Home :: Peru


by Diana McLeod


      She was very young, only twelve to fourteen years of age, when they brought her to the mountain about five hundred years ago. The young girl came a great distance, trekking for weeks through frigid Peruvian high-altitude deserts and over tortuous mountain passes. Priests brought her on her last journey. She was well fed and well cared for. She wore the finest Incan woolen garments and jewelry. They left her with exquisite little dolls, statues and pottery. Was she dragged to her death, or did she come voluntarily? Did she know what was about to happen to her?

      Archaeologists think that she knew. She was handpicked to be the perfect virgin sacrifice to the Apus, the ancient gods of the mountains. Imagine the bravery and courage of the young girl, walking willingly to her death! Imagine her struggle, climbing up into the glaciers, gasping in the brutally thin mountain air, as each agonizing footstep brought her closer and closer to her demise! What could her thoughts have been? How does the human soul prepare for such terrifying moments?

      At last, they reached the top. While she sat huddled in the icy wind, the priests gave her a very intoxicating drink of spiced liquor. They built a tiny fire, and performed rituals of purification. She was struck in the back of her head with a sharp stone. The priests arranged her little corpse in a fetal position, placed ceremonial offerings around her, and abandoned her to the mercies of the mountain.

      The mountain'’s cruelty was actually kind to the little girl. She was soon covered by snow and ice, which kept her in a remarkably good state of preservation. Over time, she was lost; a gift to the glaciers. Even the gods she honored were forgotten. When the Spanish overran Peru, they forcibly converted the entire population to Catholicism. She was the mountain'’s secret, and she remained there, frozen in time.

      Eventually, the mountain gave up its secret. In 1995, an expedition went up Mount Ampato, (20,700 feet). An eruption from a nearby volcano had melted a lot of the glacier near the summit, exposing a great deal of the mountainside. The team was led by archaeologist Johan Reinhard, who had been doing high altitude archaeology around the world. As they crested the summit, they spotted a curious bundle that had obviously rolled down from the mountaintop and onto one side of the crater. When they investigated, they discovered that the bundle was, in fact, the well preserved body of the little girl. It had come loose during the icemelt following the eruption, and the corpse had rolled downhill about twenty meters. The archaeologists followed the path of the body back up to the actual burial site. They found the marvelous collection of artifacts strewn along the way to the top, and even more at the site itself.

      The archaeologists carefully carried the precious bundle down the mountain. She was well cared for, and immediately transferred to a special refrigeration facility. The well preserved mummy has generated worldwide interest, ever since she was first discovered. They even named her: “"Juanita,” the Ice Princess."

      Dave and I had the opportunity to visit her this year, on our trip to Arequipa Peru. A special museum was built in her honor. The museum introduces the public to her story, beginning with a film about the discovery, and the history of her life and death. There are a series of rooms displaying the ceremonial artifacts that were left around her body. Some of them were exquisitely beautiful, especially the little figurines and dolls. At the end of the tour, we were able to walk around the icy glass coffin where she rests.

      From the side, she is eerily beautiful. She has a proud profile, with high cheekbones and shining black hair. Her delicate eyelashes are closed as if in sleep. Her well preserved hands are folded daintily in her lap. It is hard to believe, looking at her from this angle, that she was brutally murdered.

      One wonders how she would react if she knew that her final resting place would not be on the mountainside after all. Would she be glad to be rescued from the lonely ice, or would she be angry to be on display? Or, would she be worried that we modern humans are toying with the wrath of the mountain gods…?



      When we planned the trip to Peru, we picked out our primary destinations, and then we decided to add one more. After consulting a number of guidebooks, we settled on the famous Colca Canyon. The canyon is one of the largest in the world. The plateau’'s shorn edge plunges almost straight down 3,400 meters (11,000 feet)! Giant Andean Condors with six foot wingspans can still be spotted in and around the Canyon. It sounded like an amazing remote area to explore.

      From the city of Arequipa, we took a long bus ride to the city of Chivay, which is at one end of the magnificent canyon. The bus took us over the high Antiplano desert, and over a 16,000 foot pass. (OK, 15,911 feet, which is close enough!) The Antiplano is an incredibly bleak windswept desert, with almost no population to speak of. The few tiny stone hut villages we saw were desolate looking places. Shepherds tended flocks of sheep or alpacas, despite the frigid winds.

      Herds of wild Vicunyas scampered around in the desert, looking for forage among the dead winter grasses. Peru has three species of cameloids: Llamas, Alpacas, and Vicunyas. Of the three, only Vicunyas are completely undomesticated. They are small with reddish hair, and they look almost like deer, except for their camel noses. A few years ago, they were brought almost to the brink of extinction by hunters seeking their fur, which is supposed to be some of the world'’s finest. The Peruvian government has since outlawed the sale of it, and has designated the land around the road as a national park. The Vicunya population has recovered nicely. In a couple of hours, we saw several significant herds.

      In the city of Chivay, we got our first closeup look at Alpacas. These placid animals are completely domesticated. They are covered with such thick wool that they could be cartoon animals from a Dr. Seuss children’'s story. Their faces are quite comical - they look like they are puckering up to kiss somebody. There were three ladies with two white Alpacas getting on the bus at Chivay. The baggage handler simply picked up the alpacas, folding their legs under them, and unceremoniously stuck them into the luggage area under the bus. The two animals knelt calmly in the dark, beside peoples'’ suitcases, for the entire bus ride. I was able to get some videotape of the three ladies posed with their animals. They ladies were all done up in local regional dress, with colorful puffy skirts and embroidered hats. The alpacas had brightly colored wool pompoms decorating their ears. The ladies were all chewing coca leaves. When I took their pictures, both the animals and their owners were placidly chewing their cuds. People do resemble their pets.…

      At Chivay, we boarded a local bus for the three hour ride along the canyon’'s rim. Dave and I were unable to get seats together. I sat with a farmer from one of the villages along the way. His Spanish wasn'’t easy to understand, but we did manage to have a pleasant conversation. He told me that we were lucky to be going to Cabanaconde, because it was the opening day of a fiesta celebrating the planting of maize. He was a nice guy; a subsistence farmer with a young family to support. His hands were rough from years of labor. When the bus stopped at his village, he shook my hand and said goodbye, then he kissed me on the cheek. I was very surprised by that!

      The road to Cabanaconde was really spectacular. The river at the bottom gave the canyonlands some healthy greenery and real trees, which was a welcome change from the bleak Antiplano. As we went along, the canyon got bigger and deeper, until soon it was impossible to see the river anymore. The road wound through several long tunnels and past intriguing local villages.

      The further we went, the deeper the canyon got. About thirty minutes outside of Cabanaconde, we passed El Cruz del Condor, a famous overlook where giant Peruvian Condors are apt to be seen circling overhead, riding the winds. Another twenty minutes later, we got our first glimpses of Cabanaconde. The village perched right at the canyon’'s edge. The canyon looked like it went down forever, and the rugged mountainsides on the opposite side of the canyon seemed so far away that they were fading into the afternoon haze.

      All around the village, well engineered stone terracing sculpted the hillsides. It was mostly built in pre-Inca times, and it is still in use today. Unfortunately, it was not yet green. We had arrived in late September, which is early spring in South America. The stubble from last year's’ crops was still in the brown fields. Plowing had yet to begin.

      Looking around the grim concrete and tin-roofed shantytown with its crumbling zocalo central park and its rundown church, it was hard to imagine that anything exciting ever happened here. The streets were nearly deserted, although it was only about 6 PM. A couple of general stores lined the main street, but they had no customers. We hoped that the scenery would entertain us, because the town certainly wouldn'’t.

      Wrong! The population was gathering in the street behind our hotel for the annual corn festival. Townsfolk were dressed in their festival finest, with garlands of flowers, fruits and vegetables around their necks or over their shoulders. Lots of people were drinking pisco, a local brandy. A brass band began to play, and circles of dancers quickly formed. The ladies twirled in their big skirts, and the men clapped and stomped and swung their partners to the lively rhythm.

      There was one guy who was supposed to be a unique character in the festival. He wore a comical long nosed mask, and he was dancing in a clownish, rude sort of way. My guess is that he was supposed to represent some sort of local Kokopelli-like fertility god. He was hilarious. He kept dancing up to people and trying to embarrass them. As soon as he saw us, he came up to me and waggled his bum right in my face. Everyone looked up, to see how I would react. I pretended to be shocked, overacting like crazy, which got the crowd howling with laughter. Then he sidled up to Dave and did the same thing. My husband is not a shy person. He got right into the spirit of the thing, and outdid the fellow at his own game. Dave was holding his camera, with a long telephoto lens on it. He positioned the camera right behind the rudely waggling bum and made a rather crude gesture with it! I was embarrassed, but the villagers all screamed with delight, including the ladies. We were welcomed to join the party, since we were obviously not averse to a little bawdy fun.

