Friday, 26 June 2015

Quyllur Rit’i Pilgrimage Part 2

The music and dancing continued through the night and the bass drummers were pounding their drums with all their strength as if their lives depended on it. A lot of them weren’t keeping a steady rhythm any more (probably as a result of sleep deprivation). Many of the fireworks were more like artillery shells and made a hell of a noise when they went off. Sleep was hard to come by. There had been more heavy rain overnight and the ground at the main Quyllur Rit’I camp, which had been more than boggy before, was a veritable quagmire now. It was a mixture of mud and faeces (provided by mules, horses and humans), liquidised with a generous application of urine. We were glad we had our hiking boots. Most of the old Andean women were heroically wandering around in sandals. It was a major undertaking not to slip over and fall on your face. We saw several locals go down but our party all managed to stay upright (though with a few close shaves).

This was the day when everyone would finally break camp. Most of the non-participants would head home, but the musicians and dancers would make the trek to the valley where the final day worship of the sun would take place. They would set off late in the day and march through the night, but we got a head start and set off after breakfast.

The trek took around seven hours, ascending and descending through the mountain passes, with epic vistas containing volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, valleys, rivers and the odd motorbike! We passed a few way stations where locals had set up cook tents to support the marching dancers and musicians later on.

After a long day on the move, with several of the group having to resort to a ride on our spare mule, “Taxi”, we made it to our new campsite. It couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the one we’d left that morning. The sprawling mass of tents, people, animals and cook fires had been replaced with a field containing only our own tents. We stood gazing awestruck at the night sky for a while before climbing into our sleeping bags around 8pm. We would be rising at 4am for the last act of the festival.

A frosty start to the morning at main camp

The musicians continue undeterred!

Souvenir alley

Main camp "car park"

The full extent of main camp as we climb out of the valley

A herd of alpacas greet our ascent

Guest reporter caught on camera at last

The camp and glaciers from high up the mountain side

Way-station preparing to greet and refuel the weary dancers and musicians

"Taxi" and friends

A more modern approach to the mountainous terrain

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Quyllur Rit’i Pilgrimage Part 1

Guest author Fraser Nicol presents the Quyllur Rit’i Pilgrimage Part 1:

Before I get started, many thanks to Chris and Sarah for giving me the opportunity to bring down the quality of this superb travel blog!

It was with a heavy heart that I set out on this Andean religious pilgrimage. I didn’t want to leave my friends, but I’d have only been in the way and they were determined that I should enjoy what they could not (and bring back lots of pictures and videos of course!).

A few others had dropped out of the trek due to illness, but there were still ten of us in the group, accompanied by two guides (Yosip and Briner). Our bus picked us up from Cusco at 7am and set off through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was at a traditional Sunday market in the village of Urcos. We were instructed to purchase coca leaves (which could be exchanged with people we met on our trip) and sweets. The sweets were to provide extra sugar in our blood to combat the altitude. Yosip was particularly enthusiastically about this and kept saying, “more candies, more candies!!”. We passed a number of other Sunday markets on our way (a tradition in the region) along with open top lorries filled with locals on their way to the festival. All this was accompanied by an Andean pan pipe album which strangely included Highland Cathedral and the theme music to Last of the Mohicans.

We reached what was described as Base Camp, a sprawling mass of tents and parked vehicles (and horses), which served as the launch pad for the climb up to the main camp up in the mountains. Here we met our support team of six locals with a mule train and a horse, which would accompany us in case someone got sick or couldn’t handle the climb. The horse was affectionately known as “Taxi”. Because it was now lashing it down, we decided to have lunch before the climb to the main camp to give time for the rain to stop. This introduced us to our cook, Mauro. I cannot possibly overstate just how good he was. He produced a variety of dishes over the course of the four days which were worthy of any gourmet chef and all he had to use was a camp stove! I gave serious thought to kidnapping him at the end of the trek and bringing him back to the UK to open a restaurant. Once we had eaten, we started the climb at a slow, steady pace with frequent rest stops to help us cope with the higher altitude.

It was Trinity Sunday, the day upon which most people traditionally arrive at the main camp. But not everyone was arriving. More than ten thousand people attend the festival at some point or other and many of them couldn’t get time off work for these most important four days. So as we slowly ascended up the mountain path, we were passed by a steady stream of people descending back into the valley. It turned out that the festival had been going for two weeks already! 

