Peruvian Fusion: The Cusco School of Painting

Fusion is everywhere in Peru. Every place you look you can see the collision between Andean and Spanish cultures. It’s in the blood, in the food, in the music, in the language and it’s in the paintings. We got an introduction to the Cusco School of painting last week when we bought a ticket gaining entrance to three churches and a museum: La Catedral, La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, Iglesia de San Blas and the Museo de Arte Religioso.

Our first stop was La Catedral on the Plaza de Armas. Construction of the church started in 1559 (aided by many large stones pilfered from the nearby Sacsayhuaman fortress) and had to be re-built after the massive 1650 earthquake. In the northeast corner of the cathedral we saw the epitome of this Andean/Spanish clash of cultures in Marcos Zapata’s rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (left). What better way for an Andean painter to accept a forced-upon religion, yet still be true to his indigenous roots, than to place cuy (guinea pig) on a platter in the center of the table? It’s open to debate what the main course was for The Last Supper (grilled eel? lamb?), but I’m certain that Leonardo didn’t depict guinea pig and chicha morada (fermented purple-corn drink).

The Cusco School of Painting is a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco, Peru during the colonial period. The tradition originated after the Spanish conquest of the Incas and is considered the first artistic center that systematically taught European Artistic techniques in the Andes. The main purpose of the school was didactic, to inculcate catholic religious values and almost all of the painters were indigenous. Ironically, the school got a boost after the 1650 earthquake destroyed most of the churches and artwork and Cusco School artists were commissioned to paint hundreds of new paintings to adorn the walls of the new structures that were being built.

Across the plaza from La Catedral is La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, which was built in 1571 (also rebuilt after the 1650 earthquake) on top of the former palace of Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule an undivided empire. Our guidebook directed us to some paintings of catholic weddings near the entrance, where we found The Marriage of Captain Martin de Loyola to Beatriz Ñusta. In the background of this painting of a Catholic ceremony are indigenous Incas, one with an Amazonian parrot on his shoulder. It was not uncommon for Cusco School painters to use Andean flora and fauna in their paintings of religious topics.

After a quick tour of the modest Iglesia San Blas and its intricately-carved wood pulpit, we debated whether we should visit the Museo de Arte Religioso, even though it was included in our ticket. Our guidebook gave a ho-hum description of the museum and even referred to it as a “musty religious art collection.” For us, the museum turned out to be the best in Cusco, with excellent audioguide-descriptions of various Virgin Marys, warrior angels, Corpus Christi processions and Diego Quispe Tito’s zodiac paintings.

For us, the depictions of the virgens were the most interesting. Most of the Virgin Marys, like the Virgen de Belen to the left, were fairly “flat” and lacked perspective, which would be expected from a culture new to representative painting. The Pre-Columbian Andeans had superior skills in ceramics, architecture, gold and silver work as well as textiles, but painting oil on canvas was a foreign concept. Many of the Virgin Marys, along with baby Jesuses they held, were triangular in shape, suggesting the shape of apus, or sacred mountains. It’s almost as if the Virgin Mary put on a couple hundred pounds once she set foot in the New World. Making the shape of the virgin’s dress suggest the mountains that the Incas revered made acceptance of the new religion easier. In their depictions, the virgens quite often have ruddy cheeks, suggesting the cold mountain weather of the Andes, and there is always lots of detail in their dresses which is not surprising given an Andean culture obsessed with textiles and weaving. Lastly, most of the paintings in the Cusco school (with some notable exceptions: Marcus Zapata, Diego Quispe Tito, etc.) were anonymous, due to the Pre-Columbian traditions that defined art as communal.

Immediately after leaving the museum, inspired by my exposure to the Cusco School, I went on a search for a reproduction Virgin Mary painting, stopping in various shops in San Blas. There is something very noble and appealing to me about how indigenous cultures, when forced to accept a foreign religion, find subtle -- in some cases, not so subtle -- ways to express their defiance. I looked in several shops, but had difficulty finding one that had a wide enough triangular shape. Each one shown to me by a shopkeeper was turned down with the words “No es bastante gorda” (“Not fat enough”). My wife and I resumed the search a few days later and we finally found a perfectly rotund Virgen de la Merced, complete with slightly-ruddy cheeks and resplendent dress detail.


House Hunters International Comes to Peru

We were approached last week by a producer for the television show ‘House Hunters International”, who had read this blog and thought that our family might be a good fit for their show. We knew nothing about the show, which is apparently a smash hit in many countries on the Home & Garden channel (HGTV). Based on the producer’s enthusiasm, we started to become excited about the possibility of our overseas adventure being documented on a television show. A flurry of emails back and forth with the producer escalated the excitement and my wife and I started to think about the possibilities. He told us that they would need to start filming on location in Peru in 2-3 weeks and they needed our audition video within two days in order to get executive buy-in.

That evening I skyped my mom in Northern California and asked her if she had ever seen the show. It turned out she was familiar with the show and her take was that it was only for people who were actively seeking to purchase a home overseas. We were neither seeking nor purchasing; we’d already found our rental apartment in Peru. Later that night, our Internet connection finally stabilized to the point where I could watch a few YouTube videos of the show and this confirmed my mom’s view. The basic premise of the show was to follow a couple or family who are looking to buy property in a foreign country. A real estate agent shows them three homes and guides them through the emotional process of buying a home in a foreign environment and the couple ends up choosing one of the properties. I watched an American couple in their 20’s go to Costa Rica to choose a property from which to run a Bed &Breakfast and I followed a San Diego couple as they went to the Amalfi Coast to find their retirement villa.

