It is winter in Peru as we fly in a plane over the Andes. The colors of desert terrain and mountain veins appear gray, rusty red, or slightly purple. From the bus into Cuzco, the heart of the ancient Inca Empire, we see women watching over sheep or llamas on the hillsides. When they are not in school, young children are tending the flocks.
This was 2012 on an August morning and the weather was perfect. Not too cold nor too hot – no rain but maybe a pleasant breeze. In a small plaza in Cuzco we found a very modest contemporary art museum where we saw a nice exhibit of modern wooden furniture designed by a Peruvian craftsman, but the paintings on exhibit appeared to be by amateurs, even though Cuzco is a large city. Local crafts are more profitable with the touristas, so that is what received the most attention- at that particular institution, anyway.
The day after we returned to the same plaza and found a restaurant at the opposite end where we ordered pizza from a table outside. While waiting for our lunch many vendors of tourist items vied for our attention. We sat at the edge of the veranda facing the plaza and vendors would call out to us as they walked behind us on the veranda and would not see my face (nor could I see their wares) if I did not turn to look at them.
I would wave them off, shake my head, or say “No, gracias” but after awhile a little girl vendor down in the plaza caught my attention. Her wares were dried gourds carved as owls. Over the past few years I’ve developed a small collection of owls, including crafted gourds. A large gourd festival used to be held in Mt. Gilead, Ohio – just north of Columbus, Ohio, where we live.
The little girl noted my interest in her owls, came up to our table, sat down, and took out her carved gourds for display. She spoke English to me, describing each as either the “mama” owl or the “papa” owl or the “mama” with the “baby” owl. I could not resist her sweet innocence (though surely she’d had a lot of practice with that routine!) and the nostalgic presentation. Other vendors in the area took note that I had made a purchase and after she left they doubled their efforts to get my attention but to no avail. We ate our pizza and I drank a beer while John enjoyed his tea.
Then the little girl reappeared with new items: pens in brightly wound yarn with Peruvian characters depicted on top. Again, she sweetly presented a female pen as the “mama” and a male pen as the “Papa”, bringing out more and more character pens from her plastic bag. And her “two for” price sealed the deal. My “mama” pen had a hat labeled “Cuzco” and became a souvenir gift to my friend, Sue. My “papa” pen played a wooden flute and became a souvenir gift to our son, who also plays flute.
Other souvenirs from Peru became gifts as well. One was a tiny nativity scene on a plate with a potato lid for a cover which represents the traditional Andean worship of “Mother Earth” (Pachamama) blended with traditional Catholicism. This became a gift for a neighbor friend who has two little girls and both she and her husband are ordained ministers. I gave her daughters two children’s story books. They had been presented to us as complimentary gifts at two of the hotels we stayed at during our archeological tour, meant as a kind of introduction to tourists about the historical indigenous culture of Peru. People tend to think only of the Inca as associated with pre-Columbian history in Peru, but we learned about numerous other indigenous cultures like the Chimú (Imperial period 1300-1532 A.D.), the Apu, the Huanca, the Chanka, the Moche, and many others. Today, less than half the population of Peru is considered indigenous.
Quechua is still spoken in many parts of Central Andean countries like Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Unfortunately, “In the Peruvian civil war of the 1980s between the government and Sendero Luminoso about three quarters of the estimated 70,000 death toll were Quechuas,” per Wikipedia: Quechua People. The government has started to subsidize traditional handicrafts like weaving, and there are many shops in Peru that sell fine Alpaca wool shawls, capes, sweaters, hats and gloves. Women in traditional local costumes are often seen wearing bowler hats. We were told that a white bowler with a high top is meant as a sign of distinction in that the wearer has learned how to speak Spanish in addition to her local language. The women are thought to be better vendors than the men, especially if they’ve learned a little English. Most of the vendors I spoke to seemed to have little problem communicating and they also accept U.S. dollars if they are in good condition. For some reason, the bank won’t change them if they have a tear, are dirty, or too wrinkled.
In the city of Cuzco, tourism has dramatically increased since the 1990’s, and now Cuzco is the most important tourist destination in Peru. A train ride through the valley takes tourists to Machu Picchu, which has been designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. So, of course, this was high up on the itinerary of our tour group and we took the winding bus ride up the mountain, and again the next morning, and were duly impressed and awed! That ancient Inca city is thought to have been a winter retreat (heaven in the clouds) for royalty with accommodations for their entourage, servants, and craftspeople.
Though Cuzco is often touted as “The Gateway to Machu Picchu”, just a short bus ride outside of Cuzco took us to Saqsaywamán, where we saw the impressive remains of a huge zigzag Inca fortress wall built with huge intricately carved and fitted boulders. A beautiful view of Cusco can be had by standing at the highest point inside those walls. As Cusco was the center of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquest, it was the site of a huge battle between the Incas and the Spanish in 1536, where the Spanish just barely hung onto their conquest. After the battle at Cusco the Inca defeated the Spanish at Ollantaytambo. We visited Ollantaytambo via day trip from Cusco and it towers high above a little town. The Inca rolled huge boulders down at the Spanish, and those boulders remain at the bottom of the hill today. However, Ollantaytambo was the last time the Inca defeated the Spanish and their indigenous allies, and Lima (established by Pizarro in 1535) became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1542. Within the city limits of Cuzco, ancient stone walls from Inca times were built to withstand earthquakes and even now they still exist all over the city as foundations for modern buildings. The Inca were accomplished stonemasons. The tourist guides always point out one large stone in a wall to boast of 12 different angles carved in it to make it fit within all the surrounding stones. A theory about how the Inca cut these huge boulders says they used sinew from the guts of the llama as a saw, oiled by water and sand to cut into a groove that is started by chiseling with a harder sharpened rock.
Another site outside Cuzco was touted as the origin of “the fountain of youth”. And, indeed, the fountains that the Inca created by routing water draining from higher altitudes seem very magical in those dry desert-like conditions. The Inca built intricate terraced fields on the sides of the mountains that made good use of precious water flows from snow covered peaks and also helped create more horizontal fields in which to sow crops. Unfortunately, today the effects of global warming are diminishing the size of the snowcaps.
The night before we flew out of Cuzco we saw a special selection of Pre-Columbian artifacts from the Lara collection in Lima – selected with attention made to the quality of the design elements. A women from San Francisco who was born and grew up in Bolivia also had an affinity with owls, and we both drooled when we saw a good sized Pre-Columbian owl bottle that was finely crafted. We visited many wonderful museums during our two weeks tour in Peru, but I’m still no expert on distinguishing what artifact is Chimú, Huacan, Incan, or Moche. My husband bought a small black ceramic Chimú bat bottle when he was in Peru back in 1970, but that was before a law restricted artifacts from being taken out of the country. Suffice it to say, Pre-Columbian pottery is amazing, and a wonderful reflection of the ancient cultures that produced it.