An amazing country, with fabulous people at the perfect time of the year (well at least the best month to escape the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere).
Over two full weeks we have discovered – or rediscovered – so many of Peru’s highlights.
As much as I truly love Peru, I have never been won over by its massive, sprawling capital. A city of that size should not exist in an environment with virtually no water, but for a day the city does offer impressive coastal views from its high cliffs.
The real reason one travels to Lima (aside from simply getting to Peru) is to eat. Peruvian cuisine has taken its rightful place among the greatest culinary environments in the world. Those who arrived early, enjoyed delicious meals and of course drank Pisco Sours.
After a jovial night in the big city, we transferred back to the airport for our flight up to the highlands.
Machu Picchu, The Sacred Valley & Cusco
In less than 1.5 hours flying, we avoid over 30 hours of driving!
Cusco was famously the centre of the Inca Empire and indeed ‘all roads lead to Cusco.’ Nestled high in the lush Andes, this remarkable bread-basket of the Americas has been inhabited for at least 5000 years.
Located at 3300 meters or 12000 feet above sea level, the process of acclimatization begins immediately. In order to ease into the thin air, we left the city and climbed yet higher! Walking gently, we visited the Maras Salt mines and Moray experimental terraces.
The salt at Maras is naturally occurring and is still harvested by the local communities. The patchwork of evaporation terraces is stunning and it is impressive to think of people carrying 50KG bags of salt at that elevation.
Moray is a particularly unique site. Its circular terraces seem to have served as an Inca research centre for growing crops at different elevations whilst controlling sunlight. Of course, the site lined up with the equinox sun (inti).
After catching our breath, we descended into the Sacred Valley of the Incas for two nights. This lush valley is below the 3000 meter (10000 feet) level and eases the body into high altitude.
The Valley is a major centre for corn production and was sacred as the Milky Way is reflected in the river at night. Throughout the Valley there are statues to corn, harvests and Cuy – Peru’s yummy national rodent.
During a full day visit through the Valley, we visited the terraced archaeological site (don’t say ruin) of Pisac. We also visited the market town itself and then carried on for a taste of Cuy. Some people liked it 😉
In the afternoon, we travelled to Ollantaytambo – often considered the best preserved Inca town in the region. Its impressive historic site so obviously protected the Valley, it is quite easy to understand.
In addition to speaking (or learning) Spanish, we also practised several words of Quechua – the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas.
As the single most important tourist draw in Peru and even the continent, we decided to spend two days at the Sanctuary. Really only accessible by train (or trekking), the site is iconic. To that end, we planned extra time to soak in the history and environment.
On the first day we enjoyed the typical tour and mysterious, cloudy skies. The second day we were free to explore the sanctuary at our own pace. With a perfect blue sky, some went up early, others hiked from the deep valley all the way up to the Sun Gate.
Even Machu Picchu Town (Aguas Clients) has cleaned up. Here is more about Machu Picchu.
Returning to the Inca Capital by train and bus, we were generally acclimatized to the altitude.
Visitors always fall in love with Cusco. I have written extensively about the city – click here for more.
We went on a typical day tour and then treated ourselves to lunch at one of my favourite restaurants: Uchu. Just about everyone ate alpaca steaks and fell in love with the city.
Puno & Lake Titicaca
On our drive up to Puno and the ‘highest navigable Lake on Earth,’ we visited several historic sites and made an important stop at La Raya Pass. In the 20 years I have been travelling to Peru, the glacier above this natural border has melted away.
Once on the high plateau – altiplano (3800 meters) we drive through Juliaca (Peru’s counterfeiting capital), before arriving to Puno and the shores of Lake Titicaca.
On this particular trip, Puno put on a show. The city is coined the ‘Folkloric Capital of Peru’ and as this was the city’s 400th anniversary Puno was alive with dancing and music!
Puno is deeply cultural. Thee language groups meet in the city – Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. Aymara is the language of the Altiplano and the majority of speakers live in Bolivia. Indeed Puno is far closer to La Paz than to Lima.
The most important day trip from Puno is to the floating islands. Escaping from Inca invaders, the people of the Uros built islands from the reeds which grow in the lake. Tourism is now their absolute source of income, but when the ‘zoo-like’ atmosphere fades, it is moving to understand this remarkable way of life.
With the sun shining, we cruised further out into the lake and even dipped our toes (and heads) into the waters of Titicaca.
From Puno we saw flamingos in high plateau lakes and then climbed above 16000 ft, before descending into the dramatic Colca Canyon. The Colca Valley is considered the largest (above water) canyon on earth and remains a traditional Quechua-speaking valley. Despite its elevation, the valley can be very hot when the sun shines. Nights are cold and clear. First time visitors to the southern hemisphere are enthralled by the density of stars.
Of course we soaked in hot springs at 3600 meters (13500 ft) before settling into a beautiful hotel for the night in the town of Chivay.
At 6:30 AM we drove along the canyon to a viewpoint where one hopes to see condors. We did! It was perfect.
Peru’s second city is the country’s architectural gem. Built of a white volcanic stone, central Arequipa has even earned UNESCO World Heritage status.
The city is framed by active volcanos and experiences regular tremors and periodic major earthquakes.
At 2300 meters, its climate is ideal. Warm, sunny days, cool nights. Locals talk of a rainy reason, but the environment is desert. Incidentally, Arequipa is the best place for buying alpaca products (and another excellent place for eating alpaca).
Nazca, Ica & Paracas
About two hours after leaving Arequipa, one reaches the Pacific ocean! Sea level, with yummy thick air!
Despite being officially ‘tropical,’ Peru’s coast is cool due to the freezing humboldt current. The coastal landscape is extremely dry, but the ocean rich with life.
The Nazca Lines were not made by aliens. Jokes aside, there remains a subtle argument that the indigenous people of the Americas would not have been capable of their many achievements without outside help. This stinks of the noble savage argument. American cultures were (and are) deep, diverse and remarkably capable.
Nazca’s dry environment has preserved the many lines and figures ancient artists laid out.
Ica is a desert city and home to Peru’s sickly sweet wine industry (stick to Pisco). The oa
sis of Huacachina is surrounded by dunes and is a backpackers paradise. I could spend a week here!
It was so much fun to take everyone out on the dune buggies and yes, we went sandboarding.
Finally onto little Paracas – the ‘poor man’s Galapagos.’ We stayed up late that night to watch Peru and New Zealand play to a 0-0 football draw (my fault for staying up I suppose).
In the morning we were treated to penguins, sea lion, Peruvian Boobies, pelicans and dolphins. On these last few days of this trip there was a highlight a day! I love Peru.
This trip was so perfect, I may repeat the exact itinerary next year. Let me know … numbers are capped!