Peru: Main Sights
Mountainous terrain, vast coastal deserts and steamy, tropical rainforests
You won’t be short of things to see and do in Peru and your main problem will be finding enough time to fit everything in. If activities are what you want, then try white-water rafting, or mountaineering . You can journey into the rainforests and watch wildlife. Perhaps you would like to explore magnificent archaeological ruins, or take the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? Then again, you may want to sample the architectural delights of Spanish colonial towns such as Arequipa, or perhaps soar like a condor above the mysterious Nazca lines?
No trip to Peru would be complete without visiting the magnificent mountaintop city of Machu Picchu. Even though its buildings are no longer covered in gold as they were in the days of the Incas, Machu Picchu is a spectacular location. The city, high in the Andean mountains, is a maze of temples, palaces and shrines. Marvel at the carefully constructed, buildings criss-crossed by a network of water channels, all carved into the rock. Here you will see ancient altars, cosmic observatories and many sacred spaces devoted to the cult of the dead. You can stare out over panoramic Andean vistas, and watch spectacular rainbows forming and disintegrating into a shimmer of raindrops right in front of your eyes. According to the Spanish, who collected the local traditions of the Incas, Machu Picchu was built by the Inca king, Pachakuteq. However, the Spanish conquistadores never managed to find this mysterious mountain city and it was not re-discovered until 1911.
The name for the city of Cusco is a Quechua word Quosquo, which means navel. It received this name from the Incas because it was the centre of their vast empire, which stretched from Colombia in the north to central Chile in the south. Today of course, Cusco is in southern Peru and it has some of the most beautiful views in the whole of South America, if not the world. Cusco is surrounded by six mountains, some of which are higher than 18,000 feet (6,000 metres). It is considered by many to be the oldest city in the western hemisphere that is still occupied. Wander the streets of Cusco and you will see the evidence of many previous generations and ancient cultures, long before the arrival of the Spanish. Marvel at the huge intricately-cut stones that still form the lower levels of many of Cusco's buildings. Visit the temple of Qoricancha on Hatun Rumiyoc street, where you can find the famous Inca stone with its 12 corners that fits exactly into the wall. The city has many Spanish colonial charms too, such as the Plaza de Armas, where you will find its magnificent Cathedral, a Jesuit Church and the convent of Santo Domingo nearby. Modern-day Cusco cannot be missed either. Walk to the famous neighbourhood of San Blas, where you can find the workshops and shops of Cusco's most renowned artisans, which provide a living link to Cusco's past. Many of the city's churches still contain excellent examples of goldsmiths' work from the colonial era. You will marvel too at the collection of paintings from the Cusqueña school of art that adorn these old churches.
Hiking the Inca Trail
Walking the Inca Trail is probably the most spectacular trekking experience in the whole of South America. The Inca Tail passes through a 13,000 foot (4,500 metres) Andean pass beyond which lie some of the most astounding remains of the ancient Inca civilization. What is more, most of these buildings, unlike the majority of large pre-Columbian structures, were completely undisturbed for hundreds of years. You will feel as if you are walking into a region that has been sealed off from time. Starting with the sentry post of Runkuraqay, you will pass through fascinating ruins, while you are surrounded all the time by ice-capped mountains and forests. The trail ends at the astonishingly well-preserved Machu Picchu. In completing the Inca Trail, you will have retraced the route on which the Incas climbed to their sacred city. Gazing across the ruins, with its perfectly set stairways, dwellings, fountains and still functional aqueducts, is a haunting experience. It is so intact that at times you will feel as if the Incas have only just left. The Inca Trail can last between 3 and 5 days, depending on your level of fitness. It is usually a good idea to acclimatise yourself to the high altitude before attempting the Inca Trail.
