Sunday, July 16, 2017

Peru and its impressive Inca HIstory

Evocative, Arresting & Alluring - 3 adjectives that sum up our recent trip to Peru. 

Peru exuded life in every way and meshed a layered cultural history with awe inspiring vistas, delighting the senses at every turn. Discovering new places is always exciting, but with all the internet travel one does in the planning and research of a trip, its lovely to know that the reality can still surprise. 

Peru exceeded our expectations in all regards.

Taking a group of 45 people, we had an 8 day trip around Peru which began in the Sacred Valley, continued to Machu Picchu and concluded in the ancient city of Cusco. The food was diverse and delicious - from traditional cuy (guinea pig, which I admit I chose not to taste), to world class restaurants growing all their own product (3 of the world's 50 top restaurant list are located in Peru). We stayed in spectacular hotels, reinvented from convents and monasteries past - showing their origins in the form of stone walls and serene spaces, however now overlayed with luxurious fabrics, sumptuous furniture and exceptional service. And we saw first hand the depth of history created by the Inca civilization - imposing stone ruins which have stood the test of time. 

The Sacred Valley introduced us to the might of the Inca civilisation. The Incas can be traced back to the highlands of Peru around early 13th century, and ruled until the Spanish conquered the last stronghold in 1572. During this time they built a very impressive empire with its political, administrative and cultural stronghold still seen in modern day Cusco. This extensive empire was built without the invention of the wheel, without any written word, and without any animals to ride or use for strong draft purposes. That is, the whole civilisation was built with the might of human power. In addition it was done across the exceedingly high Andean mountain range.

Before visiting this part of the world, my knowledge of the Incas was largely limited to primary school history lessons and photos of their architectural acumen at Machu Picchu, so visiting Peru was always going to be an educational lesson, and that aspect did not disappoint! 

This civilization thrived in vastly different environments as diverse as tropical jungle to deserts to mountainous regions and managed to construct imposing stone fortifications across the Andean mountains wherever they settled. Adept at using the natural environment to their advantage, they constructed terraces in order to grow crops on sharp hillsides, and built settlements at the very top of mountain ranges to ensure security and safety. Testimony to their genius in construction is the fact that hundreds of kilometers of their stone highways across the country are still in use today. 

Architecturally they were exceptionally clever - the use of clean lines and stone boulders cut into trapezoid shapes plus incorporating natural features into the base of buildings, means that in an area of frequent significant earthquakes, their buildings still stand. In addition, master stone masons constructed massive blockwork so precise that the jigsaw pieces fit together without the need for mortar!

We visited local communities who welcomed us into their homes and showed us their way of life in every facet of its traditional form. We danced with them, ate with them and even tilled the soil of their potato crops. They were happy people without the complications of a high tech life (although like 99% of the world a mobile phone was tucked in their pocket, be it, traditional garments). They were proud of their homes and their land and we felt indeed privileged to have spent an afternoon understanding a little of their lives. 

Definitely a high point of the trip (in a trip which was all a high point!) was the train from Ollanta towards Machu Picchu. Alighting in the midst of the trip to Machu Picchu town, truly in the middle of the rainforrest, we bagan our 1 day hike on the famous Inca Trail. The trail is literally a stone path laid by the Inca people that winds high on the mountain side through rainforest and culminates at the Sungate, the high entry to the Machu Picchu site. This one day hike is only about 12km, however the first section is an exceptionally steep switch-back hike, with regular short breaks necessary. This path is even more awe inspiring than I anticipated as one looks down upon the vastness of the Urubamba valley below. 'The Monkey Rocks' give the clue that one is almost at the completion - these rocks require all 4 limbs to scramble up the steep ancient moss stairway. Shortly after, this mammoth effort is rewarded with the arrival at the Sungate and a stupendous view down to the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu. We spent 2 days at Machu Picchu and saw it in both behind the mystery of cloud and fog, then in bright sun and blazing glory. The mammoth boulders that cover the site defy understanding of how human beings were able to drag them up the steep vertical cliffs to become building material in the sophisticated layout of this site. It is indeed more beautiful, more alluring and more incredulous they I ever imagined.  

And our trip concluded in Cuzco where for centuries the Spanish civilisation has meshed with the Inca people and still thrives today. The local language of the people is traditional Quechea - still spoken by about 8 million people and the main religion is Catholicism but practiced in a way that the local people still revere Mother Earth and the weather that brings a good harvest and healthy crops. They still manage to do things their way.

