Cities | Peru Unbound


Often referred to as the 'Archaeological Capital of the Americas' Cusco is a beautiful city riddled with contrasts between the indigenous styles and the modern western world. It is these contrasts that have given Cusco its rare beauty.  Most visitors are keen to get to Machu Picchu, either by trekking for 4 days along the Inca Trail, or by 4 hours in the train, but Cusco itself has a lot to offer the visitor and most travelers usually end up seduced with this vibrant city and stay longer than first planned.

The first thing that hits the newly arrived visitor to Cusco are the Inca walls; enormous granite blocks carved to fit together perfectly without the aid of mortar beds. Many of the walls were simply built upon during the construction of a new Spanish city. It’s a tribute to the Incas that their anti-seismic design has survived the test of time while the Spanish colonial architecture has been rebuilt several times following a wave of earthquakes that have hit the city.  Located at an altitude of 3,360m above sea level, Cusco was referred to as the 'Navel of the World'.

The city has a long and interesting history dating back to 1200AD and linked to the first Inca ruler Manco Capac. However the city saw its expansion in the 15th century under the rule of the greatest Inca Pachacutec, who led a drive that spread the boundaries of the Inca Empire as far south as Chile and Argentina, and north to include Ecuador and Columbia. 

This rapid expansion abruptly came to an end on the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro who, following the murder of the Inca Atahaulpa in Cajamarca, marched into Cusco in 1534 and added it definitively to the realms of King Charles V. This invasion opened the gates to a cultural mix that has left its imprint on every aspect of Peruvian culture, especially in the ancient Andean capital of Cusco. 

When arriving in Cusco from the coast you'll immediately notice the thin clear mountain air, a result of the City's high altitude. The first day in particular should be spent quietly relaxing and taking things easy as you gently acclimatize. Plan to spend at least 3 days in and around Cusco before starting any serious trekking such as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  This is an ideal opportunity to see the highlights Cusco has to offer such as a tour of the City, the nearby Inca Ruins of Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay and, of course, a day trip out to the Sacred Valley of the Incas including a visit to the traditional Indian market at Pisac, the beautiful village of Ollantaytambo and the small village of Chinchero located high up in the mountains.



Peru's sprawling megacapital is actually a mosaic of many smaller cities. Comprising 43 districts with nearly 9 million inhabitants, Lima is a study in contrasts, with ultramodern seaside neighborhoods butting up against gritty shantytowns that cling to barren hillsides. It is one of the world's few megacapitals that can claim a golf course in the middle of the financial district, and where executives can go surfing before high-powered breakfast meetings. Although it's built in a desert — Cairo is the only other metropolis drier than Lima — it's known as the "Garden City" and is home to one of world's largest fountain parks.

While many of Lima's stately manors have given way to glass-enclosed apartment buildings, high-rise business towers and hotels, at least one part of Peruvian culture is returning to its roots here: the cuisine. Lima natives are obsessed with food. Meanwhile, Lima's government has established a Boulevard of Gastronomy in the Surquillo district, turning a traditional farmers' market into a pedestrian mall to showcase the fresh ingredients used in Peruvian cooking. And the city's annual food festival, held each September, is quite possibly the most important event of the year.

The only thing that rivals Limeños' love of food is their passion for pisco, a grape brandy that is the main ingredient in the national drink, the pisco sour. Don't be fooled by its frothy silhouette — it packs a powerful punch.

You can't walk more than a few blocks in downtown Lima without stumbling upon another colonial church. Catholic religious congregations were each allotted a piece of land in the early days of the city, and most of them erected monasteries, convents or churches in honor of patron saints. The Church of San Francisco is one of the best preserved (you'll recognize it by the swarm of pigeons on the patio out front; vendors sell bags of seed to passersby to keep the birds coming).

Built in the baroque-style of the late 1600s, San Francisco has several gilded side altars and an impressive lattice dome. The adjoining monastery has a superb collection of ancient religious texts, some of which were brought over by the first wave of Spanish priests after the conquest of the Incas.

Most people go to San Francisco, however, for its catacombs. The catacombs were actually part of Lima's original cemeteries, which were built under churches. Tour guides say an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone, and many of the remains are exposed, stacked in strange patterns in circular stone pits. A catacomb tour is not for the squeamish or the claustrophobic.

