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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Machu Picchu

Testing the waters of the Room of the Mortars.
View of the three temples, quarry and agricultural terraces.

The trouble with trying to travel in the rainy season in Cuzco and Machu Picchu is that sometimes the weather stymies you. However, we were lucky. Our first day in Cuzco, we walked in the main square of the city (local cathedral), toured the local ruins (Temple of the Sun, several local wari/raised ceremonial platforms) and only encountered one rainfall. It was brief but heavy. Sasaywuman was the most intriguing with its irregular symmetrical stone construction. Our guide was a local Quecha Indian who put an environment spin on his tour as do many aboriginal groups i.e. the whole return to Mother Earth what is owned to her and try not to poison the world.

Field separating the royal/sacred quarters from the common residencies.
It is recommended to spend at least one day in Cuzco to acclimatize. Mr. Hippo and I had some symptoms: decrease appetite and a mild headache. However, after a good night sleep, we felt better.The next day, we started early for Machu Picchu. In fact, we have been up almost every day around 5-6am (quite early for me) during this vacation. There is only one railway line (Orient Express) into Agus Caliente, the town from which all buses then leave for the summit. After a 3.5 hour train ride and 20 minute bus ride, we were there. Heavens, what a grand site! We were met by our guide and took a 3.5 hour tour. Paul must have snapped a picture a minute and in fact filled a 4Gig.
View of all of ruins from the guardhouse.
Only 35% of Machu Picchu has been revealed and more surprisingly, it was only recently (1911) properly re-discovered and properly excavated by a Yale scientist called Hiram Bingham. Questions about its origin and final abandonment still remain a mystery. However, the citadel was thought to be designed as a self-sufficient city. There are agricultural and resident terraces. An open field separates the common residencies from the royal and the sacred realm. A series of sixteen ceremonial baths/fountains also subdivide the agricultural from the urban sites.

Machu Picchu appears to have been abandoned before it reached its completion as its quarry appears to be still in working state. I had arranged to spend an extra night at the only hotel near the ruins: The Machu Picchu sanctuary lodge. The reason is simple: to take in the ruins without the troughs of the 2500 daily guests who flood the site. The lack of crowds adds immensely to the ambience. Our guide states that in the dry (and high season), the citadel is literally packed wall to wall with tourists. In fact, UNESCO has been lobbying to limit the number of guests as scientists and archaeologists have stated that the deterioration has accelerated particularly with climate change. One of the local trials to another terrace citadel called Waywu Picchu has already had a limit of 400 guests per day.
Our late afternoon tour was considerable more pleasurable and we scoured every nook of the residential quarters leaving the royal and sacred sites for our second day. A word about our guide, he is local archaeologist who was able to illuminate many new details about the site i.e. the room of the mortars. What looks to be the mortar portion of “mortar and pestle” has been revised to an astronomical observatory. After the discovery that this room had a thatch room, the theory was revised again. Today, what was thought to be mortars are likely to be the base of two statues (which are in fact located in Yale University). Of course, the local archaeologists, geologists and art historians are keen to have these statues as well as other artefacts of Machu Picchu returned...if nothing else to facilitate study of the site.

All our meals and drinks including alcohol were included in our stay at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. The building was formerly the home base for the local scientists who excavated and restored the ruins. There is a lovely letter from the grandson of Hiram Bingam in the lobby. The food at the lodge was spectacular as befitting a five star hotel. For lunch: Sea bass ceviche followed by a succulent pork tenderloin. Mr. Hippo had new potatoes (there are over 400 potato species in Peru) with baked salmon with proscuitto. We even had some lovely Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. For our evening meal, we had dined on grilled alpaca, scalloped potatoes with sea bass (with baby veggies) and smoked trout with lemon chilli pepper and olive oil. This was accompanied by a bottle of 2005 Argentinean Norton Malbec Reversa simply yummy. The end to a perfect day!


Except for some turbulence on the flight from Houston to Lima, the trip to Lima was uneventful. I had come all the way to Lima and who should be seated next to me but another Canadian. A sprightly elderly lady who in her retirement has been re-born as a world traveller. Last year, she worked in a mission in Brazil and this year, it was a week in Chimbote. How adventurous and exciting!

Our arrival at the airport was greeted by the sea of Peruvian humanity. We negotiated a taxi to the Gran Hotel Bolivar at just after our arrival at the midnight hour. We passed in a cab through the very sketchy parts of Lima before arriving at our hotel in the Plaza San Martin. The Gran Bolivar is a grand old lady and the hotel has become somewhat of time capsule of the late 19th century. 12 foot ceilings and magnificent hardwood floor inlays line the rooms and the halls of the hotel. The stain glass ceiling and the antique model T-ford in the lobby are also part of its unique charm. It is faded glamour however, the rooms are sparse with antique like furniture. There is neither air-conditioning (but the rooms are cool even in the summer) nor internet access. All of this is advertised on the web so consequently of no surprise to Mr. Hippo and I. However, it is close to all the sites of Colonial Lima from the Monastery of San Francisco, Catheral of Lima, Church of La Merced and Plaza San Martin.

On our first day, it was a long day of walking to all the sites. We also encountered a labour strike which blocked some part of the downtown core, hassled only once by a beggar and got lost a couple of hundred times getting to abode pyramid called Huaca Huallanmarca (Sugar Loaf to the locals). A ceremonial centre for the Hualla people dating back to AD 200) . This well preserved mummy was the highlight.

By late afternoon, we returned to the Bolivar and had their special drink, the Pisco Sours, at the bar. This is a local sweet brandy produced in Peru and served cold with crush ice. A great drink to relax with on a hot humid afternoon. Mr. Hippo was not feeling too well and headed to bed thereafter while I had dinner at the local restaurant consisting of a seafood chowder and ever popular fried potatoes with more pisco sours of course. There are over 2000 types of potatoes in Peru! No wonder Sir Walter Raleigh had to take some back with him to England all those years ago.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The many conflicting images of winter in Ontario

While January was certainly cold, the winter of February 2009 has certainly turned out to be most confusing.

A two day meltdown ensued as the temperatures climbed into the double digit centigrade. This was compounded by a solid 24hr deluge which resulted in several river and creek banks overflowing. Several fields temporarily became small swimming pools for the local fowl.

Contrast this to this picture taking just a week before when nearly 20cm of snow fell in a day. Is freak weather the future for us in Ontario?

Of course, nothing really celebrates winter more than Winterlude in Ottawa. Three February weekends packed with all things we love about the season: skating, skiing, ice sculptures, maple treats, ice slides, bed races on the canal, ice fishing. Mr. Hippo and I decided to break our cabin fever and took in this year's festivities with our friends who live there with their two children.

So when will this winter end? If the prognostications of Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil are to believed, not for another six more weeks. However, with this current pattern of wild weather, it may well be when pigs fly.