Peru: Gaining Altitude
By Mike Stratton
The world expands or contracts depending on your perspective, and when you travel, that ever-expanding world seems infinite as the world unveils itself in new and enthralling ways. And of course, the further away you venture, the more intense and rewarding the experience. So although Peru is relatively close to the U.S., it is in another hemisphere, and that only serves to heighten invigorating realizations for travelers visiting a most southerly South American destination.
My first glimpse of Peru was the illuminated city of Lima as my plane landed in the midnight darkness. During my overnight at the airport, it became clear that Peru was going to be a remarkably different experience because that airport was a party at 2 o’clock in the morning. Large numbers of flights leave for North America after midnight, and the airport was abuzz with excitement as families ate at the packed food courts before sending their loved ones off on their journeys. As in Egypt, when you pick up or drop off someone at the airport, you bring the entire family, even the grandparents. It’s a tiny cultural difference with the single-car, long-term airport parking habits of many Americans, but it makes the airport a much more interesting place, and it was my first clue that Peru would be one fun ride.
Uh-Oh: For a first-timer in Peru, the Andes Mountains posed a pleasant problem; moving from place to place required air travel; long-distance buses take forever and long-distance trains are non-existent. Hey, fine by me! It took two attempts to finally land in Cusco; that windy, high-altitude city in central Peru poses unique challenges for aircraft. But our pilots were true cowboys, and that frightening landing provided a telling introduction to the extreme topography of Peru, where even breathing is something you don’t take for granted.
My body and brain adjusted to the 11,200-foot altitude after a day or so, and as the pressure in my forehead dissipated, I could take in the architectural beauty of Cusco, an old Inca capital. As I acclimated to the extreme heights, lucky to be spared the debilitating effects of altitude sickness, the snow-capped mountainous beauty that surrounds Cusco came into dazzling focus. As a flat-lander, mountains hold a special fascination for me, and Peru is prime real estate for vertical visual delights.
A Sumptious Repast: I feasted on alpaca and quinoa and meaty street food before taking in the Sacred Valley, an unforgettable journey up and over scenic high-mountain passes to ancient Inca ruins. Actually, I prefer to call them treasures, because they offer a mind-bending journey back in time if you allow your imagination a bit of latitude at these altitudes. I found myself in a place called Pisac, a dramatic valley where the Incas once grew potatoes, corn, grains and herbs. That would not be all that unusual, were it not for the fact that growing food at 12,000 feet is nearly impossible. But the Incas figured it out and left behind a striking architectural achievement, dramatic and iconic terraces, giant steps carved into the mountains, where they devised ways to grow crops in the most inhospitable of conditions. Because even 500 years ago, the Incas were smart, and they knew how to do things, out of necessity and curiosity.
Their world was a small one for those Incas, because they lived high in the mountains, where travel was difficult and resources were scarce. As their world contracted around them by virtue of their isolation, they were vulnerable to invasion from outsiders, despite the protection offered by their high-altitude lifestyle. Many think they lived in such remote and inhospitable places for protection from their enemies, and perhaps that is true. But their world was small, and their options limited. I walked around cities in Peru and saw the dark skin and beautiful bone structure on the faces of descendants of the Inca, with their inky-black hair hanging straight and long over their shoulders.
Looking at the Past: Peruvians have a wide range of coloring, after the influx of the Spaniards centuries ago, but when I gazed upon someone looking like they walked out of a history book, proudly displaying those unique Peruvian features, I knew I was looking at the past. I found myself wondering what an even more amazing place Peru would have become had the Spanish been discouraged by the Andes mountains. There are precious few unmolested cultures and civilizations left in the world, and I just wish Peru could have been one.
Thanks to the unique climate of Peru, however, many of the jaw-dropping treasures built by the Inca are still with us, as beautiful as they are incomprehensible. They built high in the mountains, using large stones and ingenious techniques to create surreal structures in places like Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, and countless others. These monuments to the past are no less impressive than the Pyramids or the Great Wall, and because of their sheer size and ancient utility, they offer a more fascinating glimpse into the heart of Peru than does the colonial architecture found in many Peruvian cities. Sure, the churches and cathedrals are lovely and dazzling in their own way (and 400 years old), but that is the European influence.
When I stood more than two miles high and watched the sky move above these spectacular Inca sites, I knew they had seen the same sky. It looks different than the sky at sea level; my perspective was altered, literally, by my proximity. Those white, wispy clouds were just out of reach, and to me, looked truly panoramic. Maybe that’s why they built so high, for the unforgettable views. I can’t blame them one bit. There are places in the world where the air looks different (Africa), and places where the air smells different (Hawaii), and in a country like Peru, the sky definitely looks different. That is a discovery I could only find on the ground, in the sky, through the eyes of the Inca.
20 Wonderful Days: The Peruvian people are a friendly bunch, quick to smile and thankfully patient with my unsteady Spanish. During 20 days of flights over mountains, train rides through Andean valleys and bus rides to a breathtaking place 16,000 feet in the air (I use the term air loosely, because you need three breaths to equal one at sea level), the locals made sure I found my way with charm and appreciation for my limited Spanish. I stayed at plenty of inexpensive hotels, ate plenty of delicious and inexpensive food, and hailed an inexpensive taxi or two, all making an exotic and eye-grabbing place like Peru an international destination that clearly over delivers. I learned to navigate the Peruvian infrastructure just as effortlessly as I had dealt with Asian infrastructure during other trips, the only adjustment being to allow time for shepherds with their flocks of sheep and cows and llama to interrupt my progress. No problem there. Animals have the right of way, and that makes for a casual pace and easy-going citizenry. I took my time in Peru, because the tea is free and the atmosphere, unhurried.
I scaled mountains in Machu Picchu, gazed at volcanoes in Arequipa, and braved earthquakes in the depths of Colca Canyon, where like-minded comrades infused me with their youthful energy and optimistic outlook. I didn’t need help in the optimistic world outlook department, but it was reassuring to learn that young millennials still find awe and wonder and value in expanding their world, despite the negative beliefs of many. It seems to me that when you remain in one place, the world sometimes contracts around you, making reason and perspective impossible. That often makes the world a scary place. But there’s an easy fix: stay open to infinite possibilities.