Ayacucho – shades of terrorism in the city of churches

From the coastal Paracas we went directly into Peruvian Sierra, straight to Ayacucho. Ayacucho surprises its visitors with the number of churches – according to travel guides there are 33 of them from colonial times (16th-18th century), one for every year of Jusus life. Counting 20 modern churches more, it gives over 50 in the city with just 150 thousand citizens! Why so many? The guide does not answer this question any more but my guess is that the city was in a strong opposition to the Spanish culture. And the conquistadors remedy against confrontation was to destroy on the local shrines and build in this place a church – a symbol of the new god.   P1360220 P1350729

Until now Ayacucho has an exceptionally strong personality and feeling of its own identity. The primary language of the city is not Spanish, as is the case for northern and costal Peru, but Quechua. I had the impression that almost all the ayacuchans know it and speak it between each other. The women in Ayacucho wear small white or brown sombreros, so different than the ones I got used to in the north. The skirts have incredible colors and flower patterns.

P1350821P1350970On the local market one can find overwhelming number of cheese sorts (in all the stages of  maturity!) and the best bread I tried during my whole stay in Peru (that’s a personal opinion of course). In the weekends local women sell traditionally made ice cream muyuchi (tasty, creamy and completely natural!).

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However, Ayacucho has behind it a painful and difficult history. Just a few kilometres away from here took place the most important battle of south american war for independence. In 1824 the revolutionists defeated the royalists, a victory which lead to the creation of new republics, among them Peru and Bolivia. After this campaign the city gained its contemporary name: Ayacucho, which some translate as ‘The city of dead’ (although it could mean also the ‘Home of the soul’). This first name actually describes better what happened to Ayacucho later.

Just half a century ago, in 1960s, the city witnessed the birth of the peruvian maoist political movement known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), which was to hold the whole country in the terrorist horror until late 90s. The Shining Path developed under the leadership of Abimael Guzman, a philosophy professor at the local university. Guzman was finally sentenced a life in prison for terrorism and murder, as his political organisation evolved into brutal guerilla groups. In the 80s the campesinos in central Andes were trapped between two evil forces  the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso on one side and the brutality of peruvian army on the other. Both parties are responsible for exterminating the whole villages: those who supported the army were killed by the guerillas, those in favour of Sendero Luminoso were murdered by the government. No escape.

The woman in the market stall smiles as she pours us a freshly made juice. She seems to be a very positive person but her past hides some sad memories. Asked about the Shining Path she tells us briefly her story: how the terrorists came to her village, how her father was killed and hanged outside by his legs, how his only fault was to be the son of the mayor.

Her story was a nighmare come true for many people that still walk on the streets of Ayacucho. Now the city lives its modern life as if nothing ever happened. Many of the young ones will even not know what Sendero Luminoso was. The topic is almost omitted at the history classes (mostly due to the lack of time) and the in result the young students with revolutionary idea are attracted to MOVDEF, a political ‘cover’ movement for old members and ideas of Sendero Luminoso people. When will we finally start learning our lesson from the history?P1350690  

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Paracas – into the land of birds

Imagine tiny islands full of birds. Many birds. Lots, lots of birds. Actually millions of birds, flying all over. For me (I am a nature freak) it was one of the most amazing views of this trip.

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Islas Ballestas are the main attraction of the National Park of Paracas, a couple of hours south from Lima. Some people advertise them as ‘Galapagos of Peru’, which is somewhat too flattering for the Peruvians. But still the Ballestas still impress with their wildlife. They say there are 150 different types of birds on the islands. Impossible to spot even a part of them, but what you see is exciting enough: there are colonies of pelicans, Peruvian boobies with their chicks, Inca terns, cormorants …. and …. penguins  (It has always been my dream to see the penguins)

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The Humboldt Penguins, called also peruvian penguins, swim in the cold streams of the coastal waters of Peru and Chile. And they are so cute, walking clumsy on the ground but don’t be deceived – they become extremely fast once they enter the waters!

