Peru, November 2008
On October 30th, we left Akka at the Club Nautico Marina in Cartagena Colombia while we did some "land cruising." We traveled by air from Cartagena to Lima, Peru, then on to Cuzco in order to visit Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is high on the list of "100 Places to See Before You Die" and had long been on our personal must-see list.

Our 10-day trip exceeded all our expectations, and was full of surprising discoveries.

Discovery #1: Lima. We knew Lima was a Big City, but its size and vibrancy were a surprise. We arrived at rush hour on a Thursday night and were immediately immersed in the worst traffic with the worst drivers that we've experienced since Cairo, Egypt. Unsignalled abrupt lane changes were the norm, leaving us flinching. As in Cairo, traffic signals are apparently advisory only; we twice narrowly escaped death.

Our hotel was in the chic area known as Miraflores, amid modern high-rise apartments, designer stores, casinos, big-name hotels, and wonderful restaurants. After months in small Caribbean countries with even smaller "cities," Lima felt exciting and European. (In Cartagena as throughout in the Caribbean, we'd become resigned to a very limited cuisine - basically, fish, beef, or chicken, always prepared the same way. What a contrast Lima proved to be!) Then we went to the mall perched on the cliff overlooking the Pacific, and discovered it was anchored by a Tony Roma's and, how quintessentially American, a Hooters!

Lima's climate was a surprise too. It was cloudy or misty, with daytime temperatures only around 70 F, due to the influence of the Pacific's Humboldt Current. After Cartagena's heat and humidity, this felt great to us!

Discovery #2: Peruvian coffee. Peruvians brew coffee by using the amount we would use in a large coffeemaker, to make about one cup of "essence of coffee." It pours out much like Hershey's chocolate syrup and must be diluted with hot water or milk in about proportions of 5 or 10 to 1. It took us a few cups, and strong caffeine jangles, to get this right. Once the technique was mastered, the coffee was quite good, although we are spoiled, living in Colombia!

Discovery #3: Two museums - old and new. Peru's huge National Museum is housed in a rather austere concrete building, well away from the center of Lima. It has no entry fee, but there is a fee for guides. We decided to pass on the guide, and went to the main floor exhibit, an overview of the beautiful crafts - pottery, weaving - of Peru's indigenous people, dating from pre-Conquest times. It was a huge room with large display cases, each bearing only one or two objects. Unsatisfied by the meager exhibit, we looked forward to learning more details on the upper floors of the museum. Wrong. We took the elevator up a floor: offices. Up another: no entry. Same for floors 4 and 5. On the 6th and final floor, still no more indigenous crafts, but another surprise: the photos and descriptions of the civil war from 1980 to 2000.

Peru endured a terrible civil war beginning in 1980, when the Mao-inspired Shining Path rebels (and other groups) led uprisings against the central government. The presumed beneficiaries of these uprisings were the "campesinos" - the poor people of the countryside, who had been woefully neglected for centuries; but the violent methods of the Shining Path were appalling. The whole male populations of some villages were massacred when the Shining Path felt the villagers were not supportive enough of their cause. The ensuing crackdown by National Police was equally appalling, as hundreds (thousands, in the end) of campesinos the police thought might be Shining Path sympathizers were simply "disappeared". The uprising finally ended with the capture of the 2 principal leaders (still jailed for life) without whom their organizations fell apart. Peru then faced the hard choice of dealing with this history, and decided to emulate countries such as South Africa, forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The exhibit on the 6th floor of the National Museum is taken from the pictorial history, testimony (oral and written) and archives of that Commission. Extremely moving and painfully honest, it's been viewed by over 200,000 Peruvians. It felt something like the Holocaust Museum in DC, and we were gratified to have visited it and to see this brave attempt to come to terms with this history.

One of the most thought-provoking exhibits, for us at least, was about one of the first casualties of the war. A group of seven journalists had traveled to the Andean wilds to investigate stories about a campesino uprising, and they were murdered - cut down with machetes - by the inhabitants of a little village. It was later determined that the villagers had thought the journalists' cameras were guns; they had never seen a camera before. And this was in 1980!

Back into the lively, honking, prosperous atmosphere of Lima, we took a taxi to the Archaelogical/Anthropology Museum, where we finally immersed ourselves in pre-Conquest artifacts. The museum is housed in a lovely old hacienda and has truly breathtaking displays of pottery, weaving and metalwork with clear explanations in both Spanish and English. We had a wonderful time.

