The Spaniards’ first assumptions about Peru, when they sailed down its coast in 1528, involved barren beaches and man-eating savages. It was not until they journeyed through ochre desert and lush river valleys, up and over snowy passes, and into the sublime, magical realm of the altiplano that they realized the importance of the Inca.
This empire, the New World’s most advanced, had temples and highways rivaling those of Renaissance Europe and an abundance of what the Spaniards most wanted, gold. In Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spaniards found finely crafted gold figurines, four-inch-thick temple walls, shields and vases, and even hand plows — all made of gold.
Today Cusco remains the primary draw for travelers to Peru. People come to wander the cobblestone streets, marvel at the Spanish churches built atop massive Inca walls, eat alpaca steaks and sweet corn, and party until dawn at the city’s nightclubs.
Those who stumble off the beaten path in Peru’s altiplano, or high plains, will journey back in time to the stone huts, the fields of quinoa, and the brightly clothed Quechuan people first encountered by the Spaniards.
In the nearby cloud forest, reachable only by train or trek, is one of the world’s greatest wonders: Machu Picchu, a city of stone literally carved into a massive jungle ridge.
Yet Cusco and Machu Picchu are just the beginning of what Peru offers. There are at least a dozen archaeological sites around Peru that rival the historical significance of Machu Picchu; perfect breaks to surf and heaping bowls of ceviche to eat in the northern beach towns; snow-covered mountains to climb; freeze-dried-potato soup to eat in stone huts with Quechuan families; and miles of Amazon to float with nothing more than a hammock and a bunch of bananas.
Of special interest is Peru’s desert coast, which is rubbing shoulders with India and Egypt as a must-see destination for those drawn to the ancient and mysterious. A series of advanced cultures such as the Nasca, Moche, Chimú, and Sicán flourished here thousands of years before the Inca. They left behind huge adobe pyramids, tombs, stone carvings, brightly painted murals, and, most importantly, tombs. Of special interest are the Nasca Lines, an enigmatic collection of hummingbirds, monkeys, and mythical beings etched into the desert.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Peru is the people and the depth of their culture, which continues to maintain its unique identity today.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition