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A Trip Through Peru

Peru’s Sacred Valley.

Photo: David Nicolas

Driving the 240 miles of high country southeast from Cuzco to Puno, we went through a succession of villages defined by what they make: the village of fried pork skin (chicharrones); the village of roasted guinea pig (cuy); the village of bread; the village of textiles. Then we came at last to the Church of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas, sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, which the World Monuments Fund is helping to restore. It looks like a pleasant village church, but the doors open to reveal an interior that is relentlessly decorated, covered in frescoes, with a ceiling of a thousand medallions and an altar all silvered and gilded and mirrored, rather churrigueresque, and ingeniously harmonious. Fifty miles farther, we got to Raqchi, site of a 15th-century Inca town made mostly of mud bricks, yet of phenomenal size, the towering columns of its Wiracocha temple built to support what is believed to have been the biggest roof in pre-Columbian America. We drove on into the Altiplano, the high plains with elevations of more than 12,000 feet—great, flat stretches set in the jagged humps of the Andes, like the boundless footprints of a forgotten giant.

Puno is something of a dustheap, but from it you can explore the beauty of Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. We went by boat first to the Uros Islands, floating man-made blocks of totora reeds, continually replenished with new layers on top as the bottom layers rot in the water, each island moored to an anchor. When the Uros leave their reed houses on their reed islands, they go in boats made of reeds, many with elaborate reed figureheads of pumas. Each island has a watchtower from which signals may be sent to neighboring islands in case of trouble, and that too is made of reeds, though it has wooden legs. The staple of the Uros diet is the starchy, white heart of the reeds. This universe of reeds is exquisite through monoculture; there is something meditative and transfixing about a place where the only points of difference are the water, the sky, and the brightly colored clothing of the people.

On Taquile Island, another 2 1/2 hours away, all the women weave, and all the men knit. The women weave long belts, and the men knit hats on needles as fine as pins. The handiwork is just extraordinary, and one only wishes one could commission something other than a woven belt or a knitted hat. Peru is rather rich in knitted hats, and there are only so many of them that anyone can incorporate into his daily life, and these particular woven belts are hard to carry off if you are not specifically trying to look like a traditionally dressed woman from Taquile.

In mid-afternoon we arrived at Suasi Lodge, set on the only private island in the lake, within view of Bolivia. The eco-lodge, now run by Casa Andina, was founded by Peruvian sociologist Martha Giraldo as a nature reserve. It is a place for the sort of calm reflection that befitted our last full day on such a full vacation. So much of Peru is a fiesta of stimulus. After a couple of weeks of that, Suasi is an oasis.

We left Peru by way of Lima, where we had dinner with Mosquera at Rafael Restaurant, which is one of Lima’s best. As befits the land of more, there are more than 3,000 kinds of potato grown in Peru, and in the course of our trip we had many that were unlike anything I ever had before, including wild jungle potatoes. There are over 2,000 kinds of fish in the waters of Peru because a deep Arctic current upwells off the coast, creating some of the most plankton-rich waters in the world. There are huge numbers of novel fruits and vegetables; we became obsessed with lucuma, a fruit that tastes like a cross between dates and butterscotch, at its best in a traditional Lima dessert called suspiro a la limeña.

Any good trip is orchestrated, and this one had been written by Mosquera in distinct movements. We had started low and made a gradual ascent, the better to avoid altitude sickness, but the trip was also modulated in its harmonic shifts from the wild exuberance of the Amazon to the mystery of the Sacred Valley to the stupefaction of Machu Picchu to the elegance of Cuzco to the breathtaking austerity of Lake Titicaca. This is a country where more is definitively more.

Andrew Solomon is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, winner of the National Book Award.

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