‘Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.’ Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas
In 1911 a young lecturer from Yale University was exploring Peru in search of the ancient Incan capital of Vitcos. Travelling along the winding Urubamba river, he asked local people about any Inca ruins in the area. On one particularly drizzly day a farmer named Melchor Arteaga led him across the river and up to the top of Old Mountain, called Machu Picchu in the local language. The rest is enshrined in history.
Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first non-Peruvian to see the jungle-cloaked ruins of the citadel named after the mountain it sits on, but he received support from Yale University and the Peruvian president to return in a year later and excavate the sprawling piles of rocks, revealing an amazing ancient city that was so well hidden in the Andes that the Spanish invaders never found it. It remained intact and was eventually reclaimed by the surrounding cloud forest.
Bingham’s photos and accounts of his expeditions were a sensation and the discovery of Machu Picchu would become one of the greatest ‘finds’ in history – so famous, in fact, that most visitors to Peru see little else.
That is a great mistake, because Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Straddling the jagged Andes mountains, on the eastern side the country is the dense green Amazon jungle. Crossing the crest of the mountains, roads wind among the grey and ochre-coloured peaks under an unearthly blue sky. The western side drops steeply toward the Pacific Ocean, in landscapes that look like they’re from another planet.
I hope that by the end of this blog series you’ll feel the same way, and look for a tour that spends at least two weeks or more exploring some of the many, many different aspects of Peru.
I grew up most enthralled by ancient Egypt. A fascination with all ancient cultures, and growing up watching adventure movies with my dad (like the 1954 movie Secret of the Incas, which served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ signature outfit), meant that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list but not at the top. A higher list spot belonged to a remote and mysterious archeological ruin high up in the mountains of Bolivia called Tiwanaku, which would be capping the trip and was actually the part of the journey I was most excited about.
By the end of the trip, though, I’d completely fallen in love with Peru – it’s that remarkable! But to see past its most famous feature, you have to take the time to explore its many layers.
Start your adventure with at least a couple of days in Lima. Most tours fly you in and ship you out to Cuzco the next day, but Lima is a great city, and a wonderful introduction to the country. I recommend arriving least one day early to give you time to explore the architecture, culture and fabulous food of Peru’s capital.
Most tours will locate you at a hotel in the upscale Miraflores district. We were so fortunate that our tour, with Tucan Travel, put us right in the middle of the city, just a block away from the central plaza. We stayed at the Hotel Maury, a 3-star hotel that looked it was straight out of a 1950s adventure movie! The wood-lined bar with gorgeous murals, a lobby with classic wall clocks for several international cities, elevators with old brass number plates, and an old-fashioned breakfast room that may have been a bit worn around the edges but exuded atmosphere, more than made up for the basic rooms.
On top of that, on our very first morning a parade proceeded to the Plaza de Armas right past the entrance to our hotel – all we had to do was step outside and have front-row seats to the colourful spectacle. We had no idea what the strange costumes meant, but it was a fascinating slice of real Peruvian life.
There seemed to be a lot of festivals going on when we arrived in late October, so almost every time we turned a corner there was something artsy taking place. Peruvians do celebrate Halloween, and the Spanish part of their history means that they also celebrate the Christian holidays that come afterward. It was a very lively time to be there and I highly recommend it.
The Plaza de Armas, aka Plaza Mayor, is the core of the city, and to us it felt like the heartbeat as well. It’s a very picturesque square fringed by several important historical buildings displaying stunning Spanish architecture.
In the height of irony, conquistador Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in a location on top of ancient Inca tombs, after he and his company systematically overran the country and destroyed both the Inca civilization and a large part of the artifacts that told its history. Inside the cathedral you can see the entrances to several tombs safely preserved under glass, as well as the tomb of Pizarro himself.
Walking around the perimeter of the Plaza shows fascinating streets radiating away from it, with colourful buildings and artwork, lots of arcaded shops to explore, pretty tree-lined seating areas, cafes with delicious food and snack shops filled with treats for the local sweet tooth, and ladies with carts purveying all sorts of religious articles.
Expand your walk a little further and you’ll come across the beautiful Convent of Santo Domingo, where we found another band setting up to play.
The interior of the building is rich in colour, with vibrant chapels, a delightful trompe-l’oeil floor, beautiful tiled cloisters and lusciously-scented rose gardens. The library is a magnificent wood-paneled room with about 25,000 richly-decorated books.
Bus tours leave from the Plaza regularly to take you on a wider tour of the city, where you can see everything from the imposing Judicial Palace to flower vendors tucked into tiny open shop-fronts.
These are just a few things you can discover as you explore Lima – don’t neglect the opportunity to spend at least a little time there.
It won’t be until you finally leave Lima to see the rest of the country that you’ll see your first evidence of the wide disparity between rich and poor in Peru. The interior of the city may be filled with ornate buildings and pretty parks, but the poor are all clustered in stacked slums on the outskirts, living a bare-bones existence and working at whatever they can to make ends meet.
A few things to be aware of before you go:
- The plumbing standards in all of South America are not even close to ours, so even in major cities like Lima your used bathroom tissue can’t go in the toilet (little covered pails are handily placed and regularly cleaned out by staff).
- Tap water is not safe to use even for brushing teeth.
- If you eat in central restaurants, you shouldn’t have any issues, but you’ll want to be wary of out-of-the-way places for trying things like guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy – as curious as you may (or may not) be, things like that are best avoided. My hubby and I had no trouble with the food during our three weeks, but some of the other tour passengers who decided to be adventurous did pick up a serious illness.
- You may see warnings about a high crime rate in Lima. My hubby and I walked freely around the streets surrounding our hotel without any problems – we stumbled across a great barbecued chicken restaurant one evening on one of the side streets. Just be as prudent as you would in any large city in your own country.
- Learn some basic Spanish before you go – it’s a lovely, easy language to learn and will smooth your connections with local residents if you can at least say hello, please and thank you. In more remote areas, a phrasebook will really come in handy.
- Future posts will include information about travelling to the higher altitudes of Peru. You may see some tours that begin in Puno/Lake Titicaca and go downward from there, ending in Lima (more-or-less sea level), but that’s a hard way to do it and I’ll be explaining why later. The itinerary we followed, starting in Lima and slowly climbing higher to allow for acclimatization, is (based on both extensive research and the experiences of our group of travellers) the preferable method.
In our next installment we’ll look at travelling along Peru’s Paracas coastline to two special places – Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, and a clump of offshore islands often referred to as the Mini-Galapagos, not to mention a gigantic ancient figurine predating the Inca culture that’s carved into a hillside along the way!