Perú: Un Viaje Maravilloso

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru and visit a country with a tremendous history, culture, and of course, cuisine! Lima has recently been named a world-best “foodie-paradise,” thanks to all of the diverse climates that can be found throughout Peru. The fusion of Asian, South American, and European culture is prominently on display in the architecture and food throughout the Peruvian capital. I had the opportunity to eat at Central – an incredible restaurant that was recently ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world. Our 19 course “alturas mater” tasting menu featured food from 19 different ecosystems throughout Peru. Central – and executive chef Virgilio Martinez – was prominently featured in the third season of the incredible Netflix docu-series “Chef’s Table,” an episode that I highly recommend checking out!

After visiting the Plaza de Armas, the famous Museo Larco, and eating some delicious ceviche, we had the opportunity to visit the “El Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social” (meaning the place of memory, tolerance, and social inclusion). The museum was part of the Peruvian government’s efforts to put the tragic recent history of Shining Path and MRTA behind them and bring those responsible for the country-wide terrorism to justice. Shining Path was originally apart of the Peru’s communist party; inspired by Mao, Lenin, and Marx, Shining Path quickly radicalized and put forward a violent ideology that suggested that progress will only come “from the barrels of guns.” 

Standing in the “Plaza de Armas,” the main public square in Lima

Unfortunately, this era issued-in one of the darkest chapters of Peruvian history. After forming a coalition with MRTA (another terrorist group in the region), Shining Path started conducting car bombings in Lima and would ultimately “be held responsible for the deaths of about 30,000 people during a 20-year period, according to a Peruvian commission responsible for documenting the violence.” After Peru was put under Marshall Law in 1992, the leader of Shining Path (Dr. Abimail Guzman) was captured, tried, and imprisoned. Unfortunately, the then-President of Peru (Fujimori) exploited the situation, defying civil liberties and kept the country under Marshall Law until the year 2000. He was also later sentenced to prison for corruption and human rights abuses, and is currently serving his prison sentence in a corrections facility outside of Lima.  

As with my experience in traveling to countries like Cuba, Cambodia, and other places around the world, I reflected a lot about how little I knew about this horrific history before visiting Peru. Truth be told, the parallels between the Khmer Empire building Angkor Wat and the more contemporary history of the Khmer Rouge is eerily similar to the Incan Empire building Machu Picchu and their recent history with Shining Path.

Although the trip ended with a solemn effort to learn about the recent political history of Peru, we started our trip in Cusco, the former capital of the Incan civilization. It was here that I saw the brilliance of Incan architecture for the first time. Although much has been written about Incan architecture, experiencing these incredible stone walls in person is truly remarkable. One of my favorite stories that I learned was that in 1950, a major earthquake hit Cusco. Although many of the Spanish colonial buildings in the area were destroyed, all of the Incan structures were left completely intact; because the Quecha people used precision-fitting stones, they did not need to use any mortar. During the earthquake, the stones “rumbled” safely, and then returned to their original place without any damage like magic. 

An example of a wall built with Incan Architecture – there is no mortar between the bricks!

The Incan empire was incredibly advanced for their time and age, as “it stretched north to south some 2,500 miles along the high mountainous Andean range from Colombia to Chile and reached west to east from the dry coastal desert called Atacama to the steamy Amazonian rain forest. At the height of its existence the Inca Empire was the largest nation on Earth and remains the largest native state to have existed in the western hemisphere.”

According to many of the local people that we had the opportunity to talk with, the Incan empire fell when the Spanish exploited a brewing civil war that was fought over who was the rightful heir to the Incan thrown [the word “Inka” means “King” in Quecha]. Dominated by advanced weaponry, the last Inka ordered his remaining troops to delay the Spanish Inquisition so that their civilians could destroy bridges along the Incan trail leading to Machu Picchu. 

The entrance to Machu Picchu, which was once heavily fortified and guarded 24 hours a day.

Although many local people knew about the existence of the site, the lack of a written language and the purposeful destruction of bridges and trails meant that the Spanish never found the so-called “city above the clouds.” Machu Picchu was largely forgotten about by the world for centuries. Although the legend of the “lost city of the Inka” continued throughout the 20th century, scholars debated whether the site was real or of mythological origin. In the late 1800’s, German engineers, who were hired to support the construction of the Peruvian railroad, came upon the site accidentally, unaware of the what they had found. Reading their travel logs, Yale historian and anthropologist Hiram Bingham conjectured that Machu Picchu could be real and set sail to explore the site. Through the help of the indigenous people in the area, Bingham “re-discovered” the site in 1911.

The Sacred Valley en route to Ollantaytambo (the main train station to Aguas Calientes)

Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain” in Quecha, was truly one of the most breathtaking places that I have been privileged to visit. It is no surprise that the Spanish had difficulty finding the city – to get to Machu Picchu today, for example, you need to take a series of planes, trains, and automobiles to get to the famous citadel; it was truly surreal witnessing and walking around one of the seven wonders of the world in person.

Contrary to popular belief, Machu Picchu served primarily as a pre-Columbian university that educated aspiring leaders throughout the Kingdom of the Inka how to manage their communities. Remnants of the advanced Incan civilization are scattered throughout the Scared Valley, including agricultural lab sites, vast temples, and advanced understanding of astronomy and mathematics.

Left: Moray, a Center of Incan Agricultural Research; Right: The Maras Salt Mines

What I found most thought-provoking was the value the Inka put on a cross-disciplinary approach to education. Without a written language, leaders had to literally hike the Incan trail to get to Machu Picchu to learn about what we today call agriculture, business, politics, and astronomy. Truth be told, there is plenty that our modern schools can learn from the Incan society. Specifically, I am worried that public schools and universities have lost the value of this cross-disciplinary approach to education, as we have bucketed content now more than ever. Moving forward, we should consider ways we can broaden our curriculum and modernize the interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts that Greek philosopher Aristotle put forward over two thousand years ago.

Overlooking Machu Picchu from the “postcard-perfect” citadel

Perhaps Anthony Bourdain put it best: “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence… for a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there and lived to see it.”