You know those moments you’ve been looking forward to for so long that even when you’re in the plane flying towards them at 600 mph you haven’t realised that the waiting is over? That was this trip for me, a year in the making with my family. Finally I arrived at it two weeks ago, in Peru, and all I could think about was how suddenly I was flooded with photographer’s anxiety about whether I was up to the task at hand, capturing all the moments I had been dreaming of until then. Soon enough though with anticipation we step outside of our thoughts and are awoken that the reality of our destination is infinitely more foreign than the preconceived one. Only then when we cross the threshold of imagination does real experience begin and we become present in moments as they happen, some captured with a camera and others only in our mind that we’ll return to later when we’re back where we came from. For me that’s the power of travel, reminding us that even the moments we wait so long for do come, are only new once, and then they’re gone. Inversely, there’s the power of a camera, a machine that stops split seconds in time and let us keep them forever. If that isn’t magic I don’t know what is. To be a traveler with a camera is to have it all, to be present in a moment that will never come again, and yet somehow keep it forever. I hope you enjoy the photos, stories, and history Peru shared with me…
At 11,000 feet up in the Andes, Cuzco hardly seems a natural habitat for humans, and yet this place served as the capital of the Incan Empire, the only advanced isolated civilization to emerge south of the equator. What one comes to understand though traveling in Peru, is that high and low is precisely the nature of this place, both literally and figuratively. The Incas were a flourishing culture, wealthy in gold, silver, and knowledge who conquered vast areas of South America not by force, but by adoption and influence. However, once the Spanish arrived it wasn’t long before their palaces high in the mountains were diminished to ruins to serve as foundations of colonial architecture we see today, their bloodlines, traditions, and religions mingled to form the culture found there now. The history is a violent one, but the native and colonial melody of modern day Cuzco and greater Peru is romantic. We stayed at the luxurious Palazio Nazarenas, finding that even amidst the simple life most of the region lives, Peru is finding a place for luxury. Never without hospitality, the people are so welcoming of foreigners despite the consequence of the arrival of outsiders in centuries past. To be 11,000 feet up in the cradle of an ancient indigenous civilization with the comforts of soy milk and wifi is a strange and wonderful thing. Yet there is no absence of tradition at Palazio Nazarenas, as the staff will tell you about the historical convent the hotel has grown into, the traditional herbs planted in the garden that they brew beautifully in a curated tea service, and even stories about their families who have lived in Cuzco for as long as they can trace back. Beyond just hosting you, they share with you and teach you about this special place. To me, that is the true definition of hospitality, to feel that you’ve more than just visited a place, but rather know it in a way that you couldn’t have discovered alone.
THE SACRED VALLEY
Descending into the Sacred Valley, nature becomes more hospital. At 8,000 feet one can begin to understand why this place was deemed divine, as a vein of life that nourished the empire surrounding it. The agricultural epicenter produces food for much of Peru still today from the same fields engineered by the Incas, making the area rich with culture and color culminating at traditional markets. On any side of it, the views and winds are sweeping, standing a top the various ruins that served as tambos, or checkpoints, along the Inca’s many trails.
At its base the valley is lush with nature; flowers, fruits, birds and more that flourish in the friendly atmosphere, rich with oxygen the surrounding heights lack. The setting is calm like a vast garden, with towns along the river flowing through the valley.
We stayed in Urubamba, and ventured one morning to a nearby village overlooking the valley. At the end of the winding dirt road, the village school welcomed us to their local 4th grade class, where the children sang songs in Quechua and Spanish for us. We taught them some words in English, and they were shy and curious all at once, warming up quickly to people that seemed as exotic to them as they to us. Our guide brought them coloring books, crayons, and rulers, but we were sad to learn that it was antibiotics they really needed, as many of the children in the village suffered malnutrition from a stomach bacteria they only recently learned they had, making them much smaller than the average eight to ten year olds.
Machu Picchu is one of those fabled destinations we all hope to make it to someday. It’s a place reachable only by train, following along the river from the Sacred Valley descending north east into the mountains along the historic Inca Trail. Following these tracks, the foreign becomes exotic, as the nature tamed by agriculture in the valley becomes wild, overgrown, and ever more diverse into the jungle.
Vacation here starts to feel like an odyssey, overwhelmed by a feeling of exploration and discovery. One can imagine the excitement Hiram Bingham must have felt, stumbling upon the glorious ruin of Machu Picchu in the early 1900’s. Strategically positioned in the ‘cloud forest’ by the Incas at an intersection of the empire, it was abandoned centuries earlier for reasons unknown, shrouded in secrecy by the nature that overgrew it, protecting it from demise by the approaching Spanish.
I’ve written here before about how much I love trains, how they’re one of the most inspiring places to think and write. I had always dreamed of taking a journey on one of the Orient Express ones and experiencing the ceremony of luxurious and stylish train travel that doesn’t exist much anymore. It was everything I dreamed of, enjoying a different kind of Thanksgiving dinner here, complete with pisco sours and a Peruvian band, amidst plenty of quiet time to just sit back and enjoy the view as we cut through twilight, emerging from the high jungle of Machu Picchu and returning to Cuzco to fly to Lima for the last leg of our journey.
Our time in Lima was brief, but I was happy to be able to see the different side of the capital. We visited the beautiful cathedral named after Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish explorer and conquerer whose days were ended by assassination, organized by his ‘friends’ no less in their bid to obtain his power. His body was hidden in this cathedral, and discovered only many years later and placed in his tomb. Not before he had the chance to have children with Inca nobility however, marrying the sister of the very Inca king he killed, a strange man indeed. The architecture of the church and many of the historical buildings in the city is a strange combination of adobe and bamboo, flexible for earthquakes and allowing them to still stand today. After a day here ending with an amazing Amazonian dinner at Āmaz, we bid farewell to Peru for this time.