Peru to Ecuador: In the Footsteps of the Incas

Text: Ramona Eichhorn • Photography: Ramona Eichhorn, Uwe Krauss

The cobalt blue waters of Lake Titicaca are dotted with fishermen in their reed boats. At an altitude of 12,628 feet, the air is crystal clear. White clouds hang low over the red and brown hills of the Altiplano, reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. Irrigated maize and potato fields line the shore. Low, mud-brick houses with glinting tin roofs break the carpet-like pattern. Plumes of wood smoke rise from their chimneys. Indian women in bowler hats and vividly colored traditional garments, with woolen blankets draped around their shoulders, spend the morning herding their llamas.

We ride our KTMs on a paved road along the shoreline of the lake until we reach the town of Puno. Two policemen stop us. When they check our papers with a certain air of authority, we know immediately what they want from us - a bribe. For sure, they are not going to get it, but we play their game­ - and keep smiling. After an overly thorough check of all our luggage fails to reveal anything suspicious or unlawful, their expressions change from intimidating to pleading. Then, the younger of them simply speaks his mind "Cuál es su presente para la policía?" (What is your present for the police?) We laugh and say that we never make presents to the police. Disarmed by our directness, they have no choice but to let their supposedly rich prey go.

Eight hours through the barren highlands and the occasional village later, we reach the infamous city of Cusco. The Incas thought of the capital of their empire as the Navel of the World and had their architects lay it out in form of a puma, a sacred and powerful animal in their mythology. Narrow cobblestone alleys cover the steep hillsides around the Plaza de Armas in the old center, where the Spaniards used to assemble before their campaigns. Old colonial buildings with wooden balconies, some of them built on perfectly preserved Inca foundations, a cathedral, and a church frame the main square. It is hard to imagine why the conquistadors felt the urge to tear down all the magnificent Inca buildings to build their own churches and dwellings on top of them.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, kings and nobility resided here. Nowadays, Cusco is the South American tourist hub. More than a 100,000 tourists a year in quest of Machu Picchu, and the street children who want to polish their shoes, reign the city of 350,000 in the Andes of southern Peru.

Uwe and I have come to Cusco to see our Dutch friends Gonna and Helmie. We met them two years ago in Kenya, where Gonna was working for an aid organization. Changing continents and jobs, they invited us to their new home, a house on a hacienda overlooking a sea of red roofs in the basin below.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2007 back issue.