Harvard’s Glass Flowers and the story of the father and son who made them

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (known as the Glass Flowers) at Harvard Museum of Natural History, and was blown away by its story!

Yep, you read it right – GLASS Flowers. Over 4,300 of them to be exact, and all made by a father-and-son team – Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Over 827 life-size models of glass flowers, as well as over 3,000 models of enlarged parts-of-flowers, representing nearly 800 different species of plants.

But here’s the twist – Leopold and Rudolf were not botanists (how’s that’s possible considering their attention to detail, I’ll never know).

This collection is unique, the only known collection of it’s kind in the world. Commissioned in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, the aim of the exhibition was as teaching mechanisms for teaching, botany and also serve as an exhibit it what was the Museum (forerunner of the Harvard Museum of Natural History).

Back to the bit on glass. At first glance, you would never believe these flowers were glass. How could they be? I had to be told before I believed it. Goodale wanted to have a collection of teaching tools that were nothing but the best and of a standard deemed acceptable for Harvard. Up to then, botany was taught using pressed and carefully labelled specimens, which presented problems: pressed plants were 2D and tended to lose their colour. So Goodale wanted to find a method of teaching botany that involved 3D specimens that were durable.

Enter the experts. Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939), were glass artists who lived and worked in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. They had previously produced several glass marine invertebrates for Harvard. Goodale then had the brainwave to commission his specimens out of glass.

Now for the next challenge – the age-old chestnut of funding. Before sending samples, an advance payment of 200 marks was required. When the Blaschkas sent their sample glass models (which all got damaged at Customs), it was enough still to convince Goodale that he needed to proceed with the commission. So he approached his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother with the idea. Enchanted by the (damaged) sample models, Mary and her mother agreed to funded the project.

Initially the contract was part-time, but after 3 years, in 1890, the Blaschkas agreed to a new contract. Now they worked full-time on the Harvard glass flowers collection, fully funded by the Wares. The collection still carries the name of its funders today. After the death of Leopold in 1895, Rudolf carried on making the collection up until 1936, amounting to over 4,300 pieces covering over 800 species in immense detail.

The Glass Flowers are now on permanent display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History where they draw nearly 200,000 visitors each year.

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Remembering the Bethnal Green Tube disaster

The single-biggest loss of life of civilian life in London during WWII happened was not caused by a German bomb – in fact, it happened on a night when not a single bomb fell. It was a human crush which cost the lives of 173 people.

3 March 1943. By now, Londoners were well-accustomed to the air-raid siren. Tragedy had occurred not caused by the bombs themselves – earlier in the war, over 60 people had been killed when a mains pipe burst in Balham, causing people sheltering underground in the Tube station to perish. 

At 8.17pm, the air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded, triggering people to run down the blacked-out staircase from the street. The civilians of Bethnal Green were no doubt used to this practise, but on this particular night, a woman and a child fell over three steps from the base and others fell around her, triggering a human crush of nearly 300 people. Of these, 173 lost of their lives, being crushed and asphyxiated in what is thought to have been the largest single loss of civilian life in the UK in the Second World War and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.

Cover-Up?

Thanks to wartime censorship, news of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. The story which was reported by the media was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb, and the official results of the investigation were not released until after the war had ended in 1946. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of the cause. It was suggested by the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison that a panic had ensued caused by a discharge of anti-aircraft rockets from nearby Victoria Park. There is disagreement over this.

A secret official report showed that Bethan Green Council had warned London Civil Defence, in 1941, that the staircase was a liability and needed a crush barrier to slow down crowds, but was told that would be a waste of money. Damages cases were taken by those who were bereaved, such as Baker vs Bethnal Green Corporation. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in a total payout of nearly £60,000, the last of which was made in the early 1950s.

