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Surfing in Peru

August 13th, 2016 No comments
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Peter Mel rides Pico Alto, which can reach up to 40 feet in height

‘Here’s the thing,’ the surfer tells me as he changes into his wetsuit. We look offshore at the monstrous wave of Pico Alto as it comes charging towards us. ‘That wave gets to 40ft high. But it’s not just the height. It’s the depth of water behind it. It’s triangular. So if that thing comes down on you, it feels like a brick house coming down – with you underneath it.’ He runs towards the water before I learn his name.

I have been coming to Peru for 35 years and it still excites – perhaps because of its endless capacity to surprise. Although I know the Inca heartland around Machu Picchu best, I have come to love the long Pacific coastline, with its pyramids and fabulous beaches.

Today I am 25 miles south of Lima in the town of Punta Hermosa, where the new mania for surfing in Peru has precipitated a building boom. Rows of brand-new white apartment blocks gleam in the sun on the cliffs above a whole series of incredible waves: Caballeros (Gentlemen), a right-hander, is matched chivalrously by Señoritas (Ladies), an equally impressive left-hander. Further out is the daunting sight of Pico Alto – meaning high summit.

read the rest of my article in British Airways High Life magazine

María Rostworowski obituary

April 10th, 2016 No comments

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With her absorbing yet accessible accounts of the Peruvian world before the arrival of the conquistadors, María Rostworowski, who has died aged 100, brought the Incas to life for countless readers. Perhaps more than any intellectual in Peru, she reconfigured our understanding of the ancient Andean mind.

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Her 1953 biography of the Inca emperor Pachacútec paved the way for the more extensive and groundbreaking Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (1988, translated in 1999 as History of the Inca Realm), which deconstructed the suppositions made by some Spanish colonial historians – including the very European idea that the Incas had an empire at all in the Roman, imperial sense. She argued it should be seen more as a trade confederation.

She also showed how Andean principles of kinship wove a complicated thread through Inca politics, which did not observe European principles of primogeniture but instead depended more on a matrilineal line of influence; nobody had written much previously about the mothers of Inca emperors.

María looked for documents that had never been studied before: the bureaucratic records of the courts, censuses and tax registers. Some of the most interesting material she found was in lawsuits brought by claimants just after the conquest. She uncovered a wealth of material, and about a dozen books and countless articles built up a picture of the pre-Columbian world in which the central element of reciprocity was stressed.

see my full obituary in The Guardian

Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas

October 1st, 2015 No comments

 

IMG_8640 2 Men and a Mule lo res.

I’ve known the writer and explorer Benedict Allen for some years, but until the BBC commissioned us to undertake an adventurous journey together, I had never travelled with him.

You can hear the results on BBC Radio Four – see the BBC website for Two Men And A Mule – a spanking new three-part series in which we introduce our co-star Washington to the world.

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For the first two programmes we travel down from the Andes towards the Amazon and Espíritu Pampa, the very last city of the Incas, which they built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It is still one of the last ruins left in Peru best reached by mule.

_DSC9324 Two Man and a Mule Prog 3 at Qoyllurit’i

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Then for the last programme we go to the great festival of the Andes, Qoyllurit’i, and take the pilgrimage out through the night for a momentous dawn ceremony.

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listen to the full shows at

BBC website for Two Men And A Mule

and here is an exclusive bonus track:

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Gabo:  The Death of Gabriel García Márquez

April 22nd, 2014 No comments

garcia marquez‘He’s won, he’s won,’ Guillo shouted excitedly.

I couldn’t think what he was talking about.  The Ecuadorian bar was filling up with excited revellers ordering brandies, even though it was only eleven in the morning.  It was 1982 and Gabriel García Márquez had just won the Nobel prize.  It had been announced on Radio Grande de Bahía, so it had to be true.  Although Colombian, the town was treating him as if he were a local boy.

My friend Guillo was impressed that he was using the money to fund his own independent newspaper:  he had read all Márquez’s books – they were piled high in the local stationery shop, along with the comics and murder stories.

And Gabo remains one of the few recent novelists to combine huge literary acclaim with matching commercial success.  When have you ever seen a Martin Amis book in a Tesco?

Márquez was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to Read more…

Faces of Tradition

December 10th, 2013 No comments

CTTCACCH-0113 - joe coca cover shot Elders

Attended the recent Tinquy, which was a quite wonderful get-together in Cusco of the world’s weavers – and what a great place to have it, as weaving has always mattered so much more in Peru where, while there was no pre-Columbian writing, they could always express themselves with textiles.

It’s the only time when I’ve addressed an audience who were mainly spinning as they listened – on the good principle that, however boring I might be, they would still get something out of the session.

To mark it, a fine book published by two of the moving spirits of the festival, Nilda Callañaupa and Christine Franquemont, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andeswhich I cannot commend too much (and have on the cover as well!) – not least because the photographs by Joe Coca are quite excellent, with moving and dignified portraits of the elders of weaving, the old women – and some men – who have kept the ancient traditions alive.

Tragically, Christine Franquemont died on the first day of the conference in Cusco, and this book stands as a memorial to her.

All that glitters

October 27th, 2013 No comments

I go to see the press opening for El Dorado at the British Museum, which is excellent – one of the best curated and lit shows there of recent years.  The exhibition is careful to remind us that while the Spanish conquistadors were excited by the gold they found, even more enticing was the gold they didn’t  – and nowhere was this more embodied than in the legend of El Dorado, a myth so potent it has persisted from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walt Disney.

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The Colombian civilisations made gold offerings in liminal places – like mountains or lakes, such as the one of the El Dorado legend in which a naked gold-powdered leader offered precious jewellery into the water.  They used gold to transform themselves into otherworldly creatures with a metallic second skin, their nose pieces and earrings swinging so as to catch the light.

