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Peru - Light and Majesty: this is Peru. The stunning diversity of the landscape is one of many of Peru’s strengths. We aren’t just talking about simple tourist attractions, but rather, about the intrinsic forces given to Peru by its environment, history and people.

The Incas, Machu Picchu, the Temple of the Sun, the Amazon river and jungle, the Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, the passes and cliffs of the Andes, the floating islands of the Uros and the rocks of the Ballestas Islands… just the mention of such places gives us goose bumps, wide eyes and takes our imagination on a ride. On-site, the effect is even more intense! Even the best photographers cannot quite capture the beauty and the range.

Add visits to the larger cities such as Lima, Cuzco and Arequipa and the numerous traditional villages during a 16-day tour, including 2 domestic flights in small planes, train and bus rides, many boat and pirogue excursions, and you will have a real grand tour… for the past and the present as well as for the land covered!

Demanding and enriching

Peru is vast. Moving about takes time. Altitude is a challenge for the body, more or less important depending on your health and prior preparation. Sites have to be visited on foot, sometimes climbing uneven stone stairways without handrails. Nonetheless, the more we see, the more we want to see. And we are rewarded with discoveries, sometimes nice, sometimes impressive and sometimes downright stunning. At times, we feel that it is almost too much!

All around us, we hear shouts of joy and oohs and aahs! Others react with silence and teary eyes. In this country, being breathless takes on all meanings, both literally and figuratively.

Guides who can either accompany visitors throughout the trip or are dedicated to specific cities or sites prove to be indispensable. There is so much to learn about the factors that led to the expansion and then decline of the locations, depending on the era, as well as the natural and architectural characteristics, politics and the modern economy, the traditions of one region or another, the flora and fauna, the art, traditional and contemporary music, the cuisine and more.

Notebooks and cameras rapidly fill up as days and evenings unwind. Nights, although sometimes short, are welcome and needed. Overall, here is the range and overall ambiance of this adventure.

The Sacred Valley of the Incas

A trip to Peru is an immersion in the land of the Incas, whose civilization and empire spanned from the 14th to the 16th century, only 300 years. We learned that the Incas had emperors (there were 13 of them). In fact, we say The Inca, which means the Sun’s Only Child. However, the people in general are Quechuas and they speak Quechua. We visited their villages - Pisac, Chinchero and Ollantaytambo - during the few days we spent in the valley.

Plantations on terraces and ruins surround houses, public squares, streets and irrigation systems. The plans of the Incan cities are mostly intact. A guided visit gives us a real picture of the times and allows us to discover the moral and political power of the Incas, as well as their expertise in construction and in astronomy; particularly, their knowledge of the sun and the moon.

Las Salinas de Maras (the salt pans at Maras) form a quasi-lunar landscape, with their 5,000 white terraces nourished by a salty subterranean stream. The sun-warmed ponds support water evaporation and salt deposits, which are so important for the conservation of food. The Maras are still being harvested today with the same methods used 1,000 years ago. Walking around the ponds trying to keep your balance under a blinding sun makes for a stunning, magical moment. Salt and fleur de sel can be bought on site.

The legendary and haunting Machu Picchu

Everything has been said about Machu Picchu. Superlatives have been exhausted for quite a while. The site, however, still holds many secrets, notably the technique used to move its imposing blocks of stone.

It is imperative to have a guide as you walk the site and to learn about its history and characteristics. They are even more impressive than expected, thanks to the American, Hiram Bigham, who rediscovered the sacred city in 1911.

The site in itself is more than exceptional. However, even more stunning is its surrounding environment: the mountains, the clouds and the sky. It greatly deserves its place on the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

The road to get there is also impressive, with vertiginous passes and cliffs. Big busses have to be very careful not to touch when they meet on the very narrow roads without security barriers. This must explain the saying “bus drivers have more religious power than priests: while priests ask believers to pray at mass, they sleep… in a bus, everyone is praying.”

A useful piece of advice: try to arrive on site very early in the morning, around 7 AM, and to leave before noon. There will be fewer visitors and it should be less dangerous on the stairs without handrails, where it is not easy to pass a lot of people… it will also allow you to hide from the sun at noon, which is literally scorching.

