11 Jul

Machu Picchu

The history of Machu Picchu is a mystery. Was it where the great Incan Pachacutec instructed his people to hide during the Spanish invasion? Was it the great economic center of  the Incan culture? Or was it built as a prison to house those that had committed heinous crimes?

Machu Picchu, Peru

In it’s current state it is a beautiful reminder of what the Incan culture must have been like. In it’s former state it must have been an imposing city in the mountains. I lean toward the theory of economic center but with all the amazing temples it must have been even more than that.

The Incans ingenuity and precision is astounding. The site looks to have been built from the remains of a long ago rockslide. There is evidence throughout the site of fallen rocks being incorporated into several buildings. The ‘quarry’ area consists of rocks in their original position, some have carving work, others appear to be in the process of being split or shaped.

Machu Picchu, Peru

The buildings and stonework are stunning displays of form, function and astounding astronomical and geographic knowledge. Stones are placed, or carved, to match exactly with the sun’s winter and summer solstice positions or to line up along the ordinal geographic lines. Seeing a rock carved into the shape of the Incan Cross and then shown, using a compass, that the points of the cross face due north, south, east and west, I was amazed at the knowledge that the Incans must have had.

We had seen Inca stonework in Cusco, but here it was on a much grander scale. Entire temples built using massive stones, stacked upon each other as if they were made to be that way. No mortar, no mud…just intricate carving until they all fit together.

Machu Picchu, Peru

And how did they do all this work with no modern machinery? It’s impossible for me to imagine how many people must have worked and lived on the site. Even when teeming with tourists, I don’t imagine the number of people on site matches the number of those that must have lived there.

Machu Picchu, Peru

It  was amazing to just wander around the site and take it all in. It was even better having walked the same path that the Incans walked to get there.

05 Jul

Playing Fair While Learning Spanish

fairplay-logo It’s easy to find a Spanish school in Cusco, they are a dime a dozen. It’s more difficult to find one that offers a great program, is flexible, and gives back to the community. We found that, and more, at FairPlay.

Run by John, a Dutch fellow, and his Peruvian wife, FairPlay is a not-for-profit organization that offers single Peruvian mothers a chance to learn how to teach their language to others while they gain the self confidence they need to gain control over their own lives.

Talking to John about how the program is set up, how they choose the women and how they support them during the process, we knew that this was the school for us.

We set ourselves up with a four day, four hour per day, program. Two hours of grammatical teaching (one on one, each with our own instructor) and two hours of practical teaching out in the community (again, one on one).

The payment plan was also appealing. We paid an administration fee to FairPlay and also paid them 25% of the per hour teaching fee. The other 75% of the teaching fee we paid directly to the teachers – there is no wondering where the money is going…it passed directly from my hand to the hand of the teacher.

I met Eliana on the first morning for our practical lesson. I was nervous as I wasn’t sure how much I remembered and John had explained to me that, although the instructors speak English, they are not permitted to – they must speak to me in Spanish only.

Fair Play Spanish School, CuscoI needn’t have worried. Eliana was kind and gentle and spoke to me slowly, in simple Spanish. Along with hand gestures we were able to understand each other. She took me to the San Pedro market and we wandered for two hours learning the names of all the different products while we also learned about each other.

Next came the grammar lesson with Josee. I was still a little nervous but the practice with Eliana had helped. Josee gave me my grammar exercise book and we started learning all about the building blocks of Spanish. She, too, would only speak in Spanish but she was excellent at finding ways of explaining concepts and words to me – I was thoroughly impressed.

Fair Play Spanish School, Cusco, PeruJason and I were able to spend the next three practical lessons together doing things that we would never had been able to alone as his instructor, Carmen, and Eliana took us further afield to explore Cusco.

The first day together we hopped on a local ‘combi’ bus to climb the hill to Cristo Blanco. The next day we headed further out to Tipon where they took us to a local Cuyeria to try the local specialty…guinea pig.  The last day we visited a local market on the edge of town and then slowly walked our way back. It was amazing to be able to visit local places and realize that I did it all in Spanish.

Cuy in Tipon, Peru

Santo Blanco, CuscoThe grammar lessons also continued and Josee managed to get me through the two basic levels of Spanish structure. She was so kind and generous –  patiently explaining things over and over again and helping me to slowly, slowly, slowly get my thoughts across in Spanish.

 

FairPlay offers a great program that, not only teaches Spanish in an interesting, fun and effective way, but also helps those in the community. These women obviously enjoy what they do – they are great teachers and great mothers who now have the self confidence to stand on their own and an opportunity to show their children how it’s done.

29 Jun

Inti Raymi: Festival of the Sun God

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi is celebrated near the winter solstice on June 24th every year. It is an Incan ceremony that is performed in the native Quechuan language rather than Spanish.

We arrived in Cusco 2 days prior to the actual ceremony and the city square was already abuzz with people and bands and general merriment being made. Apparently the festival has expanded over the years to include the weeks leading up to June 24th also.

