South Peru: Lima, Nasca, Cusco

Desert along Peruvian Coast

Wednesday, 24 September 2008, Cusco, Peru
We arrived in Cusco on 31st of August, thinking to stay a while to relax and recharge. Well, we have been here a while but there hasn't been much relaxing or recharging happening. My friend, Sandy, visited us for 12 days and we had a great time checking out Cusco, taking a driving tour of the Sacred Valley, visiting Machu Picchu and flying out to the Amazon jungle on the border with Bolivia. Since returning from that trip a week ago, we have been feeling pretty ill with a vicious flu virus. It has attacked our neighbours in the campground as well, but I have the most sympathy for Sandy who had to travel with its company to Los Angeles and then, a few days later, 14 hours to Australia. At the moment we are all a bit fed up with it and getting keen to be on the road again. Each day we hope to wake up feeling well enough to start planning to move - but it won't be today!
In our last entry we left you as we arrived in Lima. As we mentioned, we had intended to avoid the city but in the end found it impractical to do so. We spent 3 days there and caught a few of the sights. Plaza de Armas or Plaza Mayor, as it is more recently called, is a UNESCO world heritage site. It has a strange mix of splendid colonial buildings with a very ugly 60's low-rise next to the Government Palace, not exactly hidden away in a corner. There is also a strong Moorish influence with intricately-wrought enclosed balconies a very common sight. Our attention was drawn to the flags flying from the Government Palace because the Australian flag was amongst them. We spent some time trying to identify all the others and then trying to figure out why that particular combination was chosen. We wandered around in the immediate area of the plaza and Juergen took a trip down memory lane - first in an enormous bead shop and then through the printing area of the city, which we just happened upon (both significant products in his past business ventures). We crossed the Puente de Piedra over the Rio Rimac, but didn't get any further than the end of the bridge before a group of security guards warned us that it wasn't safe to walk around in this area. Our aim had been to find a spot to more successfully photograph the colourful slums on the hill, so we had to be content with the view from the bridge.
The flag conundrum was solved the next day when we decided to visit the Museo de la Nacion, which sounded like the most interesting of all the public museums in Lima. When we arrived we discovered, to our great disappointment, that the majority of it was closed for a conference as part of APEC Peru 2008 - and thus the collection of flags we had seen. There was one room open on the ground floor which had a small, but impressive, selection of what we might have seen, including some very well preserved textiles. It is interesting to note that the reason there are well-preserved textiles available to display in the museums of Peru is that it is so dry here, particularly along the coast, that decomposition is slowed right down. On one of the other floors we found an exhibition dedicated to the potato, which actually originates in Peru. There are several thousand varieties still grown here, which makes it quite a challenge to choose potatoes at the market! There was also an exhibition about the Shining Light terrorist/liberation organisation - dependant on your point of view! It had commentary in English but neither of us was in the mood to spend the time it would take to visit this exhibit thoroughly, given that we had come with the idea of viewing pre-Colombian artefacts. So we took a taxi to the Rafael Larco Herrera Archeological Museum, which has a huge private collection with over 45000 objects. Most of them are ceramic, including several rooms of storage, which it is possible to wander through. They also have objects of gold and other metals, as well as some very impressive textiles. But the most unusual collection is one of erotic ceramics - the like of which we have seen only once before in the Jade Museum in San Jose, Costa Rica. Our desire for good examples of pre-Colombian artefacts was more than satisfied!
Since the Hitchhikers Hostel offered wifi, we managed to finish our first update of Peru whilst there and also shopped at what turned out to be our last, large, well-stocked supermarket for quite a while. We also ate at a few nice restaurants, including Sushi Ito, which served excellent Japanese food, and where we sampled our first Pisco Sour. (Pisco is a locally made spirit, which I believe is made from fortified wine, a little like brandy. Some would say it is the Peruvian national drink but we have been told that the Chileans dispute this claim). We were not sorry to leave Lima, which was not much different than any large city - difficult to drive in and difficult to sleep in!
Our next destination was Cusco, with a brief stop in Nazca - or maybe Cuzco and Nasca, since nobody seems to agree on the correct spelling and we have seen both on road signs and maps. The highway south was more of the same - brown sand desert. There are a number of resorts next to the ocean south of Lima, presumably to cater for the more affluent members of Lima society. I must confess that, despite their rather impressive buildings, they didn't look very inviting to me as a place to spend a holiday - but if that's all you've got... We made a brief stop in Ica to visit the Museo Regional de Ica, which has some really interesting mummies (also well-preserved due to the dry climate), as well as pottery and textiles (their best pieces had been stolen in a spectacular robbery a few years ago), and then drove on towards Nazca.
A few kilometres before Nazca we stopped at Maria Reiche Museum. This German woman devoted her entire life to examining and analysing the Lines in the desert and died in Peru at the age of 95 in 1998. A couple of kilometres on from her house we came to the mirador, which she had built so that people could see some of the amazing shapes. We climbed the somewhat wobbly tower, and the view was enough for me - I was happy to let Juergen take the plane trip over the Lines. He was not overly impressed since he found the trip too short and therefore too hurried, but he was able to get some quite clear images of these strange drawings in the desert.
The journey from Nazca, which is at only 600 meters, to Cusco was quite stunning since it climbs to over 4000m on 3 occasions and then drops down to valleys of around 2000 in between. We reached the first high point in about 2 hours, as we passed through Reserva Nacional Pampas Galeras, a vicuña reserve. We saw our first vicuñas, which are relatives of llamas but finer in build with delicate features. Their colouring - brown with white belly - means they are sometimes hard to spot in the dry pampas of this altitude. As the road descended again it deteriorated considerably and it was slow going until we reached Puquio. Not that the roads through that town were any better, since we were sent on a detour as the main road was being repaired or rebuilt - we met a double decker bus on one of the narrow unpaved roads we were forced to drive, and barely managed to get past it without a scrape.
As soon as we left Puquio the road became very good again, and we climbed to 4500m, continuing across an amazing plateau, with beautiful bright blue lakes and snow peaks clearly visible. It was quite cold and we were both feeling the height so, despite the beautiful scenery, we were quite keen to begin descending again. At around 4:30 we eventually began to go down, and desperately wanted to find a lower spot to sleep. We saw many massive herds of llamas/alpacas on the way down. This road was very windy, as attested to by our GPS which recorded the route, but we finally reached Promesa just after 6:00 and, at about 3500m, deemed it low enough to sleep. Fortunately we found a flat bit of ground near a river, which we now believe to be Rio Pachachaca. It was a cold night at that altitude, but we slept undisturbed.
We continued to follow this river valley downwards until we stopped for lunch below Abancay - actually quite close to where we would have come out had we driven down the iffy mountain roads as originally planned. The road then climbed up dramatically into the town of Abancay and continued on beyond it. High above the town we stopped at a bend that had more shrines to motor accident victims than we had ever seen in one place. Since they were all marked with the same date, we assumed that it must have been an horrific bus accident - small wonder the way some bus drivers drive on these roads. We descended once again into the beautiful canyon of the Rio Apurimac. The water was a brilliant aqua blue and the canyon walls stunning, but it wasn't long before we were climbing up again for the final time before reaching Cusco. Driving along another plateau (albeit lower than the one of the previous day) and getting closer to our destination we noticed that the mud brick houses on this section were really attractive. They are a deeper brown than the ones we had been so depressed by on the coast, with a strong reddish element. The whole countryside had the appearance of being well taken care of, including the fields and the towns.

Continuation on > Page 2 > !

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