for National Geographic News
Peru, a nation of approximately 27 million people, lies along the northwest curve of South America. Closely linked to the ancient Inca empire, the country is home to sites like Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Nazca Lines, and the Inca Trail, as well as a wide array of ecosystems from high Andean mountains to lush Amazonian rain forests.
Here, three National Geographic explorersarchaeologist Johan Reinhard, author Karin Muller, and explorer Peter Frostshare their favorite places and best advice for making the most of this diverse land.
Johan Reinhardhigh-altitude archaeologist, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and discoverer of "Juanita," the famed "ice maiden" mummy of Mount Ampatohas been working in South America since 1980. With a country as rich in archaeological, cultural, and environmental sites as Peru, Reinhard says, most visitors will have plenty to see without needing to venture very far off the beaten path.
"Unless you've really gone out of your way [to explore] for about a month, you're still in guidebook territory," Reinhard said. Luckily for those planning their own trips, many good guidebooks exist. However, those on a limited schedule, Reinhard says, may find organized tours to be best for maximizing time while minimizing logistical hassles.
Reinhard, at home at high altitudes, recommends several itinerary considerations for the mountain areas to help visitors adjust to life above sea level.
If going directly to see Machu Picchu (elevation 7,710 feet/ 2,350 meters), Reinhard advises staying the first night in the Sacred Valley near this famous Inca landmark. Once better acclimatized, visitors can explore the historic town of Cusco close by (elevation 11,152 feet/ 3,399 meters).
For those wanting to stay in a city first, visiting a lower-altitude location like Arequipa is a smart choice. At 7,550 feet (2,300 meters) above sea level, it allows for an easier transition to high altitudes, Reinhard says. With volcanoes in the near distance, an ancient monastery, the museum that houses Juanita, and proximity to the Colca Canyon (reputedly the second deepest in the world), the Arequipa area has much to recommend it.
A particular favorite of Reinhard's is the Cordillera Blanca region, an eight-hour bus ride from Peru's capital, Lima. The region boasts huge peaks encircling beautiful lakes, as well as Huascaran National Park, which encompasses Peru's highest mountain (Mount Huascaran, elevation 22,205 feet/ 6,768 meters).
The views, understandably, are breathtaking. "It's like the Switzerland of the Andes," Reinhard said.
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