Peru - Land of the Incas

Our October meeting was held jointly with members of the Royal Geographical Society, who welcomed Ray Sturdy to talk about his visit to Peru. Although the country is increasingly accessible to westerners, in many ways it remains an enigma, known only to many through television programmes about the Inca civilisation and their secret mountain stronghold of Machu Picchu. So it was with interest that we gathered to learn more about this country through Ray's illustrated talk.

A fourteen hour direct flight from London brought us to Lima, a bustling modern city of 7 million people. Yes, we saw the expected high rise buildings, but there were also hints of things to come with shots of some of the extant Spanish colonial architecture - particularly evident in the style of the churches. Visiting the Museum of Civilisation, we viewed some of the thousands of ancient Inca artefacts recovered from the extensive ruined remains of Inca settlements. This was a civilisation which endured for a thousand years, had no concept of the wheel, regarded gold as an everyday metal (their currency was carved stones) and worshipped their leader as a god - along with other deities, including the sun. The eradication of their culture by the Spanish conquistadores, led by Pissaro, in the seventeenth century, in their quest for gold, is possibly one of the greater crimes against humanity in history.

Leaving Lima, Ray and his small tour group flew to the small town of Puno, close by Lake Titicaca. Known by many of us as the highest freshwater lake in the world, it lies at 13,000 feet above sea level. The lakeside culture is unique. Some still live on the floating reed islands and their boats, of a distinctive design, are also of reed construction. We also started to understand the varying cultural groups in Peru. In Lima, the facial characteristics of the inhabitants betray their Spanish origins as distant descendants of the earliest settlers. At the lake, and increasingly elsewhere, the facial characteristics betray their Incan ancestry.

After visiting the lake Ray travelled on to the heart of Inca lands, to their capital of Cuzco. Now a large city (though mercifully without high rise buildings) little remains of the original construction which was systematically destroyed by the conquistadores; although study stone foundations, often ten feet in height, gave us our first hint at Incan building skills. The stay at Cuzco was but a prelude to an extensive hike across the Andes using mountain trails which pass through remote villages. Crossing lofty passes and plunging down vertiginous paths, Ray and his hardy colleagues joined the Inca Trail and made their way to the lofty secret residence of the Inca rulers - Machu Picchu. Perched high in the mountains and often shrouded in cloud, this hidden city was never taken by the conquistadores. After the demise of the Inca civilisation it lay lost until the last century when, after two years of searching, it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham. Now a busy service town at its foot caters for the thousands of tourists that visit annually. The stone buildings remain intact, although the thatched roofs have long gone. The building techniques are still a mystery to the experts. Massive granite boulders weighing many tons were carefully cut and shaped, then bedded together without the aid of mortar. How was this achieved? The Inca civilisation remains a conundrum. A thousand years ago they were ignorant of the wheel, yet they were clearly master builders.

Ray's six week odyssey had its fitting climax there, from where he set off for home, doubtless with many lingering memories of such an historic location.

Roger Hockney
October 2014