Peru – From Cusco to Chile

Local Dress: Some observations

I thought I might start this post with some observations on national dress.  I had made the comment while in Guatemala that the women, and sometimes men, had maintained a strong national dress tradition based on the 33 Mayan City customs.  But as we moved from south Colombia into Ecuador, and then Ecuador into Peru, the presence of a national dress becomes more obvious, although once again, primarily in the female population.

The traditional and the modern

The key elements are a wide, softly pleated skirt below the knee.  The skirt can be in solid plain colours (blue, red, yellow, orange etc) or patterned.  On the top, usually a woollen (Alpaca) cardigan or sweater, often a short waist length jacket, and a hat.  The hat, depending on the region, may be a white or beige top hat, a homberg style hat or something resembling a bowler hat.  On the legs, usually some form or woollen leggings especially in the high altiplano where the temperature is lower.

Indigene Market, Sunday morning, Cusco

A key part of the traditional dress is the brightly coloured shawl worn diagonally from left shoulder to right hip on the back.  This is a general purpose garment which sometimes holds an infant child, but equally may hold firewood, harvested maize crop or just about anything.  To counter-balance the load the women lean forward at the appropriate angle for both the weight and the steepness of the surface they are walking on.  The gait is not so much one of walking as a short-stepped trot, at which they move quite quickly

women in traditional dress - Cusco centre

Mix of traditional and modern - Puno

Although some women are obviously dressed in traditional attire when attending a tourist location, as with this woman spinning alpaca yarn in the square in Chivay, it appears that traditional is very strong especially away from the main towns and cities.

Woman spinning alpaca yarn

Another observation I have made is that there is a strong tradition for dancing also.  In the train arriving back from Machu Picchu there was a dance recital of a local native dance, and then at dinner last night we were also treated to an exhibition of indigene dancing.

Native dance recital at dinner

Cusco – Puno:  245 Miles: High plateaux, street dancing and The Lake

The ride through the Altiplano continues much as yesterday.  We left Cusco by a different route and followed a valley for about 40 miles then up and over the valley head into the high plateau where we stayed most of the day.

Valley head up to high plain: Cusco to Puno

The road leading to Puno rises to reveal a panoramic view of Lake Titicaca, or Lake “Titikaka” as it is often spelled here.  This is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,800 metres above sea level (or 12,500 feet).

Lake Titicaca - first view arriving in Puno

Dropping into the city of Puno and the older central district where our hotel was located, we heard music.  Quite by chance we had arrived on the first day of a 5 day celebration of the founding of the city in 1668 in which the population turn out in great style or dance and play music for more than 6 hours through the streets of Puno.  At this altitude I was struggling to breathe while walking around through the sometimes steep, narrow streets, while these people were dancing for hours seemingly effortlessly.

Street dancers - Puno

Puno street dancers

Puno: A rest day and time to explore Lake Titicaca

Everyone knows of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca from numerous travel programs on the TV, or from postulated transfer of technology from ancient Egypt to South America as suggested by Thor Heyerdal.  The reason for being in Puno was indeed to visit the Islands of Uros and see them first hand.

A short ride on a tourist launch through a channel in the reed forest which extends just offshore from Puno and in 30-45 minutes we are on the edge of a large, artificial island of reeds, with a number of smaller islands separated by a lagoon in the lake.

Channel through the reeds on lake Titicaca to the floating islands of Uros

Seemingly each tour company has a favourite island to visit with their party and we step off from the launch onto a bed of reeds, which gives slightly under our weight and feels altogether like walking on a water bed!

Island scene with guide

Our guide explains that the basis of the island is the root system of the reeds, with a lattice of reeds laid out on top to form a platform.  This is then anchored with ropes to stakes driven into the lake floor.
Every year, at least twice, a new bed of reeds is laid down to counteract the natural sinking of the island. Within the island, which represents a single family or family group, there are a number of single room dwellings. Each house may hold a couple, but more  likely a family group of up to 4 children with parents.

Typical reed house

Interior of typical one room dwelling

The main occupation is fishing in the lake, but we are told that 20% of the income comes from tourism and sale of handicrafts.  We later took a short trip on a reed boat, rowed by two women of the island, to the main island where the school house sits.  The remaining women on the island we had visited, sang us a series of farewell songs in their native language, Spanish and English.

Women singing as we boarded the reed boat to the main island

Reed boat

It was clear that the island we had visited was created for tourism as a short walk behind the school house where tourists are not encouraged to venture, revealed an altogether less sanitized, and in fact somewhat squalid version of island living. The sinking reeds, less well maintained, and what looked like a shanty town of corrugated metal roofs and timber framed shacks.  The origin of the floating islands is not exactly clear it seems, but one must imagine that it was probably a mixture of some kind of persecution or lack of land rights, and also a community which relied on fising for sustenance.

Puno – Chivay: 200(+16) miles: Altiplano at its best

Today could have been one of the worst.  The route notes indicated that the last time the group past this way in 2009 there were long sections of the road which were deeply pot-holed, very rough and coincidental with the highest part of the altiplano which we have seen so far.  Our experience of the altiplano is that the weather can change from sunshine to rain to snow very quickly and roaring gales sweep down from the adjacent mountains making stability of the bikes on the twisty hill sections a real cause for concern.

Not so today.  Leaving the city of Puno by 7:45, with the night revellers still wandering the streets, smelling strongly of cigarettes and alcohol, we headed back towards the city of Juliaca which two days ago we had found to be so unattractive, dusty and chaotic.  But before reaching Juliaca we turned off the main road to see the tombs at Sillustani.  This was only an 8 mile detour and the tombs sounded interesting.  However upon arrival at just after 8 AM, there was clearly not a lot going on, and the well organized parking was a full half mile from the 300 foot hill leading to the tombs.  The thought of walking a mile at 13,000 feet altitude, and then climbing 300 feet on a dirt path in motorcycle boots was enough to convince us that it would have to be absolutely stunning to make it worth the effort…. So, of course we remounted and headed back to the main road!

On the way back we stopped at one of many family compounds for a photo.  The rock walled compounds often had arched doorways and contained a number of individual buildings, perhaps indicating a multi-tier family structure.

Sullistani family compound with llamas

Passing this time through the centre of Juliaca in the morning rush hour, the traffic was again chaotic and roads rather worn, but we did pass through the old town square and main church which looked altogether quite ancient and worth a visit…had we not been in a hurry to get to our destination, not knowing what road conditions or weather we were to encounter today.   As we are on the cusp of the rainy season and so far it has rained almost every afternoon, an early arrival is always our goal.