 

 

 

Historic Facts about the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

I ticked a long-standing aim off my bucket-list in 2018 – visiting the Bolivian Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni). It didn’t disappoint from a natural perspective! But I was delighted to uncover some bitesize pieces of history about it. Here are some historic facts you will learn while touring the Bolivian Salt Flat:

  1. The Bolivian Salt Flats were formed sometime between 11,500 and 13,400 years ago years ago, the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desert-like, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white flat salt. img_0948
  2. Name Origin: Salar means salt flat in Spanish. However Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure). So Salar de Uyuni loosely translated means ‘salt flat with enclosures’. It’s disputed as to whether or not the enclosures are referring to the various islands on the Salt Flat itself, or animal enclosures at Uyuni town itself. 
  3. The Aymarans lived in the region before the arrival of the Spanish arrived. Today, they are one of few native south American peoples with a population of over 1 million. Aymara legend claims that the nearby mountains were original giant people. When one of the giant wives, Tunupa, was left by her husband Kusku for Kusina, Tunupa started to cry while breastfeeding her son. However, her tears mixed with milk and formed the Salar. It’s a legend, but many Aymara say that Salt Flat should be called Salar de Tunupa in her honour.
  4. In the centre of the salt flat sits Incahuasi Island (or Isla Incahuasi). Well, technically it’s not an island anymore, but rather, a hilly outcrop from which stunning views of the salt flat are available. Numerous fossils have been found on Incahuasi, and the whole place is the top of an ancient volcano, which was submerged by the lake some 40,000 years ago. The name comes from Quechua, with Inka meaning Inca and wasi meaning house. Inca House. (It’s sometimes also called the Isla del Pescado thanks to its fish-like profile). Oh and it’s famously covered in cacti – be warned!
  5. Near the town of Colchani (a salt-mining town), there is a cave on the hillside with the 900-year-old remains of eight figures. This grave is largely intact, with three full skeletons (including a mother holding a baby). The skeletons are all intentionally deformed, which is believed to have been done deliberately so that they would stand out to the Gods. 
  6. On the outskirts of Uyuni lies an enormous Train Graveyard which most tour companies will bring you to (although it’s walkable from Uyuni town). In the 19th century, plans were afoot to build huge networks of trains out of Uyuni into neighbouring countries. but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighbouring countries. There is now an enormous collection of late 19th and early 20th century rusty trains sitting on the salt plain. The salt winds have corroded the metal, and many have been vandalised, but they remain an astonishing (and marginly eerie) remnance of an industrial dream.
  7. One of the first things you notice in Bolivia (whether or not you end up visiting Salar de Uyuni) is that almost every Bolivian elderly woman will be wearing a Bowler Hat. It’s claimed that a line of Bowler Hats were created in the UK my two brothers, who intended to sell them to British railway workers working in Bolivia at the time. But the hats were too small for men and were instead given to local women. Today, they areworn slightly too small still – symbolic of the mistake – but the original bowler hat women were spun a yarn that this was the female fashion back in Europe!

What to pack when hiking the Inca Trail or Lares Trek

Before you set off for a wondrous step-back-in-time on the Inca Trail (see my article here on Historic Facts I learned on the Inca Trail) there are a number of essentials you must ensure you’ve got with you. Here is what to pack when hiking the Inca Trail /Lares Trek/Salkantay Trek:

Machu Picchu own

Day Pack:

There is no excuse for skimping here – you need a proper day backpack (in addition to your main baggage) that won’t weigh you down on the trek. Your clothes and heavy baggage will be carried by llamas, so this is just for your day items while trekking. You will need a bag that can carry a few litres of water, snacks, a jacket, camera, sun cream, wipes, and more. I used the Osprey Tempest 30 litre.To be honest, I probably could have gotten away with around 22/24 litres, but I did make use of the day pack in other areas of my trip, when I often carried more, and I didn’t regret the splurge.  The bag moulds to your back so that you don’t feel the weight, and is equipped with special mesh to avoid a sweaty back.

Click here for the Osprey Tempest 30 litre.

alpaca carrying bags
These guys carry the heavy stuff! But you still need a proper daypack. 

Hiking Books

Don’t be fooled – your trainers/sneakers just aren’t going to cut it. You’re going to spend days going up and down rough terrain, and you need protection and support. NB: You can’t skimp here. That pair that cost you a few bucks won’t do the job. Be prepared to invest. 

My Scarpa Women’s Terra GTC Boot were just the ticket.

lares trek views
Just LOOK at those views! But that’s why you need good hiking boots 🙂

Baby Wipes

Sooooo useful. Trust me. Toilet, refreshment, cleaning your hiking boots…trust me. Best 50p you’ll ever spend.

Suncream and decent Sun Glasses

The sun is a lot more biting at altitude. You are much more at risk of burning, or effects you cannot see. Furthermore, it can affect your eyes. Even at the peak of the trek, where there is snow, the sun is biting you. Always have proper protection.

50 Deet insect repellent

I forgot to slap it on one day and boy, did I regret it. Depending on the time of year you go, the mosquitoes will be out in force. South America is also a region where the zika virus is a problem, so a minimum of 50 deet insect repellent is a must. You of course should attend a travel clinic in advance of travelling to get your injections and they will certainly advise you to use 50 deet repellent.

Altitude Tablets

So I made a huge mistake on the trek. For the first day in Cusco, and the early days of the trek, while everyone was feeling the effects of altitude, I felt fine. No problem. So I did something drastic. I DIDN’T TAKE ALTITUDE TABLETS. BIG MISTAKE.

Flash forward to the summit of the Lares Trek (supposedly the highlight), and there’s me, trying to smile for a photo but really trying to keep down the vomit. WORST MISTAKE. You will need to join the School of Preventative Medicine on this one. Just take ‘em.

Powerbank

A given for any phone-junkie – you won’t have access to power points for 3-4 days, and as you will be at altitude, you need a good back-up to charge your phone, e-reader and more. I used this Powerbank by RavPower. It charges three devices at once and always last me a few weeks. I was using my phone so much to take photos on the trail, that I definitely needed it and it didn’t let me down.

Money Belt

Always carry your passport and cash in one of these for safety. The CampTeck RFID Hidden Money Belt  RFID Hidden Money Belt did the job for me. It had room for all the important stuff, but was hidden under my t-shirt and no-one suspected a thing. I would say that it’s absolutely vital you carry one of these.

Thermal Sleeping Bag

Don’t be fooled – it can get very cold on the trail at night. I barely slept a wink the first night I was there, and that was despite wearing a thermal underlayer and all my clothes! I’d recommend you invest in a really decent thermal sleeping bag.

g adventures camp site
Our campsite on night #1 (I was super pleased to discover there was plumbing!)

Hot Water Bottle

This was one I didn’t actually have myself, but I’d advise anyone who is going to do the trek to bring. A lot of people don’t realise just how cold it can get on the trek at night. I wish I’d had a hot water bottle to help me sleep. Companies such as G Adventures will provide you with hot water in the evenings, so you could fill a hot water bottle then. But you can also buy those magic ones that heat up at the touch of a button!

Thermal Pyjamas

The hot water bottle alone won’t do it. I found it really difficult to sleep at night because I wasn’t prepared. You must have proper thermals. I didn’t…and regretted it. If I was going again, I’d be sure to bring some proper ones. I’ve learned my lesson!

Travel Pillow

And while we’re on the topic of sleeping, again, this was something I didn’t bring and I was kicking myself! I ended up bunching up loads of clothes, but it wasn’t enough. It’s worth the extra bulk.

Headtorch

You’d be surprised how much you need your hands when trying to get settled in a tent in the dark! A must have-item is a good headtorch. Not least for trying to find the toiler in the dark.

Travel Towel

This travel towel was a last-minute purchase but boy was I glad of it in the end! G Adventures give you warm water every morning and evening at your tent to wash your face, hands, and whatever else (I do remember bathing my feet in it at one point). So glad I made the decision in the end.

Water Bladder

Your travel companies will provide you with boiled water every morning and evening. In addition to a bottle or water container, if your daypack allows, you should get a water bladder so that you don’t have to take you pack off every time you need a drink on the trek (which is a lot!). It tucks in nicely at the back of your pack with an easily accessible straw. I didn’t think I’d use mine but it came in super useful when I got altitude sick and was struggling to reach the summit.

lares trek and tent
A lunch spot! We ate some delicious fresh fish on this one. G Adventures were super efficient and always had the food ready the moment we arrived (we were starving by then, so it was welcome!)

Warm Hiking Socks

I’ve actually worn these so many times since the Inca Trail because they are so soft and warm! My bank account cried when I initially purchased them (I kept thinking: that’s an outlandish price for a pair of socks!), but I’ve seen bought a few more pairs. Not only do you keep your feet dry on the trek, but they also keep them warm at night. I’d recommend two pairs, and always go for merino wool like these ones.

I hope this is useful! Check out my article on Historic Facts I learned on the Inca Trail!

Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park

Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park

I made my first trip to Yellowstone National Park a few months ago and it blew me away. An imminent return visit is certainly on the cards, but in the meantime, I’ve drawn up a list of some Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park:

  1. Humans have inhabited the Yellowstone Region for over 11,000 years. This is known thanks to archeological sites, trails, and oral histories.
  2. The region was not properly explored until the 1800s, but it kept hitting barriers. The first visitors were largely hunters, seeking fur. Among them was Daniel Potts, who also published what is largely regarded as the first account of the beauty of Yellowstone, in a Philadelphia newspaper. (You can read more about Daniel Potts here).
  3. Yellowstone was the first ever National Park in the USA, created by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.Initially run by the Secretary of the Interior, the US Army oversaw the management of the Park for 30 yers until 1917, when the National Park Service, then one year into it’s existance, took it over. 
  4. The hugely famous Old Faithful geyser got it’s named before the creation of the park. It was named in 1870 during the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, on which Nathaniel P. Langford was a member, and was the first geyser in the park to receive a name, and was given the name for it’s predictability, erupting every 45-90 minutes. In the early days of the park, Old Faithful proved to be an effective laundry machine!
  5. Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, who was part of the party who named Old Faithful, was unpaid. Without pay, without funding and without laws to protect wildlife and other natural features, he did his best to promote the park but was removed from the post in 1877.
  6. Nathaniel P. LangfordThe first Yellowstone railway station was built near the north entrance to the park, at Livigstone, Montana, in the early 1880s. There were 300 visitors to the park in 1872, but this numbered had increased to 5,000 in 1883, largely thanks to the introduction of the railway. (Read more about early rail travel to Yellowstone here
  7. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt lay the cornerstone to the Arch at Gardiner. The 1903 visit was his second to the park – he loved it, and took with him a naturalist, opting to camp outside for many nights and really experience the beauty of the area. 
  8. Cars were first permitted in the park in 1915, much to the upset of stagecoach drivers, whose horses were startled by the new vehicleYellowstone stagecoachss and often caused injury to both horses and humans. Frequently, horses had to be used to rescue cars that became stuck in the muddy roads or broke down miles from any places they could be repaired.
  9. The park’s boundaries were officially expanded for the first time in 1929, by President Hoover.
  10. Nearly one third of the park was lost during fires in 1988, with the summer wildfire’s being the largest in the history of the park
  11. The creation of the national park did not provide protection for wolves or other predators. This meant that wolves were constantly being poached. The last native wolves were killed in Yellowstone in 1926. But with elk populations getting out of control, they were reintroduced in 1995 and now there are over 100 wolves in 12 packs in the park.

 

Four Irish-Australian convicts that may surprise you

 

You don’t need to be Irish to know the story in the lyrics of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ – a father being transported on a ship to serve hard labour on the other side of the world for petty crime. We all know the story of Ned Kelly, himself not a transported convict, but rather, his father John Kelly, allegedly for having stolen two pigs. Between 1788 and 1868, around 162,000 British and Irish convicts were transported to the penal colonies of Australia, often for very small crimes. Figures vary, but it’s believed that somewhere between 12 and 24 per cent of those convicts were Irish. And while the stereotypical case was that of Michael from Athenry, the profiles of some of those Irish transported may surprise you. To mark the anniversary of it being 160 years since the end of British transportation to the colonies, below are the stories of four surprising Irish convicts transported to Australia.

 

WILLIAM SMITH-O’BRIEN

Many rebels were transported to Australia in the aftermath of various famous uprisings in Ireland: the 1798 rebellion, 1803, 1848 and 1868 – 1868 being the last year of transportation to the colonies. And among them was William Smith O’Brien.

