Lima, Peru

Peru: Land of Monumental Surprises

When the conquistador Francisco Pizarro returned home from plundering Peru, his king asked him what the new colony looked like. Ever a man of action, Pizarro scrunched up a piece of paper and placed it on a table: “It looks like that,” he said.

In an era when travel is so much easier, a journey across Peru still feels much more up and down than sideways. La Rinconada, in the Peruvian Andes, is said to be the highest town in the world. It lies at an altitude of five kilometers above Lima, the country’s seaside capital, and as your airplane descends into that city, you can see the foothills of the Andes rising above the desert haze. Today half of Peru’s population lives along the Pacific Coast, yet this relatively arid region represents just a tenth of the country’s area.

Known as the Ciudad de los Reyes (City of Kings), Lima was Spain’s most important South American outpost until the mid-18th century. Almost 500 years after Pizarro founded the city, in 1535, its historical center captivates visitors with its tangled old lanes and evocative squares like Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Vera Cruz. The most famous historical site to visit is the Convent of San Francisco where, incredibly, an ossuary with an estimated 25,000 bodies lay in undiscovered catacombs until 1943. Less gruesome but equally unforgettable are the bohemian alleyways of Barranco quarter with its aptly named Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs). And be sure to sample everyday Limeño life—and some of the best ceviche—at Surquillo Market. 

While Lima lures travelers with its history and Latin charm, few spend much time along the relatively densely populated coastline. But this is where you’ll find the splendors of the soaring mountains, the riotous rainforests of the Amazonian jungle, and the ancient highland cities. 

One such city, Cusco, is the country’s cultural heartland. Cusco was once the spiritual and administrative focal point of the great Inca Empire and it remains, even now, the soul of the Andean region. The world’s second-highest mountain range seems to present an impenetrable barrier for most of the Peruvian population today but around 500 years ago these highlands were the center of a highly populated and organized agricultural region.

“This was the real city of kings,” says guide Liliana Vargas, who was born here and now works with Intrepid Travel. “The Inca civilization, which thrived here before the Spanish conquest, has become famous as one of history’s most successful agricultural societies.”

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While Spanish is spoken almost universally throughout the country, the highland population still counts Quechua (the ancient native tongue of the Inca empire) as its official language. Cusco’s tangled alleyways retain a delightful combination of Spanish colonial architecture and the great stalwart masonry of the original inhabitants. As is the case in Lima, the Plaza de Armas is the center of the historical quarter; but to the indigenous women who come here to sell their rainbow-hued textiles—which are emblazoned with the ancient motifs of snake, llama, and condor—it is still often known by the Quechua name, Plaza Haukaypata (meaning “place of ceremony”). 

On the eastern edge of the plaza looms the great baroque façade of the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, which took almost a century to build and has stood firm through over 350 years despite periodic earthquakes. In the back corner near the cathedral’s main altar you’ll find a unique oil painting of the Last Supper, created in 1753 by Marcos Zapata. Few of the visitors who troop past the painting are aware that the Cusqueño artist mischievously portrayed his Judas with the likeness of the hated conquistador Francisco Pizarro, but most notice that Jesus and the apostles are about to tuck into a meal of roasted guinea pig. 

“Guinea pig—or cuyas it’s called locally—is more popular than ever since tourists are more adventurous these days and most want to sample our local specialties,” explains Vargas. “Guinea pig is now served in most restaurants alongside such things as alpaca brochettes, which are made from the meat of a relative of the llama.”

Cusco’s sprawling San Pedro Market is a fascinating place in which to sample unusual specialties. You can sip on fruit juice pick-me-ups that are enhanced with quinoa, maca root, pollen, honey, and raw egg and topped up with a splash of local Cuzqueña beer. A whole section of the market deals in great wheels of chuta, a bread that dates back to the time of the Inca and is now made using a secret recipe in the nearby village of Oropesa. In one corner of the market you’ll find hand-painted flowers that might be taken as offerings to the city’s Catholic cemeteries, while in another dried llama fetuses wait for buyers who will bury them in the foundations of new buildings as token offerings to the gods of the Inca. There are vast displays of fruit and vegetables and many of the region’s 3,000 types of potatoes, including sundried versions (a sort of instant mash)—yet another innovation that helped the Incas to conquer and tame their vast empire.

Even today, the agricultural communities around Cusco are connected by the Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca name for the network of roads that cover an estimated 30,000 kilometers. Often at 6,000 meters above sea level, they represent an impressive feat of engineering through some of the world’s most challenging terrain. Historians believe that via these trails, which still exist in six Andean countries, a mere 40,000 Inca subjects were able to subdue and control an empire of 10 million people.

