by Nick Taylor
A year or so ago the State Department warned Americans to avoid areas of Peru including the popular tourist sites Machu Picchu and Cuzco. The warning was based on intercepted chatter that Shining Path militants wanted to kidnap Americans and other westerners visiting the Peruvian Inca highlands. That warning is no longer in place, although Canada cautions its citizens not to travel to certain highland areas if they don’t have to.
It’s good news that Machu Picchu and Cuzco are off the U.S. State Department warning list, because it’s an eye-opening trip that’s relatively easy to make. We spent twelve days there not long ago, flying from New York to Lima and then catching one of the regular, short flights to Cuzco. We loved it and would go back in a heartbeat.
Cuzco is over 11,000 feet high and you need to take something to deal with the altitude. Our Casa Andina hotel in Yanahuara, and most hotels in the Valle Sagrado – the Sacred Valley of the Incas – offer coca tea but you can’t rely on that alone as an altitude remedy.
Machu Picchu was the highlight, of course. Most visitors reach this wonder of the world via train from Ollantaytambo, as we did, but trains also leave from Cuzco. Machu Picchu seems impossible when you actually see it, temples and terraces on mountainsides so steep they give you vertigo. Miguel, our coca-chewing guide, explained its social order, its construction, and the Incas’ grasp of astronomy over a several hour visit while llamas grazed on the heights and ignored the visitors. In addition to his excellent English, Miguel spoke Quechuan, a descendant of the Inca language that many natives of the highlands speak with pride.
Inca construction remains a wonder. They didn’t have the wheel, metal tools or cement and their only pack animals were llamas and alpacas, yet they moved and shaped and joined huge blocks of stone into buildings and cities that have endured for centuries without crumbling.
Machu Picchu is a must, but the Valle Sagrado has much more to offer. We visited other Inca sites with Chino our expert local guide. These included farming terraces that grew different crops only feet apart in elevation to mimic different microclimates. We saw Spanish colonial towns and a salt farm of collecting ponds fed by natural springs. We bicycled along mountain trails that brought us in close touch with the rugged Andes. You can also take mountain rides on horseback. Our hotel was a central jumping off spot for all these adventures and even offered night views of the Southern heavens from its small planetarium.
We returned to Cuzco, the former Inca capital, to conclude our visit to the highlands. It’s an easily walkable town with good restaurants and a lot of shops that sell alpaca sweaters at bargain prices. We saw examples of Inca stonework everywhere. On Loreto, a narrow pedestrian street leading to the main square, a sidewalk barker pointed out “the famous twelve-sided stone” in a massive wall. It showed, impressively, the pains the Inca masons took to make their jigsaw puzzle pieces fit into a whole. We visited Inca and pre-Columbian art museums, and the Church of Santo Domingo, built upon the ruins of an Inca temple.
There was a local festival going on. The Festa de Santa Rosa de Lima, patron saint of the police, brought brightly costumed marchers and beautiful dancers into the streets. Detectives and uniformed police were everywhere, chatting up the girls.
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley account for most of the American and western tourists in Peru, and they give Peru’s economy a boost, so Peru had a financial as well as a diplomatic stake in neutralizing the Maoist-inspired Shining Path. It remains active as a criminal enterprise that levies tribute from cocaine growers in the remote jungle highlands. It’s always good to travel cautiously, but apparently Americans can once again explore the Inca highlands and enjoy one of the true wonders of the world.