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It’s easy to believe their origins are extraterrestrial but Peruvians scoff at this preposterous idea. They are proud descendants of ancient civilizations that had a profound knowledge of construction, agriculture, sciences and the arts. But in the 16th century, a mere 180 Spaniards in metal armor annihilated 16,000 Incans. Spears and axes were no match for the firearms held by these barbarians. After a humiliating defeat, smallpox further decimated their ranks. There was no defense against this invisible arsenal. The collapse of this great empire was complete.

La costa, la sierra, la selva — the coast, the mountains, the jungle. On our first day in Lima, the capital of Peru, friendly locals acquaint us with the country’s geographical divisions. It is perpetually shrouded in fog from the Pacific Ocean. This coastal desert city has been inhabited for thousands of years. Immense adobe pyramids are scattered throughout urban neighborhoods. Even in the lively Miraflores district, there is a vast ceremonial complex belonging to a pre-Incan people.

I learn more of these ancient cultures as we traverse through the highlands of Peru. Tomorrow, we fly to the city of Arequipa. At 7,000 feet above sea level, it is the gateway to the majestic Andes.

We are greeted by a dazzling blue sky upon our arrival at the Arequipa airport. The dormant volcano Misti looms large over the horizon. It is dangerously close to the city, a mere 27 km away. There is also the Chachani range and tiny Pichu Pichu, extinct volcanoes in the same eastern skyline, a reminder that Peru sits on geologically active plates.

Known as la ciudad blanca from the white volcanic stone used in construction, buildings, houses, churches, and a convent the size of a town are set on a high desert plateau illuminated by brilliant sunlight, a stark contrast to gloomy Lima. The second largest city in Peru, Arequipa is the center for education, industry and culture in the Andes. Like all cities in Peru, abject poverty is evident in a dusty, urban sprawl along the periphery.

There are remainders of a previous settlement along the river and on the ancient agricultural steps just outside the city center. We see our first llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. Our mouths are numb from chewing our first coca leaves. We even photograph our first Quechuan lady in a small, crazy hat. Our Andean adventure begins here.

And we are off on a bus ride to the Cañon de Colca, much deeper than the U.S. Grand Canyon. Formed by a massive fault between two giant volcanoes, it is home to agricultural societies thousands of years old. We go through a winding highway along a dry desert climbing ever higher. There is little greenery or trees, only cacti and grassy scrub. Our guide reminds us to drink water and chew coca leaves. Dehydration is a major cause of altitude sickness and coca staves off its effects. But the vistas are stunning. We forget about mountain sickness. We spot grazing wild vicuña and domesticated alpacas and llamas, camelid species endemic to the Andes. A pit stop at Patahuasi and the air is noticeably thinner. We ride past the highest point, the Valley of the Volcanoes at 16,100 feet above sea level. We avoid stopping here as we have yet to acclimate to altitude. We descend to Chivay, the biggest town located at the edge of the canyon for our first taste of Andean food, complete with roast guinea pig, quinoa, highland potatoes, alpaca stew and other delicacies. Native musicians with their haunting flutes play local folk melodies. We are heady from the lovely music and a full stomach. Later, we decline a stroll through a small town and drive straight to the hotel. Fatigue creeps in.

We arrive at the hotel late afternoon and I feel sluggish. The guide suggests a five-minute whiff of pure oxygen to revive me. I take a quick dip in the hot spring pool and retire to my room. This is where absolute misery begins. I skip dinner because my head throbs. It quickly graduates to a blinding headache and then suddenly my brain explodes. I am paralyzed by intense pain. I die a slow death. Miraculously, my eyes open and it is morning. I very carefully get up to shower. I pant while I dress, and mercifully there is no headache. I walk slowly to get breakfast, stopping often to catch my breath. I eat very little. Acute mountain sickness has caught up with me.

It is a cold, invigorating morning. We travel on a narrow dirt road to the deepest part of the canyon at Cruz del Condor to watch the mighty condors take off from the crags below. They catch morning thermals that bring them high above the Andes searching for carrion. What a thrill to watch these powerful birds swoop right over you and disappear into the horizon! We bid the last of the condors Godspeed and drive along the edge of the canyon. Down below is a landscape of carved terraces planted with potatoes, quinoa, corn and wheat. The hillsides are dotted with old settlements and burial sites, and caves with colcas used as silos. Farmers of yore stored grain here for times of want. This is where the canyon gets its name.    
We encounter women in colorful, finely detailed costumes and hats, each tribe having a distinctive design and style. An expert eye can tell if she is single or married, where she lives, and which tribe she’s from. Some of the hats border on the comical and some are downright surreal.