“Young men trained from boyhood for the honor of becoming chasquis, as messengers were called,” explains Vargas. “There was no written language so besides training to become long-distance runners, they had to prove that their memory was faultless. They could run 30 to 50 kilometers a day, depending on the terrain, and would carry just a small bag loaded with coca leaves for energy and sun-dried potatoes to stave off hunger.”

At the time of the Spanish invasion, Cusco was one of the wealthiest cities in the world: 700 sheets of beaten gold weighing two kilograms each lined the Temple of the Sun, and the Golden Enclosure had a perimeter wall that is said to have been studded with emeralds. Historians believe that there was a jeweled garden with life-sized shepherds and animals made of precious metals and studded with gems. 

Of all these treasures, little remains beyond the Incas’ monumental masonry at sites like the fortress of Sacsayhuaman (on the edge of the city), which was built by 20,000 laborers and defended by a force of 1,000 soldiers. Yet even this fell to the Spanish sword when the Inca monarch Atahualpa was tricked and taken hostage by Pizarro. Machu Picchu lies just 75 kilometers from Cusco (as the condor flies) yet it wasn’t until 1911 when archaeologist Hiram Bingham—guided by a local muleteer— “rediscovered” the Lost City of the Incas.

Historians think that the great hilltop temple was abandoned shortly before the arrival of the Spanish (and that it had never actually been “lost”). Nevertheless, these days it is one of the most instantly recognizable spiritual hotspots on earth, and every day it is discovered with fresh eyes by new groups of pilgrims arriving at the grand culmination of the famous Inca Trail. 

Machu Pichu
Machu Pichu, the Lost City of the Incas

That sunrise view of Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku (Sun Gate) is the Holy Grail upon which every traveler should set eyes at least once. It would be fair to say that Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Inca Trail could be considered the Holy Trinity for most visitors to Peru these days but there are countless other gems in this great country for those who are willing to step just a little to the side of the regular tourist trail. 

Located in the delightfully named Chili River valley and brooded over by three snow-capped volcanoes, the city of Arequipa was carved largely from pink and white volcanic stone. Although overshadowed by Cusco’s fame as a tourist destination, Arequipa is often cited as Peru’s most charming city. UNESCO describes this tangled labyrinth of baroque churches and rococo convents and monasteries and some 500 colonial-era casonasas “a masterpiece of the creative integration of European and native characteristics.”

Now famous as the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca (less than 200 kilometers east of Arequipa) was infinitely more to the Incas: it was the birthplace of humankind and the origin of the sun, moon, and stars. Not everyone was eager to share the Incas’ view of the cosmos, however, and a tribe called the Uros still live on manmade floating islands woven from totora reeds, which were originally conceived as a way to evade the conquering Incas. Titicaca (half of which belongs to Bolivia) also boasts an estimated 500 aquatic species and spectacular birdlife, such as flocks of Chilean flamingos and ibis. Not so far from here, the beautiful Colca Canyon—one and a half times the depth of the Grand Canyon—is the place to explore if you want to watch wild Andean condors wheeling on the thermals above galloping herds of fleet-footed vicuña (graceful relatives of the llama).

But if you want to see wildlife, you have lots of other options, as this country is home to one of the world’s most spectacular habitats. Amazon rainforest covers nearly half of Peru, and a trip to this country is not complete without an in-depth experience of what the locals call la selva. The Tambopata River is the traditional territory of the Ese Eja people, an indigenous group so isolated that they were never even subdued by the Inca. It seems that the Spanish preferred to maintain a respectful distance, too: it is perhaps significant that the Ese Eja homeland is centered on a little town that the Spanish chillingly christened Infierno (Hell). 

From the little airport in the jungle hub of Puerto Maldonado, motorboats run upriver, past Infierno along one of the Amazon River’s great Peruvian tributaries. Even here, 7,000 kilometers from the mouth of the world’s biggest river, the Tambopata is impressive. You see caiman on the sandbanks, giant river otters hunting piranha, and vast flocks of macaws feeding from clay-licks. The Ese Eja have played a large part in the founding of the Tambopata Research Center and the luxurious lodges in the surrounding reserve. 

Because hunting has long since ended in this area, the wildlife is incredibly visible and you’re likely to see herds of capybara (the world’s largest rodent) and, if you’re lucky, even a jaguar basking in the morning sun. More than a million insect species are believed to exist in the Peruvian rainforests and one of the unique aspects of a trip to Tambopata Research Center is an opportunity to become familiar with a few of the world’s quirkiest little critters. 

“One of my favorite things about boating up the Tambopata River is stopping to watch butterflies drinking turtle tears,” enthuses entomologist Phil Torres. “The male butterflies do this to access valuable salt that they can give as a gift to the females.” 

