Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 33, November 3, 2002
Machu Picchu & Mucho Poopoo, Getting Off, Big Birds and Big Holes
Photos: Click Here to Enter the Inca Gallery

Machu Pichu & Mucho Poopoo

We went to see Machu Pichu. Well you have to really don't you? Not going is like visiting Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids or going to Hitchin, Hertfordhire and not not watching a pub fight on a Friday night. To get to Machu Pichu, unless you are going to hike the Inca Trail - and we had done plenty of hiking (see Oct 26th entry), you take the train. I've heard a lot of people say that this train journey is a fine and romantic thing. But while it's OK and goes through a nice gorge, the train and track are antiquated and not pleasantly so. I would certainly have been pretty pissed off if I'd paid to go 'Inca Class', because all the rails and rolling stock are the same, and no number of cutely traditional alpaca blankets on the seats can disguise the fact that the MP express is as on a par with the kind of service you'd expect to find on the London commuter lines.

Before you get to Machu Pichu you itself have to go through Aguas Calientas - which means hot waters - and is named after the nearby springs. Sounds charming, doesn't it? In fact it is an absolute sphincter of a town that you have to pass through (as it were) on your way to MP. Every single guidebook I´ve read does its readers a disservice when it comes to this place, either by being all mealy mouthed and equivocal or just not saying much at all. Why can't they actually offer some bloody guidance and just say it's a hole? For not only does AC look like one of the worst traveller dumps in SE Asia, it's prices are rather more aligned to the spending budget of wealthy tourists. So not only is it an excreable, it's really expensive too.

After checking out several dumps and meeting an amusingly stereotypical German (Us: 'Is your hotel good' Him: 'Of course it is good - it is recommended in the guidebook. I got here early to make sure I got a good room) we checked into somewhere which was OK and headed up to Machu Pichu. After Chauquerkerau (see previous entry) coming to MP is a bit like coming to Disneyland: you pay an entrance fee, you visit the snack bar and you find the whole place is swarming with the 2000 plus tourists who visit the site most days. This Disneylike feel is leant further weight by some rather over zealous restoration: while I'm sure that reconstructing the site's many collapsed walls is a fine idea, I also think that going as far as re-thatching a couple of the houses (with more to come) may be a case of an imagineering too far. We also got sick of being told to get out of people's photos/ home videos and were physically sickened by the sight of an American in his fifties (digital videcam, clamped to his eye) who had removed his shirt in order to share his torso - which resembled a pinkly pendulous sack of spuds - with his fellow tourists.

For all this, however, MP is an undeniably spectacular site (and sight) and, in terms of excavated area, is far larger than Chauquerkerau. One thing you really notice about it, though, is that, outstanding locatation notwithstanding, how closely it resembles, say, a ruined village in Wales or Cumbria. Which brings us to one of the surprising things about the Inca Empire - it's not really very old at all. Indeed, when you consider that it was pretty much contemporary with historic Europe (15th and 16th centuries) it's hardly surprising it looks a bit like it. The other surprise is that it - pretty much from inception to Spanish plundering and vanquishing - was all over in about a hundred years, the merest historical blink of an eye. Strange as people (well, ill-educated people like me anyway) always tend to think of Inca cities alongside truly ancient artifacts like the Pyramids.

But (and this is a butt related but) my enjoyment of the marvels of Machu Pichhu was rather cut short: as a result of something I'd had for lunch in Aguas Calientas, my nomally cast iron guts were beginning to rust (or, more accurately, rusty water). Still, dine in a dump like AC and what do you expect - although, I suppose, it could have been some sort of Karmic revenge for my ceaseless taunting of Simon several days earlier. So, with my temparture rising and everything elese threatening to drop, I scuttled off out of the site and onto a bus; I then had to wait for 30 bowel busting minutes for this to fill up. And when it finally did, well, I have never been so glad to see an American tour group in my life. Indeed, prior to this, I have never been glad to see an American tour group at all. But these guys - in their matching his ´n´ hers jackets with their pricey video equipment and souvenir shirt swaddled paunches - I could have hugged each and every one of them.

They also diverted me greatly on the way down. The road, as might be expected on such a steep hillside zig-zags mightily, and local kids run down the footpath that runs straight down, through the centre of these bends. They wave at you at each turn and can usually beat the bus down, wherupon they say goodbye to you in three languages and demand money. After being told this, one of the Americans, a chap in his late 50s who resembled a gone to seed Sinatra, joked that the kid in question probably had an identical twin at the bottom. Not that bad a joke, but he liked it so much that he retold it every time we saw the kid and was still repeating it to his rather bored looking wife as he wandered off back to his hotel. In between this fellow's cyclical jocularity, I talked to an American who seemed all up for the idea of going to Chauqerkerau until I explained to him that you had to walk, not drive for two days, which effectively killed the conversation. I then talked to an alternative west coast type who had hiked the Inca trail; this discourse died a death when I let it slip that I'd trekked to a higher altitude than he had - although alternative, he was terribly, terribly competitive. I thought there was something very American about opting out of mainstream values, then inisting on being the very best at being kind of different.

