Long a tourist favorite on the rise, Peru has finally emerged from the shadows of its better-known neighbors Brazil and Argentina, as a world class destination whose come up is complete.
Peru’s national identify and international calling card has always been its top attraction the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, seemingly on every travelers bucket list. Machu Picchu continues to draw a record number of tourists from around the world. Bucket list wishes aside, this country of 31 million people has so much more to offer.
Our trip began with a non-stop flight on Jet Blue from Ft. Lauderdale to Lima Peru, a city in the midst of a food revolution and arguably the new culinary capital of South America. Lima’s high-end restaurants are redefining Peruvian cuisine, by exploring previously unused local ingredients many of them from the Andes mountains and Amazon River.
My wife, Sharon and I while hardly epicureans were thrilled to score a lunch reservation at Amaz, the more economically accessible of the two restaurants run by local chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the other being Malabar, ranked one of the top restaurants in the world. Lima boasts no less than three of the top fifty restaurants in the world, the legendary Astrid & Gaston, Maido and Central.
Amaz located in the upscale Miraflores zone did not disappoint, tantalizing our palates with an array of Amazonian specialties. I savored the empanadas of cassava stuffed with wild boar, while my wife ate pickled tarapotino shrimps wrapped in bamboo, washed down with what would be the first of many pisco sours, the national drink.
When we weren’t eating our way through this coastal city we took in its many cultural sites including the Larco Museum which features an impressive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and erotica that would make a Las Vegas stripper blush. This sprawling metropolis has maintained its colonial center anchored by the Plaza de Armas the most logical starting point for sightseeing. On the east side of the plaza is the cathedral which dates back to 1535.
The other not to be missed historical attraction is the pyramid-shaped temple of Huacana Pucllana in the heart of Miraflores. Built from adobe and clay bricks the pyramid is formed in seven staggered platforms and well worth a visit. We rounded out our stay in Lima with a couple of Christmas holiday visits to the Larcomar Mall, and several walks down the malecon, with breathtaking views of the coast and a skyline teaming with para gliders.
Fully satiated on gourmet meals and erotica artifacts we departed Lima on a short flight to Cusco en-route to El Valle Sagrado aka the Sacred Valley, a region in Peru’s Andean mountains dotted with colonial villages, that would serve as our entry point to Machu Picchu. We would return to Cusco which sits 11,000 feet above sea level after we acclimated to the altitude for our ascent to the summit at Machu Picchu. Before checking in to the Aranwa Resort we visited the town of Pisac, a hilltop Incan citadel with ancient temples, and the Intihuatana, a stone structure thought to have been a sundial.
Unfortunately, our dinner plans were upended when altitude sickness descended on me like an Andean Condor. So much for bypassing Cusco to avoid what the Peruvians commonly refer to as soroche. The hotel manager quickly dispatched a trained staffer who administered oxygen and two hours later I was devouring a room service cheeseburger at a pace that would wind Usain Bolt.
We started the next day exploring the village of Chinchero known for its colorful Andean textiles and then it was on to Moray, Maras, the salt mines and Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo set on the Urubamba river amid snow-capped mountains is best known for its ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside. It’s also the place where we would board our Inca Rail train the next day for a two-hour ride to Aguas Calientes, followed by a thirty-five-minute shuttle bus to Machu Picchu, where we would be met by our guide Riccardo.
Riccardo essentially a safety valve to assuage my wife’s fears of joining the very short list of people who have met their demise on the mountain, proved to be invaluable. Cheering us on, and peppering us with facts about Machu Picchu, he motivated us at every turn to keep going.
Riccardo reminded us that, Machu Picchu discovered by local indigenous farmers and publicized by American explorer Hiram Bingham is important because it symbolizes the hyper-advanced technical and engineering skills, of the Inca Empire in its apogee. A living testament to brown and black excellence.
Our arduous climb was rewarded with spectacular views and an Olympic sense of accomplishment.
Our trip concluded with a five day visit to the former capital of the Incan empire Cusco.
This city is beyond charming with its full embrace of Spanish colonial architecture, baroque churches, and bustling markets. The Plaza del Armas much like other South American cities serves as the hub of Cusco.
This city is best enjoyed on foot, where you can engage with the super-friendly locals and tourists from all over the world.
Even the hotels get in line with the historical tone of the city, the JW Marriott El Convento originally an Augustinian convent located in the city’s historic district maintained much of the original 16th century Andean designs. We loved this hotel with its opulent lobby chandelier adorned with 60,000 Swarovski crystals. The oxygen enriched accommodations helped with the altitude, and the effects of many pisco sours consumed at the Marriott’s Oespi bar.
Cusco has more than its fair share of superb restaurants including Cicciolina which serves up an excellent selection of tapas or a full a la carte menu at the bar and nearby tables. Diners can also opt to pay an additional seven soles and eat in the salon which is reminiscent of a 19th century European dining room. Try the grilled paiche a large Amazonian fish with a firm texture served with a light passion fruit sauce.
We worked off those calories by zip lining condor style, flying horizontally face down over Cuscos’s magnificent countryside at 70 miles per hour.
Just be very careful about the operator that you use. We signed on with Maras Adventures only to find that our advertised forty-five-minute drive to the zip line location, was a circuitous one hour and twenty minutes that was almost as scary as the zip line itself. The pre-pubescent faces of our riggers only served to further undermine our confidence. My wife in true Brooklyn style demanded that we immediately return to the safe confines of the J.W.Marriott. Finally, after a five-minute standoff with our Spanish speaking riggers, that seemed to last an eternity an English-speaking guide emerged and reassured us that all was well.
I’m glad we stuck around for what turned out to be a fun adrenaline filled experience of a lifetime.
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Cusco with superstitious Peruvians was the perfect end to a holiday in a destination that could only be described as magical. After a sumptuous dinner at Baco the sister restaurant of Cicciolina we joined thousands of tourists from all over the world in the town square to ring in the New Year. While we opted not to join in on the tradition of running laps around the Plaza de Armas after midnight for good luck, we did fully embrace the practice of wearing lots of yellow right down to our underwear and eating twelve grapes rapidly at midnight to insure a year of good fortune.
The fireworks display was impressive in its ability to get an already excited crowd further energized. It left us wanting more of Peru and excited for our next visit.