As a child, I delighted in the tales of a mischievous talking bear, who liked to eat marmalade sandwiches and drink hot cocoa. Paddington is a lonely, orphaned bear stranded at a subway station in London, where he meets the kindly and generous Mr. Brown who, certainly against his better judgment, takes him home to his family. Young readers are regaled with the amusing misadventures of a well-intentioned, but frequently flummoxed Paddington, adjusting to life in London with his adopted family.
As a child, the oddity of a talking bear living in central London didn’t register as even vaguely fantastical to the unlimited possibilities of my young mind. Instead it was where Paddington Bear was from—deepest, darkest Peru—that intrigued and beguiled me. “One day,” I promised my child-self, “I will go to Peru.” That kernel of fascination furrowed into the recesses of my mind, where it was nurtured over the years by snippets of global news, by tales of passing travelers, and through the glossy, yellow-bordered photographs in National Geographic. In college my interest sprouted, cultivated by courses in the cultural anthropology of Mesoamerica and Incan civilizations, until it finally blossomed into a full-blown obsession.
As it turns out, Peru is far more geographically diverse than the blanket of deep, dark jungles I had imagined from my readings of Paddington Bear. Its ecosystems range from the dry desert coastline, stretch across the thin, cold air of high desert plains, rise over the parched peaks of the Andes, and down into the rich abundant valleys, before finally tumbling into the thick humid jungles of the Amazon basin.
Peru is also a land of strange and unusual animals; not only home to the shy spectacled bear which lent credence to the creation of Paddington Bear by Michael Bond, but other marvelous storybook-worthy creatures. Epic legends abound; from the elusive puma stalking its prey, to the fearsome wingspan of a condor in flight, a tiny, multi-colored frog carrying poison capable of felling a man, alpacas and llamas, dopey-eyed and wooly, and a raucous rainbow of macaws squawking in the jungle.
But most fascinating of all were the people. Captivating civilizations rising up alongside the dramatic landscape. Of all the pre-Hispanic cultures, the Incas are the most famous. Absorbing the societies around them, they boasted advanced cultural accomplishments; a written language of indecipherable hieroglyphics, seasonal and celestial calendars, pottery and metal-working techniques, agricultural and horticultural expertise, and aqua-ducts piping water directly into their stone cities. The Incas developed a complex society; build around kings and game courts, priests, and live sacrifices to the gods.
The eventual collapse of their civilization left entire cities abandoned, reclaimed by the encroaching jungles, and remains a mystery that leaves experts still scratching their heads. Of all the amazing legends, the one that has most captivated the world is the sacred citadel of Machu Picchu, her secrets hidden from the outside world – in the deepest, darkest Peru– until 1911 when Harry Bingham convinced some local guides to lead him to its secret location.When my husband found me surrounded by piles of guide books, hotel descriptions and train schedules, intensely studying a map of Peru, he tilted his head to one side with a knowing smile and said, “I think it’s time to book that trip to Peru.” I grinned at him with pure giddy joy, jumped up to give him a huge bear-hug, and then rummaged around for our passports.