PERU — LAND OF THE INCAS
by Susan Kostrzewa
First-time visitors to Peru’s famed mystical site Machu Picchu invariably describe the experience the same way. A wander through the dusty, strident streets of the nearby town Aguas Calientes. The predictable trudge through turnstiles and ticket booths. And then blam— the ancient city hidden to the modern world until 1911 unfolds in shocking, sprawling relief, emblazoned on the mind of the traveler forever.
“Machu Picchu grabs everyone on earth who goes there,” explains Ted Hill of Springfield Ohio, an inveterate adventure traveler who visited Peru in 2003 with Illinois-based Mila Tours. “It’s revealed to you slowly — you can’t see it from anywhere and then you are right on top of it,” he said of his first glimpse of the ancient site. “It’s like going into a different universe.”
The lost Incan city of Machu Picchu is just one of the numerous cultural and historical sites in Peru. Covering 496,222 square miles, Peru ranks as South America’s third-largest country but is sparsely populated. Its 28 million residents include a thriving indigenous contingent — almost half of Peru’s people are Amerindian, while another one-third are mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian blood). About 10 percent are of European descent, and the country also has significant African and Asian minorities.
Every year, tens of thousands of tourists head for remote villages in Peru’s Amazon and highland Andes to experience one of the most intact indigenous cultures remaining in the world, with a civilization that dates back to 2500 b.c. Though unique cultures like the Chavin, Sechin, Paracas and Nazca helped shape the country’s artistic and cultural traditions, the fast and furious reign of the 15th- and 16th-century Incas most fascinates travelers today. Spain conquered Peru in the 16th century, but the hold of the mysterious Incas lives on in Machu Picchu.
Ever since 14th-century Spanish visitors enthused about Peru’s natural treasures (namely gold), the country’s geographical diversity and majesty has remained a big attraction. Peru offers three main regions: the central Andean highlands, the long, low coastal strip, and the remote eastern span of the Amazon basin. Adventurers seeking dramatic mountains scenery and traditional life will find it in the Peruvian Andes, where highland Indians still speak the ancient Quechuan tongue and live by age-old tribal standards. On the coastal strip with its dunes, tourists can explore traditional fishing villages and farms.
Finally, the Amazon spreads across half of Peru, offering some of the country’s most awesome scenery. A verdant basin of biodiversity, this tropical rain forest holds so many species of flora and fauna that scientists still haven’t catalogued them all. Peru has over 30,000 known species of plants, millions of types of insects, 500 varieties of reptiles and over 400 kinds of animals. Peru also has about 1,700 species of birds (the second-highest number in the world) and 2,000 species of fish.
“My trip to Peru was about as close to perfect as any trip I have ever been on,” says Mila tourist Hill, who has also traveled throughout Central and South America to countries such as Costa Rica and Argentina. “I love it there. It’s where South America began.”
Hill’s visit to Peru encompassed the history, culture and physical beauty of the region, from the bustle of cities like Cusco and Lima to the dense stillness of the Amazon, and then through Andes highlands to Machu Picchu. Ancient artifacts became a particular draw for him on the trip. “The Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima has fantastic collections of pre-Columbian textiles, mummies, and trainloads of pottery,” he explains. “The Art Institute in Chicago houses a collection of pre-Columbian art, but compared to this, that collection is nothing.”
He also describes a visit to the Museo d’Oro — a private collection of Indian gold in Lima. “It was housed in a mansion — this man’s family had collected the gold over the years,” Hill explains. “It was outstanding. I’d have married the guy for that gold.”
“The diversity in Peru is unbelievable, and the country isn’t overrun by tourists,” explains Vinji Dahl, a traveler from Sabula, Iowa, who visited Peru with Mila Tours in 2004. “You see authentic culture; it’s not staged like in so many places.”
“And people are genuinely happy to have you visiting their country,” He adds. “I’d return in a heartbeat.”
Cusco, a scenic town that was once the center of the Inca Empire, remains at the heart of Peru’s colorful Indian culture, with nearly 300,000 residents. Arches, doorways and foundations bear the decorative stonework of the ancient culture, and impressive Incan ruins such as the temples of the Sun and Moon create a magnetic draw. “Very artistic and very picturesque,” says Cookie Robertson, a Chicago native who traveled with Mila Toursin 2004. Robertson’s daughter was in the Peace Corps in Peru and traveled with her on the guided itinerary. “We found Cusco really fun.”
While Cusco evokes Peru’s past, Lima speaks to the country’s present and future. As the business and cultural center of Peru, Lima offers “big city” amenities — cafés, clubs, restaurants and ATM’s — though its pace is still slower than most South American cities. “I would not say Lima is a real major destination — it’s not like Rome during Easter,” jokes Dahl. “But we found some excellent restaurants in Lima. It’s not a bargain basement deal but it is still an excellent value.”
In addition to restaurants and nightlife, Lima offers cultural experiences such as touring the viceroyal mansions in the town’s historic center, shopping for authentic handicrafts in the Indio Market, and viewing Peruvian wildlife in the Parque Las Leyendas.
Though Robertson found the cities fascinating, her thoughts continually go back to Machu Picchu, which she describes as a “spiritual experience.” “It’s a wonder of the world and it’s something you have never seen anywhere else,” she explains. “I have seen a lot of ruins, but it’s the setting. Also, Machu Picchu is mysterious — you can’t help but wonder how the Incas built it, and how they even knew about that site. It’s so remote and hidden.”
For Robertson, half the fun came in getting to Machu Picchu by train via a winding, switchback route through the Andes. “The views were amazing and it was interesting to see the trekkers who were getting off at various points to hike into Machu Picchu. The treks were anywhere from one day to four days. We’d like to do that sometime.”
While dramatic sites and echoes of ancient cultures beckon to discerning travelers, all three visitors said that their encounters with the Peruvian people added to their experience. “The people are nice and helpful,” says Hill. “Even if no one speaks English, everyone seems to have fun. They enjoy trying to communicate and will try to help you with whatever questions you have.”
Dahl says this mentality extended to their guides as well. “Our guide was with us the entire time,” he points out. “Extremely friendly, he was as knowledgeable as an anthropology professor and made Cusco especially interesting. We were really impressed.”
Past, present and future … Peru brings them all together. The echoes of its great past still resound in modern life, offering a journey through a land which is, in many ways, untouched by time.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Mila Tours offers deluxe individual and group programs to 20 Latin American destinations in Mexico, Central and South America. Tel: 800-367-7378 or 847-249-2111; E-mail: email@example.com; Website:www.milatours.com.
PERU — Travel Tips
• Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima is Peru’s main point of entry. Several different airlines offer daily flights from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
• Peru’s peak tourist season runs from June to August, which is the dry season in the highlands.
• Peru is 5 hours behind GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and does not observe daylight saving time.
• The world’s second-deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), Colca is the best place in South America to see giant Andean condors, which have wingspans of up to 11 feet.