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Indelible Inca
In Peru, the Message of an Ancient Culture Still Resonates

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page E01

By the time you leave Peru -- after nearly a week's immersion in the vivid contrasts of Cuzco, the mystical calm of Machu Picchu and the simple, breathtaking beauty of the Sacred Valley between them -- you have read or been told a dozen times that the Incas had no written language, left no written history, and so much of what we know about their remarkably functional and far-reaching empire comes from voluminous notes kept by the Spanish conquistadors who, on the road to supremacy, apparently found time to stop every few hundred yards for ink.

But then, you get back home and have your pictures developed.

And now -- along with flashbacks to feelings that you still haven't been able to fully describe about your first time amid the vaunted stone remains of this vanquished kingdom -- what had been a fuzzy, half-formed notion suddenly becomes clear: If your civilization believed its supreme leader, the Inca himself, to be descended from the sun, wouldn't you tend to write really . . . big?

Not with ink, but with something the folks back home would notice, like massive granite temples and towers and fortresses and hundreds of miles of roads paved in stone, all in a language that encompassed, say, the Earth itself? And perhaps in a way most of us latter-day earthlings are still too celestially impaired to make out?

And I was worried about my college Spanish.

Though it was for me, such a thesis is really nothing new for Peru -- which, besides its famous Inca enigmas, is also home of the truly mystifying Nazca Lines, vast pre-Inca drawings that make sense only when viewed from an aircraft. But, even after the fact, this postcards-of-the-gods revelation mostly just made me appreciate having been among the mysteries with someone more adept than I at spontaneous translations from the ancient granite: A dancer and therapist, my wife tends to routinely mingle her everyday English with the more metaphoric and spiritual language of archetypal and elemental forces -- what moves her, actually. This can be a problem when Charmaine and I are, say, grocery shopping, but it is nothing but a boon when you are 11,000 feet up in the Andes in the middle of a town square that, 800 years ago, the son of the sun declared to be the precise center of the four quarters of the universe.

Welcome, in other words, to Cuzco -- stripped of its gold, burned by its builders, shaken down by earthquakes and rebuilt several times since its founding by demigod bureaucrats in the 12th century, but still the ultimate neutral zone and gathering place for free spirits from both sides of the veil.

Appropriately enough (since it's what connects the unborn to the already earthbound), "navel" is what the name of the former Incan capital means in Quechua, the official language of the hemisphere's largest-ever empire and one still spoken by a majority of the people of Peru's most visited region. Nowadays more the capital of an Inca-driven tourism renaissance (due as much to the Peruvian government's decade-old crackdown on inflation and terrorism as to the rise of the Discovery Channel), Cuzco is closing fast on a population of 300,000 -- with hotels opening, renovating and installing direct-dial international phone lines at a record pace. Yet despite the modern domestic airport and sprouting satellite dishes, Cuzco's character remains that of a small, resolute mountain town -- though one that is uniquely, serenely fetching.

In the fall and winter high season (our spring and summer), while Lima stews under a perpetually gray sky, Cuzco's dry and dangerously bright days are filled with bustling Tonka-toy traffic, decidedly Indian-influenced theater and art shows, and, everywhere, native vendors in their everyday rainbow-wear sitting on their heels beside their sidewalk stakes of handwoven Andean treasures (or nipping at yours as you stroll through the square). Hardy folks from around the globe dodge restaurant hawkers handing out coupons good for a free pisco sour with dinner, and climb into taxis, heading up to the enormous ruins overlooking the city or to the modern train (and ancient trail) to Machu Picchu.

After dark, Cuzco sports warm sweaters and impossibly bright stars, its amiable hush offset by street-corner Andean bands between restaurant gigs and small barking dogs hidden away down one of Cuzco's narrow cobbled streets, many of which are framed by original Inca stone foundations topped with colonial-era shops and houses. Policemen seem quite purposefully present, a swipe at the biggest crimes in town: picked pockets, and purses or camera bags whisked from the unwary.

The Sunday morning we fly in from sea-level Lima, we've been warned to go straight to our room at the immaculate (and just restored) La Posada del Inca Hotel, have some coca tea and lots of bottled water, and rest -- all to avoid altitude sickness, which at 11,000 feet above sea level can take the form of headaches, fatigue, nausea and fever. Since we're both dizzy (either from the altitude or the repeated warnings about the altitude), we do as we're told.

