A captivating land of extraordinary biodiversity, peru is rife with serpentine rivers, tropical jungles, sky-scraping mountains and arid coastal deserts. Natural phenomena exist to the extreme—in Arequipa, the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons vie for first place as the deepest on earth; most of the world's highest navigable lake, Titicaca, is within Peruvian territory; and the largest river in the world, the Amazon, originates in Peru. Cities are simultaneously cosmopolitan and colonial, and centuries-old villages remain unfazed in the face of today's fast-paced way of life. And let's not forget the ruins of cities and infrastructures left behind by the industrious Incas who engineered them. They are larger-than-life windows into an ancient world.
Planning a visit to Peru can easily become overwhelming. Simplify things by dividing your travels into geographical territories; I opted to explore the jungles, the Urubamba Valley (a.k.a. the Sacred Valley of the Incas), the city of Cuzco and the Machu Picchu historical sanctuary.
Impatient to disappear into the warm, humid depths of the jungle, a landscape unlike any I'd previously experienced, I kicked off my journey with a visit to Peruvian Amazonia in the southeast. Amazonia, part of one of the planet's largest natural reserves, blankets 60 percent of Peru and is the source of the Amazon River. It was along the meandering Madre de Dios River, an early tributary of the Amazon, where I idled in a motorized boat en route to Tambopata National Reserve for a hike to Lake Sandoval. There was always the hope of glimpsing an elusive river-dwelling caiman. The Madre de Dios is reliable for reaching other sites, too, be they native farms or other ecosystems. I faced my fears of arachnids and heights on a guided nighttime jungle trek and a quarter-mile walk through the Inkaterra Canopy (the canopy is a system of towers and bridges built by a hotel and tour operator in partnership with National Geographic; it snakes through the treetops more than 100 feet above the ground).
The Urubamba Valley
As befitting a place so dramatically varied in topography and climate, I next traveled to the Urubamba Valley. In a landscape dominated by rocky mountains reaching to heavenly heights and sprawling fields punctuated by stick-straight pines and sparkling streams, the air is cold, crisp and dry. My first stop in the valley was the Awanakancha Alpaca Farm, where I hand-fed alfalfa to the the herd, causing a frenzy among the dreadlocked creatures. Just down the road, the village of Pisac is home to an artisans' market that teems with typical Peruvian goods like alpaca sweaters, hats and scarves. Other Urubamba "musts" include a visit to the magnificent, ancient salt mines in the nearby town of Maras, and a descent into the giant, circular agricultural terraces built by the Incas in natural sinkholes on a limestone plateau in Moray overlooking the valley.
The Sacred Valley population largely comprises half-Incan, half-Spanish mestizos who still honor traditional dress and rely on the land for sustenance and income. Note: While capturing snapshots of this local way of life is generally accepted, it's respectful (and often expected) to thank anyone whose photo you snap with a few coins of the local currency, the nuevo sol.
I capped off my morning in Maras and Moray with a lively lunch at Los Tres Keros, where the proprietor and sometime chef Ricardo presents an array of homestyle dishes made with locally grown produce and locally raised meat and fish. Feeling brave? Be sure to try the roasted guinea pig, a Peruvian staple.
The last and most highly anticipated leg of my journey began in the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, where I boarded PeruRail's Vistadome bound for Aguas Calientes, to begin the ascent to Machu Picchu. (Braver souls and die-hard hikers often opt to reach the ruins via the intensive Inca Trail.) Rise around 4 a.m., allowing time for breakfast and the 25-minute bus ride along a series of cutbacks to the ruins. You'll arrive with time to spare before the day's first rays of sunlight break over the massive, mystical ruins, a sight I'll never forget. Crowds are sparse at this time of day. The most iconic images of Machu Picchu include the conical, emerald peak known as Wayna Picchu, or "little mountain," which towers over the ruins; for a breathtaking new perspective, make your way to its base early to be one of the 400 visitors per day who are permitted to hike its trails to the top.