Bestselling Author Mark Adams On Machu Picchu

turn right at machu picchu mark adamsMark Adams is the author of “Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time,” his bestselling account of his attempt to retrace Hiram Bingham’s groundbreaking 1911 expedition to “discover” Machu Picchu. The book, which is now out in paperback, was a New York Times Bestseller and was named one of the best non-fiction titles of the year by Men’s Journal and the Washington Post. Adams gave us the inside story of what motivated him to take this expedition, shared some tips on visiting Machu Picchu and gave us his take on Bingham’s legacy.

What inspired you to trace Hiram Bingham’s famous Machu Picchu expedition route of 1911?

I was an editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine and working at a place like that, Machu Picchu played the same kind of role there that Tiger Woods might have, pre-scandal at Golf Digest. It’s always in your face; you’re always thinking about it; you’re always trying to come up with new ways to look at Machu Picchu because people love it. They can’t get enough of it.

Why is that, do you think?

It has that little element of mystery. Someone once said that you can’t take a bad picture of Machu Picchu, and I think it’s that iconic shot that’s just so alluring that people are really drawn to it. People think, ‘That’s one of those places I want to see before I die.’ It’s so far out and it’s so exotic and yet, pretty much anyone can do it if they have enough money and time.
mark adams machu pichuYou wrote that you hadn’t gone camping since you were a kid, and hadn’t been on any real expeditions, so you had to get in shape to embark on this expedition, is that right?

I was in OK shape. I didn’t quite realize how strenuous this trip was going to be. My guide, John Leivers, had explained to me that I needed to get ready by doing knee bends and other exercises because I’d be carrying a day pack and walking through some pretty deep canyons. But literally 90 minutes into our first day I got a look at a canyon we were supposed to cross and it was essentially like a sub-tropical Grand Canyon. It was a mile down and a mile back up the other side and steep!

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The last time I’d slept in a tent was when my dad brought a fake teepee home from Sears when I was 7 years old and we put it up in the back yard. That’s another reason why I wanted to take the trip, because I felt like a bit of a fraud working at National Geographic Adventure giving thumbs up or thumbs down to a camp stove based on the color of paint.

You made an investigative trip to Machu Picchu with your son, who was 13, before your big expedition, is that right?

I did. And I’ve been to Peru many times because my wife is Peruvian and her family lives in Lima. But Lima is like L.A. and the Andes are like nowhere else on earth. It’s a weird, beautiful, wild place and Cusco is a little bastion of civilization in the Andes, so I did go on a reconnaissance mission in August 2009 with my son because I knew I needed a guide to recreate the Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition.

I met a guy named Paolo Greer, who appears in the book, he’s an Alaskan amateur expert on Machu Picchu, and he suggested I hook up with John Leivers.

How did your son handle the trip to Machu Picchu?

He was there for about 40 minutes and said, ‘I think we’ve done this, can we move on now, maybe get an Inca cola and catch an early train back?’

That was summertime and you wrote in the book that the place was swarming with tourists. So is summer not the best time to visit Machu Picchu?

It is and it isn’t. June, July, August you get the best weather there. But it’s also when most tourists arrive. John and I went on the (first) expedition in October, which is kind of a perfect month. April, October or September are also good.

You were way off the beaten path for most of your big expedition. You didn’t want to do the Inca Trail, at least at first, right?

If I’m honest, I probably thought I was too cool for it. There are so many stories about the Inca Trail, I thought, ‘I’ve got to try something a little more serious here.’ I don’t think I had any idea what I was getting myself into. The farthest we went was, perhaps 60 miles west of Machu Picchu, and in that span, you go from a 20,000-foot snowy peak in the Andes to being knee deep in the Amazon basin.

We met an archaeologist who told us, ‘Mark, if you see some guys in dresses with bowl haircuts, you run, because those guys are natives and they live by their own laws.’ Not far from where we were there are un-contacted tribes.

