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On a High in the Andes

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

From Monday to Saturday it is difficult to find a tourist in Pisac, a little Peruvian village twelve thousand feet high in the South American Andes. On Sundays all that changes, for it is market day. Just about every tourist coming to see the fabled Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas," and Cusco, the heart of the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, descends on the Pisac Sunday market.

We have been staying at the El Dorado Inn at Cusco where the manager urges us not to miss this weekly event. "It's fun," he says. "This market is virtually divided into two -- the handicrafts section which is somewhat of a phony and only exists for the benefit of tourists, and the produce section which is the most authentic and colorful in Peru."

"The handicraft part is fine as long as you know that most of the stall-holders are Cusco shopkeepers who don traditional dress and haul their stock to the Pisac street stalls. There they sell it at inflated prices to gullible tourists."

Overwhelmed by the mood and colorful atmosphere of the occasion, visitors frequently fail to realize that they are being "taken." "Pure Alpaca, 100% hand knitted" the vendors chant in Spanish, English and German. But most of the merchandise is coarse wool and is produced by the truckload in the knitting mills of Lima.

"But once you cross the walkway that divides the handicrafts from the produce section," the manager explains, "your few steps will take you into another realm -- the world of the Inca-Indian."

We got a good run-down on life here from the manager.

Villagers follow much the same lifestyle patterns as their Inca ancestors. But much of the discipline that created their civilization is drifting away. In their heyday, Incas were part of a perfect communal system. They lived by the credo -- "don't be lazy, don't lie, don't steal" -- and their day-by-day activities were tightly controlled by their peers for the common good. Today, though much of the spirit of hard work and morality has dissipated, the Peruvian village is still very much a communal organization. No one owns his home or land. Every villager helps every other villager to build his house as each is required.

Crops, too, are raised in joint ownership and by joint effort, and the harvest is divided up among villagers. Each then does as he pleases with his own share and more often than not will bring the surplus to the market on Sundays to sell or trade for day-to-day items that he or she needs.

The manager goes on to explain that the villagers of today still chew the coca leaf and drink Mate -- an infusion of tea made from dried coca leaf. Coca mate is hardly more stimulating than tea or coffee. You can find it served at nearly every cafe, restaurant, or hotel in Peru, Colombia or Bolivia. Though cocaine is a direct derivative of the coca leaf and is, in fact, the super-refined concentrate from it, people here just don't do cocaine at all. Yet they get just as "smashed," but from another cause. What knocks the villagers out and keeps them pickled for days is their Indian "home-brew" beer made from fermented cereal.

As well as trading some produce for coca leaves for chewing, they trade some of the meat or vegetables they have raised for the cereal to be made into beer.

And by Monday, when the "home brew" is drunk, many are almost paralyzed by the effects.

Little of this behind-the-scenes activity is evident on the Sunday morning of our visit. Pisac villagers sit in the square, dressed in their traditional costume, women in bowler hats, bartering, laughing, exchanging gossip and taking turns to attend the church that dominates the market area. They spend a few minutes there to pray, then return to their place behind their market offerings to wait for customers.

From the age of sixteen nearly every woman has a baby in a carry -- strap on her back, an older child underfoot, and often another one on the way. The village life-cycle in these parts is fairly simple. Sunday is the day for barter, gossip, meeting people at the market and often church. By evening the home-made beer is in production and as often as not wipes out any real work until Monday or Tuesday. The guide taking us to the market today confirms.

The next four days are spent in fields, helping others from the village, and assisting with whatever communal tasks come up. Village life is still very much at the mercy of the old Inca gods who control the elements and are worshipped parallel with the Catholic teachings brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century.

Our guide explains that when the Conquistadors conquered the Inca Empire, they fathered so many Mestizio (half caste Spanish-Indian) children that for a long time the mixed-blood people were predominant in the bigger towns and villages. But when the Spanish left, the Indian birth rate was so much greater than that of the usually better-educated and more privileged mixed-blood families, that in recent times the old Inca-Indian genes again predominate.

Nowhere can we see this more clearly than at the Pisac market. The faces of the shopkeeper-Cusco stall-holders often still show a faint trace of Spanish heritage, whereas those of the bartering rural villagers are unmistakably Inca-Indian.

