Six amazing ways to see an amazing country
About 30 million people live in Peru, a country roughly four times the size of Malaysia. That seems vast enough, but the variety of terrain within its borders is even more astounding. Mountains, thorny peaks of the Andres scrapping the sky. Deserts, unearthly landscape preserving ancient monuments. Jungles, a portion of the world’s greatest rainforest – the Amazon. Ribbons of shoreline, supporting vibrant communities and the capital, Lima. There are many ways to see them all, but only one way to do it in style.
Where does the Amazon River originate? The answer is not Brazil; it is Peru. Sixty percent of Peru is Amazon rainforest and riverboats are the most sensible, most efficient method to explore this fabled region. Of the ships that ply the river, none are classier than Aqua Expeditions’ two sleek, black-hulled boats—Aqua Amazon and Aria Amazon. Carrying just 24 and 32 passengers respectively, it is consummate travel in consummate style.
There may be California king beds in the cabin and fine meals in the dining room, but the greatest asset is the view – three huge glass panes that turn the room into an extension of the river. Trips spotlight the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, the country’s largest protected flooded forest, with aluminium skiffs allowing for twice-daily excursions to spot colourful macaws, lugubrious sloths, opportunistic caimans, and the chance to spot jaguars and anacondas.
Peru lays on South America’s west coast, rimmed by 2,400km of shoreline meeting the mightiest of the oceans, the Pacific. The sea supports most of Peru’s population; and not just its human population. In the southern state of Ica, the massive Paracas National Reserve supports one of the world’s largest concentrations of marine mammals and birds, including Humboldt penguins, seals, sea lions, sea otters, flamingos and the endangered, elusive Andean condor.
Bespoke British tour agency Cox & Kings arranges private, tailored tours of this vast, craggy marine wilderness. Boats and yachts, full of luxury trappings, ply the coast, towards the Ballestas Islands where the power of the waves eroded rock into stunning natural arches and caves, towards Bahia Lagunillas where pristine red sand form endless beaches, and towards the Paracas Peninsula where a massive, mysterious geo-glyph – the Paracas Candelabro – looms on the mountainside.
To reach Machu Picchu, one must travel by train to Aguas Calientes, the launching point to the fabled mountain ruins. There are trains and there is the Belmond Hiram Bingham. Named after the American explorer who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, the train brings a level of refinement to a rugged destination: guests sit at varnished wooden booths and linen-clad tables with brass lamps and large picture windows.
The scenery is devastatingly beautiful – agricultural plains and terraces, steep valleys, the Urubamba river, tiny villages, remnants of Incan bridges, red-roofed farmhouses, snow-capped mountains, and finally the jungle. Within the windows, guests can spend the three and a half hour journey imbibing a pisco sour or Intiplaka champagne while the three-man band rips through a repertoire of tunes as spontaneous camaraderie ensues. A meal follows, dishes served on Villeroy & Boch plates by waiters in waistcoats. Next stop, Machu Picchu.
In the arid plains of southern Peru, strange petroglyphs pepper an area of 500 square kilometres. These are the handiwork of the Nazca culture, created more than 1,600 years ago. Some drawings span more than 200 metres, so to see them in their entirety requires viewing from above. Nazca Flights takes passengers on a snug Cessna Caravan for 90 minutes of scenery-spotting, climbing to 450 metres above these otherworldly formations with the plane’s high-wing design ensuring visibility isn’t compromised. Angular and geometric, the lines of the hummingbird, the hands, the dog, the whale, the spider, the monkey and the astronaut – stark white lines against the dark terrain – are breathtaking and mind-boggling in their execution and form.
Manu Expeditions’ horseback rides through Peruvian mountain communities offer a true insight into Andean culture. Using Spanish Barbs, descended from those of the conquistadors in the 1500s, crossed with the more comfortable Paso breed, the trip follows ancient Incan trails. Days consist of up to six hours of leisurely riding, meeting Quechua farmers and their children ploughing fields, herding sheep or cattle. Nights are spent in splendid inns.
Andean markets, stone-walled Incan terraces, isolated churches, back routes and the Capac Nan, a 25,000-kilometre long road network, are all on the itinerary. Most memorable is the Sacred Valley’s landscape – mirrored blue lakes, jagged snow-capped peaks of the Vilcanota, plains filled with corn fields, high plateaus, rolling hills, snaking rivers and giant glaciers believed sacred by Incans.
Is there any better way to get to know a culture than through food? Jacada Travel, a specialist in luxury travel, says no and proves it by offering elaborate itineraries and bespoke tours that explore the cuisine of Peru.
It begins in Lima, known as the Culinary Capital of South America, home to Central, Astrid y Gaston and Maido, all named in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, with Central being fourth in the world. There is also Malabar by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, a rising star known for his exciting fusion of Amazonian ingredients with modern techniques.
Modern cuisine is fine and dandy, but there is culture centuries old here – chifas and tiraditios (evoking the little-known Chinese and Japanese diaspora in Peru), the traditional ceviche, Andean specialities like alpaca and guinea pig, Incan tamales. Wash all that down with excellent rendition of the national drink, the Pisco Sour.