There is a map of the world in the basement of our house.
Each place we’ve visited is indicated on the map by a colored pin. There are a lot of pins.
They sweep confidently across Europe, from the Algarve to Moscow, barely missing a country. The eastern side of North America is equally well represented – so much so that you could remove the map and still recognize the Atlantic coastline of the United States. The Middle East proudly records the frequent visits of a safer time. And although vast tracts of land remain between the pins noting our visits to Africa, Asia and Australasia, their distribution is far from inadequate – even in these continents’ remotest corners.
Then there’s South America.
Undisturbed by even a single pin, the continent has adopted a “Here Be Dragons” presence on the map; as if legendary perils have been purposefully avoided in favor of more hospitable destinations.
Over the years the pin-free continent has mocked me every time I’ve walked past the map. It was time to make it stop.
Guide books generally are not very kind to Lima. Yes, it is a sprawling place, large swathes of which are dominated by unfortunate collections of functional, mid-century construction. Yes, it spends a large percentage of the year nestled under la garua; the fog that covers the capital in an almost perpetual, light grey, slightly damp blanket. Yet, breaking out from under its cover, the city’s character is revealed by an odd combination of bustling energy, architectural paradox and car horns.
We had arrived in Lima at an insanely early hour and had no ambitious plans for our first day in Peru – although we did add waiting for a hotel’s restaurant to open for breakfast to our list of new experiences.
We were staying in the Miraflores district. Occupying a clifftop location high above the Pacific Ocean, it is a relatively quiet corner of the city and well within the capabilities of even the most jetlag-compromised mind to navigate. I remain convinced, however, that the swarms of cats in Parque Kennedy can only have been the product of my tired imagination.
Our mostly aimless wandering was interrupted by a late lunch and a potentially fatal blow to my confidence with the Spanish language. Shortly after I had confidently asked him for a beer, our waiter proudly returned with a pepper pot – for which, without a hint of surprise, I heartily thanked him. Although a modicum of confidence returned when the waiter seemed to have no trouble understanding my question about tips and service charges, I never did get the beer.
We finished our first day in South America looking out from the rooftop pool as the sun descended toward the Pacific Ocean and we nursed a Pisco Sour or two. Not a bad start.
On the following day, a taxi ride to the Plaza de Armas, the colonial heart of the capital, gave us a better sense of Lima’s scale. It was Palm Sunday and the Plaza was teeming with people.
After brief, neck-craning stops to witness Mass at La Catedral de Lima and the noon-time changing of the guard outside of the Palacio de Gobierno, we headed down to Plaza San Martin and on to the Parque de la Cultura.
Our next destination for the day was the restored adobe pyramid of Huaca Pucllana, in the San Isidro district – a little too far for us to consider continuing by foot.
Thankfully, hailing a taxi in Lima is easier than raising your arm. The mere act of walking a little slowly by the side of a road attracts a queue of half a dozen potential drivers, patiently waiting for their prey to stop and turn to look back at the traffic.
After carefully selecting a car that looked the most capable of completing the three mile journey (many in the queue did not), I had soon negotiated a price and we were heading towards our destination.
With my Spanish language confidence still shaken from its experiences the day before, it was with a certain relief and discreet self-congratulation that we shortly arrived outside of the site of the pyramid.
Dating back to around 400 AD, Huaca Pucllana now nestles in the middle of one of Lima’s wealthiest areas. Until recently, when the preservation-conscious minds of the 21st century finally prevailed, the advance of modern construction had threatened to overrun the site. Now, as the continuing restoration work secures its future, the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern only serves to highlight the history we can so often lose in the name of progress.
Our next stop after Lima was to be Cuzco, high in the Andes.
We had read a lot about the effects of altitude prior to arriving in Cuzco. While the steep, turning, wind-buffeted descent into the city’s airport briefly takes your mind off of trivialities such as breathing, on the ground the slightest exertion – or just standing too quickly – reminds you that you’re 11,000 feet above sea level. The feeling isn’t the same for everyone but, for me, it wasn’t dissimilar to that experienced after a post “coffee” stroll around Amsterdam, only without the uncontrollable giggling or craving for mayonnaise-covered fries.
Following a token attempt at acclimatization and fueled by a gallon or two of coca tea, we left our hotel in the San Blas area of the city and soon found ourselves in the middle of Cuzco’s most important annual parade, El Señor de los Temblores (the Lord of the Earthquakes).
Commemorating the great earthquake of 1650 and the precious crucifix’s role in making it stop, on Holy Monday, El Señor is paraded around the streets of Cuzco. His journey is accompanied by the entire population of the region, which squeezes through the narrow streets while onlookers strategically positioned on upper level balconies throw red ñucchu flowers at him. We held our ground by the side of the road as the crowd and its accompanying red haze slowly consumed all in its path – crushing in its wake any lingering concept of personal space.
This is one of the joys of independent travel. The more unexpected the event, the more enthralling it is. As we were engulfed by the parade, the intense local passion for one of the calendar’s most significant dates was palpable. It was a significance to which, a mere two hours earlier, we were completely ignorant but, from now on, will never forget.
Like many visitors to the area, we didn’t come to Cuzco to see Cuzco. We came for the gateway it provides to the fabled Inca city of Machu Picchu.
When visiting any well-known place, there is always a nagging concern that it can’t possibly live up to your expectations; the inevitable crowd of like-minded visitors and the familiarity delivered by hundreds of photos must surely make the experience itself anti-climactic.
Machu Picchu is definitely not one of those places. Its scale, although dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, is beyond the capability of a simple photo to translate. At every turn a new, enticing view is revealed. The ruins you assumed would take a few minutes to explore easily consume a couple of hours.
Our guide, Alvin, from Kuoda Travel was excellent. From the pre-dawn start to the late evening return to our hotel, he mixed an entertaining history lesson with an infectious enthusiasm, valuable personal perspective and obvious pride in his country. He also bore an uncanny resemblance to my youngest brother; even his mannerisms and laugh were eerily similar. On at least one occasion I had to stop myself from saying, “and what exactly do you know about it, Matt?”
Upon entering the site, Alvin recommended that we first explore the ruins, break for lunch, and return for the “classic” Machu Picchu photo opportunity later in the afternoon, by which time the early morning crowds fighting in vain for the unencumbered view, should have thinned.
He was correct, of course. By late afternoon, the crowds were gone; the clouds were gone. Machu Picchu was simply magnificent.
Returning to the hotel, the exhilaration of the day was slowly dulled by the trepidation of the journey ahead. Tomorrow we would hire a car in Cuzco and, for the next few days, drive south to Lake Titicaca and then, finally, on to Arequipa; our final stop before returning to Lima for the flight home.
21st May 2015
Coming soon … Part Two: The Road from Cuzco to Arequipa