And the exhibition is well timed, not just because it is the first major show for many years that the British Museum has had on South America, but because our obsession with gold continues: a rise of some 1000% in its price of the last 10 years; an accompanying gold-rush in those countries like Peru whose mines have been reopened, or the Amazon panned, with devastating environmental effects like arsenic run-off. For a searing indictment of quite what this has meant on a human scale, read Marie Arana’s recent extraordinary article about the La Rinconada mine, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’.

Choquequirao will open to the public

September 4th, 2013 No comments
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Choquequirao – overgrown kallanka walls in 1982
(c) Hugh Thomson

The news that Choquequirao, sister city to Machu Picchu, is finally to get opened up to mass tourism obviously raises mixed emotions in me – at first romanticising my own early visits to Choquequirao 30 years ago when still covered in scrub, as in the photo I took here  – and more recent visits with just a few others there, after a 5 day trek – but is that being selfish?  If managed well – and I do think the Peruvians manage Machu Picchu exceptionally well given all the problems of access – then opening up Choquequirao is all to the good and a cable car may be better than having lots of buses going up a road….

The fascinating new discoveries of just the last couple of years make it even more worthwhile seeing the site now that it’s cleared, as below.  And the vantage point 6,000 feet above the Apurimac makes its position in some ways even more spectacular than Machu Picchu.

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An outrageous plan to build a new airport for Cusco on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros

February 4th, 2013 4 comments

Interesting piece in this week’s Economist which confirms what I was suggesting in a From Our Own Correspondent report for the BBC last year, that Peru is booming away at a phenomenal rate of between 7% and 9% this year, figures that those of us experiencing double or treble dip recessions can only dream of.

The boom has been helped by strong minerals, cautious banks (you have to be a cautious bank if you’re operating in Latin America!) and an emerging middle class.  It’s seen the dollar fall against the local currency, the Peruvian sol, by some 25% over five years – not such good news if you’re planning to travel there, although compensated for by rapidly improving infrastructure:  over the last decade, the number of roads in Peru has doubled, an extraordinary statistic for this huge country that is five times the size of the UK.

But with wealth comes responsibility – and in particular, responsibility for the environment, not something that has always been Peru’s strong suit (remember the riots about introducing gas pipelines to the Amazon, when local indigenous tribes confronted the army and police).

Now there is an outrageous plan to build a new airport on the beautiful highlands above Chincheros, some thousand feet above Cusco, which is the city that it would serve.

The old airport in Cusco is deemed to have run its purpose – mainly because it can’t take international flights, and also because developers are eyeing up what has become a valuable inner-city resource for housing, having started off as a few fields on the outskirts of town when I first went there in the early 1980s.

There are some doubt as to whether a new airport would really do much better for international flights – and no doubt at all that it would be a huge eyesore on one of the most beautiful areas close to Cusco and one which many tourists see as they travel over towards Machu Picchu.

My old mate Nick Asheshov has written astutely about this in his column for the Peruvian magazine Caretas.

The idea has been ticking over for years and no one really thought the authorities would quite bring themselves to do it. Tragically, it now sounds as it is a done deal, as large amounts of money have been handed out to the local communities already as recompense.

The view over the Chincheros plain to Mount Verónica, past lakes and fields of growing quinoa, is one I have always cherished and I for one will be very sad if it now becomes a sprawl of not only the airport but all the ancillary hotels and mess that an airport inevitably brings.

Machu Picchu in the clouds

September 21st, 2012 No comments

There is a good interesting roundup of current theories about Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Times in which the author, Rick Vecchio, sensibly doesn’t commit himself too far in any particular direction…

…Unlike many of the guides at Machu Picchu who are still perfectly capable of telling you that this was where the Inca emperor hid his Virgins Of The Sun and that stone over there was where they sacrificed the black llamas.

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For my own brief introduction to the interpretation of the ruins, take a look at the short film I did for CNN last year:  See Hugh’s cut-out-and-keep 5 minute guide to Machu Picchu for CNN.

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Then you’ll understand why I prefer to use this picture of my own in which Machu Picchu is covered by cloud, rather than the usual sunlit panorama.  It’s a place we still don’t fully understand although we have recently gained some useful pointers.

Espíritu Pampa: The Last City of the Incas

October 27th, 2011 3 comments

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Ten years ago I sat in the middle of the ruins of Espíritu Pampa and despaired that it would ever be cleared. Dense jungle covered the site. Kapok trees had ripped open the Inca stonework, their roots gripping doorways and niches. Brush obscured the lines of the great Plaza, the kallankas and the ornamental fountains.

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The work of ever restoring the place seemed both Herculean and pointless – the ruins were too extensive and remote, the vegetation just too dense, for this, unlike most Inca sites, had been built not in the mountains, but in the jungle on the eastern slopes of the Andes as they joined the Amazon.

The site has enormous emotional resonance – ‘the last bastion of Inca resistance’, as a noticeboard proclaims at its entrance, it saw the final dying of the flame after the Spanish conquest in 1532. Having held out in the mountains of the Vilcabamba for some 40 years, by 1572 the last Emperor, the young Tupac Amaru, was on the run, pursued down here into the rainforest by a Viceroy intent on finally wiping out “the pretender across the mountains”.

Espíritu Pampa was burnt in the process; the Emperor caught and executed.

But perhaps because it is such a potent symbol, the Peruvian government have made a superhuman effort and cleared it – one substantial section just three weeks before we arrived. I can finally appreciate the immense size of the site, radiating out from the central Plaza where they have tactfully left a few of the giant kapok trees.

Now is the time to visit, before the vegetation returns under a less benign or interested administration; or when someone realises that with just 30 or so visitors a year making the week long journey, the cost of maintaining it cannot be justified.