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On the tracks of the Andes

This article is published in the number 22-23 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until June 6, 2023

The Peru it is elsewhere, mental as well as geographical: here the rivers flow following the shape of the constellations, the shadows of the stones look like animals and the Pachamama, the great Mother Earth, bears fruit and asks for continuous gratitude.


The journey to arrive in this country, 10,483 kilometers away from Italy and 16 hours by plane, is long, but you don’t need to wait until you have who knows what time available: even just 10 days allow for a tour that will be remembered forever. For now, those coming from outside have no choice but to land in Lima (often making a stopover), but the advice is to save this stop for the end of the journey, because Peru has to offer above all outside the metropolis: it is made up of Andesof lakes, of cornfields, of alpaca, of people with archaic histories. Better then move to Cuscoin an hour’s flight you are there: it is the closest city to the famous Machu Picchu, which – as we know – is a must. This ancient abandoned center is one of the most viewed postcards in the whole country: in 1400, 400 people lived here, worshiping Apu, the god of the mountain, who protected all the inhabitants. To get there and back there is a very luxurious train (+ bus from Aguas Calientes), which you get on at the Poroy station, just outside the city of Cusco: it is theHiram Bingham, the train that takes its name from the American archaeologist who in 1911 found the remains of this remote Inca citadel. They are elegant carriages, complete with a restaurant, live music, an open bar and a guide ready to explain landscapes and passages. An Orient Express on the other side of the world.

Back in Cusco, with a baggage of memories already taken on, the suggestion, before resuming the journey, is to stay here at least a couple of days and enjoy its charm: in addition to the cathedral square, it would be a shame to get lost the mercado de San Pedro, the view from the church of San Cristobal, a dreamlike dinner in the church of theHotel Belmond Monasterio and the San Blas district, famous for its small artisan shops and art galleries. Everywhere people on the street sell boiled quail eggs, mango juice and churros, women everywhere weave colorful tablecloths.

A child from the Rawanqui community

70 percent of Peruvians work one day to live one day: everyone gets by, without too many pretensions. And life goes on like this. And it is also for this reason that the houses around them are all practically incomplete: money does not advance here and when a minimally habitable space is built that is fine, it does not matter if it does not have decorated facades or who knows what finishes. There is a strange duality: on the one hand, many Peruvians lead a more than essential, very practical existence (eating, drinking, sleeping, having children); on the other they are faithful to traditions that require spiritual rites and embroidered clothes, which often refer to complex symbols. Example above all Rawanqui community, who lives in the Quechua region: the road to go to them is bumpy, the houses around are made of earth, but as soon as you arrive the welcome is regal, among flying flower petals, good luck songs and tight hugs. Guests are offered corn on the cob with a piece of cheese and a delicious sauce made with huacatay, a Peruvian black mint. Damian Cosmé, 52 years old and with five children, has lived there all his life and has never thought of moving: «We live here by growing quinoa, corn and potatoes. We have light thanks to solar panels, there is TV, and we do without the Internet». What has changed in recent years is that the community of him has re-entered the Q’omer Wasicha, a project that helps local people to grow organic vegetables and aromatic herbs in equipped greenhouses: having lettuce, courgettes and fresh vegetables means better nutrition and the possibility of owning something and selling it on the market, beyond what is needed to survival. For many, this project has changed their lives: «In the community of Occururo, in the province of Anta, everything is coordinated by Ana Maria, a woman who, precisely thanks to the tomatoes and cucumbers that she has learned to cultivate a few years ago, keeps the family: its excellent quality products are highly sought after by the restaurants in the area», says Carla Reyes, Area Director of Communications of Belmond, the large group of hôtellerie emblem of luxury which has legendary hotels and trains here. You talk about it with pride because the company you work for is one of the main supporters of this virtuous circle: «It is important to create opportunities and prospects for those who, like many Peruvians, still live tied to the most ancient traditions. In our hotels in Cusco we offer free space to artisans who come from different communities, so they can have a showcase for their products and show the ancestral weaving technique to our guests. What they take goes directly to them and Belmond takes care of supporting them and developing the various activities, thus ensuring that they are not lost or forgotten. In addition, we buy the products we need for the hotels from the communities: so, for example, in our Rio Sagrado hotel the potatoes come from a small group of Patacancha who live in the Urubamba valley».