At this point, the gap between what seemed like the show’s format and our Peruvian experience needed to be reconciled. Were they planning on altering the format for us or did they want us to pretend to be looking to buy a house here? At this point, my wife's and my collective state of mind had gone from naïve excitement about our expat experience being documented on TV to guarded optimism and the creeping suspicion that we’d be asked to act out a “Reality TV” scenario that had nothing to do with us. Around midnight, I fired off an email to the producer in New York with a couple questions: Is it OK that we are not looking to purchase a house? Is it OK that we are not actively seeking a property? The response back was that these were not issues, we had a great “story” and it was actually a requirement of the show that the people on it already own their property.

[Cut to light bulb brightly shining above my head]

Of course! Now this seemed like a great business model. By choosing people who had already bought their house, the show doesn’t have to rent a foreign location and it avoids any unforeseen delays in the purchase process. By using a local realtor, they gain free access to two other properties for filming, and of course the realtor is only too happy to forego payment in return for free television publicity. As for the show’s participants, all they have to do is “re-create the scenario” that led to their property purchase. Now the question was: how much did they pay the show’s participants?

Initially, when my wife and I thought that they wanted our story, we were extremely flattered and probably would have done it for free. As it became more apparent that they wanted us to fit into an existing format and “recreate the scenario,” money became more of a factor due to the time involved and the disruption to our schedule (we’d need to fly back to Northern California to recreate some scenes there as well). We felt that there was value in our experience and to some extent we were losing control over our “story.” My wife and I sat down and asked ourselves: “How much money would make this worthwhile for us?” Once we had that number, we fired off yet another email diplomatically asking how much we might be paid for the show. When the answer came back – far, far lower than our number – we politely declined and our television careers came to a screeching halt.


The Cost of Cusco

Peru is less expensive that most countries and Cusco is more expensive that most Peruvian cities. Here is a breakdown of costs (in US dollars) of a random sampling of everyday items:

Housing and Utilities:
Monthly rent for an unfurnished apartment near the center of Cusco (3BR/2BA): $250.00-300.00
Monthly utilities (water, electric, trash): $80.00-100.00
Re-fill a five-gallon tank of propane for a gas stove (that will last 2 months): $10.00

8 medium-sized potatoes at the produce market: $0.40
Large chicken breast at the supermarket: $2.80
A dozen eggs at the supermarket: $1.20
A dozen fresh-baked bread rolls at any corner store: $0.80
1-liter carton of milk at the supermarket: $0.83
Fresh-baked Baguette from San Blas' Buen Pastor bakery: $0.17
Bottle of Peruvian Tabernero Cabernet Sauvignon: $6.00

Taxi Cab ride across town: $0.83
Air Flight from Cusco to Lima (round trip) $90.00 (seems to have gone up lately)

Shoeshine in the Plaza de Armas: $0.33
Double-scoop of gelato: $0.60
Trip to the dentist for teeth cleaning: $35.00-45.00
DVD movie (pirated) from El Molino market: $1.00


Delicious Picarones

One of our family’s Cusco traditions is to go out for picarones, which are deep-fried, donut-shaped treats with molasses drizzled over them. Though not the healthiest snack in the world, they are delicious. A week ago, we invited another American expat family to join us at our favorite picaroneria and they loved them as well. Their young daughter, who was falling asleep after a long day, rallied when she took her first bite. We all watched her as extreme fatigue dueled with overpowering sweetness, creating what looked like a 4-year old devouring a picarone while fast asleep.

Picarones, a popular dessert in Peru and other Andean countries, are made from squash and sweet potato, along with flour, eggs, yeast and spices. They are sweetened with miel de chancaca (chancaca honey), a sweet sauce made of raw cane sugar. They are frequently paired with anticuchos (marinated meat on skewers) and are often served during the month of October during the procession of Señor de los Milagros. Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos, which were too expensive to make. People started replacing traditional buñuelos ingredients with squash and sweet potato and the new dessert rapidly increased in popularity throughout the Andes.

Just as the Incas imported their creation myth and religious traditions from Lake Titicaca, this tradition of ours originated there as well. Coming back from our Bolivian vacation, my wife and daughter decided to visit the Titicaca islands of Taquile and Amantani, while my son and I headed straight back to Cusco. They were hiking to the top of Amantani to see the sunset and some Pre-Inca ruins when they saw a stone cottage with “picarones” written on a chalkboard in front. It was cold, windy and getting dark and the fire inside was inviting. They sat down at one of the two tables and ordered the only two things on the menu: picarones and hot chocolate. They watched the lady knead the dough and place it in the cast-iron skillet filled with hot cooking oil. After frying it, she set them on a plate and drizzled molasses on them. When my wife and daughter returned and recounted the highlights of the trip to the islands, picarones were high on the list.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered our favorite picaroneria in Cusco while walking home from work. The shop is on a corner with a large vat of hot cooking oil right near the door. Inside there are five tables and the back wall is dominated by a large photo of a smiling woman with blue eyes and too much make-up biting into a picarone. Three ladies work there: one kneads the dough, one woman fries it and the other takes orders. While close to San Blas and the Plaza de Armas there seems to be many Cusqueños frequenting this place, a Peruvian version of a blue-collar donut shop in the U.S. For me, this comparison was reinforced about a month ago when a policeman walked in and ordered a dozen picarones to go. Some things transcend borders.

