Watermelons, along with other fruit such as grapes, mango and avocado, are a major foreign exchange earner for Peru, with China and the US being major markets. Watermelon is indigenous to southern Africa but was introduced to Peru as early as 1650.
Peru – Long Read

On the road to Machu Picchu

Photo by Sergi Reboredo

Peru – Long Read On the road to Machu Picchu

Hello Peru, where the spectacular ruins of Machu Picchu have been declared one of the world's Seven Wonders and become the country’s most popular sight, welcoming more than a million visitors every year. But this “Lost City” is only one of the many wonders of the Inca Empire that still remain to be discovered by travelers.

Sergi Reboredo
Sergi Reboredo Travel Photographer

Spanish journalist and travel writer Javier Reverte wrote: “A traveler is someone who is astonished at everything happening around them.” His words could describe me as I walk around Cusco, the city best known now as a stopping-off point on the way to Machu Picchu. But I see a colonial town with cobbled streets and houses painted in pastel colors. Red roofs are covered with mold and bowed by the passage of time. I am transported back several centuries, to when the legendary Manco Cápac founded this city that became a sacred capital of the Incas and a golden El Dorado of the Conquistadors. Its name means “Bellybutton” in the local Quecha language, a reference to it being the center of the Inca world.

I am jerked back to the present by the children. Some are playing near their mother, or helping her with her street vending work, but many others seem to be looking after themselves. They shine shoes and sell chewing gum or handicrafts, holding my eyes with a steady gaze from solemn faces. Their eyes beg me to part with a few coins. Others, seemingly better off, pass by in a school uniform of gray skirts and matching jackets embroidered with the school name. Cusco is a city of such contrasts.

“All our cities in Peru are chaotic,” says artist Matthew Liebana. “For many people, it is difficult to survive in them but otherwise this chaos has its charm. Cusco is the most cosmopolitan. A walk through its streets is a walk through history, like a dream.”

Matthew was born in Lima and trained as an architect, but developed his love of art through his parents who restored and sold antiques. As a child, he traveled with them throughout Peru as they hunted for pieces for their collection. “I have been visiting Cusco since I was a child and I still love the old churches I went to with my family,” he says. “San Juan Bautista in Huaro has the most amazing 17th century murals, for example.”

Cusco was the center of the Inca world

Most of these Cusco churches are built on Inca ruins and the most prominent is Santo Domingo Church on the ruins of Qurikancha, the Temple of the Sun. For the Incas, Cusco was the center of the world, a place of worship and pilgrimage. Like Europe’s cathedrals or the Buddhist temples of Asia, Qurikancha held an almost unimaginable wealth of offerings, to which the Conquistadors helped themselves.

“There was a garden in which the earth was lumps of fine gold,” says Spanish chronicler Cieza de Léon. “It was cunningly planted with stalks of corn that were of gold – stalk, leaves, and ears. There were more than 20 llamas of gold with their young, and the shepherds who guarded them, with their slings and staffs, all of this metal. There were many tubs of gold and silver and emeralds, and goblets, pots and every kind of vessel of fine gold.”

Santo Domingo took a century to build but an earthquake in 1950 damaged it badly, while revealing the Inca remains beneath. Building without mortar, the ancient people had fitted massive blocks of stone into intricate shapes that resisted the power of nature and still stand today. The temple itself was lost but I cannot help but think the old religion lives on when I see the offerings of gold and images of the sun that decorate the city’s Catholic churches.

Above the city is the Inca fortress of Saksaywaman, whose intricately-cut stone walls fit together with no mortar in a series of earthquake-proof irregular blocks. The Spanish used the site as a quarry to build colonial Cusco but the sheer size of many blocks made them impossible to carry off. Some are among the largest found anywhere in the prehispanic Americas.

She has a sharp look and a strong voice

The beautiful valley of the Urubamba River – popularly known as the “Sacred Valley” – is just over 30 km from Cusco and this Inca heartland holds the citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. I take a bus there to discover a bit more of the ancient history of this land. The winding road and harsh curves throw any unsecured baggage from side to side as we drive along. Beside me, a stout woman of many years uses strong, weathered hands to try to close a bag full of vegetables that attempt to escape every time the driver turns the steering wheel. She has a sharp look and a strong voice.

