Guest Travel Blog by Antonia Ong
Treasured by the ancient Inca civilization, Alpacas' fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty, and provided clothing, food, fuel and companionship as domesticated animals in the highlands of Peru.
For most, Peru would be synonymous with Machu Picchu. But Peru is more than just all-things-Inca.
As South America’s third largest country, Peru is also one of the world’s most geographically and biologically diverse countries in the world. In fact, this diversity has not only attracted culture and adventure seekers, but also food lovers as an epicenter of gastronomic travel.
First Stop: Lima
The city of Lima – what was once a gateway for travelers to Peru, who quickly zips off to the Amazon or Machu Picchu after a quick stop, is now increasingly also the first “door” you open to Peruvian food culture.
In recent years, Lima has experienced an explosion in the number of food tours, cookery classes, and restaurants. In fact, Central in Lima topped The World’s Best Restaurant 2023.
All these is not surprising considering that Peru is an important center for the genetic diversity of the world’s crops.
Peru is considered an important center for the genetic diversity of the world's crops. Did you know that many varieties of potato are native to the Andes mountains, and that over 4,000 varieties of potato can be found in Peru?
So, if you are a foodie – as most Singaporeans are – what should you not miss in Lima?
§ Make reservations at Central right after you book your air tickets! I did not and I do massively regret it. If you don’t manage to get a spot, there are also many other great restaurants in the Miraflores district.
§ Get a bowl of ceviche, especially since you’re right by the Pacific Ocean! Followed by a pisco sour – the national drink of Peru!
§ Snack on picarones, a yummy Peruvian donut of squash and sweet potato drizzled with molasses, as you stroll about in Alameda de Chabuca Granda.
§ Check out the range of local produce in Mercado NO1 de Surquillo.
Street vendor frying up a batch of picarones.
Second Stop: Head into the Amazon Jungle
Spanning a mind-blowing 5.5 million square kilometers, the Amazon is the largest rain forest on the face of the Earth. It is also home to as many as 40,000 species of plants, several thousand species of birds, over 400 mammals and 2.5 million different insects.
Despite its vastness, the weather conditions in the Amazon do not really vary between seasons – expect it to be hot and humid – and can be visited all year round.
Large and brightly colored macaws are the symbol of the Amazon rainforest.
While the Amazon spans nine different South American countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, I visited the Peruvian side of this rainforest by flying to Puerto Maldonado. Joining an escorted group tour is an easy way to visit the Amazon, although you can choose to DIY it yourself or book an all-inclusive resort.
I stayed at the Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion, a 380 hectare-private ecological reserve which focused on the conservation of local habitats and features 25 private cabanas plus an on-site team of expert local guides that took us on jungle walks and river cruises – both in the day and night to experience the Amazon differently.
Our very comfortable private cabanas nestled in the Amazon rainforest.
While the private cabanas and delicious meals served each day using local ingredients provided rustic luxury, the reality is that one is still in the Amazon. So, the air-conditioning that we are so used to are non-existent, WIFI is less reliable, and electricity supply stops before midnight – mainly because these are powered by generators and the property chooses to “return” the rainforest to the wildlife at night.
So, here’s some packing tips to ensure that you enjoy your time in the Amazon:
§ Lightweight, and moisture-wicking clothing in neutral colors to stay comfortable.
§ High factor sunscreen and a hat as there is a risk of sunburn even though you may be under the canopy of the rainforest.
§ Mosquito repellant (with DEET) regardless of the season that you are visiting.
§ A pair of binoculars and a head torch/torch light to get a closer look at the amazing Amazonian wildlife.
Third Stop: Cusco
A stop in Cusco, or Cuzco, is often part of your journey to the far-flung ruins of Machu Picchu, the Scared Valley of the Incas, and other Inca sites in the region. But don’t dismiss Cusco as just a stopover.
Masses gather at the Plaza de Armas del Cusco (Cusco Main Square) for the Corpus Christi celebrations.
A fascinating city that was the capital of the Inca Empire and one of South America’s oldest city, there are many things to do and see in this UNESCO World Heritage site: the Cusco Cathedral built on top of an Incan palace, Coricancha Temple which was once the most important temple in the Inca empire, San Pedro market, and the Plaza de Armas are just some spots.
If you can pick when you visit Cusco, I recommend you do so the weeks leading up to Corpus Christi - a Roman Catholic holiday celebrated throughout the Christian world 9 weeks after Easter. In Peru, the largest Corpus Christi celebration takes place in Cusco. Though festivities begin weeks before, the main fiesta is held on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday.
The devout carrying the effigies of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary through the streets of Cusco.
I was fortunate to be in Cusco during this period and each day there are different celebrations as masses take to the streets to watch elaborate effigies of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary parade, or fancy garb and talented dancers and musicians party their way through the town.
Fourth Stop: Machu Picchu
The bucket list for many of you will have to be Machu Picchu, often referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas". There is so much you can read about this most familiar icon of the Inca Empire so I would not go into details.
Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel, saddled between the two mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.
However, there are different ways you can experience Machu Picchu, and this is what I will spend some time on.
Two key questions you want to ask yourself are how much time you have and your physical fitness. This is because the two main ways you can get to Machu Picchu are to train/bus it or trek.
§ Train: There are two train companies to choose from: Inca Rail and Peru Rail. All offer comfortable passage on different types of trains — including ones designed with panoramic windows for an additional fee. Perurail has: Vistadome, Expedition, Sacred Valley and the Belmond Hiram Bingham train which is luxury train. Incarail has: The Vogaver, The 360, The First Class and The Private. Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months.
§ Trek: The other way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to walk. The most popular trek is the classic 4-day Inca Trail, which follows original trails that the Inca’s would have taken from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. If you choose to do this, booking early is critical as the trail is limited to 500 trekkers a day (300 of which are earmarked for porters and guides). Shorter variants include the Short Inca Trail and the Salkantay / Inca Combo trek.
There is actually a third option – which is to train and trek, where you can take the train from Ollantaytambo station to Aguas Calientes station, and from there trek a few hours of the Inca Trail (depending on your fitness) to Machu Picchu.
For those who want to visit the Sun Gate, this last option is something you may want to consider as under the new regulations, the only way to access the Sun Gate is via the Inca Trail Trek. In addition to either your train tickets or trek permit, you will need to book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu. There are several types of entrances tickets, with the most popular ticket being the Machu Picchu Standard ticket which currently is limited to 3,000 tickets each day with 4 different circuits.
Whichever way you choose to visit Machu Picchu, planning and booking early. Afterall it receives about 5,000 tourists every day.
About Antonia Ong
After over 20 years living the corporate life as a marketing, communications, and philanthropy professional mainly for technology and professional services organizations, Antonia Ong is enjoying her “gap year” experiencing local cultures. An avid traveler, she has just returned from Central and South Americas and will be embarking on her next adventure – a two-month overland camping trip to Africa.