There are a lot of options for a lot of budgets when you decide to spend some time in Peru. If you're a family or what to do something experiential and really memorable, the choices can get overwhelming.
I interviewed Andre Robles of Voyagers Travel (http://www.machupicchutours.travel/), one of the top tour operators in South America, to get his tips on how couples and families should plan their trip. He shares some highlights, some alternatives, and some advice on how much time you need.
Let's say this is my first time in Peru, so of course I have to see Machu Picchu. Plus I want to get a real flavor of Peru. What do you suggest?
"When it comes to 'flavor,' Lima is a terrific culinary city, so first of all don't get off one plane and board another one straight to Cusco. We like to show visitors the history of food in Lima, taking them to a real ceviche place—historically this was not a fancy dish—and explore the African influences as well. We can set up cooking classes and gastronomy tours in addition to hitting the highlights of the city in the historic center. This is not one of those cities where you should sit on a bus and listen to a guy with a microphone. It takes people with local expertise to show you what's special about Lima.
There and elsewhere in Peru, we also like to spice things up by putting clients in interesting hotels with character, like Hotel B in Barranco, Lima or El Mercado Tunqui in Cusco. Or if they're luxury travelers, somewhere like Inkaterra's La Casona (very tastefully done) or the new Hotel Nazarenas (with the water flowing through it's a unique place). This is a much more satisfying experience than the sameness of a Swissotel or Marriott.
So we head to Cusco then and whoa—what's with this screaming headache I just got?
We often recommend that people start in the Sacred Valley and go to Machu Picchu before spending time in Cusco because of the altitude. Of course we'll visit places like Chinchero and Pisac, then we try to put guests in an interesting place to stay again. We like Sol y Luna and the community projects they're involved in, plus the Pakiritambo Hotel in Ollantaytambo.
We're a licensed operator for the four-day Inca Trail and we can really do that right with hot showers, air mattresses, and a dining tent with real chairs along the way. But the spots get booked up for ahead, so we usually advise people to do the two-day hike instead. This is better anyway for families or multi-generational trips. We send a real archaeologist along and you visit the great Winay Wayna site, which is often almost empty. Then in the morning you get to enter Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, which is a great experience.
Now that we've got some altitude adjustment, what should we do in Cusco?
That depends a lot on you and your interests. We set you up with a private guide and if you want to spend an extra hour at Saksaywaman, no problem. With families we'll often do horseback rides at a ranch outside of town. We can do culinary tours here too, or at least sample some interesting restaurants with a sense of place. There's plenty to see just strolling around or you can attend a folkloric dance performance with costumes.
Now that we've hit the usual suspects, where else should we go?
We do a lot of business in Amazon tours (http://www.amazoncruise.net/) and if you've got a healthy budget it's a great experience to go on a river cruise on the Aqua or the Aria. In that part of the river, near Iquitos, you can actually see a lot of wildlife from the boat, without having to hike a long way, so it's good for people who can't get around so well. Plus it's very comfortable, with fantastic food, menus designed by some of Peru's top chefs.
If you want to stay in a lodge and do some walking in the jungle, Puerto Maldonado is better, plus you can fly there from Cusco in 45 minutes. The best lodge is the Inkaterra Reserva one, but there are plenty of others to choose from at lower price points.
If I've got a thing about insects and would rather avoid that area, where else would you recommend?
Ideally you've got time to head to Puno and Lake Titicaca. We try to focus on the islands and the culture there because it's a unique aspect you don't find elsewhere. You can see how the people live, how they weaved their islands. The Brisas del Titicaca folkloric dinner and dance show there is done well and is a good bet for families too. You can stay until the wee hours or you can cut out after a couple hours.
A visit to Arequipa and the Colca Canyon is quite memorable too. There's different cuisine there, like stuffed chili peppers. You've got the volcano scenery and the impressive condors flying through, in a dramatic landscape. Then of course there's the far north, with the pre-Inca ruins of Caral and Kuelep. I wish we could get more people to Kuelep as it's older than Machu Picchu and bigger, but most people don't take enough time in the country.
How much time is too little time?
Ideally you're coming to Peru for at least a week, but two weeks is much better. We'll get people wanting to "do the Galapagos and Peru" in 10 days. We tell them they can do it, but it's not going to be a very satisfying trip. Save one of them for the next time!
Interview conducted in August, 2014 by editor Timothy Scott