Okay, the answer to that question is probably just about everything. Peru is a fabulous country with excellent food. I don’t think we had a bad meal — and we’re vegetarians. Peru’s cuisine is fairly meat-heavy, but there were a lot of vegetarian choices at regular restaurants and even vegan or vegetarian places in most places. (We were careful to eat in restaurants where we knew the hygiene would be good, which was most restaurants, but not much street food. And we were careful about the water we drank.) There are lots of things to do, from the musical fountain park in Lima, to museums, to natural beauty. We barely touched the surface, but we felt like we saw a lot.
Naturally, one of the high points was Machu Picchu. For me it was great to see the place I’ve often taught about when I cover Pablo Neruda’s poem. We went with a guide in the morning, and he gave us a lot of cultural background about the history of the city and of the Incas. Since we were traveling with a group of students from our university, our guide was affiliated with International Studies Abroad, who organized the trip. We were with him for a couple of days and had a great relationship. He even led some of us on a hike up to Machu Picchu from the valley in the morning, and in the afternoon, we were free to hike around on our own, so Aidan and I went to the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge.
Nonetheless, as impressive as Machu Picchu is, it still feels a bit touristy. There were a lot of other tourists around, in other words, and it’s the main site most people going to Peru see. I wouldn’t miss it, but if you can, you should go further afield.
We toured the Sacred Valley on the way to and from Machu Picchu, which was also great. And we got to stay a Sunday in Cuzco, where we witnessed the local festival. There were many groups marching either in military uniforms, school uniforms, or traditional costumes. There were marching bands and traditional musicians. And the festival seemed to go on most of the morning and well into the afternoon, even in the rain. We also went to the local market and a couple of museums, and though there were tourists, we felt the locals outnumbered us by a lot, instead of the other way around.
After Cuzco, our group took a charter bus down to Puno province, where we had three nights in two home stays in local villages. There we were treated to fabulous local cooking, hikes with the president of the village to see vistas of Lake Titicaca, traditional fishing (both setting out the nets in the evening and hauling them in in the morning). And we got to experience cold nights and an incredible view of winter the night sky, and sleeping in an unheated farmhouse with enough alpaca blankets to keep us warm. Oh yes, and no hot water for most of our stay, but a cold shower was okay for Aidan and I (and some of our group did take advantage of one shower with a solar water heater).
We visited floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca, and a couple of our students took part in a traditional ‘wedding’ (they played bride and groom, and I got to be father of the bride at one point).
Back in Lima, our family said goodbye to the students and stayed on for another week to explore on our own. We experienced more museums, long walks in the city, and even braving the private bus system. (It helped that Aidan is confident enough in his Spanish that he could help figure out some of the routes.) We even got to watch Peru in their first World Cup Soccer match since 1982, and we got to watch the celebrations (despite the fact that they lost that match).
If you’re headed to Peru (or anywhere), I highly recommend getting away from the main tourist areas if you can. We loved going to the neighborhood bakery (and finding a Belgian fry stand with vegetarian burger wraps) as much as we loved any of the sites. Wandering the streets was as much fun as any of the museums we went to (though I would highly recommend the art museum and the Larco Museum in Lima). And even the day we wanted to go to an archeological site in the city but found out it was closed turned out great: we visited a large public olive grove, got lunch (and watched some World Cup), and walked around Miraflores. Sightseeing can be great, and it’s good to have an agenda, but it’s also great to let go of the plan now and then, wander through a market or just walk around the neighborhoods.