Peru is as complex as its most intricate and exquisite weavings. Festivals mark ancient rites, the urban vanguard fuels innovation and nature bestows splendid diversity.
All Things Ancient
Visitors flock to the glorious Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, yet this feted site is just a flash in a 5000-year history of Peruvian settlement. Explore the dusty remnants of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian ruins in all the Americas. Fly over the puzzling geoglyphs etched into the arid earth at Nazca. Or venture into the rugged wilds that surround the enduring fortress of Kuélap. Lima’s great museums reveal in full detail the sophistication, skill and passion of these lost civilizations. Visit remote communities and see how old ways live on. Immerse yourself, and you'll leave Peru a little closer to the past.
Pleasure & the Palate
One existential question haunts all Peruvians: what to eat? Ceviche with slivers of fiery chili and corn, slow-simmered stews, velvety Amazonian chocolate – in the capital of Latin American cooking, the choices dazzle. Great geographic and cultural diversity has brought ingredients ranging from highland tubers to tropical jungle fruits to a complex cuisine with Spanish, indigenous, African and Asian influences. The truth is, fusion existed here long before it came with airs and graces. Explore the bounty of food markets. Sample grilled anticuchos (beef skewers) on the street corners and splurge a little on exquisite novoandina (Peruvian nouvelle cuisine).
From downtown Lima to smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, this vast country is a paradise for the active traveler. Giant sand dunes, chiseled peaks and Pacific breaks lie just a few heartbeats away from the capital’s rush-hour traffic, and all the usual suspects – rafting, paragliding, zip-lines and bike trails – are present. Spot scarlet macaws in the Amazon or catch the sunset over ancient ruins. Take this big place in small bites and don't rush. Delays happen. Festivals can swallow you whole for days. And you'll realize: in Peru the adventure usually lies in getting there.
Life is a Carnival
Welcome to a place of mythical beliefs where ancient pageants unwind to the tune of booming brass bands. Peru's rich cultural heritage is never more real and visceral than when you are immersed streetside in the swirling madness of a festival. Deities of old are reincarnated as Christian saints, pilgrims climb mountains in the dead of night and icons are paraded through crowded plazas as once were the mummies of Inca rulers. History is potent here and still pulsing, and there is no better way to experience it.
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Travelers have their heads literally in the clouds when visiting the walled jungle fortress Kuélap in the northern highlands of Peru – the gateway to the Amazonas region. Overlooking the lush Utcubamba Valley, situated at 3000m (9842ft) above sea level, this remote pre-Inca site is spread over 15 acres, making it one of the largest stone ruins in the Americas. Built by the indigenous Chachapoyas, Kuélap includes over 400 circular buildings (many well-preserved) that can be reached by foot or cable car. Dubbed the "Machu Picchu of the North," this lofty piece of history has yet to become a major tourism draw as the location is slightly off-the-beaten-path. The spectacular history and views of the cloud forest are reason enough however to take on the adventure of getting there. Ruins of the highland fortress of the Chacapoyas © Kelly Cheng Travel Photography / Getty Images History of Kuélap A grandiose project, Kuélap was built by the Chachapoyas people (meaning “Cloud Warriors”) as early as the 7th century, a challenge that would continue on for at least another 400 years. The finished result is a near-mile-long stone complex divided into three sections, surrounded by walls (some reaching over 18m/60ft high) and with three narrow entrance points that would have forced intruders to slow down and enter in single file. Kuélap played witness to the flourishing Chachapoya culture and its purpose likely evolved with the years – fortress, refuge, strategic defense point and high-altitude city are among the site’s likely roles. The Chachapoyas enjoyed a few hundred years of peace and development until another culture in Peru began expanding across the Andes and along the coast of Peru. According to archaeological evidence and chroniclers of the time, the Incas chased the Chachapoyas out of their sky-high fortress towards the end of the 15th century and built a few of their own structures on the premises; a century later they too would suffer a loss when the Spanish violently colonized the pre-Columbian empire. Though the Incas were hoping to completely wipe out the Chachapoyas people, their legacy lives on in the genetic traces of indigenous communities that populate the modern Chachapoyas city. Ultimately abandoned, Kuélap was on the path to ruin as local fauna began to invade the area and thick cloud forest blanketed it from the common explorer. For better or worse, a local judge on a field visit to the area happened upon the stone complex in the 1840s, though no records show if damage, theft or otherwise was carried out. Not until 1979 did Peru’s Ministry of Culture take notice and implement plans to protect and conserve