by Diana Untermeyer
author, Qatar: Sand, Sea and Sky
My favorite kind of trips are those that leave me hungering for more. Our trip to Peru facilitated by Apus Peru and guided by Arturo Mantilla was just such a trip — visually, intellectually, and gastronomically. I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu since I was a teen, such that it had taken on the significance of a pilgrimage — a chance to experience the incomprehensible enormity of ancient accomplishment and the sheer beauty of the Andes and Andean culture.
Then, last spring our 20 year old daughter Elly found a position volunteering in a medical clinic in the mountains of northern Peru, so we planned a family trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley beforehand. We decided to use a guide in Cusco and the Sacred Valley to set the context for our visit to Machu Picchu, which we wanted to explore at our own pace. After researching various companies, we decided on Apus Peru because of their commitment to the environment and the development of micro-businesses in the places where they trek. While we didn’t have time to trek on this trip, their philosophy resonated. This was the best decision we could have made.
Arturo greeted us right on time at our hotel in Cusco, and we liked him immediately. We set out at the kind of brisk pace we like as Arturo brought the Inkan world alive. In a separate blog, my husband recounts some specifics of our days, so I’ll focus more on the socio-cultural context Arturo taught us, which was the framework for our entire trip in Peru.
Before our trip, I really expected to focus primarily on the Inka and the Spanish conquest. What Arturo was able to teach us both by words and by example was a richer story of cultural assimilation, approbation and conquest. In building techniques, ritual and costumes of the festival dancers, Arturo pointed out what was Inka, what was pre-Inka and of course what was Spanish colonial. I hadn’t realized how much of Inka culture derived from the other historical cultures of the region that preceded it. The brilliance of the Inka was their administrative ability to unite disparate civilizations from Chile to Columbia and to refine best practices, most visibly, building techniques.
The Inkan conquests contrast so starkly with the Spanish that I found myself feeling angry while visiting churches and cathedrals even while admiring the lovely Cusquenan decorative arts. The cultural arrogance of the Spanish as they systematically obliterated Inkan civilization including destroying the knotted strings known as khipu, which the conquistadors suspected records of history and religion, is tragic when one thinks of the history forever lost. To their detriment, the Spanish ignored the ingenious Inkan construction methods and built using European methods which to this day are susceptible to earthquake damage.
We had a few days in Cusco, but one could imagine spending a year there feeling the rhythm of the festivals combining indigenous culture and Roman Catholic ritual, exploring the local markets and restaurants and getting to know the people. But on we moved towards Machu Picchu visiting the Sacred Valley with Arturo. I loved going at our own pace so that we could linger at Awana Kancha, a llama farm and living weaving museum.
Awana Kancha is a tourist stop, yet, a wonderful one. Llamas and alpacas welcome visitors who are welcome to touch and feed the animals. The shy vicuñas are pastured on a close hillside. The weaving process comes alive from shearing to dying with natural plants and insects. Indigenous weavers in their colorful village dress work on intricate patterns. The weavers work at the farm for a few weeks or months and then return to their villages. The shop has exquisite handicrafts, mostly labeled with the artist’s name and her story.
Arturo finally had to pry us away because fascinating archeology as well as an epicurean’s delight awaited us. We worked up an appetite hiking around Inka terraces and the Temple of the Sun, and jumping out of the car to photograph snow-capped peaks and handmade adobe bricks drying on small village roadsides. When we arrived in the town of Urubamba, our driver negotiated the narrow streets until we were within walking distance of el Huacatay (a type of wild mint) restaurant. Our own flowering vine-covered pergola awaited us as we settled in the garden for midday Pisco sours and a lunch that was painterly and delicious. Delicate sauces, architectural creations and the freshest herbs, vegetables and fish marked each course.
It has become almost cliche to say that Peru is in the midst of a gastronomic renaissance, but what sets the food apart is that so many restaurants are farm to fork. In fact, one restaurant in Ollayantaytambo grew its produce on ancient Inka terraces just behind the kitchens. Peruvians seem to take great pride in their food, whether it is roasted cuy in the city square, the richest hot chocolate, or a simple pastry. My personal quest was to find the best alfajores, dulce de leche sandwiched by two delicate cookies, the secret of which is adding cornstarch in the dough. I went to fancy bakeries and local coffee houses, but the best by far was at the little bakery at the Ollayantaytambo train station. So if your train to Machu Picchu pauses there, jump off and see if there are any remaining in their daily supply.
I’d like to jump off the train almost anywhere in Peru and stay there a long while. Our family had a wonderful trip and look forward to trekking the Andes with Arturo or perhaps floating through the rainforest on the Amazon River.
Apus Peru would like to thank Diana and her family for travelling with us and Diana specifically for her lovely relfection on the wonders of Cusco and the surrounding region. Diana, Chase and Elly experienced the following tours with Apus Peru: