In Praise of Peru 2: Iquitos and Cuzco
After spending a few days in Lima, as described in my last post, I flew to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. Incidentally, I had previously bought this internal flight in Mexico, but it is much cheaper and also very easy to buy the flight in Peru, as I later discovered when I bought a return flight to Cuzco.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by car – if only more cities or at least their centers were not accessible by cars. Not that being relatively car-free makes Iquitos a zone of tranquillity – it has a funky, noisy, frontier-town atmosphere all of its own. There are relatively few cars but the city is full of motocarros and motorbikes.
I stayed at La Casona which was cheap, cheerful and central. Friends I met later stayed at La Casa Fitzcarraldo which is in a different league (and price). Next time I go to Iquitos I will treat myself and stay there. It was the birthplace of two of the most extraordinary films I have seen – ‘Aguirre, The Wrath of God‘ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’, both by Werner Herzog and set in the Amazonian jungle.
I had come to Iquitos to participate in a twelve day workshop where we drank ayahuasca, the sacred visionary medicinal plant of the Amazon, seven times. Iquitos can lay claim to be the ayahuasca capital of the world, and the term ‘ayahuasca tourism‘ has been coined to describe the phenomena of westerners seeking the healing and spiritual experiences this plant has to offer. I heard there are around 25 centers in the area offering workshops and retreats involving ayahuasca.
As I was following a special diet because of taking ayahuasca, I only went to one restaurant in Iquitos, the famous Yellow Rose. This restaurant, as well as offering a huge range of ‘normal’ food, also offers a special menu for those following the diet. The regional specialty here – local fish steamed with vegetables in a banana leaf – was particularly good.
Here is not the place to go into my experience of drinking ayahuasca. Suffice to say that it was extraordinary, intense, difficult and challenging at times, profound, magical, liberating and transformative. For anyone interested, I would whole-heartedly recommend the center where I took the workshop – the Temple of the Way of Light. (See, also, their Facebook page).
The Temple has a number of features which make it unique. Firstly, it is in the process of becoming an NGO – so all the profits – when they appear! – will go into social projects such as hospitals and schools for the Shipobi people. Secondly, it primarily works with female shamans. The meeting of cultures between the West and the indigenous people in this part of the Amazon, as elsewhere in the world, has led to all sorts of fall-out – abuse on both sides, including stories of exploitation and sexual abuse by male shamans. The center has an explicit philosophy of working with the divine feminine, which is in tune with the common experience of the spirit of the ayahuasca vine as being female.
The Temple of the Way of Light is located about an hour by boat from Iquitos – relatively isolated in the Amazon jungle. Just the experience of being in the Amazon is magical. I had not fully appreciated nor experienced before the abundance, rich diversity and complexity of life that exists there. And, as everyone says, the sounds of the jungle at night are astonishing. The vegetation takes on extraordinary and apparently fantastic shapes. No wonder people are drawn to and entranced by the jungle.
After my time in the jungle, I returned to Lima and then on to Cuzco. Cuzco, at 3326 meters above sea level, is a complete contrast with the Amazon. When I arrived it was cold and rainy. Despite it being the rainy season, there had been little rain in the Amazon. The excess of rain in Cuzco and the lack of rain in the Amazon was explained to me as an effect of el niño, possibly combined with climate change effects. It continued to rain in Cuzco, which eventually led to flooding in the whole region.
Before the flooding really took hold, I took the opportunity to visit four Inca sites close to Cuzco. It is possible to take a taxi to the furthest site, Tambo Machay, and then walk downhill back to Cuzco visiting each of the other sites en route. Because of the rain, and also because I was able to share a taxi with a friend, we hired a taxi for the whole morning which worked out around 20 USD for each of us.
Each of the four sites (Tambo Machay, Puca Pucaro, Qenko and Sacsayhuamán) is worth visiting, and taken together they demonstrate the power, beauty, range and complexity of the Inca empire – and that is even before seeing Machu Picchu. A guide explained to me that the Incas believed in three worlds. This world, whose god is the puma; the underworld, whose god is the serpent; and the world above, whose god is the condor.
