Beyond Rye: The Many Peaks of a Trip to Peru
Peru is a breathtaking country with a history as rich and diverse as its landscapes.
By JoAnn Cancro
Peru is a breathtaking country with a history as rich and diverse as its landscapes. The culture of the Inca people and their Quechua language is well preserved, while modernization has started to creep in. Imagine our surprise at seeing a weathered farmer in the traditional garb of his town carrying a burlap sack of potatoes while talking on a cell phone.
After landing in Lima, we flew immediately to Cusco, a beautiful city at very high altitude (over 11,000 feet above sea level) nestled in the Andes Mountains. Markets, boutique hotels, and restaurants surround the Plaza de Armas while the rest of the city unfolds into the mountains with an abundance of cathedrals, churches, and astonishing Incan worship sites. Our hotel, the Aranwa – a private home later converted to a hotel – matched the architecture of much of the city: stucco and stone with hand-carved wood facades, an interior courtyard and magnificent Spanish colonial-era artwork.
One morning in Cusco, we left our hotel early to visit the large open-air San Pedro market, where Peruvians buy their grains, spices, meat, and other staples. The aisles were overflowing with colorful fruits, vegetables, cereals, coffee beans, and salted meats. Some of the locals were enjoying an early morning breakfast of soup before heading out to work, while others hauled whole, slaughtered pigs into their vendor stalls. It was worth going early, not because there is a shortage of alpaca goods and crafts of all kinds, but because of the crowds. The market was teeming with hundreds of people by 10. We scooted out and headed further up the hill streets to an enjoyable artists’ section called San Blas, full of small shops, silversmiths, and artwork.
We next headed to Chinchero to explore sacred rocks amid Inca farming terraces. (And there were more markets!) One of the journey’s highlights was visiting a village filled with women weavers. The weaving is intricate and exceptionally beautiful and unique. The patterns are not written down, but passed down, and each woman also has her own signature pattern. The women developed this collective for two reasons: to create a sustainable income to empower women and to preserve the traditions of their culture that are so important to them by giving young girls a reason to remain in their villages rather than leaving to find work in the cities.
We left Chinchero and continued across the high plains to Ollantaytambo, where we caught the Peru Rail into Machu Picchu. An alternative to the train is the four-day Inca Trail hike accompanied by porters, guides, cooks, and more – following in the footsteps of the Inca people who traveled from their villages to Machu Picchu. Not a hike for the faint of heart.
The last stop on the train is Las Aguas Calientes, situated right at the foot of the mountain that obscures Machu Picchu from plain sight. We stayed at the Sumaq, the closest hotel at the base of the mountain before the steep switchback ascent to the sanctuary. The day we entered the Sacred Valley, we awoke at 4:30 to be at the top by sunrise, and avoid the crowds. The whole hotel was awake and at breakfast with us, and everyone was buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
After a harrowing bus ride up the mountain, we arrived at the sanctuary. The scene that unfolded before us was breathtaking. This palatial retreat for Inca royalty contains temples and residential compounds, aqueducts, thousands of stairs, farming areas, altars for (human) sacrifice, and the Temple of the Sun to observe the solstice. The rock sundial is said to have energy emanating from it; some people even feel a vibration from it.
While in Peru we learned much about the Incas and their architecture. They were master builders, sometimes using one single stone, cut 17 or more times, to be the cornerstone of their buildings. Windows and doorways were always in the shape of trapezoids for stability. When the Spanish conquered Peru, they built on top of many of the Inca walls and dwellings, incorporating the distinctive Inca stonework into multi-level colonial Spanish buildings. Fortunately, Machu Picchu escaped the fate of many of the Inca structures in the cities reached by the Spanish.
The peak shown in the postcard photos of Machu Picchu is Huayna Picchu (“young peak”). If you want to climb it, as we did, tickets need to be booked in advance. It is a sharp, steep climb to the top full of catwalks, tiny steps, and awe-inspiring vistas – views that always seem to be changing based on the light. (I didn’t know before I made the trip that I would be climbing Huayna Picchu, but now that it is behind me, I recommend you put it on your bucket list).
After leaving Machu Picchu (don’t forget to get your passport stamped upon exiting the sanctuary), we traveled back through Aguas Calientes, Ollantaytambo and Chincero, headed for Cusco. We took a detour to Las Maras Salineras, a massive salt mine carved into a valley. There are over 400 salt terraces, each owned and mined by a separate family. The terraces are first watered using a mud and rock aqueduct system, and then the water supply is cut off by the salt miner so that the sun can dry the lot and the salt can be harvested.
Our last stop was Puno to visit Lake Titicaca, the highest and largest navigable lake in the world that borders both Peru and Bolivia. We stayed at Hotel Libertator Isla Esteves, which had been a prison before tourism overtook it. The hotel had beautiful sunrise and sunset views of the lake, on which we would set sail early the next morning to explore the civilization of floating islands.
We caught our private ferry in the morning to the floating Uros islands. In the lake are 89 very small floating islands, operated like co-ops with a president in charge. The residents construct the island out of reeds and mud, living in straw huts and cooking the fish and game they catch daily. We learned that they live by the saying: “Do not lie, do not be lazy, do not steal. If you are any of those things, you are voted off the island.” Literally.
The totora reeds in the lake are what float the islands. They are also a source of food for the islanders along with duck, duck eggs, and fish. The islanders make their boats out of reeds, and also use more modern flotation devices to extend the life of the boat: thousands of plastic bottles tied together on the underside of the boat. In addition to making their own islands and boats, the people of the islands weave their own clothes, catch and cook their own food, and take their children to school by boat to the town of Puno.
It was an eye-opening and rewarding trip to see the beauty and vast differences between Lima, Cusco, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, Puno, Lake Titicaca, the Uros Islands, and Taquele Island. Special thanks to Anne Druckman at Travel Anywhere here in Rye for carefully planning a memorable trip. Go see how the other half of the world lives — it never ceases to educate and amaze.