Around me, complaints about rising food prices from other women are echoed by the call of hens struggling to get out of their cages behind me. The back of the bus is like a real grocery store, with all kinds of fruit, vegetables and various farm animals. This is the only means of transport for the people who live in the scattered houses of this region and have to come to Pisac’s Sunday Market for all their supplies.

Pisac is the country’s most colorful market, divided into two parts. One part is where all kinds of fruit, vegetables and farm products from the far corners of Peru are bought and sold. Another area specializes in regional crafts, such as handmade carpets, clothes and musical instruments. People in the traditional costumes of the mountains come here to trade, as their ancestors did centuries ago. I am amazed to see that some vendors do not use money, but barter what raw produce they have for the goods they need. And there are more children, red-cheeked from the cold, many lambs to market on their backs.

At noon, flutes and conch calls summon everyone to church, where the service is held in Quechua, the language spoken here. The church is packed with those in traditional dress, mixed with a few tourists who stand out in their store-bought shirts. There is an atmosphere of fun, with people singing and dancing. This is nothing like the dull Catholic mass back home.

A dramatic view over the valley

The colonial town of Pisac stands below the former Inca town, which was destroyed by the Spanish. Some dramatic ruins remain, covering the mountainside with stone walls and split into districts that housed people of obviously different social classes. Some homes were rough and ready, while others must have been luxurious, complete with baths. The oval Intihuatana is another temple dedicated to the sun, with a solar calendar made from carved rocks and a dramatic view over the valley below.

Perhaps more impressive again are the agricultural terraces that circle the slopes, some 500 in total. Corn was grown on the lower terraces and quinoa on the higher ones, with potatoes in the middle. The whole system maximised the use of water and made steep hillsides into fertile fields.

“Corn grows below 3,000 meters and potatoes above that height but the Incas developed more than 2,000 varieties of potato, fine-tuning them to various altitudes,” says historian Alberto Castillo.

There are more terraces at Moray, considered a sort of “seed laboratory” for the Incas, while a similar clever design is used for the salt pans of Maras. Here, salt-rich water from a spring is still fed into the series of ponds to evaporate. The pans are worked on a communal system that traces its origins back to pre-Inca times. As well as for human consumption, the salt has always been vital to domestic animals to compensate for a diet poor in minerals. These terraces, shining white in the sun, are an unexpected sight and I can see why some people are ready to believe they were the work of aliens rather than our ancient ancestors.

The Lost City of the Incas

Back in Cusco, I prepare to take the “Hiram Bingham” train to Machu Picchu at Poroy Station. The train is named for the American historian who first brought the place he dubbed “The Lost City of the Incas” to world attention in 1911. He was led to the ruins by some local famers who were still using the Inca terraces for their crops.

Although Bingham (see mini-feature) is often regarded as the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu, Alberto explains that Cusco farmer Agustín Lizarraga first explored the site nine years earlier. Bingham mentioned Lizarraga in his diary, so it is perhaps more accurate to describe him as the “scientific” discoverer. With permission from the Peruvian government, Bingham took away thousands of precious artefacts and skeletons excavated from the site for study but they were not returned to Peru until 2012.

My train leaves at 9am with a Swiss-like punctuality and runs through scenery that is constantly changing. Golden fields of corn lead the eye to high green mountains and blue skies. Onboard, the food is exquisite, reflecting the rich agriculture I can see from the window. Brunch is three courses: corn tamales with a herb omelette, spinach cannelloni and chocolate mousse cheesecake.

“Peruvian food is wonderful, thanks to a country full of resources,” says Matthew Liebana. “Each region has its own specialities. In Pacasmayo, it’s a juicy grouper poached in lime; in Piura, it’s seco de chavelo (goat stew); and in Arequipa, it’s shrimp chowder. I could go on for every part of the country but one thing they have in common is that the recipe is usually like a state secret.”

