Thursday, May 18, 2017

Excursions in the Mountains of Peru

                                                       by Jim Goodman

highlands pasture near Chinchero
       While Peru can boast of many distinct ecological zones, the country can be divided into three basic geographical areas.  The east consists of the lowland jungles and rivers of the Amazonian region.  The west coast is mostly desert, with cities and towns sited in the narrow strips of fertile land along the rivers that tumble down from the highlands.  Dividing this very arid region from the lush vegetation of the Amazon River system is the longest mountain range in the world, crossing the borders of six countries--the Andes.  For most travelers, the main attraction in Peru, where they will spend the most time in their journey, will be the mountains. 
       That’s where cities have the most scenic locations; such as Puno, next to Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, very near the volcano El Misti, and Huaraz, in full view of the highest peaks in Peru.  Besides scenery, the Peruvian Andes are also famous for cities associated with the Inca Empire, like Cusco, Cajamarca, Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.  Moreover, in the mountains travelers can observe the lifestyles of the Native Americans, descendants of the people who were living here long before the Spanish Conquest.
Huascarán, Peru's highest peak
       Three of the five highest mountains in Peru stand just north of Huaraz, 407 km north of Lima, on the Santa River after a slow ascent across a barren, dry set of foothills, with snow peaks towering beyond them.  Huaraz is a small, quiet city at 3091 meters altitude, all but bereft of old buildings, for it had to be completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1970. 
       The central market square is the most interesting part of town, especially in the mornings, when Indians from nearby villages come to shop.  On a clear day one can easily see the two peaks of Peru’s highest mountain—Huascarán.  The southern peak, the nearer one, rises to 6768 meters (22.205 feet), while the north peak is only slightly smaller, at 6654 meters. 
crafts shop in Chuquibambilla
       Peru’s third highest mountain—Huandoy—reaches 6428 meters.  It stands north of Huascarán, due east of the town of Caraz, 67 km north of Huaraz.   Yet another massif—Alpamayo—is just a little further north.  At 5947 meters, it is the country’s fifth tallest peak.  Huascarán Mountain is a World Heritage Site and national park, containing 296 lagoons and 663 glaciers, offering plenty of hiking and climbing routes, with the bonus of condors flying overhead and wild vicuñas scampering on the slopes.
       For those with more limited time and ambition, a popular day trip is to Llanganuco, an easily accessible picturesque lagoon between Huascarán and Huandoy.  The excursion includes a stop at Yungay, also on the Santa River, directly west of Huascarán, famous as the site of one of the greatest natural disasters to befall the country.
       In 1970 a violent earthquake at Huascarán caused an avalanche that unleashed 80 million cubic feet of ice, mud and rock hurtling down the mountain at speeds of 280-335 km per hour, burying nearly all of Yungay and a nearby village.  About 20,000 people died.  The same number perished in Huaraz that day, as the earthquake demolished 90% of the city.
ruins of the Viracocha Temple in Raqchi
       Earthquakes are a common nemesis in Peru.  The major ones make international headlines, but there are tremors somewhere in the mountains quite regularly.  However, they are not so frequent as to scare off tourists.  Cities like Arequipa, Puno and Cusco host crowds all year round.  And bus journeys through the Andes from Puno to Cusco give travelers a view not only of the majestic scenery, but the lifestyle of its inhabitants, past and present.
       The distance from Puno to Cusco is 380 km, about five and half hours by car. The bus takes longer, for it stops at several places of tourist interest.  The first, 152 km from Puno, is Chuquibambilla, an experimental breeding station for alpacas and vicuñas.  It is also a handicraft production center, full of shops selling locally made textiles, ceramics, stone carvings and silver jewelry.
