Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part series by Sam Spector on Peru. To read all of Sam’s incredible pieces here on The Royal Tour, click here to visit his index.
Peru has emerged as a leading travel destination in the world and there are plenty of reasons why. From stunning coastlines, to the high peaked Andes, to lush jungles, it feels as though this is the country that has it all. Yet there is one site in particular that seems to inspire the most wanderlust: Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan city perched atop of a mountain and named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Indeed, Machu Picchu is absolutely incredible and inspiring, whether you do a multiday trek or a train ride up from the town of Aguas Calientes, named for the hot natural baths in the town. Sadly, for many who visit Peru, they only visit Machu Picchu, and they do not realize that the country is full of other treasures that are equally inspiring and far less crowded. This month, I will be talking about Peru beyond Machu Picchu with one article on Western Peru, and this article focusing on Eastern Peru.
Machu Picchu is amazing, but Eastern Peru offers so much more!
To begin my journey in Eastern Peru, I took a bus from Arequipa to the town of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The bus ride itself is part of the experience, as the buses are not only comfortable, but also have attendants on them who make sure to entertain with games like bingo (I won a bottle of Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru). As the bus cuts across the Andes Mountains, you will see incredible glacial summits and valleys full of alpacas and llamas grazing on grass. After a five-hour scenic journey, you will arrive in Puno, a town of 140,000 residents at over 12,000 feet of elevation. Though Puno has some fun restaurants, shops, and bars, there is not much in the town itself, but rather the main highlights are off the shore of South America’s largest lake. Lake Titicaca, at 12,507 feet, is the highest navigable lake in the world. To beat the real threat of altitude sickness, locals chew coca leaves and drink coca leaf tea, which you are encouraged to try. However, when consuming coca leaf products, please keep in mind that these leaves are used for the manufacturing of cocaine, and you might have some explaining to do if you fail a drug test. Another couple of side effects of the high altitude are frigid temperatures with an average daily temperature in the mid-50’s Fahrenheit and overnight temperatures regularly reaching freezing levels, while at the same time leaving travelers susceptible to sunburns with the intense sunrays. Lake Titicaca is on the Peruvian/Bolivian border, and while the Bolivian side has ruins from the Tiwanaku people, the Peruvian side has a collection of 41 floating islands created and still inhabited by the Uros people.
While visiting Lake Titicaca, a tour of these islands is a must-do. The floating islands, the homes of the Uros people on them, and the boats that they travel between islands on are all made of the same straw reeds, tied tightly together and stacked upon each other. Many of the Uros people travel to Puno daily for school, work, or to buy supplies for their islands. While there among the Uros, locals were welcoming and hospitable, even letting me crash and dance at a wedding on an island that I visited. Inevitably, as the population grows on these islands, there is a lack of space, and also sometimes there are disputes among islanders where the island is split in opinion on politics. What do they do when they are split? They split the island, literally cutting the island in half with a saw and separating it into two islands. On the islands, you can enjoy more than just the view and the culture, but you can buy wonderful handicraft souvenirs by the Uros people to have a memorable keepsake and help their economy. Another special experience that one can have is an overnight on an island with the Uros people in one of their huts. From the city of Puno, you can continue on to La Paz, Bolivia and other Bolivian cities by bus or, as I did, hop a train to Cuzco. Much like the bus ride, the trains are entertaining too as the attendants put on a fashion show for passengers, who can buy any of the apparel they sport.
An island of the Uros
Cuzco, founded in 1100 and a former capital of the Incas, is today still seen as Peru’s center of indigenous Quechua culture. Though most use it as a jumping off point for Machu Picchu, Cuzco is a town with exciting nightlife that caters to backpackers worldwide. One of the best sites for indigenous ruins in Peru happens to be right in town at the archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “Sexy Woman”), whose large rock walls date back to 900 CE. Cuzco is a delight to explore with its surrounding hills that proudly read “VIVA EL PERU!” and its colonial architecture.
