Friday, March 26, 2010

Golden Inca Civilization

I lean against an enormous, carved boulder, part of a wall at the world’s number one tourist attraction, Machu Picchu, Peru. Stone buildings, temples and terraces, overwhelming in their elegance and size, lie before me arrayed on the side of a frighteningly steep mountainside. I’m fascinated by the Inca empire, which in the 1400s stretched from Ecuador through Bolivia and Peru to Argentina and Chile, leaving impressive monuments like this, now abandoned and lifeless except for tourists.

Earlier I visited Cuzco, the former centre of the Inca empire. Memories of the golden days are everywhere. I strolled through Coricancha, a temple built for the Sun God Inti, whose walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. A few minutes outside the city is the sprawling Fort Sacsayhuaman, renowned for the size of its construction stones, from 90 to 120 tons.

I learn that the Inca society was remarkably advanced. They were accomplished engineers and designed and built complex stone structures without using cement. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable, an important feature in an earthquake-prone area. Just as impressive, the Incas were also very capable administrators, governing in a benign and wise manner. Crime, for example, was almost non-existent. The Inca used quipu (bundled knotted strings) for recording and sending messages, and had an extensive road system including two main roads that ran the length of the empire, one in the highlands (5,250 kilometres) and one along the seacoast.

Providing food for the empire was a priority. On a hillside at Moray I looked down on a series of sinuous terraces laid out in concentric circles and arcs. The terraces mimic different climatic zones and were used as an agricultural laboratory to experiment with various types of plants.

At nearby Maras, I meandered through the oldest and most unusual salt mine in the world. It consists of about 2,000 small glistening white pools in which the waters from a saline-rich stream are evaporated, leaving salt. It is still “mined” as it was in the Inca days.

In 1553, Spanish conquistadors led by Fransisco Pizzaro and accompanied by disease, greed, treachery and cruelty, destroyed what was arguably the most socially-advanced society in the world. Now only the silent stones remain.

If You Go

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Best Jungle Experience

Light headed and gasping, I was at 16,000 feet elevation, high above the Andes in an unpressurized Twin Otter airplane. While most visitors to Peru make a beeline to Machu Picchu, I was heading to the the Peruvian Amazon and the best jungle experience ever. Soon, happily, we descended into richer oxygen, and then bumped down on a small grass airstrip hacked out of the dense jungle. The smells were ripe and rich. The foliage was lush and alive with strange caws and chirps. Bugs buzzed. Most of all, it was hot and humid. We boarded a native canoe and travelled up a fast-flowing, turbid tributary of the Amazon, the River of Mother of God, ever deeper into the jungle, ever deeper into a strange lush world in which I felt totally lost.

Once at the Manu Wildlife Center, I settled into a small but comfortable thatch-roofed cabin on stilts. Generator-provided electricity was only on for a few hours each day so we relied on candles at night, a romantic touch. We arose early each morning and boated to clay licks where dozens of macaws and parrots, like technicolour rainbows, fluttered and swirled. We climbed canopy towers and found cactus, orchids and other exotic species high above a dense and variegated jungle. We boated along lake and river and saw endangered giant otters, lethal kaimans, toucans and birds of every ilk. Late one afternoon we hiked to a tapir blind where we lay under mosquito nets and listened to the awesome, scary sounds of the jungle as dusk fell and darkness enclosed us. Our imaginations ran riot as around us the jungle crackled, moaned, hissed and, occasionally, screamed. A troop of howler monkeys screeched past and then, our objective, a 500-pound tapir lumbered past.

Next day while hiking a troop of monkeys rained nuts down on us from the upper canopy. The visit into the jungle was an adventure, like a trip to Mars. Life abounded, nature was in control and I could almost see and feel evolution happening.

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