By: Simon Thomson
Photo: Courtesy of City A.M.
For British holiday-makers in South America, Peru is a destination of choice. After a long period of violence and political instability, the country is now enjoying the benefits of peace and development.
The growth in services and innovative social policy has seen the poverty rate halved in a decade, and Peru’s natural beauty, rich culture, and flavourful cuisine are proving irresistible to foreign travellers.
Last year British Airways introduced a direct flight from London to Lima, so it has never been more convenient to visit. Most tourists head directly to Cusco for the Inca Trail and the magnificent 15th century Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, but for those willing to step off the beaten track, there are dozens of similarly fascinating sites, all over the country.
Last September LATAM airlines introduced a new service from Lima to Jaen, in the northern region of Cajamarca, transforming an uncomfortable 20 hour drive into a relaxed hour-long flight, and opening up the area to international tourists and would-be adventurers.
Stepping onto the tarmac in Jaen, the altitude and early October heat made even breathing difficult, and all that could be seen in any direction was sun-blasted dust. But I was met at the airport and was soon in a mini-van, speeding past adobe brick factories, and skeletal white trees teeming with vultures.
My guide, Miguel Córdova Becerra, was a man of many talents – a champion cyclist with compendious local knowledge, and the owner of El Nativo, a café that makes the best iced chocolate in Jaen, and probably the world – sadly his talents did not extend to more than a few phrases in English, and my Spanish was certainly worse, but with much gesticulation and good-natured determination, we were able to communicate more-or-less effectively.
Having driven past a roadblock manned by veterans of the last war with Ecuador, who now provide protection against bandidos, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand to sample exotic varieties of passionfruit and custard apple, and we purchased a bag of coca leaves, which I was assured would help counter the effects of altitude sickness. As Class A drugs go, coca leaf is incredibly tame. Unlike its more famous, psychoactive alkaloid derivative, cocaine, the pleasantly bitter leaves which are chewed (or steeped in hot water to make a tea) do not produce a high in the user, just a feeling of alertness and vitality that would really take the edge off the morning commute.
Snaking through paddy fields, along hillsides, and crossing into the high jungle region of Amazonas, we did not arrive at Gocta Natura Cabins until after dark. An eco-tourist B&B and development project, Gocta Natura is a family business, built on reforestation, rare orchids and night monkeys, and run by a husband and wife team, with the help of villagers from nearby Cocachimba. Augusto and Rocio fell in love with the area on their first visit and returned two months later to buy the land on which the lodge now stands.
In addition to their own large house, which provides a shared living room and dining facilities with delectable home-cooked meals for guests, there are five cosy boutique cabins, made (of necessity) from local materials; each of which has a balcony looking out over the cloud forest to the end of a valley dominated by Catarata Gocta. At 771m, Gocta is the 3rd, 5th or 16th tallest waterfall in the world, depending on how such things are measured, but whatever its ranking, it is a hell of a thing to wake up to.
The 11km return trip to the falls is through thick, steamy rainforest, along narrow, undulating, often muddy, footpaths, and at an average altitude of more than 1,800m it was considerably more challenging than the distance might suggest. For a small fee, members of a local collective will lead tourists part of the way on horseback, but watching the shoulders of my trusty steed spasm as we reached the bottom of the first rise, I feared for its welfare, so in a foolhardy act of compassion I got off and walked the rest of the way.
When eventually I arrived at the base of the fall, the roar was deafening, and spray bounced from the surface of the pool, hitting exposed skin like a thousand flechettes. As the sting of its impact gave way to a refreshing coolness, it was hard to imagine why generations of local inhabitants have shunned such a beautiful, awe-inspiring place. They told tales of a white haired mermaid that lived under the falls, and dragged young men to their watery doom, but all I saw was the majesty of nature.
The walk back was gruelling, and seemingly entirely uphill. The only thing propelling my jellied legs was handfuls of coca leaf and the berries from wild coffee bushes that I foraged along the way. I spent the late afternoon lazing on my balcony, drinking Inca Kola (the dayglo yellow Peruvian equivalent of Irn Bru), and looking back towards the falls with a great sense of accomplishment.
The next day we left early to drive a few hours to the region’s most spectacular archaeological site. Kuelap is an immense, pre-Colombian citadel, more than 600m long, and over 100m wide, with stone walls almost 20m high. It runs along the ridge of a mountain, 3,000m above sea level. It has only been properly investigated in the last 20 years, but archaeologists have already found dozens of skeletons on the site, and anyone with ghoulish inclinations can seek out what is probably a femur, visible jutting up in a crack in a retaining wall.