Recipe for Picarones:

Ingredients for picarones:
/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled sweet potatoes
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled buttercup squash
1/2 kg (1 lb) of flour
3 tablespoons of yeast
2 stick cinnamons
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of aniseed
3 tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Vegetable oil

Ingredients for the chancaca honey:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of chancaca
1 cup of brown sugar
4 cloves
2 stick cinnamons
2 pieces of orange peel
4 cups of water

Chancaca honey: Cut the chancaca in pieces, put them in a pot and add sugar, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and water. Boil until it gets a little thick (200º F, 110º C), more or less for 20-25 minutes. Strain.

Picarones: Boil in a pot a lot of water with the cinnamon, cloves and aniseeds for 10 minutes. Strain. In this water, cook the sweet potatoes and the squash. When they’re ready, take them out from the pot and strain. Keep back 2 cups of water and let it cool down.
In a bowl, mix the yeast with this 2 cups of water and the sugar. Go down for 15 minutes.
Mix the sweet potatoes and the squash making a purée. Add the salt, the yeast mix and the eggs, beating and mixing good. Add the flour while you continue beating with energy. You must get a soft and elastic pastry and it mustn’t get stuck to your fingers. Go down for 1 hour or until the preparation doubles its volume.
Heat a lot of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. Moisten your hand in water with salt, take the pastry and let it fall in the hot oil forming a ring. Let them get brown and turn over.
Usually, the portion is 3 picarones topped with miel de chancaca.


Cusco Haircuts: The Best and the Worst

One of the things that I did not have time to do prior to leaving for South America was get a haircut; there were just too many things to do, plus I figured that I could always get a cheap one in Peru. Right about the time we arrived in Peru in late April, I noticed a brand-new hair salon two doors down from our Spanish school. It had 3 barber chairs, a full accompaniment of hair paraphernalia and a large poster with Brad Pitt and Megan Fox grinning and showing off their well-coifed hair. The proprietor was a woman in her late 20’s and when she wasn’t standing in front of the door waiting for customers, she was in the back room taking care of two small kids. I’d walked by each day for a week before impulsively deciding to go for it. I plopped down in the chair and said “Quiero aparacer como Brad Pitt.” (I want to look like Brad Pitt)

Sometimes an impulsive decision in Cusco turns out to be a great story: a chance visit to a non-descript panaderia reveals their awesome onion bread rolls or extreme thirst makes me enter a “hole in the wall” restaurant that serves outstanding chicha morada. This was not going to be one of those stories. She nervously started cutting one side of my head and I could feel her hands shaking while my daughter was documenting the experience with her new camera. I started to wonder whether she had ever given a haircut before. Once the ordeal was over, I surveyed the damage in the mirror: on the left side of my head the hair stood straight up and only copious amounts of water would make it lay down. I left thinking that it was the worst haircut I’ve ever received.

Usually my hair grows back pretty quickly and I often make the following joke “What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? About 2-3 weeks.” Well, three weeks and then four weeks went by and it still looked bad. After about 6 weeks I stopped thinking about it. A few months later we returned from our vacation in Bolivia and it was time for another haircut. My son accompanied me to a busy barber shop a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas and as we walked in the next available barber motioned me over. Romulo was one of 10 barbers working in the shop and he sat me in his chair and started snipping at my hair. The first things I noticed about him were his severe limp and his forceful way of positioning my head while cutting hair. He grabbed my chin and moved my head to the right while snipping away with dull scissors. The scissors pulled on my hair a bit and I had flashbacks to my earlier experience, but as I watched him at work, I gradually began to realize that he really knew what he was doing. He was very thorough and the haircut took almost 30 minutes. My son was so impressed that he decided to get a haircut as well. I gave Romulo a big tip and my son and I left thinking that we’d just had our best haircuts ever. I found it amusing that both my best and worst haircuts were both here in Cusco. It was no surprise to me that the hair salon run by the woman who butchered my hair was no longer in business.

About a month later, at a point where I had a 3 week growth of beard, I decided I would go back and get a shave from Romulo. I walked in, sat down and made eye contact with Romulo. He let me know that he’d be with me shortly by holding up one finger so I leaned back in my chair and looked around the barber shop. I looked at each barber in the shop and then my eyes rested on the barber working the chair next to Romulo and …yes… it was the woman who gave me my worst haircut. Not only were my best and worst haircuts given in the same South American town, the barbers were now working 2 feet from one another.


All Lost in the Cusco Supermarket

There are plenty of local abarrotes (corner grocery shops) near us, but just like the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores back home in the United States, the selection is poor and the prices are relatively high. For bulk shopping we head to a supermercado, just as we would back home. Since there are no supermercados near our San Blas apartment, we shop at the Mega on Plaza Tupac Amaru. This location works for us because can walk over while our kids are at their nightly swim practice at the Piscina Municipal.

There’s a large open-air market near our apartment, where we normally buy our fruits and vegetables, but we have yet to purchase any meat there. While the meat monger seems to do a brisk business, there is something about seeing meat lying on a concrete counter while flies hop all over it that makes us cringe. As such, we buy our beef and chicken from the meat counter at the supermercado, where they even have packaged, boneless chicken breasts. Even though I have no idea where they’ve been previously, I am somehow comforted by seeing chicken breasts that have been wrapped in cellophane. It’s either because of the perceived cleanliness or perhaps it is because I know I can quickly grab a package instead of waiting for a woman behind the counter to help me. The women behind the counter seem pretty disinterested and it is sometimes hard to get their attention.

