Mindy, Miriam, and I arrived at the Lima airport at one o’clock in the morning. We dragged our baggage past a myriad of onlookers in colorful outfits. I caught snatches of Spanish, which I’d tried to brush up on before leaving. As we searched for a sign bearing our names, Mindy asked what the name of the group was again. I said, “Andean Paths,” with a weary sigh. Someone in the crowd right next to me said, “Hey, that’s them.”
The sign read Peru, with the swirly “P” that has come to be the country’s brand. Raul, our driver, greeted me with a hearty handshake. Phyllis, the other late arrival from our group beamed. “I heard you say Andean Paths right as you got close to us! It was meant to be.” A half-hour later, we arrived at our hotel, Casa Andina, and crashed.
Breakfast was at seven-thirty in the morning. We met the rest of our group, including Daniel, the man responsible for setting up the trip. We had thirteen travelers (not tourists, as German, our Sacred Valley guide would remind us), many of whom had traveled with Andean Paths before.
We got going to our first destination, Museum Rafael Larco Herrera, a private museum of pre-Columbian pottery said to have over fifty-thousand pieces, including erotic pottery! Yup, dozens of pieces depicting the sexual habits of ancient Peruvians. I would later purchase a deck of cards for one of my friends that had photos of these sculptures on them. The perfect gift.
That afternoon, we drove into the countryside outside Lima to visit a farm with Paso Fino horses. The same family had owned it since the turn of the century. They had bred several national champion show horses. These “fine step” horses were known the world over for their unique gait that made them the most comfortable riding horses in the world.
We fed and petted many of the horses as we toured the grounds. Riders from the ranch treated us to a show, demonstrating their skills as festive music played. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of potatoes, salad, and fresh chicken, all raised on the farm. Everyone sipped a glass of Pisco Sour, the Peruvian national drink, made of grape schnapps, whipped egg whites, bitters, and lime. Temperate air and brilliant sunshine bathed us the whole day. We later found out that Peru had only two seasons: wet and dry. This was the dry season.
On Tuesday, we woke up early again. We flew to Cusco, the center of the Incan empire high up in the Andes. Two events collided to make our exit from the airport more exciting than anticipated: The Festival of Inti Rami and a teacher’s strike. After lugging our baggage past protesters and policemen, we loaded the bus and met German, a Quechua guide who lived in Cusco his entire life. German informed us that most people in the region spoke Quechua in their daily lives, but also knew Spanish.
We went to our hotel, ate something, drank Cacao tea, then walked into the main square to witness the festivities of the Sun Festival. A parade of colorful dancers in different groups streamed by, waiting to get up in front of the main stage where they danced for an eager crowd. The groups had signs declaring what organization they represented. They exhibited exotic dances and hand-made costumes. According to Daniel’s itinerary, it reflects, in a colorful way, the gratitude towards Pachamama (the earth) and Inti (the sun) for the fertility of the soil which was expressed in the current harvest. We did little besides watch the festivities from the balcony of a church, as all of us needed to go slow and acclimate to the altitude of over eleven thousand feet.
We spent the next day at Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sacksy woman”), a central place for sun worship in the Inca Empire. Marines, a fellow Ecuadorian, whom Daniel had known since grade school furnished us each with a handful of dried coca leaves and a bit of limestone to chew on. The leaves helped offset the effect of the altitude and gave you additional energy. You chewed them, then “picchu-ed” when you’d had enough. You did not swallow the leaves.
As we wandered around Sacsayhuaman, we marveled at the expanse. Some of the stones stood twenty-eight feet tall. The outdoor temple formed the shape of a serpent. Serpents were one of the three main animals in Peruvian tradition. They represented the underworld. Jaguars represented the earth and condors the sky.
German informed us that the solstice celebration at Sacsayhuaman would take place on June twenty-fourth. Men were setting up a stage with speakers and seating. We walked along a trail that lead to a wondrous view of Cusco in the valley below. A smaller replica of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio stood on the hillside, providing protection for Cusco and marking the merging of Christianity with the worship of Pachamama practiced by the local people for thousands of years.
When we visited the cathedral in central Cusco, Daniel explained that Mary stood in the place of honor in Peruvian churches because native peoples worshiped Mother Earth. For them, the mother served as the central figure. The Catholic Church had gone along so the local people would accept Christianity.
We ate lunch at La Feria, a restaurant that overlooked the main square in Cusco. Endless parades marched by and for the first time, we ate the Peruvian delicacy: roasted Guinea Pig.
After two days in Cusco, we took a tour bus to Pisac. The Temple of the Falcon greeted us. From below we could see the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon overlooking the lower ruins. Terraces litter the Sacred Valley. Throughout our drives we saw terraced mountainsides used to prevent erosion, to farm, and to raise the animals used by pre-colonial people: vicunas, llamas, and alpacas.
In Pisac we had our first shamanic experience. Daniel picked a secluded spot on the hillside. We took Pampamesayok Rites (Daykeeper Rites). Our Paco (the Quero word for shaman), Basilio, led the ceremony. He used coca leaves and assorted offerings he brought for us to contribute to the “mesa” (offering). The offerings came from the earth. They represented gifts thanking Pachamama for her abundance. Each of us received an individual cleansing ritual.
This part of the journey became fuzzy. The cleansing had its intended effect on me. As my turn to be blessed / cleansed approached, a change settled over me. My body began to ache. It felt foreign. Basilio performed the ceremony, then instructed us to find a quiet spot on the hillside to meditate and be with nature.
I sat cross-legged on a grassy knoll in a classic meditative half-lotus position. My stomach churned and my head swam. Finally, I had to lay down. It struck me like a slap. I had what felt like altitude sickness. Nausea, exhaustion, muscle aches, and a whopper of a headache. I drank water and chewed coca leaves, but the symptoms continued to build in strength. They consumed me.
We were scheduled to take a fairly vertical hike to the top of the ruins after our cleansing. I considered my predicament. How many other times in my life would I ever be in Pisac? After a brief back and forth with my inner-self and Mindy, I hiked to the top. I did not enjoy it. An amazing view of the valley and the terraces below greeted us, but all I could do was feel my way to a bench and close my eyes. Stumbling back to the bottom, I climbed into the bus.
We drove to our next stop, an incredible bazaar between Pisac and Ollantaytambo. As soon as everyone disembarked at the Pisac Mercado, I laid across three seats and passed out. I had taken various medicines that reduced the throbbing enough for my body to rest.
We rode on to the next hotel, a beautiful spot next to the train depot in Ollantaytambo that would take us to the northwestern end of the Sacred Valley along the Rio Urubamba. Our train ride the next afternoon would take us to Aguas Calientes and the makeshift town formed to service the most legendary Peruvian site, Machupichu.
The next morning, I felt considerably better. The cleansing had passed through me. However, Mindy, now experienced the effects of the cleansing, along with four others in our group. Luckily, she had until one o’clock to sleep as our train didn’t depart until one-thirty. Those who felt well explored the pueblo of Ollantaytambo, a town built upon the original Inca walls. Overlooking the pueblo were Temples of the Sun, Winds, and Waters, as well as a section of Incan stone storage sheds. A group hiked to the top. Those of us who felt less adventurous, stayed at the base. I counted among the latter. We found many unfinished areas in this site. I could even see in one of the discarded stones the section in the back that allowed the Incas to interlock the pieces so they could construct walls and edifices without mortar. We rested next to a healthy stream that emptied into a Water Temple in the main section of the ruins.
Once back at our hotel, I ushered Mindy out of bed. We lumbered the few blocks to the train station. The ride to Machu Picchu took an hour-and-a-half. The train snaked along next to the river. Breathtaking views greeted us as we saw the sacred glacier, named Veronica by the Spanish, and dozens of terraced ruins that littered the mountainsides. According to German, many more terraces and ruins had yet to be unearthed. The Peruvian government did not have the resources to dedicate to this monumental task.
Machu Picchu is the name of the mountain. The city itself has no name. People call it The Crystal City of Light. It stunned our group into a reverent silence the next morning as we watched sun rays shoot through a gap in the mountains and illuminate the Sun Temple. German explained that this day, June 24th, was very, very special because it was the only time the sunlight hit the temple directly. We were witnessing a once-a-year event. Tears streamed down my face. The photos failed to bring the true majesty of this world wonder to life. The surrounding mountains and the crystal clarity of the air give it an other-worldly aura. Fortune smiled on us that day for two reasons: the region often suffers from foggy mornings which block the sunlight, and in one week, due to a change in the law, the reservations would become much more restrictive. Daniel and German had picked the perfect time. My gratitude to Pachamama for giving us the resources and courage to make this journey flowed in my tears. I never thought I would have the opportunity to do anything this special. I snapped back to reality as German said we’d better get started up the trail.
Daniel had also procured tickets for us to be one of the two hundred visitors per morning who could go up the mountain at the back of the city known as Huayna Picchu (Wa-een-a-pichu). The trek up that mountain would be challenging, with some parts requiring rope to climb the steep steps, so German asked who felt well enough to climb. I hemmed and hawed then with Miriam’s encouragement, decided to join five other brave souls. Mindy would usually have done it, but she still did not feel strong enough, so opted to take the less strenuous trek with Daniel through the city below.
German showed great patience as we took our time climbing the mountain. After an hour, we reached the summit. German took photos of Miriam and me as well as a group photo of the climbers. We looked down on Machu Picchu with awe. The cream-colored stones shimmered in brilliant sunlight, like something out of a cosmic dream. The whole group giggled as we sat drinking water and re-living the amazing hike. It was time to go and join the others for the afternoon portion of the excursion.
We climbed back down, met for lunch, then re-entered the grounds for our afternoon tour of the city. German explained that the mortar in the walls had washed away over the years since the ruins had been dug out from beneath the imposing vegetation. He stuck his hand into the stones to show how much space there was and reiterated that every year the crevices expanded. One day the walls would crumble. They needed to be restored. However, UNESCO required ninety-percent of the ruins to be original, so the Peruvian government hesitated to restore anything or risk Machu Picchu’s designation as a World Heritage Site.
