Editor’s note: when I haven’t left the state in about a year now, I am even more grateful than ever to have voices like Sam’s here on The Royal Tour, adding his experiences and perspective to our community. If you like his writing – and I’m sure you will – click here to see an index of all his articles!
In my last blog, I shared about the best places to go in eastern Peru, from the Amazon Rainforest, to Lake Titicaca, the Andes Mountains and the famed Wonder of the World Machu Picchu. While these top world attractions get most of the attention from international tourists, many of Peru’s gems are actually in the western part of the country.
Misti Volcano, near Arequipa
The bulk of travelers flying into Peru will arrive in the hustling, bustling capital of Lima. While the city is one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest metropolises with a population exceeding 8 million people, I found that the city itself does not have a ton of attractions, but there are good markets and great nightlife. While some parts of the capital are impoverished slums and can be a bit rough around the edges and dangerous for tourists, start your journey in the popular coastal suburb of Miraflores. Miraflores is a delightful slice of culture with many of Lima’s top restaurants, romantic parks (like the Parque Amor or Parque John F. Kennedy), and beautiful churches, as well as activities like paragliding and surfing. There are some tourists who spend a whole week just in Miraflores. While in Miraflores, make sure to order Peru’s most famous dish, fresh seafood ceviche and take an order of the nation’s official cocktail, the Pisco Sour. What is particularly fun about Miraflores is how it seems to be constantly entertaining; on one block there will be fun shops to explore, and on the next block there will be a square full of hundreds of Peruvians of all ethnic backgrounds and ages dancing in a party. While spending your brief time in Lima, take a taxi to the Plaza Mayor, a fifteen minute taxi from Miraflores, where there is a large plaza and an extravagant basilica cathedral, whose construction began in 1535 and was completed more than a hundred years later in 1649. It was at this spot that the city of Lima was founded.
A dance party in Miraflores
Following Lima, make your way to the southern city of Nazca for one of the most fascinating sites on Earth. This area is located in the Sechura Desert, the northernmost part of the Atacama Desert region, the most arid place on earth. Nazca is the namesake of the Nazca Lines created between 500 BCE and 500 CE by the Nazca indigenous people. Rediscovered in the 16th century by Spaniards and mistaken for trail markers, it was not until the late 1930’s and early 1940’s that archaeologists began to realize what the Nazca Lines were when they flew over them. In order to see the lines, you must take a small plane flight over them at a cost of approximately 80 USD per person, which is not for those who get motion sickness easily. Flying over the lines, you will see clear depictions of spiders, monkeys, dogs, a kilometer-long hummingbird, and even an alien, along with more figures; there are about 70 total line depictions, including a cat found just last year. These lines are some of the greatest archaeological mysteries in the world, as there is no explanation for their existence. Many theories abound, including that these are constellations, that they were used to communicate with aliens, or that they were homages to Nazca deities who could see them from the heavens. While Machu Picchu is Peru’s most famous attraction, I believe that the Nazca Lines are the country’s most unique. While in the area, make sure you visit the cemetery of Chauchilla. This cemetery is a thousand-year-old cemetery of the Nazca people, which was largely looted by grave robbers who took the gold that the Nazca people were buried with, but left exposed their ceramics and the mummified remains of the people, still left in good shape. The Nazca people were mummified inside of sacks and were preserved in a way that allowed their hair to keep growing long after they had died, with their hair growing to at least five feet in length.
After Nazca, take an overnight bus south along the coast to Peru’s second most populous city, Arequipa. Arequipa is a colonial gem that sits in the shadow of the 19,000-foot, snowcapped active volcano with a coned top, Misti Volcano. Arequipa is likely the most beautiful, charming, and my overall favorite city in South America. Arequipa’s downtown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with numerous attractions. A must-do is having a drink or meal in the Plaza de Armas, especially on one of the balconies overlooking the beautiful cathedral. However, the most popular spot for visitors is the Convent of Saint Catalina of Siena, which was founded in 1579 and is still a monastery for Catholic nuns. At its height, the monastery housed 450 nuns. Walking through the convent is as though you are walking through a little neighborhood of its own. The exterior walls are beautifully painted bright reds and blues and you will be able to stop into ornate monasteries and see the quarters where the faithful would study and live. While you are touring, you are likely to bump into the monastery’s current inhabitants. However, most use Arequipa as a jumping off point for Colca Canyon.
The journey to Colca Canyon is a three hour car ride through the Andes Mountains and across flats that are dotted with alpacas and llamas. Along the way, there are bright green valleys and villagers who are descendants of the Inca who live traditional, indigenous lifestyles and wear traditional attire. The local culture is on display in towns like Yanque, where locals will let tourists pose with their pet eagles and hawks for a picture – for a fee. The Colca Canyon area is full of hot spring pools, which make for an enjoyable soak, which will feel much needed after hikes or lengthy bus rides. Aside from beautiful, this area is considered sacred to the Incan people and others. This is the farthest place where some of the offshoots of the Amazon Basin reach, and the Majes River cuts through the region, making its way to the Pacific Ocean. The Inca believed that this river flowed into the Milky Way Galaxy. At Colca Canyon, you will see an incredible feat of nature, a canyon that has a depth of over 11,000 feet, nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the second deepest land-canyon on Earth. However, believe it or not, the depth of the canyon is not even its greatest feature; rather, its most famous resident is. Colca Canyon is the habitat of the Andean Condor, a symbol of South America. This condor is the largest flying bird in the world with a wingspan of 10 feet 10 inches. Simply put, whether you are standing on the edge of Colca Canyon and looking down thousands of feet to the valley below or looking up at these massive birds, Colca Canyon will make you feel small.
However, feeling small and being in wonder is the theme of the entire country. How one nation can house architectural wonders, the world’s longest mountain range, the world’s driest desert, the world’s highest navigable lake, the world’s largest rainforest and the world’s largest river basin is a mystery. But you are guaranteed to have the trip of a lifetime in Peru, and regardless of how much time you spend there, you will need to come back to see more.
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