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(2011 - Winter Issue)

Writer: and Photography, Ted Alan Sedman

Seventy thousand souls.

The legacy of Lima’s poor surrounds me, a disquieting display of human bones in dark, musty catacombs beneath the Church of Saint Francis. Entire rooms are stacked with geometric mounds of dismembered skeletons—skulls here, femurs there, pelvises stacked in passageways to nowhere. Even as part of a well-trod city tour, the macabre scene still manages to jolt.

In many ways, the story of the church and its catacombs is the story of Peru’s Spanish conquest. Decades after Francisco Pizarro christened Lima “City of Kings” in 1534, Spanish missionaries recruited slaves, servants and the destitute to help build the church, with the promise of a Christian burial as their final reward. Today, the church and its surrounding Historic Centre is a much-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site and repository for an anonymous legion that toiled a century for an unseen king.

The “Garden City”

Lima is a vast metro area of nine million, usually a get-in/get-out gateway for travellers like me heading to Peru’s signature attractions. But as prelude to a two-week reconnoitre, a couple of days sampling Lima’s enticements seemed a no-brainer. A walkabout at the stately Plaza De Armas and Government Palace offered a glimpse where Pizarro held court and sentenced people to death during the Spanish Inquisition. While much has changed over the centuries, the elaborate bronze fountain dating to 1651 hasn’t and is the vaunted site where Jose de San Martin declared Peru’s independence from Spain in 1821. In an ode to Peru’s ancient past, Larco Museum provides an abounding understanding of ancient Inca culture. Housed in the ornate 18th-century vice royal mansion, it holds an enviable collection of 45,000 pre-Columbian Peruvian objects—the largest anywhere.

Contemporary city sights are for the taking, mostly in Lima’s hip suburbs of Miraflores and San Isidro. Overlooking white sand beaches of the Pacific and sprinkled with gleaming high-rises, Jose Larco Avenue, the city’s most modern commercial street, is lined with art galleries, boutiques, bars and great restaurants.

The beautifully-manicured floral parks attest to Lima’s nickname, “Garden City.” The most spectacular by my reckoning is Parque del Amor, or “Love Park.” Lushly landscaped along the Pacific shoreline and graced by a sculptured monument to love, El Beso, attracts smitten couples who gather here to catch the sunset off the shoreline of Miraflores.

A “Lost City”

If there’s a compulsory part of Peruvian travel, it’s Machu Picchu, the famed “Lost City of the Incas” that has intrigued and mystified scholars ever since Yale historian-explorer Hiram Bingham III “rediscovered” the mountain citadel in 1911. Hiking the final cloud forest switchbacks on the Inca Trail, the “Royal Highway” that once led pilgrims and empire officials here, seemed a more genuine introduction than mounting a tour bus down in town. From the gateway of Aguas Calientes, where most Machu Picchu-bound travellers arrive by train from Cusco, the two-hour climb on original stones set by Incas gave me a taste of the 50-kilometre trail’s lofty traverse through several ecosystems spawning 250 species of orchids.

Theories about Machu Picchu are still debated. Bingham himself advanced three hypotheses, all dead wrong. The current theory most experts accept is the citadel was one of a series of royal estates in the Urubamba Valley. Due to the area’s elevation, 1,005 metres below Cusco, the four-square-kilometre, 160-home compound was a warm-weather sanctuary for between 500 and 750 Incas who would flee Cusco’s winter.

Emerging from the dense botanical thicket, the first view of Machu Picchu is one of familiarity, a magnificent panorama portrayed by so many documentaries, travel books and splashed across countless posters. But there’s no substitute for seeing this World Heritage Site in living colour. Meandering among renowned landmarks such as the Tilted Terraces, Intiwatana pillar, the Temples of the Condor and of the Sun—impossibly perched above the roily Urubamba River—was an astounding, even humbling experience. It’s as if I’d stumbled into another world, much less another century.

While some make Machu Picchu a day trip, it’s best to spend at least one night in compact Aguas Calientes, literally the end of the rail line and an outpost brimming with backpackers and street merchants. Engulfed by 5,485-metre peaks disappearing into clouds and sitting in a shadowy river canyon, its two main streets are lined with curio shops and alfresco cafés wafting the heady aromas of exotic herbal teas and spicy Peruvian cuisine. The alluring setting is heightened by the inspiration for the town’s “Hot Waters” name, the natural hot springs popular with achy Inca Trail backpackers.

A Lofty Location

By providence, most visits to and from Machu Picchu course through Cusco, likened to Nepal’s Kathmandu because of its lofty, strategic location for trekkers. At 3,475 metres, Cusco literally takes your breath away. Since I was soon heading to even higher ground, I took time not only to adjust to Cusco’s altitude but submit to its cultural and historical magnetism.

