Peru: Heading for the hills
Head for the cliffs in the cloud forest of the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu and wander around the stones that are so famous for their astonishing astronomical a
A gift from the Jews!” declares my tour guide, pointing out the white Jesus extending his arms over Cuzco in the manner of its more famous neighbour in Rio.
It seems doubtful that a Spanish colonial city built on Inca foundations in an intensely Catholic country would have enough Jews to club together for such a generous but unlikely gift — and indeed, I discover it was Holy Land Christians who presented the statue to their Peruvian hosts at the end of World War Two.
Maybe the guide was confused by the Hebrew signs in shops and restaurants in this gorgeous city on the roof of the world, because Cuzco is a popular haunt of young Israelis — there is a Chabad here, as well as a full-blown Jewish community in Lima, Peru’s capital.
Tolerant, beautiful and prosperous, this most vibrant of South American countries has attracted both Ashkenazim and Sephardim in the wake of the converso soldiers who set the first Jewish feet on Andean soil back in 1532 during the Spanish conquest.
But the Incas are the tribe who draw the crowds, and their descendants are everywhere, carrying babies on their backs in multi-coloured blankets, proudly perched at market stalls in tall hats, occasionally doing something like cooking guinea pigs over open coals. “Mestizos” they may be called, indicating intermarriage with their Spanish conquerors, but today’s Andeans look pretty indigenous and are proud of their rich and undiluted culture.
The Andes — and the less accessible Amazon beyond — are the real glory of Peru, which is why visitors have tended to rush through the sprawling capital of Lima without paying too much attention. That is changing now the city hosts several of the world’s best restaurants and visitors linger long enough to enjoy the gourmet delights of Central (whose owner has a London outpost), Astrid y Gaston (Gaston is opening soon in Shoreditch), the Japanese fusion cuisine of Maido and the Chinese fusion dishes at Chez Wong.
Like Jews from Europe and North Africa, Japanese and Chinese immigrants have melded into and enriched Peru’s culture, giving it a point of difference from neighbouring countries, and perhaps responsible for the exceptionally good food. No wonder the recent Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards were held in Lima; the Peru took seven of the top 15 prizes.
After feasting on ceviche, Lima’s favourite dish of raw fish, pickled for only minutes in lime juice and chiles, Cuzco is inevitably the next stop, a city so high in the Andes that good hotels keep oxygen on tap for clients who feel sick or breathless at 11,000 feet. On good advice I repaired immediately to the beautiful Sacred Valley which lies between Cuzco and Peru’s major attraction, the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, to acclimatise at slightly lower altitude for a couple of days.
There is so much to see in the Sacred Valley that many tourists miss on a rushed day trip if they go at all (many take the train all the way from Cuzco to Machu Picchu). It would be a great shame to miss the impressive Inca sites at Chinchero and Pisac, both more famous for their Sunday markets, and the amazing concentric crop circles, believed to be thousands of years old, at Moray.
There are also dazzling salt pans laid out like a white and silver patchwork, ladies in hats grilling guinea pigs in the streets of Lamay and a church up the hill which specialises in blessing new cars, garlanded with flowers, and their purchasers every weekend.
The Sacred Valley has some very special places to stay. The casitas of Sol y Luna, set in beautiful gardens, recalled a Mexican colonial hotel with its terracotta floors, heavy dark furniture, colourful textiles and whimsical carved figures. With two laid-back restaurants and a spa, the partly Jewish-owned hotel made a peaceful base from which to adjust to the mountains and enjoy the surrounding villages.
Sol y Luna is just 20 minutes from the charming, buzzy town of Ollantaytambo from where the little trains of Inca Rail travel to Machu Picchu in just 90 minutes. It’s a beautiful ride that follows the Urubamba river all the way to Aguas Calientes, base town for the ruins. Undoubtedly, the best place to stay here is Inkaterra, an atmospheric nature lodge set amidst orchids and hummingbirds in the rainforest — and a stopover is paramount in order to get into the park at dawn next morning and have it mostly to yourself before hordes of day-tripppers descend.
The ruins may be mediaeval rather than prehistoric, but the astonishing astronomical alignments of Machu Picchu’s stones, laid out on towering cliffs in the cloud forest amidst grassy plazas, cannot fail to impress; you need at least three hours of slow wandering, preferably with a private guide, to take it all in.
Back in Cuzco, the comfort quotient was ramped up at a somewhat posher, more urban Inkaterra — the only boutique hotel among the many five-stars purveying luxurious accommodation, fine food and, if necessary, oxygen to their breathless guests. La Casona, with just a handful of suites built around a courtyard, was intimate and charming, its chef superlative; just a shame the “no outsiders” ethos keeps out non-resident diners, and with them, the buzz the hotel would benefit from a soupcon of.
It is the direct opposite of Orient Express’s Monasterio almost opposite; a converted convent with hundreds of rooms and a packed restaurant where more good food is served, with operatic accompaniment three times a week. The oxygen mask I was offered while waiting for my taxi by anxious staff concerned that altitude sickness was responsible for my waving away the dessert was the Cuzco equivalent of a VIP goody bag.
The square on which La Casona and the Monasterio sit has expensive silver and alpaca knitwear shops, as does the huge and fabulous main square, the Plaza de Armas.
But better prices and original merchandise were to be found at Gifts of Cuzco near the Libertador, yet another five-star hotel on the site of an old Inca palace opposite the Inca Sun Temple. Coldly Spanish colonial on the surface, it offered excellent service, a brilliant bed and the best breakfast buffet of the trip. Not to be missed for a great, authentic lunch with plenty of buzz and live music is Pacha Papa, in the charming little suburb of San Blas.
As the name suggests, this is a good place to try some of the thousands of varieties of indigenous potatoes of which the Andeans are so proud. While they do love their pork, local trout abounds, and these mountain people make the best cream of pumpkin soup in the world.
It was just before leaving Cuzco for home via Lima that I had my White Jesus encounter — the statue stands close to yet another set of fabulous Inca ruins at the Sacsaywaman (pronounce it “sexy woman”) site on a hilltop just above the city.
Looking out over the majestic red mountains almost touching the clouds scudding gently through intensely blue skies, it’s not surprising the Incas did whatever it took to grow food here without having to move — for which read laboriously building picturesque terraces to prevent soil erosion.
Beauty may not have been the principal aim of these mediaeval farmers, but on the “build it and they will come” principle, the world’s more intrepid tourists have flooded in to see their engineering miracles. And none who follow them to Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu could possibly be disappointed.