The wonderful Museo Farael Larco Herrera in Lima has an infamous display of pre-Colombian erotic pots, that explicitly illustrate the sexual lives of ancient Peruvian men, women, skeletons and animals in various combinations. Here’s one of them, to view the entire album, click on the link beneath the photo. It’s worth it :-).
Arequipa, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, provided our ‘aclimatisation stop’ on the way from Nazca to Chivay and then Puno. Nazca is at sea level, and both Puno and Chivay are over 3,500 metres – a trip straight up to that altitude is asking for altitude sickness.
Arequipa is unofficially Peru’s second city, and lies at 2,380 metres, in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, and has a near perfect climate – it hardly ever rains and has perpetual blue skies. El Misti volcano, pictured just to the left of the cross in the photo above is 5,822m high, and is topped by snow year round. It occasionally erupts and will probably do so catastrophically sometime soon – or so the locals think! Worryingly, this doesn’t seem to stop them building settlements higher and higher up the lava flows. The other two volcanoes are Chachani (6,057m) and Pichu-Pichu (5,669m).
The city was ‘re-founded’ by the Spanish in 1540, but the area was previously occupied by Aymara Indians and later, the Incas.
Perhaps Arequipa’s most striking feature – apart from its blue skies and snow-capped volcanoes, is the pearly white volcanic material from which the majority of its buildings are constructed. Known as ‘Sillar’, it causes the whiteness of the buildings to contrast beautifully with the deep blue skies, sparkling in the crisp sunlight.
There are a couple of worthwhile things to do in Arequipa, apart from visit all the colonial plazas and churches (had enough yet?), my favourite being the Museo Santuarios Andinos, or the ‘Ice Mummies’ museum.
A few years ago on nearby Mount Ampato some archaeologists discovered a series of Inca ritual sacrifice victims. These sacrifices were of young children, mainly girls, and are thought to have been offerings to appease the volcano gods. The amazingly well preserved bodies, including that of the famous ‘Juanita’ are kept in the museum, with all the artifacts found buried with them. It provides ample food for the imagination and a fascinating insight into Inca life 500 years ago.
Secondly, if you can spare the rather steep entry price, visit the more than 400 year old Santa Catalina convent which is effectively a beautiful, isolated 2 hectare citadel within the city. It was where about 450 young nuns from privileged families lived in total seclusion. Although rumours abound of their antics for the first couple of hundred years (wild parties, orgies etc), all the partying was quickly stopped dead by the arrival of a famously strict and draconian head nun. Try and visit at sunset on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as we did, when you can wonder around the convent by candle light.
In 1987 archaeologists made a remarkable find in Sipan, 30km South East of Chiclayo in Northern Peru. Under what at first appeared to be a couple of giant piles of mud, they found several Moche tombs and hundreds of dazzling artifacts in Gold, Silver, Bronze as well as one of the finest collections of pre-Colombian ceramics in the Americas.
The story behind the discovery is perhaps as fascinating as the place itself. Archaeologist Doctor Walter Alva suddenly noticed an influx of amazingly intricate Moche artifacts on the international black market. Some of these were intercepted by the FBI in Miami as they were smuggled into the States. He immediately realised that a huge Moche burial site had been found in Peru and was in the process of being ransacked, probably by local farmers.
The giant mud hills pictured above were of course not made by pre-Colombian termites, but by the Moche people around AD300. Originally they were huge truncated pyramids made from millions of Adobe bricks, but over the years erosion has taken its toll, hiding the pyramids from everyone – including thankfully from the Spanish Conquistadors.
The most fascinating tomb of all, was that of the Lord of Sipan who was found buried with huge amounts of gold and jewellery, most of which is now in the excellent museum Tumbes Reales at Lambayeque (a short distance from Chiclayo)
Who were the Moche?
Everyone has heard of the Incas, who took control of Peru around 1500AD, but very few people have heard of the Peruvian Cultures preceding the Incas – including the Huaca Prieta, Chavin, Moche, Sica and Chimu. Moche culture evolved from around 200BC and lasted to about AD 850.
The Moche loved building Adobe pyramids, and made some of the most creative ceramics in the Americas, depicting the organisation of their society as well as religion.
I hadn’t really paid much attention to San Augustin’s existence until I arrived in Cali, where I read in my guidebook about some mysterious stone statues a day or two’s travel south in an area known as the Valley of the Statues. What struck me as most interesting was the fact that no one has the faintest idea about the culture that made them.
As no writing has ever been found, archaeologists have been left to draw their conclusions about the culture from the styles of the statues themselves.
What they do know is this:
Some of the statues date back to 3,300BC making these statues some of the oldest examples of human civilization on the planet
There are various Asian and African influences in some of the sculptures – for example statues of Gorillas (don’t exist in S. America), statues showing African Elephants (don’t exist in S. America), statues wearing Indian head-pieces (turbans etc), statues with clearly Asian eyes – which has led the academic community to believe that this culture was so advanced it had extensive contact with Africa and Asia thousands of years before it was originally thought such contact arose
Only 10%-20% of the extensive area has been excavated, and buried underground there are almost certainly extensive dwelling areas, and possibly even an entire city
Somewhere underground there will be examples of writing which will finally shed light on a mysterious civilization talked about by archaeologists as being expert craftsmen and mathematicians
There are about 20 well-kept sites in the area, with most of the statues found in situ (where they were originally discovered). To give you an idea of the size of the area, it can take you almost a day to do a round trip drive in a jeep from San Augustin to get to the more remote sites, although the closest statues are found in the Parque Arqueologico, about 3km walk (or bus) from San Augustin.
Almost all the statues were originally found lying down covered up in underground graves, and it is thought that the civilization that created them may have come under attack from the Incas, therefore burying the statues to avoid their destruction.