a piece of its history. Today the once-forgotten stronghold is on the Unesco World Heritage Site Tentative List and the recent (2017) implementation of on-site cable cars is just one effort to make Kuélap more appealing and accessible to tourists. Ruins at the ancient city of Kuelap © NiarKrad / Shutterstock Top things to see at Kuélap Only a third of Kuelap has actually been excavated and yet what is visible is quite striking and telling of the pre-Columbian Chachapoya culture. Shielded by a colossal stone wall, the center of Kuelap is scattered with hundreds of low circular walls – the remnants of dwellings that were once covered by soaring thatched roofs. The round shapes are enough to make the Chachapoya culture unique, considering most ancient Andean cultures used straight lines in their designs. Epiphytes and orchids lure hummingbirds, which in turn guide visitors along the nearly 610-meter (2000ft) long site, passing rhomboid friezes and zoomorphic reliefs along the way. Keeping a balance on the south and north ends, Kuélap is guarded by two towering structures. On the southwestern end of the site stands the Main Temple, also referred to as El Tintero (Inkpot). Fashioned in the shape of a large inverted cone, this enigmatic structure likely served religious or ceremonial purposes – archaeologists have found an underground chamber housing the remains of animal sacrifices, as well as graves and llama skeletons in the surrounding area. Meanwhile its height of 5.5m (18ft) has led others to speculate it was used as a solar observatory. On the northwest is the 7-meter (23ft) tall Torreón, a tower perhaps used as a watchtower or for defensive purposes due to findings of stone weapons. Dramatic mountain ranges surrounding and shielding the Kuelap fortress © holgs / Getty Images When to visit Located in northern Peru, where the Andes meet the Amazon, Kuelap is no stranger to sudden spouts of rain. The ideal time of year to visit Kuélap is between April and October, the so-called dry season (though rain in this region can be unpredictable any time of year). Temperatures will be slightly cooler, but the sun will likely be shining upon the high-altitude site. Unlike Machu Picchu, Kuélap can be visited all year round. The main disadvantage of visiting between November and March is the high probability of rainfall, making any length of the hike much more difficult and the numerous changes in transportation required all the more uncomfortable. Keep in mind that the site attracts a fair amount of local visitors on the weekends and holidays, so aim for a mid-week visit early in the morning. It is recommended to wear light layers as well as to bring a sun hat, rain jacket, sunscreen and bug repellant. Ruins of round houses of Kuelap, ruined citadel city of Chachapoyas' cloud forest culture in the mountains of northern Peru © Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock How do I get there? Far from major urban hubs, Kuélap is relatively isolated compared to its younger and more famous cousin, Machu Picchu. The fastest way to get to Kuelap is by flying from Lima to the high jungle city Jaen, a 1.5-hour flight. There are typically two direct flights offered daily by Latam airlines, and it is recommended to take the early flight as, from Jaen, the city of Chachapoyas is a 4-hour drive by car or bus. Once in Chachapoyas take a taxi or colectivo (shared public transport) to Nuevo Tingo (about 1 hour away) to purchase lift tickets. Hop on a cable car for a scenic 20-minute ride that ascends towards Kuélap. After disembarking, travelers will have to walk 30 minutes to arrive at the site entrance. In total, it takes about 8 hours of hopping on and off transportation to arrive at Kuélap (depending on bus or taxi availability and road conditions), making the journey of getting there an adventure in itself. There are plenty of small inns and hostels in Chachapoyas should travelers forgo the rush and enjoy a bit of rest before jumping in the car again to head to Nuevo Tingo. Alternatively, those looking to stretch their legs can skip the cable cars and, from Tingo Viejo, embark on a 9km (5.6mi) hike through the cloud forest along the Camino Herradura. It takes about 3-4 hours to ascend the craggy mountainside and, though trails are well-marked, local guides can be hired in Chachapoyas city. Tickets and information Once a site well off the beaten path, Kuélap is inching its way to popularity thanks to the cable cars and direct flights to Jaen – neither of which were transportation options a decade ago. However, the low fees for arrival and entrance are an indication of how little tourism the impressive site continues to receive. Purchase of tickets for the cable car and site entrance is only available on site. Round-trip tickets for the cable car ride must be paid in cash (Peruvian soles only) and cost S/21.70 per person (regardless of age). The cable lift system operates Tuesday through Sunday, 8am-4:30pm. Keep in mind that while the cable cars do not operate on Mondays there are buses that can transport travelers from Nuevo Tingo towards the site entrance. Entrance to Kuélap costs S/30 for adults, S/15 for seniors and just S/2 for children 12 years or younger. Visitors should expect to spend at least 2 hours perusing the site. Hiring a local guide is strongly recommended to get the most out of the trip.
The largest lake in the Cordillera Blanca — a snowcapped range of the Andes in west central Peru — and a gorgeous natural reservoir, Laguna Paron is a unique destination for hikers, rock climbers and nature enthusiasts. Located within the Huascaran National Park and 62 miles north of the hiking mecca Huaraz, the 17.1 square mile lake is distinguished by its striking turquoise hue, a result of high concentrations of dissolved lime. From its shores visitors can take in precious views of formidable peaks blanketed in fresh snow (including Artesonraju, the pyramid peak many believe to have inspired the logo of Paramount Pictures). Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985, Laguna Parón can be reached by car or by foot. Having arrived at this awe-inspiring body of water at 4185 meters above sea level, the serene environment welcomes one to meditate, rock climb, kayak or even set up camp near the quiet shores. How to get to Laguna Parón Most people visit the lake as part of an organized tour out of Huaraz or Caraz (from S/50), as the logistics of getting to Laguna Parón — whether by car, hike, or a combo — can become complicated. From Lima, Huaraz can be reached by an 8hr bus ride (take a night bus to pass the time sleeping). A variety of companies whose offices are spread throughout the capital city offer the commute. One of the better recommended is MovilBus. The city of Huaraz is not large, and a short stroll around the plaza will lead you to numerous offers from local agencies and guides for full-day tours of Laguna Parón. Be sure that the guide you hire is certified for Laguna Parón and expect to pay between S/50-70 per person for a group tour. Reputable tours won’t set out until 7:30am or 8am the following day, so take the first day in Huaraz to acclimatize (the city is 3052m/10,013ft above sea level). If you want to venture to Laguna Parón on your own, you will need to commute from Huaraz to Caraz by "combi" (public shuttle van). The 45-mile ride takes less than two hours and costs between S/6-8 per person. These vans depart throughout the day and can be found on Jr. Cajamarca, a 10-minute walk north of the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz. Having arrived in Caraz, find a taxi (there are no rideshare apps here) that is willing to take you to the lake and wait until you are ready to return. Including a wait time of 2-3 hours, a round-trip taxi ride will cost between S/150-180. The bumpy ride takes nearly two hours. Walking to Laguna Parón Those in physical shape and with proper acclimatization to the altitude can hike to Laguna Parón from the town of Parón, a S/8-10 combi ride from Caraz. The 8-mile hike can take three to five hours, depending on stamina as it is quite steep and rocky. Be warned: signs along the route are few and far between, another reason to hire a local guide. Apps such as Maps.me can be helpful navigating the route even without a wi-fi or data connection. Trekkers looking to return to Caraz the same day must get back to the town of Parón before 3pm, when the last shuttle van leaves, or should coordinate for a taxi to wait at the park entrance. What to do at Laguna Parón The lake continues to promote water-based activities despite the fact that its water level was lowered from 75 meters to 15 meters in the mid-1980s to prevent a collapse of Huandoy’s moraine. You can rent a kayak and navigate the smooth frigid waters for half an hour (S/20). Families may be interested in taking a boat ride, though it is costlier and lasts far less time (S/10 per person, and just 15 minutes). Rock climbers will find a challenge at Torre de Parón, known as the Sphinx. There are at least 13 wall routes on the granite monolith. Take an easy hike to the lookout point, the Mirador. This 30 to 40 minute trek is well marked and leads to a prime view (and plenty of photo opportunities) of the turquoise lake. But take your time as you inch your way up in altitude. Looking to soak up the most of your time in Laguna Parón? Campers are welcome and can camp without a fee, though there are no amenities or equipment available on site. You'll need to bring a tent, a warm sleeping bag, plenty of layers and all your food. The following day be sure to take everything with you, including your trash of course, to continue to preserve this pristine natural gem. Tickets and other practicalities Entrance tickets to the lake can be purchased once you’ve reached Huascaran National Park. The entrance fee is S/5. Buy food and water in Huaraz or Caraz, whichever will be the final city/town before heading up to the lake as there are no guarantees of finding vendors at Laguna Parón. The best time to visit is between April and September, when it is sunnier and dry in the Andes. Take a day or two in Huaraz or Caraz to acclimatize to the high altitude. The lake is located at over 4,000 meters above sea level, and rushing to the top can result in stomach sickness or extreme headaches. Restaurant options in Caraz are slim, though La Peña del Gordo is a prime spot to try local flavors, including charqui, a dehydrated meat typically beef or alpaca. Have plenty of Peruvian soles on hand as all transportation, restaurants and entrance fees are all paid in cash not with a bank card.