The route up to the camp is marked by fourteen decorated crosses, the last of which is situated on the Qullqip’unqu glacier, above the main camp site. Merchants also camp out beside the route, trying to sell their wares, most notably fruit juice sellers, who squeeze the juice from the fruit in presses.

We reached the huge main camp, at around 4,400 metres, just before dark. Thankfully, our support team had comfortably beaten us up there and had pitched our tents. We gratefully piled into the mess tent for ‘happy hour’. This consisted of sitting around and drinking tea and eating popcorn! After dinner we went out to do some night-time exploration of the camp site.

The Quyllur Rit’i Festival is a strange mixture of Catholic and indigenous rituals (the latter of which the Catholic Church turns a blind eye to avoid upsetting a significant portion of their South American congregation). Quyllur Rit’i translates as “star snow” and involves worship of the stars, the Christian God and, later on, the sun. It always takes place at the full moon. The form of worship is mostly music and dance. The musicians and dancers come from all over the region and the dancers wear a variety of exotic costumes to show where they are from. Competition to be chosen as a dancer is fierce and being chosen is considered a great honour. Even after sundown we were able to see plenty of the dancers as the music and dancing continues 24/7. As some groups take a break, others leap into action. Some of the dancing takes place near the dancers own tents, but there are also several large staging areas (most importantly in and around the church) where the dancing groups take turns to perform. The music involves bass and snare drums with brass and woodwind instruments carrying the tune. The night time dancing is accompanied by displays of fireworks. This means that the campsite is never quiet and sleep is fitful at best, but the atmosphere is incredible so it’s more than worth it.

The second day of our adventure began with ‘tent service’, the festival equivalent of room service. This meant being brought a hot mug of coca tea by the guides while still in our sleeping bags. Yosip was alarmed by the fact that I hadn’t used the sleeping bag liner provided. He assumed that I didn’t know what it was for. After I’d reassured him that I was Scottish and so didn’t consider -10 Celsius to be cold enough to justify using a liner, he re-Christened me “chico calientes” (hot guy) and persistently referred to me this way for the rest of the trip.

After breakfast we attempted the climb up Qullqip’unqu to the glacier, several hundred metres above the campsite. The scenery was glorious and more and more of the glacier was exposed to view as we climbed. We could see plenty of small figures up on the snow. Some of these were dancers who are charged to collect ice from the glacier for the festival. Others were ambitious climbers like us. Unfortunately our ascent was foiled at the foot of the glacier. Some officious bureaucrats had just arrived and were preventing anyone else from ascending it. We settled for wistfully taking pictures of the lucky ones who had got up there in time. The saddest thing of all is that, with the rise in global temperatures, the glacier is melting and, according to experts, has only five years left. We will be one of the last festival groups to see it.

Mauro surprised us with a magnificent pasta cake for dinner. It even sliced like a proper cake. I'd never even thought to try something that audacious. After dinner we watched the fireworks once more. Some of the locals had gone up the mountainside with torches to spell out "Lucre", the name of their region in Peru. Great way to advertise!

Doing a roaring trade in Coca leaves at Urcos Sunday market

Base camp even has table football

Base camp car park

Asea of blue tarpaulin at base camp

The ascent begins - many are already on their way down

The first of 14 decorated crosses which mark the route

Freshly squeezed juice for the weary traveller

The main camp at 4400m

Shall we dance? Multiple teams of colourful dancers perform all day and all night. In the background a group in green are dancing on the far hillside!

Many groups carry a model of a baby lama - this represents fertility and new life

The Qullqip’unqu glacier is the objective for Day 2

You can see hundreds of people up on its snows dancing in the sunshine

Unfortunately this is as far as we got, to the ice tongue and its meltwater lake

Looking back towards the main camp in the valley below

More and more dancers appear

Birthday bumps?!

Pasta cake for tea!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Magnificent Machupicchu

Standing 2,430m above sea level, in the midst of tropical cloud forests, in an extraordinarily beautiful setting lies Machupicchu. 

Machupicchu was 'rediscovered' in 1911 and has since become one of the worlds foremost tourist destinations. That said, I thought that the site still retained an air of mystery and serenity, as we wandered between the 150 plus buildings, ranging from baths and houses to temples and sanctuaries, it was impossible not to get caught up in the manmade wonder of it all. 