The delicatessen counter, however, is a different story. It is hard to walk by without one of the women touting their bacon, offering a sample of ham or suggesting a local cheese. It makes me wonder if they are on commission. Despite their hard sell, I tend to avoid the deli counter as most of the meat has a curious orange color and I’ve yet to find a cheese I like. We do like the packaged salami and Serrano ham for sandwiches. Beyond these two items, some of our standbys are the fresh-squeezed orange juice, ciabatta bread rolls and the kid’s favorite -- Piqueo Snax -- a spicy mixture of snack foods. In general, the selection of fruits, vegetables and grains is excellent and – this being Peru – I always have a choice of at least 10 types of potatoes.

I sometimes run into trouble with the ladies that weigh the produce. For example, when I buy the bulk peeled garlic, it is usually for a dish I plan to cook, so I’ll only bag 5-6 peeled clove pieces. When I put the bag on the scale, the ladies shake their head and tell me I need to buy more. The first time I was sent back twice until I had the requisite number. When I asked the lady what I should do with all the extra garlic, she just shrugged. I got my revenge a few weeks ago when purchasing cilantro. The cilantro bin was just about empty but I was able to find a small handful, which was exactly how much I needed. I brought it to the scale and the lady shook her head and said I needed more. When I told her that there was no more she marched over to the herb section and searched it thoroughly while I tried to suppress a grin.

The store is a smaller than we are used to. The aisles are very narrow so I find it easier to park my cart in the back of the store and go back and forth for what I need. There’s also a shortage of shopping carts; weekday evenings my cart is often snatched away just as I pull the last item out to place it on the checkout counter. Once the checkout clerk has rung me up, I find that the bill usually comes pretty close to 100 soles ($33 USD), probably because that’s the amount of food that will fit into 4 bags, the maximum that I can carry back to the swimming pool.


Paucartambo's Virgen del Carmen Fiesta

Where is Paucartambo’s Virgen del Carmen festival? It’s halfway.

The mountain village of Paucartambo is halfway between Cusco and the Manu Biosphere in the Peruvian Amazon and the fiesta is held every year halfway through the month of July. The fiesta is halfway between a celebration of Christianity and one of Andean Pantheism and the Virgen del Carmen – the patron saint of the town – is halfway between being the mother of God (the Virgin Mary) and the Mother Earth (Pachamama).

We visited the fiesta this past July with our children’s Spanish teacher and her boyfriend. The long, winding, dusty road from Cusco took us about five hours, even with a stop at Ninamarca, where we climbed a ridge to see several well-preserved stone tombs from the Lupaca Pre-Inca culture. The Virgen del Carmen festival attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over and the sheer numbers overwhelm Paucartambo’s ability to house everyone; many people end up camping out or sleeping in the streets. Our Spanish teacher’s boyfriend is an architect who occasionally works on municipal projects near Paucartambo, so we were able to secure (very basic) government worker lodgings about 30 minutes from town. We settled our belongings and took a combi back to Paucartambo.

We arrived in town and made our way to the main square, a trapezoidal open area surrounded by colonial buildings with light-blue second story balconies. The entrada (entrance of the dancers) had not yet started but masked jesters were interacting with the crowd and snapping their whips, while fire engines rolled through the square with sirens blaring. By mid-day, many masked semi-mythical characters – malaria victims, Ukukus (half man-half bear), condor-men and warlike jungle Indians – were making their way into the square. We got our seats on the square and by mid-afternoon the entrada festivities started.

There are 16 different types of dances, all intricately choreographed and performed, and rehearsed for weeks beforehand. We watched Saqras-- Euro-Andean devils in vivid rainbow-colored costumes, animal masks and hairy wigs -- dance and gyrate around the square. After that, we watched Capaq Negros (black slaves imported to work the silver mines) do a spinning-stomping dance and twirl noise-makers to the accompaniment of drums. While this was happening, we also watched drunken Majeños (republican-era merchants) on horseback, brandishing pistols and beer bottles. There were also the Auca Chilenos dancers, who personify the painful memories left in the Peruvian consciousness by the occupying Chilean soldiers during the 19th century War of the Pacific. We also saw the Contradanzas, who gracefully mimicked the French cuadrilles that were popular in the salons of the Spanish elite during the late colonial period (when Napoleon controlled Spain). While the costumes and choreographed routines were excellent, two things make the Virgen del Carmen fiesta special: the viewer’s proximity to the dancers and the fact that they all wear masks. The Paucartambo square is pretty small and interaction with the dancers is inevitable and definitely enhaces the viewer's experience. The wearing of masks, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol, strips the dancers of any inhibitions and allows them to express themselves more freely. By 7:00 pm, we were exhasted from a full day of travel and festivities. We had some dinner and headed back to our lodgings while the fiesta in Paucartambo was still going strong.

The fiesta originated, according to local legend, hundreds of years ago when a wealthy woman named Felipa Begolla, who periodically came to town to trade goods, discovered the head of a beautiful woman lying among pots and pans in her wagon. Felipa couldn’t speak or move and the lovely apparition spoke to her calmly and told her that her name was Carmen. Felipa put the head on a silver dish and the townsfolk crowded around in wonder. A local carpenter was commissioned to carve a wooden body of the head and it was mounted on a litter and carried to the local church. This act has been symbolically re-enacted every July 16th since.