The window of our earth-toned room offers an instantly enchanting picture in coordinating hues: It looks out across a block of low Spanish tile roofs and tiny courtyards to the Plaza de Armas beyond, Cuzco's main square, where the massive 400-year-old Cathedral and the Jesuits' subtler but equally imposing Compania rise into the clear blue sky, a ring of hazy gold and green mountainsides on the horizon.

There will be a Catholic religious festival this afternoon; we know this from the unseen brass bands tuning up nearby, and the random fireworks -- huge booming thuds, which we will hear at least once every morning we're in Cuzco, apparently reflecting a native distrust of such modern gadgetry as alarm clocks and wake-up calls.

But we dutifully close the drapes, and shut our eyes, and . . .


Showered and wide-eyed, we catch the end of the small but festive parade from a balcony table overlooking the plaza at the Baghdad Cafe, a tiny second-floor bar where they'll fix you an excellent grilled cheese and tomato sandwich to go with your gallon of spring water.

Let's get a few things straight: We are . . . well, middle-aged. A decade ago, we might have arrived reservationless in Cuzco after a bumpy two-day bus trip over the mountains from Lima, a grease-darkened dent marking the spot on our backpacks where we tried to rest our heads and sleep, and then maybe walked into one of the many storefronts on the Plaza de Armas to hire someone to take us on a four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. You can still do this, but I guess I've taken too many hot showers since my wilder days, and have apparently developed a strong attachment.

Also, being exempt from the rigorous daily coolness drills required of everyone between the ages of 11 and 25, we thought we'd visit our first South American country as just . . . tourists. We had a few friends, who had a few friends, and I spent enough cramped hours researching guidebooks and Web pages to actually look forward to stretching out in a Continental coach seat, but we also then hired Hirca, a tour company with offices in Lima and Cuzco, which booked our hotel rooms, domestic flights and excellent guides in both cities. Thus, I figured, at least my worries about getting by as a nonfluent speaker of Spanish (needless, it turned out) would be taken care of.

Of course, at this point we hadn't thought much about the language spoken by ancient terraced slopes and plains, or by the ever-steeper and greener banks of the Urubamba River as it rushes toward the high edge of the Amazon jungle beyond Machu Picchu, or, especially, by the surprisingly intimate, impossibly organic outposts of the Incas.

Having been there and listened, we think about that a lot now.

Most modern-day expeditions more or less follow the course of American explorer Hiram Bingham, who in 1911 started out in Cuzco and wound up being led, by a local farmer, to what the archaeologist (and his chief sponsors over at the National Geographic Society) dubbed "The Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu. But for reasons of train schedules and hotel reservations, we wind up touring the Lost City first, before we get to know Cuzco -- and this works just fine, if not immediately.

Despite our dutiful consumption of mass quantities of coca tea and bottled water, we awaken with a headache apiece after our first day at two miles above sea level. Charmaine's head worsens through the tourist train's dawn departure and its slow climb, across a series of switchback rails that each seem to share a narrow ridge with a few hundred small adobe-brick houses and at least that many kids and dogs, inching another thousand feet up and eventually over the mountain that cradles Cuzco's northeast corner.

As we pass down onto a broad rolling plain of brown and gold, Lourdes, our guide, who is bright and cheerful in a fundamentally serious (and distinctly Peruvian) way, comes over from her seat near the front of coach to chat about the Sacred Valley's more tangible fruits -- and vegetables, including native species of tiny potatoes and monster corn. When the spring rains come in a month or so, she says, the browns and yellows will turn to the green of the region's breadbasket -- which this valley has been since the Incas started terracing its erosion-prone slopes more than seven centuries ago. Right now, in late October, buildings and fences need mending; through the windows, it's also clear that it's time for those apprenticed in the ancient technique to go out and carve adobe blocks from the earth and stack them to dry. The stacks are everywhere.

The train cars have small TVs mounted at either end; one of the three red-jacketed twentysomething train attendants puts on a video, and the car fills with Andean panpipes and guitar. As the camera pans to a llama at rest amid the ruins of our ultimate destination, the train descends to skirt silvery eucalyptus stands and yellow-studded fields of flowering scotch broom along the Urubamba River. Many passengers, including me, inexplicably accept the attendant's offer of a personal copy of the not-entirely-professional video in exchange for about $30 U.S. Sandwiches and soft drinks are served.

