Disaster strikes – not once, but twice!

You may have noticed this blog has had a quiet week…we set out last Monday, 17 March, for Copacabana and the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, in high spirits.

At the mid point of our trip, ahead of us lay many interesting and exciting options. We had a general plan – few days on the Isla, another week to explore the underbelly of La Paz/El Alto, on to Salar d’Uyuni and the Atacama desert, the north of Chile, an anarchist bookfair in Santiago, more Chilean culture and sights, before back to Santiago for May Day, followed by a last Pacific beach blast before a visit to family in Canada.

We have, and would have had, plenty more to write and say, pics to share, opinions and rants to unleash. Alas…it was not to be…

By Wednesday we were back in La Paz licking a wound, one of us was quite sick. A Friday in a clinic, and tests revealed both salmonella and amoebic dysentery in the gut, so strong meds were purchased, and we had 8 days to recover for the Uyuni and onwards.

It was not to be. The call that all travellers fear and hope does not come, came – an elderly parent, in London, has suddenly just died. And that is that, the end of the trip, c’est la vie as they don’t say in Spanish. The priority now is to return to share the practical and emotional burdens of bereavement with family and friends. Marion D Beasley RIP, a kind soul who gave so much and asked so little in return, you will be missed.

So no time now, as we tap away awaiting a connecting flight faraway, for stories anew. No time to tell of the hailstorm that left the beaches of the Isla del Sol white, nor of the odd celebrations in La Paz this weekend to commemorate a Pacific war long lost.

This may, or may not, be the last post to this blog? We may, or may not, return later to complete our south American trip? Thanks for reading, we hope you were amused, entertained, informed and provoked in equal measure. We were!


Cusco, warrior kings, and Inca$h

On our last weekend in Cusco, Peru, two weeks ago, we visited 2 more sites of historical importance to both Cusco and the myth/realities of the Incas, and spent some time considering both the Inca stories and modern-day Cusco.

Cusco - looking north from Pachacuti's tower

Cusco – looking north from Pachacuti’s tower

First though we should say – if you visit this part of Peru don’t just be seduced into visiting only the Inca$h-cow of Machu Picchu. Go to Cusco as it is well worth a week of your time, as well as serving as a good base for excellent day-trips nearby. It is a place of enormous historical, cultural & economic interest, as well as offering a good insight to the reality of Peru today and the enormous wealth inequality that exists (from rhe time of the Incas to the modern day) – to discover that you only need walk 15 minutes south of the Plaza de Armas tourist area, past the Mercado Central in San Pedro, and just wander.

wpid-IMG_20140301_225625.jpgOn the Saturday we checked out the tower & museum dedicated to Inca Pachacuti (or Pachacutec), perhaps the greatest Inca of them all, who developed the Inca’s from just another largeish mountain tribe into the Empire they are now famous for. The tower dedicated to him was initiated as a response to the 500th anniversary of Columbus arrival, in 1992. It stands at the southeastern end of Avenida Sol, close to the bus terminal, and features a stone tower with a huge metal statue of Pachacuti on top. The museum inside covers Inca history and the development of the empire.

Pachacuti made his name in the early 15th century when he fought off an attack on Cusco & the Incas by the neighbouring Chanca (or Chanka) tribe. At the time several tribal kingdoms existed in what is now the region of Cusco, every now and then one would attempt to take over a neighbour. In this case the Inca king, Pachacuti’s father, fled the city, leaving his younger son to defend it, as other tribes looked on to see who would win. Surprisingly Pachacuti did, and subsequently kicked his father out as top Inca. As with all Inca history, the battle is filled with myths, such as the Inca gods helping out by turning stones into warriors!

wpid-IMG_20140301_230216.jpgOver the next few decades Pachacuti massively expanded the Inca ruled areas, defeating allcomers. He developed Cusco into a huge city designed in the shape of a Puma. Perfected the Inca domination of the economy via first-rate administration and agricultural management. Engaged in massive social engineering in relation to conquered foes. Offered those he conquered guarantees of food and safety, in return for servitude. And made the Incas very wealthy and powerful in the process. It is said he ruled for over 100 years until the age of maybe 125. In reality he may have ruled for 40 years, whilst his son Tupac Yupanqui followed for another 20+ years and continued his father’s expansionism. The Quechua (Inca language) word for this empire was ‘Tawantinsuyu’, meaning ‘the four directions under the sun’. This name is still used by indigenous people who desire their lands back from the European invaders, often in the context of the whole of south America, not just the Inca part (from Ecuador down to Bolivia/northern Chile, from the Andes westwards – the Inca never made it down to the jungles east of the Andes).

