If you haven't decided yet where to go, you might want to consider a trip to magical Peru with its kaleidoscopic diversity of culture, history and nature. From the araeological treasures of the Inca and even pre-Inca cultures, to the traces of its colonial past. From the high Andean peaks to the rainforest that drapes the eastern slopes of the Andes and the lowland of the Amazon basin. And just for the ultimate contrast - Peru is also host to one of the driest deserts on earth.
Many Latin American countries experience a wet-season from May to December, but in Peru, although it is winter, it is the dry season, and is an excellent time to travel. In the highlands days tend to be warm and dry, but it can get nippy at night. If you forgot to bring warm clothes, take the earliest opportunity to go shopping for some lovely alpaca wool pullovers and jackets. In the lowlands the temperatures are pleasant to hot, but not too sticky and sweltering. At times, when a weather front is coming down from the Andes it can even get a little cool for a few days.
June is the month of the winter solstice, a festival which in Cuzco is celebrated as Inti Raimi, with great processions and re-enactments among the ancient Inka ruins of Saxsayhuaman. If you want to see this amazing spectacle, you'd be wise to book your travel early, as hotels quickly fill up at this festive time.
Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital is a fabulous city, vibrant, yet also very personal. Characterized by its unique architectural style, grown from integrating the ancient Inca walls into the colonial style buildings that usurped them, Cuzco has an ambiance that is unique in Peru. As the gateway not only to world famous Machu Picchu, but also to the rainforest reserves of Manu and Tambopata, Cuzco is perhaps the smallest, metropolitan hub in the world, where one can meet people from every corner of the planet. Yet, it manages to also preserve its own special blend of indigenous highland Quetchua and Mestizo cultures.
Speaking of Machu Picchu - while you are in Cuzco you should definitely make the effort to see the ancient sacred centre of the Inca. It is true - the place is overrun, but things have vastly improved since the Peruvian government has limited the number of people on the Inka Trail. More still remains to be done, but at least a start has been made. This new limit has also brought about a diversion of access routes. At present travellers have the following options:
You can go for a one day trip straight to the ruins and back to Cusco on the same day. I would not recommend this option, as it does not leave enough time to really absorb the special atmosphere of this magical place. But if your time is really limited, you might not have much of a choice. In this case I would recommend taking the fast tourist train (vistadome) rather than the regular train to Aguas Calientes. It is a bit more expensive than the regular service, but at least it gets you there early so you maximize your time at the ruins.
Much better is a 2 day trip with an overnight stay (there is only one lodge right by the ruins, but several hotels of different classes in Aguas Calientes, where the train stops). If you do the two day trip you can hike from Aguas Calientes, but this will require a permit, just as you would need if you were doing the full Inka Trail, and as spaces fill up early during the summer months, you would have to book this option well in advance. The alternative is to take the shuttle bus to the ruins and back to your hotel, if you are staying in Aguas Calientes.
The Inka Trail is the most popular route to Machu Picchu, ranking among the top 10 greatest adventures in South America. However, due to the deterioration of the paths and the recent visitor limitations, it has become difficult to secure a space. Plus, with so many people all walking the same trail, the experiences becomes more like a run on an ant hill than the mystical communion many are hoping for. So, while it is still possible to go this route providing you book early, you might also want to consider some of the alternative options, such as the Salcantay Machu Picchu Route.
This trek is a great alternative to the Inka Trail. It is not as busy, offers stunning views and can be done either as a camping option, or as a lodge trek. The lodge variant is very new and the small lodges have only just been completed. This provides travellers with the opportunity to hike to their heart's content during the day, but rest their tired bones in a comfortable bed at night. The details for this option are not yet up on the website, so please inquire.
All Machu Picchu options (including the alternative route) can be done as private or regular departures. Private departure means that the service is arranged specifically for you and your group. No other travellers will join you. Regular departures are 'pooled', which means they are fixed departures that anybody can join, but which will be guaranteed with as few as 2 participants signing up. Thus, there may not be anybody else in your group, or the departure may be fully booked. Sacred Earth only promotes small group departures. (Specific maximum sizes depend on the nature of the journey).
Cuzco is also an excellent starting point for a trip down into the cloud forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes. This habitat is mysterious and incredibly rich in terms of its biodiversity. Its everybody's fantasy of how a jungle should look like - thick ferns and mosses draped over bromeliad laden trees, fantastic flowers, a lot of moisture, waterfalls, ravines, mists rising from the slopes - and animal life that is much closer to eyelevel than in the lowland forest, where the canopy, with all its activity, is a long way away from the forest floor. This is why jungle lodges in the lowland have taken to building canopy look out towers and hanging bridges - to make wildlife and bird observation easier. In the cloudforest trees don't grow so tall, since they are exposed to wind and weather from the Andes, and thus all the plants and animals that can be seen are at much closer range.
