Peru: More than Machu Picchu

Peru: More than Machu Picchu

Lucretia Bingham is on her fourth pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, the "lost city" of the Incas that her grandfather "found" in 1911 and then brought to the attention of the world. A young Peruvian boy led Hiram Bingham III to the overgrown citadel in the jungle.

The name Bingham, an historical footnote in the family's home state of Connecticut, remains a household word in Peru. A few still believe that the assistant Yale professor absconded with Incan gold — even though there is no evidence of this. But most Peruvians appreciate that Hiram Bingham was instrumental in putting their country, and its rich heritage, squarely on the map.

In late April, on Lucretia Bingham's flight from Lima to Arequipa, the pilot announced that she and her brother Russell were on the plane. The passengers burst into applause.

Small wonder. It would be hard to name a foreigner (without an army) with as profound an impact on a nation as Hiram Bingham had on Peru. Machu Picchu is considered one of the wonders of the world and is the magnet that draws increasing numbers of visitors each year. Tourism is the nation's third largest industry, accounting for roughly 10 percent of the nation's GDP.

On this trip, Lucretia has her sights set on climbing Huayna Picchu, the iconic peak that looms above the fabled Incan city like a Papal tiara. She is leading a two-week Peruvian tour for 18 mostly Connecticut Yanquis, and most will follow her up the mountain. The precipitous two-hour trek up and down perilous Incan steps is not for the faint of heart, much less late middle-agers sporting scoliosis, arthritic knees, asthma, and recurring altitude sickness (the summit is nearly 9,000 feet above sea level).

Remarkably, all of the climbers make it to the top, including Chih-wu Su, who celebrated his 75th birthday during the trip, which was organized by Audubon Eco Travel ecotravel.ctaudubon.org. A handful came early to explore Lima and environs, and several stayed on to hike the Inca Trail with Lucretia.

And while the day at Machu Picchu is clearly a highlight for all, other Peruvian destinations are as compelling. Lima, for example, is a thoroughly modern city replete with ancient ruins of its own, like the pre-Incan brick pyramid, Huaca Pucllana, a massive six-story structure that dates to 200 AD. The Incas ruled much of western South America later on, from the 1430s until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532.

The capital also boasts myriad museums — the pre-Columbian art and erotic pottery at the Museo Larco are a must-see — as well as superb restaurants. Mistura, the city's annual food festival in September, is the largest in Latin America. At Astrid & Gaston, housed in a former colonial mansion, entrees include guinea pig Pekinese and a "miracle bomb" dessert to die for.

But for a truly eccentric Peruvian repast, nothing approaches Chez Wong, touted by Newsweek as one of the planet's top 101 restaurants. Javier Wong runs a culinary speakeasy: no sign and the door is locked, so supplicants must knock loudly. Open for lunch only (by appointment, no walk-ins), it offers but two entrees: ceviche fish-of-the-day and a stir-fry dish of his choosing. The latter is wok-ed up on his single makeshift burner — in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet that is open to the small dining room and to the heavens above (it rarely rains in Lima although it always looks like it's about to).

Fortified with a beer and a cigarette, Wong, 68, holds up a giant fluke the size of a doormat for his audience to admire then commences slicing and dicing it and various garnishes, like a maestro conducting a symphony. This gustatory theater has a delicious denouement, and for less than $40 a head.

After three days in cosmopolitan Lima, the entire Bingham crew rendezvouses and heads south for Colca Canyon, which is nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. On the way the bus makes a pit stop at 16,000 feet for coca tea, banos and yet another opportunity to purchase colorful clothing fashioned from the fleece of Alpaca, Vicuna or sheep. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, all are chewing coca leaves, which, among other effects, are purported to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness, such as dizziness and headaches. Nonetheless, all are feeling woozy at best. Thankfully, the road ahead is downhill.

At Colca Canyon we encounter soaring Andean condors — with a wingspan reaching 9 feet, the largest flying birds in the world. Part of the "Incan Trinity" that includes the puma and the snake, the condor was considered a messenger to the gods. This species is among dozens that we add to our lifetime bird lists, including: crested caracara; giant coots; rare Andean flamingos, and the many-colored rush tyrant.

After communing with condors, we hike along the rim of the abyss: those who dare can admire the meandering river valley almost a mile below. And while this is a particularly spectacular panorama, virtually everywhere we travel in Peru proffers otherworldly landscapes. The relentless mountains are variously attired in snowy crowns, swaths of wildflowers, rock outcroppings, waterfalls, and eucalyptus groves.

Back on the bus, we motor to Puno and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, which at 12,500 feet is world's highest navigable lake. On the way we examine the pre-Incan funeral towers at Sillustani. While the Incas get most of the ink, Peru is an amalgam of indigenous and invasive cultures and peoples, and several pre-Columbian languages are alive and well, including Quechua and Aymara.

