THE PERU YOU NEVER KNEW

Wild colours and haunt­ing, soul­ful beauty await

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | SOUTH AMERICA - NI­CHOLAS EAGAR THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF CONDOR TRAVEL AND PROM PERU

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.

PIC­TURES: NI­CHOLAS EAGAR

Colca Canyon is one of the deep­est canyons on Earth; and Santa Catalina Monastery is one of Peru’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­chi­tec­tural at­trac­tions.

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