      The procession was soon on the move. Young men began the parade, carrying heavy plows down the street, followed by the brass band and the dancers, with the rest of the village following. They made their way down into the zocalo, where they celebrated for quite a long time, then they headed down the side streets until they had done the tour of the town. After that, they went back up to our hotel, and started all over again, with another round of pisco brandy. It was definitely going to be a long night!

The seventh best bar in the world, mountainbikes, and Giant Condors

      How do I know that Cabanaconde has the seventh best bar in the world? It’s not my decision. I rely on the travel experts. This impressive rating comes directly from the most respected travel experts anywhere: the Lonely Planet guidebook people. These folks really know what they are talking about. According to them, the Pachamama bar is rated the “seventh best "bar in out-of-the-way places around the world.”" This was something we just had to see, to decide for ourselves whether or not the claim was true.

      Cabanaconde Peru does rate as an "“out of the way" place.” It's a very basic little village, and most of the buildings are humble shacks. There are almost no vehicles, so the streets often seem deserted. The local people are simple subsistence farmers, descended from Pre-Incan tribes. Looking around the town, it was hard to believe that there would be any nightlife whatsoever in the humble little place. But Cabanaconde does boast one of the most spectacular views of the Colca canyon, which is one of the world'’s deepest. This does attract tourists -mostly backpackers, who are looking for a rugged mountain holiday. Would there be enough of them around? Was the Pachamama bar going to live up to its reputation?

      It did. The minute we walked into the little hole-in the-wall out-of the-way bar, we felt good energy. The owner, Luiz Julio Orlando (Peruvian) and his girlfriend Lief (from Belgium), both spoke excellent English. They had the fantastic knack of making a newcomer feel just like an old friend, and they did that with everybody. The funky little bar/restaurant/hostel was packed with both people and enthusiasm. What a great mix of interesting people! Backpackers from all over the world got introduced to Peace Corps volunteers, and tourists chatted companionably with locals. At one point, the music got cranked up, and the place broke into spontaneous salsa dancing.

      We had to try the pisco. Luiz makes a mean whiskey sour using the local stuff. I guess you would have to classify it as a type of brandy. Dave soon switched back to his own favorites, but I thought that, when in Rome... …I soon switched to hot spiced pisco, to take the chill off (It was chilly, at night). The drink warmed me deliciously, inside and out.

      We had to pull ourselves away from the bar, the first night in Cabanaconde, because we were going to hike down the canyon in the morning. We came back the next night, after the big trek, and had another enjoyable pisco party. The third day, we arranged with Luiz to rent some mountainbikes, to take them up the mountain road to El Cruz del Condor. We grabbed some lunch, and hopped in an old pickup truck with the bikes. Luiz sent along a local guy to be our guide. The driver dropped off the three of us with our bikes at the viewpoint.

      El Cruz del Condor is the most famous canyon viewpoint on the road. A very large Christian cross dominates the site. It’s not the deepest point of the canyon, but it is a straight drop down from the viewpoint to the Colca river churning 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) below. Impressive rapids give the river its voice, and its roar echoes around the canyon walls. There is also a great waterfall on the other side, which spurts out from the mountain, pouring like a gigantic pitcher into the river below.

      Overhead, there are condors. The giant condor is considered the world’s largest bird, with a wingspan of up to 3 meters (nine feet). We had already seen several, circling at a distance, but we really wanted to see them up close. The very best time to see them is early in the morning, but that is when the place is so crowded with tour buses and vendors that we felt that it would ruin our experience. We tried for an afternoon sighting. At that time of day, there was nobody there but us. It was very pleasant and peaceful, and we did see condors. In fact, we saw lots of them. Sadly, not a single one came close enough for a decent picture. We waited for a while, without any luck. We did get to see a coyote and an adorable pair of picas (furry little mammals like rabbits, but with long, bushy tails). They were so confident of their camouflage that we were able to walk right up to them. Indeed, we wouldn'’t have seen them at all, except for the sharp eyes of our bike guide.

