Monday, August 10, 2009


Swine flu. Shining Path. Sunburns. Etcetera. Everyone we knew had some reason for us to cancel our trip to Peru. We couldn't argue with these points...we just interpreted them differently, applying a simple formula: perilous destination = high season discount. Our journey began at the unusual hour of 9pm, when we embarked for a 12:30am flight from JFK to Bogota, en route to Lima.

Having just finished a biography of JFK Jr., I can't say I understood why I was voluntarily boarding a 20 ton steel projectile on a 4000 mile ride through a dark abyss. But the danger wasn't without its sense of glamour. International spies travel at night, I told myself. Granted, with our overstuffed backpacks, waterproof hiking boots, and full array of Goretex accessories, we bore more resemblance to extras in an EMS photoshoot than characters in a James Bond film. I assured myself that that was precisely the point. The less we looked like real spies, the more real we were.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of night travel is also the most obvious- nobody else does it! We breezed through airport security with pre-9/11 efficiency. This left us plenty of time to gawk at the Port Authority armed guards standing ominously at our gate. We secretly hoped we'd bear witness to the dramatic arrest of a Colombian drug lord; as it turns out, this level of preparedness is standard procedure for planes arriving from Bogota.

We flew to Bogota on Avianca, Colombia's national airline. One might describe it as Spirit Air with the Latin flair of Spanish safety videos. With my 6'2 frame and mild claustrophobia, every millimeter of legroom counts. Unfortunately Avianca does not rank among the world's roomier airlines, but despite the parsimonious floor plan, we landed safely around 6am.

As a self-identified climate nerd, I was taken aback by Bogota. In my ignorance, I had lumped all of Central and South America into one massive banana republic, filled with sweltering jungle heat and insufferable humidity. At sea level, Bogota might have fulfilled that expectation, but at 8,000 feet, a blast of 50 degree morning air immediately roused our senses. When we first arrived, the landscape was shrouded in a thick fog. As morning progressed, the sun unveiled a green mountain landscape described by Eyal as no less than a temperate paradise.

In Bogota, we transferred to Peru's national airline, Lan, for our second flight to Lima. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the usual suspects of cultural diplomacy: McDonald's, Dunkin Doughnuts, Papa John's, and the like. However, we needn't take this as cold, impersonal capitalism robbing the earth of its diversity; these franchises certainly had a local twist. All employees were wearing face masks, apparently to protect themselves against the swine flu epidemic whose epicenter had recently shifted from Mexico to Peru. Perhaps the only thing more puzzling than the ubiquity of this accessory was the widespread belief that it would actually do something. It's not that Eyal and I didn't give it some consideration, but we ultimately decided that anything worthy of the McDonald's seal would be chemically sufficient to smite anything mother nature threw our way, viruses included.


Our final leg of the trip, from Lima to Cusco, was also the most dangerous. Because of afternoon fogs that strike without little notice, travelers are advised to fly in the morning. It was now 2pm. The landing in Cusco is preceded by a narrow mountain pass through which all planes must fly. I've never flown to St Bart's, but I'd imagine it's similar.

Fortunately, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and our descent into Cusco revealed a vast sea of adobe. With its red-brown hue, the city appeared to grow organically from the earth beneath it. The region's climate is dry, with sun-drenched, grassy hills reminiscent of California. The landscape is kaleidoscopic- a wheat field yellow by day, and a fiery sandstone red at sunset.

Like Florence or Athens, Cusco thrives on its former greatness. As the crown jewel of the Inca Empire and a key colonial center, Cusco is richly layered in history, literally. The destruction-savvy conquistadors tempered their carnage to preserve the masterful Inca stone masonry, which forms the foundations of many buildings in the central historic district.

To our surprise, we saw rainbow flags nearly everywhere we went. Not even Christopher Street or the Castro could compare. Had they known we were coming? Not quite...the rainbow flag is also a symbol of Inca identity. From local Christianity, I knew the Incas were masters of double-entendre, incorporating traditional symbols seamlessly into the western canon (for example, there's a famous painting of the Last Supper featuring roast guinea pig). Yet something told me this overlap was more coincidental than contrived.

We stayed in San Blas, a historic neighborhood with an artistic, bohemian vibe. Its narrow, one-way cobblestone streets had the look and feel of old-world Europe. In some cases, Cusco's urban planners had the prescience to include raised pedestrian walkways, but these were only about 12 inches wide. Consequently, a walk around the block is no mindless task, but a continual testing of fate!

Natural Resources

Exhausted from 20 hours of flying but eager to start exploring, we were both in need of a little pick-me-up. When we arrived at our hotel, our hostess offered us some "coca." Expecting Coca Cola, I cheerfully accepted. Instead, she brought us hot water steeped in coca leaves- yes, the same leaves that turn white and more powdery on their journey north. In this purer, legal, and less stimulating form, coca has sustained the Incas for centuries, and remains a first-course treatment for altitude sickness.

Coca might not be the salt of Peruvian cuisine, but at times it comes close. If you seek it out, you can have it in nearly anything. Before long, we sampled coca chocolate, coca ice cream, and coca bread. In San Blas, we even came across a coca store. With a long pony tail and a full beard, the proprietor had the look of a happy pirate who had cleaned up his act and decided to make an honest living. He had a little twinkle in his eye, and pranced from one coca treat to another with seemingly inexhaustible energy.

