Seeing the world, one country at the time

Ica, Pisco and the Tambo Colorado

The alarm clock went off at five. Our ever-giving hosts Sune and Carmen made us fresh OJ and fed us eggs with ham, cheese and toast. Sune took us to the station and we climbed aboard. This was the first bus that had trays! This seems a minor detail, but when you spend hundreds of hours on buses, it doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. A movie without any sound promptly put us to sleep. We woke up in Ica, a half hour south of our destination, and got off. A local bus would take us to Pisco, named after the strong spirit that is typical of the region. We learned, however, that the grape-based liquor actually originates in Ica, where we were, and that the vineyards are still there.

In the station, a large icon of the Virgin Mary stood on a wooden carrying platform. A tour guide spotted our gringo faces and tried to sell us tours. My Dad ushered him away, thinking he might be distracting us from our coveted luggage. We were told to only put our baggage in the luggage hold under the bus, but we always have items we want handy. The bus driver told us “You (meaning us gringos) can’t put your stuff up in the overheads, only under the seats. Because stuff disappears. You have to be VERY careful.” I guess they have experience with this sort of thing and we later found out they were right, when a bag was stolen from the luggage shelf, though all four of us were sitting right underneath it.

We sat and waited on plastic seats in the stifling heat for the bus to leave the station. The wait continued until the bus filled up. Meanwhile, drinks, ice cream and choclo (corn on the cob) vendors kept climbing on board and hawking their wares, yelling “choclo con queso” in our faces. A little boy ran up and down the aisle. When the bus finally pulled out, it stopped frequently for passengers and the ride took over one hour instead of 30 minutes. At a high speed, the bus felt like it would rattle to pieces. At a good speed it felt like a massage and the burning garbage outside was the aromatherapy incense. The bus steward checked our tickets twice in 20 minutes. Outside, all we could see was sand and an occasional reed shack, where we would inevitably stop for passengers. Pisco is a smaller, unimpressive city, though the blue and white City Hall is quirky and the small plaza is rather quaint. After settling into our hotel, we reserved a tour to Tambo Colorado.

Tour To Tambo Colorado

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We hired our guide Raimundo for 30 soles a person for four hours. He took us in his private taxi and from the moment we were inside, offered up a litany of information about the area. He and my Dad chatted during the whole ride. He started with the socio-economics of his country. “The population of Pisco is 71,000,” he began. “Agriculture is the biggest industry here. Maize, corn and cotton. You can see fields have desmotadoras – factories that separate cotton from seeds. Corn can be harvested three times a year. 80% of cotton production is exported, so Peru imports cotton from Bolivia and Colombia. It doesn’t make much sense, does it?” It turns out, Peru does have a strong cotton industry and the quality is very good, but it is difficult to find it and the best is sent abroad.

Then he moved into politics. “An average Peruvian makes 460 soles per month, which is about $100. Toledo (the current president) makes $18,000 a month. He decided this. Fujimori (Toledo’s predecessor) only made $3,000, so Toledo is the highest grossing president ever. We hated Fujimori when it came out that he and Montesinos had stolen Peruvian money from the privatization of companies. He had to escape with his life or the Peruvians would have killed him. Then investigations showed that he didn’t steal it. It went into public works and education. But before we found out, we had voted Toledo in because he was Peruvian, not a foreigner like Fujimori and they hated Fujimori and Toledo promised to take care of us because he understands us. But within 30 days we hated him too because he gave a speech asking Peruvians to follow austerity measures, and yet his first salary was for $18,000. As Cesar Vallejo, who is from Ica said, ‘Peru es un mendigo que esta sentado en una banca de oro.’ (Peru is a beggar who is seated on a golden bench).” The leaders don’t capitalize on the country’s natural resources because they’re corrupt.

Raimundo told us that during his presidency, Fujimori built schools and highways including the Panamericana that runs from Ecuador to Chile, and got rid of terrorists.
He sold off national companies. Fujimori is now living comfortably in Japan with his multi-millionaire girlfriend and protected by the Japanese government, but he decided to come back to Peru. Raimundo thinks that this proves his innocence. “He went to Chile where they follow laws so that he’d have a decent trial. Chile won’t extradite him to Peru before they go through the due process. Fujimori is very smart. The money he’d ‘stolen’ only went into public works. It actually came from privatizations and donations from Japan.” We were starting to understand who he would vote for in the upcoming elections. Fujimori is trying to get back in the race through his public works and even his daughter, in Peru, is lobbying for his return, even though he’s exiled. He has plenty of competition. Ollanta Humala, a leftist and a retired military man, is leading the polls. Lourdes Flores Nano, a conservative lawmaker, is in second place. She is the first female candidate for president. Alan Garcia, an ex-president, is from a traditional party and is in third place. During his prior term in office, there was huge inflation and lines for food. We can’t believe that he has the nerve to run, when he did such a lousy job the first time.

Raimundo shared his version of pisco history: “It’s called pisco (it’s really aguardiente) because pisco in quechua means birds and when you drink, you feel like you’re flying. It came from Pisco and was harvested here until a pest destroyed the grapes. It then moved to Ica and is only made there now. A bodega in Pisco is being renovated by an American woman and this year she’ll harvest the first crop. The winery is called Montesierre. It’s the first time in 60 years that we will have pisco in Pisco.” He was very proud of this fact.

