Mention “Peru” and one thinks of the Inca Indians. And without a doubt, the Incans cast a long shadow on the history of Peru. However, as I discovered when I traveled to Peru with my adult sons, Drew and Scott, the dominance of the Incas constitutes but one small part of the history and magic that is Peru.
We started our journey in the nation’s capital, Lima, which is a sprawling oceanfront city that is simultaneously modern and rich in history. Colonial and immediate post-colonial structures abound, and the busy urban life of any big city is plain to see. But we were there to discover the history and culture that creates modern Lima.
Lima has a well-earned reputation as a new culinary treasure, so we surely had to explore it. With a tip of the hat to the late Anthony Bourdaine, we ate in both gourmet restaurants as well as vendor stalls in local markets. We tried the local Chinese variant, chifa, lots of ceviche, as well as the Japanese-Peru fusion that has become so popular. In short, the cuisine of Lima rivals that of major culinary hotspots from New York to San Sebastian.
Our favorite upscale restaurant was Malabar, which provided a wonderful tasting menu over six courses. Specializing in all locally-sourced and traditional ingredients, Malabar’s chef whips up amazing culinary treats that dazzle 21st Century taste-buds. And being with my two grown sons who live in New York City, dazzling them was not easy. But we were all impressed with the wonderful flavors and sensations we enjoyed while sampling the cuisine. Not to be omitted, however, were the wonderful cocktails that preceded our meal. We enjoyed the locally made gin with unusual Latin American mixers, all of which were perhaps too enjoyable!
However, I cannot omit the need for visitors to try the local Chinese food as we did at Union Chifa, in Barranco. The mix of cultures evident in their dishes resulted in a heavenly blend of flavors.
While in Lima we stayed in a unique, 19th Century renovated boutique hotel in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima. Barranco is clearly the “cool” area, where art, music and underground fashion abounds. It was a surprising treat to experience a trendy, up-and-coming area in what many think to be the third world. Many people took to the streets to enjoy strolling this waterfront area, with street musicians providing ready entertainment. Notably, the ethnic variations of Lima are many, as contrasted with our later trip to the Andean highlands, where it was clear the populace is almost entirely made up of descendants of Peru’s original inhabitants.
A wonderful treat was to visit Lima’s Larco Museum which houses the nation’s largest collection of indigenous pottery. As the Incan’s and their predecessors did not leave books and records of their daily lives, they recorded their lives in small ceramic crockery which also served as vessels for water, wine and beer. Through the wonderfully-ornate ceramics we can see everything from Incans and their predecessors at work, play, and, yes, in bed! Details of their sex lives are recorded in the crockery as are unusual birth defects of their young. The degree of detail in this ancient pottery exceeded any expectations that we could have formulated. But, moreover, it gave us a window into both indigenous life as well as their historical art form.
From Lima we traveled to Cuzco, high in the Andes, where we were thrown into another era of Peru’s existence. The colonial buildings, many of which replaced earlier Indian structures, were impressive in their magnitude. Large stone cathedrals, churches, government buildings and ceremonial sites found located throughout the downtown area, along with indigenous people wearing colorful historical garb, many leading llamas through the town. While it seems cliché to say, entering Cuzco was like stepping back in time. The culture, look and even spoken language changed. Many people on the street speak Quechua, the modern derivative of the ancient Incan language. However, the local people were generally very pleasant toward, and accepting of their northern tourists.
Moreover, Cuzco is where the true adventure began.
Beyond the culture and history, my two athletic sons and I were there for some rigorous, challenging adventure. Over the next several days we would mountain bike in the Andes, white water raft down a Grade III river, and hike the Inca Trail all the way to Macchu Pichu.
Local guides led us on a rainy morning to a mountain pass, where we mounted our bikes for a treacherous ride through donkey paths, water guts, and plateau fields. None of our journey was designed for biking, and so getting tires caught in ruts and the resultant accident was inescapable. I fell four times and ended up a bit bloodied, but I laughed my way through it all.
Some trails led downhill, like a steep ski run. Other trails were fairly flat, leading to small towns. But the more challenging trails led us up hills, which made me very glad I had trained for 4 months in strengthening my legs for the biking and hiking of Peru.
Needles to say, as it was raining for part of our mountain biking adventure, we were not only bloody but also quite muddy. However, we laughed for much of it. We then ended our day at a salt “farm” where locals create pools of water that gradually fill with the natural salt in the earth. The salty sheets, like ice on a frozen pond, are then collected and broken into table salt.