At a time when the Peruvian economy is just coming out of many years of deep crisis and the political situation in Lima has, for some time, been close to explosive, one has to look at the Sunday market at Pisac to appreciate that it is here that the true strength of Peru is to be found.

One finds it in the Inca-Indian villager who manages to live through all this turmoil with little of its effect rubbing off on him and his subsistence lifestyle. One finds it also in the canny Cusco trader who pretends to turn villager for the day to extract what foreign exchange he can from the unsuspecting tourist, thus keeping his own little business afloat.

Markets are possibly the clearest way to gain a true perspective of the lifestyle of any country. The colorful, bustling Sunday market at Pisac, high in the Andes, may well offer the tourist his best chance to gain an accurate insight into "grass roots" Peru.

The next day it was time to explore Machu Picchu. We had read a local booklet entitled "A Walking Tour of Machu Picchu," by Pedro Sueldo Nava -- and herewith quote a direct, unaltered excerpt from the most popular guide book on sale in Peru.

"Since the discovery of this lost city of Machupicchu in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American, visitors have flocked this alien city like bees coverging unto a hive in order to have their blithe view of this celestial-looked city." Our hotel manager had told us that the best way to "flock to this celestial-looked city" was on the tourist train. It seems a good idea to take his advice -- It's 6:30 a.m. on the next morning and a band of bleary-eyed tourists woken two hours earlier by their hotel receptionists, converge on San Pedro Railway Station at Cusco, high in the Peruvian Andes. All are foreigners, for the locals have taken the earlier, crowded, 5:30 a.m. "stopping all stations" train, its old carriages bulging with humanity, produce, and more often than not, dogs, chickens and piglets.

By contrast, the 7:00 a.m. is a comfortable, relatively modern train with reserved seats, toilets, a small counter selling drinks and chocolate -- and tickets at prices that no Peruvian can afford. Built in Spain and assembled in Lima in 1985, this train is the most modern we have seen in Peru. It must surely provide one of the greatest rail journeys in the world. Unlike most other South American trains, departure is right on time and within minutes of leaving the station, the climb out of the valley begins.

When the Spanish invaders arrived, Cusco was the capital of the great Inca civilization that encompassed 12 million people. At 3,400 metres, it is one of the highest cities in the world. Yet it is surrounded by much higher peaks and we will have to climb and cross these to reach Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.

To ascend these mountains, our train journey starts with four direction-changing switchback zigzags during which we get the chance to observe the lifestyle of the present-day Cusco residents. Much of their heritage and lifestyle dates back to the pre-colonial and pre-Spanish period.

A great and sophisticated nation when the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500's, the residents of this Andean part of Peru still proudly carry much of their Inca culture although the Spanish occupiers were not averse to a little hanky-panky with the locals during the colonial period. Houses are built of adobe brick with tiled or thatched roofs, and as our train passes, the inhabitants are already sweeping their beaten-earth yards while children play with the dogs, pigs and chickens that seem part of every household.

Soon the train has climbed out of the valley and as it reaches El Arco at 4,000 metres above sea level, we get a fabulous view of Cusco with a backdrop of the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the Andes. Then the descent starts, and we slowly cross the rich, fertile plateau at Anta. Past vast fields of potato, corn and other cereal crops we are surprised to see the fine stand of Australian eucalyptus which were introduced to Peru at the turn of the century, to be used for pit-props in the mines. Now it is the most popular and useful tree in this part of Peru. Surprisingly, they thrive tall and erect at 4,000 metres, whereas in Australia they peter out at almost half that level in the Snowy Mountains.

The scenery now changes dramatically as our train descends into the valley of the Huarocondo where the track follows first the Pamatales and then the Urubamba rivers. The latter is a wide, fast, rapids-filled waterway that eventually makes its way down the inland side of the Andes to flow into the far-away Amazon.

Around us the babble of voices indicates just how diverse the passengers are. Germans, Australians and Swiss, Spaniards, Britons and Americans make an interesting crowd. A group of young people from England with their Peruvian guide plan an eight-day camping hike across the Andes back from Machu Picchu to Cusco along an ancient Incan trail. Germans and Swiss comment that the mountains and valleys we are now passing are not unlike those at Arlberg or the Brenner Pass.