Remnants of Sacsayhuaman

Remnants of Sacsayhuaman

On the Sunday we visited the fortress/ritual site of Sacsayhuaman, accessible on foot via steep 50 minutes climb north from Plaza de Armas. This was a walled complex that overlooks the city from a steep hillside to the north, and was started by Pachacuti, but took many decades to build. It was intended to offer impregnable defence to the Incas, and represented the ‘head’ of the Puma design of Cusco. The site offers amazing views over the valley, as well as an insight into the Inca’s ability to build large complexes, using enormous & carefully chisseled rocks and stone, that were moved there from far away.

Nearby are several other Inca sites, including the one at Qenko – this is where Pachacuti’s mummified remains are said to have been buried. Intriguingly, his remains are said to be have been found in the 1570’s by the Spanish, in the area of Cusco now called San Blas, which was originally where the Inca elite were based in Cusco. The Spanish quickly removed his remains to Lima, never to be seen again. San Blas is now perhaps the most expensive Tourist area in Cusco, stretching uphill behind the cathedral, and still features much original Inca stonework.

remnants of large walls at Sacsayhuaman

remnants of large walls at Sacsayhuaman

We pondered on how the mighty armies & fortresses of the Incas fell so quickly to the puny forces of the Spanish invaders? It is worth noting the Inca never invented the wheel; they never saw a horse until the Spanish arrived (they used llamas as their packhorses); their weapons were pathetic in the face of Spanish guns & cannons & metal armour, and their military tactics were similarly inferior; they had developed no written form of communication, and relied on the spoken word carried by relay-runners. Perhaps most importantly, when the Spanish arrived the Inca regime was split by family infighting, and its empire had become uncontrollably large, AND the indigenous peoples were being decimated by diseases brought to central America by Europeans a decade earlier, specifically smallpox, which may over time have wiped out as much as 95% of the indigenous population. The Inca were also extremely elitist and hierarchical, as with all hierarchies they ruled by fear, and as with all hierarchies beneath there was much dissatisfaction waiting for a chance to rise up – so quite a significant percentage of peoples conquered by the Inca actually sided with the Spanish initially, realising too late that they had swapped one brutal regime for another.

Cusco today makes much play of its Inca heritage. The heavy promotion of Macchu Picchu has made it the no.1 tourist site in south America. Cusco and the wider Cusco region are the recipients of much tourist money. We saw much talk and writing about the ‘cultural fusion’ that Cusco represents, between its Colonial and Inca heritage, and there is much made of the Inca myth. And myth much of it is – with no written record, and much of its pictorial history destroyed by the Spanish (including the melting down of most of its silver & gold ornaments and idols, themselves carrying pictorial information), their is in fact very little real evidence about much of the Inca history. The Spanish destroyed/reused many of their buildings, and built over many others, leaving just architectural conjecture to feed the myths. Plus of course the 16th century decimation of the indigenous population left little oral history to be carried forwards.

Cusco expanding south from Pachacuti's tower

Cusco expanding south from Pachacuti’s tower

The tourist industry feeds on and exaggerates the Inca myth, be it their military feats, their organisational and agricultural skills, their gods & mysticism, their relationship with the earth (pachamama). Inca tourist tat is in itself a huge earner, alonside the fees paid to access Inca sites, and get to them. The industry tends to airbrush over, or out, previous cultures, that in their time were arguably more advanced than the Incas, and from whom the Incas borrowed (or at least developed further) their religion and skills – cultures/empires such as the Chavin Cult, Mohica, Warsi, Tiahuanaco (centred on Tiwanaku in Bolivia), Chimu and others all created urban centres, temples, advanced agricultural practices, and religions or spiritualism linked to nature (animals, plants, sun & moon etc). In many instances the Inca both built on or over the structures of these earlier cultures, and adapted their religious beliefs.

Then there is the whole mystical/religious side to the Inca myth. By focusing on its alleged closeness to and harmony with nature and the earth we live on, one can see its appeal to travellers from first world countries looking for some thing different, an escape from the rigours of corporate capitalism. Throw in a few mind-altering drugs, and you are onto a sure-fire winner. Let’s remember shall we, if you want to buy into the Inca story, how it all began. Their ‘creator god’ Viracocha sent out from Lake Titicaca the Inca Manco Capac and his sister Mama Occlo. They were direct descendants of the sun god, as indeed were all subsequent Inca kings, thereby giving the Inca the power to do or say anything. Oh and the sun and moon were created from a huge rock on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. This is as fanciful a fairy story as anything Christianity has come up with so far!

Pisac - less bulshit than Macchu Picchu, and easier to be to!

Pisac – less bulshit than Macchu Picchu, and easier to get to!

Now westerners with money to burn may get a kick out of Macchu Picchu at dawn, but essentially its just one of many amazing views available in the Andes, with some ruins thrown in. Any mindbending experience will be the result of chemical aids, not some sudden commune with nature or pachamama. For indigenous peoples Macchu Picchu may indeed be an important cultural & spiritual site, but that is based on decades/centuries of tradition. But we cannot get close to that purely on the basis of an early morning walk, or bus, up the hill. So who gains from this myth? Travellers get a lighter wallet and some cracking views, the authorities and a few entrepreneurs make a killing. What do the indigenous peoples get? To clean our hostels, serve us in cafes, and sell us tourist products? And have their beliefs trampled over? 

Which returns us to Cusco and its cultural-fusion, celebrating both the Inca and Colonial (Spanish) heritage. Really? What a nice way to keep the peace, and the money rolling in! There may well these days be an indigenous ‘middle class’ getting in on the act and rich with it, but from our wanderings outside of the tourist & wealthier parts of Cusco we saw one hell of a lot of urbanised indigenous people living in appalling conditions and ekeing out a day to day living at best. No sign of wealth redistribution there, even when the wealth is generated on the backs of their history & misery. These people still wake up to a skyline dominated by the symbols of their own domination, destruction and torture – the numerous Spanish built churches/monasteries etc, followed today by Coca-Cola capitalism. Will the downtrodden continue forever to be conned by such ‘cultural-fusion’ nonsense, seduced by a new mobile phone whilst they can’t drink the water and sewage runs down the middle of the street? Or could perhaps a movement re-emerge that is at one with ‘pachamama’ but drops the hierarchical Inca nonsense of previous times? Cusco is definitely a place to visit to consider these many contradictions!

Spanish classes, plus crash and burn!

So we have just completed our week of Spanish classes, 10 hours each, at a cost of approx 1000bols/£100 in total. We learnt at the i.e Language Institute ( http://www.institutoexclusivo.com), located on 20 de Octubre, in Sopocachi, who were very accommodating to our needs, and the fact we only had the 1 clear week to take classes!

The absolute beginner one of us had a fine time at five 1 to 1 sessions, gaining a massive increase in Spanish, and the confidence to use it. Additionally, the teacher also gave many insights into local La Paz customs and history, and tips on things to check out. The ‘lower intermediate’ one of us had a harder time in a small group, not least because the grammar & vocabulary that was learnt some 20 years ago, remained firmly buried in the darkest recesses of the brain – so yes it was a struggle to keep up in class. Due thanks to the sympathetic teacher….just gotta keep practising she said!😈

Crash & Burn! After 4 energetic days of exploring the nooks and crannies of central La Paz, on Tuesday we crashed and burned. wpid-IMG_20140311_140408.jpgSurprisingly this occurred just after we’d found an excellent vegetarian buffet restaurant, and eaten their superb 4-course almeurzo (lunch), at a cost of just 32bols/£2.90 each! The veggie restaurant Armonia (Harmony!) is located above a Buddhist/ spiritualist bookshop of the same name in calle Ecuador, in Sopocachi. Sadly it opens only for lunches, but most of what you eat comes from their own organic, petrol-free farmed land outside La Paz.

