We were intrigued by the Day of the Dead weekend, even though there were no colourful parades or celebrations. On this designated November weekend, Peruvians take flowers and special shaped breads to loved ones who have passed on. Wanting to see for ourselves, we headed to one of the Christian cemeteries in Cusco. I imagined a large grassy yard, with loaves of bread and flowers strewn over the graves. Wrong.
Entering through a gate in a cement wall, we were surrounded by towers of individual cubbies, about 2 foot square, each with a locked glass door. There were walls and walls of these, the rows labeled with letters, the columns labelled with numbers, so one could easily find a relative’s resting spot. Library ladders were available to access the higher cubbies. We walked the aisles, knowing no deceased, but peering with interest at the arrangements inside of each cubbie. There were photos, animal figurines, ceramic angels, teddy bears, or cans of beer. On this special weekend fresh flowers and tiny specially shaped breads were also placed inside. It was all neat and tidy and sensible.
On Tuesday, Millie managed our vehicle inspection, which occurred without a fuss. A young woman in a navy uniform strode around the van with a clipboard, took photos, and went away. That was it. Wednesday we went to town in search of Insurance. We walked a long way.
The first place was closed. The next place we tried was open. A young lady, assisted by a friendly older woman, looked up the price, made lengthy calculations, and typed out a form. Since most buildings here are not heated, It was freezing in that office and both women wore winter coats while they worked.
Mission accomplished and Insurance in hand, we were legal to drive Vanna again.
We decided on a drive to Pisaq, one of the archeological ruins in the Sacred Valley. We had only a short visit there in February, not enough time to take it all in. The one hour drive from Cusco was pleasantly paved. The best part was the road into the town of Pisac, a long series of switch backs, descending from high mountain to low valley, with magnificent views the entire way down.
At the market we found groceries, then headed to Casa Camacho, a campsite located closer to the Archeological Ruins.
Parking in the small yard, we were warmly greeted by owners Jaun and Ynes. Around the complex were several low adobe buildings, each with rooms for guests. A kitchen, dining lounge and spacious bathroom were available for all to use. The mud brown adobe walls, the surrounding mountain peaks, and one long green valley view combined to create a tranquil setting. But little did we know that we had just dropped into another life. 1960’s California.
Félix, a Brit, was standing in the doorway of the oficina when we arrived. For us, having barely climbed out of the van, he launched into an explanation of why many people come to this part of Peru. Travellers from around the world arrive here for “medicinal enhancing spiritual enlightenment”. He listed off active ingredients and possible outcomes – all to which we had one response. “What?”
Felix then explained that he sells Bufo, a toxin extracted from the pustules of a Mexican frog. Used for “medicinal” purposes it causes an intense psychoactive experience. “Similar to the San Pedro cactus”, he said, and pointed us down a small hallway. The hallway opened up to a grassy courtyard where a dozen people sat semi circle, a long haired leader occasionally chanting. “Yoga?”, I asked. No. This was a San Pedro ceremony. Another “medicine” extracted from a local cactus, used to elicit a spiritual reawakening.
Bob and I checked on that group from time to time, throughout the rest of the day. They sat on blue mats, barely moving. All afternoon. Past dark. Hope they were enjoying it.
Just in case you are interested, a one week San Pedro experience will set you back $2400 US. For us though, camping with no add-ons – $15 Cdn per night.
On Friday morning we took a taxi to the ruins, a paved road winding relentlessly uphill.
At the entrance we hired a guide named Media, a local Quechuan woman and mother of 2 youngsters. Together we explored the expansive ruins, stopping to admire the water system which ingeniously brought water from lakes located behind the mountain. Then we walked way up to view the tombs dug into the cliff face across the valley. In those tombs, 3500 Inkans are buried. Some of the white skulls have rolled out to the entrances and are visible even over the distance.
Further on, we squeezed through a tunnel so narrow that Bob’s hat scraped the sides, then more climbing. At one point we looked down upon the housing area of the agricultural workers, each house situated in such a way as to collectively form the shape of a bird. Incredible planning.
To help with stair climbing at this altitude, Media gave us a whiff of Muña essential oil, distilled from a local plant. We rubbed the oil on our hands, then inhaled. Our nostrils enjoyed a burst of fresh mint, allowing us to race up the next 10 steps. That was it though. The energy dissipated and we were back to puffing our way along.
At the highest point Media stopped to let us rest on a rustic bench and take in the views out over the valley. She pulled a wooden flute from her bag. The hand carved instrument has an earthy tone, her slow clear notes floating out toward the mountains. I tried it but it squawked.
Media spoke a combination of slow Spanish, and basic English, with Quechuan names thrown in. We will never remember any of the Quechua but did learn that the language uses a hard kkk from the back of the throat, followed by a glottal stop. We practiced this with her. Might be useful sometime. And we learned a few tidbits about her family. The kids go to school in their own small comunidad where they speak both Spanish and Quechuan. And like the Inca, local families keep live cuy (guinea pigs) under the bed. Media only keeps about 15 at a time, yes under the bed, and she says they are very delicious.
Our guide left us at the peak since we wanted to walk down the other side of the mountain into town. The trail was steep, lined with large grey rocks of different sizes. It was often necessary to jump down as opposed to stepping down. So it was a rough walk. But we strolled through the grassy Temple of the Sun, cruised past the extensive terraces which were once used for cultivating crops, and halfway down we encountered an old Quechuan woman selling her hand woven belts. I bought a blue one for my sunhat. Down further, we talked to a flute player, were passed by two groups of younger tourists, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and then finally, with tired legs, we hobbled our way along the wide stone road into town.
As we sat at a small outdoor restaurant a crowd began to gather on the street in front of us. A lingering school girl told us it was a competition. We watched as parents arrived holding a young child in one hand and a pink or red plastic car in the other. The children looked about 3 or 4 years old. Eventually the parents formed a human road block across the street to stop traffic, the policeman blew his whistle non stop, the countdown began, and they were off.
The little tikes pushed hard with both feet. Having no pedals, their momentum careened them and their car, hopefully together, down the street. The crowd was enthused. Proud parents, older couples, uniformed school teens, the restaurant cooks in white aprons, the policeman with his navy ball cap. One little girl flew ahead of the rest. But the unfortunate child in the rear fell over. Twice. And then her mom picked her up while she wailed.
Let’s recap. A cluster of tiny tots, in plastic toy cars, speeding downhill, on pavement. No brakes. No helmets.
That night I was sitting in the dining room, working on the laptop, when a young man came through the open doorway. A thin frame, his dark brown dreadlocks askew in all directions, he strode directly towards me, wrapped his arms around me in a hug and said “ I love you”. Well hola California. Then he sat down for a long chat about his travels. A Swiss Franc, Gian-Luca has been in this area of Peru for 2 months, living on love and ganja. The next morning Bob and I invited him for omelet and avocado sandwiches. Chatty yet unassuming, we both took a liking to him. He is weaving bracelets to sell, and we admired the glossy beads he purchased in Lima. And somehow we were not surprised when he showed us hIs unique foot tattoos, the chemical formulas of his favourite ingestibles. Interesante.
As always we do not want to leave a place we are just getting to know. But staying in one place makes us antsy. So we turned Vanna south, towards Arequipa, Lake Titicaca and whatever else we find on the way.