      The road back to Cabanaconde was all downhill, except for one single uphill climb. We were able to just sit on the bikes and zoom like the wind! The road was good, (except for one part that was under construction) and we just cruised! With the golden pre-sunset glow suffusing the evening light around the canyon, it was very beautiful and very enjoyable. The sun was just setting as we took the turnoff into the village. Soon we were safely back at Pachamama'’s bar, giving them back their bikes and ordering the first round of hot Pisco.


      When I say “"the edge,”" I’'m not kidding. My mule had the terrible habit of walking right along the outer edge of the two foot wide trail. She loved to dawdle along at the steepest places. I made an effort to spend my time savoring the spectacular view, without looking straight down. At one point, her foot slipped, sending a shower of small rocks over two thousand feet straight down. Her body lurched towards the abyss. As she stumbled, my heart pounded as she struggled to regain her footing...

      We were hiking out of the small village of Cabanaconde in Peru. Cabanaconde is located on the rim of the Canyon del Colca. This canyon at its deepest point is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and breathtakingly steep, with a roaring river gouging it deeper at the bottom.

      Our plan that day was to hike all the way down into it, and to ride mules back up, if we could. Even with the mules, it would be a long hard day for two out of shape middle-aged gringos who live at sea level! We would descend 1300 meters (4225 feet), and we would have to come back up the same way. Besides the distance down, there was the altitude problem. Cabanaconde itself is at 3290 meters high (10,700 feet), so we would be trekking at high elevation.

      The trek started as a gentle walk through Cabanaconde'’s terraced corn fields. The well engineered stone terraces are so old that they are pre-Incan. They are all still in use today. Just as I was starting to get used to the gentle slopes, we came to the abrupt edge of the canyon'’s rim. It was almost literally straight down. The trail snaked along a breathtakingly narrow path, which seemed to go straight off the cliff with each hairpin curve. I was thankful that I had brought my big hiking boots. How many tourists have slipped off the edge in sneakers? I wondered.…

      The scenery in the canyon was fantastic. The mountains were dramatically rugged and the colors of the exposed rock on the other side were beautiful. As we descended down into the canyon, we saw very interesting basaltic lava formations. Gnarly cactus lined the edge of the trail, and little birds flitted between them, somehow dodging their spines.

      It was brutally hot and dry and dusty. Our legs were getting tired, and we still couldn'’t even see the bottom yet! I soon began to wonder if we might have bitten off more than we could chew. Luckily, to my endless relief, we encountered a man with three mules. He was heading down for the day, hoping to rent his mules for the trip back up. We got an initial price quote for return mule fare. It was not unreasonable, so we told Juan that he would probably be renting us two of his mules.

      About halfway down, we could see the bottom. The desert canyon wall ends abruptly in a beautiful green garden called the “Oasis.” Palm trees and other lush tropical jungle plants seemed to spring up out of nowhere, nourished by the presence of water. The Colca river was just below, roaring through a narrow gully at the very bottom of the canyon. The local people have expanded the greenery by diverting water from the river upstream, and making it flow onto the green lawns and into several glittering blue swimming pools. From where I was standing, the water seemed to mock me. It didn'’t look all that far away. The Oasis rippled in the waves of dry heat coming off the hot, rocky trail like a desert mirage. I couldn'’t wait to get there!

      An hour later, it was so hot that we were almost stumbling down, and the tantalizing swimming pools were no closer! It felt was though we had made no progress at all. The line between the Oasis and the desert was so clear it was like somebody had put up a fence to separate the two ecosystems. It was heaven and hell, and we were still in hell. I was beginning to worry about getting heat stroke. ('I’d had it before, in India, and that put me at higher risk of getting it again). Dave began to push me to keep going. It was well after two in the afternoon, and we had to get back up the mountain before dark.

      The last part of the downhill trek was horrible. My mouth was so dry that I couldn’'t swallow, and my legs were trembling. There was no relief from the cruel, desiccating sunlight. It took everything I had in me to struggle towards the blessed shade of the first trees.

      Fifteen minutes in the shade, with a bottle of water, and I was like a new person. Dave ordered some food, and we went for a swim in the lovely little pool. My body temperature dropped dramatically, and I no longer felt ill. The Oasis was like heaven on earth. I wished that we didn'’t need to leave. My eyes drank in the rich greenery, the gorgeous flowers, and the swaying palms. I stayed in the pool until I was actually cold. Then we ate a meal, and prepared to leave. The little guest house at the oasis was tempting, but we didn'’t have anything with us, not even a toothbrush, so we prepared to return.

