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Magical and Legendary Perú

By | January 4, 2012
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Perú is a magical place. For most Smithsonian travelers the goal, the prize I should say, is to see Machu Picchu with one's own eyes. My wife and I went to Machu Picchu in January 1980, when the means to get there, the accommodations, and other aspects of the infrastructure were far less than they are now. Machu Picchu was one of the first places we visited that turned out to be better than we had hoped it could be; it still is, though we must now contend with some 2,000-2,500 other visitors each day.

But there is a great deal more to Perú. Perú was the richest part of the world in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was a very wealthy country in the 19th century. Perú is not a developing country, but one that has been at the apex in the past and will be again.

The cultures that eventuated in the Inca Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries stretch back 5,000 years and more, and feature the magnificent Moche of the north and the enigmatic Nasca of the south. The Andean peoples who faced the European invaders in the 16th century have not disappeared, but rather have successfully resisted efforts to alter their lives for a half-millennium.

For me, Perú is fabulous archaeology, a testament to the ability of human beings to adapt to diverse ecological challenges. It is also the opportunity to walk around the courtyard of the National History Museum and speak to the portraits of the viceroys whose correspondence I read for my dissertation. Perú is wonderful Chinese food, eaten in a "Chifa," the legacy of the Chinese immigrants who came to Perú to build the railways in the 19th century and stayed to work on the cotton plantations in the north. It is also home to Peruvian Fusion Cuisine, which is taking the culinary world by storm. Perú is the myriad faces one sees along the way, reflecting the peoples of South America, Europe, and Asia. Perú is discovering that Google is available in Quichua, the language of the Inca Empire!

But most of all, Perú is a wonderful 15-year-old girl in Ollantaytambo, whose hair I cut for the first time in her life in September 2001, just days after 9/11, and who – through that ceremony – became my god-daughter. The Smithsonian Associates on that Peruvian trip joined in the festivities, as we were all in need of something to take our minds off of the events in NYC. Hilary (she was named after Mrs. Clinton) now corresponds with me by e-mail, but we try to see one another in person as often as possible, usually in the shadow of the ruins of Ollantaytambo, where her ancestors were building a fabulous temple to the sun when the Europeans arrived.

Enjoy Perú in all its aspects.

I'll leave you with the Quichua admonition, repeated daily: "Don't Lie, Don't Steal, and Don't be Lazy."

Learn more about our Perú tour and our study leader, Jeffrey Cole.

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Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole

Jeffrey A. Cole has led over 50 Smithsonian Journeys to Latin America since 1992, including 26 to Peru and 20 to Chile. He has taught Latin American Studies at Clark University, Tulane University, SUNY-Oswego, Cornell University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College.

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