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

An oasis in the desert, the giant sand dunes of Huacachina

Reasoning that age had probably caught up with us, and put off by its reputation as a party zone for the international backpacking set, we almost didn’t go to Huacachina. In the end alluring photographs of majestic and mountainous sand dunes surrounding a palm-fringed oasis, and the knowledge that it was the low season, convinced us we should visit.

I wasn’t expecting reality to live up to the photos, but Huacachina doesn’t disappoint. Its quite extraordinary, the more so perhaps because it is only five minutes by cab to the thriving city of Ica – which you can see from the top of the dunes – yet feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Once the hangout for Peru’s wealthy, Huacachina has become something of a must see destination on the gringo trail offering sand boarding and dune buggy rides where once more monied travellers rode ponies. Regardless of the thrill-seeking side to Huacachina, it still manages to be a relaxed and easy going place, although I’m not sure I’d want to be there in the high season.

Preferring my own two feet to some noisy gas-guzzling dune buggy, I set off a couple of hours before sun set to hike through the desert and conquer a nearby and nearly vertical dune so I could watch the sun sink slowly over the desert. It was a magical experience, only slightly lessened by the sound of an occasional dune buggy and its screaming occupants off in the distance.

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The desert near the oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

Sky over the desert, Huacachina, Ica, Peru

Sky over the desert, Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

Chatting to a local resident, it seem that the water level of the oasis has dropped significantly over the last decade. At current rates the oasis will have disappeared in twenty years time. That would be a tragedy, but it isn’t the only environmental issue facing Huacachina…

If I have one complaint about Huacachina, those who visit it and run businesses there, it is this: in a once pristine environment the level of environmental degradation from discarded plastic bottles, bags and a multitude of other items is shocking. I climbed one sand dune, looked over the edge to a hollow and it was filled with plastic bottles. I just don’t get it…how hard is it not to throw rubbish into the middle of the desert?

The following morning I went for another stroll through the beautiful and peaceful desert landscape.

The only problem on the way back was the sand had gotten so hot it was like walking across burning coals for an hour!

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

The oasis of Huacachina, Ica, Peru

Cemetery in the desert, unearthing the Nazca

It’s not every day you’re privileged to look into the tombs of a 2000-year-old culture. Almost wholly preserved by both the arid desert and one of humankind’s first successful attempts at mummification, and a mere 30km south of the modern town of Nazca, lies the necropolis of Chauchilla – evidence that there is far more than just the Nazca Lines to occupy your time while you’re here.

Even after a few days to contemplate what we’d seen in the middle of the desert, it was almost impossible to fully grasp the significance of Chauchilla. A huge, ancient burial site that, despite extensive looting and a shocking degree of indifference from the government, is testament to a civilisation that we know precious little about.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

The bodies that are on display at the site are remarkably well-preserved. In part this is down to the climate, but the Nazca also developed mummification techniques that have proved highly successful. You can still see well-preserved hair and skin, as well as cotton which was stuffed into the skull. A resin was also applied to the bodies that archeologists believe helped deter insects.

The tombs typically have a maximum of three occupants, the one above has an adult and two children. Sometimes children were sacrificed, beheaded and buried with a pumpkin as a head. Little is known about this gruesome ritual, and the child above has its own skull. Clay pots are common in the graves, filled with maize beer (chicha) and various foods.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

The archeological importance of the site is mind-boggling, yet it is open to the elements and unprotected by any form of security except for the woman in the ticket office – and she goes home at 6pm. If the Chauchilla necropolis had been found in Europe it would receive millions of visitors every year and every sort of environmental and security protection available.

As you walk through the site its possible to see where graves have been looted (by the indentations in the earth), and almost everywhere you look there are human bones and broken shards of pottery scattered across the surface of the desert. There was a large sand storm sweeping in on high winds when we were there. When I got back to the hotel I could literally scrape sand off my skin and scalp; what it does to the burial site can only be guessed at.

