Peru - its timeless enigma still echoes in the many traces of the past that create the layered patchwork of Peruvian history. Fascinating ancient Inca ruins, constructed with beauty and precision that is still quite beyond our comprension today and express mysteries that are almost lost in time.
But even long before the Incas came along Peruvian history is rich with traces of ancient civilizations, no less significant within the context of their historic periods. Peru continues to amaze archaeologists with ever more spectacular finds that trace advanced civilizations back many thousands of year - to much earlier times than had previously assumed possible. Anybody interested in history and ancient cultures can find their El Dorado in Peru.
But Peru is not only rich in cultural heritage - its natural diversity is among the most species rich in the world. With so many ecological zones that extend both horizontally and vertically there is a real plethora of highly adapted endemic species which occur nowhere else in the world. Even the harsh conditions of the arid highlands support a great variety of life forms - some of which have gone on to become staple foods that today feed half the world - like the lowly potato, which originated in the Andes and now feeds millions around the world.
Most travelers, however, will find the mind-blowing diversity of the rainforest and cloud forest much more fascinating. Nothing prepares the mind for the kaleidoscopic variations of plants and animals that have adapted to this extreme environment and make up the countless facets of an ever changing ecological microcosm.
Peru is the perfect country where both culture and nature can be explored with relative ease. The Inca trail does not just follow the footsteps of the ancient Incas - it is also a journey through several ecological zones - which the Inca where masters at exploiting for maximum benefit - their agricultural system that makes use of the different zones of altitudes still lingers in modern production, but the origins of their research can still be admired in some of the ancient ruins in the Sacred Valley.
Actually, it is surprisingly cheap, despite the falling value of the dollar you will get a lot more 'bang for the buck' than say, what you would on a trip to Europe, which has become a VERY expensive option while the Euro continues to climb, making even relatively cheap European holidays rather expensive when you have to pay for them in dollars.
In Peru, prices haven't changed that much, only more options have become available, especially at the high end. So if you want a really luxurious option for for your night at Machu Picchu or 'luxury in the jungle' you can have it - at a price that is sevreal hundred dollars above the average. But there are still plenty of moderately priced options available, e.g. a week at a jungle lodge for under $1000, all inclusive except for the flights, or hiking trips in the Andes, such as a 5 day Salcantay trek for under $500 in regular group departures. A combined jungle and Machu Picchu trip is still by far the most popular holiday option and this is surprisingly feasible - but the key is to book early. These days spaces booked up early. Gone are the days when you could just turn up at the train station and hope to get on a train to Machu Picchu - you have to book weeks, if not months in advance. The same goes for the Inca trail, and increasingly for the better jungle lodges, so don't wait - make your travel arrangments now!
Most people, who think of hiking in Peru invariably think of the most spectacular of all hikes, the famous Inca Trail. But if you are set to go on this treck, be aware that the timing of your trip is crucial. Gone are the days when you could just turn up and hope to join the next best tour departing Cusco - these days you have to plan months ahead. The Peruvian government has set very strict rules and limitations on the number of visitors that are allowed on the Inca Trail at any one time. Spaces are limited to only 400 people in total - that includes the porters and guides - and the demand is as high as ever -especially since Machu Picchu has been named as one of the Wonders of the World by the recent New Open World Corporation contest.
If you are set on doing the Inca Trail you must check for spaces and commit yourself to a specific date as early as possible. Once you have picked a date, you must book your trip and confirm with a deposit, which becomes due immediately, and is used by the tour agency to pay for your license, which secures your space.
Shoulder season - from April to June and mid-September to December are less crowded, though the weather may be less predictable. June to October is the best time for hiking in any part of the highlands. From January to March it is rainy season and it is not recommended to do this trek or any other camping/trekking adventure in the Andes at all. Even during the dry season, be prepared for cool temperatures, especially at night. If you did not bring enough warm clothes, be sure to stock up in Cusco - beautiful, warm woolen jackets, gloves, hats and pullovers etc. are available at the artisan market.
If you find that the Inca Trail is already booked up for the dates that you had in mind, you might want to consider the popular alternative, known as 'Salcantay Trek'. This trek takes a little longer and is a bit harder too, but it is a wonderful route with far fewer people on it. To go on this trek you will also have to pay an entrance fee, but numbers are not yet limited. Group tours that take 5 days and 4 nights, with one hotel night in Aguas Calientes included, depart from Cusco every Thursday and Sunday throughout the hiking season. Private groups can depart any day with a minimum of 4 participants.
By far the most exquisite and eco-friendly hotel in Aguas Calientes, Inkaterra Hotel is the place to stay if you are looking for an experience, not just a hotel room for the night. Its setting amidst fabulous gardens brings back a sense of serenity and spirituality into the otherwise highly commercialized atmosphere of Aguas Calientes. Here guest can relax and immerse themselves in the spirit of Machu Picchu, surrounded by nature and beauty.