Quechua woman, Raqchi
village near Ollantaytambo
       Another 50 km further the road comes to La Raya.  At 4335 meters altitude, it is the highest point on the route, with a clear view of Chinboya, a snow peak of 5489 meters height.  From here the road begins a slow descent following the Vilcanota River, which later, as it flows closer to the Inca heartland near Cusco, becomes the Urubamba River.  In contrast to the rather drab, barren landscapes of the route until La Rasa, the scenery turns greener, with more forests on the slopes and long stretches of farms along the river.
the Urubamba River Valley
       The next major stop is Raqchi, 125 km from Cusco, 3475 meters altitude, and the first site on the journey representative of Inca culture.  Raqchi was a major Inca administrative center, featuring a spacious temple to the Creator God Viracocha.  The temple was 92 meters long and 25.5 meters wide, with walls 15 meters high.  It also had the largest roof in the Inca Empire. 
       The Spanish destroyed most of the temple when they conquered the city.  The roof is gone, but sections of three of the walls remain.  The lowest meter or so consists of stone blocks of irregular shape, fitted together to make a solid base resistant to earthquakes, a technique also employed in Cusco and other Inca cities.  The rest of the walls are made of adobe.  Subsidiary buildings, stone storehouses and royal baths lie in the vicinity, along with circular buildings with conical roofs that the Incas used to store corn and quinoa, to distribute in times of shortages.
the rooftops of Cusco
       Raqchi’s other attraction is its inhabitants, predominantly Quechua Indians, descendants of those who lived there in Inca times.  The women dress in the traditional ensemble:  long, bulky black skirt, long-sleeved red jacket, with bands of largely blue appliqué and embroidery on the lower sleeves, lapel and cuffs, and a large, circular, flat hat. 
       The last major stop on the route is at Andahuaylillas, a colonial era village 45 km from Cusco.  A quiet and pretty mountain village, its fame is due to its church.  The Jesuits built it from 1570-1606, deliberately choosing a traditional Inca sacred site.  On the outside it is just a modest village church, with whitewashed walls and a bit of decoration around the entrance.  Step inside and it’s the most spectacular and richly decorated church interior in the country, featuring baroque murals on the walls and a lavish use of gold leaf and silver on the altar, ceilings and rafters.  The furnishings are so valuable that local villagers volunteer for guard shifts 24 hours a day.
woman with her llama in Cusco
village woman in Limatambo
       The final stop is Cusco, the most beautiful city in the mountains and most popular tourist destination in Peru.  It lies in a valley at 3360 meters altitude, surrounded by hills, and is home to 350,000 people.  It is justly renowned for its colonial era churches, plazas and houses with carved wooden balconies.  But traces of its original Inca identity remain in some walls and foundations that feature the interlocking stone boulders Inca architects devised as defense against earthquakes.
the Inca city of Pisac
       Descendants of the Incas still live in villages near Cusco and some live in the city and work in the markets.  Others come to visit or shop, bringing their llamas to carry the goods.  The women dress similarly to those in Raqchi, but wear a smaller hat, also round, but shaped more like an upturned saucer. Indian women in towns north of Cusco also favor this style, but to the east, as in Limatambo, women favor a very different, and mixed, style of hat—derbies, tall top hats, and hats resembling those worn by Canadian mounted police.
       For those who can tear themselves away from the charms of Cusco, the next excursion will be what’s called The Sacred Valley of the Incas.  The route goes northeast of Cusco 32 km to Pisac, 3040 meters, on the river at the point where its name changes from Vilcanota to Urubamba.  The town holds market day on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, largely consisting of stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs for the tourist crowds. 
the ruins of Pisac
       The town dates its founding to 1570, after the Spanish destroyed the original Inca city on the adjacent mountain.  Residents tend farms along the river, but originally the people constructed a long line of terraces climbing up the mountain, moving topsoil from the lower levels to the higher ones.  The terraces are still there, but too many recent earthquakes have rendered then too unstable to use anymore.
