A Trip Through Peru
Published: December 2009
By Andrew Solomon
Exploring the wilds of the Amazon, the high-altitude waters of Titicaca, and the mysteries of Machu Picchu, T+L revels in the sheer, exuberant abundance of Peru.
South America has been around no longer than North America, and yet there seems to be more history in Peru: more pre-Columbian history and more colonial history and quite a lot of recent history. There are more birds in Peru, and they have more colors in their bright wings. More foods come originally from Peru—including both potatoes and tomatoes—than from any comparable square mileage anywhere else. There are more languages spoken in Peru, even if some are spoken by very few people. There are more climates there, packed in tight next to one another, most of the world’s ecosystems in narrow-wale stripes. When it rains, there is more rain; and when the sun is overhead, there is much, much more sun, and you need much more sunblock to survive it. The rivers are bigger and wider and faster, the earthquakes stronger. Peru has the Americas’ deepest canyon and the world’s driest desert. There is more luxury than you might have expected, even if there is also more privation than you might have hoped. There are definitely more holidays in Peru, because there is more faith in Peru, and from the darker wilds of the country on moonless nights, there seem to be more stars in the sky. It can get a little tiring, this maximalism; you wish from time to time that there were not so many waterfalls and inexplicable stone walls, but it cannot be denied that when you think of home from Peru, home seems pallid.
My partner and I began our trip with a week on the Amazon, which officially originates in northern Peru at the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers. The Amazon Basin has a dry and a rainy season, but it rains almost as much in one as in the other. It is more useful to think of them as the flooded and low-water seasons, for melting Andean snow and highland rains engorge the river between November and June, when it ignores its moderate winter banks and spills into the jungle that was previously its border, rising by as much as 40 feet. Geological time speeds up here. You can see riverine erosion and accretion as if you were watching a stop-motion film. We saw an entire grove of bamboo mudslide into the water, and, later, a snarl of the plants catch firmly on the opposite bank. The river’s water is brown with churned earth, and great messes of wood and broken things rush past you as if they were late for a party in Rio.
The canopy of the rain forest is more accessible when the river is flooded; indeed, you can float within reach of last month’s distant treetops. High-nesting birds are closer, though the soaked ground hampers walking. There are few large mammals, and the vegetation is so thick that one seldom sees them. Even our guides, jungle-born and -bred, had rarely spotted an ocelot, or a jaguar, or the world’s largest rodent, the two-foot-tall capybara. You visit the Amazon to see birds, monkeys, the pink river dolphins, and the much-maligned piranhas, and to bask in a seemingly limitless ecosystem. There are tiny villages and ranger stations here and there, and every so often a banana boat passes by on the main river, but essentially you are away from human habitat. There are no satisfactory maps of the Peruvian Amazon because it is in a state of permanent flux; it wriggles around like an insomniac, flinging itself this way and that way, rolling back to where it was in the first place, carving estuaries into yesterday’s land.
Our sleek, modern 130-foot boat, the Aqua, has set out to bring luxury to one of the earth’s most daunting wildernesses. When we caught sight of it from our excursionary skiffs, it looked as out of place against the torn shores of the tempestuous waterway as Fitzcarraldo’s boat pulled up a mountain. Sometimes, conversely, we would lie on beautiful pillows and gaze out huge plate-glass windows, and the torrid water and dense jungle seemed like multimedia projections because they were so incongruous with our urbane suite.
The Aqua was conceived of and built by Francesco Galli Zugaro, a dashing 36-year-old who rides on the boat for a few days each month. It is the love project of his fertile imagination, and his exuberant aura of discovery seems woven into its very fabric. He has had to contend with a turbulent debut: not long after our trip, the Aqua was twice attacked by armed bandits, who made off with guests’ valuables. No one was hurt, fortunately, and security has since been dramatically increased, provided by the Peruvian Navy and the national police.
The Aqua was designed and decorated by the noted Peruvian architect Jordi Puig with the spare, elegant coolness of Richard Meier: wall panels of soft white lighting, bathrooms with the latest eco-sensitive technology, Brazilian slate walls, floors of handsome local wood, California king–size beds, and those astonishing outer walls of glass. It’s as if 12 rooms from the W Hotel had decided to run away to sea together. The boat holds 26 passengers and 21 crew members, so the feeling is intimate. The menus were devised by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar, one of Lima’s leading chefs, to meld jungle flavors and classic dishes: a soufflé made of fresh hearts of palm; broth of armored catfish with wild cilantro; a warm passion-fruit tart that sang in the mouth.
