Discovering Peru

AT RANDOM: Graeme Corbett finds a world of adventure, great food and culture in Peru

Can’t say Peru was ever really on my bucket list, but now that I’ve been there, it probably should have been.

I ventured there for two fun-filled, action-packed weeks, and left feeling I could have used at least another month to properly explore this amazing South American gem.

Because of the short time line – including a day’s travel each way – we had to squeeze a lot into two weeks. This included a number of overnight bus rides and zero rest days.

After arriving in Lima, we hopped a short internal flight to the Amazon to begin our tour with a stay at a jungle-scaped resort right on the Madre de Dios River near Puerto Maldonado. Our group was assigned a guide, who led us on several hikes to identify a seemingly endless array of plant and animal life. We also went on a nocturnal boat trip to spot caimen (small alligators) along the river bank.

The highlight of the Amazon was a muddy day hike through Tambopata National Reserve, followed by a canoe trip on Sandoval Lake to see giant river otters, monkeys and exotic birds.

The anti-highlight was having to get up extra early on our departure day to avoid a potentially violent miners’ strike in Puerto Maldonado.

After that, it was back to Lima (our itinerary was anything but streamlined) to catch an overnight bus to Nasca, where I boarded my first-ever Cessna to fly over the famed Nasca lines. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, the lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs in the shape of animals – hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys and fish – best seen from above. As a word of caution, if you have a sensitive stomach, bring Gravol as the pilots like to make sure both sides of the plane get a great view of the lines (just think about that for a moment).

Once we touched down at the airport, we were immediately whisked away in a dune buggy (it looked like it had been driven off the set of the Road Warrior) for some sandboarding. Our driver gave a us good thrill with some savvy desert driving on the back roads, but then proceeded to get stuck axle-deep once we hit the dunes. We had to help dig him out, but had a blast sandboarding (it’s more like surfing) and all was forgiven.

After that, it was back to Lima (again) for another flight to Cusco to catch another overnight bus to Puno. The one good thing I can say about this whirlwind approach to travel is you save money on accommodation (and the buses are actually quite comfortable).

Puno sits more than 3,800 metres above sea level (by comparison, Silver Star is 1,915 m), at which point altitude sickness becomes a serious consideration. One of our traveling companions looked like a zombie coming off the bus and was bedridden for the day while we ventured on a boat tour of Lake Titicaca. He didn’t miss much because, while the lake is beautiful and it was surreal to visit indigenous people who live on the floating islands of Uros (the islands are built of reeds), the experience felt slightly exploitative.

Saving the best for last, we headed back to Cusco in preparation for the four-day, high-elevation trek into Machu Picchu, yet another UNESCO site.

Cusco itself is worth the visit. There are loads of markets and shops where you can practise your bartering skills to buy all things alpaca, take a chocolate making workshop or you can eat like a king for relatively cheap at one of dozens of great little restaurants hidden amongst the bustling city’s cobblestoned side streets and plazas.

While it is possible to train to the base of Machu Picchu and take a 20-minute bus ride to the top, I found the trek to be just as rewarding as the final destination – 42km in length, it literally is a marathon. And being up at 4,200m is like breathing through a straw, but once you climb through the sun gate on the morning of the fourth day and look down on Machu Picchu (provided it isn’t smothered in fog), it is breathtaking (in more ways than one).

If you are looking for an adventure where the people are friendly, the food is great and you can experience a wide range of geography and culture, Peru is worth a look.