Parque Nacional Huascaràn (Huascaran National Park)
Located far to the north of Lima, the Huascaran National Park occupies a one-hundred mile stretch of the Cordillera Blanca, an area of the Andes that is renowned as one of the most exciting trekking regions in South America. One reason for this is the dramatic snow-capped mountains, more than twenty-five of which exceed 19,500 feet (6,500 metres). The centre of trekking activity in the park, and in its surrounding region, is the small city of Huaràz. Here you can arrange any sort of walk to suit your level of experience and taste: from beginners to experts, from a one day to a ten day trek. Huascaràn, is also the name of Peru's tallest mountain, which is a staggering 22,200 feet (7,300 metres). Huascaràn is the centre of the Park and is renowned amongst mountaineers for the challenges it presents. In the south of the Park is the Puya, or Cunco, which is one of the world's most fascinating plants. A living fossil, the Puya is an enormous bromeliad, which was thought to have first grown in the low swamps that occupied the area long before the Andes were formed. As the mountains rose, over countless millennia, the Puya rose with them, evolving into enormous, thirty-foot high, tree-like denizens of the high Andes. They are dramatic plants, bursting into bloom with an enormous spike that bears up to 8,000 brilliant green blossoms. The thorny leaves that crown the Puya are frequently strewn with the impaled carcasses of unfortunate songbirds.
Flying Over the Nazca Lines
Although they have become better understood in recent years, the Nazca Lines are still one of the world's most impressive ancient mysteries. Located about two hundred miles south of Lima and stretching for over thirty miles along a flat and arid desert plateau, the Nazca lines consist of a series of enormous and intricate drawings of birds, animals, and geometric figures that can be seen only from the air. The figures and lines were scratched into the desert crust about two thousand years ago, and the region's extreme dryness has preserved them nearly intact since then. The function and meaning of the Nazca Lines remains unclear, though they seem to bear some relation to astronomical cycles. Much of their celebrity status is a result of Erich Von Daniken's book, Chariots of the Gods, which was written in 1968 and suggested that the plateau was a sort of interplanetary airport. The Nazca Lines have been damaged by the thousands of visitors that they attract and visiting them on the ground is now prohibited. However, you can hire a single engined aircraft from Nazca airport to see the Nazca Lines as they should be seen – in all of their magnificence.
Arequipa: Southern Peru
Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, is the major city of the southern part of the country, and, in the minds of its proud residents, is virtually an independent city-state. It is also known as the white city, as much of its architecture is constructed of sillar, a light-coloured volcanic rock. Arequipa lies in a picturesque valley fringed by beautiful mountains, including the snowcapped volcanic cone of El Misti. The area is noted for high seismic activity, which has been sufficiently frequent to erase all of Arequipa's earliest structures. Although evidence of pre-Columbian settlement exists, even the buildings first erected by the Spaniards in 1540 have long since disappeared. However, if Arequipa has lost its very earliest buildings, it still enjoys an abundance of very fine seventeenth and eighteenth century ones. The most notable of these is the Convent of Santa Catalina, which when opened to the public in 1970 revealed a world of luxurious seclusion that had been sealed off from the world for almost four centuries.
Trekking, Boating and Nature Watching in the Amazon Basin
Peru is the source of the Amazon, which originates in the highlands of the east, an area not easily accessible to humans. The best way of travelling long distances in the Amazon Basin is by boat. The type of boat will vary according to the size of the river on which you are travelling. The region possesses unmatched biological diversity. It is the home of many rare, magnificent, and reclusive creatures such as the jaguar, Andean spectacled bear, giant otter, three toed sloth and tapir. The bird population of the Amazon Basin is quite different from that of the rest of the world and contains numerous diverse species, including over 30 species of parrot alone. With 1,700 species of birds, this is an unparalleled destination for ornithologists and bird enthusiasts. Peru has two distinct regions of Amazonian rain forest, one in the north and one in the south. Iquitos, situated at the Amazon headwaters the north, is the ideal point of entry for northern Amazon, while the southern regions are best accessed from either Cusco or Puerto Maldonado. Both the north and the south are famously wealthy in rivers, cloud forests, wildlife, and indigenous peoples, and for those seeking adventure in the Peruvian jungle, visits to each would be ideal.
