On top of the world - almost

John Gascoigne forsakes a walking tour, but sees Peru's wonders all the same.

This is Peru, and with a friend and tour group, I'm here to climb to Machu Picchu. Paradoxically, Cusco, where our group starts its climb, is actually higher (3326 metres) than Machu Picchu, the "lost city of the Incas".

For a learner of the Spanish language, the verb infinitive esperar (to wait) becomes thematic very early in our 10-day tour.

"The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before," G. K. Chesterton once wrote. In Peru, you'd be unlucky to miss the train before.

Waiting and being late are a way of life in Peru, and it behoves the foreigner to learn and accept it. Perhaps it explains the nature of the kindly Peruvians we meet.

Our group's focus is the four-day walk along the Inca trail, an arduous 42-kilometre roller-coaster over three high passes and many thousands of thigh- and hamstring-stretching step-ascenders and knee-jarring descenders on the way to South America's most spectacular archaeological site, abandoned by its Inca population upon the Spanish conquistadors' 1533 entry to Cusco and rediscovered by US archaeologist Higham Bingham in 1911.

I decide on the eve of our Inca Trail walk that possible sub-zero nights could "lock" my bad back, courtesy of a drunk, unlicensed Melbourne driver who slammed his car into the back of mine. In the mountains, that could mean being carried out by a pair of the 18 amazingly fit Peruvian porters who carry our group's tents, cooking and sleeping gear and night-time clothing; or, more expensively, being lifted out by helicopter.

So I'm here on the portico of a restaurant in Cusco's second square, Plaza Regocijo, sitting out the walk, envious of the group that is under the guidance of the delightful, Lima-born Milagros (Millie) Abon, 27, who bears a strong resemblance to Cathy Freeman. Guide Millie is reminded of that fact, she says, by any and all Australians in the endless succession of groups led by her tour company, Highland Peru.

In this Cusco plaza, the sun is warm but the air thin, and it's a relief not to be walking, especially uphill. The square, bustling with midday walkers and motor traffic, is lined by arcades and deep blue facades mirroring the sky above the snow-capped Andes. The peaks summon a sense of calm and awe that's somewhat marred by constantly approaching mendicants, offering open palms or trinkets for sale.

Peru, you are reminded in these relentless visits to your table, is a poor country. A teacher here earns only $US200 ($A270) a month. Thousands of crumbling, non-electric or sewered adobes (mud brick houses) seen in a day trip along the Sacred Valley of the Incas tell of grinding poverty among the native Indian people.

I'm able to introduce my friend Greg, returned from the Inca Trail trek, to the elderly man I met by chance and practised my Spanish with on a park bench three days earlier. I'd paid 10 sols ($A4) for a handful of finger puppets, and he'd smiled, shaken his head and raised a digit to indicate they were worth a single sol.

At lunch in Cusco's Plaza Regocijo, a boy playing panpipes and a girl bashing a drum's stretched goatskin - they're in their mid-teens - have approached my portico table. As they segue from the anthemic El Condor Pasa to McCartney's Yesterday and move on, an old woman approaches with just an empty hand.

Two minutes later, a boy, about 14, offers postcards, then a younger, blind boy holds out panpipes smaller than a little finger with a card that declares, "This is your lucky day. I sell these pipes to support my family. I want to do something for myself and for my country."

More than 90 per cent of Peru's population declares itself Roman Catholic. I notice that the Latin cross atop the hill two kilometres away is a skinny thing of wood or medal, symbolic of the people walking on the segmented lawn and concrete of the square, not an ounce of fat on them - unlike their mostly Anglo Saxon observers at the restaurants' tables.

Yesterday, as our bus guide pointed to a 5900-metre peak, the vehicle shuddered on cobbles past a score of children pursuing a ball on a makeshift soccer pitch, one of many in the Sacred Valley. Their laughter-filled play belied the callused lives of their parents, who from darkness and tiredness were leaving off their day's work of tending flocks and herds in the icy shadow of the Andes or gathering rocks to build paddock walls and reinforce irrigation canals for when the snow melts and the rain comes.

Now, a day later, a man has laid more lilliputian panpipes on my table - they're for sale - and pointed to his ears, running an index finger from left to right to indicate their deafness. I'm out of sols, and my headshakes are making me uncomfortable, a small consideration beside the disappointment they're causing. I'd go back to my hotel except that on the other side of the glass petition that separates me from the diners on the left, a boy, about 12, is doing his own drumming, playing panpipes with nose and mouth and singing in the purest soprano.

To read full story visit: https://www.theage.com.au/news/south-america/on-top-of-the-world--almost/2005/11/09/1131407687147.html/

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