The idea of visiting Peru conjures in many minds Paddington-esque images of thick jungle and mountain-side ruins shrouded in mist: ‘deepest darkest Peru’. You could be forgiven, then, for a slight sense of confusion while touching down in the metropolitan hub that is Lima. After about an hour in my taxi along the Limeño coastline, we entered into the laid-back neighbourhood of Barranco; with its beautiful old buildings, amongst which is the gorgeous Art-Nouveau building that is Hotel B. I had landed early into Lima, so after freshening up I beelined for the fabulous breakfast and drank enough cappuccinos to blow away my flight-induced cobwebs.
An absolute highlight is the Larco Museum; its extensive collection of pre-hispanic works provides a great lens through which to look at Peru, really helping to connect the dots between the contemporary culture and its past.
The city of Lima is all about food. Home to some of the best restaurants in the world, it is hard to walk three steps without being tempted for another pisco sour or impossibly fresh ceviche.. Hotel B provides a wonderful masterclass in both, teaching me to pour the pisco just right, and how to avoid a cardinal sin: overcooking the fish with the lime. (Top tip: chuck a couple of ice cubes in the bowl whilst you mix the fish with the lime juice to dampen the strength of the lime!)
Joined by fantastic guides, we kicked off each day with a sunrise expedition by boat, navigating little creeks to see what we could find. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many birds – egrets, kingfishers, macaws, hawks – the list goes on! After breakfast, before it got impossibly hot, we ventured into the jungle, seeking out all manner of creepy crawly and exotic plants, as well as monkeys and sloths high up in the canopy. In the afternoons, we visited a shaman and a local community, to learn about local life in the Amazon.
Heading out onto the water in kayaks, we glided between dolphins before hopping back onto the skiff to catch ourselves some piranhas, which ended up being thrown to a beady-eyed hawk who had been watching from a nearby branch. Afterwards, somewhat nervously having just caught piranhas using pieces of meat as bait (despite our guide insisting that they are vegetarian..!), we jumped into the water for a cooling swim.
It was a treat to simply sit on deck and watch the riverbanks drift past; whether with a book in the pool, pisco sour in hand, or at sunrise with your coffee, accompanied by hordes of dolphins in the water below, it is a sight that is hard to forget!
From the Amazon river to the Andes: it would be hard to find a more dramatic transition. An hour and a half from Cusco city, Peru’s Sacred Valley is known for the scores of ancient Inca sites scattered across its hillsides. The best known of these is, of course, the enigmatic Machu Picchu, which can be reached by all manner of treks (notably the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek) or, if you would prefer a shorter journey, 1hr 30 mins by train. Whilst looking around, my excellent guide Carlos explained the history of the Inca citadel, as well as the large amount that remains (and perhaps always will remain) a mystery. As we left Machu Picchu and headed, famished, for some lunch, I felt rather smug as Carlos had timed it perfectly; managing to skip both the onslaught of the bulk of visitors for the day and a torrential rainstorm..!
THE SACRED VALLEY
Back at the wonderful Sol y Luna, my home in the Sacred Valley, I rode a famed Peruvian Paso horse, before watching them perform in a brilliant show, watched a traditional Andean dance by the Huilloc community, tried cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca carpaccio, and drank red wine made out of potatoes and tubers. And oh my! The croissants. Worth a postcard home.
Perhaps the most surprising part of my stay at Sol y Luna was one of their signature cocktails: guinea pig-infused whiskey, beer, strawberry liqueur, lime juice, rosemary and bacon for garnish. Really quite delicious!
A truly special moment for me was visiting the Sol y Luna foundation, which supports 150 children in both mainstream education or with special needs support, as well as a foster home. I met some very cheeky children during their physical therapy, received countless hugs at the rather chaotic kindergarten before getting to join a birthday party with the marvellous young people at the foster home. Apparently pushing the birthday girl’s face into her cake is a very important part of the celebration!
Cusco means ‘navel’ in quechua (the local Andean language), as it was once the centre of the Inca Empire. The city’s importance as capital was recognised by the Spanish during the colonial period, leading them to construct huge churches on top of the sacred Inca temples. As you wander down the city’s steep cobbled streets, this cultural melding is immediately evident, with imposing colonial churches sitting cheek by jowl with typical Inca stonemasonry.
Departing early from my hotel, the lovely Casa Cartagena, I started my day with a wander around the Mercado San Pedro, an enormous market selling all the mind can conjure; from cow carcasses to hand woven baskets, coca leaves to cushions.
I then drove up above the city to the staggering ruins of Sacsayhuaman, before continuing on to a family-run textile museum, where I learned how to make a Quipu (the only remaining Inca communication system) and fed and walked some hilariously shaggy alpacas and llamas.
After a tour of the historic centre, I headed to the remarkable Tater Vera to learn how he makes his exquisite ceramic creations, and have a go myself, thankfully under his instruction! I then headed to the Cusco-based artisanal chocolatier Kontiti, where I was taught about the different cacao varieties grown across Peru, before diving in and making my own chocolate bar.