the elevated issue
Incas, shamans and sacred lakes in Peru
“ After seeing the ruins at Machu Picchu, the fabulous cultures of antiquity seemed to be made of cardboard, papier-mâché…” When Pablo Neruda visited Machu Picchu in 1954, very few foreigners had made the pilgrimage to this spectacularly isolated site.
Today, the lost city of the Incas — a vast stone citadel, built without the aid of wheels, iron tools, or mortar— is one of the seven wonders of the world. And it’s so popular that visitor numbers are restricted. Watching the sun rise over this man-made marvel is still an unforgettable experience.
Just thirty miles south – and overlooked by most travellers – is the Sacred Valley, once the spiritual heart of the Inca empire. Ancient ruins lie scattered among the corn fields and quinoa terraces, framed by snow-frosted peaks. Enjoy the Andes without the crowds from the observation car of the opulent Hiram Bingham train, with a delicious fusion of Peruvian flavours served on board.
In Amaru village, locals in brightly tasselled clothes will greet you with music and flowers, a symbolic offering to Pachamanca, or Mother Earth, to thank her for the opportunity to share their culture with you. Watch them dye and weave their colourful textiles, whose intricate patterns have symbolic significance, an ancestral tradition that has survived for centuries.
More authentic experiences abound in Cuzco, one of the most beautiful and oldest towns in South America. Stroll through the pedestrianised centre, marvelling at the cathedrals, palaces, and street markets in what was once considered the navel of the earth. Or head out of town for a picnic at Tipon, a little-known Inca complex with stupendous views. Tipon is also the capital of cuy (roasted guinea pig served on a skewer), a local speciality worth trying, if you dare.
If you want to travel deep outside your comfort zone, head to a rainforest lodge in the Amazon. Discover the healing properties of native trees and berries, or have your fortune read in coca leaves by a local shaman. But no trip to Peru would be complete without visiting sacred Lake Titicaca, the birthplace of the sun, according to local lore.
The largest lake in South America and the highest navigable waterway in the world, it’s a mesmerising spot for birdwatching or biking along the reed-lined shore. Go paddle boarding, kayaking, or sail out to meet the Uros tribe, or ‘people of the lake’. They weave everything out of reeds, from their tiny beds, boats, and homes, to the floating islands on which they live.