       On the slopes above these terraces, around the mid-15th century, the Incas built a fortified city.  A road takes visitors up to a point where it’s a short walk on a narrow mountain trail to the biggest set of ruins.  No intact buildings are left, but lots of foundations, walls, streets and gates, plus an extensive palace on a lower spur, indicating that Pisac was an important city back then.
Quechua boys in Ollantaytambo
       From Pisac the road continues along the Urubamba River another 55 km to Ollantaytambo.  Unlike contemporary Pisac, whose inhabitants live far from the historic city, Ollantaytambo was not destroyed and its original layout, of straight streets intersected at right angles, is still intact.  So are the ancient stone terraces flanking the city, though no longer in use.  The mountain next to the town features a huge carving of the head of the god Viracocha, as well as a few temples on the cliff.
       The road up the Urubamba Valley ends here and day-trippers then return to Cusco via Chunchero.  Further up the valley, but only accessible on foot or by train (the usual option), 80 km from Cusco, is Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas.  Starting near Ollantaytambo, the trek takes four to five days.  The early train from Cusco gets there in an hour and a half, but from the station along the Urubamba River one has to take a vehicle up a zigzag road, with a dozen sharp turns, that itself is an engineering achievement.
Machu Picchu in the morniung
       Whether on foot or by road, the entrance is slightly above the ruins, which lie at 2430 meters height, on a flat spur next to the cliffs of Machu Picchu Mountain and its smaller companion Huayna Picchu.  To the Incas who first built the city in the 1440s, the site had obvious security advantages.  The sides were very steep, affording a clear view of anything approaching it.  Access was only by a couple of suspension bridges between mountains, which could be dismantled if necessary.  The mountain behind the city was virtually impassable.  Springs above the city provided the water sources and terraces along the mountainsides grew more than enough food to feed its population.
       Other, more mystical considerations influenced the choice.  To the Incas, the shape of Machu Picchu Mountain resembled a crouching puma.  The hill jutting out slightly from the face of the mountain appeared to have a pair of ears at the top and a snarling mouth below, like the head of the puma.  To make the resemblance even more obvious, Inca stone masons crawled up the mountain and chiseled out of the rock a pair of eyes.     
stairway and water channel, Machu Picchu
valley view from Machu Picchu
       The long spur in front of the mountains seemed to be in the shape of a cayman—a South American reptile similar to a crocodile.  The Incas built their temples and administrative buildings on this stretch of land.  The peasants lived outside this area, near their terraces, in simple one- or two-story houses with sloping thatched roofs, models of which have been recreated in recent decades. 
houses and terraces, Machu Picchu
       Enemies never tested Machu Picchu’s defenses.  The city stayed aloof from the Spanish Conquest wars, but was abandoned around 1572, possibly because of a smallpox epidemic.  The Spanish never found it and vegetation swept over the ruins undisturbed until discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  He actually misidentified it as the Lost City of the Incas, meaning Vilcabamba, the hastily constructed last capital of the Inca emperors, further upriver. 
       The Spanish destroyed Vilcabamba but Machu Picchu, far more sophisticated a settlement, was soon recognized as something quite different.  Excavators cleared away the jungle, partially restored about 30% of the buildings and so now the city is easy to explore.  It became a World Heritage Site in 1983 and has been Peru’s major tourist attraction for decades.  Visitors numbered 400,000 in 2000.
       That’s a lot of people walking on paths in an area that is seismically shaky to begin with.  Worried that the area could not withstand such pressure indefinitely, authorities in 2011 restricted the number of visitors to 2500 a day.  Hopefully, this will help preserve the area.  After all, it was not built anticipating the presence of ten thousand people a day treading on its trails.  As for the lucky 2500 each day, they can continue to revel in what is the gem of the Andes, with a blend of scenery and mystery and an example of how man can transform even the most rugged, remote environment into a viable place to live.
ruins of the Inca city, Machu Picchu
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for more on Puno and Lake Titicaca, Ollantaytambo and Cusco, see under Peru in the Online Articles page

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