Friday, September 30, 2016

15 in the Peruvian Andes – the ruins of Saqsaywaman

At 3,700m above sea level, Saqsaywaman (or Sacsayhuamán) is a thousand year-old citadel on the outskirts of Cusco. It's a short 20-30 minute walk straight from the city, though it's an upwards one, and it gets a bit steep once you reach the entrance gate. But at least you have some pretty flowers on the road.

This fortress is amazing. I think this is where I saw the stones I liked the most. Immense blocks of stone cut in irregular shapes, tightly fitted against each other, with no mortar. The walls zigzag, and they create a multi-level fortress that allowed it to be defended from whichever side it was attacked.

From the top, you have sweeping views of old Cusco, including the Plaza de Armas and, from the opposite side, you also have views of the surrounding hills, whose smooth stone creates beautiful patterns.

In winter the sun rises early, at around 5 or 5:30am, so by 10 or 11am you already have a very strong unrelenting sun above you. At this point, my habibi decided he was done climbing ruins, so I left to explore another part of the site, one that had wild llamas roaming about! woohoo!

Plus, I wasn't going to miss taking a photo of a bird too, right?

From above, the zigzagging shape of the ruins was way more evident. Fascinating! Some people say the intention was to imitate the fangs of a jaguar. Whatever the truth, it made for an impressive sight.

Before we left, the habibi felt like doing a bit of Butoh by some of these impressive blocks of stone. 

For the way back home, we took a different road down, an überlong narrow street leading straight to the centre of town. At sunset. Perfect for our exhausted selves.

That was our introduction to Inca ruins. I was really happy – I really loved the aesthetics involved in shaping the stones, both by making them irregular in shape and by creating the soft-curving walls themselves. A truly masterful work.

And with that, I finish my Cusco posts! Next... Ollantaytambo!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

15 in the Peruvian Andes – fabulous Qosqo

We explored the city for some 3 days. And we experienced a lot at this very proud city. Before Lima was established, this was the most important city during the Spanish rule. Before that, it was also the capital of the Inca empire. And plenty of things bear testimony to that.

Remember we bought bread and cheese at the central market? It was also a colourful place with lots of crafts. The habib wanted to buy a mask, but we decided against it, as we still had plenty of towns to visit and carrying a mask around would have been complicated. But at least we took pics!

The Plaza de Armas, the main square, was also a very interesting place, with the cathedral on one side, churches on the other, a fountain with an Inca, old buildings all around... And it was cold! One thing we soon realized was that you could either freeze or roast. When under the sun in Cusco's practically cloudless skies, you could easily burn, but once in the shadow, you needed a jacket! Crazy! In the end, we opted for wearing light jackets all the time, to try to accommodate both not getting sunburnt and not catching a cold.

Also, the whole area around the Plaza de Armas was gorgeous, and all the streets leading to it gave you non-stop views of cobble-stone alleys, buildings atop enormous rocks that served as foundations for Inca palaces, church domes, the odd yard with llamas...

Funnily, despite the enormous pride people take in their indigenous heritage, Catholicism is the dominant religion, and it's not uncommon to find crosses that have been richly decorated with textiles...

Also, remember the balconies we saw in Lima? We saw more of them here. Blue, green, wooden, graceful... beautiful!

And then, there's Qorikancha (also spelled Coricancha and Quri Kancha), one of Cusco's most sacred Inca temples. Today, Qorikancha serves as the base of the Convento de Santo Domingo, so you get to see a fascinating mix of Inca foundations and stones and Catholic structures...

Many of the stones have those curious handles or protuberances that you see in Inca architecture at many other places. Whether ornamental or for practical use (hanging curtains or torches), I was fascinated by them.

And then the convent itself is also a museum for art both colonial and contemporary. And one of their colonial pieces made my day. You see, the whole idea of the holy trinity is rather strange. I mean, you have a father, a son, a holy ghost, they are all different, but they are the same (or else you'd risk becoming a polytheistic religion). Well, some painters actually grappled with this strange concept, and a few produced paintings where all three (father, son, holy ghost) looked exactly the same (after all, they were the same, right? at least according to part of the interpretation!). When the church decided that was heretic, many paintings were modified, making one of the figures look older, painting a dove over another of the figures... But at this museum they had one of the unmodified ones! Such a rarity! And frankly almost hilarious!  

Like I said, people from Cusco take great pride in their ancestry. Unfortunately, the Spanish language has strength in numbers, and so Quechua might be losing speakers. Which is why we found a sign on the street explaining the "great advantages" to speaking Quechua. I'm afraid the message was not very linguistically-sound, but it did reflect a general worry, although it also hinted at some nationalistic undertones that explained some of the things we heard while touring around the country (more on that in later posts).

And then, there were so many other things, like what one could mistake for LGBT rainbow flags but which were in fact Inca pride flags. Or the almost mystical streets around the main square at night. And the different festivities going on thanks to the national day celebrations – masks, music, dance, marches...

I made a very narrow selection of photos, and this is but a sliver of what we lived in this fascinating city. Though I'm not quite just yet done, because I haven't talked yet about the nearby ruins of Sacsayhuaman!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

15 in the Peruvian Andes – Qosqo and its food

If you're expecting a vegan exploration of Peruvian food, you're gonna be extremely disappointed. As in other trips, my curiosity about the local food was much stronger than my veganism, and so I tried everything that came across my path. Like, everything! It was so exciting! This was so different from Mexican food! And so good!

Our very first night we had anticuchos, or beef-heart skewers, and sopa criolla, made with tomato, beef, egg, cream, angel hair pasta... wow.

For breakfast, at our hotel (a not-for-profit that gives meals, education and other things to poor children) we'd have yoghourt with sprouted quinoa, apple and coconut, along with mate de coca (tea made from coca leaves – about as strong as a cup of coffee, so worry not). 

At the city's central market we marvelled at the diversity of corn, and we also bought cheese and bread to snack on while walking around.

At a local fair we saw – but didn't dare try – cuy (guinea pig), but I did have chicha morada (a drink made from purple corn), although it was way too sweet for me.

At the part of town known as San Blas we tried rocoto relleno (some kind of peppers filled with cheese – hot!) and one of the local beers – Cusqueña negra, a malty Schwarzbier that we kept ordering from that day on!

Of course, coca leaves were made into everything in Cusco, and we couldn't help buy some coca soft candy! And they were good!

At a hipster-ish bar inside an old building? Many local beers on tap! Including porters, stouts, and a quinoa beer!

Almost any café could offer mate de coca. And this one here also had a pastry called lengua de suegra (mother-in-law tongue) filled with dulce de leche (burnt milk). Yum.

At a restaurant specializing in northern Peruvian cuisine we had seco de cordero, with lamb prepared in a fermented corn drink, and ají de gallina, a chicken stew with yellow peppers, milk, bread... 

All of this was at quite ordinary places. But we also tried a slightly fancier one, where we had one of many dishes that originated with the Chinese of Peru: chaufa, which would basically be fried rice, but with quinoa instead of rice! And oh just so good!

Finally – and I really think this more or less covers three days of eating – we went to this extremely basic eatery that only served either chicken soup or caldo de gallina (hen soup). We went for the caldo de gallina, almost twice as expensive as plain ole' chicken soup. We got corn kernels to snack on (please look at all the colours and patterns!) and then the soup. Now, the soup tasted great! Really good! But hen is one tough meat to chew, and I'm afraid we had to leave most of the meat on the plate, 'cause we just couldn't manage. I guess you trade taste for ease of chewing?

Really, Cusco was one unbelievable culinary experience. Loved it!