“Peru was Perfecto” by Nancy Barsotti
I am still in the clouds over my recent trip to South America – literally. With the high elevations of many of the cities I visited, my mind is still boggled by the experience.
While I have been blessed to travel far and wide, this journey was truly the “trip of a lifetime.” It ranks up there with my trip to China almost 20 years ago for being able to really immerse myself in another world.
Little could I have imagined when I chose Peru for a 9th grade project – which I still have in my “archives” – that I would some day have the chance to visit this amazing country.
Why go to Peru? It has everything one could imagine – archeological sites, diverse cultures, unique languages, hundreds of natural wonders in its varied topography and is so picturesque I felt like I was on a National Geographic expedition. My photographic essay would agree!
Throughout Peru there are incredible ruins and architecture mixing the indigenous, Inca and Spanish cultures. Our group of four was lucky to have a private, knowledgeable guide and a driver who took us on tours in every place we visited. Most often we found ourselves in the historical parts of the cities.
In Lima, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo is its most revered religious site and the resting place of the three most important Peruvian saints. We also toured the Museo Larco, the city’s best display of ceramics, weavings and collections of gold. In Cuzco, the colonial art is gorgeous, especially the “Escuela Cuzquena” a style combining European devotional painting with the earthy colors and iconography of indigenous Andean art. The Incas celebrated the Sun and Mother Earth but the Spanish brought the Catholic religion. Respect is still paid to both cultures. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire. The 9th Inca (king) Pachacutec built Sacsaywaman, which means “Satisfied Falcon.” Here zigzagged walls were used to try to fortify the area against the Spaniards, but in the end it was a one of the final defeats of the Incas.
The Sacred Valley is located between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. The Rio Urubamba curves through the agricultural terraces, which have been used for centuries to produce Peru’s agricultural land of plenty. Corn can be planted twice a year and is a major staple for the population. Ollantaytambo is the best surviving example of Inca city planning, with narrow cobblestone streets and continuously inhabited since the 13th century. We climbed steep terraces to the ceremonial center and temple. It is mesmerizing to see the work that went into these sites while listening to the history of the Incas.
Machu Picchu – A 90 minute train ride from the Sacred Valley, followed by a harrowing bus ride up the mountain of switchbacks (with no guardrails) is the prologue to this awe-inspiring ancient city. It is one of the “New Wonders of the World” and stands as a “ruin among ruins.” I admit that my eyes welled with tears of joy and astonishment at my first sight. I exclaimed out loud “WOW” – which is an understatement – as it took my breath away as I experienced its vastness. Pictures do not do it justice. Machu Picchu was lost to the world until its rediscovery in the early 20th century by Hiram Bingham. For over three hours, our guide took us through this architectural marvel, explaining all the various sacred temples, the sites used by the Inca astronomers, the storehouses, the residential and industrial sectors and the tombs. One can’t help but ask when trying to imagine “How did the Incas do this in the 15th century?” They had everything precisely engineered including a sophisticated and immense irrigation system for the terraced gardens. The site is in a cloud forest and the wispy clouds that wash back and forth over the ruins and surrounding mountains envelopes one with a spiritual feeling.
The second day at Machu Picchu was an adventure beyond anything I have ever done – or even could imagine doing. Why do I get-up at 5:00 a.m. to go outside my comfort zone and become overly adventurous on vacations? I think I get a little crazy and go overboard with my thinking that I “may not get the chance again?” So what did my friend and I do? We climbed Wayna Picchu, which is the steep cone-shaped mountain at the back of the ruins. One has to sign-in and out and almost agree to give your life to the Sun God to be allowed to attempt the climb. The trail to the top (and back down) is an arduous climb up, over and through stones and small boulders, with very few cable handrails and mostly clinging to the rock side of the mountain. Stops to catch one’s breath and drink water are mandatory, as well as to gaze upon the spectacular views straight down. Good thing I am not afraid of heights but my friend confessed they were. Fine time to find that out! Three hours later we had lived to tell about it.
As if that wasn’t enough, an hour later I turned around with another friend and climbed to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, where trekkers on the Inca Trail get their first view of the ruins. The view is from the other side of the ruins, which were resplendent, now bathed in the afternoon sunlight. Another three hours of climbing and these two treks earned me the “weekend warrior award” from my traveling companions. It was thrilled about the accomplishment but my legs and knees were even happier as I sat on the train as it chugged its way back to Cuzco. Without a doubt, Machu Picchu was the highlight of the trip. Experiencing this magical, mystical and magnificent site is something I will forever cherish in my memory.
