Southern Peru itinerary
Southern Peru has it all friends. Beautiful cities, wonderful nature and culture. Above anything, culture. Peru is much more than Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is just the tip of the iceberg of paradise for lovers of ancient civilizations (especially the great Inca Empire). And current civilizations... Because the peoples from the coast, the Andes and the jungle are really worth knowing. You must come to know this región. Places I got to know first hand in this itinerary around these three worlds: coast, Andes and Amazon.
Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve Ayacucho
Cusco Sacred Valley: Pisac, Ollantaytambo
Shintuya y Edén
City near the border with Chile (capital of the department of Tacna). No big deal, but if you come from Arica (Chile) you can stop here a day or two (it is on the way). To emphasize the Main Square (Plaza de Armas), quiet and beautiful, and the tours to the olive groves and wineries in the surroundings..
One of the most beautiful cities in Peru, with buildings and white colonial houses (nicknamed the White City for its constructions of light colored volcanic rock), wide squares and green areas. Against a backdrop of a mountain range on which stands the gigantic Misti volcano (a perfect cone of 5822 meters), flanked by the Chachani (left) and the Pichu Pichu (right). Its mixture of big and cosmopolitan city (second largest city in the country), on the one hand, and its Andean environment, on the other, makes it very attractive for the traveler. Some of the things you can do in Arequipa are:
Stroll through the colonial center enjoying the churches, convents and mansions
Go out at night
Visit some museums. Two stand out above the rest: the Museo Santuarios Andinos, focusing on different aspects of the Andean culture (the main attraction are the Inca children offered to the gods/mountains, in whose climatic conditions they were perfectly preserved), and the Museo de Arte Virreinal Santa Teresa.
Hiking in the mountains. There are many routes to choose from, among which we can mention the popular ascent to the Misti volcano (bring coca leaves for altitude sickness!). It takes between two and three days to go up and down.
Regarding the Colca Canyon you can visit it with a guide, but I recommend doing it on your own (much cheaper and at your own pace). The road is spectacular, passing through the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve, the inhospitable altiplano (areas close to 5000 meters), and the descent to Chivay.
Impressive Andean area, home to the two deepest canyons in the world: Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, both about 3200 meters deep. Here the condor flies majestically, and a handful of magical villages contribute the cultural heritage. We will focus on the most touristy Colca Canyon (I do not have the pleasure to know the Cotahuasi). You can get from Arequipa to Chivay (about 3 hours), from where a road runs parallel to the spectacular canyon. These are some of the plans that you can carry out:
Visit the towns and observe/chat with their people: Chivay, Yanque, Maca, Cabanaconde, Huambo...
Go to the Condor Lookout, just before Cabanaconde. The best moment is at dawn, when these giant and magnificent birds are more active flying over the canyon.
Excursion to Sangalle (The Oasis), at the bottom of the canyon. The descent begins near Cabanaconde (in the San Miguel Lookout) and lasts an average of four hours. This wonderful downhill route that ends in a small community with natural pools, palm trees and exotic flowers. Perfect to relax one or two days (or more, but it is expensive)... You can also take a dip in the river. The climb back, which is done by another way, is deadly (remember: you are climbing the deepest canyon in the world!), so be prepared. It can also be done on a mule (by paying), the same ones that transport food down/up the hill...
On the other hand, the Cotahuasi Canyon is more remote, but, apparently, a dazzling beauty. If you have time and you are into hiking, go for it!
Village in the hot desert, located in the middle of the mysterious Nazca Lines: about 300 geoglyphs and 70 biomorphs scattered over a vast territory. They are believed to have been made by the Nazca and Paracas peoples between 900 BC and 600 AD by removing the dark stones of the desert... That is, exposing the lighter colored soil. But nobody knows what they really mean, nor how they could do them without having an aerial perspective. While the tour by small plane flying over the lines must spectacular, I am not sure if I would recommend it. Two reasons: its high price, its low moral value (only accessible to the gringos with money while the locals cannot afford it). However, it is a good destination that is on the itinerary and deserves a stop. You can go on your own to El Mirador (The Viewpoint), in the Panamericana road 20 km north of Nazca (direction Ica/Huacachina), from where you can observe (partially) a couple of figures: El Árbol (The Tree) and Las Manos (The Hands). Obviously, the aerial perspective has to be much better, but seeing these two from here is also wonderful.