In most people's minds, Chavín is less a town and more a set of ruins – not any old ruins, but the erstwhile ceremonial center of one of Peru's most sophisticated early civilizations, and a Unesco World Heritage Site to boot. Most visitors zip by on a day trip, ignoring the diminutive colonial town with its whimsical plaza and somnolent streets that sits somewhere on the charm-o-meter between gorgeous Chacas and slightly less gorgeous Huari. If you decide to overnight here, you can visit the impressive archaeological site in the early morning and have it all to yourself. Chavin de Huantar courtyard, archeological site. ©DC_Colombia/Getty Images Things to do at Chavín de Huántar From Chavín you can hike for a few hours into a lofty valley, in the direction of Olleros, to a high pass with stirring views of Huantsán (6395m) – the highest mountain in the southern Cordillera Blanca. Longer hiking trips with mules and guides can be organized through Cafetería Renato. After admiring the Chavin ruins from ground (and underground) level, you can climb up to this trio of crosses grafted onto a crag high above town for a full view of the archaeological site. Walk four blocks north of Plaza de Armas on Jirón Huaca, turn left, and take the stony, well-marked path uphill. It’s around 3km round-trip. The sulfur Quercos thermal baths, a 30-minute walk south of town, house numerous windowless bath cubicles that fail to take advantage of their riverside setting. Still, the waters work wonders on post-hike muscles. Steps lead down from the main road to modest facilities by the river. A taxi from town costs S10. A stone corridor at Chavín de Huantar archaeological site. ©Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock The outstanding Museo Nacional de Chavín, funded jointly by the Peruvian and Japanese governments, houses most of the intricate tenon heads carved with horror-stricken expressions from Chavín de Huántar , as well as the magnificent Tello Obelisk, another stone object of worship with low relief carvings of a caiman and other fierce animals. The obelisk had been housed in a Lima museum since the 1945 earthquake that destroyed much of the original museum, and was only returned to Chavín in 2008. The museum is located around 2km from the ruins on the north side of town – an easy 25-minute walk It's best to get an early start and make the most of daytime activities while you can. Chavín goes to bed early; this is no party town. Stifle your late-night pisco-sinking urges until you get back to Huaraz. Best of Peruvian street food Where to stay and eat There are several lodging options and eateries in Chavín, even if it isn't the most bustling part of Peru. Lodging Finca Renato is perched on a hillside overlooking town, this 6-hectare farm has icy showers but offers fantastic views over rooftops to the ruins. There's a basic refugio with dorm beds and cooking facilities, plus campsites. Make bookings and pick up directions at Cafeteria Renato before venturing up. Hostal Chavín Turístico is a go-to, family-run option for the few travelers who stay overnight in Chavín has well-appointed rooms with cute bedspreads, large bathrooms and – perhaps most refreshingly – no chipped paint or rusty pipes. The rooms are one block away from the same-name restaurant where you check in. Uploading your Instagrams will have to wait, however. There's no wi-fi. Hostal Inca 's street profile is alluring enough – a whitewashed colonial building in Chavín's main square with some flowery arrangements in the courtyard. However, when you get down to the nitty-gritty the Inca is overdue a refurb, with dusty rooms, slightly lumpy beds and no hot water. Breakfast is S12 extra. Indigenous run food stalls are one option for dining in Chavin de Huantar © Photographer estivillml/ Getty Images Dining Churning out sophisticated dishes that outpunch its location’s weight class, Buongiorno is a pleasant surprise in a cordial garden setting. The lomo a la pimienta, a Peruvian fave of grilled steak in wine, cream and cracked-pepper sauce (S35), is three-star Lima quality and the menu also has some strong Italian inflections courtesy of the owner who spent several years abroad. The cooks at often dart out to the extensive gardens and grab some fresh organic herbs – a nice touch. It’s 50m across the bridge from the entrance to the ruins. The restaurant mainly focuses on the busy dinner trade (when it fills with tour groups). If you're planning on dinner, check ahead as closing times are flexible. For simple international breakfasts alongside homemade yogurt, cheese and manjar blanco (homemade caramel spread), head to Cafeteria Renato, a rustic cafe done out like a cowboy corral with saddles slung over walls and maps decorating the walls. The owners also organize horseback riding and hiking trips in the area. A solid option, especially for trucha al ajo (garlic trout) and trout sudado (in sauce), Chavín Turístico has rickety tables around a tiny courtyard and a chalkboard of traditional dishes. The food doesn't lack flavor, and local archaeologists say it’s the most reliable choice in town. It's affiliated with Hostal Chavín Turístico. The temple at Chavín de Huantar. ©Bailey Johnson/Lonely Planet How to get to Chavín The paved road across the Cordillera Blanca to Chavín passes the Laguna Querococha at 3980m from where there are views of the peaks of Pucaraju (5322m) and Yanamarey (5237m). The road continues through the Kahuish Tunnel (4516m above sea level), which cuts through the Kahuish Pass. As you exit the tunnel and descend toward Chavín, look out for the massive statue of Christ blessing your journey. It was built by Italian missionaries. In Chavín, most transportation leaves from the ugly new bus station