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

Perusing Peru

On the third day of my week in Peru, I woke up to the sound of firecrackers. I was staying at a small Inn in Cuzco, the traditional stop for travelers readying themselves for the four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was headed for the Lost City of the Inca Empire myself, but I had a gentler, more solitary exploration planned, and the firecrackers fit in perfectly. The pop-pop-pop could only mean one thing. I confirmed my hunch with the woman behind the front desk. "Sí," she said, "Santa Rosa."

Santa Rosa of Lima was the first person to be canonized in the Western Hemisphere, so she holds a special place for those in Peru, where her feast day is celebrated as a public holiday. I scurried down a flight of stone steps onto a narrow sidewalk just in time to watch a neighborhood procession of the faithful disappear down a thin thread of a street, balancing the bobbing icon of the saint on their shoulders, the sound of tinny horns blasting their tribute.

I’m attracted to the serendipity of solo journeys, so when another traveler told me that if I stayed in Cuzco an extra day I might see the town turn out for their saint, it seemed too good to pass up. I continued my walk down a street of wooden balconies that sagged from the weight of their own carvings and past tiny stands that offered film, water and candy for turistas.

I know it’s fashionable to decry tourists, but I embrace my inner tourist when I travel alone. "Here I am," I want to say. "Tell me everything. Show me everything."

Here is what I saw from the back pew of the Santa Catalina church, in the San Blas neighborhood of Cuzco: a man and a woman fussily arranging white gladiolas to be placed around the altar. A woman with dark hair swept back from her lined face kneeling in the front pew. A gray-haired man pushing open a groaning glass door, the sun shining through its panes. The sound of trumpets returned, and, to my delight, the procession I had seen only from the back marched into the church, led by a posy of girls, their dark hair in ringlets and placards of the saint tied around their necks with ribbons. Flashbulbs popped as parents took pictures. A little dog zipped down the aisle, barking reprimands, quickly followed by a stout nun with an Andean face, her gray habit flapping behind her. I couldn’t have been happier.

First, Some History

I had reached a point in life where an empty vacation week loomed more as an accusation than a giddy prospect. No clamoring family had made me pine for uninterrupted days; a recent move to New York had separated me from the friends I could usually coax into going on one trip or the other with me. In fact, the last time I had traveled by myself for pure pleasure, I had been only a year out of college, a travel stripling convinced that if I didn’t go to Europe right away, I might never get there. So I blithely charged a two week trip to London and Paris, and after a lonely seven days in England, I boarded the ferry for France.

When I arrived at the Gare du Nord, I mistook craftiness for kindness in the ministrations of a man who helped me get through a sticky turnstile in the Métro. He did more than that, of course, by making off with my cash. I walked out into a light rain and realized that my turnstile acquaintance had even taken my Métro pass. I began to cry, more out of shame than anything else.

And that’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Excuse me," I heard in plain Midwestern English. "Are you American?"

Thus began my first tutorial in the joys of solo travel. I was handed off from helpmeet to helpmeet—an American expatriate who gave me a Métro ticket, a French high school student, his Swiss university girlfriend, a handsome gendarme wreathed in the smoke of many Gauloises. By dusk, I had a renewed faith in fellow travelers, a hotel room for the night and 10 francs, the latter quickly invested in a half-bottle of red wine, a baguette and a small disk of Brie. I leaned out the window of my hotel room, surveyed the street below and knew what it was like to be the observer of the fabric of other lives, not sure where the thread of my own adventure would take me.

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