As summer is about to wrap, many of us are yearning for a vacation extension filled with adventure, relaxation and sunshine.
For those who cannot sit tight until 2015, consider chasing summer by heading south to South America!
One South American country is certain to satisfy your taste buds, pleasant-weather needs and cultural cravings: Peru.
Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards for 2014 recently announced the 25 Top Destinations in South America, and five fantastic Peruvian cities made the list.
Two Peruvian cities even managed to capture second and fifth place: Cusco and Lima. The other winners from Peru were Arequipa (15th), Urubamba (16th) and Mancora (24th).
Graced with snowcapped mountains, serene lakes, volcanos, skyscraping waterfalls, 1500 miles of Pacific coastline, dramatic canyons, exceptionally-scenic river valleys and rainforests, Peru’s tourism scene is so hot – it’s about to catch fire! Peru has something for everyone: adventurers, outdoor sports fans, art aficionados, foodies and beach bums. For history fans, Peru is nothing short of heart-stopping. Did you know that Peru was home to South American’s most ancient civilizations? It’s true! For travelers wanting to connect with their inner Indiana Jones, Peru contains some of the very best ruins in all of South America!
When we think of ancient, flourishing cultures like those of Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, we cannot discount the ancient civilizations of Peru. For example, the ruins of the Sacred City of Caral-Supe, the oldest city in the Americas, are a mind-blowing 5000-years-old! The Moche culture flourished for over six centuries along the coast of Northern Peru; their incredible huacas or pyramids still stand and can be visited in the Moche Valley near the city of Trujillo. The Chavín culture also added to the rich fabric of ancient Peru, and many visitors today travel to the highlands to see the 3000-year-old ruins of its former capital, Chavín de Huántar, which is one of Peru’s World Heritage Sites. Another is the fascinating archeological site of Chan Chan, the capital of the ancient Chimú Kingdom, whose empire was eventually defeated by the Incas. The giant, mysterious Nazca lines – yet another World Heritage Site – were created by ancient cultures in Peru between 1500 and 2500 years ago!
Get the gist? Peru’s ancient history goes so deep that we can’t possibly cover it properly here. It’s also worth mentioning that because of transportation, some of Peru’s best ruins are easier to visit than others (unless you intend to go trekking through the jungle). For this reason, right now we’re going to narrow in on Three of the Best World Heritage Sites in Peru – all of which are exciting, affordable and easy to visit.
Historic Centre of Lima
When the notorious Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, defeated the mighty Incas in their capital city of Cuzco in the first half of the 16th century, he decided to create a new, grand capital for the Spanish Crown in a river valley nestled between the Pacific Coast and the foothills of the Andes Mountains: Lima.
Known as the “City of Kings,” Lima prospered and became the official capital of Spain’s Viceroyalty of Peru, a territory that for roughly a century included most of South America.
Lima’s colonial architecture is legendary, and its historic center – a World Heritage Site – is brimming with fascinating monuments from Peru’s colonial past, which shed light on how Lima was selected as the fifth best city to visit in all of South America by TripAdvisor. Particularly worth-while sightseeing attractions to check out include the Plaza Mayor square, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Convent of Santo Domingo, the gorgeous Convent of San Francisco and its impressive catacombs, and Lima’s 16th-century Cathedral, where Pizarro himself was laid to rest (after being assassinated).
Visitors traveling to Lima have a wealth of entertainment venues, boutiques, musical performances, lively markets, galleries and gourmet restaurants to enjoy.
Lima is also home to Peru’s best museums. If you only have time for three, make them the Museo de la Nación, the Museo Larco and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History.
All three beautifully illuminate Peru’s ancient past with extraordinary artifacts from pre-Colombian civilizations like the sophisticated Moche civilization, who dominated the coast of Northern Peru from the 2nd century AD until about 1200 years ago, and the ancient Chavín civilization, which originated in Peru’s highlands 3000 years ago.
While the city of Lima was founded by the Spanish (and most folks come for the ambience, food scene and colonial history) don’t gloss over the fact that many ancient, indigenous groups lived in the area before those conquering Spaniards showed up.
The outskirts of Lima do hold some interest for ancient history fans. Probably the most interesting (and convenient) to visit is the archeological site of Pachacámac, whose pyramids and temples pre-date the rise of the Incas. The ancient city served as a sacred, pilgrimage site for roughly a millennium. When the Incas took over, they were so impressed that instead of destroying the sacred structures, they added to them. The ancient complex is currently under consideration to become a new World Heritage Site.
After all that sightseeing in colonial Lima and its ancient surroundings, spend some time in the modern, seaside borough of Miraflores, which is home to great restaurants, pubs, hotels and casinos. Lima is also reputed to have the best gastronomy in the country.
For great seafood dishes, head to one of the restaurants along the Costa Verde (Lima’s seaside), and visitors in need of relaxation during the summer months (December to April in Peru) can hit the fabulous beaches located to the south of Lima!
