As seasoned travelers, we have seen
and experienced the major attractions of Europe and Asia. Peter
has also seen a good deal of Africa and, in fact, was born in
Malawi. But even with our jaded perspectives, we were not sure
what to expect of Peru and Bolivia. For myself, I knew it was
an opportunity to finally cross the equator into the southern
hemisphere; a first. But the real point of travel is to see and
experience other cultures and landscapes, to put history into
context, and to encounter the unusual and unexpected. South America
is a whole different world, and the ancient cultures of Peru
and Bolivia are historically the most interesting within it.
Lima Cathedral, Plaza
We arrived in Lima the evening of April
25 and stayed at the luxurious Country Club Hotel in the exclusive
residential enclave of San Isidro. Our flight was six hours from
Miami, but we remained in the central time zone so jetlag was
not an issue. To unwind, we went to the hotel bar and enjoyed
pisco sours, the national drink of Peru. They are made from pisco
(a Peruvian grape brandy), lime juice, sugar, and a topping of
eggwhite froth. They are delicious, but lethal if not sparingly
The next morning we enjoyed a guided
city tour of Lima. The city has many fine remaining examples
of colonial architecture from the 16th-18th centuries. A large
statue of Francisco Pizarro, the founder of Lima, is located
near the Plaza de Armas. The government palace, cathedral, and
town hall all surround a plaza containing a splendid bronze fountain
dating from 1650. Many of the buildings have fine balconies that
bear the stamp of Moorish Spain.
Town Hall, Plaza de
We visited the Gold of Peru Museum in
the afternoon, which houses a magnificent private collection
of necklaces, funerary masks, scepters, ceremonial cups, sacrificial
knives, nose rings, earrings, and idols; all made of gold and
semi-precious stones. The collection is stunning, but we reminded
ourselves of the huge quantities of gold and silver stripped
from Peru and sent to Spain, where it was wrought into beautiful
tabernacles and other religious objects that can be seen on display
We enjoyed an early, quiet dinner in
a restaurant located at the end of a pier in the Pacific Ocean.
We watched the sun descend over the water as surfers dashed out
to catch the last waves before dusk. The city of Lima is located
on the coast in the narrow strip of desert between the water
and the Andes, whose peaks are easily seen from many vantage
points. While not known for its good weather, we were fortunate
to enjoy a glorious, clear day and a brilliant sunset while dining
on fresh seafood and good Peruvian wine.
Basic Incan stonework,
The next morning we had an early flight
to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital in the heart of the Andes
of southern Peru. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, Cuzco
is the archeological capital of the Americas and the oldest continuously
inhabited city on the continent. The name "Cuzco" is
a Spanish transcription for the Quechua (Inca language) word
meaning "navel of the universe". Located on a nearby
mountain are the imposing ruins of the Pisaq archeological complex,
composed of various neighborhoods, terraces, and watchtowers.
Also nearby is the Ollantaytambo complex, a huge agricultural,
religious, and military center that reflects Inca town planning.
There are enormous polyhedral boulders that form the walls with
trapezoidal doorways set along narrow streets.
The Incas were masters of stonework
who built magnificent structures characterized by symmetry, simplicity,
and precise fit. Multi-ton boulders were cut and polished and
joined together without the use of mortar. In some cases, corners
were held together with pins made of metal alloys. The Incas
were aware of the instability of their mountain homeland and
designed their structures to be resistant to powerful earthquakes.
Indeed, a powerful quake struck Cuzco in the 17th century and
leveled every single colonial building. Only the Inca structures
remained firmly intact.
Temple and fortress
of Saqsaywaman, Cuzco.
Photo: Gaye Plunkett.
On the ride back to Cuzco, we saw a
large, white statue of Jesus high on a mountaintop, arms outstretched,
as if to bless the city lying below. It occurred to me that the
Quechua people lived for 15 centuries with no knowledge of or
belief in Christianity. Indeed, the indigenous cultures date
back 14,000 years with the first known advanced culture (Chavin)
appearing about 2,000 b.c. The people of Peru are indigenous
or mixed (mestizo) and descended from either the Quechua or Aymara
cultures. Quechua is the collective term for the indigenous people
whose emperors and priests became known as the Incas. The Aymara
people speak a pre-Inca language that evolved from the Altiplano
(the Andean high plain covering southern Peru and northern Bolivia).
