Peru is synonymous with the Inca civilization that thrived until the Spanish arrived, hungry in their quest for gold. However, highland Indians descended from the Inca’s still remain, preserving traditional ways of life and speaking the ancient Quechua language - indeed it is difficult to travel anywhere in Peru without stumbling across some ancient reminder of the past, either pre-colonial or even pre-Inca. As well as being Peru’s cultural centre, the southern city of Cusco is the ideal base for today’s traveller, being well placed for the epic train journey through the Urubamba Valley to Machu Picchu, jungle excursions, Lake Titicaca and on into neighbouring Bolivia and Chile.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lima is often referred to as the ‘city of kings’ and was for more than 300 years, the key city throughout all of South America. Vestiges of Lima’s colonial heyday still remain, notably the Presidential Palace, Cathedral and close to the centrally located Plaza de Armas, the San Francisco Convent where no visit is complete without a tour of the catacombs. Further south are the remarkable Nasca Lines, vast drawings etched in to the arid desert landscape and best seen from the air. View Peru in a larger map
Over half of Peru is made up of pristine jungle and contains some of the world’s most diverse tropical flora and fauna. Rising to prominence as a result of the great rubber boom of the 19th century, Iquitos is Peru’s gateway to the Amazon. Jungle lodges offer excursions deep into the rainforest, while a number of cruise ships ply the 4 day route east as far as the Brazilain border town of Tabatinga. In the remote south-east, Manu National Park is a 90 minute journey by boat from Boca Manu airstrip, preceded by a 35 minute flight from Cusco.
Four roads once led from Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas to the furthest corners of the Inca Empire which extended from Colombia to northern Argentina. Granite stone walls and temples can still be seen, the most remarkable is the sacred Qoricancha, or sun temple. The surrounding countryside of the Urubamba Valley is stunning, much of it sculpted by agricultural terraces once watered by complex irrigation systems. The most famed example of Inca architecture is to be found at Machu Picchu, built around the mid-15th century but ‘lost’ to the jungle until rediscovered in 1911. The site can be reached either by train, helicopter or on foot along the Inca trail. Best viewed at dawn or dusk, a visit to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable experience.
Arequipa’s mild climate and altitude make it the perfect place to acclimatise before ascending to either Cusco or Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. This beautifully preserved city is an architectural gem, containing many fine old buildings and churches. The highlight is Santa Catalina Convent, built in 1579. It is a maze of cobbled streets and cloisters, with one sector being retained as home to the few remaining nuns. Nearby, high above the Colca Canyon, majestic Andean condors can be seen carving effortless circles in the sky.
Trujillo and Chiclayo
Trujillo lies at the heart of Peru’s great pre-Inca cultures. The Chimu ruled the area before the Inca conquest and built their capital at Chan Chan, widely considered to be the largest adobe city ever built. To the south lie the imposing 130 foot high Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the centre of Moche power. Chiclayo was best known for its weaving and ceramics until the recent discovery of the lavish tomb of the 1,500 year old, Lord of Sipan. A collection of priceless funereal artefacts can be viewed at the Bruning Museum in Lambeyeque.