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Suhas and I promptly fell asleep soon after we settled into our late night flight from Bogota to Lima. It was a 3+ hour flight and we slept through almost all of it. I woke up towards the end of the flight and peeped out the window to see a sea of clouds. Just as I figured I should go back to sleep, I heard the landing gear come out, which confused me. Why is the landing gear coming out when we’re still so high?!

Moments later, we were touching down, and the clouds finally cleared to reveal the beautiful sprawling city below. Turns out Lima is one of the cloudiest cities in the world and often gets low hanging clouds, so this experience is not very uncommon. The landing experience in Lima is a good analogy for how exploring Peru felt - full of surprises and a bit like uncovering a hidden gem. 

 

Peru had so much to offer, and was so unique, that if I had to pick a favorite country from all our travels, this would be it. You will see why I fell so much in love with this part of the world.
 

A gastronomical delight sets the tone

Reservations at Central (pronounced Centraal) are hard to come by. It is considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, was ranked #2 in 2022 (#1 in 2023). In fact, when we began looking into reservations back in July, the earliest one we found was for mid-November. Since we were going to be in Lima in early October, we had pretty much given up on the idea of dining here. So a few days before we got to Lima, when one of Suhas' colleagues told us he may be able to get us a table, our hopes shot back up.

Apart from trying to get a reservation online, neither of us had really looked into what the place was about. After arriving in Lima, we watched an episode of 'Chef's Table' on Netflix, which covered chef Virgilio's journey in creating Central. We loved his vision of designing the menu around bringing the various ecosystems of Peru to life, through his food. Such a simple yet brilliant concept. We were looking forward to our Central visit!

Their tasting menu featured ingredients from various altitudes, ranging from 10 meters below sea level to the high mountains 3,400 meters above sea level, and catered to meat eaters as well as vegetarians. We sampled mushrooms that grow in the desert, potatoes that grow in the rainforest, corn that grows in extreme altitudes, and chocolate that grows in between. Suhas also sampled a variety of seafood. My favorite was a dish with avocado, pumpkin, and algae found in the highlands called cushoro. It was creamy, flavorful, slightly chewy, and delicious - I could keep eating it all night.

Peculiarly Peruvian

Anusha Sekhar

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With its unique flavors and ingredients, the 12 course menu paired with the finest South American wines made for a unique and unforgettable dining experience. It was only our second day in Peru, so we hadn't fully experienced the biodiversity of the country yet. But, this meal definitely set the tone for what was to come over the next two weeks.

 

The foggy coastal metropolis

Lima reminded me of San Francisco a lot. It sits on the Pacific coast, gets really foggy, has some beautiful neighborhoods and parks, and has a pretty large Chinatown. 

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However, the similarities end there. Lima also has a lot of distinctive things to offer like the frozen in time colonial Centro in the middle of a modern city, beautiful street art all over the hip Barranco neighborhood, an amazing food scene with so much variety and flavor, and 3 of the top 50 restaurants in the world, and so much more. Our three days in Lima weren't enough. We left wanting more.

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Thrill in the middle of a desert

I read somewhere that sandboarding is a must-do activity in Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the desert in Peru’s Ica province. So, I went ahead and booked the Sandboarding and Dune Buggy Ride experience. I had a rough idea of what sandboarding was, and I figured the dune buggy was our ride to get us from point A to point B in the desert. Suhas didn’t know much about this either since I made the reservation. All he knew was we were going to do some activity in Huacachina and that’s it.

The buggy ride did take us from point A to point B, with one small exception.

It should have been obvious when the seat belt on the buggy looked like one you'd wear on a roller coaster. It wasn't until the engine roared to life, and my hat almost flew off my head that I realized what we were in for. The look of concern on Suhas’ face was unforgettable. But before we could communicate anything with words, the adventure had already begun. The buggy was on its way up a dune hill, and we experienced our first heart-stopping freefall that blew sand into all our faces. There was no stopping Vin Diesel after that (yes, our driver went by that name). He took us through the unending desert and its innumerable dunes, making sudden swift turns for a good ten minutes. We were having the time of our life. We didn’t want the ride to end.

Eventually, it did. And, just when we thought the adventure was over, we realized there was the actual sandboarding part of it. Since Suhas and I had never done anything like it before, we decided to observe first. It seemed like fun. We did some practice rounds on “bunny” slopes learning how to “brake”, and eventually made our way to the final massive slope. Honest to god, I was quite afraid looking at how steep it was. But then, I saw Suhas and a few others do it, and YOLO mode kicked in. I went down the slope screaming my throat out, braking and accelerating, somehow making it down alive. Phew!
 

