Peru - Heartland of the Inca Empire
Peru is a vast country and a stunning place of superlatives. Deep canyons, high Andean mountain peaks, coastal deserts, and thick rainforest jungle can all be found within its boundaries. Situated on the western side of South America, it borders on to Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil, and Bolivia to the east and Chile to the South.
The capital, Lima, is situated on the coast, more or less in the middle country. It is the largest center of population with almost 10 million inhabitants. All other cities have fewer than 1 Mio inhabitants. Nevertheless, in recent years increasing numbers of people have left their traditional homelands to pursue opportunities in the cities. Peru is a country in transition.
Most visitors will arrive in Lima by air and spend little time in the capital, before moving on, most often by taking another flight. Lima is the transport hub of the country and all domestic flights connect via Lima. Peru is a country for archeology buffs. It was the center of the famous Inca Empire, one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world. Many traces of this incredible Empire can still be found, intermingled with layers of still more ancient relics of civilizations that were already well developed by the time the Incas took over. These archeological treasures serve as reminders that human civilization had reached remarkable heights in the New World long before the first white man ever put a foot on its shore. To visit Peru is a journey of discovery where ancient and modern mysteries merge into one amazing inner and outer experiences.
Apart from Machu Picchu, the biggest attraction in all of South America, there are also many other Inca sites as well as remnants from other civilizations, such as the Moche, in the Chiclayo region of northern Peru or the mysterious Nazca lines, scratched into the coastal desert, about 7 hours south of Lima, to name but a few. But there are also many cultural highlights: Peru is famous as one of the best gastro-destinations in the New World, blending traditional foods with modern twists brought in by later immigrants.
Peru also has an incredibly diverse ethnic diversity with many different indigenous groups, as well as Mestizo, European and Japanese descendants. One of the most interesting indigenous groups that live in the highlands of southern Peru, the Uros people, who literally have built the islands they live on in Lake Titicaca out of reeds.
Another extremely interesting area, especially for nature lovers, is, of course, the Amazon basin as well as the cloud forest that drapes the eastern Andes. The best places to access these remote regions is either from Cusco, where you can embark on excursions to the incredible Manu National Park, one of the top biodiversity hot-spots in the world, or from Puerto Maldonado, the hub of the southern Amazon. There are several very good eco-lodges in that can be reached in about an hour from Puerto Maldonado. These are great for those who have little time but want to get a taste of the jungle. However, the further away you get from civilization the better are your chances of encountering some of the rarer species of wildlife, such as the majestic jaguar.
There are also some clay licks in the area that are visited on excursions organized at the eco-lodges, where you can observe various species of parrots, including the endangered scarlet and blue macaw.
Further north, on the shores of Amazon River itself, lies Iquitos, once a booming rubber town, which only recently has begun to rediscover itself as an eco-tourism destination. There are several ecolodges along the river, but a unique way to discover the region is on an Amazon River Boat Cruise. This is not for everyone, as it is a luxury experience, but for those who want to enjoy this remote wilderness in style, there is no better way.
Where to stay and what to do
The one item on everybody’s ‘must-see’ list when coming to Peru, is Machu Picchu.
There are several options as to how to go about that – you can go on a day trip from Cusco or the Sacred Valley, or spend the night at one of the innumerable hotels in Aguas Calientes (our choice: Machu Picchu Pueblo, a cozy and charming eco-resort laid out like a little village of adobe buildings in beautiful, landscaped grounds). Spending the night will allow you to visit the ruins very early the next morning before most of the crowds get there.
Or you can do as the Incas did and walk to the citadel, on the Inca Trail. The traditional route takes 4 days, but it is very popular and you must book well early in order to be sure of
A good alternative is the Salcantay Trail, which takes 5 days and is a little bit harder to do. However, it a gorgeous route and for those who don’t like the idea of camping, you’ll be pleased to learn that there is the possibility of doing this as a lodge-to-lodge trek, with the promise of a comfortable bed each night, as well as some delicious food – and even a jacuzzi and massage service.
But for those, who love trekking, the Inca Trail or Salcantay Trail don’t have to be the be all and end all of your route to happiness – Peru has many fantastic trails, both in the Cusco/Sacred Valley Region, as well as further north, in the Cordillera Blanca and the Huascaran National Park.
And, just to be clear, Machu Picchu is also not the only significant archeological site in Peru – far from it! There is an astonishing number of fascinating sites bearing witness to the impressive archeological record and a
The other chief attraction is Peru’s amazing wildlife. The country has many unique National Parks and wildlife reserves and one of the largest protected areas connect the singular Manu Biosphere Reserve, one of the top biodiversity hot-spots in the world, with the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon Basin. While access to Manu is restricted (only a small number of low impact tours are allowed in), Tambopata is more easily accessible and there are a number of excellent ecolodges along the river. (Our choice: the newly renovated Tambopata Research Center, which is situated far enough from civilization to support a wide range of wildlife, has easy access to a range of different habitats, and also has a nearby parrot clay lick).