The buoyant foundations of these astonishing settlements consist of oblong bricks cut from marsh-grass roots, tied together, and covered with a flooring of reeds. The surface undulates when a boat passes and the edges can be a slippery slope into the drink, as Russell's wife Paula discovered. With anchors hauled the islands can meander with the wind, or via sail. And although some of the 50 or so islets apparently have been established solely to exploit the tourist trade, the one we visit is the real deal.

Four families and some 20 people live in reed huts in a soggy commune less than half the size of a football field. The children run about barefoot and the grownups fish, shoot marsh birds and harvest eggs. They also make and sell clothing and handicrafts. Concessions to the 21st century include solar panels for lights, TVs and cell phones.

Our next stop is Cusco, once the capital of the Incas, who considered it to be the "navel of the world." The old city center with its Spanish architecture, winsome plazas, looming churches, and narrow cobblestone streets feels like it was transported in toto from the Old World. But many of the Spanish buildings sit atop solid Incan foundations that were designed to withstand severe earthquakes, and there is ample evidence of cultural fusion.

Inside the stunningly ornate Cusco Cathedral, which looms over the expansive Plaza de Armas, a gigantic painting of the Last Supper depicts Jesus and his disciples partaking of roast guinea pig — flat on its back, its legs pointing heavenward. Now a museum, the 1654 cathedral has three massive basilicas and is a grand bargain at 10 Peruvian sols (about $3). It was built, in part, with stones stripped from Incan temples, and its gaudy grandeur clearly was designed to wean the locals from indigenous gods.

From the cathedral, one can stroll to other museums, including the alleged Pisco Museo, which is dedicated to the national drink (mostly of tourists): the frothy Pisco Sour. On closer inspection, this cultural destination turns out to be a "living museum," aka a bar.

Museo de la Coca in the Plaza San Blas, just up the street from our cozy boutique hotel, is the real deal and also worth 10 sols. To get there — or anywhere in Cusco — visitors must run a gauntlet of street hawkers offering everything from massages and clothing to photo ops with traditionally dressed locals cradling baby llamas. The informative exhibits here detail, among other things, the continuing (and eye-opening) connection between Peruvian coca leaves and Coca Cola.

A day trip to the proud ruins of the Sacsayhuaman citadel high above the city affords spectacular views of Cusco as well as testament to the prowess of Incan engineering. It is the fullest preview yet of what we will admire at Machu Picchu. Huge blocks, weighing as much as 200 tons, are fitted together so snuggly—and without mortar — that a sheet of paper cannot penetrate the seams. The massive stones are not simply square or rectangular cubes piled atop one another, but rather have unique shapes, like jigsaw-puzzle pieces, that interlock to withstand powerful seismic waves. These mighty walls have not budged in five centuries.

Scientists are not entirely sure how the Incas managed to cut, lift, and mesh such ginormous building blocks. One especially impressive stretch of wall boasts curvaceous cut stones undulating in perfect unison like ocean waves. It seems clear that the builders were strutting their stuff here, for future generations to marvel at.

Prior to the climax of our tour, over Pisco Sours, Lucretia Bingham talks with the group about her grandfather's legacy: "Hiram is considered something of a demigod here. Whatever his faults, and although he didn't understand the importance of Machu Picchu right away, he put it front and center on the world stage. National Geographic devoted an entire issue to his expeditions here, which was unprecedented, and he wrote many articles and books about it. Machu Picchu is now one of the best know places on the planet."

An avid traveler herself, as well as a novelist and travel writer, Lucretia believes she inherited her wanderlust from Hiram, whom she knew as a young girl: "He was a grand gentleman, and kind of a myth to his grandchildren, too."

Assisting Lucretia throughout our adventures is Efrain Valles Morales, a masterful guide from Amazonas Explorer, a Cusco firm. Orphaned at age 7 and a street kid for a spell before being adopted, "Effie" speaks five languages, including Quechua, and has risen to the pinnacle of his profession. In 2014, the British publication Wanderlust Travel Magazine named him the top international guide of the year.

Effie will introduce us to the mystical grandeur of Maccu Picchu, which lay hidden from the world for five centuries. Conventional archeological wisdom has it that the site was a sanctuary for the Incan elite, but he believes it houses too many sacred temples for that secular spin.

Effie asks us to keep our eyes down, and to the left, as we proceed along a narrow terrace above the city, which is to our right, and far below—and which, as yet, we have not seen in full. We are the only people on this obscure perch. Effie stops and tells us to close our eyes and face the retaining wall; then to turn around, eyes still closed, and join hands.

"Now take one step forward."

Some take only a baby step into the void.

"I want you to think about people you know, the people you love, your friends, your family back home, please think about them," he says and falls silent.

"I want you to share this moment with them. Now open your eyes."