Lost cities

The ancient cityof Machu Picchu
Photos by Mary King

Exploring the rooftop of South America Mary King discovers treasures of the Inca.

Crimson orchids loom out of clouds swathing snowy mountaintops; Inca ruins gleam in the alternating sun and mist; high golden plains, where llamas and alpaca scamper, roll on and on, rising into the glory of the Andes before tripping gently down to the Amazon basin; and markets bustle with locals going about their daily business.

There are many reasons to visit Peru and yet the horror stories one hears about the country are often enough to put off even the most intrepid travelers. "Peru? Are you crazy?" exclaimed a Chilean on hearing my travel plans. He then proceeded to elaborate on all the people he had heard of, who had been mugged, robbed or raped there. "And, then there' the Shining Path guerrillas," he concluded, "They're still active in many areas, and quite a few gringos have been taken as hostage, then shot." I crossed the border into Peru with an extremely heavy heart and a high dose of paranoia.

On the train from Puno to Cuzco, foreigners, looking pale and wary, were herded into carriages together. With the doors firmly bolted, a group of soldiers called Delta Security escorted us on the 13-hour journey up to the city famed for its Inca ruins. I was certainly relieved, and even a little surprised, to make the trip to Cuzco in one piece and to check into my hotel that evening unscathed. The following morning I ventured out into the brilliant sunshine, still very much on guard, but soon relaxed on feeling that none of the locals were particularly interested in lynching me, or any of the other tourists milling around. After spending one day in the miserable town of Puno, my expectations of Cuzco had not been high, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover what a quaint city it actually is. Cuzco was the thriving capital of the pre-Columbian Inca Empire. Legend claims that the town was founded in the 12th century by the first Inca, Manco Capac. Archaeological records, however, indicate that the area was occupied by other cultures for several centuries prior to the rise of the Incas.

Flower traders at Pisac's market

Pig out
Today, as this is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent, as well as the archaeological capital of the Americas, Cuzco is a main stop-off for visitors to Peru.

The narrow-stepped streets are thronged with the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. It is a city where one can easily spend a week, exploring the small lanes lined with Inca-built stone walls, many of which now form the foundations of Spanish colonial or modern buildings.

Markets in Peru are a must for any visitor, whether you are searching for souvenirs or just simply wanting to get a taste of how the Indians earn their living. Plump Indian women, their long black plaits under bowler hats called fedors, spread their wares out on colorful shawls outside the market near San Pedro station. Chickens flap around, pigs squeal, and babies, carried on the backs of the women, wail as livestock are inspected by prospective buyers. One old dear - gray-haired, toothless, face as wrinkled as a walnut - thrust a guinea pig under my nose after spotting me moseying around the fish stalls. "Siete soles (about JY300)," she bleated as the golden-furred creature blinked at me nervously, twitching in her hand. Nonplussed, I looked at her and shrugged. He was very cute, but what did I need a guinea pig for? "Comida," she rasped, putting her fingers to her mouth and slapping her moistened lips. "Food!" I shrieked in horror, quickly making my getaway to the nearest cerviche stall for a delicious meal of raw fish marinated in vinegar and lemon.

High in the clouds - Machu Picchu

Later, someone explained to me that roast guinea pig has been a specialty in Peru since Inca times and I was intrigued to give it a try. Given one day's notice, many of Cuzco's restaurants are willing to rustle-up this dish for tourists. Having heard that it tastes like a cross between chicken and rabbit I thought that I would not find guinea pig to be such a gastronomical shock, but on seeing it served up, eyes peering at me, teeth bared and paws akimbo aside some vegetables, I was not so sure. "How is it?" inquired a French woman at the next table, hardly disguising her disgust. "Not bad," I managed to muster between tentative bites.

City in the clouds
Most tourists arriving in Cuzco end up doing the "Inca Trail," a four-day, 33km hike that offers views of snowcapped mountains, high cloud forest and beautiful ruins. The trek reaches its climax at Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas," which is considered the most stunning archaeological site on the continent. During the peak months (June-Sept), when the weather is best, thousands of tourists challenge this well-worn trail to be a part of the mystical experience. It is a tough journey, not for the faint-hearted. A guided tour with porters, camping equipment and food included is around US$60 per person.

Llamas grazing in Machu Picchu

Knowledge of Machu Picchu remains sketchy despite extensive research done by archaeologists. However, it is widely accepted that it was used for important ceremonial purposes. Also, the fact that the Incas settled in such an inconvenient place, some 2400m up, has been linked to their beliefs in the sanctity of surrounding mountains and rivers as well as in the area's cosmological significance. It was American historian Hiram Bingham who revealed the existence of Machu Picchu to the world in 1911 after being led there by local Indians. At that time, the area was densely covered in vegetation. Since then, there have been concerted efforts to clear the area and restore the ruins. The majesty of this ancient city, floating in the heavy blanket of clouds as the sun pushes through, is spellbinding. It is like beholding a mystical land, a Land of Oz - a view etched in the mind forever.

Downtown Cuzco

Getting there:
American Airlines, Continental, Aero Mexico and Lan Chile all fly to Lima. All flights transfer through the US or Mexico. TACA Airlines and Lan Peru provide service between Lima and Cuzco.

Where to stay:
For information on hotels in Cuzco and Machu Picchu try:
Ruinas Hotel, Central Cuzco, single: $93, double: $122, suite: $170.

Book through:
Hotels in Machu Picchu: Hatuchay Tower Machu Picchu, 300m from the Cuzco/Machu Picchu train station, single :$168.32 , double : $168.32, suite: $206.02.

Book at:


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