Quito

Quito reminded us of La Paz: colonial architecture in varying states of upkeep and decay; valley sides rising around steep, winding streets; high altitude; and a strong indigenous identity. It’s not quite as stunning and probably more dangerous, but we’re willing to concede we’re a little biased since we lived in La Paz for a year and still think it’s one of the most unique cities we’ve ever seen.

A ride on the TelefériQo ($8.50) lets you appreciate the scale of Quito and it’s location between two mountain ranges. Being so close to the equator, the surroundings are quite green, but the condor decorations on the Central Bank remind you that you’re in an Andean region.

We only spent two nights in Quito, but we had time to visit one museum. It was hard to choose, but in the end we went for the Museo de la Ciudad which tells a social history of Ecuador. In each gallery there were information cards for non-Spanish speakers, including in Kichwa (Quechua).

“Don’t enter. Take off your poncho first!”

“I won’t.”

“Then, get out!”

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Museum-hopping in Cuenca

Cuenca has a lot of museums. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited five. Our choices of which to visit were based mostly on the route we planned to stroll through town. Secondary considerations were price and novelty value.

Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes

Pottery. There’s a lot of it here. Arranged in chronological sequences and by the different cultures of Ecuador, the museum galleries are like an archaeologist’s textbook come to life. My favourites are the anthropomorphic pots. Whilst some are only hinted at, others have faces and other body parts clearly shown, like cute little thousands-of-year-old cartoon characters.

Address: Calle Larga 5-24

Admission: adult $2, student discount available

Centro Interaméricano de Artes Populares

Weavings, musical instruments and traditional costumes; the galleries are small but modern, with video/audio displays as well as hands-on objects. I appreciate being able to see the the details of the textiles up close and view the intricate stitching. The museum shop is big and laid out like on of the galleries, but too expensive for me.

Image from museos.gob.ec

Address: corner Noviembre & La Escalinata

Admission: free

Casa Paredes Roldan Hat museum and Factory

Machines clack noisily at the back of this shop and hats of many colours and designs are spread out before your eyes to try and buy. There are some old machines and tools used for hat-making in the past, as well as a pretty amazing dress woven of the reeds that make the hats. I’m tempted to buy, but the cheapest is $60. Also, none of them fit Jon’s abnormally large head and we don’t feel like custom ordering one.

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Address: Calle Larga 10-41 between Padre Aguirre y General Torres

Admission: free

Prohibido Museo de Arte Extremo

A man with one arm and a leather waistcoat answers the door. He refuses eye contact but takes our money and leaves us to look around this house-nightclub hybrid that is also open as a museum. I realise that ‘extreme’ means metal/goth album covers and demons having sex with naked women. Occasionally there’s a dead baby. It’s all pretty cheesy. Perhaps it’s more impressive at night with a live band playing and low lighting?

It can’t all be bones and devil’s horns. Sometimes a boring old plastic dish rack is the best item for the job.

Address: La Condamine 12-102

Admission: $2

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno

I love the cool and quiet inside this place. The bare white walls and colonnades of this historic building contrast with bizarre spiked hearts, cyborgs and mirrored eyes. It’s just my kind of thing. Plus there’s a great temporary exhibit too.

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Address: corner of Mariscal Sucre & Talbot

Admission: free

What are your favourite types of museums?

A postcard from Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, Cuenca

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The Virgin Mary stands serenely in a nightgown waiting to be dressed, Eve wears Playboy bunny eyes and St Michael poses lasciviously in a very short tunic and boots. This is the Labyrinth of Pieties, a temporary exhibiton by Fernando Coellar, at the Modern Art Museum in Cuenca.

We were lucky enough to stumble upon the place just days before the exhibition was set to close. Having visited some pretty bad modern art and design exhibits in my time (San Jose in Costa Rica, I’m looking at you in particular) this interesting museum in Cuenca came up trumps. Inside the long corridors and blocky rooms of this former-Casa-Temperancia (center for alcoholics)-turned-prison-turned-art-gallery, we found an interactive exhibit of adorable, cartoon religious figures. The aesthetics were kitschy pop-culture, with floating chiffon, shiny acrylics and sequined beads. But it wasn’t all frivolity. I loved the skill and detail with which each piece was executed. Although my knowledge of Catholicism isn’t very extensive, the explanation (in both English and Spanish) gave me a deeper sense of what it meant to Coellar.

And that’s why I love just wandering and getting lost, because we’d never have found this exhibit if we hadn’t.

Huacas de Moche and Chan Chan

On the coast of Northern Peru, ancient adobe brick structures lie in the sandy desert. They’ve sat here for more than 1500 years and they’re slowly eroding away, leaving behind melted lumps of earth. We visited two of these sites, Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan, both easily accessible by public transport. Although superficially they may appear similar, the sites belong to two different cultures; the Moche, present 100-800 AD, and the Chimu, who grew out of the remains of the Moche and flourished until the Inca conquest in the 1400s.

