The South American nation of Peru is a glittering land of colour and light, riotous fiestas and monumental landscapes. From the awe-inspiring Inca ruins of Machu Picchu to the enigmatic geoglyphs at Nazca, the lush Amazon rainforest and excellent surfing beaches in the northwest, it offers a wealth of treasures for travellers. To help you plan your own journey around the country, here is Ros Walford's guide to Peru.
Top of the list is without doubt Machu Picchu. This remote Inca temple, perched on a mountaintop in the remote southern Andes, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This designation is in recognition of the astonishing achievements of its pre-Columbian architects. Enter the site before dawn, then sit and wait for the sunrise. The first rays of the sun spill over the surrounding peaks to illuminate the well-preserved stone buildings, paths and terraces.
The mysteries of the London Underground are nothing compared with the Nasca Lines, another UNESCO World Heritage site. These drawings of animals, etched in the sand for eternity by an ancient civilisation, are only visible from the air. Hop in a light aeroplane at Nasca airstrip to take in perfect – if at times stomach-churning – views.
The engineering prowess of the ancient Peruvians remains evident at the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca, where entire villages float on rafts made of reeds. See them on an island-hopping trip and admire the elaborately crafted reed boats on which locals travel between the islands.
Lima, Peru’s vast capital, spreads out from its colonial heart into a dynamic metropolis that is one of the largest in South America. Get your bearings in the central district of Miraflores; walk along (or parasail from) the elegant Malecón cliff-top promenade, before making the most of the city’s best shops, restaurants, bars and nightlife.
Peru’s second city, Arequipa, is a calmer affair – a grid of streets lined with low-rise colonial townhouses and peppered with leafy plazas.
The most popular trek in Peru is, of course, the Inca Trail, a 4-day jungle and mountain hike that passes through a series of important archeological sites in the Sacred Valley before culminating at the dramatic hilltop site at Machu Picchu. If you prefer to hike away from the crowds, the region is rich with alternative treks, including the high-mountain Salkantay Trail and the easier Lares Trek.
The beautiful Colca Canyon is Peru’s equivalent of the USA’s Grand Canyon, but at 3,270 metres (10,725 feet) it’s twice as deep. After a hike down arid slopes to the green valley below, enjoy a dip in hot springs underneath the stars. Bear in mind that the next day you’ll need to climb up the near-vertical gorge before breakfast... not for the faint-hearted.
The Cordillera Blanca is the highest tropical mountain range in the world. Its 35 peaks above 6,000 metres include Mount Huascarán (6,768 metres), the highest mountain in Peru. Mountaineers and hikers alike are drawn to this pristine region of glaciers, waterfalls and emerald lakes set amid diamond-sharp peaks.
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Máncora in the far north is Peru’s surfing mecca. This extensive strip of white sands beside a laid-back former fishing village offers endless sun, warm water and fantastic waves.
You can try a different kind of surfing on the giant dunes at Huacachina. Take a board and skim down the golden mountains that tower as high as 200 metres above the lagoon. Or avoid potentially tasting a few mouthfuls of sand and take a ride on a dune buggy instead.
The world’s favourite intrepid bear, Paddington, hailed from “darkest Peru”. If you would like to encounter ursine relatives of the much-loved fictional character in his homeland, the most likely place to see brown spectacled bears is in mountainous northern Peru. However, you’ll have better chances of spotting wildlife – such as jaguars, pink river dolphins, caiman and a cacophony of birds – in the Amazon. Top spots include the jungle city of Iquitos, Puerto Maldonado and Manu Biosphere Reserve and National Park.
The Ballestas Islands, within the coastal moonscape of the Paracas National Reserve, are Peru’s Galapagos Islands. Sail out to the guano-covered rock stacks to see seals, sea lions, pelicans and the Humboldt penguins, which are kept cool by the Humboldt Current flowing up from Antarctica.
Colca Canyon is the place to get up close to condors, the world’s largest birds, and see them use their impressive 3-metre wingspan to float on thermals above the arid ravine.
The gastronomic highlight of the varied cuisine of Peru is ceviche – raw fish marinated in lime juice until beautifully tender. Check out Lima’s world-class restaurants for more tips on where to eat in the city.
In rural areas, you’re likely to be served hearty dishes, such as lomo saltado (beef stir fry) or aji de gallina (chicken stew), served with potatoes or rice. You may even come across alpaca or cuy (oven-roasted guinea pig). Lunchtime snacks include empanadas, tasty meat- or cheese-filled pastry parcels.
To drink, try chicha morada (an infusion of corn, cinnamon and cloves). The alcoholic highlight is the cocktail pisco sour, consisting of the spirit pisco, lemon juice, sugar and raw egg foam.
Now, that’s got to be worth coming back for…
Top image: Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru © Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock