Peru: So Many Mysteries, So Little Time

Machu Picchu, Peru’s “Lost City of the Incas,” made my life list when I was in junior high school. Now, at the end of my sixth decade, I’ve focused more intently on my “must see” goals — Egypt’s pyramids, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, China’s Great Wall, the Rwandan mountain gorillas, etc.

With the turmoil in the world, I may not get to some of these places – but I have been to Peru and it is imprinted on my soul. Machu Picchu, one of the most stunning architectural wonders in the world, brought tears to my eyes. Years from now, a word or scent or the sight of an alpaca rug will bring to mind vivid memories of Peru.

Isn’t this the reason we all travel?

Soon after arriving in Lima, I realized all my senses were going to be on overload. The country is incredibly complex, layered in history, mystery and culture. Lima, the “City of Kings,” is the country in microcosm, awash in meztiso — the mixed-blood heritage of many peoples — and built upon the tiered remains of civilizations dating back 12,000 years.

Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1532, while plundering the gold and silver of the vast Incan Empire. A concentration of wealth, trade and culture made Lima one of the most important cities in the Americas.

It still is today. More than two-thirds of the country’s industrial and economic activity is centered here, and nearly 7 million people – a quarter of Peru’s population – call it home.

I started my exploration at the Plaza Mayor de Lima, where Pizarro staked out the town center. The square is surrounded by massive edifices built during his reign, including the church where his remains are kept.

A young boy was playing in a bronze fountain that has been on the plaza since 1651. Before that, the spot held scaffolds where victims of the Holy Inquisition were hanged. It was here that the Peruvians declared their independence from Spain in 1821. Layers of history.

I slipped into the cool, quiet interior of San Francisco, a stunning 17th-century baroque church and monastery decorated in fine Sevillian tiles and Jose de Rivera paintings. One highly decorated wall opened onto a rude tunnel. Not being faint of heart, I followed a dimly lit passage to a mother-lode of human bones. About 70,000 people were interred here during colonial times, but the catacombs were just rediscovered in 1951. I found it bizarre that bones were piled in wooden stalls according to type – thigh bones, skulls, etc. – or in macabre “artistic” arrangements. Surely they were interred in one piece! No one had an answer for me.

On the outskirts of Lima, I explored the Pachacamac city archeological site, where a succession of stone and adobe pyramids ascend to an overlook of the sea, surrounding farmlands, and various temples and residences. Pachacamac would have been painted in brilliant colors and layered with gold and silver, no doubt a dazzling site when for pilgrims visiting the Sun Temple for oracle ceremonies. Spanish records say that when Pizarro plundered the city in 1533 it took 10,000 bearers to carry away the treasure.

On the way back to Lima proper, we passed shantytowns settled by families fleeing the highland guerrilla wars of the 1980s. Under one of these crude villages, Tupac Amaru, scientists discovered one of the largest Incan cemeteries yet found in Peru. Since 1999 they have removed more than 150 mummified remains from the dry soil. The mummies are in excellent shape because it seldom rains in Lima.

In sharp contrast to the pitiful hovels are Lima’s beautiful south beaches, where surfers, sunbathers and hang-gliders play while diners at fine restaurants look on.

I found authentic Lima cuisine in a special setting at Casa Garcia Alvarado in Miraflores, one of the upscale neighborhoods in Lima. The house, (recently opened to visitors and diners) is the home of the Castro Iglesias-Thorndike family, important members of the city’s upper-class since 1912. I roamed through the historic rooms, then munched on anticuchos (marinated, grilled beef heart) and ceviche (marinated raw fish), before sitting down to a meal of succulent lamb in the inner courtyard. Some of my friends were going on to browse the penas (bars offering folk and Creole music) of Miraflores and the equally hip communities of San Isidro and Barranco, which rock till dawn.

I turned in early. At first light I was on a flight to Cuzco, where I immediately took a long nap. Going from sea level in Lima to 11,000 feet in the Andes takes some adjustment, and altitude sickness is a very real hazard. Diamox, a prescription drug in the U.S. which is available over the counter in Peru, helps the body absorb more oxygen from thin air. The locals favor coca leaves, drunk as hot tea or stuffed in the cheek. Most hotel lobbies have bottles of oxygen so you can breathe the pure stuff if you feel a headache coming on.

In Cuzco, where the air is much cooler than Lima, I warmed up with my first pisco sour, the national drink. The Spaniards introduced grape-growing, but the Peruvians put their own spin on wine-making, producing the strong, lemony liquor called pisco. It captivated the Spaniards–and me. The drink is liquor, sugar and egg white shaken with ice and topped with bitters.

