The Magic of Machu Picchu

Katherine Lanpher was at a point in her life when an empty vacation week loomed as a threatening accusation instead of a giddy prospect. There was only one solution: a journey to the top of the world. Solo.

By Katherine Lanpher

I remember enjoying that feeling, akin to waiting for the curtain to open on a stage, and wondered whether I could find it again in Peru. I had never been to South America, but that was precisely what I liked about going to Machu Picchu: I had never been to Paris before either, and that trip transformed my sense of the possible. Twenty years later, I was due for an adventure tune-up. I liked the idea of a ghostly city wrought by hand out of stone and then abandoned, the idea of walking around a set of mystical ruins called the Lost City. I was feeling a little lost myself. Who knew what I would find there?

A Sister Solo Traveler

One of the first things I did in Peru was hail a cab. No, really. The taxis in Cuzco are cheap, and I bargained with a driver to take me to the nearby town of Pisac. New Yorkers take note: I’ve had more scares on 34th Street than I did on the winding mountain roads that led to the famous Pisac Sunday market. I was too late to attend Mass—performed in Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire—which was followed by a procession through the town square, led by the mayor waving his ceremonial silver staff.

But I was there in time to wander the market. The vibrantly colored wares that choked the stalls would come to seem ubiquitous on my trip, but what I cherish now are my memories of the moments of daily life and trade, the sacks of potatoes and corn that peeked from underneath the tables, evidence that someone had come to buy their weekly groceries as well as sell sweaters and rugs to the whey-faced representatives of the Gringo Trail. I purchased an ear of freshly boiled maize—big, sweet, almost silver-white kernels dripping with green salsa—and longed for a reason to justify the purchase of some of the powdery bowls of dyes a wizened woman was selling at her table, jewel-like tones of sunset and russet and fuchsia and gold.

It was nice to linger over a late breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt the next day in the courtyard of the Niños Hotel, where proprietor Jolanda van den Berg promises to "give you a story to tell." Van den Berg first came to Cuzco as a Dutch tourist in 1995 with her boyfriend, Titus Bovenberg. She came back by herself six months later, determined to do something for the local street kids, who know just enough English to break your heart. Today she and Titus are married and parents of two daughters and 12 adopted sons. They also run a foundation funded by their two hotels and four restaurants, which ensures that another 500 children get hot showers, warm meals and homework help every day.

The courtyard was so fetching—red and pink geraniums lining a stone floor, waving ferns echoing the green-painted woodwork—that I wanted to meet the woman who had created this respite for both tourists and street kids. I was also curious to know what she had gleaned from her own solo travels, from the step she took 10 years ago to return to Cuzco with nothing but a notion to help at least one child. Van den Berg is newly 40 and refreshingly frank. "It showed me that I could go to China if I wanted and live there too," she said. "It showed me that security isn’t everything. Just yourself is."

In the next few days, I would also put that notion to the test.

A Confession

I suppose this is where I should make my failings plain: I did not hike for four days as part of my pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. I took the bus.

I count several hardy world travelers in my circle of friends, the kind who love to recall in what part of the world they received stress fractures or jellyfish stings. Not me. Athletic endeavor and I have long had an uneasy relationship—Michelangelo could have based the grief-stricken visage of Mary in his famous Pietà on my face in the Franklin Elementary sixth-grade softball team photo—and I wasn’t sure whether I could acclimate to the altitude and make the hike in less than a week. Plus, who wants to be the person in everyone’s snapshots remembered as "that woman who fell down the mountain"?

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