The best way to see this environment is by joining a group - personal transportation can be expensive to arrange, some tours can be arranged privately for as few as 2 participants. A great trip for any naturalist is the 'From the Cloudforest to the Amazon' Naturalist Adventure, which is a slow journey through the cloudforest, stopping off at a couple of different lodges along the way where you'll have a chance to really immerse yourself in this magical environment. The journey ends at Manu Wildlife Center, where you can spend three days exploring Manu with its very different lowland environment.
If you want to get even closer to nature, there are regular group departure camping trips to Manu as well. These can be long or short, depending on which mode of transportation you choose, either in and out by bus, or in by bus and out by plane or in and out by plane. The plane route of course is the shortest, but it can be quite unreliable as the charter planes seem to run on their own, highly variable time schedule. These groups are never larger than 14 people. Much of the time will be spent floating on the river to observe the wildlife, as well as hiking the trails. The camping facilities are quite sophisticated and anybody with a spirit of adventure will enjoy this unique excursion. As this is a fixed departure tour, which means the costs for logistics can be shared out between the participants, which keep the prices very reasonable for such an expedition style excursion.
People sometimes ask if it is possible to reach Puerto Maldonado from Manu by land/river. The answer is, it is possible, but not recommended. It would make the journey time very long and exhausting. Varying conditions on the river (water levels) make journey times unpredictable and thus it would become impractical to prearrange any further adventures that start from Puerto Maldonado. Lodges located several hours downriver from PM want to know when their guests will be arriving.
Puerto Maldonado, originally a pretty dead beat gold mining town, has experienced a huge boost from ecotourism during the last decade or so. Jungle lodges are sprouting like mushrooms and thanks to this development, the town has gotten a bit of a clean up too. Not that I would rate it as essential viewing, but it certainly has come a long way since its old 'frontier town' days. Puerto Maldonando is the hop off town for visits to the Tambopata Candamo National Park, a huge reserve that borders on to Bolivia.
With such a glut of lodges it is easy to feel overwhelmed. If you have difficulties choosing, ask yourself your priorities. Do you primarily come for the wildlife? Then choose a lodge that is remote, far away from civilization, but don't expect too many creature comforts. Or, is it your budget you are watching most closely? Then a lodge nearer to PM would be more economical, but wildlife viewing will not be as great and the cheaper lodges often lack good guides. They'll send the local teenagers out with you, mostly so you don't get lost on the trails. Sacred Earth promotes lodges that emphasize wildlife viewing, guided by well trained bilingual naturalist guides. That means that many excursions are scheduled really early, even before dawn, in order to catch the jungle as it is waking up - a magical time to be out there, but maybe not what someone would appreciate who simply wants a comfortable cabin in an jungle environment, and who is content with spotting an occasional bird from their hammock.
The only lodge located within the reserve itself is Tambopata Research Center, one of the longest established lodges in the area, which started off as a base camp for scientists doing field work. Young Peruvian scientists and students still carry out research here and sometimes guests can help with an actual research program. The lodge also offers special field biology workshops for school kids as an introduction to real life biology in the field. It probably rates as the most exciting learning experience such lucky kids will ever have. (The other interesting lodge in the area is the Heath River Wildlife Center, which is actually located on the Bolivian side of the border. It gives access to two completely different ecosystems, the rainforest and the grassland savannah. The lodge is owned and run be the Ese'Eja community of Sonene. Other lodges in the Tambopata region include Lake Sandoval lodge, situated closest to MP but, somewhat sheltered from the effects of civilization by its beautiful location on the shores of an oxbow lake, and Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas which are suitable for people who don't have so much time and just want to get a 'taste' of the jungle or for families. These lodges are also used as an overnight stop-over for trips to Tambopata Research Center.
Be warned though, that in Manu and Tambopata it is mandatory to carry proof of Yellowfever vaccination, which travellers to the Iquitos region will not need.
Iquitos is the main Jungle City. Situated right on the Amazon it is an important port town and the hub for excursions into the Amazon basin. The Explorama Lodges, Tahuayo Lodge and the Pacaya Samiria Reserve and Lodge can all be accessed from here. Each Lodge is located in a different area and within a different eco-system, so don't believe that seeing one lodge is to see them all. Each will provide a window into its unique habitat. One good way of exploring different habitats of the lowland forest, is to join the 'One Week in the Amazon' program, which visits several lodges and their respective ecosystems and communities within the space of a week.
