Peru stretches from the Colombian/Ecuadorian boarder in the north, to the Chilean border in the south. To the east you have the magnificent peaks of the Andes, to the west over 2,400km of coastline bordering the Pacific Ocean and in the middle, the Amazon snaking its way through. As you can imagine, in this vast country there’s so much to see and do and the problem is often trying to fit everything in: hiking to Machu Picchu; flying over the mysterious Nazca Lines (beware of kamikaze pilots), watching Condors soar over Colca Canyon; surfing at the hip beach area of Mancora; or sailing the waterways of the Amazon in luxurious vessels.
Julian and I decided to split our recent trip to South America with 2 weeks in Peru and a week in Bolivia. However, 6 of those days in Peru were spent trekking to Machu Picchu (read about that here) so we had to be very selective about what else we saw and did in Peru, plumping for Lima, Cusco (and the Sacred Valley) and then out to Lake Titicaca.
Here are the highlights of our trip:
Lima (and its food)
Most visitors to Lima use it purely as a stop-over, a necessary evil en-route to Cusco or elsewhere in Peru; and a decade or ago that would have been the right thing to do. But, since the end of the Shining Path years - when the country was terrorised by Maoist revolutionaries - Lima has gone through a bit of a renaissance and this fascinating and exciting city really does warrant a couple of days, ideally one at the start of your Peru trip (to get a better understanding of the history of the country) and one at the end (to stock up on last minute shopping).
Set between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, Lima sprawls but, don’t all capital cities? However, you only need to focus your attention on a few specific areas to get a real feel for the place. Start with a walking tour around the colonial heart in downtown Lima. Here a UNESCO protected labyrinth of streets house some fine colonial buildings and lead to leafy squares, such as Plaza de Armas, where you can tour the gold-leaf altars and paintings of Lima Cathedral and watch the rather long changing of the guard ceremony at the Presidential Palace. The Monasterio de San Francisco is also worth a look - its cloisters are finished in beautiful tile work, its rooms stuffed with valuable works of art whilst underground there’s a warren of catacombs filled with thousands upon thousands of skulls and bones spookily stacked.
The smart coastal area of Miraflores is probably where you will stay as it’s where most of the upscale hotels are situated. Join the locals and stroll along the meandering ocean promenade, stopping in the Park of Love to watch the paragliders spiral past, or take a peek at the sandy ruins of Huaca Huallamarca, a huge Incan pyramid slap bang in the middle of a residential area.
A little further along the coast is the bohemian district of Barranco. Once a seaside retreat for Limeño aristocracy, the buildings are lovely relics of the Belle Époque era, the little squares are tree lined and the arty neighbourhood is dotted with museums, galleries, hip boutiques, lively bars and restaurants.
Peru dominates the foodie scene at the moment and it would be a shame not to try it during your stay. The ceviche is definitely the best in the world and there are a number of amazing gastronomic restaurants with Central, Astrid&Gastón and Maido all currently ranked in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants.
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire before Francisco Pizarro and the Conquistadors appeared on the scene. Its UNESCO protected old town is a stunning combination of ancient Inca and colonial Spanish influences: grand churches (such as the Baroque Santo Domingo) line elegant plazas, whitewashed buildings with carved wooden balconies are linked by Incan arches and Quechua ladies in their colourful local dress wend their way along tiny cobbled streets llamas in tow, inevitably wanting some Peruvian Soles for you to take their picture.
Your visit is likely to coincide with a festival - Peru has many of them. We were in Cusco whilst celebrations for Corpus Christi were in full swing and everyday there were parades and fireworks.
A visit to Cusco’s unsung wonder, the amazing ruins of Sacsayhuamán (think “sexy woman” if you’re having problems pronouncing it), is a must; an impressive walled city whose huge stones, cut like a jigsaw puzzle, fit together with geometric perfection.
Despite its history, Cusco is a very cosmopolitan city and it’s easy to be seduced by its charms. You can certainly sleep, dine and shop very well whilst delighting in the living presence of the city’s past.
