Peru: Nature's playground
From islands to highlands and rainforest, Peru is full of surprises, finds Carrie Anderson
I'm deep in the heart of the Amazon, looking at two beady eyes. I keep a safe distance, as I don't know if their owner is poisonous or not. Then, as I lean forward to get a better look, it makes its move, ricocheting around the bathroom like a ping-pong ball.
It's a tiny frog, hanging out in my cabin in the Peruvian rainforest, and my partner and I are failing pathetically to chase it out, running away each time it starts to bounce around.
A few hours earlier, we arrived by air from Lima to Puerto Maldonado. From there, we were whisked by motorised speedboat to Amazonicas Reservas, a luxury lodge along the banks of Madre de Dios, a tributary of the Amazon River.
Having missed afternoon wildlife-spotting opportunities due to flight delays, perhaps the frog (non-toxic, by the way) felt it owed us half an hour's entertainment.
When you think Peru, you probably picture Inca ruins, llamas and alpacas. All of which we saw on our 13-day adventure, but this country has lots of other things to offer too.
The morning after our frog episode, we get up before sunrise for encounters with slightly more exotic wildlife. A storm delays our outing, so we spend a couple of hours wandering around the lodge, following curious birdcalls and spotting colourful species.
When the weather calms down, our guide Sonia leads us out on the trail systems surrounding the lodge, explaining the fascinating wildlife, flora and fauna. We then make our way to the lodge's private canopy walk -- a system of bridges suspended 130ft above the rainforest floor, providing an experience in itself.
Back at ground level, we head by speedboat to Tambopata National Reserve, about 30 minutes from the lodge, where we hike through the rainforest, spotting the likes of giant red macaws and green parrots, on our way to Lake Sandoval.
There, Sonia rows us around the calm waters as dusk begins to fall, feeding our newfound obsession with weird and wonderful birds -- and even giving us a glimpse of two shy monkeys in the trees -- before we walk back through the rainforest under the cover of darkness.
The early nightfall reveals more natural delights, including a hairy tarantula and alligator eyes that light up the edges of the bank when Sonia shines her torch along it.
The next day, it's time to swap rainforest for mountains. Jumping back on a plane to Cusco, our rep Mark from Audley Travel is waiting at the airport to accompany us to our hotel, where he maps out the rest of our itinerary, including the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Lake Titicaca, and gives us the lowdown on altitude sickness. Thankfully, we seem to escape it.
Our first trip is to three Inca sites in the hills overlooking Cusco. As our guide Henry takes us around the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, Kenko and Tambomachay, followed by a Catholic monastery in Cusco town built upon the Incan Temple of the Sun, he explains the method in the apparent madness of Incan architecture.
The Spanish arrived in Peru in 1530, then into Cusco the following year. They went on to destroy religious Inca sites, banning the natives from idolatry and converting them to Catholicism.
The first thing that strikes you about the various ruins, particularly at Sacsayhuaman, is the towering boulders comprising the exterior walls, standing seven metres tall. There's nothing holding them together, and none of the rocks are a uniform shape.
In fact, each boulder sits several metres underground, and on top of a circular formation of five boulders, designed to absorb impact should an earthquake strike.
Little wonder, after starting to destroy Cusco's Temple of the Sun, the Spanish realised they'd be better off keeping some of its solid structure as a foundation for their new buildings, hence the curious mix of Inca and colonial in the building.
Back in town, a visit to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, which has two smaller churches built on to it, reveals how the Inca way changed following the arrival of the Spanish. The colonialists couldn't convert people to Catholicism without making way for the Andean religion, which worships nature and Apu, the mountain spirit.
In the cathedral, you're struck by the hundreds of paintings covering every inch of wall space, used to teach Peruvians about saints. But take a closer look at these paintings and you realise something isn't quite right.
The Virgin Mary and Jesus have ruddy cheeks, and the replica of 'The Last Supper' shows a central feast of guinea pig, surrounded by exotic fruits. The only way to bring people into the church, Henry explains, was to allow reminders of the old way of life, with traditional Peruvian symbols.
The themes of community and family also become evident throughout our tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. On our way to the colourful market town of Pisac, passing farmers and their flocks inspire our next guide, Mauricio, to explain how a farmer's life begins.
A rural child's working life will start at about age eight, when they are given responsibility for moving the family's herd around to graze, spending all day in the fields. Their payment comes in the form of the first animal to be born in the child's care.
Likewise, Mauricio explains, if an Inca needs somebody to help build their house, rather than pay someone to do it, they'll call a neighbour, who'll do it in return for chica (a homemade, low-alcohol fermented corn drink) and a good dinner.
Inca savviness is in evidence again at our next stop of Ollantaytambo, Peru's best- preserved Inca town, where we mount steep terraces to view the ruins of unfinished buildings left behind as the Incas fled to defend Cusco against the Spanish.
Endless terraces in the hills are something of a wonder themselves, showing how efficient the Incas were in searching out the best altitudes to grow produce, including potatoes -- of which the Incas are said to have had a staggering 6,000 varieties (today, the country has a mere 3,000 varieties).
The following day, it's time to see a key piece of Inca magic, Machu Picchu, which we visit by train. The views don't disappoint, but the real showstopping moment comes a few minutes after wandering through the ticket turnstiles at the entrance to the site. You turn a corner, and there it is -- Machu Picchu in all its glory.
Mauricio leads us around the ruins, explaining how farming families who'd lived in the area for generations knew of the site long before American historian Hiram Bingham 'discovered' it, and how many more terraces remain unearthed, left for future generations of archaeologists to discover.
The next day, we return for the 7am entrance to Huayna Picchu, the iconic mountain overlooking the ruins. There's no denying it -- the climb is steep, and leaves my lungs feeling starved of oxygen every 10 steps. But it is worth it.
After heading through a wall of cloud for what seems like hours, we turn a corner and the 'aahhhs' begin. The clouds have parted, and Machu Picchu is laid out below us.
Some two hours later, with our lungs fully worked out and camera memories nearly full, it's time to move on to another Peruvian icon -- Lake Titicaca, which we reach after a 10-hour journey to Puno, the gateway to the lake, on the entertaining Andean Explorer; a Peruvian take on the Orient Express, if you like.
The Uros Islands are really quite special. Arriving by speedboat to what seem like stacks of floating reeds, we are greeted by families in bright, traditional dress.
It's not the easiest of lives here. There's a school for the youngest children on the islands, but older ones go to the mainland, leaving questions over how long this charming, traditional community will last, with future generations perhaps eventually getting a taste for life on drier land.
During the tourist season, the women sew the likes of cushion covers and wall hangings to sell to visitors, and the families offer rides on traditional reed boats; out of those seasons, the inhabitants get by through fishing and hunting.
An hour and 15 minutes further out across Lake Titicaca, Taquile Island -- which is land-based -- adopts a similar approach to its economy, with a co-operative in place to share the spoils of tourism.
Around several corners, in between stunning views of rolling hills and the vast, inky blue Lake Titicaca, we encounter locals young and old selling handmade bracelets, men busy knitting and women herding their sheep along the paths, all ready for a photo, but without hassling their visitors.
It's a fitting end to an extraordinary adventure that has taken us from rainforest to mountains to lakes. When we arrive in Lima, ready for our journey home, it feels as if a bubble has burst and we're back in the real world again.
Whether it's the country's centuries-old traditions, the charming smiles of locals or the fascinating ruins, Peru has something very magical about it.
And just when you think you've seen it all, there's another surprise in store just around the corner.