Peru: A Land Built By Giants

To understand Peru is, to a great extent, to understand the Andes Mountains. They’re considerably taller than any of the Rockies in the lower 48, and much steeper. This means that some of them remain snow-capped all year round. They tower above and around many of Peru’s cities and ancient Inca ruins, like a gentle reminder that we’re tiny creatures on a massive planet. These were some of my impressions from a recent visit to Peru, and they remain as powerful memories to this day. But it’s not just the mountains that captivate the curious traveler. Peru seems a world away from the U.S., yet it can be hauntingly familiar in certain respects.

(Credit: Elijah Petty)

Our trip began in Lima, Peru’s capital city, and we noticed the moisture right away. Plant life flourishes in Lima, but it never rains, interestingly enough. The same ocean air currents that keep the rain away also maintain Lima’s air humidity at 95%, and the plants drink it directly from the air. In contrast to the lush vegetation, most buildings in Lima are bare concrete, especially the ones further outside the tourist areas, which masks a hidden truth. This modern building material doesn’t show how old the city is – Pizarro founded Lima in 1535, and a knowledgeable traveler can almost still feel his presence. Despite how modern the buildings look, the city still feels old. All of Peru feels old.

Cuzco

After a day in Lima, we flew to an even older city: Cuzco, the city that was the Inca Empire’s capital dating back to the 13th century. As it developed up until the present day, the constant retrofitting of old structures on top of Cuzco’s original layout gave it a very unique aesthetic and way of functioning. The city of about 430,000 people lies in a valley between the mountains, and the architecture has become eclectic to say the least. The roads are paved with stones, not asphalt or concrete in most areas. Buildings are built from a mix of carefully sculpted, tightly fitted stone that remains standing from the Inca days, along with Spanish stonework built during the conquest of Peru and more modern plaster walls.

Cuzco’s citizens built most of the streets back when only horses, llamas, and pedestrians used them, so a majority of them only have one lane. Driving in Peru can be a scary prospect. Even in Lima, where the roads have lines and there are (supposedly) rules for driving, nobody seems to pay them any attention. Regardless, our tour guide never so much as bumped another car, despite making turns across multiple lanes of traffic and other habits that would terrify many tourists. The narrow Cuzco streets didn’t have any traffic lights or signs, and drivers established right-of-way by honking as they approached the intersection. Other drivers would hear and stay out of the way. Fortunately, after a few days, I got used to these natural rhythms and became comfortable relying on our guide’s uncanny ability to safely navigate the city streets, as well as the winding roads through the mountains.

Terraces

One of those winding roads leads to a town called Maras. The locals there make a living by collecting salt from water that pours out of a nearby mountain and selling it to other villages. The whole town does this. Each family, or sometimes an individual, walks several miles to the salt pans multiple times a day to collect the salt. The salt pans are small, shallow pools that the villagers build into the mountainside. The villagers collect salt in the pans by letting water flow into them and then blocking the stream off until it evaporates, then repeating until it gets full enough to harvest. Villagers build the pans in such a way that the water flows through all of them in turn, even with hundreds of pans that the water has to get to.

However, this feat of construction pales in comparison to what the Inca built several hundred years before. Even in ruins, the Inca cities and fortresses of Peru are mind-bendingly impressive. Machu Picchu is the most famous Inca city, but we saw several other ruins that gave me a better idea of what a normal Inca city looked like. Many of the common people built their homes out of simple stacked rocks cemented together with mud. The temples and fortresses, as well as the homes that belonged to the Emperor and his close servants, were built with very precisely carved stone. The Inca chiseled the stones into shapes that fit so perfectly with adjacent stones that even now, a knife blade can’t quite fit between them. I also found it interesting that instead of leveling the ground to build on like we do today, they built on the land’s natural contours and used the stones already embedded in the ground as part of their structures. The Inca style of building seems to belong to the landscape. The stones rise up from the ground and form walls, as if they belong there. Their ruined cities are a beautiful part of the scenery. By comparison, if and when our civilization ends, our ruins will only look like scars on the earth.

Fortress

The Saqsaywaman fortress is even larger than Machu Picchu. The Killike people who lived in the area before the Inca built the original fortress, and the Inca continued the construction when they moved into the area later. They added on to what remained of the fortress with stones so large that it’s hard to imagine anyone moving them without some seriously heavy machinery, but somehow the Inca probably lifted them into place with only logs, rope, and manpower. Some of the stones stood ten or fifteen feet tall, weighing several tons, and many walls loomed about 30 feet tall in total. When I stood before them, I felt like I’d walked into a scene from one of the video games I’d played as a kid, adventuring in ruins built long, long ago, not by human hands, but by giants.

The mountainsides around the Inca cities are all carved into terraces that look like a staircase for those same giants. The terraces stand eight or ten feet tall and around fifteen feet deep, and they often go all the way up the mountains. Most of them remain in good condition a few hundred years later. When the Inca still lived there, they used the terraces for farming potatoes, which are still one of Peru’s main crops and foods, especially for the people that live in rural areas. Some things never change.

Peru has a greater variety of potatoes than does the U.S. I ate in a village while we were in the midst of our travels, and the meal consisted solely of potatoes. Still, we had five or six different kinds, to include orange ones, purple ones, and a few other kinds that looked fairly normal by U.S. standards, but they all tasted different, and better than any I have had in America. It’s sad that we’ve eradicated this diversity in our country. The practices that industrial agriculture uses to grow massive amounts of food have reduced us to one type of potato, one banana, one type of corn, et cetera, when we need greater biodiversity to thrive and remain healthy.

Terraced Rings

Rather than farming the diversity out of their crops, the Inca created more variety. In addition to their food-growing terraces, the Inca also used a special type of terrace to breed and adapt new plant strains. The one I saw was a circular pit dug into the ground and then terraced back up in steps. The Inca used it to adapt plants from other climates to the Andes. Our guide told us that the Inca found a way to grow avocados in the Andes by bringing soil all the way from California to this terrace. They grew the first generation of avocado in the lowest, warmest terrace, in the Californian soil. Then they moved each subsequent generation up one step, with less of its native soil, until the avocado trees could grow in the Andes. We use similar methods to adapt plants today, but instead of developing plants with more variety or the ability to grow in other climates, our agricultural giants focus solely on adaptations that will yield a higher profit.

The Inca were a very wise people for their time. I admire the way they coexisted with their environment and used their knowledge of how the world worked to create an empire that stood strong for hundreds of years. One has to wonder how long any modern culture will last. The long-dead Inca also showed me the value of community. When I stood in the shadow cast by the Andes, I realized how little anyone can do alone when faced with imposing tasks. The Inca cities, terraces, and fortresses weren’t built by one person, or even a hundred. Thousands upon thousands of people working together built those, and I view them as monuments to the power that people have when they choose to unite with a common sense of purpose. Evidence of the past is a fine educator.