Margaret and Dick   


April 2008: Peru

  After a week in Peru, I start to understand why the Andean countries of South America can have internal disagreements.  Peru is not one country; it’s three.  The high mountain country is home to the Quechua-speaking indigenous people, descendants of the Incas.  On the coast, these Indios have intermarried with the Spanish, and there are Japanese and Chinese immigrants as well.  The East side of the mountains towards Brazil is rainforest, dense in wildlife but sparse in human population.  With such diversity of cultures, you know the food is going to be good.  Foodies rank Peruvian food among the best in South America.

Following our very enjoyable trip to Guatemala, we were eager to experience more of Central and South America.  Our main destination for this trip was Machu Picchu, one of seven man-made wonders of the world.  Son Chris and and his Maria joined us.  Both are fluent in Spanish – Maria dazzled the cabdrivers with her knowledge of Peruvian soap operas – so we were able to interact easily with the locals.  Maria has wanted to see Machu Picchu since she saw a picture in a book as a child.  Me too:  I can still remember the story of Machu Picchu in Richard Halliburton’s 1940’s Book of Marvels.

Machu Picchu is an Inca sanctuary and religious site built before 1400.  Nestled at the top of a mountain, it escaped discovery by the Spanish colonizers.  Now it looks as it did when they built it, minus the thatch roofs and the Incas.  No photo can fully capture the grandeur of Machu Picchu.  Hour after hour, the views changed constantly as the mists swirled.  Chris and Margaret left the hotel before dawn, Margaret to catch an early bus to catch the sunrise over the ruins, Chris to hike up the mountain for the fully authentic experience.  Maria and I arrived a bit later in time to watch the ruins emerge from the post-dawn haze.  Chris and Margaret felt frisky and climbed up Waina Picchu, the mountain just above Machu Picchu and visible in all the postcard images of the site.  The climb was so steep that parts of the descent were a crab-walk on feet and hands.

We experienced the Spanish colonial era in Cusco.  Its charming cobblestone streets and buildings have been frozen in time since the capital moved away to Lima after an earthquake in 1650.  Ancient Inca stonework – huge blocks intricately cut and fit – forms the foundations of later Spanish walls.  Perched at 11,000 feet, Cusco was literally breathtaking.  Coca tea (yes, you read that right) and a day of acclimation helped, but the altitude commanded our full attention.

We flew in and out of Lima, the current capital, which is on the coast.  With a population of eight million, Lima is immense and overwhelming.  We stayed in the Miraflores neighborhood, known for its upscale shops, art galleries and – the major goal – excellent restaurants.  We made a side trip to the Mercado central¸ which appeared to be off the well-beaten tourist path.

Peruvian cuisine reflects its complex geography:  coastal (fish), mountain (guinea pig, potatoes), and jungle (exotic fruits and vegetables).  Hispano-Indian flavors have been diversified by an infusion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants.  Our favorite dish was ceviche, raw fish “cooked” in lime juice served with sliced onions and habañero peppers.  The strangest dish was certainly guinea pig.  Margaret ordered it – once – and had to face its little curled paws poking up from the plate.  The meat was meager, chewy, and did not taste like chicken.  Some of the best dishes were based potatoes, peppers and corn – dozens of varieties of each are grown in Peru.
We felt warmly welcomed by the Peruvian people, and learned much about the history and 
politics of Peru from our intelligent cab drivers.  Street vendors exert pressure to buy, but 
not oppressively so.  There’s not much poverty in evidence, compared to some of our other 
recent trips. 

Why oh why did it take us so long to get to South America?  Note to self:  more of this.

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