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Macchu Piccu is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to breathtaking scenery in Peru. This list gives you seven of the best hidden gems
Steeped in ancient history and spanning varied terrain that includes frosted mountain peaks and desert sand dunes, serving up delectable cuisine from the elegant to the adventurous, and offering activities to suit everyone from the intense mountaineer to the casual outdoorsman, Peru entices with numerous reasons to make it your next vacation destination. Here are seven of the best.
Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru and offers breathtaking views from both sides. Unique to the Peruvian side, however, are the Uru people, whose way of life has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. The Uros village sits, or rather floats, a short 20-minute boat ride from the town of Puno. Comprised of 42 man-made islands constructed from the reeds and roots of the totora grass, this region has been home to the Uru people since before the rise of the mighty Incan empire.
A two-hour guided tour is the only way to access the islands and takes visitors to see one of the three main tribes. Once there, you’ll watch a presentation on the construction of these remarkable islands, after which the Uru welcome tourists into their homes and offer rides aboard the traditional reed boats. These grass-made vessels were integral to the survival of the Uru people, as they ferried the first families from the shores of Lake Titicaca to the safety of open water and away from the invading Incans.
Tourism has had its commercializing effect, however, and villagers sell their share of trinkets and souvenirs. This doesn’t distract from the cultural history of the Uru people though. Tourism has provided much of the income needed to sustain their traditional ways of life, which may otherwise have been lost in a modernizing world.
And while many families have adopted some modern amenities such as solar panels and tools, most of their ancient traditions and customs have stayed the same. Visiting Uros is like stepping back through the centuries and their unique community is unlike anywhere else in the world.
The southern city of Arequipa sits in the shadow of three great volcanic peaks. These ominous giants play an ongoing role in the life and times of the city. The downtown centre is built largely from white volcanic stone – sillar – earning Arequipa the title the ‘white city.’ In 2000, Arequipa was named a UNESCO world heritage site because of these stunning volcanic stone buildings.
The possibility of eruption means the volcanoes are also a danger to the city. However, it was just such an eruption that revealed the historical significance of the volcanoes.
In 1995, volcano Sabancaya erupted and melted the snowcaps on its neighbouring volcano Mt. Ampato. This allowed anthropologists to excavate the otherwise dangerous frozen terrain and in September of that year they came across the frozen body of a young girl who is believed to be an ancient Incan sacrifice. One month later, two more bodies, a young boy and girl, were discovered along with sacrificial artifacts. In times of great need, such as famine, the Inca would sacrifice a human child to their gods. These ceremonies were done on mountaintops to be closer to their gods. The preserved body of Juanita is on display at the Catholic University’s Museum of Andean Sanctuaries from May to December.
The Colca Canyon is also accessible from Arequpia by either a one- or two-day bus tour, or a two- or three-day trek. The Canyon is one of the deepest in the world and is an excellent place from which to catch a glimpse of the mighty condor. The first option takes you further into the canyon and gives you a bird’s eye view of its natural marvels and depth, while the latter lets you explore inside the canyon, descending into the valley and then climbing back out as the Inca once did. Both options offer exposure to the canyon, its local villages, wildlife and nature.
For its beauty, history and access to the Colca Canyon, Arequipa is a must on any tour of Peru.
Drive no more than 10 minutes from the perfectly regular town of Ica and you’ll start to see great sand dunes rising up around you in all directions. Round the corner and you’ll come across a tiny town encircling a small lake. Huacachina is built around the last surviving natural oasis in the sand dune mountain range along Peru’s southern coastline.
Its easy accessibility and laid-back vibe have made the town a popular resort getaway for locals and an exciting destination for tourists. The heat of the day is ideal for lounging pool or lakeside, while the cool evening breeze is the perfect time to explore the surrounding desert landscape.
Huacachina is best known on the tourist agenda for its dune buggy-ing and sand boarding; two unique adventure activities you may not have expected to come across on a visit to Peru. While you can rent a board at the foot of the sand dunes nearest Huacachina, the best hills can only be reached by dune buggy. So the ideal way to experience what Huacachina has to offer is through a dune buggy/sand boarding tour, preferably in the evening to catch the stunning sunset.
Climb aboard the rugged open-air dune buggy and hold on as you go roaring over the dunes to reach the sand boarding slopes. The ride is just as exciting as the boarding, if not more, as the drivers take you racing across the sand. You’ll go speeding over sandy ridges and barrelling down steep slopes; it’s nothing if not a thrilling experience. Once the driver has picked the perfect peak, you get to try your hand at sandboarding. You can choose to stand, sit or lie on your stomach as you go down. At the end of the day, with typically three or four runs under your belt, the buggy perches itself atop a dune and you can watch the sun dip beneath the sand, turning the landscape from yellow to orange as night falls.
While downtown Lima offers the architectural sights of most South American cities, the real reason to visit Lima is for the food. Packed with fresh and fun cuisine that ranges from the familiar to the exotic, your taste buds will be glad you came.
In recent years, Lima has become home to a number of world-class restaurants that are blending Peruvian staples with international influences. The upscale Miraflores neighbourhood is home to many top-notch restaurants such as Peruvian master chef Gastón Acurio’s first restaurant Astrid y Gastón. He has been recognized as the bastion of Peruvian cuisine and his restaurants are a must-eat on any foodie’s list: try cuy (guinea pig), a Peruvian favourite. If you can’t make it in for dinner, his downtown location Tanta serves up huge pitchers of fresh juice and a tasty breakfast to go with it.