So on your first visit to Machu Picchu with your son, it sounded like you made a lot of mistakes, right?

I made this same mistake myself the first time I went, but why would people fly all the way to Peru and then fly to Cusco and then take the 3.5-hour train ride and then go up for a couple hours, come down and go back to Cusco? There are plenty of nice little places to stay in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. I would recommend taking two days, spending an overnight there. Take one of the first buses up in the morning, and hit that main area of Machu Picchu where all the famous things are – the Sun Temple, the Temple of The Three Windows, and the Intihuatana Stone at the top of the main ruins, you can hit all those before 9 a.m. and they’re pretty deserted.

If you wait until say 11 or 11:30, that’s when the trains from Cusco start coming in, and in a matter of an hour or so, the ruins go from being relatively empty to absolutely packed and for 3-4 hours, they’re absolutely packed. You’ve got traffic jams on all the old stairways and it’s almost like someone pulls the drain out of a bathtub around 3 p.m. All the tourists go draining out and you get this lovely hour or hour and a half at the end of the day.

I got up at like 4:30 a.m. to be there early but that was back when the rule was the first people had to sign up to climb Wayna Picchu. I believe they’ve changed that and now you have to buy tickets in advance.

And what else would you do in that area?

There are lots of interesting things to do on the periphery of Machu Picchu. You’ve got Mt. Macchu Picchu, a climb you can do that’s 1,000 feet up that gives you some spectacular views. You can walk up to the Sun Gate, and take probably the best photos of Machu Picchu from that vantage point. Take a break, have lunch but I do not recommend going to the Machu Picchu cafeteria. Picture those iconic photos of the last helicopters leaving Saigon and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like there.

Visiting Machu Picchu isn’t cheap, is it?

It can be expensive. If you’re really diligent there are ways where you can take local minibuses to save money. Kind of an end-around route, instead of the direct route, but it’ll take you a full day to get there that way.

I think the figure I came up with was, maybe $20-$30 doing it that way, and then sneaking in through the train tracks, which isn’t entirely legal, versus taking the train from Cusco, which can be anywhere from $150 to $600.

There’s a section in the book where you describe a place called Salcantay, and it sounds spectacular and also devoid of tourists, is that right?

Salcantay was one of the two holy peaks of the Inca Empire. Salcantay is the famous one near Machu Picchu, it’s directly due south of the ruins, but you can’t see it from the ruins. You have to take the Inca Trail and then on the last day of your walk, if the clouds cooperate, you get this incredible view of Salcantay, which is this massive 20,000-plus-foot white peak, which sort of springs up above all the other peaks in the Andes, and you can see why it was popular in both Inca times with the Quechua people and now because it’s absolutely spectacular.

The Inca Trail really is spectacular but you have two options. You can do a five-day option or a four-day option and if you do the four-day option you miss Salcantay. I highly recommend the five-day trip and you also have less hiking to do every day with it, so it’s less grueling, and you’re out of sync with the rest of the hikers, so you end up being alone a lot rather than in huge packs.

The Inca Trail is probably sold out now for the whole summer, because it sells out in advance, but you can also get there via the Salcantay route, which comes from a different angle.

How fit do you need to be to do this?

If you can run 3-4 miles at a decent pace, you’re probably fine. The Peruvian porters are in amazing shape; I’ve seen them run ahead with the packs, dump the packs at the campsite and then run back and literally start pushing people up from behind uphill. It’s a lot like the Sherpas and Mt. Everest. I have to ask, are people doing this just to have a photo of themselves at Machu Picchu for their Facebook profile?

What’s a standard 7-10 day trip to Machu Picchu look like?

I’d say a pretty standard itinerary is 1-2 days in Lima, fly to Cusco which takes an hour or so, and depending on if you have 7 or 10 days, you might acclimate in Cusco, because it’s 12,000 feet. It takes 2-3 days to get used to the altitude. Or if they’re in a big rush, they go straight to Machu Picchu, which the town there is only 6,500 feet in altitude.

