Peru. Émile hadn’t been able to talk of anything else for three months. He’d even done a presentation about it in front of his class. So, without telling him, I booked two tickets. And off we went on a trip that included coca on Lake Titicaca, a llama fight and sleeping aboard an Andean train. When he got back to Paris, he had so many things to say that he had to do another presentation.
Before we left, I had to do a bit of groundwork, of course. The itinerary? No sweat. I just picked all the places young Émile had mentioned in his presentation: Lake Titicaca, Cuzco and Machu Picchu. That way, he’d be the guide. But I did watch the series Chef ’s Table on Netflix, at least the episode about Virgilio Martinez, Peru’s superstar chef. His approach to cooking became the key to our travels: we had to live our adventure from the bottom of the sea to the top of the mountains, discovering landscapes, communities and gastronomy at all the different altitudes we were going to encounter… Puno, 3,827 metres above sea level The first word uttered on approaching Puno, the city beside Lake Titicaca, was “immense” – for the unimpeded view over the largest lake in South America – 8,000 km2! (thank you Émile) – and for the pain in our head on waking up in the morning, after a cosy and comfortable night aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer, an ultra-chic sleeper train that runs between Arequipa and Cuzco in two nights. Altitude sickness… had crept up on us while we slept. Fortunately, after inhaling a few lungfuls of pure oxygen, we’d recharged our airways, and, by 9am, were already standing on the top deck of a boat enjoying the somewhat chilly sunshine, ready to visit the floating villages of the Uru people. “I read that the Uru were the first inhabitants of the region and, according to legend, they had six fingers…” The wonders of school presentations… After checking, we found they had
hands like ours, but that they used them not only to weave reeds into rafts with lynx figureheads – one of the three sacred animals together with the condor and the serpent – but also floating islands, on which they live, fish and wait for tourists to visit. Sitting on our bottoms, we learnt that the lake was the birthplace of the first Inca, who rose out of the waters.
Another hour’s boat ride, another conquest: Taquile Island. Unspoilt by modernity, this tiny paradise has neither cars nor hotels and is known for its handwoven textiles. We attended a ritual dedicated to the Pachamama, or mother earth, during which we learnt that one should always keep three coca leaves close to one’s heart (it is not to be sniffed, has nothing to do with the fizzy drink and can be chewed to ward off altitude sickness), one should thank the Pachamama for everything she does for us, make a wish and slip the coca under a little rock. Funny how, sitting there with Émile – “That’s Bolivia over there…” yes, dear –, well I really believed my wish would come true and hugged my son tight. Cuzco, 3,400 metres above sea level After a second night aboard the Belmond Andean Explorer, spent watching the plains one sees in westerns change into cornfields, then into sugar loaves covered in vegetation, we stopped at Cuzco, in the midst of the Andean Mountains. Cuzco, the Inca capital which means “navel” in Quechua. Well, it’s already easier to breathe, which is good news for two Frenchmen like us who are doing a tour of Peru in a week… But, above all, there’s a pleasant atmosphere in this city with its colonial architecture, the legacy of the Spanish conquistadores. Churches, convents and cathedrals happily coexist with Inca ruins, including the great Temple of the Sun and, a few kilometres further up the hill, the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, with its huge, smooth – “six-metre-thick” – interlocking stone walls that survived earthquakes which devastated the city several times. “You didn’t know that, did
you Émile?” Huh?
We soon got the idea of what we had to do. For a bird’s-eye view, it was best to clamber up to the balconies of the cafés around the squares. And to really enjoy the show, the Plaza de Armas, in front of the cathedral, was where it all happened. Émile couldn’t believe the crowds of schoolchildren in uniform or the number of street hawkers, like the shoe-shine stand, where men in suits get their lace-ups polished for five soles (just over a euro). What really made Émile’s trip worthwhile, however, was the man selling individual Panini stickers for the World Cup in Russia. He spent an hour filling up his album and tripling his Griezmann pics.
Lastly, to really get the feel of the place, we headed for San Pedro market early in the morning. There, amidst the stands selling hot bread rolls, tropical flowers and giant sweetcorn still in its husks, we treated ourselves to fresh passion fruit and strawberry juice and watched the locals downing ceviche (raw marinated fish) and chicken soup, sitting at the counter of these appetising stalls… For connoisseurs, they also serve
cuy (pronounced like the French word for testicles, which kept us laughing all week), which is, in fact, guinea pig, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. Apparently, it’s very delicate… Machu Picchu, 2,438 metres above sea level – Papa, when are we going to see the llamas? – But look over there, there are loads of them! There, and the white one, there, with dreadlocks! – No, those are alpacas, they’re smaller… – Oh yes, but don’t worry, you’ll see plenty at Machu Picchu. They mow the lawn. And sure enough, as we reached the granite steps, before we even caught a glimpse of the site, we came face to face with this animal that looks like a cross between a sheep and a giraffe. Raoul, our guide, told us they were there to make the place
look pretty, but I’m convinced that they are the guardians of the Inca site, that they are waiting for their masters to return, after the Spanish invasion in the 16th century forced them to flee. There are at least fifteen llamas here, and believe me or not, one of them is called Serge. I swear. We continue our steep climb and finally reach the “postcard promontory”, where, apart from the occasional “wow”, everybody is speechless. The mountain, the mist, the ruins, the perfectly arranged terraces; the Temple of the Sun, where sacrifices took place… such a presence emanates from this site that one could imagine the city is still alive. Émile is goggle-eyed. I look at my young Peruvian, in his poncho and felt hat, gazing at the horizon.
We start moving again, around this site where 800 people once lived, and whose reason for being there is still unknown, when, suddenly, an American woman starts screaming! She’d hardly had time to get out of the way when two llamas surged forth out of nowhere, one chasing the other. They rushed by us, spreading panic. “Ah, the stronger one is marking his territory,” laughed Raoul. The Tintin story Prisoners of the Sun came to mind… “When llama is angry…”
At 5pm, I take a final photo. Night begins to fall, we feel as if we’ve been sucked up by nature, ready to be turned into stone. It’s time to go. Before boarding the Belmond Hiram Bingham train again, in which a good iced tea and a Pisco Sour – the local mojito – await us, we have our passports stamped with the seal of this sacred place. To swagger a little once back in Paris, but also to prove to ourselves that it wasn’t all a dream.