It is a truism of cruises that staff tend to be jolly, but it is in general a rather forced jolliness. On this trip, the staff seemed genuinely to be having a good time. They worked like the dickens: a team of trained naturalists who could whistle the call of any bird or primate, seducing them into view as surely as the Pied Piper, or spot a camouflaged toad at night as we careened by in the skiff; a bartender who could make a mean camu-camu-infused pisco sour. When we returned to the boat at the end of an occasional night tour, going in our dark skiffs around a bend in the dim river, the miracle of the Aqua struck us again: it looked like some river-bound constellation recently fallen from the night sky.
We explored the black water, the stiller areas, rich in tannins, which reflect everything as in a glass, darkly. On one particularly memorable day, we took the skiff for almost five hours until we found a lagoon so dense with floating water lettuce and water lilies that it covered the entire surface, and we motored slowly through what appeared to be a field, an impression made stronger by the long-legged jacana birds that skittered across the unmoored plants. The green parted for, then closed behind, us; earth was water, and water, earth. In a tree at the end of this green wonderland we found a three-toed sloth, perhaps nature’s weirdest creation, E.T. draped in a moth-eaten fur coat. The name “sloth” suggests laziness, but a sloth’s slowness is more like that of a smack addict. They hang from branches, turning their heads as if tomorrow might lie in any direction, occasionally munching on the hallucinogenic leaves of the cecropia tree. That night, we went to see nocturnal creatures, and I expressed regret that it was impossible to photograph the spectacled caiman, a carnivorous reptile closely related to the crocodile. Minutes later, while the captain held his legs, our valiant guide, Víctor Coelhos, cantilevered himself off the front of the skiff, plunged his arms into the muddy waters, and lifted a squirming juvenile into the air, holding it in such a way that we could photograph it and it could not remove his fingers.
If you go to the rain forest during the rainy season, chances are you will encounter rain. We did, but it was usually brief, sometimes giving way to clear skies and more frequently to clouds that softened the heat. On our penultimate day, we came through a dense patch of water hyacinths and found ourselves looking head-on at a rainbow, and as we drew in our breath, a flock of perhaps 40 green parrots skittered across our path. Pink is the navy blue of Amazonia: there were not only the pink river dolphins we loved, but also the pink-toed tarantulas and cascades of pink morning glories, more delicate than bougainvillea, a confetti dangled over the black water. In a week, we had traveled 500 miles, from Iquitos to the Pacaya River and back, and seen more than 80 species of birds, two dozen kinds of mammals, and an eccentric array of fish and reptiles. I had draped an anaconda around my neck, and then a boa constrictor; we had fished for piranhas with stick-poles. We had been received in one village by dancers and musicians, and in another by the old men who repaired the nets and broke the husks off rice. We had learned the names and cries of the prehistorically plumed hoatzins (pronounced “watseens”), the red howler monkeys, and the horned screamers with daft feather-like tufts on their foreheads. We had seen parrots and macaws, toucans of every shape and size, and, once, an anteater up in a tree. We had learned (but did not exercise this knowledge) that you can scoop up termites and rub them between your hands to make a natural mosquito repellent. We had seen dragonflies with red heads like matchsticks, and blue morpho butterflies, cerulean as the eyes of a fairy-tale princess. Everywhere we found water hyacinths in bloom; Monet’s lily pond had nothing on these streams. At night, in perfect isolation, we had gaped at a sky overcrowded with jostling stars and striped with the Milky Way.
