Back in Bolivia…strange goings-on in Copacabana

Copacabana is a quiet town, stuck on a peninsular between glorious Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It has become a centre for travellers transiting between the two countries and a jumping off point for the exquisite Isla del Sol, home of the Inca creation myth. Its a sleepy place that normally has a low-key traveller vibe, but on weekends it comes alive with a very Bolivian mix of fun and faith.

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

When I say faith, I mean that peculiar Bolivian blend of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs that have been merged to create a religion that celebrates the old and the new(ish). First, there is the true oddity that is the blessing of the cars that takes place outside the cathedral. Getting your vehicle blessed, and decorated, brings good luck and promises safe conduct for those inside the vehicle.

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Judging by the number of roadside shrines, this isn’t a fool-proof way of getting from A to B in one piece. Personally I’d prefer it if Bolivian drivers drove more carefully: you know, at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not chatting on mobile phones, trying not to eat and drink while overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend on a mountain pass. That sort of thing.

Failing that, it would be good if fewer people got behind the wheel after a skinful of chicha or singani – particularly bus drivers. During our last month in Sucre there were two bus crashes on the road south, one, very serious, with multiple deaths and injuries. Both were the result of drunk driving. Getting your bus blessed won’t help if you’re pissed.

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

A friend in Sucre once told me how the bus she was travelling in was stuck behind a truck moving at a snail’s pace. The bus driver was honking his horn, but couldn’t get the truck to pull over so the bus could overtake. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the very, very drunk driver simply fell out of his cab while the truck veered off the road. Bless that if you can.

The second oddity is the very public performance of traditional beliefs right under the watchful eye of a statue of Christ and the stations of the cross leading up Cerro Calvario. I walked to the top of this 3966 metre mountain to take the view, at the base of the hill there were a number of traditional priests performing indigenous rites for people. I’ve seen these same rites performed all over Bolivia.

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Even at the top of the hill, alongside the Catholic shrine, people are using traditional rites to honour the dead, ask for health, wealth and success. Its a strange sight, but one I think is entirely appropriate for a country that had a very strong belief system, accompanied by a very successful culture, before the Spanish introduced Catholicism at the point of a sword.

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Although a restful place, we had to move on from Lake Titicaca. We were headed for Coroico in the truly awe inspiring Yungas region of Bolivia. Despite the altitude, we managed to do a nice walk around the lake shore and observe some the traditional life on the lake before we left.

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

Colombia’s Cathedral del Sal, the saltiest church in the world

It has to count as one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen. A cathedral sitting 180 metres underground in the hollowed-out remains of a vast salt mine that has been in use since pre-Hispanic times. As you make your way underground, ethereal music reverberates throughout the interior of the former salt mine, while mood enhancing lighting illuminates the stations of the cross and huge chambers where the salt was once mined.

Salt and multi-coloured lighting rather than smoke and mirrors?

Entrance to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance tunnel to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance tunnel to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

It is both spectacular and the height of kitsch at the same time. Only in Colombia, you may ponder silently (except there’s an even bigger one in Poland). While services are held in the cathedral, it has no actual status as a cathedral within the Catholic Church – judging by the reverence some people exhibit en route down into the bowels of the salt mine, that doesn’t worry too many people.

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

The former salt mines are located close to the town of Zipaquira. Once an important Spanish colonial settlement, it still has a beautiful main square flanked by a vast church that could have been transported directly from Spain and which physically dominates the city. The salt itself has been mined since the fifth century BC by the Musica, the indigenous group who inhabited this region. Salt is still being mined today and is used throughout Colombia.

Zipaquira, Colombia

Zipaquira, Colombia

Main plaza with church, Zipaquira, Colombia

Main plaza with church, Zipaquira, Colombia

Although Zipaquira sits in a prosperous agricultural valley, the real money earner is the salt cathedral. The cathedral open to the public today is the second cathedral to have been built in the salt mines. The first one started to collapse and had to be abandoned, but public pressure on the mining company to continue the lucrative tourist/pilgrimage trade ensured a second cathedral was constructed – there are trinket shops aplenty in the town should you wish to take home a salty souvenir.

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

A small chapel next to the cathedral, Catedral del Sal, Colombia

A small chapel next to the cathedral, Catedral del Sal, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Its easy to reach the salt cathedral, its only an hour if you take a tour or cab from Bogota. We chose to negotiate our way there on public transport and caught Bogota’s version of a metro, the TransMilenio, to somewhere in the north of the city where we were told could get a bus to Zipaquira. Remarkably we managed to get there the same day – actually, it was surprisingly easy to arrange and cost a quarter of the price of a cab.

Angel, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Angel, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

The cathedral draws hundreds of thousands of tourists/pilgrims every year, but visit on a weekday at the start of the rainy season and there aren’t too many people around to spoil the silence and tranquility of being 180 metres below the earth. It is a peculiar experience all the same. Despite the vast open spaces of the mine, the atmosphere is airless, strangely humid and oppressive.

It is quite a relief to emerge into the sunlight back at the entrance, from where you can stroll down the hill into Zipaquira for a spot of lunch – although not before you pass an array of concession stands and trinket shops just outside the mine.

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Bogota’s Museo del Oro, the best museum in Latin America?

The Museo del Oro in Bogota is a magical place. It boasts a wealth of gold objects and other artefacts made from precious metals, sea shells and jade, as well as a number of fantastic pottery pieces. If its amazing that the gold pieces have survived the onslaught of several centuries of European greed in the Americas, the survival of clay pieces is almost as wondrous.

Its not just the brilliance of the items on display, or the fact that there are over fifty thousand of them; its not just that the displays are inventive and beautifully presented, or that the information that accompanies them is intriguing and informative. It is the combination of all of this that brings pre-Hispanic history and culture alive and makes Bogota’s Museo del Oro one of the finest, if not the finest, museum in the Americas.

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

I doubt there is a museum anywhere on the continent that can boast such a wealth of artefacts and information on the pre-Hispanic cultures that existed before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The most fascinating part was the direct connection between the artefacts and the belief systems of the indigenous tribes that they represent. I’ve not come across such a comprehensive description of pre-Hispanic cultures before.

The tribes that lived in this part of the Americas held the natural world in awe. There was a strong belief in the ability of transformations or transmutations into beings that were part animal and part human. In part this was achieved through hallucinogens that induced a trance-like state, but also by the use of gold ornaments with images of animals on them.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Decorating yourself in these ornaments helped you observe the world through the eyes of the jaguar, crocodile, bat, bird, spirits or ancestors. Essentially, society for Amerindians is viewed as being united with nature – plants, animals, spirits and humans all forming a cosmic society split into three tiers. Birds represent the upper world; humans, jaguars and deer represent the intermediate world; while bats, snakes and crocodiles represent the lower world.

The upper and lower worlds have opposing but complementary elements: light and dark, dry and wet, male and female. The intermediate world where humans live combines elements of both. Gods, dead ancestors and spirits inhabit both the upper and lower worlds.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One gallery deals with the role that powerful hallucinogens played in aiding transformations between the human and animal realms. An hallucinogenic powder called Yopo was frequently used for religious rites and was inhaled using a a small spoon or through the bones of small birds. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much really.

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One of the final displays is like being in an immersion tank: you enter a darkened circular room, the doors close around you and music starts to play. As the music peaks and troughs sections of the walls, floor and ceiling are illuminated to highlight huge displays of golden objects. It is an impressive way to end your time in the museum, and it highlights again just how much cultural heritage has been lost since Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Torture in paradise, the Spanish Inquisition comes to Cartagena

The Inquisition, or as it was known within the Catholic Church, Inquiry on Heretical Perversity, had been around for several centuries by the time King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain launched the Spanish Inquisition in 1478.

Up to that point the suppression of ‘heresy’ by the Catholic Church in Europe had rarely used torture to force confessions and only the occasional heretic was put to death. The Spanish Inquisition was to change that dramatically, and with the founding of colonies in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t long before the insidious tentacles of the Inquisition reached Spain’s new overseas possessions.

Today, Cartagena has a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition in the city. An added benefit of a visit to the Palace of the Inquisition is that it is housed in one of the finest colonial buildings in the city.

Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

La Garrucha, an instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

La Garrucha, an instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

I wouldn’t want to accuse those lovely Dominican monks who carried out the Inquisition in the Americas of getting inappropriate sexual kicks from torture, but the middle rope on the ‘Rack’ below was attached to the testicles which were stretched along with the rest of the unfortunate person.

The Rack, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Rack, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

In Spain the Inquisition was aimed at ‘cleansing’ the recently reconquered country of Islamic or Jewish influences, and was under the control of the Spanish monarchy who had numerous motives for adopting it as a measure of state control. Yet it came at a time of general moral uncertainty in Europe. There was a long-term change in the weather leading to a prolonged cold period which devastated agriculture and led to starvation and social upheaval.

The Catholic Church, along with everyone else, hadn’t got a clue about climate fluctuations and decided to blame it on witches, magicians and other heretical types. It may seem laughable today that a wave of torture and Church-sponsored killing was unleashed because climate change reinforced people’s fear that witches were at work. Yet, in the absence of science the easiest course of action was to fall back on superstition.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Neck brace, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Neck brace, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

It was against this backdrop that the somewhat inappropriately named Pope Innocent VIII launched a campaign against witchcraft in 1484. The suppression of witchcraft was to form a central pillar of the Spanish Inquisition and led to countless denunciations of the innocent. In Cartagena, there was a special window on one side of the Palace of the Inquisition for denouncing people.

There was an established routine for questioning ‘suspected’ witches, or as we know them today, women. This included a fascinating questionnaire of thirty three questions. I particularly like the examination of the entertainment at the witch’s demonic wedding: “What kind of music was played? What were the dances? Did not you dance?” Apparently, music and dancing were not good in the eyes of the Inquisition.

Interestingly, no one thought to ask the most obvious question, “Are you a witch?” No room for innocent until proven guilty in the Inquisition.

Denunciation window, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Denunciation window, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Questions asked to a 'suspected' witch, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Questions asked to a ‘suspected’ witch, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

And, of course, there was the traditional ducking stool. A device so devious that you only died if you were innocent; whereas if you lived you were guilty. Of course you were immediately put to death for being a witch so either way things didn’t turn out well.

Witch's ducking stool, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Witch’s ducking stool, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Inquisition in Spain was to have serious implications for hundreds of thousands of innocent people across the Spanish colonies during the reign of Philip II of Spain. Under Philip the Inquisition was to reach fanatical heights. He established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Americas in 1569, to be run by the Dominican Order throughout the Spanish colonies.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Thumb screw, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Thumb screw, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Inquisition remained active in Spain until 1834, and was an active ‘department’ of the Holy See until the mid-nineteenth century, when it changed its name to something less associated with torture and death. Today it is known as Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

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!

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

Argentinian North West: the Ruta 40 to Cafayate

Jumping back into the car after breakfast in Molinos, we got back on the Ruta 40 and headed south to Cafayate and its fabled high altitude vineyards. I’d been looking forward to this part of our journey because the road passes through the surreal landscapes of the Quebrada de las Flechas, including bizarre and impressively huge rock formations.

The Ruta 40 is legendary in Argentina, it stretches for virtually the entire length of the country. La Cuarenta runs for more than 5200km north to south, and vast stretches of it remain unpaved. It makes for a magnificent journey through some of the most beautiful landscapes Argentina has to offer. If I’m being honest, our Volkswagen Gol, even with its raised suspension, was a little under-powered for the rugged Ruta 40 but we persevered…

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

We managed to time our arrival in Cafayate to perfection, not only were we staying in another vineyard but there was a fiesta taking place in the town as well, with religious processions heading from the church around the town.

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

After a long drive and the excitement of getting caught up in a fiesta we headed a few kilometres out of town to the Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort where we were able to relax with a delicious glass of chilled Torrontes and watch the sun set over Cafayate and the surounding valley.

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Argentinian North West: Cachi

If the route to Cachi over the twisting mountain roads of the Cuesta del Obispo is dramatic, so is the setting of this beautiful and tranquil village. Located at 2280 meters above sea level, Cachi’s colonial-era architecture has a fabulous mountainous backdrop, including the 6380m Nevado del Cachi.

The village of Cachi with the Nevado del Cachi as a backdrop, Argentina

The village of Cachi with the Nevado del Cachi as a backdrop, Argentina

The symbol of Cachi, Argentina

The symbol of Cachi, Argentina

Arriving in the lovely Plaza Mayor under a bright blue sky and a blisteringly hot sun, we found an open restaurant took a seat under a shady palm tree and sat down to enjoy a cold drink and the peace-and-quiet of the village. Apart from the occasional tour group from Salta, Cachi doesn’t seem to see much tourism and the streets are mercifully devoid of cars and buses.

A stroll around the empty streets brought us to the delightful Iglesia San Jose on the plaza, which not only has pews made from cardone wood but the alta is constructed from cardone as well – and that is why these incredibly slow growing plants are now protected.

The village of Cachi, Argentina

The village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Arches, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Arches, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Iglesia San Jose, the village of Cachi, Argentina

Once you’ve wandered around for a bit, had a bite to eat and checked out the couple of artisanal shops in town, there isn’t a great deal to do in Cachi. However, there is a picturesque and dramatically located cemetery not too far from the centre of town that is well worth visiting. The colourful graves, adorned with plastic flowers, offer a stark contrast to the surrounding browns.

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Cemetery at Cachi, Argentina

Argentinian North West: Salta

We didn’t have much time in Salta, just a day and a half before heading off into the wilds of the Argentinian North West in search of ancient history, adobe churches nestling in colonial villages, high altitude salt flats and some of the highest vineyards in the world. Even in the short time we had, Salta revealed itself as a relaxed, hospitable and beautiful city with a seductive charm. Definitely one to go on the list for a second, longer visit.

There is a reason Salta is known as Salta la Linda (Salta the Fair). It is a city full of lovely plazas and colonial architecture, has beautiful churches to explore, great food and a relaxed but lively vibe. It also has some excellent museums to provide a dose of much needed culture. The fabulous Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, which houses the extraordinary Llullaillaco Children, three mummified Inca children from one of the most important archeological finds in Argentina, is a must see if you’re in Salta.

Salta's Cathedral, Argentina

Salta’s Cathedral, Argentina

Salta's Cathedral reflected in a glass building, Argentina

Salta’s Cathedral reflected in a glass building, Argentina

View towards Iglesia San Francisco from Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta, Argentina

View towards Iglesia San Francisco from Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta, Argentina

The Plaza 9 de Julio is a place that could have been transported direct from Spain, France or Italy. Good restaurants, al fresco dining and lots of people watching. An excellent place to sit with a cold beer and watch the world go by.

Restaurants on Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta, Argentina

Restaurants on Plaza 9 de Julio, Salta, Argentina

Salta also boasts one of the most ludicrously (or beautifully, depending upon one’s point of view) decorated churches in the whole of Latin America – the Iglesia San Francisco. Its a Salta landmark, and, depending upon your tastes, either a marvel of architecture or a an overwrought wedding cake made real. It actually reminded me of a theatre, but regardless of personal preference, it is a remarkable building.

Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina

Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina

Interior, Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina

Interior, Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina

The area around Calle Balcarce, close to the Estacion Belgrano, has evoloved into a fairly hip and trendy market area selling artisan goods. It makes for an interesting afternoon if you’re there on the weekend. The area is dotted with good cafes, bars and restaurants, perfect for a long lunch. That said it does still retain an edgy side; we found ourselves in a bar watching a football game with new companions who can only be described as displaced Ultras.

Street market in Calle Balacre, Salta, Argentina

Street market in Calle Balacre, Salta, Argentina

Pizza in one of the many restaurants around Calle Balacre, Salta, Argentina

Pizza in one of the many restaurants around Calle Balacre, Salta, Argentina

If you want or have the energy left after lunch, you can walk to the top of Cerro Bernardo. A more pleasant way of getting fabulous views over the city is to take the teleferico. We timed it for sunset and were rewarded with terrific views.

View over Salta from Cerro San Bernardo, Argentina

View over Salta from Cerro San Bernardo, Argentina

Statue on Cerro San Bernardo, Salta, Argentina

Statue on Cerro San Bernardo, Salta, Argentina

Iglesia San Francisco at night, Salta, Argentina

Iglesia San Francisco at night, Salta, Argentina

Interior, Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina

Interior, Iglesia San Francisco, Salta, Argentina