      The way up was much better. We walked back to the corral, where Juan was waiting. The mules were placid, well trained animals. Mine was clearly the lead mule. She would go far ahead of the others, leaving her owner completely out of sight. Then she would pick out a rest spot, which seemed to be inevitably right on the edge, with a terrifying drop-off, and wait for the other mules to catch up.

      The view from mule-back was really good, when I could bear to look at it. The day was really clear and the long view down the canyon was so profoundly deep that my mind had trouble understanding its true size. I spotted a large condor, wheeling majestically over the canyon'’s rim. The huge bird was at least half a mile away, yet I could still see the massive wings clearly. A blessed afternoon breeze alleviated the heat.

      Less than halfway up, we encountered another couple of tourists on foot. They were French. She was considerably older than I was, and she was nearing collapse. They had come down, just as we had, and then they had started back up on foot. They foolishly had packed only one liter of water between them for the uphill climb, and it was already long gone. They had drastically underestimated the deadly combination of desert heat, exertion, and high altitude. We gave them our water, and they were grateful. Her husband grudgingly hired Juan’'s last mule for his suffering wife, and sent her up with us. Juan was happy to walk, for the extra pay. Even so, she swayed in the saddle, and we worried that she might pass out and fall off the cliff.

      She made it to the top, but she never would have done it on foot! It was lucky for her that Juan and the mules saved her from disaster on the mountain. The final walk through the terraced fields at the top was a delight. The afternoon sun was burnishing the mountainsides with soft light. While the French lady headed straight for her hotel, we turned aside into a few fields to take pictures. It was lovely to use the ancient steppingstones engineered by the ancient Conde people to climb from one terrace to another. In between the fields, some thorny bushes were just beginning to bloom, and they had attracted a pair of hummingbirds. The sun was just setting, and one evening star had already come out. There was just enough twilight left to walk back to the little village before dark.

      Our new friend Luiz greeted us with a big smile at Pachamama'’s bar. We were just in time for happy hour.


      It was so embarrassing! Humiliating! But our charming hostess insisted! There was no way to avoid it. Señora Cristina and her daughter dressed us in full traditional Peruvian dress. They tied an enormously bulky traditional felt skirt around my waist. It was bright pink, and it stuck out in heavy layers of pleated material. I looked like a puffy ballerina who had unfortunately gained a hundred pounds. Then they belted me in with a wide black belt and they put a gaudy green bolero jacket over my shoulders. Cristina'’s daughter plunked me down onto the reeds and they braided my hair into two big braids, weaving bright pieces of string right into the braiding. After that, they tied a series of bright pink and blue pompons onto the end of my braids, so that I now looked like some kind of disco Pocahontas with a grotesquely large ass. Then they stuck the world's’ stupidest hat on my head, and stood back to admire their handiwork.

      Dave was next. He was more modestly attired, with a traditional woven alpaca poncho and a Peruvian alpaca hat with silly little pompons on the side ties. He looked like a shepherd who had lost his flock, along with his I.Q.

      There was nothing to do but wear my heavy pompons with as much dignity as I could muster. Cristina and her family were trying to indroduce us to an “authentic” Uros Islands experience. Cristina had other victims as well, who were also duly attired. Two other couples were there to share our night on the island.

      The Uros are really not islands at all. They are floating rafts of reeds, which are anchored to the lakebed below using large stones tied with rope. The Islanders build and maintain these floating islands, continuously cutting fresh reeds to put on top of the old ones. They build reed shacks on these strange spongy islands and live in them. Every part of the Uros culture is tied to the reed, from their “land” to their homes to their reed boats. Walking around on these “islands” is a strange experience. Most of the time it feels solid, but now and then you feel the reeds give way under you, and you have to adjust for the shifting floor. Once in a while, the waves on the lake get high enough to ripple the platform, and the entire thing moves, including your bed in your reed hut.

      The lake that these “islands” are on is Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable fresh water lake in the world. At 12,500 feet above sea level, the air is very thin for lowlanders like ourselves. It is a very large lake (over 190 miles long and 80 miles wide at its widest points). Lake Titicaca forms part of the border between Peru and Bolivia. Some of its islands are so isolated that they are little microcosms of culture, with distinctive costumes and language variations.

