Traveling back in time to the Peruvian mountains

After a long career of teaching, primarily Spanish, briefly at Helias, followed by decades at Jefferson City High School and then Lincoln University, one of my top priorities was to TRAVEL. Our first post-retirement trip was a two-month, six-thousand-mile odyssey by car, through Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Andorra. A year later, we headed towards the rainforests and the volcano-laden countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Next, it was Greece, Italy once again, and a return trip to the Canary Islands. Lastly, and perhaps, most meaningfully for me personally was our trip into my own past, PERU.

In 1979, after graduation from college, I had the opportunity to work for a year in Peru alongside several missionaries affiliated with the Jefferson City Catholic Diocese. Most of that time was spent living among the indigenous, in an area known as the Altiplano. Even today, forty percent of Peru’s population are direct descendants of the Inca living rather isolated, segregated lives in the mountains. For the remaining time, roughly three months, during their summer, December, January, and February, I lived with a mestizo family of five while studying Spanish in Lima. It was here, in a country I loved, where the excitement and joy of foreign people, language, and culture became part of my being. It was this country I had to get back to, and we did!

The Sacred Valley of the Incas or Urubamba Valley is a valley in the Andes of Peru, close to the Inca capital of Cusco and below the ancient sacred city of Machu Picchu. The valley is generally understood to include everything between Pisac and Ollantaytambo, parallel to the Urubamba River, or Vilcanota River or Wilcamayu, as this Sacred river is called when passing through the valley. It is fed by numerous rivers which descend through adjoining valleys and gorges, and contains numerous archaeological remains and villages. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities. It was one of the empire’s main points for the extraction of natural wealth, and the best place for maize production in Peru.

Years later when my wife and I were able to return, we decided not to travel by car as we had in Western Europe and Costa Rica.  Highway robbery is not unheard of there, and the roads and mountain passes can be dangerous. Instead, we traveled on “Peruhop” a bus service dropping travelers on and off designated sites throughout the country.  Peru is one of the most visited countries in the world and for good reason. UNESCO sites are ubiquitous, and the mix of the ancient and modern indigenous cultures makes it so extraordinarily unique. The highlights were many. 

We flew in a small private plane over the Nazca lines. We visited the ancient Inca capital, Cuzco.  Lovely five-hundred-year-old Spanish-built churches, much like those in Europe, lined the main square. In the Altiplano, some 12,500 feet above sea level, we rediscovered the village called Capachica where I lived with the priests forty years earlier. This area is alongside pristine Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, the border between Peru and Bolivia.  There we stayed in a hostel owned by an Indian family.  We had breakfast with them in their home. There was no electricity, no internet, and dirt floors.  Imagine that, even today. 

Good to Know 

Locals chew on coca leaves and put them in their tea to offset altitude sickness. They can be found almost anywhere in Peru, but they’re illegal to bring into the United States. 

It’s wise to carry a variety of currency, including coins, as many of the small food and market vendors cannot make change from larger bills. 

Can’t-Miss List 

  • Machu Picchu: Native tour guides are excellent sources of historic information, so be sure to follow them and listen carefully. And don’t be surprised if a llama climbs the stone stairs with you! 
  • Nazca Lines: The Nazca Lines are a group of nearly 300 pre-Columbian geoglyphs of animals and plants etched into desert sands, covering nearly 1000 square kilometers. These remarkable designs made in the Nazca Desert are visually stunning from the air. Small planes fly with tourists frequently during the day and the experience is well worth the price. 
  • Huacachina: This little village is surrounded by sand dunes established around a small oasis. The dunes can reach 16,000 feet in height, and it’s perfect for tourists wanting to take dune buggy rides and sandboard. 
  • Chauchilla Cemetery: Just south of Nazca, this cemetery contains mummified human remains as well as archeological artifacts. 
  • Cuzco: The ancient Incan Empire capital boasts beautiful Spanish churches and buildings. The Plaza de Armas bustles with activities involving locals and tourists.