Iquitos is a fascinating town, full of contrast. It was one of the rubber boom towns in the days when rubber was still a sought after resource. But after the rubber bust - initiated by the extraordinary biopiracy theft of rubber tree seeds by a certain English man by the name of Henry Alexander Wickham, who took them to Malaysia to start a rubber plantation there, thus ruining the rubber economy of the Amazon.
But Peru is not only about the jungle - although that aspect is certainly one of its most incredible and diverse bioregions. Peru also has some incredible highland sites - the archaeological treasures of the north are definitely worth the journey if you are interested in Inka and pre-Inka cultures of Peru. Northern Peru is much less touristy than the southern parts and thus conveys a whole different sense of authenticity.
In recent years much effort and some considerable sums of money have been invested in further excavations and the proper maintenance of many of the established sites in the area, and there are many! Kuelap, Layabamba, the temple of the sun and the moon... the traces of the past are evident everywhere. To this already remarkable list a new archaeological site of interest to travellers and archaeologists has been excavated for the past 16 years. The complex is known as 'El Brujo' and is located near the town of Trujillo. El Brujo is a plateau, which rises 6 meters above the surrounding fields. The Moche culture built two temples on top of this plateau, which can now be visited, along with a remarkable new museum at the site. One of the pyramids houses a royal grave of an early Moche Queen, whose mummy has been remarkably well preserved. The site is quite extraordinary. Take a look at the projects website http://www.research.ibm.com/peru/
The other fascinating area for those interested in archaeology, is of course Nazca, the famous lines sketched on the desert floor - for who or what maybe anybody's guess. It's a mystery. The Nazca lines can best be appreciated from above. Small aircrafts are chartered to make the flight. Nazca is also not far from the sea and while no part of the Peruvian coast is particularly known for its bathing pleasures, this bit of coast holds another fascination - the Paracas Marine Reserve, an amazingly rich marine wildlife habitat, where penguins and sea lions can be observed at close range.
Southern Peru has some amazing sites, including the Colca Canyon, which is rated as the deepest canyon in the world. The whole area is stunningly beautiful, and a great place for adventure seekers. Hiking, rafting, mountaineering, hang-gliding are some of the activities that can be pursued here. The surrounding volcanoes and the ancient agricultural terraces which are still being maintained have a way of transporting the traveller back in time. This is a very traditional part of Peru where life has not changed a great deal over the centuries. Access to Colca Canyon and to the surrounding volcanoes is from Arequipa, a beautiful old colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage site, which has been magnificently preserved. Arequipa is the cultural and economic hub of southern Peru and an important textile market for articles made from alpaca wool. Its numerous historical sites as well as its lively events calendar make this city a great place as a base for exploring southern Peru.
Last but not least, Lake Titicaca of course also deserves a mention. The highest navigable lake on earth - it is truly otherworldly, like an enormous mirror glinting in the high Andean sun. The incredible light at this altitude and the serenely peaceful scenery hold the magic of enchantment. Each timeless moment is like eternity. If you are looking for a place to rest your weary travellers' bones for a few days and to recharge physically and spiritually, you should treat yourself to a stay at Suasi Island Lodge. A beautiful Lodge in a stunning location - its worth it for the views alone, especially at dawn and dusk!
Lake Titicaca and the surrounding region is also the center of two of Peru's most important indigenous groups, the Quechua and the Aymara. Many Aymara still live their traditional lifestyles on the floating islands constructed from reeds. They still construct and use their traditional reed boats to go fishing or to travel to the shores. Recently the Aymara people have started to welcome tourists to their islands and there are some community tourism projects, which actually benefit the Aymara people directly. (If you are interested in these tours, please inquire)
From Lake Titicaca it is possible to travel on to Bolivia. There are both, tourist services and regular services starting from Puno. Tourist services tend to be more expensive, but use better vehicles. The regular bus service also works, but some of the busses are pretty rickety, which makes the long journey quite uncomfortable.
Peru is an immensely rich country, both, in terms of its current culture and history. It is also richly endowed with a great treasure of biodiversity and varied natural habitats. However, both nautre and culture need careful nurture and sensitive, responsible interaction, or we might lose the very thing we treasure. Responsible tourism on the other hand can help to sustain the natural and cultural riches of a place without exploiting them.
© Kat Morgenstern, 2007, all rights reserved.
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