Peru: The llama, the puma and the serpent

We’re standing in the magnificent choir loft of Monasterio de San Francisco, and my guide, Olinda, is a bit frustrated with me. She’s trying to explain key features of the loft, but my eyes have drifted down toward the altar, where a priest is saying Mass in front of a packed house. Above them, at eye level with me, pigeons flap back and forth among the rafters. Below them, in the dank, claustrophobic catacombs, lie the bones of 70,000-some people.

It seems the perfect metaphor for the three themes that constantly recur during my trip to Peru — the heavens, the earth and the underworld.

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In the Miraflores section of Lima, we walk the adobe pyramid of Huaca Pucllana. This pre-Incan structure dates back to about 400 A.D. While we admire the granduer of Peru’s past, several hundred well-dressed Peruvians celebrate a wedding at Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, the sound of their music and laughter reverberating off the ancient pyramid before them.

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We’re making our way through the narrow streets of Ollatantambo in the Sacred Valley when a woman beckons us into her home to see guinea pigs, or cuy as they’re called in Spanish. It’s part a ploy to get us to look at the weavings and other crafts she has for sale, but it’s also a chance to get a look inside one of the village homes. Several children scurry around, and the “cuy, cuy, cuy” of the guinea pigs fills the room. There must be three dozen of them darting around, destined for the dinner plate. They’re a delicacy here in Peru (In fact, there is a Last Supper painting in the main cathedral in Cusco that features Christ getting ready to chow down on a baked guinea pig while a shifty Francisco Pizarro plays Judas in the lower left.).

But my attention quickly shifts from the cuying cuy to an altar that features a wide assortment of votives, including the skulls of two of the family’s ancestors, presiding over the daily rituals of the living.

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At one Incan site after another, our guide, Hernan, points out repeated images of the heavens, the earth and the underworld as represented by the Andean condor, the puma and the serpent

In fact, Machu Picchu’s layout looks strikingly like a condor in flight when viewed from the nearby heights of Waynapicchu peak. And three stone steps — the underworld, the earth and heaven — is a leitmotif that appears at Incan site after Incan site.