In Inca Footsteps
by Meg Altmix with photos by Paul Hedquist
On the mountains outside of Cusco are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. Though most tourists ride in taxis or buses, we chose to walk up the steep back road to the ruins. Sacsayhuaman predated the Incas, but was taken over and expanded by them to protect their capital from invaders. We felt dwarfed standing next to the huge lava rock walls. Sitting atop them, it was easy to transport ourselves to the Inca era, imagining them moving the rocks into place. Still, the walls and catapults proved no match for the ladders, guns and diseases of the Spaniards. This well-preserved site is a “must see” for visitors to Cusco.
The roads in Peru are narrow and winding, and Peruvian drivers follow their own rules. So we hired a driver to take us to the Inca Sacred Valley, Urubamba. Along the way, we stopped at the town of Chinchero, known for its excellent dyeing, weaving and open-air market. We visited a textile school where we were served coca leaf tea and observed them dyeing wool made of baby alpaca.
While in the Sacred Valley, we stayed in the village of Yanahuara. Our timing was great, as the town was holding its annual celebration. We were treated to a parade unlike any we had seen before. From all the neighboring towns marched musical and dance groups in gaudy attire, many wearing masks, and each led by a statue of the Virgin Mary. What we did not know was that the sound of the horns and whistles and the beating of the drums would go on for 36 hours. It was a great taste of Peruvian culture.
The Sacred Valley is an agricultural area, so on the ride to Moray, we frequently encountered men driving their cattle down the road, women tending their sheep in the fields and others working the fields with hand tools. Moray is amazing, consisting of large circular depressions terraced by the Inca, with a sophisticated irrigation system. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but the prevalent theory is that they were used to study which crops would grow best in the many microclimates throughout the Inca Empire.
We also visited the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo, both providing excellent examples of pre- and Inca architecture. We came away realizing how naïve had been our previous notions of this “primitive” culture.
LAKE TITICACA’S FLOATING ISLANDS
We returned to Cusco from which we took a train south to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The 10½-hour ride was one of the highlights of our trip. The scenery was fabulous and the train a gem. Our car was fully appointed with dark wood, lamps, tables and wingback chairs. The lounge/observation car at the back of the train provided high-quality live entertainment, and both of the meals we were served were excellent. We were pleased that we’d taken the train rather than flown over the country side. The rural areas of Peru are beautiful with rich green vegetation, cultivated fields and mountains. The train followed the Vilcanota River for the first half of the trip, climbing to 14,172 feet in elevation. The landscape then broadened to a wide, high plain with herds of Alpaca, sheep and cattle.
After an overnight in Puno we took a four-hour boat ride across Lake Titicaca to Suasi Island. On the way we stopped at the Uros Islands where, for centuries, inhabitants have lived on floating islands made of reeds. Walking on these islands felt like walking on a trampoline. We then continued to Taquile Island where descendants of the Incas still live in very traditional ways and boast some of the best weaving in the world.
Suasi Island provided us with a very unique stay. It is owned by a third-generation native who is very ecologically minded and has built a 22-room hotel that is carbon neutral. We were one of only 3 couples there at the time. The hotel produced no ambient light which allowed us to see a sky full of stars at night. At more than 12,500 feet, it gets quite cold in the evening. Each night while we were at dinner, the staff would put two wine bottles filled with very hot water and covered in velveteen in our beds to warm them for us. Above our bed was a large skylight through which we could see the star-filled sky. It was a quiet, contemplative stay in a wonderful place.
AREQUIPA: THE WHITE CITY
Our final stop was in Arequipa, often referred to as the white city because the old buildings were built from white volcanic rock. We spent most of our days walking through churches and monasteries. Like every Peruvian town we visited, the square was where we found a place to sit and watch. The unique quality of this square was the pigeons that the locals treated like pets. Children would allow the pigeons to sit on their shoulders.
Throughout our trip, we stayed at Casa Andina Hotels (with the exception of Aguas Callientes and Suasi Island). We were never disappointed. The hotel in Cusco was just two blocks off the square; the one in Yanahuara included an observatory from which we viewed the rings of Saturn; and in Arequipa, the hotel is in the restored 1794 Mint House.
Meg Altmix and Paul Hedquist have been married for over 20 years, during which time they raised 5 sons and have grown together in their love of adventurous travel. The two co-directed a large human service agency in Iowa for many years prior to their retirement, after which they relocated to Loveland, Colorado.
The couple enjoys researching and planning trips on their own, with a focus on opportunities to get off the beaten tourist paths in order to become more engaged with each location’s culture. In addition to international destinations, they enjoy the greatness and variety of the U.S. national parks and monuments. At home, Margy is a weaver and bicyclist; Paul enjoys photography, biking and backpacking.