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Country Spotlight 

Unknown Peru

Suasi Island, Lake TiticacaSuasi Island, Lake Titicaca. Image: Getty

Machu Picchu remains an essential pilgrimage for travelers, but new and undiscovered attractions are raising Peru’s tourism profile, says Chris Moss

 

For many travelers, Peru is the archetypal land of indigenous South America. Its villages, towns and cities are alive with colorful markets, Andean music, native cuisine and homespun textiles. Even the tourism hub of Cusco remains distinctly non-European in its social and cultural expressions, with many of the city’s finest palaces and religious buildings converted into hotels, allowing visitors to soak up the romance of pre-Columbian Latin America.

The so-called Sacred Valley of the Incas, the brand name for the valley of the Rio Urubamba that lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu, is well established as one of the world’s premier destinations for walking holidays. In addition to the four- to five-day Classic Inca Trail route, there are dozens of new, longer and shorter hiking options. And during the past decade, a raft of luxury hotels has opened along the valley, making it easy to combine exercise with post-trek pampering and spa treatments.

Besides Machu Picchu, the destinations with most pulling power are the pellucid waters of Lake Titicaca, the mysterious Nazca Lines in the coastal desert and the astonishing wildlife and labyrinthine waterways of the Amazon basin. The latter in particular is a trending region, and Peru has three distinct Amazon experiences on offer: Iquitos, accessible only by boat or plane and ideal for cruises; Chachapoyas, which has notable monuments and a famous mummy museum; and emerging Tambopata, with its good air links and speedy riverboat access to lodges. In the last couple of years, most of the traditional-style riverboats have been upgraded, with a few now offering luxurious suites and modern amenities.

Between 2012 and 2013, US visitor numbers climbed from 447,218 to 487,328 (the most recent tourism statistics). This number is believed to be growing steadily alongside an increasing range of vacation experiences.

“After years of visitors to Peru centering their travel around Cusco and Machu Picchu, we’re seeing visitor arrivals expand in emerging cities and regions,” says Marisol Acosta, director of tourism promotion for PromPeru.

“Once considered a travel stopover, Lima has become a destination in itself, with new culinary developments and offerings for visitors. Travelers are exploring the northern coast’s laid-back beach towns and pre-Incan archeological sites. Others are heading south of Lima to the Pisco Valley and the region of Ica where the Nazca Lines can be seen and the Ballestas Islands visited.”

Following on is rundown of Peru’s lesser-known attractions and experiences…  

Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Image: Getty

Beyond the Inca trail

In recent years the Peruvian government and local tourism agencies have developed many new trails, long and short, to take pressure off the classic Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Some go out to alternative Inca sites such as the remote Choquequirao while others are softer options, such as a trek to the vineyards around Ica, or more hardcore hikes in less heavily trafficked mountain ranges, including the Cordillera Blanca. There are also new paths to Machu Picchu: the High Inca Trail, for example,  is aimed at those keen to do a tough, week-long mountain hike, via the breathtaking Salkantay Pass, and requires the use of porters, horses and tents. This walk joins the latter part of the classic trail, so hikers arrive in Machu Picchu along with everyone else via the iconic Sun Gate.

Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines. Image: Talia Barreda

Lima

The capital is rising up with the Peruvian economy. Ceviche has put the city’s rich and varied gastronomy on the global map — Gaston Acurio, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino and other acclaimed local chefs run world-class restaurants as well as cooking classes. The city boasts a remarkable ancient site, the 1,800 year-old Huaca Pucllana ruins, as well as the Museo Larco, a private museum specializing in ancient erotic objets d’art. The historic center is well-suited to walking and cycling tours, and is full of old churches, traditional shops, and atmospheric restaurants and hotel bars, such as the one at the Grand Hotel Maury, where, legend has it, the pisco sour was invented. South of Lima is the Pisco valley and Paracas Nature Reseve, which is excellent for birdlife. Both are ideal stopping off points en route to the Ballestas Islands or Nazca Lines.