Zebras teaching people to cross roads...and cars to stop!

Zebras teaching people to cross roads…and cars to stop!

Quite why we crashed and burned, given we’ve been living at 3300m and above for 3 weeks now, intrigues us!? But it meant the rest of Tuesday was spent napping in the hostel. Wednesday was no better, and ironically the more robust one of us was suffering the most. The slow week has meant our explorations of the city have been put back, and we have yet to use the crazy system of busses & micros (mini vans) to get further afield and up into the higher parts of town, never mind get to some sights worth visiting outside the city.

Therefore, when we return from our full moon trip to Copacabana & the Isla de Sol sometime next week, we may well spend another week in La Paz. In the meantime listen out for us howling at the moon, or maybe just at the hippies we suspect we will come across!

Pic of the day 39 – Mount Illimani

wpid-IMG_20140314_131328.jpgMount Illimani sits to the south east of La Paz and towers over the city.

At 6438m high it is Bolivia’s second highest mountain. It is located towards the southern end of the Cordillera Real, a range of mountains that mark the northeastern edge of the Altiplano – which is the (fairly) flat highland area sitting between the two branches of the Andes, and includes Lake Titicaca & La Paz. The Cordillera Real is the most dramatic part of the Cordillera Oriental in Bolivia, with 6 peaks over 6000m. Serious mountain climbers can have a great time here, indeed from La Paz you can take a 4 day trip up Illimani. We will be skipping that option!

Illimani means ‘water bearer’ in Aymara, the dominant local indigenous language, and is considered to be the queen of the mountain gods. We are lucky enough to have a good view of Illimani from the roof of our hostel as we look south east. We’ve been even luckier with the weather, which most days so far has meant warm & sunny daytimes with temperatures into the 20+degrees. Indeed in the morning its been great to watch the mists and clouds that shroud Illimani & the cliffs above La Paz, slowly burn off. This pic was taken from the hostel roof, with our trusty digital camera.

Pic of the day 38 – dirty underpants!

Los 12 Calzoncillos Suicos del Estado Plurinacional

(= The 12 dirty underpants of the plurinational state). wpid-IMG_20140311_140226.jpg

This is a calendar produced by the radical feminists of Mujeres Creando, which we picked up whilst having a cafe at their building in La Paz called ‘Virgen de los deseos’. Each month features a cartoon critiquing a key issue, or problem, that they believe the Bolivian Govt has either failed to deal with well or has avoided altogether.

A number of cartoons naturally deal with issues of major relevance to women. For example, abortion remains illegal in Bolivia, and contraception is frowned upon. The country remains a very macho, male dominated place, despite some improvements for women in recent years. President Morales has provoked feminist anger with some comments, not least in suggesting that women, especially younger women, should have more children! Women’s pay, indeed access to jobs at all for women, remains a major problem, especially with a rise in single mothers abandoned by feckless men.

 It is difficult for us, in this a short time here so far, to assess how much support the ideas of Mujeres Creando, and similar groups, have? We have heard talk, from men, about how strong and community-minded women are, but from we can see so far the struggle for gender equality, equal rights and general female empowerment has a long way to go! http://www.mujerescreando.com

For those who don’t know, Bolivia has a full general election coming up in autum 2014. Although President Morales has been elected twice already, constitutional changes have led to him being allowed to stand for an unprecedented third term. One of those changes, in 2009, was the renaming of the country as the ‘Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia’, to reflect the large number of ethnic groups in the country.

We have noticed a tendency amongst the more Spanish, or lighter skinned, Bolivians, to poke fun at Morales. Yet as south Americas first truly indigenous elected leader, there is no doubt that alongside stable government he has introduced numerous changes intended to benefit the majority – and seriously pissed off many global corporations & states such as the USA. A key criticism of him from his radical support base though is that he can and should have gone further faster.

La Paz street art / graffiti


This gallery contains 25 photos.

In our wanderings around the streets of the central districts of La Paz, we have seen a fair amount of street art, including murals and graffiti, and our first circled @’s since leaving the UK (lots of pointless tagging too!). … Continue reading