It’s official: Machu Picchu is the most beautiful tourist trap in the world. Make no mistake, Machu Picchu and its surrounding landscapes are breathtaking. So is the cost of getting there, staying in a hotel, and eating a meal. Here’s an example: Anywhere else in Peru, $12 will get you an eight-hour bus ride from one city to another. In Machu Picchu, $12 is what it costs to ride the bus up the mountain to the site, and another $12 is what it costs to ride back down.
Supply and demand, baby. You’re a captive audience and everyone knows it. The process to get entry tickets and train reservations is so bureaucratic and byzantine that I’m going to have to write a whole post just to give people instructions on how to do it.
In the dark, ignorant days of the 20th Century, we were taught that the Middle East’s “fertile crescent” was the Cradle of Civilization. The truth is that there were at least five cradles where civilization emerged on its own without any prompting from outside influence. One of these was the Peruvian Andes, which is why you can’t fall down a flight of stairs in this country without landing on some archaeological remnant of a bygone era.
The upside of that is that if you’re interested in history, then wherever you go in Peru there’s something unique to see. The downside is that is that you feel pressured to visit historical site after historical site as you travel around the country. I mean, how do you choose which ancient civilization to skip? Because there’s so much history to see in Peru (and little else that doesn’t involve adventure sports) we’ve kind of rushed our way through the country. We budgeted six weeks for Peru, but instead we’ve sped through it in four.
I’ve covered our visits to several of the big tourist sites in previous articles. Once we hit the Cusco area, though, we were suddenly in the Inca heartland, a.k.a. Tourist Central. Those of us brought up in the American education system probably think of the Incas as the dominant civilization of South America, but in fact they were merely the short-lived final stage of pre-Columbian Andean culture before the Spanish arrived. The Inca Empire only lasted for about a century. They conquered all the other Andean peoples, imposed their own culture on top of the others, then the Spanish appeared and convinced some of the Inca’s subjects to rise up and… you know the rest.
Cusco was the Inca capitol, and it looks like the Spanish bulldozed the city and replaced it with a little bit of home. There are colonial Spanish churches, monasteries, and architecture everywhere. Unlike other cities in Peru, the roofs of the houses are pitched, not flat, and covered in terracotta tile, giving Cusco a distinctly European flavor. It’s only when you wander down the streets of souvenir shops leading to the central plaza and look at the stonework that you notice the bones of the old Inca city on which modern Cusco was built.
Inca stonemasons built walls by fitting stones together so perfectly that no mortar was needed. They didn’t square them; they just polished them somehow (it’s still up to debate) so that their walls were seamless. They saying is that the stones fit so perfectly that you can’t slip a dollar bill between them.
The stonework in Machu Picchu isn’t as amazing as in Cusco except for the fact that it’s at the top of a damn mountain. This site was never discovered by the Spanish and was unknown to Americans and Europeans until its “scientific discovery” by Hiram Bingham in 1911. (The locals knew about it, of course, and there’s evidence that it may have been stumbled upon by German explorers as early as 1867.) The site has been cleared of vegetation and is now open to thousands upon thousands of tourists every day.
My advice: get there early and get through quick. The buses start up the mountain at 6:30 and do not stop. Floods of people will arrive behind you, and apparently the main reason they’re there is to take selfies. If you’re interested in seeing the site itself, you’ll constantly be craning you neck over one tour group or another, or some teenager doing fashion poses for her boyfriend, or a mass of senior citizens with their walking canes and selfie sticks. I kid you not – there was one group of elderly tourists following us around who for some reason were dressed just like Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
Our final stop in Peru was the city of Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Puno is at the highest elevation we’re going to be on our trip through South America (unless we get to see the Flying Cholitas on the outskirts of La Paz) and we’ve had a hard time breathing given the lack of oxygen. We didn’t go see any ruins, but we did ride out to the floating islands of the Uros people who live on the lake.
The Uros are a very old culture who now live mainly off the tourists who visit their islands. The islands, made from reeds and mud, float on the surface of the lake and each houses four to five families. There were 87 islands in the community we visited. Some were mainly residential while others were geared for the tourist trade with reed hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The Uros aren’t entirely without modern conveniences – the first island we visited had solar cells to run electricity to the huts.
Peru has been both beautiful and taxing. It’s too modern to think of as a “developing country” but in many ways it seems to be lagging. We’ve stayed places with wide-screen televisions in every room, but no heating and unreliable water. We’ve gone to big-box stores cloned from (and cleaner than) any American Wal-Mart, but you can’t find a pair of sunglasses or more than one size of Band-Aid to save your life. And don’t get me started on the lack of garbage cans.
Next stop, Copacabana (Bolivia, not the one from the Barry Manilow song). Pretty soon there will be salt flats, the Island of the Sun, and Flying Cholitas.
Things I Forgot to Mention
Waaay back in Chiclayo I mentioned that one of the things we saw in our mere eight hours there was a random street parade. At the time, we thought it a lucky happenstance. Then there was a 6:00 a.m. procession in Chachapoyas, two days of parades near the university in Trujillo, a parade in the Callao district of Lima, a Festival of the Saints parade in Cusco, and nighttime and daytime parades in Puno, including one to celebrate the anniversary the city’s hospital. Apparently Peruvians will throw a parade at the drop of a hat. Our hostel in Puno was so close to the goings-on that it was like booking a room in the French Quarter without realizing it was Mardi Gras.
(Email subscribers, go ahead and click here to see the embedded videos.)
Not Just Any Old Last Supper
In both the Convento de San Francisco in Lima and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin in Cusco, there are paintings of the Last Supper. These aren’t copies of the Da Vinci Last Supper. The one in Lima is, shall we say, crowded. Apparently Jesus and his Disciples had quite a large wait staff for the event and the meal included South American staples such as chili peppers. In Cusco, the main dish served at the Last Supper was roasted guinea pig. We weren’t allowed to take photos and the painting in Cusco was policed rather heavily, so I’m just going to post these pictures I stole off the Internet and a video from John Cleese and Eric Idle that puts things into perspective.
My Recommended Read for Peru
One thing I’m doing is reading a novel by an author from each country we visit. I completely forgot to update you guys on my book for Peru: Death in the Andes by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the story of a Peruvian policeman investigating a series of disappearances in a remote village of the Andes, during the height of the communist terrorist organization Shining Path’s reign of terror. It has the structure of a murder mystery with the tension of a horror novel. Read my full review here.
That’s All, Folks!
For those interested, here is the map of our trip through Peru and a picture of Lea with a llama. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be checking in from La Paz.