Our visitor experience at these two places was very different. There was a wonderful museum at Huaca de la Luna, which tied the history and interpretation of the site to the artefacts that had been found there. They also offered free guided tours in Spanish and English (and I think other languages where possible – our guide also spoke Turkish!). At Chan Chan, on the other hand, because we weren’t part of an organised tour, we were left to wander the maze-like structure with just a few interpretation boards to help us understand what we were looking at. The museum, which is just down the road, was in need of an update and most information was in Spanish.

Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca del Sol, visible in the background, was larger than Huaca de la Luna, but it was largely destroyed by the Spanish in an attempt to find riches (by diverting a river to wash it away!). Like the other adobe sites, what is left today is still being damaged by rainfall. It’s estimated that only about a third of it is left. The buildings between the two pyramids were centres of industrial production; workshops and workers’ housing.

Behind Huaca de la Luna is the mountain Cerro Blanco. It’s thought that the pyramid shape of the Huacas is meant to mimic the shape of the mountain. The small rocky outcrop on the right, known as the Black Rock, and the surrounding structures were sites of human sacrifice. Adult male skeletons showing cause of death by skull fracture or slit throats, along with individualised portrait pots depicting captives (which you can see in the site museum), were found here.

Whilst Huaca del Sol was the military and administrative centre – residence of the elite – it’s thought Huaca de la Luna was the religious/ceremonial centre. The iconography is unclear, seeming to depict everyday human activities like dancing and fishing, along with both real and mythological animals. For a close-up look at one particularly dazzling image, see this gigapixel picture.

Going up from the bottom row: captives, dancers, spiders, fishermen, lizards.

Built in several phases, each new layer was built on top of, and surrounding, the old structure and the space between filled in with bricks. Because of this, some of the inner layers are preserved quite well. These are the original colours – there’s been no restoration here.

This strange looking face is the god, Ai Apaec (“the decapitator”), also sometimes depicted as a spider, winged creature or sea monster. In the white area on the left, there is a small etching of a fish. Archaeologists postulate that it’s a kind of artist’s signature.

Many bricks show marks on them (over 100 different varieties) that may indicate different communities of labourers.

One last closeup of my favourite scary looking creatures: two-headed spiders (with hands?) and fishermen (with snakes hanging round their waists?).

Chan Chan

A sprawling 20km² of adobe lumps and bumps, visitors can only enter the Tschudi Complex, a dense urban area dating from the later period of occupation. Long, seemingly maze-like corridors lead between open plazas and complexes of small rooms. Restored friezes adorn some walls and statues stand guard. Had there not been large tour groups, I felt like it would have been a great place to film a psychological thriller with someone slowly going mad as they come to yet another dead end or arrow sign sending them on an endless loop.

The lattice shaped walls possibly represent nets.

Pelicans and…a frog? Or duck? Or seal?

Tell me that these aren’t the cutest little pixelated birds you’ve ever seen.

And that this doesn’t look like an old-school gameboy game or something.

In fact, perhaps it should be a game. A sort of role-playing strategy game meets first person shooter where you have to develop your own palace complex and rule over the population as well as creating craft products and ritually sacrificing young women (large numbers of female skeletons have been found in tombs here).

Real ducks! Reservoirs were built into each palace complex, and wells were used for water. In later periods, to provide for a growing population, canal systems diverted water from the Moche RIver.

Directions: Catch the bus to Huaca de la Luna between Huayna Capac & Suárez on Los Incas near the Mercado Mayorista. They drop you off and pick you up right at the museum there. Catch a bus from Ave. España in Trujillo and get off at the turn-off, Cruce de Chan Chan, where you can walk a short distance down the road to the entrance. There may be taxi drivers at the turning offering to drive you which, if you’ve come this far by bus already, is totally not worth it. Even though the distance is only a couple of kilometres, there have been some safety concerns about walking to the site from Huanchaco so catch a bus from Ave. La Rivera instead. If you’re in a group and plan on visiting a lot of sites in one day (there are two more Huacas around Trujillo), you might be better off hiring a taxi for the day.

Cost: Huaca de la Luna 13 Soles (including museum and site), Chan Chan 10 soles (includes site, museum and two smaller sites, Huacas Esmeralda and Arco Iris).

Day trips around Huaraz

In order to acclimatize before attempting the Santa Cruz trek, we stayed in Huaraz and did a couple of day trips to Pastoruri glacier and the archaeological site of Chavín de Huantar. Both involved a lot of time spent on a bus, but the landscapes we passed through on the way to the sites were beautiful. For some reason, lunch was always served late, very late. Like 4pm late. I think it was a Peruvian disorganisation thing.

Water that’s always bubbling. The guide couldn’t really explain why, except that this land used to be a volcano.

Rock paintings on the way to Pastoruri.

Walking to Pastoruri. At 5,000m above sea level, some people choose to take a horse instead.

The glacier is retreating (although some people claim not). We met a Peruvian man who had visited in 2007 and said what he saw today was much smaller.

It may not look like much today, but Chavin was an important ceremonial centre more than 3,000 years ago.

The steps on the main temple are made half from black and half from white stones.

It’s thought that Andean cosmology has it’s origins in Chavin.

The underground chambers were built with double layers of stone to withstand earthquakes.

