a look back: Peru, part one
Unlike Ecuador, which tends to be overshadowed by its larger southern neighbor, Peru needs no introduction. Since the discovery of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu a century ago, tourists have been flocking to Peru in ever greater numbers. In fact, tourism-related development has been so rampant that there is legitimate concern about its impact on the ancient Inca city and several other sites. While Machu Picchu is certainly worth visiting, there are also plenty of other stunning locations around the country that beckon to the adventurous traveler. Amazingly, some of these hardly see a foreign soul despite the fact that Peru hosts several million international visitors annually.
S spent four weeks in Peru. D visited twice, spending four weeks midway through his Peace Corps service, and staying another five weeks during his post-Peace Corps South America trek. In fact, D was so enamored with Peru that he failed to notice that his entry visa only allowed a 30-day stay, and wound up paying a small fine when he crossed the border into Bolivia. Given the efficiency with which his fine was collected, this appears to be a common problem among visitors to Peru.
Much like Ecuador, Peru has it all: ancient ruins, not just from the Inca time period, but also from various other civilizations; Amazon rainforest; incredible mountains, and all the outdoor activities that they enable; diverse wildlife; delicious cuisine; beautiful beaches; and more. Here is a sampling of the places we visited and our recommendations for those who are planning to travel in Peru.
We take it as a given that anyone contemplating a visit to Peru will have Machu Picchu high on their list. Before the government of Peru imposed a 2,500 person per day limit several years ago, up to 10,000 people visited the historic site each day. Almost all of them took the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then went up to Machu Picchu by bus the next morning. Unless you enjoy doing your sightseeing with a horde of other tourists, don’t do that.
We both hiked the official Inca Trail, and while there are various alternative treks that take in some truly spectacular scenery, they all ultimately end in a train ride to the choke point at Aguas Calientes. The four-day Inca Trail is still touristy, and one does feel a little silly hiking with enough porters to outfit a soccer team, but it has one advantage that makes it completely worth the hassle of booking six months in advance.
Only 500 people are allowed to walk the Inca Trail each day, 300 of whom are porters who do not accompany the visitors to the ruins. In addition to being treated to the iconic view of Machu Picchu at dawn on the last day, this means that those who hike the Inca Trail get to explore the ruins in small guided groups with hardly another tourist in sight. It takes 90 minutes to see the complex — just enough time to complete the tour and ascend Huayna Picchu (only 400 people are allowed to make the ascent each day) before the first bus from Aguas Calientes arrives.
If ancient civilization is your thing, don’t stop at Machu Picchu. There are the mysterious and rarely-visited ruins at Chavin on the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca and the even more enigmatic Nazca lines. And then there is northern Peru, which is a goldmine for archaeologists and Indiana Jones wannabes: intricate golden artifacts, half-excavated burial tombs, thousand-year old stone etchings depicting decapitated and disemboweled warriors abound in the small villages around Chiclayo and Trujillo.
In addition to a rich history, Peru also has a vibrant indigenous culture. Given Peru’s well-developed tourist industry, there are many opportunities for visitors who want to learn more about the present-day descendants of the Incas. And while the degree of authenticity for some of these opportunities might be questionable, there is one celebration that is not to be missed: Inti Raymi, the festival honoring the sun god that coincides with the June solstice.
Neither of us thought much of Lima on our initial visit, though D found that it grew on him upon his return a second time. On the other hand, there are several cities worth exploring. Cusco is a natural favorite among visitors given its rich cultural heritage and the fact that it’s the launching point for tours to Machu Picchu. D couldn’t leave it soon enough. The masses of tourists inevitably give rise to several economies based on the tourist dollar, which greatly diminishes Cusco’s appeal, at least for D. One can’t even sit on a park bench for more than 15 seconds before being accosted by a seemingly endless procession of trinket vendors, street urchins, and peddlers of all stripes. Cajamarca is a pleasant alternative for those who want to explore Spanish colonial architecture and pre-hispanic archaeological sites.
Our favorite city in Peru is Arequipa. Located in the south of the country, it is a cultural oasis that also offers some of the most unique outdoors opportunities in Peru. In addition to numerous historic sites, there is also a museum in Arequipa that has ice mummies — the incredibly well-preserved remains of sacrifice victims that were discovered high up on the glacier-covered mountains that ring the city.
In the process of compiling this post, we realized that we had way too many favorite photos and stories to share. For the sake of brevity, we’ll stop here — with Huacachina — a tiny oasis town in the desert along Peru’s central coast. The sand dunes are beautiful, but what makes Huacachina truly worth visiting is the opportunity to go sand-boarding. A word to the wise: while it’s fun to go out on one’s own, the hike back up the dunes after each descent is brutal; much more enjoyable are the dune buggy tours through the desert, which include an opportunity to speed down the mountains of sand on waxed boards.