Lake Titicaca: Southern Peru
Lake Titicaca, at 12,530 feet (4,200 metres), is the highest navigable lake and the centre of a region where thousands of subsistence farmers make a living fishing in its icy waters by growing potatoes in the rocky land at is edge, or herding llama and alpaca at altitudes that can leave travellers gasping for air. It is also A treasure trove of Inca and Pre-Inca civilisation, both in its archaeological sites, and in the traces of ancient cultures that are still in evidence in the lives and customs of its indigenous population. The deep blue Lake Titicaca is so large that it has waves and is something of a mystery. It harbours many species of fish and other aquatic animals that are not found in any other lake. In fact, they seem to be related to other species that are found only in the sea. Lake Titicaca was the most sacred body of water in the whole of the Inca Empire and was said to be where the first Inca (King) rose from the waters to create the mighty empire. It now forms part of the border between Peru and Bolivia and has a surface area of more than 3,100 square miles (4,960 square kilometres). It contains more than 30 islands. Some of the best-known islands on the Peruvian part of Lake Titicaca are the Uros, which are actually floating islands of reed, made by the Indians who still inhabit them. It is advisable to acclimatise yourself to the high altitude before visiting Lake Titcaca.
National Archaeological and Anthropological Museum: Lima
El Museo de la Nacion, Peru's National Museum, is a wonderful place to begin, or finish, your visit to the country. The building has an archaeological and an anthropological wing, both of which give an excellent chronological introduction to Peru's most important Pre-Columbian cultures. For example, the displays will show you how the Incas were only really the last in a long line of cultures, stretching back millennia. The Museum also contains many of Peru's most important archaeological finds, especially the two large stelae found at Chavin de Huantar in the north-central Andes. The National Museum also has a rather smaller collection depicting the history of Peru since the Spanish Conquest. Next to the archaeological museum is a colonial era home that was occupied, at different times, by the liberators Jose de San Martin and Simon Bolivar, which is well worth a look.
Trujillo: Northern Peru
Trujillo is Peru's most important northern city and is best visited during the floral Spring Festival, which is a riot of colour. Then you will see barefoot women, wearing white lace skirts and blouses, with ornate gold filigree ornaments dangling from their earlobes, spin and whirl through the streets in the traditional marinera dance. Like the festival, Trujillo itself can be summed up as charming, simple, formal and delicate; all of which are characteristics of this coastal city. It is the perfect centre for exploring Peru's gentle but fiercely patriotic north. Trujillo is also noted for its colourful colonial architecture, with building painted in bright blues, yellows, reds and oranges. Take a visit to the Calle España, a circular street that encloses the centre of town, because you will see within this circle, most of the wonderful colonial Architecture that Trujillo has to offer. Trujillo is also an excellent place to sample ceviche (a mixture of raw fishes marinated in lime juice) and other local seafood. On the fringe of Trujillo are the ruins of the city of Chan Chan, which is possibly the world's largest adobe city. At one time, Chan Chan was home to the Chimu Indian tribe, before they were conquered by the Incas.
Písac and the Sacred Valley of the Incas
El Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley of the Incas lies between the towns of Písac and Ollantaytambo and has some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in the whole of Peru. Its inhabitants are mostly indigenous Quechua people, who have preserved many of their ancient customs and ancestral traditions. The Sacred Valley is a very special place. It has an excellent climate and very fertile lands making it first-class agricultural country. Above all, it is the valley through which the Vilcanota river flows, which was sacred to the Incas. (In the Quechua language, vilcanota means sacred or wonderful thing). When the Vilcanota reaches the town of Urubamba, it changes its name to the Urubamba River. Here you will marvel at technological sophistication of the Incas. The sides of the valley are covered in andenería, or terraced fields arranged in steps. These terraces were established by the Incas to boost agricultural production and are still in use today. Not only that, but they include ancient complex irrigation systems that still help to maximise crop yields. Dotted around the Sacred Valley, you will see many shrines that are dedicated to Pachamama (mother earth). The town of Písac is worth a visit too, because it is a place where the indigenous culture is still very much alive. For example, every Sunday there is a festival, which involves traditional dances in native costume, followed by celebration of the mass in the Quechua language. Sundays too are when the Catu takes place. The Catu is a traditional Quechua market for agricultural products, which are still exchanged, according to Inca custom. On Thursdays and Sundays you can visit the Písac crafts fair in the town's main square. It is a wonderful place to buy beautiful textiles, jumpers, ponchos, bags, etc. You can also buy ceramic reproductions of Inca archaeological pieces. If all of that is not enough for you, take a short trip to the Písac Archaeological Park, which has some wonderful examples of Inca architecture.