A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru

I got up at dawn and made my way in the crisp Andean air through the warren of just-opening stalls selling booklets, blankets and bug repellent, to the Aguas Calientes bus stop. With about two dozen Peruvian guides and Western and Japanese tourists, I piled into the bus for the weaving 1500-foot ascent to a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for decades: Machu Picchu.

I had to get there for the sunrise. I wasn’t sure why, but for years I had felt that something was waiting for me at Machu Picchu, that something would be revealed to me there. I’d tried to play down this feeling, not wanting to freight my experience any more than decades of posters and travelers’ tales already had, but as the bus jounced and switchbacked through the lightening dawn, it weighed undeniably in my stomach and my head: a yearning, an expectation.

For decades, Machu Picchu had been at the top of my Places to Go list, but somehow, in 30 years as a travel writer and editor visiting more than 70 countries, I still hadn’t gotten there. In the spring of 2010 I was beginning to despair that I ever would.

Then an invitation arrived from LAN Airlines, via the San Francisco-based adventure travel company Geographic Expeditions. LAN was inaugurating non-stop service from San Francisco to Lima and was looking for a few journalists to host on the inaugural flight. Friends at GeoEx offered to make my longtime dream come true: I could fly to Lima and then Cusco with LAN, take a special six-day GeoEx tour of the Sacred Valley, culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu, and fly back on LAN eight days later. I leapt.

My pilgrimage began in unexpected splendor. Minutes before boarding the LAN inaugural I was upgraded to business class, where I happily sipped champagne, dined on grilled salmon with lemon risotto and sautéed snow peas with mushrooms, and played with the amazing Transformer Seat, which offered dozens of body configurations, including my all-time favorite – the fully flat, 180-degree, lie-down-and-sleep-like-a-baby recline. That and “Would you like some more champagne, sir?” and I’d found heaven at 33,000 feet.

We landed shortly after midnight. I was blearily greeted by a GeoEx representative and guided literally across the street to the Ramada airport hotel, where I fell into a deep sleep, then walked back across the street the next morning for the 9:35 LAN flight to Cusco. Soaring over seemingly endless Andean crenellations and jagged snow-swept peaks was the first revelation of my trip.

When the lush gold and green expanses of the Sacred Valley suddenly appeared, it was a visually stunning lesson in just how remote and isolated – and idyllic – that valley is. We landed over the terra-cotta roofs of Cusco a little over an hour after we left Lima, and I was met at the airport by Manuel, my guide for the next six days, and John, our driver. And then the adventures began.

We drove first to Cusco’s Central Market, where I had a glorious baptismal immersion in the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was an extremely eye-opening stand where a jolly, stolid middle-aged woman was lifting slick, loopy intestinal parts from an industrial-size bubbling pot. “We have liver, frog from Lake Titicaca, crab, octopus, fish, and the most important ingredient, bull penis,” Manuel translated with a big smile. “Many people start the day off here,” he said. “This soup is good for headaches, vision, asthma, epilepsy, prostate – many things.” Nodding at me, the woman ladled out a long puckery octopus appendage and another thick looping body part I didn’t even want to think about.

She passed me a bowl and encouraged me to dive in. I took a deep sniff. It did not smell like chicken soup.

We walked along the slippery aisles past scurrying dogs and slurping patrons and a dizzying succession of stands. In one area fresh cows’ heads were lined up invitingly. “These are used in offerings to the earth mother to help sick children,” Manuel said. “Sometimes we use just the nose, sometimes the teeth, sometimes the horns – it depends on the illness.”

We passed huge hanging pigs and glistening fish and rainbow-colored tumbles of grains and fruits and vegetables. “In Peru we have more than 100 varieties of corn,” Manuel said, and then, waving at a stand overflowing with white, black, brown and yellow potatoes, “and more than a thousand varieties of potato.” We walked past sweet-scented flowers in a riot of colors, bright shawls and beans and beads, festival masks, great wheels of bread and cheese, and neat plastic-bagged packs of coca leaves. “Welcome to Peru,” Manuel smiled.

The market was equally fine for people-watching, including the distinctive hats that many Peruvian village women still wear. A friendly bean and coca vendor posed in her handsome white mestizo hat; a few stands later, a bread-seller proudly showed off a high-topped cream-colored headpiece dashingly encircled with a wide pink sash.

