Peru: Here's to Cuzco

It all started in a pub. But in this pub, the regulars might include botanists, archaeologists and even a gun-toting Vietnam veteran. Not to mention the occasional snake wrapped round a table leg. Former Cuzco barman Max Milligan explains why this region of Peru has kept him entranced for 15 years

There are few better ways of getting to know a region and its inhabitants than by setting up a pub, especially when it is the only one in town, as the Cross Keys was in Cuzco in 1986. The 1980s are now referred to as the bad old days, when Shining Path guerrillas terrorised the country, blowing up the local Machu Picchu train the very day of the pub's inauguration. It was an attack on politicians who had failed to show up and left 16 tourists dead in their place. Grievous though it was, it was an isolated incident in an area too wealthy through fertile land and tourist dollars to give much support to Maoists.

There are few better ways of getting to know a region and its inhabitants than by setting up a pub, especially when it is the only one in town, as the Cross Keys was in Cuzco in 1986. The 1980s are now referred to as the bad old days, when Shining Path guerrillas terrorised the country, blowing up the local Machu Picchu train the very day of the pub's inauguration. It was an attack on politicians who had failed to show up and left 16 tourists dead in their place. Grievous though it was, it was an isolated incident in an area too wealthy through fertile land and tourist dollars to give much support to Maoists.

After friends and relatives, our gravest concern was whether tour groups would cancel. Cuzco has long survived almost entirely upon tourism and the related industries of local transport, hotels, jumper-knitters, ceramic artists, trekking guides, river rafters and waiters.

Luckily, backpackers and honeymooners continued to visit the famous Inca ruins, and the colourful regulars at the bar included archaeologists, herpetologists, botanists, explorers, writers, artists, mystics and those who were simply avoiding more mundane realities at home. The difference between this expatriate community and others I had experienced was the desire to be there. No bank or oil company had sent them. Few social barriers existed and Spanish, English and Quechua were spoken in a melting pot of cultures. Fascination for the history, biology or geography created a band of obsessive experts in their field. The key to why I have stayed for the best part of 15 years in southern Peru is this contagious enthusiasm. Whether they be eminent botanists or package tourists, none is disappointed.

As a 21-year-old barman with a 16mm cine camera, I was awed to meet the people whose books and documentaries I had seen and read. Over a Glenmorangie, their latest theories about the Nazca lines, Inca architecture or a new species of frog would resound through the smoky air in some late-night academic debate. I might be asked to stand on a table holding up a bottle representing the sun while the glass washer would circle the table playing the moon. Macho river-rafting captains would peruse the passenger lists of their next trip, paying particular attention to the female dates of birth, and in a dark corner an immigration official might interrupt his game of liar's dice to stamp your passport for a small liquid fee.

At the bar sat the Rolex Award-winning Johan Reinhard, soon to discover Juanita the ice-maiden mummy on an Andean peak. He asked me whether I would care to scuba-dive with him in the high altitude lakes in search of Inca relics with National Geographic. Other such rhetorical requests led to my first descent of a river from glacier to jungle, joining remote expeditions to plan new National Parks and playing a conquistador on horseback in full armour for The Smithsonian Institution. Other regulars included the late Ted Parker, a legend among birdwatchers in South America, who first identified a new species of flycatcher (there are well over 100) merely by hearing its call. One might find him, or Barry Walker, the pub's owner, quietly listening to a Walkman only to realise that they weren't tapping their fingers to the beat of music but counting out the calls of a slaty gnateater or an elusive ant-pitta.

Among the shadier characters was a particularly deranged Vietnam vet known as "Doc". When drunk he would throw his arm around your shoulder and conspiratorially offer to do away with anyone you might name for $500. This kept everyone on friendly terms with each other, especially when they heard the infrequent but hair-raising thud of his Luger falling on the floor. It's said he died in Bolivia like Butch Cassidy.

In the early Nineties terrorism came to an abrupt halt, as did hyperinflation. Foreign investors arrived and with them came the big hotel chains and five-star tourism. Backpackers still came in droves, but the mix of visitors from all over the globe became more varied, their backgrounds and interests making Cuzco far more cosmopolitan than its remote location and moderate size would suggest. Once there, the tourists came to realise that the Inca ruins were just the beginning. Festivals, markets, mountains, canyons, Lake Titicaca and Madre de Dios, the most species-rich environment on earth, can fill itineraries weeks or months long. The south-east remains a showcase of all Peru has to offer: 84 of the 104 defined habitats on earth. Of the 32 types of climate in the world, 28 drift above this land.