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Chauchilla cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Sadly we didn’t have time to go to any of the other ancient Nazca sites in the desert, including the religious and ceremonial site of Cahuachi which has several large pyramids that have been painstakenly unearthed and restored. Next time, next time!

Magnificent, mysterious, monumental: the Nazca Lines of Peru

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, the flight in a four-seater light aircraft over the Nazca Lines is probably the best way to spend US$110 in Peru – and yes, for those of you who may think I’ve erred in my calculation, I’ve included twenty rounds of 2-for-1 pisco sours into my thinking.

Plane brilliant, Nazca Lines, Peru

Plane brilliant, Nazca Lines, Peru

The Nazca’s monumental achievement constructing giant messages to the gods in the barren and inhospitable deserts of south-west Peru is nothing short of super-human. No number of photos of the Nazca Lines is sufficient preparation for the sight that awaits when you get into the air – and it is only from the air that they reveal their true glory.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine a thriving culture in this desert wasteland with soaring temperatures and very limited water resources. Yet, flying over the desert at anything between 300 and 3000 feet the entire area is littered with giant symbols, lines, animal and anthropomorphic figures that tell of a once mighty culture.

It almost never rains in the Nazca region, yet in the rainy season rainfall in the mountains to the east send brown rivers flowing through the area en route to the Pacific Ocean. This creates a green ribbon of life through the desert that supports lush agriculture, at least for some of the year.

A rainy season river in the Nazca desert, Nazca, Peru

A rainy season river in the Nazca desert, Nazca, Peru

The desert surrounding Nazca, Peru

The desert surrounding Nazca, Peru

The Nazca culture flourished for approximately 400 years from 200 AD, and was a direct descendent of an earlier culture, the Paracas. While there is a wealth of archeological evidence about the Nazca, particularly from the many graves found in the region containing pottery, metal objects and foodstuffs, we only have theories for the purpose of the Nazca Lines.

Ignoring odd-ball ideas about aliens and the Nazca being able to fly, the theory with most currency these days is that these giant symbols were intended for the Nazca gods, and were to promote fertility and rains – something common to all ancient cultures concerned with food, water and survival. Living in a desert, the Nazca had more reason than most to worry about survival.

The centre of the Nazca culture is only 80km away from the ocean and several of the animal representations relate to ocean creatures: a whale (below), killer whale and a representation of an octopus (below). In addition, the Nazca were linked through trade to the Amazon, and there are representations of Amazonian birds and a monkey on the desert floor.

Trapezoid shape on the desert floor, Nazca, Peru

Trapezoid shape on the desert floor, Nazca, Peru

The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru

The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru

The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru

The Whale, Nazca Lines, Peru

Octopus and small 'bird', Nazca, Peru

Octopus and small ‘bird’, Nazca, Peru

What is clear when you see the lines is that they regularly collide or overlay each other. It seems the Nazca had no issue about ‘building’ over the top of older work. It is through this process that it is possible to tell that spirals were the earliest forms they created, giant trapezoids the last stage of the culture, with animals and other figures coming in-between.

Spiral, Nazca, Peru

Spiral, Nazca, Peru

The Monkey, Nazca, Peru

The Monkey, Nazca, Peru

One of the reasons some of the figures have only nine ‘fingers’ seems to be related to the cycle of human childbearing and fertility. The number ‘nine’ appears to have had special significance for the Nazca.

The 'Hands', Nazca, Peru

The ‘Hands’, Nazca, Peru

It is also clear that the lines have an astronomical purpose. Several of the figures are aligned with constellations, including the famous ‘monkey’ which has the Ursa Minor constellation integrated into its design. Clearly the Nazca studied the night sky like so many other early Latin American cultures.

To give a sense of the size, the ‘dog’ is 50 metres long, the ‘humming bird’ 97 metres long and the ‘flamingo’ 300 metres long. Yet the trapezoids measure anything up to 3km long.