several blocks south of the plaza. All local buses pick up and drop off where the highway bends at the plaza. Olguita Tours has regular departures to Huaraz (S12, 2½ hours, six daily) as well as Huari (S5, two hours, four daily) to the north. Transportes Sandoval offers similar services. Combis / colectivos head to Huaraz (S20/25, 2½ hours) from the oddly named Plaza Chupa, a block north of the quaint Plaza de Armas. Both Movil Tours and Turismo Rosario have 7:40pm departures to Lima (S55 to S75, nine hours). The former is far superior, with comfortable and reliable coaches equipped with reclining seats. To continue north along the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, most of the buses originating in Huaraz continue to Huari (S5, two hours). Colectivos leave frequently from near the Plaza de Armas to San Marcos (S2, 20 minutes) from where you can catch colectivos to Huari (S5, 45 minutes). Other than these buses, there is no other public transportation beyond Huari. Hikers can walk to Chavín from Olleros in the Callejón de Hualyas in about three days; it’s an uncrowded trek. A view of Lake Querococha. ©Bailey Johnson/Lonely Planet The history of Chavín de Huántar Named after the site at Chavín de Huántar, this is considered one of the oldest major cultural periods in Peru, strutting its stuff on the pre-Inca stage from 1200 BC to 500 BC. The Chavín and its contemporaries wielded their influence with great success, particularly between the formative years of 800 BC to 500 BC when they excelled in the agricultural production of potatoes and other highland crops, animal husbandry, ceramic and metal production, and the engineering of buildings and canals. Chavín archaeologists have formerly referred to this time of political ascendance as the Chavín Horizon, though Early Horizon or Late Formative is also used. The principal Chavín deity was feline (jaguar or puma), although lesser condor, eagle and snake deities were also worshipped. Representations of these deities are highly stylized and cover many Chavín-period sites and many extraordinary objects, such the Tello Obelisk in the Museo Nacional de Chavín; the Lanzón, often referred to as the Smiling God, which stands in mystical glory in the tunnels underneath the Chavín site; and the Raimondi Stone at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Arqueología e Historia del Perú in Lima. Chavin de Huantar in Huaraz, Peru, South America. Stone Heads ©klublu/Shutterstock The Raimondi Stone (which is currently considered too fragile to move to Chavín) has carvings of a human figure, sometimes called the Staff God, with a jaguar face and large staffs in each hand – an image that has shown up at archaeological sites along the northern and southern coasts of Peru and which suggests the long reach of Chavín interactions. The images on all of these massive stone pillars are believed to indicate a belief in a tripartite universe consisting of the heavens, earth and a netherworld, or, as an alternative theory goes, a cosmos consisting of air, earth and water, though these remain elaborate guesses – archaeologists at the site have seen no good evidence to support any of these theories. As a major ceremonial center, the most powerful players in Chavín were its priests, who impressed the upper ranks of society with complex rituals that were occasionally terrifying. One theory says priests relied on sophisticated observation and understanding of seasonal changes, rain and drought cycles, and the movement of the sun, moon, and stars to create calendars that helped the Chavín reign as agriculturalists, though there is as yet no evidence that calendars were created. Others believe that Chavín leaders were getting to the point of being free of system-serving, and heading for authority based on belief rather than for serving an agricultural purpose. Some archaeologists have argued that women also served as priests and played a powerful role during the Chavín period. Chavín, it seems, remains a rather polarizing mystery.
Before metal or ceramic was invented and well before the Maya and Inca cultures ruled, there was Caral, the oldest civilization in the Americas. Having dominated Peru’s coast from 3000-1800 BCE, Caral (also referred to as Norte Chico) would leave behind a massive complex, less than 130 miles from Peru’s modern-day capital, Lima. Constructed when the first pyramids of Egypt were taking shape, the ancient urban center spans over 150 acres of dry desert, overlooking the verdant Supe valley. The Caral archaeological site is impressively well-preserved (perhaps because it was rediscovered less than a century ago) and visitors will note its complex architectural designs and advanced city planning in longstanding earthen and stone structures such as sunken circular plazas, a 28m-high temple, residential and elite dwellings, and ditches to channel water. Caral was the blueprint of Andean civilization and yet the Unesco World Heritage Site receives just a trickle of tourism. Slightly isolated and historically crucial, embrace the absence of crowds when going off the typical tourist route and visiting Caral. The main entrance to the well-kept ruins of Caral, Peru © marktucan / Getty History of Caral Buried under desert sand dunes until rediscovered by American archaeologist Paul Kosok in 1948 and extensively studied by Peruvian archaeologist and anthropologist Ruth Shady since the 1990s, Caral is believed to have developed 5000 years ago. The site is one of the largest in the Americas and its creators, the Caral, one of the most important cultures in the world. The Caral civilization (also referred to as Caral-Supe or Norte Chico) thrived on agriculture and fishing, as they were dwellers of Peru’s northern coast. They