By Nina Karnikowski
For anyone wanting to foster their sense of wonder of the planet, there’s no better destination than Peru. A country where the locals believe gods called apus live in the mountains and where said mountains can be mistaken for rainbows, this wild South American destination is abundant with natural beauty and history from the ancient Inca empire. With some of the highest altitudes in the world, it’s also guaranteed to quite literally take your breath away.
Your Peruvian journey will begin in Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca empire and South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Set high in the Andes at 3,400m above sea level, you’ll need to take it easy on day one to avoid altitude sickness. Which is a wonderful excuse for spending a day roaming the cobbled laneways, where ornate cathedrals sit atop Inca temple ruins and where locals clad in colourful traditional outfits wander the streets with their pet llamas.
Cosy up in Greens Organics with a bowl of quinoa soup and a cup of coca leaf tea to help you acclimatise to the altitude as you take in the views over the main square, Plaza de Armas. Thus fortified, you’ll be ready to continue exploring the trendy San Blas neighbourhood. First, a turn about the excellent Pre-Colombian Art Museum, before shopping for alpaca ponchos, colourful knitted beanies and beaded bracelets woven by local women — the perfect ensemble for your Sacred Valley debut.
THE SACRED VALLEY
A one-hour drive from Cusco lies the windswept Sacred Valley. Slung between the peaks of the Andes at 3200m above sea level, this is the place to come for the most authentic taste of Inca culture.
If you’re lucky, your Sacred Valley visit will begin with a native coca leaf ceremony offering thanks to the mountain gods and ensuring you safe passage on your hike through the fertile valley. En route, you’ll pass villages of thatched-roof adobe houses and terraced farmland where local farmers work the fields with methods unchanged since the time of the Inca. Soon you’ll reach the archaeological remains of Huchuy Qosqo, from where the 15th-century Inca royal estate ruled. Wander through its ochre-coloured stone buildings, seeing first-hand how the Inca’s intricate irrigation systems and masterful masonry transformed the mountainside into a work of art.
Maras is another Sacred Valley must-visit, with its impressive collection of salt mines that have been used since the time of the Inca. The more than 5,000 terraced salt pools are still maintained by local families, covering the hillside in a tapestry of varying shades of brown, cream, yellow and white. Another of Peru’s best examples of Inca landscaping awaits in Moray, where you’ll find mysterious concentric circles of terraced farmland resembling ancient Roman amphitheaters.
There are myriad more Sacred Valley sites to visit including Pisac’s famed artisan market for Andean pottery, weavings, elaborate jewellery and more, and the ruins of Ollantaytambo, where the Inca’s greatest military victory over the Spanish took place in 1536. The best part about the Sacred Valley, however, is how few other tourists you’ll see while you’re there.
Any Peruvian pilgrimage wouldn’t be complete with a visit to the 15th century Inca citadel Machu Picchu, one of the most fascinating archaeological sites on the planet. A three-and-a-half-hour train ride northwest of Cusco, this World Heritage site is one of the few well-preserved remnants of the Inca civilization since it was hidden from the outside world, including the Spanish conquistadors, for hundreds of years until the early 20th century.
Today it’s anything but a secret, with up to 5,000 visitors descending onto the site each day. But take one look at the sprawling ancient city, with palaces, temples and terraces surrounded by those stunning Andean peaks, and you’ll understand why. Especially when your guide tells you the entire complex was created using meticulously cut stone, without mortar or wheels or tools made of steel or iron — proof of the Inca’s skill and ingenuity.
Machu Picchu was abandoned about 100 years after it was built, and because the Inca had no written language there was no way of ever verifying what the site was actually used for, making this site as mysterious as it is enchanting.
TREK THE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN
Striped turquoise, yellow, ochre and lavender from mineral deposits, Peru’s Rainbow Mountain is the stuff psychedelic dreams are made of. A four-hour drive from Cusco and a few hours’ hiking will get you there for a day trip. But taking five days to trek the Ausangate trail there will make it truly life-altering.
Expect the hike, which crosses wildly remote passes of more than 5,000m, to be difficult. But the scenery en route — including windswept pampas, snow-capped mountains and glacier-flanked valleys smattered with llamas and alpacas — will make every painful step worth it. As will the hot showers, roaring fires and cups of coca leaf tea awaiting you at the traditional mud-brick lodges you’ll bunker down in each evening. Watching the stars sprinkle themselves over those rugged mountains and glaciers from the warmth of the lodge at dinnertime — well, that’s just the icing on an already delicious cake.