Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Cuzco – the Navel of the World

This is an extended version of an article that appears in the March 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

Sacred valley at the top of the world with great clubs and restaurants.


Peru has had a violent history even until recently. There continues to be a divide between indigenous people and the descendants of the Spanish conquerors.

Getting There

There are flights to Cuzco from Lima but there are dangers to health because of altitude sickness; the ancient capital of the Incas is 3,400 metres above sea level. Paul Theroux told a story, probably apocryphal, of a tourist’s teeth exploding. I became distinctly dizzy in Huancavelica (3,660 metres).  It is advisable to make a gradual progress by road or rail to Cuzco, in order to acclimatise yourself gradually to the altitude.


I bought a fascinating book in Cuzco written by one of the city’s native sons. Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios Reales de los Incas, was published in 1609. Garcilaso’s dual heritage enabled him to provide a subtle critique of Spanish colonialism and the sufferings of native Andeans. Garcilaso’s mother was an Inca princess, and his father was a Spanish conquistador. Garcilaso unsuccessfully argued for a colonial regime led by men who could harmoniously reconcile Spanish and Incan traditions. That kind of harmony is still lacking today. He based his accounts of Inca life and the conquest on stories heard from his Inca relatives when he was a child in Cuzco.  He portrays the Inca as benevolent rulers who governed a country where everybody was well-fed and happy.


The Incas carried out human sacrifices and used slave labour. The conquistadors employed great cruelty to extract precious resources to sustain Spain and its Empire. The Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path Maoist terrorists) were brutal, purportedly in pursuit of social justice, as were the peasant groups formed to oppose them in the face of government indifference. When the Peruvian army did take an interest, they slaughtered innocent villagers as well as revolutionaries. The army captured the last surviving Sendero leader as recently as 2011.

Shining Path

In January 2014, the shrunken figure of Abimael Guzmán, the  philosophy professor who founded  Sendero Luminoso, appeared in a Lima court to face charges of killing 25 people and injuring more than 150 in 1992 with two car bombs in Miraflores neighbourhood of the capital. I stayed in that neighbourhood. I also stayed in the Andean town of Huancavelica, where I registered at the local police station. Sendero Luminoso blew up that police station the day after I was in it. In August of 2003, Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee stated that upwards of 69,000 people died in the struggle between Sendero and government security forces. A major Sendero tactic was the mass slaughter of the indigenous people it claimed to be fighting for in order to goad the authorities into matching savagery.


Today, not everything is perfect but there is relative peace in Peru. Cuzco epitomises a Peru where foreigners can come to enjoy historical monuments and incredible scenery, eat and shop well and party. Travelling high up in the Andes, I witnessed grinding poverty among the indigenous people. A citizen of Lima earns 21 times what a resident of the interior earns. In one small town, drunken Indians were rolling in the gutter and rats disturbed my sleep in the “hotel”. Even in coastal areas, life seemed hard. In one seaside village, we were hungry and disgruntled at the lack of food in what passed for restaurants. I later realised, to my shame, that the large fish they managed to find for us was probably intended to feed the whole village.



Peruvians have been eating guinea pigs for millennia. I tried it twice myself while in Cuzco. The first time was in a rather swish restaurant called Cicciolina (waiters wear dark frock coats and white gloves). I swear that I did not know what cuy was until after I had swallowed it. This was a minute cube of meat, rather like liver, which went down in one swallow. The second occasion was at lunch in a more downmarket restaurant where the creature was  splayed whole out on the plate allowing no room for doubt that it was a guinea pig. Although, I knew that it was rodent rather than porcine, it did taste like pork crackling. I am afraid the creature died in vain because I could not eat much of it. I did not like the way it was looking at me.


Trip Advisor reviews 368 restaurants in Cuzco. After travelling in the altiplano and surviving on dishwater and dog soup served in cracked plastic bowls, it was very heaven to be in Cuzco.


