The news that I was going to Peru was met with perplexity, disbelief, excitement and (in one loving case) grave concern. It is for this reason that I feel the need to set the record straight about Peru.
To begin with, if I had to recommend to someone the best five trips to take, Peru would be one of them. It’s one of the best vacations spots in the world.
To proceed in some sort of chronological order, it would be fair to mention that Taca is an excellent airline, safe, punctual, courteous and organized. I only wish some of the US airlines could hold a candle to the way we were treated flying this one.
Lima - a city I was a number of times suggested to skip - is absolutely charming. It is a shopping Mecca for anyone interested in arts and crafts, textiles, antiques, clothes, jewelry or silver. I am a notorious non-shopper, and felt myself barely resisting the impulse to buy everything in sight. (I was only partially successful).
We visited Cusco, a destination that would hold your attention regardless of your travel preferences, with its hiking, history, shopping, museums, architecture, restaurants and nightlife.
Peru in general is a culinary paradise. I read in a recent article in the New York Times that Peruvian food ranks among the best on Earth, and yet was still surprised by its uniqueness, breadth and subtle flavors. Peru has a notable variety of potatoes which they typically dry in the sun before cooking; grains (among them choclo, giant corn, and the ultra delicious, ultra good for you super grain, quinoa), chili peppers such as aji which they de-vein and de-seed so dishes are flavorful but never hot, chupes (soups), chifa (a ubiquitous mix of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine), cebiche (which they spell with a "b"), tiraditos, fresh seafood, stews, meats, and the widest variety of fruits you could imagine. It's also where Pisco is from, which according to Rudyard Kipling "is compounded of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters."
We visited multiple Inca ruins (Tambo Machay, Sacsayhuaman, Puca Pucara, Q’enko, and Pisac in the Sacred Valley, among many others), sites so impossible to conceive - even as you stare at them - that one understands why so many people, beginning with the Spaniards who colonized the region, believed that they were not built by man but by beings from outer space.
In the list of The Seven Wonders, Machu Picchu deserves to be number one. I could spend weeks among its stone walls, exploring the views from each terrace, rock, ledge and window. It is man made, but God had a heavy hand in it, because its breathtaking beauty lies half in its construction, half in its absolutely inspired, otherworldly setting. Like the moon, it defies description. You can't capture it in photographs. You have to be there in person, and you have to arrive from the Gate of the Sun to do the place justice.
We didn’t only see Machu Picchu from the Gate of the Sun but also from Huayna Picchu, the ragged mountain peak you usually see as backdrop in photographs. It’s a heart-thumping climb, after which we sprawled like lizards on huge rocks to see Machu Picchu through intermittent clearings from above the clouds.
We hiked across the Andes, visited a tiny, isolated, remote village way up in the mountains, went to a school where children walk for hours in the dark of pre-dawn for the privilege of attending a class. After all this I can tell you, Peru is safe. The people are beautiful, generous, shy and quick to smile. Tourism is in its infancy, as the country had been held hostage by an infamous terrorist group with a poetic, terrible name: El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), and has only recently been a viable place for foreigners (for less than 15 years).
Peru is now ready for you. Ready to astound you with the remains of a civilization that is more than two thousand years old and yet is still alive today. Ready to surprise you with its improbable mix of Inca and European, with its colonial buildings set on stone foundations built one thousand years ago. It's ready to feed you new flavors, ready to clothe you with the softest Alpaca wool, ready to decorate you with the world's most beautiful jewelry.
You must visit Peru. It will be your favorite place on Earth, maybe only after wherever it is you call home.