Now this convict might surprise you – he was far from the stereotype of the  impoverished farmer who stole some corn to feed his children. He was actually the son of Sir Lucius O’Brien, and was born in 1803 in Dromoland Castle, County Clare. Despite being descended from Brian Boru, the Gaelic O’Brien’s were then part of the Protestant landed elite, and William was educated in public school in England, and later Cambridge University. Taking his seat in the House of Commons in 1828, he was a strong supporter of Catholic emancipation, but not of Irish self-government. He stance changed however when the British government imprisoned his rival Daniel O’Connell. Now Deputy-Leader of O’Connell’s Repeal Association, he led the Young Irelanders out of it in 1848 when O’Connell advised against the use of force. In 1848, he led the Young Irelanders into rebellion in Tipperary.

Convicted, he was originally sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life transportation to Tasmania. But political prisoners in the colonies had a different status to most convicts. They got special ‘ticket-of-leave’ treatment, largely due to the efforts of Colonial Secretary Earl Grey who felt that the Young Ireland rebels deserved gentlemanly status. ‘Ticket-of-leave’ was a type of parole issued to convicts, who could be trusted with certain freedoms.

O’Brien initially refused the ‘ticket-of-leave’ status, because that meant he couldn’t try to escape. So he lived on Maria Island, the most remote outpost of the penal settlement. A bungled escape attempt in 1850 let to him being transferred to Port Arthur. He was fairly isolated there, and wrote lots about his experiences to his family, especially his wife Lucy.After three months at Port Arthur, he successfully applied for a ticket-of-leave.

He was to spend 2.5 years in lodgings near Hobart, and play a big role in drafting a model constitution for the Tasmanian Legislative Council.

Conditional pardon came his way in summer 1854. He departed Tasmania after five years away and lived in Brussels until his full pardon in 1856, when he returned to Ireland to a heroes welcome, passing away in 1864.

LAURENCE HYNES HALLORAN

From nationalist rebel, to unordained clergymen, the list of unusual Irish convicts just grows. Laurence Hynes Halloran was to become famous as a controversial writer and schoolteacher in Sydney, but not before leading a life of crime and false claims. Born in Co. Meath in 1765, Halloran was orphaned at a young age, so he ran away to join the Navy. Aged 17, he was jailed for stabbing a fellow midshipman in 1783 (to death). He was acquitted the next year, moving to Exeter where he married and ran a school. It was during this time that he began to make his first steps on the literary stage, publishing Odes, Poems and Translations (1790), and Poems on Various Occasions.

Claiming to be an ordained minister, he managed to re-enter the navy though as a chaplain, and was installed at the Cape of Good Hope. But after running afoul of his boss, he was removed from his position. He then published a satire Cap-abilities or South African Characteristics. Proceedings were taken against him and he was banished from Cape Town and returned to England, not before the governor of the colony had to declare valid those marriages conducted by Halloran during his time there. Back in England, and once again posing as a clergyman under various aliases, in 1818 he was convicted of forging a tenpenny frank and transported to Sydney.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Halloran’s rebellious streak had run out by then – but no. Upon his arrival, he was given a ticket-of-leave by the local governor. Despite having a wife and six children back in England, he decided that he and his niece would pose as his wife, and they are alleged to have had issue. Upon his niece’s death in 1823, he married bigamously, fathering even more children.

But that didn’t stop him getting embroiled in even more lawsuits. Bankrupt, he served a prison sentence for debt, some of which was petitioned to found a Public Free Grammar School – for which he had called for the establishment of. Upon the opening of the school, the Sydney Gazette reported that Halloran was constantly drunk, constanlty swearing, and telling student stories about fighting and his perpetual drunkenness. Halloran was jailed once more, and the responsibility of running the school passed elsewhere.

His story doesn’t stop there, however – upon his release, Halloran started his own newspaper – which failed – largely because he wrote most of the articles himself, and they were mainly about he libel suits issued against him. Upon the fail of that business, he was briefly appointed as Sydney’s coroner. He was removed from that position when he threatened to start publishing more libelous articles. He died soon after that, in 1831, having led a varied and colourful life.

 

HENRY BROWNE HAYES

William Smith O'Brien

(A big thank you to the authors of http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/foreword.html for their wonderful site which helped me greatly with my research on Henry Browne Hayes).