established themselves in today’s Barranca region around 3000 BCE with small, dispersed settlements that would interact through trade. Evidence-based findings support the idea that Norte Chico members also traded products, resources and knowledge with distant communities based in the jungle and highlands of Peru. The diverse relationships and gained perspectives no doubt contributed to this ancient society’s advanced scientific and technological know-how. One of the altars with a fire pit in Caral, Peru © mundosemfim / Getty The Caral complex was likely built around 2700 BCE and, perhaps for the first time in the Americas, managed to unite settlements in a sacred urban center. Much mystery remains about the civilization but it is believed that at its height Caral was home to an estimated 3000 residents. Details in the architecture, such as stairways that align with stars and altars with fire pits, point to religious and ceremonial occurrences. The absence of a walled closure is the first sign of this society’s peacekeeping trait and in fact archaeologists have yet to find any evidence of warfare in their diggings. Instead, musical instruments made of animal bones and a knotted textile apparatus used for accounting called quipu, popularly associated with the much later Inca culture, have been found in the grounds of Caral. Experts like Shady point to extreme climate change as the cause of Caral’s collapse. Prolonged drought dried up the Supe river and turned what was once a lush valley into the arid dunes that greet visitors today. Archaeologists have found evidence of various other extreme natural phenomena that would have scared Caral locals away (such as earthquakes and floods), leaving Caral abandoned around 1800 BCE. And while Caral is certainly the best preserved and studied example of this pioneering civilization, remnants of 18 neighboring ancient cities have been discovered by archaeologists in the past few decades. In other words, there is much to be discovered about the cradle of Andean civilization and Caral just so happens to be the gateway. Caral's excavation efforts only started in the 1990s © Nicholas Eagar / Getty How to get to Caral Located north of Lima, about 115 miles along the PanAmerican Highway, Caral can be reached by bus or private car. A four-hour drive, it is doable as a full-day excursion from the capital city; however, travelers should embark on the trip as early as possible in order to enjoy their time at the archaeological site. In a private car, head north along the Panamericana Norte highway until reaching the district of Supe (Barranco) at kilometer 187. From there, drivers are guided by signs to take an exit to the right in order to reach the archaeological site. Considering that renting a car in Peru is extremely expensive and the driving culture unsafe for the unaccustomed, the best option is to visit Caral by bus. Bus companies such as MovilBus and Turismo Barranco operate daily and leave Lima as early as 5:30am and offer return shuttles from Supe until 5:15pm. Round trip tickets are about S/50, depending on the company. The buses only go as far as Supe however, which means travelers need to then take a taxi or colectivo (shared taxi) from the bus stop to the Caral site. From Supe’s main square, walk a few blocks towards the district market and ask for “colectivos a Caral.” A colectivo is by far the more budget-friendly option as it will likely cost less than S/10 for the 40-minute ride, while a taxi can charge up to S/50. Tip: Ask the colectivo or taxi driver to wait for you as you tour Caral, since hailing a taxi in the middle of the desert is not easily done. Caral is the most ancient city in the Americas © estivillml / Getty Tickets to Caral Caral can be visited Monday to Saturday, from 10am-4pm. General entrance to Caral costs S/11 for adults, S/1 for children under 12 years, and S/5.50 for seniors (60 years and over). Tickets must be paid in cash (Peruvian sol) at the on-site ticket booth. Though signs in English are available throughout the site, local guides are available for hire on-site for S/20 to ensure a deeper experience. The site can be accessed by wheelchair although the paths are rocky so caution is advised. Though there are on-site shops, often the only thing open is the ticket booth. Pack a sun hat, sunscreen and plenty of water as you’ll be navigating this open desert site for 2-3 hours by foot. Just back from: the Northern Highlands of Peru
Of the small remote islands dotted around Lake Titicaca, Isla Amantaní is the least visited. Its population is just 4000, is a few kilometers north of the smaller Isla Taquile and many tours day trip through the region without continuing to Amantaní. Still, a stay here is unforgettable, and it's well worth making your way to this remote corner of Peru. Almost all trips to Amantaní involve an overnight homestay with islanders, giving you a privileged glimpse into the local way of life. The island is very quiet, with no roads or vehicles – you won't even see a dog, as they aren't allowed. Isla Amantaní boasts lovely views, too. Several hills are topped by ruins, among the highest and best-known of which are Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth). These date to the Tiwanaku period, named for a largely Bolivian culture that appeared around Lake Titicaca and expanded rapidly between 200 BC and AD 1000. The scenery is distinctive on Amantaní Island in the midst of Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia © Getty Images/iStockphoto Homestays at Isla Amantaní When you arrive, Amantaní Community Lodging – which is essentially made of the island families – will allocate you to your accommodations according to a rotating system. Please respect this