The heartland of the great Inca empire, Peru is blessed with mountains, jungle, desert and world-renowned cuisine. With no fewer than three Amazon regions, where scarlet macaws glide among the mountainside burial chambers of ancient ‘cloud warriors,’ amongst its sky-scraping peaks you’ll find the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and ancient citadels that predate the country’s most famous site, Machu Picchu, by almost a millennium.
An alternative to Machu Picchu’s Inca Trail, this route through the southern Andes links Peru’s archaeological sites and traditional communities, following lightly trodden paths where you’ll encounter few other travellers—unless you count alpacas.
The Inca Trail is beautiful, but you’re never alone—and the toilets are disgusting.”
Juan doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to explaining why we’ve chosen a different route to Machu Picchu. While our comfort breaks aren’t exactly the height of luxury, being more bush than bathroom, we’ve seen no other hikers since setting off.
Much like the Inca Trail, the Lares Trek isn’t so much one route as a network of trails across the Sacred Valley. In this version, run by local outfit Mountain Lodges of Peru, we’re hiking along lightly trodden paths that link archaeological sites with traditional communities, traversing the southern Andes en route to our (luxurious) lodgings. While parts of the journey are taken by car along twisting mountain roads, we hike for several hours daily, barely seeing another soul, save for the gangs of llamas and alpacas that eye us suspiciously from the hillsides.
“Do you feel the altitude?” I ask Juan, our guide, on the first day. He looks at me pityingly: “I’m here all the time, so it’s okay.” It’s like I’ve run a mile, but in reality we’ve only walked slowly for a few metres. We’re nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, where oxygen is thin. Behind our group walks a woman from a nearby village, herding a donkey with supplies of water and oxygen strapped to its back. She’s dressed in the formal-looking, frills-and-flamboyant-colours ensemble many women sport in this rural area. It’s a look imported by the Spanish colonialists, and comes with sandals, but as we trudge uphill in boots, she scales the stone-speckled slope with no trouble.
Over the next few days, breathing gets easier. We cross mountain passes at more than 13,000 feet, from which the peak-studded landscape unfolds like a crumpled map. We pass rectangles of emerald-green grass used as grazing grounds for guinea pigs, and wooden racks on which vast quantities of multicoloured corn are drying. One day, in gloomy weather, we walk across a marshy mountain plateau that’s reminiscent of North York Moors. Hikes are punctuated by many of the archaeological wonders of the Sacred Valley, from the remains of the circular buildings that pockmark the slopes at Ankasmarka to the sprawling city of Pisac, which reveals itself as we round the brow of the hill. And finally, we reach Machu Picchu, finding ourselves in a crowd for the first time in days. Juan leads us to a viewpoint. The sharp peak of Huayna Picchu is visible through the morning mist and, in front of it, the neat grassy terraces and geometric stone walls hug the hill. From here, the 15th-century site looks neat and compact, but it was once home to 500 full-time residents, along with thousands more temporary workers.
In search of another angle, I abandon the group to hike up to the Sun Gate, once the main entrance to the city. The mist seems thicker than ever, and when I arrive a few other visitors are draped over walls and steps like stray cats, mostly catching their breath, all waiting. And then, the clouds suddenly dissipate, parting just long enough to let the late-morning sun shine down on the site for a few precious moments. From here, I finally get the true scale of this feat of engineering. The explorer Hiram Bingham, who alerted the world to Machu Picchu’s existence in 1911, described the site as a citadel, while others later labelled it a temple complex. But they were all wrong, according to Juan. “It’s just a normal city,” he’d told me earlier. From here, though, it looks anything but. NT
How to do it: Mountain Lodges of Peru offers the five-day, guided Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure, ending at Machu Picchu, from Rs1,38,394 per person. It includes accommodation, domestic transport, a choice of hikes and excursions, entrance fees and all meals. Excludes international flights. mountainlodgesofperu.com
How to tell the difference between a llama and an alpaca:
Throughout the hills and valleys of central Peru you’ll find fluffy camelids going about their business, chewing the scenery and eyeing up passers-by. But what distinguishes a llama from an alpaca? Firstly, the former is bigger, growing up to six feet tall, compared to alpacas’ five feet. Secondly, alpacas have small, fluffy faces with short muzzles and straight, pointy ears, whereas llamas have elongated faces and long, curved ears. And finally, if you get close enough to stroke them, you’ll find the alpaca’s wool is much softer than the llama’s coarse coat. Now, how do you tell a vicuña from a guanaco?
The capital of the Incas, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cusco is where Incan and Andean baroque architecture meet.
Set off to explore the historic centre, starting at Plaza de Armas. Once an important site for Inca ceremonies, it was decimated by the Spanish and rebuilt in the colonial style, so today it’s a place of colonnaded arcades, wide walkways and a smattering of churches. Visit the cathedral for the art (including a 17th-century local take on the Last Supper, in which Jesus and his disciples are dining on guinea pig), and the baroque Compañía de Jesús church for the gaudy decor.
Wander over to San Pedro Market, where, alongside fresh produce and an assortment of alpaca-wool products, you’ll find everything from suckling pig to pastries, with a few offal options in between. Wash it down with a juice from one of the many women hawking mixed fruit concoctions.
Just south of the old town is Coricancha. Once the most sacred site for the Incas, it was incorporated into the Catholic church and convent of Santo Domingo. Today, is stands a confounding combination of original masonry and colonial architecture. Try to squeeze in a visit to Sacsayhuaman, a citadel just north of the city dating back in part to the 12th century.
Grab a cab—or walk 10 minutes from Sacsayhuaman—up to Cristo Blanco, the ‘White Christ’ statue that stands guard over the city. Like a miniature Christ the Redeemer, it was a gift from Palestinian refugees who sought asylum here after World War II, and it’s a good spot from which to watch the sunset (check the timing of this before heading up).
Sit down for dinner at Limo, a restaurant in the historic centre that dishes up Nikkei cuisine—the Japanese-Peruvian fusion of flavours—including top-notch sushi using local fish. Round it all off with a pisco sour, of course. NT
Cusco-based Berenice Diaz is the founder of all-women art collective Totemiq, and curator at XO Art House hotel.
What’s the aim of Totemiq?
Totemiq is a contemporary, Cusco-based art collective that I founded in 2016 in response to various objectives, the main one being the need to highlight popular Cusqueño and Peruvian art. We’re losing techniques, know-how and skills for our native art—and with them the memory of who we are.
What kind of art do you make?
I have so many artistic interests, but I’ve ultimately found myself working in two styles: one is generative art (the union of art, science and technology) and the other focuses on traditional, local plastic arts. My surroundings are my leading source of inspiration.
What are your tips for Cusco?
L’atelier Café Concept, in the San Blas neighbourhood, is a small café-cum-art gallery full of contemporary design touches. I often visit the Rica Chicha cultural centre, too—it’s a space where shops, art galleries, restaurants, cafes and a bookshop come together to offer cultural activities. A visit to Cusqueña artist Isa Luna’s galleries is a must; she curates an exquisite collection of pieces by artists, artisans and creatives from all over Peru. Lastly, ceramicist Julio Gutierrez’s workshop has a great collection of local, colonial tin-glazed ceramics. (@totemiqperu, xoarthousecusco.com) NT
Vinicunca has an undeserved reputation for looking better in pictures than it does in real life; absurdly edited photos hang in practically every travel agent’s window in Cusco. Yet, when the sun’s shining, the peak also known as Rainbow Mountain more than lives up to its nickname. A three-hour drive from Cusco and a challenging hike up to an altitude of more than 16,400 feet brings you to the perfect point from which to view the multicoloured mountain. Sands in shades of red and yellow, pastel pink and mint green—caused by oxidised iron sediment—drape themselves over the peak. And while you’re unlikely to be alone, it’s worth climbing the final few metres for better views over the heads of the other hikers. Afterwards, those who still have energy—and their breath —can walk a short distance further to another descriptively named natural wonder: the Red Valley.
Realm of the Cloud Warriors
In northern Peru’s Amazonas region, the Chachapoya ‘cloud warriors’ honoured their dead with villages of chullpas, multi-storey mausoleums built high up in the mountains
Along the cliff, the sheer rock face is interrupted by a row of what look like Wendy houses. They’re uncanny with their pitched roofs and multiple storeys, not quite big enough for
grown-ups. On their walls, daubed in red, are strange creatures with long limbs, and symbols whose meanings are long forgotten.
In northern Peru’s Amazonas region, the Chachapoya (loosely translating as ‘cloud warriors’) revered their dead, and hundreds of villages of chullpas (mausoleums) like these were built in the mountains to house those who’d been loved and lost. But the mummies once interred here at Revash —and the treasures that accompanied them—are gone; destroyed by nature, removed for preservation or pillaged by looters.
