If someone says they’re going to travel Peru, the first thing that springs to mind is clawing through the cloud forest, hiking the immense Inca Trail and eventually reaching the mountain top to see Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, unfold beneath you.
Although for many, this can be a bit of an anti-climax. 5000 tourists taking pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures of people. Whilst the ruins are stunning and the journey to them is sublime, Peru has so much more to offer the tourist willing to dig a little deeper. So here’s a list of some of the other treasures Peru has to offer.
The Cordillera Blanca
First on the list has to be the Cordillera Blanca (this is a blog about Huaraz after all).
Snow-capped mountains towering over lakes of sapphire coloured water. The Cordillera Blanca is a favourite amongst the climbing and hiking enthusiasts of the world, and a must for any backpacker in Peru.
Many travelers set up base in Huaraz and then go on a variety of excursions into the mountains and nearby temples. Highlights include: Laguna 69, The Santa Cruz Trek, The Thermal Baths at Monterrey, Wilkawain and Huascarán (Peru’s highest mountain at 6’654m).
Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands, Taquile & Amantani
Not so hidden but still a gem in itself. Situated on the border of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water at a breath-taking 3812m above sea level.
The main port of the lake, Puno, is regarded as Peru’s folklore capital, with many festivals and dances throughout the year. The largest festival occurs during the first two weeks of February, known as Fiesta de la Candelaria.
The lake itself is incredibly beautiful. With a surface area of over 3000 square miles, it is impossible to see all the way across. From one of the many islands in the lake its possible to see the Andean mountains bursting through the horizon.
Many people have lived off the lake for centuries, the Uros Indians live on man-made islands comprised of Tortora reeds, farming new reeds each day and spreading a new layer for their houses to stand on.
The two main islands in Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side are Taquile and Amantani. Both feature pre-inca vestiges and a taste of culture prior to the Spanish Conquest. Taquile was used as a political prison for many years. Nowadays the people of both Taquile and Amantani open their homes to travelers, offering the option to spend the night on the islands.
Kuelap, a ruined fortress at 3000m above sea level, situated near Chachapoyas as the Andes begin their descent into the Amazon rainforest. The citadel offers spectacular views across the surrounding landscape, but the fortress itself is a sight worth seeing.
The fortress is surrounded by walls 20m high, constructed by gigantic limestone slabs arranged in geometric patterns. Inside the exterior wall lay hundreds of ruined stone houses decorated with intricate patterning and stone carvings.
The Chachapoyas tribe originally built the structure as a defense against neighbouring hostile tribes, and their success led Manco Inca, the last emperor of the Incas, to consider using it as the final stronghold against the Spanish Conquistadors, although he never made it this far north.
Situated on the northern pacific coast of Peru, Máncora has become a favourite holiday destination for many Peruvians and Ecuadorians visiting from just north of the border. The idyllic sun, surf and sand also makes this a popular destination for travelers looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of South American life, and take things a little more easily.
Regarded as Peru’s surfing capital, Máncora reminds one of the Brazilian beaches in the north-east of the continent. As you can expect with any surfer’s paradise, at night and during the holidays, this little town drops a gear and rev’s up with a wicked party scene, with many bars and clubs blasting reggae and serving cocktails until the early hours of the morning.
After a couple of months in the mountains, you’ll definitely want to hit up this beach.
Another pretty famous but often overlooked attraction, the Nazca lines are still leaving archeologists and conspiracy theorists alike scratching their heads. The Nazca lines are a series of geometric shapes, animal figures and anthropmorphic drawings carved into the ground. None of the images are the same and some reach up to 200m in length. All of the images are comprised of a single line, made by clearing away the rocks and gravel, revealing fine dust underneath.
No one knows exactly what the purpose of the Nazca lines was. Some say they are a type of agricultural calendar or perhaps a sacred path. No one knows for certain, though they were likely constructed during religious ceremonies.
Unfortunately the Nazca lines may not be around for much longer. Only being dug 30cm into the ground means that these incredible markings may not last through many rains. Typically Nazca receives very little rainfall, but with immense deforestation in South America and a changing climate, we cannot know how long they have.
Ayahuasca, also known as the spirit vine, is a powerful hallucinogenic brew made from the B.Caapi vine and P.Viridis leaf. The brew is traditionally used by Amazonian shamans to communicate with the spirit world, and is growing in popularity amongst western tourists.
The plants utilise psychedelic drug DMT and a Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor, known as a MAOI. By ingesting DMT by itself, your stomach acid quickly destroys the drug, but the MAOI allows the DMT to be absorbed into your bloodstream and up to your brain.
Travelers are exploring the Amazon rainforest and taking Ayahuasca tours or retreats, that generally include a stay in a lodge deep in the jungle, fasting and drinking the brew. People take Ayahuasca for a wide variety of reasons. It has been known to help people deal with childhood traumas, give up addictions and re-connect with nature.
Traditionally the shaman uses Ayahuasca to communicate with the spirit world, and find our what causes a patient’s illness on a spiritual level. Modern western science is developing a growing interest in Ayahuasca and it’s benefit in psychotherapy, allowing patients to face their deepest fears and personal issues.
It is worth mentioning that though Ayahuasca is technically a psychedelic drug, do not expect a fun, giggly time like you might experience with a low dose of LSD or magic mushrooms. Ayahuasca is an intense, spiritual experience that can be very emotionally stressful for the unprepared.
More information on Ayahuasca can be found at OpenMindTrips.
Trekking the Colca Canyon
The Colca Canyon takes fame as the world’s deepest canyon, 4160 meters deep, twice that of the Grand Canyon (USA). Carved by an ancient river, the Colca Canyon provides an incredible trekking experience with rich flora and fauna for any adventurous traveler.
Whilst Arequipa has many attractions in itself (a huge volcano towers over the colonial city), most tourists use Arequipa as a base for exploring Colca Canyon. The majority of treks start at the village of Cabanconde, 5 and a half hours from the city of Arequipa.
Travel agencies crawl Arequipa looking for tourists to take into the canyon, but it is possible to trek Colca Canyon without a guide. You can find a first-hand account of this journey at the blog, Parallel Life.
If you decide to delve into the canyon alone, make sure you bring water purification tablets and plenty of food, as supplies in the area are scarce, not to mention expensive.
When you’re there, keep your eyes peeled for the Andean Condor, local to the area. This bird of prey has a wingspan of up to 3.2m!
Explore The Amazon Basin
With the second largest portion of the Amazon Rainforest (after Brazil), you can spend days, weeks, months, (some even years if they get really lost), in the Amazon basin of Peru. The rainforest spans across 60% of the country, and different parts have their own unique biodiversity and native peoples.
There are many entry points into the Amazon Rainforest. One can either fly into one of the major jungle cities, for example, Iquitos. Or take a lazy motorboat down one of the Amazon’s many tributaries from the Andes.
Biodiversity in this jungle takes claim as the richest in the world, giving you the opportunity to spot howler monkeys, pink dolphins, sloths, macaws, tapirs and even panthers.
Find the last stronghold of the Incas
This one really is a hidden gem. The abandonned citadel of Vilcabamba, located in the deep in the forest near cusco, served as the final stronghold for Manco Inca and the capital of the Neo-Inca state. Founded in 1539, the settlement was hidden so deep into the forest, the Spanish would have no chance of locating it. It was here that Manco Inca spent the last 36 years of his life, defying Spanish Conquest.
When the city finally fell in 1572, it was destroyed and long forgotten about until 1911, when explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site. Although Bingham became confused, believing Machu Picchu to be the fabled Vilcabamba.
Trekking to Vilcabamba is not easy, nor for the faint-hearted, but as a result, virtually no tourists make this journey. You are very unlikely to see any other tourists. The journey can take over a week, through raw cloud forest, and you should ensure you find a good local guide. You can find a guide in the settlement of Huancacalle (8 hours from cusco).
The ruins of Vilcabamba don’t require any entrance fee, as they have no security or maintenance. Due to the lack of tourist infrastructure, any explorer must be prepared for things to go wrong, as they may well do. Take plenty of supplies and use decent equipment for this one.
Written by Niall Mobsby