Khulekani Madlela dons her ex­plorer hat and goes hunt­ing for crafts, cul­ture and breath­tak­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sights in Peru

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Relics, riches and re­mark­able views on the Inca Trail in Peru.

Men­tion Peru and an im­age of the post­card-per­fect lost city of Machu Pic­chu sur­rounded by rugged moun­tain peaks comes to mind. But this is just one of the many ar­chae­o­log­i­cal won­ders scat­tered across the coun­try, and the num­ber of sites keeps grow­ing. From the mummified re­mains of the 1,800-year-old Lady of Cao, which were found in 2004, to the pre-Inca tombs dis­cov­ered in Lima just this year, there’s no doubt that Peru is an ever-ex­pand­ing haven for his­tory buffs.

I was keen to don my ex­plorer cap, a la In­di­ana Jones, and dig down to the cul­tural heart of this fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try. But the trea­sures in store are more than just an­cient ru­ins. Peru’s rich her­itage is also kept alive by lo­cal artisans, many of whom use tra­di­tional tech­niques dat­ing back to the In­cas to cre­ate beau­ti­ful, brightly coloured crafts and tex­tiles that are just as much a part of the Peru­vian cul­tural tapestry as tribal relics.

Land­ing in Lima, I got a taste of th­ese old An­dean arts at the PeruModa and Peru Gift Show; two of the largest trade events in Latin Amer­ica. In an­cient An­dean so­ci­ety, tex­tiles were a pow­er­ful sym­bol of so­cial sta­tus – per­ceived to be as valu­able as sil­ver or gold – and the Peru­vians have re­tained their weav­ing tech­niques as a sa­cred craft.

Thread­ing my way through stalls full of vi­brant hand­made al­paca shawls, soft cot­ton scarves and pon­chos dec­o­rated with in­tri­cate folk-art pat­terns, I went on a hand­i­craft cru­sade, bag­ging as many of th­ese cul­tural trea­sures as I could.

Out in the field

The next morn­ing it was time to go out into the field on my his­tor­i­cal and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ad­ven­ture. My first stop was the Plaza de Ar­mas; the birth­place of the city of Lima lo­cated in the mid­dle of the his­toric cen­tre.

A drive around nar­row streets took me to the up­scale Mi­raflo­res dis­trict, home of the famed Huaca Pu­cllana, or Pu­cllana Tem­ple – a large adobe-brick pyra­mid built be­tween 300CE and 700CE. I climbed to the top and from this van­tage point the 1,500-year-old ru­ins looked like some­thing out of a movie set and ex­uded an aura of eerie mys­tery.

Next I headed along the coast to Bar­ranco, Lima’s bo­hemian strip, to look for more au­then­tic Peru­vian trea­sures. Walk­ing along the tran­quil streets lined by colo­nial, brightly painted art deco houses, I spot­ted a restau­rant claim­ing to serve au­then­tic An­dean fare.

The menu was def­i­nitely worth ex­plor­ing and boasted enough meat – in­clud­ing al­paca, llama and cavy (guinea pig, which was de­li­cious and tasted like rab­bit) – to make a car­ni­vore reach for a salad.

Af­ter whet­ting my ap­petite in Lima, I was ready for the big one; Machu Pic­chu – a place I’d only seen on TV and in mag­a­zines. I flew to

Cusco and the breath­tak­ing views of the peaks as we made our de­scent had me spellbound. This, I soon dis­cov­ered, was just a taste of things to come.

Af­ter check­ing into the Jose An­to­nio Bou­tique Ho­tel near the cen­tre of the city, a two-minute walk took me to Santo Domingo Church on Sun Av­enue. Dat­ing back to the time of the In­cas, this site orig­i­nally housed the Tem­ple of the Sun and served as the main palace of Inca em­per­ors, but was con­verted into a church when the Span­ish took over in 1540. Al­though they in­tro­duced colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, the first-level wall of mas­sive stones – which are art­fully laid upon each other with­out us­ing ce­ment – and the in­te­ri­ors dec­o­rated with mo­tifs de­pict­ing na­ture are un­mis­tak­ably Inca.

From here a five-minute drive took me to the heart of Cusco: the Cen­tral Square. Ivan, my guide from tourism board PromPeru, told me that when the Span­ish killed the Inca royals at the square the lo­cals named it Wakay­pata, mean­ing “place where we cry” in the na­tive Quechwa lan­guage. Back in those days this area had 14 mag­nif­i­cent palaces. Now con­verted into churches, restau­rants or of­fices, many of the orig­i­nal Inca stone walls from the for­mer palaces nev­er­the­less re­main en­chant­ingly in­tact.

Cul­ture and ce­ram­ics

An­other tra­di­tional Peru­vian craft is the pro­duc­tion of pot­tery, an art that had al­ready been an in­te­gral part of An­dean civil­i­sa­tion long be­fore the time of the In­cas.

Hav­ing ad­mired the many beau­ti­ful ce­ram­ics on dis­play in shop win­dows around Cusco’s main square, I then set off to visit Julio An­to­nio Gu­tier­rez Sa­manez Ku­rity, one of the few colo­nial ce­ramic mak­ers in Peru.

I found him at his shop and work­shop Taller Inca, Cerámica Colo­nial Cusqueña lo­cated in San Blas dis­trict. The award-win­ning pot­ter, who also runs classes so he can pass on the tra­di­tional tech­niques to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, ex­plained the dif­fer­ence be­tween Inca and Span­ish ce­ram­ics. The for­mer come in muted tones and use mainly geo­met­ric pat­terns and shapes, while the lat­ter boast vi­brant colours and pat­terns.