Bet you didn't know that 2008 is, world-wide, the Year of the Potato. At the Archaeological Museum there is an entire exhibit devoted to The Potato. Peru claims to have invented The Potato (as well as corn, ceviche, and pisco, a grape liquor) and is proud of it. The country has over 400 varieties of potato and is the 2nd largest producer (and consumer) of potatoes in South America (to Brazil, which is of course much larger). We understand that Peru discourages (if not prohibits) machine farming of potatoes, and the traditional primitive foot-plow is still widely used, as we can testify from our bus trips in the countryside.

A final note on Lima: At the Plaza de Armas, Peru's central square, we watched the Changing of the Guards at the Presidential Palace. The palace was European Neoclassical, and the guards were colorful in royal blue trousers, red jackets, white cross straps, shakos and knee-length patent-leather boots. The military band played "El Condor Paso," (which ought to be the Peruvian national anthem) which sounds much better (if annoying) on Peruvian pipes than by a brass band. Like many such honor guards, they goose-stepped. We've come to realize that it's only we North Americans and the Brits who retain the strong association of goose-stepping with Nazi or totalitarian regimes and recoil at this. Everyone else seems to like it. Adding a discordant note of modern paranoia, the toy-soldier guards were actually behind a high wrought-iron fence and were themselves guarded, by police in full riot gear, including guns and big plastic shields. The police kept all the spectators (more than half of whom were Peruvian schoolkids) herded to the far side of the street, where we all watched the Changing of the Guards at a safe distance, and through iron bars. Disconcerting.

Discovery #4: Geography. For having traveled as much as we have, you'd think we'd have a better grasp of the geography of the places we see. But we seem to have a block against learning ahead of time what we will see. Who knew the Andes were so close to the western side of Peru? Or that Cuzco was on the east and leeward side of those mountains, making it dry as well as (literally) breathtakingly high? Even after we studied various maps of the area and of South America, when we looked at snow-capped mountain ranges to the east of Cuzco we still had problems assimilating the fact that the turbulent mountain streams and rivers we saw all around us flowed not into the Pacific but into the Amazon and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.

Cuzco was our base for exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. It was the Inca "capital" and became, for a while, Pizarro's base as he conquered and looted Peru. The huge main square was originally plated with gold - what a sight that must have been for the Conquistadores! The town is at 3300 meters, or almost 11,000 feet, above sea level, so we planned to spend 2 days there doing virtually nothing but slowly walking around town to acclimatize to the height, followed by 2 more days exploring nearby Incan ruins. Andi, who has had altitude sickness in the past, took acetozolamide at the advice of The Lonely Planet guidebook, and never had a problem. (Well, we all had problems with the thin air - just going up the 2 sets of stairs to our rooms left us all breathless.) We were also assisted by generous amounts of coca leaves, which were obtainable everywhere - legally and free - and used in tea or simply chewed; purportedly, coca leaves relieve the effects of altitude, though of course we had no way of testing this. We, at least, got no "buzz" from the coca.

In Cuzco, we met up with our British cruising friends Gillian and Graeme, with whom we'd cruised in company and taken several land trips. Graeme, a former champion oarsman and a man who likes a physical challenge, had booked a 4-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The rest of us planned to see him off and meet him cheerfully at trail's end. The mere thought of climbing up and down more mountains at those heights was enough to exhaust us!

Discovery #5: Inca stonework. The Incas were master builders. Without benefit of metal tools, they shaped rock into blocks, dragged them to the building sites without benefit of wheels (which they knew about but didn't use) and created high mortar-less walls with seams so well-fitted that you can't slip a knife between the stones. Within Cuzco, the walls are made from stones carved to the size of dorm-room fridges; some temples, where apparently size mattered, are built with finely hewn blocks the size of Volkswagons. Typically, Spanish conquerors built their churches on top of Incan temples and destroyed most of the rest of their artifacts. But in Cuzco, rather than totally destroying the wonderful Incan structures, they used them as foundations. In 1950, a 16th century Spanish cathedral built atop Incan walls was virtually destroyed by an earthquake; the Incan walls remained intact. Incan walls are everywhere throughout Cuzco, forming parts of grand houses and hotels, and quite humble homes as well. They never ceased to cause us to stop and marvel.

