High on Peru

Frederick Visitor Discovers Land of Diverse Charms

By Nancy Luse | Photography by Kelly Hahn Johnson | Posted on 01.27.16 – Destinations, Travel

When I first began to travel I received some advice that has always stayed with me—don’t go as a tourist; tourists complain and expect things to be like back home. Instead, go as a traveler, embracing whatever may come, celebrating new places and people.

Even as this philosophy was reinforced during a recent trip to Peru, another one—that guided tours with their bossy by-the-clock schedules should be avoided at all costs—was replaced with the comfort of not having to sweat the details while at the same time proving that adventure is still possible even with group head counts.

Peru was admittedly not on my list of places I wanted to see. But my friend and frequent travel buddy Becky Chaney had a photo of Machu Picchu on the wall above her computer as inspiration for the past couple of years. A year ago she found a bargain package we couldn’t pass up, so we joined with our other friend, Kelly Johnson, to start saving our dimes. This brings up yet another tenant to my travel outlook: If an opportunity pops up to go anywhere, even if it’s not necessarily your dream, take it.

We booked with Gate 1 Travel, based in Fort Washington, Pa. They’ve been around more than 30 years with a mission to provide unique travel experiences without breaking the bank. The itinerary they sent out months in advance gave me the feeling we would have a well-planned taste of Peru. When they sent a later email saying we would have an opportunity to visit a rural school and suggested we pack along classroom donations, I sensed this was a company with heart as well.

“Every driver has his own rules. Those traffic signals are just suggestions.”—Leo, tour guide

Gate 1 also gave us Leo and Ruben, capable, fun-loving tour guides who ministered to those with altitude sickness, steered us to try a taste of “Crispy George” (more about that later) and spoke so often and sincerely of a love for their country it brought tears to my eyes, even without the influence of a few pisco sours, South America’s signature cocktail.

We began our 10 days in the capital, Lima. Situated along the coast, the weather can be counted on to be overcast, but the lack of sunshine didn’t detract from the grand 17th century architecture and plazas, or beautifully landscaped parks, including the “cat park” in a corner of an upscale district. Reportedly a few cats were introduced in the 1990s to combat a rat infestation and the feline population exploded and now rubs against tourists’ ankles. Volunteers care for the cats, feeding and getting them neutered, although some locals want them gone, complaining about the park’s sometimes litter box smell.

Lima is a city that caters to pedestrians and bicyclists; on Sundays 52 blocks are closed to cars. Leo nonetheless warned us to be alert in our travels, and joked:  “Every driver has his own rules. Those traffic signals are just suggestions.”

The city gave us a first taste of the friendliness of the Peruvian people. At a shopping plaza overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I asked a security officer for directions to the restrooms and he immediately began asking about my home and telling me about Lima as he escorted me to my destination. Waiters and shopkeepers also did their part, including one shopkeeper who dragged out a stack of clothing for us to try on and posed us for photos. Even though we didn’t buy anything, she still hugged us, kissed our cheeks and wished us a good trip. In a plaza, a group of school kids had signs declaring it “free hugs day” and liberally followed through.

Coca Leaf Remedy

From Lima we flew to Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, a city 11,200 feet above sea level with the promise of altitude sickness. The best way to combat the dizziness and headaches is to drink plenty of water and coca tea. Hotel lobbies stocked tanks of oxygen for those needing an extra jolt. Days later when we climbed Machu Picchu, even higher, we stuffed our cheeks with coca leaves just to be on the safe side.

Exploring Cusco would come later in the trip. Instead, we boarded a bus to the Sacred Valley, first stopping in Chinchero to shop for alpaca sweaters in an open air market, watch a weaving demonstration and meet “Crispy George.”

Part of seeing the world as a traveler is fighting the urge to recoil from unfamiliar foods. In Brazil it was capybara, the world’s largest rodent. This trip it was guinea pig, or cuy, which Americans see as a pet and many Peruvians consider a delicacy served on birthdays. “George” came from the oven in one piece with a pepper stuffed in his mouth. The three of us sampled what was on our plates. Not bad, but we didn’t order it again. Maybe it was the hutch of the little critters in the courtyard, reminiscent of a lobster tank in a seafood restaurant.

Although the ancient Incas generally are known for their magnificent stone structures built at perilous heights with structures that coincided exactly with the seasonal path of the sun, they were also no slouches when it came to agriculture. Clearly this was apparent in the Sacred Valley, a fertile swath of land that includes the Urubamba River. Here you will see farmers plowing with tractors they collectively own, as well as seeing oxen hitched to a plow. Shepherds were on the hills with their flocks and we stopped to meet a mother and son who were moving sheep along the road.

The Sacred Valley is home to Maras with its large circular layout of depressions that historians say shows how the Incas mastered growing crops at higher altitudes.

“They are my cousins,” Leo said, a designation he gave to almost everyone we encountered, whether it was the man who exchanged our dollars for soles (Peru’s currency), the woman from a bakery who gave us a large loaf of bread when our bus passed through her town or the people running the nightclub where we went one night for karaoke—the songs were mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it was good to sing along with The Doors’ Morrison Hotel.

The Sacred Valley is home to Maras with its large circular layout of depressions that historians say shows how the Incas mastered growing crops at higher altitudes by experimenting with the “mini climates” of each terrace. In the nearby town of Moray are salt evaporation ponds from ancient times that are still in use today.

A visit to the ruins in Ollantaytambo gave us a foretaste of Machu Picchu. We traipsed among the Inca fortress with its perfectly chiseled blocks of stone, wide terraces and temple of the sun, as Leo and Ruben pointed out the mountain terrain that looked like the giant face of a man, as well as other stone outcroppings that the ancient people revered.

That night we had dinner with a Peruvian family. “Welcome to my simple home,” the father said in Spanish, opening his arms to take in the single room. Sleeping quarters were on the second floor and an open kitchen was in the back where his wife cooked on a wood-fired hearth. A roast chicken, the ever-present corn and potatoes (Peru produces 4,000 varieties), along with countless other dishes, made us feel special. Leo sweetened the mood by saying that the money we paid for the meal was enough to pay tuition for the daughter who walked a half hour every day to attend school.

It was an early wakeup call the next day for Machu Picchu, “the lost city of the Incas,” designated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. There’s little doubt for its inclusion. First by train through rugged mountains and then by bus on a road with hairpin turns and no guard rails, we arrived slightly rattled to the site.

Leo sweetened the mood by saying that the money we paid for the meal was enough to pay tuition for the daughter who walked a half hour every day to attend school.

We mingled with people from around the world on that mountain—nuns in their habits, a touring choir from Spain, an old man in flip-flops and our crew, all of us happily making it to the top. This was a soak-it-all-in moment spent simply staring at the breath-taking scenery and the way sunlight slanted against the peaks. I imagined the original inhabitants. I ceased chattering and opened my mind. This was for remembering when I’m in the nursing home.

Some who traveled to Peru that week missed experiencing Machu Picchu when unions tied to tourism went on a two-day strike to protest the government’s plan to privatize the ruins along with other notable sites. No train, no buses, along with shuttered shops and restaurants. Visitors to Cusco walked an hour and a half from the airport, dragging luggage behind them. Street demonstrations with drums, chanting, firecrackers and police with riot shields gave us that unexpected experience and a story to tell back home.

The road to Lake Titicaca, a place where people live on floating islands built from reeds, was filled with tires, huge rocks and other debris by the demonstrators. We were helped on one bad stretch of road by some of Leo’s “cousins” who cleared the way in exchange for a case of beer. Our guides always watched out for us.

So it was a little sad as our group sat at dinner in Lima on our final night, the only time during the trip that it rained, even though the forecasts we scoured weeks before had predicted showers every day.

We toasted with pisco sours, exchanged email addresses and crammed together for a group photo. “And when you come back to my country,” Leo said, “your cousin will be waiting for you with open arms.”