Peru 2003: Machu Picchu, Cusco, Lima and the Bench of Gold

I PROBABLY SHOULDN’T HAVE GONE TO PERU. We had a new baby at home and my wife was on maternity leave when my editor at the daily newspaper where I worked asked if I’d be willing to go to Peru to cover a trade conference. Something about his tone, though, said it wasn’t a request as much as an order, and since my wife was also a journalist she understood how this sort of thing worked.

And I really wanted to go. Peru was like a myth to me – one of those strange places I never imagined I’d visit, like Zerzura or Shangri-La or Kvenland. It wasn’t a travel junket as much as a news story at the end of a trip, with a lot of sightseeing built into the itinerary. Even when I was on the plane to Lima I had a hard time imagining that I was going there, especially since the first item on the schedule – after a brief sleep and yet another plane ride – was the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu.


Aguas Calientes, at the end of the Inca Railway, at the foot of Machu Picchu

There are a lot of ways to get to Machu Picchu. Mine involved a mad cab ride from Cusco across the Andean mountain plateau to catch the train from Ollantaytambo to the town of Aguas Calientes, where the train track is the main street and you catch the frequent buses up the switchback road to the top of the mountain.

The Inca citadel that American explorer Hiram Bingham (sort of) discovered in 1911, nestled in the saddle between two mountains, is truly one of the marvels of the world. When it comes into view after a short walk past the restaurant and the hotel you’ll find yourself comparing what you’re seeing with the postcard views you’ve collected in your head, just like when you see any much-photographed great wonder for the first time. The best thing to do in such a situation is reach for your camera and start snapping.

Some things I remember: The llamas, which have the run of the place and are there, I suppose, as a gentle form of weed control and landscape maintenance. The incredibly narrow paths on the edge of the mountain, with just a few inches and no guardrail between you and the Urubamba River valley below. And the llamas, which will suddenly come running toward you on those narrow paths, forcing you to flatten yourself against the walls as they sprint past, barely glancing at you under their long eyelashes.

I remain amazed at how much access tourists had to nearly every corner of Machu Picchu when most Aztec and Mayan ruins have been fenced off. This was fifteen years ago, and since then a quota on tourist visits has been enforced and perhaps the place is less accessible for wanderers. In any case I feel lucky to have seen it, and the memory of my day there still lingers.

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After another train ride and a sudden bout of the inevitable altitude sickness, I woke up in Cusco for a brief morning wandering the city and the nearby Inca ruins at Sacsaywaman – as spectacular as Machu Picchu in their way, but far less visited. I was taken with the narrow streets of the town, built by the Spanish on Inca foundations, often running along those incredible Inca stone walls, built without mortar and without a hair’s space between each massive stone.


Inca stone wall, Cusco

A note about Peruvian food: It’s amazing. The range and flavours were a revelation, and a particular discovery was chifa – a very tasty mix of the local creole cuisine and Chinese food. The food markets in Cusco were fascinating; besides the bananas, corn, potatoes, avocados and pineapple, there were melon-like tubers and root vegetables like oca, mashua, olluco, maca, yacon and caihua, which still haven’t made it into the produce sections of supermarkets where I live. The tastes and textures were unexpected – starchy and sweet but with flavours of grape, citrus, apple and cucumber.


Market stall, Cusco

Back in Lima, my time was split between the Lima Sheraton, with its stunning atrium, and the (now-gone) Pacific International Fairgrounds, where I was a guest of Prompex, the country’s trade commission, at the trade fair. After the opening speech by Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, I was standing around idly taking it all in when I found myself enveloped by the security detail surrounding the First Lady, who obliged me to begin moving with them toward the line of black presidential SUVs parked just outside.

Peru should, in theory, be a wealthy country. It sits, in the popular phrase, “astride a bench of gold,” with mineral wealth all over the Andes and its foothills. Getting the best deal for this wealth was the business of the trade fair, and I ended up having lunch in a private club in Miraflores with a wealthy Peruvian executive who tried to explain to me the circumstances and history of Peruvian trade and commerce, and Canada’s apparently pivotal position in all of that.

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I wish I remembered everything he said but I don’t. I mostly remember the paragliders floating in the air above the cliffs in Miraflores and the empty off-season beaches. I found Lima strange but full of pictures and I still wonder if I’ll ever make my way back there again. I still feel guilty about the trip. Guilty about leaving my wife and child for almost a week and guilty that the paper never really produced the ample coverage that the Peruvian trade commission paid so handsomely for me to write. But I don’t feel guilty about going to Peru.

Photos and story ©2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved