Thursday, February 9, 2012

Discover the Incas and the Amazon in Peru

03 Feb 2012

I stood with mouth agape as Machu Picchu finally came into view. Vast tracts of verdant terracing embraced a plaza of ruins in the shadow of Huayna Picchu, the mighty sugarloaf mountain that seemed so familiar from the pictures I’d collected before my holiday.

Machu Picchu, one of the most famous archaeological sites in all of the Americas, is the reason most visitors come to Peru, but there was so much more that I wanted to learn about this country. So I consulted an expert.

After living in Peru for four years, Luca Newbold returned to the UK and set up Llama Travel with the aim of making high-quality holidays to Latin America more affordable.

Llama Travel offers more time at each destination than other operators and you can design your own trip depending on which areas you want to visit.

My first choice was Cusco, the majestic capital of the Inca Empire, which was laid out in the form of a puma.

Cusco is small enough to navigate on foot, with Inca stone-walled alleys, great cobblestoned plazas and elegant colonial mansions, plus the added bonus of a vibrant bar and restaurant scene. Some eateries are carved out of the Inca rock.

Also on my wish-list was Arequipa, gateway to the Colca Canyon. It’s known as the White City because its grand colonial buildings were built from sillar, a white volcanic rock. In my view, the Plaza da Armas is one of the most beautiful squares in South America, but the Santa Catalina convent was a revelation. Opened to the public in 1970 after 400 years as a cloister, it is a colonial walled town in miniature.

I was amazed to discover the Colca Canyon, with its steep-sided agricultural terraces and traditional villages, is deeper than the Grand Canyon. This is the best spot in Peru for seeing the giant condors that swoop and glide on the thermals. They came so close I could almost feel their wing feathers brush my cheeks.

For beauty, peace and tranquillity, it’s hard to beat Lake Titicaca. At 12,500ft, it is the world’s highest navigable lake, though at 3,000 square miles it seems more like an ocean.

I took a boat ride across deep blue waters to visit its islands. The people of Uros live on floating bundles of reeds while handicrafts are the mainstay of Taquile. Gorgeous light and superb views helped to create some memorable photographs.

I rounded off my Peruvian adventure by staying in an Amazonian rainforest lodge, a surprisingly comfortable base from which to explore the largest expanse of jungle in the world.

Machu Picchu and the Inca ruins are what drew me to Peru. And while they are truly spectacular and worth the trip alone, there is so much more to intrigue and fascinate in this magical, mysterious land.

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