However, my favorite part of Eastern Peru was the trip to the Peruvian Amazon. Though most associate the Amazon with Brazil, 13% of what may be the greatest ecosystem on earth is in Peru. Though there are numerous places where people can go, I flew to the town of Puerto Maldonado. The town of Puerto Maldonado does not have much to see in itself, but it is still fun to walk around. The ice cream shops there are a must-try with fresh exotic fruit flavors that many Americans have never tried or even heard of, and there is a modest zoo in the town that turns into a disco at night. However, Puerto Maldonado, which is on the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers, part of the Amazon Basin, is a great jumping off point for your Amazonian adventure. Unlike the dry, cold high plains of Lake Titicaca, the Peruvian Amazon averages daily highs in the upper 80s Fahrenheit and was so humid that the lettering on my t-shirt melted off. Despite the swampiness, touring the Amazon is a must-do for any world traveler. The rainforest is large and disorienting, and solo travelers have been known to get lost and never be found, so you must go with a guide. The oxbow lakes that meander through the rivers, surrounded by dense forest are stunning, and the shores of the rivers are full of dense jungle that comes alive. Nearby is an island in the middle of the river called Monkey Island for the hundreds of monkeys that live on it. On a multiday excursion, travelers sleep in treehouses deep in the jungle where they are surrounded by life and sounds. At night one will hear buzzing and whistling from some of the largest insects on earth, calls from howler monkeys, and potentially even a rare roar of a jaguar or ocelot. During the night, be sure to go on a night hike and also a boat ride to spot the spectacled caimans, crocodile-like creatures, out on their nightly hunts. During the daytime, the Amazon is just as alive with oro pendulum birds chirping as they make their swinging nests and colorful toucans flying overhead. If you pay close enough attention, you will notice armies of leafcutter ants parading leaves down trails speedily, or maybe spot a sloth climbing a tree slowly, or spot the largest rodent in the world, the capybara, which can reach 100 pounds and four feet in length.
There were two experiences that I found most memorable in the Amazon, however. The first was going to Chuncho macaw clay lick. Seeing the macaw clay lick in action is not the easiest feat, but it is a worthwhile experience. One must wake up before the sun rises and travel by boat to a grassy plain that they must silently walk across. At a certain point, without getting too close and using binoculars, you will see a spectacular sight. The Chuncho clay lick is a massive natural wall of clay that is full of bugs that are rich in nutrients, and every morning hundreds of rowdy green parrots, scarlet macaws, and blue-and-yellow macaws descend upon it to pick at the clay and devour its inhabitants. This is truly one of the loudest and most colorful spectacles that nature has to offer, and I stared at it in awe for hours until suddenly the birds all flew off startled. My guide sighed and said, “They must have spotted a jaguar.” The Amazon truly makes a person feel small, especially when you consider what is watching you that you cannot see.
The Chuncho clay lick is covered with macaws!
My journey to Eastern Peru began with a stop at the infamous Lake Titicaca and it ended with a visit to an unknown lake that was my favorite spot, Lake Sandoval, a little mirror lake off of an outlet from the Madre de Dios River. Lake Sandoval feels prehistoric; to get there, you canoe through the jungle and it opens up, surrounded by tropical trees. Around the lake it is not uncommon to see giant anacondas, black caimans or giant otters, which reach six feet in length. We were the only boat that was at this quiet, still, peaceful place, but we watched as great egrets, harpy eagles, and hoatzin birds glided across the lake. The hoatzin is a spectacular bird, colorful with spiky feathers on its head, and claws on the end of its wings, it is often called the closest bird on earth to dinosaurs. The peacefulness of the lake was broken up only by my guide tossing pieces of chicken into the water, which then became a swell of schools of piranhas devouring them.
Amazonian wildlife includes the harpy eagle
I am sure that every reader has Machu Picchu on their bucket list. However, do not make the mistake of neglecting the rest of the wonders of Eastern Peru. From ruins, to colonial architecture, to floating islands, to wildlife, jungles, and mountainous lakes, there is nowhere on earth that offers such diversity and richness of experiences.
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