Get off the beaten track with these unorthodox Peruvian experiences, writes Grace Ellis.
1. Huayna Picchu Mountain – Machu Picchu
You’ll probably recognise Huayna Picchu mountain as the tapered peak famously pictured towering in the background of Machu. Although the lost city is Peru’s main attraction, few take the opportunity to see the fortress from above. Only 400 people can hike the jagged hair-raising path to the summit each day. So if you’re up for a challenge and you’ve pre-organised permits, you’ll brave an agonising one-hour climb up stone stairways.
Hugging dangerously-thin cliff edges, and navigating sections with security cables for stability, this dice with death is not for those with a fear of heights. Translating into Young Mountain, this hike is shorter in distance than its mighty counterpart, Machu Picchu or Old Mountain. But you’ll still be weak at the knees once you reach the summit – both in pain and adoration.
At 2700m above sea level, several Inca terraces and temples beautify the mountaintop. Pause for a moment and take in the unparalleled panoramic views of the ancient civilisation and the snow-capped Salkantay. On the descent, visit one of Peru’s best-kept secrets – the Temple of the Moon. Discreetly tucked away in a natural stone cave, exquisite stonework is completed by faultlessly sculpted ceremonial shrines. This temple is entirely worth the detour. Note: Huayna Picchu Mountain is only open during the dry season (May to October) due to safety concerns.
2. Dune buggy and sandboarding – Huacachina
If you’re an adrenaline-junkie, buckle up in a dune buggy and get ready to sandboard your way through southern Peru. The tranquil desert oasis of Huacachina nestles dreamily amongst high waves of wind-swept dunes as far as the eye can see. It’s located five hours south of Lima and migratory birds rest in the emerald Fantasy lagoon, while holidaymakers lounge by the resort pool at happy hour. The serenity is interrupted by thunderous dune buggies battling the surrounding dunes – but if you can’t beat them, join them.
Heading out deep into the Ica desert, this two-hour exploration will have you holding on for dear life. Experienced buggy drivers put the pedal to the metal, up to the pinnacle of each sandbank. Drifting across a golden sea, with wind in your hair and grit in your teeth, the dune buggy comes to a sharp halt. With six hills to sandboard down, going from one extreme to the next, lose your inhibitions and go for it. You may get a mild case of whiplash and sand in every crevice of your body, but you’ll be smiling from ear to ear from start to finish.
3. Uros Floating islands – Puno
Visiting the world’s highest navigable lake should be an essential stop for anyone visiting Peru, but the real genius floats on top of the water. The unique floating islands of Lake Titicaca are a man-made marvel and home to the fascinating indigenous group, the Uros. The tribe has lived on its manufactured island for an estimated 3700 years, predating Incan civilisations.
Initially deciding to live on the lake as a defensive tactic to thwart their enemies, the Uro tribespeople now consider themselves owners of the lake.
To visit this phenomenon, take a short boat ride from the southern city of Puno and savour sweeping views of the glass-like Titicaca. On the island, learn about the intriguing ways in which the Uros have kept their heritage alive, from the strenuous task of constructing balsa boats to the constant maintenance of the island itself. The land chiefly comprises foundations of totora reed roots, layered with dry woven reeds on the surface, while eucalyptus trunks act as an anchor.
Opt for a day-trip or plunge deeper into the culture through a homestay. Experience traditional Peruvian life with meals of guinea pig or fish and feast your eyes on a symphony of colour at sunset in the Uros’ slice of paradise.
4. The boiling river of the Amazon
Deep into the Peruvian Amazon, the peculiar Boiling River flows for 6km and is as wide as a two-lane road. Century-old legends spoke of a boiling river concealed in the jungle, with water so hot it could kill a person. But it wasn’t until 2011 that the myth was proven a non-fiction miracle by Peruvian geoscientist Andres Ruzo.
The temperature is indeed a killer, reaching upwards of 100C in areas. But what makes the bubbling river so unique is that its temperature is not due to a geothermal feature – the nearest volcanic system being 700km away. Although boiling rivers do exist, this is the only river on Earth not controlled by a volcanic system.
This sacred site is also of profound spiritual importance to the tribes who call the river home – the Mayantuyacu and Santuario Huistín healing communities. Those who visit will hike through the rainforest and visit the shamanic plant medicine centres. Guests can have the privilege of participating in a transformative shamanic ceremony. Due to the lack of protection of this ecologically and culturally sensitive land, it is essential to book directly with these groups to support responsible tourism.
5. Cotahuasi Canyon, Arequipa
Those who venture to Peru’s southern city of Arequipa usually flock to Colca Canyon to witness the distinctive Andean Condors taking flight. However, around 200km out of the town, a canyon even more profound than the Colca also deserves recognition: the serene Cotahuasi Canyon offers awe-inspiring landscapes and Inca ruins.
On a trek beginning in the Andes, work your way to the thrashing seas of the Pacific coast, passing the magnificent beauty of one of the world’s deepest canyons – it plunges 3535m. Vertical walls of the wild Cotahuasi valley tower above you.
Stand beneath the cascading Sipia waterfall, cross the Cotahuasi river and visit archaeological remains in the town of Puica. One of the best aspects? Because this hike isn’t as well-known than the Colca canyon, you won’t have to worry about bumping into other hikers along the way. Soak up the glorious surroundings and savour the moment for as long as you can.
LATAM flies from Auckland to Lima, Peru, via Santiago. latam.com