Mention Peru and an image of the postcard-perfect lost city of Machu Picchu surrounded by rugged mountain peaks comes to mind. But this is just one of the many archaeological wonders scattered across the country, and the number of sites keeps growing.
From the mummified remains of the 1,800-year-old Lady of Cao, which were found in 2004, to the pre-Inca tombs discovered in Lima just this year, there’s no doubt that Peru is an ever-expanding haven for history buffs.
I was keen to don my explorer cap, a la Indiana Jones, and dig down to the cultural heart of this fascinating country. But the treasures in store are more than just ancient ruins. Peru’s rich heritage is also kept alive by local artisans, many of whom use traditional techniques dating back to the Incas to create beautiful, brightly coloured crafts and textiles that are just as much a part of the Peruvian cultural tapestry as tribal relics.
Landing in Lima, I got a taste of these old Andean arts at the PeruModa and Peru Gift Show; two of the largest trade events in Latin America. In ancient Andean society, textiles were a powerful symbol of social status – perceived to be as valuable as silver or gold – and the Peruvians have retained their weaving techniques as a sacred craft.
Threading my way through stalls full of vibrant handmade alpaca shawls, soft cotton scarves and ponchos decorated with intricate folk-art patterns, I went on a handicraft crusade, bagging as many of these cultural treasures as I could.
Out in the field
The next morning it was time to go out into the field on my historical and archaeological adventure. My first stop was the Plaza de Armas; the birthplace of the city of Lima located in the middle of the historic centre.
A drive around narrow streets took me to the upscale Miraflores district, home of the famed Huaca Pucllana, or Pucllana Temple – a large adobe-brick pyramid built between 300CE and 700CE. I climbed to the top and from this vantage point the 1,500-year-old ruins looked like something out of a movie set and exuded an aura of eerie mystery.
Next I headed along the coast to Barranco, Lima’s bohemian strip, to look for more authentic Peruvian treasures. Walking along the tranquil streets lined by colonial, brightly painted art deco houses, I spotted a restaurant claiming to serve authentic Andean fare.
The menu was definitely worth exploring and boasted enough meat – including alpaca, llama and cavy (guinea pig, which was delicious and tasted like rabbit) – to make a carnivore reach for a salad.
After whetting my appetite in Lima, I was ready for the big one; Machu Picchu – a place I’d only seen on TV and in magazines. I flew to Cusco and the breathtaking views of the peaks as we made our descent had me spellbound. This, I soon discovered, was just a taste of things to come.
After checking into the Jose Antonio Boutique Hotel near the centre of the city, a two-minute walk took me to Santo Domingo Church on Sun Avenue. Dating back to the time of the Incas, this site originally housed the Temple of the Sun and served as the main palace of Inca emperors, but was converted into a church when the Spanish took over in 1540. Although they introduced colonial architecture, the first-level wall of massive stones – which are artfully laid upon each other without using cement – and the interiors decorated with motifs depicting nature are unmistakably Inca.
From here a five-minute drive took me to the heart of Cusco: the Central Square. Ivan, my guide from tourism board PromPeru, told me that when the Spanish killed the Inca royals at the square the locals named it Wakaypata, meaning “place where we cry” in the native Quechwa language. Back in those days this area had 14 magnificent palaces. Now converted into churches, restaurants or offices, many of the original Inca stone walls from the former palaces nevertheless remain enchantingly intact.
Culture and ceramics
Another traditional Peruvian craft is the production of pottery, an art that had already been an integral part of Andean civilisation long before the time of the Incas.
Having admired the many beautiful ceramics on display in shop windows around Cusco’s main square, I then set off to visit Julio Antonio Gutierrez Samanez Kurity, one of the few colonial ceramic makers in Peru.
I found him at his shop and workshop Taller Inca, Cerámica Colonial Cusqueña located in San Blas district. The award-winning potter, who also runs classes so he can pass on the traditional techniques to future generations, explained the difference between Inca and Spanish ceramics. The former come in muted tones and use mainly geometric patterns and shapes, while the latter boast vibrant colours and patterns.
In the afternoon I was driven to Chinchero – an Andean village between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The route took me through maize fields and by lakes before arriving at the main square. In this sleepy hamlet, I was greeted by a huge Incan wall and a 17th-century adobe church built on Incan foundations. At 3,800 metres above sea level, it offered stunning views of the snow-capped Urubamba mountains.
Continuing on my quest to collect authentic Andean artefacts, I picked up a wide variety of alpaca products including a manta (a blanket that women use to keep themselves warm or carry a baby), a scarf and a poncho at the Centro Textil Urpi (Taller Urpi Centre), a cooperative set up by local female artisans.
Machu Picchu at last
After an early night I woke up at the crack of dawn for the big day. I was driven to Urubamba to catch the train to Machu Picchu.
The Hiram Bingham luxury train service had all the creature comforts of a top hotel and a menu to put Michelin-starred restaurants to shame. It set off on a scenic route that snaked through the Urubamba River canyon. The vista was compelling; I kept snapping pictures from my window and the viewing deck, as we zipped through villages, Inca terraces and thick forests. I tucked into my lunch while enjoying the scenic splendour of the beginning of the Inca Trail.
I arrived at Machu Picchu town and a bus took me on a winding route to the peak. Setting my eyes on the real Machu Picchu took my breath away, literally (with the help of high altitude). On photos it is stunning, but observing the ruins up close and standing on them was an out-of-this-world experience.
Looking down from 3,400 metres above sea level at Urubamba River snaking around Machu Picchu on its way to the Amazon, and then up at the alpaca grazing against the backdrop of mist-covered soaring granite peaks was a visual feast. Although it was drizzling and foggy, the weather added a mythical element.
At one point my vision suddenly got blurry. Thinking the mist was fogging my glasses, I took them off, but I realised that it wasn’t the weather – I was crying. This spoke volumes about the magic of my surroundings. I’ve beheld many an alluring sight, but none other than Machu Picchu has moved me to tears.
The whole afternoon we explored the 15th-century complex. Spread over 20 acres, it is divided into three parts – the agriculture sector, the urban sector (dwelling place) and the sacred plaza. Its imposing stone structures were built with Lego-like precision and have withstood the test of time and natural disasters. The tour ended with afternoon tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, then it was back to Cusco.
Suffering from an archaeological hangover but determined to keep going with my quest, the next morning I laced up my trainers, strapped on my backpack and visited more Cusco sites.
Located three kilometres from the Main Square is Sacsayhuaman, an archeological park set on the peak of a hill that spans 3,000 hectares. Built as a sacred place dedicated to the Sun and a fort for defence, the zig-zag architecture made it easy for the Incas to fight invading enemies and defend the city.
Although the city eventually fell to the Spanish, traces of the magnificent fort still remain because the conquistadors couldn’t move the big stones – the largest apparently weighs a whopping 125 tonnes.
Tired, I decided to continue my journey by horse. Exploring Q’enko temple, Puca Pucara fortress, and Tambomachay (water temple) at a canter offered a great opportunity to soak up the scenery and breathtaking views of the city. The Christo Blanco (White Christ) statue, the shorter sibling of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer offers panoramic views of the Cusco cityscape at night.
I wanted the experience to go on and on, but all good things must come to an end. So, loaded with a bagful of goodies and sweet memories, I bid farewell to Peru. After experiencing such a feast for the senses, I can’t wait to go back to explore its other treasures.