Discovery #6: Cuzco loves a parade. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and happily did nothing but chat with Graeme and Gillian. On Sunday morning, we set off for the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco's central square, and were surprised to find a parade in the making. From a second floor balcony café, we enjoyed coffee and watched for about an hour as numerous military groups, various schools, civic associations, government office employees, sanitation workers, etc., marched around the beautiful square. There were two pauses in the marching: in the first, a large Peruvian flag was raised while everyone sang the national anthem; in the second, a large Cuzco flag was raised while everyone sang a "Hymn to Cuzco." The parade ended with a very large continent of Special Forces soldiers in "chocolate chip" uniforms who quick-trotted the entire perimeter of the square. We were all still huffing and puffing just walking around, so we were quite impressed! And what was the reason for all of this? Apparently, it happens every Sunday - it's the raising of the flags. In typical Hispanic fashion, there is no mention of this in any of the tourist guides, and even at the tourist office we had to press for details about when and where the parade would be.

Aside: Cuzco's flag is a horizontal striped rainbow. Looks gay-friendly, but that's purely coincidental.

Discovery #7: Native dress. The Quechua women descendents of the Incas really do wear those colorful full skirts. Both men and women also carry everything from firewood to babies in woven blankets tied over their shoulders. Most wear felt fedoras, top-hats or broad-brimmed bowlers; some wear different hats of an amazing variety. Many younger campesinos wear western clothes, but they still use blankets to carry things. Llamas and alpacas are prevalent and cute. Beside a remote adobe farmhouse, we found an alpaca grazing by a satellite TV dish. Progress comes to back-country Peru!

Discovery #8: The Incas: a) never learned to write; b) loved heights; and c) were master builders. Not only did they make these beautiful walls without benefit of metal tools or wheels; the Incas never developed a written language (though they did have a system for calculation and numerical record-keeping). The Incas definitely had a thing for heights - acrophilia instead of acrophobia - and kept heading for the hills. They built all their religious temples (such as Machu Picchu) on the tops of mountains, and tamed the steep hillsides below them by terracing, making broad terraces for agriculture; narrower, steeper ones for decoration; and very narrow ones as buttresses for their highest structures. Everywhere one looks in the Cuzco area, there are terraces dating from the Incas or even before. We are convinced that one of the tests for a prospective Inca leader (who was titled, confusingly, the Inca) must have been that he had no aversion to heights. In the short time we were in the Cuzco area we met two tourists who, looking over the edges of paths at 1000-foot drops, had called it a day and clung to the fine Inca stonework all the way back to the bus. One of those tourists had come from Philadelphia to see Machu Picchu, only to spend her time in the café at the entrance to the park, with Machu Picchu hidden around the side of the mountain.

On Monday, feeling that we were adjusted to the altitude, we hiked up one of the hills overlooking Cuzco to Saqsaywaman (commonly called Sexy Woman, to the irritation of some guides). Because the Incans never developed writing, and because of their thorough conquest by Pizarro, archeologists and anthropologists are left to speculate as to what many Incan ruins were: cities, fortresses, temples, combinations thereof? It adds a frustrating note of mystery to the sights you see. Again and again, we found ourselves asking, "Why?" or "How?" And when we did get answers from guides or guidebooks, they frequently had the sound of being made up on the spot. Saqsaywaman is a good example: it's high above Cuzco and grandiose in scope. The walls are made of enormous stones -some weighing many tons - perfectly fitted together. The work it must have taken to shape them, to move them to the top of the mountain, and then to fit them into place, is astounding to contemplate. It seems clearly to be a fortress, and the Spaniards assumed as much, describing how many men could be stationed in its confines; but apparently many modern anthropologists believe it was intended as a religious temple and a place for official ceremonies.

Discovery #9: Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas." No matter how many times you've seen the photo looking of the view down on the site (and, believe us, that photo is ubiquitous in Peru!), nothing quite prepares you for the reality. Having been told that sunrise at Machu Picchu was sort of the icing on the cake, as it were, we took the train from Cuzco to the village of Aquas Calientes the day before we were to meet Graeme at the end of his Inca Trail walk. The four-hour train trip began with a series of switchbacks to rise out of Cuzco. These harked back to the true meaning of switch-backs: The train came to the end of the tracks, the switchman got off the last car and threw a switch, the train backed to the end of the next track, another switchman got off the engine and threw the switch, etc. for a set of 7 switches. Way cool! We did the same to descend into Aguas Calientes, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, where we spent the night. Our hostel room was right above the Ollantaytambo River, which tumbled over the rocks outside our window. The front door of the hostel was at the railroad tracks - fortunately they don't run trains at night! Across the tracks, some dozen or so men were using hand- picks, shaping rocks to make a new retaining wall. Their "chink-chink" was non-stop all day. We couldn't help but think of their long-distant Inca ancestors, and wonder how they'd done the same work without benefit of pick-axes.

