Welcome to Peru!
Peru! Some claim that it is South America’s answer to Egypt. Welcome to the land where you can witness condors flying on warm air currents, visit the sites of the Incas and admire some of the best Spanish colonial architecture to be found in the Americas. Peru, a land of diverse landscapes and cultures, is more than just Machu Picchu. Although tourists descend on the famous citadel in their hordes, there is more to see and experience than this famous site. Even in the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo and Pisac rival each other in their pulling power. In addition to its imposing fortress, the former charms with its Inca era streets and the ever present sound of running water emanating from its streams. The latter may have more of a colonial feel, but the stunning location of its fortress is sure to leave you with lasting memories.
Tired of temples and Inca ruins? Fear not! There is much more to Peru. Explore the jungle near Machu Picchu and learn about coffee in an idyllic tropical setting. Discover the bohemian vibe of Barranco in Lima or hang out with the locals in a city park filled with hundreds of cats. Don’t forget the Spanish era plaza in Arequipa, a city of culture and charm, despite the occasional devastating earthquake. Peruvians may sometimes be more reserved than other people in South America. However, this is a country with a developed tourist infrastructure, where there will almost always be someone to help you.
Flying into Lima after a long day of travel via London and Miami, everything seemed to go smoothly at first. Immigration was a five minute affair in stark contrast to my arrival in Buenos Aires on my first South American trip a year earlier. Then things quickly went south. I waited and waited at the baggage carousel, getting slightly nervous as the crowd of newly arrived passengers dwindled. Dog tired after twenty hours on the go, I trundled over to the Information Desk, where I was told that my luggage was in Madrid. Lima by night was remarkably unremarkable and the taxi ride to Miraflores passed in sullen silence. Back at the hotel I opened my remaining luggage to reveal a pair of shoes, two guidebooks and a roll of toilet paper.
The next morning I awoke to a typical Limeño grey day. After breakfast I started chatting to an Australian mother and daughter at the hostel. Upon learning of my ‘bag issue’, they invited me to go shopping and to explore the city with them. The first stops had to be underwear shops and their upbeat attitude and sense of fun cheered me up, no matter how annoyed I was at finding myself on another continent without a stitch of clothing. Maybe it was the effect of the long journey, maybe it was the separation from my things, or maybe it was the constant grey sky, but I could not warm to the city.
Eventually, uninspired by the grey sameness of Miraflores, I persuaded the others to walk to Barranco and it had a more interesting and Bohemian vibe that piqued my interest. However, despite enjoying the company of my newfound Australian friends, I was glad to be taking a flight to Arequipa the next day. Lima, on a first visit, failed to cast a spell on me. However, I would subsequently discover that it did indeed possess its own charms…
Needless to say, the Sacred Valley is an obligatory stop on any trip. Apart from Machu Picchu and the fortresses of Ollantaytambo and Pisac, the ‘salinas’ of Maras are well worth a visit, as is the unique terracing of Moray, not to mention the textiles, markets and atmospheric ruins of Chinchero. The beating heart of the valley is the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, a place where you can indulge in top quality food and coffee before you shop till you drop in the hunt for those baby alpaca clothes to wear back home.
However, Peru is far more than Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Depending on the season, Lima may not be a case of love at first sight. The city will reward time and patience. Where else in the world will you find a city park teeming with cats? If Lima fails to charm, colonial Arequipa will definitely take more time than you originally plan. Similar to Sucre in Bolivia, it is a place that can quickly eat away your vacation.
Make sure to visit
- Yellow River Coffee Farm homestay between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa- relax with a book, take a walk by the river, visit the farm, roast your own coffee and it’s only a short hop from Machu Picchu
- Machu Picchu– yes, it’s often overrun with tourists, but view the dawn or dusk over this site and the mystical quality of the light on these ancient Inca stones will explain why
- Colonial Arequipa– although it’s Peru’s second city, you will feel a world away from the grey skies of the capital in this bright city surrounded by towering volcanoes
- Ollantaytambo– it’s easy to miss in the headlong rush to Machu Picchu, but this village with its fortress and ancient Inca foundations and streams, is worth a few days entirely to itself
- Moras and Moray– take a taxi or a tour from Ollantaytambo and marvel at the precision of the Inca terraces at Moray before taking a hundred photos of the salt terraces (salinas) at Moras
- D’Wasi in Cusco– with their dedication to their customers and their love of their product, this must be one of the best coffee shops in the world and that’s saying something
- Colca Canyon– it may be freezing cold, but watching the condors gliding on the early morning thermal currents is truly inspiring
- The market at Pisac– colourful traditional textiles with an Andean soundtrack, this is a ‘not to miss’ market experience on a trip to South America
- Kennedy Park in Miraflores, Lima– visit the park to interact with the many cats and their equally numerous local admirers
- The coffee shops of Miraflores and Barranco in Lima– get your caffeine buzz in the many speciality coffee shops, a great addition to the already renowned food scene
Almost all flights stop in Lima (Aeropuerto Jorge Chavez), requiring a stopover in the city before flying onto the destination of your choice. Expect to be approached by taxi touts on your arrival. If you prefer the safer option, the official taxi stand is found in the International Terminal. A new airport is under construction in Chinchero (near Cusco). It is expected to be able handle direct international flights from 2021. Internal flights are not particularly cheap, even by South American standards and buses are often a good bargain. Cruz del Sur is recommended by many travellers for long distance bus journeys.
Apart from the cut price tours sold in agencies, getting around by ‘colectivo’ is both cheap and a good way to mingle with the locals. Trips between towns in the Sacred Valley, for example, may be as cheap as 3 Peruvian soles. Usually you will pay when you get off the bus. Be aware, however, that safety standards and driving are not what you might expect back in Europe or North America.
Many towns will have excellent iPeru offices where polite and well-trained staff will help you with any queries or problems. Should you decide to get a local sim card for your mobile, Claro will usually help you. You will need to have your passport with you.
As a well-established tourist destination, Peru has accommodation for every budget. Shared dorms in hostels are often dirt cheap, whereas single/ double rooms often cost no more than $20. Most hotels offer both options and the better places can be excellent sources of local tips. They are also well as great places to hook up with other travellers.
Be selective in your packing because there are plenty of places to pick up high quality clothes at a cheap price. Finally, make sure that you study the climate of each destination carefully and pack accordingly. Cusco in July can be bone chillingly cold. On the other hand, jungle destinations may see you back in a T-shirt. Follow Shrek’s onion rule- think of layers!