We explored the rooms where Inca royalty lived. The storage sheds, the ways they accessed mountain water, and the remarkable views and fortification they enjoyed on the side of the mountain. German and Daniel explained that with only two ways in, attacking this city was nearly impossible. It served Peru well now because vandals had difficulty accessing the site.
Machu Picchu deserves its recognition as a World Heritage Site. It is both stunningly beautiful and has a feeling of sanctity I have rarely experienced. It is a special spot that any traveler should have on their list of must-see destinations.
The next day, we left by train to Ollantaytambo. From there we took a bus to Urubamba, a quiet town in the middle of the Sacred Valley, where we would spend the next three nights. The hotel, Hayun Valley, was a walled, single-story affair surrounded by lush vegetation, including a wonderful herb garden, and quiet grounds, reminiscent of an artist’s retreat.
The next morning we journeyed to Moray, a center for agricultural experiments by the Incas. The terraced landscape resulted in over twenty micro-climates. The variations provided the ability to experiment with soil, temperature, and humidity. This allowed the Incas to perfect the growing conditions of various crops, especially the well-known Peruvian corn and potato varieties.
Alejandro, our agricultural scientist for the day, said that he and the local people were pushing to start farming in Moray again as it was some of the most fertile land in the Sacred Valley hundreds of years ago and could be again. He also explained that Mao Zedong brought a group of Chinese scientists to Peru to examine the soil and conditions on a microscopic scale. The Chinese dictator took that knowledge back to China. He replicated the conditions found at Moray. The experiment resulted in incredible crop yields for the Chinese people.
Next, we visited the Maras salt flats. At Maras there are more than five-thousand evaporation pools owned by individual families. The labor involved in producing the salt does not provide enough income, so the flats were in danger of closing. Luckily, with newfound interest from visitors, the flats had been revived. Due to income from tours (like ours) and sales of salt to tourists at the site, the flats operate during the dry season (March-September). Once the rains come in the wet season there is no evaporation, so there is no salt.
We walked between the salt pools and stuck our fingers into the drying, clay-stained crystals. We tasted the earth. Salty water trickled out of the mountain, filling the pools. When Mindy and Matt, the lone fourteen-year-old member of our party, dug into the hillside, they confirmed what German had told us. These mountains had not-so-long ago (geologically speaking) been under the ocean. They found small shells trapped in the clay.
Once we finished viewing Maras, we made our way over to Misminay, a small farming village. We enjoyed the hospitality of the local people. The farmers and their wives sat with us while they wove colorful friendship bracelets. I’m still wearing my blue and black bracelet as I write this. We spent time on the farm viewing the surrounding mountains. We met the people and their animals from dogs to sheep to donkeys.
In the late afternoon, the men created a “Pachamama oven.” They dug a hole in the ground in the center of a field. Forming an arch over the hole using crude clay bricks, the hole was stuffed with kindling and set ablaze. They threw in firewood. Once the “oven” pre-heated, they stuffed potatoes and fava beans still in their pods into the burning hole. They collapsed the hot bricks onto the vegetables and the roaring fire and buried the whole thing in dirt. After about thirty minutes, they dug out a couple potatoes. The spuds still weren’t done, so the men reburied the potatoes and beans to let them cook another twenty minutes. All the guests in our group who surrounded the earthen over were given a basket, including Miriam and myself. As the men dug out the fruit of the earth, they put beans into some baskets and potatoes into others. Soon, the baskets were a cornucopia of food. The women of the village snatched them away and trudged up the slope to the kitchen.
We followed to the long table in the dining hall where we had placed our belongings upon arrival. The women brought in kettles of Muna tea (a local herbal tea), a thick paste made of yellow peppers and spices, the potatoes and beans, and plates of cheese made from the cows standing outside. The food tasted special. It grew and literally got cooked in the same earth, right there beneath our soles. I’ve always felt that food tasted better cooked and eaten outside, but this experience took that even further. I’ve never had better beans and potatoes. The chili paste gave it all the right kick. We ate with our fingers and laughed at our indulgences in the simple pleasures of food, tea, and the company of our Andean family.
The next day, we enjoyed private ceremonies with Basilio, who blessed each of us with a unique mesa that he then burned as a proper offering to Pachamama. That night, Basilio did a coca-leaf reading. We brought two questions we had about our lives. People asked about health concerns, career aspirations, their kids’ futures, and in some cases, their spiritual journeys. Basilio met each of us individually. He gave us answers based on how and where the coca leaves fell.
That night, Daniel had us form a circle for the second time. We talked about our experiences and related how special our time in the Andes had been. In ten days, we had become a family through friendship and shared experiences. We had German and Daniel to thank for the special memories. The next day we would return to Cusco for our flight back to Lima. The day after that, we would fly home or onto wherever we had chosen to go next. This journey was ended, but the experiences would last the rest of our lives.
If you are interested in joining Daniel and German in Peru, you can contact Andean Paths by going to their website at http://ecuadortravelvacations.com/