Leaving Juliaca we started to climb on a well paved, almost traffic free road, into the alitiplano. Llamas, Alpaca, sheep and cattle dotted the flat to undulating landscape of the altiplano plain, with rounded topped mountains on the horizon all around.  The sun shone, the temperature was a cool 13C and the wind quite brisk, but the scenery, the road surface and the blue skies all contributed to make this an excellent start to the ride today.  We continued rising along the broad valley which made up this part of the altiplano, until reaching the valley head, then crossing the ridge and dropping down into the adjacent valley.

Altiplano with lake

We continued crossing a series of ridges and valleys climbing ever higher until reaching 16,020 feet above sea level…or having risen from 3,800 metres at Lake Titkaka to 4,800 metres, before dropping fairly rapidly again into the town of Chivay in the Colca Canyon National Park.

Great riding in the altiplano dropping down to Chivay

The road was almost flawless throughout and the moonscape potholed surface we feared had been asphalted recently leaving just a few patches of rough ground which we could steer around easily.  The sun remained shining, the traffic remained light and we arrived in Chivay at just after 2PM having had a delightful ride in stunning scenery.  The wind had remained keen and with windchill kept us with our jackets and thermal liners throughout the ride.

Altiplano and bike

Chivay is a tourist town where people come to view condors in the adjacent Colca Canyon.  And that is just why we are here too, apart from the fact that it is on the way to Arequipa which is our destination tomorrow.

The square in the tourist town of Chivay

Chivay to Arequipa 100 (+52) miles: Bird watching in the dirt and mistaken first impressions

I rarely volunteer to drive on dirt roads unless there is a good reason.  The 26 miles of dirt road drive each way to Colca Canton was optional, but as I was curious to see condors, I decided that this was the best chance.  We were told that the best time to see condors is around 8 AM.  Also that because there were many tour buses doing the same thing, and that the rough dirt road Is very dusty, it is better to go before the buses depart, at 6AM or else risk being stuck behind a bus covered in blinding dust.  So up at 4:15, shower, dress, prepare bike and on the “road” by 5:45.  It was already quite bright in the early morning sun, but also at this altitude of around 12,000 feet, quite cold…about 4C or 37F.

The first 5 miles were paved then the remaining 21 miles unpaved, but fairly hard-packed dirt with a gravel top.  With my now increased competence and confidence on unpaved roads I was fairly happy to slip along, standing on the foot-pegs to concentrate weight on the front wheel, in 3rd gear at 25-30 mph, except when we hit a landslide area and then it was 2nd gear, 15 mph and fish-tail the rear wheel through loose rock, giving it more throttle to stabilize the line.

Colca canyon is well known, not only for its condors, but also as a deep and long canyon.

Colca Canyon

Arriving at Condor Look out point we sat on the rocks and waited.  Slowly the condors started to rise out of the canyon depths on the thermal currents as the sun’s rays penetrated to the inner canyon walls and warmed them.  While these birds can grow to a significant size, the scale of the canyon is such that only with a good zoom lens can you appreciate them.

Condor in Colca canyon

Condor Colca Canyon

After an hour or so, I was “condored out”, and wondering if I would ever in England drive 42 miles of dirt road to go bird watching!

Driving back to Chivay to pick up with the rest of the group we ascended the same mountain we had come down the day before, rising from 12,000 feet to 16,000+ feet in less than 20 miles through constant switchbacks and hairpin bends.  The views were magnificent as yesterday, but with a narrow twisting road, nowhere to stop and
take a photo.  We did, however, have to stop and let a pack of suicidal alpacas cross in front of us.

Alpaca suicide pact!

After 50 miles of retracing our path from yesterday across the high altiplano we turned south toards our destination for today, Arequipa.  Stopping for coffee at the junction we saw the volcanic mountains which fringe Arequipa, still another 5o miles away.  Mount El Misti is 5,800 metres high, and last spewed significant lava out some 4,000 years ago.  But an ash eruption 2,000 years ago left deep white deposits also across the landscape. Occasional puffs of white smoke are still visible on the volcano top.  The adjacent volcanoes are much older but indicate a chain of volcanoes stretching back in time.

volcan El Misti dominating Arequipa

Volcano chain surrounding Arequipa

The volcanoes are key to the existence of Arequipa in that the snow caps provide a supply of fresh water for drinking and irrigation, the volcanic ash provides a fertile soil and also the easily worked building stone which makes up this “white city”.

The ride to Areqipa dropping several thousand feet to the desert again was not as enjoyable as yesterday’s ride.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe because the wind was keen and cold and this time not from the side but directly against us. Maybe because the traffic was heavier with more heavy trucks, or maybe because I was not yet ready for more dusty, sandy barren desert.  It was a short ride, just 50 miles more, and approaching the outskirts of Arequipa past the immense cement plant and then through dirty, dusty and traffic choked suburbs, I was wondering just why we had chosen to stay here for two nights. I was grateful for the satellite navigation system to lead me to the hotel on the edge of the old town.

The daily administration ritual of shower and washing clothes completed, I quickly checked the internet for “what to do in Arequipa”.  Hmmm….cathedral with rebuilt bell tower after earthquake, Convent and monastery both of international fame, restaurants, bars and night clubs and adventure sports.  I wandered out on to the roof terrace near my room and caught sight of the twin bell towers of the cathedral, just a few blocks away.  Also saw the volcanoes towering above the city.  Taking a map from reception and asking directions to where I might find a motorcycle washing service, I set off down a cobbled street towards the old centre.

I was wrong in my first impressions……the old centre of town is richly endowed with hundreds of attractive stone buildings, mostly well cared for, and dating from 17th – 19th centuries. The cathedral occupies one side of the main square, Plaza de Armas, and has been restored to its original glory after the earthquakes which toppled the bell tower.  Many other historic buildings line the narrow streets surrounding the Cathedral including the Convent of San Francisco and Monastery of Santa Catalina.

Arequipa cathedral

cathedral interior

main square - Plaza de armas

A short walk to the river and I found the car/bike washing location and made an appointment for tomorrow. Also found good laundry to wash biking clothes which my now were caked in dust and mud from several off-road sections. Choice…wash off mud or plant potatoes in it!

A pleasant dinner on a terrace overlooking the cathedral and off to the evening briefing before dropping into bed at 9PM!!  It had been a long day.

Arequipa: Rest day and a reality tour

We were offered a “reality” tour of places not seen by the tourist.  I was sceptical at first, but in retrospect it was probably one of the most enriching experiences of the entire trip.  I have commented before that one regret I have of this trip is that we barely touch the lives of the people we see on the drive through.  We wave, sometimes talk when we stop, but to actually experience anything of their lives we do very little.  Today changed that.

The reality tour was organized through our van driver who used to be a tour guide in South America. You won’t find it on any tourist brochures as it takes you to the places that tourists don’t go. Organized by a sociologist who is dedicating himself to helping the poorer elements of society we first visited a street market in the barrio areas where the poor people buy their food.

