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My First Adventure in South America

This spring, I boarded a plane and traveled to South America for the first time. I decided to spend a week exploring the country of Peru. While my main goal in choosing Peru was to be able hike the Inca trail and see Machu Picchu; I also wanted to immerse myself in a new culture and get to know a different portion of the world. My primary base of operations during this trip was the city of Cusco but I was able to spend time in several of the smaller towns as well that were located between Cusco and Machu Pichu. Cusco is a city that revolves around tourism with many businesses catering to visitors by offering them guided services to hiking trails and other surrounding attractions. Although Machu Picchu is the most well-known site in this region, it is far from the only Incan ruins that are in this region, as I was soon to find out during my time here. Cusco also offers an incredible culinary experience with many restaurants offering traditional Peruvian and fusion dishes that make use of the abundant agricultural products that are produced within Peru. Peru grows 1000’s of sub-species of both corn and potatoes as well as a cornucopia of other fruits and vegetables, providing local chefs with an abundance of riches with which to create unforgettable meals. The city of Cusco is also filled with a rich history dating back to the Incan civilization which had grown to prominence as a dominant power within South America before colonialization by the Spanish. This has allowed many examples of gorgeous architecture to be found here ranging from ancient Incan ruins to Spanish-colonial churches. These churches surround the central square of Cusco, which I spent time exploring nearly as soon as I arrived in the city. The city center, known as the Plaza de Armas, is filled with flowers, and surrounded by two gorgeous Spanish churches. While the center pieces of these churches remain preserved, the buildings that were connecting these two churches had been converted into a series of boutique shops and high-end restaurants that were still able to retain the elegance and character of the original buildings.

Aside from the architecture, one of my favorite things to do within Cusco was exploring the San Pedro market and dining on the vast assortment of culinary treats that can be found there. I adore trying new food wherever I travel, and this local market provided an amazing location to do that. This market had stall after stall of cheeses, fruits, meats, juices, and so much more. The variety was unlike anything I've seen in too many other locations. This is a must visit location for anyone who passing through Cusco. Whether it is trying a shake freshly squeezed from one of the many indigenous fruits of Peru or trying out one of the 100s of options of local street foods that Peru has; this market provided far more options that I could ever hope to try out in a 1-week trip. This is easily a place where I can try out a different item each day and be able continue this for years without needing to repeat an order.

My first full day in Peru was spent exploring many of the historic locations within and directly outside of the town of Cusco. Originally the capital of the Incan empire, this region was conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors leading the sites within this region being a combination of Spanish colonial architecture and remains of the Incan architecture. The first I was able to visit was Coricancha. Originally a holy site for Incan worship of the sun god, this site was turned into the region’s most notable catholic church following the Spanish conquest. While much of the framework of the original Incan temple remains, the Spanish demolished many sections before building the modern church over the original framework. Although the framework was plastered over during the construction of the church, the plaster has since been removed, exposing the Incan architecture hidden beneath. This includes the signature Incan style of building with non-uniform shaped stones that were locked together without the use of mortar. The church offers many works of art decorating its halls ranging from large oil paintings to gold statues. The central altar room is composed of local fragrant wood as well which offers a treat for both the eyes and the smell.

The next few sites that I explored were Incan ruins that were able to remain relatively more intact. The first of these was called Sacsayhuaman. This was an Incan military base and outpost. A unique aspect is the stones shaped to look like local wildlife such as pumas and llamas. In addition to this, the hilltop outpost provided terrific views of the entire city of Cusco located in the valley below. Located nearby, the next site I traveled to was known as Qengo. A holy site of the Incas that included a cave system that was used for their rituals. One of the most fascinating aspects of this system was that the stones were arranged in a specific way to ensure that light shines into the cave system through a series of reflecting stones at specific times of the year that coincide with the many festivals and important dates that were observed by the Incans. My final stop in the Cusco vicinity was the springs at Tambomachay. These were man made springs that were fed from the mountains with a series of aqueduct and was used as the starting point for the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu.

The following day, I traveled a bit further away from Cusco and entered the Sacred Valley of the Incas to explore Incan ruins that were more well preserved due to them being in sections of the Incan empire that were not reached by Spanish Conquistadors. This section of the empire contained many spiritual sites and was a crucial area for agriculture in the empire. In fact, this region was a primary agricultural center for Peru until the 90s when it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and efforts were made to focus on preservation of this location rather than continuing to use it for continued agricultural production. The first stop on my journey into the Sacred Valley was the Pisac ruins, a high mountain fort of the Incas that was located at the start of the valley that enabled viewpoints of the primary roads connecting the multiple sections of the empire. This ruins also contained housing for the upper class within Incan society that were charged with the management and protection of the region. This was due to the vantage points of the roadways that this fort afforded as well as sweeping views of the mountain valley that were covered with the terraces that were crucial to farming and food production for the Incan empire. Terraces were crucial to the Incan farming; allowing them to not only produce the required quantity of food to feed the empires population but also allowed them to create a large variety of food by combined the varied elevations at different points on the terraces with a variety of different soils to recreate different microecosystems that were conducive to farming a variety of agricultural products. Discovering the perfect combination of elevations and soils to grow different produce was done at my next site, the Terraces of Moray. This was an agricultural laboratory created by the Inca for the sole purpose of experimenting with cultivation of a variety of produce from across South America by planting them in different sections of the terraces and experimenting with different combinations of soils and elevations to determine the most productive means to produce more food. Next, I traveled to the Salineras of Maras, a salt cultivating region where tons of salt are cultivated from a single saltwater stream, producing white, pink, and brown salt. My final adventure within the Sacred Valley brought me to the Fortress of Ollantaytambo. This was an Incan fortress within the Sacred Valley that overlooked a major crossroads of the empire and contained an important sun temple. It is now the location of a charming town that still uses the aqueduct and drainage system built by the Incas to provide water and drainage for each of the houses that are found here.

My first journey to South America was exceeding my expectations. The culture, history, and food of Peru were beyond what I had imagined. Spending hours wandering through Cusco as well as the other small towns I wandered into on my journey was a joyful experience. Interacting with the locals and learning a different way of life went a long way to shaping my own views of the world as well. I had seen so much in the span of just 3 days and the best was yet to come. My journey would soon continue to the primary reason I had come to Peru: a hike along the Incan Trail to the legendary Incan ruins of Machu Picchu; the fabled lost city in the clouds.

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