The seat of two great empires: drink and dine like an Inca, sleep and hike like a conquistador
It’s no longer controversial to say Machu Picchu is not Peru’s most exciting destination. The Inca citadel remains one of the wonders of the world – but getting there is, to be honest, rather more exciting.
The opening of the Explora Sacred Valley in Urquillos has given visitors to Peru the best of all excuses to loiter in the region. The hotel
offers guests a menu of 20 “explorations”, including hikes, bike rides and drives – many involving Inca sites and, because the valley is still the heartland of the indigenous Quechua people, cultural encounters. The continued expansion of the luxury hotel scene in Urubamba (the valley’s commercial hub) and the plan by Lima’s top chef, Virgilio Martinez, to open a restaurant beside the Moray ruins looks set to make the valley ever more popular.
It’s worth reasserting that Peru’s capital is the undisputed culinary powerhouse of South America: for daring, for vitality and for honouring their indigenous forebears’ produce and dishes, Lima’s chefs stand alone. Stops at pioneer Astrid y Gaston, plus El Mercado, Maido, Malabar and Rafael – as well as Martinez’s toprated Central – are highly recommended. Book well before you fly. (Get a preview in Dubai: Martinez’s restauarant Lima is in City Walk.)
Alternative ancient sites are luring hikers and history-lovers away from Machu Picchu. In April 2017, a cable car opened between Nuevo Tingo and the pre-Inca ruins of Kuelap in the southern Amazonas region. The site was previously only accessible via a steep 9km drive or four-hour hike up unpaved roads. The 20-minute ride opens up an impressive walled settlement built by the Chachapoyas in the sixth century.
Home to about 1,800 bird species – including 107 endemic species – Peru is realising its potential as a birding holiday destination. Lodges such as the family-owned Tambo Blanquillo in Manu National Park, north of Cusco, and Tambopata Research Centre and the new Inkaterra Guides Field Station – accessed via Puerto Maldonado – employ experts and offer guests a combination of up-close nature and comfort.
For train buffs, the new Belmond Andean Explorer is a luxury sleeper supplementing the same firm’s Hiram Bingham Cusco-to-Machu Picchu Pullman-style service. Well-heeled travellers can now go to Puno and Lake Titicaca as well as Cusco, feasting on fine food and staying in double-bed cabins; the train even has a spa car.
Pope Francis visits Peru from Jan 18-21, and is scheduled to say Mass in Lima, Trujillo and Puerto Maldonado.
Don’t miss: Sacred Valley, Kuelap, Lima, Manu National Park, Cusco.
How to do it: Martin Randall’s (martinrandall. com) 16-day Andean Heartland guided group tour of Moche, Chimu and Chachapoya sites also includes on-site stays at Machu Picchu.
Llama Travel’s (llamatravel.co.uk) 13-day Incas & Conquistadors of Peru tour visits Lima, Cusco and Titicaca and includes an overnight trip on the Belmond Andean Explorer.
When you have had your fill of Cusco, move north to Manu National Park where you can spot the Orange-eared Tanager, one of 1,800 bird species that make Peru their home
After spending time at Punta Ballena, a resort city on the coast of Río de la Plata (ABOVE) explore the city of Montevideo (RIGHT). The La Paloma lighthouse in Uruguay, which dates back to 1874 (BELOW). The area was declared a national monument in 1976