Interestingly, this worldview fits into some ideas about which I had been musing following my ayahuasca experience, based on the highly original work of the archetypal psychologist James Hillman. James Hillman, unlike many for whom the terms are almost interchangeable, makes a clear differentiation between the soul and the spirit. The movement of the soul is down to the depths and into the vales – it lives in and through imagination and seeks attachment to people, places and things. In contrast, the movement of the spirit is upwards to the heights and the mountains, seeking transcendence.
Sadly, many of the representations of the Inca Gods no longer exist. The Spanish conquistadores went out of their way to obliterate any depictions of the puma, serpent or condor which the Incas had embodied in their sites.
I thought Saqsayhuamán, which overlooks Cusco, was the most impressive of the four sites. The whole site has the overall shape of a puma’s head. The zig-zagging walls made out of large heavy stones are its teeth. The body of the puma is outlined by the shape of the sity of Cuzco. Seen from above in Inca times, the whole area had been constructed in the design of a puma. Now on arrival at Cuzco airport, you are given a map of the city, in which the site of, and advertising for, MacDonalds takes visual precedence. How our Gods have changed!
The following day, Sunday January 24th, after my visit to these sites, I had a ticket booked for the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. After first a bus journey from Cuzco to Ollantaytambu, due to the track being flooded, and then a train to Aguascalientes, I had three hours to see Machu Picchu. But I need not have hurried back to the train station as all the trains had been cancelled due to the river sweeping away the tracks.
So I ended up stranded in Aguascalientes for three days until I was evacuated by the last army helicopter on Wednesday evening. I wrote about this experience on an earlier blog post. One of the most bizarre incidents occurred when we were suddenly told that there was going to be a surge of water in the river and everyone was instructed to run to high ground and take refuge in the football stadium, from where it was hoped helicopters might land to evacuate us.
Being in Aguascalientes for three days did at least give me the opportunity to check out some local restaurants. I ate two nights in El Indio Feliz, which had been recommended to me by friends who had been in Aguascalientes a few days earlier. There was a good set menu here for 50 soles with lots of choices for each course. I was planning to eat here for the third night running (so it must have been good!) but found the restaurant closed. By now, a number of restaurants were running out of food.
Fortunately, I remembered the name of another restaurant mentioned on Trip Adviser – Tree house – and set about finding it, which was not so easy as I was given contradictory directions by three different people. It was tucked away up a path off a side street from the main Plaza de Armas. It was definitely worth finding. The cooking here was really high class.
By now the restaurant only had a few selections remaining on their normal menu. I had ceviche of trout made with a salsa of passion fruit which was exquisite. I also took the opportunity to try llama. I was told it was a very healthy meat, with almost zero cholesterol and fat, a bit like ostrich. It was OK, a bit chewy but tasty. After dinner, I chatted with the restaurant owner about options for getting out of Aguascalientes and he dissuaded me from trying to walk out, which was good advice, as apart from the risks involved, I did manage to get out by helicopter back to Cuzco at the end of the next day.
Cuzco is an attractive, lively city, full of history, bars, souvenir shops of different prices and quality, some good museums and a host of travel agencies. There is a whole host of restaurants to choose from in Cuzco. Three good ones that I ate in include: Chicha (Gastón Acurio’s offering in Cuzco), Greens – which now offers completely organic food – and the Inka Grill.
It seems you can do anything in Cuzco from retreats involving ayahusaca and San Pedro (another visionary plant), to trekking, mountain-biking and river-rafting – given the state of the river, as indicated in the photo below, that would have been an adventurous option.
Finally, I want to conclude this post with a strong recommendation which I have already made before. If you go to Cuzco, go and stay at one of the two Hotel de Niños. Apart from being lovely hotels, in attractive, old colonial houses, with clean, spacious, comfortable rooms and delightful staff, all the profits from the hotel operation go to educational projects with street children. It’s a great idea and it ought to be replicated all over the world.