Another breaker of the stereotype convict is Henry Browne Hayes, a captain of the South Cork Militia, a sheriff, a Freemason, and a Knight! This may be one of the most colourful of Irish convicts. Ironically, as Sheriff of Cork he processed the first shipment of Irish convicts to New South Wale. Knighted in 1790, and then widowed in 1797, and struggling to take care of his children, he decided to kidnap a wealthy Quaker heiress named Mary Pike and force her to marry him., even bringing in a man dressed as a priest to perform the ceremony. Pike was rescued by her family, and a bounty put on Haye’s head, so he had to go into hiding. Declared an outlaw, he could be shot on sight. A government reward of £200 was offered for his capture and ₤50 for each of his accomplices.

 

After three years hower, he gave himself up for trial. Knowing the price that would be awarded to whoever reported that Hayes had turned himself, Hayes offered himself up to his friend Charles Coghlan, a fellow freemason. Hayes was found guilty and was given a death sentence which was later changed to a life sentence in Australia.

 

Arriving in New South Wales in 1802, Hayes was immediately put in jail for misbehaviour on the ship, which included harassing the ship’s surgeon. He was linked to an uprising a few years later in 1804, after he successfully founded the roots of Freemasonry in Australia. Whether or not he actually had the authority to set up the Freemason’s is up for debate, but the meeting he held in Sydney in 1803 is nonetheless regarded as the founding of the Freemasons of Australia.

 

Hayes was to purchase Vancluse House, which was turned into a national monument and became known as a snake-free property thanks to an age-old Irish commodity – turf! It turns out turf was a very successful reptile repellent, and Vancluse House was surrounded with it. (You can read more about Vancluse House on this site: http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/)

 

Finally pardoned in 1809, Hayes returned to Ireland in 1812, and died in 1832. In Australia, he was noted to be “a restless, troublesome character”…you can see why, in fairness.

 

GEORGE BARRINGTON

One of the earliest Irish transportees was George Barrington was transported to New South Wales in 1791, just three years after Australia became a convict colony. Barrington was infamous pickpocket with a very colourful track record.

 

Born in Kildare, his crime sprees began early when he stabbed a fellow student with a penknife at age 16. He later robbed his schoolmaster and ran away from school. After a period with a touring theatrical company in Drogheda, he arrived in England and was to became one of London’s most colourful pickpockets in the 1770s – managian to mix with the upper classes and the elite, getting arrested numerous times, but managing to get acquitted. One of his most famous exploits was the attempted theft of a diamond studded snuff box, allegedly worth £30,000 from the Russian Prince Orlow at Covent Garden, but he pleaded his case with such a display of emotion that the prince refused to press charges.

 

He also once posed as a clergyman and removed the diamonds from the clothing of a member of the Knights of the Garter.

 

But his luck ran out in 1790, when he was sentenced to transportation for theft of a gold watch. Arriving in Sydney in September 1791, he spent a year labouring on a Toongabbie farm. He could never stay at the same thing for long, with his ‘irreproachable conduct’ gaining him an absolute pardon after just a short time. He was then trusted with the job of watching over crucial supplies for the new government. Five years after his transportation, he became a police constable in Parramatta, Sydney. Quite a turnaround!

Sadly, he was declared officially insane in 1800, and died four years later. However he did leave a major legacy on the literature of the early colonies. Credited with writing a number of texts, including a history of New South Wales, his name is attached to many others that in reality he had nothing to do with, EG texts that were actually about political items but to make them more salesworthy they became attached to the pickpocket who stole diamond-encrusted snuff-boxes!

Historic Facts I learned about the Lares Trek, Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

A trip to Peru is not complete without a visit to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Instead of the traditional four-day Inca Trail hike, I completed the very similar Lares Trek and learned some fantastic historic snippets along the way. Here’s what they were (and you can learn more about the Lares Trek with G Adventures here)

The Inca Empire reached it’s peak just 50 years before the arrival of Columbus

Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘Inca’ refers to the ruler of the last great native Empire before the Spanish conquered South America. The civilisation arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century, but it was not until 1438 that the Cusco became the administrative centre of a kingdom that stretched from Colombia to Ecuador, through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and more. It’s official language was Quechua, and incorporated millions of people, until the last Inca resistance against the Spanish in 1572.

The Spanish…

Launched a policy of oppression against the Incas for their wealth. The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro invaded the Inca Empire in 1532. As well as massacres, many locals died from diseases brought over by the Europeans that they were hitherto never exposed to. However, of all the Spanish conquests of South America, the Incas proved to the hardest to overcome, taking 40 years of resistance before the Spanish could claim victory.