Strange straw islands, an incomparable lake

We have to see it to believe it! On Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world, 40 artificial islands are made out of reeds. On those islands, families of 20 people live all year long. They are Aymaras, keeping the Uros traditions alive. No fences here (let’s hope kids learn to swim early on). Democracy is alive and well: each island has its own elected president. Nobody told us whether the opposition is strong…

Reeds grow in the lake, called totora, and are used to build the islands. Their roots are used to build the base and the foundation of the island. Totora is also used as food (its center is very tender), medicine (its head has healing powers), building materials for houses, boats and miradors. It is also burned to cook meals.

A few islanders welcome tourists into their houses - which have recently gotten electricity thanks to solar energy - and offer them lovely embroideries.

Emblematic jungles and river

First, it was just a dream, then we lived it. Amazonia - more precisely Selva - covers 60% of Peru’s territory, where 12% of the population live with 10 million other species! It would take years to discover everything. In three days, we managed to discover:

A crossing followed by a walk at sunset. Dozens of spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and pygmy monkeys flying from creepers to branches, then from branches to human shoulders… in a quite stunning competition to steel bananas from us. Cameras are not even quick enough to capture the show.

After dinner: a pirogue expedition to find young caimans, which are unfortunately most likely scared by our flashlights and shouts. The next day, equipped with a string attached to a branch, we have a fishing expedition for piranhas…. from which we come back empty handed and sheepish, despite our melodramatically sophisticated (and humorous) strategies!
Then, a long walk in the jungle, following an expert showing us medicinal plants and exotic trees, such as the elephant tree, the fire tree, the tam-tam tree, the red ant tree (used as torture tools of criminals), the communication tree, iron tree, rubber tree, porcupine tree, turtles, tarantulas, wood peckers, fish peckers. Phew! We haven’t seen any vipers, anacondas or leeches.

The Intriguing Nazca Lines

Everyone has heard about them. Almost everyone has seen a few images of the lines. Are they from science fiction or extraterrestrials? Flying in an 6-seat Cessna over the huge geometric and animal-shaped lines (a bird, monkey, spider, dog, etc.) traced over 450 square km in the sand of the Nazca desert, in southern Peru, centuries old, does nothing to demystify them. On the contrary, we return from the expedition more perplexed about their origins and intriguing meanings, their technical impossibilities, their mathematical prowess and their longevity.

To add to the excitement, the pilot traces acrobatic figures with the plane, ensuring that we can see the various forms on the land. A 30-minute flight that is not really made for those with sensitive hearts and stomachs!

Virgin coast

Back from Nazca, we follow the Pacific coast for many long hours. Never have we seen sand dunes so high! The waves also reach impressive heights. We stopped on the way to enjoy a very nice picnic on the El Caribe beach, which is caressed by a soft, warm wind.

For the rest of the trip, rocks were organized by their colors: not only gray, but black, green, red and yellow.

Breathtaking Ballestas

Another powerful moment was when the yacht left Pisco to challenge the wind and the waves, which were growing bigger in the bay, toward Paracas peninsula, where we could admire another gigantic pre-Incan figure (183 meters high) cut in the sand, The Candelabra or Trident des Andes. How easy it was to re-live the books or adventure movies that we lived for when we were younger!

By then, we had reached the gigantic rocks of the Ballestas Islands, whose holes open up to irresistible natural pictures of wild and violent beauty. They are rightly known as the Peruvian Galapagos. The therapy of being surrounded by animals works quickly and has a calming effect on us: we are literally stunned by the funny penguins, the mother sea lion scolding her baby hanging dangerously off a rock wall and the big sea lion pulling his head out of the breaking waves once in a while…
We are also speechless and silent while watching millions of birds (cormorants, gannets, pelicans, turkey vultures and teals) flying around and landing on the rocks, letting the food they digest drop into the sea, creating guano: a thick yellow foam, that constitutes a well known-fertilizer that has and still is making a fortune for Peru.

It was very impressive! If it were not for the smell, we would have stayed there for hours, watching the fauna of the sea and the almost surreal sights, well protected in our hooded raincoats.

