Nine Days in Peru 2012-13

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.


Slideshow of these and more full size photos

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.

Slideshow of these and more  full-size photos

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 .

Slideshow of these and more full-sized photos

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.

Slideshow of these and more full-size photos

Link to Day 9