The Church of San Francisco is located about 45 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, with tours (including the catacombs) lasting approximately one hour; the entrance fee is about $2.

The official residence and office of Peru's president, sits on the banks of the Rimac River, Lima's principal waterway, and faces San Cristobal Hill, the city's highest point. Back in the time of the Incas, the site had strategic and spiritual meaning, which is why the last Inca chief in Lima also lived here. Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incas, so liked the site that he kept it for the first Spanish palace, whose construction began in 1535. Since then, Government Palace has been rebuilt numerous times; the current French-inspired mansion was constructed in the 1930s.

Access to the palace is restricted; special tours can be arranged directly through the protocol office. But you don't need tickets to see the changing of the palace guards, which takes place each day precisely at noon. Behind the palace is the Peruvian House of Literature — it is Lima's old train station, which was restored by the government in 2009 and turned into a reading room of Peruvian works. It's worth a quick peek.

Government Palace occupies the north side of the Plaza de Armas (or Plaza Mayor), Lima's central square. On the other three sides of the square are the Cathedral of Lima and the adjoining Archbishop's Palace, which were originally built during the 1600s; the Municipal Palace (City Hall); and private office buildings. All the structures sport the intricately carved wooden balconies that make the downtown cityscape so unique.

The Cathedral is open to the public and houses a museum with an extensive collection of religious art, much of which represents Peru's famed Cuzco School of painting. The Cathedral is open until 5 p.m. daily; admission is $1.50 for adults (less for children and students).

After you've toured the Plaza de Armas, walk south on Jirón de la Unión, a long pedestrian mall, along which you can admire neoclassical and Art Deco architecture, shop and watch street performers. When you get to Plaza San Martin, which was refurbished in 2009, take a gander at the lovely 19th-century buildings, then duck into the Gran Hotel Bolivar. The hotel, which once welcomed the rich and famous, is on the wane, but the lobby and glass atrium are still worth seeing; the bar, with its polished woods and bronze, offers a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere to savor a delicious pisco sour ($4).

The Aliaga House is as old as Lima itself. When conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded the capital city on Jan. 18, 1535, he gave the plot adjacent to that of the Government Palace to his trusted ally Jerónimo de Aliaga, so they could be neighbors. Eighteen generations of the Aliaga family have resided in the same mansion ever since — it's been renovated continuously, but it's the oldest house in the Americas. Jerónimo's descendants currently live in a modern annex, but much of the original main house is on display.

The Aliaga House has a wide-ranging collection of Peruvian art and artifacts, including the sword Jerónimo de Aliaga used in the conquest of Peru, and reflects various eras of decor, going back centuries. Walking through the house's heavy wooden doors means stepping into layers of history.

Tours of the house can be organized by calling +51-(0)1-619-6900 with 24-hour notice; tours aren't cheap at $40 per person, and last about an hour. Casa Aliaga is located 40 minutes by taxi from the San Isidro/Miraflores districts, where most visitors prefer to stay.

There are many public and private museums in Lima, but none as unique or pleasing as the Larco Museum. Housed in a former mansion, itself built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple, the museum offers a varied collection of 3,000 years of ceramic, textile and precious metal artifacts. There are also mummies that show off the different ways ancient cultures, including the Incas, preserved their dead.

Two things really set this museum apart. First, visitors are allowed into the museum's store rooms to see what's not on display: a vast array of ceramic objects crafted by ancient Peruvians; there are tens of thousands of pots in the shapes of animals, plants and people. Second, there's a special room devoted to erotic archaeological treasures. These are not your run-of-the-mill phallic symbols, but a collection of ceramic pots portraying a variety of sexual positions and acts — the Kama Sutra in clay, basically. Many such erotic pots were destroyed by Spanish conquerors, who were mortified by the explicit depictions, which makes this collection all the more important.

The Larco Museum is about 25 minutes by taxi from San Isidro/Miraflores. It's open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; admission is $11.50.



