Peru travel is a photographer’s dream—from the monumental ruins at Machu Picchu down to the tiny shops of Cuzco. The rainforest presents a plethora of animal and plant life. Colonial towns like Arequipa bustle with locals, many of Incan descent, with stories carved in their faces. And the stunning Andes Mountains are almost always within sight.
Journey back to the time of the Inca with a visit to the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu. High in the Andes, you’ll feel the indisputable energy of Machu Picchu’s stone temples, tombs, homes, ceremonial baths, and plazas. Spiritual seekers often come here to perform rituals, and visitors from around the globe come to experience this uniquely sacred place. Access the ruins on a day trip from Cuzco by railway, or travel to Machu Picchu on foot—hiking the Inca Trail and arriving in three to six days.
Dozens of other archeological sites await your discovery in Peru—several remarkable ones are located in the area known as the Sacred Valley. Visit Ollantaytambo, a quaint village inhabited since the 13th century—with narrow cobblestone streets and a massive Incan fortress. The ruins at Pisac, Maras and Moray should not be missed. The Sacred Valley is also a wonderful place to get lost among the quaint villages, lush scenery and friendly locals. Purchase colorful hand-woven textiles at the markets here or simply enjoy the melodies of pan pipe music.
Explore a diverse natural world thanks to the country’s varied elevations. Take a boat into the Amazon rainforest or stay at a remote eco-lodge. Learn about the unique biodiversity of a cloud forest. Explore the high Andes, verdant valleys, or the Pacific coastline and spot the unique wildlife that resides in each—albatross, condor, llama, alpaca, chinchilla, lizards, insects and more.
In addition to the rich natural and cultural wonders of Peru, you’ll delight in world-class cuisine created from local ingredients by celebrity chefs. With dishes like ceviche, stuffed hot peppers or roasted guinea pig, Peru is quickly claiming a well-deserved place in the world food scene.
The earliest inhabitants of Peru migrated from Mexico and Central America as early as 1000 BC and were not related to the Inca. Examples of their art and architecture survive today, but for the most part little is known about these people.
The Inca were a warlike tribe living in Peru’s semiarid southern sierra region before relocating to the fertile Cuzco Valley between 1100 and 1300. By 1500, the Incan empire was vast—occupying areas of what is today Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Colombia. Their society was largely sustained by farming (the Inca were the first to cultivate potatoes). Rumors of immense deposits of gold and silver attracted the interests of Europe during this time.
In 1532, Spanish soldier and explorer Francisco Pizarro claimed the Incan Empire for Spain, and Peru remained under Spanish control for more than 200 years. Peru’s political history since then was one of turmoil and change until recent times—due in part to the geographic isolation and inaccessibility of various parts of the country. With the end of a decades-long war in 2000, quality of life has increased for Peruvians as well as tourism to the now-safer country. Peru currently enjoys a democratic government.
Evidence of ancient civilizations and the once glorious Incan Empire remains in the archaeological sites throughout Peru. The most famous of these sites is Machu Picchu, probably because it is the best preserved and most extensively excavated. Machu Picchu visits comprise a large portion of Peru’s economy and offer travelers an up-close look at the fascinating ancient city. Other remarkable sites include Ollantaytambo, Maras and Moray and the ruins at Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
The mysterious Nazca lines in the deserts of southern Peru are shallow designs made in the ground by the Nazca culture between 400 and 650. Many depict animals like fish, llamas, monkeys and birds. Best viewed by air, hundreds of lines have been discovered, the largest more than 600 feet across. Though many theories exist, German mathematician Maria Reiche speculated that the Nazcas created these lines as an astronomical calendar to measure key points of the solar year to assist with agricultural planning.
Today, 45% of Peru’s inhabitants are directly descended from the Inca. Areas of the Andean highlands are populated with descendants of the Quechua and Aymara Indians who do not speak Spanish. In the jungles of eastern Peru live indigenous tribes so isolated their lifestyle is much the same as their ancestors’ was 500 years. Contrastingly, the coastal cities are modern and westernized.
Geographically, Peru has three distinct sections—the coastal plain, the sierra, and the montaña. Most of Peru’s cities and industries are located on the plain. The rainforest is in the rich montaña region. The sierra is defined by tall Andes peaks, high plateaus and deep gorges and valleys. Several of the world’s highest peaks are found in this region, as well as lake Titicaca—the world’s highest navigable lake. The lake’s floating Uros Islands are home to an ancient pre-Incan race. Isla Taquile is also an inhabited island of Titicaca.
Peru’s animal life is as varied as its geography. The coast is home to mostly seabirds along with a few lizards and insects. The sierra is home to llama, alpaca, vicuña, chinchilla and guanaco. Tropical montaña wildlife includes the jaguar, cougar, armadillo, peccary, tapir, anteater, monkey, alligator, parrot, flamingo and a variety of snakes and insects. Colca Canyon—a natural wonder deeper than the Grand Canyon—and Condor Cross are both excellent locations for spotting soaring condors, whose wingspan is the second largest of any bird (the albatross claims the largest).
Photos: © Amelia Tockston, Lori Gifford