Insider tips from Footprint Editor Ben Box
First published in 1924, the South American Handbook by Footprint is well regarded as the ultimate travel guide to South America and commonly referred to as the Traveler’s Bible. Ben Box has been the editor for the last 20 years and was kind enough to give us his tips on Peru and travel advice in general.
LAFL: We are getting more and more requests from clients looking for niche travel experiences. As a guidebook writer, how do you manage to blend information for travelers with special interests into the books?
Ben Box: The South American Handbook and its sister publications on the individual countries of the continent have always tried to give as broad a choice as possible to readers. The publishers have always respected the fact that people travel with a variety of motives and interests so in some ways it has not been too difficult to include special interests with general traveling information.
Originally the areas covered were limited to culture, trekking, cycling and motorbiking, things like that. But in recent years the variety of special interests has grown enormously, especially in areas like birdwatching and other aspects of nature tourism. Cycling has turned into mountain-biking, and so on. And even though the number of activities that people want to do has grown, the size of the books has not, unfortunately. Consequently, it is less easy to go into every detail than to fit in all that’s on offer. So it is more a question of pointing people in the right direction.
LAFL: What do you think is the most overlooked destination in Peru that should be on travelers’ itineraries?
Ben Box: Is anywhere overlooked in Peru now? So many people are going there that it’s hard to say that anywhere is neglected. Having said that, some places receive many, many more visitors than others. Lima, obviously, has its fair share of visitors because all flights arrive and leave from there. Most people head for Miraflores, San Isidro and Barranco, but the colonial center, ignored for a long time, is now getting a facelift and is worth a visit.
Almost everyone goes to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, branching out from there to the jungle at Manu and Tambopata, Arequipa, Lake Titicaca and Nazca on the southern circuit. Northern Peru is growing in popularity, especially now that the tourist authorities are promoting the archaeological sites of Trujillo, Chiclayo and Chachapoyas, together with the great birdwatching to be had on routes down from the Andes to Moyobamba and Tarapoto.
A few years ago I would have encouraged visitors to go north, and I still would, but it’s not overlooked now. Two places I would suggest from my own experience are Ayacucho and the Yauyos. Neither is technically “overlooked” but destinations with a future in tourism yet to be realized.
Ayacucho got a very bad name when Sendero Luminoso was most active in the 1990s, but all that is past and it is a pleasant colonial city with plenty of good excursions. Its Holy Week processions are famous. Road access is improving and there are now flights to Cusco.
The Yauyos are the valleys that rise from Cañete, just south of Lima, to Huancayo in the Central Highlands. There is stunning scenery in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Reserve, miles of pre-Columbian agricultural terracing, culturally fascinating villages where ancient languages are spoken and a way of life quite remote from the main tourist routes.
LAFL: If your best friend was visiting Peru for the first time, what are the three things you would tell him he absolutely must do, see, or taste?
1 Even though it is the most popular destination, I still think Cusco and the Sacred Valley takes some beating as a place to go for history, archaeology, scenery, fiestas, good hotels and restaurants in all categories. And if it is my friend’s first visit to Peru, then it is a must. Just don’t come away thinking “Now I have seen Peru” because you won’t have.
2 Take at least one road from the coast to the Andes, or the jungle to the Andes (or from the Andes down to the lowlands, east or west) in order to appreciate all the different geographical zones, the wildlife, the changing scenery and the different customs of the regions.
3 Eat a good ceviche – the most typical dish of Peru. Make sure it is absolutely fresh, too.
LAFL: You are clearly an expert on traveling through South America. Have you ever been completely lost and had an incredible experience as a result?
Ben Box: The short answer is No! That is: No, I have never been completely lost – but I have had some incredible experiences. I suppose that’s because I have always had a good guidebook to hand!
On the other hand once or twice I have wandered into places that caution would have advised me not to go, such as a district of Georgetown, Guyana, which is patently unsafe. All that happened was that I had an uneasy conversation with a resident from which I managed to drag myself before anything sinister happened. That was noted down as experience with a capital E, but by no means incredible.
I have also been fortunate in that I have made a great many friends in many places who have told me where to go and what to do in safety. The other thing is that when I travel I am very much on a mission, to update the book, rather than to venture into the unknown. Of course, there is always an element of trying to find things that will be new for the book, but above all the prime reason for traveling is to make sure that the information provided is as accurate as possible. That means treading the beaten path, book in hand, checking that what I said before is still true.