PACING THRU PERU – From arid deserts to luscious jungle vegetation

Many people sweep through Peru, discarding Lima like an unwanted lover, coming and going only to abuse it for the airport. While it’s true that Peru holds many wonders, Lima is certainly worth a few days. Miraflores seems to be where most tourists congregate. Its proximity to the beach, abundance of parks, restaurants, and bars make the place very appealing, and as it’s one of the wealthier areas of the city, it’s a lot safer than some of the other districts. The food in Lima is eclectic and revered; spend time researching a few restaurants to suit your taste as you won’t have time to eat everything you want.

Lima

You’ll find the usual array of museums and historical buildings you’d expect from a capital city. The great thing about Lima is that once you’ve had your fill of wandering around the old district and downtown area, full of grand plazas and colonial churches, you can head to the beach for a little fun. There are plenty of surf schools offering lessons suitable for beginners, you can also do paddle boarding or kayaking. There are a few paragliding schools dotted around for those who are looking for a bit more of a rush. Be fairly cautious and use common sense when walking the streets. Violence towards tourists is fairly rare but theft and drink spiking is common. From Lima, you can get to pretty much anywhere else in the country you want to go. Try to plan your trip systematically to avoid any 24-hour bus rides.

Chincha Islands turtle
Humboldt penguin, Chincha Islands

 

A few hours down the coast, you’ll come across a city most people visit for its wildlife. The Chincha Islands, sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos, can be visited by boat to spot dolphins, whales, sea turtles, pelicans, penguins and the Peruvian booby (bird). On the way back in, you’ll notice a huge sand dune with a spot of artwork etched into it. The Paracas Candelabra, created over 2000 years ago, reaches almost 600 feet end to end. Its meaning and creators remain unknown. One prominent theory suggests it represents the trident of the Incan creator god (Viracocha), another that it portrays the local hallucinogenic plant used for ancient rituals, apparently a huge landmark for people to head to while tripping out. It could also have been something as simple as a marking for sailors trying to navigate the coast. Whatever it is, it’s quite the dedicated piece of work. It seems indigenous Peruvians liked this kind of thing, as you’ll see when you visit Nazca.

Chincha Islands pelican
Peruvian booby, Chincha Islands

 

If you read that last paragraph with a vague sense of familiarity and a thirst for something alcoholic, then you must have tried the local tipple, appropriately named, Pisco. This type of brandy originating from Peru (contested by Chile) must be tasted, for cultural purposes, of course. And so you’ll want to book your compulsory holiday vineyard tour for here. Take a trip into the desert, which is surprisingly the scene of production for Peruvian red wine and pisco. There are a few tours which will take you to a couple of different wineries, one displaying the traditional ways of production, bare feet grape crushing followed by fermentation in botijas, the other using modern techniques for mass producing high quality booze. During your time in Peru, you must try the national favourite cocktail, Pisco sour. Don’t let the unusual ingredient of egg whites put you off, the stuff is delicious.

Candelabro de Paracas

So the age old question of how to effectively rid yourself of a hangover presents itself, as does the answer. Head up the dunes of Huacachina for a spot of that popular winter snow sport with one subtle difference. Sandboarding is popular not only for the thrill seeking experience, but also the majestic, mesmerising landscape stretching to the horizon. Other activities include sand sledding and being driven around at breakneck speeds by some local maniac.

Nazca lines

Nearby is the city of Nazca, where the aforementioned promise of ancient geocycles manifests itself in the form of the famed Nazca lines. The length itinerary of tours differs, but $100 will see making sharp turns and erratic flying for half an hour as you attempt to make out the different animal forms. The lines vary in complexity, from simple lines to animals and flowers. Taking one of these flights offers the best views, although the figures can be seen from high ground in the area. The rough flight isn’t for the faint hearted or soft stomached, but how frequently are you going to witness hundreds of millennia old markings stretching over 80 km? The tours are notorious for their relatively frequent air crashes, so choose your tour company with caution, like the Paracas Candelabra. Nobody really knows why the Nazca lines exist but most agree that they have some sort of religious connotations.

Arequipa

Nearby Arequipa is different to most of the other tourist cities in Peru. The attraction isn’t the pull of Inca ruins, as there are none, but a beautiful mix of indigenous and colonial architecture largely built using sillar from the city’s surrounding volcanoes. The sillar, white in colour, is what has earned Arequipa the nickname, the white city. Standing in the Plaza de Armas will substantiate the nickname, while nearby Convento de Santa Teresa, known as a city within the city, will allow you see its inner beauty.

