A Current Look into an Ancient Past – The Many Wonders of Peru
As our 747 made the hard left bank and steep descent towards the landing strip in Cusco I looked out in awe of the green terraced hillsides and stories they held. Touching down in the ancient capital of the Incan empire stirred a sense of excitement that can only be found when traveling to a new country. Eager with the anticipation of exploration we were more than thrilled to have arrived at our first stop on this month of adventure. Peru - a land of ancient cultures and diverse landscapes with a storied though often troubled history yet at its core warm, wild and full of wonder.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
The Cusco region is the starting point for many travelers to the country and the base camp for those embarking on the famous trip through the Valle Sagrado and leading to the legendary Machu Picchu. One of the ancient wonders of the world, this is the top tourist destination in the country and truly a sight to behold. Words and pictures do it little justice and although it is a highly visited and often crowded site, it is more than worth a visit. There are several methods to reach this sprawling outpost of Incan ingenuity: a three to five day trek along the Incan Trail, the train from Cusco or via private transport. We opted for a taxi ride to the town of Ollantaytambo catching the train from there and arriving into Aguas Calientes and our hostel an hour before sundown. Your best chance at beating the crowd is to wake up before dawn to catch the first bus up to the site or make the short but challenging hike from Machu Picchu Pueblo. Upon arrival you are required to hire a guide for your first several hours in the park but after that are free to explore all day. It is a place of great power and beauty and imagining the city thriving hundreds of years ago is a stunning notion of human achievement.
While Machu Picchu is the most popular and frequented destination there are dozens of other ancient sites in the Sacred Valley region that are worth exploring. You need to purchase a tourist ticket from the Ministerio de Cultura to access most of the famous ruins but this allows access to ten or more locations with some being off the beaten path and away from the crowds. You can hire a driver to take you to multiple sites in a single day or space them out over several if you have the time. Ollantaytambo has an impressive fortress, granary and princess baths that are walking distance from anywhere in the town. Up the valley from here you can access the ancient and still active salt mine of Salinas and the amazing and uncrowded agricultural terraces of Moray. The ruins of Pisac are breathtaking and vast and sit above a thriving village with a diverse market full of trinkets and textiles. Cusco itself is built atop and alongside Incan ruins so make sure to check out all the ancient stones set amongst the city. On the hillside above sits Sacsayhuamán, a sprawling fortress said to house over 5,000 soldiers and shaped like the head of a Puma.
Cusco is a wonderful city filled with vibrant people, a deep-rooted history and amazing food. It has many museums and shops to explore and a fun-filled nightlife with a diverse international crowd. New Years Eve in the Plaza is an event of epic proportions and the thrill of lighting a large firework purchased from a small child in a crowd of tens of thousands of revelers is all part of the raw and chaotic beauty of the night. The tradition is to run around the square 12 times at the stroke of midnight but it was so crowded we only managed two revolutions – just enough for good luck.
Another adventure out of Cusco that is worthwhile is the trip to Vinicunca or Rainbow Mountain. You can arrange transport for the 3 ½ hour drive into the Andes from a multitude of tourist shops in town or through your hotel/hostel. A guide will come knocking at your door around 3:30am to wake you up and put you on a bus with a few dozen other tired-eyed tourists. The white-knuckle drive to the base of the trek should keep you awake as you ascend single lane roads over sheer cliffs. Upon arrival you can start your hike or hire a horse to summit the 5,200 meter (17,060 ft) mountain. Nearing the top, you will see the view that gives the mountain its name with bright stripes of varying colors peeling off the peak in front of you like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The hike is not far in distance but the elevation is for real. Bring some Coca leaves to chew on and make sure to stay hydrated so you can enjoy this high altitude marvel.
Arequipa and Colca Canyon
The second leg of our journey brought us to the White City, Arequipa, via an overnight bus ride that was painless aside from a few sudden stops and leaky roof. We arrived in the city just after sunrise to see El Misti, the towering active volcano that keeps a stern eye on the population below. One of three volcanoes that surround this tectonically active region you cannot help but be in awe and on edge at the sight of it. We hopped off our bus and waited in a quiet Plaza de Armas for our transport to Cañón del Colca. The plaza here is beautiful – white volcanic stones and palm trees adorn the square and it’s bustling with life. There are several world class restaurants and fun dance clubs in Arequipa. The Spanish influence is more evident here than in Cusco and wandering the streets the European architecture is apparent.
Colca Canyon takes some effort to reach but is an amazing geographical destination and worth the energy. From Arequipa it is a four-hour drive over a high alpine pass that cuts through a wildlife preserve where you can see wild Vicuńas and other camelids that are famous in the region. Our lodging for this section of the journey was the lovely and secluded Colca Lodge just outside the village of Yanque. The lodge has several hot springs set right on the river that make it an unreal getaway for romance or relaxation. After a night of soaking under the South American stars we woke early to go searching for condors in the canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the deepest in the world with a depth of 10,607 feet at its deepest cut and an average of 3,000 feet for its entirety. The view is tall, rugged peaks steeply sloping to the grey waters of the Río Colca below. Most tours bring you to the Cruz del Cóndor which is a viewing point where you can catch a glimpse of these giant birds. Sacred to the Incans and a representation of the spirit world, watching a Condor soar on a thermal 10,000 feet in the air is serene to say the least.
Nasca, Paracas, Lima
Leaving Arequipa and heading towards the Pacific brings you into the heart of the Atacama Desert. Claimed to be the driest place on earth, this is a barren and unforgiving landscape of grey dunes and endless sand that makes you thankful for modern busses and air-conditioning. It is beautiful, intimidating, hostile and void of most life. Here you will find the Nazca region with its famous unexplained and mysterious lines carved into the desert floor many thousands of years ago. You can climb a viewing tower on the side of the highway to catch a glimpse of a small section of these enormous geoglyphs or buy a plane ride and view many of the lines in a 60 minute, motion sickness inducing flight. An enigmatic and often debated creation, the Nazca lines are a curiosity in a barren moon-scape said to be created by a civilization older than Egypt. They are impressive.
Further north up the Pacific coast you come to the Bay of Paracas and the Ica region. Paracas is home to the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, a large reserve with beautiful beaches, biking trails and sand dunes. The town is set in a lovely little bay where you can eat fresh ceviche while watching the sun set over the ocean. A half hour boat ride from here will get you a view of the Balletas Islands. Also known as Peru’s Galápagos, these islands are teaming with marine life from birds to sea lions to colorful fish. You cannot set foot on the islands but the small tour boats will allow an up close view of the wildlife without disturbing the many creatures that live here. This area is also important in the production of Pisco, the famous national drink of Peru and you can tour several vineyards where they make the alcohol.
The last leg of our Peruvian adventure brought us to Lima, the capital of the country and thriving metropolis. We stayed in the Miraflores district, overlooking the grey cliffs dipping into the pacific and an area known for great food and nightlife. With only a few days left in our stay the main goal in Lima was to experience the culinary scene that is currently rivaling Paris in scope and reputation. We were not disappointed and would highly recommend Lima to any foodie looking for world class options with a Latin flare. A few favorite spots were Maido, a hip Japanese-Peruvian fusion spot full of flavors and atmosphere and Central, a top 5 restaurant in the world serving works of art and exotic dishes ranging from Piranha to Alpaca heart. Also a trip to Parque Kennedy for fresh Picarones and Chicha Murada is a must for anyone looking for stand out street cuisine.
Peru is a treasure of a destination and has something to offer for many travelers from the highly intrepid and adventurous to those looking for easy access to ancient marvels. It is a country rich in culture and spirit and the land itself is varied in ways seen and still unknown. Fairly easy to access and abundant in resources for tourists of many types, Peru is a must visit, world class location.