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The boobies, cormorants, pelicans and penguins live in peace and harmony with sea lions. I saw whole big colonies of those beautiful creatures – really extraordinary!

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Islas Ballestas used to be economically strategical for Peru in 19th century due to the guano, the bird shit (there were far more birds on these islands at that time). Guano was being sold to the European markets and the economy was experiencing a boom. There was just one little problem – exported at the rate of more than 500 tones a year, exploited by the greedy governors, the guano islands got depleted at one point… And the peruvian economy was close to crash.

Some sociologist nowadays would say that the country did not learn much from its history. The Peruvian economy now is based mostly on the export of gold, silver and copper, which are bound to finish one day as well…

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Where Trujillo goes shopping

A crowd of people, buses, taxis, honking, tons of patatos, bananas, chickens with the intestials inside-out. This is La Hermelinda, the heart of commercial Trujillo, the place where the city goes shopping. Here you can buy everything – starting with fruits and vegetables, and finishing on chickens and pigs alive! It is cultura peruana viva, with all its colors, tastes and smells.

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Huanchaco, the home of the pelicans

I visited Trujillo and the area for a couple of days at the beginning of November. And I left amazed by the city of Chan Chan, the huacas of Mochica and … the pelicans.

Just a 15 min bus ride from Truijillo lies the small village of Huanchaco. Years ago it used to be a tiny fishing village, where every morning the fishermen were going into the sea on their caballitos de totora. With the tourists coming, the village grew, as well as the number of bars and restaurants. Now most of the traditional boats, caballitos de totora, serve only as a tourist attraction. But out of the season Huanchaco still has a flavor of the fishing village that it used to be.

Apart of the fishermen and their families, the faithful habitants of Huanchaco are the pelicans. It was the first time that I have ever seen those birds and I could not stop looking. With their huge beaks and long neck they look a lot like a pterodactyl and a little bit like a duck. In fact, science says pelicans are the closest living relatives of the pterodactyl ancestors!

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Mochica, Chimu and the conquistadors

Hundreds of years ago, the area around the river Moche, that now looks like a desert, was a flourishing valley. From the name of this river, the people that lived there 600 years ago are called Mochica.

Cultura Mochica was at its peak around 500-600 AD. At that time, when a great part of Europe was just a bunch of wooden huts, the Mochica constructed sacred pyramids, covered by colorful paintings and sculptures. Spiders, dragons, warriors and magic animals were looking at the people asthey were coming to the huaca to praise their god Ai-Apaec . In the heart of the pyramid, on the highest platform, the priest performed human sacrifices to assure the bright future of the community.

The ruins of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna are still there, in the valley close to the city of Trujillo. Apart from the huacas, Mochicas left after themselves amazing collection of textiles and ceramics, that captures every detail of their lives.

Several hundred years after the Mochica, around 1100 AD, on northern cost of Trujillo appeared another empire: the Chimu. Chimu built their cities elaborately planned, brightly painted and decorated. Their capital Chan Chan had as many as 30000 habitants and was one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in South America and the largest city in the world made of of clay. The legend says, the city itself was founded by a deity called Chan Chan, a dragon who made the sun and the moon, and whose manifestation is the rainbow.

The Chimu met their end with the beginning of the Inca empire, when the Inca army cut the water supply to the city of Chan Chan. Sixty years later, when the Spaniards were crossing the coast, they found only a deserted ghost city full of dust and legend…

Spanish founded in the area their own city – Trujillo. Now it is the third largest city of Peru, after Lima and Arequipa, still famous for its colonial architecture.

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Cordillera Blanca – through the valleys of Aquilpo and Ishinca

Since the day hikes in the Cordillera Blanca are just like a scratch on the surface, never getting to the core of the mountains, I decided to book a longer tour with an agency. The hikers usually choose the relatively easy, but beautiful Santa Cruz trek. As this tour is recommended and extensively described in the Lonely Planet, it sometimes sees as much as 100 people at each camp every night! Enjoying mountains in a crowd is really not my thing, so I decided for the tougher but no less beautiful 3-day tour through Aquilpo and Ishinca valleys, with the advantage of sharing the experience with just three other gringos, a local Quechua guide and his son, two horses and two donkeys.