However, the Spanish are not believed to have known about the existence of Machu Picchu.

We only know about the pre-Columbian history of South America from the Spanish

Because the Inca people did not write down their history. They used word of mouth. They  did, however use a system of knotted strings known as quipu to send messages around their empire. Similar systems were used by the ancient Chinese and native Hawaiians.

A quipu was a portable device with a wooden bar, and hanging from it were a wide variety of colours and strings with knots tied in various ways and at various heights. It often had up to 1500 strings, and the way they were woven might also have indicated a meaning (or so it’s suggested).

And to ensure that nothing was forgotten, the Incas also had a body of expert, known as the khipu kamayuq, who memorised the oral account which fully explained a particular quipu. Their job was hereditary, meaning the oral tradition was passed from generation to generation.

Quechua predates the Inca Empire

The main language spoken in the region is Quechua. Quechua is the name for a family of languages that probably all derived from one common language in early times. And Quechua far predates the Incas Empire. Quechua has numerous dialects, and the although the Spanish colonials initially encouraged its use, from the middle of the reign, they suppressed it.. Yet the language survived, and today an estimated that around 10 million people speak a Quechua language. Movements are afoot to preserve the language, and in 2016 Peru made history by broadcasting the first ever Quechua language news bulletin.

Guinea Pigs are Sacred…and are eaten

One of the most common cuisines in Peru is Guinea Pig. Many restaurants will have displays outside of a plate with a whole cooked guinea pig and all the trimmings. On the Lares Trek, we visited a house which had guinea pigs roaming freely under the bed. And there are other traditions attached to the guinea pigs that illustrate their importance. For instance, a Quechua girl must skin a guinea pig to prove she is ready for marriage. Guinea Pigs were commonly used in healing and religious ceremonies, often being offered as sacrifices to the Gods.

In Machu Picchu, the remains of Guinea Pigs were found in caves, suggesting they were used for religious purposes or sacrifices there.

Ollantaytambo is an ancient Inca settlement

If you hike the Lares Trek, you’ll spend some time in the stunning historic town of Ollantaytambo. It’s name in Quechua means ‘rest spot’, and it has a unique history, being part of the royal estate of the Emperor Pachacuti during the Inca Empire, and later conquered by the Spanish. It would become a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca Resistance against the Spanish.

Sandwiched between the mountains, there are some stunning ruins to view (and hike to!). It’s paved with small cobbled streets, a beautiful open main square, and well-preserved Inca Ruins. Although damaged by the Spanish, the buildings still have the remanence of that pre-colonial era.

Tip: While in Ollantaytambo, look for houses with red plastic bags hanging outside on posts. These houses are where locals go to drink chicha, a local brew made out of corn.

Hiram Bingham, the man who ‘discovered’ the remains of Machu Picchu…Machu Picchu own

…believed he had found the Lost City of the Incas…but he hadn’t.

Hiram Bingham was a Yale University Professor who, in 1911, set off on an expedition to find the final stronghold and seat of Inca power after the Incas were forced to flee from the Spanish conquistadors – Vilcabamba having become fascinated with Inca Ruins on a previous visit to Peru. Having heard about Inca Ruins in the region from a farmer near Aguas Calientes, he climbed his way up and became one of the first white men to see the ruins of Machu Picchu for decades.

He later published a book about Machu Picchu called ‘The Lost City of the Incas’, but the city that was actually the final stronghold of the Incas was Vilcabamba, north-east of Lima.

Hiram Bingham PD
Hiram Bingham and a local guide in 1911 (image: public domain)

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first to ‘discover’ Machu Picchu

In fact, locals in the Aguas Calientes region knew about it all along, and numerous other explorers are believed to have visited it in the 1800s, such as the British explorer Thomas Payne, a German engineer called JM von Hassel and another German called August Berns who apparently wanted to plunder the ruins in the 1860s. The site is also listed on an 1874 map, and it is claimed that it had been visited by three explorers from Cusco as early as 1901, just ten years before Hiram Bingham found the site.

More information on doing the Inca Trail with the Lares Trek is available here.