Some will then take 4-5 days to do the Inca Trail and then go back to Cusco; others spend more time visiting the sites around the ruins.

How long was your big expedition in which you traced Bingham’s route?

It was almost a month. About 24 days, I think.

Of all the off-the-beaten-track places you visited near Machu Picchu, which ones do you recommend?

You can get out to Vitcos on a bus. It’ll take you a whole day but that is spectacular and there’s nobody there. There are two sets of ruins, Vitcos and Yurakrumi, which is this giant Winnebago-sized piece of granite that has all these sacred Inca carvings all over it that’s in the middle of this weird, green, spooky valley.

What about Choquequirao?

Choquequirao is amazing but there is no bus to get there. It’s called the Machu Picchu sister site for good reason, because it’s spectacular. It’s perched on top of this mountain ridge with spectacular views in all directions. But you have to be in good shape to get there because you’re walking up the far side of a mile-high canyon to get there and it’s steep.

From reading the book, it sounded like you struggled to adapt to the Peruvian work ethic, just as Bingham did?

Absolutely. I’m uptight about being on time and that is not the way things are done in Peru. Even among South Americans Peruvians are known to show up hours late. They had a national campaign to try to address this a few years ago but it didn’t work.

What was the hardest part of your expedition?

All we drank was boiled water, so every time we stopped to take a drink, I’d be so thirsty. It was 85 degrees and you’d be presented with a giant bowl of steaming hot water. It’s the thing you want most but the last thing you want to put to your lips at that moment.

After doing the trip though, I can now see the allure of sleeping outdoors, but that said, I haven’t slept in a tent since.

Would you still have done this trip if no publisher were interested in the story?

I would have wanted to do it regardless but I’m not sure if I could have convinced my wife to let me take the trip. And there’s the cost as well. I think the whole thing cost me less than $10,000 including everything but it still adds up. Peru is one of those places where you can do things dirt bag cheap or spend an awful lot of money.

If someone wants to hire your guide, John Leivers, is he available?

He is. People can go to my website, www.markadamsbooks.com, and if they’re interested in hiring him, I’ll get ahold of him.

Bingham’s legacy is mixed. Some call him an intrepid discoverer, but others scoff at the notion of him “discovering” Machu Picchu and consider him a grave robber and a thief. Where do you come down?

The title of “discoverer” of Machu Picchu was thrust upon him, though he didn’t do much to escape it. In Peru, he was a hero for 90 years, until 2001 or so, and then people started saying he stole credit and took artifacts. I started with the attitude that he was a punk who took all these things from Peru, exploited the people and so on.

But the more I looked into the history and the three expeditions he did in 1911, 1912, and 1914-15, he did a lifetime of work in four years and had he not gotten to Machu Picchu in 1911 when he did and publicized the ruins, they wouldn’t be preserved as they are today. I think treasure hunters or vandals would have knocked them down. And that is the glory of Machu Picchu, the fact that you have these gorgeous stone buildings that are basically in the same state they were built in 600 years ago in this natural setting, and the fact that that exists is largely thanks to Bingham.

Mark Adams is working on a book about the search for Atlantis, which will come out in 2014. He lives near New York City.

Tips for navigating the markets of Cuzco, Peru

Perched sovereignly at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian mountains, Cuzco evokes the architecture of Europe and the tough ambiance of South America. There’s haphazard street art that references Pacha Mama, the Inca shout-out to Mother Earth. There are gilded churches that make their homes on top of ancient stone foundations. There’s also a lot of shopping. And if you’re the kind of person who likes shiny jewelry, mosaic mirrors and knit scarves, you’ll be attracted by the markets, too. Before plunking down a sole or two, however, it helps to fill your head with the overwhelming knowledge of bargains, bartering and the cultural basics. So we’ve put together this intrepid guide for any making the trip.

