonial town of Pisac, or part of it.

To make better use of our time there our bus drove up the back side of the site to the Qanchisraqay or Kanturaqay sector of the site. This area is outside of the fortified city. From here we could walk to an area which housed the soldiers and encounter a trapezoid door/gate of the city's wall.

Soldier Sector
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The Mortar-less Gate
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This gate is made of mortar-less stone, a sign of it's significance. Mortar-less walls required greater craftsmanship and precision in their construction and are found mostly in religious buildings, such as temples, and building for the Inca king, like his palaces.

More terraces at Pisac
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The photo above shows the religious sector of the town situated above more terraces. This area had a Intiwatana, or Hitching Post of the Sun. Intiwatanas are very sacred and this area was most likely the most important part of the entire site where ceremonies were conducted.

If you click on the photo to view it full size you can barely make out V shaped dots in the walls. These are the so called "Flying Steps", stones that protruded from the walls like stairs for easy access up and down the terraces.

Inca Pisac video. Click to Play

Almost every time the bus stopped at a location there were people, adults and kids alike, hocking their wares. Some of it was nice textiles, some was cheap junk. At Inca Pisac we were greeted by several women with stuff, but there was a guy there selling Quenas, the rim blown flute of the Andes. I had planned to buy one (or two) during the trip and even though my Spanish was bad, his English was worse, but we managed to communicate somehow, and I tried them out and found one I liked. So I bought it right on the spot. It was great to be playing this flute, which has been a part of the Andean culture for over a thousand years at such an ancient site!

Holding my new Quena with the guy I bought it from
Click image to view full size

Since this purchase I've performed, or I should say "mangled", Cactus Dance a couple times on this flute during some of my performances, including at the most recent Yosemite Flute Festival.

Our time at Inca Pisac was very short, only about an hour. I did not realize how large and impressive the ruins would be and, as I love archaeological sites, wanted to spend a whole day exploring each section in detail. I was bummed when it came time to leave. However our next stop, the famous market down the hill in colonial Pisac turned out to be a lot of fun.

But that needs to wait until next time.

If you've missed the first three parts here are their links
Part 1: "Journey to Peru"
Part 2: "Lost in Translation"
Part 3: "Flight of the (Silver) Condor"

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Peru part 3: Flight of the (Silver) Condor

After three full days in Lima, a large, bustling, urban city, we finally head into the heart of the Inca world and the Peruvian Quechua culture, Cuzco. To get there we got on a 737 operated by the Peruvian airline LAN. Actually LAN is a Chilean airline company but they are based in Lima.

The entire time we were in Lima the skies were overcast from the coastal fog produced by the Humboldt Current. As the jet climbed higher into the sky we soon broke through the cloud cover, riding above a solid desert of clouds, punctuated to the east by the peaks of the Andes mountains. The Andes are the longest exposed mountain range in the world, at 4,300 miles in length, extending from the southern end of Chile to the norther part of Peru. The average height is 13,000 feet!

At first from a distance they seemed unimpressive, but as our plane flew closer to them and deeper into their heart I could tell that even though we were flying at 30,000' many of the peak seemed to touch the plane as they were 20,000'. The scale was tremendous.

Luckily we had seats on the left side of the jet as it flew south, giving us a perfect view of the mountains and hints of the edge of the Amazon jungle beyond.

The Peruvian Andes

As we flew I got out my video camera and started filming, during which the pilot came on the intercom and announced what we were flying over in Spanish and then English. He mentioned several peaks whose name I didn't know, but then came those two magic words: Machu Pichu. Unfortunately Machu Picchu lay behind several mountains and even if it hadn't been hidden I now know that, compared to the giant mountains that surround it, it is a small dot on the land.

Just after passing by Machu Picchu we began our descent into Cuzco. Living in Los Angeles I'm used to flying over the outskirts of the city for an hour before you actually land. Cuzco looked like a small town by comparison with a population of about 350,000. The greater LA area by comparison has 14 million people... (Yuck.)

Below is a little video of the flight and landing in Cuzco.