Trains, planes and boats We hopped from city to city on the regional airline, Lan, but our final journey in Peru was a 10-hour trip aboard the Andean Explorer, a luxury train that took us from Cuzco to the southern part of Peru. The rail line hugged the western side of the Andes and the topography changes from mountains with snow in the distance to the golden dry arid lands waiting the rainy season that will enliven the red soil and adobe with an abundance of life-sustaining agriculture. It was a true feast for the senses as the train meandered through villages, small towns and agricultural farms. I will never forget the excitement of the children as they waved to us while tending their small flocks of cattle, sheep and llamas. We later found out that a family’s purchase of even a small patch of land is so precious, that they respect the boundaries, allowing their animals to graze only on their own property. Near the end of the trip, we drove through the town of Juliaca, where a riotous local market of everything imaginable from agriculture to weavings was right to the edges of the track on both sides. It was unbelievable! The train had to inch its way through this bazaar of humanity. Here we were overlooking these spectacles of very primitive life that has not changed in hundreds of years from the comfort of a train. It was quite a humbling experience. While on board, we were served lunch, high tea and entertained with a fashion show and two musical and dance groups with native instruments and costumes.
In Puno, we found ourselves on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Here we boarded a small boat out onto the lake and to the floating islands. They are world famous for their peaceful beauty and living tradition of their agrarian culture, dating to pre-Columbian times. On Isles Uros, we visited an extended family of fifteen people and saw how the island is built using totora reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake. Their lives are truly dependent on these reeds. They are stacked together to form the “land” upon which we walked, as well as to build their homes, their boats, their crafts and are even edible. Our time here was interesting as well as amusing when the ladies dressed us in their eye-catching outfits of multilayered skirts and embroidered blouses. Our last ruin climbing in Peru was to Sillustani to see the chulllpas, where the ancient Colla people buried their nobility and complete family groups in tall cylindrical structures.
Potatoes – No journey to a foreign land is complete without experiencing the native cuisine. Peru supposedly has 3,000 varieties of potatoes. Served at every meal in one form or another, they were colorful and delicious. Corn is incorporated in many dishes on the menu, such as tamales. I am like “Mikey” and always willing to try something different so I had to order guinea pig, another native dish. I would classify it as a little more “gamey” than rabbit and an acquired taste. Peru has an entire border on the Pacific and ceviche (fish, shrimp and other seafood marinated in lime juice, onions and cilantro) is on every menu. Pisco sours are the favorite libation – made from grape brandy. Coca-leaf tea is offered everywhere. It doesn’t get you high but it can help with altitude acclimatization. Chicha moada is a sweet purple-corn drink and Inca Kola is the national soda – bright yellow, like the sun, and is believed to bring good luck. From “Central,” Lima’s fashionable restaurant with it’s 9-course “menu degustacion,” to the tapas and even native preparation of pizza, potato and plantain chips and roasted corn served with drinks, we did not lack for sustenance for the thousands of steps we climbed.
Pillows – If there was one drawback to the trip, we did not get enough time to lay our heads on them. But when we did we were coddled and extremely comfortable in luxurious, beautiful hotels with impeccable service. In Lima, we stayed at the Miraflores Park Hotel, situated on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific in the trendy, modern part of the capital city. In Cuzco the Monasterio Hotel is located in an old monastery. The soft background of Franciscan chants, the original architecture, the cobblestones in the walkways and even the chapel gave it a spiritual aesthetic. At the Tambo del Inka in the Sacred Valley, the eucalyptus beams and white washed walls gave a rustic, warm atmosphere along a mountain stream. The spa treatments here soothed our climbing-weary bones. The Inkaterra in the town of Machu Picchu is in the cloud forest and the lush grounds surrounding it were beautiful. They even came to our room with hot water bottles to warm us through the cool night. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Photo-ops The Quechua women and many others still dress in native costume. They provide eye-popping color against the adobe background of their homes. They carry their babies, wrapped in colorful shawls, on their backs and often are holding baby llamas. The perfect photo-op with a price, of course, of one sol (their dollar coin.) Overall the people were very friendly, seemed content with their lives and happy for tourists. The markets we visited were a riot of textiles and native crafts. Silver jewelry (Peru has tons of silver and gold reserves), Alpaca apparel and handcrafted artwork were to be found in the Pisac market in the Sacred Valley.
Next month, my South American adventure continues in Ecuador.