After viewing Jesus, my instinct was
to look up at the sky. From Cuzco's elevation we were treated
to a blanket of stars that entire civilizations can wish upon.
It is hard to find the words to give justice to the natural beauty
of the Andes. The mountains are jagged and rocky, with glaciers
tucked between snow-covered peaks. The air is clear and dry (April
is the beginning of the dry season) and breezes whisper rumors
of the Atacama Desert to the south and west. There is little
industry in Peru and the limited number of vehicles means that
the country has largely escaped the effects of the internal combustion
engine that plague North America and most of the rest of the
Sacred Valley of the
We departed by train for Machu Picchu
on April 28. The train ride was spectacular, if not entirely
comfortable. The narrow gauge car rolled and pitched through
the mountain landscape as we followed the Urubamba River down
to the town of Machu Picchu that has sprung up along the railroad
terminus. Although not far from Cuzco, Machu Picchu has a completely
different micro-climate that includes a level of humidity and
vegetation that were more familiar to me, as a lifelong dweller
of wet climates. When we arrived in Machu Picchu, we were aware
of the lower elevation (still close to 10,000 feet, but well
below Cuzco's lofty height) and the higher humidity. It was much
easier to breathe.
We stayed at the Sanctuary Lodge, which
is the finest hotel in the area, located next to the Machu Picchu
ruins. On the train ride we met a couple from Portugal who were
the only other passengers. They stayed at our hotel and we enjoyed
a very good dinner with them, all washed down with good Peruvian
wine. Joao and Iolanda tipped off the staff that it was my birthday
and the waiters brought birthday cake with a candle to our table
Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
The following morning (which was, in
fact, my 50th birthday), we woke at 6:00 and went straight into
the complex to watch the sunrise above the mountains. It was
a glorious morning as the rising sun burned off the mist in the
valley below and revealed the verdant mountains that surround
the Machu Picchu complex. It is now believed that Machu Picchu
was a retreat for the Inca elite, and not a religious site as
previously thought. It seems appropriate to me that the Incas
would have built a magnificent complex just for R&R in a
place of such spectacular natural beauty. I like the image of
Incas relaxing and having fun, rather than submitting themselves
to the gods and making sacrifices to the sun. I can see them
laughing at our archeologists and anthropologists who ascribed
deeper meaning and spirituality to a place that was little more
than a resort.
None of this diminishes the fine architecture
and stonework that characterize all Inca constructions. Three
types of stonework are present at Machu Picchu. The most basic
stonework was used for short walls that bolstered terraces and
formed interior boundaries. The second type of stonework consists
of convex stones that were carefully fitted together to make
residences and government buildings. The best work was reserved
for the Temple of the Sun and was made of precisely cut and fitted,
flat-surfaced stones of perfect symmetry. The Temple of the Sun
has the characteristic trapezoidal windows that are built in
such a way that the rays coming from the winter solstice sun
(June in the southern hemisphere) align themselves to form a
perfect point of sun through the center. This is a typical Inca
construction that is seen over and over in other archeological
sites throughout the Andes.
The best stonework at
Machu Picchu was reserved for the Temple of the Sun.
Photo: Gaye Plunkett.
A few thoughts, observations, and theories
on the Incas... We know that the Incas did not develop a written
language. Indeed, the Maya were the only indigenous people in
the western hemisphere to develop writing and their written language
did not spread into South America. Given the complexity of Inca
culture and its achievements in mathematics, architecture, and
astronomy, it is something of an anomaly that they failed to
develop hieroglyphs or writing. In thinking about it, I believe
that there might have been a cultural bias against writing. Inca
culture was highly stratified and hierarchical, with an all-powerful
emperor who controlled every aspect of people's lives. The priests
used religion and superstition to keep people at bay and ensure
a huge and steady supply of docile Quechua labor necessary to
push boulders up mountains to satisfy Inca architectural ambitions.
Written language enables the rapid spread
of information to all classes of people. Chinese culture has
wrestled with this fact for millennia and emperors and Communist
party leaders have all conspired to control the content and flow
of information in order to maintain stability. It is not unreasonable,
in my mind, to think that the Incas thought about writing or
glyphs as a form of communication. We know they developed an
accounting system using linear symbols and also used knots to
communicate certain messages that were limited in scope to a
very narrow audience. By limiting communication primarily to
oral messages from emperor to priest to trusted adviser, the
Inca elite ensured that access to information was highly restricted.
