The Heights of Peru
There is a divine energy which envelops you at every turn during a trek through the Andes of Peru. The archeology, architecture, and arts of the Andean civilizations whose maxims usually start with, “For over 1000 years”, are some of the most unique treasures found on the planet. Just being in the center of the most well-known, the ancient Incan Empire, is extraordinary. There is a reason Machu Picchu is on every top ten travel bucket list.
No adventure to the highlands of Peru is complete without a journey into The Sacred Valley. Stretching roughly 60 kilometers, Inca ruins are scattered throughout the valley and authentic villages populate the province with each town embracing the unique style of clothing that identifies the wearer as belonging to that region. In combination with a patrician profile, a Quechuan woman wears a fedora-like hat, her hair in two long braids down her back, an embroidered jacket, skirt, heavy stockings made of hand-woven wool, and the lliclla or cape; the Quechuan man wears dark handwoven pants, a chullo hat of alpaca wool, a multi-colored poncho and hojotas or sandals. All embrace a noble heritage.
Situated at over 11,000 feet, the city of Cuzco means “Center of the World” in the native South American language of Quechua. UNESCO notes that “the city represents the sum of 3,000 years of indigenous and autonomous cultural development in the Peruvian southern Andes...a unique testimony to the urban and architectural achievements of important political, economic and cultural settlements during the pre-Columbian era in South America.” Remarkable not only for its history and architecture, the ancient city is also host to a rich tapestry of colorful fiestas and lavish carnivals. The largest and most spectacular celebration, the South American Festival of Corpus Christi, is the most impressive. Sixty days after Easter Sunday, colossal statues of fifteen saints and virgins, clad in an impressive array of jewels and luxurious brocades and carried upon the shoulders of the faithful, arrive from their respective parishes to the cathedral of Cuzco. The joyous atmosphere includes talented dancers and musicians and food stalls displaying the traditional dish for Corpus Christi, the Chiriuchu, a dish that brings together food from all over Peru including chicken, guinea pig, thick corn tortillas and roasted corn.
Ollantaytambo is a beautiful town located on the far side of the Sacred Valley from the city of Cuzco. Probably the best surviving example of Inca town planning, the Inca ruins located in Ollantaytambo are some of the best stonework outside of Machu Picchu. Do not forget to explore the depths of the city to engage with the villagers and have a bell jar of corn beer. The village of Chinchero, at 12,345 feet, is one of the few towns in the valley that is higher than Cuzco. It is home to a communal market where the natives still barter and chat with neighbors while buying local produce for the week’s meals. The bordering craft market features the famous handmade fabrics created with unique designs and brilliant colors. Indigenous artisans using techniques passed through generations offer a chance to practice your Spanish while doing your own trade.
For the more intrepid traveler, there is the festival of Quyllurit’i - the Snow Star Festival – which is held annually with a pilgrimage through the dizzying heights and stunning landscape of the Cordillera Vilcanota range of the Peruvian Andes. Ostensibly a Catholic festival, the local indigenous people of the Andes know it as a native celebration of the stars that takes place during the first full moon before Corpus Christi and coinciding with the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation. The festival is an exclusively Andean triad combining worship of the Apus (mountain gods), Pachamama (the earth mother) and Jesus with no apparent lack of harmony. The mission for foreigners starts with 5 hours on horseback along a rocky path, climbing a full 16,000 feet and passing eight crosses where Christian pilgrims show reverence. Most natives cover the distance on foot, carrying tents and food and even children on their backs in a simple manta, a traditional Peruvian carrying cloth. Aggressive dancers in masks and multi-layered skirts and musicians with drums and flutes perform with fervor from beginning to end.