Cities of the Sun and of Jesus

We didn’t spend much time in the main cities such as Lima: the City of the Kings, Cuzco: the Capital of the Inca Empire and Arequipa: the white and sunny city, surrounded by ring of fire from three volcanoes. However, what we saw was worth the detour!

Like all cities colonized by the Spanish in America, Place d'Armes and churches are always richly decorated and are as unavoidable as they are surprising. The same goes for the Anthropology Museum of Lima.

In Arequipa, we appreciated visiting the Santa Catalina convent and most of all the Santuarios Andinos, where we could see close up the mysterious and real mummy of Juanita, the Princess of the Ice.

An amusing mention: in Arequipa at 9 PM, don’t be surprised to hear bedevilled salsa music coming out of garbage truck speakers… we went outside and danced on our balconies! We don’t know if the local people appreciated it. Nonetheless, the risk of forgetting to put your garbage out is quite minimal in Arequipa!

Good causes to support

L’eau vive, of the Congrégation internationale des Soeurs Franciscaines, helps poor families in Lima with food and health care. To finance its activities, it operates a restaurant that serves excellent French cuisine. They also accept donations in cash.

Lamay Orphanage, of the Congregation Saint Vincent de Paul, accommodates thirty young girls and teenagers. It takes care of their scholarships and teaches them different forms of Peruvian handicrafts. Their activities are financed by donations and the sales of the craft pieces to visitors who are welcomed in order to help provide school supplies for the girls.

Impeccable lodging

Luxury hotels are rare in Peru and they are not what travelers moving from one hotel to another every second or third day look for. Security, cleanliness, comfort and a good solid breakfast are most sought after. The next priority is staying in contact and modern amenities such as free Wi-Fi are provided.

All hotels we stayed at were very good quality - among the best - and offered excellent value for their money: in Lima, the San Agustin Exclusive and the Maury; in the Sacred Valley, the Illarimuy; in Cuzco, the Imperial; in Puno, the Royal Inn; in Arequipa, the Santa Rosa; in Nazca, the Casa Andina; in Paracas, the Posada del Emancipador.

A significant moment during our trip was our stay at the Ecoamazonia Lodge in Puerto Maldonado in the middle of the jungle. It was a beautiful setting, with abundant flowers and near the Amazon River, with a large community room for meals and another one for entertainment, a huge outdoor pool protected from the sun - and mosquitoes - and wood cabins on stilts complete with bathrooms and mosquito netting.

One must know that in remote areas, some hotels - out of habit and for economic and ecological reasons - don’t use much air conditioning or central heating. Fans, small heaters or blankets can be obtained from the reception desk. Comfort is available, you just have to ask for it!

At high altitude, hotels are well organized with a list of doctors on duty, quick to respond and not expensive. Establishments also have oxygen tanks that can be used for a few minutes or a few hours for free or very little cost if needed.

Tasteful and lively

Absolutely everywhere - and to our complete surprise - we must say that the food was excellent in trendy and modern restaurants as well as at tables in the countryside.

A soup was always an entrée. A traditional one is made out of quinoa and vegetables.

Alpaca filet, tender as lamb, is a real treat. On special occasions, cuy, or guinea pig, whose taste is reminiscent of chicken, is offered. You should know that it is served in half or whole on your plate. If you and your kids have cuddled one at home, bringing a forkful of it to your mouth might prove to be psychologically difficult…

That being said, chicken, fish, beef and vegetables appear on regular menus. One dish is as lovely as it is delicious: juanes, or chicken wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. We visited an organic farm where we were offered the Pacha Manca, a meal cooked under stones in the soil.

Everywhere our hosts smiled and seemed happy to welcome travelers. We stopped at a family farm in Puno, where we tasted their homemade cheese and where we were introduced to different techniques of preservation and different types and colors of potatoes.

A warm ambiance was also found in a family living room on a peninsula that offers a 3-room home and meal served on two large tables adorned with fresh cut flowers with a wonderful view of Lake Titicaca. 

A particularly sweet souvenir was an alfajor, a cookie made from cooked cream and butter. In fact, all deserts were really excellent.