Just as we were expecting a mellow ride back to base, Vin Diesel decided to give us our money’s worth. He took us up a near vertical slope and dropped us down a few hundred feet where we caught the view of a beautiful campsite and the twilight in the background. My body was already tired and ready, but Vin Diesel wasn’t done. After some more twists and turns, the buggy ride finally came to an end. We thanked Vin Diesel for the very fun evening, admired the sand dunes for a bit, took pictures of the oasis, and headed back to our hotel to rid ourselves of all the sand we had collected through the evening. 
 

Sometimes you have the most fun when you least expect it. Best day ever!

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Peruvian history, through the eyes of Elvis

Our walking tour guide in Cusco, Elvis, gave us a fascinating glimpse into Peru's rich history. As we walked from place to place, he took us on a journey through time, tracing the history of Peru from Pre-Incan times until present day. 

The Nazcas

The Nazcas were a Pre-Incan civilization that flourished between 100 BC and 800 AD. They lived mostly around Peru's arid southern coast, never in Cusco.

Among the prominent relics of this civilization are the Nazca lines, which are a series of geoglyphs. We stopped at the Nazca lines on our way to Arequipa a few days ago. These lines were well drawn, and the ones we saw resembled a lizard, a toad, and a tree. Personally, I didn't find the lines themselves to be spectacular. The remarkable thing though, was that the lines have remained intact for over a thousand years, thanks to the region's wind-less climate, and little to no rainfall.

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The Incas

The Inca civilization, one of the world's most celebrated civilizations, flourished in the Peruvian Highlands between the 13th and 16th centuries AD. Cusco was the capital city of the Incas. According to Elvis, Cusco was originally called Cosco, which translates to “the center of the universe” in Quechua, the Incan language that is spoken by indigenous populations in Peru and Bolivia even today.

During the tour we learned about the four main Incan trails called ‘Suyus’ that originated from the main square of the city, called ‘Plaza de Armas’. These walking routes (which includes the famous Inca Trail), were the main thoroughfares and people traveled them on foot – horses hadn’t arrived yet and llamas weren’t strong enough. It is crazy that the Incan empire spanned from Colombia to Santiago de Chile and they conquered all of these places on foot!

In Incan tradition, a king never truly 'dies.' He lives on in spirit, and his palace remains his own, untouched and impeccably maintained. It's a practice rooted in deep-seated beliefs about the afterlife. The next king would get a new palace built for himself. As we went around in Cusco, we saw multiple palace sites, each a testament to a different king from a bygone era. This thriving civilization fell when the Spanish conquered them between 1526-1572.

The Spanish

As with many of  their prior conquests, the Spanish brought infectious diseases that decimated the native populations, confiscated large amounts of gold and silver, and established a new religious order in Peru.

Walking round Cusco, we saw many buildings whose lower sections of walls didn't match with the rest of the building. Apparently, these were Incan buildings that were partially demolished and then built over by the Spanish. One of these buildings is Qorikancha, which was the largest of the Incan temples. The temple once was adorned with gold, but apparently the Spanish melted it down and took it as ransom before killing the Incan king. The Santo Domingo church was then built on top of the ruins at the same site.

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A few good things did come out of the destructive Spanish invasion though. In the exchange of crops between the Spanish and the Incas, the Spanish gained potatoes and corn, whereas the Peruvians gained rice and wheat. Peru's first universities and schools were also founded by the Spanish. Initially built for Spanish colonists' children, these institutions have become major centers of research and higher learning today.

We stopped by the Cusco cathedral, one of the most significant churches in Cusco. Inside the cathedral was filled with beautiful paintings, intricate woodwork, and gold and silver frames. The highlight though was seeing the Peruvian adaptation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, with a brown Judas, Jesus drinking chicha instead of wine, and a guinea pig on the plate in the place of bread. Though it was the Spanish that introduced Christianity here, interestingly the Peruvians of today are more religious than the present day Spanish.

Cusco today

 

Modern day Cusco is a beautiful amalgamation of old world charm, busy markets, trendy cafes, and some really amazing restaurants. It has a large tourism economy that attracts roughly 1.5 million tourists each year.

 

Elvis also took us to meet with some llamas and alpacas. These adorable animals were being managed by a local non-profit to provide mental health support to people. They were super friendly and hung out with our walking tour group. We also learnt to spot the difference between llamas and alpacas - llamas have their tail up, tend to have longer faces, and are generally larger in size.

At the end of our walking tour, we came away with the feeling that the Peruvians had found a way to stay in touch with their native roots in food, language, architecture, and had woven in European ideas and modern day values around their traditional beliefs. To see an ancient culture thrive and adapt despite colonial intrusions was refreshing.

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The long hike to Machu Picchu

 

If I could only pick one place to see in all of South America, I would pick Machu Picchu. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of visiting this world wonder since I learnt about it in 2007, when the new 7 wonders were announced. When it comes to reaching Machu Picchu, there are essentially two routes: the straightforward, touristy way, involving a train ride, or the more challenging but rewarding path that entails a strenuous hike. We chose the latter.