The 'Dog' or 'Fox', Nazca, Peru

The ‘Dog’ or ‘Fox’, Nazca, Peru

The 'Humming Bird' , Nazca, Peru

The ‘Humming Bird’ , Nazca, Peru

The 'Humming Bird' , Nazca, Peru

The ‘Humming Bird’ , Nazca, Peru

The 'Frigate Bird', Nazca, Peru

The ‘Frigate Bird’, Nazca, Peru

It is a terrible shame that the Lines don’t reveal more to us, and that the Pan American Highway had been constructed right through the middle of a giant lizard before the Lines were re-discovered in the 1920s.

One thing is certain, the Nazca were skilled mathematicians, engineers and architects. Working from a template, the Nazca scaled up the final design by 200 times, using sticks, ropes and rocks to make their measurements. Maria Reiche, the archeologist most associated with the rediscovery of the Nazca Lines, discovered their basic unit of measurement. Called the Peruvian Metre, it measured 110 centimetres and each centimetre consisted of 11 millimetres.

The 'Flamingo', Nazca, Peru

The ‘Flamingo’, Nazca, Peru

The 'Spider', Nazca, Peru

The ‘Spider’, Nazca, Peru

Plane wing and mountains, Nazca, Peru

Plane wing and mountains, Nazca, Peru

More tremendous views, Nazca, Peru

More tremendous views, Nazca, Peru

Coming in to land, Nazca, Peru

Coming in to land, Nazca, Peru

Areqipa’s colonial churches, an exercise in superaltives

As a casual observer, it seems the one thing the Spanish loved almost as much as extracting all the gold and silver from the former Inca Empire, was building churches with the proceeds. While these temples were undoubtably constructed on the back of immense human suffering, they did know how to build a church that sends you seeking for superlatives.

Like Cusco, Arequipa is awash with colonial-era churches. Thanks to successive earthquakes the Cathedral in Arequipa is relatively modern and understated – unlike Cusco, where the gaudiness of the cathedral left me feeling oppressed and gasping for air. Arequipa’s most extravagant ecclesiastical buildings are smaller churches, monasteries and convents – and that is before you even set foot in the truly extraordinary Monasterio de Santa Catalina.

The artistry, sweat and dedication which went into the creation of these buildings is humbling, even when set alongside the atrocities of religious colonialism (for more on that, a good read is Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming, which includes a fascinating section on the soul-searching of the Spanish Crown and clerics about the morality of the conquest).

The churches seem to be split into two types, those with ornate exteriors and those without, which may be something of an over-simplification. A beautiful example of the former is the Jesuit church, the Iglesia de La Compania, with its exquisite entrance.

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Compania, Arequipa, Peru

Less ornate on the exterior but with a rich inner life is the Iglesia de San Francisco, where a 5 soles entrance fee will get you a personal guided tour of the cloisters and quadrangles. If you’re lucky you may get to meet one of the remaining five monks still living in a private part of the complex. At a sprightly 89 years of age, I was fortunate to meet the eldest remaining monk who gave me a nod and a ‘hola’.

He seemed cheerful enough, but I couldn’t help thinking it must be a terribly lonely life in that huge complex.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

The serene courtyard in the first cloister was adorned with some peculiar sculptures…some obvious in meaning, but whats with the foot in the mouth of the jaguar? My guide wouldn’t be drawn on the subject.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Francisco, Arequipa, Peru

Most churches in Arequipa have pretty irregular opening hours, which means you have to get lucky as you walk around the city to see more than just exteriors. After walking past the lovely facade of the Iglesia de San Augustin on several occasions we were on our way back to the hotel one afternoon and amazingly the front door was open. Never one to look a gift horse, etc.

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de San Augustin, Arequipa, Peru

Finally, around the corner from where we were staying was the sturdy looking Iglesia de La Merced, which had been steadfastly locked for the duration of our stay. It came through early one morning by being open. Admittedly, it seemed like it had been opened to allow lay members to be trained, but they seemed happy to see us. I particularly liked the statue of nun holding a Spanish galleon.