To drink, there is bottled water, tea, coffee, wine and the very popular traditional soda called Inca Cola, which is very sweet and pale yellow instead of the black color one might expect. The preferred alcohol is Pisco, nature at 42 degrees, or a Pisco Sour, with an acidic taste that is similar to a Margarita. We couldn’t resist the temptation to buy a bottle at the factory of El Catador, which we visited in Pisco. We also tasted Chicha, a corn beer with a very unusual taste.

A few restaurants showcase excellent traditional dance and song performances and one of them treated us with a group of musicians that combine world music with a more modern sound.

Brightly coloured and soft

Bright colours are everywhere in Peru: on the walls, on sculpted balconies, in dresses, suits, stockings, tuques and hats, on furniture, wallpaper and plates.

Softness is also everywhere, regularly met sometimes very close up - lambs, lamas, alpacas and vicugnas, whose soft wool is sought after in luxury boutiques throughout the world. At village markets, handicraft centers and by the road, stalls, blankets, shawls, scarves, sweaters, hats and sleepers in varying quality are presented for sale.

The country is rich in sterling silver and gold; opportunities to buy goods are numerous. The Incan cross or the Andean Cross, representing the 3 axes of their ideology: knowledge, reciprocity and work, might be of interest. Other symbols are the condor, the snake and the puma.

The sculpted calabash, painted with life scenes and representations of the spirituality of the Incas, is another traditional object to bring back. It has the advantage of being lightweight.

In all cases, here as well as anywhere, one has to search for authenticity, which can be found for example in Chichero and Ollantaytambo. To North Americans and Europeans, Peruvian prices are low, even for high quality goods. It is wise to let your eyes get accustomed to the goods as the trip goes on and not start buying at the first market you come across.
Another piece of advice: leave space in your baggage to bring back souvenirs.

Minimal preparation required

We visited Peru at the end of July during the Peruvian winter. Our itinerary was varied, with temperatures fluctuating from one region to another, from one hour to another, from 0 to 28 Celsius… more often around 15. A good strategy to adopt is to layer: wear one or two extra layers to peel off as the day goes on.

The most important aspect of preparation is to consult a travel clinic before the trip in order to be ready to face malaria and mosquitoes and most of all, the high altitude.

To counter the effects of high altitude, apart from a pill that can be prescribed, there are coca candies or tea – perfectly legal and quite harmless - that can be bought in restaurants, hotels and convenience stores. Be careful to not bring back any, however… customs officers do not appreciate the word coca, in whatever form, whether legal or not…

Bringing a large spectrum of antibiotics could prove to be a good idea wherever you travel in the world.

In sum: it’s a must!

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a trip to Peru is physically demanding, mainly due to the high altitude, even if no trekking is involved. However, it is a remarkable, interesting and enriching trip for anyone who is curious and avid to get to know a different people. We could add that even someone who is not particularly attracted to nature will come back deeply moved and might even become a fan of the outdoors. It is a trip that without a doubt should be on anyone’s wish list.


Sylvie Berthiaume


We travelled to Peru with Voyages Traditours and would like to thank them for assuming part of the cost. The tour was extraordinarily complete and ran smoothly. Our sincere thanks and compliments go to Alex, the Traditours host who accompanied our group, and to the national guide Ed, whose professionalism and courtesy are absolutely exceptional. We could add so much about their communications and great attitude!

www.traditours.com

www.visitperu.com

Arequipa with the 3 volcanoes

Pedestrian street in Arequipa

Traffic officer in Cuzco

Las Salinas de Maras (salt pans)

Artisan 

Alpaga blankets at the market

Machu Picchu

Straw islands on Lake Titicaca

Young Uro

On the Amazon

Spider monkey

Glutton

Fishing piranhas

Nazca Lines

The Pacific Coast

Ballestas Islands

Santa Catalina Convent

Lamay orphanage

Hotel in Arequipa

Ecoamazonia Lodge

Guinea pig 

Pisco factory, national alcohol 

Meal with a local family

A traditional farm

Weaver at work

Young Peruvians

Banner photo credit: Diane Sauvé

 

 

 

 


  

 

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