Literally, an oasis in the middle of the desert. This small and picturesque town with a beautiful lagoon in the center and surrounded by sand dunes is perfect to rest a few days, away from all kinds of stress. That is why so many backpackers come to relax their tired legs and backs. Lie on the sand under a palm tree, take a dip in one of the pools of the hostels, ride a buggy and travel through the "dunátic" landscapes, rent a board and train your sandboarding skills or, simply, walk aimlessly through the dunes. The sunsets are spectacular.
BALLESTAS ISLANDS AND PARACAS NATIONAL RESERVE
These two shelters of coastal landscapes of the department of Ica can be accessed by boat from Pisco or Paracas village (day trips). In the Ballestas Islands (one hour from Pisco) you will go through arches and caves and can spot wildlife such as sea lions, dolphins, Humboldt penguins, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos, among others
Paracas Reserve offers a protected and unspoilt part of the Peruvian coastal desert, where very different landscapes await you with cliffs and lots of fauna. The Reserve is in an exceptionally rich maritime zone, where outcrops of extremely cold waters (Humboldt current) cause a great abundance of plankton that feeds fish, crustaceans, molluscs... Which, in turn, attracts sea lions and birds. A wide variety of species that come to eat till they burst.
One of the most beautiful cities in the country: spectacular colonial architecture, spectacular surrounding mountains (above 2750 meters elevation). Ayacucho stands out for its works of art (pre-Hispanic, colonial and Creole), arranged in churches, temples, mansions and other stately buildings (colonial art); and blooming in the markets (local art). The best thing for the visitor is to walk aimlessly, marveling at its streets and buildings, and enjoying its warm inhabitants.
As if that were not enough, the capital of the homonymous department lives and breathes history in abundance: near here the final battle was fought leading to proclaim the Independence of Peru from the Kingdom of Spain (December 9, 1824). You can visit this place, the Historical Sanctuary of the Pampa de Quinua (32 km from Ayacucho), where a monument/obelisk stands in the center of a grassy esplanade. But before that there was more (much more), obviously... From the settlements of pre-Inca civilizations to the arrival of the "conquistadores"... Here we are not going to dwell too much (come and learn yourself!), I will just mention that the Wari (or Huari) Empire was born in these lands, which expanded to the north and south and stood out for the quality of its work with textiles, ceramics, metals and stone (years 1100-1400 AD). 20 km from Ayacucho (on the road that goes to Quinua) is located the Archaeological Site of Wari, which was once one of the largest urban centers in Peru. In addition to walking through that landscape shared by wari ruins and cacti, there is a very interesting museum. Definitely, Ayacucho is a place to stop for lovers of history.
The best kept secret of the Incas can breathe freely, it will not be overwhelmed by tourism (yet). And that is precisely its greatness, which provides much of the magic that this place has. In the middle of the mountain range, far from any town and road, is Choquequirao. Immersed in the purest nature. To get here first you need to travel to San Pedro de Cachora (a small town in a detour more or less close to Abancay, on the road that links Andahuaylas and Cusco). Then make a small "sacrifice", walking for 30 kilometers (one way) through the most beautiful landscapes of the universe. Your legs will end up exhausted up and down mountains, but your mind and soul will be jumping with joy at the sight of those snowy peaks, valleys and forests. Much of the path runs parallel to the Apurímac River, encased in a spectacular canyon.
