Peru will always hold a special place in my heart and I think may hold the number 1 spot for me as my favorite place on the planet. I think as a country, Peru literally has it all; mystery, intrigue, adventure, beauty, a deep rich history, dramatic and diverse landscapes, unimaginable architectural feats, wildlife, bright vibrant people and clothing, and amazing food, quite arguably the best food in the world! Chefs from Paris and across the globe fly to Lima and Cusco, Peru to learn tips from the masters about cooking and growing their own ingredients. The best part about it all is that a lot of their agricultural practices haven’t changed in 2,000 years, but that is also part of the charm of Peru.
There are still so many places in that country that you feel like you have stepped back into time. Everywhere you look in the countryside, people still dress in traditional clothing and hats, practice antiquated weaving, musical, and cooking traditions or you may even hear ancient dialects from Incan civilizations that have vanished over 500 years ago. There is a palpable magic and energy that you can feel in many parts of Peru, but especially in my favorite place on the planet, the ruins of the Incan city of Machu Picchu.
The site of the historic Incan civilization rests on a mountain ridge almost 8,000 feet above sea level in the Sacred Valley. You can only hike in or take a train and then a bus, but there is no easy way to get there which makes it even more impossible to believe that the whole site was built by hand over a mile up in the mountains when most people struggle to merely walk up the stairs carrying only a camera and a water bottle.
This may be the most magical place on Earth, forget Disneyland. It takes your breath away (literally) to be in the presence of such an unbelievable testament of human capability. There are still parts of the city that have not been uncovered from the surrounding jungle and somehow, the ancient Incas understood our heavens so intricately that each sun temple and ritual stone line up perfectly with the sun for their corresponding solstices even from opposing mountaintops. To top it off, the whole site from an aerial perspective is in the shape of a Condor (the Incan God of the Heavens) as if the construction alone wasn’t impressive enough. I went at sunrise before the tourists converged on the ruins and just sat and tried to take it all in. There are no words to describe the energy that you feel coming from the stones here.
The magic of Peru doesn’t end here in Machu Picchu. There is so much more than the ancient Incan empire to explore. If you take a plane over the high desert of southern Peru, the landscape changes as lines take shape to form simple geometric designs: trapezoids, straight lines, rectangles, triangles, and swirls. Some of the swirls and zigzags start to form more distinct shapes: a hummingbird, a spider, a monkey.
These are the infamous Nasca lines—subject of the Ancient Aliens TV show and scientists believe that the majority of lines were made by the Nasca people who flourished from around A.D. 1 to 700. In total, there are over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant designs with some lines running up to 30 miles long! You can meet with local shamans and learn about how they use energy to find water in the desert.
Travel north of Nasca a couple of hours and you can sand board down the largest sand dunes in the world in Huacachina, go Pisco tasting at a winery, or take a boat in Paracas to see their resident penguins…literally all in the same afternoon. It is unbelievable how quickly the landscape changes in Peru. At times you are in a jungle and then can transport to a landscape that looks like the surface of Mars within a short drive.
If you really want to see landscapes that look like the moon, take a quick jumper flight south to Arequipa and then a bus ride over the towering Andes Mountains to Colca Canyon. You will see huge volcanoes, wild llamas grazing, and the largest bird on Earth, the Giant Andean condor, dwarfing you with their 14-foot wingspan. You can relax your sore muscles in the natural volcanic hot springs after hiking around to see Pre-Incan ruins that dot the mountainsides.
For those that want to keep climbing in higher altitude, a quick plane ride from Lima and a 2-hour car ride through some Incan ruins will get you to the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest altitude lake on the planet.
On Lake Titicaca, there are 50 floating man-made grass islands that make up Uros where the Quechua people have lived in peace and solitude for centuries. The Quechua people originally created these islands by bringing local mud that floats and stacking layers of reeds on top of the mud. They spend their days cutting grass to layer on the islands so they won’t sink, making things out of grass, weaving vibrant colorful skirts and clothing, and fishing to feed their families.
Their only contact with the outside world is a small floating “convenience store” stocked with snacks and sodas and the tourists that stop by to visit. It is fascinating to see how these people live and you can even do a homestay with a family and immerse yourself completely in their floating way of life.
If you think that the people of Uros live in a remote, bizarre fashion, take a jumper flight to Iquitos deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Like me, you probably didn’t realize that the origin of the Amazon River that cuts across all of South America, starts right in Northern Peru!
The Amazon to me has always been sort of a mythical, exotic place I had heard about first as a young child. I had always been told stories about the rare species of plants and animals that can only be found there and have magical healing properties. With all of its beauty, power, and wonder, the Amazon also has its dark side. No one has escaped the tales of what lives within its dark waters like piranhas, electric eels, anacondas, giant river otters and so many more creatures you would never think to swim with. Since there are no roads to get to most of their villages, the only way to get around is by boat or on foot. When the rivers rise, people have learned to migrate to the second story of their stilted wooden homes just like how the animals retreat higher into the canopy of the trees. This is when I realized that the only way to truly experience the Amazon is to do what the locals do; either live on the water or escape high into the trees.
You can choose to live on a riverboat hotel like the Delphin1 where you are constantly moving from one location to another, reaching remote destinations in the Amazon that you otherwise couldn’t get to or you can stay in a private bungalow in the Treehouse Lodge, where you can sleep in the comfort of your canopy bed in your gravity-defying treehouse home.
In the Amazon, you have no choice but to “digitally detox.” Your cellphones are rendered useless there deep in the heart of the jungle, but they do make for great flashlights while exploring the jungle for wildlife during night hikes. Here you will find found yourself living more with the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset. You can fish for piranhas, swim with the pink dolphins, and cook up your fish that you caught for dinner. At night you can go out Cayman spotlight hunting and look for nocturnal animals. In the Amazon, you realize how vast and powerful nature is and that no matter how extreme the landscape you will discover in Peru, the people here found a way to survive and thrive in it.
What I learned from my many trips to the far corners of Peru is how quickly we all adapt to our surroundings. This country is so diverse and magical with creatures not found anywhere else on Earth, and people living on floating grass islands and in trees houses, shamans and medicine men still using the energy of Mother Earth as their guide, Women living in high altitude farming in amazing traditional costumes and top hats with pet llamas, incomprehensible ancient ruins and desert glyphs in far remote places, the largest sand dunes in the world that used to be the bottom of a vast ocean, beautiful coastal towns with the best seafood you have ever tasted, beautiful European-style cities like Cusco, and the list goes on!
Every time I visit Peru, I leave and find myself starting sentences with ridiculous statements like, “Yesterday when I was piranha fishing…” or “Back when I was living on a floating grass island with a Quechua Indian family…” and feeling like those were perfectly normal statements. I find that I am less addicted to my phone or internet and I learn to live without it. Life goes on and is dictated by mother nature, (or Pacha Mamma) and there is a level of simplicity and beauty in that. Here in Peru, people can take a note from the locals and can discover a new awareness and connection to nature and the energy of this ancient world. There you will find a delightful balance of nature, ancient rituals, adventures, exploration, beauty, amazing food, and time for personal introspection. I wish I could remember that feeling of sitting on the cliff’s edge overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu, bottle it, and take it home with me so I can live in it every day. Peru is definitely the most magical place on Earth!
For more on Laura’s adventures through Peru: