Peru and Beyond: 5 Can’t-Miss Spots to Explore

Adventure Travel, Ecuador, Peru, Wildlife & Animals — By on August 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Taylor Dolven
LG Correspondent

If the Inca ruins, giant condors, and rare animals aren’t enough, the kind-hearted people and spicy seafood of Perú and Ecuador are worth making the trip. Recently, LG Correspondent Taylor Dolven spent two weeks traveling though these countries with her family at the end of a semester abroad in Buenos Aires. Here she outlines five highlights you can’t miss when heading south of the Equator:

Condor in Colca Canyon, Peru1. The Colca Canyon

Although slightly hard to get to, the Colca Canyon is worth the trek. The most accessible airport is in Aeroquepa, Perú. It is about a 3-hour drive to get to the closest lodging in Chivay or the surrounding pueblos. An assortment of travel agencies offers transportation to and from the canyon site.

It is best to go early in the morning to see the condors. These birds are so enormous that they cannot take off from the ground. They have to jump into the canyon from a perch and circle through the air before landing back on the canyon wall. Dress warm and find yourself a comfortable rock on the canyon’s edge. Have your camera ready and wait to be amazed. With a wingspan of over three meters, you cannot miss the condor.

2. Lake Titikaka

The best place to stay for close access to the lake is a city called Puno.  Unfortunately, there is not much to see in Puno besides the lake (the highest and largest lake in South America, about the size of Puerto Rico, and is divided between Perú and Bolivia). The best way to see the island is by boat. Whatever tourist company you choose to go with, make sure you go to the Uros floating islands. These islands are made out of totara reeds and actually float on top of the enormous lake. Each island has a “president” that organizes meetings, meals and general structure.

The main form of income is tourism (you will be urged to by some kind of craft from the island people). It is about $5USD to take a boat from one island to another, which I would recommend doing. The boats are the only form of transportation and are made out of the same reeds as the islands. There is also an elementary school and a church. There is some controversy about whether the people of Uros actually live on the islands anymore. Our guide told us that if you look into the houses and see a television or radio, the people are most likely still living there. All of the houses are solar-powered (a gift from the government).

The other must see stop on Lake Titikaka is an island called Taquile. There are two ways to climb to the top of the island. One is called the path of 500 steps. I would highly recommend taking the other one. We were lucky to observe this tip and take the steeper way down. The plaza at the very top of the island is a great place to get lunch and enjoy the culture.

Taquile is a remote island inhabited by Aymara Indians. In complete contrast to the South American people I was used to in Buenos Aires, the island people are extremely shy. The “old pair of blue jeans” concept doesn’t exist there; every article of clothing has a meaning. Black signifies a position of authority. For men, a half-colored, half-white hat symbolizes single status while a full-colored hat signifies married. For women, the more colorful and large the pom-poms on their outfits are, the more available they are.

There is an old train that runs from Puno to Cusco. If you can bear the excruciatingly slow speed (total journey is ten hours), the Andean Explorer train provides beautiful views as well as a Peruvian concert and fashion show.

Cusco Cathedral in Peru3. Cusco

No trip to Machu Picchu is complete without a stop in Cusco (the center of the Inca world). The Colonial Cathedral in Cusco is a sight to see. Inside the traditional Spanish cathedral are original Inca temples including the temple of the sun, which was completely covered in gold back in the day. The most interesting part is viewing the Inca religion and the Catholic religion at the same time, in the same place.

There are a number of Inca archeological sights just outside the city. I would recommend stopping by a few of these. Some examples include: Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) was the royal house of the sun and will impress you with the size of its rocks. Keep in mind that the Inca people had to move these rocks over miles and miles of rough terrain. Quenqo Amphitheater is another well-known Inca temple worth seeing. Tomachay is an antcient resting place used in the burial process.

4. Machu Picchu

On the road from Cusco to the town of Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) is a small town called Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. I would recommend stopping here for at least a day to see the Inca ruins (virtually untouched by the Spanish).

Even if you choose not to do the 4-day hike, there are still great ways to see Machu Picchu. There is a vista-dome train that runs from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. I would recommend being on the earliest train. Once you get to Aguas Calientes, make your way to the bus station (about 5 blocks) and hop on one of the buses that will take you up to the ruins.

WARNING: the government of Perú is changing the entry ticket sale process. Make sure to reserve a ticket before and have everything arranged accordingly before arriving in Aguas Calientes (very touristy, but beautiful town).

I would recommend either hiring a guide or having a very detailed guidebook for your tour of Machu Picchu. You can spend as much time as you want walking around the ancient city, but the more you know, the better. In addition to touring the city, my family and I hiked up to the Sun Gate. This is a great place to go for a beautiful view of the city. It is also the first point along the Inca trail where the hikers actually get to see Machu Picchu, so expect to see a lot of tears, hugs and picture-taking.  In the winter season, beware of afternoon rain and be sure to have a poncho or rain coat with you.

My absolute favorite part of our trip to Machu Picchu was climbing Huaynu Picchu (the big mountain opposite the city). Again, laws about entry fees are changing so it is best to have this reserved before arriving. The climb up will take about an hour, but once you arrive (and crawl through a teeny tiny rock tunnel to do so) you will want to stay at the summit for as long as possible. For this reason, I recommend being in the first wave of hikers from 7 a.m.-8 a.m. Only 400 hikers are aloud to climb Huaynu Picchu each day, 200 at 7 and 200 more at 10. The views from the top are incomparable.

Los Galapagos5. Los Galapagos

No matter how you choose to see the islands (we went by boat), they will blow you away. You will be introduced to animals you have never seen before or even knew existed. My favorite was the sea lion (lobo del mar). We got so close to these animals that I could reach out and touch them if I wanted, although touching the animals is strictly forbidden. I also loved the blue-footed boobies (big birds with bright blue feet) and the marine iguanas.

While we were eating lunch on the ship, the captain came on the intercom and said, “There is a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the boat.” We all jumped out of our chairs and ran out to the deck. There were no fewer than 100 dolphins jumping in the water right next to our boat. By the time we returned to lunch, our food was cold, but it didn’t matter!

Thumbnails courtesy of Inca Trail Info, Sacred Destinations, and Yo Mujer

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    5 Comments

  • Great article.

    I’ll add that the market in Cusco is also worthy of a visit.

    I also agree that climbing Huaynu Picchu was the best part of Machu Picchu.

  • Alex says:

    I’m dying to get to Peru! This is a great wanderlust inspiring post.

  • maria says:

    Just one thing: Galapagos Islands are not in Peru, they are in Ecuador…

  • Alex says:

    Hey Maria, the post is “Peru and Beyond!” and in the intro it explains that the list includes places in Peru and Ecuador 🙂

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