Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Imagine Peru

Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, for good reason.
by Michele Gerber Klein

When I arrive at the balconied 16th-century courtyard of my hotel in Cuzco, Peru, 11,200 feet above sea level, I am greeted with a cup of hot coca tea. Made from dried coca leaves, it's the traditional medicine against altitude sickness and I am advised to drink it several times daily. Or, I can chew the dried leaves, which are set out for the taking in small silver bowls in every restaurant and tearoom of the city.

Unlike its processed version – cocaine powder – the leaves and tea deliver a mild feeling of expansion, energizing the metabolism to guard against the thin air and thinner levels of oxygen.
A dried coca leaf. Coca leaves growing in Machu Picchu.
Planned and built in the shape of the sacred puma, Cuzco, itself, ancient capital of the Inca Empire, is a clean, colorful and quirky town. Its narrow streets are crammed with shops overflowing with brightly patterned alpaca knits, religious handicrafts, or wooden carvings of every shape hue and variety.
Lacking in written language the Incas communicated with patterns on textiles.
All roads seem to lead to the Square of the Warrior dominated by the Church of La Compañía, built by the Jesuits in 1576, and a perfect example of colonial baroque architecture.
Fountain of the Warrior.
The houses surrounding the church are adorned with intricately carved balconies.
Indians in native costume vend on the corners.
And a small procession for peace complete with walking band and a gigantic Virgin circles the square before retreating to the manse.
Later, the garden of the museum of the Sun Temple is a lush place to rest and watch the locals. The children are everywhere.
And later that evening at Don Antonio Restaurant, there is a performance of folk dance in traditional costume. A devil masked dancer leaps exuberantly! There is a sense of being lost in time.
The Hiram Bingham train across the Andes cuts through steep valleys flanked by tumbling rapids and jungle clad peaks that fade into fine, smoky clouds against the glamorous horizon.
It's an adventurer's journey to Machu Picchu, one of the new seven wonders of the world: a nearly impenetrable mountain city of unsolved mystery and spiritual magnetism strategically situated over a loop in the Urubamba River 7,970 feet above seal level.
Said to have been built by the Inca Emperor Pachacuti in the 1500s at the height of the Inca civilization in five years and with 25,000 workers, who were never slaves but well paid in leaves of the coca plant, it's a miracle of construction, where much like the Pyramids the vast granite blocks fit smoothly against each other without need for any mortar. My guide directs me to a complex for the mid wives of the Virgins of the Sun – who were perhaps priestesses.
The temple of the Sun, built in a spiral, the Sun, gate and the Intihuatana, an astronomical stone clock believed by the Incas to influence the course of the sun in the sky, are placed in a triangulation aligned with astrological events key to the Inca agricultural practice.
Temple of the Sun. Temple of the Sun in Winter Solstice.
Road to the Sun Gate.
The Sun Gate.
Place of the Sun Clock.
The Sun Clock.
The "Place of the Condor" (an Inca icon of death and rebirth), perhaps the most beautiful sculpture I have ever seen, is made with two vast, found "wings" of natural granite formations to which have been simply added a carved head and a beak.
The wings of the Condor.
Many believe that the food for the inhabitants of Machu Picchu came from below, while the famous terraced gardens cut into the side of the living mountain were used as agricultural testing centers for medicinal shrubs and herbs.
Terrace Gardens.
Lamas cavorting in Terrace Gardens.
Looking down from it all.
Peru ought to mean bountiful. The gardens of Aguas Calientes, a slip of a settlement spread below the mountain along the bank of the Urubamba abound with bananas, wild tomato trees, towering coiled ferns and a proliferation of orchids. There must be 100 different varieties of potatoes, pink ones, purple one, ones that are yellow and orange, corn green, red and golden peppers, breads made of all kinds of flowers, sweet potato; crimson fraises des bois.
Aguas Calientes.
The view of Aguas Calientes.
The gardens of Aguas Calientes abound with bananas, wild tomato trees, towering coiled ferns and a proliferation of orchids.
Back in Cuzco, a last meal at Pacha Papa, "the best restaurant in South America," is simultaneously quaint and romantic in a little garden setting under an open sky of flamboyant blue. The busy chefs cook in outdoor ovens and in plain view.
Pacha Papa, "the best restaurant in South America."
Baking bread in the open oven.
Potato appetizer.
Lamb and potatoes.
Filet and vegetables.
The salad courses.
While I'm waiting for my Manhattan-bound flight in the airport in Lima I decide to look for a New York Times. I am sent from one vendor to the next. Finally at the fifth one I discover a newspaper from Frankfurt that is 17 days old. I'm enchanted. As they say in the country: "There's a Peru for you."
Photographs by MGK.