Ollantaytambo: Inca Fortress

We approached Ollantaytambo as the Urubamba River valley began to narrow into a steep gorge, the same approach that Hernando Pizarro and his forces used leading up to the battle of Ollantaytambo in January of 1537. Our taxi climbed the steep, stone-paved road up to the town and we rolled along the bumpy main street. While passing stone walls and buildings, about half way through the town, we caught a glimpse of the Ollantaytambo fortress high above town. In an instant we understood why the Spaniards had so much trouble taking this town

Back in the 16th century, the town was defended by Manco Inca, who at 17 was installed as a puppet ruler by the Spanish and later ended his collaboration and led the Incas against the Spaniards. He fled to Ollantaytambo after losing Saqsaywaman in Cusco but he had his soldiers ready for Pizzaro. When the Spaniards arrived they were greeted by arrows and stones hurled from high above. Pedro Pizarro, the cousin of Francisco Pizarro and a chronicler of the Conquest, writes that they “hurled down so many boulders and fired so many [slingshot] stones and arrows that even had there been many more of us Spaniards than there were, they would have killed us all.” Despite this, the fighting continued with Manco Inca’s troops continuing to hold the fortress. Later in the day, things got interesting. Kim MacQuarrie, in his book “The Last Days of the Incas,” writes, “As the two forces grappled with each other, the Spaniards suddenly noticed that the plain they were fighting on had mysteriously begun to flood with water. Manco Inca, it turned out, had devised a secret weapon and had chosen this precise moment to unleash it. Along the nearby Patacancha River, which emptied into the Yucay, Inca engineers had built a series of canals. Manco had now given the signal to open them, flooding the only plain upon which the Spanish horsemen could maneuver.” This stratagem changed the course of the battle and the Spanish began their retreat back to Cusco. The victory was short-lived as the Spaniards soon returned with a much larger cavalry, took Ollantaytambo, and Manco Inca retreated to the last Inca stronghold of Vilcabamba.

The fortress itself sits high above Ollantaytambo and is visible from pretty much everywhere in town. The five of us checked into our hotel, cleaned up and went out to explore the city. Ollantaytambo sits at the intersection of the Patacancha and Urubamba River valleys, 45 miles northeast of Cusco and 30 miles east of Machu Picchu. The town reminds me of remote villages in central Nepal’s Annapurna Range, except for the large tourist buses driving though the only street (it is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu). Ollantaytambo is one of the best surviving examples of Inca town planning and because it dates from the 15th century, it has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in the Americas. The layout of the town is the shape of a corn cob with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets, with a plaza in the center of town. We meandered past Inca walls with massive, smooth, rough-hewn boulders, many of them between two and three feet in length and width. The side streets were meticulously paved with stones set perfectly in place and drainage channels running down the middle. The calming sound of water could be heard down many of the streets; several had channels of rushing water running alongside the buildings’ stone walls. We found a spot for dinner at a café perched above the Patacancha River where I devoured a delicious alpaca steak.

The next morning we got up early to visit the ruins. Just before the entrance, we passed a grouping of vendor stalls that were, by my reckoning, on the same plain that Manco Inca had flooded almost 500 years earlier. We entered the site and climbed up the steep terraces to get a view of the town and valleys. Across the Patacancha River, high up the mountain were qollqa, or grain storehouses. The qollqa were at high altitudes where the wind and lower temperatures extended the life of the grain inside. Our guide showed us some intricate stonework and gave us a thorough tour of the ceremonial center. The highlight for us was just standing at the top of the fortress, looking down and imagining rolling boulder after boulder at 30,000 enemy troops. After an hour and a half in the hot sun, we made our way down to the plain below the fortress, where we stopped so I could buy a T-shirt. Just as the Spaniards were tripped up by Manco Inca, on this very same plain we were waylaid by a T-shirt vendor.


Machu Picchu: Fact and Fiction

Hiram Bingham III, the proto-typical Indiana Jones, discovered Machu Picchu in 1911.

For those who like their history in black and white, you can stop reading now. If you start with the idea that you can't “discover” a place that was built and used extensively 500 years ago, and recognize that in 1911 indigenous farmers had been living at the site of the ruins, you begin to scratch the surface of a story that is anything but black and white. Bingham most certainly was the person responsible for bringing the lost Inca citadel to the world’s attention almost 100 years ago, but his Machu Picchu story is full of mistaken assumptions, blind luck and even doubt about his status as the first European to re-discoverer Machu Picchu.

Our Machu Picchu story started when we awoke from our tents at Winay Wayna at 4:30 a.m. and after a light breakfast started our walk towards Intipunku (Sun Gate) in the dark. With our headlamps leading the way we cautiously walked on the paved-stone trail, avoiding the over-zealous trekkers who passed us on the dark, narrow trail, vying to be the first one to see sunrise that day. On this day all they would see at sunrise was a lot of fog and mist. After about an hour of hiking we reached the Sun Gate and met our kids who had been waiting for us. After another hour the fog cleared and we took in the fantastic Pre-Columbian ruins of Machu Picchu.

