Nine Days in Peru 2012-13

Peru Day 1

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013


Back in September 2011 Jan and I purchased a three week tour of Israel and Jordan scheduled for February 2012 from Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), the company that had provided us with a remarkable experience in Japan two years earlier. In early December we were forced to cancel the trip to deal with a family crisis. The insurance policy we’d bought to cover such situations would only refund a fraction of the cost and the balance could be credited to another trip only if taken before February 2013.

Our disappointment was kept alive by the diminishing possibility of redeeming the credit. In the meantime we had been assigned court-appointed custody for our eleven-year old grandson. In September 2012, we found out that he’d be visiting his father in Georgia for the winter school holiday and therefore we might have a two- week interval around Christmas to travel.

Ready to go anywhere in the world on an excursion already paid for, we searched the OAT catalog and came up with “Real Affordable Peru.” It fell within the allotted time and offered an appealing itinerary, including Lima, Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, which had intrigued me ever since I learned about it at age 10 in Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. Throughout Jan’s hectic fall re-election campaign for Mayor, our bedtime reading consisted of Kim Macrorie’s The Last Days of the Incas, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. But as the departure date approached, another problem loomed.  The  surgery that Jan had undergone in October destabilized rather than repaired her left knee, and she now needed a brace and continual icing just to walk city streets.  How would she fare clambering in the heights of the Andes?

Day 1

We land in Lima 12:30 A.M. December 26 and are greeted at the gate by Jonathan, the OAT representative, along with a couple of intrepid fellow travellers from Chicago a few years our seniors. In the downtown, every building is protected by high walls or fences, and some of them have guard towers at the corners.  The minivan drives along the Pacific shore toward Miraflores, the affluent tourist-friendly section of this city of 10 million.  Jonathan assures us that the district has three levels of protection: municipal police, semi-official companies that contract with the police, and private security. We’re welcomed to Hotel Jose Antonio by a large African-Peruvian doorman in a suit and tails.  It’s an upscale facility typical of those chosen by OAT and several notches above the motel 6 level I usually patronize.


In the bathroom we encounter the trip’s first culture shock: a sign tells us to dispose of all paper in the adjacent wastebasket, not in the toilet.


Our guide affirms that this means all paper, in order not to overtax the capacity of municipal sewage systems. It’s a contrast to the equally foreign peculiarities of Japanese toilets, which provided a warm water rinse of one’s undercarriage after every use. But it’s no more an adjustment than having to remember to always use bottled water for toothbrushing and sinus rinsing, as well as drinking.

The morning’s generous breakfast buffet includes a thick, sour distillation of coffee one renders palatable by diluting with hot milk and water and a variety of delicious fresh fruit. Afterwards our group of 12 travelers assemble in a conference room for an introductory lecture by our trip guide Alvaro, illustrated with a timeline and map of the upcoming journey and including a strong recommendation that we ignore medical prescriptions for altitude sickness and instead drink coca tea and chew coca leaves, the time-honored cure.


Alvaro is a native of Cuzco”to be pronounced correctly as Qosco (just like Costco) in Quechua, the native language still spoken by the Andeans. He espouses a nationalism hostile to the Spanish conquistadores, ambivalent toward the short-lived Inca empire that they conquered, and partisan toward the decentralized pre-Incan native cultures whose histories extend back ten to twenty thousand years.  He points out that modern Peru has recently rebranded itself with a new logo containing a spiral that’s found on inscriptions and also represents the concentric ancient terraces we will discover throughout the mountainous countryside.


We learn that his father’s family comes from the Amazon”most likely from Spanish ranchers–his mother’s from Andean Qosqo, making him a mestizo  like most other Peruvians since the Conquest. There’s a familiar anti colonial, anti-imperial bias in his views, but they are mixed with great enthusiasm for his longtime employer, OAT, which is dedicated to educating Americans about foreign cultures and environments, promotes international understanding, underwrites local social service programs and has provided his family with the resources to send his three children to University.

We depart for a group promenade down the busy main boulevard of Miramontes. There are no beggars or street sellers and a prominent presence of kevlar-vested gun-toting police and private security patrols. A building across the street sports a huge mural depicting a prostrate Gulliver-like figure with tiny trucks driving away from a hole near his heart.  Alvaro interprets: this is the heart of Peru being eviscerated by the mining industry.


We amble through Kennedy square and down another boulevard to a restaurant for our first meal of legendary Peruvian cuisine, passing a long line of respectable but unhappy-looking people lined up at one of the many prominent banks. These, says Alvaro, are civil servants lining up to cash (or receive?) their paychecks.  Jan and I both order ceviche, and the raw fish marinated in lime juice and a light cream sauce with sliced onions reminds me of the sashimi which introduced our culinary adventures in Japan.

Back at the hotel we are introduced to Dante, our local guide, a compact man with glossy black hair, shiny eyes, a mime’s expressive gestures, a shaman’s intensity and a distinctive profile like those on Aztec and Mayan reliefs.  He was born in a small village north of Lima into a family of subsistence farmers and moved with his parents and brothers to the city when he was nine years old.  He hated to leave his beautiful rural village but since then has learned why it was the right choice for his parents.


We arrive at the National Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, an attractive ochre and white colored building with a central courtyard graced by brightly flowering trees and loudly chirping birds. First stop for the group is under an arch bearing the ubiquitous “S” for Sismo sign”a supposedly safe sanctuary in case of Seismic disturbances.  Peru’s history and culture is dominated by earthquakes; the last big one in 1970 rocked Lima for two full minutes and caused a hundred thousand deaths.  The damage to this museum has still not been fully repaired due to the government’s according higher priority to developing the infrastructure–roads and bridges facilitating commerce across the extraordinarily difficult terrain separating the three primary areas of the country: coastal desert, mountains, and Amazonian jungle. Peru’s immense archaeological riches have only been properly excavated and preserved with foreign financing.