At Ollantaytambo, those about to hike the Inca Trail part company with the train, which will follow the river the rest of the way to Machu Picchu, about two hours downstream. The hikers will take the high route, traversing three mountain passes in as many days, eventually entering the Lost City from the Intipunko, or Sun Gate, a notch on a high ridge overlooking the ruins. It's the way you would have entered the city in the mid-14th century, when archaeologists suppose it was built, most likely as a ceremonial center or religious retreat, though no one is certain.

By the time we reach Machu Picchu by train, Charmaine's headache has become a full-body ache, with chills, fever and nausea to boot, and the finale of the four-hour trip isn't quite what the doctor orders for altitude sickness: a long shuttle bus haul up the steep switchback road from the train station near the cheap hotels, pizzerias and movable T-shirt bazaars of Aguas Calientes. As we're staying the night at the Machu Picchu Ruinas Hotel, right up there beside the archaeological park, and Lourdes has to catch the afternoon train back to Cuzco, Charmaine checks in early to our rented bed, not exactly cheerful but resigned to what she views as a pre-entry purgative.

Lourdes leads me up the steep path that starts just below our room, and ends in another world.

Like the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon and other wonders we've all seen in a thousand pictures, Machu Picchu looks just as it does in the photograph -- at first. The problem with photos, as with travel stories, is that you aren't in them. We came back with many vivid memories of this remarkable city, built with a clear devotion atop this cloud-high tableland between the peaks of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. But the most vivid are of just being there in it -- of having been silenced, half in awe and half in solace, by the sheer labor-intensive ingenuity of its construction and the simple, austere magnificence of its setting.

The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, which might have been already long abandoned and forgotten before their arrival in 1527. Today, however, in high season, a thousand or more tourists take the path each day into the no-longer-lost city. Several times during my three-hour walkthrough, in fact, Lourdes has to change position or raise her voice to be heard over competing tour groups, parents tracking kids and, in particular, straggling groups of wiry, glowing Euro-merican youths who've obviously hiked the Inca Trail to get here and are still shouting taunts and encouragement to each other across the plazas and steps, as if the judges are gonna count Machu Picchu as part of the climb.

The overpowering dignity of the place, of course, endures -- as Lourdes leads me up past the cascade of 16 ceremonial baths (still functioning) and the razor-edged stonework of the circular Temple of the Sun, to the flat Sacred Plaza and its Temple of the Three Windows. Through these large, characteristically Incan trapezoidal openings, the small knots of tourists out on the wide central plaza now seem to move in quiet, reverent appreciation.

After the tour and a decent lunch back at the hotel's covered-patio cafeteria, which feeds hundreds of lunchtime visitors daily, Lourdes heads back home. Charmaine, feeling slightly better, comes back with me to the ruins in the late afternoon, but walking is difficult. We sit on the grass at the lower edge of what the experts say was probably a low-rent residential or industrial area near the bottom of the city, where the long central stairway and agricultural terraces disappear into abrupt, thick jungle. Gazing out at a mountain and a darkening sky, we talk quietly, our voices instinctively hushed in such obvious proximity to Heaven. And then we don't talk at all for a long time.

Dinner at the hotel seems . . . I don't know -- unnecessary.

The next morning, we are at the gate when it opens at 7 -- giving us a good three hours before the tourist-train hordes arrive at 10. At sunrise, the sky is filled with mist and fog. As we walk into the ruins, patches of blue and rose begin to appear, and the fog reveals itself as clouds, wisps and swatches of which remain in depressions and around the peaks that surround us, intensifying the already unshakable feeling of being alone up here -- just us, this earthen mystery and a sky you can reach up and touch.

In truth, there are maybe two dozen early visitors up here climbing, strolling, lolling, meditating and hugging each other and various carved stones, in particular the sundial-like Intihuatana, or "hitching post of the sun," the only known survivor of the Spaniards' highly successful sun-worship eradication project. We also run repeatedly into four resident llamas, who, at one point, form an almost perfect diagonal line in the mist still shrouding the plaza -- and then kneel, almost as one. They sit like this for at least a half hour, until someone with a camera gets too close and (in the larger sense, at least) blows the shot.

There was a brush fire up here about two months before our visit; as we walk, we can see that nearly all of Huayna Picchu and a swath of surrounding forest, right up to the sheer southwestern edge of the ruins, are charred and barren; the hiking trail to Huayna Picchu is closed indefinitely.