      There was electricity out there; all solar power, which lasted well into the night. There were also chemical toilets, so we weren'’t polluting the lake. They actually did the cooking over an open fire, which was interesting, since the entire island was flammable….

      There was not much to do, but that suited us just fine. We went to find a sunny spot to lie down and bask in the afternoon sun. We’'d been traveling hard for a few days, so it was great to have a little time to relax. We found a nice spot and nestled in. The reeds were comfortable and dry, and they smelled good. We got out our books and read for a while, and then napped. It was like sleeping on a warm sunny haystack. Very pleasant!

      After our nap, we walked around the “island” to take pictures. There were a series of very attractive clay cooking pots decoratively placed near Cristina'’s kitchen. Dave was taking pictures of them, when he discovered that one of them was full of kittens! We grabbed a reed and began to play with the tiny little fluffballs. Soon, all four of them were out of the pot, ripping and racing all over the place, trying to catch the rustling reeds we played with. One of the tourists knicknamed them “"Los Gatollinos."”

      In the late afternoon, one of the men took us fishing on the lake. We all climbed onto a small reed boat, and he paddled the length of the islands. The boat was of ancient design; it looked like it belonged on the ancient Nile in Moses' time. It was quite windy, and I was suddenly glad I was wearing all those extra layers of garments. The fisherman propelled the boat with a single oar, sculling just like the very old-timers do in Maine (it is a dying art in our country, but I was taught how to scull as a child). The reed boat was so buoyant that it barely dipped below the water'’s surface, making it easy to move. The fisherman finally got to his destination and set his net among the reeds. He told us that he would return the next day to pick it up, and hopefully get a couple of trout. (Trout is not native to the lake, but it was very successfully introduced, to the detriment one at least one native species.)

      Speaking of trout, guess what was on the dinner menu! When we got back from the fishing expedition, Cristina was already beginning to prepare the evening meal. We all went to the dining room in anticipation. Cristina sang as she cooked. We took pictures of her and her daughter preparing the meal. Her broad smile seemed to be permanently implanted on her face.

      Her dinner was wonderful! We ate trout, potatoes, quinoa and vegetables, with homemade flan custard for dessert. Everybody went back for seconds. The wind was rising, and the reed huts were not exactly well insulated! We would all need those calories for the cold night ahead.

      But Cristina had other ideas. Her family cleared away the table brought in a boombox. It was time for dancing. They were determined to teach us the local dances. How hokey could this get?

      Very. But we danced anyway. The cheerful Peruvian music was lively and easy to tap one'’s feet to. It was challenging to dance at that high elevation. Peruvian ladies are supposed to keep their heavy skirts twirling at all times, which really took a lot of energy! The men had it easier - – they got to dance in place whenever they spun the girls around. My partner was Cristina’'s husband, and he kept me spinning until I was gasping for air, but the exertion also felt good. In fact, we all got quite a powerful exercise-high, thanks to the altitude.

      After the dancing, we traded songs. It was hard for us to think of sing-along songs that we all knew. Americans really don'’t sing, anymore. We don’'t know songs as a group. It'’s really sad, if you think about it. Christina and her family knew so many songs! They also knew songs that foreigners had taught them. They sang us a song in one unidentifiable foreign language, which turned out to be Japanese! The world really is shrinking.

      In the morning, everybody was up and eager for breakfast. Cristina made us a wonderful meal, while “Los Gatollinos” terrorized the dining room, much to everyone’s' delight. It is hard to drink tea with a kitten hanging off one’s' arm! After breakfast, I was finally able to shed those horrible clothes! My scalp was sore from the weight of all the pompons!

      Cristina was a wonderful hostess. She hugged us and kissed us goodbye when the boat came to pick us up. She really made us feel welcome on her most unusual “island.”

      P.S. About the clothes: Where did these outlandish feminine styles come from? Actually, they came from the Spanish. They are copies of sixteenth century Spanish dress. The skirts, the belts and the boleros were introduced by Spanish ladies, and the Spanish pushed the attire onto the locals, even in remote parts of Peru. On several of the islands, the ladies even continue the use of the black Spanish mantilla over the head. We also saw embroidered white blouses being worn under the boleros, clearly made in antique Spanish style. The only utterly native “Peruvian” element to the ladies’ dress was the use of the colorful woolen pompons.