The Museum’s exhibits are displayed in chronological sequence and Dante emphasizes the ingenious technology for resource use of the earliest strata”stone age tools similar to those of the early California Chumash I saw on a recent school visit with my grandson to the Rancho El Chorro Education center.


As we move to the display of a stela depicting the puma god holding staffs of peyote cactus, he points out that the physical evidence here suggests the existence of an agriculturally based civilization even older than Egyptian, Sumerian or Hindu”the Chavin culture. This new view of the age, size and complexity of New World cultures is amplified in the book that Jan and I are continuing to read as we travel, Charles Mann’s 1491.


Though none of the New World cultures seem to have invented the wheel or the metallurgy that could produce powerful weapons, their hand-formed pottery glazed with characteristic red ochre looks as if it was thrown, and both human and animal figures are elegant and expressive.




From early times onward music has been ubiquitous in religious ritual as well as daily life, and the instruments displayed are themselves beautifully sculpted artifacts.



A darkened room displays Inka treasures, some of the few remaining examples of the vast trove of gold and silver architectural features, sculptures, ritual instruments and costumes that Pizarro and his tiny band of invaders pillaged, melted into ingots, and sent back to Spain during the sixteenth century.



On the bus trip to the City Center, Dante points out a fortress-like structure rising behind a large fenced area, one of more than 40 major excavations now being carried out within the city limits, an indication of the nation’s hidden reserves of archeological resources.


We pass a heavily fortified complex of buildings suggesting an Inca temple that he identifies as the Japanese Embassy–the scene of the 1996 drama initiated by the Shining Path guerillas who took over the complex, held  people hostage for 126 days and finally were defeated by police and military commandos under the direction of then president Alberto Fujimori.  Dante says he voted for Fujimori and found him an effective leader whose strong-arm tactics were necessary to combat the murderous Maoist movement wreaking havoc in the country. But like most Peruvians, he became disillusioned with Fujimori after the brutality of his methods approached those of the revolutionaries and after revelations of large scale corruption caused him to flee the country.

Our bus maneuvers through fast moving traffic toward the center of Lima, the end of every street revealing arid mountains covered with ramshackle homebuilt structures sprawled in growth patterns that look like lichen on rock. These suburbs are the newest and poorest parts of the city, Dante says, unlike in America where the more expensive homes are up the hills.


We enter a traffic circle surrounded by shabby mansions that used to be the homes of Lima’s aristocracy and are now divided into crowded apartments.  He assures us that the central square where we are headed is safe and heavily patrolled.


The square is fronted by a 16th century cathedral and bishop’s palace, the 19th century Presidential palace and the18th century City Hall. It’s decorated with ugly artificial Christmas trees.


The atmosphere is fast and lively, the pace set by the machine gun staccato of Spanish speech and laughing children.  Dante says that Lima’s mayor is a woman and observes that it is important  for women to be involved in politics.  He’s impressed to hear that Jan is a mayor and promises to arrange a meeting between her and the city’s chief executive when we return.

The group walks a block past street vendors whose fascinating appearance and merchandise we try not to eye into a square dominated by the baroque façade of the San Francisco monastery and cathedral, as harmonious in proportion and dramatic in decoration as any churches in Europe.


We enter the adjoining monastery where photography is prohibited, stopping at the library where light pours in from clerestory windows above a three tiered gallery and illuminates the dust in the air coming off thousands of leather-bound books that seem haphazardly shelved and piled, most of them with pages rather than spines facing outward.  In contrast to air-conditioned and immaculate rare book rooms in American libraries, this place looks like 18th century paintings of royal libraries, a place as full of buried treasure for researchers as the landscape outdoors.


Dante says that the Franciscan missionaries accompanying the conquest and glorified in this building brought largely destruction and horror to this country, but two imports deserving appreciation are libraries and universities.

We walk through a wide second story colonnade surrounding a garden of mature fruit trees. Most of the pillars are out of plumb and the wide tiled floor tilts and ripples as a result of earthquakes. Then we descend through claustrophobic adobe passages crowded with other tourists to the Catacombs under the cathedral.  This was the only cemetery of Lima for its first 200 years, and it holds the bones of 25000 of its most illustrious citizens sorted into different parts of the skeleton”skulls, femurs, tibias, pelvises”arranged for display in symmetrical patterns in ditches along a maze of passages and at the bottom of circular wells 20 feet or more deep.


Here is a foretaste of the ubiquitous presence of preserved bodily remains of the dead, in private homes, Inka temples and Christian shrines.

Arising from the catacombs, we emerge into the light of the square and the sounds of children laughing. A car backfires and we’re engulfed by a swirl of pigeons.


After a siesta back at the hotel, Jan and I retrace our steps toward Kennedy square and find a pleasant café for a late dinner at a price similar to what we’d pay at home.  On the way back to the hotel at 9:30, we wander into the still open municipal art gallery and find a display of Peruvian arts and crafts”modernistic variations of traditional corn-beer drinking vessels, an installation of dried vegetation stuck to walls and ceilings suggesting the jungle, and whimsical ceramic musicians in colors and postures reminiscent of the ancient pottery in the museum.



