Story by Karen Paton-Evans
Photography by Pam and Bill Seney
Travelling in other countries can drive home appreciation for different ways of doing things.
Trying to keep their balance while standing on a little floating compound in Peru, Windsor couple Pam and Bill Seney were fascinated to learn how family disputes are handled on the world’s highest navigable lake.
“So, you’re a family starting out and you make your own island by compacting a lot of reeds. Your kids grow up and get married and they add to your island. If you get in a fight, you cut the kids’ section loose,” Pam explains.
Peru presented one surprise after another to the couple during their 2017 trek through South America, beginning in Peru on Oct. 30, then on to Argentina and concluding in Brazil on Nov. 13.
“The thing that brought us to Peru was Machu Picchu,” says Bill. The 15th century Incan citadel perched in the Andes Mountains “ended up being one of the highlights, but I thought the islands and salt pans were even better.”
“We found all these little gems that made the trip spectacular,” Pam says.
After flying from Toronto to Lima International Airport, the Seneys took a short flight over the snow-covered peaks of the Andes to Cusco, the oldest inhabited city in the hemisphere. “The Andes were full of colours - red, brown, yellow and green,” Bill says. “Cusco is spread over the valley and the mountainside. Sheep, alpaca and llama cover the landscape. The houses are mostly mud block with clay tile roofs.”
Driving on, the Canadians paused at Centro Textile Liuvia to see alpaca and llama wool washed, spun, dyed and woven the same way its been done for thousands of years. The Seneys purchased sweaters and capes during their stay in Peru.
Next day, the Seneys and Mekesh and Shari, tourists from Toronto, set out from Urubamba to explore the Sacred Valley. Their guide stopped at the Maras Salt Pans, comprised of 3,000 ponds terracing down the hillside. Originally established by the Incas in the 1400s, the salt pans continue to be passed down through the 300 families who own them today.
“The salt pans were one of most spectacular things I’ve seen in the world,” Bill says. “The Incas found salt water underground and created the pans so water flows from one pan to the next. Natural heat causes evaporation, leaving salt that people use to preserve and flavour their food.”
At ancient Moray, the Seneys scrambled over the terraces of the bowl-shaped hollow dug into the valley floor. Resembling an amphitheatre, Moray’s purpose is not confirmed but it is believed to have been an agricultural research station devised by the Incas.
More agricultural terraces as well as aqueducts are on view and still in use at Chinchero. They formed part of the 15th century country estate of a noble Inca accountant, Inca Tupac Yupanqui. The Sacred Valley’s fertile soil yields potatoes, quinoa, fava beans and other crops for modern Peruvians.
After sleeping overnight in Urubamba, the Seneys eagerly boarded the morning expedition train to Aguas Calientes and then traveled by van “on a crazy roadway” up to Machu Picchu, 8,200 feet above the valley. “We walked a fair distance to enter the grounds,” says Bill.
Built by the Incas in the 1400s and later abandoned, Machu Picchu was overtaken by the jungle. The Lost City of the Incas was hidden for 400 years, until Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911. Viewing the ruins of dry-stone walls fusing enormous blocks without mortar, Bill says, “The thing that surprised me was the different levels of sophistication in the architecture and construction. Stonework was cut to mind-blowing precision. Yet in areas of less significance, it was more like rocks thrown together. The terraces where they grew crops had incredible drainage systems.”
No one is certain of Machu Picchu’s purpose. “It may have been an education centre and also important for religious rituals,” Pam says.
After the exertions of touring the mountain-top lost city and feeling short of breath in the high altitude, the Seneys welcomed a gentle pace next day, prowling around Cusco’s old streets.
Their next destination was Puno. Driving through the highlands, the Seneys’ tour bus first stopped in Andahuaylillas, a small town renowned for its San Pedro Apóstol Church, built by Jesuits in the sixteenth century over a pre-Columbian ceremonial space. The ornate sanctuary, resplendent with colourful murals and rich colonial art, is referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Andes.
“We visited numerous churches in Peru and they all had lots of detail and gold. You couldn’t put a price on the artwork. Massive paintings, statuary, ceilings and altars of gold - every inch done to perfection. Some required 300 years of artisans to complete the interiors,” says Pam. “Artists used incredible natural plant-based paints; there is no fading on the pictures, even though they are hundreds of years old.”
A guide informed the Seneys that gold once meant little to the Incas. Bill says, “They had a seemingly endless supply. They would trade gold for mirrors with the Spanish.”
From 1532 to 1572, the Spanish engaged in a struggle with the Incas, ultimately conquering the Inca Empire through warfare, enslavement and Old World Eurasian infectious diseases. Many of the indigenous people were then forcefully converted to Christianity. The predominant religion in Peru today is Roman Catholic.
Keen to see firsthand how Peruvians live now, the Seneys boarded a boat to Lake Titicaca to visit the floating Uros Islands and Taquile Island.
As they have done for centuries, the Uros Indians cut totora reeds that grow in the lake. They lay the reeds on their side and pack them deeply on top of the reeds’ dense root system to form human-made islands. “It felt like walking on straw – spongy,” Bill notes.
Since the building material is constantly composting, “everyday, they keep harvesting new reeds and making new layers to walk on and live on,” Pam says. “Everything else is also made of reeds – their houses, furniture and boats. The Uros’ greatest fear is that cooking on an island made of reeds, everything could catch on fire.”
For food, the residents make dirt piles in the reeds and grow potatoes on their islands. Bill says, “They also have guinea pigs in cages and use them as a meat source. They catch fish four inches long in the lake and dry them for a main source of protein.”
“Much of the Uros’ income is dependent on tourism,” Pam says. “When they do well, they buy tiny solar panels. A woman showed off her little TV, no larger than a toaster, to us.”
Pam adds, “We didn’t see one bug” on the lake, which has a surface elevation of 12,507 feet.
Simple living conditions are the norm on Taquile Island, formed of actual land. “There is no electricity or running water, so people use propane to cook and small solar panels for lights,” says Bill.
Taquile’s reputation for the friendliness of its residents held true. Pam says, “We loved meeting the people.”
The Seneys climbed to the top of the island where most residents live. “There is 40% less oxygen at top and I was exhausted. It’s bad when a 70-year-old woman carrying a big pack leaves you in the dust,” Bill chuckles.
The following day, the couple flew back to Lima. “When we returned to sea level, our bodies were producing all these extra red blood cells after being at such high elevations. We had energy like we couldn’t believe,” says Bill.
The Seneys fairly bounced around Lima, seeing the Government Palace, San Francisco Church and the Torre Tagle Palace. Wandering through the Larco Museum, they admired gold and silver treasures from ancient Peru.
Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Peru. The Seneys prepared to greet Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city.