Everyone wants to emerge from Peru draped in the softness of alpaca fur, and for good reason. The fuzzy stuff that grows on these guys is among the rarest textiles in the entire world. When you reach the stalls, though, don’t fall for any old luxurious fur. While the merchant might swear to the authenticity of a scarf, sweater, or pair of socks, very few items you’ll find in a market actually are 100% alpaca. With tighter and more densely woven textiles, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an alpaca mix. And those items that claim to be “100% bebe?” Not actually woven from (or by) baby alpacas. “Bebe” refers to the first sheer of the animal, or the seasonally virgin hairs from the area around the neck of the animal, thought to be one of the softest spots. Products made from these materials are still stellar, but it helps to know what you’re getting when you approach the bargaining table.

Nothing dazzles in a Peruvian market quite like the shimmering displays of gold, silver and copper, and all three are fantastic gifts to bring back from Cuzco. With the God of Exchange Rates smiling down on you, you can get amazing deals on rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewelry, particularly of the silver persuasion, to bring home and dazzle your buddies. When looking through silver jewelry, keep an eye out for a #925 stamp. That little number stands for the percentage of silver, 92.5%, and is actually the calling card of sterling silver, which is pure silver mixed a few alloying metals. This stamp could be the difference between 100 soles or 50, but if you’re still not convinced your score is worth the price, the old flame-under-the-ring trick can solve your dilemma.Of course, even with all of those dazzling jewels, you may be tempted to just grab a shot glass for your growing collection, and a llama glass would look epic against a row of shimmering Vegas-themed counterparts, but there are a few items you can’t leave Cuzco without looking for. If you’re stuck for ideas, start with carved items, like home goods made from gourds, or even pan flutes. If you fancy yourself a fashionista you can find bright, edgy textiles in Incan patterns etched onto high top sneakers and tote bags. You’re also sure to come across a few stands where artists are patiently drawing on sheets of canvas and pinning them to the walls of their modest kiosks. Besides being gorgeous, these gifts are a great way to give back to the locals, and they can be bought rolled up for easy transport.

Part of the fun of shopping in other countries is the barter and Peru is no exception. But keep in mind the type of good you’re up against before you ask the merchant to take half-off. Handmade items (think: anything carved, woven or painted) take time and care to make, and if you think the seller would rather take a massive hit than let a sale walk away, you’ll be flying home without a souvenir. Start just a few soles away from what you’re willing to pay and meet the merchant half-way. Oh, and while you’re bartering and perusing, be careful not to walk out of one kiosk, where you’ve built a relationship with the staff, and into another. With similar wares and squished spaces, you might find yourself paying for an item at a completely different price than the one you already agreed on.

Finally, take time to sit and take it all in – and take it easy. Altitude sickness is no joke. It can take you from happy to pukey in just minutes. Combat illness, at least temporarily, by taking a break from rampant consumerism with the milky looking tea made from coca leaves. It’s a staple in Cuzco and a great treat to replenish your energy after a day at the shops. You can purchase the leaves to bring home, but check with your local air authorities before marching into customs with a full baggie of coca leaves.
%Gallery-136706%

Tips for traveling Cuzco, Peru, on a budget

traveling on a budget through cusco, peruWhen traveling in Cuzco, Peru, it can be easy to spend more money than you budgeted for, especially with the myriad tour agencies offering treks and sightseeing adventures as well as the many restaurants offering overpriced comfort food. Luckily, there are still ways to save money on food, activities, and accommodation while traveling through this popular city.

Eating on a Budget

One thing to remember is that while you may be drawn to the big, touristy eateries because they are familiar and comfortable, you are going to end up paying the price. Look around a bit and you’ll see that there are plenty of smaller restaurants that can give you delicious food at a budget-friendly price. For example, in their blog Jack and Jill Travel the World, the bloggers talk about how a lunch at Jack’s Cafe, a popular tourist restaurant, will cost about 20 soles, while at the eatery right next door patrons can order a soup, a main course, and a drink for only 5 soles.

Some other venues to try if you are eating on a budget in Cuzco, Peru:

  • The market- About a ten minute walk from Plaza de Armas, you can fill up on an array of foods here without spending much money. For instance, an egg sandwich will cost about 1.20 soles, while a meal of rice and fish will be about 3 soles.
  • Prasada– This ambient vegetarian eatery is located in San Blas, Cuzco, and serves delicious fare and decent portions at a cheap price. Some menu items include vegetarian tacos for 5 soles, pizza for 3.50 soles, and lasagna for 5 soles.
  • Chifa StatusChifa is a word used to describe a fusion style of food that mixes creole Limean food with Chinese-style cuisine. Some examples of chifa-style fare include wontons, fried rice, and noodles, which often include different types of meat. At Chifa Status, which is located near El Mega Supermarket on Av. de la Cultura, you can get delicious chifa dishes for 2-3 soles.
  • Kukuly– Located on Calle Waynapata 318, this cozy little eatery offers a daily set menu of soup, a meal, and a drink for 6 soles.
  • El Encuentro– This vegetarian restaurant is located at Santa Catalina Ancha 384 in the Plaza de Armas and serves a set menu that includes a make-your-own salad bar, soup, an entree (usually a stew or bean dish), and tea, all for 7 soles.

salt pans in maras, peruCheap Activities in Cuzco, Peru

While there will obviously be some worthy activities that will be expensive, for example, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there are still many fun things to do in Cuzco that will not cost a fortune. Here are some examples:

  • Visit the colorful salt pans of Maras and the ruins in Moray– Maras is located about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) north of Cuzco and is located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The salt pans have been used since pre-Incan times to extract salt from the local subterranean stream. Moray is an archeological site located about 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) northwest of Cuzco. Here you can see unique Incan ruins that form terraced, circular depressions in the Earth. You can visit these sites by doing a day tour, which will cost about 20 soles for transportation, 5 soles for admission to Maras, and 10 soles for admission to Moray.
  • Learn to salsa dance- If you are looking for a free and fun activity, many bars around Plaza de Armas can offer free salsa lessons to anyone interested. However, if you are serious about learning salsa and want a truly quality lesson for a reasonable price, Salseros Cusco on Colla Calle offers group lessons for 1 hour each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with class times varying by skill level. Classes cost 10 soles.
  • Take a day trip to Ollantaytambo– Know as the “living Inca city”, Ollantaytambo is located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is a modern day city as well as a pre-Incan site. There are many things to see here, such as impressive ruins, the Temple of the Sun, the Lagoon of Yanacocha, the rural community of Willoc, and much more. If you’re into the active outdoors, you can hike up the pre-Incan granaries (across from the town’s main ruins) for a complimentary view of the city.
  • Learn about Chocolate at the ChocoMuseo– Located in the Plaza Regocijo, you will not only learn about chocolate itself and the production process, but also its history since the Maya were around 1,000 years ago. You can enjoy free chocolate samples, participate in chocolate workshops where you make your own chocolate, and visit a cacao planation and talk to the farmers who work there. Admission to the museum is free.
  • Browse the Sunday market in Chincero- If you’re looking for a more traditional market, this one is a lot less touristy than the market in Pisac. From 9AM until just after midday, you can come here to buy local produce and handicrafts. If you still want to shop later on in the day, from 4PM until 5:30PM the town also hosts a market catered to tourists in the city’s main plaza located right near the church.

cheap hostels and accommodation in cuzco, peruCheap Accommodation in Cuzco

The following hostels all offer rooms for under 20 soles and come with high overall ratings on hostelbookers.com:

  • Ecopackers– With a 92.8% rating, this accommodation offers both shared and private rooms (although a private room will cost you about 43 soles, which is still very inexpensive). Luggage room, linen, and breakfast are included, internet is available, and there is a game room and 24-hour reception.
  • The Point Cusco– Rated at 90.2% with 6, 8, and 12 bed dorms available (there is also a 6 dorm room with an ensuite bathroom). Luggage room, linen, and breakfast are included, and if you need airport pickup this can be arranged for 20.40 soles. Services at this hostel include internet, 24-hour reception, a bar, restaurant, lockers, game room, lounge area, tours desk, and currency exchange. Credit cards are accepted.
  • Backpacker Bright Hostel– This hostel comes with an 83.1% rating and includes shared and private accommodation (private will be about 31 soles). Expect free luggage room and linen, as well as an on-site restaurant, tour desk, lockers, and 24-hour reception.
  • Wild Rover Backpackers Hostel– This hostel comes with a 90.9% rating and features free luggage room, breakfast, and linen. Other facilities include a bar, restaurant, tours desk, lockers, lounge, pool tables, and 24-hour reception. Dorms range from 4 to 14 person dorms, many of which include an ensuite bathroom.
  • Dream Hostel– Rated at 81.3%, shared and private accommodation are available (private will be about 30 soles). This hostel includes free luggage room, breakfast, linen, and towels. Other features of the hostel include a bar, restaurant, lounge area, car park, tours desk, 24-hour reception, internet, washing machines, and lockers.

Gadling’s favorite hotels for 2011

gadling favorite hotels 2011

Where do your loyal well-traveled Gadling contributors especially love to spend the night? We polled Gadling writers on their favorite hotels in 2010. Think of Gadling’s favorite hotels for 2011 as our version of a hotel tip sheet.

Laurel Miller. The Kirketon in Sydney for its quirkiness, cool bar, small size, helpful staff and retro-mod style, blissfully free of big-city attitude. Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, South Australia as a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence in a staggeringly beautiful, intimate setting hovering over a private beach covered with wallaby tracks. For high-end luxury, Ecuador’s Hacienda Zuleta. It’s historic, in the foothills of Andes in northern Ecuador, a working dairy/horse farm/creamery/condor preserve. It offers an intensely Ecuadorean experience, from the local indigenous culture to hospitality, geography, and food that is worth the trek. And lastly theWit in Chicago with its ideal location on the Loop, across the street from the river.

Mike Barish. The Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming. Located right in the heart of Jackson, a historic hotel steeped in cowboy tradition. Grab a drink at the hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar after a day exploring Grand Teton National Park.

Grant Martin. Favorite hotel of the year was the Elysian, right in downtown Chicago. Beautiful, huge rooms, clean, elegant and sharp appointments, razor-sharp staff and a perfect location make this the best spot to spend a long weekend in the Loop.

Annie Scott. The Capella Hotel in Singapore remains a favorite, as does the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. I’m a sucker for luxury. I also loved staying at Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, a treehouse hotel in Zambia, despite a harrowing adventure with a giant bug which I eventually captured with a teacup and saucer.

McLean Robbins. CastaDiva Resort, Lake Como. Opened in June, this is the first five-star resort to open on the lake in about 100 years. It’s stunning and unique. Used to be a private home to the muse of Bellini, sat empty for decades before being gutted and re-done. Top-notch service, food and spa.

Don George. This year’s hotel highlights were the following trio in Peru. All combined great style and comfort with a deep sense of immersion in the local place, through their architecture, cuisine, artful decorations, and programs that featured local people to promote local sights and attractions. In Urubamba: Sol & Luna. In Aguas Calientes: Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. In Cusco: Inkaterra La Casona.Tom Johansmeyer: My favorite hotel will always be On the Ave, on W 77th Street, between Amsterdam Ave and Broadway in Manhattan. I once lived there for a few months, and while doing so, I fell in love with the Upper West Side, ultimately moving into the neighborhood. Since my stay in 2004 the rooms have been renovated, but the sixteenth-floor terrace remains. On your next trip to the city, skip the big names, and head up to my neighborhood: it’s worth it to stay a bit out of the way.

