A Photographer’s Journey Through Peru

Grand view of ancient Machu Picchu, last refuge of the vanished Inca civilization in the Andes Mountains, Peru.

Grand view of ancient Machu Picchu, last refuge of the vanished Inca civilization in the Andes Mountains, Peru.

Story and Photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Peru is perhaps the most fascinating country in all of South America. Considering the many wonderful sights, both natural and cultural, to be found on this vast continent, that’s saying a whole lot. You will find a great deal of diversity here. From the arid lands of its long Pacific Coastal area to the snow-capped summits of the sharply carved Andes, there is something here for everyone.

Plaza de Armas, the main plaza in the center of fast-paced Cuzco, Peru.

Plaza de Armas, the main plaza in the center of fast-paced Cuzco, Peru.

Getting There

When arriving from the US, your exploration of this nation that’s almost twice the size of Texas will begin upon your arrival in the modern international airport of Lima, Peru’s capital. While historic, Lima today is a big, bustling modern city, but is hardly what you come here to see. The best bet is to simply change for the domestic flight to the southern city of Cuzco, your base of operations for a terrific photo experience.

This ancient capital of the Inca Empire, founded almost a thousand years ago, is rich in history. Since it stands at just over 11,000 feet of elevation, consider asking your healthcare professional about medication such as Diamox to help in staving off the potentially debilitating effects of altitude sickness.

Choose from among the many hotels near the centrally located Plaza de Armas. Stroll the neighborhood; take in the plaza with its two huge Spanish colonial cathedrals and nearby market.

Centuries old Inca masonry is still in perfect condition at historic Sacsaywaman in the hills above Cuzco, Peru.

Centuries old Inca masonry is still in perfect condition at historic Sacsaywaman in the hills above Cuzco, Peru.

Getting Around

A few blocks down the hill from the Plaza de Armas is Coricancha, a Benedictine monastery built right over an Inca temple. As you walk through these venerable piggy-backed structures, look closely at the masonry construction left by the vanished Inca people. Even after the passage of six or seven centuries and numerous earthquakes that have rocked the area, these massive stones remain so tightly butted together that not even a crisp dollar bill can be inserted between them. More surprisingly, these structures were built without any mortar! They stand today as they did when brand new; exquisitely cut and dressed stones fitted together with a precision that exceeds twenty-first century tolerances.

South America, Oeru, Cuzco, Cusco, Sacsaywaman, Sacsayhuaman, Mother and daughter in traditional dress at historic Sacsaywaman in the hills above Cuzco, Peru.

After exploring central Cuzco on foot, hail a taxi and travel into the hills to the vast Inca structures known as Sacsayhuamán and Tambomachay.

The geometry of these ancient stone forms, lines and shapes offer an endless variety of compositions. Even if you go when the sun is already well up, catching the light right on the edge of the frequently broken clouds can provide some very pleasing illumination for your images. Here you will also find cheerful indigenous folks all decked out in traditional garb, often with alpacas in tow and small children in their arms. They are happy to pose for your camera as long as you offer a nominal, but respectable gratuity.

Spending some time moving slowly around Cuzco and the surrounding area in this fashion will give your body some time to acclimatize to the diminished oxygen levels at this elevation.

A lone hiker at the historic main entrance to ancient Machu Picchu, last refuge of the vanished Inca civilization in the Andes Mountains, Peru.

Machu Picchu

Your next stop will be the quintessential calling card of Peru, seen on travel posters everywhere, famed and mystical Machu Picchu. A train ride of several hours will deliver you to Aguas Caliente, the small resort & tourist town at the base of the mighty mountains that hid the last stronghold of the Incas. That all changed when Hiram Bingham hacked his way through the jungle in 1911 to be the first European to behold the architectural and cultural wonder that draws so many visitors today.

There is one hotel here at the summit just outside the entry gate, but it is extremely expensive. Most folks opt to stay in town and either hike or take the bus up the mountain early in the morning.

If you hope to be ready to capture the first rays of sunrise as they strike the stunning Inca treasures, you will need to be on line for the first bus no later than 3:45-4:00 AM. Better yet, hire a reliable guide to hold your spot while you sleep in to arrive at the lordly hour of 5:00 AM. (These times will work well for sunrise in July. Adjust accordingly for other months.)

Once inside the gate, you will need to get to your pre-chosen spot and get set up quickly. Not only is it important to be ready before the light hits, but also before the best spots become over-crowded with other photographers’ tripods. Saying “pre-chosen” implies that you have already been up to Machu Picchu, probably in the mid-afternoon, and scouted the terrain to find your compositions and identify just where you want to be at dawn. After your sunrise shooting is done, spend a couple of hours roaming through this marvelous place. There are more compositions to be found here than you can photograph in a day.

Even though the light may no longer be favorable by then, consider making black & white and even infrared images. These can be very successful under the increased contrast ratio of a higher angled sun.

Graceful archways of Monasterio Santa Catalina in the “White City” of Arequipa, Peru.

Heading to Airequipa

Once you have adequately explored greater Cuzco and iconic Machu Picchu, it’s time to see more of southern Peru. Next stop, Arequipa, “The White City” and Peru’s second largest. On some days, you might be able to catch a direct flight on LATAM Airlines; other days might require you to change in Lima. Once in Arequipa, spend a couple of days focusing your attention on three subjects: Plaza de Armas, nearby charming Santa Catalina monastery and the towering El Misti volcano.

Reed boat from Islas Uros ply the calm waters of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Reed boat from Islas Uros ply the calm waters of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Lake Titicaca

Your next stop will be an experience rivaling visiting Machu Picchu. Take the short flight to Juliaca and a taxi to the port town of Puno. There you can board the boat for a multi-day excursion around immense Lake Titicaca, divided between Peru and Bolivia. Tour boat itineraries do vary, but there are three islands that are “must see” for photographers.

  • Islas Uros (Islands of Reeds): A series of man-made “islands” woven of local reeds. A real experience!
  • Taquile features a colorful indigenous culture of many friendly people practicing their traditional ways.
  • Amantani is the island on which you will have an opportunity to spend the night in the home of a local family. It’s a rare chance to see and touch this unique culture close-up.
Colorful Fiesta de San Diego on Taquile island in Lake Titicaca.

Colorful Fiesta de San Diego on Taquile island in Lake Titicaca.

The Basics

Getting around: In most cities you should have no problem in hailing a taxi. Rates are quite reasonable. Many drivers are happy to negotiate for a daily rate and will remain at your disposal.

Language: Speaking some Spanish will be helpful, but is not required. Most folks involved in tourism have enough English to help you get by. They are happy to cater to your needs. Patience is the key; relax and go with the flow.

Menus: Be prepared for some unique choices. Peruvian diets include such items as guinea pigs and alpaca. You can avoid these with such choices as nourishing quinoa – a Peruvian original! – eggs and fresh fish. Be very careful with raw items such as salads: washing may not be adequate.

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America, as well as fascinating places in Europe and the Middle East. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com, or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.