The hotel offers delightful rooms and cabins, an exquisite restaurant and spa facilities. There are also a number of excursions available, some at no extra charge (e.g. bird watching, orchid watching, nature walk) others which must be paid for separately, such as specialized hiking trips.
If hiking isn't 'your thing' you can of course also get to Machu Picchu the easy way - by taking the train to Aguas Calientes and from there a shuttle bus that transfers visitors on a 20 minute ride up the mountain to the main entrance of the ruins. Many people want to stay a night and come back early in the morning to see the sun rise. But if you are planning on this, you should know several things:
Firstly - there is only one hotel right by the ruins themselves, and unsurprisingly, it charges an extortionate amount of money for a night's stay - of course, it's all about location, and it is a rather nice hotel, too, if your purse-strings aren't tight. Most people however, will stay in Aguas Calientes, the little town where the train station is located. It has become quite an unsightly sprawl of mostly hotels and restaurants as this village has been completely taken over by tourism. There are hotels in every price range, but most of them more expensive than what you would pay for equivalent services elsewhere.
The first buses leave at about 5:30am and if you did not get your bus ticket in advance you can expect there to already be quite a queue even at this early hour. If you did get your ticket in advance you can get straight on the bus and get up to the ruins. If you want to watch the sun rise from Huayna Picchu, the prominent, cone-shaped mountain that rises behind the ruins, you should get over there straight away, even though the sun does not begin to rise over the mountains until about 7:00am. The reason you need to get there early is the fact that the number of visitors allowed to climb the hill have also been restricted, although the tickets for this climb, which are handed out at a little hut at the base of the mountain, are still free. You have to get down again by 10:00am, when the second lot of visitors is allowed to climb the hill. Be careful as you climb the steep and narrow trail as it can be slippery and dangerous, especially after if it has been raining. Sturdy hiking boots are essential. Be prepared to scramble and to get your hands and clothes dirty. It takes about 1 hour to reach the top.
Another thing to be aware of - not just on the Inca Trail, but anywhere in the high Andes, is the high altitude, which can make moving around quite strenuous. Give your body a chance to rest and adjust before attempting any hikes. Don't rush your itinerary in this part of your trip - Cusco and the surrounding region has so much to offer, but take your time discovering it, otherwise you might run out of puff. Listen to your body and rest when it is telling you to take a break - altitude sickness can be serious. The best way to prevent it is to slow down. It is crucial to always carry plenty of water with you to avoid dehydration. Bring your own refillable water bottle, rather than buying new plastic bottles all the time. Also essential is lip balm and sunscreen - even when it is not hot, the sun at this altitude near the equator is intense.
But if you love hiking and want to see some of the most spectacular Andean scenery in Peru, you should consider a visit to Huascaran National Park. Situated in the Cordillera Blanca, an Andean mountain range north of Lima, this National Park comprises some of Peru's highest peaks. There are not only some gorgeous hikes, but also some interesting archaeological sites, including the best preserved pre-Incan ceremonial city of Chavin. Huaraz National Park is not visited by tourists as much as much as Cusco or Puno and thus preserves more an authentic Andean feel. This region is for for active, outdoor people who love to explore a country by trekkin, hiking, horseback riding etc.
For those who are interested in Peru's botanical treasures, especially in the drier regions, the best season to visit is October/November. This is the beginning of the rainy season, when even normally arid desert-like places burst into flower. The mountains around Huaraz are also coated in green and blooming at this time, and this is one of the few accessible places where one can admire a botanical oddity known as 'Puya raimondii', a giant among flowering plants, and a relative of the pineapple. But as the rainy season wears on, roads may become impassable.
Both private and fixed departure hiking tours to Chavin and the Cordillera Blanca/Huaraz region are available - please inquire.
Peru counts among the top 5 places in the world to go birdwatching. What makes it such a special experience is the immense diversity of species that can be encountered. The different habitats, north to south, east to west and not least of all, from the lowland forest to the Andean highland that give rise to innumerable endemic species, is a joy for the most experienced bird watcher and a continuous source of amazement for anybody with even just a passing interest in the subject. The crucial thing is to go with a good guide, since it is often difficult to spot elusive species, or even if you see them, unless you are very experienced it wil be difficult to determine just exactly what you saw. Birdwatching tours are offered in every region and experience birders should join extended tours that visit many different habitats. These are usually offered as fixed departure group tours in order to reduce the not inconsiderable costs for transport and infrastructure. Beginners are better off concentrating on one or two habitats where they can observe the same species and learn to recognize their habits and calls. Jungle lodges are excellent for an introductory birding experience, especially since many of them now offer some kind of canopy walkway or observation towers from where one can observe the action in the tree tops.
