Posts tagged ‘Monuments’

Scenes from San Agustín and Tierradentro

I had no intention of visiting San Agustín and Tierradentro. But after perusing the information wall at the excellent Hosteltrail.com hostel, the Colombian Heritage Circuit struck me as the perfect four-day getaway to an interesting and not-very-visited part of the country.

This is an area that only recently opened to tourists. Long the domain of leftist People’s Army, a.k.a. FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Colombian army has succeeded in pushing anti-government forces out. While I felt safe in my travels so far in Colombia, my current guidebook (published only months prior) still had intriguing warnings on specific routes:

You should not travel after dark, not because of guerrilla activity but rather due to late-night bandits…

I asked several locals in Popayán and no one seemed to think the area or the journey were all that risky. So off I went, during daylight hours of course.

San Agustín and Tierradentro are the sole UNESCO World Heritage architectural sites in Colombia, important reminders of the ancient culture of southern Colombia that dates from 4000 BC when settlers established agricultural communities and thriving trade connections.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization. But hundreds of unearthed statues remain, beautifully sculpted from volcanic rock, represent humans, sacred animals and even fantastical monsters. Today these are viewed atop panoramic altos (hilltop burial grounds) overlooking emerald forests.

I arrived safely to San Agustín town after an uneventful (yet bumpy) bus ride through the sparsely populated Andean hills. I did see armed Colombian soldiers patrolling the roads but the only apparent threat were the hairpin turns on unpaved roads that teetered above steep chasms.

Continue reading ‘Unearthing Colombia’s Ancients in San Agustín and Tierradentro’ »

Pisaq ~ A Wedding at Saqsaywaman ~ Streets of Cusco ~ Terraces of Moray

My first visit to Cusco was in 1999 at the end of a backpacking trip through Peru with my brother Erik. As a finale to our journey we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Standing together at dawn at the Puerta del Sol high above the celebrated Inca city, the clouds parted and the shining white stone buildings revealed themselves. It is an experience I will always remember. As soon as Erik left I was surprised by a visit from Paul, and we traveled together through the Sacred Valley, an area rich in important Inca archaeological sites.

My memories of Cusco are among the most vivid of my past travels. As I recently returned to this much-loved place after thirteen years, I could not extricate my past recollections from my new experiences. And that was big part of the fun!

Of course I expected differences. The most notable change is how tourism has grown. Cusco then was still very touristy but I was not prepared for the marked increase in boutique hotels, shops and restaurants. In 1999 there were maybe one or two franchises in the city but now are many more with, of course, a Starbucks on the corner of the Plaza de Armas, epicenter of the Inca world.

Visiting Cusco and the important sights now requires an expensive, all-inclusive boleto turístico entry pass.  To hike the legendary Inca Trail you now need to sign up months in advance and pay hundreds of dollars.  In 1999 Erik and I just showed up at a travel company and booked the four-day trip for $60 leaving the next day. But these changes are not bad things per se, of course regulating the Inca Trail limits the environmental impact of thousands of walkers each year and the much-needed entry fee revenue helps Peru maintain and improve its national treasures.

Fortunately, despite these changes, Cusco remains a marvelous destination. The city admirably balances the strain of mass tourism and its vibrant Peruvian highland culture. Local markets still subsume the central Plaza de Armas during festivals, you can still walk along streets lined with stunning Inca stonework, fill up on a hearty breakfast of rice and beans, fried eggs, avocado, onion, tomato and spicy salsa de ají at the boisterous San Pedro market. And good budget accommodation can still be had; it’s just a few blocks further from the city center.

Cusco remains one of my favorite places in Latin America, most of all because it is evolving and changing. The city lives and breathes its history, like Rome or Bangkok, drawing upon its past and present identities to sustain its exceptional character. Traditional and touristy, Cusco still boasts an incredible concentration of art, history, folk traditions, architecture, religion and creature comforts that few areas on the continent can match.

Continue reading ‘Reconnoitering Redux: Revisiting Peru’s Cusco and the Sacred Valley’ »

The capital city of th Tiwanaku, the great Andean civilization that preceeded the Incas and who influenced them heavily

Tiwanaku

I couldn’t bear another cold, rainy day in La Paz so I struck out after breakfast one Saturday to visit one of Bolivia’s most important archaeological sites Tiwanku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 90 minutes from La Paz. This “cradle of Andean civilization,” which preceded the Incas, was centered near the fertile soils near Lake Titicaca and flourished for nearly 2500 years until about 1000 AD when the site was abandoned after severe drought.