Lima is also home to some amazing seafood and is a great place to try to the local favourite, ceviche. Ceviche is a raw seafood dish, where the seafood – typically Tilapia, but also available as a mixto, with squid, shrimps and scallops – is marinated in lime juice and served with sweet potatoes and corn. It may sound a bit off-putting if you’ve never tried it, but once you do, you’ll be hooked. Ceviche is available almost everywhere, but Punto Azul in Miraflores has got it down pat. Word to the wise however, ceviche is a lunchtime dish, when the fish is the freshest, and won’t/shouldn’t be served past 4 pm.
As you wander through Lima you’ll see many familiar restaurant chains the have made their way from North America, but even for a casual bite Lima has its own institutions that trump these imports. Try La Lucha sandwicheria and juice bar for lunch or dinner. Its concept is simple: good bread, good meats and fresh fruits.
The city of Huaraz itself isn’t much to write home about, but the picture-perfect mountain range that looms in the distance definitely is. Nestled between the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra to the east and west respectively, Huaraz has become the alpine adventure capital of Peru. The Cordillera Blanca range exhibits snowcapped mountain peaks year round and is home to the highest mountain in Peru, Huascarán.
From Huaraz, adventurous travellers can choose from mountain biking, paragliding, rafting, rock climbing, trekking and day hikes to explore the surrounding landscape. This region is a mountaineer’s playground and some travellers, enamored by the majestic mountain range, make it their mission to conquer each peak. However, no experience is necessary to enjoy all that the Cordilleras have to offer, as guided tours and ample tour companies make it easy to try some of these adventure sports for the first time.
The most popular trekking route through the Cordillera Blanca is the Santa Cruz trek, which can be done solo or with a guide. The classic tour is four days and three nights and all equipment is provided or can be rented through the agency.
Alternatively, if you’re just looking for an accessible day hike, the ascent to the glacial lake Laguna 69 gives you a taste of the awesome mountain scenery while letting you return to a comfortable bed in the evening.
Whatever your interest or skill level, Huaraz and the Cordilleras are a breathtaking piece of Peru.
Since Cuzco is the city from which to begin the trek or train ride to Machu Picchu, its historical value and that of the Sacred Valley are often overlooked. This region is, however, rich in Incan history, with much to see and explore throughout.
Cuzco itself is actually the former capital of the once great Incan empire so there is a great deal of history within the city limits. The ruined stronghold of Saqsaywaman is perched just above the city, an easy 15-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, and was the site of a devastating Incan battle against the Spanish. All Incan cities were built into the shape of an animal and Cuzco is said to be a Puma, with Saqsayqaman as the head and its high stone walls as the teeth. The city of Cuzco itself is quaint and colonial, and spotted with grand Spanish churches, constructed largely out of the stones of fallen Incan cities.
Just north of Cuzco lies the Sacred Valley, given its name because of the many Incan ruins found along the Urubamba River. Here you can visit the famous sites of Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
Pisac’s Incan citadel sits high above the small riverside town and is flanked on every side by ancient agricultural terraces. You can climb from the town centre up the mountainside to the ruins, or take a 10 minute cab ride up and walk the path down; either route provides sweeping views of the valley and river below.
Ollantaytambo was where the Incans retreated after the fall of Cuzco. The ruins are originally of religious significance but also served as a fortress against the invading Spanish army. Agricultural terraces, storehouses and quarries surround the ruins.
While Cuzco and the Sacred Valley are unavoidably touristy, the city still remains charming and the surrounding area is undeniably beautiful.
No review of Peru is complete without, of course, Machu Picchu. Thousands of tourists visit this ancient Incan city each day and for good reason; it really is as breathtaking as everyone says. Perched high up in the mountains, Machu Picchu was discovered and brought onto the international stage by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. Luckily, due to its location, the invading Spanish did not discover Machu Picchu and so much of what can be seen today is original and illustrates the remarkable ingenuity of Incan construction.
The best time to visit the city is in the early morning – when the site opens at 6 am. This way you’ll enter Machu Picchu just as the sun is beginning to peek over the mountain ridge and the mist of the surrounding jungle is lifting. The morning is the most magical time, and best for photo taking because by 10 am the site it overrun with tour groups. Once this starts happening you should take the time to explore the outskirts of the city and visit the Sun Gate (through which the Inca Trail enters Machu Picchu) and the Inca Bridge. If you bought a ticket, and it’s recommended you do, to either Wayna Picchu Mountain or Machu Picchu Mountain, early afternoon is also a good time to do those hikes.
To access Machu Picchu you can take a train from Cuzco to the town of Aguas Calientes, located at the base of the mountain Machu Picchu sits atop, and then either bus or walk up the mountain to the entrance. Another popular choice is trekking to the site, which can be done along the infamous Inca Trail or via an alternative route such as the Salkantay or Lares. The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, three-night trek, while the latter two are five days and four nights. All are challenging but rewarding experiences that expose hikers to the stunning terrain the Incas used to roam in centuries past.
It goes without saying that, whether trekking or training, visiting Machu Picchu is a MUST when visiting Peru.