Discover a side of Peru you’ve never seen before.
Peru, in all its awe-inspiring glory, is a magical, mystical place still full of mystery, with foods, animals, history, and customs you may have never heard of. Honeymooners and tourists flock to Macchu Picchu for its majestic views of an abandoned Incan citadel in the sky amongst rolling green hills—the reason for its creation unknown. The incredible sprawling Nazca desert lines that can only be viewed aerially remain one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Drink pisco sours, enjoy the fresh ceviche, and explore all that is weird, creepy, and wonderful in Peru.
Be Surrounded by Skulls at Saint Francisco Monastery and Church
The well-funded 17th century Spanish Baroque-style Saint Francisco Monastery and Church is just off the main square in Lima. This UNESCO World Heritage site contains one of the world’s largest libraries of ancient texts. Inside, amongst the grand gold leaf icons on the first floor, are historic paintings and a Peruvian Last Supper depiction of a devil next to Judas with an indigenous meal of guinea pig, potatoes, and chilis. Gaze down and you’ll see small, square open grates offering a preview of what’s downstairs, the main attraction discovered in 1943: the remains of 25,000-70,000 people whose skulls and bones (mostly tibia) are arranged in neat, decorative geometric shapes. The ossuaries, some of which were also designed to absorb seismic waves, are said to contain past patrons and friars all housed under dusty low ceilings for the claustrophobically challenged. It’s all worth it for the creepy sight of bones in metaphysical mandala shapes. The catacombs also housed secret passages that connected to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition and the Cathedral.
INSIDER TIPBring your strong memory and be prepared to buy postcards, because absolutely no photography is allowed.
Meet Mummies at the Larco Museum
The Larco Herrera Archaeological Museum houses a mummy that illustrates the ways the ancient pre-Incan Waris tribe preserved their dead. The mummy appears to simply be aged cloth that had been sewn in the shape of a man’s torso with an eerie golden mask and feathered hat to match. Inside this torso figure is a child in a fetal position: this was the mummification style of the Waris. What reason would possibly convince a family to sacrifice a child? Both the pre-Incans and Incans believed in offering the purest sacrifice to the Gods in times of famine or the death of an Emperor. They’d choose a child, feed them a fattening elite diet, have a shaman administer the intoxicating chichi drink, and leave the child to die of exposure, strangulation, or force. The Waris believed in a better afterlife for such victims.
See the Larco Museum’s Erotic Room
Inside the 5,000-year-old collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in this private archaeological museum is an erotic room that consists solely of pottery. The erotic room is divided into sub-rooms of varying themes. The first part focuses on the female body, maternity, and fertility, which are pretty straightforward–but the coitus depicted is anything but vanilla. Then comes the fascinating underworld room depicting cadaverous yet sexually active figures from the underground, the living and celestial world all intermingling in graphic sexual acts that represent balancing nature through sexual sacrifice. Next is the room with pottery depicting the rituals of a non-reproductive sexual union, with a Kama Sutra of positions. Last is the sexual sacrifice and male body room, where pottery depicts semen being extracted as a life force for the dead. The sculptures illustrate the masculine and feminine, the three worlds, life force, and the belief that sex can be used sacrificially in the ancient Moche civilization.
INSIDER TIPThe museum store is also a must-stop for purchasing inexpensive reproductions of historic artifacts erotic and non-erotic, as well as cool local handicrafts.
See the Dark Side of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is a must-see in Peru. Nestled above the clouds is a green Incan city replete with celestial observatories and white granite blocks. The stream there is said to have immortalizing magical water, the hike and sights are invigorating, and there is a healing “Intihuatana” stone where one can place their forehead in order to attain clarity. It has a magical sunrise, but also a bloody past. In 1910, Hiram Bingham found 172 tombs of humans, mostly female, who were likely sacrificed at the funeral mortuary rock that also served as the chapel for the town. In recent years, a secret door was discovered at this World Heritage site that may contain the burial tomb of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the Inca ruler for whom archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was built, possibly filled with gold, silver, and gems (as well as secrets). The purpose of the city’s architecture still remains a mystery.
INSIDER TIPYou can get to Machu Picchu the long way or the short way. The 26-mile hike along the Inca Trail takes around five days, or you can take a 20-minute bus ride up to the ancient site from the town of Aguas Calientes. A third option is to take a train to a point on the Inca Trail for a five-hour trek.
Try Coca and Chicha
Try the local energy drink that also prevents altitude sickness: coca leaves and its various edible forms of gum, tea, chocolates, and candy. The leaves are considered sacred by shamans who eat and read them, and are also used in spa treatments for tightening the skin. Coca leaves are full of vitamins, protein, calcium, iron, and fiber, and are used in alleviating oxygen-deprivation and creating a relaxed, healthy, and happy mood. (Yes, it’s the same leaf that’s used to extract cocaine.)
Chicha is a sacred Andean beverage, used by Incas to bond socially: it’s a fermented beverage made of grains, maize, or fruit and made traditionally with corn that’s chewed up and spat out, fermented, then brewed and boiled for an hour–at which point the drink is completely safe and delicious! With the first sip taken, some drops should be sprinkled toward the sun, over the soil, or on a fire as a way of paying reverence to the Inca deities: Pachamama (Mother Earth), the Apus (mountains) and Willka Nina (fire). Ever tried a guinea pig or alpaca steak? You can in Peru, where these delicacies are common. Guinea pig is often said to taste like chicken and alpaca more like venison.
INSIDER TIPIf you see a white flag flying on the rooftop of a house, it means that chicha de jora is sold there, while a red flag means that frutillada is sold there. Coca is legal in Peru and other South American countries, but cannot be transported back home even in its candy, chocolate, tea, or other forms.
