Breathtaking Ancient Cities, Colonial Wonders, Magnificent Natural Beauty
As peak experiences go, there are few that beat Machu Picchu. This spectacular ancient site straddling Andean slopes takes the breath away; not just for its sheer beauty but also for its mystery. How exactly did the mighty Inca Empire haul these colossal stones to this saddleback ridge? And what purpose did the city serve … a royal retreat, a spiritual sanctuary?
We may never know. But one thing is certain. Peru is overflowing with mysteries and wonder far beyond the heights of Machu Picchu. And when you journey to this magnificent country with Gate 1 Travel, our local Tour Managers bring them all to life for you, from fortresses of stone to historic cities rich in culture to a warm and welcoming people.
Cities Awash in Colonial and Incan History
If you think of Machu Picchu as the pinnacle of Peru, then consider Cuzco and Lima as the country’s historic and cultural foundations. Indeed, no visit to Peru is complete without exploring these two cities. Cuzco may have a decidedly colonial atmosphere—with its low-slung red-roofed houses, expansive Plaza de Armas and Gothic-Renaissance cathedral—but it began as the capital of the Inca Empire. If you need proof, look no further (literally) than the ground at your feet. When Spanish conquistadors took the city, they razed its buildings and replaced them with what we see today. But the original Inca foundations remain, making for a fascinating architectural blend.
Perhaps the city’s most distinct emblem of its Incan origins can be found at Koricancha, the Temple of the Sun. In pre-colonial days, the floors and walls of this Inca place of worship were awash in gold. Unfortunately, much of it was paid to the Spanish as ransom to save the life of Inca leader Atahualpa. Gate 1 shows you these important sites during a city tour.
Lima, on Peru’s Pacific coast, was founded by Francisco Pizarro as the capital of the Spanish Empire. Its European ambiance makes it a delight to explore. The architectural star of the city’s main square is the Basilica Cathedral. Pizarro himself laid the first stone of this splendid neoclassical-colonial church and is buried inside. The Archbishop’s Palace is adjacent; its ornate façade features a pair of dramatic enclosed balconies. Lima is also known for its food scene. Even American chef Todd English has called it Latin America’s culinary capital. The city offers up a rich gastronomy simmered in the technique and spices of all who have shaped the city: indigenous foods have been infused with Spanish flair, of course. Asian flavors were brought here with a wave of immigrants, too. And Creole spices were introduced by Caribbean workers. Peruvian cuisine is so “hot” that it’s gone global; even the Chilean sea bass at your local grocer is most likely from Peru.
To the south, the white-stone buildings of another colonial gem shimmer in the Andean sun: Arequipa. The city, nicknamed La Ciudad Blanca, or White City, was constructed from a white volcanic rock called sillar. Its bright buildings surely make for a magical visit. For a splash of color, the Santa Catalina Monastery boasts vivid facades and the local outdoor market brims with multi-hued produce and textiles.
Mysteries of Empires
Fascinating as Peru’s colonial cities are, nothing in the western hemisphere compares to the country’s pre-colonial sites. One of its most mysterious lies in a desert far from the heights of Machu Picchu. The colossal Nazca Lines, only visible in full from the air, were drawn in the sand between 400 and 600 AD. Figures of monkeys, fish, hummingbirds and lizards adorn the landscape, some of them 660 feet across. These massive figures on the high plateau of the Nazca Desert have puzzled scholars for generations. The mystery is not so much how they were made, but why. Many suggest a religious significance. Others believe they may have been fertility symbols or served some irrigation purpose. Or, they may have even been astronomical calendars.
Just outside Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, also known as Urubamba, holds more mystery. This fertile stretch of land, fed by the coursing waters of the Urubamba River, has hosted terraced farmland and ancient ruins for generations. Ollantaytambo is perhaps the best preserved fortress. Here, you get a truly authentic glimpse of an Inca town, thanks to its original layout, irrigation system, and houses. Nearby Chinchero holds a popular market that overflows with locals and travelers eager to find local goods and produce—such as Pima and Tanguis cotton (some of the finest in the world) or corncobs that are known to offer up the largest kernels in the world. The salt pans of Maras and the crop circles of Moray provide more insight into the agricultural tradition of this magnificent valley.
