Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Exploring in the Footsteps of Pachacutec, Pizarro, and Darwin

Arriving late, it wasn’t until the next morning that we saw our first glimpses of Peru and Lima.  We started at the regal Plaza de Armas, bordered by the presidential palace and the 500-year-old Cathedral which conqueror Francisco Pizarro built when founding Lima as the capital of the Spanish crown. Our next stop was the Museo Larco and its stunning collection of pre-Colombian art that spans 10,000 years and features gold headdresses and erotic ceramics.

Holiday celebrations at Plaza de Armas, Lima, PeruColorfully costumed revelers
Holiday celebrations at Plaza de Armas, Lima, Peru. Credit: R. Szaro.

Stained glass window of Pizarro in downtown Lima
Stained glass window of Pizarro in downtown Lima. Credit: R. Szaro.

Gold at the Museo LarcoCeramics at the Museo Larco
Gold and ceramics at the Museo Larco. Credit: R. Szaro.

Oh, and then there's the incredible food!  Lima's fusing of ingredients from the Peruvian Andes, Amazon and Pacific, allows  creative chefs to blend flavors and ingredients in their own unique dishes. For the rest of the world, guinea pigs may be perfectly cute pets. But in the Andes, from where the species come, they have a very different use — food. . Grilled or fried cuy has a taste similar to a cross between duck and pork.  No wonder cuys (as they are called in Peru) are woven into the fabric of Andean culture. In the cathedral in Cusco, the old Inca capital, a painting of the Last Supper shows Christ and the Apostles dining on guinea pig! But the idea of Peruvian fusion in my view is more than about the food.  In its broadest form it is an Andean fusion of peoples, foods, culture, ruins, and biodiversity.

Guinea pigs, a Peruvian delicacyCeviche, a Peruvian delicacy
Guinea pigs and ceviche, Peruvian delicacies. Credit: R. Szaro.

Walk through Machu Picchu and it becomes obvious that nature formed the basis of Incan  belief and engineering systems: temples were built with mathematical precision to capture the sun's rays; mountain peaks were used for worship; animals such as the condor and puma symbolized strength and greatness; and the water ways and drainage systems that moved water in and out of the city were more advanced than any European city at the time.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu. Credit: R. Szaro.

Cusco is a marvel of narrow hilly streets, where Incan aqueducts and stone foundations can still be seen. Its streets are filled with women in colorful, embroidered Quechua dress, oftentimes with a llama or baby lamb, all hoping to pose for photos in exchange for a Peruvian Sol (about 35 cents). At the center of the Plaza de Armas is a statue to Pachacutec, the greatest leader and founder of the Incan empire.

Colorful costumes on the streets of Cusco
Colorful costumes on the street of Cusco. Credit: R. Szaro.

Leaving Peru we headed for Ecuador.  From Quito, we traveled to Cayambe and the Hacienda La Compania de Jesus and its rose plantation.  I never knew that roses came in so many colors and that different places had different desires for their roses.  In Russia, for example, they prefer roses with 5 foot stems! Of course, no visit here is complete without a stop at the Quitsato equator monument.

Smithsonian Journeys Tour Group, Quisato Equator Monument
Smithsonian Journeys Tour Group, Quisato Equator Monument. Credit: Ramon Andrade.

Quito was spectacular and deserves its status as a World Cultural Heritage Site. At an elevation of 9,350 feet, it is the highest official capital city in the world. At every turn there was another church, another balcony, and another fountain.  Quito, Ecuador has the largest, best-preserved, and least-altered historic center in Latin America filled with old Spanish colonial architecture.

From the high Andes we found ourselves flying to sea level and the Galapagos Islands. No ancient ruins were here but millions of years of species evolution. Sailing the islands on the MV Coral II we took panga rides to Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Española. The flora and fauna of the Galapagos is a sight to behold. From the Waved Albatross just starting to breed on Española, to the Marine Iguanas and sea lions, we were amazed at every turn.  But it was the odd couple that still sticks in my mind - the Penguins and the Boobies!

Blue-footed Booby, Floreana IslandGalapagos Penguin, Floreana Island
Blue-footed Booby and Galápagos Penguin, Floreana Island. Credit: R. Szaro.

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