by Liz Fleming
From the mysteries of Machu Picchu, to the urban gastronomy of Lima, to the desert adventures of the coast – our passion for Peru is boundless.
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Mysterious Machu Picchu
It was 1911. After years of anticipation, Hiram Bingham was within a few miles of what he believed might be Machu Picchu, the famed Lost City of the Incas. Bingham was sick with excitement, but his guide was sick with a hangover from too much chicha (corn liquor) the night before.
"I’ll give you a sol," Bingham begged, "if you’ll show me the ruins." A pittance now but worth three days’ wages then, the sol was incentive enough to kick start the expedition and soon Bingham was striding into the magnificent stone ruins of an ancient Incan city.
It must have been heart-stopping for him and I guarantee you'll feel the same when you see Machu Picchu for the first time.
Getting there will be significantly easier. You’ll book a flight to Lima and another from Lima to Cuzco, buy a return train ticket on one of three rail services that make the trek to Machu Picchu and get a bus ticket for the hair-raising collection of switchbacks that serves as the road to the ancient site. You won't need the llamas Bingham did but you will want a guide to explain the mind-boggling history of the place (choose one who doesn’t drink chicha.)
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If you stay overnight at the site, your accommodation will be far better than Bingham's, who presumably bedded down beside those smelly llamas. We enjoyed the pared-down eco-friendly elegance of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which offered the opportunity to experience the precious sunset and sunrise hours in the ruins, before and after the invasion of the tour buses. That's when Machu Picchu was most magical.
Standing in the midst of massive monuments carved by people without stone cutting tools, we gazed dumbfounded at stone walls built so intricately that they’ve endured centuries without the aid of mortar. None of the rock used for the construction in 1460 AD was local and must have come from another site, many miles away. How, we wondered, were those massive stones dragged and then hoisted up the steep mountainside...and why?
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The remains of a complicated aqueduct and terraced garden system suggested advanced agricultural skills and the placement of sacrificial altars indicated a sophisticated understanding of astronomy. According to our guide, the nearly 1,200 people thought to have lived in Machu Picchu simply vanished into the Andes, abandoning a city that had taken generations to build.
Where did the Incas go? Some historians suggest they were fleeing an invading Spanish army, while others argue that a sudden outbreak of smallpox convinced them the Sun God was angry and they disappeared into the jungle where they died of the illness. Whatever the cause, the thriving city was abandoned to the elements, remaining a challenge to historians and a source of endless visitor fascination.
Captivated by the Coast
Coastal Peru, where the desert meets the sea, is all about excitement - from surfers riding the waves, to hikers challenging the rugged landscape - and our first leap into the coastal adventure in the Tumbes region of coastal Peru was huge.
Helmets in hand, we climbed to a rocky summit. Below, the valley stretched for miles. Above, a cable swayed in the warm breeze. We wriggled into harnesses as the guide gave us his best advice: “Jump, point your toes and go fast!”
Apparently, when you’re zip-lining off a mountainside in the Tumbes region of coastal Peru, you go fast…or go home.
Squeals echoed across the valley as we zipped through brilliant sunshine from one lofty perch to another. Short of growing feathers and wings, this was the closest we’d ever come to bird-style flying. We soared, clambered up ladders into the treetops, then shot through the air again like crazed rockets.
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Getting in touch with our inner monkeys, we challenged a climbing wall, hoisting ourselves from foothold to handhold. From the climbing wall, it was on to the high ropes obstacle course, swinging, swaying and stretching, suspended high above the ground, then on to the dirt buggies, roaring through twisty back roads. Tears of laughter carved rivulets down our dust-covered cheeks.
We went where the wild things are. Just off the coast, whales cruise the waters of the Pacific, migrating north and south at various times of the year. Aboard a mid-sized cruiser, with a captain who offered both local ocean lore and a stereo rocking ACDC, we watched as the waters split to reveal a massive black back. A titanic tail rose, flipped and was gone as quickly as it had appeared - a tantalizing brush with one of the world’s largest creatures. Further south in the Paracas National Reserve, we explored the small Ballestas, San Gallan and Chincha Islands. Sea lions barked while Inca terns, cormorants, gulls, pelicans and a cackling chorus of other seabirds wrangled for position on the rocky outcroppings, but our wildest Peruvian discovery wasn’t in the ocean.
In Puerto Pizarro’s Manglar Swamp National Sanctuary, mysterious mangroves form a basket weave of branches in which birds, fish, reptiles and animals of all sorts make their homes. We explored in a flat-bottomed boat, gliding quietly along the channel, the silence broken only by bird song and the water lapping at the sides of our boat. Aldo, our guide, pointed as each furry, feathered or scaly head, leg or wing came into view. Arriving at a small dock, he led us along a wooden walkway, deep into the mangrove tangle and we began to hear a new sound, completely unlike anything we’d heard before…a sort of sucking and splashing, accompanied by the breaking of small branches. Below the walkway, thick grey mud licked at the trunks of the mangroves. What creature was coming through that thick forest ooze? We stared into the leafy darkness and incredibly, a man emerged from the muck. Sunk to his thighs in the ooze, he clutched a sodden bag in one hand and a large, wriggling crab in the other. Aldo explained that an unseen army of crabbers works from dawn to dark, wading in the mangrove forests in search of crabs to feed the insatiable local hotels and restaurants. From then on, the shy, proud face of the crabber came to me each time seafood appeared on the menu.
Speaking of menus, Peru is a taste sensation at every turn, particularly if you are fortunate enough to find the 300 year-old Casa Moreyra, home of Lima’s most famous gastronomic experience – Astrid y Gaston. In a sophisticated urban capital of more than eight million people, Peru’s capital and the 16th most populous city in the world, it’s quite something to top the culinary ratings and Astrid Y Gaston was recently voted South America’s best restaurant. The quirky but über elegant eatery is the culinary showcase of Chef Diego Muñoz and the tasting menu is his masterpiece. Each of the 24 courses is an exquisite bite of both Peruvian culture and Chef Diego’s personal history, all wrapped in presentations that combine skill and whimsy. From green zebra tomatoes to baby purple cabbage to the quintessential potato – everything served is a part of the region’s traditional cuisine. Chef’s magic makes appetizers morph into savoury ice-cream cones while meats may be spun like yarn or draped like silk, each served on a plate specially made to cradle that particular course and paired with a perfectly selected wine. As one course after another appears, the server tells the gastronomic tale – and it’s a long one. Expect to spend at least three hours. We, in fact, spent an entire afternoon, from noon until six before staggering off to the über-elegant Hotel B in the Milleflores district - and I wouldn’t have missed a moment or a morsel.
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Winter/Spring 2016 issue.