practical purposes Peru can be divided into three major regions: the
central Andean highlands, the long, low coastal strip, and
the remote eastern vastness of the Amazon basin. The best-known of these
regions, the Andes, is also home to HuascarÓn, the country's most celebrated
park and South America's premier mountaineering and trekking destination.
The mountains are home to the Andean
condor, Andean geese, puna ibis, and many types of hummingbirds, plus llama,
alpaca, guanaco, vicuna, paramo. Several species of hardy plants also
thrive, including Polylepis,
a small shrub that grows at a higher elevation than any other in the world.
This colorful, picturesque town was once the center of the Inca Empire, and with almost
300,000 residents it remains an important city. Although Qosqo was heavily damaged by the
Spaniards (whose architectural legacy is obvious), the Inca city is still very much in
evidence. Walls, doorways, foundations, arches, and even decorative stonework are found
throughout the city, incorporated into newer structures like fragments of a broken mosaic.
Qosqo also contains some more extensive Inca ruins, including the Temples of the Sun and
the Moon. The city is also the acclimatization point for the celebrated high altitude trek
along the trail of the Incas.
The Inca Trail & Machu Piccu
This 3-5 day journey is widely considered to be the most spectacular trekking experience
on the continent. Its route passes through a 13,000-foot Andean pass beyond which lie some
of the most astounding artifacts of the Inca civilization. Most of these attractions,
unlike the majority of large pre- Columbian structures, lay completely undisturbed for
hundreds of years, and much of the trek's fascination is imparted by the sensation of
trekking into a region sealed off from time. Starting with the sentry post of Runkuraqay,
hikers pass through increasingly splendid ruins, surrounded all the while by ice- capped
mountains and forests.
The trail ends at the astonishingly well-preserved sacred city of Machu Picchu,
having retraced the route by which the Incas themselves ascended to this
ceremonial centre. Gazing across the ruins, with its perfectly set
stairways, dwellings, fountains and still functional aqueducts, is a haunting
experience; so intact is the city that at times it
seems its residents have only recently walked away. How Machu Picchu's legecy
ended is a great mystery. It was once filled with priests, artisans, and
the mamacunas, a group of
select virgins who dedicated their lives to the sun god. The Spanish have
no records of the city, and when it was rediscovered in 1911, its walls overrun
by the nearby jungle,
only 173 skeletons were found on the site.
Parque Nacional HuascarÓn
Far to the north of Lima, this park occupies a one-hundred mile stretch of
the Cordillera Blanca, an area of the Andes that is renowned as one of the
most exciting trekking regions
of South America. Part of the reason for this excitement is the area's incredible
concentration of dramatic, snow-capped mountains --more than twenty-five
of its peaks exceed 19,500 feet. The center of trekking activity
in the park, and in its surrounding region, is the modest city of HuarÓz. Treks of all sorts, for
beginners as well as for experts, and lasting anywhere from one day to ten, are easily
arranged. HuascarÓn, Peru's tallest mountain at 22,200 feet, is the centerpiece
of the park and is a challenging and celebrated mountaineering destination.
In the southern
section of the park is found the Puya, or Cunco, one of the world's most
fascinating plants. A living fossil, the Puya is an enormous bromeliad thought
to have first grown in
the low swamps that occupied the area long before the Andes were formed.
As the mountains grew, over countless millenia, the puya grew with them,
evolving into enormous,
thirty-foot high, tree-like denizens of the high Andes. They are dramatic
plants, bursting into bloom with an enormous spike that bears up to 8,000
brilliant green blossoms. The
thorny leaves that crown the puya are requently strewn with the impaled carcasses
of inattentive songbirds.
Arequipa is Peru's second largest city, the major city of the southern part of the
country, and, in the minds of its proud residents, virtually an independent city-state. It
is also known as the white city, as much of its architecture is con- structed of sillar, a
light-coloured volcanic rock. Arequipa lies in a picturesque valley fringed by beautiful
mountains, includ- ing the snowcapped volcanic cone of El Misti. The area is noted for
high seismic activity, which has been sufficiently frequent to erase all of Arequipa's
earliest structures. Although evidence of pre- Columbian settlement exists, even the
buildings erected by the 'founding' Spaniards in 1540 have long since disappeared.
However, if Arequipa has lost its very earliest buildings, it still enjoys an abundance of
very fine seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings. The most notable of these is the
Convent of Santa Catalina, which when opened to the public in 1970 revealed a world of
luxurious seclusion that had been sealed off from the world for almost four centuries.
To this day, there is no agreement as to whether Colca Canyon is the deepest terrestrial
chasm in the world, but no one challenges the fact that it is one of nature's most
awe-inspiring sights. Standing on the canyon's edge, the great expanse of space overwhelms
the senses, commanding respect for nature's creative forces. Carved over eons by the Colca
River, it stretches about 60 kilometers from its eastern extremity at the town of Chivay
to Cabanaconde, in the west. By the time the river reaches Cabanaconde, it has fallen
about 1,300 meters in elevation.
Though the canyon received surprisingly little attention from western explorers until this
century, it was well-known even before the Incas. In some places, stone-supported terraces
built by the Incas and their predecessors trickle down the canyon slopes, many of them
still functional. Small towns and villages sit atop the canyon banks on both sides,
beginning with Chivay, which is known for its hot springs and as the main portal for
exploring the chasm. Moving west on the canyon's southern edge, travellers encounter the
villages of Achoma and Maca, where local women wear intricate and colourful mountain
dresses identical to those of their ancestors. At the nearby Mirador ruz del Condor,
visitors are often blessed with visions of rare, giant Andean condors as they ride the
morning thermals rising from the canyon floor.
Trekking in the Colca Canyon
The nine villages lining the edges of the canyon provide trekkers with a host of
connect-the-dots routes, allowing for a great deal of improvisation in one's itinerary.
There are numerous points of descent into the canyon, though their accessibility often
depends upon the amount of rainfall. When travel ing in the canyon, it is essential that
trekkers bring plenty of water, as dehydration can occur rapidly here.
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