South America: So Machu more

By Chris Reed

Peru's attractions extend far beyond a mountain-top Inca ruin, writes Chris Reed.

Machu Picchu. Photo / Supplied
Machu Picchu. Photo / Supplied

Paddington Bear came from "darkest Peru". What a fortunate fictional character he is. Peru is a bewitching country where the people are warm, the Kiwi dollar goes a (relatively) long way and the sights just keep on coming. There's so much more to it than the "lost" Inca city of Machu Picchu.

And although many travellers fly into the capital Lima, others chose Cuzco, a base for many Machu Picchu pilgrims. We went the Lima route, though spent little of our three-week tour here, on the basis that we'd see more of the true Peru outside its biggest city.

Very roughly speaking, you can divide the country into three parts: the thin desert coastal strip, the Andes and the Amazon Basin. It's home to the greatest remnants of the Inca empire and stunning architecture left by the colonial Spanish.

The vast majority of internal travel is by bus and a lot of tourists opt for Cruz Del Sur, which offers safe, reliable (if over-priced) services between key points on the so-called Gringo Trail.

The first stop for gringos was Huacachina, an oasis close to the coast about 4 hours south of Lima.

There's not much to do in Huacachina - and that's the appeal. It features a lagoon ringed by largely budget accommodation and dwarfed by sand dunes much bigger than those at the top of Ninety Mile Beach. It's a perfect place to sit, swim, read and have a beer and repeat as necessary.

From there it's about 2 hours south to Nazca, home of Peru's second most famous attraction, the Nazca Lines.

Discovered by a North American scientist who flew over the area in 1939, they've baffled academics ever since. The huge bird, animal and geometric shapes can be fully appreciated only from the air.

Most experts accept they were created by the Paracas and Nazca cultures at least 1400 and perhaps 2900 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, UFOlogists have their own theories.

Many airlines offer 30-minute flights over the lines in small planes.

Our next stop was Arequipa, a colonial centre in the Andes characterised by structures built with sillar, a bright-white rock quarried from surrounding mountains.

It's Peru's second-largest city but feels smaller, largely because of its compact historical centre, complete with alluring main plaza.

I'm not big on visiting churches and such, but the Monasterio Santa Catalina was intriguing and impressive. The convent was founded more than 400 years ago, but opened to the public only in 1970.

It's a rabbit's warren of a place, taking up a city block and filled with peaceful plazas and charming streets. Nuns still live on-site, but in a modern building closed to the outside world.

Many visitors to Arequipa take a side trip to the Canon Del Colca. It's the second-deepest canyon in the world after the Canon Del Cotahuasi, about 75km to the north-west.

Most tours are three days and two nights, starting with a very early morning departure from Arequipa. The drive takes in a 4800m pass and the canyon rim is about 3600m, so you'll need to acclimatise to the altitude in Arequipa for at least two days.

Tour groups stop to watch Andean condors glide on the thermals at the top of the canyon before having lunch in Cabanaconde.

After a 1000m plus descent to the canyon floor, we ended the first day in a naturally heated pool at a remote riverside hostel watching the stars come out. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

Accommodation and food on the tours are basic, but after a few hours' walking at altitude you won't care.

Puno lies about six hours northeast of Arequipa. It's at the north-west corner of Lake Titicaca, South America's largest lake and, at more than 3800m, one of its highest.

Close to the shore are inhabited floating islands made from reeds. They're certainly unusual, but many tourists believe the tours to be over-commercialised.

Cuzco, about six hours north-west of the lake, is the starting point for most visits to Machu Picchu. Many people get there by train; others reach it after a four- or five-day trek.

The most famous walking route is the Inca Trail, now strictly regulated to stop further damage to Inca ruins. If you want to walk the trail, you'll probably need to book with one of the many tour operators in Cuzco at least three months in advance.

We failed in that most simple of tasks and found ourselves on Llama Path's Lares Trek instead. It's less strenuous than some routes, taking in remote Andean villages and hot springs, but features a pass of almost 5000m. If you've ever wanted to see indigenous Peruvians kill and skin a sackful of guinea pigs (a common source of protein), here's your chance.

The trek featured one full and two half-days of walking, fantastic food and great guides - and day three ended with a train to Aguas Calientes, the small, expensive town at the foot of Machu Picchu.

The ruins, which sit on a promontory high above the Rio Urubamba, surrounded by cloud forest, were only rediscovered in 1911.

They're one of the most recognisable images in world tourism and a top drawcard in South America, so familiar you could be forgiven for wondering if it's worth the effort. Categorically, it is.

Our day started at 4am. Our guide wanted to get us to the top of the mountain in time to secure some of the 400 tickets available each day to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain you can see behind the ruins in the classic picture-postcard image).

The ascent of Huayna Picchu is steep and the summit scary for anyone who doesn't like heights, but it's worth it to see the site from a different perspective. The classic view of the ruins is from the opposite angle. It's a photo you have to take, and a view you could enjoy for hours.

Despite high visitor numbers, the site is large and entry carefully controlled, so it never seems crowded.

From Cuzco, you can easily visit other key sites in the Incas' Sacred Valley, such as Pisac and Ollantaytambo, but see them before Machu Picchu. They can't compare.

Paddington author Michael Bond may have chosen Peru as his character's home because it seemed so otherwordly from the book's London setting. Modern travel has changed that. Peru is among former backpacker haunts now visited by tourists of all ages and budgets.

So it should be.

We stayed at hostels that were never less than clean and welcoming, but Cuzco and Arequipa are home to top-class hotels for those with fatter wallets.

And it's a perfect place to go during the New Zealand winter, which coincides with the Andean dry season. We didn't get there, but the northern beaches are said to be idyllic, under-used and great for surfing.

Peru's going to become only more popular. Visit while you can still boast about it to your friends.

Chris Reed travelled to Peru with assistance from Flight Centre.

- NZ Herald

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