Fresh from his trip to Peru, our South American expert James shares his travel tales and tips for an epic adventure in this incredible country.
If Machu Picchu and the former Inca civilisations represent one of the wonders of the ancient world, then the Amazon surely warrants its place as one of the highlights of the natural world. I am not a nature lover in particular but my experiences in the Amazon have been most rewarding and just visiting here is practically worth the plane ticket alone. For me, the main attractions of the rainforest are the scenic landscape, climate, indigenous population and general tranquillity. The animals are just a bonus. However, when you consider the variety of species of mammal, bird, fish and reptile on offer here, it is impossible not to appreciate and be amazed by the rich variety of fauna. As our guide said, ‘the jungle is not a zoo, we cannot guarantee seeing every animal,’ and true enough, the likelihood of spotting certain creatures will vary according to the high water season (December – May) and low water season (June – November). However, the crew of the Aria know exactly where to go when in order to maximise your chances of viewing the best wildlife.
Monkeys, sloths, pink dolphins, piranha, caiman, anacondas, macaws – this is just some of the wildlife on display and this part of the Amazon seems to have it all. There are two to three excursions per day aboard speedboat canoes or ‘skiffs.’ The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, somehow spotting wildlife in the trees from long distances, making the appropriate jungle calls in order to attract more animals and explaining in detail about every species you come across. These nature experts are brilliant – remaining animated and entertaining throughout every excursion. The quality of service is exceptional and extends to every member of the staff and crew. It is clear that they love their jobs; right from the moment they welcome you on board until their farewell concert, performed with traditional instruments, which concludes the cruise.
But it is the people who live in the jungle that steal the show. It is fascinating to discover how the indigenous tribes exist and you gain a little insight into their daily lives. Although the obvious lack of modern amenities suggests an impoverished lifestyle, these locals do on the whole live reasonably well, provided food remains in abundance and communities stay disease free. These factors will vary according to the season but it is worth remembering that the Amazon is a constant life source of fresh fish and medicinal plants. On our first excursion we encountered some fishermen on paddle canoes who were salting their latest catch in the morning sun. The majority of the fish were very small and it looked like a modest day’s work but suddenly one of the fishermen pulled out a few enormous catfish and proceeded to hack off their razor sharp fins with a machete. This was a great rainforest experience that we were not expecting and one of my favourite moments of the cruise.
Aqua promotes sustainable tourism in a serious way. The guides are eco-conscious and the company operates various schemes to support the indigenous communities. You are able to involve yourself in some of this, by canoeing in their boats, purchasing handicrafts and donating school supplies when you visit a local town. It was also nice to see the on board paramedic offering anti-malarials to a local woman whose husband was ill (it is worth noting that the cruise does not travel in known malaria risk zones and you are unlikely to get many bites, but taking malaria tablets is still advised).
The Amazon was a hard act to follow but no trip to Peru is complete without a visit to its former Inca glories. Cusco is a magnificent city and truly unique in terms of the architecture and its surroundings. It is advisable to travel down to the Sacred Valley upon arrival which is at a lower altitude but I stayed in Cusco for one night and was not affected. You really are spoilt for choice in terms of the number of luxury hotels and every corner of the city seems steeped in history. This is probably the best place to pick up traditional gifts and you will be approached by the odd street vendor but they are not pushy salespeople. I came across an amusing moment when some old ladies dressed in traditional attire were posing for photos with alpacas - suddenly they made a dash down the nearest alley. It turned out they had spotted a police car and clearly this livestock is not permitted in the city. But it was innocent enough and on the whole, cusquenos are just proud to show off their heritage, which is abundant throughout the city's streets, museums and galleries.
Cusco is one of the best places to sample Peruvian cuisine, which if you take Argentine steak out the equation, is the finest in South America. The food is rich and varied, catering for all requirements and tastes. One of the best restaurants in the main square is Limo – serving traditional delicacies and Asian fusion. There is also a highly recommend organic restaurant called Greens just off the main square and a great option for lunch is the MAP cafe, which is part of an art gallery next to La Casona. For the freshest ceviche, it is best to trawl the streets of Lima, where high quality seafood is everywhere – you do not necessarily have to go to the most upmarket restaurants to find it.
After a few days of exploring the cities to scout hotels and eateries, it was nice to escape civilisation again and enjoy the incredible landscapes of the Peruvian great outdoors. On my last day I went on a challenging bike ride through the Sacred Valley, down to the Inca terraces at Moray and finishing at the Maras salt pans. I was a little sore afterwards but it was only an intermediate ride and terrific fun as you practically have huge areas and views to yourselves. Our partners in Peru know every single route like the back of their hand so are happy to tailor-make any bike ride depending on the level of difficulty you prefer, using top of the range equipment. They also offer tons of other activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding and of course plenty of hiking, serving up ‘posh picnics’ to break up the journey. Spare a thought for the adrenaline junkie sales director, who after embarking on the ‘Inca Avalanche’ downhill race, fractured his ankle in two places when falling into a concrete ditch. But fear not, we would not vouch for any excursions of that nature for our clients!
Unfortunately I did not have time to visit Arequipa, the Colca Canyon or Lake Titcaca but to be fair you need at least three weeks to explore the country properly. Overall Peru remains the best destination to get an authentic taste of South America and with the wealth of good value luxury accommodation; there is no need to compromise on the quality of the experience.