In the af­ter­noon I was driven to Chinchero – an An­dean vil­lage be­tween Cusco and the Sa­cred Val­ley. The route took me through maize fields and by lakes be­fore ar­riv­ing at the main square. In this sleepy ham­let, I was greeted by a huge In­can wall and a 17th-cen­tury adobe church built on In­can foun­da­tions. At 3,800 me­tres above sea level, it of­fered stun­ning views of the snow­capped Urubamba moun­tains.

Con­tin­u­ing on my quest to col­lect au­then­tic An­dean arte­facts, I picked up a wide va­ri­ety of al­paca prod­ucts

in­clud­ing a manta (a blan­ket that women use to keep them­selves warm or carry a baby), a scarf and a pon­cho at the Cen­tro Tex­til Urpi (Taller Urpi Cen­tre), a co­op­er­a­tive set up by lo­cal fe­male artisans.

Machu Pic­chu at last

Af­ter an early night I woke up at the crack of dawn for the big day. I was driven to Urubamba to catch the train to Machu Pic­chu.

The Hi­ram Bing­ham lux­ury train ser­vice had all the crea­ture com­forts of a top ho­tel and a menu to put Miche­lin-starred restau­rants to shame. It set off on a scenic route that snaked through the Urubamba River canyon. The vista was com­pelling; I kept snap­ping pic­tures from my win­dow and the view­ing deck, as we zipped through vil­lages, Inca ter­races and thick forests. I tucked into my lunch while en­joy­ing the scenic splen­dour of the be­gin­ning of the Inca Trail.

I ar­rived at Machu Pic­chu town and a bus took me on a wind­ing route to the peak. Set­ting my eyes on the real Machu Pic­chu took my breath away, lit­er­ally (with the help of high al­ti­tude). On pho­tos it is stun­ning, but ob­serv­ing the ru­ins up close and stand­ing on them was an out-ofthis-world ex­pe­ri­ence.

Look­ing down from 3,400 me­tres above sea level at Urubamba River snaking around Machu Pic­chu on its way to the Ama­zon, and then up at the al­paca graz­ing against the back­drop of mist-cov­ered soar­ing gran­ite peaks was a vis­ual feast. Al­though it was driz­zling and foggy, the weather added a myth­i­cal el­e­ment.

At one point my vi­sion sud­denly got blurry. Think­ing the mist was fog­ging my glasses, I took them off, but I re­alised that it wasn’t the weather – I was crying. This spoke vol­umes about the magic of my sur­round­ings. I’ve be­held many an al­lur­ing sight, but none other than Machu Pic­chu has moved me to tears.

The whole af­ter­noon we ex­plored the 15th-cen­tury com­plex. Spread over 20 acres, it is di­vided into three parts – the agri­cul­ture sec­tor, the ur­ban sec­tor (dwelling place) and the sa­cred plaza. Its im­pos­ing stone struc­tures were built with Lego-like pre­ci­sion and have with­stood the test of time and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. The tour ended with af­ter­noon tea at Machu Pic­chu Sanc­tu­ary Lodge, then it was back to Cusco.

Suf­fer­ing from an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal hang­over but de­ter­mined to keep go­ing with my quest, the next morn­ing I laced up my train­ers, strapped on my back­pack and vis­ited more Cusco sites.

Lo­cated three kilo­me­tres from the Main Square is Sac­say­hua­man, an arche­o­log­i­cal park set on the peak of a hill that spans 3,000 hectares. Built as a sa­cred place ded­i­cated to the Sun and a fort for de­fence, the zig-zag ar­chi­tec­ture made it easy for the In­cas to fight in­vad­ing en­e­mies and de­fend the city.

Al­though the city even­tu­ally fell to the Span­ish, traces of the mag­nif­i­cent fort still re­main be­cause the con­quis­ta­dors couldn’t move the big stones – the largest ap­par­ently weighs a whop­ping 125 tonnes.

Tired, I de­cided to con­tinue my jour­ney by horse. Ex­plor­ing Q’enko tem­ple, Puca Pu­cara fortress, and Tam­bo­machay (wa­ter tem­ple) at a can­ter of­fered a great op­por­tu­nity to soak up the scenery and breath­tak­ing views of the city. The Christo Blanco (White Christ) statue, the shorter sib­ling of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer of­fers panoramic views of the Cusco cityscape at night.

I wanted the ex­pe­ri­ence to go on and on, but all good things must come to an end. So, loaded with a bagful of good­ies and sweet mem­o­ries, I bid farewell to Peru. Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing such a feast for the senses, I can’t wait to go back to ex­plore its other trea­sures.

The mist cov­er­ing the tow­er­ing peaks adds to the aura of this amaz­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find

Once home to Inca palaces, Cusco’s Cen­tral Square is a huge draw for lo­cals and tourists; Top left: The re­mains of Señora de Cao were found in El Brujo; Bot­tom left: In Chinchero artisans make their craft in front of vis­i­tors

Bustling Lima is at its most beau­ti­ful when viewed from above; Be­low: Plaza de Ar­mas, the birth­place of the City of the Kings, boasts colour­ful build­ings

You can en­joy a leisurely stroll through the mag­nif­i­cent Inca ru­ins in the Sa­cred Val­ley; tra­di­tional Peru­vian dancers are famed for their colour­ful fin­ery (inset)

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