It’s the sort of scenario that seems more likely to have been inspired by a fairy tale than a biology textbook, but this part of the Amazon is full of such stories. Torres and fellow scientist Jason Goldman lead tours for Brooklyn, New York–based Atlas Obscura and a week spent with them is full of intriguing anecdotes featuring creatures that weren’t even known to science until recently. Torres is currently researching a mysterious spider that builds a tiny silk tower that has been dubbed “silkhenge,” and he recently discovered another that builds an oversized model of itself as a decoy to would-be predators.

“It’s so cool because it’s the only creature on the planet apart from humans that can build a giant replica of itself,” he says. “It’s like these spiders are building their own little monuments.”

It seems that whether you’re on Peru’s desert plains, among the high Andean peaks, or in the depths of the jungle you’re rarely far from a monumental discovery of some sort.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: 

Peru is a country in western South America that is roughly similar in shape to California but three times as big and with just over three-fourths as many residents as the U.S. state. Its mountain and jungle wildernesses remain sparsely populated.

CLIMATE: 

Experts say that the world has 32 climatic zones, and Peru boasts at least 28 of them. That means you’ll need to bring a wide range of clothing, but it is worth leaving suitcase space for some designer purchases made from warm, super-soft alpaca wool. Despite being cooler, the dry winter months (May–September) are the best time to travel, since the summer (December–March) sees heavier rainfall. The Inca Trail closes in February for clean-up.

GETTING THERE: 

Airliners depart daily from Los Angeles to Lima (flight time, eight hours, 30 minutes) and from New York City to Lima (seven hours, 45 minutes). Several flights take off each hour from Lima to Cusco. Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport has excellent facilities for private jet arrivals and departures (bypassing the busy airline passenger terminal). Other international airports include Alfredo Rodríguez Ballón in Arequipa and Velazco Astete Airport in Cusco but the approach to Cusco can be challenging due to altitude and unpredictable weather.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

While major hotels and tourist centers accept credit cards, you should carry sufficient local cash (Peruvian sol) if you plan to explore widely. Beware of the altitude, and plan to take things slowly the first couple of days in the highlands. Coca leaves contain less than 1 percent of the active ingredient in cocaine, and this traditional remedy is worth considering as a way to avoid the altitude headaches that hit most visitors, even those from mountainous countries like Switzerland.


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS: 

Tambopata Research Center (A+), in the heart of Tambopata National Reserve, offers surprisingly sumptuous accommodations combined with delightful wake-up calls from howler monkeys and entire squadrons of macaws.Palacio del Inka (A) is perfectly situated in the old town of Cusco and offers some of the most stylish rooms in South America. The beautiful 1920s-style Villa Barranco (B+) is hard to beat as a base in Lima and the colonial-era Hotel Libertador Arequipa (B) is set on beautiful grounds that are just a 15-minute stroll from Arequipa’s charming historical center.

CUISINE: 

With the exception of world-class ceviche (served sometimes with lizard meat in the north!) and the famous pisco sour, Peru is rarely considered a global culinary hotspot. This is changing, however. There’s now a wide range of haute cuisine, and it is possible to eat extremely well even in relatively simple marketplace establishments. Regional highlights not to be missed include baked cuy(guinea pig), alpaca brochettes, and quinoa risotto at Restaurante Valentina (B) in Cusco. For a refreshing drink, try chicha morada, a non-alcoholic beverage made with purple corn. Luis the barman at Tambopata Research Center makes the best pisco sours in the entire country. Central (A+) has frequently been ranked as the No. 1 restaurant in Latin America and award-winning chef Virgilio Martínez’s tasting menu with wine-pairing could be a highlight of any trip to Lima. At Marcelo Batata (B), in Cusco, chef Erick Paz Gallegos prepares what is arguably the best alpaca tenderloin anywhere. Cevicheria de Yanet (B) is a simple stall in Cusco’s San Blas market, yet the freshly prepared ceviche (served with spicy sauce known as tiger’s milk) is world class and Yanet will even demonstrate the preparation of this regional dish for you.

ACTIVITIES:

Atlas Obscura hosts 60 handpicked trips and expeditions each year with highly accredited experts; its Expedition Amazon is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get acquainted with the world’s greatest jungle habitat. Intrepid Travel has a range of Peru tours, from historical and market day tours in Cusco to a 15-day Sacred Land of the Incas tour. Independent travelers tend to focus on Cusco and find that the historic backstreets and vibrant markets are hypnotic—and safe—places to shop or simply to wander and people-watch. (Check out little San Blas as well as the famous San Pedro.) The most exciting coastal town is Chiclayo, where you can enjoy the sun-baked atmosphere of the Pimentel beachfront with its famous caballitos de totora( surf-boats constructed of reeds). Aguas Calientes is the access point to Machu Picchu, a fascinating little town named for its thermal baths. From here you can also make your own way to the great historical precinct, although a good guide is worth his weight in Inca gold.


Editor's note: Mark Eveleigh traveled to Peru courtesy of Atlas Obscura, which runs trips to destinations worldwide.

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