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Passage to Peru

Peruvians garbed in colorful dress with llamas.1 / 6
Andean weavers create colorful tapestries in the mountains of Peru.2 / 6
Bill and Lauri Keitel are shown at Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca site located high in the mountains of Peru. It is considered one of the new seven wonders of the world.3 / 6
Boats made of reeds are used to transport tourists on the island of Uros.4 / 6
The Keitels visited the Dellapina Silver factory, where artisans create fine jewelry and other pieces.5 / 6
Lauri Keitel sits in a car on the Andean Explorer, a deluxe passenger train.6 / 6

I press the GO button. We’ve been to numerous Caribbean islands, and we’ve been to the middle Americas. The chance to go to Peru has loomed large the past few years, and at long last we’ve determined that it is time to go.

Our friend Marcy has family in Peru, and they own a silver factory in Lima. We handle their products in our store. Her father has stopped by many times when he is visiting southwest Minnesota and seems to be intrigued with our buffalo leather goods. We don’t speak each other’s language, yet through interpretation, we enjoy each other’s company. He came to visit this summer and told me, “I am turning 70, and soon I will sell the summer home on the beach in Lima. Come and visit me before it is too late!”

For a good part of my life, I have been on stage playing the music and watching other people dance. Now it is time for me to learn to salsa and other Latin moves.

I ponder all of this, and I realize that travel is somewhat about “getting out of character.” I am a late bloomer when it comes to international travel. It has only been the last five or six years that I’ve intentionally left the continent each October and spent three weeks out and about. Never once upon my return did I have a whit of regret, and if I did, it was only that I should have stayed longer!

Today we blink, and we are in the central plaza in downtown Lima. We realized an inordinate number of policeman are organizing, certainly hundreds. They were hanging out of sight in case they were needed. There was a scheduled protest having to do with young adults and workers’ wages, and it was planned to be a big national event. We also noticed a tank a block in the distance.

As we wended our way through the city plaza, our cellphone rang, and our hosts tell us to leave the plaza immediately. It was a beautiful sunny day in downtown Lima, and the atmosphere was upbeat and friendly. But we heeded their advice and left the plaza, but not before getting a photo opportunity. I was left with an impression that the police were exceedingly friendly professionals. They were not jack-booted enforcers, but peace officers doing their job. We watched the protest on television that evening, and the plaza was filled with tens of thousands of protesters.

Sacred valley

We leave Lima and catch a plane to Cusco. We will acclimate for a few days in this city of 1 million people. It is two miles high, and at this elevation it will help us with our endurance in the coming days.

A long-awaited trek to Ollantaytambo is up the roadway in the Sacred Valley. It is approximately 45 kilometers as the condor flies. We travel in a bus and dodge small herds of sheep and pigs, donkeys and chickens as we watch teams of oxen plow the potato fields. The verdant mountaintops are sunlit with scattered clouds — clouds created by the proximity to the Amazon. We are entering a biome called the cloud forest. At this elevation the mountains in North America are treeless, and we would be above the tree line. However, with this high humidity, we are instead in a cloud forest; it is heavily vegetated, and there are terraces in every direction and at every elevation.

The oxygen gets mighty thin at this elevation, and it seems to decrease exponentially with each thousand feet of elevation.

The road gets bumpier, and the bus on which we are traveling seems to have taken the suicide pathway. As the road narrows, we stop abruptly for oncoming traffic. It is a one-lane road with very few turnouts, and the traffic going uphill has the right of way. It is a test of faith and courage to consider backing a tour bus up this worn and beaten pathway. The drivers do it many times each day. I try not to fixate on their job and look out over the valley and spy a treasure. Staring directly at me, at eye level, I am face to face with an Andean condor soaring 2,000 feet above the river below.

The condor is considered the largest bird in the world with a wingspan exceeding 10 feet. In my formative years, reading about this bird sparked my interest in reading, nature and geography. A 20-second close-up glimpse of this bird made my trip to South America complete. It is one of the animals revered by the Incan culture. The condor carries prayers to heaven.

The following day we are approximately 200 miles from the Pacific coastline and hiking up the trails toward the fabled temple of Machu Picchu. The 15th century temple was built for the Incan royalty in an incredibly short period of time, suggesting tremendous numbers of skilled laborers. Below us is the Urubamba River, which flows around the base of this mountain. Amazingly, this river does not flow to the Pacific; it flows into the Atlantic Ocean approximately 2,700 miles distant. This river threads its way through the Andes into the Amazonian basin and begins its journey eastward. Along the river bank (a thousand feet below), you can see a small pathway; it is the Inca trail.

Trains, planes

and the Altiplano

Our first train ride took us to Aguas Calientes. We were seated with students from Gallaudet University. When we were seated across from them, we realized they were deaf. My wife had the presence of mind to sign to them a greeting and her name. They realized we spoke English and were from the USA. The bond was immediate. My cousin’s daughter has an affiliation with Gallaudet University, and we started texting one another in rapid succession. They were international students from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea. The adventures we shared were kindred, most made possible from a simple device — texting on our cellphones. The spirit of adventure was shared by all of us. I admired their daring do. By the end of our short train trip, hugs were distributed all around. The world is most certainly a better place than I sometimes envision.