Colca Canyon

The hikers’ volcano of choice is usually El Misti, the smaller of the nearest two, but the harder climb. A day hiking followed by an overnight stop, stunning sunrise, and a bit more going up a hill will see you at the summit overlooking Arequipa. If you don’t like trekking up, how about biking down? Around $25 gets you a decent mountain bike and safety equipment, along with a guide for your half day tour of biking down a volcano. For the same price, you could also spend that half day rafting around some of the finest white water Peru has to offer. With so much to do, it’s best to allocate more than an overnight stop in this enchanting city. Having said that, both rafting and hiking along with kayaking and horse riding are also available at the fairly close Colca Canyon. The canyon is more than twice as deep as the USA’s ‘grand’ canyon and harbours communities which pre date the Inca era. Giant hummingbirds float through the breeze as you hike your way to the nearest hot spring, stopping at 6000 year old rock art and endless breathtaking viewpoints. Maybe plan for a longer holiday than normal in this country.

El Misti

Place names can often give different meaning to different people, but not this one: legend says some of the gods sent pumas to the area to eat the villagers who disobeyed them. The sun god cried at the decimation of his creation, causing a great flood and drowning all the pumas, somehow turning them to stone in the process. A couple managed to survive the deluge in a reed boat, and decided on the name Lake Titicaca, roughly meaning stone puma, referencing a puma shaped sacred rock on the lake’s Isla del Sol. So there you have it, when anyone anywhere around the world hears the name Lake Titicaca, they think ‘stone puma’.

Juego de Sapo, Lake Titicaca

At over 8,300 square kilometres of water to explore, spilling over the border into Bolivia, high in the the Andes, you quickly exhaust the use of your size-based superlatives, although, it is shrinking each year. Glaciers feeding the lake are melting due to rising global temperatures, and climate change is also shortening the rainy season, if you believe most of the world’s top scientists. If you believe the Trumpster, it’s just natural cycles or immigration or something.

Isla del Sol

You best point of access to Titicaca is the city of Puno. The place itself is known to most as just a port city, but it will provide you with your first view of the endless blue waters stretching out on the one side, and South America’s backbone in the form of the Andes on the other. From here, you can make your way out onto one of the many islands.

Isla del Sol is where the sun god himself was born, and it’s easy to believe during the heat of the day – bring sun protection. The island’s main draw is its natural beauty and serenity. But now that tourist infrastructure is in place, you can take a couple of days leisurely hiking around the island, knowing that you’ll have a comfortable bed at the end of it. This means that finding your inner peace is more likely to happen on the hike, away from the restaurants and hotels, or perhaps on another island. During your walks, you’ll find Inca ruins, the puma shaped stone, and a bay which holds the form of a woman. You’ll also find some kids, traditionally dressed, with an alpaca, offering a great, non-staged photo opportunity, for a small fee.

Isla de la Luna

While you’re punished by the sun god during the day, at night, he abandons you, condemning you to a night of many layers. The high altitude brings a cold night, but along with it, a clear one. The sky from here and the other islands is mesmerising, and most likely among the best you’ll see in your lifetime. The island worth visiting include Isla del Luna, which provides more tranquility and ruins along with spectacular mountain views. Isla Amantani and Taquile should also be on your itinerary, where you’ll stay with a local family, as no hotels grace their lands.

Cusco

Still in the southeast of Peru, Cusco was the chosen capital of the Incas before the Spanish came to build churches everywhere. The tales of both of these eras is written all over the city, often told together, with colonial buildings built on Inca structures. To add another culture of sorts to the mix, Cusco has a distinct nightlife scene with an abundance of bars lining the Plaza de Armas. You’ll not be short of places to re-sample those Pisco sours, places to eat, buy local paintings for inflated prices, and get that ridiculous tattoo of animals around your ankle. Cheap hostels, and a party atmosphere by night combined with ancient ruins and rich architectural heritage by day make this a travellers hotspot. Visit the vibrant San Pedro market for some local cuisine and perfect your salsa skills with the local dancing school. Of course, there are options, as with most tourist cities in Peru, for your day trip out of the city to go hiking, canoeing, or mountain biking. One thing is for sure, there’s definitely enough to keep you entertained in this buzzing city to keep you out of those Irish bars.