For the previous four days, we had a singular focus: seeing the sight in front of us. Hiram Bingham’s focus leading up to his rediscovery of Machu Picchu was anything but singular. Bingham didn’t travel to South America with the purpose of exploring for Machu Picchu; he originally traveled there in 1908 to study Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator. Late that year at a scientific congress in Chile, he abandoned that plan and decided instead to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru. In the middle of studying that route, while in Cusco, he made the difficult trip to the ruins of Choquequirau, then thought to be the lost city of Vilcabamba, which piqued his interest in the Incas’ last stronghold during the Spanish conquest. In 1911 he returned and after extensive research in Lima, shifted his focus once more and became determined to find the last two Inca capitals: Vilcabamba and Vitcos. While searching for Vilcabamba, Bingham journeyed through the Sacred Valley, past Ollantaytambo, and while camping in the Urubamba Gorge, met some farmers who took him and his party up the steep hill to see the ruins. To his dying day, Bingham believed Machu Picchu to be Vilcabamba, now known to be at Espiritu Pampu, a few hundred miles deeper into the jungle.

What Bingham saw that day was different from what we were seeing. Once the fog had lifted, we saw intricately-carved stone walls, buildings, plazas and gates and scores of perfectly-aligned terraces that cascaded down the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. Wayna Picchu, the monolithic, jungle-covered mountain immediately to the north, poked above the wispy clouds and rose above the lost city as if orchestrating this symphony of archeological wonder. For Bingham, the setting was the same except that the stone structures and terraces were in most part covered by dense jungle, unless they happened to be cleared by one of the two families that were living there as subsistence farmers. As our family made our way through the ruins, I carefully sidestepped the llamas munching on the green grass terraces; I remembered being spat on by one 23 years ago. What I don’t remember from previous trip was a hotel -- The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge -- where for a paltry $700 per night, you can now wake up to the ruins.

If you asked the over-zealous trekkers which of them arrived first at Machu Picchu that morning, you’ll probably get many of them claiming primacy. Likewise, there is some doubt about who was the first non-Inca to reach Machu Picchu a century ago. Bingham himself noted some graffiti on the wall (“Lizarraga 1902”) on his first visit and there is circumstantial evidence to support others being there before him. An Italian, Antonio Raimondi, who spent much time in the area in1858 and had a map published posthumously in 1891 with “Machu Picchu” written on it. According to a 12/8/09 New York Times article, records show that a German, Augusto R. Berns, purchased land in the 1860’s opposite Machu Picchu and tried to raise money from investors to plunder nearby Inca ruins. Another German, Herman Göhring, published a map in 1874 with “Macchu-Picchu” and “Huainu-Picchu” peaks depicted on it. An Austrian, Charles Weiner, published yet another map in 1877 referencing “Malchopicchu.”

The doubt about who was first doesn’t take away from the site’s magnificence and here I can’t say it any better than Bingham: “I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only had it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onwards by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”


The Classic Inca Trail

When Hiram Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, he noticed a road leading away from the lost ancient Inca citadel. In a May 1916 National Geographic article “Further Explorations in the Land of the Incas”, Bingham wrote, “Later we located part of an ancient road leading back from the city up the mountain side and across the face of one of the towering precipices on Machu Picchu Mountain. It appeared to proceed in a southerly direction into a region of high mountains, deep valleys, and well-nigh impassable jungles. In 1915 it was my privilege to penetrate that unexplored country back of Machu Picchu, visit its ruins and follow its ancient trails.”

Nowadays, 200 tourists per day share this privilege; that is the maximum number allowed to start the Inca Trail each day. The Inca Trail is the most popular hike in South America, possibly the world, and for good reason. Not only is the terrain physically challenging and the Andean scenery spectacular, it is a four-day history and archeology lesson about one of the greatest empires in the history of the Americas. It is also an invigorating trek spanning multiple ecosystems: from the Urubamba river valley up and over multiple 12,000 foot alpine passes, through cloud forest and down to the beginning of the Amazon jungle. The crowning glory of this trek is the reward at the end: arriving at Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fourth day. This summer, five of us -- our family and my sister-in-law -- hiked the trail.

We started our trek at Kilometer 82, not far from where Bingham returned in 1915 to begin his re-discovery of the Inca Trail. Bingham continues, “…we located the remains of an old Inca road leading out of the valley in the direction of Machu Picchu. It was with mingled feeling of keen anticipation and lively curiosity that Mr. Hardy and I, with a gang of Indian bearers from Ollantaytambo, in April, 1915, set out to discover how far we could follow this ancient road.” We also had our gang of Indian bearers ("indigenous porters" in today’s politically-correct parlance) who were primarily from the village of Chinchero.

Day one was relatively easy as we climbed steadily upward, passing the impressive ruins of Llactapata and following the Cusichaca River. After a few hours of gradual ascent, our group stopped at Hatunchaca and tried some local chicha (fermented corn beer). Near us, a hut full of cuy (guinea pigs) scurried about the dirt floor, each trying not to be the next one selected for dinner. Our group consisted of 21 porters and 16 trekkers, a fun and diverse group coming from England, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Mexico and the United States. As we left Hatunchaca and continued our climb, our porters sprinted past us on their way to Wayllabamba to set up camp and dinner.

When the porters were running in their flimsy sandals and carrying 40-50 pound loads, it was easy to imagine them as Inca messengers (Chaskis) running along Inca roads in Pre-Columbian times. Chaskis were an army of young athletes who ran in relays between staging posts (chaskwasi) set apart every 8 to 15 miles. This communication network worked around the clock, with relay runners routinely covering 200 miles a day. In Victor von Hagen’s book “Highway of the Sun: A search for the royal roads of the Incas,” he writes, “A message sent by relay runner (Chaski) from Quito could reach Cusco over a route of 1230 miles in five days. From Cusco, the same message could be sent to the far end of Lake Titicaca in three days….” The 22 mile section that we were trekking was but a small part of a network of royal roads that once had totaled over 25,000 miles, extending from Columbia to Chile. The extent of the Inca road system was roughly comparable to that of the Romans, possibly more impressive because it was all done on mountainous terrain without the benefit of the wheel or large draft animals.

Day two was the toughest day, as we climbed straight up to towards the top of Abra Huarmihuanusca (Dead Woman’s Pass) for what seemed like several hours. Even the porters looked a little tired; I thought I saw some of them stuffing a few extra coca leaves inside their cheeks. It is the irony of their job that they must look down and carefully plan each step while missing some of the best scenery in the world. Our porters were routinely amazing. In addition to carrying everything necessary for comfortable camping – tents, chairs, dining table, propane tanks, stoves, kitchen implements, food and water – they would take down and set up camp while we were walking and have our meals ready for us as we arrived.

We finally scaled Dead Woman’s Pass and hiked straight down for a few hours, arriving in Pacamayo in time for dinner. Our kids, who regularly charged ahead of most of the group were waiting for us, asking, “What took you so long?” Camp was set up and the porters lined up to give each trekker a standing ovation as they arrived. Dinners were very good each night and representative of Andean cuisine: quinoa soup, papa rellena, lomo saltado, palta rellena, just to name a few dishes.

The next morning we hiked up towards the second major pass at Phuyupatamarca. Ninety-four years earlier, Hiram Bingham was making the same climb: “Half way up the mountain side, 1,500 or 2,000 feet above the valley, we came to a very interesting little ruin, the name of which the guide, who arrived a little later, told us was Runcu Racay. It was apparently a fortified station on the old highway.” Later expeditions have identified Runcu Racay as a tambo, or waystation on the road to Machu Picchu. From here we continued on to Winay Wayna where we would spend the night. Bingham, while in this same area, wrote, “…the trail led along the crest of the ridge, slowly descending toward Machu Picchu Mountain, but when within rifle shot of the city suddenly disappeared; but that did not worry us, for we had actually reached the immediate neighborhood of the celebrated hidden city by what was probably the ancient highway that connected Machu Picchu with Cusco.”

That night, within rifle shot of Machu Picchu, we slept in our tents at Winay Wayna, thinking of the next morning’s arrival at the Lost City of the Incas.


Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 5): Communicating in the Office

I’m an intermediate-level Spanish speaker, but if you listened to me order food in a restaurant or have a polite conversation with a taxi driver you might think I was at an advanced level -- possibly even fluent -- albeit with a slight gringo accent. Watch me in a business meeting and the truth emerges. Business terms, sports metaphors, double-entendres, slang and colloquialisms fly back and forth and my head is spinning. I miss quite a bit of the content and the only way to understand everything would be to stop the meeting every 20 seconds and ask a different question – Disculpe, ¿Cuál es el propósito de esta reunión? (“Excuse me, what’s the purpose of this meeting?) Instead I become the quiet gringo in the corner, absorbing whatever I can. One-on-one conversation is much easier. I can read facial gestures, body language and most importantly, I can ask clarifying questions. For example, if someone says (in Spanish) “Please blah blah blah, blah report blah blah blah?” I can follow up with “You want the budget report that we’ve been working on?” When the person nods their head affirmatively, I know that I've understood them. Learning a language is a lot like detective work; when presented with an incomplete picture of something, you make educated guesses based on available facts.

Because of this, I try to prepare for meetings by bringing my laptop and having the Google translate web site open. Obviously any web translator will do, the point is that if I don’t understand a word I can look it up. Also, if I want to say something, but a word or phrase that I don’t know in Spanish is stopping me, I type in the English phrase, translate it and I’m able to get my point across. If the laptop is too conspicuous or not appropriate, I use the translator “app” on my iPod.

I have also become adept at hiding. There have been times when I need some information from someone and I‘ll see them at their desk and instead of walking up and asking them, I run for my laptop and compose a carefully-worded email. This way I am sure that I have conveyed my meaning and any intended nuances. Sometimes the Director of the center will start taking about this or that problem and end with ¿Qué piensas? (“What do you think?”) Even though I’ve understood what she has said and I have some firm opinions on it, I prefer to craft my thoughts in Spanish carefully, so I’ll say, Déjame pensarlo (Let me think about it) and I’ll head straight to my laptop.

This dynamic exists outside the office as well. For example, if my kids cannot make an evening swim team practice, I email the coach early in the day so that I know he sees it. Their coach has a tendency to run his words together and use a lot of slang, making phone conversations challenging. It is much easier to write the email in Google translate, check it over, then cut and paste it into an email. This way I know that the message sent was the same as the message received.


Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 4): Finding a Job

When I first started looking for a volunteer job in Peru, I did what everyone does: I browsed the web. I was looking for a job that would utilize my retail consulting background in a Spanish-speaking environment. Ideally, I was looking for an NGO or microfinance organization that helped small-scale entrepreneurs, like street vendors, craftspeople, weavers or artisans. The question that worried me was: how was I going to find a job when I haven’t spoken Spanish in 4 years?

