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The Great Adventure

By Juliet Highet

Peru is one of the peak experiences in travel. Nowhere on earth is there such an incredibly wide range of spectacular scenery, nor such a triumph of survival of the human spirit despite the brutal colonisation

Juliet Highet Peru is frequently referred to as ‘the land of the Incas’, yet the Incas were the last in a long line of Peruvian civilisations spanning several thousand years, and the country is unrivalled in South America for its archaeological wealth.

Most people visualise Peru as mountainous, and are aware of the great Inca heritage. But the vast desert coastline, on whose northern reaches is located the largest ancient adobe city in the world - Chan Chan (capital of the Chimu empire), often comes as a complete surprise. And then there is the Amazon basin and the huge tracts of tropical rainforest covering half of Peru - an absolute must for anyone interested in ecological travel, preservation of the environment, flora and fauna, and not least in therapeutic herbs and the surviving forest people.

Lima is both the gateway to Peru, and somewhere from which to escape pretty fast. This is not to say that there is not a certain somber magnificence about its old Spanish colonial centre; and one of the best ways of visualising the overall cultural chronology of Peru is to take in the National Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology. Another unmissable experience is the Gold Museum, housing thousands of gold pieces that the Spanish failed to remove, such as huge golden discs representing the sun. It was time to head for Machu Picchu, the great jewel in the crown of Inca architecture, hidden from the Spaniards in the midst of mountain ranges, and once a spiritual community. The point of arrival from Lima and departure to Machu Picchu is the town of Cuzco, the actual capital of the once mighty Inca Empire. Cuzco is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the South American continent, where you literally travel back in time. The cobbled streets of today’s town are a Spanish settlement built on the remains of Inca temples and palaces. Massive, ornate Baroque churches and monasteries are literally grafted onto the foundations and lower walls of immaculately fitting Inca stonework. The huge Inca site of Sacsayhuaman, just outside Cuzco, is built of massive polished stones enclosed behind gigantic parallel walls, zigzagging around the buildings. The Incas envisioned Cuzco as having the shape of a puma, of which the fortress of Sacsayhuaman formed the head. What seems a truly gigantic site is actually now only 20 per cent of the original structure. Overlooking the city of Cuzco, far below in a valley, is the Temple of the Sun, a highly significant shrine, since the Incas were sun- worshippers.

Taking the early morning train to Machu Picchu from Cuzco is another memorable experience, like everything Peruvian. The landscape in what is called the Sacred Valley is sensational - snow-capped mountain peaks, terraced slopes and fertile plains. Throughout this spectacular journey, sitting in the front of a train plunging along a narrow-gauge track, the Urubamba River carves valleys through the mountains, and on occasions one can see the famous Inca Trail, along which intrepid travellers trudge on foot, the journey from Cuzco to Machu Picchu taking four days. Machu Picchu does not disappoint, a masterpiece of the Inca Empire, and a spectacular setting for the worship of the gods. The city is perched on top of a narrow mountain crest high above the Urubamba river gorge, its Inca terracing neatly dissecting the steep ravines.

Founded by the Inca emperor Pachacutec in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was no ordinary city. It was essentially a sanctuary where a small number of priests, high officials, artisans and slaves lived; although judging by the fact that 80% of the skulls unearthed were female, its chief inhabitants seemed to have been women. Of all the white granite buildings, the most significant is the Intihuatana, which translates as the “hitching post of the sun”. It is a carved rock pillar, standing alone at the top of a hill, whose function appears to have been a type of calendar. The Inca astronomers predicted the solstices using the angles of the pillar; and thus the Inca emperor, who was the son of the sun, was able to claim control over the return of the lengthening days of summer.

On the banks of the Amazon - the widest river one could ever imagine, and carved out of the rain- forest, is Iquitos, its main port. Formerly the citadel of Spanish rubber barons, this delightful, crumbling town, with its somewhat raffish atmosphere, is impossible to reach except by air or water.

Arriving at night, I took a slow boat up the Amazon from Iquitos, which chugged gently past river banks rustling in the dark with the sinister possibility of piranhas, Cayman alligators - freshwater dolphins at the very least. I stayed in a wooden lodge on stilts, no five-star hotel, without running water or electricity, but surrounded by tangible rainforest atmosphere. Tame, brilliantly plumed toucans, cockatoos and a loving pair of tapirs squared and leapt about me. I visited a village deep in the forest where the remnants of the Yaguas people dance for money and importune visitors to buy their crafts, a rather questionable existence. Returning to the city of Iquitos past sleepy, riverside villages, whose easy-going inhabitants make a living from fishing and poling banana boats up and down the Amazon, I was enchanted by Iquitos. It was once the hub of the 19th century rubber boom. Such was the wealth for some, and exploitation of others, that the rubber-rich families used to send their laundry back to Spain by ship in a two-week turn-around system. Grand crumbling mansions and once noble public buildings are extravagantly covered with beautiful but cracking tiles imported from Andalucia, demonstrating an elegant geometric Moorish inspiration. The opera house at Iquitos is gradually returning to nature; its current inhabitants live in ramshackle wooden homes on stilts on the banks of the Amazon. But there can be few sights as magnificent as the Amazon River seen from Iquitos. Surrounded in all directions by brilliant green forest, it is quite the most immense and awe-inspiring stretch of river-water imaginable - yet another of the peak experiences Peru has to offer.


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