Breathtaking! Whoever coined that word must have done so in the Peruvian Andes. High in the thin air and swirling clouds, the Inca terraces and temples are architectural marvels guaranteed to take your breath away. On the terraced platforms and fortress walls of Pisac, Chinchero, Koricancha, Tambomachay, Kenko, Puca Pucara, Sacsayhuamán (pronounced sexy woman) and the astounding sun temple at Ollantaytambo, tourists stare in wonder…and gasp for air. If you do not have trekking feet and lung power for the 12,000ft altitude, these sites will leave you with serious altitude sickness.
Thanks to annual trips to the Himalayas, I am at ease at the astounding Inca sites. They are seductive. The grand boulders—carved and carried over steep slopes—were grooved to fit perfectly over 3,000 years ago. Machu Picchu was shut for two months because of a flood but is now open to reveal the vast panorama of Andean peaks, Inca stone and enormous royal rooms. Spring water gushes from perfectly carved stone at sacred temples. Llamas graze nearby and brightly attired locals sell alpaca wool. I manage to source a vicuna shawl, made out of the most expensive wool.
The sites: (above) The Lima Cathedral, Karel Navarro / Bloomberg; (middle) Machu Picchu, Roger Parker / Bloomberg; (top) and the Inca terraces of Pisac, Martin St-Amant / Wikimedia Commons
To go to the Inca sites, one needs to take a plane from Lima or Callao port to Cusco, a beautiful colonial city at 11,000ft. Inca stones form the base of many old homes. In the narrow, cobblestone streets, women in wide skirts, petasos-style hats and wool cardigans carry babies in brightly hued shawls tied to their backs and herd llamas along. It is cinematic. After a visit to the vast main square—filled with flowers and ringed with Spanish churches and Mooresque facades with overhanging wooden balconies—we sample cocoa leaf tea or local corn beer (chicha) and the local rice and bean menus. The altitude is not conducive to a hearty appetite.
We stay at a monastery style-boutique hotel called Inkaterra. The décor, food and service are exceptional. We pop in next door to see the treasures of the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. At night, we ask for the fire to be lit in our room. It is cold but I sleep with the windows open since oxygen is scarce. All that walking and climbing result in a good night’s sleep.
Next morning, we go to the Peruvian capital Lima. I fall in love with the huge city square. All the buildings are painted yellow and white. In Lima Cathedral, we see the tomb of the Spanish conqueror Pizarro. Nearby is the cavernous Monastery of St Francis, complete with an ancient library. A visit to the Larco Museum is a must. The gold Inca masks and jewels, the refined pottery and the ancient textile collection are exquisite. I am lucky to have lunch at the beautiful home of Mrs Anna Maria Garcia Alvarado in the swish Miraflores area. Chic in every way, her hospitality and delicious food transport me to a Gabriel García Márquez world. Her daughter later takes me to see the couture creations of Giuliana Testino (sister of the famous fashion photographer Mario Testino). Her creations of alpaca and Peruvian cotton are brilliant.
From Lima, we board an international flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador, and travel by road through cotton silk trees, corn fields and lush tropical land to catch the Silver Spirit, which is docked in the port city of Manta. The best Panama hats come from this region. Some—so fine that they can pass through a ring—retail at $1,000 (around Rs44,400).
For the best zip-line tour in the world, Costa Rica is the place to be. From Puntarenas port, we are up in the trees, a mere half-hour away. Zip lining is a thrill. Harnessed to a pulley, you zip across valleys at over 40 kmph. All on your own. Puntarenas is not the prettiest city in Central America, though—in fact, it desperately needs a garbage solution. We are thrilled to return to the Silver Spirit for a day at sea.
In the beautiful country of Guatemala, deep in the jungles of Tikal, is the world’s best Mayan site. Getting to Tikal involves an hour on land, an hour in a small plane and a further hour and a half on land. But Tikal is well worth the trip. Hidden in the greenery, where toucan birds roost, spider monkeys chirp, brilliantly plumaged turkeys strut and long-tailed anteaters scurry in the bushes, the Mayan site suddenly appears like a vision from a lost world. The pyramids soar to the heavens. The perfectly sculpted walls, the steep steps and the royal quarters are marvels of the ancient world. Climb to the top of the pyramids if you do not have vertigo: The sight is worth the climb. In all directions, pyramids peer over the forest cover. It is unforgettable.
That night, I look around what has been my home for 50 days. Surrounded by souvenirs of this American Odyssey, I realize that I am a day away from our final port: Acapulco, Mexico. From the fun-sun-surf city where divers fly over the jagged rocks to the sea below, we will take a flight to New York and fly back home to Goa. What an incredible journey this has been!
This is the last of an eight-part series.
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