process, even if you are with a guided group. There’s no problem with asking for families or friends to be together. All visitors eat at their homestay, and the meals typically include island staples like fish and quinoa. There are small stores for snacks, too, however. As with Taquile, the islanders speak Quechua, but their culture is more heavily influenced by the Aymara. The villagers sometimes organize rousing traditional dances, letting travelers dress in their traditional party gear to dance the night away – though, of course, your hiking boots might ultimately give you away. Don’t forget to look up at the incredibly starry night sky as you make your way back to your hosts' home. Getting to Isla Amantaní Ferries (round-trip S30; admission to island S8) leave from the Puno port for Amantaní at 8:30am every day. There are departures from Amantaní to Taquile and Puno around 4pm every day – check, though, as times vary – and sometimes from Amantaní to Puno at around 8am, depending on demand. A private boat taxi between Llachón and Amantaní costs S100 return. Introducing Peru
At the southeast end of town is the floating shantytown of Belén, consisting of scores of huts, built on rafts, which rise and fall with the river. During the low-water months, these rafts sit on the river mud, but for most of the year they float on the river − a colorful and chaotic sight. Seven thousand people live here, and canoes float from hut to hut selling and trading jungle produce. The best time to visit the area is at 7am, when people from the jungle villages arrive to sell their produce. To get here, take a cab to ‘Los Chinos,’ walk to the port and rent a canoe to take you around. The market here, located within the city blocks in front of Belén, is the raucous, crowded affair common to most Peruvian towns. In fact, because of the fluctuating water levels that make this market so muddy and mosquito-plagued, Belén is a level more squalid again. All kinds of strange and exotic products, from bottled ayahuasca to insect grubs are sold among the more mundane bags of rice, sugar, flour and cheap household goods. Look for the bark of the chuchuhuasi tree, which is soaked in rum for weeks and used as a tonic (it’s served in many of the local bars). Chuchuhuasi and other Amazon plants are common ingredients in herbal pain-reducing and arthritis formulas manufactured in Europe and the USA. The market makes for exciting shopping and sightseeing, but do remember to watch your wallet.
This convent shouldn’t be missed, even if you’ve overdosed on colonial edifices. Occupying a whole block and guarded by imposing high walls, it is one of the most fascinating religious buildings in Peru. Nor is it just a religious building – the 20,000-sq-meter complex is almost a citadel within the city. It was founded in 1580 by a rich widow, doña María de Guzmán. Enter from the southeast corner. The best way to visit Santa Catalina is to hire one of the informative guides, available for S20 from inside the entrance. Guides speak Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese or Japanese. The tours last about an hour, after which you’re welcome to keep exploring by yourself until the gates close. The monastery is also open two evenings a week so that visitors can traipse through the shadowy grounds by candlelight as nuns would have done centuries ago. Alternatively, you can wander around on your own without a guide, soaking up the meditative atmosphere and getting slightly lost (there’s a finely printed miniature map on the back of your ticket if you’re up for an orienteering challenge). A helpful way to begin is to focus a visit on the three main cloisters. After passing under the silencio (silence) arch you will enter the Novice Cloister, marked by a courtyard with a rubber tree at its center. Novice nuns entering here were required to zip their lips in a vow of solemn silence and resolve to a life of work and prayer. Nuns lived as novices for four years, during which time their wealthy families were expected to pay a dowry of 100 gold coins per year. At the end of the four years they could choose between taking their vows and entering into religious service, or leaving the convent – the latter would most likely have brought shame upon their family. Graduated novices passed onto the Orange Cloister, named for the orange trees clustered at its center that represent renewal and eternal life. This cloister allows a peek into the Profundis Room, a mortuary where dead nuns were mourned. Paintings of the deceased line the walls. Artists were allotted 24 hours to complete these posthumous paintings, since painting the nuns while alive was out of the question. Leading away from the Orange Cloister, Córdova St is flanked by cells that served as living quarters for the nuns. These dwellings would house one or more nuns, along with a handful of servants, and ranged from austere to lavish depending on the wealth of the inhabitants. Ambling down Toledo St leads you to the cafe, which serves fresh-baked pastries and espressos, and finally to the communal washing area where servants washed in mountain runoff channeled into huge earthenware jars. Heading down Burgos St toward the cathedral’s sparkling sillar (white volcanic rock) tower, visitors may enter the musty darkness of the communal kitchen that was originally used as the church until the reformation of 1871. Just beyond, Zocodober Sq (the name comes from the Arabic word for ‘barter’) was where nuns gathered on Sundays to exchange their handicrafts, such as soaps and baked goods. Continuing on, to the left you can enter the cell of the legendary Sor Ana, a nun renowned for her eerily accurate predictions about the future and the miracles she is said to have performed until her death in 1686. Finally, the Great Cloister is bordered by the chapel on one side and the art gallery, which used to serve as a communal dormitory, on the other. This building takes on the shape of a cross. Murals along the walls depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
