Dr. Douglas Comer, Baltimore's own Indiana Jones, sees every vacation as a learning opportunity
Dr. Douglas Comer and his family on Huaynu Picchu, a mountain peak near Machu Picchu. (Dr. Douglas Comer, Baltimore Sun / November 15, 2012)
Yes, it was a different culture, but in many ways it was similar. They had pyramids and temples and buildings. But [archaeological] work in Caral began only about 30 years ago. People have been digging in Pompeii for over 250 years. A lot more is known about Pompeii because there are texts. You don't have that with the South American civilizations. People have not been excavating in South America for as long as they have in the classic world.
Where to then?
Flying is the only practical way to get around the country. From Lima, fly southeast to Cuzco. The Historic Center is gorgeous, full of sacred Inca places and local markets. The food is incredible. They're famous for ceviche — it's like a religion. The restaurants make it fresh every day; they compete with each other to make the best. There were days when I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Peru has an incredible drink called the Pisco Sour, made with Peruvian rum, lime juice, egg whites, sugar. It takes about half an hour to make one. Cuzco has many trendy restaurants. There is a place called Fallen Angel. The tables are aquariums. You're munching on your dinner, and there's a fish swimming beneath your plate.
From Cuzco, take a train through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu — about 21/2 hours. You'll pass a number of little towns and archaeological sites that would probably be famous in and of themselves if it weren't for Machu Picchu. Shirley MacLaine used to hang out there — she thought she could channel ancient spirits. It's got that kind of mystical ambience. It's an exciting train ride too, because they have to back up part of the way. People get off the train to see the sites or to hike the Inca Trail, which goes all the way through the Sacred Valley. The ideal experience is hiking it to Machu Picchu just as the sun is coming up over the sanctuary. There's lots of llamas walking around; you have to be careful on the narrow path because they'll try to crowd you off.
We stayed two nights in Aguas Calientes — at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located. It's a crowded, touristy town with a lot of little hostels. Before dawn, we walked to where you first get a glimpse of the city and watched the sun come up. Then [we took] a bus up this road to the ruins — gorgeous architecture and stonework like you've never seen anywhere. Machu Picchu was a place where the ancient rulers probably met; something like Camp David, where they'd have ceremonies and meetings. From there, you can climb Huayna-Picchu — the peak you see in many photos of Machu Picchu — a challenging climb but worth the effort.
Where to after Cuzco?
A place near the Pacific coast city of Trujillo called Chan Chan, made of mud and red bricks. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. The bricks are very ornate with intricate designs; just beautiful.
Trujillo is a great base location because you can also visit Huanchaco, a coastal town where the fishermen still use reed-boats from ancient times. It's also this great surfing mecca. Our son was excited about that!
Nearby, are the Moche sites [along Peru's northern coast]. The Moche culture [A.D. 100-700] emphasized blood sacrifice; their god was a decapitator god. And the god was the cultural continuity throughout many [Moche] dynasties. There were tremendous riches; you see elaborate tombs where everyone was decked out with gold and jewels, buried with their slaves — stuff you see in National Geographic. But the civilizations would fall during periods of drought. The frustrated people would lose confidence in their leader and revolt: burn and destroy everything. Then there would be another dynasty. The decapitator god would reappear in a different form: a spider, a crab, a human holding a knife. He's always cutting people's head off. At a Moche site called El Brujo [it means The Wizard] are three pyramid sites with fascinating mural ornamentations. And there's still a lot of shamanistic activities. People visit the shaman if they are sick, or maybe if they want to cast a spell on someone they are quarreling with.
That's pretty exotic.
But not unusual. We excavated in Fells Point in Baltimore and we found paraphernalia associated with voodoo from 200 years ago and from the 1970s. So there's these cultural practices that continue — people might not talk about them outside of their communities.
What are your must-have travel items?
My computer and a camera. I use a digital Canon, and my iPhone — it has a mechanism that records where I took the picture. You get to a new location, take photos and later you can see the pattern of the sites — their proximity to each other, nearby a river, a mountain. It's actually quite a nice research tool. But you have to activate the location device.
What's next on your bucket list?
I haven't been to India yet, and that's a big oversight.
If you go
Getting there: Flying time to Lima, Peru from BWI through Miami can be as short as 10 hours for about $900 round trip. Insiders recommend visiting in Peru's wintertime — May-October, the dry season.