By George Oxford Miller

THE CROWDED BUS SWITCHBACKS up the mountainside toward a city that once was the ceremonial capital of an empire that spanned South America from the Amazon to the Pacific. The Incas built thousands of miles of roads, developed a complex federated political state, and acquired more wealth most of Europe. We round the last hairpin curve and I catch a glimpse of massive walls silhouetted against a somber sky. The city of Machu Picchu crowns a scenic peak in one of the most spectacular mountain regions in the world.

The bus unloads at the entrance gate, but we still can’t see the sacred city. The walkway leads around a ridge, then spread out above and bellow us in breathtaking panorama is one of the greatest human accomplishments of all times. Inca temples, houses, terraces, and towers perch at the apex of the narrow mountaintop. The stone structures seem almost within reach of the sky. Two mountain pinnacles tower over the opposite end. Peaks, precipitous cliffs, and deep valleys surround the Shangri-La setting. The view alone is worth the trip.

“Machu Picchu was the crowning achievement of the Inca Empire that lasted from the 1200s until the Spanish arrived in 1532,” Alvaro, our Peruvian guide, tells us. “They built Machu Picchu at the vortex of spiritual power in the Andes. It was a ceremonial city, a university that trained the spiritual leaders of the empire.”

The conquering Spanish took 100 years to build one cathedral in Cusco, and they used pre-cut stones looted from Inca temples, yet the Inca built the entire Machu Picchu complex in only 80 years. For unknown reasons, they abandoned it before the Spanish arrived. It wasn’t rediscovered by archeologists until 1911.

We enter the hallowed city on a broad terrace carved into the steep slope. The concentric terraces created vertical farms to support the city of thousands. On the ridge above, the Inca Trail from Cusco passes through the Gate of the Sun and dips down to the Gatehouse, a small building on top of the terraces.

The Incas considered the mountains, the Earth, and the Sun as deities. Steep steps lead to the Hitching Post of the Sun at the apex of a stepped pyramid high above the ceremonial plaza. A square post on a pedestal, all carved from bedrock, “catches” the sun on the winter solstice, June 21, and slings it back towards summer.

Alvaro climbs halfway down a set of steps and faces the post. He points to a slab on the ground carved with two little circles. “If you stand on this step, the first rays of sun on the winter solstice light up your forehead,” he says. “The shadow from the post creates a triangle that exactly covers these two circles.”

On our Overseas Adventure Travel tour, we explore the mysteries and majesty of both the ancient Inca Empire and the rich culture and lifestyle of the Inca’s descendants today. The tour takes us through the scenic valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu to the Andean highlands and the sacred Lake Titicaca. We visit villages with traditions little changed since the pre-Inca farmers domesticated llamas and alpacas, perfected weaving, and developed some 3,000 varieties of potatoes.

As impressive as the Inca ruins may be, they are only part of our tour de force of Peru’s rich cultural heritage. From lush valleys to the treeless Highland Plateau at 12,000 feet, we’re in constant contact with cultural roots that stretch back to empires and civilizations thousands of years old.

The Aymara people, tribes conquered by the Incas, live on Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh-water lake in the New World. Our mini-bus drives down a long dirt road parallel to the lake. Women wearing brightly-colored dresses with six to eight layers of wool skirts tend sheep and men work family farms with ox-drawn plows.

“The Aymara live by three sacred principles,” Broz, our local guide, tells us. “The first is love. Love of self, others, and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). The second is wisdom, and the third service. They apply the three principles in their tradition of helping each other when they build a house or plant crops.”

Overseas Adventure Travel arranged for us to visit an Aymara village for one of the highpoints of our tour. Thirty-four men and women, the youngest 23 and the oldest 94, greet us with the Aymara greeting, “Camisa rachi?” (how are you). We reply, “Waliki,” and return the greeting in a mutilated version of the Aymara language that makes them laugh in polite amusement.

The women sit and spin wool on hand spindles while we introduce ourselves and they tell us about themselves, then they set up a buffet of typical foods. Small bowls of four types of potatoes, two styles of quinoa grain, fava beans, fresh cheese, and fried bread sit a rough-hewn table covered with an elegant, hand-woven cloth. The simple but nutritious meal is as good as many we had at city restaurants.

After the meal, we inspect the woven textiles, wool caps, dolls, and embroidered pillow cases they make. Art is an integral part of their daily life. The rich colors, patterns, and quality of their everyday clothes are a painful reminder of what we sacrifice for discount-store merchandise.

On our way back, we pass a field with 30 or so villagers planting fava beans. We stop to watch. Following their principle of service, they invite us to help. I fill my cap with beans and pace down a row dropping a few beans with every step. We laugh together good heartedly, and I imagine that in four months they’ll wonder why the beans of one row are so uneven.

Machu Picchu and the monumental temples of the Inca civilization are thrilling and, literally, breathtaking experiences. Yet, sharing heart-to heart with the villagers provides a perspective that can’t be learned from books or the Discovery Channel. With traditions, values, a strong work ethic, and family and community sprit, the descendants of the lost civilization are more civilized than their counterparts in the high-tech world around them. 

If you go

Click Overseas Adventure Travels for information about the Affordable Peru tour or call 800-873-5628 (USA, Canada).

Conquistadors wiped out the Inca empire, but ancient traditions endure.

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