At Machu Picchu, most people think about ancient Incas, superb stone architecture, and mystical spiritual practices. I thought about ex–Vancouver Canucks forward Raffi Torres, the only NHLer of Peruvian descent—his mom’s from Lima.
I cover hockey in Vancouver, and when I told fellow NHL journalists I was going to Peru in December, they just didn’t get it. Why visit South America’s third-largest country while the Canucks are busy gearing up for another Stanley Cup quest? Not much hockey down there.
Well, I’m here to entertain and educate. So I decided the best way to make my trip more accessible to puck-obsessed Canadians would be to position it as a head-to-head showdown between modern Peru and old Peru—like a hockey game, where it’s all about competing. Which incarnation is cooler?
Some countries were unquestionably cooler in the old days. For instance, take Greece: debts and demonstrations, or Plato and the Parthenon? It’s no contest. How about Peru?
Modern Peru got off to a rough start when my tour group missed its first domestic flight out of Lima. But we didn’t let adversity affect us. We got our legs moving on a tour of the dusty Peruvian capital, which was founded in 1535 and is full of honking horns, colourful newsstands, and pisco sours, the national drink.
I soon discovered that both the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors and the pre-Columbian civilizations had a problem with head shots that puts today’s concussion-ridden NHL to shame. At the Church of Santo Domingo in Lima’s historic centre, I gawked at a tiled wall depicting a Spanish martyr of the Dominican order holding his own severed head. It’s unfortunate when you see guys injured like that. Then, at the garden-surrounded Museo Larco, featuring displays of pottery by the Moche (a pre-Incan culture), I spotted tiny decapitator gods, each holding a half-moon-shaped knife called a tumi. Obviously, as you’d say of the skull-crushing hits of former NHL bodychecking king Scott Stevens, it was legal under the rules back then. Scary, but cool for old Peru.
Modern Peru rallied a bit when I feasted on scallop ceviche and baby Japanese eggplant after swimming in the rooftop pool at the elegant Miraflores Park Hotel. Still, old Peru led after the first period.
After flying north to the city of Trujillo, I was impressed by old Peru’s relentless momentum on a guided tour of nearby Chan Chan. These sprawling adobe ruins—South America’s biggest city pre-Columbus—served as the capital of the militaristic Chimu civilization for some 600 years.
Even though Chan Chan’s glory days are past—kind of like those of the Nassau Coliseum, the dilapidated home of the New York Islanders—its remaining 14 square kilometres offer plenty of highlights. There are massive ceremonial courtyards, roaming hairless dogs, and a central well with lush reeds bordering the water, where human sacrificial remains were buried. And to think that all we do as Canadians is bury a lucky loonie at centre ice for the Olympics.
The coolest thing about Chan Chan was exploring the maze of massive walls, which once contained upward of 50,000 residents. Way more fun than trying to get through the neutral zone against a Jacques Lemaire–coached club.
Modern Peru mounted another comeback during our visit to the Peruvian Paso Horse Association, outside Trujillo. These dressage horses are known for their unusual, smooth, four-beat gait. Guided by their riders, they also dance.
Watching one horse perform the marinera, a traditional Peruvian dance, on a field with young barefoot women in frilly maroon-and-green dresses, I couldn’t help thinking that Don Cherry would probably rip the poor beast as a hot-dogging European (Spanish breeding, eh?). However, even “Grapes” might have enjoyed the 620-millilitre Trujillo Cerveza Pilsen I swigged while nodding along to lively Latin music and marvelling at the horse’s ability to avoid stepping on toes. Cool!
Old Peru responded big-time with the Lady of Cao, a remarkably preserved 1,600-year-old mummy I viewed at the El Brujo archaeological site. As haunting Inca pipes played in a dimly lit museum room, it was creepily impressive to see spiders and snakes still clearly tattooed on the arms of the Moche queen-priestess, with her skeletal grin.
Then again, the Lady of Cao wasn’t going to give the Dallas Stars Ice Girls a run for their money anytime soon. Whereas the lovely Latina lady who sold me a chess set pitting miniature conquistadors against natives at the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipán the following day… she shoots, she scores.
That encounter capped off my enjoyment of viewing ancient Moche treasures like a copper octopus, a gold spider necklace, and spoonbill duck earrings. These were displayed alongside the remains of the Lord of Sipán, discovered in the epoch-making year of 1987, known among puckheads for Mario Lemieux’s winning goal in the Canada Cup final.
Now it was intermission time. On the drive to the surf town of Mancora, I fuelled up on such modern Peruvian junk food as Inca Cola, Inka Chips, and Inka Corn. (It reminded me of Mark Messier’s inspirational saying about Lay’s Potato Chips: “Betcha can’t eat just one.”) After watching pelicans and sea lions, sunbathing, and chilling in my luxury tent for a couple of days at the Vichayito beachfront resort, I was ready to fly south and give 110 percent at Machu Picchu.
There’s no way to skate around it: old Peru dominated the third period. The lost city of the Incas remains the coolest thing this country has going. Perched in the cloud-wreathed Andes at 2,430 metres above sea level, northwest of Cuzco, Machu Picchu is one 600-year-old highlight reel. Whoa, check out the massive altar with the sundial! A stone staircase on the side of the mountain—now that’s playing on the edge! Keep your head up, here comes a llama!
My heart pounded as I breathed fresh, oxygen-thin air, sucked on my herbal-flavoured coca candy to kill off any chance of altitude sickness, and snapped photos. It was admittedly even cooler than the time I got Rocket Richard’s autograph as a kid. Big win for old Peru.
Still, you gotta give credit to modern Peru, which has been independent since 1821. They have a quality young team, they treat you first-class, and they’re getting better every year.
Access: The writer travelled as a guest of PromPeru, the national tourism-promotion organization. To develop a game plan for your trip to Peru, visit the Iperu website.