Centuries-old customs carry on amid the ancient ruins of Peru.
By Lainey R. Seyler
My group clapped along as musicians pounded out a beat and melody in the courtyard of Lima, Peru’s, colonial Casa Aliaga. Dancers emerged to stomp and groove while intermittently playing the Peruvian box, a South American drum. The music seemed Caribbean, which surprised me. It was the last day of an Adventures by Disney trip called Sacred Valleys and Incan Cities, which took travelers to the Andes and into the heart of Incan South America, yet there it was, an Afro-Spanish performance before a three-course meal.
Above: Works in clay by world-renowned artist Pablo Seminario are seen at his studio in Cusco. Adventures by Disney photo
Below: The inspiring ruins at Machu Picchu are Peru’s biggest draw. The isolated site lies between two mountain peaks and is somewhat of a challenge to get to. Lainey R. Seyler photo
I, along with 36 fellow travelers, had come to this continent to explore a different culture. We had seen ancient ruins still in use, traditional weaving still thriving and mountainous cities still expanding with life, but those were only a few threads in the tapestry of an old country.
Tucked on a once-hidden mountainside in the Andes, the ruins at Machu Picchu are the country’s biggest draw, and before I went, it was just about the only thing I knew about Peru. A settlement of Incas lived high on the hillside for about a century until the city was abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1570s. Locals knew the legend of the mountain city, but it wasn’t discovered by the outside world until 1911 when explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it.
The isolated city lies between mountain peaks, and visitors can hike there from Cusco via the Inca Trail or travel by train to a nearby town and then take a shuttle to the site–there’s no road. With Disney, the details were all prearranged, and we went from bus to train to shuttle with our guides.
The city is perched on the saddle between the peaks of Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Huayna Picchu (young mountain). Terraces made of stone weave around the natural curve of the lush mountain where crops were grown to feed the city’s inhabitants, which numbered roughly 1,200. Mammoth stones were cut and fit together to form temples and upper class homes–most of which have withstood centuries of seismic activity. Two Disney guides and a local interpreter, who unraveled some of the mysteries of the Incan way of life through tales of local legends and historic interpretation, accompanied our group.
After lunch, the group split. Some explored and simply took in the site, while others hiked a portion of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate at the crest of the mountain pass. After taking a somewhat strenuous trek to the peak, I found it easy to imagine how Incan travelers, after walking for days, would be impressed by a first view of the thriving city below upon stepping through the gate.
On the summer equinox, the sun is first seen by city inhabitants through the Sun Gate. Shadows are cast on the Sun Temple, which is aligned with the mountain pass. After visiting this and other Incan ruins, I didn’t find these supposed coincidences surprising. It appears nothing in the Incan world was arbitrary.
Machu Picchu may be the beacon guiding travelers to Peru, but it is one of a patchwork of sites left by Incan and other pre-Columbian empires. The Adventures by Disney trip spent most of its time in the Sacred Valley and Cusco, the former Incan capital.
Before visiting Machu Picchu, the guides “warmed us up” with visits to other sites chiseled into the Andes. Ruins at Ollantaytambo overlook their namesake city. We walked up terraces and past still-working aqueducts to catch a view from the temple, where Incan soldiers defended the 13th-century city from invaders. Boulders fit together perfectly to form the temple–an impressive feat for the time, though maybe ancient cultures aren’t given enough credit.
Another day, we visited the archaeological site, Moray, where more terraces are carved into a small valley in the mountains. Historians believe the Incan masters experimented with agriculture here. The Incas and other pre-Columbian groups cultivated more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes, along with a bevy of items considered an essential part of present-day diets.
After exploring Moray, my group traveled by bus to the nearby saltpan terraces. Discovered hundreds of years ago, the salt pans are still tended by area villagers, who use the original method of feeding water to pools, where it evaporates, leaving a trough of salty crystals behind.
On the sixth day of the nine-day trip, we left the Sacred Valley for Cusco. The city of about 400,000 melds colonial architecture along with Incan cornerstones. The ruins of Sacsayhuaman’s temple, which was dedicated to the gods of lightning and thunder, overlook the narrow, winding streets of the city below. The giant boulders of the site sometimes present more mysteries than they reveal, but a guided visit opens a dialogue about what Peruvian life was once like.
Ruins may be the physical evidence of the Incas, but their heritage is expressed as well through artisanal trades, which have been passed down and recently revived in the Cusco countryside. On our first day in Cusco, we stopped for lunch at the Center for Traditional Textiles, where we could watch women weaving traditional Peruvian textiles from beginning to end. The women, dressed in traditional costumes, spun, dyed and wove the wool into elaborate tapestries.
Another afternoon, we visited the studio of world-renowned artist Pablo Seminario, who works with clay to make modern interpretations based on traditional Incan and pre-Columbian pottery. Some of Seminario’s work is owned by Chicago’s Field Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. Children in the group made ornaments while their parents browsed the gift shop.
In Cusco’s center, cobblestoned streets lead to the square, where the cathedral and a Jesuit church surround a bustling plaza. There are also colonial-era churches on just about every corner, some of which hold impressive pieces of art and all of which hold cultural keys. Our guides encouraged us to explore individually and gave us tips to navigate the city’s thriving selection of restaurants. I stopped by the Museo de Arte Precolombino, which has a lovely collection of well-preserved artifacts, even though the information about each item was generic.
Leaving the Andes was the hardest part. The arid mountain peaks and the sun disappeared from sight once we flew from Cusco to Lima. The farewell lunch at Casa Aliaga was a fitting sendoff, reminding each traveler there was more of Peru left to discover.
Lainey R. Seyler is a former regional editor of Home & Away.