2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

The zigzag citadel of Sacsayhuaman

Little more than a 30 minute walk from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, sitting atop a viciously steep hill, lies one of the most impressive Inca archaeological sites within modern-day Peru. Known as either Sacsayhuaman, Saqsaywaman or ‘sexy woman’ depending upon who you talk to, the dizzying walk to the site is instantly rewarded once you reach the main walls.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Comprising three enormous stone ramparts that zigzag across the mountain top, Sacsayhuaman incorporates such massive stones into its defences that walking beneath these monumental walls is an experience in feeling insignificant. So monolithic are some of the stones that it is impossible not to feel ant-like by comparison.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

If Inca mastery of stone work were in doubt a visit to Sacsayhuaman would quickly settle any dispute. The ramparts are over 20 metres high and the largest stone weighs-in at over 300 tonnes, and all of this was constructed with only stone and bronze tools and without the aid of mortar. It was estimated by an early Spanish chronicler that up to 20,000 people worked on the site over a one-hundred year period and some of the stone was transported from over 30km away. It makes Stonehenge look like a children’s toy.

While today only the walls and foundations of Inca buildings remain the site was home to several impressively large structures including the Muyu Marca, a 30 metre high tower of three concentric circles that served as an imperial residence. There were other towers and a Temple of the Sun but the Spanish looted most of the stones to help build colonial Cusco, forcing today’s bewildered tourists to rely on their imaginations.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Close up of the stone work of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

For many years Sacsayhuaman has been considered a fortress, and despite being the scene of a number of bloody battles, recent excavations have revealed a number of sacred objects that have made archaeologists rethink its purpose. If it was an imposing and impressively designed fortress, it was almost certainly a major ceremonial and religious site as well.

The zigzag shape of the walls may have been physical representations of either the teeth of the sacred Jaguar or possibly of lightening. Alternatively they may just have been a clever defensive design that exposed the flanks of an attacking army.

The archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Sacsayhuaman was the site of one of the most vicious battles between the invading Spanish and the defending Inca. In 1536, two years after the Spanish had captured Cusco, Sacsayhuaman fell to an Inca force during a rebellion led by Manco Inca (a thorn in the Spanish side for several years). Retaking Sacsayhuaman was a bloody affair, it cost Juan Pizarro, son of head Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and thousands of Inca their lives.

When the Spanish finally recaptured Sacsayhuaman the whole site was littered with Inca dead, whose corpses soon attracted carrion eating Condors – so many in fact that the coat of arms of the City of Cusco features eight Condors in commemoration of the battle.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Across the wide expanse of grass in front of the main defensive walls is a ceremonial site known as the Rodadero. This features intricate carvings in the stone and would have been used as a viewing platform for the Inca Emperor during ceremonies. Behind this lies more sacred sites, including the spring of Calispucyo where initiation rituals were performed.

The Rodadero sacred site, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Carved stone seat known as an Inca Throne, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Sacsayhuaman is that of all the tens-of-thousands of tourists passing through Cusco not that many seem to make it to the site. I spent an entire morning there and saw only a handful of tourists, not that I’m complaining, it was my birthday and I had the place to myself.

Cusco, city of saints and parades

“This is Cusco, there’s a parade every day somewhere in the city.” At least that was the claim of one of the many people selling tourist souvenirs in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas.

Masked reveller in a religious procession, Cusco, Peru

It’s an easy claim to make but try to find out when and where the action might be and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Cusco may be a city geared almost wholly towards tourism but the religious processions that are a regular feature of city life are largely for domestic consumption. Tourists just have to be content with chance encounters.

We were lucky enough to see several parades associated with the city’s many churches and their various saints, in particular St. Jeronimo who was having his own fiesta. We knew St. Jeronimo was having a fiesta because there was a poster in the tourist office to this effect, but the people working there knew nothing about it except that it wasn’t in the city centre…sorry not to be much help but wouldn’t you prefer to go to one of the song and dance shows for tourists instead? Hmmm!

Dancers outside the Iglesia de San Pedro, Cusco, Peru

On our first day in Cusco we bumped into a group of revellers/worshipers outside the Iglesia de San Pedro, opposite the city’s main market. They were dancing and singing outside the church before heading off to parade around the city streets. Many of the costumes and masks represent the Spanish – with their white faces and very long noses. Male performers all carried a bottle of unopened beer – if this had been Bolivia there is no way the beer would still have been unopened.

Dancing the handkerchief dance outside Iglesia de San Pedro, Cusco, Peru

Female dancer parades the streets of Cusco, Peru

Parading the Virgin in the streets of Cusco, Peru

Dancing through the streets of Cusco, Inca wall in the background, Peru

Returning to the main plaza we were greeted by wave after wave of school children protesting about the way cars were driven in the city, and demanding drivers respect pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. As a pedestrian on the receiving end of some pretty poor driving I couldn’t have agreed more…there are traffic police in Cusco who blow their whistles furiously every 3 or 4 seconds but drivers simply ignore them.

Children protest in Cusco, Peru

Some of the children were even parading on stilts – all in front of traffic police bigwigs sat in front of the cathedral.

Children on stilts protest in Cusco, Peru

Children protest against terrible driving in Cusco, Peru

Children protest in Cusco, Peru

That wasn’t to be the end of things though. As if two parades in one day weren’t enough there was a big military-religious parade with lots of very serious looking soldiers and solemn priests setting out from the Templo y Convento de La Merced. This was a much more upmarket and somber affair, without masks and bottles of beer, although a military band was pumping out some music.