The cloud forest is also an 'El Dorado' for birders. It is the home of Peru's national bird, the bright red 'cock-of-the-rock' who performs fantastic courtship dances, which can be observed at special courting grounds called 'leks'. Birders should join a birding tour into this area to get the most out of their visit. Birds are often hard to see, but experienced bird guides can track them down by their calls alone. Those who are experienced in tropical birding will find Pantiacolla Lodge the perfect base for their explorations. Located in the Pantiacolla mountains, it is situated in an especially bird rich habitat, even within this biodiversity haven.
For journeys into the cloud forest or into Manu and Tambopata, the dry season is the best time to visit. Although in the tropical rain forest one should be prepared for occasional heavy downpours at any time, in general the dry season (May - October) will be much drier. Manu National Park, one of the most biodiverse regions not just in Peru, but in the whole world, is actually closed from December to mid March, so if you are planning a visit there, keep this in mind.
Manu is the most extensive protected area in Peru. It is divided into 'cultural', 'buffer' and 'protected' zones. Lodges are only allowed in the cultural zone, but tourists are also allowed into the 'buffer zone', provided they are travelling with a licensed tour operator. Accommodation within the buffer zone is only in tents. The protected zone is completely off limits to tourists or any type of commercial enterprise. Only native tribes (some of which are still uncontacted), continue to live here - much as their ancestors have done for countless generations. Even scientists require a special permit to enter this zone.
But not just the protected and buffer zone of Manu are spectacular - coming down the eastern slopes of the Andes as you traverse the mysterious cloud forest is an unforgettable experience. Trees, festooned with mosses, epiphytes and orchids, give this terrain a primeval feel. As you make your passage from high to low altitude the ecosystem constantly changes, giving rise to ever new habitats and species. This is the most easily accessed part of the cloud forest in Peru, yet thanks to its protected status it remains undeveloped, save for a few simple lodges along the way.
Those who are more generally interested in Manu's wildlife should join one of the camping trips into the buffer zone. This could also be a unique and very active family adventure for families with teenagers - though all participants should be over 12 years old. These camping tours are fixed departure trips of varying length, from 5 - 9 days. These tours are for those who want to get really close to nature and don't mind 'roughing it'. They are also a great option for single travelers for whom private tours into this region become forbiddingly expensive.
In Tambopata there are a number of Jungle Lodges and more appear all the time. Some of the oldest are also the best when it comes to wildlife observation, though some of the newer ones are better for creature comforts. The closest lodge to Puerto Maldonado is Sandoval Lake Lodge, situated on an Oxbow Lake. Despite the proximity to the twon, the secluded lake location ensures good wildlife viewing opportunities, although there is no claylick. Sandoval Lake Lodge is also among the more comfortable lodges, offering the luxury of warm water showers.
The most luxurious, though also the most expensive lodge in this area undoubtedly is Inkaterra Ecological Reserve. Guests can choose the level of activity they are comfortable with and the lodge's excellent spa facilities offer a good amount of pampering for anybody to thoroughly enjoy the whole jungle experience on all levels. No roughing it here! There is also a canopy walkway, which makes it easier to observe wildlife that is far from the forest floor.
Further upstream are Posada Amazonas, Refugio Amazonas and Tambopata Research Center. Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas are both excellent lodges with great guides and interesting and varied programs that are suitable for all levels of interest. These lodges have specialized in family rainforest experiences and are even suitable for families with younger children. These lodges have developed special programs that combine educational activities with active adventures and fun.
If you are looking for more suggestions for travels in Latin America with kids and teens, check out these resources:
Tambopata Research Center is the only lodge that is actually situated within the Tambopata National Park. It is a very basic lodge, having originally been constructed as a research field station for scientists. Research is still carried out at these facilities and tourists can sometimes partake in collecting observation data in the field. There is a strong educational aspect to programs at this lodge and it is particularly suitable for people who have more than a passing interest in wildlife and rainforest ecology. Tours are guided by peruvian biology students.
Peru is full of cultural treasures from days gone by - some archaeological finds date back 8000 - 10000 years, from cultures that pre-date the Incas by several millenia! Peru is very proud of its cultural heritage and has made great efforts to preserve these ancient treasures. The highest concentration of pre-Inca sites can be found in northern Peru, in the Chachapoyas and along the coast. This region remains mysterious and somewhat off the beaten track, despite fantastic scenery and rich cultural heritage. Kuelap and Leymebamba, Pueblo de los Muertos and Utcubamba Canyon are just some of the highlights of this fascinating region.
Visits to this area are almost always undertaken as private tours, since fixed departure tours don't really exist, and so far it is mostly archaeology buffs that venture up north. But there are also some hiking tours available for more adventurous types - and this is by far the best way to get to know land and people in the remoter corners of this ancient land, if one is prepared to sacrifice some creature comforts for a few days.
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