This article is from the November 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Peru Adventure

by Gale Randall

Photos by Howard Randall and Carole Christopher 

Gale Randall, from Palo Alto, California, frequently contributes book reviews to Mexico File. We take a departure from our regular format and provide an article on her visit to Peru, an alternate destination for many Mexicophiles.  

Peru has long held a kind of fascination for me. The time to visit had never seemed quite right, though, until an old Peru hand and friend of my husband’s suggested a mini high school reunion in the country. So, we jumped at the opportunity. After some deliberation, our group of seven agreed to gather in late August in Cusco, the ancient and modern-day capital of the Incas. Flying into Cusco from Los Angeles and Lima, on a clear Friday morning we checked into the wonderful colonial-style Hotel Picoaga, met up with our friends over coca tea – a local antidote to altitude problems – and headed out to explore the city. 

Often called the Florence of the Americas and nestled in a valley at 11,000 feet in the eastern Andes, Cusco is a fascinating multifaceted city, and, most probably, could take weeks to explore. As in all Spanish colonial towns, Cusqueno life seems to revolve around the plaza, Huacayata in ancient Incan times. Anchoring the plaza’s northeastern corner is the enormous cathedral featured in Walter Salles’ gorgeous recent movie “Motorcycle Diaries.” And all around are arcades fronting chic restaurants, money changing tiendas and smart shops selling the fine woolen goods Peru is noted for. Here you no doubt will be approached by kids selling postcards, art, gum, whatever, as we were, but they understand “No gracias” and will soon leave you alone – they also pick up English fast in this town! Every now and then we’d spot an adorable little kid carrying a baby lamb about, no doubt for money-making photo ops. 

From the plaza we wandered up the hill to Palacios to view the much touted Hotel Monasterios, considered by some to be Latin America’s finest digs. A 16th century monastery built on the foundations of an Incan palace, the Monasterios is now a beautiful inn with its own chapel and an enormous colonnaded courtyard where we noted guests enjoying lunch in the sun. We peeked into the gilt chapel which sports quite a collection of paintings from the Cusqueno school of colonial art, then stepped out onto Plazoleta de Los Nazarenes, thinking the smaller scale and less pricey Picoaga just fine for our needs. Around the pretty little plaza – more shops and a Pre-Columbian art museum housed in a former palace and showcasing several hundred archaeological pieces recently moved here from Lima. In the lovely courtyard weavers were working away at their backstrap looms, and the odd Cusqueno could be seen knitting in the sun. Back down the hill we passed another small plaza and the Inka museum – purportedly Cusco’s best museum devoted to the Inca. 

Having heard La Merced was the church to see in Cusco, we later trekked over to reconnoiter. In a former monastery, the church’s cloistered museum showcases more enormous Cusqueno school murals depicting the life of the Merced order’s 13th century Barcelona founder, San Pedro Nolasco. Off the cloister we peeked into a room housing  paintings attributed to Rubens and Zurburan, and a solid gold monstrance set with thousands of precious stones and an enormous pearl from Panama. Stopping for a spell for a well-attended Friday night mass in the ornate sanctuary, we departed feeling we’d done our church duty for a time. 

Evenings in Cusco get really lively and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to distract the visitor. Stopping for tea at a café near our hotel we easily could have been in a Berkeley or Palo Alto in the U.S. – and Cusco is a student town, having four separate universities and several language schools. Our favorite restaurant was the cozy Emperador on the Plaza San Francisco. We also enjoyed El Truco, which offers nightly entertainment with native dances and a student panpipe band dressed as medieval troubadours.

After “doing” the city for a few days it was time to trek out to the villages and pre-Columbian ruins of Cusco’s Sacred Valley. Over a period of several days our driver took us to Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the smaller Moray ruin, the Maras salt pans, Urubamba and Chinchero. Pisac, with its famous market and ruins, was great fun. En route we stopped at Awana Kancha, a kind of Andean Sturbridge Village with penned llamas, alpacas and vicunas one can pet and feed, and a good woolen goods store. The Pisac ruins, with fortifications set high on terraced hills, are a bit of a trek in from the parking lot, but quite interesting. Here, as at other ancient Incan sites, enormous stones, some weighing several tons, were fitted together in structures without mortar. How did the Incas do it, and without horses or use of the wheel?

You can buy almost anything at the Pisac Sunday market: woolen hats, backpacks, ponchos, wall hangings, silver jewelry, Andean CD’s, produce, and even fancy chess sets with Spaniards and Incans as pawns. The traditional thing to do on Sunday, as we did, is observe mass in the pretty village church, then follow a festive procession of church floats through the colorful market. Bargaining is expected at Pisac, and prices here seemed a littler lower than in Cusco. 

Exploring terraced Ollantaytambo was an almost vertical climb up, but worth it. At the summit our guide, Yury, pointed out an enormous stone the Incas hadn’t quite fitted into place when the Spanish Conquest of the 1500s interrupted their endeavors. Ollantaytambo was abandoned after the last Inca, Manco Inca, and his men were routed here in a final battle with the Spaniards. 