On the second floor of a lofty colonial courtyard mansion, Cicciolina is eclectic and international – as well as guinea pig or alpaca you can eat crisp polenta squares with cured rabbit, duck carpaccio and tender lamb. The service is impeccable as well as amiable. The restaurant provides haute versions of cuzqueño classics like anticuchos (beef skewers),

anticuchosrocoto relleno (stuffed red peppers), rocoto relleno

sopa de gallina (chicken soup) and chairo (beef and lamb soup) served in a clay pot.


The humble potato came from Peru before Sir Walter Raleigh took it to his stolen land in County Cork. Peruvian potatoes come in many varieties – and colours.


Where to Stay

When I travelled around Peru, I experienced some very basic accommodation. However, Cuzco has a wide range of hotels to suit every budget. The Loki Hostel caters for backpackers and partygoers.

loki hostal

There are many two-star hotels. Hostal Qorikilla is possibly the cheapest. It is practically falling apart, but the kind, unassuming staff make it a favorite.

At the other end of the scale is the Palacio del Inka, an opulent colonial mansion built on Inca foundations, with parts of the building dating back to the 16th century, when Francisco Pizarro was an occupant.


Multi-layered Navel

The name “Cuzco” means “the navel” – the centre of the Inca Empire and therefore the world.  It lays claim to being the oldest continually inhabited city in the western hemisphere. Cuzco is a many-layered city – beginning with a culture dating back a thousand years before Christ, through the Incas, via the Spanish conquistadors to, in 2014, nightclubs, designer boutiques and restaurants run by celebrity chefs.  After the conquest, the Spaniards used the stones of the Inca buildings to build a new town. Most of the buildings in post-conquest Cuzco were rebuilt after an earthquake in 1650. There was another earthquake in 1950, after which the buildings were faithfully restored using pink or grey stone often using material from Inca buildings.

Night Life


Modern Cuzco is a lively place with attractions for young people as well as those interested in historic monuments and trekking. Cuzco is a party place with an unlimited range in bars and clubs spread out all over town. As Cuzco has become increasingly important for the backpack industry, many hotels and hostels have organised pub-crawls, theme nights and live performances around town. Paddy Flaherty’s must be the (in the altitude sense) highest Irish Pub in the world.  If you wish to travel to the capital of the Inca empire to drink proper Guinness on draught, mix with Europeans watching British sports on the big screen, this could be the place for you.


The dance clubs don’t get going until around midnight or one in the morning and you can stay out  until dawn.


Armchair Travel

You can enjoy Cuzco vicariously from your armchair. Michael Palin visited Cuzco in 1997 for the BBC. You can watch this on YouTube

Palin visited the most famous relic of the Inca Empire: the lost city of Machu Picchu. Palin wrote about Pongo de Mainique, the portal to the afterlife of the Machiguenga Indians and home to the Spectacled Bear among other animals.  “Nothing I have read or fantasized about has prepared me for this place. It’s an enchanted world.” If you get to Cuzco, you can take a trip to Pongo.

In December 1980, the BBC broadcast a programme called “Three Miles High” in the series Great Railway Journeys of the World in which the late lamented Miles Kington travelled from Lima through the Andes via Punto Ferroviario, Huancato by steam train to Huancavelica, by bus to Cuzco & Macchu Picchu to Ayaviri and Lake Titicaca to Bolivia.

Sites to See

The Inca fortress of Sacsaywamán is less than a 2km trek uphill from the Plaza de Armas. In 1536, the fort was the site of one of the bitterest battles of the Spanish conquest. More than two years after Pizarro’s entry into Cuzco, the Incas recaptured Sacsaywamán and used it as a base to lay siege to the conquistadors in Cuzco. Thousands of dead littered the site after the Incas’ defeat, attracting swarms of carrion-eating condors.


manco inca

Resource Curse

revolting peasants

Peru was blighted by the resource curse in the 16th Century and is blighted still in the 21st. Huancavelica, 200 miles from Cuzco,  was founded in 1572 for the purpose of mining mercury, which was essential to extract silver from ore.  Today Peru still has an impoverished indigenous population prey to the extractive industries, this time run by multi-nationals rather than the Spanish Empire. Today illegal gold mining in Peru is causing deforestation and serious mercury contamination of the food chain.