The tour to Pastoruri cost 30 soles, and to Chavín de Huántar 40 soles. There are a bunch of agencies in Huaraz all with the same trips, so shop around. Lunch has to be bought seperately and there are obligatory stops at restaurants for this purpose. It costs about 12 soles. Bring snacks because, like I said, lunch is served late.

A postcard from Museo Nacional de Etnografico y Folklore

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“No fotos!” the ticket seller called out to me as I was walking into the museum. She didn’t offer to sell me a photo permit for 20Bs, even though I knew there was one, and I didn’t ask about it. I paid for it later when I tried to sneak a few pictures and felt incredibly nervous that the security guard would catch me.

But I don’t have the kind of camera that can take good photos in low-light conditions (or from the hip, which is what I was doing to try and avoid detection by the CCTV). You’ll have to just believe me when I say the gallery of masks is one of the coolest exhibitions I’ve seen.

With examples from all over Bolivia, hung at eye-level in poses reminiscent of a dancer in motion and music playing in the background, they looked as if they could have danced right off into the darkness. Even though I’ve seen some of these masks before, bobbing up and down during street parades in La Paz, they looked very different up close. There was no glass between the objects and me so there were no distracting reflections. I could see every detail – sequins, feathers, grass, seeds, foil, cloth and paint – that adorned the wood, metal and plastic surfaces.

The rest of this little museum was pretty cool too. The textile gallery had a light that sensed movement so that it turned off when no-one was in the room (or when you didn’t move for a long time because you were looking at minute figures woven into a belt). The ceramic and feather art galleries also had some interesting pieces (a giant phallus and ridiculously tall plumed head-dress come to mind). There was a cute cartoon running around the entire upper-floor gallery, visualizing the history of Bolivia. And there were lots of coins in the basement (they were the least interesting, but I looked anyway because the kindly guard, who hadn’t managed to catch me sneaking a picture, told me not to miss that section).

Visitors’ info: Museo Nacional de Etnografico y Folklore

A postcard from La Sebastiana, Valparaiso

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I love looking inside people’s houses. Peeping through cracks in curtains or looking in every room when I’m invited into someone’s home – I just can’t help it. I love looking at how space is used and how it shapes the behaviors of the inhabitants. I love to see what someone’s living space tells you about them.

So when I found myself outside La Sebastiana, home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, I didn’t hesitate in visiting. It didn’t matter that I’d never read any of his work, or that I only knew him from his appearance in Il Postino. I wanted to see the colour of his wallpaper, the layout of his kitchen and how much natural light there was in his living room.

I saw all this and more. I saw his eclectic collection of fine art and kitsch. I felt the extension of space created by the wide windows which took up the whole side of the house, looking out over the city below. I navigated the odd-shaped spaces of stairs, tiny corridors and split-level rooms. I smiled at the holes in the bathroom door, the sailors’ bar of alcohol and the old carousel horse with gaudy colours and flared nostrils.

Visitors’ info: La Sebastiana

Cueva de las Manos

There’s something about cave paintings, about ancient handprints and pigments dotting a rocky surface…So when I heard about Cueva de las Manos I knew I had to go. The fact it was in the middle of nowhere Patagonia only made it better.

You can read more about our visit to the caves and the journey there.

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A postcard from Museo San Francisco

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Outside the streets are busy.

Cars beep their horns and minibus conductors shout out their destinations to passersby. Police blow their whistles to try and direct the traffic. “Helados! Helados!” rings out from ice cream vendors pushing wheeled cool-boxes. Throngs block the pavement, waiting for a chance to zig-zag through stationary vehicles. Children play on the steps, rolling, running and clinging to cholitas’ heavy skirts. Tourists take photos of San Francisco church, or confusedly search paper maps, or wander aimlessly in the direction of Sagarnaga, getting sidetracked by souvenir shops and over-priced restaurants.

Inside it’s another world.

Sunshine warms flowers, green leaves and old stone. Under archways, glass panels give a peek at the foundations of an older cloister. Birds flit from branch to path to fountain, while footsteps echo from the balcony above. Brocade-clad angels with avenging swords and golden curls look out from canvases. Metal chalices and religious clothes glitter in glass cases. Imperfectly translated information panels impart the history of Bolivia in terms of the involvement of the Order of San Francisco. A nun dusts off the alter in the dark Basilica, where a staircase leads up to the rooftop with bumpy, uneven tiles.

The bell tower overlooks it all, the outside and the inside, each aspect side by side though belonging to different worlds.

Museo San Francisco
Cost: 20Bs for foreigners
Hours: Monday – Saturday,
9am-6pm
Address: Plaza San Francisco Nº 501

Tiwanaku

It’s hard to believe that people once survived here on the harsh Altiplano, let alone built a thriving civilization. But the remains of Tiwanaku are evidence of how humans can create an existence anywhere.

Read more about our visit here.

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A hand-made model showing the alignment of the sun during solstices.

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The Sun Gate, with Jaguar and Condor Warriors.

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View from the Sunken Temple towards the Kalasasaya.

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An ancient model used to plan one of the large temples on site.

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