We got in touch with fellow Peru travel fanatic Sam Benson, a lead author of Lonely Planet Peru, to get some inside stories on life as a guide book writer and fill us in on some must-see highlights for a Peru vacation.
LAFL: Can you describe one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences you had while in Peru researching the book?
Sam Benson: For me, it was those long bus trips from the Andes down into the selva (or, jungle) that are the most memorable.
On one of my early research trips to Peru, I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season. Starting from the Andean highlands town of Cusco, those rickety public buses would literally crawl along jagged mountainsides and rollick over waterfalls and nearly flooded-out passes as I held my breath, crossing my fingers that we’d make it to our next destination.
The buses always seemed to be cheerfully overloaded with all kinds of colorful trading goods, from tropical fruit to sweaters, hats and gloves knitted by hand out of llama wool. I could travel through several seasons in just one bus trip, starting out in near-winter conditions in the Andes and ending up in sweltering summer-like weather down in the Amazon.
LAFL: Peru is packed with some pretty well-known attractions but what are your favorite off-the-beaten-track destinations?
SB: For Lonely Planet, I covered the popular “Gringo Trail” route, starting from Lima and traveling down the South Coast, then heading east through Arequipa to Puno & Lake Titicaca, then north to Cuzco and ultimately, Machu Picchu.
But even on this well-beaten track, it was possible to visit rural villages and incredibly scenic natural areas. In the well-traveled Sacred Valley, I had places like the Incan terraces of Moray practically all to myself.
On the South Coast, I remember tasting pisco and wine by myself in the Lunahuaná Valley, a jumping-off point for wild whitewater rafting trips. Outside of Chincha, I took a ghost tour that included the spooky catacombs of a former African slave plantation, Hacienda San José.
Busy Nazca and its mysterious lines in the desert are a must-stop along the Gringo Trail, but there are also dozens of more remote and less-visited ruins from Peru’s ancient cultures that few tourists see, like Cerro Baúl, a royal brewery built by the Wari people, or the funerary towers of Cutimbo, in the Lake Titicaca region, which is dotted with remote isles where traditional villagers offer homestays for adventurous tourists.
LAFL: You must have spent plenty of time in Peru, researching and writing the guide. But how would you advise a traveler with just two weeks to spend their time?
SB: If I had just 2 weeks to spend in Peru, and assuming it was my first time visiting the country, I’d start by making the semi-loop from Lima to Cuzco, taking time to visit villages around the Sacred Valley and making an excursion by train to Machu Picchu or trekking the famous Inca Trail to visit the country’s most-famous ruins.
Then, I’d have to choose between visiting a wildlife lodge and taking a river trip in the Amazon river basin, or flying back to Lima and traveling north to Huaraz, a mountain adventure base-camp, then hitting the beaches and hidden archaeological sites farther up the North Coast toward Ecuador.
LAFL: Is Peru a country you’d recommend for family traveling? Where in particular are good spots to visit with the whole family?
SB: If your children are older (i.e., pre-teens or teenagers) and have a keen sense of adventure, then Peru would be a great destination for your family, especially if you’re interested in outdoor activities, from hiking and trekking to surfing and kayaking. There’s something of an Indiana Jones or Lara Croft allure to Peru, with its archaeological sites, lofty Andean highlands and deep jungle.
LAFL: Where should a budget traveler head for the best bargains?
SB: One of my favorite bargains for traveling in Peru is the city of Arequipa, which many travelers pass right over. It has beautiful historic inns where you can stay overnight for much less than you’d pay in Lima or Cuzco. It’s surprisingly urbane, with impressive educational museums, convivial restaurants and lively nightlife. It’s also a gateway to myriad outdoor adventures, from climbing volcanoes to whitewater rafting or trekking through some of the deepest canyons on Earth.
LAFL: And what about visitors looking for a bit of luxury?
SB: For luxury, look to Lima, the capital city, and also Cuzco, the Andean mountain town that’s a must-see on anyone’s itinerary. In Cuzco, you can splash out on the Hotel Monasterio, which inhabits a 16th-century Jesuit monastery, and where in-room services and amenities extend to supplemental oxygen, should you find yourself needing it at the city’s elevation of nearly 11,000 feet.
LAFL: Finally, are there any insider tips you can offer us that aren’t in the book?
SB: When I write Lonely Planet guidebooks, I put my heart and soul into it. I rarely hold anything back from readers. After all, they’re the best reason why I do what I do for a living! All of my insider tips are already in the book.
Though my best piece of advice is one that readers often ignore. Travelers with an independent spirit and more time on their hands than just your typical two weeks should look into alternative treks to the Machu Picchu. By that I mean not just alternative routes to the crowded Inca Trail, but also trekking routes that visit less-impacted, more pristine Andean peaks — after all, that’s what real adventure is all about.
Catch up with more of Sam Benson’s stories from the road on her blog: www.indietraveler.blogspot.com.
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Matt left England for Peru in 2008, originally planning to stay for just 12 months but ending up settling down in Lima working for Latin America For Less for three fun-packed years. He remains a perpetual traveller, working and writing his way through Europe, North America and Asia but he has always saved a special place in his heart for Peru and South America.