Inka Exercise Plan
The abiding perception of touring Peru’s marvelous Incan sites is steps and more steps. Surely those amazing engineers of sites like Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Saqsayhuaman must have developed calves of steel. While Machu Picchu is the bucket list venue, many, many other sites vie for impressive.
Take the agricultural terraces at Moray, a kind of experiment farm set in a natural bowl at 11,000’ elevation. From a Utah perspective, it reminded us of Spiral Jetty, swirling down the sides of the circular hill, with rock retaining walls into which has been set cantilevered stone steps. To make a terrace, the Incas first built the retaining walls on the hill or mountainside and then filled the areas with small stones, finally covered with dirt and compost for intensive farming or gardening. Excessive rain drained through the stones, continuing to the next lower layer of crops. Leave it to a farmer’s daughter to find this engineering marvel of particular interest.
And speaking of farming, Peru is renowned for its 4000+ species of potatoes, some of which look like green peppers while others are purple and knobby. PBS has a terrific website based on Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which features a video clip (#7) of the Pisac Market.
Corn has an equally amazing variety, ranging from sweet purple to gigantic white Incan. Fermentation results in Chica, a kind of beer. In the USA, fewer than 2% of the population farm while Peru has a stunning 43% engaged in farming.
Don’t miss the amazing salt mines where families have owned their own salt ponds for generations; they actually predate the Inkas. Culinary or bath salts can be a good, if heavy, souvenir. Modern Farmer published an excellent story about this salt industry in 2016.
Hiram Bingham, the controversial anthropologist who first publicized Machu Picchu to the world in 1911, and who is said to be the model for Indiana Jones, published his own quite readable version of the discoveries in The Lost City of the Incas. The more popular choice is Mark Adams’ travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, published a century after Bingham’s discovery, in which this novice hiker retraced Bingham’s route with the expert help of a tough-as-nails Australian guide. The book takes a frustratingly long time to arrive at Machu Picchu, but the journey is often worth it. Historic and contemporary photographs in the book’s center provide useful context. Adams followed the pathway that Bingham took—along the Urubamba River—where a farmer helped him bushwhack up the mountainside to the ruins. The river trail, which today is also the train route, is the sole way to enter Agua Calientes, the village that lies below the mountaintop citadel. Tourist buses wind their way up a hairpin road—named for Bingham—that is not for the acrophobic. The extensive site itself has drop-offs, and the unwary tourist could quickly be history trying to get the perfect selfie if not careful.
An aside: Our accommodation while visiting Machu Picchu was the Inkaterra Lodge, an eco-resort that featured bird watching–including the stunning national bird of Peru, the Cock of the Rock–and orchid walks. We also visited the Spectacled Bear rescue center. The resort’s developer was driven to protect this beautiful landscape, a former tea and coffee plantation, and looking at the overbuilding in the adjacent village nearby it’s clear that protection was needed.
A guide is essential to understand the site, which housed nobility and priests. The Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor are just two of the important points; many people trek up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, about a 90-minute walk, to see where altitude-challenged hikers enter the city. A few intrepid tourists get permits to hike up the precipitous Mount Machu Picchu and its sister mountain, Huayan Picchu. Another good book for understanding the rather brief reign of the Incan Empire is The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, which chronicles the Spanish conquest and the beginning of colonialism.
For another look at Bingham and his legacy, Kim MacQuarrie offers “The Rise and Fall of Hiram Bingham,” in his excellent Life and Death in the Andes. Bingham’s discovery resulted in the first official support from the National Geographic Society and launched the version of the magazine that readers know today. Professor Bingham parlayed his success as an explorer into a political career, but the ethical issues that began with his removal of artifacts continued with the result that he is one of a few U.S. Senators who has been censured.
Culturally rich in both historic and contemporary ways, Peru offers stunning handicrafts. Particularly high quality textiles can be found in Chinchero, the site of Nilda Callanaupa’s women’s cooperative. These weavers continue ancient patterns in rugs, clothing, and other products for the home. The weaving process, beginning with the wool and continuing through the dying process with natural coloring products, is explained by these self confident women in colorful village costume who demonstrate throughout. Alpaca wool products are omnipresent. Vicuna is rarer and thus more expensive.
We were on the verge of buying a table runner when we saw a “mummy blanket for Juanita” that we could not resist. That evening, I turned to MacQuarrie’s chapter on “Ice Maidens, Volcanos, and Incas.” He interweaves the stories of a young Incan girl selected for sacrifice with the story of Nilda and her master weavers plus two young American anthropologists who happen to move to Chinchero and influence Nilda and her life course. The sacrificial girl, wearing beautiful clothes and wrapped in a colorful blanket, was discovered in a volcano in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard. The bus from Puno to Chivay/Arequipa stops at the 15,000′ summit, where the volcano can be viewed. The “ice maiden” was christened Juanita in honor of her discoverer, Johan. Her body was transported to Arequipa, where she can be visited in a museum. Seeing the diminutive mummy was the capstone experience. The synchronicity of purchasing the Juanita mummy blanket and then reading the story behind it reminds me of why I select books for the road. I get goosebumps when touring and reading come together so wonderfully.
MacQuarrie’s goal in Life and Death in the Andes was to begin at its northmost point and travel to the southern tip. Several chapters focus on Peru. He reveals the capture of the leader of Shining Path, which occurs in Lima—a great detective story. (When in Lima, do not miss the Museo Larco, a fabulous collection of pre-Colombian ceramics, including a gallery of erotica. I also resonated to the Casa de la Literature Peru, which includes masterworks by the country’s authors; a large section is devoted to Nobel Prize winning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa.) Pair the chapter about Shining Path with Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel Bel Canto, which fictionalizes the actual event of terrorists overtaking the Japanese Embassy and holding hostages for several months. The president of Peru was supposed to be in attendance but was absent. In Patchett’s deadpan version, the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. The leader of the terrorist group can actually believe that is true as even those in the jungle fret about the fate of “Maria,” the queen of soaps.
Bel Canto’s approach is similar to Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: chapters are devoted to getting inside the lives of several characters. In Wilder’s novel, several interrelated people die when an important bridge collapses into a gorge. In Bel Canto, both terrorists and hostages are analyzed, some of them charmingly, such as the French Ambassador, who true to form, turns to cooking during the long detainment. Both are terrific reads, one set in 1714 Peru and the other in the 20th century. Wilder’s novel has long been a staple of school reading, but it received new attention when Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, drew from it at a memorial for the British who perished in the 9-11 attack:
“But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”
For those taking the luxury train, the Andean Explorer, from the historic city of Cusco to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, MacQuarrie’s chapter on the boat builder from this area, who assisted with Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II, will be of interest. Artificial reed islands—Uros–on the lake include rustic residences and hotels. It’s a rather strange feeling to walk on the somewhat squishy reed matting of the islands.
The lake itself at 100 by 50 miles is the highest navigable body of water. We much preferred the real island of Taquile, an UNESCO Heritage site, where men are the knitting kings, producing their first cap at the age of 8.
Finally, it’s important to read authors of the country when traveling, and it was an easy choice: Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. Choosing which of his many novels to read, however, was another task. I settled on The Discreet Hero, another deadpan, tragicomic narrative that moves back and forth between two men who face challenges from extortion and thugs. This one is much more “macho” in its language and tone, yet entertaining. Set in Piura and Lima, eventually the two narratives come together in a happy resolution.
Our high-altitude hotels offered oxygen—either in bursts or actually piped into our rooms. I preferred to breathe in the heady mixture of words and places.