For the traveller who enjoys their highlights with a dash of authenticity and in-the-know exclusivity on the side, ditch Peru’s typical tourist trail for the less-trodden Southern Circuit.
Machu Picchu is as enigmatic as it is awe-inspiring, and the mystery shrouding this mountaintop citadel has garnered the site immense international attention. Of course, the fallout from this is that the sanctuary once-reserved for the ancient Inca emperors now receives trainloads of eager visitors, many who follow the same route from Lima to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu and home.
For the intrepid traveller wishing to experience the true Peru, avoiding the commercialized sites that live in Machu Picchu’s much-visited shadow, there is hope. The spirit of the Inca does live on in Peru: unspoilt nature and incredible vistas abound, amazing wildlife and ancient traditions thrive in their natural environments, and the greatest culinary legacy on earth continues to evolve with respect for its indigenous pillars. It just takes a bit of guidance to make sure newcomers are looking in the right places.
Starting in Lima, the first step off of the tourist trail brings discerning travellers south to Arequipa. A must-visit city that is left off of most itineraries, Arequipa will give visitors their first taste of authentic, historic Peru. The UNESCO-protected city centre welcomes visitors with traditional yet exotic architecture built completely of white volcanic sillar stone, an homage to the three mighty volcanoes that stand sentry at the city’s walls. Considered the capital of cuisine in Peru, local family-run eateries offer delectable spins on all the classics. A hands-on cooking class with a local chef is a must, as is an excursion into some of the monasteries and workshops that offer insight into the city’s storied past.
2. Colca Canyon
After eating and mingling till heart and stomach are full, the next stop on the itinerary is Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the US’s Grand Canyon, Colca offers excellent hiking and sensational wildlife viewing. Home to the dramatic Andean Condor, a private guide has the best vantage points to view the incredible 10.5-foot wingspans of the gentle giants. The bravest can opt for more adventurous expeditions on horseback or white-water raft, before heading on to the cultural highlight of the journey: Lake Titicaca.
3. Lake Titicaca
The highest navigable lake in the world, and home to endemic cultures and heritages, Lake Titicaca offers a safari of culture and nature at its very finest. Spend a day learning from a family in the Uros floating islands, far from the commercialized show put on near Puno. Stop in Taquile for a home-made lunch with the mayor of the island, and learn about the unique customs and local crafts that have earned the island UNESCO World Heritage designation. Visit with local artisans, venture inside of ruins and burial tombs, go hiking or mountain biking at 4,000 meters, or take any manner of watercraft out for a leisurely day on the lake.
4. Tampobata Reserve or go on to Cusco & Machu Picchu
If time allows for a stop in the Amazon, Puerto Maldonado is the perfect jumping off point to the country’s best eco-lodges in the most biodiverse pocket of the Amazon Rainforest. Otherwise, the show must go on, and Machu Picchu awaits as the grand finale to an epic journey. Depending on interests, there are fabulous ruins to explore and soft-adventure to be had in the Sacred Valley, en-route to the famous citadel. Bike or horseback between ruins, go glamping at the top of a sacred mountain, taste pink Andean salt freshly mined by hand as it has been done since the Incas. And of course, stop in Cusco to experience the magic of the once-capital city of the Inca.
Although this journey has travellers beginning and ending in the same areas as the masses – Lima being the main international gateway to the county, and Machu Picchu being a must-see as one of the 7 Wonders of the New World, there is of course nothing wrong with sharing the greatest hits with other appreciators. As long as they are washed down with some exclusivity only enjoyed by those in the know. There is a difference between tourists and travellers. Travellers, welcome to Peru’s charming yet hidden Southern Circuit.