Flying to Cuzco. Click to Play

Cuzco was the ancient heart of the Inca empire. The world Cuzco means "navel" or "center" in the Quechua language, the lingua franca of the Incan empire. From here the Inca conquered other cultures around them, then those in the Sacred Valley and eventually most of those of the Andes, creating an empire stretching from southern Chile north to Peru and on to southern Columbia. Cuzco remained the "capitol" of their empire and was the seat of their government. It was also where their major temples were and where the Inca kings built their palaces.

At 10,912' it's also very high in elevation. For that reason we didn't linger long there but took a motor-coach over a pass to the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba river. The Sacred Valley is a little lower in elevation and that would help us adjust to the thinner air.

As I've spent a fair amount of time in the southwest at elevations of 7,000 to 8,000', even as high as 10,000', I wasn't that concerned about the altitude. Even the mountains surrounding LA have towns built around man-made lakes where my family would vacation from time to time that are 7,000 feet high. But there were many people in our group that had come from areas where there were no mountains and they were not used to high altitudes. Even I had never spent the night above 8,000 feet, so acclimatizing seemed like a good idea. We would return to Cuzco in a few days.

Little did I know how charming the center of Cuzco was as I filmed our drive through the city, up the mountains that surround it as we headed northeast to the Sacred Valley

Driving through Cuzco. Click to Play

On the way over the pass toward the Sacred Valley we stopped at a demonstration Llama and Alpacha farm to learn about these camelids. They had charts showing each variation and how they were traditionally used, be it for a beast of burden, food or wool. We also learned how to tell then apart. Llamas have plain, or flat, hair on the top of their heads, Alpachas have fuzzy hair on top of their heads. After that we went through a gate into a Llama "petting zoo" where we could see them up close up and even feed them. Some of them were surprisingly large and one person in our group got spit on by a llama. It was a lot of fun.

Feeding Llamas. Click to Play

From the farm we descended into the Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley stretched out below us as it ran north following the Urubamba river, one of the main tributaries to the Amazon. In the distance loomed mountains over 20,000 feet high. We were headed to the Inca ruins and modern town of Pisac where we would spend the afternoon.

Review Part 2
Continue to Part 4

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Peru part 2 Lost in Translation

The second part of my Peru Journals.
Read part 1

Lima and it's neighboring cities is a very large place. So to speed things up we took a city tour of the old historic center of town. On the way we stopped at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú to look at some prehistoric artifacts. However, I wasn't feeling all that great that morning.

The Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú

I'm not sure why I was sick to my stomach. I was being careful with the water, drinking only bottled water, and hadn't eaten any raw fruit. I did have several Pisco Sours, a mixed drink made with lime juice which I learned later the lime juice can bother your stomach. Maybe it was the rich dinner of duck I had the night before. Either way my stomach was in no mood to be bounced around inside a bus with a bunch of other tourists. But I toughed up and away we went.

The museum was an old hacienda that was built around a courtyard. The displays were tucked into each of the rooms that opened up on to the walkway that bordered this yard.

The Museum walk ways

I was starting to feel queasy again when we came upon the Raimondi Stela


There were many time in Peru when I was brought face to face with something I read about in books, but never in my wildest dreams thought I'd ever see in person. The Raimondi Stela was the first of these encounters.

It was built by the Chavin culture. The Chavín were a civilization based in the northern Andean highlands of Peru from 900 BC to 200 BC


Stylistically, Chavín art makse extensive use of the technique of contour rivalry which allows the viewer to see different images depending upon how one looks at it. The art is supposed to be difficult to interpret, as it was intended only to be read by high priests of the Chavín cult who could understand the sacred designs. The Raimondi Stela is one of the most famous examples of this technique. At the bottom a fearsome deity stands holding two staffs and wearing a very tall headdress of snakes and other creatures. When the stela is flipped upside-down the headdress becomes a stack of fanged faces, the deity, now at the top, is now a fanged reptile, and the staffs also have faces. My photos don't do this effect justice.

The culture of the Chavin and their cultural motifs influenced many of the Peruvian prehistoric cultures that followed. At one time they where thought to be the oldest "culture" in Peru, but there is evidence of earlier cultures these days. The date for the oldest culture in Peru keeps getting pushed back, earlier in time.

There was also some great pottery from the Moche culture, who are know for their pot making skills.