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

Iglesia de La Merced, Arequipa, Peru

A city within the city, Monasterio de Santa Catalina

In a city full of extraordinary colonial buildings with a rich ecclesiastical history, Arequipa’s Monasterio de Santa Catalina still manages to astound. It is huge, has beautiful buildings, plazas and gardens, but mainly it has a truly bizarre history that inspires both awe and moral indignation. The Monestario was an extremely wealthy institution, shown not only by its size (from the outside it looks like a massive impregnable fortress) but also by the grandeur of its buildings.

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance into the first cloister, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

The history of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, with its horrendous and hypocritical class system, was always going to captivate and repulse at the same time. The two hours I spent there could easily have turned to three or four and, despite the steep price of admission, I would happily go back. Also, an apology in advance, it is one of the most photogenic places I’ve been – so lots of photos.

Established in 1579, the Monasterio’s founder was the wealthy Spanish widow, Maria de Guzman. She established a system where the daughters of only the wealthiest Spanish families could enter the Monasterio (paying a very large dowry for the privilege). In return, the ‘nuns’ were permitted every luxury imaginable – the finest furniture, china and silks; parties, with musicians; the very best food and fine wines; and regular, unregulated visitors.

The latter included men. Understandably, the whiff of sexual scandal was never far away from the Monasterio – which to the contemporary eye looks like a religious private members club where money was far more important than faith, and the Paris Hiltons of their day could do whatever they wanted thanks to Daddy’s money.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Worse than all of this by some considerable distance, the wealthy nuns were allowed by the ecclesiastical authorities to keep slaves – that’s right, slaves – to minister to their needs. Poorer nuns performed the role of servants to the wealthier nuns, who lived lives similar to their wealthy secular counterparts.

Each wealthy nun had their own private quarters, of various sizes, with a bedroom, living room, kitchens and outside space. Each had luxuries such as musical instruments, well upholstered furniture, china and crystal glass.

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Entrance to private quarters, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Bed in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun's room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

A wealthy nun’s room with piano, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun's room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Furniture in a wealthy nun’s room, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Toilet. Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

This deplorable situation continued for three hundred years. Finally, in 1871 the papacy sent a strict Dominican nun to sort the whole sordid mess out. She freed the slaves and liberated the servants, sent the wealthy dowagers back to Spain and reformed the whole rotten institution. Many of the servants and freed slaves remained as nuns, and the Monasterio closed its doors firmly to the public. Its affairs became an enigma for nearly a century.

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Private kitchen, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

As recent events have revealed, it is a rare occasion when the Holy See moves with speed to end shocking abuses within its ranks; it seems little has changed since 1871.

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Painting, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Christ statue with shadow, Monestario de Santa Catalina, Arequpia, Peru

Arequipa’s colonial charm, ceviche and Pisco Sour

After ten months in a landlocked country arrival in Peru meant one thing: fresh, ocean-going fish. That our first dish of ceviche, washed down with a Pisco Sour, came after a 20 hour journey from La Paz involving three different buses, including a nighttime journey over a mountain pass through a blizzard, and was eaten in the colonial surroundings of Arequipa, only made it more delicious.

Ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Out of focus ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of colonial-era buildings, ornate churches and one of the finest plazas in Latin America. It is also dramatically situated with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, including the active volcano, El Misti – thanks to the low cloud of the rainy season we didn’t get a view of the mountains and had to use our imaginations instead.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Without the vast tourist hordes of Cusco, Arequipa has a more relaxed feel that could easily seduce you for several days of culinary over-indugence in-between visits to museums and churches. Arequipa is a base to explore the Colca Canyon and to climb the nearby mountains, sadly we only had three days to linger here en route to Lima and our flight to the Caribbean.

It is a great city to stroll around admiring the architecture and sampling Peruvian culinary delicacies. In fact, the only real problem with Arequipa is the traffic. The number of cars (and the number of cars being driven by lunatics) takes some of the sheen off this lovely city. When crossing the road requires life insurance there really is a problem.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Cars, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

I’ve always found it strange when you come across an ancient building put to modern usage, where the exterior of the building is in complete disagreement with the interior. In Arequipa there are just so many ancient building that not all of them can be museums. Instead, they are banks, airline offices, government departments…and the ubiquitous ’boutique’ hotel.