Slideshow of these and more full-size photos

Link to Day 2



Peru Day 2

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

On the way south after breakfast, Dante has the bus stop for a look at Lima’s long beach front and pelicans on a fish processing plant’s roof.

IMG_2755.JPG Fishing is a major industry because of the upwelling of the cold Humboldt current just off the coast. A hearty stranger approaches and hails us.


He says the large green boat in the foreground of the picturesque fleet is his.


We pass a woman’s prison that incarcerates not prostitutes”the trade is legal in Peru”but mules”young women recruited by dealers to carry illegal drugs out of the country in their body cavities.


A mountainous sand dune reminds us that we’re in a coastal desert, one of the driest places on the planet. The top and steep slopes are crisscrossed by bulldozers harvesting sand used in a factory at the base of the dunes to manufacture bricks.


The mined dunes are succeeded by a grove of young orange trees planted on the slope, and then by a dense colony of shacks.


This is one edge of Villa El Salvador, a sprawling zone of improvised and unplanned buildings that constitutes the rapidly expanding suburb that now houses about 400,000 people. Most have left their ancestral homes in the Andean highlands and other regions of Peru and migrated to the city–fleeing the terror inflicted on peasants by Shining Path guerillas, forced off their land by famine and drought, or in search of a better life for their children.  Known as “invaders,” they squat on unused private and public property, build with scavenged materials and survive without basic services like water, sewage or electricity. They eke out a living selling services and labor at low wages or creating small-scale businesses peddling food or souvenirs on the street.

In 1980, after a series of violent conflicts with police who tried to evict the squatters, the government created a new policy: if a group of squatters lived on the land for ten years and came up with a lawyer to represent them, they would be granted ownership of their lots.  And if they continued to organize and pool resources, they could petition for the construction of roads and the delivery of other basic services for which they would pay monthly bills.  The older these squatter communities, the more established and prosperous they have become, and now they are classified as class 1, 2, 3, and 4, the last including conventional stores, hospitals, factories and other locally owned businesses. But at no stage, Dante insists repeatedly, do the residents of these communities receive welfare from the government. They are responsible for supporting themselves through hard work, austerity, persistence, ingenuity and most important, cooperation.  He confides that he himself grew up in a community like this.

We get out  at a complex of Inka structures. A partially reconstructed dormitory for priests and sacred virgins fronts on a wetland oasis created by aqueducts conducting water from a river flowing down through the coastal desert from the Andes.


A hilltop Temple of the Sun overlooks offshore islands that were assumed to be the residence of gods who required sacrifice of the virgins to continue providing crops and fish.




The structures are built out of adobe bricks of the same color and texture as the soil from which they’re hewn. Occasionally we see evidence that originally the structures were surfaced with sharp angled stucco painted with the red cochineal dye.


At the summit of the temple a heavily armed soldier stands at attention, part of a contingent protecting the site 24-7 from continuing harm by looters.


Back in the bus Dante says we are about to visit a stage 1 squatter community nearby which has a special relation with our OAT tour company.  On every visit, the guides bring bags of rice and beans and provide other necessities in kind. We pass through a checkpoint staffed by local residents who patrol the unpaved streets to make them safe for children, who would otherwise be threatened by abusers and sex traffickers.



Dante greets the guardians who let us through the gateway. Tiny shops are scattered among the houses crammed side by side, some no more than a patchwork of cardboard and tin roofing, others ambitious and creative in style.




Almost everything here is salvaged, recycled and improvised, but the atmosphere seems secure and cheerful.




Children play in the narrow lanes, a mother holding a baby hangs up laundry, a man washes his dog.




Dante leads us to a corner building deep inside the grid of streets.  The mothers here have organized a soup kitchen to feed those who don’t have enough to eat.  Nourishing food is offered, not free but at very low cost along with information about nutrition and health. There is one of these kitchens for each 70 families.  Some support is supplied by NGOs but not by the government.  The woman who runs this kitchen shows us the large clean pots, the propane stove and tank, the sign on the wall that warns against cheating or hoarding.  She is proud of the place, but not happy today, because for unknown reasons no food has arrived.



This community has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for its successful experiments with alleviating poverty and promoting community development. Its approach struck me as diametrically opposite to that in our home town, where a complex permitting and review process by the existing community is required before any new construction can take place. It also takes an opposite approach to our growing problem of homelessness which assumes that the government and existing community provide housing, food and safety for those in need who play by the rules.

As we board the bus I see two boys starting up a game of soccer in a well-fenced dirt field.


Now we drive through a stage 2 community perched on a steep hillside. The ground here seems as unstable and incoherent as the teetering structures.  There’s little danger of erosion since it never rains in Lima, but I envision the whole warren sliding down the hill in case of am earthquake. Rather than roads or sidewalks, one sees only footpaths and cart tracks.


But the people who construct and continually add to these structures with locally manufactured bricks and cement seem to have inherited the Inca tendency to never stop building on near-vertical slopes. To many people, improvised structures like these are merely an eyesore, but I find them more aesthetically appealing and mechanically intriguing than the modernist architecture of the luxury hotels of Miraflores.

Our tour of Villa El Salvador concludes with a bus ride through a stage 4 section of this “new town.”  In narrow paved streets we see into small furniture and shoe manufacturing operations, the merchandise being loaded onto small pickup trucks or motorcycle driven carts.


And then a main boulevard with grassy medians, a large hospital, and an unrelenting barrage of billboards.


We return to our posh hotel for a rest and then are driven to dinner in a restaurant in the even more exclusive seaside enclave of Barranco.