The following morning we left the hostel at around 9am to see what was going on. The plaza near our hostel was filled with costumed Peruvians staging to start the parade. Moving on to the main Plaza de Armas, the parading had already started and the plaza was filled with locals, other Peruvians and a smattering of tourists (at least it seemed like a smattering given the number of locals there were). A large stage area had been set up and was filled with dignitaries dressed in their finest – they would be marshalling the parade.

Each group in the parade was costumed in traditional gear. Most, if not all, had their own band to accompany them – they all played the exact same tune – I don’t know if it is some kind of national tune or what, but we were very familiar with it by the end of the day. They marched from the staging square down and around the Plaza de Armas, exiting on the far side of the square. From there they proceeded to the next square where each group set up their own fiesta of sorts, with beer and food, with their band continuing to play.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

This continued all day. I mean all day and into the night. We returned to our hostel at 11pm and they were not finished!! I awoke at 1am and they were still at it. That’s at least 17 hours that I know of!! I’ve never known a parade to go on that long. Those dignitaries sat through the whole thing as far as I could tell! Can you imagine?

The city center literally filled up with people. Paraders continued to fill town squares to party the night away and spectators continued to enter the city core to watch and hawk their wares or set up their portable grills to feed the hungry crowd. There was no empty space to be had anywhere…10’s of 1000’s of people filled every corner. It was absolutely unbelievable! They partied all night long and what surprised me was that they all kept their costumes on the whole time. They continued to play the same tune and danced and drank the night away. There seemed to be a sense of pride and camaraderie that filled every square.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

The actual ceremony was to occur the following morning. I have no idea how any of those people dragged themselves out of bed to perform the ceremony.

The Inti Raymi festival starts at the Plaza de Armas in town and then parades to an Incan site called Sacsayhuaman located about 2km from town up the hillside. We had heard that tourist tickets to the event were costing upwards of $30 so we decided we would climb the hill with the locals and watch from above the bleachers.

The ceremony had already started in the Plaza de Armas when we started trekking up the hill to get a seat on the rocky face. The place was pretty packed when we got there but we found a perch and set about waiting the next 3 hours for the festival to get to us.

The waiting was easy as there was nothing to do but people watch, and there were plenty of people to watch. As the ceremony started below us, the crowd stood to it’s feet and everyone rushed forward to get a better view. We’re on a rocky cliff people!! It got a little too close for us (see photo of postcard below – we were in a crowd just like that) We were squished, couldn’t see where the edge was and could no longer see any of the action…we decided to leave and head back into town for a little peace and quiet.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

 

It was a great couple of days. We’re glad we came early to see it.

Here are some more pictures and you can see even more here.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

 

26 Jun

Getting High in Cusco

Cusco Flag, Cusco, Peru

The plan was to take our time getting to Cusco from Lima. We were going to spend a few days, stopping along the way at Nasca and Arequipa to split up the journey.

Then we learned that the Inti Raymi festival was happening in Cusco on June 24th so we thought we would head straight to Cusco instead and visit Nasca and Arequipa after that.

We checked into flights and buses and decided that, at 1/3 the cost, the bus it would be. Sure it was going to be a 22 hour bus ride but I had heard that South American buses were ‘da bomb’ and so thought that 22 hours wouldn’t be so bad.

Boy, was I wrong. After the first few hours of the trip (in the dark because it gets dark here early) we turned inland and started heading over the Andes. We spent the next 9 hours swerving and swaying as we switchbacked our way cresting and descending mountain after mountain…in the pitch black. I didn’t sleep one wink.

It was worth it once dawn broke. As the sun rose and light filtered onto the landscape, it revealed that were high in the Andes on the altiplano. It was stunning. I peered out the window to see nothing but miles and miles of scrubland punctuated with huts and stone fences penning in llama herds. The smoke from the villagers hearths filled the crisp cold air and the sun glinted off the frost and frozen waterways. It was amazing.

Dawn broke at around 6AM. That still meant that we had about 9 hours ahead of us. We descended a long way from the plateau, swithbacking the whole way. This was not tolerated well by more than a few on the bus as they awoke and soon a well worn path was created to the bathroom that, unfortunately, was right by our seats. This did not add to the experience for me.

We spent the rest of the trip cresting and descending various mountains and following river valleys before we dropped into a large, flat valley right before Cusco. One more intense climb and descent saw us entering into the city finally.

The scenery was amazing and it was an adventure but I think, in the future, we will break our bus trips up a bit.

Sitting at 3300 meters, we have certainly noticed the altitude here in Cusco. At first I wasn’t sure if our headaches and nausea were from the bus ride or the altitude, but by the next morning we knew it was the altitude for sure. I seemed okay, a little winded for sure but not too badly, but J was feeling nauseous and took a little more time to adjust. I went and got some sorojchi pills from the pharmacy and they were like a miracle – within about 30 minutes he was feeling much better and could come out to play. We’re both still taking them to keep the headaches at bay, and we both feel winded at times, but overall I think we have it licked.