Well stocked vegetable stall in the market

Many of the poorer people live from day to day being paid as casual labourers or domestic help on a daily basis.  They then go to the market to buy food to keep them and their families until the next day.  I was in fact pleasantly surprised at the variety and presentation of the fruits and vegetables available.  But the meat lying openly on wooden counters, covered in flies, left me a little less enthusiastic.  Potatoes feature heavily on the diet and some potatoes are freeze dried in the mountain air, shrinking to one third of their size, and turning white like stones. Soaking for 3 days restores them to original size.  Black maize is available but only for animal feed or to make a potent alcohol if boiled and left to cool and ferment for 4 days.

Another curious stall was the traditional medicine stall.  Cheaper than a doctor’s visit and steeped in superstition also, traditional medicines of herbs and other items are very popular.  One such item is the  petition to Mother Earth.  A small plastic wrapped package asking for the Earth Goddess to provide money, a good harvest, a match for a son or daughter, health or whatever is prepared.  Couple with this is a foetus of an animal which is associated with the petitioner…like a totem.  These are buried and the Mother Earth Goddess is then favourably disposed to grant the wish.

Petitions to mother Earth Goddess with animal foetus

We have seen coexistent religions in other places too.

Crossing the road to the “poor poor market” where only the cheapest cuist of meat are sold, we encounter the odious smell of rotting meat anbd fish.  One market stall selling cows’ stomachs, genitals, lungs, brains, and all manner of body parts not always associated with food!

The cheap meat stall

The next stop was the stone quarry.  Arequipa is known as the “White City” because of the native stone – a kind of volcanic ash which make an easy-to-cut material.  Unofficially children below 10 and adults into their 70’s work the quarry on family patches hand cutting up to 10 building blocks a day for which they may receive about £3 or $5.  Enough to feed a family of 5 of very basic food.  But the stone is not prized as a building material, and only the poorest of houses will use it.  Better off people prefer mud brick or clay brick.

Stone cutters work - 10 blocks a day

They live in self built basic one room houses near the quarry but do not own the land they live on. They can acquire the rights to the squatters land after 5 years of occupation if they can afford the paperwork.

Stone cutters house


The next visit was to the cemetery.  The graves were mostly decorated with new flowers as we have just celebrated All Souls Day when the dead are remembered.  We were told that there are areas set aside for “grandparent suicides” in unmarked graves as the Catholic Church does not recognize the right to end one’s life by one’s own hand.  But extreme poverty sometimes calls for self-sacrifice to remove mouths from the table. But the bodies are returned to Mother Earth as the traditional religion demands.  I did not get out of the bus as I felt this stop was altogether too voyeuristic.


Our final stop was to Wawa Wasi – a semi orphanage/day care centre for young children.  This is a neighbourhood self-help organization to protect children.  Our guide explained that a very high percentage of girls will be forced into prostitution by their own fathers to help support the family, or indeed will be sexually molested by family members.  The resultant offspring are cared for in these centres while the single mother tries to work to support the child.  This is one of the organizations that are supported financially by the “reality Tour”.

Wawa wasi childrens care house

We were also told that the original shanty towns were set up during the Sendero Luminoso “Shining Path” terrorist times.  A Marxist/Maoist communism and terror group would kill the male head of the family, impregnate the women and steal the children as child soldiers.  Many of the women in outlying mountain villages would therefore secretly leave and come to Arequipa to settle the barrios and protect their children.  These days the Sendero Luminoso is more focused on protecting the cocaine industry we were told.  Drug money is laundered in factories and mines providing not only well paid work for thousands of workers but also tax revenue for the government.  We never hear about this side of the drug wars, eh?

The government attempt to help the poor people championed by President Fujimori when in power provided funds to build a single story house.   As the family grew, additional rooms were added vertically.  Hence many single storey buildings with re-bar extending upwards in anticipation of future building when/if money is available as the family grows.

Unfinished house with re-bar through the roof

Today’s “reality tour” has been enriching, challenging, harsh but has brought us to a sensibility for the lives of the common people of Peru.

Arequipa – Arica (Chile) 270 Miles:  Border crossing, back to sea level

Today was a day to move on from Peru to Chile.  I think that having spent more than a week in Peru, and especially having taken the “reality tour” we have come to know Peru more than perhaps some other countries where we have spent just a few nights.

With only 270 miles, it was not a “big” day, but including a border crossing there is always a sense of the unknown.  Arequipa is at around 8,000 feet above sea level, and leaving the city we almost immediately began to drop in elevation.  Crossing a series of plateaus and crossing a series of ridge and valley features at an oblique angle, we fell from 8,000 feet to sea level at the border.

Arequipa to Arica border crossing with Chile:  270 Miles: Desert…and more desert!

The day’s riding can be summed up very easily.  Miles and miles of desert, dry, dusty, and windswept with a cool temperature regardless if being close to the equator and at low elevation. We dropped from 8,000 feet top less than 1,000 feet only to rise up again to 4,500 feet before again dropping to lower elevations.


Arequipa to Chile Desert landscape

The border crossing was the best we have had so far, with less than an hour to process personal passport control on each side of the border and also the temporary import documents out of Peru and into Chile.  The roads continue to be excellent through the barren desert and we leave Peru in the much the same was as they way we entered it – through dusty, sandy, desert devoid of any plant life and with a cold wind blowing from offshore.

Posted in Uncategorized

Peru: The road to Cusco and Machu Picchu

Nasca –Chalchuanca – 225 Miles: Altiplano and wildlife

Sunset over the desert - Nasca

I thought I might start this post with a photo I should have added to the last one…sunset over the desert.  The desert has always held a fascination for me, perhaps because when there is no vegetation to hide the rocks, I can see how they are made….I guess I was always a Geologist at heart!

We are taking two days to reach Cusco, some 450 miles away. Leaving Nasca and the coastal area and heading northeast towards one of the mountain chains on the horizon, we trace a river valley into the first set of foothills towards the high Andes.  The road rises rapidly through a dry, rocky, desert landscape with constant switchbacks yielding ever more spectacular views of the plains below between the steep sided valley slopes.  Nasca is around 2,200 feet above sea level, but in the first 40 miles we climbed to 15,000 feet onto the Altiplano (“high plains”) in a series of steps.

at 7,500 feet and the first high plateau towards the altiplano "high Plains"

The valley head was at 7,500 feet, then crossing a plateau climbing another 7,000 feet into what seemed like the roof of the world.  The nearest equivalent we have seen so far was the Top of the World Highway in the Yukon. My theory of glaciation as being the instrument of creating the deeply ravined hills separating the sandy desert from the rocky desert was born out today as we saw a tributary valley merge with the main valley and a very obvious lateral moraine build up between them. I suppose that even this close to the equator, given sufficient elevation there will have been major glaciers carving the landscape during the last glacial periods….zzzzzz sorry to the non geo-types reading this blog!