See the Salt Pans of Maras
The stunning Maras Salt Pans date to Incan times and have been passed down by families for centuries. They are a patchwork of salt evaporation terraces and ponds by a local stream that cascade down a hillside valley and appear almost extraterrestrial. Take a trek to see the interlocking geometric pans that tumble down the shallow pools and evaporate to the pure pink salt. A local spring feeds the salty stream that flows down the pools, and salt crystals are simply scraped off the ground to be harvested and sold on site in plastic bags with different sized and shaped salts. Shamans and locals prefer this pink salt for its high-mineral content and claim that it boosts energy.
INSIDER TIPBuy bags of salt to bring home or go all out with a Maras Body Massage at Aqlla Spa that uses the ancestral salt as a therapeutic scrub. A body mask of papaya, lemon, and lettuce refreshes the skin, followed by a relaxing Andean medicinal oil massage.
See the Nazca Lines
WHERE: Nazca Desert
The Nazca Lines in the deserts of Southern Peru are symbols to the gods of the sky–and are enormous enough to be seen by them. The existence of the mysterious etchings was only made public after the invention of flight. Llamas, flames, and an orca have just been recently been found and the 50 miles of plateau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No one can agree why or how they were made or if perhaps the makers were able to ever see the signs themselves. The geoglyphs made by the Nazca people over 2,000 years ago consist of 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures, and 70 animal and plant designs called biomorphs. The biomorphs include a mysterious space/owl or fisherman (no one can confirm yet; some call him the astronaut), condors, spiders, hands, and a whale. The Nazcas were headhunters who offered sacrifice to the gods in exchange for abundance and a newly seen line represents a decapitation. The theories vary for the meanings of the figures that range in size from fifty feet to the height of the Empire State Building. The newest theory is that it was a pilgrimage site, but other theories are that the symbols were offerings to the gods, ritualistic looms, or just irrigation streams.
INSIDER TIPSeeing the Nazca lines is a once in a lifetime opportunity and there are several ways to do it. Those on a strict budget can climb a 43-foot metal observation tower for a small fee, but to get a complete view, book a 30-minute flight for around a hundred dollars Take anti-nausea medicine and make sure you book with a reputable company like Movil Air.
Indulge in Ancient Incan Ritual Massage
Get a massage or spa treatment incorporating Incan ingredients like coca leaves, volcanic mud, gold, quinoa, and various other fresh regional fruits and produce that are only available in Peru. Ingredients like coca and muña, a medicinal herb used for aches and pains and digestion can be used in body scrubs, wraps, and oils and lotions for massage. Similar to Ayurvedic massage, Sabai massage uses pouches called pindas made with indigenous herbs like Andean mint, horsetail, sage, and bergamot. They are heated and pressed briefly onto the skin for muscle relief and overall healing.
See the Creepy Toys at the Museo de Jugeuete
This creepy museum set in a colonial mansion in downtown Trujillo is the only Toy Museum in Peru. The three rooms house more than 130 pieces from a variety of countries with genuine artifacts from pre-Columbian times. Local pieces include small Andean dolls and the oldest piece is a toy whistle from the Virú civilization around 200 B.C. The artist who founded the museum included toys he’d find on his European travels, so there are lead soldiers from Germany alongside wind-up toys and cowboys from America. But the creepy part is the macabre and spine-chilling dolls: dead-eyed puppets hanging in groups under a wooden skylight, plastic baby-girls in dresses posted on the walls, clowns, little boy dolls, and empty-socketed teenager dolls hanging from strings. A few are perched on shelves, playing instruments or just staring through your soul. This is a part of the museum you’d never want to see at night.
Sleep Suspended From a Cliff
WHERE: Sacred Valley
The only hotel of its kind in Peru (and the world), this unique luxury accommodation is made up of three glass pods hanging off a 1300-foot cliff. Located in the beautiful and lush Sacred Valley, this unusual hotel is accessed via ferrata (a hike assisted by a steel cable handrail bolted to the rock) or by zip-lines. Both are suitable for beginners, the latter being easier. Once inside the pods, you’re treated with a bottle of wine, gourmet dinner, and breakfast overlooking the valley. There are 360-degree views of the stars, the valley and the majestic mountains you just climbed. The capsules are quite safe and are made from aerospace aluminum and weather-resistant polycarbonate with exit portals located in the upper part of the craft. They include six windows, four ventilation ducts, four comfortable beds, a separate dining area, and a private bathroom with a view. To get down, rappel, or via ferrata and zipline back to the ground.
INSIDER TIPCut time and costs by just visiting for lunch in a geometrical glass cube on the side of a mountain.
See the Chimor Ruins of Chan Chan
Chan Chan means great sun, an apt name for this sunny ancient city three miles west of Trujillo, Peru. It’s the capital of the historic Chimor Empire that existed from 900 to 1470 and the largest adobe city in the world.
The sprawling complex has palaces, temples, squares, gardens, ponds, cemeteries, aqueducts, labyrinths, residential quarters, and platforms for religious performances surrounded by walls up to 40 feet high. Its walls are decorated with beautiful and stylized carved drawings of foxes, fish, pelicans, and other natural figures. At its height, its population was around 100,000 inhabitants. At the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the city was plundered for its gold, silver, gems, and ceramics. There are 10 walled citadels called royal compounds, which contain royal burial mounds with vast funerary offerings, including dozens of sacrificed young women and chambers full of ceramics, weavings, and jewelry. Though some parts are eroded, it’s still a sight to see, with blue skies and distant green mountains surrounding the golden adobe citadel.
INSIDER TIPA small entrance fee will also give you access to the museum and the moon and sun temple in Trujillo, which is the biggest adobe pyramid in Peru. It may be best to hire a local tour guide there, as some of the area is covered in tents to protect from erosion and the place will become much more meaningful with a guide.