Off the Beaten Track Peru

There are places in this world that speak to us like no other; that call us back time and again and hold a piece of our hearts each time we leave. For me, Peru is one of those places. Since my first visit in 2001, I have come to love this country with its warm people, colorful culture and natural beauty. In November of 2019, I returned for my 20th visit, retracing some of my favorite memories and creating new ones while exploring some of the underrated treasures of its southern region.

Access to the lesser visited areas in the south of Peru has been made easier (and far more enjoyable) by the Belmond Andean Explorer, which arrived on the scene a couple of years ago. The luxury sleeper train consists of dining, bar, spa and bedroom carriages with classic vintage design. This provides a more elevated experience than a regular transport train, complete with fine dining, entertainment, cozy amenities, top notch personal service, and adventures along the way.

Setting off from Cusco on the two-night trip, the train gains altitude as it passes through some of the most remote open landscapes in the country. Several stops give passengers the opportunity to get outside and stretch their legs during the journey, including the archaeological site of Raqch’i, the Sumbay Caves, nighttime stargazing, and watching the Andean sunrise.

The highlight of my trip was the day spent on Lake Titicaca, where we visited the floating islands of Uros, and experienced the weaving and dance traditions of beautiful Taquile. Sprinkled between were delicious meals, teatime, music, and an open bar with unique featured drinks. The friendly staff catered to every need and made the experience personal for each guest.

The ultimate destination of the Andean Explorer is the city of Arequipa, but I disembarked early to visit Colca Canyon. I was met at the stop by a private guide and driver who shared this vast region with me over the next couple of days. Colca is one of the largest canyons in the world, with elevations near 16,000 feet at the highest point and descending more than 10,500 feet to the valley below. Alpacas and dry shrubs dot the barren landscape at higher altitudes, flanked by volcanoes that can be seen smoking throughout the day. The river that cuts through the canyon nourishes the Colca Valley and its ancient green terraces. This area is among the best in South America to see the Andean condor, and is home to riverside hot springs, traditional villages, archaeological sites and excellent hiking trails.

From here I finally made my way to Arequipa.  Not often frequented by tourists, this city was a lovely surprise with its colonial architecture, walkable center and scenic plazas. Known as the “White City” for its sillar stone buildings, Arequipa is set at the foreground of El Misti Volcano and offers warm weather year-round to explore its historic sites, lively markets and green parks. The Santa Catalina Monastery, which occupies an entire block, is the city’s crown jewel and not to be missed. With the arrival of the Andean Explorer train and the fabulous new boutique hotel Cirqa, there are many things for a luxury traveler to love about this destination.

From Arequipa I flew to Lima and transferred south by coastal road 4.5 hours to Paracas.  Despite being surrounded by the driest desert on Earth, along Paracas Bay you will find several luxury resorts with palm trees, inviting swimming pools, beach bars and restaurants. I stayed at the Libertador Paracas and found the ocean views and relaxing vibe to be the perfect ending to my adventure-filled trip. From this location I took a private yacht to the Ballestas Islands, a smaller-scale version of the Galapagos with marine wildlife including penguins, sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea birds. I also experienced an overflight of the famed Nazca Lines, giant geoglyphs of unknown origin in the desert representing various animals, plants and other shapes. The nearby Paracas National Reserve additionally offers coastal geology and wildlife, while the “Oasis in the Desert” of Huacachina is the hot spot for dune buggy and sand boarding action.

Peru may be synonymous with Machu Picchu for most people, but this country has much more to offer for  first-time or repeat visitors. The southern region will delight those with a sense of adventure and a desire to get off the beaten path. I loved this trip to Peru just as much as my first… and it definitely won’t be the last!