      The old city center of Cuzco far surpassed my expectations. Nowhere else in Peru does the colonial style flourish like it does in Cuzco. Tourist wealth helps a great deal, keeping the historic city safe from unfortunate modernization. Magnificent Cathedrals and historic colonnades surround each of the three main squares. Gardens and trees in these central Zocalo parks grace the city with bright flowers, greenery, sunshine, and shade, right in the heart of the old town. Behind it all, mountains ring the neighborhoods. It is really a beautiful place to visit.

      The stamp of the conqueror is everywhere in Cuzco. The Spanish did everything they could to destroy the symbolic heart of the Incan empire, and they replaced it with their own symbols of power. They tore down the palace of the Incan King, leaving nothing but the foundation stones. They stripped all the gold and jewels off of the great temple of the sun, leaving nothing but bare walls. Then, they surrounded the ruins with a high-walled Catholic monastery, ensuring that the local population would be permanently shut out of their own most sacred space. The local population was forced to work for the Spanish, using the stones from their own ravaged monuments to build cathedrals for the foreign god.

      For the tourist, it is sometimes frustrating. The Spanish walked into a civilization in full bloom, and they pillaged it so thoroughly that there is pitifully little left for the rest of us. For the Peruvian people, especially for those who yearn to know more of their original civilization, it must be a terribly sad experience to read their own history.

      The tale of conquest is a remarkable story, when you realize that the Incan Empire was at the height of its power when the Spanish came. The Inca were the late bloomers of the indigenous civilizations, organizing at about 1100 AD. At the time of conquest, the Inca controlled territory all the way from Columbia to Chile –- over half the length of the entire continent of South America!

      When the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, they had a famous meeting with the Incan emperor Atahualpa. The Spanish arrogantly announced that they were claiming the entire Incan Empire for the King of Spain. Atahualpa was, needless to say, quite taken aback, and asked by what authority the Spanish could possibly make such an outrageous claim. According to legend, the Spanish interpreter handed him a Bible, claiming that the book contained the word of God. Atahualpa held the book to his ear. “"It does not speak to me,"” he said. Atahualpa tossed the Bible aside. The outraged Spanish used this act to rationalize the atrocities later committed against the unfortunate Incan king, including his murder.

      Today, Cuzco is famous for the blending of the two unique cultures. Here is a little snapshot of Cuzco attractions that we enjoyed there:

      THE CATHEDRAL: Large and imposing, in pure opulent Spanish style, with a heavy emphasis on suffering. Even the angels look as though they have indigestion. Our favorite thing: a painting of the Last Supper. On the table, right in front of Jesus, is a Peruvian delicacy - a whole roasted guinea pig! The shrine dedicated to earthquake relief isn't too surprising, in this volatile area.

      THE MARKET: A lively market, with something for everyone, both tourists and locals. We bought lots of hand knitted alpaca wool clothing for friends and family. After shopping, we went to the food court, bought fruit smoothies, and got to know some friendly local folks.

      CUISINE: Peru is home to an interesting form of nouvelle cuisine. Chefs are combining the old and the new, creating exciting new Peruvian dishes which are very intriguing. We had several fine dinners at trendsetting new restaurants. Surprisingly sophisticated and delicious!

      BURIED TREASURE UNDER THE SUN TEMPLE RUINS: Walls of the old Incan Sun Temple of Qoricancha contain some of the most impressive stonework we’'ve ever seen. The Spanish monastery still surrounds the ancient temple, and today, it’'s still run by Dominican Friars, although it'’s now a museum open to the public and a World Heritage site. In the 1990’s, because of persistent rumors of Incan tunnels and hidden gold beneath the temple, they brought in ground penetrating radar into the Church of Santo Domingo, which was also built on the site. They found an open cavity, directly beneath the Church altar, about 30 feet down. This operation was initiated by the abbot, who supposedly was given a piece of Incan gold by a digger who claimed to have discovered secret passageways. According to one man who claims to have seen the abbot'’s gold himself, the abbot is keeping it safely hidden away, and he will not reveal proof of the evidence he supposedly has until his death or retirement, in order to avoid embarrassing the Catholic Church. Of course, the Church will never approve excavation, so the mystery continues...…

      Thanks for reading! Diana

Click here to visit the Travel Story Archive

and read more of Diana's stories from around the world!

I welcome your comments, suggestions (corrections!) My email is: email@tradewindsvt.com.