Photographing Cusco and the Sacred Valley in Peru

The new issue of Le Monde d’Hermès has an article I wrote about the incredible 15th century Inca stonemasonry in Peru — you can see the article here or read here about the paradox of Inca civilization — which includes a few of my photographs, but they give little more than a taste of what makes Peru so beautiful.

These are a few of my favorites but you can see the full set of Peru photos here.  I’ll start with Machu Picchu because it is one of those rare sights that everyone dreams of yet is still more awesome in every way than I had imagined it would be.  I spent nine hours up in the sanctuary and it never stopped feeling unreal.  I wasn’t alone in this: at the exit from the site there is a spot where you catch a last glimpse back of the stone structures perched on the mountaintop and even though it is far from the best view there were people gathered there, literally unable to tear themselves away.

I hiked up Huayna Picchu, which is the sheer cliff in the background of the photo above, and I should have looked more closely at the photos because it ended up being (as a David Foster Wallace collection would describe it) a supposedly fun thing I will never do again. The hike is billed as a vantage point for getting amazing views over Machu Picchu — and it is that — and all but the last 500 feet or so is a manageable, if slippery and arduous, climb for an amateur. Certainly, there were all sorts of people, young and old, well outfitted and (like me) totally ill-prepared, who set off on it — I would see some of them later at the peak breaking down in tears as they realized (like a cat that had climbed out on a limb and didn’t know how to get back) that the well-worn path had turned into two stones stuck into an old Inca wall suspended over a 1,500-meter drop straight down.

Far less well known than Machu Picchu, at least until you get to Peru, are the ancient salt pans at Salineras that cascade down a crevice in the mountains 13,000 feet above sea level. Because I had fewer images of the place in mind, the shock of arrival was in some ways even more breathtaking as the car crested a small rise and then turned along the cliffside, suddenly bringing the sight below into view.

The procession to celebrate the Virgen del Rosario stretches endlessly through the streets of Cusco and is almost ludicrously colorful: men with big-nosed masks, women in these too-small Spanish hats, and an odd mix of gender ambiguity and sombre Catholic observance.

This flair is brought to the veneration of death, too, as Almudena cemetery is lined with these burial vaults, each with a small glass vitrine in the front (often heavily padlocked against theft or desecration) in which a little tableaux of objects from the life of the deceased are displayed. This can be poignant or joyful or, sometimes, inexplicable, as when Clorox bottles or other mundane household supplies are among the mementoes.

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Click here to see the full set of Peru photographs or here for the article in Le Monde d’Hermès that brought me there.  Or here for the others I have done in the series for Le Monde d’Hermès.  Or here for all my posts about South America.

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