Intro to Peru, starting with fascinating Lima

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!

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Perspective — in an old Spanish convent

Tromp l'oeil floor in the Convent of Santo Domingo, Lima Peru - photo by E. Jurus
Tromp l’oeil floor in the Convent of Santo Domingo, Lima Peru – photo by E. Jurus

There’s a wonderful old convent in Lima, Peru that has beautiful and elegant architecture — walls of painted tiles, courtyards with delightful gardens, a venerable wood-panelled library with massive old books. It’s a peaceful haven, but in one area there’s something quite unexpected. You enter through a lobby that features a most unusual floor. You can see it in the photo above — it looks like we’re stepping on big 3-dimensional blocks, but it’s all flat and painted in a wonderful tromp-l’oeil style that reminds me of an Escher drawing. Perhaps it was a way for the architect, or even the nuns themselves, to balance the gravitas of the other spaces, but whatever the case it’s a charming surprise. If you’re going to Lima in the future, don’t miss this sight, and in particular the amusing floor art.

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The fabulous convent library - photo by E. Jurus
The fabulous convent library – photo by E. Jurus

Beautiful roses in one of the courtyards of the convent - photo by E. Jurus
Beautiful roses in one of the courtyards of the convent – photo by E. Jurus