Machu Picchu Was Awesome... But What About The Rest of Southern Peru?
Many people I meet, since my Machu Picchu trek in May, are shocked when I go on and on about praising all the great non-Machu Picchu attractions in Peru. As if they had no idea Peru was good for anything else... Culinary capital of Latin America? Yes. Beautiful housing? Yes. Adventures of a lifetime? Yes!
So I made a list of the things you will MISS if you only focus on crossing Machu Picchu off your bucket list. There is so much more than that! And while the experience is well worth going on and on about (because, well, it's Machu frickin' Picchu), here are 5 amazing things about southern Peru that you probably had no idea existed:
1. Gastronomic heaven in Lima
According to The World's 50 Best, of the top 50 restaurants, Lima is home to three highly acclaimed culinary gold mines, placing at numbers 4, 14, and 44 as of 2015. Alex and I were lucky enough to dine in two of them, enjoying a full tasting menu at #4's Central and going buck wild crazy ordering everything on the menu at #44's Maido.
What's even better: these high end restaurants are SO INEXPENSIVE compared to our own. The tasting menus at Central (the top restaurant in South America) were $100 per person (it was our anniversary so we splurged beyond our nomad budget); and we spent only $70 TOTAL (including wine and non stop ordering) at Maido.
I actually enjoyed Maido more than Central, but they were two very different experiences so it's hard to compare.
Other favorite that our wonderful AirBnB host suggested were a series of ceviche hotspots, including this awesome cebicheria called "La Mar". Let's just say, non stop oysters and goodness left us wishing for a doggy bag but feeling too ashamed to ask... so we scarfed it all down, instead. :-)
2. Hidden Slave Tunnels
At one point in South America, I felt like I was losing my mind. We participated in lots of free day tours, and NO ONE ever talked about the negative events that occurred in each respective country's history: the issue of slavery. They praised the Spanish invasion because it "brought them religion" and totally ignored (or were oblivious) to any questions regarding slaves. But slavery WAS prevalent, even if not as large as the Atlantic trade. The coastlines of Peru (Lima vicinity) all had slaves coming down via Cuba and then overland through Panama. These were round-two slaves, so to speak. (read more on the history here, if you're feeling intrigued)
Anyway, I digress. The point is, when I learned that there was a special bus called Peru Hop that transported you to the site of old, hidden slave tunnels (along with other exciting activities), I was floored. Was I wrong the whole time? Just unlucky to meet every person who did not know about the slaves? There were clearly people who knew and cared to share the information. I had to be a part of it.
I joined the bus and we visited 17th Century underground slave tunnels. These tunnels were built under a Spanish Hacienda to smuggle slaves and avoid paying taxes on each slave and only discovered after a major earthquake in 2007.
There are over 10 miles (17km+) of tunnel leading towards the coastline and we were able to enter sections of it (under the house) to observe the suffocating quarters they all lived in.
This tour is chilling and informative, and included in the bus ticket price.
3. Sandboarding in the Desert
While on the topic of Peru Hop, another one of the many tours "off the beaten path" that we fell in love with was the desert oasis in Huacachina. Huacachina is a dying oasis (I heard they are now trying to pump water into it to keep it going) and a sh*tshow of awesome.
The town itself is extremely tiny (a few blocks) but it's dunebuggy culture is crazy exciting. Locals hang out in the desert dunes as if it is the park, and I even got a chance to participate in a bonfire the night I visited. During the day, you can signup for sand boarding for ridiculously cheap, and hop on a dunebuggy for about 2 hours of intense dune jumps and sandy wipeouts.
Here's a video of Alex killing it. I, on the other hand, went down on my belly. Nope, nope, and nope.
4. Cotahuasi Canyon
Never heard of it?
Near Arequipa (a beautiful city and Peru Hop bus stop) is lovely Colca Canyon, the popular Peruvian canyon twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
What most people don't know, is that even more off the beaten path is the even larger Cotahuasi Canyon! Cotahuasi is actually the deepest canyon in the world, but a lot more difficult to reach.
If you are an extreme thrill-seeking adventurer, you might want to give this one a try - but it won't be an easy one. Its remote road is quite difficult to tackle and the trek is not frequently attempted.
For all other adventurers, Colca Canyon (only 170m less deep than Cotahuasi) is exciting, challenging, and offers the opportunity to explore the indigenous culture and traditions that still weaves their way throughout the remaining villages along the canyon's terraces.
Choquequirao, located in the Vilcabamba mountain range and similar in architecture to Machu Picchu (yet way less traveled), is a challenging trek that brings you history, beauty, and solitude. Read more about the Choquequirao Trek routes and how to get there with and without a guide.
5. Impressive Housing In Different Styles
Most people who have never been to Peru truly think it is only covered with mud huts for homes. Quite the contrary! The housing in Peru differs so drastically! Just think of your own country and the different levels of wealth and extreme poverty.
I've even encountered people who say, "I don't want to go to Peru, it will be all dirty and someone will rob me". Our ignorance and fear is what keeps us from seeing how beautiful (or sad) the world can be. There are actually very talented Peruvian architects and lots of beautiful housing through the country!
Take for example the loft Airbnb I stayed in Miraflores, Lima. The industrial style and open concept was designed by a Peruvian architect! The whole neighborhood, in fact, was impressively well kept and aesthetically jaw dropping -- much nicer than New York City, that's for sure!
Okay, yes, Miraflores is a wealthy area... but what about Cusco? Cusco feeds off of tourism, but its homes stay true to the culture and combine modern accents with traditional design.
This Airbnb I stayed at had a village courtyard feel and low ceilings in certain parts of the room, reminiscent of the traditional mountain homes up in the Andean villages. The color scheme embraced vibrant orange and blues and the ceiling still featured log covering. In the mornings we could smell fresh bread being made nearby and like the locals, we had to take narrow paths to get to main areas.
Along the way we befriended families who had small shops and once, when feeling the altitude sickness, a restauranteur got his wife upstairs to make me their special soup, which immediately relieved my nausea. I never asked what is was...
I've met veteran South America travelers who 1. had no idea slavery went beyond Cuba and Panama (besides Brazil) and 2. have heard stories of Huacachina but could never find a safe or easy way to get there. I just knew the ignorance stemmed from the (merited) hype around Machu Picchu.
While in Peru, I joined Peru Hop to take safe routes that would let us experience many of these attractions. I worked with the bus to give an honest review of their services and the attractions, and even hosted a giveaway over the summer. They are truly the best way to enjoy southern Peru (instead of just flying into Cusco) and I want to share the information about these missed sites to give travelers the best chance they've got at seeing the world, not just what ends up in CN Traveler (or whatever it is you kids are reading these days).