Moving from 7,500 feet plain to the alti plano at 15,000 feet

The altiplano is an almost flat, broad valley fringed by even higher mountain peaks on the fringes.  Enough short, scrubby grass grows to support a few cows and sheep, but I suspect that the lack of rainfall must restrict the growth. The landscape bears the hallmarks of a glacial source area where in the last ice age the glaciers would have formed from high elevation snow, and started their journey down the valleys, sculpting and carving their way to the lower elevations.

One benefit of the altiplano is that being flat and sparsely populated, the roads are long, straight and generally in good condition.  We have seen many road crews repairing potholes or indeed complete sections of road at 14,000 feet and above.  The roads in Peru, like Ecuador, are generally very good away from the urban centres.  This means that once on the altiplano one can drive at 60 – 75 mph without problems, except those suicidal llamas!

Altiplano - flat and straight roads

Altiplano vista

Altiplano Vista

In this part there is a wildlife sanctuary and almost immediately we reached the high plains we began to see Vicuña, Alpaca and Llamas…each related to the other (and to camels) but in increasing size! Firstly we glimpsed individuals, but after just a few miles we saw herds of 20-30, many of which were intent on seeing us up close by running across the road just in front of our front wheels! We have seen equally suicidal behaviour with reindeer in Finland a few years ago.

Alpacas on the altiplano

Even at this altitude we find several villages.  The main occupation appears to be llama and alpaca farming and the cool temperatures encourage the animals to grow thicker fur and thus provide a larger fleece for the textile and clothing industry.  I can imagine that life must be hard for these people, and looking briefly at their weather-beaten faces as we pass they grow old quickly through harsh climate, hard work and limited food variation.

Altiplano village at 13,000 feet

Having stopped briefly for coffee we spotted the dark clouds gathering over the mountains and donning our waterproofs we setoff into rain, hail, sleet and light snow for about 20 miles.  The temperature drops to 3C.

Our stop for the night is a resort style hotel adjacent to a river.  We descend from the altiplano at 13,000 feet to 6,000 feet through a long series of twisting roads.  The rain has cleared and the roads are in quite good condition, apart from short stretches of gravel, mud and rock which remain from recent landslides.

Descent 7,000 feet from altiplano to Chalchuanca - a stunning drive

The resort has chalet style accommodation and was clearly once a substantial house and outbuildings from a hacienda, including its own chapel!  The compound is full of dogs of all kinds of breeds and mixtures.  One which caught my attention, and we have seen it in several places, is a hairless breed, which I am told is unique to Peru.  I have to admit to finding the poor creature somewhat ugly, but the pair of dogs were so affectionate that one could not help stroking them.  I am guessing that they don´t get much attention.  The sensation was somewhat akin to stroking the Christmas turkey just as you are about to put it in the oven!

Peruvian hairless dog

Hairles dog - up close and friendly

Chalchuanca to Cusco – 225 Miles:  Endless valley drive with an historic ending

We continued down the valley, dropping to below 6,000 feet through a deep sided chasm.  The valley walls loom overhead some 2-3,00 feet above us. We cross the river several times as the road hugs the valley on alternate sides.

Chalchuanca to Cusco - One of many river crossings

Then rising up again through a side valley we are on our way to Cusco.  The constant twists and turns are a driving challenge and with buses and trucks, making headway is tough.  I have mentioned before that there are frequent roadside shrines to victims of road accidents.  On this road almost every corner has at least one shrine.  We come across a tight bend in the road and a veritable forest of crosses and shrines, all bearing the same date in 2004.  I can only surmise that this must have been a bus that toppled over the edge into the valley, several hundred feet below.

Shrines to 2004 victims on tight bend - road to Cusco

The valley scenery continues to provide a feast for the eyes, as the road surface and twists and dives provides a feast for the senses as a motorcyclist.  Unfortunately they are often mutually exclusive as concentration on driving precludes looking at the scenery.  But today is a short day and so time to stop and capture the moment.

Passing over the ridge from one valley to the next towards Cusco

There was one more adventure to be had, or almost had, prior to arrival in Cusco.  The route notes indicated that we would be deviating from the main road to visit the sacred valley of the Incas.  The regular route briefing last night described this as a pleasant drive through stunning scenery and a chance to see some of the Inca civilization buildings, including a citadel.    So, upon reaching the coordinates on the route notes we set off on the detour only to find a mile later that the road had turned to dirt, gravel and rock.  With no mention of the unpaved nature of the road on the route notes, we nevertheless ventured forward for about 2 miles on an increasingly difficult surface and tight bends and steep ascents.  Stopping to take stock of the situation inasmuch as there was not mention of unpaved roads and no indication in the route notes, even though the GPS Sat nav was indicating we should continue, we convinced ourselves we were on the wrong road.  Retracing our path we went back into the village and asked directions.  This resulted in being sent down another road, which after 15 miles or so, was clearly the wrong road too.  By this time, having wasted more than an hour, we decided to cut our losses and head straight for Cusco.

Cusco is enclosed within a valley, surrounded by hills on which the informal barrio style housing proliferates.  The steep, winding road leading to the centre has frequent deep potholes and passes through some less-than-attractive areas until approaching the historic district.  At this point there is a chaotic mix of one way streets, squares, pedestrian precincts and dense traffic. Entering through what appears to be ancient city gates we are in a colonial architecture time warp of the 16th century with arched covered sidewalks reminiscent of Spain, magnificent churches lining the main square and millions of tourists just like me!

Cusco Plaza de Armas - ChurchTypical Cusco Street in old historic centre

The ornate wooden balconies, clay tile roofs and domed bell towers of the churches are all reminiscent of Spain´s historic districts or “casco antiguo”.

At night the arcades and squares are well illuminated and very attractive.

Covered walkway arcades typical of Spain in centre of Cusco


Cusco Basilica at night


Machu Pichu:  The reason people come to Cusco

It was an early start with a coach pick up from the hotel at 5:50.  The hotel is of course used to the tour group timetable and so breakfast was served from 5 AM!  The bus took us to the train station where we and several hundred others boarded the “Vistadome” carriages for the three-and-a-half hour journey, almost 60 miles to Aguas Calientes station at the foot of Machu Picchu.

Vistadome train on our way to Machu Picchu

I have to say that I was somewhat sceptical whether the Machu Picchu experience could ever live up to all the hype that surrounds it.  Boarding a comfortable train with plenty of leg room around the leather armchair style seats, it at least started positively….and the station was clean and well organized.  I am told that the government decided a few years ago to restrict the number of visitors to no more than 2,500 per day, and at the same time increase the prices.  I think this was a sound decision as we found even with the restricted numbers, the monument was still quite crowded.