My guide, Ronald, tells me that until recently, visitors could walk right up to the precarious 14th-century mausoleums, but safety concerns have put paid to that. Instead, we’re admiring them from a wooden platform built just for this purpose. The wet mist that swamped the landscape during our hike up here has lifted, revealing the lush cloud forest of the northern Andes. A vulture swoops overhead as little green parrots chatter loudly in a nearby tree.
Ronald gestures to the ‘funeral mansions’, with their decorations painted on in ochre. There are circles, the significance of which is unknown, and what look like plus-signs, which Ronald explains are ‘Andean crosses.’ “The horizontal line is where we live, below is where we go when we die, and above is the land of the gods,” he tells me. Some of the painted animals are spotted cats, once common around here, but, says Ronald: “We also know the Chachapoya would paint animals that didn’t really exist. They’d combine different parts from different animals.”
After the Inca conquered this area in the 16th century, just before the arrival of the Conquistadors, many Chachapoya were forced to relocate, leaving behind their chullpas and what was contained inside. And while some mausoleums continued to be used during the colonial period, by the time Revash was excavated in 1948, little was left, save for a few mummies.
To get a better idea of what would once have been inside the tombs, we drive an hour south to the Leymebamba Museum. The community-run institution covers both Chachopoya and Inca cultures, and its most prized exhibits were recovered in 1997 from Llaqtacocha, a complex of chullpas at nearby Condor Lake. The site went untouched for 500 years, until local farmers started taking an interest, and eventually what was left was removed for preservation.
We walk through rooms filled with artefacts, including clothing, ceramics and quipu—knotted strings used by the Inca for calculating taxes—spread out like angel wings. It’s late afternoon and the light’s fading, so as we enter the final room, Ronald hits a switch. Illuminated, behind a pane of glass in a temperature-controlled room, a row of faces stare back at us, hands up to their bony cheeks, mouths agape.
“They’d bury them in the foetal position,” Ronald says, gesturing to the crouching mummies. Some still have skin and hair, and I’m almost certain one has eyeballs. Behind are others that have been left inside their bundles: snug sacks with faces sewn on. Outside, meanwhile, are replicas of the sarcophagi some mummies were kept in—colourful wooden boxes that look like oversized bowling pins, which must have been extremely heavy to lug into the mountains. But then, if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that the Chachapoya were dedicated to their dead. And while these mummies have been brought down to earth, the chullpas built to celebrate them are still standing, up in the clouds. NT
Shy and herbivorous with a rubbery nose and spiky mane, the tapir is one of the Amazon’s most singular-looking animals—its long nose is used to forage for roots, fruits and other jungle plants.
Is there a more emblematic rainforest animal than the scarlet macaw? Spotting its riotously colourful plumage zipping through the trees is the ultimate reminder you’re somewhere special.
This large, long-haired primate has specially adapted vocal chambers with which to create its famous, sonorous bellow.
The none-more-stealthy jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas. A strong swimmer and merciless hunter, it’s most-readily sighted during the drier months of June and July.
As the world’s largest rodent—it’s bigger than many breeds of dog—the webbed-footed, river-dwelling capybara is, luckily for us, easier to glimpse than many of the Amazon’s varied wildlife.
Marvel at Manú National Park
Peru might be synonymous with ancient ruins and Andean peaks, but more than half the national map is smothered by the sprawling Amazon Rainforest. Few parts of this wilderness feel more pristine than the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Manú National Park, which is easy to reach from Cusco, but is atmospherically a world away. Capuchin monkeys swing through cloud forests, waterfalls tumble into streams and some 850 bird species flit through the canopies. Scientists and researchers have projects here by the dozen and boat trips are the easiest way to get into the belly of the jungle.
See the Rainforest from the Water
Iquitos is generally regarded as the most atmospheric settlement in the northern Peruvian Amazon, but there’s more beyond its faded mansions and lively bars. The city is also surrounded by a large network of rivers—not least the mighty Amazon—making it well placed for everything from short fishing trips to multi-day cruises that take in jungle lodges and tribal villages dotted around the region. The tributaries snaking off from the main river open up an exotic realm of flora and fauna, and for sheer pinch-yourself escapism, little measures up to watching the planet’s largest tropical rainforest slide by.
Learn About the Local Way of Life
Indigenous Amazonian groups have been faced with some daunting struggles over the years, so tourism projects that hold a tangible benefit for local communities can only be a good thing. The southern hub of Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to swathes of lowland rainforest and is under an hour by boat from Posada Amazonas, a lodge owned and partly managed by the EseEja indigenous group. As a base, it not only offers the opportunity for plenty of up-close encounters with local wildlife, but it also teaches guests about the traditions and lifestyles of the people who know the region best.
Alex James is founder and distiller at the London to Lima gin distillery, in the Peruvian capital.
What’s the story behind the distillery?
We moved from London to Lima in 2012, looking for a new adventure. I’d been a captain in the British Army, and my wife was rediscovering her Peruvian roots. So, we packed all our possessions into a container, along with two alembiques [distilling apparatus], looking to start a business—my father’s background was in viticulture, so there was a latent interest in grapes. Our distillery is an hour south of Lima, surrounded by grapes, pomegranates and pink peppercorn trees.
How important is the location and landscape to your gin-making?
Very, as we do the whole process in-house. Abundant botanicals are ripe for the picking, such as pink peppercorns and ground cherries. De-mineralised water is another requirement for gin—in my case Andean glacial water. Gin is typically made from economical neutral alcohol: wheat-based in the U.K. and sugar cane-based in Peru, but I use Quebrantapisco grapes, which give a softer mouthfeel.
Can gin compete with the national drink, pisco?
I see our gin as a natural extension of pisco—it offers a Peruvian-British experience. Plus, gin and tonic and other gin cocktails are now staples on every drinks menu, which wasn’t the case seven years ago. xoarthousecusco.com NT
Virgilio Martinez Véliz is chef at Central in Lima and MIL in the Sacred Valley, with a new restaurant due to open in the Amazon next year.
What myths about Peruvian cuisine would you like to dispel?
The whole thing about the melting pot of different influences is quite right; we have Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine, Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) cuisine, cocina Criolla (Creole cuisine), and also African influences. But I
think we need to speak more about our biodiversity, our ingredients and what people were eating before this melting pot. The fusion we see in the cities is beautiful and delicious, but there are also things happening in our natural environment, where people have had no interaction with other cultures. There’s another Peruvian cuisine not many people know.
Why do you like to use little-known ingredients?
It’s about showcasing ingredients that people have never seen in the city, in our gastronomy—even less so in fine-dining restaurants. It gives a new sense of place and provides opportunities to work on different techniques. Plus, we have the privilege of meeting the producers, and we feel more responsibility to promote new geographies and showcase their produce. Everyone knows about quinoa, but not many people know about different types of kiwicha (another grain). I could talk about all the different varieties of corn, tubers, root vegetables—the range of vegetables is amazing.
How has Peru’s dining scene changed?
Nikkei cuisine is fast improving. It depends on very good ingredients, and it’s tasty. Cevicherias, where you eat ceviche and raw fish, are booming too.
Where in Peru do you recommend for good food?
The cuisine of Arequipa is one of the most emblematic of Peru, served in restaurants called picanterías. Not many people know it, but Arequipa has a repertoire with well-structured recipes and very solid cooking.
Virgilio Martínez Véliz’s book, Central, is published by Phaidon Press (available online at Rs1,981); centralrestaurante.com.pe NT
Dining doesn’t get more Peruvian than ceviche. Eaten here for centuries, there’s even a national holiday in its honour (28 June). At its most basic, ceviche is made up of diced hunks of fresh fish, briefly cured in a leche de tigre (‘tiger’s milk’) marinade: key lime or bitter orange juice, sliced onion, salt, pepper and chilli. Every cook has their own version, jazzing it up with rocoto (Andean chilli), garlic, a smattering of herbs, or something else. In the northern city of Trujillo, this can mean shark, while down south you’re more likely to be eating trout.
A dish that emerged from Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) cooking, lomo saltado is a national favourite. Juicy strips of sirloin steak are marinated in a tangy mixture of vinegar, soy sauce and spices, before being flash fried with red onions, tomatoes and Amarillo chillies. Coriander or parsley is sprinkled on top, and the dish is served with rice and chips—a double-carb combination that reflects lomo saltado’s Asian and South American influences.
Conflicting theories surround the origins of this creamy, spiced chicken stew. Some say 16th century African slaves introduced it to Peru, while many believe it was created by French chefs hired by wealthy Peruvian Creole families. It’s a comfort food classic, comprising chicken in a vibrant sauce, flavoured with walnuts, garlic and local aji peppers, which provides the stew’s distinctive yellow colour. It’s traditionally served with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and black olives.
For Peruvians, cuy (guinea pig), isn’t a daily meal—it’s a feast food. It can be served in many ways, some in which the animal is dished up whole. Cuy al horno is roasted in the oven, while cuy chactado, an Arequipa speciality, involves compressing the meat under a stone and deep-frying.