We'd seen pictures of the famous Machupicchu, but what they didn't convey was the stunning landscape that surrounds these ruins. In the midst of tropical mountainous forests on the eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes, Machupicchu’s walls, terraces, stairways and ramps blend seamlessly into its natural setting. The Urubamba River meanders and forms a turn before getting to Machupicchu mountain which, together with the Huayna (young) Picchu (mountain), comprises a C-shape, facing the Sachapata and Putucusi hills. These mountains form a majestic landscape and an insurmountable barrier at the same time. This was our first glimpse of the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Armed with our recently purchased guide books, Fraser took on the role of tour guide and showed us around the site with admirable prowess. Machupicchu stretches over an impressive 5 square miles, featuring more than 3,000 stone steps that link its many different levels. Archaeologists have identified several distinct sectors that together comprise the city, including a farming zone, a residential or schooling neighbourhood, a royal district and a sacred area. Machupicchu’s most distinct and famous structures include the Temple of the Sun and the Intihuatana stone, a sculpted granite rock that is believed to have functioned as a solar clock or calendar. We learnt how this stone was damaged in 2000 when a crane fell on it filming a beer commercial.

The site’s finely crafted stonework, terraced fields and sophisticated irrigation system bear witness to the Inca civilisation’s architectural, agricultural and engineering skill level.

Machupicchu is an amazing urban creation from the height of the Inca Empire. Its central buildings demonstrate masonry techniques mastered by the Incas in which granite stones were carved to fit exactly together without the use of mortar. The basic module of the rectangular and gabled kancha (basically a large stone brick) is repeated, varying according to the topography and the required functions. The stone walls have a slight inclination that gives them earthquake-resistant properties. The typical doors, windows and niches are in trapezoidal shape.

Much is speculated regarding the religious significance or utilisation of the site, the real truth is that the reason for its construction has been lost in the mists of time, as it was never discovered and chronicled by the Spanish. It is believed that the entire site was planned in detail before it was built. This urban complex is thought to mimic the shape of a condor. The leader who ordered the construction of the urban complex in this very difficult site was definitely visionary. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. In fact, the buildings are made from the pinnacle on which the site stands. At least the construction workers didn't have to carry too many blocks up the hill, just dig them out of the onsite quarry (without the use of steel and iron chisels) and assemble them perfectly together.

We spent a full day at Machupicchu and took hundreds of photos. The place got quieter as the day went on and it was good to sit down and soak it all up. As the sun set behind the western pinnacles we turned to home, waving goodbye to this stone enigma and feeling somehow enriched at witnessing one of the seven wonders of the World.

The iconic view that has adorned thousands of pictures, postcards and magazine articles truly is a breathtaking site

The early morning train from Olantaytambo winds its way up the sacred valley

A short bus ride or a 1.5 hour walk brings you to the infamous ruins. Here we're stood in the terraced fields of the agricultural sector looking towards the city.

As we arrived the early morning clouds (well it is a cloud forest after all) began to part and reveal a fantastic vista of mountains, forests and ruins

Standing in the remains of the temple of water

The Temple of the Sun, set atop a giant boulder displays some of the finest quality blockwork on the whole site

The main door to the Royal Palace, the holes halfway up the sides and the protruding block at the top formed part of a locking mechanism for the original wooden doors. The trapezoidal shape is standard amongst all doors and windows providing extra ear quake resistance. In addition all walls taper in from the outside providing the same function.

Impressive mortar-less joins between the blocks, all processed using bronze, copper and stone tools

Temple of the Sun with the Urubamba river far below

Much more rough and ready blockwork for the less important buildings and outer walls

Temple of the 5 niches with a giant alter

This small stone alter is perfectly aligned north-south, east-west and used as a type of solar clock

The back side of Machupicchu looking down to the Urubamba river. These terraces were used for herbs and precious crops used in the religious ceremonies

The boulder in the foreground is a miniature representation of the Machupicchu site with Hayan Picchu mountain in the background

This is the most sacred part of the Machupicchu site, the alter is known as The Hitching Post of the Sun and is aligned for the summer and winter solstices and the two equinoxes. It is believed it was used for the most important Inca ceremonies

Niches are found in every building, probably used for candles and offerings

Looking back towards Machupicchu mountain and the terraced agricultural sector

The main temple of the site with The Hitching Post of the Sun atop

Grabbing some chill time and soaking up the atmosphere

Although you can never be alone in this place

Maybe this lama is a reincarnation of an Inca Llama

Or maybe they're just here to trim the grass

The cloud forests truly live up to their name

The main entrance to the site where the Inca trail finishes

The great gully that separates the agricultural sector from the city is actually an inactive fault line that plunges to the valley floor

Made it!