Two weeks ago I was in Cusco, Peru. It is 11,200 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains as high as 20,000 feet. It is hard to breathe and soroche – coca tea – is served by concerned hoteliers, to help with the altitude sickness. For me, it wasn’t too bad although I did glance at the oxygen tank in the corner by the reception.
The first thing is to go to the market where there is an abundance of squash, potatoes, corn, fruit and faces.
I came here because of two people. Juan Grimm, Chilean landscape architect, and Ximena Nazal, Chilean nurserywoman and naturalist. I met both last year.
When I interviewed Juan last year, he talked about the Inca. “It is ironic that when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, the Inca Empire was probably the largest in the world.” This statement, and others he made, stimulated my desire to go to Peru. Ximena said one word, “Puya”. More of that later.
Cusco is the starting point for travelers to Machu Pichu. The city square is crowded with tourists wearing enough outdoor gear to conquer any mountain. We tourists like our GoreTex and Patagonia clothing, all straps, pockets and sturdy boots. As I found out later, getting to Machu Pichu is easy and, apart from those sturdy souls who hike there, most of us could go wearing a lounge suit or summer frock. But swathed in recycled tire fabric, off we go.
I had a arranged to travel through the Sacred Valley of the Inca to Ollantaytambo, the jumping off point ( so to speak) for Machu Pichu. My traveling companions and I were met by our young driver who whisked us off to the nearest ruin. Sacsaywamen is the ancient capital of the Inca empire, although I was told the same thing about three other places. It is quite impressive and has an extensive and fascinating history which we largely ignored. We being plant people, our attention began quickly to wander away from ruins to plants. And, as many of you know, if you can’t spend at least an hour discussing the nomenclature of some scrubby tree, life loses its luster.
A short drive from Sacsaywamen is Puca Pucara, meaning red fort. We walked around this, mainly to satisfy our driver, and then became excited by the plants in the adjacent parking lot.
Cantua buxifolia (Polemoniaceae) is the national flower of Peru, and comes in many colors. There is an Inca legend associated with the flower but it’s not very interesting, just the usual tale of betrayal, slaughter and redemption.
Still frothing about Cantua, we commenced our drive into the valley.
That’s enough from me for the moment.