Peru is an angular, muscular country, clad in the green of cloud forest, the brown of deserts and wide highlands, and the blue of lakes. It’s a place of natural extremes - the Andes are more sheer than any European mountain range I’ve encountered, the lakes are as vast as seas. Its also a place of natural abundance; many Peruvians are proud to tell us that 84 of the world’s 104 known ecosystems, and 28 of its 32 climates, are present in their country.
We had less than two weeks in Peru, so we were restricted to the most urgent items on our bucket list: Cusco, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and Lima’s food scene. If we’d had another two weeks, I’d have liked to journey West to see the rainforest, and then East to fly over the Nasca Lines and trek through the Colca Canyon.
If we’d had another two months - and a better command of Spanish - I’d have stopped awhile in the smaller towns that most tourists merely pass through. The town known for making giant wheels of sweet bread, or the town hiding ‘South America’s sistine chapel’. Better yet, the town not remarked upon by any guide, where I spotted a mother and daughter dancing for sheer joy and, stopped at traffic lights, played the mirror game with a laughing boy in the bus opposite.
To visit Peru is to open a door to a landscape and a history that is rich and complex, sometimes cruel, often beautiful; a door that is opened for you by a people who celebrate that richness, persevere through the cruelty and take real pride in the beauty. Below, you can find some of my favourite places to visit, eat and sleep, along with my favourite photographs.
Which sites to visit
There are extensive travel guides on exploring Peru, but here are my top tips for the corners of the country to which we ventured.
- Explore Cusco - It’s easy to see why the Incas chose this beautiful, mountain-bordered place to build their capital. The Spanish conquistadors were equally enchanted and built their own places of worship on top of Inca sacred sites. We spent a very happy few days exploring the museums, churches and markets of Cusco. The Cathedral may grab attention with its prominent spot in the central square, but don’t miss the Convent of Santo Domingo, which sits upon the Incas' most holy site, Qorikancha or Temple of the Sun. Of the museums, our favourite was the Machu Picchu museum for its detailed, multi-language information and insight into the Incas' daily life. For a slower afternoon, take an hour or two to wander the streets of the artist’s quarter, San Blas, and pause at tiny Eusebio & Manolo for excellent Peruvian coffee, empanadas and sweet treats.
- Trek to Machu Picchu - There’s a variety of routes leading to Machu Picchu, with many people choosing to forgo the traditional Inca Trail for the Lares or Salkantay treks. Limited by time, we chose the shorter, two day-one night Inca Trail, getting off the train a little later and climbing steeply to join the route that runs through the cloud forests and amongst the most impressive Inca ruins, such as the agricultural terraces of Winay Wayna. The benefit of this route is that you come through the Sun Gate in the afternoon (rather than the morning), when the weather is more reliable, so your first view over Machu Picchu is clear and sunny - important for capturing those memorable photos. When we returned the next morning at sunrise for a tour, we found the site shrouded in mist and drizzle and were glad of the photo opportunity the previous afternoon!
- Sail on Lake Titicaca: Lake Titicaca - the largest lake in South America and one of the highest - has been beaten firmly into the tourist track. To escape the crowds, we organised a tour through Edgar Travel, a company committed to sustainable, responsible travel and visiting the less frequented, more authentic areas of Titicaca. We went first to a reed island, built and lived on by the Uros people, who survive predominantly on the income from fishing and, latterly, tourism. It’s a harsh, poor existence, confined to an island of just a few square metres, so I was unsurprised to learn that most young people have left for the mainland. By contrast, the ‘real’ islands, such as Taquile, seem idyllic, with their deep blue waters, wide sandy beaches and traditional way of life (though admittedly, women’s rights seem limited). Besides agriculture, handicrafts are a main focus and source of income. Men knit clothes for themselves and their families, with their spectacular hats indicating their age, marital status and societal position. Young women chose a partners not based on looks, but rather on the quality of his hat; in return for these knitting skills, she weaves him a beautiful belt to store keepsakes and coca leaves.
Where to rest your head
- Settle in at Tierra Viva - Although this small Peruvian chain of hotels is mid-range in terms of price, with deals often available online, they feel rather luxurious. We stayed in Tierra Viva hotels in Cusco and Lima, both of which offered great showers, huge wide beds and generous breakfast buffets. The hotel in San Blas, Cusco, has a particularly lovely boutique feel. Friendly staff greeted us as we hurtled back in from a day of sightseeing or trekking, and slowed down in the tranquil lobby with a warm cup of coca tea (when in Cusco) or emoliente (when in Lima). They were also very happy to make restaurant reservations, offer recommendations and book taxis. Comfort, peace and a generous welcome - what more could you need?
What to feast on
Peru's diverse climates, in which a diverse array of produce grows, heralds a diverse food culture. From fresh, citrusy ceviche (cured fish) to rich aji di gallina - shredded chicken in a gentle, spicy sauce thickened with breadcrumbs, nuts and cheese, then topped with boiled egg. A double carbohydrate is heartily endorsed; for instance, aji di gallina is served with potatoes and rice, whilst another traditional dish called lomo saltado (stir fried strips of beef) is accompanied by rice and chips. This range of ingredients and dishes keeps eating in Peru interesting, though potatoes - of which there are oven 300 varieties in Peru - are ubiquitous in every meal.
With a few exceptions, our forays into the local cuisine were more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’. My top tips for eating out include the following:
- Try out a variety of restaurants…
- Limo - Peruvian cuisine is tangled with the cuisines of settlers from many other countries, but there are three prominent fusions: Creole (Spanish-Peruvian), Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) and Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese). Limo is an excellent example of Nikkei cuisine, including salmon and avocado sushi rolls covered in panko, trout ceviche, seafood fried-rice and a contender for the best lomo saltado of our trip. Limo is owned by chef Coque Ossio, who runs a small selection of restaurants in Cusco. Of these, I’d also recommend Greens for lighter, organic, veg-centric meals and Pachapapa for traditional Andean cuisine, from aji di gallina to alpaca.
- Amaz - If, like us, you don’t have time to visit the Amazon, you can get a flavour of jungle food at Amaz in Lima, run by vaunted chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. We feasted on vegetarian ceviche, corn tortillas with shrimp, refried beans and salsa, river fish with nuts and mushrooms, and chicken cooked in a parcel of rice, egg and banana leaf.
- Rafael - Lima boasts 3 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and many more restaurants featured in Latin America’s 50 Best. We didn’t have the reservations, or the money, to splash out at the three best, but we did visit a restaurant on the Latin America list, run by Chef Rafael Osterling. Osterling owns a lauded cevicheria, El Mercado, but we headed for his eponymous restaurant, Rafael, which serves a fusion of Peruvian, Italian, Nikkei and Asian food. We turned up late, without a reservation, but the waiters were accommodated us at the beautiful Art Deco bar. I tend to mistrust menus that try to ‘do it all’, but everything we tried - and spied at neighbouring tables - was superb. My big bowl of earthy, herby green tagliatelle with mushrooms and truffle oil was particularly delicious.
- … but also visit out the markets - San Pedro market in Cusco is particularly good for both fresh produce and cooked meals. Although far more ordered than some markets I visited in Asia, San Pedro is still a riot of noise and colour. To your left as you enter, there are rows an rows of women selling delicious fresh fruit juices, each waving their (largely identical) menus to win your custom. To your right, you can buy groceries, with everything from giant bags of quinoa to dried fruit to fresh fish. Venture to the far end and take a seat at one of the food stalls, where you can dine with the locals. We enjoyed a two course lunch of quinoa soup and lomo saltado, which certainly wasn’t gourmet but was tasty, filling and cost the equivalent of only £1.50!
- Feast from the earth - Panchamanca (‘pacha’ translates to ‘earth’ and ‘manca’ as ‘pot’) is a method of cooking underground, whereby hot stones are placed in a deep hole, layered with food, covered with grass and soil, and left to cook. For native Peruvian people, pachamanca is linked to celebration, ritual and paying homage to the earth mother. For any visitor fortunate enough to witness the ceremony, it serves as a literal reminder of the connection between our food and our land. Meat, fish and (as always) several varieties potatoes were covered in herbs and cooked until tender; for dessert, there were baked bananas. Simple, filling, delicious.
- Take a tour with the Lima Gourmet Company - Treat yourself to a food tour with the Lima Gourmet Company, which combines a little sightseeing with a lot of eating. We spent a half day wandering Lima’s stylish districts, pausing for organic Peruvian coffee and lacuma smoothies tasting of caramel and custard (though I couldn’t tell whether that was the fruit or the ice-cream!). At a local market, we marvelled in the abundance of fruit and vegetables grown in this extraordinary country - my favourite being the luscious Edward mangos, meltingly smooth baby avocados and cherimoya or ‘custard apple’, which genuinely tastes of strawberries and cream. Then it was on to a lesson in making pisco sours and ceviche. To finish, we enjoyed a refined take on traditional Peruvian dishes at Huaca Pucllana, a renowned restaurant named after the fascinating pre-Inca site that it overlooks. It’s certainly worth the money for a tour from these passionate local experts, who evidently adore their cuisine and the cultural heritage with which is it inextricably linked.