Exploring the Past
Machu Picchu is great, but there's more to see of Peru's fascinating past. Stand at Cajamarca where Inca Atahualpa was captured by Spanish leader Francisco Pizzaro. Explore the ancient Moche culture by walking about its adobe pyramids. Puzzle over the mysterious Nazca Lines from the sky. Then enjoy city life in Spanish-influenced Lima, Trujillo, and Arequipa, with their colonial-era mansions, churches, monasteries, and museums.
Peruvian history is best understood by visiting its people and experiencing its cultures. The islands of Lake Titicaca reveal a slice of raw ancient Andean culture. It's as if time has frozen while Quechua and Aymara families live and work off the land, eating and dressing as they did in the 16th century. It's not much different in the highlands around Cusco, where Quechua-speaking folks farm terraces thousands of years old.
Clanging bells, chanting, and wafting incense rouse you before dawn. You peer out your window: scores of people draped in bright colorful costumes walk down the street carrying a saint's figure.
Catholic observances, a strong indigenous tradition, and history pack the calendar with fiestas—from Lima's birthday in January, to the nationwide Semana Santa in spring, to the Inca ritual Inti Raymi on June 24. In Puno each November, citizens reenact the birth of the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, who, legend has it, rose out of Lake Titicaca.
Among the crosses, saints, and colorful costumes, townspeople try their luck at bingo, beauty queens compete for the crown, Huayno music blasts from speakers, and the Pilsen and Cristal beer flows freely.
Life in the Andes, the altiplano, has changed little through the centuries. In many villages Quechua is still the only language spoken. There are few cars and computers, no ATMs, and no restaurants, though you will see locals carrying cell phones. Families live in stone and adobe huts and plumbing is a hole in the ground.
Nearly every family raises animals for food and transport. Parents harvest crops from the ancient terraces while children attend school. Cold temperatures call for hearty foods like soup, potatoes, bread, quinoa, and meats.
When it comes to fiestas, these villagers know how to let loose. No major floats needed. Parades consist of local instruments, traditional folk dances that reenact Peruvian history, hand-sewn clothing embroidered with bright colors, a crowd, and lots of alcohol.
Rituals of the Dance
Peruvian folkloric dances vary dramatically between coast and mountains.
The coastal marinera is performed to the music of a brass band by a courting couple who execute elegant, complex movements while holding a handkerchief, but never touch. Trujillo is the city best known for marinera festivals and performances. Afro-Peruvian dance is more sensual, performed to the music of guitars and the rhythm of a cajón, a sonorous wooden box on which the percussionist sits.
The most spectacular dance is the Andean danza de tijeras (scissors), which involves gymnastic leaps to the strains of harp and violin. Colonial-era priests claimed that a pact with the devil enabled dancers to swallow swords; stick pins in their faces; and eat insects, frogs, and sometimes snakes. The dance has toned down since then.
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