The Moche were a coastal seafaring and fishing people. This was a strong motif in the pieces we saw that day. Some of the images from pots not on display were shown on the wall behind the pottery. The image below shows a Moche fisherman. The whiskered, Dr. Seuss creature leaping to the right of the boat is a seal of some sort.


The culture of the Moche is fascinating, but too complex to go into here.

At the end of the displays came the Inca culture. There was a Quipu on display.


Quipu or khipu (Quechuan) were recording devices used in the Inca Empire and its predecessor societies in the Andean region. A quipu usually consisted of colored spun and plied thread from llama or alpaca hair or cotton cords, with numeric and other values encoded by a system of knots in a base 10 positional system. Some believe they were a binary system. They were not a writing system per se, but rather used to keep count or as a mnemonic device to refresh one's memory. The ability to read them was done by trained individuals called Quipucamayocs. The practice was lost during the Spanish invasion The art of the Quip[ucamayocs died out with them. Their meaning lost to the ages.

The museum also had a photo of two prehispanic Quenas. The rim blown flute of the Andes.


Photos are nice, but I would have rather seen the real instruments.

After the museum we continued to the Lima city center. We got off the bus at a big roundabout. The buildings were from the 19th century. It had been raining and everything was old and gray looking.


Of course my opinion of this part of town I'm sure was altered by how I felt, lousy, and the fact that there were tons of people around. We had been warned to be careful of pickpockets and it turns out that the day we showed up was Peruvian Independence days, so the streets were mobbed. The President of Peru was giving a speech from the Plaza de Armas, one of the main plazas, but it was not open to the public, only invited guests. Streets were closed and getting from where we were to where we wanted to be, the Plaza de Armas, was not going to happen. Even our tour guides looked nervous.

Nevertheless we walked as close as we could get to the plaza and to the restaurant where we were to have lunch, (something I was not in the mood for.) Our route took us down a street that was closed to cars for the day.

There were soldiers on horse back.

More old churches.

Next to the church was a cool Art Deco building that had been invaded by a fast food joint...

Then we came to a cross street that was completely blocked off for the motorcade of El Presidente and his guests.

We were stuck. As we waited I got my video camera out just in time to film a marching band come by on horse back. While I was filming some people in the crowd commented how much they love their El Presidente.

Click to Play

Being a guest in Peru I thought it best to not ask about these comments. Besides I was still not feeling well. Once the parade of dignitaries and soldiers passed they opened up the street and we went on our way. There were soldiers everywhere. Marching in columns, on horse back, in trucks and jeeps. Many of the uniforms of were colorful and gaudy. I began to feel like I was witnessing an 19th century coup.

We made it to the restaurant. I skipped lunch. Back at the hotel I drank chicken soup for dinner and took it easy. I began to feel better, almost normal. We watched Peruvian TV in the room, most of the programs were from the U.S. dubbed in Spanish.

The next day we visited a fish market. By then I was feeling great and looking at all the fish was making me hungry. The local fishermen were showing off their catch. One of the fish I did not recognize so I asked our guide what it was. She didn't know either so she asked him. I caught the exchange on film. There was some confusion to say the least...

Click to Play

I think it was eel, but I"m still not sure...

That wrapped up our visit to Lima. The next day we went to the airport and flew to Cuzco in the heart of the Andes. I was glad to leave Lima behind and get to the heart and soul of Peru.

Continue to Part 3

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Peru part 1

This past July I got a chance to travel to a place I've wanted to visit since I was young. Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Inca. Perched high in the cloud forest in the Andes it was abandoned before the Spanish arrived in 1532. They never found it. Except for the locals, it was unknown until 1911 when Hiram Bingham, with the help of local guides and farmers "discovered" the city for the western world. As a youngster I encountered images of Machu Picchu. To my young mind it seemed like an ancient castle in the sky. It has stayed on my list of places to visit during my lifetime since.

The chance to visit Peru happened quickly. The subject came up just eight weeks before the trip actually took place. We thought about it for another two weeks, made the decision to go and then six weeks later we arrived at LAX, tickets in hand, bound for Peru. Our destinations: Lima, Cuzco, the Sacred Valley of the Tambo and Machu Picchu.

Although I went to see Machu Picchu, what I found was a vibrant culture. Full of color, music, dramatic history, prehispanic ruins, cold foggy coastlines and clear mountain skies. For me, Peru was a land of extremes.

