After spending two weeks in Peru in July, visiting several archaeological sites and immersing ourselves in the culture of this incredible country, we proudly confess that the trip was one of the most educational and interesting we’ve ever encountered — a true expedition.
Our tour group was arranged by Flagstaff’s Avenues of the World, had 11 adventurers — primarily Flagstaff residents — and led by Wolf Gumerman, director of the Northern Arizona University Honors Program. He had previously spent several years in Peru doing research.
We were an amiable group that became Wolf’s most ardent and dedicated pupils. Rather than a tour, it rapidly became a first-class symposium — assignments and all.
Peru’s economy is based on agriculture, mining and tourism. As was obvious during our expedition, 54 percent of the people live in poverty, surviving on less than $60 per month. One in four children younger than the age of 5 is malnourished and almost a quarter of the population does not have electricity.
It is the rural, indigenous people who make up an overwhelming majority of the country’s poor. The richest 10th of the country receive 37 percent of the income, the bottom 10th less than 1 percent. Such statistics were sobering, but the people were industrious. There is no welfare support. Everybody works.
We started our journey in Lima, the capitol of Peru, in the late evening. This huge city of nearly eight million people made traffic on Milton Road look like a country backway. There is no mass public transportation, no trains and no freeways. However, there are about one million taxis to carry people around and about.
After a good night’s sleep, we found Lima to be a city with friendly and important historical sites. The Plaza de Armas was especially impressive, containing the Government Palace, a cathedral, the town hall and enchanting museums.
We flew to Trujillo, a city of about 300,000 — the second most populous area in Peru. Wolf did much of his research in this area. He took the lead as we visited the Pre-Columbian sites of Mocshe and later, Chan Chan (900- 1470 AD). The Incas invaded and conquered them in 1470. These sites were easy to visit, providing little or no physical exertion.
The Incas existed in Peru in the early 13th century. From 1438-1533, through force to peaceful integration, they incorporated a large portion of western South America. Their leadership encouraged the worship of Inti — the sun god — and imposed its sovereignty above other cults. They considered their king, “the child of the sun.” Enter the Spanish in 1532, and by 1572, the last Inca stronghold was conquered.
After early morning flights back to Lima and then Cusco, a bus took us toward the Sacred Valley, the small town of Urubamba and more archaeological sites. Thanks to Wolf’s previous presentations, we were beginning to even feel like amateur archaeologists — errr, not quite, but getting closer.
The Sacred Valley, 500 miles long, is truly one of the beautiful and authentic travel experiences in Peru. It starts just out of Cusco and rewards travelers with Inca ruins, quaint and charming little towns and extends between the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
We had the pleasure of visiting a market in Pisac, where we were besieged with countless vendors selling Peruvian goods, beautiful and colorful Alpaca sweaters, scarves and hats.
Our pocketbooks became somewhat lightened as we took advantage of the quality offerings at incredibly inexpensive prices (the Peruvian currency is around 2.75 soles to the dollar). Our group did itself proud and added greatly to the economy and the weight of our suitcases.
The next day, we visited the salt pans at Maras, which were started during the prior to the Inca period. Water from a hot salt spring is fed into thousands of small ponds built on terraces down the side of a steep canyon.
The ponds are enclosed for the water to evaporate and leave the salt for collection. Today, the salt is only for commercial use.
The next morning, we motored over to the Incan ruins at Pisac. At 9,751 feet, the altitude began to be noticed. The Incans constructed agricultural terraces on the steep hillsides, which are still in use today. As our tour continued around the site, we began to appreciate being relatively fit; others, too, were also in good condition.
On our way through the Sacred Valley toward Machu Picchu, we stopped at Ottantaytambo, a town containing an Incan archaeological site; it truly was breathtaking, and one of the most common starting points for the three-day, four-night hike known as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Most assuredly, none of our party wanted anything to do with that adventure.
Visiting this site, we were overwhelmed with the precise stone work involved; one could not even slip a credit card between the rocks. When one realizes that the Incans had no modern stone mason tools, no machinery to get the heavy stones to the site, such work more than speaks well for the architectural engineering required to build these temples. The word “awesome” does not do it justice.
Machu Picchu was our next stop as we boarded a train to the small town of Aguas Calientes. There we spent the night where we would take the bus the next morning up to our anticipated destination. Inka Terra Hotel was special.
When one finally arrives at Machu Picchu, its altitude of 7,970 feet, its sight truly is more than spectacular. It is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. Machu Picchu is clearly the most visited and admired. Its first sights are striking, surrounded by Andean Mountain peaks, set among the clouds, peaceful and serene.
It was built by the Incas in 1450 A.D., but abandoned by them a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. It was discovered in 1911 by an American explorer, Hiram Bingham. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
While we entered the site around 8 a.m., crowds were relatively small; by 10 a.m. it was almost elbow to elbow as a herd joined us to visit the various structures. Traveling up and down the steep stone steps can be taxing, but “easy does it” was the rule. All of us survived the visit well.
Some of us returned to Machu Picchu for one last visit prior to taking the train that afternoon back to Cusco, a city of about 400,000, an altitude of 11,200 feet. In Cusco, we found ourselves enjoying the Peruvian’s Independence Day. The Inca site at Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “sexy woman”) outside of Cusco was one of our favorites. We visited Coricancha , an original Inca temple that presented stonework that defies description for its precision.
Leaving Cusco, we motored to Puno, a city of about 100,000. It’s located on Lake Titicaca, a lake in the Andes on the border of Peru and Bolivia — the highest navigable lake in the world — at 12,507 feet.
The Floating Islands of the Uros in the lake are a sight to see, and we visited one of the Islands. Uros is an ancestral society that inhabits a series of these islands built with totora, a reef that grows in the lake. They are built by weaving totoras in the places where they grow the thickest and form a natural layer. Indigenous families actually live on these islands.
We then traveled farther southeast and crossed the border to Bolivia, where in Copacabana (we didn’t see Barry Manilow) we hydro-planed over to Sun Island, only accessible by boat. Hiking upward to our accommodations at 13,800 feet was a physical test for all.
On our final day, we hydro-planed to Moon Island and then motored back to Puno and then to Juliaca to fly to Lima and finally to Phoenix via Dallas. The return trip took us more than 30 hours.
Tired but pleased to be home, we shall always have such fond memories of this remarkable tour. Especially to Wolf, he made the difference for all of us.