THE PERU YOU NEVER KNEW
Wild colours and haunting, soulful beauty await
From the shores of the Pacific and the depths of the Paracas desert to the dizzying heights of the Andes; whether you’re in need of soulful contemplation, a rollicking sand dune experience or a wildlife adventure like no other … here are the five best-kept secrets on the Peruvian map.
AREQUIPA’S MONASTERY OF SANTA CATALINA
With a postcard colour palette filmmaker Wes Anderson would envy, the Monastery of Santa Catalina is one of the most extraordinary architectural attractions in Peru.
Built in 1579 and nestled in the centre of historical Arequipa, the high-walled cloisters covers a labyrinthine set of building facades painted in vibrant pastel blues and reds – a visually striking juxtaposition to the humble silence of its religious design. Founded by wealthy widow Maria de Guzman, the volcanic sillar stone complex stretches across 20,000sq m, housing cloisters, living-quarters, a chapel, gallery and large main plaza.
While it is now predominantly a tourist attraction, at its peak Santa Catalina was home to almost 450 nuns and servants.
However, the northern corner of the Catholic site is still home for 20 nuns, so you’ll likely get a chance to have a solemn exchange with a nod and a smile.
With its colourful winding walls, staircases, alleys and picturesque courtyards, this citywithin-a-city is an engrossing monument of soulful exploration, no matter your creed.
CLIMBING MOUNTAINS FOR ANDEAN CONDORS
Bearing witness to the world’s largest raptor and flying bird in its natural habitat, more than 4000m above sea-level, is something one can only describe as majestic.
One of the deepest canyons on Earth (twice that of the Grand Canyon), Peru’s Colca Canyon, with its winding Inca terraces, live volcanoes, waterfalls and exotic mountain scenery, is home to the endangered Andean condor.
With a wingspan of more than three metres and weighing up to 15kg, these mighty beasts of highland skies use thermal updrafts from Colca’s natural hot springs to glide magnificently across the sparse walls of the shadowy canyon.
You’ll have to get up early though, as the condors come out to play when the hot springs fire up around 8am – and it’s an hour’s drive from Chivay or four hours from Arequipa!
FOUR-WHEEL DRIVING TO A SUNSET PICNIC IN PARACAS DESERT
It feels like an extraordinary contrast unlike any other – a rip-roaring, high octane, fourwheel-driving adventure through the mighty sand dunes of the Paracas desert punctuated with a refined and rather romantic tea-candlelit private picnic in the middle of the sandy
wilderness. Yet that is exactly what it is.
Beginning with an SUV “pilot” safety debrief, the venture initially seems somewhat straightforward, until said pilot makes a very hard right unexpectedly, ripping right off the highway tarmac and jettisoning face first into the desert.
From here it’s a non-stop roller coaster ride, crashing and thrashing in every direction deep into the barren beauty of the dunes.
After an hour of hanging on for dear life while giggling at the immense sense of voluntarily induced turbulence, an unfazed SUV pilot and his unbeaten four-wheeled behemoth halt, and there in the last glimmers of twilight is a reallife oasis.
It is a lavish private picnic set under a large white marquee, surrounded by candle light and tendered by a personal chef; the kind of thing a Hollywood rom-com would drool over.
Pisco wine and traditional Peruvian hors d’oeuvres shift the gears right down as starlight begins to peer across the desert’s night sky.
With a relaxed bellyful of ceviche, slowcooked anticuchos (skewered Peruvian beef ) and some divinely rich, locally made chocolate, it’s time to take a much slower, dreamy ride back out of the Paracas desert dunes.
BRAVING THE BALLISTAS ISLANDS
From sand to sea, the Ballistas Islands are often hailed as “the poor man’s Galapagos” which isn’t entirely off the mark but also not especially flattering to such an extraordinary and untouched nature reserve nestled off the coast of southern Peru. Accessible only by boat, a tour by local speedboat is standard fare for venturing to these anything-but-standard islands.
After careening out into the South Pacific for 30 minutes or so, a collection of massive rock formations appears, seeming to writhe on the horizon.
The islands are not moving, they are simply utterly teeming with wildlife. Laminated with sea lions, penguins, pelicans – and up close, squirming with huge peach-coloured starfish – the Ballistas Islands are a literal force of nature. And the sea lions don’t just laze about either, they’re hooting and hollering at one another like jilted lovers making amends with a kiss by the sea.
Then there are the masses and masses of birds; from Guanay cormorants to blue-footed boobies, the skies above the islands shimmer with avian swirls.
With that in mind, be sure to pack a windcheater and be prepared to experience the guano – fancy term for bird poop.
THE LOST PYRAMIDS OF CARAL
An absolute must for any history buff, Caral, also known as Caral-Chupacigarro, is the most ancient of civilisations in the Americas. At more than 5000 years old, the UNESCO World Heritage site is archaeologically considered on par with ancient Egypt, China and Mesopotamia.
Perched in between the Pacific and the Andes, Caral is comprised of six pyramids arranged around a massive central plaza, alongside them a large amphitheatre and temple.
About 200km north of Lima, the city is wellpreserved and shows clear evidence of ceremonial activities and complex agricultural systems. The site was discovered in 1941, but real excavation efforts only started in the 1990s, so this is still very much a live archaeological dig you can witness first hand.
Naturally this means you can only enter with a verified tour guide, but you’ll still want to bring along your brown Indiana Jones fedora.
Surely one of the best kept secrets in Peru, Caral has a haunting soulful beauty that brings with it introspection and consideration for what life must have been like at the dawn of human civilisation.
Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons on Earth; and Santa Catalina Monastery is one of Peru’s most extraordinary architectural attractions.