Thursday, 26 March 2015
On the Inca Trail
One burning question prior to any holiday is - what books should I take along? In-flight movies are all very well, and I did watch four, but nothing beats a good book. I always like to take a mix of types of crime fiction, and before my trip to South America, I decided that I'd binge on Patricia Highsmith. Her books, more than most, have a cosmopolitan flavour and a strangeness that seem highly suitable for a trip to unfamiliar places (and I'm appearing on a panel at Harrogate in July which is dedicated to Highsmith, so this choice also served as good revision...)
I found myself wondering about human nature as I read her stories of bizarre relationships at the same time as exploring the history of the Incas, and their fatal encounters with a handful of ruthless Spanish colonists. The Incas were remarkable achievers, and it seems astonishing that, with numbers so heavily in their favour, their empire should have been so quickly conquered. Equally strange are the mysteries of the fate of some of the South American peoples who preceded the Incas; I had never realised until visiting museums in Cusco how sophisticated some of those peoples were.
Cusco was the old Inca capital, and today it's a marvellous city, where visitors are encouraged to consume coca tea and leaves to avert altitude sickness; there's even a quirky Coca Museum which I visited, and which gives dutiful warning about the adverse effects of cocaine addiction. Just outside the city are extensive Inca ruins at Sachsayhuaman and other sites. And I'd like to give a mention to the nice people at The Meeting Place, a cafe at San Blas run by volunteers to help and support indigenous peoples and a range of worthy local projects.
From Cusco, you can travel through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This is a breathtaking trip, and provided the amazing experience of encountering brilliant sunshine, a complete rainbow, and thunder and lightning - at one and the same time (it has to be added that after a few minutes the sun disappeared and there was a torrential downpour, but even so, it was extraordinary.) There are more dramatic hillside ruins at Ollantaytambo. And from there you can catch the train and follow the course of the dramatic, rushing river to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is one of the world's iconic tourist destinations, and for good reason. You can reach it via the Inca Trail, on which I clambered for one rather demanding afternoon, but from any angle, it's a stunning sight. I also took the time to visit the Inca Bridge - because the route is rather scary, you have to sign in and sign out; presumably they send out a search party if you don't come back. Given the vertiginous cliffs, I suspect the aim would be recovery rather than rescue. Needless to say, this was a journey which sparked thoughts about a murder mystery with a Highsmithian flavour. And I've already scribbled the first few lines of a Machu Picchu mystery - "The Two Sisters."