Insiders' Peru: Tips From National Geographic Experts

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
July 29, 2004
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 explorers—archaeologist Johan Reinhard, author Karin Muller, and explorer Peter Frost—share their favorite places and best advice for making the most of this diverse land.

Main Attractions

Johan Reinhard—high-altitude archaeologist, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and discoverer of "Juanita," the famed "ice maiden" mummy of Mount Ampato—has 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.

Off-Road Experience

Karin Muller knows all about independent travel. Author, documentary filmmaker, and cultural adventurer, Muller has produced several books and films tracing her solo backpacking adventures, including the 2000 National Geographic book Along the Inca Road and an accompanying National Geographic television series.

Muller also leads regular National Geographic tours to Peru—part of the National Geographic Expeditions travel program.

For travelers ready to branch off into more remote terrain, Muller recommends visiting the town of Cajamarca, where the Inca king Altahualpa was caught by the Spanish, held for ransom, and later beheaded.

A visit to the northern Huaringas area will enable travelers to meet curanderos, or shamans, who hold specialized healing ceremonies. "You may not believe in its medical efficacy, but it's an incredible cultural experience," Muller said.

For Muller, traveling is all about making meaningful connections with the local communities she journeys through—a philosophy she encourages all travelers to practice. "Become a participant, whether that's [through] music or talking or going to unusual places or … participating in a festival," Muller said. "The moment you participate, your entire experience changes."

Such opportunities can be as basic as buying potatoes at a local Peruvian market, asking a nearby vendor or the hotel staff to prepare them, and then sharing the resulting meal, Muller says. Potatoes are a staple crop in Peru, having been cultivated since pre-Inca times, and come in many varieties—a great catalyst for conversation.

"Part of it is just bringing the right attitude along," observed Muller. Genuine inquisitiveness, generosity of spirit, and willingness to try, Muller believes, translate across all languages. "What you're saying [by participating] is, You and I are not all that different—and I'm interested in something that's … important to you."

No Place Like Home

Some people who come to visit Peru find they want to stay—which is precisely what happened to National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee Peter Frost, who discovered the Inca settlement Qoriwayrachina.

Frost first visited Peru in the 1970s and was hooked. A London native, Frost eventually moved to the United States and began leading tours to Peru for Berkeley, California-based travel company, Wilderness Travel. When the back-and-forth travel became too much, Frost chose to relocate again.

Now a 17-year resident of Cusco, Frost can't recommend the country highly enough. "If you can take the time, you'll never get bored in this place," he said.

Frost refers first-time visitors to the southern section of Peru, because it holds some of the country's most famous sites, like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. "They're sort of classic standards … for a reason," Frost said. "They're very spectacular and pretty accessible."

For those travelers interested in Peru's ecological wonders, Frost recommends Tambopata-Candamo Reserve and Manu National Park. These two protected areas, which lie southeast of Cuzco, encompass rich Amazonian rain forest—home to a multitude of rare animal and plant species.

Returning visitors should turn their attention north, Frost says. There, travelers can see pre-Incan archaeological sites such as Chan Chan, an ancient Chimú city near present-day Trujillo, and the Túcume pyramids outside of Lambayeque.

The town of Lambayeque itself hosts the newly opened Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum. Housing artifacts of the Moche people, the museum is designed like one of their pyramids.

Culinary adventures also await Peru's visitors. Frost suggests trying cebiche (aka seviche), a popular dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice with onion and spices. For the cooked variety, the coastal cities of Lima and Chiclayo "have absolutely marvelous seafood," Frost said.

A more recent cooking trend worth noting, Frost says, is the rise of Novo Andina, or New Andean, cuisine. These dishes use mostly traditional Andean ingredients, such as the meat of the camel-like alpaca (a low-cholesterol red meat) and quinoa (a highland grain rich in protein).

With so much to do and see, does Frost have any other parting advice for travelers in his adopted homeland? "Beware of falling in love with the place, because of what happened to me," warned Frost. "I couldn't leave!"

NOTE: U.S. travelers visiting Peru should be aware of the recent U.S. Treasury ruling prohibiting U.S. citizens from using the Peruvian airline, Aero Continente (see State Department: Peru and U.S. Deparment of the Treasury. The airline—the major domestic carrier—was recently grounded by the Peruvian government due to its lack of insurance coverage. All travelers are advised to get advance confirmation of flights on other airlines, as air travel within the country is currently difficult to obtain.

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