The Road to Machu Picchu

You know that iconic photograph of Machu Picchu, the one that makes you feel like an Andean condor soaring over a lost civilization, a magical kingdom so high in the mountains, so isolated, it seems incredible that humans could ever have lived there at all? It steals your breath away and makes you yearn to see for yourself if it’s really true.

“I hope I haven’t set my expectations too high,” I told Eric the night before we left for Peru, where our daughter, Kira, would join us.

“What are your expectations?” he replied.

Good question. Because beyond the general goal of seeing Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and the rain forest, I had deliberately avoided creating any specific checklist of things to see and do.

“I just want to be awed,” I said as the words came into my head. “I want to feel awe.”

As it turns out, I didn’t set my expectations too high. I set them too low. And not only for Machu Picchu but for all of Peru, which has to be one of the most astounding places in the world. For example:

Peru has over 3,000 varieties of potatoes and over 50 varieties of corn. It counts the second-highest number of bird species in the world, over 1,800, including three species of penguins.

Eric with Inca popcorn. It puffs up big and fluffy.

Lima has a population of 10 million people, one-third of the total population of Peru, and is recognized as a foodie city for its diversity of restaurants and culinary options.

Lima in sun and morning fog

Lima Historic Center

The Historic Center of Lima, the city of Cusco, and Machu Picchu are all UNESCO World Heritage sites. Some 87 pre-Inca cultures existed in Peru, and ruins abound, including a huge, 2,000-year-old stepped pyramid in downtown Lima made of sun-dried adobe bricks. Later, Inca builders used massive stones without mortar. Some are so closely fit you can’t slide a sheet of paper between them.

Ollantaytambo Fortress

The courtyard of the 16th-century Convent of Santo Domingo in Lima is decorated with handpainted tiles from Spain, and its library holds 25,000 antique, leather-bound books.

Convent of Santo Domingo with our tour guide, Janet

The architecture and art in the cathedrals and churches in Lima and Cusco are a feast for the eyes. Along with the ornate altars, expect some surprises. In a painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral in Cusco Cathedral, the main dish on the table is a roast guinea pig, a common meal in Peru.

Lima Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral

The rich hues of the textiles woven and worn by the native women come from dyes extracted from leaves, berries, minerals and other natural colorants. Red comes from the crushed shells of the cochineal, a relative of the aphid. The softest wool comes from baby alpacas. It’s like hugging a cloud.

Can we keep it?

Traditional textile center, Urpi

The rivers in the rain forest are the color of chocolate milk, and after a heavy rain the water rushes downhill in foaming torrents. Stepping into a dugout boat to travel to the rain forest is like entering your own personal jungle movie.

En route to the rain forest via bus and river boat

This isn’t to say that everything about Peru is perfect. As tourists, we did not visit the ramshackle areas of Lima, and even in the better districts and hotels, we were instructed not to drink the tap water. On our travels by bus and train between Cusco and Machu Picchu we did witness many deprived communities, and our guides were frank about the gap between economic classes, the lack of roads, sanitation, water and utilities, the disparities in educational opportunities and medical care.

In addition to the vegetation of the rain forest, here is some of the amazing nature we saw:

Glaciers (in the distance), giant river otters, tarantulas, agoutis, red howler monkeys, saddleback tamarinds, piranhas, lizards, butterflies, llamas, alpacas, a chinchilla, a capybara, a black caiman, orchids, and brilliantly colored parrots and macaws. No bird photos (either they were too far away or moving too fast) and no Andean condor, alas. Though occasionally seen in places we visited, we were told the condors prefer the highest altitudes.


Piranha caught by Silverio, a guide

Big, big tree

In terms of altitude, our journey went from sea level at Lima to 11,000’ at Cusco, then down to 8,000’ at Machu Picchu. Despite drinking coca tea and chewing on the coca leaves offered for free at the airport and hotels, Eric, Kira and I felt some effects. It didn’t stop us, but we also caught colds, picked up in the airport—not fun.

On the plus side, we had excellent weather everywhere, warm days, cool nights and plenty of sun. The only heavy rain was one night at our lodge in the rain forest. Our rooms were open to the forest on one side,  and we listened to the rain through the mosquito netting that enclosed our beds. In the morning, only puddles remained on the trail to the riverbank where a noisy flock of parrots gathered to nibble the clay. The clay appears to work as a nutritional supplement for the birds, especially during breeding season.

Our room at Posada Amazonas in the rain forest

Take your choice of Wellington boots

Then there was Machu Picchu. It’s not easy to get there. By plane from Lima to Cusco, by bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, by train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, by bus again up a switchback trail to the citadel itself. In March, at the end of rainy season, it wasn’t crowded. It’s believed about 600-700 people lived here in Inca times, and as we looked at the other tourists spread up, down and around the site, we could imagine that’s how the city looked when it was inhabited.

Machu Picchu

Our guide was quick to set us straight on some common myths about Machu Picchu. First, it wasn’t the high seat of the Inca empire. The Inca kings made their capital at Cusco and probably never visited this distant place. The Spanish never found it at all.

Second, though it contained both a religious temple and an astronomical temple/observatory, it was also an everyday town with houses for the families and terraced fields to grow crops. Naturally, the nobles got the best houses while the ordinary folks had more humble accommodations.

Terraced fields at Machu Picchu

Finally, though we’re generally taught that the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, conquered the Incas in 1533, that’s not the whole story. Instead, the disintegration began in 1529 with a civil war between two half-brothers both claiming the throne. One, Atahualpa, defeated and murdered the other, Huascar, in 1532. Thus, by the time the Spanish arrived, the empire was already in disarray, making Pizarro’s job a lot easier. Nevertheless, Inca resistance to the Spanish continued for another forty years. Fittingly, Pizarro was assassinated in 1541 in Lima by the avenging son of a former comrade whom Pizarro had murdered three years earlier.

Thank you, Peru, for an unforgettable experience. Thank you for the awe.