This strategy served to solidify the existing, rigid hierarchies
and class structure the society required in order to maintain
its division of labor and concentration of authority.
View of Snake Island
and Lake Titicaca from the Island of the Sun.
Photo: Gaye Plunkett.
We returned by train to Cuzco and checked
back into the Libertador Hotel, exhausted from the long ride
and, in my case, from a rapidly developing cold. The next morning
we boarded yet another train to Puno, located on the shores of
Lake Titicaca in extreme southern Peru. The train ride was pleasant
and scenic, but rather choppy. We arrived at Puno in the evening
and checked into our hotel, ate dinner, and slept.
The next morning we took a boat ride
on Lake Titicaca to the Islands of Uros, which are island-like
platforms of floating totora reeds. According to legend, Manco
Capac, the first Inca, and Mama Ocllo, his sister-consort, rose
from the waters of Lake Titicaca to found the Inca Empire. They
are said to be the forebears of the Uros, whose descendents now
inhabit the floating islands. The Uros live a communal life that
has not changed in centuries. The totora reed is the building
block of their economy. It is used to build the floating platforms
on which the Uros live. Houses and boats are made from the reed
and young shoots growing below the surface of the water are nutrient-rich
The Inca Ullo temple
of fertility, Chucuito, Lake Titicaca.
Photo: Gaye Plunkett.
We left the lake temporarily to cross
the border of Bolivia and visited Copacabana, an ancient religious
sanctuary located on the south side of Lake Titicaca. The area
is rich in archaeological remains, including the phallic temple
Inca Ullo, devoted to the cult of fertility. The lake islands
enjoy a climate and soil ideal for growing Andean flowers and
trees. As my head cold was fully developed at this point, our
guide brought us to a restaurant for lunch and had the cook brew
a mix of eucalyptus and mint that we had picked along the way.
The boiling herbs were brought to me with a serape that our guide
placed over my head. I then inhaled the steamy aroma and felt
my sinuses clear as my breathing was restored.
We enjoyed a catamaran ride to the Island
of the Sun, which is said to be the birthplace of several deities,
a source of magnetic energy, the vertex of the earth, and the
mystic cradle of the Inca empire. The Incas believed that the
sun rose each morning from Lake Titicaca and that Manco Capac
and Mama Oclla appeared here and founded the Empire of the Sun.
We met a builder of boats from the ubiquitous totora reed on
the island and then were treated to a Kallawaya shaman's ceremony
before setting sail on a totora reed boat. After a full day,
it was difficult to say goodbye to the stunning natural beauty
of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake. We departed
by bus for La Paz.
Sunken courtyard of
the Temple of Kalasasaya, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca.
Photo: Gaye Plunkett.
The city of La Paz is approached from
the suburb of El Alto, which is located on an escarpment about
1,000 feet above the moon crater that is La Paz itself. The unusual
topography makes La Paz one of the most visually interesting
cities we have ever seen, but the outstanding 16th century colonial
architecture is not to be overlooked. The central city contains
the historic Church of San Francisco, a fine example of the Spanish
colonial style. Our guide pointed to a particularly beautiful
building that was riddled with bullet holes. He explained that
in February there was a student demonstration and the police
came to disperse the crowd. Within minutes, the army arrived
from the other direction. The students scattered, he reported
dryly, but in the meantime, the police and army got into a scuffle,
resulting in pock-marked outer walls and shot-out windows.
Located near the city of La Paz is Tiahuanaku,
dating back to 1580 b.c. The ruins form part of what was believed
to be the largest city in the world by around 700 a.d. The Incas
subsequently discovered the deserted city in the 11th century
and quickly recognized the building techniques and advanced agricultural
development. The Aymara civilization founded Tiahuanaku and their
successors live to this day in Bolivia and southern Peru and
speak the ancient language of the Altiplano natives.
La Puerta del Sol, Tiwanaku,
We headed for the airport on the morning
of May 4, filled with wonder over our discovery of the heart
of South America. The trip fulfilled a lifetime goal for me to
see Machu Picchu and my 50th birthday will be etched in my memory
forever as a high point in my travel career.
-- Gaye Plunkett
Marcia Brandes. All rights reserved.