The Inca trail is a 4-day, 43 km hike that starts near Sacred Valley and takes you all the way to Machu Picchu with stunning Incan ruins scattered all along. Multi-day hikes have always seemed intimidating to me. But, a few things made this one especially daunting: a) the altitude of 4,000m above sea level , b) a near certain chance of rain during our hike, and c) this being my, and our, first ever multi-day hike. 

Day 1 was off to a good start. The first few hours were somewhat challenging but fun. We started at ~2700m elevation, the climb wasn’t too steep and our knees were in top shape. We met with our 2 guides David and Rene, and introduced ourselves to everyone in our hiking group. We also met our amazing crew of porters who were rushing ahead to have everything set up for lunch.

After hiking for 3 hours and seeing our very first ruins, we made it to our lunch spot. I was expecting something like a sandwich for lunch, but to my utter delight, we were served a proper 3 course meal. I was truly impressed with how quickly the porters and chefs made it there, set everything up, and made sumptuous food, even catering to people’s dietary restrictions. After lunch, we walked another 2 hours to reach our campsite for the day. Though tired, I felt quite accomplished and was starting to feel more confident about making it all the way to the end.

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We woke up early on Day 2 to get a head start on the long road ahead. The day started with a drizzle and stayed that way for a few hours. The altitude and the uphill walk was getting to me. As we climbed, the air got thinner, and I was huffing and puffing my way up. As we got to the dead woman’s pass, the highest point in the trail, I was on the verge of giving up. Renee, our second guide, came over, cheered me up and even offered to take my backpack up. He waited around for us and kept cheering me on, as we finally made it to the very top, 4,200m above sea level. After the dead woman’s pass, it was going to be a long downhill hike to the campsite. We made it to lunch about 30 minutes after the rest of the group did. I was so exhausted that I ate real quick and took a nap to feel better. 

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Day 3 was mostly downhill, but ended up being the toughest day for me. Descending 1000m of steep, wet, stone steps was hard. My knees were sore, my toes hurt and I even had a fall. The rest of the group went down much faster than us – they would sprint down and wait. I was quite beat, but wasn’t going to give up. Suhas kept up his own sprint and wait approach, as we slowly made our way through two more ruins before getting to our campsite that night.

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I woke up on Day 4 determined. I didn’t want my dismal performance over the last day to pull me down. I decided this day was going to be different, and I was going to bring my A-game to the last 6 kms. As I made my way to the sun gate at a never-seen-before pace, Suhas was thrilled. We didn’t fall behind the group anymore and kept pace till the very end. 

 

We made it to the Sun Gate on time, ready for that first big view of Machu Picchu. But all we saw was fog, lots of it. Luckily, the rising sun and the shifting winds worked their magic and very soon we got our first glimpse of the mountain we hiked four days to see.

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Down at Machu Picchu we ran into crowds of tourists that had taken the train up here. They looked all clean and fresh, while we all looked pretty beat and unkempt. Didn't bother me, though. I felt like we'd really earned our visit, and that made it all worth it.

Machu Picchu was mainly a city built as a royal retreat and was occupied from 1420 to 1530 AD. It was abandoned when the Spanish invaded Peru, but the Spanish apparently never learned about it. Over time, the jungle creeped in and took over the site and the city was lost for a few hundred years. It was discovered by some locals who wandered into the area in the 1800s, and later by an American explorer in 1911 who eventually brought this wonder to light. 

After two hours of walking around the site, our multi-day journey was coming to an end. It was time to bid goodbye. I was so thankful to everyone that had supported, inspired, and cheered me through the hike. Our guides David and Renee who were super knowledgeable, funny, and always watched out for everyone in the group. Our porters and cooks who carried our bags and fed us delicious meals. Our amazing hiking group of 14 who kept things fun and light-hearted all through. And last but not the least, my ever so patient hiking partner, Suhas. It was one of the hardest yet rewarding journeys I have ever embarked on, and I couldn’t have made it without a whole village on my side!

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Such variety, much wow

There were so many things we saw in Peru that it would be impossible to write about them all. To give you some additional perspective, here are some other places we visited, and altitudes we experienced.
 

Paracas National Reserve | Desert | 0m above sea level

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Arequipa | Andean Valley | 2300m above sea level

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Inca trail | Cloud forest & Alpine Tundra | 3000m above sea level

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Puno | Andean Highlands | 4000m above sea level

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I still struggle to wrap my head around the fact that a foggy coastal city like Lima, the desert oasis of Huacachina, the Andean highlands that contain Machu Picchu, and even the Amazon rainforest, all co-exist in a single country a third the size of India. Add to it the diverse set of gastronomical, historical, and adventurous experiences we’ve had, I don’t think any one country has made me experience so much variety all within a span of 16 days. 

Peru is truly one-of-a-kind.

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