The train passes through a long valley with broad sections in which cooperative farming takes place. Each small holding has a few cows, pigs and lots of chickens, but the land is worked cooperatively and the crops sold for the benefit of the community at large.

Train winds its way through the narrow valley to Machu PicchuValley Farm

Valley Farm

Arriving at the base of Machu Picchu we are immediately confronted by dense accumulation of tourist shops selling all manner of memorabilia.  Thankfully as I do not have space on the bike, I was not tempted to indulge in retail therapy.

Tourist shops - the first thing that greets you at Machu Picchu station

Machu Picchu train station

To gain access to the mountain-top city of the Incas one then takes a shuttle bus to climb the thousand feet or more from the valley floor to the monument.  This zigzag path follows a single track dirt road which means that when buses have to pass it is usually in a tight corner or a passing place. I am surprised that given the amount of infrastructure in place that they don’t pave this road and reduce the stress on passengers and vehicles

Zig Zag track from the train station to Machu Picchu

Having employed the services of a guide for the day we were led on a circular tour of this magnificent historic city.  Looking at the surrounding mountains and the difficulty in accessing the site, it is little wonder that it lay undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadores.

mountain terrain around Machu Picchu

We were told that the mountains are part of a giant batholyth (I was asked to explain this!) which is a deep underground chamber of volcanic rock, granite, which has been uplifted and exposed by tectonic forces, and then deeply faulted and fractured.  Later glacial influence has sculpted the current shapes.

Mountains and river course

The history of the city is not at all complete or certain, but it appears that this was the last city of the Incas, constructed in the early 15th century for the 9th Inca king who was expanding his empire from Colombia to Chile. The city may only have housed less than a thousand people subsisting on crops grown in terraces built, step wise, from the valley floor below, all the way up the mountain.

Yes, I really was here!

The name Machu Picchu actually means “Old Mountain” and sits opposite Wayna (“Huayna”)Picchu, which means “New Mountain” and indicates the harmony of opposites which typifies the Inca tradition. The terraces continue right to the top of the New Mountain with apparent ceremonial purposes

Terraces high up on Huayna ("new") mountain

While Hiram Bingham is often credited withe the “discovery” of the “Lost city of the Incas” in 1911, and this year being the centenary, it was in fact the German cartographer, Herman Goering in 1874 who first documented its existence to the outside world when engaed by the Peruvian government to map the area.  Bingham, an historian fron Yale university, was researching the history of Simon Bolivar and was taken to see some piles of rock by a local 8 year old boy.  the rest they say is history, as Bingham was able to bring funds fronm both Yale and the National Geographic to begin excavations and remove all the trees which obscured the site.

One of the things I wanted to see most was the wall construction without mortar and with each block exactly matching the rest.  We were told that the walls of the city are inclined at 8 degrees from the vertical in order to withstand the frequent earthquakes.  Also gaps are left at intervals to accommodate earth movements.  Excavations have shown that at the base of some walls are rounded boulders which also absorb earthquake movements.  Only the royal and ceremonial site buildings are made of dressed stone, the others are held together with mortar.

Perhaps the most impressive building is the temple of the sun

Temple of the sun

Sun Temple Carved blocks

Intricate masonry of the Machu Picchu walls

Our day continued with lunch in a nice restaurant in Aguas Calientes, followed by the train home.  While  walking to the restaurant I was struck by the restaurant “Totos Place”  ….maybe this is Kansas, Toto!

maybe this is Kansas, Toto!

To pass away the time as it was now dark and there was no view, the carriage staff put on a dance exhibition and then a fashion show in the carriage.  All pretty impressive stuff.  Arriving at the station of Ollontaytambo we boarded our bus to take us back to Cusco…only to find that the main square next to the station was partially closed for a street concert.  Also the one way systems had been reversed for some reason but they forgot to tell anyone….absolute chaos as a truck and trailer became stuck in the main road out of town.  An hour, 2 pizzas and several beers later we were on our way back to town.

Posted in Uncategorized

Peru – North and Central: Desert sand, rocks and lithoglyphs

The Ecuadorian Border to Chiclayo

I have often thought that borders exist owing to some natural phenomenon, be it physical or cultural. The border between Ecuador and Peru is no exception.  Having dropped 7,000+ feet from Loja to around 350 feet above sea level at the border we moved out of the tropical forest environment and almost imperceptibly into a desert environment. Had we not been concentrating on the twists and turns of the road, and the constant slalom around the patched potholes, I am sure we would have noticed. Crossing the bridge and the river it spans, we are in Peru and everything changes again, just like from Guatemala to Honduras, and Honduras to Nicaragua….

Changing scenery from Ecuador to Chiclayo

Immediately it is drier, and the landscape changes from mountains to a dry, dusty, sandy plain with a driving wind which constantly blows the dust across the road in clouds. Sparse, scrubby vegetation clings to life in the barren soil while mud brick or concrete block informal dwellings appear on the sides of the road, either individually or clustered into hamlets, villages and occasionally towns.  Planning seems to have been absent through the construction process other than to leave the main road as a ribbon of black tar through otherwise sandy and dusty terrain.

As we approach the coastal area we drop to within 50 feet above sea level and the wind becomes more intense, and to my surprise, much colder.  How can this be?  Maybe the cold Humboldt current offshore with wind blowing across it causes this strange sensation as we are but a few degrees off the equator, and close to sea level.  Surely it should be hot and humid like West Africa for example at hte same latitude?  But this is one of the reasons why I am on the trip, to experience the diversity of the planet I share with six-and-a-half billion other people.

As we battled our way to Chiclayo against an ever increasing, cold wind, the landscape becomes less dotted with vegetation until we reach an area of vast sand dunes, distant mountains on the horizon and a driving blizzard of dust which stings against the skin at the 80 mph (130kph) speed we are forced to adopt to have any chance of reaching our destination before dark.  We have tried, not always successfully, to avoid driving in the dark for safety and security reasons, although I have to say that we have yet not encountered any serious concerns over security, but we are taking obvious precautions not to become complacent.  Safety is another issue, and to encounter an unexpected offroad section in the dark is to be avoided.

Chiclayo Desert

The three weary bikers battle against this ferocious gale for 4 hours until reaching the outskirts of Chiclayo.  I did not have any pre-conceived ideas about what this town would look like, but it just appeared, mirage-like, out of the barren desert landscape as a chaotic assemblage of people, buildings and traffic.  Suddenly we are in heavy traffic with suicidal drivers – our first real experience of Peruvian drivers, and it is not very positive.  The city has traffic lights and stop signs, but they appear to serve no purpose other than street furniture, as taxi’s, tuktuks, trucks, busses and cars all jostle for position in the traffic-choked streets.  I have discovered that since large cylinder motorcycles are very rare in South America, and can make a pretty loud noise when revved hard in closed street environments, a little assertive driving and frequent use of the horn can get a little respect and some extra space on the roads.  It has to be said that the bike is bigger than some Daewoo Tico taxi’s which are usually the most aggressive drivers.