Melanie Nayer. Sticking with the Shanghai theme (see yesterday’s favorite destinations post) my favorite hotel this year is the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong.

Karen Walrond. I’m a big fan of the boutique hotel. Recently I stayed at Hotel Lucia in Portland and was blown away by the customer service, and it’s not too expensive. In my homeland of Trinidad, I love the Coblenz Inn, an upscale little boutique place. I also love Acajou, an upscale-yet-very-rustic eco lodge in Grand Riviere, Trinidad. Lovely.

David Farley. The Royal Park Hotel in Tokyo. If you can, get upgraded. Upgrades mean an early-evening cocktail hour with complimentary drinks and snacks every evening.

Kraig Becker. The Chico Hot Spring Resort located in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park in the beautiful Absaroka Mountains. Rooms start as low as $49/night and range up to $300/night for luxurious cabins with some of the most spectacular views around. After a gourmet meal in the Chico dining room, guests can soak in the pool, which is drained and refilled each night with water from the local hot springs.

Catherine Bodry. Songtsam hotels in China

Alex Robertson Textor. Buenos Aires cE Hotel de Diseño. I loved the hotel’s location and thorough minimalism (concrete walls and floors) as well as the ample room size and delicious breakfast. The rate, which I found through Tablet Hotels, was also very reasonable, at $109 including taxes.

[Image: Flickr | doug_wertman]

Peruvian adventure travel and agritourism on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Amantani

While I sat at the table with her young son, Ayun, I watched Imeliana Calcin stuff wood into the stove. Although she’d greeted me at the boat dock in a skirt and faded t-shirt, she’d changed as soon as we arrived at her family’s tiny adobe house. Now, clad in the intricately-embroidered white blouse and headscarf for which the women of Isla Amantani are famed, she was preparing sopa de quinoa for our lunch.

I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the
unfortunately-named, highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Amantani, like neighboring Isla Taquile, is a small, natural island (not to be confused with the famous, totora reed “Floating Islands” elsewhere on the lake) populated solely by subsistence farmers like the Calcin’s.

Since the mid-eighties, agritourism has helped provide income to the islanders. Visitors stay in modest guest rooms, or share a dwelling with families, joining meals and even helping with seasonal crop harvests, if they so desire. The islanders hold frequent dances to provide visitors a chance to interact with the communities, and learn more about Amantani’s culture.

%Gallery-90054%
Otherwise, there’s no other real tourism infrastructure on Amantani-no restaurants, bars, or shops, although the locals sell their embroidery at the dock. The farmstays are arranged by tour operators in the lakeside city of Puno, or through adventure travel agencies such Northern California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, the company I booked with.

The residents of Amantani and Taquile speak Quechua, the language used by various cultural groups throughout South America. The islanders, however, are more closely related to the Aymara people of the Altiplano of the Central Andes. The approximately 800 residents eke out an existence by growing quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat), corn, potatoes, and oca (a type of sweet potato); and raising sheep, chickens, pigs, alpacas, and cuy (guinea pigs, a typical indigenous dish throughout Peru). They make a mild, salty queso fresco from the milk of their cows, and sun-dry part of their potato crop to make chũno, which can be reconstituted in soups and stews for sustenance throughout the harsh winter.
I first heard about the island the previous year, while running Chilean Patagonia’s wild Futaleufu River on a Bio Bio trip.

I was really impressed by Bio Bio’s genuine regard for preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of their host countries. After learning of my interest in agritourism, Peruvian guide Piero Vellutino told me about Amantani, and suggested I visit the following summer, during the dry season. Piero-whose family is famed for their whitewater expeditions and first ascents- is National Peruvian Kayaking Champion, and an all-around badass. He and his wife, Patty, are also the Peruvian base outfitter for Bio Bio. Their company, Terra Explorer Peru, is based in Cusco, and together, the companies offer customized cultural extension trips such as cooking classes and market tours, because, Piero explains, “that’s what makes places special and distinct from one another. Water is the same everywhere.”

