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I first visited Peru in 1995. Back then, travellers were thin on the ground. The leaders of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a terrorist group that had plagued the country for some years, had finally been rounded up and thrown in jail. Cusco, the ancient Inca capital and thus the city at the heart of the country’s tourist industry, was experiencing regular power cuts. The city authorities turned the water on for a couple of hours each afternoon, meaning the fountains were dry and washing water came from a bucket.
I didn’t care. From the minute I stepped into the Plaza de Armas I was hooked. I watched as a man fed llamas straight from the boot of his car in front of the cathedral without anyone giving him so much as a second glance. Men with typewriters tapped away at important letters for those who couldn’t write themselves. Shoe shiners helped make the city’s footwear gleam as the faces above those privileged feet buried their noses in that day’s newspaper. Children giggled as they chased pigeons while their mothers gossiped in front of old men snoozing in the warm sunshine.
I’ve returned many times since and that love affair shows no sign of losing its allure. Each time I go back the country is safer, the transport infrastructure better organised and the place in general more developed. There’s even a Starbucks in the main square in Cusco now. But despite this, the place and its people are as charming as ever. I can’t get enough of Peru and here’s why.
Archaeology doesn’t begin and end at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is breathtaking. So much has been written already about Peru’s most famous archaeological site that there’s no need for me to add to it here. A clutch of other fascinating and essential sites, from Ollantaytambo to Sacsayhuaman, are firmly on the tourist trail, making the purchase of a boleto turistico a no brainer the first time (at least) you come to Cusco. Make time to fit in some lesser visited sites too, such as the agricultural terraces at Moray, the market at Chinchero and even the salt pans of Maras. But beyond the Sacred Valley, if you can drag yourself away, there’s a whole lot more to see.
Hop on a tourist bus from Cusco to Puno and it’s likely you’ll stop at Raqch’i. On site, you’ll just see the 20 metre high stone and adobe walls of the main temple. Half a statue of Huiracocha, found broken in two during excavations, is on display in Cusco, the other half in Madrid.
Take a scenic flight over the curious markings in the desert that comprise the Nazca Lines or a boat ride out to see the charmingly interactive sea lions of the Ballestas Islands. Further north, visit Chan Chan, the sprawling adobe ruins of the ancient Chimú civilisation that you’ll find beside the Pacific near Trujillo. Or, see where the Inca Empire fell apart at the Ransom Room in Cajamarca. The Spanish conquistador Pizarro famously duped Atahualpa, the Inca leader, into filling a room with gold. Atahualpa hoped it would buy him his freedom, but instead wound up dead. The same city is home to the Baños del Inca, where you can take a dip in the hot springs just as the emperor used to.
In fact, archaeology doesn’t even begin and end with the Incas
New flight connections from Lima to Jaén and a few hours on a bus get you to Chachapoyas, touted by some as the country’s next tourist hub. This is your base for exploring the legacy of the Chacha people. Not far from the town, you can hike the steep trail down to see the sarcophagi of Karajía. Six clay tombs, each large enough to contain a single mummy, are hidden in plain sight in the cliff face.
Easier to spot are the imposing walls of Kuélap, a fortress – or some say refuge – which predates the Incas by several centuries. These days, a cable car replaces the long slog to the top which was once a gruelling ascent via a series of gravelly switchbacks. It kept visitor numbers down, but even now the journey’s much quicker, it’s still no match for Machu Picchu in popularity.
Well worn flagstones sprinkled with llama droppings link a series of round stone constructions, some of which have been rethatched. There are hundreds of these cylindrical ruins left, some featuring a kite-shaped design cut into the stone. As with Machu Picchu, the setting, on a ridge above a plunging ravine, is all about the drama. But Kuélap has a wilder, greener feel to it.
A country of diverse natural beauty and rich cultural heritage
History, heritage and natural beauty are impossible to separate in Peru. This is a country of incredible variety: snowcapped Andean peaks, the desiccated sand of the desert and the sultry heat of the rainforest. Peruvians embrace this diversity, encouraging their visitors to sand board down the dunes at Huacachina, surf off the coast of Mancora or experience the white water rafting on the Apurimac, Urubamba or Cotahuasi rivers. Long distance treks, mountain bike trails and horseback tours take you to remote mountain passes, glaciers and waterfalls.
You don’t need to seek out a festival in Peru – it will find you. There are big colourful parades and re-enactments in Cusco’s cultural calendar. Throughout the year you’ll also experience other, smaller parades featuring folk dances and elaborate costumes. Music is as important to Peruvians as family is – and that’s saying something.
In the cities, especially Arequipa and the capital Lima, there’s a sophisticated café culture and fine dining scene. Gourmands will be delighted with the creative and tasty dishes served to thanks to a food revolution led by the likes of chef Gastón Acurio, the undisputed ambassador for Peruvian cuisine. Try roasted guinea pig and ceviche, of course, but allow yourself also to be seduced by the flavours of aji amarillo, which underpins so many savoury dishes, or lúcuma, the fruit that tastes like butterscotch and creates the best ice cream sensation the world has ever known. Arriba Peru!
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.