The other region where you can experience Peru’s amazing tropical wildlife, is the hear of the Amazon Basin itself. Although a little bit less convenient for access, this region has a fascinating history, bound up with the great Amazon River itself. Some of the longest established eco-lodges can be found here. The area is well known for its rich primate habitat and seasonally inundated forest, especially in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve. This is also the place to go if you want to experience an Amazonian River Cruise.
Most travelers will arrive in Peru’s capital, Lima, by plane. There many regular, scheduled flights arriving from North America, Central America, other South American countries as well as from Europe.
Lima is the main airport hub through which all other domestic flights connect.
There are several inexpensive local airlines, which, however, frequently cease operations and all of them are to a greater or lesser degree unreliable. Allow for plenty of buffer time if you have to make connections, especially international connections!
Hold on to your tourist card when you enter the country, you’ll have to give it back when you leave. Plan to be at the airport at least 3 hours prior to departure for your return flight.
Renting cars in Peru is very expensive and not recommended, due to the fact that the road conditions can be quite hazardous, and it can be difficult to find your way around. Apart from the road not being in good condition, there is also the danger of theft or damage to your car. Best to take taxis, buses or let a tour company do the driving.
Buses are inexpensive and the main mode of transport in Peru. There are several bus companies, some that offer strictly local services and others that have modern coaches and offer long distance journeys in relative comfort.
Peru uses Peruvian Nuevo Sol N$ or PEN. The exchange rate is about USD 1 = 3 N$. In the bigger cities, you’ll find ATM machines. If you bring US dollars, only take smaller denominations as it is difficult to break a larger note. Also, most people are extremely fussy when it comes to the crispness of your paper money. Dog-eared and crinkled notes will be refused. Beware that there is a great industry of 20 dollar bill forgeries. While it is not common to pay in US dollars, most service staff are happy to accept US dollar bills for tips, providing they look pristine.
The best places to exchange money are so-called ‘
During the (North American) summer months Peru has the same time as US Central Time. During the (North American) Summer, it has the same time as Eastern time.
Peru has two main seasons, wet season, from about November to May and dry season, lasting from about June through October. However, the actual weather patterns and temperatures vary widely, depending on the location – the coastal strip is mostly dry, desert-like, the Andes rise up by more than 6000m so, obviously climate and temperatures will vary hugely depending on the actual altitude, the cloud forest is mostly damp and warm, but can be cool in the evenings, while the Amazon Basin is steamy and hot, and can be wet at any time of the year.
The official language is Spanish, but Quechua and Aymara are also spoken. In the main tourist hubs, English is also commonly spoken and understood.
Peru uses a 220V power supply, which is double that of the US. Although the plugs look pretty much like US plugs, they usually don’t fit and would fry your appliances. European (except British) plugs will fit and work fine. For anything else, you’ll need an adapter.
National Parks & Protected Areas
This is only a selection of protected areas, wildlife reserves, and national parks:
Situated in the northeastern corner of the Peruvian Amazon, the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo has been designated as a reserve in 1991 to protect the habitat of the rare red uakari monkey. Subsequent scientific research has found the reserve to be one of the richest ‘biodiversity hot-spots’ of the worlds with a large variety of plants, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Particularly the reserve’s mammal diversity exceeds that of any other region in all of the Amazon, with the number of primate species being the highest of any protected park or reserve in the world. See our featured trip to Tahuayo Lodge.
NATIONAL RESERVE OF PACAYA SAMIRIA
Located centrally towards the eastern slopes of the Andes, this huge reserve comprising some 2,080,000 hectares, is one of the Amazon’s richest wildlife habitats. During the rainy season, between December and March, much of it turns into swampland. There are now two lodges in the reserve, Pacaya Samiria Amazon Lodge, and Jungle Expeditions. It is also possible to make independent arrangements. Full jungle camping equipment including ample food supplies and mosquito repellent are necessary. Once in the park, no supplies can be obtained. It is best to hire a guide in Lagunas. There is now also a cruise company that make tours to the reserve.
MANU NATIONAL PARK AND BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Manu Biosphere Reserve, in the southwestern region of the Amazon, is perhaps the most famous National Park of Peru. It is the largest protected area within this country and boasts perhaps the greatest biodiversity anywhere in the Amazon (if not on the planet). The varieties of fauna and flora that can be observed in this incredible wildlife sanctuary are too numerous to mention. Giant otters, black and white caiman, macaws, tapirs, numerous species of monkeys and birds, jaguars and other cats can frequently be observed. As for plants…there are literally thousands of different species. The guides accompanying the tours give an interesting insight into the ecology of Manu and its many inhabitants. They are also well versed in the traditional uses of many of the plants.
The almost 2 million hectares that comprise Manu National Park are divided into 3 sections:
The Cultural Area
Buffer zone with development restrictions, much of which is cloud forest habitat
The Reserved Zone
Restricted access to limited numbers of tourists (must be part of an organized trip)
Fully protected area. Access is only allowed to the indigenous people who live there and occasionally to special scientific research expeditions.