Slideshow of these and more full-size photos


Link to Day 3




Peru Day 3

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

A 5:30 wake-up call marshalls us back to Lima airport under Alvaro’s direction for the flight to Qosqo, the center of the Inca empire and of present day Peruvian tourism.  On the way he regales us with stories from the Inka history that he identifies as his own heritage, occasionally speaking in the Quechua language that they imposed on its diverse communities during the less than hundred year duration of their rule in the 15th and 16th centuries.

After a three-hour delay and two gate changes, we fly for ninety minutes and land at the Qosquo airport situated in the center of the city. Signs proudly exclaim that it is soon to be replaced by a much larger international airport on the outskirts. I fear that the expansion of industrial tourism this brings will eradicate whatever is left of the native cultures and archaic way of life we’ve come here to appreciate. That at least is what happened at Cancun in the Yucatan, which we travelled through three years ago to attend the wedding of our niece in Playa del Carmen.

To help us adapt to the altitude change, we will descend to the 6000 foot level in the Sacred Valley of the Urumbamba River for several days before returning to this 11,000 foot city.


As we exit the terminal, there’s a clap of thunder and sudden mountain downpour.  Alvaro reminds us that summer in Peru is the rainy season and that abrupt weather changes are to be expected. However he will be praying to the Apus”the Inca spirits of the mountains”to provide us with sunshine at Machu Picchu.

In the still pouring rain”the snowline in this near equatorial latitude is 14000 feet–the bus winds above the City nestled in the valley below.


Alvaro points out rock formations and walls that mark the Inca holy places (Wasi) and agricultural terraces that cover the countryside.


We stop at a settlement on the pass above Qosqo to view new peasant structures that incorporate traditional ceramic bas-reliefs, thatch roofs and shrines that meld pagan and Christian images.  We encounter campesinos herding sheep and pigs and selling native crafts to tourists.




It’s hard to believe that this is not all part of an Andean theme park, but as we start downhill following the course of a mud-swollen stream, it’s clear that we’re in a real archaic landscape where homebuilt houses and subsistence farming still prevail.



The streambed deepens into a canyon with steep rock walls rising on the opposite side.


The road turns and we stop for a new view. The canyon we’re in converges 1500 feet below with a wide valley flanked by mountain ranges on both sides whose tops disappear into the clouds. Through it runs the Urumbamba river flowing westward toward our destination, Machu Picchu, and downward toward the Amazon.  Directions are confusing; I expect the Amazon to be across the Andes to the east, but the map shows the range in this region angling from a north south to an east west axis before resuming its general orientation further north. At this overlook, I imagine the route taken by the rebel emperor Manco Inka and his retinue as they fled Qosqo pursued by the Spanish over the mountains and into the jungle.


This is the Sacred Valley, known for its fertility and beauty and the magnificence of its archaeological resources. Alvaro prays to the Apus while the rest of us take pictures.



At the convergence of another river on the opposite side of the Urumbamba the town of Pisac comes into view below precisely spaced and angled walls that terrace the nearly vertical rock faces. How could they have been constructed in the first place and how could they have lasted in earthquake country another 500 years?




We cross the river and stop to wander through the narrow streets of the ancient market town. I’m drawn in by two little girls in Andean costume cradling a bleating lamb and a puppy.


In return for the picture I put a sole (about 40 cents) into one of their outstretched hands.


The bus ascends through a gully behind the town, providing a closer view of the terraces, many still cultivated with corn and potatoes by local farmers whose chickens and cows share the road with us.



As we get higher, the terraces take the shape of an amphitheatre and are no longer farmed but part of an archaeological preserve.  We walk on a stone path toward a temple fortress overlooking the valleys below and a stone village above.



A woman in traditional garb insistently offers handicraft merchandise laid out on colorful blanket.  No one is buying so she folds up her wares and walks toward the village.



The bus heads back down to the river and drives through tiny villages strung along the road.  We pass a supply yard storing great piles of 24 inch pipe that will bring natural gas from the Peruvian Amazon through the Sacred Valley to Qosqo and Lima.  “This will be tremendous for us”cheap energy to fuel economic development.” Says Alvaro.  I think about the melting glaciers above us and the protests in the U.S. against natural gas fracking and the construction of the XL pipeline from Canada to Louisiana.

In the town of Urubamba, the bus turns off the main road down a bumpy little lane and comes to a halt at a mud puddle. To reach our lodgings we walk over a stone wall, through a wet potato field, and past a new adobe gateway, accompanied by the sound of the rushing river below.



Just past a tree full of ripe papayas, the Urubamba Villa sign comes into view.


A massive portal opens on a beautiful prospect: immaculate lawns, flowery rock gardens buzzing with hummingbirds and butterflies, fountains and ponds surrounded by a portico supported by peeled timbers secured to beams with braided rawhide lashings.





At the center of the garden stands a circular sanctuary topped by a high dome.



For two nights, this is to be the base camp for our approach to Machu Picchu.

Slideshow of these and more full-size photos

Link to Day 4



Peru Day 4

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Our room is tastefully decorated with original arts and crafts but my sleep is disturbed by the onslaught of a cold. From earlier travels I recognize the combination: thrilling stimulation accompanied by intense discomfort and fatigue. Quarts of coffee and coca tea in the morning provide some relief.

It’s raining as the bus follows the river further downstream, parallel to the railroad to Machu Picchu, past a recent road washout, an earthern building site, and kids playing during school holidays.





The ancient agricultural methods of cultivating potatoes and and corn on terraces and the fertile valley floor remain in use.


