If Peru were an aisle in a DIY shop (bear with me here), it would be my favourite – the paint section, floor to ceiling with colour swatches displaying just about every colour you can imagine, plus more that you can’t. “Elephant’s breath”, anyone? It really is a rainbow of a country, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the crux of the ancient Incan Empire itself, Cusco – where the buildings, people and even their pet alpacas are a riot of colour.
Every technicolour masterpiece needs a neutral background, however, to fully appreciate its vibrancy, and here Lima – our base for the month – provides exactly that. In the nicest possible way, it’s the magnolia to Cusco’s fully-saturated spectrum. At this time of year, Lima is shrouded by a permanent blanket of grey cloud (lovingly called the “donkey’s belly”) which casts the city in an eerie half-light from dawn til dusk. A rare break-through of sun is a cause for celebration (I think this happened precisely once while I was there). All in all, it’s safe to say it’s not the most inspiring city I’ve lived in. But you know what they say about clouds. This one’s silver lining is two-fold: the food, and the CAT PARK! Yes, you read that right. After months and months of dog-loving cities, Lima has been the first one on our itinerary to put los gatos on the pedestal they deserve, in the form of their very own park. About 100 cats are thought to live in or around Parque Kennedy, looked after by a charity and fed by feline-friendly digital nomads, amongst others. It’s the purrfect place to while away an afternoon (couldn’t resist, sorry…).
But on to Cusco, which couldn’t be more different from Lima’s industrial cityscape. With ancient churches, cobbled streets, bustling craft markets, and clear blue skies ringed by mountain tops, Cusco has more character than you can shake a hiking pole at. We were lucky enough to visit in the run-up to June’s festival of the sun, when Cusco celebrates the winter solstice – meaning spontaneous break-outs of music and dance in the main square were a daily, and wonderful, occurrence. I haven’t often wanted to describe a city as exuberant, but that’s the word that springs to mind for Cusco.
Probably Cusco’s main draw is, of course, Machu Picchu – the world-renowned abandoned Incan city that surely needs no introduction. In fact, it was a picture of Machu Picchu being photobombed by a grinning llama that prompted me to do more travelling in the first place. Nowadays, you can get to Machu Picchu without even breaking a sweat, via a train to its nearest town of Aguas Calientes and then a short bus to the site itself. But where would be the fun in that? So it was that, after three days in Cusco acclimatising to the altitude and panic-buying granola bars and hiking socks, we found ourselves at some ungodly hour in the morning staring down the barrel of the Inca Trail…
Or, as I prefer to call it, the Incamation super-highway. Five hundred years ago, the Incan Empire was huge: it compassed not only Peru and most of Ecuador, but parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. To enable movement of people, goods and information through the Empire, a vast network of roads – amounting to tens of thousands of kilometres of trails – was constructed, stretching all the way from what is now Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the south. The now-famous Inca Trail is but a tiny, 43km long section of that network – still going strong 400 years later. As well as using the roads for llama-powered transport, one of their primary functions was communication – messages were passed from city to city by a relay team of road runners, who either memorised the information or carried it in a complex pattern of knotted threads, ready to be decoded by a specialist interpreter (possibly the first digital to analogue converter?) at the other end. So, essentially an early version of the internet – and fibre-optic broadband at that, given that using this system, according to some sources, the Incas could pass a message from Quito to Cusco (nearly 2000 km) in just five days.
Back to the present day, though, and as we arrived at Machu Picchu some four days, three nights, 43 km and innumerable granola bars later, you could say we fell more into the dial-up modem category. No prizes for speed, liable to break down frequently and prone to making strange noises – but we got there eventually. Arriving shortly after dawn at the Sun Gate high above the ancient city, we were greeted with a majestic view of… clouds. Fortunately (and with a bit of patience) our luck held, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, the mist evaporated to reveal the ruins below us in all their glory. Never has there been such a sight for sore legs. Happily, on reaching Aguas Calientes later that day we found it fully lives up to its name – and knows its client base well – having streets lined with massage parlours and offers of hot showers.
It’s hard to sum up Peru – like that Dulux paint catalogue, there really is something for everyone. I haven’t even been able to touch on all the things we did outside Lima and Cusco, like finding a true oasis in the middle of the desert, sledging down sand-dunes, visiting a winery that felt more like Italy than South America, or helping to build a house in just two days. But without a doubt it has been one of the high points – both literally and metaphorically – of the year so far.