Puerto Maldonado is located in the lowland Amazon rainforest on the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios Rivers. The climate is tropical. The chief industries in Puerto Maldonado are logging, gold dredging, brazilian nut collecting, boat building and eco-tourism. A ferry crosses the river, linking the main road from Cusco. Nearby are the Manu and Tambopata-Candamo national parks and the Bahuaja-Sonene national reserved area. These are some of the most pristine primary rain forests in the world. Puerto Maldonado has a good airport, with daily regular flights to Cusco and Lima. 





Oxapampa is a city located in the Pasco Region of Central Peru, in an area known as the Selva Alta or “high jungle”.

Roads around the area are mainly rubble surfaced or dirt tracks, and distances between places may seem reasonable until you factor in the poor condition of the roads which are frequently washed away by floods and landslides.

About a third of the population living in Oxapampa are descendants of a Tyrolean and Prussian community of 70 families that settled in the region in 1859, initially in Pozuzo which is 50 miles away.

The colonists originally arrived at Port Callao in Lima after a four month journey by sea. They immediately encountered problems as Peru was entering a state of civil war. Some chose to stay in Lima while others sailed to Port Huacho where they were not well received by the local authorities.

The group of 300 left Huacho and headed across mountains and jungle, frequently getting lost, finally arriving at Pozuzo two years later with only 165 of the group remaining. Some had died and others had grown disheartened, leaving to work in local ranches.

In 1891 a group of the colonists left Pozuzo, which was now an affluent and important cattle breading town, and founded Oxapampa.

Today Oxapampa is a thriving city with continuing economic development due to the natural resources and fertile land surrounding it. The 10,000 plus population are a vibrant mix of German, Austrian and Peruvian culture reflected in the local cuisine and entertainment.

The main attraction and uniqueness of the city itself is the numerous chalet style buildings of European design which stand out against the tropical jungle backdrop.

Mass tourism has not reached the area so, although classed as a city, it retains a peaceful rural small village feel having at its centre a plaza consisting of lawns, trees and plants, providing stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

Visit these cities on our Peru Adventure Tour



Lima has always been known as the Garden City, and no district rivals Miraflores when it comes to parks. The Miraflores government has spent years improving and adding to the district's green spaces, with a special emphasis on El Malecón, a six-mile stretch of parks situated along the cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean. (Bear in mind that the Malecón actually goes by three names, starting as Malecón de la Marina in the north, then becoming Malecón Cisneros, and ending as Malecón de la Reserva in the south.)

The Malecón is perfect for jogging, biking or simply taking in the view. Dotting the walkway are statues created by famed Peruvian artists. The two most famous works of sculpture are located on either side of the Villena Bridge, which spans a deep ravine at about the midway point on the Malecón. On one side of the bridge is the "Intihuatana" (sun anchor), designed by Fernando de Szyslo; on the other is Víctor Delfín's massive carving of a couple in deep embrace. The latter is the central piece of a section of the Malecón known as Parque del Amor (Love Park), whose design borrows heavily from Antoni Gaudí.

Keep walking a few minutes north of the Parque del Amor, and you'll see the taking-off point for parasailers. The Malecón is the prime spot for parasailing in Lima — gliders jump off the cliffs and ride the winds whipping off the ocean below. For $50, you can take a 10-minute flight with a trained parasailing guide; buy tickets at the small kiosk at Block 2 of the Malecón. Rides are available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, winds permitting.

Along the seawalk in the Miraflores district is Larcomar, a multilevel entertainment, food and shopping megacomplex that caters to most tastes. The first thing you'll notice about Larcomar is that you cannot see it. The entire complex is built into the cliffside, underneath Miraflores — the entrance is on Block 6 of Malecón de la Reserva, across the street from the JW Marriott hotel; take the stairs down just before you get to the cliff's edge.

Larcomar has breathtaking ocean views, which you can enjoy from numerous restaurants offering Peruvian fare, as well as several American franchises serving everything from doughnuts to ribs. Try Peruvian broaster chicken — orpollo a la brasa (literally, chicken over coals) — at Pardo's Chicken or have a cone of homemade ice cream from Gelateria Laritza D', while watching the sun set on the Pacific. There's also a movie theater, bowling alley and pool hall here, and shopping galore. Many Peruvian fashion designers have boutiques in Larcomar, and there's no shortage of high-end jewelry and clothing stores. This is a great place to while away your last few hours in Lima (and buying gifts for friends back home), before catching a cab to the airport.