Peru is an extraordinary country whose civilisations can be traced back 5,000 years. The story of these cultures is only now being told though, as archaeologists gain insights into the ruins that are all that remain of their empires and societies. Such a rich history has spawned temples, palaces and pyramids to rival any on Earth. Many are shown off around Cusco, which is synonymous with Machu Picchu, the myth- and mist-shrouded Inca citadel. However, Peru boasts more archaeological sites than any other South American country and there are countless examples of exceptional architecture throughout the entire country.
Peru’s a country that continues to enthrall me, a place described by the 17th-century chronicler of Inca life, Guaman Poma, as, ‘un espaciomágico’ – ‘a magic space’.
From the crumbling pre-Columbian citadels in the coastal desert, enormous forts in the cloud forest and enigmatic ruins that escaped the attentions of the conquistadors, to the grand colonial palaces and mansions built by the Spanish in Lima, Arequipa and Trujillo – history buffs will be spoiled for choice. And what ruins they are. Along the coast are the palaces of Chan Chan, the Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon and the burial hordes of Sipan.
Then there are the enigmatic Nazca Lines. In the highlands are the enormous fortress of Kuelap to the north and the surreal funerary towers of Sillustani in the south. And of course there’s Machu Picchu, the most famous and celebrated set of ruins, so famous that we forget how little we actually know about a site only brought to the world’s attention 100 years ago.
Peru remains deeply connected with its ancestral heritage and vigorously celebrates its past. However, the country is much more than the sum of its indigenous parts. Boasting breath-taking scenery and a variety of landscapes including coastal deserts, overlooked by vast Andean mountain ranges, in turn backed by dense jungle, Peru has natural wonders aplenty.
Beauty and solitude are available in abundance in the mountains. Parts of the Peruvian Andes are so unexplored they make the Himalaya look like a circus. Elsewhere adventure activities include trekking, cycling and world-class white-water rafting. Additionally, the country has some of the least-touched stretches of the Amazon within its borders, home to the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife on the planet. Jungle camps and luxury river ships are all available as means to explore this wilderness.
Cordillera Huayhuash © Mikadun, Shutterstock
The tropical Andes have been described as the richest and most diverse of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, with around 15,000 endemic plants, and nearly 500 threatened species of amphibian, bird and mammal. And it is in Peru, home to some of the most impressive mountain scenery on earth, that the Andes are at their richest.
Only here can you travel from high altiplano steppe down to pristine Amazonian rainforest in one continuous, unbroken journey, or descend from humid elfin forests directly into the spectacular desert canyon of the Marañón Valley. Nowhere else on earth can you spend days hiking through deep glacial valleys, dwarfed by snow-capped peaks of over 6,000m, and explore some of the world’s largest remaining tracts of rare Polylepis woodland.
Socially and economically, Peru can be a mass of contradictions. Developed in parts yet still incredibly poor. Forward thinking but essentially conservative. Boasting a growing middle class and top-rate tourist facilities but also the setting for some genuine poverty.
Despite its contemporary edges and tourist-class elements, it’s still a traditional country, where it’s quite possible to get off-the-beaten track, to see people in authentic clothing, pursuing age-old practices, fiestas and customs. This cultural dimension and the unforced blend of old and new lies at the heart of the country’s appeal.
Traditional communities operating almost untouched on Lake Titicaca or in the highlands contrast powerfully with Spanish colonial cities full of character. Impressive centres such as Arequipa, Cusco and Lima are destinations in their own right with a sense of history that, like the Inca stonework, has resisted both Spanish invasion and earthquakes.
It’d be a stretch to describe these cities as undiscovered, but despite the large influx of visitors, there’s an authenticity and charm, with an emphasis on both the past that shaped them, be it pre-Columbian or colonial, and the future they’re moving towards. Coupled with all of this, they boast a burgeoning food scene and cuisine that’s gone global, luxury hotels, heritage properties and high-quality service to match.
With a diverse mix of cultures, both indigenous and immigrant, Peru is a multicultural melange. With its attitude and diversity, from snow-capped summits to sun-drenched beaches, peaceful ruins and riotous festivals, traditional villages and cutting-edge contemporary cities, it’s one of the world’s most multidimensional destinations, meaning that it will never cease to awe, inspire and fascinate the visitor. It’s a place that you’ll never forget; a place that will linger long in the memory after you’ve left.
My own experience of Peru dates back to 1997 when I arrived there as a young backpacker, desperate to see the places I’d read about. A scruffy, budget hostel in Lima was a world away from the images of lost cities and Indiana Jones that I’d carried with me since I’d seen Harrison Ford in action.
Soon though I was smitten. Highlights from that first, formative tour of the country stay with me to this day: uncovering ruins along the coastal desert, climbing in the Cordillera Blanca, trekking the Inca Trail independently, camping amongst the ruins and that first, unforgettable sighting of Machu Picchu. Sailing on Lake Titicaca and staying with a family without a word of English or Spanish.
Developing a taste for Cusqueña and deep-fried pork. And of the wonderfully hospitable Peruvians who made me welcome. Since that initial visit, I have returned to Peru repeatedly. I’ve seen visitor numbers swell, independent trekking on the Inca Trail banned, Peru’s food go global and new archaeological sites be uncovered – even as Machu Picchu celebrated the centenary of its own rediscovery.
Peru’s a country that continues to enthrall me, a place described by the 17th-century chronicler of Inca life, Guaman Poma, as, ‘un espacio mágico’ – ‘a magic space’.