Choose your own adventure in Peru
A hill atop the the Incan Sacsayhuaman stone fortress that dates back a millennium. (Colleen Clark)
The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu – the remnants of a centuries-old civilization shrouded in mist and mystery -- perch defiantly on a mountain more than 2,400m above sea level. The site has captured explorers’ imaginations for generations, deservedly becoming one of the world’s great travel destinations.
But coming to Peru and seeing only Machu Picchu is like going to the Grand Canyon and saying you have truly seen the United States. The dramatic extremes of the country — from the lush riot of the Amazon to the mysterious deserts of the south, the culinary flair of Lima to the boho-chic beaches of Mancora — hold something for every traveller. So this choose-your-own-adventure guide details how to combine the classic sites with additional stops broken down by interest.
The must sees
Obviously a visit to the ruins will figure highly in your trip. But how you see it depends on your priorities for the rest of your time in Peru. If you are interested in Incan immersion, try a four-day hike which starts in the Sacred Valley and passes more than 30 other ruins before summiting at the big show. Those shorter on time should take the glam three-and-a-half hour Hiram Bingham train from Cusco -- the largest nearby city -- to Machupicchu Town at the base of the ruins, bed down at the luxe eco-lodge Inkaterra or its more affordable sister hotel El Mapi and do a day tour of the ruins the following morning. Either hotel can organize your visit.
Once the capital of the Incan Empire and later the target of Spanish conquistadores, the city is today a hybrid of cultures, with ancient stone temples frankensteined into colonial cathedrals. Because of its elevation (3,400m above sea level), it is best to properly explore the city after your trip to Machu Picchu, whose slightly lower elevation makes it easier to acclimatise. You can cover quite a bit of the city in two days -- from the Santo Domingo cathedral built on top of Incan ruins to the Incan Sacsayhuaman stone fortress that dates back a millennium to the alpaca and handicraft boutiques. Pick a central hotel like Second Home, an artist-owned budget bed and breakfast in the funky San Blas neighbourhood, or Inkaterra La Casona, a luxury hotel housed in a 1585 colonial mansion located off the main square.
For nature nuts and adrenaline seekers
One of the most biodiverse (and endangered) places on Earth, the Amazon covers more than 60% of Peru with a densely wild jungle of macaws and piranhas, pink dolphins and jaguars. The muggy heat, extremely difficult navigation and natural dangers (poisonous frogs or anacondas anyone?) means the region is not for the faint of heart. But outfitters like the Aqua Expeditions riverboat and the Reserva Amazonica lodge provide safe, eco-friendly trips into the wilderness.
Southern desert coast
The Incas were not the only ancients to rule areas of Peru. Explore the ingenious cultures of the Chincha, Paracas and Nasca, all of which carved out an existence in the rugged deserts along the Pacific Coast. Here you can sandboard down dunes in Ica; see penguins, seals and sea lions in Islas Ballestas; and take a stomach-churning Cessna flight over the mysterious Nasca Lines, a collection of more than 1,500 large-scale drawings covering 492sqkm that were carved into the landscape an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Casa Andina Nasca hotel can connect you with the safest flight operators.
Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash
Hikers and climbers should carve out time in the Peruvian Andes in the northern and central part of the country, including the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. Spend at least two days hiking and summiting the 6,768m Huascaran, which towers over glittering high-altitude lakes. Then move on to the jagged peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash for stunning views of the Andean glaciers. The town of Huaraz serves as a staging ground for these adventures and others, including mountain biking, ice-climbing, skiing, paragliding, and kayaking. Most climbers stay at Le Casa de Zarela hostel, the ideal place to get the lowdown on the best tour operators.
For history buffs and culture vultures