A minimum of two nights of camping is required to make it. You can camp where you want, but there are not many flat areas to set up a tent... On the other hand, there are a couple of campsites: one just before crossing the river on a kind of chairlift (this campground is free), and another at the entrance of the archaeological site (for a fee). If you wake up early (and you are in shape) you can sleep both nights at the campsite before the river, so you can walk lighter the round trip of this stretch (leaving part of yur luggage inside the tent). In Cachora there are some hostels to recover strength.
The capital of the Inca Empire, today "The Rome of America", is one of the most beautiful and interesting populations of Peru (and the continent). Here the Incas settled, being "The Navel of the World", the Spaniards occupied the city after killing Atahualpa (last Inca King), and Machu Picchu was discovered nearby at the beginning of the last century. Despite the looting and destruction to which it was subjected by the invaders, despite its mostly replaced (now colonial) architecture, and in spite of the current massive tourism, the Inca spirit that the streets of Cusco reflect, its people (descendants of the Incas) and its mountains are unique. Much of the blame lies in its proximity to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. A lot to learn, discover and do:
Stroll through the beautiful colonial center, imagining how different it was one day.
Food and local handicrafts markets.
Visit some museum (perhaps the most interesting is the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art).
Inca ruins of Sacsayhuamán, on top of a hill on the outskirts of the city. The stones of this Inca citadel were plundered and used for the construction of houses and churches in Cusco.
Excursions to the mountains and surrounding archaeological sites (way better on your own). There are dozens of excursions, among the most popular are: the Inca Trail (43 km to Machu Picchu, it is so popular that is only possible with a reservation); the Sacred Valley (Písac, Urubamba, Moray, Ollantaytambo); Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa (10 km) or Hydroelectric Plant (2 km); Nevado Salcantay (6271 meters, two alternative routes, both around 55 km); Choquequirao (described above); Tambomachay and Pukapukara; Q'enqo; the Ausangate mountain (6484 masl, around 80 km).
Useful tips to visit the ruins. You can buy a tourist ticket (valid for 10 days) that includes the entry to all archaeological sites in the area (except Machu Picchu). Out much cheaper than paying entrance in each place separately. It can be purchased at Cosituc (Avenida del Sol) or at the sites themselves. Also, if you can get an international student card the price will be lower (this applies for Machu Picchu as well).
Note. If you are in Cusco on June 21-24, you are in luck: Inti Raymi celebration, the exciting Inca New Year.
SACRED VALLEY: PÍSAC AND OLLANTAYTAMBO
Great area a few kilometers north of Cusco that includes two of the most beautiful and best preserved Inca archaeological sites of the Inca culture: Pisac and Ollantaytambo. The scenery, its populations and the other sites (Moray, for instance) makes it even more amazing. In addition, the route is a preamble to the star attraction as traveler heading to Machu Picchu. You can go directly by train from Ollantaytambo, but it is cheaper (and more adventurous) to take a combi (small bus) to Santa Teresa, then walk (very nice walk) to Aguas Calientes.
Finally, what everyone has ever dreamed of visiting: Machu Picchu! The Lost City of the Incas, the most famous site on Earth, one of the 7 Wonders of the World... People from all over the world come to Peru to discover this mysterious site, which was almost certainly one of the most important ceremonial centers of the Incas. Its location over the green mountains and its magnificent conservation is what has given it its fame. Enjoy a whole day calmly touring the citadel and climbing the mountain of Machu Picchu, from where you can admire that spectacle and imagine the lifestyle of this fascinating civilization.
There are several ways to get to Aguascalientes, a town created at the foot of Machu Picchu for tourist purposes: train from Cusco, train from Ollantaytambo, walking from Santa Teresa (8 km) or the Hydroelectric Power Plant (2 km), through the Inca Trail. From Aguascalientes to Machu Picchu you can go by bus (a bit expensive), or on foot: what is better than a nice one-hour-morning-walk before knowing this wonder.
Note: for obvious reasons (too much tourists), the ascent to Huayna Picchu is limited to a few people per day, requiring paying a permit well in advance for it.
