DAY 1, WED., OCT 30, MORNING: This first post is being started as we make landfall on the South American continent (about 35 thousand feet above the what looks like the desiccated Colombian coast). On this first full day, I and my 88 fellow travelers (about 80 “guests” and the rest of us “staff”) are on our way to Lima, Peru, and from there by air to Cusco and train to Machu Picchu. The descriptive words that come to mind so far are “convivial” and “deluxe.” The guests are middle aged or older, come from every part of the nation, and are avid travelers. Most are well to do, but at least some appear to have “saved up” for this once in a lifetime trip. As I found from the reception last night and today’s trip to the airport, they’re eager to talk and learn about the lecturers’ fields and backgrounds. My faculty colleague Alan Mann (a Princeton anthropologist) just delivered his first lecture in the aisle of the airplane (on Inka civilization) and it met with enthusiastic applause. The food, beverages, and service are exceptional. Iceland Air provides the plane and crew, so lunch today was preceded by a glass of amazingly smooth Reyka, triple distilled vodka. What to say? This is not Southwest’s peanuts and Coke.

AFTERNOON AND EVENING: We had a great day today, arriving about 2:30 PM in Lima and going directly by bus to the Peruvian (Rafael Larco) ethnographic museum. The Lima we passed through is a diverse city with many poorer barrios. Right near the airport, a plywood favela community was going up in flames in a terrible conflagration as we passed by.


But I would not say that the city appears desperately poor. Most of the neighborhoods are tidy and filled with modest and well-kept homes.


There are numerous well-tended parks, some dotted with doggie statues reminding owners to clean up after their pets. The neighborhood of our hotel, Miraflores, could easily be mistaken for seaside Miami or Rio de Janeiro.


The afternoon ended at the Rafael Larcos museum and its collection of magnificent pre-Inkan jewelry, pottery, and fabrics. Accompanying is a picture of one of the most breathtaking of the museum pieces: a beautiful pre-Inka gold and turquoise necklace.


The day came to a close for me after dinner with a viewing on the Spanish sports channel with the last inning of the Red Sox-Cardinals game, and the Sox’s World Series victory. I’m no sports fan, but I was really pleased to see Boston, which has suffered so terribly this past year, get this much needed moment of triumph. Up at 5:30 tomorrow for our flight to Cusco.


Our early morning drive to the airport confirmed my impression of Lima, now with a population of nine million in a country of thirty million, as a city coping well with the vast influx of rural immigrants. The streets were streaming with kids and parents in football outfits on their way to all sorts of schools, from elementary schools to colleges and universities (many with a strong Catholic presence), See the accompanying photo of one very typical mother and daughter.


Urbanization can create the impression of chaos, but cities are often the sites where modernization and upward mobility takes place. Lima seems a textbook case.

DAY 2, THURS., OCT 31:

After getting settled at the beautiful Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cusco (disturbed only by a slight headache from the 11,300 foot altitude), we began  a tour of Cusco’s main plaza and grand Cathedral.


This plaza was once the heart of the Inka Empire, and surrounded by Inka buildings (today a beautiful statue and fountain of an Inkan emperor stands at its center).


After 1530, the Spanish conquerors began replacing all of these Inkan buildings with Christian ones, often built of stones from the destroyed Inka edifices. The great Cathedral (it has no special name) dominates the plaza. It’s interior (photographs not permitted), filled with paintings, cedar carvings, and gold leaf decoration is magnificent. One of the most colorful and ornate Christian buildings I have ever seen. On the main altar today is a life-sized statue of Christ crucified made of wood and covered with leather blackened by centuries of candle smoke. But Christ is only a temporary resident: there for a week of celebration during which he is paraded through the streets until he is installed for a brief time in front of a permanent sculpture of Mary above the altar. Among the paintings: a depiction of the last supper with the central dish a roasted “cuye,” a guinea pig and a specialty of Peruvian (and Inka) cuisine. Was the native artist just ignorant of the fact that Christ the Jew would never eat a rodent? Or was this a subtle dig at the Spanish invaders?

This theme of indigenous Peruvian resistance against the Spanish (declared on a recent building wall graffito) was often repeated by our guides’ descriptions. Our guide, Dagmar (despite her name a thoroughly Peruvian woman) told us how Peruvians to this day, bring offerings to the Virgin that are just like those that their ancient ancestors brought to Pachamama, the earth goddess. “We are ‘Católicos,’ she said, but ‘syncretistic Católicos.”

After a buffet lunch at the hotel, we journeyed a thousand feet up a mountainside to a vast field where the Saqsaywaman (“Sexywoman” is offered as a mnemonic device) stands. This is a mammoth layout of Inka temple sites that served as the ritual center of the empire. We walked a kilometer across the fields, awed by the amazing stone architecture in which limestone blocks weighing ten tons are fitted together so precisely that not even a piece of paper can pass through the joints. A special feature of Inka architecture, seen and mentioned again and again over these two days, is the use of interlocking and dovetailed blocks of stone (giant Legos?), designed to resist shifting during the devastating earthquakes that occur here roughly once a century. The Inka sites (including Machu Picchu) have all survived, while later Spanish architecture has frequently been destroyed.

rmgphoto8 rmgphoto9

Following Saqsaywaman, and a brief encounter with a group of indigenous women and their “families”


we returned to the city for a visit to Korikancha. This is now a Franciscan monastery, but at its interior are the preserved “houses” and walls of what was once a large Inkan temple compound. Again we were astonished by the precision of the stone edifices. A model illustrated the fact that the whole compound was once surrounded by a protective wall, on the top of which was gold leaf to indicate the compound’s sacred contents. The Spaniards took three months to strip that gold away, melt it down to bullion, and ship it back home, as they did with all the Inka gold and artifacts they found.

Before dinner at the hotel, I walked through the plaza and watched as the local children celebrated Halloween around the Inka fountain.

rmgphoto12 rmgphoto11

Before dinner we also all went across the street to the ethnographic museum for Pisco sours 9a Peruvian specialty drink) and an exhibition of native women’s weaving. The skill of these women who work with a variety of small hand looms, the intricate patterns they develop using alpaca thread and natural dyes were amazing. (see photos). All work with a relatively newly formed women’s cooperative that’s striving to reinvigorate the oldest traditions of Indian weaving. I bought a lovely table runner for Thanksgiving from a cheerful young woman about my daughter’s age: it comes with a tag with her picture, name and birthdate.

rmgphoto15 rmgphoto13

Cusco Weaver

DAY 3, FRI., NOV. 1

Today was a day I have waited for since childhood: a visit to Machu Picchu, the sacred Inkan mountaintop city.  Our group split in two, two-thirds of us on buses at 7:00 AM to visit several sites before joining up with the Hiram Bingham train around 11:00 AM, and the other third sleeping in and taking the train all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Our buses wended their way up the mountainside to get out of Cusco, reaching an altitude of 12,500 feet where, at a rest stop, we had a wonderful view of the snow-capped Andes cordillera to our east. Some of these mountains exceed 17,000 feet. Below us, a river ran eastward: one of the first tributaries of the Amazon.


About 9:00 AM we reached the ancient Inkan town of Ollantaytambo (literally the rest stop—tambo—of the warrior Ollantay). This is a charming city, whose house walls display the strength and precision of Inkan stone architecture.


Above the town is a large royal and/or priestly compound with a huge complex of stone terraces, which the Inkas used to grow crops (a foretaste of Machu Picchu). The climate in this region (13 degrees south latitude) conjoins uniform warmth with the coolness of a high altitude. It never snows here, and there is abundant water (the winter season is rainy; the summer dry), so it a perfect region to wrest agricultural land from the many hillsides. This, too, is the region where the potato (which likes cool environments) was first domesticated.

At around 11 AM we walked to the train station and waited for the Hiram Bingham train (named in honor of the rediscoverer in 1911 of Machu Picchu) to arrive with our less adventurous fellow travelers. The train, managed by the Orient Express Company, is beautiful. As we descended to Machu Picchu town, about 50 kilometers further to the north and at a lower altitude, we had a sumptuous lunch, marked by several glasses of wine or Pisco sours. Inspector Poirot, move over.


Arrival in Machu Picchu town was followed by a bus ride 2,000 feet up the mountainside on an unpaved hairpin road to the entry of Machu Picchu. 1.75 million people visit each year and the admission is about $50, but we were merely whisked in.

Words cannot describe this site. Perched on a mountaintop, with every glance over your shoulder looking down thousands of feet to the valley and river below, it is an Inkan Shangri-La. Acres of terraces, storehouses, religious buildings, and houses—all with massive walls with stones fitted perfectly together and interlocked so as to withstand earthquakes. No metal was used for this work, and, except for dirt brought in in small amounts on llama transports, everything was heaved and hauled by human beings

Most interesting to me were the religious sites. The Temple of the Sun is situated so that, on the mornings of the winter and summer solstice, sun passing through “gates” on two higher mountains penetrates openings in the building’s wall and shine on the altar. With the sun god, Inti, given offerings and worship by the priests, this assured the Inkas that the sun would proceed on its course and not go away forever. Another high point holds a sundial that marks out the four cardinal points and provides cosmic orientation. I could have given a lecture on the spot about the religious importance of cosmology and cosmogony. As is, when I finish my Easter Island lecture, I will tell the travelers that “next week there will be an exam in which they must apply these comparative religion concepts to Machu Picchu.”






Exhausted by walking the ups and downs of the myriad steps and terraces at high altitude, our group returned to the busses and the Hiram Bingham train. After a wonderful dinner and rattling through the night back to the hotel, we all flopped into bed, in my case sleeping soundly until the next morning.

DAY 4, SAT., NOV. 2

This morning had us off to the Cusco airport, and then to Lima. After small delays we arrived at our wonderful Icelandic jet and boarded for Easter Island.

Following lunch service, my colleague Fred Diehl, a biologist from UVA delivered his first lecture: “Observing: Birds” which was his preamble to a series of lectures on how to understand features of the biological environment. After a short bathroom break for everyone, I followed with “Mysteries of Easter Island.” All the technology worked, and I received numerous handshakes and questions on my way back to my seat.

Late in the afternoon, our pilot announced that he had been given permission to twice circle Easter Island so that we could all see it from the air. Quite a privilege!

Sad to say, my camera battery had run low (and the recharger was in my suitcase below), so I had to use my iPhone to take pictures. In the first of these you cannot really see Tongariki Ahu, the long line of Moai (great statues) that line the shore to the center of the small bay near the center of the picture,


The next photo is of the volcanic crater that marks the western end of the island. Beneath the cliffs here, the ritual swimming race of the birdman cult takes place.



Days 1 – 4


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s