We leave Colca behind us and climb back to the Valley of the Volcanoes. This time we stop and take photos of this beautiful landscape that really takes your breath away. I move slowly in the thin atmosphere and every few steps require a tremendous amount of effort to breathe.

We face a six-hour journey to the city of Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca. The scenery slowly unfolds from the dry, rolling hills to a flat, featureless plain. We arrive in the heart of the Altiplano. It is different. The women wear sturdy fedoras and dark wool skirts. Puno is disappointing, but it fails to dampen my excitement. Night falls. Tomorrow, a new adventure awaits us.
High up at 13,000 feet above sea level, I can touch the puffy white clouds drifting across a brilliant blue sky. I giggle like the schoolgirl I was when I first learned of Lake Titicaca. The water is pristine, and its vastness makes me giddy. Maybe, it’s the thin air, or the coca tea this morning. No matter, I am in Peru, on a motorboat high in the Andes. I float along with the clouds.

The lake is shaped like a puma pouncing on a rabbit, hence its name in the native tongue. How did the ancients see this pattern? From a spaceship, of course! Peru and Bolivia share this great lake. There are the Quechuas and the more ancient Aymara people who live along its shores. In Incan mythology, the children of the sun were born here, rising out of the depths to found the great Inca Empire. We visit the famed floating islands of Uros, made entirely of totora reed found only in Puno Bay. The inhabitants take us on a ride around the islands on their reed boat. It is peaceful and magical.

An hour’s ride by motorboat, we reach the Quechua community of Llachon. Local women with amazing hats and colorful dresses greet us at the pier. We labor up the hill for a night’s stay in their homes. The accommodations are spare. They serve us quinoa soup, highland potatoes and native cheese. Later that night, we wear their colorful costumes for a dance around a bonfire. The warmth and sincerity of the people make us forget it is a freezing night.After breakfast, we bid our hosts farewell, grateful for their hospitality. We sail on to the island of Taquile where inhabitants are garbed in equally bizarre costumes. The pier to the town center is an agonizing climb up an impossibly steep path. It severely tests my lung capacity and resolve. But it is well worth the effort because for lunch we eat the freshest lake trout, our most memorable meal of the entire trip.

Finally to Cusco! The seat of the Incan Empire, and scene of Pizarro’s brutal plunder of their treasure. Descending from the Altiplano to the edge of the Andes, glacial peaks and steep mountainsides roll past our window. Trees appear and a wide river snakes along the highway. We are in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.

This Unesco World Heritage site is home to the Korikancha, Temple of the Sun and citadel of the last Sapa Inca. It was discovered in the 1950s after a major earthquake destroyed the church built on top of it and exposed the undamaged Incan walls. The interlocking blocks of solid granite are so precise it’s impossible to slip paper between the cracks. Spanish chronicles describe the temple as covered in gold.

We visit other incredible Incan ruins: the water fountains of Tambomachay, the giant stone complex of Sacsayhuaman, Maras salt beds, Moray crop circles, Pisac and Ollantaytambo terraces. These sites use astronomy, agronomy, metallurgy, engineering, architecture, geology, hydrology and seismology. How did the Incas attain this sophisticated knowledge of the sciences? Where did they get the power to move giant boulders weighing hundreds of tons? There are plausible explanations, of course, but in my mind, it raises more questions than answers.

Invisible to the valley below, the fabled Machu Picchu hides atop a stunning, cloud shrouded mountain. Much has been written about this enigmatic place, but no words can describe the beauty and genius of this well-preserved stronghold. There is a deep sense of peace here, and in hindsight, an otherworldly energy that enabled me to climb its steep mountainsides. Undoubtedly, the Incas had mystical knowledge lost forever to subsequent generations. Perhaps, this is why modern people flock to this mountain jungle in Peru, a quest for insights endowed by the gods upon the Incas.