Built by the Chachapoyas civilisation from around 600AD, there are more than 500 stone roundhouses in various states of disrepair, along with the ruins of a couple of rectangular buildings, which were apparently constructed during a later period of Inca control. Trees are laden with bromeliads, adorable dogs, goats, and even the odd llama range freely, and the views overlooking the Utcubamba Valley are truly vast.
The drive up to the visitors’ centre, was petrifying. As the van negotiated hairpin bends with sheer drops of over 1,000m, the regularity of roadside shrines to previous victims provided nauseating evidence that my fears were well founded. But since January of this year a newly opened cable car has cut out the most blood-curdling parts of this 2-hour, 32km, nightmarish vehicular ascent, offering a faster, safer, and unarguably better way to visit an unforgettable site.
Another possibility that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about Peru, is a beach holiday, but with its Pacific coast stretching almost 2,500km, there is no lack of beaches. And about 4 hours south of Lima, down the Pan-American Highway you will find the resort town of Paracas, where several four- or five-star hotels have opened in the last decade.
Paracas also offers access to the Ballestas Islands, a nature reserve and popular site for ecotourism. In a typical two-hour round trip visitors to the islands will see sea lions, pelicans, Humboldt penguins, Guanay guano shags, and lots of boobies. Boats depart directly from the pier at the Hotel Paracas Resort, an utterly delightful five-star holiday camp, where all guests have their own luxurious, self-contained, toy-town apartment, and can lounge by the pool or engage in a variety of water sports.
Inland from Paracas is a great stretch of desert, which you can explore in a wild 4x4 ride, and end with a romantic picnic under the stars. It is also a jumping off point for flights over the famous Nazca lines. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, the lines are a series of dozens of giant geoglyphs carved into the parched earth of the high plateau, probably by the Nazca civilisation, over a period of about a millennium, beginning around 500BC.
Many of the lines are in the shapes of plants, or animals, including a charismatic monkey, a surrealist hummingbird, and an enigmatic “astronaut”, the last of which attracted the attention of the pseudohistorian Erich von Däniken, who, in his 1968 best-seller Chariots of the Gods? suggested the lines were constructed as landing strips for alien visitors in the ancient past. Obviously.
Culinary and cultural developments mean that Lima itself is becoming increasingly attractive to foreign visitors. The Belmond Hotel, atop a cliff in Miraflores – the exclusive downtown residential and shopping district – is where the Rolling Stones stayed on their last visit, and has the best self-service breakfast bar I’ve ever seen.
With ocean views, a rooftop pool, and a pond full of turtles, the Belmond offers comfort and convenience. For souvenir-hunters, it is a short walk to the Indian Market, which sells traditional crafts and tacky t-shirts. Step pyramids exist alongside high-end shopping.
The neighbouring district of Barranco has a reputation for bohemianism, and contains more quirky arts venues and self-consciously trendy cafes. Travel further out and you find yourself in the excitement and chaos of you would expect from the outskirts a Latin American mega-city.
Peruvian food is attracting attention for all the right reasons, and Lima is the place to experience it. Embarcadero41 gives visitors the chance to try their hand at making Peru’s signature cocktail, the devilishly sharp and sweet Pisco sour, as well as assembling the local delicacy, ceviche, which is raw fish cured in citrus and spiced with chili pepper.
Ceviche is widely available, but for fans of uncooked seafood, there are also the delights of Nikkei cuisine, which blends Peruvian and Japanese food traditions. Maido, in Miraflores, placed 8th in the 2017 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, climbing 5 places from last year.
Another unique option is ámaZ, which has décor like the Rainforest Café, but serves foods sourced from and inspired by the actual Peruvian Amazon. La Popular presents upmarket interpretations of classic Peruvian dishes. For instance, their lomo saltado – a Chinese-influenced combination of garlic-soy marinated steak, fried with onion, tomatoes, aji yellow peppers, and tossed with French fries – comes topped with tiny, sunnyside-up quail eggs, and is delicious; although not quite as good as the lomo saltado-filled empanada I got from a highway truck stop for around 50p. Indeed, there is much to be said for the pleasures of less elevated eating.
Pardos Chicken, the charcoal grilled Peruvian alternative to Nando’s easily unlocks new levels of cheekiness. But, for something lighter and more sophisticated, barista prodigy Harryson Neira coaxes unimaginable flavours from locally sourced coffee beans, and provides palate-expanding demonstrations pairing exquisite Peruvian chocolates with pour-over brewing.
Peru is a huge, varied and fascinating country, with an embarrassment of natural and cultural wonders. Whether you follow the well-trodden path, or strike out on your own, the trip of a lifetime awaits.
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