BY CHRISTA RUSSO
Peru is one of those places that make iconically beautiful countries like South Africa and Thailand feel a hint of jealousy. The nation's thriving melting pot of cultures reflect a vibrant, diverse community, many with roots as far back to the Incas and other sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations. The country is riddled with archaeological sites that tell the story of these civilizations, which left a legacy that still lives on in the art, customs and traditions found in modern-day Peru.
I journeyed to Peru with avid hopes of climbing Machu Picchu and sipping coca tea with locals donning traditional Quechua garb. I did this, but also learned that this experience was only a minute sliver of the countless facets that make Peru a country with much to envy.
When traveling to Peru you'll most likely fly into Lima, a city rich with Pre-Columbian ruins and enchanting Spanish Colonial architecture.
It was my first time visiting the country, so I was happy to be traveling with Globus, an experienced tour company that focuses on authentic cultural experiences.
We settled in for lunch at Tanta, one of Gaston Acurio's restaurants. Dubbed guru chef of Peru, Acurio is known as the man who made Peru famous for its thriving culinary scene. Ordering a fresh juice with your lunch is a must, and I would recommend trying the tacu tacu, a traditional Peruvian dish incorporating a rice and beans pancake, a thin "sábana" (sheet) of steak, and a side of fried plantain, topped off with a fried egg.
With content bellies, we ventured to one of Lima's vibrant food markets where we sniffed and sampled many local varieties of fruits, vegetables, fish and spices. Here is where you'll find cherimoya, a soft fleshy sweet fruit that is white in color and has a velvety custard-like texture -- hence its secondary name, custard apple -- or aji limo, a spicy type of pepper used in Peruvian ceviche, a dish the country is famous for.
After perusing the market, we set out to learn more about the colonial heritage of the city. Our group visited some of Lima's most revered sites such as the Plaza de Armas, the Government Palace and the Cathedral of Lima.
From here we headed to the Monastery of San Francisco, a stunning example of Spanish Baroque architecture, where ancient cloister murals from the 17th century adorn the walls and ceiling of the church. Catacombs, which lie below the monastery, contain an ossuary and secret passageways, lined with bones and skulls that are said to connect to the cathedral and the Tribunal of the Inquisition.
Later that evening, we enjoyed a magnificent dinner at Casa Garcia Alvarado, a historic home that once belonged to the Castro Iglesias family. The home dates back to Peru's Colonial period, when its forerunners earned the titles, Count of Lurigancho and Marques of Otero, for services rendered to the Spanish Crown. It was later remodeled in 1932 and is currently owned by Ana Maria and Josefina García Alvarado.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Ana Maria, who escorted us to the Grand Salon where we enjoyed pisco sours and hors d'oeuvres, including the typical Peruvian ceviche I had quickly grown to love. The best part of the evening was listening to Ana Maria tell stories of her family history over a beautiful home-cooked meal. The entire experience was very personal and warming.
Photo by timsnell
Tucked away within the striking Andes mountains range lies Cusco, the breathtaking Andean City, and the former capital of the Inca Empire. The city is peppered with luscious greenery, expansive farms and ancient ruins, leaving you no other choice but to feel as though you've stepped out of reality and back into the 13th century.
We began our journey at the ruins at Saksaywaman, or as locals call it, "Sexy Woman." Here, alpacas roam freely while locals tend to the land, creating an atmosphere that slowed my fast-beating New York City heart to a placid pace. Although the ruins steal the show amidst this picturesque landscape, it's important to note that the Cathedral of Santo Domingo is worthy of a visit. The exquisite Gothic-Renaissance architecture and paintings tell the story of the destructive Spanish invasion.
Once a pagan community, the Incas were forced to bring Catholicism into their beliefs after the Spanish took over. Much of the artwork in the cathedral originated from the Escuela Cuzquena, or Cusco School of Art, which was built by the Spanish to educate the Incas with the methods and disciplines of European renaissance style artwork.
The Quechua painters were limited to painting scenes of European and Catholic importance. The restrictions imposed on the Inca artists meant that they were not permitted to sign their own artwork, so much of it is unidentifiable.
The Santo Domingo Monastery, as well as the Kenko Amphitheater, also proved to be worthy stops in this historic city.
We continued our journey down the scenic route to the Sacred Valley to visit the Temple of Saksaywaman. Here we joined an El Pago a la Tierra, also known as the Mother Earth Ceremony. The ceremony is performed by a shaman and spoken in the local language, Quechua. With every offering, Mother Earth received some candy for her sweet tooth, and a libation, which was poured onto the ground to quench her thirst.
Photo by Kaldoon
The next morning, we explored the Ollantaytambo ruins, comprised of a town and the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region, built the town and a ceremonial center.
Some of the stones used in the construction of the town were more than 350 tons, which had to be rolled up and down towering mountains in order to build the extensive terracing and irrigation systems in the Urubamba Valley.
After visiting the ruins, we drove over to a local house where we met the family and were granted a peek into their daily lives. The adobe house consisted of one small room and a small plot of land that allowed the family's livestock -several guinea pigs -- to run free. These animals are seen as a delicacy, hence the children are not allowed to play with them as they are considered a food source rather than pets.
We explored the Sacred Valley a little further by heading over to Pisac, a quaint and friendly village where we found plenty of handmade Alpaca items, jewelry, bags, and hand-painted Incan pottery.
Photo by audrey_sel
The Incas built this estate around 1450, but abandoned it as an official site for the Inca emperors a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Before 1911, the site was unknown to the outside world until the American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention. Since then, Machu Picchu has been added as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the outlying buildings (approximately 30 percent of the entire Machu Picchu site) have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like.
There are a few ways you can explore this ancient mountain. If you have an adventurous soul, feed your adrenaline by taking the four-day hiking tour, which entails walking from morning until night and camping out on the mountain.
If you prefer to arrive a little more comfortably (as our group did) you can take the Peru Rail train through the Urubamba Valley while soaking in the verdant scenery. From there, you'll board a bus up to Machu Picchu, which leads to the base of the ruins. No matter which way you choose to ascend the mountain, upon arriving be sure to have your passport stamped as proof that you've visited one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
QUINOA AND MORE
You can take a girl out of NYC, but you can't take the foodie out of this NYC girl. Our tour wrapped up with some delegated free time, which I used to relax, exercise and indulge my curiosity of Peruvian food.
In Cusco, I set out to try as many different quinoa dishes as I could get my hands on: quinoa soup, quinoa entrees, and even quinoa mousse for dessert (it just so happens to be one of my favorite foods). The land is also rich in potatoes and corn, and meats such as alpaca and guinea pig are local delicacies, so of course, I was sure to try each at least once.
On the final day of the trip, I spent much of my time back in Lima's colorful markets. The selection of fruits, which are used for everything from juices and desserts, to sauces and purees mesmerized me. When you're used to getting most of your produce from across the country (and sometimes from across the world), you suddenly appreciate the privilege of visiting a place that has a bounty of local produce available year-round. So I savored the present moment by sampling cacao fruit, lucuma, aguaymanto, pepino, camu camu and noni.
I ended this fascinating journey in the same manner in which it began - indulging in a spicy dish of fresh ceviche while soaking in the vibrant culture of one of the most intriguing places on earth.
What's not to envy about that?
WHERE TO STAY
All photos by Christa Russo unless specified otherwise