Walking and trekking
It’s no accident Peru pulls in hoardes of walkers from all over the world: the natural display it presents is truly one of the world’s most magnificent. The largest Andean country by area, Peru offers a unique blend of culture, nature and history. Its network of high-altitude trails amongst one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges also give many access to the sort of otherworldly climes which would be unattainable for non-mountaineers elsewhere in the world. This is nowhere more arresting than the country’s main outdoor lure to the walker: the Inca Trail, the ancient, high-level route which travels from Chilica to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu. Historically, the Inca Trail was a system of pathways which covered 14,000 miles down the west coast of South America, but these days the Peruvian section of the trail is by far the most popular. Indeed, in many ways the trail has become a victim of its own success, with environmental concerns prompting numbers to be now limited to 200 people a day embarking on the route from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, from numbers in excess of 500 a year or so before. Consequently the trail filled its quota for the ’08 trekking season by April. It is a hugely spectacular if you can get on it – a once in a lifetime-if-you’ve-lived-a-very-charmed-life experience, and the site of Machu Picchu is one you won’t ever forget.
If you can’t get on the trail there are plenty of alternatives, too. Cuzco sits on the edge of what is known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a verdant, jungly and breathlessly beautiful area fringed by snow-clad cordilliera and cut by the Urubamba River, which contains many Inca ruins and several other major trails which tend to escape the attention given to the main route to Machu Picchu. These include the Salkantay Trail – the fabled back way to the lost city – and the Choquequirao Trail, which leads to a similar-sized but less illustrious ruined city, which is still in the process of being unearthed. Elsewhere in Peru, a trip to the second most popular outdoor capital in Peru – Arequipa – is sure to spring up adventure opportunities, such as climbing the volcano of El Misti, which looms over the city, or heading for the walking goldmine of Colca Canyon. This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, cut from dark rock and surrounded by some of the Andes most commanding peaks. Lost cities aside, this is Peru at its most emerald-terraced, sharply mountained, endearingly rustic best. Mountaineering pilgrims and those who don’t mind a long trip north may want to put the town of Huaraz on their list. Aside from being the flavoursome gateway to the High Andes most ice-axe wielding connoisseurs flock to climb, from here you can see the distinctive, scary profile of Suila Grande – the mountain Joe Simpson and Simon Yates immortalised in Touching the Void.
A note to backpackers: despite a huge increase in tourism, Peru has some decidedly dicey spots: Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas are still known to conduct occasional operations in the Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Huanuco, Junín and San Martín areas. Border areas with Ecuador and Colombia are crawling with drug traffikers. So – in the truest possible sense – don’t go there.
There is loads to do in Peru, and most of it is outdoors. The pyramids at Sipan are some of the more mystical of the ancient settlements in northern Peru – huge burial chambers which look like anthills, built by the Moche around 2,000 years ago.
Islas Flotantes are the man-made settlements of the Uros people, and are unique cultural stops if you find yourself in the Lake Titicaca area. The biggest of the Islands has a school, post office and a souvenir shops, though much of the culture still subsists in the traditional way. The Nazca Lines are the mysterious lines shaped like animals which are located near the coast, and offer a wonderful, desert foil to the jungly, high-level splendour of the interior. You do, however need to fly to make the most of this: you can jump on a tourist plane at Nazca’s airstrip.
Reserva EcologicaChaparri is an exemplary wildlife preserve near Chiclayo, and is home to both the ferociously rare spectacled bear and the Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world.
Peruvians put cocaine in their tea: TRUE the tea is made from leaves of the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived. The leaves are used in tea which is medicinal against altitude sickness, fatigue and thirst.
Must see and do
- See the Nazca lines one of the great mysteries of the ancient civilisations of Peru is how these things were drawn by people on the ground. Aside from monkeys, spiders and birds, drawings have been found of so-called ‘spacemen’ – so many believe the Peruvians had help. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazca_lines
- Walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu yes, everyone does it, but it is very special. http://www.incatrailbooking.com/
- Visit Caral this is billed as the oldest city in the Maericas, dating from 2600BC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caral