Wine tasting and Quilmes (the pre-hispanic fortress, not the beer)

The dramatically situated pre-hispanic fortress of Quilmes lies a short distance south of Cafayate and is a fascinating place to visit, especially if you get there before the tour groups start to arrive. Continuously inhabited between the 11th and 17th centuries, at its peak Quilmes was home to over five thousand inhabitants. Inca armies tried to invade this region in the 1480s but failed to dislodge the Quilmes people from their mountain refuge.

Unfortunately, the Spanish arrived shortly afterwards and the Quilmes wouldn’t be so fortunate against this second set of conquistadores, although that didn’t prevent them from mounting an heroic resistance that lasted 130 years.

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

The Quilmes civilisation fiercely resisted Spanish colonisation of the region, and the site saw bitter fighting when the Spanish invaded. The fortress was the scene of several bloody battles and a devastating siege. After the Spanish had crushed the Quilmes’ resistance once and for all, those who remained alive were deported wholesale to the area around Buenos Aires.

It is a poignant reminder of the fate of all indigenous peoples who resisted Spanish invasion, a poignancy not made any easier now that Quilmes is the name of Argentina’s most famous beer brand and can be seen adorning the shirts of football players. Not exactly a dignified way for a once proud people to be remembered.

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

After a sobering morning contemplating the historical injustices done to indigenous peoples across Latin America, it was back to Cafayate and a much anticipated wine tour and tasting at the Bodega Etchart. Etchart make a delicious Torrentes Reserva that we’d been sampling over previous days, so this was something to look forward to – yum.

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

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, 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

Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe

To be in Sucre during the build-up to its big festival, the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, is to witness this normally tranquil and reserved city transform itself and embrace party fever. The fiesta is a huge event in Sucre and people come from across Bolivia to participate in the festivities.

The festival celebrates the much venerated Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre’s patron saint, whose flattened statue began life as a painting early in the seventeenth-century. Over time the painting was encrusted with all manner of precious and semi-precious gem stones until it needed to be reinforced with silver and gold plates. It could probably pay of a large chunk of Bolivia’s national debt.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is also the patron of the whole of Latin America, and is typically portrayed as black or dark skinned. Guadalupe is an early example of recycling and actually originates in the remote Spanish region of Extremadura from where she was exported to Latin America by the Conquistadores, the most famous of whom such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro and Vasco Nunez de Balboa also came from Extremadura.

The Virgen de Guadalupe on display in Plaza 25 Mayo, Sucre

The last three weeks have seen a steady increase in activity towards the main festival on 14 and 15 September, groups have been rehearsing and it has been impossible to avoid bands who seem to practice day and night. There’s also been a steady increase in the use of alarmingly loud fireworks, including a series of big fireworks last night which went on until 2am – it wouldn’t be fiesta without singularly dangerous pyrotechnics keeping everyone awake.

This weekend was set aside as a practice run for the main event, and all over Sucre you could spot groups of people putting themselves through their paces. In a fun but unusual twist, there was a large parade of highly decorated cars snaking around the city and creating endless traffic jams in their wake. Most of the cars belong to cooperatives who work in Sucre’s Central Market, and the decorations of fruit, vegetables and meat reflect this.

The convoy of decorated cars for the Virgen de Guadalupe

The fish sellers from the Central Market

The cars are decked out in brightly coloured cloths, stuffed animals, inflatable toys, dolls, silver bowls, plates and cutlery. Many of them have fake money, houses and other desirable items attached, and prayers are offered to the Virgen de Guadalupe in the hope of receiving wealth and success in return. They create a bizarre spectacle as they make their way around the city before being welcomed back to the Central Market by a band and more fireworks.

Money, money, money

Alarming looking doll

Veg and meat car

A mix of dolls and dreams of wealth

Cholla doll and fruit on the car roof

Two ‘stoned’ reggae bananas on the flower sellers’ car

Inflatables, including one or more Teletubbies

I’m not sure what role Bart plays in the Bolivian Church, or what dreams and desires he represents, but he made an appearance on one of the cars.

Bart doll