The hotel was sadly the most attractive part of this town….and the topiary at the end of the pool area the only attractive thing that I took a photo of during my brief stay.

Hotel topiary..sadly the most attarctive thing I saw in Chiclayo

Huanchaco to Chiclayo – 200 miles:  More cool desert and Pre-Inca Ruins of ChanChan

Today was a short day to take us to the beach.  Again setting out to the south and encountering flat, featureless sandy and dusty desert. The wind had dropped from yesterday’s gale, but in its place a thick sea fog was threatening to blanket the landscape.  In some parts, especially close to villages, irrigation had turned the desert green and not only fruit and vegetables for local consumption were grown but also sugar cane, asparagus and artichokes for export markets.  It is always amazing to see what a little water can do for a desert.  We later learned (see below in Nasca section) that they bring in seaweed as a natural fertilizer to create a soil substrate.

But the mist persisted and with temperatures no higher than 22C, wind chill and the grey skies against the colourless sandy desert, and long, boring, straight, flat roads, it was almost a relief to see the cement works emerge from the  clouds, silhouetted against more clouds….sad person that I am!!

We passed through numerous villages or small towns, each lining the main road in a jagged line of mud brick, concrete block, timber frame and corrugated tin roof dwellings, usually single story, and unfinished.  Incremental construction is evident as reinforcing bars used on concrete pillar construiction protrude out of the temporary roof, indicating that in some point in the future another layer of the building will be added.

On the road to Huanchaco - typical mud brick village in the desert

As we approached Huanchaco the mist lifted and temperature rose to a pleasant upper 20’s C, and the road led along the sea front.  Clearly this is a pleasing tourist location for both local and foreign travellers, with numerous bars and restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops to pass the hours away.  There was even a pier leading out into the sea, looking very Victorian.

Victorian pier in Huanchaco

One curiosity was the reed boats, or caballitos (“Little horses”) that the Huanchaco fishermen use. If you have read the books by Thor Heyerdahl relating to the theory that the ancient Egyptians actually travelled by reed boats, “Ra” to the South American continent then you could almost believe it possible when you see these little boats being launched into the surf.

Caballitos - Reed fishing boats

But the principle reason to be in Huanchaco was to see the  ChanChan ruins.  A UNESCO World Heritage site (one of a dozen or more we are seeing), it extends across 20 sq kms, although only a very small portion has been excavated and partially restored.  Chan Chan is a Chimu civilization site from around 1,200 to 1,470AD when it was overrun by the Inca’s.  It is estimated that the population was as much as 35,000, so a very significant city. The last of the 9 kings was captured by the Inca’s and taken into captivity.  Although the walls are made of mud brick, quite a lot has survived and the best parts restored.

walkway through Chan Chan ruins

Depending on the height, which is between 3 and 5 metres, some of the walls have sloped sides.  You can see the mud brick core on  some openings.  Seemingly while other structures in the area have been completely demolished in the frequent earthquakes, these walls have withstood 700 years.

Mid brick core of higher walls

Some walls are decorated with animal or bird motifs at the base, layers in the centre and plain at the top representing the land, sea and sky.

Chan Chan Wall Motif - squirrel (land), Lines (Sea) and open space (sky)

And one wall I found particularly interesting was the “fish calendar”.  A multiple panel frieze with rising and falling fish figures in a band representing the tides, and also fish facing in different directions indicating the reversal of the current at different times of the year…the cold Humboldt current and the warm Niña current bringing different fish.

Fish Calendar showing warm and cold currents by fish direction

Each subsequent king built his own palace and large plaza for gatherings.  Restoration is complete in one of them.

Plaza in front of king's palace

Details of wall patterns in tax collectors' offices - Chan Chan

Eight of the 9 kings were buried here in multi-chamber graves along with wives, concubines, food and other provisions for the journey to the afterlife.  Nothing of the burial chambers was left to see.  All in all a very interesting site, but left me a little wanting for more detail.

After the guided tour of Chan Chan we visited the museum.  This was equally less than remarkable, small and poorly stocked with artefacts.   Several mock-up models and scenes took the place of well documented tools, lifestyles etc. Metal working seemed to be fairly advanced, but the Chimu had not invented the wheel.

Huanchaco – Caraz: 200 Miles: Time to get dirty again

After several days of less-than-inspiring, essentially featureless desert, today was a day to change everything.  We started the day by driving along the beach heading south.  As we drove past the ruins at Chan Chan, with a pleasant 20C temperature, the sea mist began to roll in from the cool pacific Humbolt current dropping both the temperature and visibility substantially.  Passing through a few small, non–descript villages like the ones we had seen all the way from the Ecuadorian border, a collection of mud brick, clay brick and concrete block dwellings and shops set back from the main road; some were painted, some rendered with a plaster of concrete screed, but most just bare brick and not very attractive having no commonality or semblance of style, texture or colour.  We also passed some settlements which were no more than rush-matting screens lashed together with a similar screen for the roof, supported by wooden poles.  It is hard to imagine that people actually live here without water, sanitation or electricity.  But the evidence of the trash around the dwellings and clothes hung to dry indicates that live there they do.

We have yet not seen what I would consider an attractive city since our arrival.  Chiclayo was a chaotic mixture of buildings, roads, and seething mass of people scattered across the barren desert with little that I could see to recommend it.  I am told it exists because of the Sipan Royal Tombs for the Sican civilization, which because of my delayed arrival (see previous section), I did not get to visit.  Perhaps I would have been more charitable ion my assessment had I spent time to get to know the city and people more.  Huanchaco was pleasant along the sea front, but one or two streets back from the beach, the ramshackle buildings and litter strewn streets were less than inviting.  A brightly painted façade hiding a dull interior.  My conclusion therefore is that oit appears that urban planners and architects must be in very short supply as the evidence of their professions is in short supply.

Today’s ride began as yesterday’s had ended, in a barren desert, but as we drove 100 miles south to our first turning into the mountains, there was evidence of irrigation on an industrial scale producing sugar cane, asparagus and artichokes, the latter two almost certainly for export markets.  At the same time the landscape began to change, and the mountains which we had seen on the horizon yesterday began to appear as rocky icebergs protruding through a sea of sand.  The sand crept up the flanks like wind-driven snow banks and the total effect was magical.

Wind blown sand draped against mountain ranges emerging from desert floor

More and newer cars indicated that the area had been prospering more than the areas to the north, probably as a consequence of the agricultural exploitation.