When we left Los Angeles in late July it was summer. Peru however, being in the southern hemisphere, was obviously having winter. The weather looked similar to LA's winters. Cool days but with colder nights than we get here in LA. So we boarded the plane dressed for cool weather. On our way we had to switch planes, with a one hour layover in San Salvador, El Salvador, where we were greeted by hot humide weather. It felt like 100˚ and the thick air hit you like a wall. As we were wearing long sleeves and fleece jackets it was very uncomfortable.


Lush tropical jungle surrounded the airport, like a rain forest. But despite a hard search we could not find water for sale anywhere in the terminal. The heat droned on.


I'm sure El Salvador is a wonderful country, I love Pupusas, so I know the food is great, but we were happy to be on our way and escape the humid heat of the tropics. As our plane climbed skyward the classic cone of the San Salvador volcano, or Quetzaltepec, hovered in the distance. We headed southeast. The sun slipped below the horizon.

when we landed in Lima at 8:30 local time it was dark, cold, and cloudy. Lima is a big city. Like all big cities there were people everywhere and cars zigging in and out of traffic. The taxi ride from the airport to the district of Mira Flores took about 40 minutes. The streets were busy and full of people. American business reared their heads in the form of McDonald, Starbucks, KFC, TGI Fridays and from the UK was there with Burger King. It's always somewhat of a disappointment to travel somewhere and find exactly what you left behind.

LIma lancomar starbucks.jpg
Peruvian Starbucks

We were surprised to find that gambling is legal in Lima and we drove past many gaudy casinos. As we got closer to our hotel in the Mira Flores district, the streets got quieter and quieter. A light drizzle began to fall. For Lima this is a major "rain" event. The city, although right on the Pacific coast, is in a desert and receives only 1/4" of rain on average each year.

We arrived at our hotel, checked in our room, and then checked out some local stores, an upscale market and had a nice quiet dinner nearby. The next day we explored further.

The first place we visited was Kennedy park in Miraflores. It was named after JFK, our 35th president. The "city" of Lima is made up of several towns, of which Lima is just one of the. Miraflores is another. It has it's own city government.

Kennedy Park

Next to the park was a church. My understanding is that Peru is 80% Catholic, but I get the sense that there is a strong practice of the older indigenous religions that predate the Spanish. Very much so in the highlands.

Church near Kennedy Park

Detail of church

As we left the area on Kennedy Park we spied one of the few cats we saw in Peru, sleeping on a grate next to the church.

lima gato.jpg

The next place we went to was the Artist's District of Miraflores. This was an area of several blocks that had little malls full of small shops, or stalls selling everything from textiles to jewelery, art, silver pieces and even musical instrument. We had been told that most of the stuff was not of the best quality, and it was recommended that we wait until we get to the highlands for better stuff. So I didn't buy the long belt shaker I saw hanging from the ceiling of one stall. I never saw another one the rest of the trip am and still bummed that I passed on getting that one.

The inside a mall in the Artist's District

Outside the Artist's District

The building in Miraflores were all painted in pale pastels, adding a bright counterpoint to the gray skies that constantly hung over the city. The clouds were dreary in general, but more so once we walked down to the coast. From Kennedy park it took about 20 minutes to walk to the coast. Lima sits on the Pacific Ocean, but is in the same time zone as New York City.

Lima-Miraflores sits on the Pacific Ocean

In Miraflores there is a new "American" style mall called Lancomar which over looks the ocean. While there were some local stores, many of them were U.S. chains. Nevertheless the view from the mall was very nice.

View from the Lancomar Mall

There were lots of locals at the mall and in the strip of parkland that extended along the top of the cliffs next to the ocean. For a price you could go Para-gliding in the constant breeze that swept the coast up the cliffs. Not a price I would pay...


Next to Lancomar was Lover's Park which was dominated by a huge statue of a couple wrapped in embrace.
"Get a room!"

For me the highlight of the park was the tile benches that snaked along the sides. Done in a style reminiscent of the work of Gaudi, there were quotes about love set in the tile mosaic.


In my next post about Peru we visit two local markets, including a fish market right on the coast. Things get lost in translation, but it's all good. Plus I break out the video camera...

Continue to Part 2