ELKO – The saying goes, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” All but one member of a group of northern Nevadans followed suit when served the national dish of Peru: “cuy,” or guinea pig. Roasted whole on a platter, the dish is considered a delicacy by locals.
“It tastes kind of like ham,” one member of the group said.
After chewing a while, frequent globetrotter Diana Noble said it must be an acquired taste.
Although I was the group leader of this intrepid troop of travelers, I could not bring myself to do the same. Visions of the dozens of guinea pigs I have raised during my life danced before my eyes. Thousands of miles away, current pampered pets Wiggy and Earwig seemed to chatter in my ear as I regarded the dish and the kindness of our hostess.
With nearly 50 countries under my belt I felt I should be a little more seasoned, so to speak. Call me a coward, but this time I could not do as the locals do. I simply could not pig out on pig.
Dietary aversions aside, the trip was a once in a lifetime experience with excursions to Machu Picchu and other acclaimed Incan and Pre-Incan ruins.
The group, consisting of individuals from Elko, Spring Creek and Reno, left the sweltering heat of a Nevada summer and plunged headlong into a South American winter. Northern Peru just barely tips over the equator, so “winter” in much of the country is actually quite balmy, with an average August temperature of around 63 degrees F.
The group spent the first few days in Lima where they stayed in the posh Miraflores district. A welcome dinner in a restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean included a round of pisco sours, a must taste drink made with a brandy-like liquor, lemon, simple syrup, egg white and bitters.
“Salud!” we shouted to each other, excited about our upcoming adventure.
Peruvian guide Raul Gamarra prepped us for the days ahead.
“Each day you need to bring water, sunscreen, sunglasses, your camera, toilet paper and money,” Gamarra said.
Public toilets in Peru usually cost 1 Nueva Sol (or one half a Nueva Sol, depending on the quality), roughly 31 cents, and the facilities rarely supply toilet paper. We never forgot our toilet paper.
The “need” to bring money every time we got off the bus became sort of a standing joke because in Peru there is a vendor on every corner. While we did not always “need” money, we usually wanted it. Colorful textiles and other handmade items quickly found their way into our backpacks.
After an initial tour of colonial Lima, including the National Museum, San Francisco Church and other memorable city pillars, the grpup boarded a flight to Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
“Remember, you are travelers, not tourists,” Gamarra said.
His statement proved true as we explored both renowned areas and places where few outsiders ever venture. The tour group in charge of the excursion, Overseas Adventure Travel, is well known for their personalized travel programs and off-the-beaten-path itineraries.
The next few days included a tour to the ancient city of Pisac, a rafting trip on the Urubamba River, and a climb to the upper levels of Ollantaytambo, an ancient Incan city with a modern, functioning city below it.
The highlight of the journey for many was Macho Picchu, the famed Lost City of the Incas, discovered in 1911 by American historian turned archaeologist Hiram Bingham.
The site is thought to have been a summer retreat for Incan royalty and a place of spiritual power and astronomical observation. The massive combination of grounds, terraces, and buildings perched high in the Andes leaves every viewer in awe.
The Spanish pretty much wiped out the last of the Incans in the 1600s and the natives left no written record of their great engineering techniques or their customs and religion, so much is left to speculation.
The Nevada visitors spent two days exploring the ruins. The group defied the high altitude and dizzying heights with visits to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge, a wooden spit of material clinging to a rugged canyon wall that connected the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu’s celestial location.
After experiencing the “crown jewel” of Peru, travelers returned to Cusco, “the navel of the world,” to discover this mountainous city. Excursions were made to Chinchero, a weaving village located at 12,500 feet, and the Incan monuments of Sacsayhuaman and Kenko.
A few travelers returned home after the main journey in Peru, but a number of others stayed on to tour the Lake Titicaca region. Researchers believe the Incan culture began in the Altiplano where the world’s largest navigable lake is located.
The guests spent time with the inhabitants of a small village where they were treated to a lunch of potatoes, quinoa, bread and fried cheese.
The women wore their daily costumes of brightly colored skirts and bowler hats, which covered waist-length, coal-black hair.
“Why do you have differently colored hair?” I understood one woman to say about our array of blonde, reddish, white, and varying shades of brown hair.
I provided an answer in my limited Spanish that seemed to go over well. In retrospect, I think I alluded to the incorrect fact that I am bald.
A visit to the Uros Islands was both interesting and sentimental as the people no longer dwell upon the handmade, floating reed islands. Instead, they use them to educate visitors about a lost way of life and, of course, as a venue to sell their traditional merchandise.
Following an hour and a half boat ride through the waters of Lake Titicaca, our group made a stop at Taquile Island, an isolated area which was one of the last regions to fall under Spanish rule. The site and its cultural significance is protected by UNESCO. Here the men and women dress somewhat differently than in other areas. Their textile work is coveted the world over. An unusual fact is that the island men do most of the intricate needlework while the women do generalized weaving. A grizzled man bestowed in a rainbow-colored hat knitting away the afternoon while soaking up the sun on a rock fence is a common sight.
Weary, but fulfilled by wanderlust, the remaining travelers returned to Lima to enjoy a final day in the city, including a stop in Barranco, a district that is home to many of the area’s intellectuals and artists.
Later, when people packed for their return flights, they discovered their suitcases had mysteriously become smaller. The packets of Kleenex and wads of napkins absconded from various eateries were tucked away or discarded with the realization that modern American sanitation would soon deem them unnecessary.
After more than two weeks it was time to say goodbye to Raul, our guide, and to a country and people with different ways that had overtaken our hearts.