Too many travelers land in Peru with only one thing on their mind: Machu Picchu. If you’ve come to the country with the sole purpose of crossing the Lost City of the Incas off your bucket list, then do what you must. But if you’re at all interested in Peru’s diverse and rich culture, don’t skip out on some other once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Base your trip around the exploits below and you’ll have real bragging rights when you return home.
Visit an Indigenous Community: La Tierra de los Yachaqs (The land of the Wise), a community-based tourism project, can connect visitors with people who knit Peru’s distinctive fabrics (pictured above), harvest food using traditional tools, create belts and wallets out of plants, or make cuisine based on ancient practices. Through the program, there’s also an opportunity to spend six hours walking a route between two Andean communities, the Amaru and Chumpe. Programs are offered both as daytime activities and as overnight homestays, and most communities are located just one hour from Cusco.
Eat Like a Local: From food-on-a-stick snagged at street stalls to culinary masterpieces presented on white plates, Peru’s culinary scene is full of flavor. Dining at local restaurants is not only affordable, but can open your eyes to varieties of quinoa, corn and potatoes that you never knew existed. If you’re daring, you might even find you like cultural delicacies such as alpaca steak or roasted guinea pig.
Explore Peru’s Markets: Peru’s artisanal and food markets are filled to the brim with great buys. At artisanal markets – including the enormous market in Cusco – you’ll find high quality handicrafts like scarves, pullovers, tapestries, sculptures, carvings, jewelry, musical instruments, purses and more. Buying these handicrafts not only supports the use of traditional skills, but it also helps families gain what is most likely a modest income. Produce and food markets such as Lima‘s crowded Mercado Central (Central Market), walking distance from the central Plaza Mayor and adjacent to Chinatown, offer a taste of what life is like for locals. Take in the sites and smells, chat with a vendor or crack open an exotic fruit such as the delicious cherimoya, which tastes like a mix between pear and pineapple.
Plan Your Trip Around a Holiday or Festival: If you’re looking to experience something truly novel, plan your trip to Peru around Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) or Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun). Both holidays mix pre-Columbian and colonial traditions, such as the carrying of saints and virgins on platforms at Corpus Christi, a tradition born out of the ancient ritual of bolstering mummies in a similar fashion at festivals. Inti Raymi, once the most important Inca celebration, involves a procession and ritual reenactments (plus colorful costumes, music, food and plenty of dancing). Although both of these are celebrated throughout the country, particularly in the Andean highlands, Cusco is known for having some of the best festivities.
Celebrate Peruvian Traditions: Beyond festivals, there are several other ways to become immersed in Peru’s cultural traditions. The family-owned Sumaq Hotel, located in Aguas Calientes (the stepping off point for Machu Picchu), offers an emblematic culinary tradition called pachamanca, meaning “earthen pot,” that dates back to the time of the Incas. Meat, potatoes, beans, yams and corn are marinated in special spices and then placed on hot stones and covered with earth for 2-3 hours. At the hotel, visitors can also take advantage of a local shaman, who can read your fortune from coca leaves or ask pachamama to make your deepest wishes come true in a mystical ceremony. The shaman, whose name is Wilco, is also available if visitors would like to become spiritually married (or have a spiritual vow renewal ceremony).
Take a History or Culture Tour: Making sense of large cities like Lima or deciphering the meaning behind Inca ruins is far from easy. To make sure you don’t miss anything, particularly if you don’t have a whole lot of time on the ground, consider hiring a guide. These experts can ensure you don’t stare at a pile of rocks with a blank look on your face, and instead understand the various meanings behind the structures. Guides tend to be flexible and open to any questions you might have, and in many cases are willing to cater tours based on your interests. From guided airport transfers to eight-day excursions, companies such as Gray Line and Viajes Pacifico employ locals and do all the planning for you, making it a less confusing and more educational experience.
[All photos by Libby Zay]