Founded in the sixth century, Kuelap predates Machu Picchu by some 900 years, and for a long time it was a place few outsiders got to see. The site, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level in Peru’s northern Andes, was difficult to access, but in 2017, Peru’s first cable-car opened, connecting the site to the nearby town of Nuevo Tingo. Now, after a 20-minute ride through the clouds, up a mountain and over patchwork valleys, you’ll find yourself among ruins of buildings that were once home to a community of around 3,000. Lush with orchids and ishpingo trees, the site encompasses the remains of hundreds of the Chachapoya people’s striking circular dwellings, some decorated with friezes.
Hemmed in by the Pacific, the northern city of Trujillo and its airport, Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, the remains of its adobe buildings covering around 32 square kilometres. In its 15th-century heyday, this was the capital of the Chimú kingdom, divided into a series of walled citadels—though just one part, the Palacio Nik An complex, has been restored. The main attractions are a ceremonial courtyard with geometric carvings on the walls, and a series of intricate friezes. Chan Chan is so vast no visitor stands a chance of covering it all, but new guided cycle rides with BiciTours are a good way of taking in more of the site than is possible on foot.
In the Sacred Valley, just 80 or so kilometres east of Machu Picchu, the hilltop Inca ruins of Pisac are said to cover a larger area than their more famous neighbour—but attract a fraction of the visitors. In fact, visit in the afternoon, after the few tour buses have gone, and you may just have the site to yourself. Into the steep slopes are carved agricultural terraces, while atop the mountain sit the remains of plazas and pools, homes and ceremonial spaces, some of their walls still standing more than 8 feet tall. The city is thought to have been built in the 15th century, though its Inca inhabitants were soon forced by the Spanish to leave their hilltop homes for the colonial town—also called Pisac—in the valley below.
One of the oldest archaeological sites in Peru, Chavín dates back as far as 1500 BC, when it was a pilgrimage site for a whole host of communities across the region. Set in a high valley in the central Peruvian Andes, the complex was home to a pre-Inca culture of the same name right up until the fifth century BC, and what’s left of it today is a series of squares, terraces and intriguing stonework. Historians believe the Chavín people worshipped animals, so look out for the carvings of birds, snakes, cats and reptiles, as well as startling stone faces. Getting here usually involves a lengthy bus journey along bumpy roads, or there’s a picturesque three-day hike along old Inca trails instead.
The colonial city of Arequipa could hardly have a more dramatic backdrop. Set against a series of volcanic peaks in the south of the country, its UNESCO-protected centre is lined with courtyards, churches and old mansions, many constructed from the pale volcanic rock that gives the place its distinctive look.
Despite its population being around a 10th of that of Lima, this is technically Peru’s second city. Sights not to miss include the cathedral, first consecrated almost 500 years ago and the focal point of the grand Plaza de Armes, and the enormous Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a convent which once housed 200 nuns and some 300 servants.
Everyone loves a mystery, but few are this big. The enigmatic Nazca Lines are a series of vast geometric patterns and animal figures etched across an immense spread of desert plateau in southern Peru. The largest measure around 1,200 feet in length, with most dating back more than 1,300 years—but why, and how, were they made?
Designs range from a spiral-tailed monkey to a colossal stylised hummingbird. Scenic flights are the most obvious way of appreciating their scale, although the region also has a number of viewing towers. To the south of the lines, Nazca itself is a colonial town with ancient ruins nearby and an archaeological museum.
The word ‘lake’ can sometimes seem inadequate. Such is the case with the titanic Titicaca, the planet’s highest navigable body of water, covering an area some 15 times larger than Lake Geneva. Sitting at a dizzying altitude of 12,500 feet in the extreme southeast of the country—Peru’s border with Bolivia actually bisects the lake—it remains one of South America’s most fabled sights.
The green profile of the Andes hunkers on the horizon and more than 40 islands scatter the lake’s surface. Puno is the largest settlement on the lake, a good base from which to arrange trips to islands such as Taquile or the floating reed islets of Uros. Further north is Sillustani, a site famous for its pre-Incan stone burial towers.
Flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru usually involve one or more stops at gateway cities like London and Istanbul.
BELMOND has six hotels around Peru, including Belmond Miraflores Park in Lima, where double rooms start at $255/Rs18,207. belmond.com
INKATERRA has seven lodges around the country. Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel offers double rooms from $498/Rs35,558. inkaterra.com