Mary Miller, former Yale IPCH director, prepares for alumni trip to explore Peru

In a few days, a group of Yale alumni and I will head to Peru for Yale Educational Travel’s program: The Amazon, the Sacred Valley of the Inca, and Machu Picchu, March 10-21, 2019.

In preparation for that trip, I visited this past December to explore the sights and activities I want to share with our alumni group in March. My trip coincided with the rainy season that blankets the Cuzco region, and I had such a great time — all while thinking ahead to my travels in the coming days. For U.S. travelers, it is surprisingly accessible — it’s in the Eastern time zone, so the jet lag of much international travel just isn’t an issue.  

Although I’ve taught Inca architecture for many years, I was amazed to find new discoveries this time and to realize that there is still so much to see on the next trip. Peru offers a wealth of colonial art and adaptation, particularly in Cuzco. I walked down streets that the Inca walked, and where Pizarro would later step. I breathed in a history that I had not experienced, but that felt so alive and accessible in the present moment.

I climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, and arrived as the peak opened onto a stunning view of the city and a rainbow flickered in and out of sight. In fact, the peekaboo rain and clouds kept the crowds and the sunburn at bay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a fantastic ancient city to see. 

Not too far away is Ollantaytambo, where the Inca made their last stand against the Spanish. It is just astoundingly beautiful and made of a pink granite strangely like that quarried in Connecticut!

It’s difficult to imagine the experience of traveling back in time when one visits Peru. The sacred world of the ancient Inca is still very present even amid modern city life. The country is home to a complex web of indigenous worldviews and cultures dating back millennia. It’s the place where chocolate, potatoes, and quinoa were first domesticated, and where weaving was first invented in the new world.

It’s a land of striking contrasts, from the rich Amazonian rainforest and its powerful predators — jaguars, snakes, and harpy eagles — to the Andes, which host some of the highest peaks in the world.  From those snowcapped mountains, rivers pour down through some of the driest deserts of the world, giving rise to everything from the agricultural bounty that supplies much of our produce here in the US to the dramatic geoglyphs we know as the Nazca lines, a marvel of the ancient world. 

In modern-day Peru, Lima is recognized everywhere as one of the greatest foodie destinations in our hemisphere, boasting an exciting cuisine that draws on foodstuffs growing from sea level to 14,000 feet. Culinary traditions follow traditional Inca and Quechua lifeways in some cases but also incorporate powerful Japanese and Chinese influences derived from the influx of Asian immigrants in the late 19th century. The result is the distinctive mixture of flavors, ingredients, and unique food ways that characterizes the country today. 

Lima is also home to world-class museums that feature the finest and most extensive pre-modern textiles of the world as well as astonishing gold and silver that escaped Spanish and more recent looting.

All across the altiplano — the highlands — llamas are working pack animals and alpacas provide fine, soft wool that stimulates modern artisanal practice. 

Women dedicated to preserving centuries old traditions are weaving and knitting, sustaining a practice of at least 5,000 years.

Peru is truly one of the most complex and rich cultural destinations in the world today, with both tradition and modernity in full view. I look forward to exploring it with Yale alumni very soon.  


Mary Miller ’78 MA, ’81 PhD, is a renowned art historian and an expert in the art of the ancient New World. The former Sterling Professor of Art and History of Art Senior Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Art of the Ancient New World at Yale, she retired in December 2018 to become the director of the Getty Research Institute.