Visiting Chinchero was special, for that particular day we met up with Soledad, the twenty-something adopted daughter of George and Liz, our friends who had organized the trip. Soledad met us at the village church then took us to see the ancient terraced ruins behind church and village. Later we were treated to a family gathering and hair cutting ceremony for Soledad’s baby brother, Jose Angel, at their compound in town, and feted with wool cleaning, dying and weaving demonstrations and a typical Peruvian meal –  soup, baked potatoes, roasted cuy (guinea pig), cheese and veggies. Quite tasty. The family, who speak Quechua, were all dressed in their traditional Chinchero outfits, but Soledad and her pals typically run around in jeans, the universal uniform of youth. 

Sacsayhuaman, just outside Cusco, was our last major ruin before Machu Picchu.  A kind of neolithic-looking fortress/parade ground with more enormous stones fitted together in its walls without mortar, Sacsayhuaman was the location of one of the last bloody battles of the Conquest. Today the site hosts the colorful and well-attended Inti Rami festival, Cusco’s Festival of the Sun, every June 24.

South America’s most visited destination, Machu Picchu would of course be the high point of our trip. Knowing we weren’t quite up for the three-day hike along the Inca Trail, we chose instead to arrive the easy way via the Vistadome, which leaves Cusco every 6 A.M., arriving at Auguas Calientes, the village nearest Machu Picchu, by mid morning. Machu Picchu is so otherworldly that it appears to have been constructed by magicians. How those ancient engineers, architects and astronomers managed to build such a magnificent city 2,000 feet above the raging waters of the Urubamba River high in the Andes simply boggles the mind. When explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the ruins in 1911 he was certain he’d found Vilcabamba, an ancient jungle outpost the Incan elite had purportedly retreated to when fleeing the conquering Spanish. Not so, say contemporary archaeologists, who now believe the city may have been built as recently as the 15th century and as a royal retreat. The Spaniards never discovered Machu Picchu, accounting for the near pristine condition Bingham found it in, notwithstanding nearly four centuries of tangled jungle overgrowth. Cut into a mountaintop, the ruins comprise several acres of extensive stone stairways marching down terraced hillsides to numerous once-thatched buildings – one circular, and some with windows – baths, an ancient sundial high on a promontory, grassy plazas, and a rushing waterworks and pool. About a dozen very tame llamas roam the site. Archaeological finds are still turning up at Machu, most recently an authentic gold bracelet found by a tourist under a tree. Bingham speculated that Machu Picchu was a city of Chosen Women, a kind of Andean outpost of vestal virgins, but over the years remains of as many men as women have been found there.  

Using the Hatuchay Tower Hotel in Aguas Calientes as our base, we spent a few days exploring the intriguing nooks and crannies of Machu Picchu, and marveling at the beauty of the site. But all too soon it was time to leave this gorgeous spot, so we boarded the 3:30 P.M. Vistadome for the return trip to Cusco. Traversing the jungly and then drier terrains of the canyons of the Rio Urubamba, and the upper reaches of the Sacred Valley, the train inched toward Cusco, stopping en route in Ollantaytambo. Its lights turned off and the strains of Condor Pass lilting in the background, in early evening the Vistadome chugged into colonial Cusco, the plaza and cathedral lit up in magisterial splendor, sending shivers down all our spines. What a trip. 

If You Go

Getting There: American, United, Delta, Continental and Lan Peru, among other airlines, fly into Lima. Lan and other local airlines make the hour run between Lima and Cusco. We felt positively pampered flying Lan, which served several elegant meals and snacks on all our flights. The tourist season in Cusco runs from April to October, Peru’s winter and dry season. 

Where to Stay: In Cusco: We loved the colonial-style Picoaga, a mid-sized hotel with courtyards in a 17th century nobleman’s house just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Rates: $120-170, including a full breakfast. Santa Teresa #344, Cusco. Phone: 5184-252330. Email: hocusa@terra.com.pe; www.picoagahotel.com. In Auguas Calientes: The modern Hatuchay Tower overlooking the Urubamba River was a good choice and value compared to the other top rated Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and the Sanctuary Lodge up at the ruins. Rates: $140 double, including a full breakfast. Phone: 5114-478170. Email: mapi@hatuchaytower.com; www.hatuchaytower.com  

Shopping: For good prices on alpaca sweaters and coats, our guide took us to the La Vicunita factory on the road out to Sacsayhuaman. Email: cochapata@hotmail.com. Phone: 5184-233890. If you are into pottery with pre-Columbian designs, you’ll enjoy Pablo Seminario’s beautiful studios in Urubamba. Seminario designs everything from tableware to boxes, lamps and even tee shirts. Calle Berriozabal No. 111, Urubamba. www.ceramicaseminario.com. Shopping is also good in the hilly and arty San Blas neighborhood of Cusco where you can find unusual antiques and art, silver jewelry and all kinds of dolls.

Tours: Cusco’s Harmony Travel set up all our tours outside Cusco, including train tickets and passes to Machu Picchu and other attractions inside Cusco. Ave. Grau #1055, Cusco. Phone: 5184-240332. Email: gharmony@speedy.com.pe 

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