Andean Vistas, Unspoiled Cultures & Seldom-Seen Ruins
Snow-capped Andean peaks scrape at the sky. A patchwork of checkered farmland – neat squares of emeralds, olives, and browns – stretches over vast valleys, then climb hillsides to altiplano plateaus. Pristine alpine streams race through fields. There is something ethereal at work in the tranquil countryside of Peru. And once you lay your eyes on such sublime beauty, it may come as no surprise that in the religion of the ancient Inca (and many of their modern-day descendants), these forces of nature – mountains and streams and valleys – are revered as apus, or spirits.
For today’s traveler, the most profound way to get in touch with the Inca’s spiritual side is to venture beyond the typical sites and head deeper into this unspoiled country. Don’t get us wrong – we know that no trip to Peru is complete without explorations of Machu Picchu and the Incan capital of Cusco, and we’re sure to bring you to these magnificent places. But behind these cultural treasures, away from the well-trodden tourist paths, another side of Peru beckons … a side embraced by apus, and graced by a history rich in colonial and indigenous heritage.
Behold a Gleaming City of White
The southern outpost of Arequipa is the perfect starting point for deeper Peruvian explorations. Its geographic isolation has allowed it to evolve with little outside influence; today, the city remains a unique and fascinating mix of Spanish and indigenous descendants. In fact, when UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on Arequipa, it called the city’s historic center “a masterpiece of the European creative coalition and native characteristics.”
This praise owes much to the beauty of the city’s architecture. Its pearl-white colonial buildings gleam in the Peruvian sun; Spaniards built their city from the sillar – cream-colored volcanic rock – that carved this Andean region over millennia. The striking cityscape has earned Arequipa the nickname, “Ciudad Blanca,” or White City. You can almost imagine that its buildings literally rose out of the earthen rock.
From the Depths of Colca Canyon to the Heights of Lake Titicaca
The landscape surrounding Arequipa, formed by a string of 80 volcanoes and epic tectonic shifts, is at once peaceful and dramatic. Andean peaks are everywhere, as we’ll discover during magnificent drives past pre-Inca farming terraces that climb fertile slopes. But one of our most memorable stops won’t have you looking up at mountains, but down into the yawning crevice of the Colca Canyon. This impressive crag in the earth is more than twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon; its walls, though not as steep, drop 13,650 feet from the rim. We keep our eyes open for the Andean condor as it rides air currents wafting up from the canyon floor.
Our route traverses the beauty of southeastern Peru. It’s not uncommon to come across shepherds herding their sheep or alpacas across these immense plains. It is a classic Peruvian tableau, despite that the horses they ride are not Peruvian at all, but were brought here by the Spanish. But on the lake known as Lagunillas, plenty of indigenous flora and birdlife hug the shores – no imports here! It is a startling pool of blue amidst a solitary landscape.
Despite Lagunillas’ undeniable beauty, another body of water captures our interest, the highest navigable lake in the world: Lake Titicaca, which straddles the Peruvian and Bolivian border. The small city of Puno is our base for exploring the home of the legendary Uros people, a resourceful tribe that centuries ago built vast rafts from the lake’s tough totora reeds so they could escape the wrath of an approaching enemy. On their newly made flotilla-homes, they cast off from shore to avoid decimation. As threats grew on other shores, they simply relocated their Islas Flotantes, or Floating Islands, to another part of the massive lake. The Uros were eventually conquered by the Inca, but their reed-island cultures survived. Today, they no longer have reason to move around like lake nomads. The threat of marauding tribes is gone, yet 44 of their islands – a rich and revered part of their heritage and lifestyle – remain.
Beyond Machu Picchu: Uncovering an Ancient Past
Near Puno, the fascinating Peruvian burial site of Sillustani comes into view amidst a barren landscape. It might at first appear to be a series of smokestacks. But these stone towers were actually funereal chambers for elite members of the Aymara people. An entire family was placed into each tower, called “uta Amaya,” or “houses of the soul” by the Aymara. Openings on the tombs all faced east, where the sun was reborn each day. The more remarkable features of Sillustani are the carved stones that comprise each tower. With their cut rectangular edges and uniform size, the craftsmanship behind them is considered more complex than that used by the Inca, even though the Aymara pre-dated them.
Of course, the Inca were brilliant engineers too, as we see at the seldom-visited complex of Raqchi, one of holiest sites in the Inca Empire. This temple was enormous, more than 25,000 square feet and covered by what was perhaps the largest single roof of the empire. Priests lived in adjoining quarters, and 100 round granary houses held corn and quinoa that were likely used in ceremonies. Incas worshipped here by the thousands.
We can be thankful that even the conquistadors saw Raqchi fit to at least partially preserve. But the contributions of the Spanish throughout Peru are also breathtaking. Off the beaten path, 30 miles from Cusco, the 17th-century church of Andahuaylillas stands as testament to their artistic and religious heritage. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript exterior of this cathedral. Inside, the artwork is dazzling. A rich mix of red and gold hues surrounds a gilded altar. Its painted ceilings and frescoed walls have inspired some to compare this church to the Sistine Chapel.
Untouched cultures … spectacular natural beauty … little-known pockets of rich history. This is the other side of Peru, and our small groups allow unfettered access to its glories. Read more about our Peruvian Legends tour and our Bolivia & Peru: Andean & Amazonian Culture tour, and call to reserve your space today!