When planning a South American vacation, Peru sometimes gets overlooked. Its neighbors include Chile, with its famed Patagonia region, Brazil, with its vibrant coastal cities, and Argentina, with its blend of natural beauty and cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Stiff competition, to be sure.
But Peru offers a host of travel experiences that you can't find anywhere else on earth. And on our Machu Picchu to the Galapagos and Treasures of Peru small-group tours, you'll have the opportunity to savor everything that this fascinating and historic nation has to offer.
Lima's Colonial History
On both Treasures of Peru and Machu Picchu to the Galapagos, our introduction to the country comes in an apt location: the nation's capital of Lima. A highlight of our Treasures of Peru touring here is our visit to Casa Aliaga, one of the oldest homes in Lima (circa 1535), with a rich architectural heritage and a collection of Peruvian art and artifacts. Given the land by his friend conquistador Francisco Pizarro, Jeronimo de Aliaga, one of Lima’s founders, built the home that has been continuously occupied by his descendants ever since, some 18 generations. On Machu Picchu to the Galapagos, we spend a full day exploring Peru's capital, including a visit to the Museo de Arte de Lima, which covers 3,000 years of Peruvian history.
UNESCO Site of Cuzco
Known for its Incan and Spanish colonial heritage, Cuzco is the archaeological “hub” of the Americas and the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The city and its environs are rich with the legacies of its Inca and Spanish forebears.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Some 12 miles north of Cuzco sits the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a dense collection of Incan ruins that date back some 1,000 years, and which we visit on both tours. We visit the Sacred Valley on both tours and our first stop is the massive ruins at Ollantaytambo (above), both a temple and a fortress, where the Incan emperor Pachacuti built his personal estate after conquering it in the mid-1400s. A century later, the site came under attack from Spanish conquistadors, and despite repelling the advance, Incan leader Manco Inca abandoned the site in 1536. Ollantaytambo also is known as the staging point for hikers tackling the famed Inca Trail, a protected hiking trail that winds past some of Peru’s most storied archaeological sites before concluding at Machu Picchu. Along with Ollantaytambo, we also visit the Quechua village of Chinchero, where we watch a traditional Incan weaving demonstration.
Spectacular Machu Picchu
Of course, the highlight of any tour to Peru are the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu, which we visit on both tours. Dubbed by discoverer Hiram Bingham as the “Lost City” of the Incas, this ancient city in the clouds defies imagination – and seemingly, the laws of gravity, physics, and architecture. Perched in a high saddle surrounded by Andean peaks, it was virtually intact when discovered in 1911 by Bingham, an American scholar, lecturer, and adventurer. Because the Inca did not have written language, there is only speculation about the origins of Machu Picchu. Most archaeologists agree that it wasn’t a city at all, but rather a royal and religious retreat built by Emperor Pachacuti, the same man responsible for Ollantaytambo, then abandoned a century later because of war and smallpox. Regardless, the precise masonry here is astounding; the setting, breathtaking. We have two visits here, including one early-morning trip before the tourist-filled trains arrive from Cuzco.
Lake Titicaca, and Peru's Friendly Citizens
Our Treasures of Peru tour takes us to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca where we explore the fascinating lakeside culture. South America’s largest lake and, at 12,500 feet above sea level, among the world’s highest navigable lakes, Lake Titicaca offers a site where the air is clearer, the colors sharper, and the horizon farther. By boat we visit the Floating Islands of Los Uros, where the top-hatted Uros people live on “islands” made of the reeds that grow in the lake’s shallows; in fact, the Uros rely on these reeds for their boats, the small huts in which they live, household items, and the handcrafts they sell to visitors.
We also visit Isla Taquile, known for the high-quality textiles crafted by the indigenous people who live here; sales of their textiles support the self-sustaining Taquilenos. On our visit, we see the men in their signature woven woolen caps with floppy earpieces, and women in tailored waistcoats and multi-layered skirts. We also witness the breathtaking natural beauty surrounding us, with Bolivia’s snowcapped Cordillera range a striking backdrop to the deep blue of the lake.
We finish our Machu Picchu to the Galapagos tour in Quito, Peru's historic capital. Set against a backdrop of staggering Andes peaks, Quito boasts a well-preserved historic center considered the finest in Latin America, as we see on this morning’s city tour. Highlights include Plaza la Independencia in the Old City; La Compañía, Ecuador’s most ornate church (some say the gilding here required seven tons of gold); Carondelet Presidential Palace, with iron balconies from Les Tuilleries gardens in Paris; San Agustín Church, burial site of many of Ecuador’s war heroes; and the 16th-century Monastery of San Francisco, Ecuador’s oldest church.