In between Cusco and Machu Picchu you’ll find the lush Scared Valley - formed by the Urubamba River its landscapes are stunning. To the Incas, the river symbolised the flow of life and it was therefore guarded by the watchful gaze of numerous ancient citadels, the ruins of which can still be seen today. The most impressive are at Pisac and Ollantaytambo; impregnable fortresses etched out of terraced hillsides. You’ll also find interesting towns and lively local markets where you can stock up on all manner of Peruvian crafts and maybe try the local delicacy of BBQ guinea pig. The Valley is also a great place for outdoor activities such as horse riding, rafting, hiking and mountain biking.
We based ourselves in Cusco and visited the Sacred Valley as a day trip. However, as the Valley is at a lower altitude than the dizzying heights of Cusco, some people prefer to head straight from Cusco Airport to the Sacred Valley for a few days exploring the area, followed by a visit to Machu Picchu, saving Cusco and its treasures to the end when they have better acclimatised.
This is a probably the highlight of most people’s trip to Peru and it needs no introduction. Julian and I decided to do a lodge-to-lodge trek to get our first glimpse on the Incan Citadel and you can read about the trip here. These are just a few of the (far too) many photographs we took of the ancient citadel.
Peru’s trains are excellent and a great way to see the country. Some places, like Machu Picchu, you can only get to by train and the choices range from the high-end and historical Hiram Bingham with its plush cars and uniformed waiters to the aptly named Backpacker. However, I would recommend the Vistadome, which as the name suggests, gives you great vistas through its glass roof. The train plays traditional Andean flute music loudly for the entire trip and the staff provide the entrainment in the form of local dancing (yes, they do get you up!) and a fashion show modelling the latest alpaca designs. May be Virgin should introduce this on their Pendolino service?!!
The best way (but not the only way) to arrive at Lake Titicaca is on the Andean Explorer train service from Cuzco to Puno. Exquisitely decorated in the manner of the great Pullman trains of the 1920s, the Andean Explorer boasts fully refurbished coaches and is owned by Belmond (Northern Belle, Orient Express). The wonderful 10 hour journey, with lunch served on-board, takes you high up into the Altiplano on a leisurely trip through the Andean landscape where you can spot llamas, vicuna and alpaca.
Titilaka (the hotel on the Lake)
Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca (at an altitude of over 3,800m) is the world’s highest navigable lake. Its cobalt blue waters are peppered with islands inhabited by indigenous communities and backed by the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real mountain range. It’s quite rightly a popular place and can heave with tourists, so my suggestion, to avoid the crowds, is to drive an hour south of Puno (the Lake’s main hub) to the enchanting Titilaka Hotel. Here, on the edge of the lake you may not be wowed by the boxy exterior but, slip inside and you’ll be impressed with what you find. Firstly, oxygen levels are tested - we passed with flying colours - but gulps of oxygen are available for anyone needing a boost. Next you get to inspect the chic Andean interiors with bright handwoven textiles and quirky local art. Then you get a glimpse of the wondrous views, whether it’s from the restaurant, the wrap around terraces or the huge windows in your stylish suite. Finally, after a drink in front of the fire, settle down for some delicious local food - quinoa pancakes, alpaca brochettes, lake trout and native potato croquettes stuffed with Andean cheese. This is a very special place indeed.
A stay at Titilaka is about experiencing an authentic side to the lake. We took bikes out and cycled along the shoreline through tranquil lakeside villages where friendly farmers tended their fertile fields which stretched down to the water’s edge.
Then we visited one of the Uros Floating Islands. To be honest, we weren’t looking forward to what we thought would be a “show for the tourists” but, we were pleasantly surprised by a genuine experience and actually learnt a lot about how the artificial structures are made from the totora reeds and how the islanders live.
Next it was the rugged terraced island of timeless Taquile which is home to traditional weavers whose beautiful colour-rich textiles are UNESCO protected as a cultural heritage and here, it’s only the men who knit!
Why should I go to Peru?
Peru is a wonderful and diverse country with great infrastructure and some rather nice places to stay. There's so much to see and do that it works perfectly as a family holiday as well as for just the two of you - just be mindful of the altitude. You can easily combine it with other countries in South America such as Chile or a cruise around the Galapagos Islands - depending on how much time you have and how adventurous you are, the combinations are endless. As a standalone trip, it’s very easy to get to from Manchester to Lima with Air France (via Paris), and I have to say I get more and more impressed with their Premium Economy offering every time I use it.
If you are interested in a trip to Peru or anywhere else in South America, please do get in touch.
[Images by Julian and me]