Deborah M. Buehler – Travel Chronicle
My heart sank as I rounded the bend and was faced with yet another bank of steep Inca steps. I had been trekking for hours and still the trail climbed upward. With every turn I imagined the camp around the corner. Then just as I thought I could hike no more, I saw tents in the distance – I had survived Day 1 of the Inca Trail! Before me lay a stunning view of snowcapped peaks and between them a green valley with the winding trail that I had just climbed. Added to the view was a keen sense of accomplishment, a ton of endorphins from the climb, and a pleasant bit of light-headedness from the attitude – Ah what a feeling!
Two days later I was again overcome by the beauty and power of the Inca Trail. This time I was standing amid one of Peru’s most recently discovered ruins – Huiñay Huayna. The name means “forever young” and the site is a small collection of peaked structures clustered amid velvet green terraces and thick cloud forest. Like Machu Picchu, the site was not found by the Spanish (in fact it wasn’t discovered until 1941, long after Machu Picchu’s 1911 discovery), so it remains almost entirely intact, but unlike Machu Picchu it is rarely visited and so, to me, it retains more of it’s ancient magic. Standing amid the Inca stones and gazing at the lush valley and tumbling waterfall that the Incas themselves once pondered, I could feel the natural power of the site flowing through my body. The experience solidified my belief that the Incas had a deep and powerful connection with the natural world, much more so than our culture can imagine.
Most visitors come to Peru to explore the ruins of the Incas. But the civilizations of Peru span beyond the Inca Empire and glimpses of these mystery shrouded civilizations can be seen throughout the country. In the northern desert near Trujillo, the ruins of the Chimú capital of Chan Chan seem to rise out of the sand. Built about 700 years ago these intricately decorated adobe compounds still retain some of their original splendor. Nearby lie the Moche temples of the sun and moon. These ruins predate the Chan Chan by about 700 years and the Huaca del Sol (the sun temple) contains 140 million adobe bricks and is Peru’s largest Pre-Columbian structure. There is something indescribable about standing atop the Huaca del Sol at sunset. Although the sprawling city of Trujillo now dominates the view, one gets an inkling of what the ancient Moche people might have seen.
Culturally southern Peru is no less stunning. On the south coast visitors and scientists, most notably German mathematician María Reiche, are still trying to decipher the Nazca lines – enormous geoglyphs etched into the pampas. In the high passes of the altiplano one still finds stone figures called Apachetas. These sculptures were first built by the Arriero pre-Incas to give thanks to the volcano gods for water. Today they are built by tourists who use them to make wishes. The Apachetas contrast the Arriero’s belief in giving thanks and our current culture’s unending need for more. At the southern end of Peru in the deep blue waters of Lake Titikaka one finds the floating islands of Uros. Although no pure blooded Uros remain (the Uros people intermarried with Ayrama speaking indeigenous Peruvians), their floating culture persists. The Uros people began their floating existence to escape invading Colla and Inca armies during pre-Columbian times. Their lives are literally “interwoven” with the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake. The reeds are used to make everything from boats, to houses, to the floating islands themselves! Walking on the islands was quite an experience and gave me the sensation of walking on a firm sponge.
Yet even beyond cultural history Peru has much to offer. Peru is South America’s third largest country and can be divided into three geographical regions. To the west is a narrow coastal strip that is mostly desert, yet contains most of Peru’s 27 million inhabitants. Agricultural centers are found in oases within the desert created by rivers draining from the highlands into the Pacific. The Andes lie in the middle of the country, rising steeply from the desert and reaching heights of 6000m just 100 km from the coast. The mountains of the Cordillera Blanca to the north are a climbers dream and hold Huascarán, which at 6768m is Peru’s highest peak. Descending the eastern slope of the Andes cloud forest gives way to the lowland rainforest of the Amazon Basin. Occupying half of Peru, the Amazon region is one of the world’s top 10 biodiversity ‘hot spots’, is awe inspiring to the ecologist and tourist alike. As an ornithologist both the highlands and the jungle delighted me. I’ll never forget the experience of watching eight Andean Condors (with 3m wingspans) soar around me in the Colca Canyon, or the sight of four Scarlet Macaws battling over a nesting site in the rainforest of the Tambopata-Candamo reserve.
Peru is a nation steeped in cultural history and natural beauty. It is the land of the Incas, but it is also a country that offers the visitor much much more. Within Peru lie the foundations of many great civilizations and it was recently discovered that even the Amazon River originates within its borders. An international team of scientists traced the mighty river to a stream beginning on Nevado Mismi, a mountain in Southern Peru!