Inca Kola is an acquired taste

As well as the delights of Peruvian cuisine, I am introduced to the national drink: pisco sour. This cocktail – to which both Peru and Chile lay claim – is made with a base of pisco (the local name for aguardiente) and lime juice as well as simple syrup, egg white and Angostura bitters.

Another local drink is Inca Kola, of which Peruvians are fiercely proud – despite the fact it was invented by a British-born immigrant in 1935. It has a sweet taste and golden yellow color, rich in the scent of the lemon verbena plant from which it is made. Any group of Peruvians eating around a table will have a big bottle of Inca Kola to hand. It is an acquired taste.

The train pulls into Aguas Calientes, whose warm springs are a welcome relief for those coming the hard way by hiking the Inca Trail (see mini-feature). From here, a hair-raising bus ride up the mountain takes me to Machu Picchu itself. The slow, steep climb reinforces the ambition that built a city on a mountain top and brings a necessary sense of awe to the view familiar from so many photographs. However, nothing has prepared me for the feeling of actually seeing this remarkable monument – a breathtaking and somehow spiritual experience, like walking into a great Gothic cathedral.

Built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu stands at 2,430 meters above sea level, with its beauty surpassed only by its air of mystery. It was never found by the Spanish, and the Incas left no records, so its secrets may well never be fully revealed.

Home to only about 750 people

“Little is known of Machu Picchu,” says Alberto Castillo. “There are many theories about its past, but the looters, the early explorers and time have managed to erase all evidence of what that was.”

I am surprised to discover that this sprawling site was home to only about 750 people, in some 140 buildings. “Some 200 human remains of the men and women believed to have lived here have been found,” says Alberto. “It is thought many died in an epidemic of some sort. Smallpox – brought by the Spanish – has been suggested but it may have been something as basic as malaria, which was still affecting this area in the early 1900s.”

The low number of skeletons is a puzzle in itself. If Machu Picchu had been inhabited for as long as it appears to have been, over many generations, there should be thousands of graves, not hundreds. “One theory is that the site was a summer palace for the Emperor,” says Alberto. “Another is that it was a very sacred site, dedicated to the study of the sun and inhabited by astronomers. It was probably a mixture of both.”

I look around some of the buildings believed to have been royal palaces and others, with less thick walls and fewer ornaments, where the commoners lived. Of all the structures, I am most struck by the Temple of the Sun. Its walls are made of stone blocks, between which it is impossible to fit a credit card. How the Incas managed to cut and move such masonry with only stone tools and no wheels is hard to imagine.

The temple features two windows that catch the rays of the sun directly during the winter and summer solstices. The constellation of Pleiades also aligns with one window to help predict when the rains would come, and hence the right time to plant crops.

A pilgrimage route from Lake Titicaca

“The location of Machu Picchu, and the orientation of its major buildings, was strongly influenced by the bearing of the holy mountains, called apus, around it,” says Alberto. “They are at the cardinal points of the compass. A stone on top of Huayna Picchu points due south, through the Intihuatana Stone, to the peak of Salcantay – which was associated with weather and fertility. The whole site is embraced by a loop of the holy Urubamba River. What we now call the Inca Trail may have been part of a pilgrimage route from the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca that ended in the Temple of the Sun.”

Alberto is most impressed by what lies beneath. “This was an impossible site to build a city on,” he says. “The Incas had to start right at the foot of the mountain, building up a stepladder of terraces that have withstood earthquakes and flooding for centuries. More than 60 percent of the construction work is underground, in drainage channels lined with crushed granite to cope with the heavy rainy season and rock foundations allowing the stone blocks they support above ground to ‘dance’ in an earthquake. It is an incredible engineering feat – and most of it is hidden from view.”

He points out some of the fountains in the city, a testament to the hydraulic engineering skills of the Inca builders. They were fed by a spring above, whose waters were carried in a canal with a precision-cut, three percent grade. “We believe the water supply was enough to support a population of no more than 1,000 people,” he says.

As I turn toward home, I have a last look at Machu Picchu, lit by the fantastic evening light. As the sun sets, a dark cloak of mystery falls once more over this mountain refuge of the Incas that still holds so many secrets. Now I have traveled there, I remain even more astonished by its wonders.


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