The fire burned for days, we are told later by a woman who grew up in the Sacred Valley and whose husband was one of hundreds of local men who fought it. It was carried by high winds across the river, threatening to reach both the ruins and the village of Aguas Calientes. "The people in the mountains were praying, and they were doing all the things that they do, the ceremonies, when they need it to rain during the planting season," she says.

The day before the fire would reach Machu Picchu, in the middle of one of the driest months of the year, the skies darkened. It rained heavily for two days. The fire went out. "The spirits," says the woman, gazing off toward nothing in particular, "would not let anything happen to Machu Picchu."

We feel, for our remaining two days back in Cuzco, in similarly good hands -- those of Lourdes, our official Hirca guide, and Nilda Callanaupa, a full-time weaver, part-time guide and all-the-time mother of two toddlers, whom we reached in Cuzco through a mutual friend, author Wade Davis (whose excellent ethnobotanical adventures in last year's "One River" are what got us charged up about visiting Peru to begin with). On Thursday, Lourdes escorts us warmly and painstakingly around Cuzco's many colonial and Incan treasures and the archaeological sites that ring the city. The day before that, Nilda takes us to her family home in the Sacred Valley, the village of Chinchero -- site of one of two Sunday produce/craft markets worth visiting, the other being in Pisac. There, she shepherds us through an unforgettable, sheep-to-shoulders demonstration of native weaving in an adobe-walled corral at her parents' farm.

Nilda lives in Cuzco with her husband but maintains close ties with her family -- and with weaving, which she loves deeply, she says, for its inherent power to both restore the spirit and preserve the culture. She's trying to start a nonprofit, educational Center for Traditional Textiles in Cuzco, a museum in which weavers from surrounding villages can demonstrate and teach -- exactly as her mother, her two sisters and a neighbor do for us, as Nilda narrates. Afterward, Nilda's mother serves us a simple and wonderful lunch of local vegetables and corn-and-potato soup in the small courtyard of their home. No narration is necessary.

The last day's highlight was, for me, quite precisely that.

Charmaine, Lourdes and I were standing high above Cuzco, atop the enormous, jagged ramparts of the Inca fortress Sacsayhuaman, in the center of a wheel with 10 spokes of stone -- the foundation of a tower dismantled some time after Pizarro's soldiers drove Manco Inca's rebellious forces from this site in 1536, following a long, violent siege.

It was a decisive battle; the Incas only retreated after this, eventually to the jungle stronghold of Vilcabamba, which is what Hiram Bingham thought he'd discovered when he stumbled into Machu Picchu.

Maybe it was the sun glinting off the distant, snowcapped Mount Veronica or the white stone figure of Christ (a replica of the more famous one in Rio) on a nearby hillside, or an optical illusion kindled by the waves of terra cotta spread out before us -- the tiled rooftops of Cuzco. In any case, what seemed to be a swarm of tiny fireflies appeared ever so briefly in the air around me as I stood, at Charmaine's suggestion, in the very center of the tower's foundation. They spiraled and flickered, like a school of electric fish might, and were gone. I blinked. When I asked if anyone had seen what I'd seen, Charmaine smiled indulgently, and Lourdes just shrugged.

So, either I have a rare brain tumor like the one John Travolta had in the movie "Michael," or the symptoms of altitude sickness are more varied than they tell you.

Or, the third possibility: There are some very good reasons the Incas never put any of this stuff in writing.

Details: Peru

GETTING THERE: United, American and Continental fly daily to Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport (though none flies nonstop from any Washington area airport). American was quoting a low round-trip fare of $538 for trips made by Jan. 31, but a more realistic round-trip fare to expect when the Andean rainy season ends in April is closer to $700, with restrictions. From Lima, Aeroperu and others fly numerous one-hour flights daily to Cuzco, usually for about $175 round trip. Tour packages (see below) often include domestic flights but hardly ever international air fare.

WHEN TO GO: Though many are worried about how El Nino will treat Peru, particularly during its rainiest months of January and February (flooding and mudslides have already claimed a dozen lives in the highlands since mid-December), you'll avoid the highest air fares and biggest crowds by visiting during spring and summer, November to March. But since it's relatively dry, with bright days and sweater-weather nights, May through October is the optimum time to be in Peru's mountainous interior; it is also when most of the Andean religious and other festivals are held, including the most well-known and well-attended, Inti-Raymi, the colorful, parade- and reenactment-prone Festival of the Sun, on June 24 in and around Cuzco.