We arrive at Ollantaytambo, a city conquered and rebuilt by the first Inka Emperor Pachakuti in the mid 15th century and maintained as a private preserve by his family until serving as a hideout for Manco Inka during his rebellion a hundred years later. Beyond it the Valley gets narrower and drops more steeply toward the Amazon basin.


Alvaro leads us through a stone portal into the courtyard of a private residence.


Ducks and ducklings peck at the doorway of the stone dwelling we crowd into.  A wood fire burns in the clay stove providing welcome heat. Bunches of corn hang from the ceiling. An altar decked with blackened ancestral skulls and fresh flowers rises above a stone shelf packed with unearthed artifacts–figurines, masks, mortars and pestles and polished phalli.






In one corner a cute flock of guinea pigs chirp and feed on grass, fattening themselves for an upcoming dinner by their owners.


Alvaro explains that one lumpy sphere represents the earth dotted with Apus.


We leave the house and proceed through town along perfectly aligned walls and streets grooved with gutters conducting water down from the high mountains toward the gate of a temple complex.



A blind harpist in bright garb serenades the entrants. [click image to play movie]


Our guide leads us to a low-walled enclosure at the base of the mountain spur that guards the valley and demonstrates the method of using coca, the reverenced herb enjoyed by Andean natives for millennia.  First three dried leaves are grasped in the hand, blown upon and thanked.


Then a bunch of leaves is vigorously chewed mixed with a bit of catalyst”the charred residue of cooked quinoa.  The resulting wad is held in one cheek and periodically switched to the other. Most people in the group are willing to try it, but the crumbly texture and astringent taste are not to everyone’s liking.


It affords no drug high but I do feel the predicted effects”a reduction in the breathlessness caused by the 8000 foot altitude, increased stamina during ascent of the steep terraces, and slight euphoria.

In addition to tourists, the site is crowded with groups of students, more evidence of the pride Peruvians share in their ancient heritage along with the country’s modern economic expansion.


Facing us across the valley, another vertical rock face shows mysterious formations that Alvaro explains are Inka granaries and warehouses, easily defensible and set in a microclimate that’s drier and cooler than the valley below.


A stern visage sculpted from the rock represents Wiracochan, the emissary of the creator god, Wiracocha. On the winter solstice the rising sun illuminates it directly and sharpens the profile.


The higher we climb, the finer the stonework”the joints tighter, the rock faces smoother, the angles more uniform.





At the top of the ridge, overlooking the valley upstream and down, a set of monoliths of uncertain religious function display faint bas reliefs, one recognizable as the Andean cross.


An unfinished cut of the facet of one stone shows the use of some kind of saw.


The wind and rain at the top temple get stronger and Alvaro prays intensely for the better weather he promised for our visit to Machu Picchu. He once aspired to be a shaman but learned that the calling is an endowment available only to those who inherit it.


The way down is along narrow paths cut from the vertical rock rather than stepped down in terraces.


The bus returns to Urumbamba, where we’re welcomed into another private home, this one quite modern and, like most Peruvian domiciles, in a continuing condition of construction and expansion.  OAT has arranged for us to visit a family, share in their food preparation and meal, and bring them little gifts from the U.S.  The Dad is away at work, but here are Grandma, the person in charge, her daughter, and the daughter’s three daughters–two grade-six twins, and a younger child suffering from severe developmental disabilities yet fully integrated into domestic life.


In the large dining room used for family gatherings, a side table displays varieties of local foods that, I’ve discovered, many Peruvians exhibit for their aesthetic beauty as well as practical value.




Some group members help to cook, dredging and sautéing the chile rellenos. One slaughters the guinea pig with an instantaneous twist of the neck. Grandma cleans the carcass before cooking it on a wood stove. It’s presented in the traditional manner.  Jan says it tastes like a cross between chicken and rabbit, but I decline to partake.




The meal is of exceptional variety and quality, enriched with fresh local ingredients and friendly cross-cultural communication.





Slideshow of these and more full-size photos

Link to Day 5


Peru Day 5

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

At breakfast, Jan begins a conversation with a young couple in the Villa Urumbamba dining room and asks where they are from.  “Lima,” says the man in accent-free English, “we’re here to celebrate New Year’s Eve.”


She says we’re from San Luis Obispo California. He says he’s been there to visit his aunt who was a physician with Doctors Without Borders recently killed in a plane crash. Jan says she’d met her once and we both attended the funeral of her volunteer pilot, whom we knew as an environmental activist.

Like our son Joe, Pacifico is a mountain bike and offroad motorcycle enthusiast, and head of the Lima Mountain Bike Association, which is now big enough to afford him employment.  His partner, Maria, is a fashion designer.  He shows me his bike and points out the trail on a distant hillside that he’s built by himself.



Ruefully we leave this beautiful enclave and head back to Ollantaytambo to catch the train for Machu Picchu. On the way we stop at a house marked by a red plastic bag on a stick, the sign for a chicha bar, one of the several found in all rural villages.


The doorway is painted with a design copied from an ancient inscription.  Long before the Inkas, this form of corn liquor has been a staple of the Andean pharmacopeia and diet, just like the coca leaves on the figure’s headress.

In the courtyard, Alvaro shows us the bar game of Sapo, which involves tossing heavy bronze disks into the mouth of the frog and various other orifices.  I enjoy playing, even though my aim has always been terrible.



Inside another kitchen that seems like a museum display, we are introduced to the brewer-hostess.