The Virgin emerges from the church accompanied by lots of soldiers, Cusco, Peru

Risking life and limb, this woman appeared on a balcony (without any safety features) about 20 feet above the entrance to the Templo y Convento de La Merced and began sprinkling petals over the Virgin as she emerged from the church.

A woman sprinkles petals over the Virgin, Templo y Convento de La Merced, Cusco, Peru

Petals float down over the Virgin, Templo y Convento de La Merced, Cusco, Peru

Without any further fanfare, the gathered throng was off on a parade around the streets. The large carriage with the Virgin on top reminded me of the huge religious parades during Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Malaga, Spain. Cusco feels very Spanish and this is a very Spanish tradition, although the carriages in Spain are several times larger and require up to 100 people to carry them.

Parading the Virgin around the streets of Cusco, Peru

To round things off nicely, later that night after a couple of delicious Pisco Sours we found ourselves back in the Plaza de Armas only to be confronted by another religious parade. This time a number of young people and school children were parading the Virgin from the Jesuit Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus.

The Virgin leaves the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, Cusco, Peru

There was an unsavoury whiff of militarism about this parade as well, the school girls following the Virgin were carrying banners and marching in military time.

Parading the Virgin from the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, Cusco, Peru

The Virgin passing Cusco Cathedral, Peru

“This is Cusco, there’s a parade every day somewhere in the city.” Apparently this is true.

Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire

The Inca empire lasted little more than a century before the Spanish conquistadors, accompanied by Dominican priests, arrived in what is now northern Peru and began their wholesale destruction and looting of the empire and the slaughter of its people.

The Inca’s achievements in such a short period of time amount to nothing less than extraordinary: their empire ranged from modern-day Colombia all the way south to central Chile; they constructed large, well planned and earthquake-proof cities in impossible locations; centres of population were connected by an excellent road network; art and culture were highly advanced; they were agricultural pioneers, constructing thousands of kilometres of agricultural terracing and domesticating a number animals for food, clothing and labour, enabling them to feed a population of over nine million.

Incan terracing at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Unfortunately for the Incas, when the Spanish arrived their achievements meant little compared to what they didn’t have: there was no steel to make armour or swords; there were no horses in Latin America and the largest animal in the Inca world, the llama, was no match for the military might of Spanish cavalry; and they didn’t have immunity to European diseases, which probably arrived from central America several years before the Spanish arrived in person and claimed the lives of thousands of indigenous Andean peoples, including Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor to rule a united kingdom.

Until that fateful day in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro and his band of zealots turned up, the Inca empire would have rivalled any civilisation on the planet. The empire was centred on Cusco, an enormous city by the standards of the time and home to some of the largest and most elaborate buildings in the Americas, including Qorikancha, the richest temple in the Inca world with walls covered in gold sheets and featuring solid gold alters and gold replicas of llamas, vegetables and the sun.

Inca gold sealed the fate of the empire, and the Spanish melted down the cultural and religious wealth of the empire and sent it back to Spain as ingots.

Birds eye view of Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

Arriving in Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas today is to arrive in a city that could have been transplanted from southern Spain. It feels more Spanish than Spain, as if the Spanish conquerers were determined to wipe out any trace of its Inca past by building an indenti-kit Spanish city in place of the Inca capital.

Cusco’s cathedral is as imposing as anything you might see in Spain, a political, cultural and military symbol of the power of the the Spanish conquerers. Although it isn’t permitted to take photos of the interior, I promise there is enough silver and gold inside to wipe-out debt throughout Latin America. For me though, the interior felt as crude, oppressive and brutish as the Spanish conquest was in its dealings with the peoples of the Andes.

Cusco’s cathedral

The cathedral is also home to some imposing colonial art – literally on a grand scale – including a painting of the Last Supper featuring Guinea Pig as the central dish. The cathedral’s sacristy has walls adorned with paintings of all Cusco’s bishops, including Vincente de Valverde the Dominican friar who accompanied Francisco Pizarro. Valverde is reputed to have aided the slaughter of the Inca in Cusco by encouraging the Spanish troops in their ‘work’ with the words, “Kill them, kill them, I absolve you”.

Despite 500 years of remodelling and rebuilding, Inca history still seems to seep from Cusco’s walls. Evidence of the former Inca capital is on display down almost every street – the readily identifiable Inca building style still forms the foundations of almost every structure in the historic centre of Cusco, only topped with Spanish colonial buildings.

Cusco street with Inca foundations and Spanish tops, Peru

Inca doorway with colonial doors, Cusco, Peru

The Spanish either destroyed Inca buildings and used the materials for their own structures, or they simply built on top of the Inca foundations, which means some excellent examples of Inca building still exist cheek-by-jowl with colonial structures.

Foundations of a once grand Inca building, Cusco, Peru

Inca stone work, Cusco, Peru

Contemporary Cusco comes as something of a shock. It thrives off its Inca and colonial past and is one of the most touristed places in Latin America, with large groups of Europeans, North Americans, Chinese and Japanese wandering the streets following a flag waving tour guide explaining the terrible history of the city. After 5 months in Bolivia where tour groups are, mercifully, an endangered species, the sheer number of tourists and the tourist prices of Cusco are deeply disconcerting.

Having said that, the city authorities have managed to preserve the historic city in a way that would put most European cities to shame. There is a McDonalds on the main square that is so hidden away, without any external signage, that unless you walk right past it you wouldn’t suspect it was there. That is definitely something to be proud of.

The former temple of Qorikancha at night, Cusco, Peru