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Lima, Cuzco & Machu Picchu: Part One

Explore the lands of Incan empires and Spanish conquistadors
on a Peruvian vacation

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Lima, Cuzco & Machu Picchu: Part One
Alan Fox
By the time Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the Incas of South America had established an empire that covered half of the west coast and a large section of the Andes Mountains, incorporating parts of modern-day Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Some of the tribes ruled by the Incas had been conquered and some had been peacefully assimilated.

Columbus' discovery set off a wave of Spanish expeditions to the Americas, one of which brought Francisco Pizarro to the island of Hispaniola, and later, to Panama.

Word came of riches beyond the imagination to the south, and Pizarro made a pact with a soldier (Diego de Almagro) and a priest (Hernando de Luque) to explore and conquer the region and divide the spoils equally among them. The three convinced the governor of Panama to finance their forays into South America.

The year was 1524, the beginning of the end for the Inca Empire.

Trip Report No. 1

Looking down from my window seat at 30,000 feet, Lima and the coast of Peru were hidden by a layer of clouds that stretched like a blanket of snow to the horizon. We touched down on a cool, overcast morning and were driven to the gracious and welcoming Country Club Lima, one of the city's top-rated hotels.

My small group was en route to Machu Picchu, one of the man-made wonders of the world, high in the Andes Mountains. We wanted to experience as many of Peru's fascinating sights and attractions as we had time for, and had booked a seven-night itinerary with three nights in Lima, three in Cuzco and one at Machu Picchu.

Lima is a city of more than 9 million people, one-third of the total population of Peru. It is home to numerous historical sites and museums, a beautiful coastline with cliffs leading down to wide, sandy beaches, many fine restaurants and a traffic free-for-all that reminds me of Cairo.

Lima's historic center features numerous examples of colonial-era architecture, including the Cathedral of Lima and the Monastery of San Francisco. Construction on the former started in 1535, and though the structure has undergone earthquakes and numerous repairs and transformations, it still retains its colonial style and facade.

The Monastery of San Francisco was completed in 1774, at a time when many believed that being buried in a monastery made it easier to get into heaven. Financial supporters were allowed to be interred in the catacombs beneath the monastery, but space was scarce. After several years, the skeletal remains were uncovered and moved to ossuaries -- rooms stacked with the bones of hundreds of people -- to make room for more burials.

We walked by these ossuaries in the cool and dimly lit catacombs, peering in at the bones and skulls. What a job it must have been to work in those claustrophobic quarters by torchlight, in the suffocating smoke and stench, when burials and exhumations were still under way.

We stepped back outside, enjoying the open spaces, but not for long, for our next stop was the Inquisition Museum. This museum is housed in the same building that was home to the Peruvian Inquisition, which lasted from 1570 to 1820.

One of the darkest imports from Spain, the Inquisition was officially tasked with eliminating heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft. The indigenous people were generally not subject to prosecution since they were considered by the church to be "gente sin razon" -- individuals without reason. The primary targets were Jews and Muslims.

We descended into the dungeon of the museum to see the terrifying, tiny cells carved out of rock where prisoners awaited trial or punishment in total darkness, as well as a room filled with torture devices used to extract confessions and conversions.

After a day spent exploring the history of Lima, we were ready to visit the wild and little-known Palomino Islands, just off the coast. The islands are fed by the Humboldt Current, which starts in Antarctica and travels north along the coast of South America to northern Peru, then turns west about 600 miles to the Galapagos Islands.

In the Palomino Islands, the Humboldt supplies the fish that support an incredibly dense population of sea lions and birds, and sustains the Humboldt penguins.

The first half hour of our boat tour from the port of Callao was calm, but as we left the protected waters between the mainland and the Palominos and rounded one end of an island, the wind picked up and swells raised and lowered our boat. The farther we went, the rougher the seas became, and the sky filled with birds.

Soon the waves were slapping the rocky shores with big explosions of surf, flat-topped rocks jutted from the sea, covered with seabirds or penguins or both, and an entire island dotted with sea lions came into view.

Our group of nine had paid to swim with the sea lions, but due to the rough seas and cold water, only two of us went in. A dozen of these gentle creatures came out to greet us, their heads bobbing next to ours on the waves. I doubt the place has changed much since the days of Pizarro.

If you come this way, here are some Lima restaurants that I highly recommend -- La Rosa Nautica, La Huaca Pucllana, Cala and La Gloria. The adventurous will want to try two popular Peruvian delicacies, cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca (yes, alpaca).

Tomorrow, we leave for Cuzco, a destination in itself and the gateway to Machu Picchu. Cuzco was once the center of the Inca Empire, the main obstacle standing between Pizarro and the riches of the New World.

Pizarro's Expeditions

Francisco Pizarro's first two expeditions into South America were met with hardship and hostile encounters with the natives, but he and his two partners, Almagro and Luque, returned to Panama with enough stolen gold, silver and emeralds to substantiate their claim that vast riches were there for the taking.

Still, the Spanish governor of Panama refused to finance a third expedition, and Pizarro sailed for Spain to appeal to King Charles himself. The king approved of the third campaign, and Queen Isabel decreed that Pizarro would be made governor of any land he conquered.

Somehow Pizarro's "partners," who were not there to look out for themselves, were officially relegated to subservient roles.

By this time, the Inca Empire had been weakened by a civil war and a smallpox epidemic (a new disease introduced by the Europeans). After a series of battles, Pizarro and the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, agreed to a meeting in the town of Cajamarca.
Atahualpa arrived in Cajamarca to find Pizarro's envoy in the plaza. The envoy invited Atahualpa to come inside and meet and dine with Pizarro.

