Pamela Wade finds Peru a country of wonders — from the natural to the man-made, the ancient to the everyday.
Until I went to Peru, the dodgiest thing I had ever done was to slip into a locked compound in Perth behind an unsuspecting swipe-card carrier; but at Machu Picchu I committed passport fraud.
Eddie, the Mountain Lodges of Peru guide on my Lares Valley tour, was dismissive. "You're too blonde," he said, when I proposed passing myself off as one of the other guests in order to get through the ticket check to climb Huayna Picchu mountain. He might also have said that I was too small, since the obliging Colleen, a Hispanic American, was twice my size; or too old, since she was 10 years younger - so credit to him for tact, at least. Undaunted, I joined the queue, clutching her passport and ticket, memorising her birthdate in case of challenge, and wondering what was Spanish for "crash diet" and "facelift".
But the attendant just glanced at the documents, pointed to the sign-in book, and waved me through. Excelente! Now, though, came payback: I was committed to climb to the peak of Huayna Picchu for the best view of Peru's New Wonder of the World. Just the 360 vertical metres, then, up 40 minutes' worth of steep and irregular steps, to a dizzying 2720m above sea-level.
Machu Picchu is the grand finale of Mountain Lodges of Peru's Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu, and combines the tour's two strands of brain or brawn. Mostly, there was a choice: on the first day, while the others opted for a hike through the hills to a pachamanca (hangi) lunch above the little town of Pisac, I chose the cultural option. Danny narrated our drive through the Sacred Valley, past tiers of walled terraces on unfeasibly steep hillsides, and small flocks of alpacas watched over by women in electric pink and blue traditional dress, vivid dots of colour in a vast brown landscape.
Colour is everywhere in Pisac's market, where the stalls are heaped and draped with scarves, bags, jumpers, toys, ornaments and much more, all dazzlingly bright, the prices irresistible.
Not far away, at the Cochahuasi Project, are the results of the darker side of commerce. This is a rehabilitation centre for animals rescued from traffickers selling them to collectors, for traditional medicine and as exotic souvenirs; and others injured in various ways by humans. A private concern, the aim is to return the animals to the wild where possible, but the 65-year-old condor I gingerly petted was considered past that.
So were the pumas, de-clawed by a Lima nightclub; though the smuggled macaws had just to grow their feathers back to earn their release. A condor feather commands about $100 on the black market, so it was a joy to see one of these huge vultures fly low over my head, using them for their proper purpose. It was less heart-warming to be ignored by one of Peru's endemic hairless dogs, despite my combing his mohawk for him.
Up the hill was the first of many archaeological sites we were to visit, a marvel of pre-Inca industry, technique and ambition, the stones shifted and shaped by unimaginable means. Even Eddie's explanations could go only so far: how is it possible to shape granite so precisely with tools made only of bronze, tin or copper? A shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head are the only possible response.
The landscape is full of similar wonders. High, snowy peaks tower over bare, brown slopes where, somehow, the Andean people wrest a living. Wherever we looked, despite the XXL scale of the scenery, there were human touches: stone terraces, ancient furrows carved into steep hillsides, mud-brick houses, walls - and people. Everywhere, people, trotting along behind small herds of alpacas, watching over sheep, labouring with mattocks, bent under huge loads of firewood, driving pack-llamas along the road.
And weaving, always. On a hike to our second luxury lodge, it was the children we came across first, four of them aged under 7, out alone on the open pasture. They followed as our path took us past their house, a low adobe structure with a tin roof, where their mother in her embroidered hat was busy at her loom, her hands in constant motion as she wove her bright cloth.
We gave snacks and asked questions, but she didn't stop, answering shyly and only taking her eyes off the intricate pattern to push away the young orphaned lamb that kept butting her. Its mother, butchered, was drying in the mountain air on top of the roof, and when one of the little girls brought out their baby sister, we understood how the lamb was being kept alive.
It's a hard life in the mountains, and the work is unremitting; but there are pleasures too. In the small town of Calca, the square in front of the church was packed with people from miles around, there to enjoy the festival of the Annunciation. Dancers dressed in creepy masks and elaborate costumes mingled with sellers of balloons, bubbles, religious charms. Mothers braided ribbons into their daughters' hair, musicians chatted and laughed, teenage girls took multiple selfies.
In the church, two dozen chanting men dressed as slaves heaved the towering icon of the Virgin to their shoulders and carried it to the door, awkwardly ducking under the entrance arch, before parading through the streets past bamboo structures wired with fireworks. It was going to be a lively night.
For us, the high point of the five-day tour was our arrival at Machu Picchu on the last day. From the Sun Gate, from the rocky peak of Huayna Picchu, or up close in among its jigsaw walls, the huge stone blocks fitted so perfectly together, its beauty is eclipsed only by its mystery. How, why, when? No-one has definitive answers. Eddie did his best, but for me it was enough to wander among the buildings, look at the surrounding peaks through the trapezoid windows, watch the llamas grazing the green lawns, and just appreciate being in this marvellous place. Sometimes, you don't need answers.
Getting there: LAN Airlines operates seven non-stop flights each week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
Getting around: Viva Expeditions is a New Zealand specialist in creating customised South American itineraries and represents Chimu Adventures in New Zealand, which offers a variety of tours throughout South America. Book through them a Mountain Lodges of Peru five-day/ four-night programme.
The writer was a guest of Viva Expeditions, Chimu Adventures, Mountain Lodges of Peru and LAN Airlines.