WHERE TO STAY: There are many choices in Cuzco, from the top-of-the-line Libertador (telephone 011-51-84-231-961, doubles $150-$500) and the luxuriously converted-from-the-medieval Hotel Monasterio del Cuzco (011-51-84-227-191, doubles $180-$320) to the clean, friendly and centrally located Hostal Carlos V (011-51-84-223-091, doubles $30, including breakfast in the small hotel restaurant). We felt pampered and close to everything at the Posada del Inca (011-51-84-233-091, doubles $115), a block off the Plaza de Armas. The Alburgue Municipal is Cuzco's reliable youth hostel (011-51-84-252-506, dorm singles $8). At Machu Picchu, the chance to be among the ruins before most everyone else was, to us, more than worth the expense of a room for at least one night at the Machu Picchu Ruinas Hotel (011-51-84-226-871, doubles $192-$236). You can also stay at Aguas Calientes' Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, amid gorgeous, ecologically correct gardens and bungalows, and take the first bus up to the ruins at 7 a.m. (011-51-84-223-769, doubles $140 and up).

WHERE TO EAT: Three spots you should not miss: for dinner, La Retama (315 Pampa del Catillo; 011-51-84-225-911, entrees $20-$30), where the floor show of Andean music and dance, almost a cliched offering among Cuzco restaurants these days, is particularly well done; for lunch, the casual and creative Ama Lur (Plazoleta Nazarena; 011-51-84-236-499, entrees $5-$15); and for breakfast, you must sit among the hefty coffee mugs, hometown newspaper readers and sinfully good homemade pastries of the plain and popular Cafe Ayllu (on Plaza de Armas next to the Compania; no phone).

TOURING/TREKKING: It's the Americas' archaeological capital; there is too much, in and around Cuzco, worth seeing -- from the Inca-built stone-wall streets and the daily market (a place, among others, to be sensible about carrying valuables); to the treasure-filled Museo de Arqueologia and magnificent colonial art collections in the Cathedral; to the ruins downtown (the Coricancha's perfect, immense, unmoved-by-earthquake temple walls, now supporting a twice-fallen colonial convent, were once covered completely in gold) and those just above town (Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay). You could hire a guide in town -- but guided package/theme tours of Cuzco, Machu Picchu and more remote, adventure- or nature-prone areas of Peru can free up precious brain cells to focus on the important, unwritten stuff.

We hired Hirca (in Cuzco, 011-51-84-263-032), a specialist in adventure travel, on the advice of Jerzy "Yurek" Majcherczyk, one of the first to raft through Peru's Colca Canyon, the world's deepest, and himself a veteran tour leader and consultant (Classic Expeditions, 201-302-9266; e-mail to For information on the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cuzco, or to arrange a weaving-related tour or demonstration, contact Nilda Callanaupa via e-mail at chcpnc@mail -- or call her at work, which happens to be the Cuzco office of Pan-Andean Tours (011-51-84-225-701), a reputable adventure-tour company that offers treks throughout South America, year-round. Mayuc is another reasonable Cuzco-based veteran; contact it at 011-51-84-232-666, via e-mail at or on the Web at MAYUC. Three U.S.-based alternatives worth noting are Adventure Specialists (719-630-7687 in Colorado Springs, Colo.; e-mail to; on the Web, adventur), for its enthusiasm for the Andes' natural wonders and lesser-known (and less crowded) treks; Boulder, Colo.-based Tawantinsuyo Explorations (303-499-8837, on the Web at, for an even-handed integration of history, archaeology and camaraderie; and for a decidedly spiritual experience led by author and Andean/Amazonian shamanism authority Alberto Villoldo ("Dance of the Four Winds"), check with the Florida-based Four Winds Society (561-832-9702, e-mail to, or on the Web at

INFORMATION: For general information, try calling Promperu, the Peruvian state promotional agency, in Lima at 011-51-1-224-3408 (it has no overseas offices). The number is often busy, and when it isn't, you'll probably need to speak Spanish to the person who answers. Promperu's Web site at index-i.htm (enter the upper-case letters as you see them) is only slightly easier to navigate. The Peruvian Embassy (202-833-9860) has a tourism office, and it's happy to send you a packet of general information, but you'll find much more information at the following (unofficial) Web sites (all are preceded by http://):

* For general information on Peru, try sam/peru.htm and

* For a wide-ranging list of Peruvian travel-related links:

* And George Mason University's geography department maintains an excellent Machu Picchu and Andean culture library at students/studgeog411/miked/library .html.

-- Roger Piantadosi

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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