High above the valley, Machu Picchu straddles a saddleback mountain. The ancient site is accessible only by foot or by train; remarkably, the rail journey traverses as many ecological zones as you would experience on a trip from the North Pole to the equator. Upon arrival, there are 100 acres of meticulously built buildings, terraces, and stairways, all gloriously preserved. Each building was constructed with an inward inclination, a design intended to help cities withstand earthquakes. You might also see some of the 425 types of orchid that grow in and around Machu Picchu; Peru as a whole is home to 1,624 species!
Unrivaled Natural Splendor
Cultural, historic, and architectural wonders aside, Peru’s natural world is one of the most dramatic on the planet. Consider this: The mightiest river in the world flows through the northern reaches of the country, moving some 150,000 cubic meters per second through the largest forest in the world. The Amazon and its namesake river, in fact, cut such a huge swathe through the continent that they play host to the greatest variety of fauna and flora on earth, the latter of which often holds the key to curing disease. It’s a privilege to explore this magnificent place, and a thrill to experience it all from a forest lodge that we can only access by boat. Visits to riverside villages, sightings of pink dolphins, and thrilling walks on rainforest trails bring all the magnificence into sharp focus. What’s more, the birdlife here is unrivalled; all told, Peru is home to some 1,700 species in total, the most of any country, and many of them take wing in the Amazon.
To the south, Lake Titicaca serves as a natural border between Peru and Bolivia. In the shadow of the Andes—the world’s longest mountain range—this unique body of water is the highest navigable lake known to man at 12,500 feet. Like the Amazon has its tribal cultures, Titicaca has the Uru people. Some members of this ancient tribe still live on floating islands, sturdy platforms they’ve woven together from the tortora reeds that grow in the lake. Entire communities exist on these islands, which were originally constructed so that tribes could escape from invaders simply by floating away.
From the highest heights to the lowest depths, another body of water, the Colca River, has carved one of the world’s deepest canyons into the Peruvian plain. At 13,650 feet, the Colca Canyon is more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. But it’s not indigenous people that grab our attention here—though our spectacular drive here often passes shepherds tending to their sheep. It’s the Andean condor. These rare birds ride the thermal air that rises up from the canyon floor, and they are a breathtaking sight.
Explore Peru Your Way with the Gate 1 Travel Family
No one knows Peru like Gate 1 Travel, with expert Tour Managers hailing from the very country they’re introducing you to. Their insider knowledge and connections are invaluable in ensuring you get the most from your visit, whether they’re taking you to meet locals in their homes or sharing bargaining tips with you as you explore Peru’s rich and lively markets. What’s more, our 30 years of experience in the region lets us offer you more ways to discover the magical wonders of Peru.
Discovery Tours by Gate 1 gives you the small group advantage. These feature-packed adventures are more active, allowing you to spend more time getting up close to Peru’s natural wonders. And because there are so few of us, you can spend more time lingering at the country’s most spectacular sites like Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, while connecting with the locals on a more personal level. It’s a whole new way to see Peru. We invite you into the more intimate world of small group travel on our Peruvian Legends tour.
If it’s luxury you crave in Peru, experience the Signature Collection by Gate1 Travel. You’ll experience all the wonders of Peru in classic Gate 1 style, with a touch of elegance at deluxe accommodations. Enjoy premier first-class, five-star hotels and lodges, from the JW Marriott to a beautifully restored monastery, each offering the perfect balance of comfort, service and ambiance, and savor the finest cuisine locally sourced and meticulously prepared. So go ahead … pamper yourself with our Deluxe Peru itinerary.
Join Gate 1 Travel in Peru!
If you thought Machu Picchu was the only reason to visit Peru, think again. From rich cultural centers to remarkable Inca sites to breathtaking natural spectacles, there are endless wonders to explore. And many ways to explore them! Best of all, the family of Gate 1 Travel companies introduces you to this rewarding region in the most affordable way.