Put your money where it matters with this sustainable South American experience, writes Grace Ellis
If Peru is on your bucket list, but your knowledge of the country extends only as far as Machu
Picchu or the newly-touristic Rainbow Mountain — you're in for a magical surprise.
The land of the Inca is a kaleidoscope of beautiful scenery, exotic wildlife and boasts a fascinating contrast of cultures. It's no wonder Peru is the fastest-growing tourism industry in South America.
G Adventures — a tourism pioneer specialising in authentic and sustainable travel — will take you on a quest over 12 days "from the Amazon to the Andes". Soak up the country's secret history and architecture, challenge yourself in multi-day hikes through the Andes and discover the vital synergy of the Peruvian Amazonia.
The best part? The non-profit organisation Planeterra Foundation, created by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, contributes millions of dollars towards conservation projects, emergency response, healthcare and social enterprise.
Beginning the tour in the capital, Lima, indulge in a traditional Peruvian cooking class. Fresh, zesty ceviche is on the menu, washed down with the inventive Peruvian cocktail, pisco sour. Alternatively, utilise the spare time to catch up on some sleep as you'll need to quickly get accustomed to waking up at the ungodly hour of 4am.
With all the accommodation, activities, food and transport organised for you, all you have to do is wake up and show up. When flying into Cusco — a whopping 3300 metres above sea level — you may begin to feel nauseous and dizzy. Advice from someone who thought she was invincible — take the altitude sickness pills.
If you're one of the lucky ones who don't suffer the symptoms of altitude sickness, the beauty of Cusco will still take your breath away. As the capital of the legendary Incan empire in the 13th century, the Unesco World Heritage Site parades both Spanish and native traditions, best observed in the Plaza de Armas. This central square is bordered by the incredibly refined Cusco Cathedral, completed in 1654 in an attempt at eradicating Incan religious beliefs, as well as the exquisitely complex Church de La Compania de Jesus.
This is the preparatory hub for the hike you're about to embark on, and a day of relaxation is in order. Sip on freshly roasted coffee at the free Museo del Cafe, visit local markets or merely appreciate the vibrant culture of the Imperial City.
By day three, you'll be meandering on country roads through the thriving native wilderness of the Sacred Valley. Running from Pisac to the small town of Ollantaytambo, this vital stretch of land is blessed by Pachamama (mother nature) with bountiful soils and an abundance of water from the Urubamba River. One of the Andes' largest reserves of agricultural diversity, the Sacred Valley provides staple crops including over 4000 varieties of potato, quinoa and maize.
An original aspect to the G Adventures experience is the privilege of meeting the women of the Ccaccaccollo village, who create the beautifully bright hand-made alpaca wool clothing for Peru is famous. This co-op with the Planeterra Foundation safeguards their unique way of life and gives you an insight into history. Learning the processes of shearing alpaca wool, dyeing — using plants, leaves and berries — and the traditional weaving techniques is a rare opportunity.
The picturesque Parwa restaurant in Huchuy Qosqo uses traditional Peruvian ingredients to create modern cuisine. The food is delicious and all profits are donated to social projects within the community.
At the charming town of Ollantaytambo there's a steep hike to the ruins of an Incan fortress on the encircling hillside. Watch in awe as the sun sets over the mountains and clouds roll into the valley. Call it a night with a cold glass of Chica de Jora — a nationally-consumed corn beer.
It's now day four, and you're about to commence what is arguably the highlight of the trip — an epic multi-day hike through the Andes. Hiking across the world's most extended continental mountain range is already a triumph in itself. But regardless of whether you choose the iconic Inca trail or the equally as rewarding Lares trek, staying hydrated is essential if you want to make it to the summit.
Knowledgeable and friendly native guides guarantee an authentic and enlightening occasion, while exceptional chefs prepare wholesome three-course meals every day. Where camping is concerned, you'll be pampered head-to-toe. Staff members and mules carry your belongings, so be polite and pack lightly, and tents are set up for you. Arise to a hot cup of coca-leaf tea — the perfect start to a chilly morning in the Andes. Both hikes offer incredible yet contrasting landscapes.
The Inca trail is 39km across high Andean plains wending through a web of ancient Incan settlements. To walk in the footsteps of the Incas should be on the bucket list for any history buff. Encounter ruins such as the Runkuraqay — thought to be a place of rest and worship — as well as remnants of the enchanting Sayagmarka complex, perched on a mountain edge.
With a multitude of ascents and descents, the Inca Trail is a leg-burner. The dreaded stair climb up to the summit of the Dead Woman's Pass, 4200m above sea level, is not for the faint-hearted. But the second you walk through the Sun Gate and catch your first glimpse of the heart-stopping Machu Picchu, it'll be worth every rigorous moment. Planning is essential for this trip. Ensure you book at least six months in advance as there are limited daily trekking permits.
In contrast, the Lares Trek takes the road less travelled and is more a living experience of Peru. The trek passes through farms and villages of the Quechuan natives. As they generally only speak their mother tongue, your Spanish skills won't help you here, but smiles and gifts always go a long way. As you ascend on a much more mild incline than the Inca trail, the beauty of this place only intensifies. But the high altitude means it's still no walk in the park.
While the Lares trek has few Inca ruins, you'll be blown away by the calming balance of isolation and civilisation. Children play on the hillside and llamas and alpacas graze by glacial streams. At the 4800m summit, bask in your success and enjoy extraordinary views of turquoise lagoons and deep valleys. After the 36km hike you'll spend a cosy night in Aguas Calientes, before receiving the ultimate reward of watching sunrise over one of the Seven Wonders of the World — Machu Picchu.
With a day to unwind in Cusco, opt for a hike up Rainbow Mountain or rest and restore for the coming days' adventures. My suggestion is to play it by ear — don't pre-book, you'll likely be too shattered from the previous days' slog.
Conclude your trip with a two-night immersion in Peruvian Amazonia. Cruise along the Tambopata river and admire red-and-green macaw soaring in the skies above, while the black caiman sunbathes, camouflaged, along the riverbank. In the luxury eco-lodge, spend your day relaxing in a hammock with your favourite book or relish bonding time with your tour group.
With zero cellphone service, no Wi-Fi and limited electricity, take time to slow down because by nightfall, rush-hour in the jungle begins. That is when you can locate the lurking creatures, from bird-eating tarantulas, to owls, to deadly snakes and frogs awaiting their prey. You'll learn about the area's diverse flora and fauna and the extensive use of materials for infrastructure, medicinal and hunting purposes.
At daybreak, you'll journey deep into the rainforest on a guided excursion. A tribe of squirrel monkeys migrate through the canopy overhead, and leaf-cutter ants use their impressive carrying ability on the forest floor below. Finally, with luck, a cunning anaconda or a giant otter will make an appearance in the Oxbow Lake.
Home to over one-third of the Earth's documented animal species, the Amazon rainforest is a tropical utopia sure to bring out your wild side.
LATAM Airlines flies from Auckland to Lima, Peru, via Santiago.
G Adventures' 12-day Amazon the the Andes tour is priced from $XXXXpp, not including flights.