CUSCO, Peru — I visited Peru, backpacker style, in the 1970s when I had friends based there in the Peace Corps. I returned in late 2011 with a small press group for an update on some of Peru’s touristic high spots. In the intervening 30-plus years, the South American country suffered from a deadly Maoist insurgency that cost thousands of lives while scaring tourists away from a fascinating destination. The insurgency’s leader was captured in 1992, and his movement fizzled soon after. Tourists and business travelers have since returned in significant numbers. From my standpoint (as the perpetual tourist!), Peru was much as I remembered it despite significant changes that, as far as I could tell, were mostly for the better.
The Andes and Lake Titicaca are as beautiful as ever, the colonial city centers built by Spanish conquistadors remain intact and many rural Peruvians continue to wear traditional clothes and sell familiar handicrafts. The changes include restoration of the historic city centers, several of which are now protected as UNESCO heritage sites. Not surprisingly, Machu Picchu, the country’s best-known archaeological attraction, looks essentially the same, but as a UNESCO site, also benefits from enhanced care. Due to later excavations, more pre-Columbian archaeological sites appear on the tourist circuit these days, too. Choices for quality accommodations in Lima, the capital, and at popular tourist areas around the country have been much expanded. And Lima has emerged as a city for foodies; it’s got a popular bohemian quarter, too. In a three-part report, I mention altitudes when relevant because thin air affects some travelers’ ability to enjoy themselves. Better hotels keep oxygen tanks on hand, and travelers can obtain oxygen canisters in Cusco near Machu Picchu and Puno on Lake Titicaca. From personal experience (a bad burn in 1975), I also suggest travelers, regardless of natural complexion, use a sunblock when at high altitudes because the sun’s rays in thin air can make for painful burns. Because I am covering quite a bit of territory in this report, only two segments appear below. Click here for the segment, on Peru’s largest cities, Lima and Arequipa.
Inca memories: Cusco/Machu Picchu
Cusco, a city of 500,000 at 11,000 feet above sea level, was the Inca capital but looks a lot like a Spanish city. That’s because the conquistadors knocked down much of what they found and literally built on top of Inca foundations. Visitors can easily pick out the buildings with Inca stonework because of the gigantic size of the stones and the fact they were so carefully shaped that they did not require mortar for fit. By now, the Spanish buildings that replaced Inca temples have achieved their own historical significance, and they have broad appeal for tourists. That’s why, upon arrival in Cusco, I made a beeline for the central square surrounded by the de rigueur cathedral and a raft of low-rise houses distinguished by their balconies and arcades.
Many Old Town houses are now restaurants and shops frequented by foreign visitors. Other historic buildings are upscale hotels. Our group spent
one night at Cusco’s Monasterio, a beautifully repurposed 16th century monastery (built on
Inca walls) with cloister architecture intact and a still-active chapel at one corner. As most tourists do, we used Cusco as our jumping-off point for a visit to Machu Picchu, often called the “Lost City of the Incas.” We drove into the Urubamba River valley where we could shop in Pisac, the area’s famous market town, and stay in a hotel relatively close to Machu Picchu. On the way out of Cusco, we stopped at a lookout point for sweeping views of the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. Almost immediately after, we passed an Inca survivor, the humongous Sacsayhuaman fortress. It’s fortunate for historians and all the rest of us that this structure, with stones weighing as much as 138 tons, would have been very hard for 16thcentury conquerors to destroy.
It is also fortuitous that the invaders did not even see Machu Picchu, an 8,000-foot mountain in an Andean rain forest covered dramatically at its top by remains of an Inca agricultural and religious center. Strictly speaking, Machu Picchu — which means Old Peak — is the name of the mountain, but the name also is popularly applied to the city the Incas built on it. For important buildings, the Incas moved their trademark huge stones to the mountaintop site for mortar-free construction. They also built an extensive system of terraces for food production. This is one place where the word awesome, a much-overused adjective, is actually appropriate.
We walked all over the Machu Picchu site to admire the Inca’s handiwork from several vantage points. We did this with care (because the rocky pathways were uneven, steep and wet) and slowly (due to altitude). Resident
llamas, which we passed along the way, obviously are in the habit of using
tourist paths, too. Our guide said experts generally agree that the city was a secret from most Inca subjects, which
reduced the odds anyone would tell strangers about it. We could see why the Spaniards weren’t likely to find it by accident either. Even today, it is a project to get there. Tourists arrive by train at Aguas Calientes, a village below Machu Picchu, directly from Cusco (three hours plus) or on a shorter trip from a station in the valley. More adventurous travelers hike in. Those of us who did not hike boarded a bus at Aguas Calientes for a 25-minute ride that zigzagged sharply up the mountainside. We descended the same way at the end of the day.
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