The next day Si, Justine and Jane went back up to Machu Pichhu, while my guts and I stayed down in Aguas Calientas making Mucho Poopoo. In a toilet like AC, this seemed an oddly appropriate activity.

Where do they Get Off

After a brief stop in Cusco, we all headed off to Arequipa, Si and Justine by air (the falshpackers!) and Jane and I (keeping it real, natch) by bus. Although we were the only tourists on our coach - which usually bodes ill - this trip was that rarest of all third world phenomenon - the pleasant bus journey. Mainly because it gave us the opportunity to appreciate how strange much of the Peruvian landscape is. Outside Cusco is high altitude moorland which looks a little like a sun-bleached Scotland. This gradually becomes drier until, outside Arequipa, you are in a desert, full of funky rock formations and studded with volcanoes, which shimmer darkly through the heat haze. The other notable thing was our fellow passengers getting on and off. At one point, the road was arrow straight (and the landscape utterly featureless) for about 40kms. Nonetheless people would suddently look up, glance out the window meaninglyfully, and get the driver to stop, wherupon they'd head off purposefully into the desert. Needless to say, to us, that particular bit of desert looked exactly the same as all the rest of desert but they were very precise: twenty metres short of their intended disembarkation point and they´d insist the driver took them the extra distance. It was a mystery to me, but I guess if you live in the middle of nowhere, you get to know nowhere like nobody else.

Arequipa is a charming city and, although touristy, quite without the boutique-like polish that makes Cusco a little stifling. Moreover there are a couple of factories outside town which suggests that as much as 10% of the population doesn´t work in tourism. It is notable for other reasons, too. Firstly and unmissably is the spledid conical hulk of El Misti, the 5800 metre volcano that dominates the town. And not only does a volcano tower over Arequipa, but the entire town (including most new buildings) is built out of a strange white volcanic stone. This is a truly remarkable substance for it looks exactly like concrete does in architects drawings, but never, ever, ever does in real life.

So Arequipa is beautiful and, what's more enjoys a much vaunted Mediteranean climate. although Spanish, occasionally resembles an Ottoman city, this because Moorish influences were much in vogue when the Spaniards built the place. Chief amongst its attractions is a venerable convent which, as well as looking like an interiors magazine editor's wet dream is also a first rate introduction to Catholic hypocrisy. Over the past few centuries, the Santa Catalina nuns had no apparent problem reconciling vows of poverty and piety with living in nuns' houses far bigger than most London flats and keeping servants.

But this is only Arequipa's biggest attraction and, with its pretty square, swish cafes and excellent (far better than Cusco) restuarnts, it is one of the nicest cities I have visited in a long time. Although, as if to balance out this general good luck, it does suffer from frequent and devastating earthquakes.

Big Birds and Big Holes
(pornographic sounding but surprisingly literal cross heading)

After a few days enjoying Arequipa's attractions we headed off to the world's second deepest (or deepest, depending on who you believe) hole in the ground, Canon de Colca. I rate the journey there a DNADR. This is from the system I have devised for grading third third world roads, which works on what would happen if (as often looks likely) your bus were to career off the edge. It starts with the assumption that you would certainly die, but allows that not all deaths are equal. Thus, the first and lowest type of road is a simple ´D´ for 'dead.' One up is 'CC' where the drop means that not only would you die, but your corpse would be sufficiently mangled to merit a closed casket funeral. Finally there is 'DNADR', which means that your remains would be in such a state that formal identification would require DNA fingerprinting or the use of dental records.

Anyway, after hours of looking out of the window then suffering palpitations, I'd been rather hoping that Colca canyon would be the coolest such geographic feature I'd ever seen. And that I could report that while the Yanks were great salesmen, the Grand Canyon's status as the world's best big hole rested on hype and good PR.

Alas no: the Grand Canyon has little to fear from Colca. For while the latter is undeniably impressive, it's really just a very deep, heavily eroded valley in a load of mountains. What gives the Grand Canyon it's extraordinary majesty is that it is cut into a tableland, is scores of kilometres wide and that its rocks are all sorts of unlikely colours. Colca has none of these attributes. But, on the plus side, it does have condors and, although these are ugly and vulturine close up, from a distance, they are some of the most stylish members of the bird family.

Having waited an hour for them to appear with a rabble of other tourists at the Cruz del Condor we were getting impatient when a pair arrived, wheeling lazily upwards on the thermals, just like they do on BBC2. Although impressive, their visit was fleeting. But just as we were about to leave another condor appeared and obligingly did a series of Top Gun style fly bys, allowing us to fully appreciate it's two metre wingspan and designer feathers. We left with our 'World's largest bird' box well and truly ticked.

Later that day, we trekked down into the canyon, where we hoped to spend the night. I must say, going on my past experience, my hopes were not high. After Chauqerkerau, I was expecting a found a stygian pit infested with a plague of flies, a feast of boils and sundry other poxes. But no. At the bottom of Colca Canyon, in the middle of the high Peruvian desert is the aptly named Guesthouse Paradiso which is set in what, for all the world, looks and feels like an English country garden. Quite unlike Aguas Calientas, Colca Canyon is the world's biggest hole* in the literal sense only.

*unless, of course, the other hole is bigger.