There are several ways to get from Puno to Cusco, but the Inka Express is one of the more unique and interesting ways.
For 97 Soles (20GBP – 2012), not only do you get to admire the stunning Andean mountainscape, but you also visit several archaeological sites and other places of interest along the way.
I arrived at the cross-continent bus station in Puno, the Terminal Terrestre, early in the morning and showed my bus ticket to a Peruvian lady minding the main entrance into the depot. She told me in rapid-fire Spanish I had to get my ticket validated.
I didn’t understand. She spoke slower. I still didn’t understand.
She pointed to a kiosk and mimed stamping my ticket. “Oh,” I said.
Why hadn’t they told me that in the office when I bought the ticket?
“It will cost you one sole,” the woman said in Spanish. She didn’t need to mime that!
The bus for the Inka Express is easy to find. Just look for the balloons strapped to the front. Well, that and it’s a golden luxury liner that dwarfs the local minibuses ferrying smoke-smelling locals.
It had tourist bus written all over it (metaphorically speaking) and probably costs ten times more than the local service, but they also take ten times longer and are ten times more uncomfortable.
Local Buses in Peru
Nestling into my reclining seat draped in a blanket handed out by the pretty attendant, Maria, I had never been so comfortable in South American transit. Usually, I rattle along in the local service.
The air-con was fresh and cool – a welcoming novelty in comparison to the stench of mud, smoke and sweat I had become accustomed to.
But twelve hours to make the 390 km journey to Cusco still felt like it was going to be one hell of a ride.
As we made the windy trip up the mountainside with the winking waters of Lake Titicaca below, I sipped a cup of on-board coca tea – part of the purchase price – and ate cereal bars I had bought from the supermarket the night before. This didn’t feel like hell.
We made our way through several towns with half-built houses and rusty cars without wheels until we arrive in the sleepy village of Pucara, home to the first ancient culture in Puno which according to official records existed from around 300 BCE.
The population built many temples around Lake Titicaca together and are known to have practiced human sacrifice. Three hundred and ninety metres above sea level we were dwarfed by a looming rock highly visible beyond the quaint colonial church.
On the adjacent hill, written in stone on the lush green surface were the words: VIVA PUCARA.
Pucara museum is an innocuous building with peeling, red-paint. Its main artefacts are stone monoliths with carvings that show representations of sacred animals that were central to the culture of this important pre-Inca civilisation. The frog is prominent and represents water, a vital requirement for life and the signal for the ancient that rain was coming.
As with most ancient cultures I had already read about and encountered in the Andes region, the snake also featured prominently.
The snake represents wisdom; the link to the underworld which in turn represents the inner self.
The Puma, representing strength and the material world, is also evident. I also found ceramics of the Felino similar to those I had seen in the museum of the Isla Del Sol and Tiwanaku in Bolivia.
The room in the far corner of the museum is home to the most interesting of artefacts, the statue of Hatun Naqak, a symbol of the decapitator. Cupped in his hand is the head of a child.
Human sacrifices played a major part in the lives of the Pucara culture and the head was considered the greatest offering to the gods. Daniel, our guide told us that many indigenous cultures practiced the same rituals; the Nazca and the Moche among them.
Earlier civilisations were motivated to make sacrifices to the gods; and they were clearly not afraid to kill babies as an offering in return for the fertility of the land. Their desperation was driven in part by fear and in part by hope, but they always sought credence from the gods – even if that meant sacrificing infant children.
Stunning Scenery in Peru
Back on the road, we passed vast open fields sprawling at the feet of green hills huddled together like sleeping giants. Cattle grazed on the tufts of grass. Lone shepherds stood watching over their flock; most of them Aymara women.
We passed through a small village where a young couple were having their wedding photographs taken. They only had six guests. Perhaps the small congregation was all they can afford.
Jagged mountain peaks reached into grey clouds and appeared to be on fire. Their bulky mounds were streaked with snow that looked like the hide of a Holstein cow. It was there that we reached the highest point of our journey, a place they called La Raya.
The thin air reminded me of La Paz. Likewise, the colourful women sitting by their stalls selling thick woollen clothing and Llama skin rugs.
We were wrapped by the hills and had ten minutes to stretch our legs and take pictures of the snow-tipped peaks and rolling hills that cast a shadow against the surface of a small lake.
Around 12.15 we arrived in Sicuani for lunch in Buffet Andino, a quaint restaurant built from bamboo. Ambient pan-pipe music radiated from speakers nestled in an open upstairs window.
The all-you-can-eat buffet has a combination of chicken spaghetti, beef and onion stew, roast chicken with potatoes, boiled rice and seasoned vegetables.
Hot drinks are included in the price of the meal though over-priced cold drinks were extra. For dessert, I had custard trifle and jelly. It was delicious but feeling my beer-bloated belly I was thinking I should have had a slice of juicy watermelon.
