Leisure Advisor Sue Watts embarked upon a ‘Unique Latin America’ journey showcasing the very best of Peru from the vibrant cities of Lima and Cusco, to the cultural treasures of Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, to the heart of the Peruvian Amazon on a Relais & Chateaux Delfin cruise.
Q: Lima is a city experiencing a culinary renaissance and booming restaurant scene. There is a drive to create avant-garde Peruvian dishes and food is a constant topic of conversation among locals. New restaurants are opening on an almost daily basis featuring modern spins on classic dishes. Did you have a favorite local dish?
In Lima seafood is plentiful and fabulous. All the varieties of ceviche are a must. Chicken with yellow pepper sauce is a local favourite ( Aji de Gallina) and a favourite of mine!
Q: Describe the bustling city of Lima and its highlights.
LIMA has some must see areas. Barranco is like the Melbourne equivalent of Fitzroy or Brunswick. Beautiful colonial buildings with lace iron work and stunning feature doors. There are so many restaurants and bars to choose from and countless museums and galleries. Miraflores is upscale like our Toorak but with an ocean setting with stylish, multi-story sea facing apartments, restaurants and upmarket hotels such as the Belmond Miraflores Park. The shopping complex of Larcomar is worth visiting for lunch overlooking the water at Tanta. Be sure to have a quick shop for local brands such as Kuna for alpaca knitwear and Illaria for silver jewellery.
Lima is amazingly clean, all be it dusty due to the desert location and I was surprised at the number of local parks and gardens. The people are warm and friendly.
Q: Talk us through your time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
After an early flight from Lima to Cusco we arrived at El Retablo, a charming 3-star hotel with loads of personality. In order to acclimatise to the altitude we had a quiet afternoon and evening preparing for our adventure, eating light meals, avoiding alcohol and drinking plenty of water.
The next morning we drove from Cusco to the Sacred Valley of the Incas which was full of lush green fields surrounded by striking mountain peaks. Our first stop was Awanakacha to meet some friendly llamas and alpacas.
We were then onto Pisaq market which was an explosion of color and local handicrafts everywhere you looked. We then started an invigorating hike from high altitude to low around the Pisaq agricultural site working up an appetite for a late ‘Pachamanca’ lunch which is a traditional meal cooked under hot stones.
The next day we visited the small town of Lamay followed by a scenic drive into the heart of the Lares Valley. Our first stop was Ancasmarca for a guided tour of this seldom-visited archeological site. Afterwards, our group could visit with the expert textile weavers in the remote village of Choquecancha or a hike amidst turquoise blue lakes and towering peaks to the remote village of Huacahuasi, where both groups met again to spend the night. Huacahuasi Lodge is operated by both Mountain Lodges of Peru and members of the local community through a joint venture aimed at protecting the area’s cultural heritage and natural environment – a partnership that demonstrates the evolving role of traditional Andean communities in both the culture and commerce of modern-day Cusco.
The next day we took a scenic drive to the community of Huilloc. From there, our group could choose from a morning hike from the village of Huilloc to the historic ruins of Pumamarka, or an extended visit to Huilloc and the nearby archaeological site of Marcacocha and participate, along with the local sheep herders, in a traditional Andean ceremony to honor the Inca gods as protection for the health of the community livestock.
We regrouped for lunch and a midday exploration of the Pumamarka ruins. After lunch, we drove to Ollantaytambo and explored the town’s maze-like alleys and passageways and visited a local home.
The next day early we went again to Ollantaytambo for a hike to the lower levels of Pinkuylluna Mountain before touring the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with stone terraces.
Midday, we embarked on a scenic Vistadome train ride (approximately 1.5 hours) along the Urubamba River to the charming town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.
The next day early risers took a pre-tour hike to the Inca storage structures high above Ollantaytambo for a magnificent view of the archaeological site and the adjacent lush Urubamba Valley.
Afterwards, I took a guided exploration of the exalted Inca ceremonial center including its historical context, strategic architectural planning, and mystical attributes. Midday, we embarked on a scenic Vistadome train ride (approximately 1.5 hours) along the Urubamba River to the charming town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.
Q: Then it was time to tackle the iconic Machu Picchu.
Our journey to Machu Picchu began early with a rollicking 25 minute uphill bus ride. Entering the ‘sanctuary’ (as locals refer to it) I was awed by the imposing, skillful architecture of the Watchtower, the Temple of the Sun, and the royal Inca residences, among others. After a two-hour guided tour, I explored on my own, including a hike to Sungate and back for dramatic views that stretch from the Urubamba River Valley to the edge of the Amazon Jungle. Despite the crowds you can’t help be awed the mystical energy of the Machu Picchu.
For those keen enough there is the option to hike up Machu Picchu mountain or Huayna Picchu (tickets must be purchased in advance).
Q: Next it was onto the Amazon and you headed to Iquitos, the gateway of the Upper Peruvian Amazon. What were your impressions of Delfin, your luxury vessel to call home for the next four days.
Exquisite! My Delfin II well-sized suite was equipped with orthopedic beds, pure cotton sheets, pillows of 100% pure natural latex, cotton bathrobes, air conditioning, and a private bathroom with large hot water shower. Floor to ceiling windows allow you to lie in bed to watch the stunning sunrise.
The third deck features an entertainment center for film presentations, as well as extensive literature about the area (fauna, flora, etc.) There is also a completely equipped bar so you can test any combination of regional and international liquors as you enjoy the beautiful Amazonian evenings and the sweet breeze of the rainforest. The bartender will be waiting to serve you with an exotic cocktail made with regional fruits and pisco, the beloved national liquor of Peru.
Chill in the plunge pool to cool off while sipping on a pisco sour watching the Amazon go by.
Q: Delfin is renowned for its skiff adventures along the mighty rivers. Tell us about your explorations along the Samiria River and Yanayacu Pucate and what you discovered floating along.
Our skiffs skimmed the Samiria River and its tributaries, where an abundance of wildlife hides in the deep rainforest, such as blue and yellow macaws, scarlet macaws, toucans, umbrella birds, monkeys, and river otters, capybaras and more. The naturalist and his expert eye pinpoint all the biodiversity of this region. This is also a popular dolphin feeding spot so we weren’t the only ones enjoying the plethora of fish!
We cruised through the Yanayacu and Pucate Rivers peeking into different creeks and lagoons. This is one of the best preserved zones of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. I even went for a swim in the jungle river along with the famous pink dolphins!
Q: Did you go fishing for piranhas?
Although I was there during high water levels which are not considered the best for Piraña fishing, we did manage to catch and release a few of these small fish with very large teeth. I was very happy to meet them on the end of a hook rather than in the water!
After a stunning sunset and dinner we took a short skiff ride to meet a local shaman. She had learned her craft by spending eight years in the jungle living an extremely simple life, even by local standards. She explained how she was a healer in the local community and we learned about Ayahuasca ceremonies and why some choose to drink the hallucinatory tea made from the root that causes severe physical and psychological reactions.