The Peruvian economy is heavily dependent on the export of copper, gold, oil and gas, often located on indigenous lands. A new law offers some hope to the indigenous communities. Extractive projects will require prior consultation. The government will have to listen to the concerns of indigenous communities and try to balance their needs with the desires of multi-national corporations given a free hand by previous administrations. The current government seems committed to the idea that all Peruvians should benefit from the nation’s natural resources. A new tax on the mining industry is expected to bring in additional government revenue of more than $1 bn, which will be used for social programmes.


Let us not forget that tourism is itself an extractive industry. In my dreams of visiting magical sites such as the Taj Mahal and Venice, I imagined myself all alone. Macchu Picchu, like those places, is always full of people. Machu Picchu was completed around  1450 at the height of the Incan empire.  The Incas abandoned it less than 100 years after its foundation, following the Spanish conquest of Peru.  Macchu Picchu was unknown to the outside world before the American historian Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911. The removal of cultural artefacts by the Bingham expeditions gave rise to a long-term dispute between the government of Peru and Yale University. As well as natural phenomena like earthquakes and weather systems, sheer volume of tourists threatens Macchu Picchu.


Tourism in Peru has expanded faster than all other sectors. In 2005, the World Tourism Organization stated that Peru had the second largest tourism growth, 28.6%,  in Latin America. There have been problems, such as seasonal unemployment, a rise in sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, poor urban planning, a lack of residential regulations, and destruction of the environment. Before the tourism boom of the last decade, Cuzco supplied a vast majority of the agricultural products for Peru but now former farmers rely on tourism. During the off-season, many people struggle to live.


Spanish conquistadors in America destroyed all the settlements in their path and returned from their wanderings to starve, because there was nothing left to loot. Now the emphasis on economic growth and tourism could have the same effect.

Polythene Pestilence

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 19 2014

Colman's Column3

Visiting Horton Plains, I got the strange feeling that I had been transported back to Ireland. The fog, the yellow furze blossoms, the red fuchsias, all brought back memories of rural County Cork. At Horton Plains, signs warn visitors that plastic bags can kill the deer that are one of the reasons for visiting the spot. This is no longer a problem in Ireland. Ireland has conquered the scourge of plastic bags.

In his book Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh noted: “the Irish lack of any strong visual sense or concern with tidiness”. The Irish landscape is beautiful but it is marred by the intrusion of humanity.  Most Irish small towns are ugly and depressing. The Irish countryside is sparsely populated but despoiled by the phenomenon of “bungalowitis” – the economic boom led to many ugly houses being built. With the collapse of the economy, the country is littered with ghost housing developments.

The Irish do seem to have got something right with their policy on plastic bags. I would venture to say that Sri Lankans also lack a strong visual sense or concern with tidiness. People of my age and background were trained to be tidy. Dropping litter in the street would be anathema even if there were not fines to be imposed if you were caught. Ireland seemed to be improving somewhat. There is now less danger in Irish cities of getting stuck to the pavement with chewing gum than there is in London. There are now tidy village competitions in Ireland. In Sri Lanka, I notice children dropping litter on the ground without being reprimanded by their parents. Why are the schools not training them?

It is not just Sri Lanka that is plagued by plastic bags. An estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, 380 billion of those in the US. Each year in Singapore, some 2.5 billion plastic bags are used which means vast quantities of non-renewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas are consumed to produce them. According to an impact assessment by the European Commission, European citizens use, on average, 198 plastic bags per year. Of the 198 bags, 90 per cent are single-use lightweight plastic bags. An estimated three billion plastic bags were used daily across China, creating more than three million tons of garbage each year. China consumed an estimated five million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil annually to produce plastics for packaging.