I spent the first day wandering around the Parque Arqueologico, which has about 130 statues and graves in 3 or 4 main clusters. I decided to hire a guide, which was definitely the right decision as it seemed he had a story for every statue in the park. He would excitedly point out the various influences that it is thought shaped the statues (African, Asian, Indian etc), as well as describe in gory detail the human sacrifices performed by this civilization by burning alive, burying alive and cutting the throats of victims. They particularly liked to dispatch young virgin boys & girls as gifts for dead leaders to take with them into the afterlife (virgin boys for the women leaders, and vice versa showing a remarkable degree of gender equality for a civilization so old).
Perhaps most intriguing are the statues clearly showing caesarian sections being performed, as well as the statue showing in detail the biological layout of the heart, which (along with evidence from a few of the preserved skulls found) has lead academics to the conclusion that this civilization were expert surgeons and were even performing brain surgery operations thousands of years ago.
San Augustin is a truly wonderful and mysterious place, and unbelievably almost devoid of tourists – we saw about six tourists in two days which, for an area boasting some of the earliest and most creative examples of human civilization, seems laughable. Sadly, this can only be attributed to the vastly incorrect Colombian travel warnings given out by our ‘concerned’ governments.
Most remarkable of all is the certainty that under the rolling hills lies a vast civilization waiting to be discovered. One day, when UNESCO has raised the vast funding required to excavate the area properly, we are sure to be able to not only name but learn from the civilization that built the Valley of the Statues.
Our first glimpses of the Gran Sabana in Venezuela were through the night bus window, shortly after a dawn army checkpoint woke us near Santa Elena de Uairén on the Brazilian border – the only town in the Gran Sabana. We woke up and gazed in awe at the rolling countryside, topped with the famous & striking ‘Tepuis’ (table mountains).
Some of you may have heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Lost World (also made into a film) which described an expedition to a mysterious table top mountain in South America where dinosaurs & ape men still roamed. It is thought that The Lost World was based on the most famous of all Tepuis, Roraima – pictured above towards the right of the photo at the back.
As the tops of the Tepuis are more than two billion years old, and have been isolated from the surrounding savannah for much of this time, various flora and fauna have evolved independently upon their summits. There are more than 2000 plant species and various animals & insects unique to these specific mountains.
It is possible to organise a fairly strenuous 5-6 day trek to the top of Roraima, which is best arranged in Santa Elena de Uairén, although we have heard varying reports as to how worthwhile these are. It is not unheard of to climb the mountain, get rained on, and not see very much at all (thanks to the near permanent cloud cover). It’s also fairly common to get savaged by aggressive but almost invisible Puri Puri flies. You pay about $450 for this experience.
Suffice it to say that we decided to cruise around the Gran Sabana on a one day tour only. We went with a very knowledgeable and friendly local guide called Santiago, whom we organised through Roberto’s Mystic Tours (Roberto also specializes in local UFO sightings). We’d highly recommend Santiago, but the tour is in Spanish only. Oh, and we also go savaged by aggressive but almost invisible Puri Puri flies despite using ridiculous quantities of repellent.
Popayán is the capital of the Cauca region of Colombia. The Spanish founded it in 1536, and the early settlers used it as a kind of retreat from their hot & sticky sugar cane farms in the Cauca Valley. As Popayán lies at 1,760 metres, the climate is significantly more bearable than low-lying areas at this latitude.
I used Popayán as a stop-off point between Cali and the mysterious archaeological site of San Augustin, my final destination, and had a couple of hours wandering the charming Andalucian-style colonial streets before nightfall. The Spanish classic architecture was beautiful, and in places (such as the main Plaza), simply breathtaking.
Popayán felt much more like a sleepy university town than its estimated population of 225,000 would have you believe, and the following morning it became yet another Colombian destination I had to reluctantly drag myself away from!
Security around Popayán
Up until relatively recently (late 2005), there have been (to quote my guide book) "guerrilla problems" in the Cauca region of Colombia, however, as with the rest of Colombia, security has improved hugely in the last few years, and according to locals these areas are now completely safe. It will of course be a few years before the guide books, then the international governments give the all-clear, and the tourists flood in, but having spoken endlessly to various locals we can assure you Colombia is safe. What’s more, it’s probably the friendliest country in Latin America!
Click on the play button above to listen to the Podcast we made from Cartagena in Colombia – our favourite city in Latin America so far. In this podcast we discuss finding accommodation in Cartagena, we record the sounds of the old town at night, and finish off with a discussion sitting on top of Castillo San Filipe – the largest Spanish fort built in the Americas.
Founded by the Spanish in 1533, Cartagena is Colombia’s and possibly Latin America’s finest Colonial city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly after it was founded it became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast, and was used to store gold and other treasure plundered from the Indians before it was transported back to Spain.
Due to the riches stored within its walls, Cartagena quickly became a target, and was on the receiving end of countless pirate attacks and five full scale sieges in the 16th century alone. The most famous siege (although not the largest) was led by Sir Francis Drake in 1586.
After a while, fed up with all the attacks, the Spanish decided enough was enough, and made Cartagena virtually impregnable by building huge 12 km-long walls around the centre, and a series of forts & castles at strategic positions around the city.
Cartagena old town is a living museum of 16th and 17th century Spanish architecture, and it would easily be possible to spend a week or two here exploring the streets, admiring the beautiful colonial buildings, and soaking in the street life created by buskers, acrobats, dancers and artisans selling their wares. Not to mention the pristine Caribbean beaches, islands & national parks within a day’s reach of Cartagena.
Cartagena is easily my favourite city in 3 months’ travel through Central America, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone heading to South America. Forget the security worries associated with Colombia, ironically Colombia is the country I have felt safest so far on my travels through Spain, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
If you have any questions, please feel free to post them below as comments.