Aguas Calientes has no roads in - only the railroad - and no roads within the town, because it's steep enough so that streets often have steps in them. One road leads out: the road to Machu Picchu, its only traffic being the tour busses (which were brought in by rail, as was everything else).

As we had a Peruvian version of pizza for lunch (don't ask!), we noticed some young Quechua men rolling wheelbarrows up the steep street, each laden with large rocks. A while later, they reappeared, with the wheelbarrows now full of gravel. About the 3rd or 4th time this happened, we asked one of them (they were quite cheerful and seemed to be competing with each other in racing up this hill) why they didn't break up the rocks at the bottom of the hill. The answer was something like "The boss says to do it like this." Later, as we explored the town, we discovered the answer - or part of it: The grinding machine was located partway uphill through the town at the edge of the river. Now, why it was there instead of in a more level place is perhaps another mystery of the Incas and their descendent Quechuas, with their obliviousness to heights.

The next morning, we were up before dawn at 5:15, had a bracing cup of Peruvian coffee, and got on line for the busses to Machu Picchu by 5:45. They'd begun at 5:30, and already there was a line of tourists a half-block long. But the busses rolled up, one after the other, with great efficiency, and we were enroute within 10 minutes. It was getting light as we made our way up the switchback dirt road and we had great hopes of the promised sunrise over the mountains. But we ascended into clouds, and at the entry gate to Machu Picchu the visibility was down to about ten feet. Nonetheless, we shuffled along in a long line like sheep (or llamas) to get to the Watchman's Hut, the high point above Machu Picchu from which all the photos are taken. When we got there, we still couldn't see more than ten feet, and could barely see the Watchman's Hut itself. Then, slowly, tantalizingly, the clouds started to blow away to reveal a glimpse of green, a building, a terrace, then the clouds would re-form, then blow away a bit more as the sky got lighter, until, as when a stage curtain is raised, the whole magical place was revealed. It was spectacular! The site itself is jewel-like - to have it appear like that was like opening a precious present. Machu Picchu's grounds are planted with grass (in contrast to other sites which are just dirt), creating a green glow that shows off the buildings, as well as the spectacular terraces as they must have been. (The grass is maintained by free-ranging llamas (llama-mowers), who show a total disregard or disdain for the invading tourists, and simply walk along paths, forcing humans to move aside!) In the early morning, the sun's slanted rays cast long shadows on the walls; as the sun rose, the appearance of the buildings changed again and again.

Oh yes, shortly after sunrise, Graeme appeared, dusty and unshaven but exhilarated by his 4 days of hiking, most of which had been up or down rough-cut steps in paths dating from the Incas or earlier. He claimed that some of his fellow-hikers had been less fit than Gillian and we, and that we could have done it. We admired his confidence in us, misplaced as it was, and felt we'd made the right choice.

Machu Picchu is actually fairly small, and despite this, manages to accommodate tons of tourists quite well. We had the advantage of the early morning hours, before the day-tripper busses arrived, so didn't feel overcrowded at all. And everyone was as awe-struck as we were and very respectful of picture taking and general gawking. We didn't hire a guide, but used an excellent guide-book, The Inca Trail, that our friend Amy had loaned us.

As with all the sites, questions abound. Why was it built? (It seems to have been primarily a temple.) Why was it abandoned? (It was abandoned before Pizarro got to it, possibly because of limited water.) Why was it "lost" so long? (Well, the Quechua knew it was there, but didn't tell anyone until Hiram Bingham came along in 1911, paid some farmers a few coins, and was led there.) You know, in the end, it doesn't matter. It's just a stunning sight in a stunning site.

Discovery #10: Other Inca sites. With all the hoopla about Machu Picchu, we were surprised at how many other Inca ruins awaited us (as well as one site from Wari civilization, which predated the Incas). Each was fascinating in its own way: Saqsaywaman for its huge stones; Ollantaytambo for its fortifications; Pisac for its terraces and variety; etc. Pisac, in particular, is huge - much larger than Machu Picchu. It's really five or six sites, each with its own personality (though all share a fondness for dizzying verticality). And it has Inca bathrooms - a question unanswered at Machu Picchu! We visited Pisac last, and maybe that was an advantage, because by then we knew a lot about Inca architecture and something about their customs. Pisac is quite close to Cuzco, and after buying some woven Quechua goods and pottery at its famous open market, we took a taxi back to Cuzco and to our airplane home.

So, those were ten of our discoveries.

Our conclusion: Go there.