I booked a trip with Bio Bio to run the Apurimac River and walk the Inca Trail, then added two days on Amantani-which has excellent sea kayaking, and plenty of walking trails. Due to time constraint, I was unable to sea kayak, and instead opted to focus on food. That’s how I ended up in Imeliana’s kitchen (which also happened to be her famiy’s dining and living room, as well as bedroom). Ayun and I snacked on choclo, boiled native corn harvested that morning by his father, Esmael. When he’s not tending to his crops, Esmael can be found down by the boat dock selling blended fruit juices from a collapsible table. Entrepreneurial spirit is a necessity to support his and Imeliana’s six children, but they were genuinely sweet, gracious hosts who made me feel a part of the family.

The Calcin’s live in Colquercachi community, the largest on the tiny island. Through sign language and rudimentary Spanish on both our parts, Imeliana taught me how to prepare the soup, and described typical meals- primarily some type of grain-based soup or stew, rice and boiled potatoes, and corn. When lunch was served-brothy soup augmented with greens, potato, carrot, and onion, accompanied by fried queso fresco, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes- several of the children straggled in from school to pick up their lunch. Imeliana portioned their meals onto aluminum plates, wrapped them in cloth, tying the ends into a handle, and sent them on their way with a dazzling smile. The meal concluded with muňa tea, a mint-like herb prized for it’s medicinal properties.

After lunch, I hiked to Pachatata, the highest point on the desolate, nine-kilometer island. I passed women harvesting potatoes in brick-red dirt fields, and men carrying sheaves of trigo upon their shoulders. At the “summit,” there is a small temple used for private rituals and feast days. Spread out beneath me in all directions lay terraced farm plots, divided by low rock walls. Far across the lake, the snow-covered Bolivian Andes were visible. Amantani is wild, and lonely, and emblematic of a way of life that-for better or for worse- has changed little in thousands of years. It’s not a luxury holiday, but it’s a rich experience that helps preserve a globally vanishing way of life.

If you visit Amantani or Taquile, it is appropriate to bring a house gift such as fresh fruit, which is difficult to find on the island, or staples such as rice, sugar, or flour. Donated clothing for the island’s children is also appreciated.

LAN offers flights from Lima to Juliaca, which shares an airport with Puno (one hour by minibus). Alternatively, you can take a coach from Arequipa or Cuzco (five and six hours, respectively). If you’re traveling alone to Puno by bus, be sure to book a trip that gets in at a reasonable hour. I ended up arriving at 4am, and the Puno bus station (or any bus station, really) isn’t somewhere you want to be, alone, at that hour.

Sopa de Quinoa
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since approximately 3,000 BC. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and is a complete protein (meaning it has all the essential amino acids). Substitute it for couscous or rice in soups and salads, or as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. This recipe is actually one I obtained from a dairy I visited in Ecuador; it differs from Imeliana’s in that it contains…dairy. But it’s so unbelievably delicious, especially when made with pasture-raised eggs, and good-quality milk, butter, and cheese, that I had to include it.

Recipe courtesy of chef Jose Maria Pumisacho, Hacienda Zuleta

Serves four

2 cups quinoa
6 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 scallions, white part only, sliced
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup of milk
yolks of two large eggs
½ cup of grated, semi-firm cheese that melts well, such as Gruyere
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put water into a stockpot, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, add quinoa, and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Cook quinoa for approximately one- to one-and a half hours, or until the grains are soft.
While quinoa is cooking heat an eight-inch frying pan over medium heat, add butter, and when butter is melted, add onions and cook until transparent. When quinoa is ready, add onions and half of the milk to the quinoa and bring to a boil for five minutes, then reduce heat and let simmer.

While quinoa mixture is simmering, add egg yolks, the remaining milk, cream, and cheese in a blender, and process for one minute. Add this mixture to the soup right before serving, and stir it into the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.