Large build-ups of plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding, as occurred in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998 and almost annually in Manila. Plastic bags constituted a significant portion of the floating marine debris in the waters around southern Chile, according to a study conducted between 2002 and 2005. If washed out to sea, plastic bags can be carried long distances by ocean currents, and can strangle marine animals. The inks and colorants used in some bags contain lead, a toxin. Once in the environment, it can take hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown. As they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.

Sri Lankan retailers have a mania for packaging. One might buy a packet of biscuits, which has already been wrapped by the manufacturer. The shopkeeper will then wrap it in newspaper, put it in a brown paper bag and then put the lot into a plastic bag.

In my living memory, plastic bags didn’t exist. How did we manage without them? Today’s lightweight shopping bag, made of ethylene derived from natural gas and petroleum, only came into common use in the 1970s. Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin invented it and   Celloplast patented worldwide it in 1965.

Someone told me that plastic bags were here to stay in Sri Lanka because their production was a cottage industry providing livelihoods. Could livelihoods not arise from producing biodegradable packaging? I attended BCMIH to hear Ajahn Brahmavanso and was impressed with the efficient manner in which the event was organised. Seven thousand people were provided lunch in neat disposable cardboard boxes. Not a plastic bag in sight!

Rwanda has had many problems. If they can deal with the plastic problem, surely it is not beyond Sri Lanka? At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones. The authorities encouraged companies that used to manufacture plastic bags to start recycling them instead by providing tax incentives. In 2008, Rwanda decided to ban plastic bags completely.

Ireland took a global lead on the plastic bags issue. I was somewhat disconcerted to be told on 4th March 2002 by an Irish retailer that I would have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag. My first thought was that this was profiteering. I later learnt that this was a levy imposed by the Irish government to limit the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of re-usable bags. All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund to develop schemes to promote awareness of the need to protect the environment.

There was an immediate effect on consumer behaviour. Use of plastic bags plummeted from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita overnight. Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork, said the levy had “been an extraordinary success,” resulting in a 95% reduction in plastic bags. Local authorities carry out surveys to determine the extent, composition and causes of litter pollution in their areas. This information enables them to plan litter management. There have been positive changes in litter pollution levels throughout the country since 2002.

Ireland gave an example to the world. In a quarter of the globe, there are some restrictions on plastic bags. Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and three states and territories of Australia, ban them. The five-cent tax levied on plastic bags in Washington DC in 2010 brought a decrease in consumption from 22.5 million to three million bags in the first month alone. Italy began a total ban on January 1 2011.  Like Ireland, Belgium and Hong Kong discourage plastic bag use by imposing a levy.

China’s State Council, in January 2008 prohibited shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimetres thick. The NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) announced recently that supermarkets had reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent. The commerce administration enforced the ban through a 600,000-strong army of regulators who inspected some 250,000 retail outlets. Regulators imposed about two million yuan (US$293,000) in fines. The reduction in bag production saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum. However, a survey by Global Village, a Beijing-based environmental group, found that more than 80 percent of retail stores in rural regions continued to provide plastic bags free of charge.

There are positive developments in Sri Lanka. Cargill’s and Keell’s are promoting re-usable bags. The problem is that it is very difficult to stop market traders using plastic bags even when one presents them with a re-usable bag in which to put ones purchases. Local government and workplaces could hammer the philosophy home. Tele-dramas could preach the anti-litter gospel. There is already a tradition of recycling newspapers and exercise books to make bags. Could these not be used  instead of rather than in addition to plastic?

It may seem like an uphill task to end Sri Lanka’s dependence on plastic bags and to raise awareness of the disadvantages of litter. Who would have thought a few years ago that the Irish could be prevented from having a smoke with their pint in the pub? Who would have thought they could be weaned almost overnight from the plastic bag?

There must be hope for Sri Lanka!

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