An unpleasant man from Fort Lauderdale loudly proclaims that he's glad that he flies back to Miami tomorrow. He's hated every minute in South America. He also disliked his trip to Australia and the Far East. "It was the pits," he says. "It had nothing to offer." We realize that neither has he, and break off the conversation. One meets characters like this from time to time, and I cannot help wondering why they don't stay home.

The train now chugs along one of the most breathtaking valleys imaginable. Gracefully waving bushes of yellow broom, the cascading rapids of the Urubamba, Peruvian farmers in their colorful national dress working the rich, reddish soil -- all of these impressions are burnt into minds and memories. How far removed is the self-contained existence of these people from the turmoil of Lima.

Fields of corn, potatoes, lima beans, cereal, fruit trees and the ever-present eucalyptus and mud brick houses are framed by some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. If the adjectives 'majestic' and 'towering' were coined to describe mountains, then those mountains must surely have been the Andes.

By now the sides of the valley are sheer cliffs which rise a thousand feet or more from the river bed. Around us the conversation is hushed, the quiet only broken by gasps of "Look at that!" and "aahs" and "oohs" in every conceivable language -- and the incessant clicking of cameras that must put a smile on the faces of Messrs. Fuji and Kodak respectively.

We pass the crowded 'local' train switched onto a village siding and thank providence that we can afford the tourist train. Soon we stop at a station for a few minutes. Here the whole village seems to have turned out in a massive effort to extract our money with displays of colorful native handicrafts and ‘hand-made’ alpaca sweaters which, even if turned out on a primitive home knitting machine, are far from expensive at around US$10 to $20.

The 'all aboard' whistle sounds and with eager hands still offering not-to-be-missed bargains, the train resumes its journey. More and more evidence of the ancient Inca civilization now appears. The steep mountainsides are terraced and irrigated, classic examples of the sophisticated engineering and farming techniques perfected long before the arrival of Europeans over 400 years ago. We pass a megalithic Inca bridge dating back to pre-Hispanic times. The Incas have placed two huge granite boulders just upstream from the piers to divide the waters thereby reducing the water pressure on the bridge in times of flood.

The vegetation changes, becoming more prolific and jungle-like. We are now skirting the high rainfall area of the Peruvian Amazon-basin jungle. Bright orchids and flowers can be seen, but all is overshadowed by the almost vertical mountains around us.

The scenery never ceases to amaze --- glacier-covered mountains, ancient Incan fortresses, rich river-valley agriculture, crops growing on impossibly high terraces --- a true kaleidoscope of wonders.

Three and a half hours after leaving Cusco we pass the tiny town of Machu Picchu, the primitive and somewhat backward-looking base camp for the workers at the nearby hydro-electric plant, and the town after which the breathtaking Incan ruins high above us have been named. Soon we pull into Puente Ruinas, the starting point for the ascent by bus up the nerve-wracking Hiram Bingham Road. Constructed in 1948, it snakes the steep mountainside for eight serpentine kilometers to the Inca wonder city which is our destination among the towering peaks.

Our fascinating train journey has been a wonderful introduction to this lost city of the Incas. We now set off in our rather basic buses to laboriously climb the road to the Lost City of the Andes which awaits us.

But that's another story.

Organized Tours
These are the safest way to travel in Peru. Good tour operators know exactly how to avoid trouble spots and keep you safe.

Best Currency to take
U.S. dollars. Take some in cash (you will get a better rate of exchange) but make sure that you carry your money in a pickpocket-proof money belt. I prefer the type that hangs on your belt and fits inside trousers and skirts.

Comfortable, loose cotton clothes, sturdy walking shoes, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a wide-brimmed hat, camera and LOTS of duty-free film.

Best time to go
March-June and September-November. July-August can be very hot and December-February very cold.

Travel Hints
Drink only bottled water and avoid ice in your drinks in Peru. It's probably also wise to avoid eating unpeeled fruits and uncooked vegetables. As far as crime is concerned, the only real problem is with pickpockets who have made this into an art form. We recommend that you sew velcro into your pocket-openings and carry nothing of value in backpacks that can possibly be accessed too easily by nimble fingers.


Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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