A Voyage into Mystery
by André Gayot
A country of myth and mystery, Peru boasts a history packed with adventure and coated in gold. Four centuries after the rumor spread among Spaniards in Panama that a fabulous empire of untold riches stretched to the south of the isthmus, the land of the Incas still inspires awe. Riches indeed are there today, though not exactly in the form that Francisco Pizarro envisioned in 1524 when, with a cohort of ruffians, he put to sea to discover El Dorado. Glittering armor, thundering cannons and neighing horses (until then unknown in South America) so impressed the natives that with just 63 cavalrymen and 200 foot soldiers, Pizarro was able — after innumerable episodes — to conquer an empire and change the destiny of a continent. The greedy Spaniards stripped the country of its golden assets, but they could not pack into their galleons its real treasures, which we can still appreciate: the intense and diverse beauty of the land, from mighty, snow-capped mountain peaks to dense jungle, and the secrets of a people that even today remain hermetic and continue to challenge our imagination.
As we flew from Miami to Lima, we marveled at the accomplishments of the ancients. How were the Incas capable of establishing a centralized and highly organized empire, so vast that it stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, without a written language, or even hieroglyphs? How could they build a vast road system winding across the cordillera and yet remain ignorant of the wheel? (In fact, they fared well without wheels, with barefoot messengers called "chasquis" that delivered fresh sea bass to Cuzco, 500 miles from the ocean.) Although their grandeur lasted but a century, the Incas get all the credit for the development of this part of the world, which is understandable but unfair, since such refined cultures as the Moche and the Chancay preceded them. In Lima, to experience fascinating remnants of these overlooked civilizations, including sculptures that are among the most erotic ever created, we visited the Museo del Oro, which is not to be missed.
To rest after our tour of the city and its beautiful Baroque churches, the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas and the colonial-style Palazzo Arzobispal, we visited Las Brujas de Cachiche, a restaurant named for the famous witches of the village of Cachica. We found it a fine place to sample such highlights of Peruvian cuisine as causa rellena (stuffed yellow potatoes); polpo a l'olio (octopus in a black olive sauce); saltado de carmarones El Gran Shaman (sautéed shrimp) and a traditional lomo saltado, a savory sauté of beef tenderloin with onions, chili peppers and tomatoes. For dessert, the kitchen prepared such original offerings as mazamora morada, a blend of purple corn with dried fruits.
From the congested capital of Lima, it is a short flight over the Andes to imperial Cuzco, which is encircled by mountain peaks and is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. The grandiose scenery explains why the Incas chose to set their throne amid the sumptuous natural decor presented by the cordillera. Their presence is still conspicuous, and their brief passage through history has marked the site as theirs forever, even if Catholic churches have been erected on the foundations of Inca temples — a prime example is Santo Domingo, which replaced the Temple of the Sun. The secrets of Inca architecture remain another deep mystery, since no one understands how they could have lifted and fitted multi-ton boulders so tightly together that a razor blade cannot be inserted into the seams. A fine instance of this architecture is Sacsahuanan, a huge fortress that zigzags through the mountains and symbolizes the teeth of a puma; Cuzco itself is the body of the beast.
The Conquistadors superimposed their walls and their beliefs on those of the Indians, and the result is bewildering, most conspicuously in the splendid Baroque cathedral and its cloister, or in the nearby university. Here, visitors can see how Indian artists — taught Western techniques by Dominican friars — managed to introduce animist allegories into the most pious paintings. These antagonistic cultures somehow managed to compromise, and more than just adding to Peru's seductions, they teach us lessons about tolerance and contradictions. For example, even though the women consecrated to the cult of the sun were buried alive if they betrayed their vows and lost their virginity, the Emperor Atuhualpa had more than 5,000 concubines. Pizarro, ruthless conqueror that he was, lived with two of Atuhualpa's wives.
As we drove along the sacred valley of Urubamba, which once was filled with Incas fleeing the invading Spaniards, we entered the mystery of a different world. Why, we wondered, do tubers such as potatoes, quinoa, oca and maize, not to mention coca, grow so well at this towering elevation of 11,000 feet? We learned that the generosity of this elevated landscape allowed them to settle and prosper at an altitude at which, elsewhere, only meager shrubs survive among rocks. The Incas made good use of this territory, and carved the mountainsides into terraces watered by sophisticated irrigation systems. At the center of this Inca breadbasket, Pisac — home to an archeological park that reminds us of the importance of agriculture here — boasts a lively market that features Andean handicrafts such as weaving and pottery. Visitors also can sample such delicacies as roasted guinea pig, a much sought-after Peruvian specialty.
Climbing the cordillera to the lost village of Willoq is indeed like diving into the previous millennium. Here, at what was an inaccessible peak before a crooked road was built, a community of Indians survives in a fashion said not to have changed since pre-Columbian times. The language, dress, social organization, houses and occupations are the same, or so say the ethnologists. The people of Willoq have chosen to ignore the outside world, and even though modern life has made inroads just a few miles down in the valley, they turn their backs on electricity, spin the wool of the llamas they raise, and weave fabrics of never-changing designs and all-natural colors. What subject for meditation this is! Weaving, apropos, was a key element of Inca culture and reflected the structure of society. The elite wore vicuna fabrics, rather than the alpaca or llama wool that clothed commoners. Knotted strings called "quipu" played a unique role and served as the archives of the Incas; the accounting of the empire was summarized in these intricately knotted wool strings.
Down in the valley, the Ollantaytambo ruins are another excellent instance of Inca architecture. Adventurers, treasure seekers and even scientists searched in vain for Vitcos and Vilcabamba, cities that reputedly were filled with gold, but it was American historian Hiram Bingham who hit the jackpot in 1911 by discovering, in the most remote and impossible corner of the Andes, a real treasure for all mankind: the fabulous stones of the lost city of Machu Picchu. The enigma thickens. Why was this marvel built at the end of the world, how was it constructed, why was it suddenly abandoned by its inhabitants, and how could it remain hidden for four centuries? No one knows, and the mystery renders the sublime panorama even more stunning. No civilization in the world thus far has been able to assemble such enormous stones so perfectly without the aid of wheels and pulleys.
As we contemplate this wonder, we realize the fragility of power and glory: The powerfully organized, collectivist civilization of the Incas, hardworking and disciplined, rigorous, strongly hierarchical and devoted to sun-worship may have produced unprecedented architectural achievements, but was unable to survive for more than a century. If a voyage to Peru and its mysteries sparks your imagination, its beautiful sights feed your eyes, while the charm and bounty of Peruvian civilization enrich your mind.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
To organize our trip we relied on International Expeditions. International Expeditions operates in conjunction with a reliable Peruvian tour operator. For hikers, Machu Picchu is accessible via the famous Inca Trail that winds across Peru. Porters are available to carry equipment.
Palacio del Inka: Plazoleta Sto. Domingo 259, Cusco, Peru, +51 84 23 1961
Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel: Aguas Calientes, Peru, +51 1 610 0400
Sheraton Lima Hotel & Convention Center: 170 Paseo de la Republica, Lima, Peru, +51 1 315 5000
Restaurant Brujas de Cachiche, Ave. Bolognesi 472, Lima, Peru, +51 1 447 1133
Belmond Hiram Bingham Train: +51 84 581 414