Tambo Colorado

Tambo Colorado, aka Puka Tamu, was constructed in 1475 during the reign of the ninth Incan, Tupac Yupanqui. It was built after the Ica department’s valleys were added to the domain of the Inca empire. A “tambo” is a resting place and administrative center for the Incas, ranging in size and purpose. They are scattered all over Peru, along the Inca roads of the empire. The name “Inca” refers to the leader and nobility of the Incan empire, not all of the people under his governance, as we are apt to believe. Saying “Inca” is not the same as saying “American” or “British”. It would be more akin to saying “the Bushes” or “the Windsors”. Julio C. Tello, one of the most famous Peruvian archaeologists, discovered the ruins between 1940 and 1941. His expedition cleared the area for study.

It is called Tambo “Colorado” because of the predominance of red colors in its decoration. The orange, yellow and red paint is still visible in many parts, especially in window niches. The paint was probably made from “cochinilla”, a tiny black insect that lives in cacti and whose bright red innards are still used as the base for lipstick. (That’s right, girls. You are wearing insect blood on your lips) It is the best preserved Inca ruin on the Peruvian coast, constructed from a stone base with adobe walls. As I look over the whole thing, I can appreciate how vast and well-organized an operation it was.

Like every Inca administrative center, the buildings were agglutinated (look it up, it’s a great word!) around a big trapezoidal plaza where the community congregated for ceremonies. In front is the ushnu, or altar, used for prayer, sacrifices and various ceremonies. It was the symbol of Inca power. The Inca gave general orders from here to its three or four hundred inhabitants. The fortress had baths with running water, several layered patios and a guard tower. Security was tight. The enemy was always spotted first from a high vantage point of the tambo, and kept out by high walls. The Inca had a labyrinth built, which made it difficult for the enemy to come in or even find him. His bedroom was really well hidden and had no less than three guards.

The Acllas were the concubines of the Inca. They lived in a separate patio where they waited to be called out to visit their “husband”. Their three preoccupations were the Inca, their children and weaving. The living space was decorated with steppes to show their high rank as chosen women and their rooms were painted white, to show the purity of the Inca’s chosen. Their children lived hidden there too, until the boys were old enough to fight as soldiers. The soldiers lived in another patio, where they would practice military exercises and wait for orders from the Inca. 90% of the inhabitants of Tambo Colorado were troops. They lived there permanently, unlike their commander.

We tend to think of the Incas as victims, defeated by the blood-thirsty Spanish conquistadors, but the Incas themselves were warlike conquerors. That is how they amassed such a large territory, stretching from Quito, Ecuador to the north of Chile. They kept power by integrating its conquered people with loyal subjects and moving anyone with power to their capital in Cusco, where they could be watched. In fact, the most famous Peruvian empire lasted only 96 years and had only 14 leaders. Huascar and Atahualpa were the last ones, who became embroiled in a civil war, which weakened them enough to make conquest easy for the Spaniards. Once the Incan empire fell, the Tambo Colorado was abandoned.

The Tambo Colorado’s construction obeyed the Cuscan policy of control of conquered areas. The local elite and Inca representatives used the site for domestic, ritual, political and administrative purposes, controlled by a highly centralized government that lasted until the arrival of the Europeans. The tambos were built to control the local population and the coastland traffic. Using them, the Incas could travel the length of their empire and make sure that their subjects were being productive, not starting rebellions. The local people provided the empire with crops such as corn and beans, and with livestock for use and consumption, such as llamas and alpacas. They also cultivated cotton and weaved their own textiles. In the Inca’s bedroom, Raimundo points out the stripes painted on the wall in red and yellow. “Irony of destiny”, he says, as we realize it looks like the Spanish flag.


On the way back to Pisco, we passed a police checkpoint. “These police cars are parked everywhere, but with Toledo wasting money, there is no money to fix them, so half of them are broken down and just stand there. Fujimori put all the police in place, gave them jobs. Under him, we only had six percent unemployment but under Toledo, 40% are without jobs.” Raimundo lamented.

For dinner we went to Vina del Huber, but the waitresses lounging in the doorway said they weren’t serving, because the cooks had left. It was only seven pm! When we said we had been told to show up after seven, they just laughed. Instead we went to As de Oro, a simple but expensive restaurant with very good food. I was suspicious when I saw the names of their dishes: “crackling of squid, hopped noodle of squid, sweated octopus, hot octopus, squid to the garlic, hopped loin with rice, hamburger of special meat with popes, muffled steak with rice, sweated and hot shellfish (alone) and corvina to the male (alone).” Poor guy. I was about to offer my translation services for free. Our ceviche appetizer came. It was a delicious mix of fish and shellfish. I could have eaten the whole thing alone. I ordered Pejerreyes, the cheapest fish they had. A small fish with lime, red pepper and rice appeared. It was good, but I was stuffed. I washed it down with fresh papaya juice. If only I could get that for one dollar back in DC.

Note: Raimundo was very friendly and helpful, informed, clear and well-spoken. After our tour he waited for us while we made long calls to change our flights. If you are in Ica or Pisco and want to hire him, call (056) 9742550 and ask for Raimundo Flores with Taxi Disco.