Off the beaten track Peru
By Claudia Posada
From quaint cobbled streets to towering mountains shrouded in mist and fascinating wildlife, Peru has so much to offer for adventurous travellers wishing to get off the beaten track. It is the place to be to feel overwhelmed by nature in all its glory, and get your hiking boots on. The food is wacky and colourful, the markets exotic, and the people warm and friendly. But what does this small, bustling historical and cultural gem have to offer other than the famous Inca Trail? Here, we will take you through the lesser-known treks and trails, and adrenaline-filled activities to inspire your next trip to Peru.
The Inca Trail is naturally the first trek that springs to mind when considering Peru as a travel destination - but there are many other stunning routes this country has to offer that are more off-the-beaten path and less clogged with tourists. For those up for a challenge, the Huayhuash circuit (amusingly pronounced “why-wash?”) is certainly worth a go. You will be sure to enjoy views of snow covered mountains, beautiful glacial lakes, and be free from the hordes of tourists that swarm Machu Picchu. This trek takes seven days, and reaches an impressive elevation of 5,000m - so be wary of the altitude! A common technique used in Peru to deal with these conditions is to chew on fresh coca leaves. These can be purchased in one of Peru’s many food markets, or from a local Peruvian pharmacy. Whilst browsing a food market be sure to sample one of the fresh fruit juices, or perhaps buy some of the succulent fruit and giant avocados they sell in these stalls that make no comparison with grocery shopping in the U.K. You may like to have a go at cooking with such a wonderful array of ingredients in between the active parts of your holiday.
The Lares trek is less arduous but equally rewarding, its starting point just outside of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Cusco. Some points of this trail are even higher than the Inca Trail itself, reaching a whopping 4,750m. During the hike you will come into contact with locals, glimpsing the traditional life of the indigenous Quechua communities as you pass through their villages. Adorned in typical Andean dress, you will be able to catch these farmers and artisans weaving, hand-planting potatoes, and raising herds of llamas. Wildlife to spot includes condors - a national Peruvian symbol - and the famous alpaca. The Lares trek is a popular option amongst those who were not able to secure Inca Trail tickets for the trail ends at Machu Picchu. Diverse views en-route include numerous high-altitude lakes and the colossal 18,000 foot Mount Veronica.
For a mystic experience, embark on the Salkantay hike, which takes you through a beautiful cloud forest, connecting with an ancient Inca Highway. This hike fuses nature and history, for as well as trekking through lowland jungle and sighting a variety of flora and fauna, you will discover the newly discovered ruins of Llactapata, from which you can see a distant Machu Picchu. This splendid trek ends at Machu Picchu, therefore it is also a good option for those who did not secure permits for the Inca Trail in time. Hard-core hikers have been known to climb the volcano, Misti, in nearby Arequipa - by no means an easy feat, but extremely rewarding, as views from the top are utterly spectacular. Both the Lares and Salkantay treks offer a true escape to the mountains, a chance to see perspective and reconnect with nature.
For an equally exciting experience that is perhaps less demanding on the limbs, be sure to have a go at quad biking in Cusco. Quad biking is a great way to get to know a place whilst giving you that extra thrill! If you happen to be in Huacachina, have a go at sandboarding or take a dune buggy ride - both of which will give you a real rush. There are also some excellent cycling routes that can be followed in Peru. Numerous trails connect some of the most sought after sites in Paracas, Arequipa, Cusco, Lima, Nazca and Puno - a fantastic way to explore Peru’s impressive networks of Inca remains.
The Amazon Rainforest is not often associated with Peru, but in fact, Peru holds the second largest portion of Amazon Rainforest after Brazil. There are two entry points in Peru to the Amazon Rainforest - Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. This incredible ecosystem is home to an diverse array of wildlife and enchanting jungle experiences. Perhaps you’ll want to float along the Amazonian river by boat and take in the wonderful surroundings, or simply meander through the steamy jungle with a guide who will help you uncover hidden creatures. Wildlife to spot in the Peruvian Amazon include tapir, deer, puma, monkeys and even jaguars, as well as a spectacular range of bird species. Temperatures throughout the year are mostly hot and humid - with the exception of cold spells that can occur between June and August. Both luxury and more rustic accommodation is on offer here, so travellers will find their needs catered for.
Out of this world salt ponds
For an other-worldly experience, be sure to head to the Maras Salt Ponds. Located a short distance from Cusco, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a visit to this site makes for a thrilling day trip. The placement of these magical ponds is truly bizarre and they are wonderful to explore - from above they look like an uneven landslide of steps. The history of the ponds is also fascinating; indigenous inhabitants of this region used to harvest salt here for centuries by process of evaporation. They are still used for this purpose today, as local families are responsible for manning individual ponds. There are roughly 5,000 in total, and they are pink-brown in colour. When visiting, you contribute to the local community, which helps to financially support the local harvesters. Be sure to make the most of a day trip here by also exploring the town of Maras, conversing with the locals, to get a feel for life here.
Alternative ancient sites to explore
Dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries and now known to be the “Sacred sister” of Machu Picchu are the Choquequirao ruins situated at 3,050 metres above sea level. Located less than 40 miles from Machu Picchu, these ruins are currently only accessible by foot, which makes the revelatory moment truly rewarding. However, a cable car will soon be able to transport travellers directly to these historic ruins. The government have also announced that a new road will be opened to interconnect Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. Those who feel up to the physical challenge can embark on the Choquequirao hike, which takes you along the Vilcabamba snow-capped mountain range, and ends at Aguascalientes - the town that lies at the foot of Machu Picchu. For the more faint-hearted, it would be best to wait until the cable car opens. That is to say Roger Valencia himself, the country’s deputy tourism minister, said “the hike is exceptionally beautiful, but it’s tough”.
The pre-Columbian city of “Chan Chan” dates back to around 850 AD, and is the most expansive architectural site in the Americas to date, covering 20 square kilometres. Sadly, heavy rainfalls, and the El Niño floods have caused the outer parts of this historic city to erode, but the remarkable Tschudi complex and royal burial chamber are still open for exploration. Also worth visiting is the walled settlement of Kuélap, a fortress city atop a mountain, overlooking the Urubamba Valley and surrounded by a glorious cloud forest. The recent opening of a cable car has facilitated its access to intrepid travellers. Constructed in the 6th century AD, the city was lost within the cloud forest for three centuries, and was amazingly rediscovered in 1843. Kuélap used to be the home of the Chachapoyas, coined as the “cloud warriors” by the Incas, and was a flourishing political centre. The fortress walls are home to some impressive intricate carvings, undoubtedly a factor in the decision of Peru’s Ministry of Culture to consider it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Why go off the beaten track?
Mass tourism has caused the rapid deterioration of sites such as Machu Picchu so it is important to also recognise and discover alternative, lesser-known ancient Peruvian sites. You will also feel the reward of having discovered something more unusual, without the crowds that inevitably come with the well-trodden Inca Trail.
Make it happen
If any of this has inspired you to get off the beaten track, be sure to get in contact with our handpicked local experts in Peru, who will be able to create an authentic tailor-made holiday for you.