Bonna Nelson - September 2010


Top of My Bucket List: Exploring Peru
Bonna L. Nelson


If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.
– Thomas Edison

The opportunity to register for a trip at the top of my bucket list, travel to Peru and Machu Picchu, came at a challenging time last fall. My right knee had gone about as far as it would go and ibuprofen was my best friend. Climbing around Incan city ruins in the Andes Mountains in June 2010 didn’t seem possible. But with the encouragement of my husband, John, and the skill of my surgeon and physical therapist, I astounded myself and accomplished what I thought would be impossible. Four months after a total knee replacement and physical therapy I was climbing up and down Incan pyramids!
Many of us have a wish list of things we want to accomplish in life. “Bucket list” became a commonly used term for that list, named after the 2007 movie, The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman who work together to complete their wish list before they “kicked the bucket.”
Travel is frequently included on folks’ bucket lists as it is on mine. I have always loved to travel to learn more about our planet’s history, people, and geology having been a National Geographic fan since school days.
I’ve completed several bucket list trips including visits to England, France, Israel, Monaco, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Bucket list trips in the U.S. include visits up and down the Atlantic coastal states, Vegas, San Francisco, Sedona, Grand Canyon, etc. I dream of traveling to and writing about many more of my bucket list sites. Hey, I can dream, can’t I? As Steven Spielberg said, “I don’t dream at night, I dream all day; I dream for a living.”
Why Machu Picchu? Studying the Mayans during trips to Mexico and Belize led to my fascination with the ancient native cultures of the Americas. Archeologists think that hunters and gatherers migrated to North America around 20,000 years ago over a land mass at the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska and populated the North, Central and South Americas.
Incans are descendants of that migration and flourished during the 1200s to 1533, peaking in the 1400s during a period of expansion, city building and astonishing engineering accomplishments. By the mid-15th century they controlled a third of South America with a population estimated at 9 to 16 million.
Several of my bucket list trips were taken with professors from my alma mater, the College of Notre Dame (CND) of Maryland, as was the Peru trip, coordinated by Professor Leonor Blum. The CND trips provide travelers with exposure to other cultures. The college is “committed to developing international knowledge, intercultural competence, and values that promote positive global relationships.” In keeping with that mission we distributed school and medical supplies when we visited Peruvian heath clinics, schools, universities, and community centers.
The Republic of Peru is located on the Pacific Coast of South America, is the size of Alaska and has a population of 29 million. We visited two of Peru’s three distinct geographical areas: the arid coastal area including Peru’s capital Lima and sites in the magnificent snow-covered Andes Mountains. We saved the Amazon River basin for another trip.
Peruvian meals including fresh baked rolls, fresh seafood, meats and local vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes and beans) were mostly delicious and the people friendly.
Our trip was planned to acclimatize us for the ultimate highest elevations, close to 12,000 feet above sea level in Cusco, because by spending a few days in cities with increasing elevations travelers should experience less altitude sickness. A prescription for the ailment and sipping coca tea also contributed to our general well being.
We flew from Reagan National Airport to Miami, then to Lima. It was winter in South America, not as cold as our winters, temperatures in the 50s and 60s, but chilly, damp and cloud-covered, not good hair weather.
The cosmopolitan city, a blend of modern and historic structures, sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and has a population of eight million. Lima is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage Site as are other cities we visited in Peru – Arequipa, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. UNESCO’S mission is to preserve the world’s oldest and most significant civilizations and treasures.
We visited Lima’s historic sites including a resplendent Spanish colonial cathedral, catacombs, convent, government buildings, and a private home, all dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. City museums displayed collections of pre-historic and Incan artifacts. We also climbed two archeological complexes of pyramids and temples in Lima, Pachacamac, dating from 200 AD and occupied by Waris, Incans and other civilizations, overlooking the Pacific, and Huaca Pucllana, dating from 700 AD, an inland Wari sacred shrine and burial site.
Next stop-sunny Arequipa, the White City, at 8,000 feet, built from white volcanic rock and situated in the shadow of the beautiful, snow-capped volcanic mountain, Misti, which greeted us at the airport. We toured the historic city center at the foothills of the Andes including an ornately carved Spanish colonial cathedral, cloister, monastery, plaza, and other buildings dating from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Alpacas and llamas are native to Peru. Alpaca fleece is much prized for its softness, warmth, and natural color varieties. We were excited to visit an alpaca market, petted grazing alpacas and shopped for alpaca goods.
A highlight of Arequipa was viewing “Juanita,” a 500-year-old mummy, miraculously found by archeologists preserved in ice in the Andes and now under study in a museum.
Next we flew to Cusco. Sunny and, like Arequipa, warm, upper 60s by day, cooler, 30s to 40s by night. Cusco, at 12,000 feet in an Andean valley, was the capital of the Incans, the largest civilization in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.
The basic structure of the capital was preserved by the 16th century Spanish invaders who built on top of Incan monuments such as the Convent of Santo Domingo, a Dominican monastery and church built over and around the Incan Temple of the Sun where we observed the masterful stonework and engineering skills of the Incans. At the Incan religious and military ruins of Sacsayhuaman we observed meticulously carved and placed limestone blocks weighing up to 350 tons each!
We left Cusco early the next day to travel by bus, van and finally Inca Rail to Agua Calientes, the closest village to Machu Picchu, for the night. Mud slides early this year had washed out portions of the train tracks so we drove over them, dust flying, in vans to the train station closest to the partially cleared railway. Tea and crumpets were served on the train ride through tropical, green-covered mountains and valleys alongside a river. Our hotel sat on the boulder-filled river, Agua Calientes.
A 30-minute bus ride on a warm, sunny day took us to one of the most famous spectacles and loveliest landscapes on earth, Machu Picchu, (meaning old mountain), or “The Lost City of the Incas,” lost because the invading Spanish never found it.
UNESCO dates Machu Picchu to the mid to late 1400s and puts it in the category of “human creative genius” for the use of natural raw material to create outstanding architecture. In 2007 it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World by a worldwide Internet poll. Archaeologists think that it was a royal estate built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti.
We spent the day climbing, meditating, and playing with wild llamas. Photographs cannot capture the mystique of the city which sits on a granite mountain at 8,000’ above sea level in a tropical mountain forest encircled by the Andes above and the Urubamba River below.
The preservation of this technical triumph built without using wheels or draft animals is a wonder to behold. The grassy ceremonial plaza is surrounded by 140 structures as well as fountains, parks, ramps, stairs, terraces, walks, walls and water systems. Individual structures include altars, artisan and agricultural buildings, an astronomical temple marking time and seasons, baths, royal and staff quarters, sanctuaries, religious temples, tombs and more. The structures are made of finely carved natural granite stone blocks which fit flawlessly without mortar.
Spectacular views of the misty, glacier-topped Andes can be viewed from every window and doorway. Surrounding all sides of the royal city are agricultural terraces with stone walls cut into the mountain. Sitting at the highest point overlooking the city is the Guardian’s House where our pilgrimage began.
Back in Cusco that night we reflected on our great adventure. The remainder of the trip took us to visit alpaca weavers, potters, and Indian markets where we observed Incan descendants preserving their arts and culture. The main plaza at Cusco is surrounded by a blend of Incan and Spanish influenced architecture including a large, three-sectioned cathedral and balconied restaurants from which we watched the beautiful children of Cusco celebrating the founding of the city in a costume parade. It was a fitting ending to a bucket list dream come true.

Bonna L. Nelson is a Bay area writer, columnist and photographer. With a master’s degree in liberal studies and English, she has taught both memoir and creative writing. The former Social Security Administration Director resides with her husband, John, two dogs, two kayaks and a power boat in Easton, Maryland.