PS We will do this fabulous trip again some time in the future - let our office know if you are interested to be part of it
A traditional woman from Chinchero where 12 families preserve the traditional method of dying the wool
with natural dyes to weave into the garments seen here

A demonstration of the dying of wool. The red is achieved from the cochineal beetle taken from the cactus
plants in the area, the other colours from plants and grasses
Dinner!! Cuy (Guinea Pig) is a delicacy in Peru and every family keeps them to fatten for special occassions

Ollantaytambo - a monumental Inca site and one of the only places where the Inca people defeated the Spanish 

The Salt Pans of Maras -  originally made by the Incas and still owned and worked by local families

The very impressive terraces of Moray, overlooking the Urubamba valley.
Incas cultivated crops on these terraces, and with each they took the seeds and lowered, or elevated them adjacent terraces.  As each terrace differed about 5 degrees in temperature, they were able to acclimatise crops to different growing conditions. These seeds were then sent to other Inca strongholds so that crops which previously could not stand the local weather conditions were able to thrive. Scientists have been able to prove this.

We visited the community of Misminay where the local people made lunch for us in their home and showed us how they live. They still proudly wear the traditional garments of past generations

Looking down into the Urubamba Valley from the Inca Trail. 

Taken along the Inca Trail - the path on the very left of this photo shows a person walking along the trail. Stupendous views and quiteincredulous to think that human power hauls massive granite boulders up these mountains to build the Inca citadel
Stairwell known as the 'Monkey Rocks' - very steep and very close to the end, so all 4 limbs are often
required to climb to the top. It is incredible to think these exact stones were laid by the
Incas and have been a popular pedestrian highway for centuries  

At the 'Sungate' high above Machu Picchu - the citadel can be seen in the distance 

Day 2 & the sun came out! Even though it was thought that Royalty came here intermittently, this was a permanent settlement for many - their houses can be seen here
This was the  original  1 & only entry gate to  the citadel. 1 gate ensured security - though it would be hard
 to imagine a surprise invasion at this altitude! 

Cuzco - one can see the mesh of Inca & Spanish civilizations  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Galapagos Islands - a naturalists dream!

Pristine clear water in endless shades of blue and rugged rocks shaped by centuries of wind erosion and volcanic explosion, will be some of my lasting memories from our recent trip to Galapagos Islands.

Arriving from Australia into Baltra, the main airport of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands requires desire & fortitude – though undoubtedly its isolation is one of the main reasons that hundreds of endemic species of animals and plants still survive today. This group of 21 islands, 906km from mainland of Ecuador, and slightly north of the Equator are beautiful for their ruggedness, isolation and exceptional diversity of animal and plant life.

One of the first things we were struck by is how unconcerned that any of the animal or marine life are of the human intrusion. With the exclusion of the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, humans are relatively new to these islands, so the animals do not consider us a natural predator. This resulted in us being able to get to within a few metres of these beautiful creatures. Observing them in their natural habitat, at close range is one of the truly amazing experiences of visiting the Galapagos.

We watched the male Blue Footed Boobie bird perform his mating dance – parading his feathers in full glory whilst lifting his feet in a rhythmic movement. The vibrant blue feet of this bird is derived from the carotenoid pigments which they get through their diet. Interestingly, studies have showed that a male with more concentration of blue in their feet have a better chance of securing a mate! Another spectacular bird is the Great Frigate whose vibrant red gular sac distends during mating season in order to impress a mate - and it is seriously impressive! The array of Iguanas we saw was extensive – the large land Iguanas with a variety of colours, and the black sea swimming marine Iguanas. 

Another spectacular animal was the Galapagos Giant Tortoise – it can live up to approximately 180 years and weigh 250kgs! Once considered endangered due to the sailors capturing them for their food on board, they are once again thriving in an environment which protects them.

Galapagos Islands are inherently linked to Charles Darwin’s 1835 visit on the survey ship named “The Beagle”. His observations and drawings during his time on the island became the basis of his “Origin of the Species” book (published 1859) where he realised that transmutation of species explained the mechanism that underlies evolutionary change. The naturalists aboard our Silverseas ship were an excellent source of knowledge in this regard, and our week aboard this ship piqued our interest to gain a greater understanding of this beautiful group of islands.

The Male Great Frigate bird resting in its nest

The Red Footed Boobie Bird 

The Land Iguana

The Nazca Bird protecting its new chick 

Blue Footed Boobie Bird

Male Blue Footed Boobie performing his mating dance

Nazca Bird feeding its new chick

Flamingo Bird

Marine Iguana

Giant Galapogos Tortoise 

Sea Lions resting on San Cristobel Island