I love Peru and now it is fair to say another 18 people do as well.
I started this contribution while sitting on the train to the sanctuary of Machu Picchu with 17 enthusiastic British travellers and one fine Irishman. The tour was put on by Travelsphere.
Everyone was understandable excited to visit the so-called ‘Lost City of the Incas,’ but as always when guiding in Peru it has been such an honour to share the incredible diversity of this country.
As with most Peruvian adventures, this tour began in Lima, Peru’s sprawling – and somewhat improbable – capital city. Located midway up Peru’s extremely dry coast, this dessert capital (which almost never sees rain) is surprisingly cool due to coastal fog.
Of course we stayed in the very upscale and central neighbourhood of Miraflores, but the expanse of the city shocking.
Lima was the principle vice-regal capital of Spanish South America (Mexico governed the north) and was established in order to export the incredible mineral wealth from high in the Andes.
It is hard to fall in love with Lima, yet gradually the city is becoming famous as the nexus of Peruvian cuisine – indisputably among the greatest ‘kitchens’ in the world.
A visit to Lima is incomplete without drinking a Pisco Sour and eating fresh ceviche – marinated fresh seafood.
Travelling south from Lima and out of the mist, our first stop was at Pachacamac – a pre-inca / inca archaeological site.
And here it is worth noting two points:
- It is generally considered impolite to use the word ‘ruin’ in Peru. Numerous indigenous languages are still spoken throughout the country with upwards of 40% of the population speaking some Quechua – the inca language. To suggest ‘ruin’ is to suggest a long-lost civilization and in the case of Peru, this is simply not the case.
- The depth and diversity of Peru’s archaeological history is far too profound to list in any meaningful way. Along virtually every route in Peru – be it the coast, the high mountains, throughout the altiplano highlands and into the Amazon basin – signs from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture indicating protected archaeological sites are ubiquitous.
On this southern peruvian journey we generally met people from three cultural groups. Peruvian mestizos (mixed Spanish / indigenous ‘latino’ people endemic to Latin America), the Aymara people of Lake Titicaca (and Bolivia) and the Quechua speaking people who either belonged to the Inca empire or were dominated by it.
Part of Peru’s global attraction is its colours and native dress. Peru does not disappoint.
Paracas / Ica / Nazca
After leaving Lima, we travelled to little Paracas about 4 hours south. Know as the ‘poor man’s’ Galapagos, the Ballestas Islands offer accessible and outstanding viewing of sea lions, penguins and far too many bird species to name. The distinct smell on the island is testament to the guano harvesting that has occurred in the region for centuries.
An added point of interest in Paracas is the monument to General San Martin, the Argentine military leader who landed at Paracas when leading the southern charge for independence from Spain (Simon Bolivar lead the northern forces).
From Paracas we made a stop near Ica, at the oasis community of Huacachina. Reminiscent of the Sahara, this area is home to the world’s largest sand dune. While I hiked up a dune, some fearless travellers enjoyed dune buggy rides and even tried sand-boarding! A highlight of the trip.
Moving on to Nazca, the famous lines are slightly anti-climatic as we just do not think it safe enough to take the site-seeing flights. Nevertheless, there is a small viewing platform at the town itself is clean, orderly and offers more good Peruvian cuisine. Moreover it breaks up the long (but spectacular) drive to Arequipa.
The trip from Nazca to Arequipa is a long day. roughly 12 hours – yet it offers some of the best coastal views anywhere on the planet. During the final three hours we climbed 2300 meters, to the White City, with magnificent views of volcanoes and desert landscapes along the way.
Arequipa is Peru’s architectural gem and it is located in the shadow of two massive volcanoes – Misti and Chachani. One of the most seismically active zones on earth, Arequipa’s proud citizens do not consider anything below 6 on the Richter scale an earthquake – just a little shake.
I love Arequipa and have spent significant time climbing the mountains of the region. Part of the thrill of taking tourists to Peru’s second city is their reaction to the city and the environment. People immediately fall in love with the views, the city and its irresistible Andean cuisine.
My first act was to eat an Alpaca steak and others chose to sample a crispy Cuy – Guinea Pig.
Colca & Altitude
After two nights of acclimatization at 2300 meters, we travelled around smoking volcanoes and over a 4900 meter (16k+ ft) pass into the mighty Colca canyon.
Much larger than the Grand Canyon, Colca is home to over 100K Quechua-speaking people who farm on ancient terraces throughout the valley.
We were lucky enough to see two condors and everyone at least tried chewing coca leaves as a preventative measure against altitude. The main town of Chivay sits at 3600 meters where we enjoyed soaking in clean, high-altitude hot springs.
Puno & Lake Titicaca
Leaving Colca, our first stop was back up at 4900 meters (see photos below). The views are simply breathtaking.
We then visited a truly rural school – education levels in Peru are increasing rapidly. I think the children were as thrilled to have a break from their studies as the visitors were to meet them.
Driving towards the region of Puno, we stopped for everyone’s highest picnic above Lake Lagunillas – 4400 meters high.
By mid-afternoon we had our first view of Lake Titicaca. Known as the highest navigable lake on earth, Titicaca is one of those names that resonates the world over.
The city of Puno is considered the folkloric capital of Peru and offers the meeting of the three cultures we experienced on this trip. Even the sign on the city hall is written in Spanish, Aymara and Quechua.
As a highlight among highlights, we visited the famous Uros floating islands. Certainly touristy in our modern age, these Aymara people originally built rafts on the lake to escape conquest. Today’s inhabitants fish, maintain their reed homes and welcome visitors. Few places on earth are quite as unique.
By the time we drove away from Puno, most people were convinced that all of Peru is either dry desert or high grasslands. Yet as we crossed over the Raya Pass into the department of Cusco, the lush green valleys of the Incas emerged.
The navel of the earth – Cusco – is one of the world’s great bread-baskets. Giving the world the potato (papa in Quechua) as well as quinoa, kwicha and delicious guinea pigs, the Inca capital produced such a food surplus that the Inca civilization had the time to dedicate itself to constructing roads and great cities.
Of course the most famous is Machu Picchu, but Inca construction is found for hundreds (even thousands) of kilometres in every direction. Before contact the empire had around 10-12 million inhabitants.
Our day at Machu Picchu did not disappoint. The three hour train ride (either way) is comfortable and interesting. For the engineers on board the highlight is the zig-zag section which enables the train to descend (or climb) roughly 40 meters is very little distance.
Temperatures are warm and humid around the sanctuary. Fortunately we enjoyed dry weather in the high cloud forest )and a few too many bugs). Of course it would have been enjoyable to have more time, but we maximized the visit and over half the group walked down from the mountain to the train station with me – a challenge by almost anyone’s standard!
On our final day in Cusco, we visited two of the archaeological sites in the area and of course the city’s central plaza and famous cathedral.
On our final lunch I reserved space at Uchu – my favourite restaurant in Cusco. It was a lovely time together.
Saying a rather emotional good-bye to half the group, I flew down to the jungle region of Madre de Dios in Peruvian Amazon. Despite a disruption due to strikes and blockades by illegal miners, the lodge was perfect and those who opted for this extremely hot extension were treated to all the sites and sounds of the rain forest.
This was a very enjoyable trip to lead. I love coming back to Peru and South America. The travellers were both collectively and personally engaged and enjoyable.
In reading about this journey, you may like to chart the trip out on a map. We covered a significant distance, but more importantly our elevation changes were incredible.
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