City of Cuzco (also written as “Cusco” and “Qosqo”)
An absolute cultural gem, Cusco is best known for having been the capital of the far-reaching Incan Empire.
Because of its wealth of archeological and cultural attractions, it is often called the historical capital of Peru.
This beautiful city, which was carefully laid-out by the Incas in a fertile river valley near the foothills of the Andes Mountains, is an extraordinary natural marvel. It is also a portal into the lost world of the Incas.
This is no small honor, for the Incan Empire (13th to 16th centuries) was the largest and most powerful empire in all of South American before European conquerors arrived.
Its vast territory included lands that today form part of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina, and it is rumored that when Pizarro and Co. arrived to the Incan capital, they were blown away with what they saw!
The runner-up for the Best Destination in South America by TripAdvisor, present-day Cusco reflects a true blend of its past: both indigenous and Spanish. You’ll enter a colonial, baroque church – and hear mass said in the Quechua language. You’ll see remarkable Incan monuments, walls and temples as well as Spanish churches, palaces, convents, academic centers and mansions. While its cultural heritage is unbeatable, visiting Cusco is not like walking around inside a distant history lesson. This city has a great, infectious spirit!
Indigenous Peruvian culture is alive and well in Cusco, as evidenced by the traditional hand-woven crafts, dance and music you’ll find throughout the city. A dining experience in Cuzco is frequently paired with traditional music and dance, so consider checking out one of Cusco’s peñas (local tourist restaurants). The Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo also regularly offers music and dance programs with performers donning traditional, colorful costumes.
Before beginning your sightseeing of Cusco, consider drinking the popular local infusion mate de coca, which is recommended by locals to get used to the altitude of the city. Historical attractions in Cusco’s historic core, a World Heritage Site, include the magnificent Plaza de Armas square, the Cathedral, the neighborhood “Barrio de San Blas”, the Convent and Museum of Santa Catalina, and the remarkable Incan Temple of the Sun (Qoricancha), which the Spanish conquistadores pillaged and converted into the Convent of Santo Domingo. On the outskirts overlooking Cusco – and within walking distance if you’re up for it – lie the ruins of Sacsayhuamán. Without a doubt it is one of the best Incan sites to visit in Cusco. Today the otherworldly ruins provide the setting for a reenactment of the Incan winter solstice “Inti Raymi” festival in late June. Other popular ruins in or very nearby Cusco include Kenko, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay.
In addition to visiting archeological and cultural sites, many adventurers travel to Cusco to hike, mountain bike or raft. Many tourists also choose to visit the nearby Urubamba Valley, a superbly scenic area known to the Incas as “The Sacred Valley.”
This popular day tour generally features the market town of Písac – home to excellent Incan ruins – as well as the superb ruins of the fortress of Ollantaytambo.
Despite Cusco being conquered by Pizarro and Co., many of the city’s surrounding highlands were never even seen by the Spanish and were therefore preserved.
The renowned World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu is one such place. Visiting it is an unforgettable experience, and Cusco is the logical starting point.
Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
Of Peru’s 12 World Heritage Sites, this ancient and downright remarkable place is one of only two to be classified as both a natural and cultural site (along with the Río Abiseo National Park).
It was also a winner in the New Seven Wonders of the World contest in 2007.
Characterized by tropical mountains adorned with seemingly-magical mists and scenic, terraced farms almost 8000 feet above sea level, it’s easy to imagine how the great Incan rulers believed the spectacular spot – where the Andes Mountains meet the Amazon basin – was sacred.
It was built by the powerful Incans in the 15th century most likely as a royal estate. It’s hard to believe, but after constructing the architectural and agricultural masterpiece, it was only used for roughly 100 years. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived and sacked Cusco in 1533, the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu, and in true Sleeping Beauty style, it remained hidden to archeologists until 1911. For this reason, Machu Picchu is understandably in much better condition that the religious Incan sites discovered by the evangelizing Spaniards.
Much mystery still surrounds the Incan site of Machu Picchu. Despite unsolved questions, it remains a superstar of Ancient Peru’s fascinating legacy. While many adventurous souls hike to Machu Picchu from Cusco along the Inca Trail, a challenging journey that takes four days, many tourists prefer to either base themselves in Cusco and visit Machu Picchu by train on a guided day tour or to overnight in the town nearest Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, which also hosts a great outdoor market with traditional handicrafts.
If you’ve already visited the World Heritage Sites of Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lima, other South American winners in the 2014 TripAdvisor Awards were Buenos Aires, Argentina (#1); Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (#4); Santiago, Chile (#6); and Salvador Brazil (#11).
For all our affordable, exciting packages to South and Central America – including Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica – please click the respective links. We’ve also got excellent sightseeing tours in Peru available for you here.