Ornate doorway, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate doorway to a bank, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Puno’s two floating wonders: Uros and the M/V Yavari

Puno is famous for its location on the shores of beautiful Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of Uros a short boat ride away – Uros is the name of the culture which originally constructed the islands. The islands are made of layers of interwoven reeds collected from the many reed beds in the shallows of Lake Titicaca, they are several feet deep and constantly replenished from the top to support houses and people.

Reed gathering in Lake Titicaca,

While definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in Peru – and there is some debate about the authenticity of the islands these days – the islands remain fascinating living histories of an Andean culture that evolved a unique way of life. We went to the islands on the local ferry which drops you at two of the floating islands (there is a strict rotation so that everyone in the community benefits from tourism, providing a rare example of egalitarianism within the tourist business).

Uros woman rows on Lake Titicaca

Brightly dressed women, Uros Islands

The islands seem pretty much dependent upon tourism and I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a visit as much as I did. In part that was down to the people we met on the two islands we visited who who were friendly and funny, and not particularly pushy when it came to selling.

Rush hour on Uros

Brightly dressed woman, Uros Islands

Uros Islands

Uros Islands

While the floating islands are the main attraction, Puno’s other floating wonder is the M/V Yavari, a steam ship built by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company and brought from the United Kingdom on a journey that is almost as extraordinary as the islands of Uros. Once little more than a wreck, the M/V Yavari has been lovingly restored by the Asociacion Yavari and now can be visited at its mooring just outside of Puno.

The M/V Yavari at its mooring on Lake Titicaca, Puno, Peru

To get the M/V Yavari to the shores of Lake Titicaca it was designed to be shipped in component pieces and then reassembled upon arrival in Puno. Easier said than done! There’s a bit more information on the ‘Whys’, ‘When’ and ‘WTFs’ below – I particularly like the fact the original engine was fuelled by llama dung!

Information on the M/V Yavari, Puno, Peru

The ship was brought in pieces by boat to the port of Arica in modern-day Chile. Here it was loaded onto a train for the thirty mile journey to Tacna across the arid deserts of northern Chile/southern Peru, before being detrained and loaded onto mules and llamas for the incredible journey across the Andes. A journey of over 190 miles on little more that llama trails that reached altitudes of over 15,000 feet. I think it would be fair to describe this journey as ‘epic’.

Map of the M/V Yavari’s epic journey over the Andes, Puno, Peru

Things didn’t quite go to plan. There were many problems with transport, not helped when the original British contractor failed to get the 2766 boat parts beyond Tacna, forcing a delay of several years in the transportation of the parts across the Andes. During the mule and llama train part of the journey many parts were ‘lost’ or abandoned forcing more delays while they were either recovered or new parts were shipped.

Finally, the M/V Yavari was launched in 1870 and her sister ship the M/V Yapura in 1873. Since then their histories have been somewhat checkered until in 1976 the Yapura was converted into a Peruvian navy hospital ship and the Yavari was left to rot before being rescued for restoration.

M/V Yavari, Puno, Peru

There are components of the ship from all over the UK – although the current engines are Swedish in make – and the engineers who reconstructed both ships were from Liverpool (where else?).

The M/V Yavari, Puno, Peru

The M/V Yavari, Puno, Peru

Pucara and the cult of the Peruvian roof ornament

Almost immediately after crossing the border between Bolivia and Peru I began noticing a range of mysterious ornaments adorning the tops of houses. Some had obvious religious significance, others were less easy to interpret. Either way, I’d never seen this in Bolivia before.

Roof ornament with cows, flag, chicken and cross, Peru

I’d been puzzling over this for two weeks, but it wasn’t until we stopped in the small town of Pucara en route to Puno that light was finally shed on the conundrum. Pucara is the home to a local history museum and while not particularly well maintained the exhibits are interesting and, it turns out, Pucara is the centre of production of the ceramic cow roof decorations.

Known as Torito de Pucara, they are placed on the roof for good luck, fertility (of crops and livestock) and to bring prosperity. They are typically given as presents for extra luck and pretty much every building you see in southern Peru has one of the decorations on its roof.

Roof ornament with cows, large jars and cross, Peru

Roof ornament with coke bottles, Peru

The tradition is one that pre-dates the Spanish. In Inca times the obvious difference in decoration would have been llamas replacing cows and an absence of Christian symbolism (it’s unlikely they would have had coke bottles either, but you never know). Today, they retain the same meaning but have been ‘Christianised’ and largely contain Christian symbolism alongside centuries old symbolism of traditional beliefs – for instance the sun and moon.

As befits the church in the home of the ceramic cow, the church in Pucara is uniquely decorated with statues of ceramic cows that mimic the ones seen on the rooftops of southern Peru. There is some irony in this as the original meaning of the decorations was to honour Pachamama, the Inca earth goddess.

Church, Pucara, Peru

Ceramic cow at the church in Pucara, Peru

As with so much to do with religion and belief in this part of the world, it is another example of the fusing of traditional and Catholic beliefs that is very common in Bolivia. It is difficult to tell whether there is just a veneer of Catholicism and people continue to believe the old traditions or whether the two religions are truly entwined in a way that makes it difficult to differentiate between them.

Ceramic cows on a rooftop, Peru

Roof ornament, Peru

Roof ornament, Peru

The temple complex of Raqchi

Having been in Peru for a couple of weeks and spending most of our time amongst ancient Inca ruins I feel like this blog has gotten a bit too archaeological. However, on our way from Cusco to Puno we stopped off at a quite different but equally wonderful set of Inca ruins in Raqchi. I guess that is the thing about the Incas, they constructed an amazing array of towns, forts and ceremonial centres in little more than a century of empire building and they are everywhere you go in Peru.

Set amidst beautiful countryside and surrounded by imposing mountains on a clear, crisp morning Raqchi is an impressive and moving sight, and one that could be easily overlooked as you speed past the modern-day village on the road between Cusco and Puno.

Temple complex at Raqchi, Peru

Raqchi was a major religious centre and home to a temple complex and palace that housed the great and the good of the Inca world. It is also home to a unique set of approximately 100 circular buildings that were used as storehouses for foodstuffs to be used for ceremonial purposes and to distribute to people when harvests were poor.

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Being circular rather than square or rectangular, the storehouses are unlike virtually any other building in the Inca empire. No one knows why they are circular, but it is likely to be symbolism to do with Raqchi’s role as a religious and ceremonial centre.

Temple of Wiracocha, Raqchi, Peru

The most impressive building is the Temple of Wiracocha, which is an imposing two storey building about 100 metres long. Prior to the Spanish conquest and the subsequent destruction of Raqchi this building is believed to have had the largest roof anywhere in the Inca world. I know that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but roofs are hard to build and this just highlights the mastery of the Inca as architects and builders.

Wiracocha was the Inca Creator God and is believed to have performed a miracle at the site where the temple was built. The whole complex is large, comprising a residential section and a palace for Inca nobility as well as the temple and storehouses, testimony to the importance the Inca placed on the site as a religious centre.

The temple complex at Raqchi, Peru

The temple complex is probably the best surviving example of Inca adobe building in Peru. Which is pretty amazing given the site has suffered the destruction of the Spanish, seismic activity and the degradation of the weather over several centuries – and adobe is only mud. It is also one of the best places to see the unique Inca construction technique where the lower half of the wall is adobe and the upper half is stone.

Remains of Inca palace at Raqchi, Peru

Bird of pray sits on a wall at Raqchi, Peru

Surrounding the site, and still in use by villagers today, are a number of Inca agricultural terraces. According to our guide the whole site was also enclosed by an enormous wall that skirted the hilltops around the site and was six feet thick and very high. Unfortunately not much of this wall remains as the Spanish used the stone to construct a church and village at the site.

Modern day Raqchi with Inca terracing still in use, Peru