There is no written history of the Tiwanaku so unfortunately very little is known about this civilization.  An agriculturally based society, they developed sophisticated farming methods (including the sukakullos which Paul and I saw near Copacabana earlier this year) which sustained a considerably growing population. By 800 AD, the capital city of Tiwanaku had perhaps 50,000 residents and recent studies suggest up to 1.5 million inhabitants lived in the region.

The walled Kalasasaya, sacred space featuring many of the most important icons and temples (as seen from atop the Akapana pyramid).

The walled Kalasasaya, sacred space featuring many of the most important icons and temples (as seen from atop the Akapana pyramid).

They worshipped many gods, the most important being Viracocha who created the earth at Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca and brought forth humans from the earth’s rocks. He is celebrated in the site’s outstanding Temple of the Sun, one of the few remaining monuments at the site.  The Tiwanaku also placed great spiritual importance in prominent mountain peaks, the apus (deities) that control weather and determine agricultural output, traditions which continue to this day.

One of the iconic monoliths central to Tiwanau sacred art. This religious leader holds a goblet-like keru for chicha and a wooden case holding hallucinogenic herbs.

One of the iconic monoliths central to Tiwanau sacred art. This religious leader holds a goblet-like keru for chicha and a wooden case for hallucinogenic herbs.

Continue reading ‘Tiwanaku: The Cradle of Andean Civilization’ »

Plaza 24 de Septiembre in Santa Cruz: It's Got a Lot Goin' On!

The plaza principal in Latin America is an amalgam of the social, cultural, religious and political life of latinos. Here is where you find it all: protests and politics, seasoned romance and youthful exuberance, food and festivals, lush foliage and (occasionally) flowing fountains, majestic churches, music and laughter, promenading locals encircling comedians, Bible thumpers and magicians. The plaza reflects the people.

I wander the main Plaza 24 de Septiembre in sultry Santa Cruz de la Sierra in eastern Bolivia, so-named to honor the auspicious day in 1810 when the city joined the Buenos Aires junta rising against Spanish colonial rule.

On this night surrounded by the crowds and energy of the plaza, I find myself alone but not lonely. Paul left this morning after three marvelously companionable weeks crossing the country. This is the picture I see around me, a whirling world of sights and sounds and smells.

Continue reading ‘Plaza 24 de Septiembre: The Heart and Soul of Santa Cruz’ »

Scenes from Samaipata: Paul amid the peaks ~ Peter chatting on the parrot phone ~ El Fuerte archeological site ~ Easy rider Paul

In Quechua the town means “The Height to Rest” – and indeed this is where Paul and I found a relaxing and picturesque place to kick back for a long weekend.   We were coming from steamy, tropical Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia in search of cooler temperatures and an escape from the crowds.  It was our last weekend together in Bolivia before Paul had to return home.

Samaipata is something of an anomaly for Bolivia.  Blessed with a delightful subtropical climate and tucked in the easternmost folds of the Andes mountains, the area has attracted foreigners for centuries: first the Sephardic Jews expelled from peninsular Spain during the Inquisition, later some Italians and Croats, and finally a sizable number of expats (mainly artists and free-thinkers from Europe) starting in the 1970’s when the road from Santa Cruz was paved.

Perhaps the most celebrated foreigner to come to the region was Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1966 during his ill-fated attempt to bring Socialist revolution to South America.  He was killed almost a year later in the nearby village of La Higuera.

Today Samaipata remains a sleepy backwater with quiet colonial streets, a peaceful Plaza Principal filled in the evenings with locals on promenade and traveling hippies playing music and selling hand-made wares.  The resident expats are barely visible but present, often running businesses catering to tourists.  Samaipata hosts organic farms, Buddhist meditation retreats, ecological construction (my superadobe instructor from La Paz is based here), and a large number of reveling cruzeños from Santa Cruz on holiday weekends.

Samaipata is an especially agreeable place.  It reminded us of what San Miguel de Allende in Mexico may have been like decades ago.

The quiet streets of Samaipata: wandering cows, unpaved roads and the parrot phone booths

Continue reading ‘Finding R&R (Rest & Ruins) in Serene Samaipata’ »