She demonstrates the process of making chicha: sprouting corn kernels, fermenting them, filtering and stirring the brew in large clay pots and ending up with the either the cheap plain or the more expensive variety flavored with strawberries.





Peruvians are known to drink it by the half gallon, but we each only take a sip, reluctant to imbibe anything that might weaken tolerance for the altitude.

Near the bathroom at the back of the bar, we discover another little guinea pig barn, a lovingly arranged tool-storage wall, and a quinoa plant, which I’ve never seen, even though I eat a lot of this Peruvian staple.



Alvaro stops the bus again to grab some beetles infesting a prickly pear cactus by the side of the road.  He crunches them on a sheet of paper to reveal the source of cochineal, the red pigment used as a fabric dye, cosmetic, and wall paint.


At Ollantaytambo, we board the train that travels beyond the end of the road down the narrowed Urumbamba valley, now a canyon. We pass a footbridge at the start of the Inca Trail, the beginning of a four-day trek to Machu Picchu on the old stone road which now requires advance registration, a guide and porters.


Another footbridge rests on original Inka piers. As we descend in altitude the surrounding vegetation turns to thick tropical jungle.


The railroad terminus is Aguas Caliente, a bustling tourist town on either side of the tributary that dashes down from fog-enshrouded peaks to converge with the Urumbamba.


There we meet “little Alvaro,” another licensed guide who assists our Alvaro, and we board one of a steady stream of buses carrying visitors up the “Hiram Bingham highway,” named after the Yale explorer who claimed to discover the ruins of the lost city in 1911. In fact, they were shown to him by local farmers who lived on the site, but Bingham must share credit with Pachacuti the original builder for creating an economic bonanza for later generations.

As the river shrinks to a narrow ribbon below, surrounding mountains break through the clouds.


Then we’re off the bus, through the mass scene at the entrance kiosk where passports must be shown and the $60 entrance fee paid, and out on a terrace for the first view of the place.  Though I’ve seen it on countless brochures and billboards, nevertheless here in person, it shuts the mouth, quiets the brain, and fills the eyes with wonder. Walls, terraces, houses, temples, the jungle, the clouds above, the adjacent summit of Huayna Picchu, the peaks rising from the river below, the myriad miniscule people–all that variety in a unified three dimensional panorama.


After the initial impression of the whole, I take in more of the specifics: steep agricultural terraces and drainage corridors,


waterfalls tumbling out of the cloud forest,


structures hewn out of and bedrock and grafted onto it,



Huayna Picchu peak chiseled with staircases and topped with temples,



animals domestic and wild.



Despite the rainy season, the weather is dry and the clouds are clearing.  Alvaro’s prayers have worked!  He leads the group to the Temple of the Condor, a dazzling statue of one of the three sacred beasts of the Inka, representing the realm of the sky, and also a site for sacrificial offerings.


photo credit


He says his prayer, offers some coca leaves, and distributes mouthfuls to the rest of us. The sun comes out, revealing the primary deity the Inka worshipped.




He impresses upon us their aesthetic appreciation, their scientific observation, and their spiritual responsiveness to the natural environment.  Here a stellar observatory in protected reflecting ponds


Here a carved imitation of the peak behind it


Here, at the zenith of the site, a sundial.



In front of Mount Machu Picchu, we stop for a group portrait–travellers from Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona, and California.


At the base of the southwest side of the ridge, the river twists downstream.


To the northwest, peaks of the Cordillera momentarily  appear thousands of feet above us.



The most polished masonry of Machu Picchu is reserved for the Temple of the Sun, a structure twinned by Korikancha, a temple in the middle of the city of Qosqo and aligned with it along a mysterious network of meridians.


The temple perches on a rough rock face above a cave used for the preparation of mummies which represents the underworld realm of the dead, presided over by the snake god.


As we head back to the entrance late in the day, the contrast deepens between shadow and light.  Color, shape and texture take on intoxicating intensity.



Down in the valley, we walk to dinner at a gaudy restaurant where we’re serenaded by a lively group of traditional musicians. The we check in for the night at a friendly little hotel.


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Link to Day 6



Peru Day 6

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Next morning we walk back to the bus stop along the tributary rushing through the middle of Aguas Calientes. The street is flanked by fountains inspired by the spring-fed watercourses in the city above, one simulating cascades, another the undulating body of a snake.



The sound of the rapids echoing between the high walls of the canyon roars through the town and adds excitement to our departure for the heights.


When we arrive, the site and surroundings are predictably obsured by fog.


Alvaro leads the group in a prayer at the edge


The clouds begin to lift. Yesterday’s amazing sights take on a living presence, mysterious and intimate.



IMG_3617.JPG It seems like the renting of a veil, the parting of a curtain, the revelation of divine nature, Pachamama’s gift.


This is a moment together Jan and I are supremely privileged to share and preserve.

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Our group leaves the confines of the city and is led slowly by our guides toward a viewpoint looking down on it from above.


Anyone who wishes to go on ahead has permission to hike to the Sun Gate, the high pass through which Machu Picchu first appears to those traveling by foot along the Inka Trail, the 500 year old original approach.


I welcome the chance for more exercise and a little solitude.  Half an hour later I encounter another member of our party. He accepts my assistance in climbing the rock wall below a small opening in the jungle that provides the only possible opportunity within miles to go to the bathroom. On the way out, he slips and falls on the stone path. He’s in great pain but refuses offers to call for help or accompany him back to the bus.  He will reach the Sun Gate!  With the assistance of four Ibuprofen and my spring-loaded trekking pole heroically he reaches his goal.


