Peru Travel Guide – Highlights and Delights
Highlights from the glorious Sacred Valley of the Incas to often overlooked high-paced Lima and tranquil Arequipa and surrounds. An introductory guide by Ishay Govender-Ypma, for Travel Ideas Magazine, Dec 2014
Kingdom of the Mighty Incas
It’s here that you start to believe that human beings can possess supernatural powers. The citadel of Machu Picchu, lying at an altitude of 2 350 metres spreads out in splendour before the eyes, testament to the engineering prowess and organised community life within the Inca kingdom. Considering the might of the empire that spread through the western coast of South America, it’s hard to believe the Incas ruled for merely over 100 years, before being progressively snuffed out by the Spanish invasion in the 16th Century. It remains a highlight for visitors to Peru, and rightfully so.
The challenge of the climb for those opting for the three or four day hike, after acquiring one of the 400 issued daily permits that are booked six months in advance, or boarding the luxurious panoramic train in from Ollantaytambo, followed by the rickety bus ride up the mountain, brings rewards in equal measure. Machu Picchu, Quechua for “old mountain”, is one of a number of Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley that will have you scrambling for breath, marvelling at the deep heaven-ward steps created along terraced cities and forts, and have you guessing about religious practices and sacrifices at the temples of the moon and sun. When you stare across the expanse of the ruins, you’re actually looking at Wayna Picchu or “young mountain”. Machu Picchu lies behind you, along with the Sun Gate, which is worth walking to, even if you’re not coming through it with the hikers on the full trail.
Expect to meet wily free-roaming llamas, munching languidly on grass; the ruins their playground. For Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, you should allow yourself a few days prior to acclimatise to the altitude, a barrier for many, including very active athletes. Many people use Cusco, at 3400 metres altitude to settle in. Spanish-style cathedrals surround the Plaza de Armas main square with locals in traditional dress going about their daily business, some of whom pose with lambs and llamas for photographs with tourists.
The instant you enter the airport in Cusco, you come to terms with the fact that tourism fuels this area – expect to pay for any photographs you take of locals. But, as always, ask first. Many older people believe the soul is captured with the camera and will be offended; many others, also at the charming undercover market, will happily oblige. To maximise your time in the area, arrange a specialist guide to escort you around the Sacred Valley ruins, markets, as well as Machu Picchu. The large bus tours are not advisable if you are on a tight schedule. While Machu Picchu will remain a significant part of Peru’s allure, said to be bathed in mystical energy, and should not be missed, there is a profusion of natural beauty to be enjoyed across the country from the Amazon basin in the north all the way down to Canyon Country. Everything depends on your interests and the amount of time you have; one visit could never cover all of the country in sufficient detail.
Since the end of the terrible years, that spanned until the early 2000s, when internal terrorism and faction rocked the country, the nation has quickly blossomed. Lima, a city not known for its outward beauty, has matured into a popular business hub and food destination for gourmands. Most travellers who are not visiting for business, only use Lima as a base to visit the more visually appealing parts of the country.
If you’re interested in history, culture, love big life and can tolerate the traffic, then Lima is worth spending a few days exploring. A great starting point is the pleasant financial suburb of Miraflores, which is dotted with green spaces like Kennedy Park and the Love Park along the ocean. It’s here that you will find a concentration of the best restaurants in the city like La Mar for ceviche, the nation’s most popular dish and IK Restaurante run by Monica Kisic, that pushes the boundaries of modern cuisine using traditional local ingredients.
The Plaza de Mayor forms the historical heart of the city and contains some of the most significant buildings displaying a confluence of Spanish, Moorish, indigenous and Colonial design. The dominating La Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, town hall and government palace are highlights and the imposing San Francisco church and convent, unmissable. The Museum of Peruvian Gastronomy, one of many important museums in this part, emphasises what a significant aspect of the culture food is and has been. Tours are still only in Spanish though.
There are significant Inca ruins in Miraflores – the worship site Huaca Pucllana can be explored after a beautifully presented high-end lunch at the restaurant on the premises. One of my favourite parts of the city, the Centro Mercado, a good 30 minutes out of Miraflores is gritty, crowded and requires nerves of steel for a first time visitor. The market is expansive and worth spending time at and is safe to eat at too. It’s wise to tuck your camera and belongings out of sight on the roads outside the covered market. Step out of the market into China Town and you’ll begin to understand the depth of influence from other significant cultures in Peru.
The picturesque seaside suburb of Barranco was known for its bohemian feel and very wealthy patrons. Much of the charm is retained, and now it’s a hotspot for hip bars, clubs and restaurants in extravagant venues such as Ayahuasca, a sprawling multi-room villa. Spend a day wandering around the colourful buildings, artisan shops and museums such as Mario Testino’s photographic space MATE. The Bridge of Sighs, a defining site, is currently under construction.
Arequipa at 3800 metres, is blue-skied and clear, a welcome contrast to dull fog-laden Lima. It’s known as the white city, built from sillar, a white volcanic rock and flanked by snow-capped volcanoes. It’s worth a small excursion of city to view the volcanoes with more clarity. The city is quaint and easy to walk around and you’ll find traditionally dressed women selling local rice pudding from carts.
The Santa Catalina monastery, which still houses practicing nuns, takes up a large portion of Arequipa. The monastery’s guides are excellent and a must to explore within in walls of the complex. Opposite it you’ll find a charming restaurant Chi Cha by the country’s most lauded chef, Gastón Acurio. It’s worth trying the refined cuy (guinea pig) stir-fry if you’re reluctant to dive into the whole-grilled animal, popular all over Peru, and a speciality here.
From Arequipa, day trips to the Colca River for high-paced river rafting are very popular with adrenalin-seekers, with some preferring to spend a few days hiking and rafting in the area with a guide. It’s worth noting that you’ll need to be quite fit for this.
Beautiful and mystical Lake Titicaca, usually the next stop after acclimatisation in Arequipa, is known for its floating islands. It’s the perfect opportunity to associate with and learn more about ancient tribes such as the Uros and Amantaní, and many book stays with families. The way of life here is rustic, without many of the everyday conveniences, so do prepare for that. Puno, known as the folklore capital of Peru makes for a culturally rich visit, especially if you can plan it during one of the elaborate festivals. It’s during this time that visitors get a glimpse of the diverse Andean civilisations melded with colonial influences that comprise the fascinating fabric of Peru.
Plan your stay
Private guide Cusco & Machu Picchu: Grisel Vasquez at Rumi Tumi Tours firstname.lastname@example.org Private tours to Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Lake Titicaca http://www.greenperuadventures.com Lima Tours: Peruvian Local Friend, contact Sandra: www.peruvianlocalfriend.com General information: www.peru.travel