The West

Iconic Incas and more
Iconic Incas and more

Rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, the explorer likened to Indiana Jones, Machu Picchu stakes a claim to being the most iconic of all South American tourist sights.

The Lost City of the Incas is the prize following a multi-day hike - or a three-hour train ride - through patchwork fields of corn, quinoa, potatoes and beans, and some dramatic mountain passes.

Although I've seen it dozens of times before in travel brochures and magazines, nothing, I find, beats the thrill of seeing Machu Picchu in the flesh - or the stone, as it is. The exquisite masonry, the verdant hill-top setting, and all the truths, myths and legends swilling round this majestic citadel led Bingham to write: "In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it."

Yet while Machu Picchu, and the former Inca capital of Cusco, lure the crowds, and steal the plaudits, there's so much more to Peru.

Before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 16th century, the Incas were the last major civilisation to dominate what is now Peru. Across the country, however, especially in and around the Pacific coastline, you'll find the legacies of long-lost empires that preceded them.

Around Chiclayo, a bustling city in northern Peru, close to the Ecuadorian border, I'm enchanted by artefacts stocked in the brilliant Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan, one of a number of cultural sights, indoor and outdoor, scattered across the region.

The museum is flush with sacred objects, studded with gold and precious stones; some found in the unearthed tomb of the Lord of Sipan - a key figure of the Moche culture that hit its peak between AD400-600. Digs are constantly uncovering more archaeological treasures and burial sites, so your visit could coincide with another impressive public unveiling.

Other key Moche sites - the towering abode temples of the sun and the moon - sit on the dusty southern edges of Trujillo, a colonial city named after the Spanish home town of Conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The moon temple was once a sacrificial centre and is decorated with stunning frescoes and friezes.

On the northern side of Trujillo, I scour the adobe city of Chan Chan, once reckoned to be the largest pre-Colombian settlement in the Americas before it was conquered by the Incas. A relic of the Chimu empire, which emerged a few centuries after the Moche, it sprawls nearly all the way to Huanchaco, a rustic seaside village, where fishermen still hand-craft, and ride in, reed boats - just as the Moche people did. Great for surfing, and with a buzzing nightlife in summer, Huanchaco draws foreign backpackers and Peruvians alike.

You can also savour some delicious seafood here, as you can all along the Pacific coast, not least in Lima, Peru's often-maligned capital.

Founded in 1535, this was, for three centuries, the linchpin of Spain's New World empire, a thriving international port, known as the City of Kings. Now it wallows in its unofficial title, "The Gastronomic Capital of the Americas".

Ceviche is still a favourite. Scoffed since the Moche era, this simple but delicious staple comprises chunks of raw fish and/or shellfish with sliced red onion, marinated in a chilli-fuelled lime juice.

Lima's food reflects the city's cosmopolitan history, with daring chefs mixing Andean, Amazonian, Spanish, African and Asian flavours to deliver some inventive, flavoursome dishes. Lima's most famous chef is Gaston Acurio, who runs La Mar and Astrid y Gaston. Both restaurants can be found in Miraflores, an affluent cafe-filled neighbourhood that has a lovely cliff-top promenade and is also home to Huaca Pucllana, an incongruous giant mud-brick pyramid built in AD500.

Lima's must-see museums include the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History, which displays more than 100,000 artefacts detailing the country's 5000-plus-year past. Nearby, you can admire the private collection of Peruvian archaeologist Rafael Larco Hoyle. His former Spanish viceroy's mansion has almost 50,000 objects, including explicitly amusing erotic ceramics. Peru's traditions are celebrated in myriad street festivals. It's not uncommon to see Limenos dressed up in traditional costumes, brightening up the streets with spectacular dance and music parades. The city is particularly lively on July 28, Independence Day.

From Lima, many tourists travel down to another of Peru's famous sights, the Nazca Lines, a mysterious series of animal and geometric shapes etched across the sun-baked plains of south-coast Peru.

I head instead back into the Andes and to Arequipa, which is, for me, the country's most beautiful city and even more photogenic, I'd argue, than Cusco.

Set against a backdrop of enormous snow-layered volcanoes, Arequipa has one of the most striking plazas on the continent. Dotted with palm trees and fountains, and frequented by pigeons and brass bands, Plaza de Armas is framed by attractive colonial buildings, including the magnificent 17th century cathedral.

Like so much of Arequipa's centre, it was crafted out of sillar, a white rock quarried from the volcanoes.

A few blocks from here is the Santa Catalina monastery and nunnery, a kind of city within a city. Founded in 1580, there are still nuns living here, but once you've paid the 35 sole ($12.50) entrance fee, you're free to stroll around its medina-like alleys.

One of Arequipa's best restaurants, the Gaston Acurio vehicle La Trattoria del Monasterio, is embedded within the monastery and faces diagonally across from another of his eateries, Chicha. Scattered across the city are gourmet cafes serving delicious coffee and cake, bars mixing up Pisco Sours (Peru's tangy national cocktail) and heaps of shops selling alpaca goods

It doesn't pull in the same tourist numbers as Cusco, but Arequipa's booming popularity is reflected in its blooming tour agencies (and touts).

The most popular trip is to Colca Canyon, which is said to be twice as deep as the mighty Grand Canyon in Arizona. It's possible to hike within the canyon for days on end. But I'm content to skirt its edges, take in the region's magnificent pre-Incan terraces, and fossick markets run by indigenous people, who dress in the most vividly colourful and beautifully designed clothes.

The highlight, however, comes at 8am one crisp, sunny morning, when the endangered Andean condors - whose wingspan reaches 3m - soar above the canyon. Unforgettable.

  • fact file *

·For assistance in planning your Peruvian adventure, see the country's helpful official tourist site:

·In Chiclayo, Moche Tours does interesting trips to the various archaeological sites with English guides; mochetourschiclayo.

·For Colca Canyon adventures, try the in-house tour agency of Los Andes B&B, a cosy guesthouse one block from the central plaza; losandes

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