Meanwhile, despite her injured knee and with the help of her two trekking poles and more Ibuprofen, Jan mounts hundreds of stone steps to the lower viewpoint. Little Al calls her the lady on four legs.

On the way back to the train she bargains in the market for silver earrings decorated with an Andean cross and symbols of the months and for a table cloth woven in the rainbow colors of the Qosqo flag.



The bus trip back to Qosqo offers our first view of the snow-covered mountains of the Cordillera Blanca.


Jan too is coming down with the cold that’s hit most members of the group. Having landed in a comfortable hotel room, we both decline to join the late night New Year’s Eve festivities in the central plaza and fall asleep well before the end of 2012.

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Linnk to Day 7




Peru Day 7

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Next morning Alvaro leads us in brilliant sunshine on a walking tour of the downtown. First, directly across the street from our hotel, the Koricancha or Temple of the Sun, the religious center of the Inca temple, on top of and around which the Spanish built the Convent of San Lorenzo.


Then, the city’s central market, which all this week in celebration of New Year’s is festooned with yellow balloons, streamers, confetti and underwear.



Inside is a riot of colors, sounds and smells and of merchandise, costumes and activity.






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We pass through packed streets to the bus and drive by another new community on the hillside to a 17th century church overlooking the city



and then a little higher to Sacsaywaman, an immense Inka temple fortress laid out in the shape of a bolt of lightning. It was the scene of a famous battle between Pizarro and the rebel Emperor Manco Inka, and still competes for prominence with the large statue of Christ on an adjoining hilltop.



Much of the temple was dismantled by the Spanish to build the cathedrals that were intended to replace it, but the megalithic foundation stones, perfectly fitted and exquisitely shaped–here like a puma’s paw–have withstood Qosqo’s earthquakes and provide a site for locals to enjoy holiday picnics.



Another stop brings us to Q’engo, an underground labyrinth carved out of a natural rock formation where Inkan royalty were mummified.



Two minutes down the road we get off the bus at the edge of a field overlooking the city. A shadowy figure appears in the distance sitting under a thatched pavilion.


As we take seats, Alvaro introduces him as a curandero or shaman, a healer who has traveled here a long way from the highlands to conduct a ceremony for us. We agree to refrain from picture taking while the ritual proceeds. The curandero unfolds a blanket and covers it with a large white sheet of paper. He pours libations of beer on the ground and unfolds small packets containing corn, rice, sugar, candies, flowers, potatoes, alpaca jerky and other substances and arranges them in a mandala-like pattern surrounded by cotton for clouds and multicolored strings for Inka roads. He rocks and chants to himself like a davener in synagogue. All of this is meant as an expression of gratitude to the earth goddess, Pachamama.


He folds the loaded paper into a compact bundle, tucks coca leaves into the top and blows on them,  laying hands on each person in the group. To dispose of any illness or ill-feeling, Alvaro says we should exhale it onto the packet. When everyone has done so, the curandero places the bundle on a wood fire Alvaro has kindled outside. As it burns, he poses for more photos and accepts gratuities.



Though logically contradictory, it doesn’t seem inappropriate that we offer up both our goods and our evils to the goddess. And given the prevalence of coughs and swollen eyes at this stage in the trip, the promise of a purge of poisons adds immediacy to the exotic ritual.

We cross the road to an unobtrusive storefront and inside find a large showroom full of alpaca woolens of varying grades. Alvaro encourages us to buy here rather than on the street or in the markets for the best prices and quality. Jan and I comply, purchasing gifts for friends and relatives back home and for ourselves.


The day’s planned activities conclude at a hillside restaurant with panoramic views of the city where  luncheon is served by a woman in spectacular traditional garb.


On the way back to the bus after the meal, we’re serenaded by passing holiday celebrants.


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While Jan stays at the hotel, adding rest, antihistamine and more ibuprofen to the curandero’s cure, I explore the walled streets of the central downtown for an hour or so, but then join her, satiated with stimulation and grateful for the chance to read more in Mann’s 1491 about the historical background of what we’ve seen .

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Linnk to Day 8


Peru Day 8

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Today’s itinerary takes us back into the mountains surrounding Qosqo, but this time by a road paralleling the railroad line that runs to Machu Picchu heading westward up through a new town topped by a forest of cell towers.


Once over the pass and heading north toward Urumbamba we’re back in the countryside, on a high plateau covered with larger fields of potatoes and corn also tended with hand tools.


Breaks in the cloud cover reveal the summits of Cordillera Blanca towering above the pastoral landscape.


We stop for a photo-op at a turnout and a woman in traditional garb arrives and opens her blanket full of textiles and gourds to offer for quick sale.


Our destination is the village where OAT, our tour company, has established another relationship with a local community, here in support of a one-room elementary school. The children are on winter vacation but have assembled from distant villages to greet us. They surround the bus and lead us by the hand into the classroom, where we’re welcomed by their teacher, a beautiful and dignified resident of Qosqo who comes with her young daughter three days a week.



The homemade posters on the wall exhibit a curriculum emphasizing the modern as well as the traditional. Nutrition, reproduction, and environmental health


Math and self respect



Reading and writing Spanish and the indigenous language of Quechua that Spanish conquerors and missionaries tried unsuccessfully for centuries to eradicate.


The children show us their notebooks, as impressive in the work produced and the care with which they’ve been graded as my grandsons’ in their California Catholic schools.





Alvaro translates as the children come to the front of the class and tell us about themselves. Their their career aspirations include doctor, lawyer, tourguide, pilot, nurse. None of them mentions farmer.