If there's one must-see archaeological site in the region, this is it. The Temples of the Sun and the Moon, attributed to the Moche period, are more than 700 years older than Chan Chan, yet parts of the complex are remarkably well preserved. Located on the south bank of the Río Moche, the main attraction here is the Huaca de la Luna with its phenomenal multicolored friezes. The entrance price includes an English-speaking guide; individual travelers need to wait for a group to fill. The larger Huaca del Sol is closed to visitors. Archaeologists believe the Huaca de La Luna was the religious and ceremonial center of the Moche capital, while the Huaca del Sol was the administrative center. The two edifices are separated by 500m of open desert that once contained the dwellings and other buildings of the common residents. While Huaca de la Luna is smaller than its neighbor, it proves that, in Moche pyramids at least, size isn’t everything. The structure is riddled with rooms that contained ceramics and precious metals and are adorned with some of the beautiful polychrome friezes for which the Moche were famous. The huaca was built over six centuries to AD 600, with six succeeding generations expanding on it and completely covering the previous structure. Archaeologists onion-skinning selected parts of the huaca have discovered that there are friezes of stylized figures on every level, some of which have been perfectly preserved by the later levels built around them. Enthusiastic local guides will walk you through different parts of the complex and explain the richly colored motifs depicting Moche gods and zoomorphic figures, before leading you to the spectacular finale: the magnificent, richly decorated external wall. Don't even think of dropping out early. Many of the guides are volunteers, so tips are appreciated. From the Huaca de la Luna site there are good views of the Huaca del Sol, which is the largest single pre-Columbian structure in Peru, though about a third of it has been washed away. The structure was built with an estimated 140 million adobe bricks, many of them marked with symbols representing the workers who made them. At one time the pyramid consisted of several different levels connected by steep flights of stairs, huge ramps and walls sloping at 77 degrees. The last 1500 years have wrought their inevitable damage, and today the pyramid looks like a giant pile of crude bricks partially covered with sand. Despite this, its size alone makes the pyramid an awesome sight. The Huaca del Sol is not currently open to visitors as only minimal research has been conducted on the site. Around 600m from the Huaca de la Luna car park, the excellent Museo Huacas de Moche is a fascinating and well-planned museum with three rooms of objects excavated from the site and explanations in Spanish and English. Visitors need to check in here to buy a ticket and schedule a tour before heading over to the Huaca de la Luna. Entry to the museum costs an additional S5, and it's well worth popping in while you wait for your tour departure. As you leave look around for biringos, the native Peruvian hairless dogs that hang out here. Their body temperature is higher than that of normal dogs and they have traditionally been used as body warmers for people with arthritis. Combis (S1.50) for the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna leave from Av Los Incas in Trujillo every 15 minutes or so. It’s also possible to take a taxi (S15).
This 771m waterfall somehow escaped the notice of the Peruvian government, international explorers and prying satellite images until 2005, when German Stefan Ziemendorff and a group of locals put together an expedition to map the falls. Various claims ranging from the third-loftiest waterfall on earth to the 15th highest resulted in an international firestorm. Whatever its rank, Gocta is mighty impressive and, thanks to a web of well-signposted, forested trails, it's now pretty accessible, too. To get to the falls from Chachapoyas, catch an ETSA combi (minibus) heading toward Pedro Ruíz (S3, 45 minutes) and get off at Cocahuayaco (a bridge on the main road). Mototaxis (three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw taxis) usually wait here offering to take hikers up to the villages of Cocachimba (5.3km) or San Pablo (6km) for S10. Alternatively, you can hike up to either village. San Pablo provides best access to the upper falls. Cocachimba is the start of the trail to the lower falls. Both villages have community tourist offices where you must pay your entrance fee. Cocachimba has more in the way of places to stay and eat. For a full day out, it's possible to visit both the upper and lower falls on one 15km circuit. Start in San Pablo village, from where a 6km trail leads to the base of the 231m-high upper cascade. Double back on the same path for 1.8km and then turn left heading down the mountain to a fantastic lookout with a clear view of both cascades, and then across a suspension bridge to the base of the taller 540m-high lower falls. From here you exit along the main trail to Cocachimba (6.2km), where you can catch a mototaxi back to Cocahuayco. From the road bridge, combis for Chachapoyas pass every 30 minutes. For die-hard athletes wanting to do the full circuit, starting and finishing in Cocahuaycos, you're looking at a 26km hike over hilly, sometimes-muddy terrain. Start early.
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