This jungle section is hardly visited by tourists, mainly because the means of transportation to get there are scarce. Here awaits one of the most biodiverse gems of the planet: the Manu National Park (where, in addition, some researchers believe that the true lost city of the Incas must be found...). Unfortunately, (practically) the only way to enter this park is by hiring a tour in Cusco, being the price to pay too much for the backpacking budget... You can try to get some local to take you in his boat from Boca Manu, but even then it will not be easy, since you will be required a permit obtained in Cusco (at least in theory). However, even without entering the Park, the incursion into this corner of the planet will be unforgettable, full of adventures, contact with the culture of the jungle and sighting of many animals. Even experiencing humidity is a unique experience! You can do it on your own, using combis (small buses), mototaxis, hitchhiking, and, in the final part, begging for a boat ride… Because once you get to Edén the only way to travel is by river. To get to Boca Manu, the only option is for a local/worker to take you. Making a deal can work (help or money in exchange for transportation).
Just be careful and do not get too far out of the way, lest some wild animal devour you (or some indigenous tribe consider you a threat)!
Note. An alternative option to enter the National Park is to volunteer for several months. If you have plenty of time and are passionate about nature, do not hesitate to try it!
This pretty village in a valley next to a river is at the end of the mountains and the beginning of the jungle. Good stop to enjoy its colonial architecture, its river and landscapes. About 40 km north is the Tres Cruces Viewpoint, the only place in Peru from which you can see the rising sun. Just after that, the definitive descent to the Amazon Basin begins (first eyebrow of the jungle, then pure jungle), changing the brown for the green and all the species that these ecosystems shelter. Congratulations, you have set foot in the jungle adventure!
Near the border between the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios is this small and interesting jungle community. You can visit on foot a small native community of traditional houses called Santa Rosa de Huacaria, where its people live basically from hunting, agriculture and crafts. According to my experience they are not very open to foreigners, though. A few kilometers from Pillcopata, on the way to Atalaya, is "Dos Loritos", a Wild Animal Rescue Center. It is very worth going because the conditions in which the animals are found are excellent, in the middle of the jungle. When I went, I saw several macaws, a peccary family, a couple of capuchin monkeys, a sloth, a coati, and a baby crocodile. In addition, the worker took me on a small expedition through the jungle and showed me an anteater.
The first town you will find in the Madre de Dios department is Salvación. Besides enjoying the local culture, you can visit the wonderful Cocha Machuwasi (cocha means lake), a short walk from the town. Great for avifauna sighting. There is a path through which you can walk in search of additional fauna. Also, if there is a local out there maybe can give you a boat ride on the lake.
Note. The creation of the Manu National Park is celebrated here with great enthusiasm at the end of May. Very cool activities are carried out: talks, poetry, parades, children's dances, etc.
SHINTUYA AND EDÉN
They are the last two communities that can be reached by land before getting on a boat bound for Boca Manu. Chatting with the inhabitants, tasting the local gastronomy and bathing and strolling along the river are the wonderful activities you can do.
A very Amazonian village, elevated on the banks of the Madre de Dios River. This remote place is located at the entrance gate to the Manu National Park. Its charming inhabitants are the main attraction for the traveler, with whom she/he will probably share and have interesting conversations. If you know someone who is going to go up the river to the Park (or in another direction, every boat ride is worth it!) ask him to take you there. There are also a couple of beautiful cochas (lakes) just a few kilometers away from the town, where you can enjoy an unparalleled peace.
The capital of the Madre de Dios department does not stand out for its beauty... It is ugly, hot, full of cars and smoke. However, not all are disadvantages. To begin with, it must be said that not every day you are visiting a big city in the middle of the Amazon. It is beautifully located, at the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers, close to the Tambopata National Reserve, which can be visited with a tour. It is connected by road to Cusco (about 8h) and Juliaca/Puno (about 10h).