There was a picture in my fifth-grade world history book that I've never forgotten. It was in black-and-white, as most textbook photos were in those long-ago times, and in it a young boy in native dress was standing next to a wall constructed of massive, smooth stones. The caption said the wall was in Cuzco, Peru, and that it was constructed by the ancient Incas so precisely that a piece of paper couldn't be slipped between any of the stones.
I asked my teacher, Mrs. Carson, how the ancient Incas could cut and place such huge rocks so perfectly. Her reply: "It's a mystery."
I became intrigued with the Incas and began reading everything I could find about them. I learned about the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the Hidden City, Machu Picchu. (Yes, I was a fifth-grade nerd.) I even asked my parents if we could go to Peru someday. They laughed. It was to be a dream deferred.
So imagine my delight when I learned that my stepdaughter was taking a summer internship in Lima. It was the perfect excuse to fulfill my Peru fantasy. So my wife and I decided to make the epic journey to the land of the Incas. And to bring things full circle, we took my 10-year-old (fifth-grade!) stepson.
We'd initially thought of going for a week, spending time in Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu, but after researching the country and its amazing attractions, we decided to stay for two weeks. We would spend a day or two in Lima, then head to Cuzco and tour the Sacred Valley and nearby Machu Picchu for a few days, and then, to finish things off, we'd spend three days at a lodge in the Peruvian jungle. We did not lack for ambition.
We land in lima around midnight. It's late June, winter in Peru, and the night air is foggy and chilly. But the temperature isn't the first thing we notice; it's the pollution, the literal stench of automobile exhaust choking our lungs.
Lima is a vast sprawl of poor neighborhoods and dusty streets filled with small, noisy, smoky cars. The area where my stepdaughter lives is on higher ground and not as polluted, but an aroma of eau d'exhaust still lingers the next morning. We tour some of the older neighborhoods near the sea and observe some charming old houses and buildings, but my advice to those of you traveling to Peru is to not linger in Lima.
To be fair, the Miraflores area has some lovely restaurants and hotels, but venturing away from the neighborhoods around the seaside cliffs is only for the truly adventurous. But things are soon to get better.
Our morning flight to Cuzco lifts through the omnipresent Lima cloud cover to reveal a landscape of high desert and the distant snow-capped Andes. The trip to Cuzco is a short one, little more than an hour, but it's to another world — and at 9,000 feet, the air is crisp, cool, and blessedly clear.
We are met at the airport by a driver from our hotel. As we motor through the twisty cobblestone streets, he tells us we'll be served coca tea at the hotel and that we should drink it and lie down for an hour or two to acclimate to the altitude.
The small hotel is ancient and rambling, with a courtyard and wonderful views of the city square below and the mountains beyond. In the lobby, we sit next to the fireplace and dutifully drink the bitter coca tea (all except 10-year-old Roman, who turns up his nose) — and not so dutifully set off immediately to explore.
Within minutes, we all have headaches, so we stop at a little market and I buy a bag of coca leaves, plus coca chocolate, coca gum, and coca mints. The coca leaves taste like mulch but relief is almost instantaneous. The chocolate and gum were less effective, but easier to get a 10-year-old to use.
Cuzco feels like Vail or Aspen — if Vail or Aspen had cobblestone streets and 400-year-old Spanish architecture. The main square is filled with young adventurers, there for the hiking, climbing, hang-gliding, kayaking, and other Gore-Tex pursuits. Mingling among them are locals hustling the tourists for knitted hats, scarves, paintings, maps, finger-puppets, New Age massages, raft trips, etc. There are countless shops selling scarves, gloves, hats, sweaters — anything that can possibly be knit. (By the end of our trip we became very tired of two things: the phrase "alpaca-knit" and that song Paul Simon stole from the Peruvians, the one with the line, "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail . . . .")
But Cuzco is a magical place. The streets are mostly vertical and no wider than the tiny Daiwoo taxis that patrol them. (You have to squeeze against the wall when they pass.) And sometimes streets turn into steps. Or just dead-end. You shrug, turn around, bite off another wad of coca, and keep walking. I buy a scarf from a woman so brown and wrinkled that she scratches her prices on the back of her hand with a straight pen — an irresistible bargaining tool, I might add.
On our first evening, my stepdaughter and I set out in search of the famous Inca wall I'd seen in my textbook. It was just off the square, a few blocks from our hotel, and one of the few remnants of Inca architecture in the city. When Spaniards conquered the area, they destroyed most of the original main structures and replaced them with their own.
After taking a few photos, we resume wandering. At some point, we find our-selves in a hookah bar, of all things, that features a three-piece combo playing classic American jazz. Imagine Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" being played by hat-wearing Peruvians in native dress as sweet-flavored tobacco smoke wafts through the room. We'd come a long way from Beale Street.
The following day, we hire a local to drive us up into the countryside and into the Sacred Valley. We stop at various overlooks and mountain vistas and feed llamas and visit a small village market. (Yes, they had scarves, gloves, etc.) We eat fresh trout at a riverside restaurant. Though it is mid-winter, flowers are in bloom everywhere. The sky is absolutely blue. The temperature is perfect.
We board the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu early the next morning. The three-hour ride begins with countless switchbacks, as we climb the surrounding mountains, then descend again into the Sacred Valley. The train follows alongside a small stream that splits green fields being worked by men and oxen. No billboards, no highways, just blue sky, fertile land, and distant snowy mountains. If it weren't the Sacred Valley, it would be called the Perfect Valley.
Soon the valley narrows to a gorge and the stream on our left becomes the raging Urubamba River, crashing over house-sized boulders like a kayaker's dream — or nightmare. On our right, just outside the open windows of the slow-moving train, is a cloud forest, not unlike a botanic garden — bromeliads, orchids, ferns, lush green succulents, banana palms, thick vines, and fuschia. Soon, only a thin slice of sky is visible as the valley closes in.
Finally, the train squeals to a stop in the town of Aguas Calientes. It lies at the foot of Machu Picchu and serves as a staging area for tourists and adventurers there to see one of the world's seven wonders. The houses and hotels are small and brightly colored and stacked on top of each other. Lush green walls rise steeply at the fringes of the town, which is split by the Urubamba River. The hot springs from which the town gets its name are now run by the city government. No more naked hippies. Sorry. But they will rent you a towel. And the water is hot.
Our hotel, Rupa Wasi, is quite literally a treehouse built into the side of a mountain. After staggering up the steps and depositing our luggage, we wander the town and find a French/Peruvian restaurant (with a wine list!), which keeps us full and happy until bedtime. We fall asleep under a full moon shining through the trees, knowing we have to rise at dawn to catch an early bus to the Hidden City.
Everyone has seen pictures of Machu Picchu — especially the classic one with the jagged green monolith hovering over the ancient ruins. And that view is the first one you get when you climb to the site. But no photo can prepare you for the real thing. We hike around in the predawn light, looking in wonder at the sheer size of the city, the insanely steep drop-offs to the rivers below, the intricate and massive stone walls and terraces. Then we find a place to watch the sunrise from behind the surrounding peaks and sit down in silence. The light streaks the sky in translucent beams, upward at first, then slowly descending and lighting the mountain above the city.
You know as you take your photos — one after the other — that they will never capture this place, this vista, this moment, but you keep shooting. Then you give in and just let your senses try to absorb it all. That's all you can do.
The plane ride from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado is 45 minutes, but, again, it is a flight to another world. Below us, the mountains recede and we sail over a thick endless green carpet of jungle split by an occasional brown river. We land on a bumpy asphalt runway with palm trees close on either side. In less than an hour, we've gone from 65 degrees to 90 degrees, from crisp, thin mountain air to chewy humidity, from clear mountain streams to wide café au lait rivers. We are greeted at the tiny airport by Luis, a guide from the lodge where we'll be staying — Estancia Bello Horizonte. We rumble in a small van through the dusty streets of Puerto Maldonado, a tiny mining and lumber town on the banks of the Madre de Dios River. It is the last outpost of civilization before a couple thousand miles of Peruvian/Brazilian jungle to the east. There are few cars, but many motorcycles and bikes.
We are driven to the Madre de Dios, where we walk down a muddy riverbank and across a single board plank into a narrow wooden boat. We get ferried across and climb into a van, which rattles us down a gravel road 20 kilos into the jungle.
The Estancia is literally carved out of the forest. It's a 200-yard square of mowed grass, dotted with eight thatch-roofed cabins and several small trees. The accommodations are well constructed of oiled hardwood, with screens all around and small shady porches.
Our first morning comes early. Hundreds of parrots, macaws, toucans, and monkeys begin chattering and yelping in the surrounding trees well before dawn. (Yes, it sounds like a Tarzan movie.) We are served a fresh breakfast of fruit and yogurt before being driven back to the river for a boat ride.
The Madre de Dios is wide and smooth and dark. There is a little fog. The sky is pink and deep blue. Some stars still hang in the west. After an hour's cruise, we pull over to the bank just below a muddy bluff. As the sun rises, huge clouds of birds — green parrots, macaws, parakeets — begin circling and landing in nearby trees. The noise is deafening. Then, as if on signal, they begin to flutter down and clamber over the mud, gnawing at it with their beaks. Soon, the bluff is covered in green and red.
Luis explains that the parrots seem to need some mineral from the mud for digestion and that they begin every day this way. We feel privileged to have seen it.
Our days in the jungle are filled with activity. We hike into the heart of the nearby forest, where Luis coaxes tarantulas out of trees and gives us a walking tutorial on the birds and insects and plants we see. We take a float trip down a tiny jungle stream, where we see caimans, peccaries, butterflies the size of pie plates, and a huge troupe of capuchin monkeys. We climb into the treetop canopy, 100 feet in the air, at a nearby jungle research center.
Estancia Bello Horizonte is a small eco-resort. It can host 16 people at a time. We go out every day in groups of four, each with a guide. Our fellow jungle-philes are Italian, British, and Brazilian. We are a jolly bunch, especially after the power comes on each evening at 5:30, when we all gather for dinner in the screened-in dining area.
After dinner, we all move to the bar, another screened-in structure nearby. There, we drink strange fruity drinks and Peruvian beer and watch weird Bolivian music videos. And usually, by evening's end, there is enthusiastic, if not exactly elegant, dancing. The power goes off at 10:30 and we drift to our cabins under the darkest, starriest sky you could ever imagine.
On the fourth day, we bid farewell to our new friends and to our guide, Luis. Three hours later we are back in Cuzco, which seems amazingly civilized, and then it's on to Lima and back home again.
Peru. It was a magical vacation. Ask to see my pictures.