Then we hear their recitations of poems in Quechua celebrating Peru’s traditions, people and natural environment


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Finally a chorus of farewell for sixth graders who will be graduating this year and moving on to middle school.



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After presenting our gifts of school supplies and toys we reluctantly say goodbye.


Just behind our bus a villager parades down the street with his charges.


On the way further into the hinterland, there’s more to see than can possibly be absorbed through the moving bus windows.





We arrive at Moray, an Inca site of landscape sculpture, ritual worship, astronomical observation, and agronomic experimentation. The concentric terraces that suddenly yawn below us like a negative impression of Ollantaytambo create a wide range of micro-climates, growing warmer as one descends.  Although the absence of decipherable Inca records leaves uncertainty, it is likely that it was designed for testing and breeding some of the thousands of varieties of potatoes and corn and other crops precisely suited for diverse Andean environments.




Toward the north, the Cordillera’s glaciers loom, though shrinking and collapsing due to global warming.




Toward the east, following the course of the Urumbamba river down toward the Amazon, one can see the tall peaks surrounding Machu Picchu.


Alvaro approaches a huge aloe, puts his mouth around the devilishly sharp point of one of its leaves, bites, chews and pulls with an intensity that makes his whole body shake.


Finally he pulls back, leaving a bundle of fibers protruding from the stalk and removes the point which is attached to more of them.  “Inca needle and thread,” he says, “These are fibres they used to lash timbers and build suspension bridges.  They’re stronger than steel.”



Next we head to the town of Chinchero, home of numerous Andean weaving cooperatives catering to tourists and dedicated to preserving traditional materials and methods and to providing a source of income to poor rural families.


We’re greeted by Julio, an intense but reserved patriarch garbed in a gorgeous hat and poncho who speaks excellent English.  He is the owner of Wina Away.


He invites us to share a lunch of potato fritters, quinoa soup, rice and a mash of beans from Peruvian lupine prepared by his wife and served and shared by the resident weavers, women of several ages.




They come to his center from distant villages and stay with their children for weeks at a time, perfecting their skills and laboriously producing the gorgeous fabrics they wear and offer for sale here and in certified outlets in Qosqo.  The meticulous production goes slowly but they receive a large enough percentage of the retail price to make it worthwhile.

Once lunch is cleared with the assistance of our group, we move chairs and tables for a demonstration of the craft techniques.  A beguiling little boy watches.


His young mother suddenly picks him up and wraps him in a blanket she ties on her back.


Within a few minutes he falls asleep and she puts him down in a bedroom and returns to work.

First stage of the process is to wash the raw alpaca wool with a lather made from the grated root of a plant they spend hours foraging for in remote mountain locations.


The cleaned wool is spun on a drop spindle like those we have seen women using alongside the road and in the market.



They die the wool using various natural materials that produce vibrant and durable colors.


Colchinea squooshed out of the prickly pear beetle is mixed with lemon juice to produce a bright crimson.



We get our own chance to dip and color the wool.


The warp is strung by two weavers rolling balls of died yarn back and forth between wooden poles.


One end of the completed warp is strapped to the weaver who moves the shuttle with a bewildering flurry of gestures out which the intricate pattern slowly emerges.



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The final products are marketed by their creators.  Jan and I admire a table runner that takes a person several weeks to produce. It’s design includes the Inca princess’ eyes around the edge, a figure-eight shaped symbol of the seasons, and a line of snow covered mountains.


We buy it for eighty dollars. There is no bargaining.

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Link to Day 9






Peru Day 9

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

This is the last day of our trip and the beginning of a 36-hour time warp that will transition us back home. Those of the group who’ve been afflicted with colds, altitude sickness and knee injuries are on the road to recovery. Half the members are preparing for an extension tour with Alvaro to Lake Titicaca.

Before leaving Qosco he leads us back to the Korikancha”Convent of San Lorenzo. The oval sanctuary, originally its most prominent feature, recalls Machu Picchu.


Inside the complex, sections of austere Inka masonry originally covered with silver and gold and later painted over by the conquerors are interspersed with ornate baroque architecture.





Unearthed stones show the sophistication of indoor rock plumbing. Did this waste water system allow for disposal of paper?



A modern mural reproduces pre-European visions of star configurations in the Milky Way.


A short walk brings us to Plaza des Armas, originally the main Inka square where hundreds of thousands assembled for calendrical festivals.



The Spanish appropriated it as a focal point for church buildings, but in recent years, it’s been partially reclaimed with a golden statue of the Inka king at the top of the central fountain,



Its gardens are animated by a vibrant mix of old and young, locals and foreigners.



As we depart for the airport, the skies open with a downpour, just as they did upon our arrival in Qosqo.


Back in Lima we transfer back to the Miraflores hotel we’d stayed in earlier and are provided rooms to rest in before a scheduled midnight departure.

Our Lima guide, Dante, returns to lead us on a bus ride through traffic congested by the next day’s Dakar international auto race to a viewpoint above the city dominated by another hilltop statue of Christ.



From there I get a last obscured picture of life in the new towns directly from above.


After farewell dinner at a seaside restaurant we return to the airport.  The flight to Miami is delayed three hours, but we still catch the connecting flight to L.A., where we arrive in late afternoon, find our Prius, Reddy, in the vast parking lot, stop for dinner in Santa Monica, and drive the last four hour stint to San Luis Obispo.

Jan lays out our treasured souvenirs and gifts for children, grandchildren and nieces that will always recall this life-enriching trip, before we sink into a long and happy sleep.


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Link to Day 1