As "wilderness" travel becomes increasingly popular as an escape from the constraints of one's own culture and contemporaries, the scale of the place alone puts one's life into perspective. Even on government maps, large areas of white appear on the eastern Andean slopes, labelled "Relief Data Unreliable". In an age of satellite photography, what lies beneath the cloud-forest canopy remains an anachronistic mystery, like Machu Picchu itself before its 1911 rediscovery.

The land itself is held sacred by those who live upon it. Icons, saints and shrines of Catholicism lie like a veneer over the ancient beliefs of the Runa, descendants of the Incas' subjects. The Virgin Mary is closely identified with Pacha Mama, their Mother Earth and each lonely Cross silhouetted on a mountainside horizon stands where coca leaf offerings were left long before the Spaniards arrived. Auccis, the spirits of Runa ancestors, dwell in river bends and gnarled trees, and notable features in the landscape such as a large boulder or dark lake are known as Tirakuna, "the ones that watch over us".

Many of the highland communities have barely changed since medieval times, and the lifestyles of the llama and alpaca herders are reminiscent of Scotland before the clearances. The treeless granite surroundings, the windowless thatched houses filled with peat smoke, the diet of potatoes and the ponchos woven in family designs add to this impression.

There are still ruins to be discovered and groups of people can still be seen in Cuzco huddled round tables with scribbled maps allegedly showing the location of lost cities and hidden treasure. Local farmers and mule wranglers are always happy to hire their services to the hopeful. Further down, in the "Wild West" pioneering towns, the industries are more desperate. Mountain people pillage the rainforest for gold and timber, living in a habitat they neither understand nor care for. Thanks to the world records for biodiversity, the area also hosts the largest reserve in South America.

Manu National Park is half the size of Switzerland. It is large enough to contain the vast territories of jaguar and giant river otters that guarantee a sustainable gene pool. Deep within the park live at least two tribes that survive uncontacted. A hatred of outsiders has been passed down in oral traditions since the atrocities during the rubber boom and their legendary ferocity is their best defense. No one is allowed to penetrate their sanctuary, be they scientist, anthropologist or missionary.

The jungle also provides ample chances to hide oneself. On a remote river five days from the nearest human habitation, we once discovered an aged Hungarian who had been there since 1946. He refused to be photographed and gave us no name, but offered us bananas. God knows what he had done back in Europe, but 50 years later he still felt the need to remain hidden. A more effusive character was a retired US General who sported a T-shirt, embossed with a skull and crossbones, and bearing the words: "Kill em all, let God sort them out". Slung nattily from his shoulder was a shiny chrome-plated Uzi and he rolled a gold nugget the size of a golf ball round and round his beerglass. He had 17 small mines, a private army and when he joined us for a drink that night, his face glowed with the gold dust that he sprinkled into his aftershave.

Those who come here to study include the world's foremost authorities on every branch of tropical biology. Herpetologists are a riot, especially those interested in snakes. Many is the tourist who has sat unsuspectingly next to a twitching sack only to have the blood drain from their face as a scientist nonchalantly opens it to reveal the venomous contents. Watching a canoe full of people try to avoid an escaped viper, while not capsizing into piranha-infested waters, is unforgettable. So was the expression on the face of a herpetologist at dinner in an exclusive jungle lodge. His collecting bag, very full only moments earlier, now sat empty beside him. The enormous bushmaster which had been in it had wrapped itself around a table-leg and gone to sleep.

Fifteen years ago, Peru was ravaged by terrorism. Ironically in the current climate it seems to be one of the safest destinations on earth. There have been cancellations by those who don't wish to fly and Cuzco with its fragile economy would be hard-hit by this. The benefit for those who still want to come is that they won't be overrun by other tourists, something worth bearing in mind as Peru's popularity increases each year.

Last week, sitting at the bar, I fell into conversation with a man holding an extraordinarily fat segment of bamboo. He told me the story of how he had happened upon it in bloom, a rare occurrence which takes place roughly every 30 years. Seeing the flower enabled him to describe it with certainty as a new species. I picked it up and turned it round. That something so dramatic and obvious could be new to science was astounding. As news of the war was broadcast from the television above, this tubular block of wood sitting on a beer mat symbolised the nearer world outside the window. A natural world where one can wander for days and see no one, where things still stand without names. A place where one can find something new under the sun.

Max Milligan's book, 'Realm of the Incas', is published by HarperCollins, price £29.99. Max will be giving a lecture on Peru at the Royal Geographical Society on 23 January 2002 in aid of Share A Capital Christmas.

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