If the miraculous universe of Amazonian Peru can be credited largely to the absence of human incursion, the thrilling destinations along the western slopes of the Andes owe as much to civilization as to nature. Monumental stone terraces climb like sinuous staircases toward the hilltops, giving testimony to the Inca genius for maximizing agricultural yield despite heavy runoff and poor soil. The colonial Spaniards who decimated the Inca empire robbed the natives’ precision-hewn stones for their own churches, whose hopeful spires punctuate the skyline in towns great and small. To enter this other world, you need guidance, not because it is dangerous, but because the muchness of it requires canny sorting. We ventured out under the aegis of Marisol Mosquera and Aracari Travel Consulting, which employs a network of extremely knowledgeable local guides. Mosquera brings not only elegance and panache to her work but also wisdom and a sense of history; she keeps you comfortable but helps you penetrate to the truest Peru, to experiences you might not otherwise have accrued until you’d visited the country 40 times. Her company restricts its purview to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, including the Galápagos, and you are not put at a hotel or recommended a restaurant that she has not personally checked out. In 20 years of writing about travel, I have never enjoyed such impeccable personal attention.
Fresh from the Amazon and a night in Lima, we headed off to the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, where Inca ruins and terraces are scattered as densely as Starbucks in Manhattan. We started at Pisac, whose serpentine terraces echo the undulating slopes. The nearby town’s Sunday market is given over half to the touristic takeaways that hardly vary from place to place—the Indigenous Mall—and half to a bustling food emporium where sturdy women in serapes and bowler hats hawk every color and size of potato and corn kernels as big as the Hope Diamond. We lunched there, then headed for our siesta, and Susy Dyson. Dyson, a Peruvian of English descent, became Peru’s first supermodel 30 years ago in Paris, had a career as an actress and singer, and then quit the jet set to move home to Lima and have a family. Two years ago she bought a tract of land on an Inca terrace near Urubamba and transformed it into an inn, Ticllabamba. It has just three suites, set amid lush orchards and countless vistas; completely designed by Dyson, the place is simple and understated. Altitude is exhausting and we were tired, so Dyson arranged for the chef-owner of one of Peru’s top restaurants, Pio Vásquez de Velasco of nearby Restaurante El Huacatay, to come over and give us a cooking lesson, then make an indescribably delicious dinner that included a carpaccio of alpaca marinated with thyme and served with dried tomatoes and pecans. The feeling is more like visiting a marvelous friend in her charming compound than staying in a hotel.
One of the things there is more of in Peru is ruins, some of them hardly ruined. We had seen dozens of sites by the time we made our way to Machu Picchu with jaded eyes, taking the opulent Hiram Bingham train to arrive at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. Then we walked to the site, and looked at the face of its splendid mystery. While not as extensive as Angkor Wat or as refined as the Taj Mahal, it has in common with those world monuments the quality of being utterly surprising, no matter how many images of it you have seen. It is partly that it is so ambitious and partly that it is so exquisitely situated, spilling along ridges and across hillocks and down vertiginous drops, taking in the surrounding peaks hundreds of feet above and the rushing river hundreds of feet below. Walking these streets, you feel that there was tremendous intention in this construction, though it is impossible to know just what was intended.
Cuzco is one of those cities, like Venice or Bruges or Suzhou, that is so exquisite that everything else about it seems irrelevant, and no glut of tourism can quite cancel its charm. The Plaza de Armas is one of the world’s great squares, with its two splendid colonial churches, including the cathedral, known for a painting of the Last Supper that shows Christ and the apostles dining on guinea pig. The Inca sites around the edges of town are spectacular, especially the intimidating stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman. In mixing native and Spanish culture, Peru arrived at a style that seems like Europe viewed through a bright kaleidoscope. Cuzco has fine hotels, and we stayed at La Casona. Our room had carved doors, framed Incan textiles on the walls, antique furniture, dark-wood shutters that opened to a beautiful view of the square, and a colossal bathroom of striated marble. The 16th-century building consists of just 11 rooms around a cloister court. Down the road is the superhip, Italian-designed Casa Cartagena, also installed in a great historic house.
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.
Nonstop flights to Lima are available on LAN Airlines and American Airlines from New York and Miami.
Aqua Expeditions The 12-cabin boat sails the Amazon from its home port of Iquitos. 866/603-3687; aquaexpeditions.com; four-day itineraries from $2,250 per person.
Eat and Drink
Restaurante El Huacatay 620 Calle Jr. Arica, Urubamba; 51-84/201-790; dinner for two $52.
Restaurant Rafael 300 Calle San Martín, Lima; 51-1/242-4149; dinner for two $110.
See and Do
Raqchi Km 117, Cuzco-Puno Hwy., in San Pedro district.