Maybe you’ve seen the photos coming out of Peru over the last week or two: raging rivers, washed-out bridges, mud-buckled railroad lines, and tourists being airlifted from under the shadow of Machu Picchu in the town of Aguas Calientes.
We’re here to suggest — despite it all — that you keep Peru on (or consider adding it to) your travel bucket list.
Thousands of people earn their livelihoods by way of the tourism industry in and around Cusco and Machu Picchu. They work as guides, porters, and hotel staff; they are weavers and craft vendors.
With the latest wave of rain-driven natural disasters, locals have suffered plenty. The last thing they need is a fear-driven tourist drought to take away what few jobs they had, making it even more difficult to provide for their families.
We understand that tugging at heartstrings may not convince you to visit Peru anytime soon, but maybe our experiences and photos will.
The not-so-well known in Peru
There’s certainly more to Peru than just Machu Picchu.
Chachapoyas and Kuelap
Don’t let the endless bus rides full of sheer cliffs scare you away from the northern Peruvian town of Chachapoyas. The town itself is pleasant and the nearby pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap, with their circular stone buildings, are worth a side trip.
After all, everyone has heard of the Incas. But who were the folks in the region before them? Archeological theories abound as to why buildings were circular, but the reality is that no one really knows (our guide was quite honest about this speculation, thankfully). It all adds to the mystique of the 1000 year-old mountaintop citadel.
In the town of Chachapoyas, the friendliness of vendors and the abundance of fruit at the central market is surprising. There’s even some street food! Don’t forget to try the black olives — delicious and absurdly inexpensive.
There’s something about the not-too-thin air of mid-alpine colonial Cajamarca. People are friendly, dairy products like manjar blanco, dulce de leche and cheese are likely some of the country’s best, and the indigenous head wear appear carved from giant loaves of white bread.
Because Cajamarca is a university town, cultural events are frequent. You might even be lucky enough to catch an international folk dance festival during your visit.
Or more pedestrian concerns may draw you to avail yourself of one of the best and cheapest haircuts on the planet.
Many people dislike Lima; they minimize their time there or often avoid it altogether. The biggest thing going against Lima is the weather: a chronically gray perma-drizzle. But in Lima’s defense, it’s actually a nice place to visit.
We are convinced that Lima’s poor reputation has this has to do with the neighborhood where most travelers choose to stay: Miraflores.
While Central Lima is a bit down-at-the-heels, Miraflores is downright soulless. Do yourself a favor and stay in Barranco, a neighborhood a little further out from the center than Miraflores, but one with an abundance of independent restaurants, cool graffiti and an air of an artists’ community.
Most importantly, a visit to Lima is worth it for the eating experiences alone.
Interested in someplace without any tourists where you can get a feel for indigenous Andean Peru? If so, Huancavelica is the place for you.
We found ourselves there for a photography project and saw only one other traveler in the course of a week. The town itself is relatively small, but you can head out into the surrounding hills and villages for some visually spectacular walks. Although the region has been affected by the recent heavy rains, we've been told that the damage hasn't been on the scale of that seen in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
The well known in Peru
We didn’t take excursions to the Sacred Valley or buy entry into the various churches or museums. Instead, we used our time in Cusco to acclimatize, look for a trek to Machu Picchu, and walk the city. We also hung out on the main square on Sunday to talk with handicraft vendors and take in a parade marched by local military, school and hospital staff.
If the hawkers in Cusco's main square drive you mad, consider taking a walk up into the hills of Cusco where ordinary people make their way.
Note: On the first Sunday of every month, a corner of the main square Plaza de Armas fills with indigenous crafts vendors from around the surrounding hills. The vendors are decked out in their colorful indigenous dress. If you get up early enough, you'll have a chance to not only check out their wares without the crowds, but you'll also enjoy a bit of conversation with the vendors about where they come from and how they acquired their skills. They are exceptionally friendly and are happy to talk about their crafts and the techniques they use.
As one vendor explained, “We like this market since we can sell directly to the customer instead of having to sell through shops. We make more for our families and the customer pays less. Good for everyone.”
How can you argue with that?
Machu Picchu and the Salkantay Trek
The granddaddy of sights in Peru, Machu Picchu makes the bucket list of many. And for good reason.
If you haven't already, check out the full story of our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu in which we document our entire journey.
So don't let pictures of Peru's floods scare you away; keep it on the list.
And when you build your Peru itinerary, keep in mind that it's a big country. Throw in an exploration or two beyond the main tourist sights.