Other than being able to name a certain little bear with a penchant for marmalade, most people would be struggling to come up with more than a couple of Peru-related facts.
Everyone knows about Machu Picchu, the myth- and mist-shrouded Inca citadel, but hands up those who knew that Peru boasted more ancient archaeological sites than any other country in South America? Or that its vast green carpet of jungle is home to the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife on the planet? How about the fact that Peru is the birthplace of surfing, that its rivers offer the scariest white-water rafting anywhere, and that the Peruvian Andes are so unexplored they make the Himalayas seem like Piccadilly Circus on a summer weekend? And that’s only scratching the surface.
Everyone who visits Peru inevitably goes to Cusco, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. The Spanish built their colonial churches and houses on top of the original Inca foundations, and this startling mix of architectural styles is still much in evidence.
Cusco is also the ideal base from which to explore the Urubamba Valley, which runs west all the way to Machu Picchu and beyond. Peru’s best-known archaeological site is the main attraction for visitors, and rightly so. Set your alarm and get up early to watch the sun rise over the mountains and fill the citadel with light. This is one wake-up call you won’t want to miss.
Head north to the elegant colonial city of Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast and Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world. The crumbling ruins of the imperial city consist of nine great compounds built by successive dynasties that ruled this part of the country before the arrival of the Incas. A few kilometres from the city are the massive adobe pyramids of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.
In the Cordillera Blanca, in the northern Andes, is the architectural splendour of the 2,500-year-old fortress temple of Chavín de Huantár, one of Peru’s most important ancient sites. However, this region is better known as a Mecca for hikers the world over. If that’s not your cup of mate de coca, then try white-water rafting or mountain biking through the peaks.
But it’s not all mountains. Most people are surprised to hear that a whopping 60% of Peru is jungle. Experience the best of it in either Manu or Tambopata, some of the largest protected areas of rainforest and arguably the most pristine conservation units in the world. Or fly to Iquitos, the only place in Peru where you can see pink river dolphins in the morning and experience the bustle of a frenetic Amazon port in the afternoon.