Author: Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor of American Art at Penn
Few places on earth can beat the view from the top of the ancient ruins at Macchu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes! And few journeys are more demanding than the one that is required of the traveler who wishes to partake of this marvelous vista. Luckily, the Penn alumni that I travelled with this past spring were able to get there in comfort and luxury, opting for the speed of a first-class Perurail train car and the soft, earth-friendly beds at the Inkaterra eco-resort at the base of the magical mountain citadel. Back in 1911, when Hiram Bingham and his fellow Yalies made the first recorded trip by white men to the lost city in the clouds, they had a month-long hike on narrow pathways like the one that is known today as the Inka Trail. Poor Bingham! He had to sleep on the ground and swat at mosquitoes all day! True, the insect life there is still plentiful, but today most of the visitors to this magnificent jungle-wrapped ruin opt for the comfy route we took to get there rather than the notoriously rugged back-packing adventure that Bingham first made famous.
Speaking of Bingham, we were astoundingly lucky to have with us a family of Penn alums who were direct descendants of one of the original adventurers who accompanied Bingham on that important trip into the unknown! Beginning on the first day we were treated to an impromptu viewing of personal family photographs from that fabled trip and stories of expatriate American family life in early twentieth-century Peru to boot! One day as we drove from the hotel to the city center we got to see the family’s ancestral home in the beautiful Miraflores district – still standing since the 1920s with its grandly walled garden courtyard facing the street. Que Linda!
“Treasures of Peru” was the third Penn Alumni Travel trip that I have accompanied since 2008. A big part of why I keep accepting invitations to host these PAT trips is that there are always interesting travelers along, something that helps to make each trip all that more memorable. For example, on the luxurious, six-star, Silversea cruise to the Lesser Antilles in 2011, our Penn group was joined by another alumni group from Dartmouth that happened to include Alpha Delta Phi brothers from the Class of 1963. These guys and their wives had been writer Chris Miller’s inspiration for the 1978 cult film “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” You would not believe the things I heard as we cruised from St. Barts to Antigua! After a few bottles of the MS Silver Whisper’s all-inclusive libations these folks were a serious laugh riot, telling almost unbelievable stories of road trips and epic parties. I honestly did not think that those crazy stories of Greek life at the pre-coed Dartmouth of the early 1960s could have ever been topped! That is, not until that night in Peru when I sat glued to my seat, marveling at the stories that my new travel companions were telling me about their blood connection to one of the most famous archaeological expeditions of all time!
I say this sincerely and from a point of experience: on a Penn Alumni Travel trip you can always count on visiting fantastically awe-inspiring places and having unusually interesting people to share your story with at the end of the day.
On the Peru trip, our tour director Marco, a native of Cuzco and a resident of Lima, was really first-rate and made his top priority our safety and comfort. Over the ten days we spent together, Marco proved himself to be not only an endless font of information about the modern country and the historic sites, but also a man with baffling energy reserves and answers to all of the small and large questions that our group posed to him. Another reason that I love hosting these trips is that the tour directors are always incredibly well-trained, thoroughly pleasant, and professional. Marco’s wife worked in the Presidential Palace, and he was well acquainted with the country’s leaders, instantly recognizing the past president Alejandro Toledo when we were all waiting for a plane at the airport in Lima! Marco deserves the credit for this great picture of me with El Presidente!
One of the first places that Marco took us in Lima was the incredibly beautiful Museo Larco Herrera where we were dazzled by the beautiful setting and the stunning ancient artifacts. From hand-beaten gold jewelry to astoundingly life-like portrait jugs, these remarkable objects all testified to the highly developed cultures that dominated the western half of the South American continent during the pre-Columbian period. Located in the heart of Lima, the Larco is actually built a top an ancient pyramid.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lima is characterized by the ruins that seem to crop up around every corner as well as its stunning historic city center, a colonial marvel of Spanish baroque architecture that is marked by its Moorish flavor (a subtle reminder that the fifteenth-century conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his Extremadureño fellow conquistadors were not all that far culturally removed from having been imperial subjects themselves).
While at the Larco we had a truly elegant epicurean experience. Gastro-tourists take note: Lima is a city blessed with a cosmopolitan appreciation for fine food and fondness for innovative presentation. Internationally renowned Peruvian chefs such as Gastón Acurio, whose culinary empire oversees the café at the Larco, have made it their mission to not only bring the flavors of Peru to the rest of the world but also to elevate the gustatory options available to their countrymen. After eating Acurio’s food at the museum, some of the group also dined at his restaurant Chicha in Cuzco. Muy bueno!
In addition to being home to awesome cuisine (something that I personally find very important for a good trip), Cuzco is also the gateway for the journey to Macchu Pichu. While coming and going from the famed archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley, we spent several nights in this very welcoming, quaint, colonial city.
Located 11,000 feet above sea level, it takes a little work for a body to adjust to being in Cuzco, and we did well to follow our tour director Marco’s advice in order to avoid debilitating altitude sickness. This included some of us taking various prescribed medications (ones that we had either brought with us or obtained there), getting lots of rest, and drinking numerous cups of mate de coca, or coca tea. This lightly flavored (and completely legal – even in the USA) infusion is made from the leaves of the infamous coca plant. But unlike the plant’s chemically produced derivative cocaine, the natural leaves provide only a mildly uplifting feeling to the imbiber. Since one would have to drink gallons and gallons of it get any kind of “high”, the main point of consuming the tea while in Cuzco is that it offers considerable diuretic benefits that help to balance the body’s fluid levels and aid in acclimation to the extreme altitude. Due to the precautions we took, only a small number of our group felt any ill-effects of being up so high and thankfully everyone was able to participate in the subsequent trip to Macchu Pichu.
Atop the warren of ruins, it was wonderful to sit on the grass, lean against the rock walls, and stare out at Ainu Pichu on the adjacent, steeply rising Andean mountaintop. I could hardly believe that I was looking at the same remarkable view that Hiram Bingham and his fellow adventurers had seen almost exactly a century before. The only thing that was more remarkable was the great group I was seeing it with! It was at that moment that I began to look forward to my next Penn Alumni Travel trip to Pizarro’s homeland of Spain in October 2012 – Viva España!