Our second train trip was living larger than our normal lifestyle. We usually travel a step or two above hitchhiking. We had booked our travel as a package deal, and this was the benefit. The Andean Explorer is a train ride from Cusco to Juliaca and Puno.The train consists of two passenger cars and an entertainment car. It is for all practical purposes a private train! Our job was to sit and enjoy the culinary delights, the entertainment and the view. Our other job was to acclimate as we gained serious elevation rising up onto the Altiplano, the highlands of the Andes.

Our “fancy” train starts its upward journey through the gritty neighborhoods of Cusco. We are already 11,000 feet above sea level. It is an 11-hour ride that gives us sweeping vistas. Free-ranging herds of llamas are miles from any roadway or house. Always within a few hundred yards you can spot a herder nestled into a bush or crevice tending his animals. I ponder the lifestyle of the Andean as he spends day after day watching llamas grow wool.

We stop at a Catholic mission outpost, one of the highest points on the train journey. Andeans set up a quaint market to sell their woven goods to the tourists that stop once a day. Our tourist dollar means a great deal to these industrious people. I regret not purchasing more from them.

The train whistle blows, and we travel on. After a few more hours on the Altiplano, we enter the city of Juliaca. Hundreds of vendors’ booths are within five feet of the train window. They blur past until we slow down. Since we are in a train, our elevation is at their roof level. We can look down into their booths or we can look up on their rooftops. On the sheet metal roof tops we spy many drying fetal pigs or else guinea pigs — I’m not sure which? I decide to use caution and keep my dietary habits simple and cooked.

Puno is a big bustling city. It is the port of embarkment if you want to visit Lake Titicaca, Uros, Isla Taquile, Bolivia. Thor Heyerdahl brought great attention to this region 45 or 50 years ago when he built an ocean-going raft out of the reeds that grow in this lake. It was his intention to show that South Americans could have been expert seafarers and populated the southern Pacific with their seamanship. (Do the research yourself.)

 Uros is an island comprised of reeds. The people that live here are obligated to buoy their lifestyle by adding layers upon layers of reeds to keep their lifestyle afloat. We arrived after a two-hour boat ride, and the inhabitants were ready to greet tourists.

The days spent in Puno were beautiful and breathless. They were punctuated with late night gasps — at 12,500 feet we awoke, alarmed that we needed oxygen. A quick plane flight back to Lima deposited us at sea level and left us feeling like we had left a dream world.

Waning days

The last day spent in Peru was the highlight. Our host invites us to his silver factory. This is the culmination of years of friendship. We have sold their silver jewelry in our store, and now we are able to see where it is born.

We find our way down the twisted streets of Lima and wind up at a nondescript building that is three or four stories tall. The security cameras validate our presence, and the doors electronically allow us passage to the inner sanctum. Sunlight beams into this building from the open air above. Part of the building is shielded from the elements, and part of the building recognizes that this part of the world is a particularly beautiful environment and lets the year-round warmth into the workspace.

We are immediately welcomed by Alfonso, the paterfamilias of the Dellapina silver factory. His daughter, Marcy, gets ready to translate our interactions. Alfonso will have nothing of it. He explains to Marcy that he wants to give the tour, and she can act as the professional interpreter. Alfonso invites us into the building, and the first object that is encountered is a very large bar of silver that lies on the floor. He invites us to pick it up and take it home with us. It is a ploy, because it weighs 1,000 ounces, and we cannot lift it!

We tour the factory from floor to floor. His sons are production managers and international sales managers; daughter Marcy returns home to Peru to design new jewelry for the company. It is detailed work that all starts with professional drawings, weights, measures of each project. This assures that when she has left Peru the attention to detail will be observed by the many artisans who will create the final products.

The small furnace roars, melting silver before our eyes. His employees are also an integral part of his business, and they move and work with a sense of pride. They are his extended family and friends. Working in precious metals involves trust, and these craftsmen have been awarded that honor.

When the tour is nearly over, we are given privilege to the exclusive showroom. This room displays many of the products that are currently in production and also many one-of-a-kind pieces. As we enter the room, we encounter a near legendary piece of work by their company.

They were commissioned by the government of Peru for the Queen of Spain upon her specific request. The queen had inquired if silver craftsmanship was practiced in Peru as it was in past centuries? The result was a four- by eight-foot panel produced by the Dellapina silver factory. The queen was overcome by the craftsmanship. Dellapina silversmithing has earned a point of pride throughout the Americas and beyond. We were beholden to have the opportunity to tour this place of historic silversmithing, silversmithing that has endured the ages.

Our time in Lima and Peru has been well spent, our host family has tended to our every need, and we feel privileged to have made this most kindred connection.

For Bill Keitel’s full essays on the trip to Peru, go to