"The creative uses of coca are endless!" he raved, holding a small bowl of ground leaves. I nodded, smiled, and pointed to my nose. I was joking; he was immediately mortified. "Oh no! I don't support that!" he exclaimed and quickly changed the subject. In retrospect I can understand why my joke wasn't taken lightly, as I'm sure many a gringo has come a-knockin for a more processed form of Peruvian marching powder. But with a name like "Coca Shop"- he might just be asking for it!

If It Ain't Baroque

The next day Eyal and I put on our American tourist caps, with the express intent of covering as many 'greatest hits' as possible. We had about 12 hours and over 500 years of history of cover, so there wasn't much time to waste.

We purchased an all-access pass to Cusco's religious sites, including one cathedral, two churches, and a museum of religious art. All were built in the middle of the 17th century at the height of the Baroque period.

In full disclosure, I normally can't stand Baroque. It's the Renaissance on steroids; a train wreck of a sequel on par with Caddyshack II. If it's Baroque...please fix it. Tear it down, melt it, bury it- do anything besides permit it to continue in its gross excess. The local style known as Cusco Baroque, characterized by its "fear of unadorned spaces," brought me head-to-head with one of my strongest loathings.

The experience became an unexpected lesson in tolerance. By my third altar, endlessly intricate and gilt to the hilt, I began to appreciate this style in new found ways. Baroque's beauty, I meditated, is in precisely what I detest the most: its incomprehensibility. In these 30 foot golden monoliths, there was so much to take in- so much pattern, symbol, narration- that I would never fully grasp their meaning. I would never be able to grasp the wholeness of this altar, just as I would never fully comprehend the meaning of the Holy Trinity. There was another world within the altar- one which I could only partially understand- and that partial understanding only increased my desire to be a part of it.

My visit might not have converted me to Christianity, but it did convert me to Baroque.


Our evening culminated with a trip to Sacsayhuaman, the Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. Historically, Sacsayhuaman was a part of Cusco. The Incas built the city in the shape of a puma, with Sacsayhuaman representing its head. Sacsayhuaman exemplified the skill of Inca stonemasons. As the conquistadors once remarked, you can't wedge a knife in its crevices. Many of the stones were about my height, which begged the question: "How did y'all do this?"

Machu Picchu

Much has already been written about with ancient city of Machu Picchu. Its magical energy, breathtaking vistas, and harmonization of man and nature have been covered by many a scholar, and likely many a blogger. I'll spare these topics here, and focus on a few general impressions

It's widely agreed that images of Machu Picchu, or "the Mach" as Eyal calls it, fail to convey a sense of place. This is the beauty of the live experience- as each step taken reveals a new perspective.

I believe the heart of Machu Picchu lies in its most basic element: its terraces. Basking in their latent symbolism, one quickly forgets their agricultural function. Emerging seamlessly from the untamed jungles below, they might be taken to represent the evolution of man, now distinct from nature, but still very much a part of it.

In addition to the city itself, one of the site's most impressionable features is the adjacent mountain of Huayna Picchu. I stared blankly at Hauyna for about 15 minutes, pondering what exactly made this mountain so captivating. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides, which entropy has softened into worn, amorphous forms. In contrast, Huayna seems to defy nature with a sharp angularity that's withstood the ravages of time. Indeed, Huayna seems as timeless as the gods entreated at its summit, remaining eternally youthful.

On our way back to Cusco, Eyal surprised me with a trip on the Hiram Bingham, a luxury train managed by the Orient Express. From its dark wood panels to its highly mannered staff, the train lives and breathes opulence. Before we boarded, one butler handed us a moist towelette; 5 feet further, another butler collected them. This was our point of entry into a world of delicately calculated perfection. And perhaps best of all, a world of all-you-can-drink pisco sours! Here's me after three or four:


If Cusco represented Peru's past, Lima certainly embodied its present and future. Like many a capital in the developing world, it seems to have expanded without the auspices of urban planners. The population has grown significantly in recent years as the result of guerrilla violence in the countryside. We passed a few shanty towns en route from the airport, but otherwise our exposure to this side of Lima's history was limited.

Instead we headed to Mira Flores, a stylish neighborhood on a coastal bluff with spectacular views of the Pacific. We came to visit Enrique, a friend of mine from business school and a member of Peru's haut monde. Usually when I peruse the Sunday Styles section of the Times, I can at least take comfort in recognizing a name or two among society's notables. In the Peruvian equivalent, Enrique knew half of them personally. He lived in a penthouse apartment, tastefully decorated in a pastiche of antiques and Philippe Starck furniture.

We first went out to Panachita, a restaurant around the corner. It was a place where Peru's moneyed elite came to see and be seen. Interestingly, its clientele shared many features with the denizens of Manhattan's upper east side, including perma-tans, botox, and excessively blonde hair.

For better or worse, there were no available tables for the next hour, so we headed to La Mar, a contemporary seafood restaurant in Lima's equivalent to the East Village (presumably, this is where the children of Panachita's customer's ate). The ceviche was second to none, and we also got to sample several varieties of potato. Given how close potatoes are linked to brand Ireland, I was surprised to learn that their roots trace back to Peru, where thousands of varieties abound.