Cuzco (“navel of the world” in Quechua, the Incan language still widely spoken) was already centuries old when it became the capital of the Incan Empire. In 1532 A.D. the Spanish conquistadors leveled the town and built Baroque churches, convents and mansions on the Incan foundations. Strolling the narrow streets of the city, I could see where the finely joined stones of the Incas merged into the rougher Spanish work.

In front of one of the churches, women in native garb watched children at play. Their hand-died, hand-woven shawls and hats of rich oranges, reds and blues contrasted sharply with the drab stone church. One woman cradled a young goat in her shawl; another had a round-faced baby wrapped in a colorful cocoon over her shoulder. The women’s brown faces and big dark eyes are quite striking, especially those lined by time.

Of course, the women and children asked for money when I snapped their pictures, and tried to sell me handmade goods. I didn’t mind. The Peruvian people are quite poor, and the workmanship in their alpaca sweaters, rugs, blankets and fabrics is incredibly good. For 30 soles (three soles equals about a dollar) I bought sweaters that would cost more than $100 at home.

On the outskirts of Cuzco we explored Sacsayhuaman (“satisfied falcon” in Quechua), an Incan fort built of granite slabs weighing up to 350 tons. At Tampumachay (the Incan baths), water still flowed through an intricate network of aqueducts and cascaded into pools.

Along the road to Yucay, fertile crops stretched to the foothills of the snow-capped Andes, and farmers worked their fields with oxen. I had reached the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and my anticipation was rising. The next day I would visit Machu Picchu.

We settled into the Sonesta Posada del Inca Yucay, a Spanish monastery transformed into a charming hotel. I dozed off to the sound of musicians playing native songs on the charango (a miniature guitar) and the haunting, flute-like zampona (cane tubes bound together).

The train to Machu Picchu followed the Urubamba River through the Sacred Valley, with mountains rising on either side. On the hillside across the river I could see the Inca Trail, the most famous hiking venue in South America. Hiking the trail takes four strenuous days, but the reward is entering Machu Picchu as the Incas did, along an 1,800-foot-high ridge to the Sun Gate. Most tourists take the train and a shuttle bus.

No matter how one enters Machu Picchu, the setting is spectacular. Stepping through the gates, I found myself on a mist-shrouded mountaintop surrounded by sharp green peaks. The site drops steeply to the river 1,200 feet below, so that the citadel seems to float in space.

Machu Picchu (Quechuan for “old peak”) is a city of granite-walled buildings, altars, temples, tombs and 100 stairways (3,000 steps). All of the structures have precise functions and religious significance, and all are built with mortar-less seams as fine as a razor slash. Like the Egyptians who built the Pyramids, the 15th century Incas were master craftsmen.

Machu Picchu is indisputably a holy place, no matter what god one worships. Our guide Juan told us many visitors claim to feel the energy radiating from the Intihuatana, the “hitching post of the sun,” a stone instrument by which the Incas determined their calendar.

I felt energy everywhere–and mystery. No one is sure of the purpose of this bastion, which took 100 years to build and was then abandoned. Was it a palace for the Virgins of the Sun, as many believe? What happened to the thousand people who lived here? A massacre? A plague? The gradual dying off of virgins?

The Spanish invaders never found the remote Machu Picchu. Jungle quickly shrouded the city, and it was sheer good fortune that American explorer Hiram Bingham found it in 1911.

Though Machu Picchu was the pinnacle of my trip, Peru held more surprises. The luxurious Orient Express/PeruRail train took me to Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.

The Sonesta Posadas del Inca Puno resort fronts on the lake, and had wonderful food. After pisco sours, I had a delicious cream soup made from lake reeds, and devoured several succulent little legs I assumed were quail. Then our host, jovial Arturo Schwarz, translated “cuy” from Quechua to English. I was eating guinea pig, a Peruvian feast on a par with Thanksgiving turkey. I accepted another helping and praised the chef. Cuy tastes a bit like range-fed chicken (honest), and I would not have offended my host for any reason.

A modern cabin cruiser took us to where the Uros people live on more than 40 “floating islands” made of torturo reeds, the same reeds in my soup the night before. When the footing gets soggy, the islanders simply lay down a fresh layer of reeds. This has been going on for centuries, so the islands are quite thick, but they still undulate slightly underfoot. The Uros men hunt and fish from boats made of bundled reeds, while the women sell their crafts to tourists.

My flight back to Lima passed over the famous Nazca Lines. More than 70 giant figures, mostly of animals, were carved into the dry plains. Some experts say it is a giant astronomical calendar dating back to 500 A.D. But why is it only appreciable from the air?

Another unanswered question. Another Peruvian mystery. I was taking home many of them. Perhaps someday I’ll go back and look for answers–or more questions.

Published in Global Traveler magazine.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.