It turned out to be the right choice and a spectacular trek. The way goes up through the dense forest of the Quenual trees, passes the tourqouise Aquilpo Lake, and climbs steeply up to the mountain pass of 5000m. From there, over the snow and huge rocks, it descents into the valley of Ishinca. The nights were freezing cold, with the temperature falling below zero, but there is nothing comparable to the feeling of waking up in the morning with the view of the snow-capped peaks. It was an unforgettable adventure – untouched nature, breathtaking views and the sensation of being on top of the world.

(Note that using a toilet in such a remote area is far more complicated than usual 😉 – check the picture!)

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The Smiling God of Chavín de Huantar

Before going for the next mountain trip I decided to take some rest and see a famous archeologic site next to Huaraz – Chavín the Huantar. The Chavín Cult is probably the oldest civilization in Perú and parts of it are still a mystery. The most characteristic of the Chavín culture are monoliths and stone curvings, showing a whole range of forest animals – birds of prey, lizards, snakes, and mythical creatures, half human half animal. A remarkable amount of the animals are the ones of the jungle, meaning that the people of the selva, sierra and costa regions of Perú were in contact already over 2000 years ago! It is almost sure that the Chavín religion involved human transformations, induced by halucinogenic drugs (like a San Pedro cacti – a traditional shamanic plant in Perú). On many carvings one can actually see the motive of the human transforming into a jaguar, emphesizing the complex relationship between a shaman and jaguar, so typical for many American cultures.

Chavín the Huantar itself, dating almost 2500 years back, is one of the oldest sites in the Americas and used to be a central pilgrimage place and a great oracle. The buldings inside are a labirinth of passages, corridors and small rooms. In the center of the Old Temple awaits the Smiling God of Chavín, the Lanzón. It’s a humanoid figure, with its eyes gazing upwards and a smiling feline mouth. What did it really represents? That is still unknown and probably will remain a mystery forever…

Walking around the temple, I kept thinking how extraordinary and fascinating place must have been. What did those people really cherish? Who did they give their praises to? Why was it so appealing to the population to spread thousands of kilometers around without wars, guns or violence? The art, the carvings are still strange, exotic, dramatic.. The Lanzón with its secret smile is curiously absorbing, awaking some unknown feelings. The power and inspiration, surely so much stronger 2000 years ago, are still present.

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Sacred Hatun Machay

Around 75km from Huaraz, deep in the Cordillera Negra, the part of mountains the tourists usually neglect, lies secret and sacred stone forest of Hatun Machay. It is truly a spectacular place, a one unique valley with countless rocks of various shapes and forms.

Wandering between the rocks, I could well imagine that it used to be a sacred place for the acienct cultures living in this area. The name – Hatun Machay – means in Quechua the Big Cave. And in fact, one of the caves is full of ancient drawings and carvings of animal and alien-looking man. There is actually an ongoing discussion in Huaraz whether a sanctuary like this should be used as a climbing center…

Discussion going on, the amateur and professional climbers are filling the small refuge built recently in the valley. Rocks are indeed a paradise for climbers. Thanks to two Austrian guys, who were so nice to let me use some of their equipment and assecurate me, I could try it myself. The feeling of climbing 35m wall at the height of 4300m is unbelievable!

Apart from rocky adventures, the nearest mountain (4800m) offers stunning views over the whole Cordillera Blanca. I think this part needs no comments, the beauty of the place is anyway impossible to express in words.

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Cordillera Blanca – Las Lagunas

Cordillera Blanca is one of those places that raises admiration mixed with a great respect. Trekking here is not easy, as at so high altitudes there is little oxygen and every step up is a fight. But it is a battle worth fighting, the views at the end are breathtaking.

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

The two glacier lakes on the pictures are Laguna 69 (4600m) and Laguna Churup (4450m).

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