And so to the purpose of today’s little ride.  If we had been heading south, we would have continued along the Pan American Highway through the barren desert landscape which had accompanied us now for 3 days.  Instead after 100 miles of coastal desert plan, we headed inland towards Caraz via the Canyon del Pato, or “Duck Canyon”. This took us into the coincidence of two mountain chains, or “cordillera” which along with many others, make up the Andes mountains.  In this case the Cordillera Blanca and Negra (White and Black chains)converge near a town of Caraz, and the Canyon del Pato is a 100 mile canyon with the respective mountains getting closer and closer in a deep, steep sided gorge.  Some of the peaks reach 6,000 metres in height and their snow-capped summits are visible above the canyon walls.

Canyon del Pato before leaving the black top

The last 60 miles is all off road, and proper technical riding in places, forcing the bike rider to be standing on the foot pegs for almost the entire distance.  And with an average speed through the rocks, gravel and deep sand of only 15-20 mph, it took more than 4 hours to complete.

Village church in remote Canyon del Pato

Martin riding over one of many bridges in Canyon del Pato

The first half was very similar to the barren desert we had left on the coast, with the steep sided mountain flanks devoid of vegetation, but with some small patches of home grown crops in the valley floor.  The similarity with the High Himalayas approaching the Tibet Plateau was immediate from my biking trip 3 years ago.  Roland, if you are reading this, you will know what I mean!

The surface was essentially a solid rock foundation for 30 miles.  The road was cut through in the early 1950’s and intended for a railway to service the mining operations along the canyon, and also the small villages.  But by 1970 after a series of earthquake-induced landslides it was abundantly clear that the cost and effort of maintaining this lifeline was too much.  And so with only the bare rock surface left and remnants of numerous landslides to punctuate the route we gradually made our slow and painful way up to the mid way village.

Canyon del Pato - rocky surface of first 30 miles part

Monica (front), Martin (Middle) and David (back) in Canyon del Pato

The second half was quite different on account of the change in rock type as we ventured deeper into the canyon.  The rocky surface had now given place to an essentially gravel and sand surface, quite different to drive on.  There were also 35 tunnels to pass through.  Some tunnels were just a few tens of metres, while others were several hundred metres in length, single track (from the railway), sometimes containing curves so that you could not see the exit and pitch dark.  If a truck or bus meets you half way, there is not room for both…..and with the dust kicked up by the tyres, you can hardly see it coming. This photo was taken by Drew…thanks for sharing, buddy!

Tunnels and buses - an intersting mixture of challenges on a sandy surface

The constant wind whips up dust all along the route, but especially the second half, which collects in the tunnels and forms a deep, sandy, dusty top surface.  So long as you keep in the tyre tracks of the occasional buses and trucks along the route, you can be fairly stable in your progress along the tunnel.  But passing from bright sunlight into a dark tunnel, often with dust from the bike or truck in front reducing visibility to just a few metres, it was easy to get into the centre of the single track and be deep in a fine, talcum powder-like dust with no grip and both back and front wheels going sideways.

There were several dropped bikes, but nothing serious.  My riding partner, Monika, dropped her bike as she stopped to let a van pass the other way.  At zero speed it was not in any way a serious drop, but the angle of the bike was such that it was impossible for a single person to recover.  Our leader circled back to help, as did I, but in doing so, attempting to execute a U-turn in gravel, downhill, I dropped my bike too.  No big deal, no damage, carry on!

Shiny side no longer facing upwards!

Emerging from the 35th and final tunnel the world changes.  The last 12 miles into Caraz were some of the best black top tarmac in the world, with a series of swooping curves that bring a smile to the face of the happy biker.  The landscape also changes.  No longer the barren steep sided canyon walls, but now we are on a high plateau with fields of crops and cows grazing on the grassy verges.  Arriving at the basic
hotel in Caraz, tired, dusty, dirty and thankful for another safe day, we threw ourselves down onto some comfortable arm chairs on the patio, drank a beer, ate a cheese sandwich thoughtfully provided by one of the three elderly sisters who run the establishment.

Just about everyone was worn out by the day’s riding.  Even the most experienced off-road riders looked absolutely beaten down by the stress of the ride, 4 hours of jolting the body and requirement for intense concentration throughout.  A quick shower, walk to basic dinner in the very limited culinary offerings of Caraz, and an early night.

Caraz – Barranca – 200 Miles:  A world apart.

After yesterday’s arduous riding, today was an absolute dream, and more than made up for the efforts of getting here and taking a detour from the more direct Pan American Highway.  Caraz is situated at about 2,200 metres.  The road out of town continued to be good quality black top asphalt, and with numerous turns and switchbacks rose up to 4,100 meters in elevation (about 13,350 feet).  Snow-capped peaks were all around, but the sloping valley floor was green and fertile with plenty of evidence of animal grazing even at this altitude.

13,350 feet from caraz to Barranca

We were advised of the effects of altitude sickness, but no-one seemed to be bothered by it as we were only at high altitude for an hour or so before dropping from over 4,000 metres to sea level in about 80 miles of twisting, winding, switchbacks through brightly painted mountain villages and traditionally dressed villagers all in the Sunday
best having attended church in the morning.

Descent from mountains to Barranca - switchbacks and spectacular views

This was probably one of the best riding days we have had so far on the trip.  The temperature at the summit had dropped to around 13C, but warmed up by the time we dropped to 1,000 metres (3300 feet) to upper 20;s, only to fall again as we approached the cool Pacific Ocean wind as we neared the coastal plain. Below 1,000 metres the landscape again changed to barren rocky desert, with a keen cool wind.

Changing back to desert but still green in the valley

Arriving at the Pan American again, we took a brief detour to the Chimu fortress at Paramonga.  As a pre-Inca fortified settlement, main entirely of mud bricks, it dominates both the valley access and also sea-board approaches.  Apparently it is 1,200 years old, but with very little evidence of maintenance or preservation it has suffered from graffiti artists through the ages.

Chimu fort from the PanAmerican near Barranca

Surrounding view from top of Chimu fortress

There were no sign boards to provide an historical context or explain the various chambers and rooms of the fortress, but it was fairly impressive and must have been more so over a 1,000 years ago. Compared with Chan Chan, it was more impressive I think.

The city of Barranca is just another non-descript settlement with a mixture of new and old buildings without much attempt to preserve
historic context, or give a modern feel. Just another traffic-choked, not very clean town.  We stayed in the best hotel in town, which was just fine, except for  the all night throbbing music/noise from three blocks away

Barranca to Nasca: 400 Miles : A long ride into history

Barranca does not make my top ten places to revisit.  Today we have an early start, 7:30, to make some progress south and arrive at Nazca by mid-afternoon if possible.  The initial road south along the Pan American Highway was much as we had seen for the past few days…. Cool and misty in the early morning.  Occasionally as we ascended some small hills, maybe 300-400 metres, out of the dry, sandy, desert plain, we would be in thick cloud with very little visibility.  Like Mexico, the roadside is punctuated with small shrines to those who have lost their lives along this thoroughfare.  At times the shrines are in large groups indicating a major accident, perhaps a bus. One can immediately understand how this can happen in thick fog with too much speed, or at night by falling asleep in the monotony of a featureless, dark desert.  We pass alongside the coast for most of the first 100 miles or so, often with views of crashing waves against a sandy shore.