Cusco was once the seat of the imperial Inca Empire, and at more than 3,000 years old, it’s considered the oldest existing city in the Americas. Walk the craggy cobblestone streets and you feel the pull of the city’s energetic centrepiece, Plaza de Armas, rightly called “Square of the Warriors” in Inca times and site of one of Peru’s most pivotal events.

It’s here that on November 15, 1533, a contingent of Spanish soldiers—only 62 horseman and 106 foot soldiers—arrived in Peru’s original Incan capital. The invaders proclaimed the country’s conquest after plundering tons of gold and silver from the Incas, butchering 7,000 natives and executing Atahualpa, ruler of the Incan Empire. Wandering beneath the immense stone arches erected by conquistadors at the street entrances, I could envision the fearful Inca faces when Pizzaro’s troops arrived.

But Cusco’s heavy history is a backdrop for the eclectic zest you’ll find there today. Dominated by the monumental cathedral, built by the Spanish in 1550 on the site of the Inca palace Wirachocha, the plaza is dizzyingly entertaining. You can spend hour after engaging hour here perusing alfresco restaurants and pubs overlooking ornate gardens and a grand plaza fountain where street merchants and tourists congregate.

On a hilltop overlooking Cusco is a compulsory day trip site, the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, a native Quechua name meaning “satisfied falcon” in deference to the raptors that guarded the Inca Empire capital. Sacsayhuaman is another Peruvian oddity scholars are still discussing. The ramparts of stone block construction took nearly 100 years, requiring the labour of 20,000 men who cut, carved, moved and miraculously set the massive multi-ton blocks, fitted so precisely that there was no need for mortar and no gaps wider than a straight razor. Even today, my guide explained, the construction feat would be daunting.

World’s Highest Navigable Lake

Heading south, the nine-hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno is a marvellous way to see the Andean altiplano. This is the high, semi-arid land populated by 6,095-metre peaks and active volcanoes sprawling from southern Peru into neighbouring Bolivia and Chile. A handful of stops en route treated our international group of travellers to historic Inca ruins, outdoor markets and a scenic 4,330-metre pass flanked by towering glaciated peaks.

In Puno I got my first glimpse of Lake Titicaca, one of the country’s most breathtaking vistas (no doubt exaggerated by the 3,825-metre altitude). The “world’s highest navigable lake” is stunning, its azure water framed by cobalt skies, desolate khaki hills and distant snow-clad Bolivian peaks. But the most intriguing aspect is the Islas Los Uros, the famed Floating Islands populated by the ancient Uros and Aymara culture people.

Looking like hay bales from afar, the 62 man-made reed islands of the Uros archipelago are clustered in protective Puno Bay before it spills into the heart of the 8,650-square-kilometre freshwater sea. It may be one of Peru’s most popular travel destinations, but you wouldn’t know it when pulling onto the spartan, peaceful islands. Our group was met by a colourful welcoming committee of cheerful women wearing the trademark Peruvian bowler hats, who led us around their undulating island. For a couple of hours we experienced the rituals of daily life, a window into the centuries-old past of what historians consider floating museums. How long the Uros will endure is anybody’s guess.

Communing With Nature

One-third of Peru lies in the Amazon Basin. During air approach to the southern access point of Puerto Maldonado, all I saw was a ceaseless jungle much as Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana did when he became the first European to set eyes upon the territory in 1541. Somewhere in the profusion below was the Tambopata Reserve, christened the world’s biodiversity capital and home to the Sandoval Lake Lodge where I’d spend several days communing with nature.

After an arduous series of boating and jungle-trekking segments along the broad Madre de Dios River, we arrived at Lake Sandoval, considered the treasure of the Tambopata with some of the world’s most exotic animals and plants. The pristine ecosystem is what lures travellers to this isolated lodge, and each day guides shepherd guests for fabulous animal-filled encounters by boat and on jungle walks. Five species of monkeys, countless exotic birds, menacing caimans and giant 1.8-metre river otters were all part of daily sightings. It’s the Amazon equivalent of an African safari.

Relaxing in a hammock in the stifling afternoon heat, I paused for reflection. In less than two weeks I’d experienced Lima’s Spanish legacy, the mysticism of Machu Picchu, the vibrancy of cosmopolitan Cusco, the austere altiplano, the quixotic culture of Lake Titicaca, and now the verdantly wild Amazon Basin. The diversity was nearly incomparable, almost on a mythical level. But it’s no myth; it’s Peru.

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