As a “westerner” it is humbling to travel to other parts of the world and learn – or be reminded – just how many civilizations preceded the European-centric ones, during which time large, stable, creative societies were sustained over many centuries. It is also humbling to see the evidence of the demise of those civilizations brought on by their European conquerors. Rarely a pretty story; sadly, it was the way of the world. Both European diseases and fire arms caused great devastation as civilizations collided, not to mention what was done in the name of religion. Hmm, sound familiar?! It’s hard not to reflect on the checkered history of colonization as you travel in large parts of South America.
We traveled to Peru directly from Bolivia, me thinking that Peru would be more familiar. After all, I had seen lots of pictures of Machu Picchu! You’d think I’d learn that every new place has surprises up its sleeve. Travel surprises include history, geography, customs, food, animals, the whole enchilada, and Peru has surprises worth experiencing in every category.
Things I learned about the fascinating country of Peru:
1. Machu Picchu is even more spectacular “in person” than it is in photographs. It’s impossible to describe the impact of walking among its extraordinary buildings, so extensive in scope, on what has to be one of the most spectacular sites in the world. Breathtaking. Inspirational. Humbling.
If you go, it’s important to stay overnight in Aqua Calientes, the town at the entrance to the site, so that you have plenty of time on the mountain. My beloved cousin, travel agent and travel lover par excellence, made the mistake of taking the train through the Sacred Valley, spending a few hours on the mountain, and then going back to Cusco the same afternoon. He regretted it; learn from his error. You need time to revel in that mountain site. Of course, if you’ve reached the Machu Picchu site by hiking (and camping) along the Inca Trail for several days, you will have different concerns. In that case you will want to stay over in Aqua Calientes to revel in a well-deserved bath and bed!
2. Cusco and the Sacred Valley – the heart of the Inca Empire – both have much to offer. There are plenty of Inca sites throughout the area. But Cusco is also the home to the very large complex known as Sacsayhuaman. This complex is built in the manner of Inca construction, using enormous polished dry rocks, carefully cut to fit together without mortar. However, it is now known that this structure, including plazas, roadways and irrigation, predates the Incas by many hundreds of year. It’s thought to have been built by the Killke culture between 900-1200 A.D.
If you go, and haven’t come from an even higher place, spend a day or so in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude before you head to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Cusco is higher than Machu Picchu by far at 11,200 ft.
3. The coast of Peru is a big desert. A really big desert. Lima is an enormous city with a Spanish flavour, but its surrounding hills are huge sand dunes whose slopes are now overgrown with shacks erected by Andean peasants who have left their sparse highlands in the hopes of a better future. It is hard not to wonder if they weren’t better off living where they could at least grow potatoes. It seems as though in the short term at least they have traded one grim life for another.
4. Ica is a city situated on a river in the middle of the desert; it is home to enormous sand dunes, a real oasis, and a small airport from where people can take flights over the enigmatic Nazca Lines, not to mention being in the region that produces Pisca brandy, the heart of the popular Pisca sour. It’s hard not to be enchanted by kids swimming in a lake surrounded by high sand dunes while young men are snowboarding (sandboarding?) down the dune slopes.
5. The Islas Ballestas are sometimes called the Little Galapagos. They’re not even close, but they are definitely worth a visit, even if you are lucky enough to be going to the real thing. These charming little islands are between Lima and Ica, and boat tours go regularly from Paracas. Lots of great bird life, seals, and even some Humboldt penguins of you’re lucky.
Amazing isn’t it, all these extra treasures when I had only been thinking about Machu Picchu en route to the Galapagos. And I haven’t even mentioned the Peruvian influence on our cuisine. Potatoes? Peru is the original source of potatoes to the rest of the world, where they were first domesticated 7000-10,000 years ago. Where does quinoa come from? You guessed it. And what do you think about roasted guinea pig? You’ll just have to go there yourself and make your own decision. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the fauna – 30+ varieties of hummingbirds alone – in the tropical rain forest near Machu Picchu, not far from the headwaters of the Amazon. While you’re planning your trip, don’t forget that you can also visit the Peruvian part of the Amazon River basin. Truly something for everyone.
Bolivia/Peru/Galapagos: #3 of our top 5 favourite trips of all time.
Photo credts: cat-travel.com (map), Howard Fritz