Crashing waves along the beach besides Pan American south of Barranca

Yesterday coming south from Lima we saw some beach resort developments, but with a cold sea and cool wind for much of the year, I question just how popular they will be?

About 100 miles south of Lima the Pan American turns inland near Chincha Alta, gradually rising from sea level through a series of hills and valleys.  The landscape changes little with sandy desert dominating the views.

Pan American approaching Nasca

We stopped at Chincha Alta in a very nice restaurant for lunch.  As we passed, I spotted linen tablecloths and napkins, and some well-dressed waiters.  Just the sort of place a grubby motorcyclist should frequent, still covered with the dust from Duck Canyon two days ago! There had been other places to stop, but the deep sand on the edge of the road had precluded an earlier lunch break as I was not sure Icould park without dropping the bike or getting bogged down in a parking lot!  But parked on a good hard standing, in front of a good restaurant in full view of the Pan American, we quickly gathered another 10 of our group passing by.  Asparagus soup, good lasagne, excellent dessert trolley and espresso coffee…what more could a man need?  It was worth turning around and coming back!

And then, spotting a dozen large, foreign motorcycles outside the restaurant, a local TV and Radio director, Herbert Martinez Garcia, stopped for lunch and asked for an interview about who we were and where we were going.  As the only fluent Spanish speaker I was duly nominated to do the interview.  I do not know if it was on the TV last night or will be in the future, but the interview and photographs lasted nearly half an hour!

Heading further inland and at higher elevations we encountered one
of the most bizarre pieces of scenery I have ever seen.  Deep gorges between steep sided but rounded hills, devoid of any vegetation.   The exposed rock faces showed a jumbled mixture of both angular and rounded rocks and can only be explained as a terminal moraine from ancient glaciers.  But although I have seen these before, to see them several hundred metres high was a geological surprise….zzzzzz sorry.   At only 1,300 feet above sea level, passing through the hills into a higher valley plain, things changed again.  No longer dry, sandy desert, but now a vast plain of angular rock fragments lying over a flat hard surface.  And so it continued thus all the way to Nazca.

Nazca is a tourist town to serve the famous Nazca lines.  It is spelled both NASCA and NAZCA within a few metres of road signs in deliberate recognition that the native Quechua language has no “Z” sound or letter, while the Spanish version does.  The square is attractive with fountains and new church, but the rest of the town is similar to what we have seen elsewhere…a mixture of old, new and not very attractive buildings with no semblance of planning process or architectural harmony.

Nazca central square

Nazca town shotReady to take off for Nazca lines

Nasca/Nazca – Lines, lithoglyphs and a thousand years of desert burials   

Our rest day in Nazca allows us to see the two main features….the Nazca Lines and the Chauchilla burial grounds. Our tour van picked us up at 09:00 to take us to the local airport, built to serve the tourist traffic.  There is another airport which is soon to be under construction to serve international flights.  Having signed in, been weighed and then selected to fly having been matched with weights of fellow passengers, we boarded the Cessna 207, 5 passenger plane for the 40 minute flight over the Nazca Lines and Lithoglyphs.


Ready to take off for Nazca lines

No-one really knows what purpose these features serve, but it is popularly believed that they were constructed by the Nazca civilization, from 400 – 600 AD for some kind of religious purpose to communicate with their celestial god or gods.  The lines were first documented in the late 1920’s when the first aeroplanes flew over the Nazca desert to document the agricultural activity of Peru. Lines, and pictures of birds, a whale, monkey, spider and hands are all created by moving the angular iron-stained rocks which cover the valley floor
into neat piles at the side of the pattern being created.  From the ground the pictures are not visible, but from the air, they stand out clearly.

Intersecting lines on Nasca plain


Humming bird


Erik Von Daniken in his 1970’s book “chariots of the Gods” postulated
that these are clearly signs of an advanced alien race and that the straight lines must be some kind of intergalactic airport.  He says this because the only way to appreciate the symbols is from the sky.

Where water is pumped from the 6 metre deep aquifer to the surface and irrigation is installed, fields produce cotton, corn, sugar cane, paprika and prickly pear cactus.  It is the latter that is most curious, as it is only grown for the purpose of attracting a parasite – the Cochinilla (“little pig”) beetle.  This is more popularly known in English as cochineal, a colouring agent used in cosmetics and food dyes, but derived from the beetle which thrives on the prickly pear cactus.

Prickly pear plantation - about 1 year old

The "Cochinilla" beetle - a parasite on the prickly pear cactus

The dry desert soil is prepared with seaweed brought in from the coast and ploughed into the sand to create a substrate in which seeds are sown.  Two crops a year are possible with irrigation.

Mining for gold, silver and copper is the other big activity, but largely by small time operators. There are 55,000 registered miners in Peru!  These metals have been mined for more than a 1,000 years and mining trails crisscross the hill sides.

The Chauchilla burial grounds are located 25kms outside of Nasca on a broad flat plain between low hills. It has been the site of burials from 400 AD and the Nasca culture.  Later the Guari culture took over from the Nasca’s in around 600 AD only to be replaced by the Ichincha culture around 1,000 AD.  The Ichincha are the central/southern Peru equivalent of the Chimu of Chan Chan fame in Huanchaco.  In 1470 the Inca’s eventually conquered the Chimu and scattered them across the land. All three of the earlier cultures used Chauchilla as a burial site on account of the dry desert soil being perfect for mummification and preservation.  It is estimated that as many as 20,000 mummies are buried here, although the site was only discovered by accident when an intense flash flood uncovered some of the tombs in the 1950’s. The tombs are individual for important people, or collective for family groups.  The mummies were bound by ropes in a foetal position and placed in a mud brick lined chamber
between 2 and 3 metres in depth.  The type and colour of woven cloth robes was an indication of status, as was the length of hair, which could be as long as 2 metres.  The mud brick walls were built such that they would withstand earthquakes and not collapse. Sadly after discovery there were many grave robbers and artefact collectors and the whole site is littered with bone fragments.  Even now there is little security and just about anyone could literally walk up and steal from the prepared tombs open to the public.

Chauchilla burial site - Nazca desert

two mummies with long hair

Dessecated mummy in burial chamber

We were told that there is a plan to cover the tombs in the next few months with glass walls, not only to preserve what is there but also as a security measure.

Posted in Uncategorized