We motored on to Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas and the inviting Inka Grill, where I had the first of many delicious meals: ají de gallina, shredded chicken with nuts, cheese, and chile peppers. After lunch I began to feel a little woozy and lightheaded – Cusco is perched at 11,000 feet, after all – but Manuel passed me a packet of coca leaves and told me to chew a mouthful. The coca had a not unpleasant earthy taste, like a mix of green tea and maple leaves, and after a few minutes of concentrated chewing the lightheadedness passed. John set off, expertly threading though Cusco’s traffic-clogged streets, and in perhaps 15 minutes we were surrounded by rolling green-brown hills and terra cotta-roofed homes, many made of neatly stacked brick blocks. Beyond the grasslands and hills, snowy mountains shimmered, and in the distance a glinting river sinewed through – a landscape of breathtaking beauty I was entirely unprepared for.

As we drove, Manuel delivered a crash course in Peruvian political, cultural, and religious history: “Manco Capac is generally considered the first Inca king; he ruled the area around Cusco at the end of the 11th century. We can say that the Inca empire really began in the 15th century, under the great ruler Pachacutec, who conquered rival tribes in the Sacred Valley and established Tawantinsuyu, or ‘the united four provinces.’ ” The expansion of the empire reached its height two rulers later under Huayna Capac, who aggressively extended its reach all the way from present-day southern Colombia to north-central Chile, encompassing much of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. This was the greatest empire in pre-Columbian America, and it lasted until Francisco Pizarro arrived with a ragged band of armored and equined soldiers in 1532. Within a year Pizarro had murdered the then-ruler Atahualpa and installed Atahualpa’s half-brother, Manco Inca, as a puppet ruler. In 1536 Manco rebelled against the Spaniards and retreated to a jungle stronghold called Vilcabamba, where he resisted and raided the Spaniards for 36 years. In 1572 that last Inca redoubt was conquered, and the last ruler, Túpac Amaru, Manco’s son, was captured and executed.

“All the colonial churches we’ve been seeing,” Manuel continued, gesturing at a distant cathedral spire, “were built by the Spaniards after they took control of the country; they were meant as a sign of power and control – the Spaniards were trying to disappear all evidences from Inca times. When the Spaniards arrived, Incas didn’t want to join them to be Christian. Thousands were killed. Finally they had to accept it when they were under Spanish control. Today 75-80 percent of Peruvians are Catholic. But of course we have the freedom to choose whatever religion we want to be.”

“What did the Incas worship?” I asked.

“When the Incas were in power,” Manuel said, “they worshipped nature: sun, moon, earth, mountains, also the puma and the condor. The Spaniards called them idolators and maybe they were — but I think they did very well; they took care of the environment, they had a big respect for nature.”

Soon we turned off the main road in a village called Chinchero, where Manuel took me to an adobe home-cum-workshop where members of an extended local family – ages 6 to silver-haired – were waiting to demonstrate the traditional way of making textiles. Strikingly dressed in red and green capes and black skirts with upturned red-brimmed hats, they showed how wool from sheep or alpacas is washed and formed into thread, how the thread is dyed using flowers, minerals and fruits (and how adding salt or lemon can dramatically change a dye’s color), and how these multi-colored threads are painstakingly handwoven into artful creations on venerable looms.

Manuel spoke with the family patriarch, who explained that his workshop is affiliated with an organization called the Centre for Traditional Textiles in Cusco. His family has been engaged in this practice for 13 years, the patriarch said, and their workshop gets an average of 30 visitors a day. “Our goal is to keep the area’s traditional textile-making alive,” Manuel translated. “In Inca times, textile-making was second in economic importance only after farming in this region. Each town has its own textile techniques, colors and designs, and many of these have historical or legendary meaning. They are very important to each place’s character and continuing.”

After the demonstration, I admired the bright hats, sweaters, blankets and shawls for sale with a new appreciation of the effort, time and skill they embodied. Though I’m usually an adamant anti-shopper on the road, I happily bought two long, intricately patterned, red, green, white and purple scarves. Sometimes shopping is just the right thing to do.

As we left the family’s compound, I reflected on the day: bull penis soup, shredded chicken, coca leaves and textile treasures. The Andean expanses of the morning’s flight seemed more than half a day away.

I glanced at my watch. It was only 4:30, but the sun was already beginning to disappear behind the mountains. Night came early and quickly here. We waved to the weavers and left in a dusty trail for the town of Urubamba and a gracious, gardened enclave called Sol & Luna, where I passed a blissful night in cosseted casita splendor.

Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and food in Peru are purely my own.