There is only one lodge within the reserved zone and another couple in the cultural zone. Access to the reserved zone is by organized tour only to as a way of protecting the environment as much as possible. The reserved zone can only be reached by bus and boat or by light aircraft. There is another lodge in the cultural zone where independent stays are possible. Several tour organizers offer regular low-impact camping trips to Manu. Special educational workshops and expeditions can be arranged. (See our ‘ featured camping trips to Manu’).
Further Information about the world heritage site:
TAMBOPATA CANDAMO RESERVE ZONE
Tambopata Reserve, located in the southern department of Madre de Dios is somewhat more accessible than Manu. This is another jungle reserve, comprising mainly lowland forest along the Tambopata river. It is possible to arrange independent expeditions in Puerto Maldonado, by hiring a guide and all the necessary equipment. However, it is probably easier to visit one of the many lodges located in and around the reserve. These offer various packages for 3 – 7 days stays, which include several expeditions to remote areas with knowledgeable guides. The flora and fauna that can be experienced here are similar to that of Manu, though Manu also includes montane rainforest habitats, and thus has a greater species diversity.
HUASCARAN NATIONAL PARK
This vast national park area, located in the central Andes, is one of the best areas for hiking, trekking and mountain climbing. It comprises almost the entire range of La Cordillera Blanca and offers many trails which can be hiked independently or with a group or guide. A permit should be obtained from the park office in Huaraz. It is advisable to inquire locally about trail conditions and the current political situation in the area which you want to visit. Detailed information and maps, as well as specific guidebooks, can be obtained from the office of the South America Explorers Club in Lima (see ‘resources’). Whilst Huaraz (the most obvious base for expeditions to this area) is only about 3000m above sea-level, many of the most spectacular peaks of the Cordillera Blanca are well over 6000m above sea-level. Hikers should spend a few days acclimatising to the high altitude. A particular attraction for plant enthusiasts are the Puya Raymondi (Pourretia gigantea) plants, which grow up to 12 meters high and live for about 40 years. The largest member of the bromeliad family, these plants grow only at an altitude of between 3700m and 4200m and are endemic to this region. They are most spectacular in May, when they are in full bloom.
More Information on this protected area:
MACHU PICCHU and the INCA TRAIL
Machu Picchu, the most famous of all ancient ruins and the most visited tourist destination of South America is a designated archeological zone. Whilst guards abound they seem to do little to protect this stunning sacred place against the damage done by hordes of tourists that trek there on a daily basis. Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas are not protected national park zones, but they offer some of the most beautiful hikes in Peru, which can be explored both independently or with a guided tour. Whichever way you go, please leave only footprints and take only memories (and a few photographs perhaps). The popularity of this area is rapidly proving its downfall, as careless tourists contribute to its degradation rather than to its preservation. Sacred Earth has now found a reputable and conscientious partner in Peru through whom we now offer Inca Trail hikes. This company not only takes an active role in the conservation of this legendary trail, but also pays the porters a fair wage. Tours are guided by experienced and well qualified naturalist guides. (See more information on our Machu Picchu tours)
More about Machu Picchu:
PARACAS MARINE NATURE RESERVE
A peninsula, situated on the southern coast in the department of Ica, close to the Nazca lines. This area is particularly good for watching marine wildlife, such as sea lions, penguins, pelicans, flamingos and a host of other birds and animals. Though its location on the coastal desert makes it rather devoid of plant life. Tours to the islands of the coast (Ballestas Islands) offer a particularly satisfying opportunity for marine wild life viewing. See our featured tours to Paracas Reserve and Nazca Lines
NATIONAL RESERVE OF PAMPAS GALERAS
Situated about 90 km inland from Nasca, this reserve is a natural habitat sanctuary for the famous Vicuña Llamas. A permit is required to visit the reserve. Alternatively, it is possible to go with an organized tour from Nasca.
NATIONAL SANCTUARY AND LAKES OF MEJIA
Close to Nazca, about 6km south of Mejia is the little known Lagunas de Mejia Nature Reserve. These lakes cover an area of about 700 hectares, separated from the coast by just a sandbar, are thus an important habitat for coastal and migratory birds. A great place for bird watching, especially in the early morning.
Situated in truly stunning scenery, this canyon claims to be the deepest Canyon in the world, deeper even than the Grand Canyon. This place, though not officially designated a National Park, is a ‘must visit ‘ destination for any nature lover. Many species of wildlife, including the Andean Condor, can be observed here. It is best appreciated by taking a few days to hike and camp in the Canyon itself, rather than just driving around the rim per organized tour. There are several indigenous communities, which have lived here for thousands of years virtually unchanged. See Arequipa and Colca Canyon tour in our featured trips.
RESERVA NACIONAL LOMAS DE LACHAY
North of Lima, along the Panamerican Highway, lies the Reserva Nacional Lomas De Lachay. This reserve is a 5000 hectares protected Lomas habitat (the plants here thrive on moisture from the air, rather than from groundwater or rainfall). It is best seen between June and December when it is in full bloom. Many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles can be observed here.
SACHAMAMA ETHNOBOTANICAL GARDEN
Located just outside the jungle town of Iquitos in Amazonian Peru this Garden has been created as a refuge for medicinal plants and as a teaching center for local and international visitors. Currently, there are over a thousand species of cultivated medicinal plants.