A Visit to Peru
by Louis Aledort, M.D.
Sol y Luna in the Urubamba valley was our first stop and provided an excellent home base for visiting the sacred valley and traveling in Peru. This oasis of beautiful foliage, offered a warm and welcoming staff under the leadership of Marie Helene (petit) and the knowledgeable and charming chef Nacho. The houses, pool, and indoor and outdoor dining facilities made the adjustment to a very different culture, foods, and elevation a smooth transition.
A tour of the lost Inca civilization leaves one with key images. Evidence of incredible agricultural skills surround one at all times. The sides of high mountains are terraced, still planted, and tended by men and woman who venture there, without modern equipment or even beasts of burden. The Incas demonstrated their ability to experiment (seen in Maras) with soil at great heights. The results are a marvel of semicircular terraces, fertilized with guano and producing hundreds of different potatoes, and corn, in all sizes and colors.
Ollantaytambo, in the sacred valley, is a miraculous village, with a fortress and and terraces. It was conquered by 200 Spaniards who conquered the Incas and forced them into exile. The villag of Willac gives one a glimpse of rural Peru, still primitive. There are more than 200 young children in the school, their facial skin cracked and plethoric, from the high red blood cell counts, secondary to the altitude. Local crafts are seen throughout the valley , with the weaving of cloth and wool. Women gather to work as men go off to serve as sherpas, earning their living by guiding tourists who walk for from one to six days to reach Machu Pichu.
The town of Pisac is primarily a major market of crafts, with an emphasis on wood, fabric, and jewelry shops, the latter laden with silver. Local stones are agate and used extensively. Scarves, pillows and slippers are found everywhere. Alpaca, baby alpaca and even vicuna can be found. These animals belong to the camel family. As one goes from town to town, llamas can be seen both on farms and accompanying families to and from market.
Visiting a classic rural home in the region, one finds an unusual phenomenon. They are one-room houses with fireplaces, kitchens, sleeping quarters, and large numbers of guinea pigs munching alfalfa. The guinea pigs are being raised for food. As in all the structures seen extensively in Machu Pichu, there are niches for religious Catholic crosses, ancient Inca relics, local flowers and agricultural tools.
Visiting the salt pans in Salinas was most educational. Water, omnipresent from tributaries of the Uribamba river, flows through rocks laden with salt. Channels are opened so the salt water can flow onto hundreds of flats. These can be purchased. A young couple guided us into the area and demonstrated how when the water evaporated and salt deposited. The salt is collected by hand, the dirt sifted out. When clean it is batched, deposited in a warehouse and sold. The work is difficult and time consuming. In the dry season, owners of the flats come two to four times monthly to collect and store the salt. A year’s work, having gathered tons of salt, a family can earn three hundred U.S. dollars, almost as much as the annual income of the surrounding natives.
The Orient Express train to Machu Pichu, with a bus trip up to the ruins from the Aquas Caliente, took about 2-3 hours from our home base. The overnight stay at the Sanctuary lodge was particularly nice, as it is the only hotel with proximity to the ruins. Its discovery is well documented by Bingham (the explorer). Archeologists have been at work for almost one hundred years. The outcome is a revelation and a spectacular testament to Incan skill in architectural design, the handling of stone and the choice of splendid location between mountains, rich in foliage and incredible numbers of bromeliads.
A highlight of a visit to Aqua Caliente was a long tour of the ecologic garden town featuring orchids on the property of the elegant Incaterra Hotel. A biologist guided us through foliage rich with hundreds of varieties of orchids.
Before leaving Sol y Luna, we devoted a day to accompanying the chef to an organic farm to buy vegetables. Later, we went to outdoor food markets and purchased food for dinner. Newly added to the hotel was a separate restaurant with lounges, fireplace, kitchen, dining room and chandeliered wine cellar for private dinners. Lunch was served outdoors with superb local fish, pork, chicken, and exquisite empanadas with vegetables or cheese. That evening, we visited the kitchen, and with the chef prepared the favorite local drink (other than beer). Namely, Pisco Sours. Pisco is the Peruvian grappa added to sugar, lime juice and egg whites. We then prepared ceviche and several different chili sauces and alpaca. The tablecloth was embroidered by women who with great skill, design and produce fabric with three-dimensional design.
Next, we traveled to Cusco – the highest altitude of the trip, 13,000 feet above sea level. A stay at the Monastario Hotel was a unique experience. The restoration of this structure as a hotel was superb. A beautiful courtyard, clearly a cloister, with a great fountain, was a lovly place for a good lunch.
In Cusco, the Museo de Arte Religioso highlighted fine pre-Incan 800BC to 1000 AD pottery and jewelry. A church visit revealed remarkable Inca religious edifices. The city has beautiful balconies, the remains of the Spanish reign of 300 years. In the center of the city is a large square, Plaza de Armas. There, we were exposed to both a demonstration against a government decision regarding guides, and a celebration of local folk dancers from the various surrounding regions.
Lastly, Lima, standing near the Pacific, reveals its clear dichotomy: beautiful mansions and large swaths of the poor. It is a pretty city, with excellent fish, and a large Asian population, thus many fine Chinese restaurants.
It was a memorable trip, providing a major glimpse of an ancient civilization, with much that still exists. The food is good, the produce excellent, and the people welcoming. It will appeal to all ages, but the prospective tourist should try to get in shape before tackling the hills and the altitude.
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