The following day we set out early by van for journey up the Apurimac River. We had wonderful guides who inflated an adventure raft for us, and another large inflatable boat rowed by a safety guide who followed us from a distance.
The day was overcast, with occasional rain. But the weather didn’t matter as we were soon splashed by the Grade III rapids. We all had some rafting experience (Scott and I had the most, as we had spent a week on the Idaho River a few years back) and it was valuable that we did. The waves, rocks, boulders, drops, funnels, tubes and eddies were varied and often exciting. We laughed our way through it all as we followed our guide’s commands to paddle right, paddle left, stop or reverse.
We traveled through the Black Canyon and saw beautiful sites alternating between Andean mountain ranges and small farms on plateaus. We waved at some indigenous children who live on their family farm and seemed surprised to see rafters. All the while the fast-flowing river kept us moving swiftly downstream.
Amazingly, after about 4-5 hours of rafting, we arrived a lower spot in the river where our van driver and chef had set up tents for cooking and dining on the riverbank. We felt spoiled by the lovely feast our chef had prepared for us, as we dined in our luxurious tent as the rains came down more steadily than before. Enjoying a great meal on the side of this river that had seen Incans and their predecessors paddle by, still largely unspoiled by modernity, was a treat that we will treasure forever.
But that was not to be our only meal of the day for later that evening we set out to have a traditional Andean meal as our Christmas Eve dinner. We ventured into the central square of Cuzco, created by the Spanish in the 1600’s during their colonial reign over Peru. There, we found some traditional restaurants overlooking the square, and the many stalls which had been erected for Christmas shoppers. Drew, being the most adventurous of the three of us, chose the traditional Peruvian highland delicacy as his entrée: cuyo. Cuyo is the Spanish word for guinea pig which, in theory, could be appealing. However, as it came served with the head (and front teeth, in an homage to Alvin the chipmunk) all skinned and intact, I confess to having lost my appetite. Scott took great pleasure in posing for a photo with Drew’s meal’s little face and teeth. However, after a few bites, Drew found there was little meat and the visually-unappealing sight over-took his spirit of adventure. He ended up sharing some of my chicken.
But the next day was to be our most challenging yet. We set out from Cuzco by train to kilometer marker 107, where we started our adventure in hiking the Inca trail to Macchu Pichu. Though we were merely about 5 miles from the revered Incan site according to our map, we were to find that this would be the most challenging 5 mile hike we had each experienced. Rather than a straight five miles, this was five miles of vertical climb, punctuated by steep declines, only to be followed by once again going up the same amount of vertical climb that we had just come down. In short, it was 7 hours of stair-master!
Again, I was glad I had trained for this hike, but my training was insufficient to make it an easy hike. We enjoyed beautiful views of the valley below as well as occasional stops at Incan-era village sites tucked into the mountains. We also stopped at a lovely overlook for a box lunch arranged by our hiking guide. But the overriding memory of this hike was the toll it took on my legs!
Most memorable of all was the last fifty yards, which was a steep vertical climb up ancient stone stairs left by the Incans. As if my legs were not weary enough already, the grande finale reduced my legs to jelly. Of course, my son Scott had to shame me by using his 21 year-old legs to sprint up the stairs as if to accentuate the virtues of youth. I watched in a combination of envy and wonder as he ran past me, up the ancient steps.
Just past the final treacherous stairs, we came to the stone archway known as the Gate of the Sun. From that vantage point we looked down some 300 yards to the fabled lost city of Macchu Pichu. We stood, mesmerized by the sight, and naturally took photos. As it was the end of the day, we left our visit for the fabled city until the next day, and ventured down the mountain to the small town of Aguas Calientes, where we spent the night.
Early the next day we were bussed up the mountain to spend the day touring Macchu Pichu. I will not try to replicate the many books, articles and documentaries about this amazing site. Suffice it to say that we shared in the wonder that so many before us have experienced since this lost city was re-discovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham. It is truly one of the great wonders of bygone worlds.
Peru offered us a great chance to challenge ourselves and our comfort level in several different spheres. Culture, language, cuisine, hiking, biking and rafting were all put to the test. Moreover, the comradery that we three enjoyed together, creating a lifetime of memories, was the most valuable of all. For others, I can say, the combination of geographical beauty, cultural variety, physical challenges, and historic interest make Peru a unique and wonderful destination for the hearty adventurer!