On the islands of the Urus

These small communities, looking at them with metropolitan eyes, seem to be in a precarious balance and instead have lasted for hundreds of years. As the Uruswho live on the Titicaca, the largest lake in South America (204 km by 65 wide). The Peruvians say it is shaped like a puma chasing a rabbit: you need imagination to see it, and they have a lot of it. And here, among the small amarillo carachi fish and giant frogs, the Urus have built an enormous city, made up of 110 artificial islands: usually five families, more or less 25 people, live on each one. To set up their floating platforms they use totora, a type of cane similar to bamboo: starting from Puno, sailing no more than 20 minutes, you arrive at them and it seems to enter a huge straw village. The Urus live by fishing, hunting birds (they mimic their verses in an incredible way) and by selling their artifacts to passing tourists. They are well equipped: a Isla Mojsa, for the price of 120 soles (equivalent to 30 euros) you sleep in two with breakfast included. It is Luis, a very smart young boy, who coordinates the accommodations: «We can accommodate up to a maximum of four people: you can also find us on Airbnb».

Also in this case, going there by train can be the turning point. In the same style as Hiram Bingham is the narcotic Andean Explorer, a train that leaves from Cusco, arrives in Puno and then sets off again towards Arequipa, with some well thought-out stops: from La Raya micromarketwhere it is impossible to refrain from buying a scarf or a blanket, at Sumbay quarrieswhere José, 69, waits patiently with his dog Tarzan to take passengers to visit prehistoric graffiti from 8,500 years ago.

José, the ‘guardian’ of the Sumbay quarries

A unique journey, because only these wagons move on those tracks between the Andes, so it’s either this or nothing: with the constant rhythm of the train, the space-time coordinates are lost. According to the calendar, three days pass, but it seems to span entire centuries: “We approach 5,000 meters of altitude, few people live here, who live mostly on barter”, explains Mirna, a guide who understands altitudes. The land up there doesn’t give much and around there is nothing, except llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, a protected wild animal, with thin legs and elegant bearing: «Lamas and alpacas are bred and are often the only source of wealth. But the vicuñas must be free. Only during the Chaku festival, in August, is there a collective ritual to shear them: their hair is worth gold».

The arrival at Arequipa, after days of itinerant isolation, an urban beauty with baroque buildings built in sillar, a white volcanic stone, strikes a strange amidst the people and the houses. It is Peru’s second largest city (despite the decidedly small and highly “analogue” airport) and you cannot leave without seeing the Plaza de Armas.

A plate of Pía León

From Arequipa, with a flight, you arrive early in File, the capital with its hat of low clouds. Better to stop here at the end of the journey than at the beginning, thus getting used to those ways that are more usual for us, among shops, large squares and now famous addresses throughout the world: here is the number one restaurant in South America, the famous Central of chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pía León, with dishes not found anywhere else, from Black Rocks (with seaweed, clams and calamari) to Blue-Green Ocean (a combination of scallops and cucumbers). And just at the beginning of May Pía inaugurated Mauka, inside Palacio Nazarenas, in Cusco, where you can taste inebriating flavors, all memories to take home: where, if not here, will you happen to try mashwa, kunuka leaves, rocoto, the sacha inchi seeds and the achiote? And it’s nice not even knowing what they are: also for this reason Peru is one of the journeys of life.

Hotel Belmond Monasterio, in Cusco

Melanie Dizon, the artistic director of the art gallery of the NGO Xapiri Ground, a beautiful project involving the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon forest.

Mary, of the Urus community

Lake Titicaca

The Andean Explorer, racing through the Andes

Source: Vanity Fair

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