Pre-Incan ruins

Along Peru’s Pacific seaboard, north of the city of Trujillo, are the adobe ruins of Chan Chan built by the Chimu people. This agricultural society dominated eastern Peru from the 12th to the 15th century, when they were assimilated by the rapidly expanding and dominating Inca empire. Chan Chan is a huge complex, and the main museum site, the Tschudi sector, is sufficiently intact to give a good impression of the splendor of the original citadel. The so-called ‘Moche route’ links this key destination with Huanchaco, also once a Chimu settlement and now a thriving surfer town; the temple of Huaca del Sol y La Luna from the Moche period; and the site of Huaca-Rajada and the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan, both near Chiclayo.

Misti volcano and Arequipa town

Misti volcano and Arequipa town. Image: AWL

Arequipa

Along Peru’s Pacific seaboard, north of the city of Trujillo, are the adobe ruins of Chan Chan built by the Chimu people. This agricultural society dominated eastern Peru from the 12th to the 15th century, when they were assimilated by the rapidly expanding and dominating Inca empire. Chan Chan is a huge complex, and the main museum site, the Tschudi sector, is sufficiently intact to give a good impression of the splendor of the original citadel. The so-called ‘Moche route’ links this key destination with Huanchaco, also once a Chimu settlement and now a thriving surfer town; the temple of Huaca del Sol y La Luna from the Moche period; and the site of Huaca-Rajada and the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan, both near Chiclayo.

Chachapoyas & the Central Amazon

Heading inland from Chiclayo is a long and winding road to Gocta, only discovered in 2002 and one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. This marks the entry point into Chachapoyas, named after the 8th-15th century civilization. The best-known Chachapoya site is Kuelap, a stunning citadel high up in the mountains; condors are often seen here wheeling above the clouds. The next key stop is Leymebamba for Centro Mallqui, a museum displaying 200 mummies found in a nearby lake. Short hikes are more typical on this tour and the river is a constant presence; several tributaries run into the mighty Maranon, the principal source of the Amazon.

Manu National Park Wildlife

Image: Getty

Manu National Park wildlife

There are a staggering 1,830 different bird species in Peru, placing it safely towards the top in the world list of megadiverse countries. The species range from the huge Andean condor to the short-tailed hummingbird, the second smallest bird on the planet, with all manner of colorful macaws, tyrant flycatchers, kingfishers, toucans and tanagers in between. An astonishing 331 bird species were spotted in a single day — a world record — in Manu National Park, accessed via Puerto Maldonado and increasingly a favorite among tourists as well as birdwatchers. The park is also exceptionally good for seeing butterflies and orchids, and is home to storied mammals including the spectacled bear, jaguar, giant otter and giant anteater.   

Lake Titicaca

Image: Getty

Lake Titicaca island

The high-plains town of Puno and the shores of South America’s biggest lake have both long been established stops on the backpacker trail, and are increasingly popular add-ons for group tours from Cusco. There’s now also the option of taking a traditional boat out to visit the lake island of Amantani. Beautiful textiles are made by a local cooperative and wheat, quinoa and potatoes are grown here by the 3,500 Quechua- and Aymara-speaking inhabitants. Visitors can climb two small peaks named Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth) to see Inca and earlier Tiwanaku ruins at the summits. Electricity is only available between 6-11pm, so stopovers are still tricky.

La Estrella Amazonica riverboat

La Estrella Amazonica riverboat

Iquitos Amazon cruise

Companies such as Aqua Expeditions, Delfin, G Adventures and International Expeditions operate a range of three- to 10-day luxury cruises along the Amazon, for an opportunity to penetrate deep into the Amazon system and visit the remote Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, where there’s an excellent chance of seeing pink dolphins and piranha, capuchin monkeys and three-toed sloths, as well as dozens of bird species. Vessels are being upgraded, with new boats such as the 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica, being kitted out with 15 outward-facing, 220sq ft cabins with private balconies, a fitness center and a 1,000sq ft observation deck. Smaller vessels are used for piranha fishing and to see giant otters. Haimark launches The Amazon Discovery in June, offering 22 cabins on six-night itineraries. 

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