A Trip to Raqchi
The highlight of the Inka Express tour is Raqchi, a tiny community a short drive from Cusco. It has approximately 2000 inhabitants though it appears much smaller. If you want to spend time here, tour operators in Cusco organise two-day trips for around US$140 (84GBP).
It’s in Raqchi that you find the remains of the Viracocha Temple. Viracocha is the creator God of the ancient Andes. Legends say he arrived by boat and taught the indigenous peoples the art of mathematics, science and engineering.
According to local legend, the temple in Raqchi was built after inhabitants tried to kill Viracocha. They were initially afraid of him because of his appearance – tall, long white hair and beard, and dressed in a monk’s habit.
The locals treated him like an enemy, throwing stones and slingshots. To defend himself, Viracocha set the fields on fire. In Quechua, Raqhci means, place of the scorched earth.
The Aymara villagers were so afraid of what this stranger had done they considered him a God and welcomed him into their community. In return, Viracocha passed on his worldly knowledge and to show their gratitude and respect, the temple was built in his honour.
The Raqchi temple would have looked impressive in its time. Measuring 302 feet by 84 feet it boasted the largest single roof in the entire Inca Empire until the Spanish arrived and unscrupulously knocked it through. To support the roof twenty-two pillars were erected and the windows were spiritually cut into the quarter shape of the Andean Cross – or as our guide described it, “The Inca Cross.” The symbol is much older than the Inca!
Mainstream archaeologists date the Viracocha Temple to the 15th century AD and describe the settlement as a “habitual dwelling.” Given there is evidence of ruined houses and storehouses the latter is a given, but according to legendViracochaa was not 10,000 years old.
He first appears in Andean folklore during the Tiwanakan Empire which mainstream archaeologists date to at least 500AD. Unsurprisingly there is little information about Viracocha Temple.
Perhaps there is no coincidence that when the temple was built this region was inhabited by the Aymara peoples who were descendants of the Tiwanakans, a culture with the ability to produce outstanding feats of engineering using advanced technology – supposedly long before man was supposed to have possessed the tools and the skills to achieve such precision.
Museo Wiracocha in Andahuaylillas
The last stop of the Inka Express tour is the colonial church and Museo Wiracocha in Andahuaylillas. The church is the typical garish colonial monstrosity plastered in gold and silver.
But the museum, although very modest, has several fascinating artefacts. In some Andean civilisations, such as the Nazca culture, and before them the Paracas tribes, would bind the heads of their infants, believing it would elongate the cranium and make them more intelligent.
In the Wirococha Museum, there are some excellent examples of this obscure practice together with an explanation of why. This is what museums scholars have to say:
“Cranial deformations in the Inca Empire were performed with the goal of developing greater consciousness. By putting pressure on the cranium, the Inca were able to double the volume of the cerebral mass. A few days after birth, the head of the newborn would be placed into a splint where it would remain until the child reached nine or ten years of age, the stage at which the number of neurons in a child’s brain increases most rapidly. It is during this time that they need to learn as much as possible, above all else, language and exact sciences.”
Cranial Deformation in Ancient Andean Cultures
Cranial deformation was in existence long before the Inca experimented with the effects of elongated skulls, and what´s more, can be found all over the world. The earliest recorded evidence of skull malformation dates back to 45,000 BCE in Neanderthal skulls found in a cave in Shanidar, Iraq.
It was also a practice undertaken in Mayan and Egyptian cultures and represented a higher status or increased intelligence. The Old World of the Huns are also known for a similar practice, as were the East Germanic tribes in late antiquity around 300-600 AD.
In the island archipelago of Vanuatu and the tribes of south-western Malakulan in the South Pacific, the elders are known to have continued this ancient tradition into current times.
Like the ancient cultures before them, the operation is to portray superior intelligence of a person or indicate a higher status in society. In all cultures, it was believed that stretching the skull brings people closer to the spirit world.
Skeletons in the Wirococha Museum also portray a recurring theme that is found throughout the ancient world. It is known that the Inca and other Andean cultures before them would swathe their dead in textiles, an exact replica of Egyptian mummies. The only difference is the Andean culture used to place their dead in the foetal position so the soul was ready for rebirth.
Another interesting exhibit of note in the Wirococha museum was the explanation of spirals – a representation I had seen repeated throughout much of the artwork on ancient ceramics. A simple printed hand-out on the wall explained that the spiral represented:
- The origins of life
- The Milky Way
The repetition of spirals was an unapparent discovery at the time, but one I would come to learn far more about much later in my research – and one that potentially has a far-reaching understanding of ancient beliefs and of human origins. You can find out more about spirals and what modern man can learn from ancient civilisations in my book, Journeys to Ancient Worlds, available on Amazon, Lulu and the Apple iBook Store.