Reading Time: 6 minutesThe history of the Incan empire and Spanish colonialism still runs through Peru’s contemporary urban metropolises
Peru is one of the most talked about destinations on the tourism circuit today. One key reason for the hype is Machu Pichu which, after being declared one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’, has largely contributed to the tourism surge to this South American nation.
However, Peru has a lot more on the menu. Its staggering landscape – from the exotic Amazon rainforests and cliff-faced coastal retreats, to breathtaking peaks of the Andes, steep canyons and alluvial grain producing valleys – is a sanctuary for nature and adventure enthusiasts. It’s also a perfect destination for those who admire pages from the history books that reflect the glories and miseries of past civilisations. All of these are offered on a plate, now accompanied by 21st century conveniences, making an odyssey to Peru easy and comfortable for modern day travellers.
It’s not possible to see and experience all of Peru in one go. For first timers, travel gurus suggest an itinerary covering the capital, Lima, along with sites in the south central region that includes Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
Peru is best known as the heart of the Inca Empire which arrived around the 13th century and established a glorious era of cultural and architectural evolution. Unfortunately, the regime was cut short by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. After some fiery battles, they overpowered the Incas, destroyed almost everything built earlier and over time introduced European-style culture and newer urban architecture. Christianity also walked in with them, resulting in the construction of several grand cathedrals and monasteries throughout the region. Most of them still exist today, though some have been renovated after damage from natural disasters.
Since 1821 Peru has been living as an independent nation with patches of political instability and bloody turmoil in-between.
Incidentally, there were several other dynasties in Peru before the Incas arrived, notable among them being the Chavin, Moche and Chimu cultures, though not much from those eras remain today other than artefacts at the Larco Herrera Museum in Lima.
Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, after founding the city in 1535, nicknamed Lima the ‘City of the Kings’. He subsequently developed the settlement around large squares with wide streets radiating through a fine collection of palaces, churches, grand office buildings and elegant mansions. It became the nucleus of Spanish viceroyalty, encompassing not only Peru but also neighbouring regions of Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile.
Today, this part of the modern metropolis, known as Lima Centro, is where visitors begin their city tour, with Plaza de Armas ranking at the top of the itinerary. The cobblestoned area is brimming with colonial edifices. Architecturally, the most outstanding are the Presidential Palace – where a change of guard ceremony generally takes place daily at noon, the City Hall, a baroque Cathedral with twin towers dominating the skyline, and the adjacent Archbishops Palace. Some of the buildings are painted a striking yellow, which combines with the blue of the sky, green of the grass and the palm trees, and the stone grey from facades of other buildings and pathways, and creates an eye catching colourful pattern.
Embracing this historic quarter lies Lima’s modern operations sprawling between the foothills of the Andes Mountains and the shores of Pacific Ocean. Miraflores is the coastal suburb where the city’s heart beats. This upmarket and trendy area is packed with luxury hotels, shopping malls, bars, and restaurants – anything to meet the needs of the savvy traveller.
The Incan capital Cusco
Nestled majestically in the bell of a highland valley, Cusco, more correctly written and pronounced as “Qosqo”, was the epicentre of Inca’s regal, religious and administrative life. It’s recognised as one of most well preserved settlements in the world, which inspired UNESCO in 1983 to list it as a World Heritage site. Incas used to refer their hub as the “navel of the world”, because when they first entered the domain, it’s said they came across a technologically advanced settlement already inhabiting there. This theory indicates presence of human civilisation in Cusco long before the time of the Incas.
Unlike sprawling Lima, Cusco is a relatively small spread, often compared to Kathmandu in Nepal. The grid-patterned city was built by the Spanish on the remains of Inca temples and palaces, the stone walls of which reflect marvels of engineering.
Although time lapsed wonders await at every turn in the city’s streets and narrow alleyways, visitors are obviously drawn to palaces, museums, churches and some remarkable Inca ruins located just outside the city limits.
If Cusco is the navel of the world, then its Plaza de Armas, is the location of its real foundation. The modern version of this sacred square is a mix of sturdy Inca walls and the architectural genius of the colonists, who also bestowed the place its name. Important churches, including the grandiose La Cathedral which was built in 1538 on what was earlier a key Incan palace, colonial buildings like the City Hall and key museums are all concentrated here. Standing nearby over the ruins of Qoricancha, the Incas main temple dedicated to Sun god, is the Santo Domingo Church and Convent, the city’s Taj Mahal. The square houses several shops, hotels, cafes and restaurants, making it the prime tourist infected zone.
The lost city of Machu Picchu
Regarded as the finest creation of the Incas, Machu Picchu is perhaps also the most cryptic. No one specifically knows what inspired 15th century Inca King Pachacuti to build such a modelled city, at a mountainous location 2400m above sea level, almost 110 km away from his capital Cusco. The ruins suggest it could have been developed for anything from an agricultural centre or an astronomical observatory to a sacred retreat for the Emperor. More enigmatic is not knowing the reason for its early abandonment. Some submit wide spread deaths from small pox to be a possible reason. Maybe these myths and beliefs add fuel to its touristy appeal today. Strangely enough, the site lay hidden from the Spanish and the rest of the world until Yale University Professor Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911, while trekking through the jungle enveloped terrain.
Most visitors are overwhelmed at first sight, struck by the phenomenal union of nature and human endeavour. With imagination wide open, a lost human society comes alive when viewing the countless stone structures perched on the steep mountain slopes. Some of them were ordinary houses, storerooms and baths while others served the purpose of temples, royal abodes and mausoleums. The stonework of each construction surprises everyone as it’s a wonder to see how boulders of multiple dimensions still stand intact, one above the other, after centuries without any cement or mortar holding them together. Some of the canals used for channelling the water from the natural springs to these fields still exist, reflecting the engineering acumen of the Inca people.
The appeal of the Incas extends beyond Machu Picchu into the basin below, known as the Sacred Valley. Edging the Urubamba River, this fertile alluvial land is home to a collection of small settlements like Pisac, Chinchero Calca and Ollantaytambo. Spending some time there offers visitors a glimpse into rural Peruvian life which hasn’t changed much since the Inca period and grants a more holistic view of the Inca civilization. There are Inca leftovers scattered all around the valley, replicating domestic, religious and defensive styles of the time.
Travel notebook PERU
Qantas (www.qantas.com) or LAN Airlines (www.lan.com) via Santiago
Preferred Hotels & Resorts – Casa Andina Private Collection Miraflores in Lima (www.casa-andina.com), Aranwa Cusco Boutique in Cusco and Aranwa Sacred Valley in Sacred Valley (www.aranwahotels.com).
Contours Travel (www.contourstravel.com.au) Call 1300 135 391 for more info.
Highly popular among tourists and locals, Mantra Indian Cuisine (www.mantraperu.com) in Lima is one of the finest Indian restaurant in South America.