Getting high in Peru is easy. Simply step from the aeroplane and breathe in the diamond-sharp air. Chances are Peru’s elevated altitude may find you feeling light headed, breathless and a bit fuzzy. OK, you could be in love or hungover, but if you do turn out to be a tad altitude intolerant, rest, rehydration (water – not pisco sours…) and coca leaf tea (mata de coca) is the tried and tested Peruvian antidote.
But just a minute, I hear you holler; aren’t coca leaves the raw material for cocaine? Well yes, but infused or chewed, Peruvians have for centuries claimed its efficacy as an energy boost and a means of combating altitude sickness. (Then again, if you fancy the former...)
Today, it continues to play a central role in Andean culture not only for its medicinal properties but also its religious significance. Such venerable Peruvian knowledge and traditions have much to teach us and that’s just one reason why exploring this seductive country is an education.
Peru is also a thrill-seeker’s paradise that deserves a place near the top of any bucket list. From the highest sand dune in the world (located in the Sechura Desert in the south of Peru) and the globe’s deepest canyon (Cotahuasi near Arequipa) to the Colca Canyon’s Giant Andean Condor, the largest flying bird on Earth, and Puya Raimondii, the world’s tallest flowering plant, Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet.
Peru’s high altitude is perfect for cultivating superfoods and Mil is elevating these humble ingredients to stratospheric gastronomic heights
With abundant rainforests and 90 distinctive microclimates, where else could you scoff more than 3,000 varieties of potato, in excess of 55 varieties of corn, roasted guinea pig, and a smorgasbord of superfoods (many of which only flourish in Peru) and wash them all down with the world’s most expensive coffee (coati dung coffee – yes, the clue is in the name)?
The Peruvian playlist of must-do, must-see, must-eat greatest hits can be hard to get your head round, especially on your first visit. So before you literally disappear into thin air, acclimatise with our achievable ten-point guide to hitting the Peruvian high life.
GO SUPINE IN THE SACRED VALLEY
Relax at the sumptuous Tambo del Inka hotel in Peru’s lush Sacred Valley. If you’re feeling a bit altitude shabby, the best thing to do is take it easy, replace the pisco with some of that coca leaf tea (tastes like stewed compost but does the trick) and eat. Fortunately, the hotel’s restaurant, Hawa (meaning Heaven in the native Quechua language), is exceptional. Don’t miss its farm-to-table lunch, showcasing organic produce from the kitchen garden cooked in a traditional open oven and served outdoors beside the glittering River Vilcanota.
SPLASH OUT IN THE SPA
The state-of-the-art Tambo del Inka spa is well equipped to help combat high altitude issues. Helpful hydrating treatments using local ingredients such as quinoa, coca and that old Inca favourite – gold – plus an excellent hour-long hydrotherapy circuit have been specifically designed for tired travellers. The Inca Trail massage has been specially devised for hardy hikers while a passion fruit facial will plump up your complexion a treat. A 20m heated indoor/outdoor pool and terrace overlooking the gardens is the ultimate place to flop after a pamper.
An atmosphere of childlike excitement greets the Inca Rail train as it rumbles into Ollantaytambo’s rustic station
MIL’S INCREDIBLE EDIBLES
Peru’s high altitude is perfect for cultivating superfoods and Mil is elevating these humble ingredients to stratospheric gastronomic heights. The brainchild of wonder chef Virgilio Martínez – a bit of a dish himself and owner of Lima’s Central, the sixth-best restaurant in the world – Mil draws inspiration from ancient farming practices and Peruvian eco systems. Working with indigenous communities producing ingredients which are then reincarnated into a defiantly intriguing eight-course tasting menu, Mil is an epicurean art gallery, a scientific taste bud experiment and a charismatic culinary tour de force which shakes the culinary world by the scruff of the neck and declares, ‘This is our heritage, this is our land. Taste it, learn and love.’