And so, we come to what many perceive as the main event; the pièce de résistance, the big thing. Machu Picchu is known the world over and on the bucket list of everyone with dreams of wanderlust. There are a few ways to do this. Easily the most famous and desirable is the classic Inca Trail, which needs to be booked in advance to avoid disappointment, and can be arranged from the comfort of Cusco. The five-day version begins in the small town of Ollantaytambo, it’s here you’ll get your first taste of what’s to come in the form on an Inca fortress. From here, you’ll sit in a car for the last time and arrive at Piscacucho to meet your guides and set off. Follow the trail along rivers, through the cloud forests, and up to altitudes of around 4000m. This hike is hardest and highest on the third day, and altitude sickness can be a worry (it’s best to spend a few days in Cusco beforehand to slightly acclimatise yourself). The fourth day will provide you with your first view of Machu Picchu, before taking you down to Machu Picchu pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes, to rest for the next day’s exploration of the wondrous Inca citadel everyone has come to see.

Machu Picchu

Before looking at Machu Picchu itself, there are quite a few other options to get yourself up there. One popular option is the Lares trek, shorter and more readily available than the more desirable Inca Trail, but still a fairly decent option. You can also opt to cheat if you so desire. Busses run from Aguas Calientes frequently and will set you back around $25, however, in my opinion, it’s largely about the journey and experience as a whole, so choosing a trek is well worth it.

A worthy note is the Salkantay trek. The stunning scenery is, at least, just as amazing as the Inca Trail, and the five-day hike will fill you with a sense of achievement. Be sure to pack warm clothing, camping at this altitude can be a wee bit chilly!

Lares trek

Most people will find themselves at Machu Pichu’s main entry town of Aguas Calientes. You’ll probably have to spend a night here, in the town that many feel is designed to make the wallets of the tourists lighter. Buy as little as possible and drive a hard bargain for everything. Despite this shortcoming, the place has a certain electricity hanging in the air as the collective excitement of those itching to see one of the seven wonders of the modern world becomes palpable.

Early in the morning, way before sunrise, you’ll join the hordes of tourists trekking up the many steps to Machu Picchu. It takes around an hour and a half, but you’ll want to push yourself to beat everyone else and catch the place empty at sunrise. As the sun comes up, it will illuminate the Lost City of the Incas, called so because despite its proximity to Cusco, the Spanish never found this citadel, which therefore remains untouched. The light spills over the stone stairways and temples of the gods with the famous mountain in the background, with the face of an Inca etched into its peaks.

The great thing about waking up super early and arriving before sunrise (other than the sunrise and the setting itself) is that you’ll beat the bus crowds, who will arrive just after the sun. This gives you a chance to marvel at the area, before getting in and exploring its intricacies without the main crowds, but still crowds. After you’ve had your fill, it may feel like a while since you’ve taken a hike, luckily, nearby there’s Huayna Picchu, which can be a little challenging, but has its own Inca ruins as well as a new perspective of the Lost City. All that trekking and all those ruins… You may need to head back to get the train back to Cusco for an egg whites based cocktail.

Iquito

If you have the time, another major port of call in Peru is the Amazonian city of Iquitos. The main purpose for visiting this part of Peru, a four-hour flight from Cusco, is to explore the Amazon jungle. You’ll be able to find a trip to suit you: a river tour down the Amazon, a day in the jungle, a few days camping, or even a week with just a machete and a hammock. The choice is yours, but if you’ve made the journey up here, try to do as much as possible. Another reason people visit Iquitos is its status as an ayahuasca retreat centre. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic made from local plants, legal in Peru, which claim to have the ability to offer life changing experiences. You are recommended to follow a strict diet, including no salt, sugar, or sex, before the shaman takes you through the ritual. These experiences come as a nightly occurrence or as part of a week-long retreat, but should be approached with caution and diligent research.

Having only covered a few places on a map so large, it is impossible to leave Peru without yearning for a hasty return. From the arid deserts and sand dunes to the luscious jungle vegetation, there really is something for everyone. A relaxing beach holiday, a rich cultural experience, hiking through the highlands, or a mix of all three will ensure your experience will provide you with memories to last a lifetime.