With an army of 80,000 compared to fewer than 200 Spaniards, Atahualpa was confident and complacent, and refused, demanding the return of everything the Spanish had taken since they arrived. Pizarro's hidden infantry and cavalry attacked and succeeded in killing Atahualpa's guards and taking him captive.

Atahualpa promised to fill two rooms with silver and one with gold in exchange for his freedom. Pizarro agreed, but when the rooms were filled, Pizarro had him executed and took his wife as his mistress.

There was discord among the Spaniards, with some believing Pizarro had no right to execute a sovereign ruler in his own land.

Pizarro and Almagro set out for Cuzco, the center of the Inca Empire, their forces bolstered by indigenous fighters from tribes previously conquered by the Incas.

In 1533, they arrived at the outskirts of the town.

Trip Report No. 2

Stepping off the plane in Cuzco, I first confirmed that I was still breathing.

As someone who has repeatedly experienced altitude sickness, I knew this colorful Peruvian city at 11,200 feet elevation would be my biggest hurdle on the way from Lima (at sea level) to Machu Picchu. Cuzco is the only gateway, with trains leaving daily.

I had prepared as best I could. I was fully hydrated with bottled water, free of alcohol, fortified with the altitude-sickness medication Diamox (acetazolamide) and literally brimming with the local remedy, coca tea. For good measure, I was munching coca candy.

I was determined to make it to Machu Picchu, at the manageable altitude of 8,000 feet, even if I had to cut short my planned two nights in Cuzco. My backup plan in case shortness of breath became severe: a quick transfer to the Sacred Valley (1.5 hours away) at 9,000 feet.

Plan C? Some time in Cuzco's hyperbaric chamber and the first flight back to Lima the following morning.

We found our guide, Javier, waiting for us inside the airport, and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine. The temperature was in the upper 60s Fahrenheit, not bad for the middle of winter in the Andes Mountains.

Then again, Cuzco is situated in a valley, and it was clear that the snow-covered peaks in the distance, the tallest of which rises to 20,900 feet, were experiencing very different temperatures.

Javier accompanied us to the Hotel Monasterio, where we were greeted with cool towels and coca tea at the door and led into the hotel's breathtaking chapel for check-in and a brief orientation.

The original monastery was built in 1595, where an Inca palace had once stood. Walking through the chapel doorway was like stepping back in time to the days of the conquistadors, with magnificent paintings in gold-plated frames and an ornate, golden altar.

From there we entered the hotel proper with walls of stone and stucco, beautifully appointed rooms and landscaped courtyards, the largest of which is home to a fountain and a 300-year-old cedar tree.

The Monasterio is an Orient-Express property, and like others owned or operated by this company, it is a very special place. I've stayed at Orient-Express luxury tented camps in Botswana -- extraordinary in every way -- and so I was excited to find during the planning process that they also operate the only hotel directly outside the ruins of Machu Picchu, the Sanctuary Lodge, as well as the luxury train, the Hiram Bingham, that would get us there. We had booked the trio.

Of the many endearing features of the Monasterio, I put oxygen-enhanced rooms near the top. Oxygen is piped into certain rooms 24 hours a day, raising the inspired oxygen level from 21 percent to 24 percent, in turn theoretically raising the level of oxygen in the body overnight and easing acclimation to the altitude.

Whether this actually works, I have no idea, even after staying there. But as you may already have guessed, in fighting altitude sickness, I am open to anything. Even placebo effects are gladly accepted.

On that first evening, we visited the main town square (Plaza de Armas) and the gleaming Cristo Blanco, a 25-foot-tall illuminated statue of Jesus that overlooks the city, before enjoying an excellent dinner at the Monasterio restaurant.

Cuzco is hilly, and I paced myself throughout the sightseeing without incident but still spent a sleepless night with bouts of breathlessness. The next day I learned that none in our group had slept well but all felt good and ready for a day of exploration.

We boarded our private bus and set out for the Sacred Valley under brilliant blue skies, passing the Incan ruins at Sacsayhuaman and climbing to more than 12,000 feet before descending into the Urubamba Valley near the town of Pisac. There we walked the vibrant market before continuing to the Wayra Ranch in Yucay for a luncheon feast and an equestrian show with Peruvian Paso horses.

We boarded our bus once more for a visit to the scenic town of Ollantaytambo, one of the last centers of Inca resistance to the conquistadors. Granaries built of enormous, interlocking, hand-carved stones stand firm against the elements 500 years after construction, on mountain slopes so steep the accomplishment almost defies the imagination.

We left the Sacred Valley and climbed one thousand feet to the tiny village of Chinchero, where we strolled agricultural terraces in the last light of the day, casting long shadows until the darkness descended, bringing with it the cold.

We returned to Cuzco to find a festival of colorfully costumed dancers and musicians parading through the Plaza de Armas, the second celebration we had seen that day merging Catholic and Incan traditions.

In 1533, Pizarro and Almagro invaded this city and defeated the Incas. In the years that followed, from one end of the empire to the other, Inca palaces and temples were defaced or destroyed, with churches frequently constructed on the foundations.

But one Inca site was never found, and after Cuzco, it was perhaps the grandest of them all. No one knows what it was called then, but today it is called Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.

We leave in the morning.

To see photos from this portion of my trip, please click here.

Lima, Cuzco & Machu Picchu: Part Two

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in March/April 2012. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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