HIT THE INCA TRAIL AT OLLANTAYTAMBO
Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, this sleepy Andean village not only features ancient adobe buildings, cobbled streets, and dentally challenged senior citizens sporting colourful native dress but also a spectacular terraced Inca fortress. Clinging to the steep valley, the vertiginous climb to the top reveals stunning views and a well preserved Inca temple. Ollantaytambo is also a starting point for the 26 mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It usually takes four to five days although there are options for shorter treks. For those who prefer to do their sightseeing sat down.
RIDE THE INCA RAIL TRAIN
An atmosphere of childlike excitement greets the Inca Rail train as it rumbles into Ollantaytambo’s rustic station. Weaving through the valley, jaw-dropping views reveal the rock-strewn river, neck-craning mountains and glimpses of remote villages, humming birds and bird of paradise flowers growing wild. Choose from the 360-degree option with its panoramic windows and outdoor observatory wagon or splash out on first class where you’ll be served a slap-up meal and can lark about in the bar with musicians tooting the Peruvian top ten on the Andean pipes.
REVEAL YOUR INNER INCA AT THE SUMAQ MACHU PICCHU HOTEL
Situated in Aguas Calientes, a half-hour bus ride from the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, the family-owned Sumaq Hotel wants to share with guests alternative aspects of Peruvian culture. These include a variety of sensory experiences from pachamanca or earth pot feast where ingredients are cooked in an underground oven to sampling chicha, a sacred Incan beverage made from fermented corn. Surprisingly yummy.
The palatial Palacio del Inka hotel in Cusco is the perfect place to round off your trip
It may seem a bit hippy but it’s well worth taking part in the ancient rites and rituals on offer at the Sumaq. An Earth Ritual, the hors d’oeuvre to the Machu Picchu experience main course, is conducted by a genuine shaman who offers seeds, sweets, flowers and fruit to Pachamama (aka Mother Earth). The grand finale is a spookily accurate coca leaf reading.
TOP OF THE WORLD
Unless you arrive at the crack of dawn, Machu Picchu can be something of a scrum. Buses commute visitors up through breathtaking mountain scenery and disgorge them into the citadel at a rapid rate. The shaman, however, leads guests away from the throng to a grassy, sunlit oasis. Coca leaves are chewed before a cleansing ceremony saluting Mother Earth intensifies the uplifting feeling of being on top of the world. Photographs cannot fully convey Machu Picchu’s position within this protective mountainous embrace and sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience with a shaman brings the ancient Incas to life.
PACK A PONCHO
After all that mysticism, a bit of retail therapy will soon bring you back down to earth. That’s easily achieved in the picturesque village of Chinchero where a number of weaving cooperatives will show you a loom with a view to empty your wallet. Women wearing traditional costume explain how natural dyes colour Alpaca wool before turning them into garments such as scarves and ponchos.
CHILL OUT IN CUSCO
The palatial Palacio del Inka hotel in Cusco is the perfect place to round off your trip (or begin it, should you choose to do this list backwards). Built on the site of an Incan temple, and recently reimagined from the 16th-century colonial mansion that once belonged to Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the hotel is a short stroll from the city’s main sites. From the arty, hipster area of San Blas to the giddily ostentatious cathedral on the main square, it’s clear the city’s elegant Spanish colonial vibe is underpinned by the Incan foundations it sought to obliterate. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Qorikancha where the church of Santo Domingo, constructed upon the richest gold-clad temple in the Incan empire, neatly encapsulates Peru’s complex, multilayered history.
Journey Latin America is the UK’s leading specialist in travel to Latin America. An eight-day holiday to Peru visiting Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu starts from £3,067 per person. This price includes international flights from London with Avianca, luxury accommodation at Tambo del Inka, Sumaq Machu Picchu hotel and Palacio del Inka, private transfers in Peru, breakfast daily, a tour of Cusco and the Sacred Valley and a return trip to Machu Picchu with Inca Rail. For more info, see journeylatinamerica.co.uk