A web search pretty quickly came up with several organizations who arranged volunteer stints like building stoves, working with disadvantaged kids, teaching English to peasants and helping out in hospitals and orphanages. Unfortunately, they all charged $500-$1,000 per week; their fee for acting as go-between and linguistic intermediary. I also spent time Googling non-profit professionals to get their advice and had luck networking and getting leads from NGO executives in Mali, Guatemala, Canada, El Salvador, and Tanzania. Using Google translate, I sent unsolicited Spanish-language e-mails to non-profit executives in South America, as well. With one notable exception, my responses were overwhelmingly positive. The exception was a German who, when I mistakenly referred to my family as American instead of a North American, launched into a very long e-mail lecture on my ethnocentrism, “First of all just a comment to what you write, just that you learn not to make that kind of comments in Peru, because the people there don't like this kind of statements… the big, big majority of America speaks Spanish as their mother tongue, for Latin Americans, America is NOT USA, it’s the whole (double-)continent that goes from Alaska to Argentina.”

After taking my tongue-lashing, I continued my search. While perusing the entries on, I came across a near-perfect match in Ayacucho. An NGO was looking for a volunteer to help small-scale artisans and weavers. I had a Skype call with the lead coordinator and 20 minutes into the interview, he not only offered me the job he said I could write my own job description. I was initially excited about this opportunity, but the more my wife and I thought about Ayacucho, the more we become concerned that our teenage son and pre-teen daughter might be bored in a smaller town. Because of this, we decided against Ayacucho and opted to target Cusco as the place for our family.

Feeling emboldened by my Ayacucho experience, I felt more confident about finding similar jobs in Cusco. About this same time, I was talking to Spanish-language schools in Cusco about enrolling our family to improve our Spanish. While talking with a few, I learned that many of them offered volunteer projects that complemented the Spanish coursework. I broadened my Google search to include the words “Spanish schools” and “list of volunteer projects” and voilà, quite a few new possibilities presented themselves. One of the more interesting ones was listed in a pdf document buried deep into a Spanish school's web site…buried so deep that I could not find it when drilling down from the home page.

The job I liked – the one I have now – was a volunteer project for one of the Spanish Schools I was talking to. The Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco, an NGO supporting weavers in Andean communities, needed someone to help them sell their textiles and to plan and budget a large conference the following year. They asked me for a Spanish-language resume. I cut and pasted my entire resume into Google Translate, smoothed out the rough edges, e-mailed it and within a week they accepted me. After 2 months of web research and many Google-assisted translations, I had landed my perfect volunteer job without ever having to speak a word of Spanish.


Cusco Characters: Profesora Patty

When Profesora Patty rings our doorbell each weekday morning, the kids run to the window to lower a string to her with the front door key attached. After entering and climbing the stairs to the 3rd floor, she settles in to start each day teaching our kids Spanish from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. While she patiently teaches them the difference between the indefinido and imperfecto tenses, my wife and I have our mornings free to volunteer.

Patty is an attractive woman around 30 years old with dark hair and dark eyes and usually dresses in jeans and heels. She is personable, engaging and is a very good teacher. She’s single and engaged to be married, although it seems like the wedding date keeps getting pushed out. She’s patient with our kids and seems to genuinely enjoy their company. Encouraged by Patty, we began speaking only Spanish in the house. We started out by having a contest: anyone who spoke English gets a point and the person with the most points at the end of the day has to give each family member a massage. Any mistaken utterances in English are greeted with a chorus of “PUNT-O!” (one point!) We’ve had fairly good success keeping consistent but trying to keep the kids focused on their homeschooling using only our intermediate-level Spanish has been a challenge. (Sometimes the words Stopping screwing around and do your homework! lose their force when translated into another language) My wife thinks that we are developing our own Span-glish language, mutually reinforcing grammatical errors that we all share. Despite these challenges, Profesora Patty applauds our efforts.

Patty teaches Spanish about 30 hours per week and she also has a travel agency. She has a tourism degree and attends to her travel business in the afternoons and on weekends. She occasionally calls us to rearrange her teaching schedule, because she needs to take a client to Machu Picchu or the Sacred Valley. Despite a travel agency web site that is always “under construction” she seems to do pretty well. We enlisted her services for a mid-July trip to the Virgen del Carmen festival in Paucartambo, a small town between Cusco and the Peruvian Amazon. It is at the midway point on the dirt road to the Manu biosphere and it hosts a yearly festival honoring the patron saint of the mestizo population. Patty’s boyfriend took time from his work to drive us on the sometimes-treacherous mountain road. En route, we passed a group of men working furiously to rescue a truck with one wheel dangling off a precipice. A half hour later, the power windows on the driver side stopped working. Once we found some packing tape and a plastic bag, Patty’s boyfriend taped it up and the remainder of the trip was uneventful although very dusty. The festival itself was an amazing display of colorful, choreographed dancing by 16 separate groups of dancers. Two of the more memorable were the drunken hacienda owners on horseback (see photo) and the African slaves in chains. That night we stayed in a government workers pension. Our family of 4 shared a very basic room (no running water) with 3 beds pulled together while Patty and her boyfriend (appropriately) had separate rooms.

One of the benefits of our two-day trip with Patty was speaking Spanish around the clock with our personal grammar coach. With her travel agent services thrown in, we were fortunate to take advantage of Profesora Patty’s twin professions: Spanish teacher and tour guide.