Peru: Luxury On the Amazon, Machu Picchu and Beyond
By:Travelin' Gal Maxine Albert
Some destinations are so special and magical they stay with you long after you've returned home. Peru is one of those places. This gem of a country has diverse, stunning topography, fascinating cultures and is a foodie paradise, voted best culinary destination at the 2012 World Travel Awards. A growing number of tourists are also flocking here for the au courant designer shops. Vogue featured a collection of Peruvian motifs on its cover, by acclaimed photographer Mario Testino.
Luxury On The Amazon:
A short car ride from Iquitos airport brought me to the 5 star MV Aria for my cruise on the northern Amazon River. With outdoor Jacuzzi, masseuse, and bar stocked with top shelf drinkables and all varieties of Inca Pisco for the famed Pisco Sour, this floating luxury hotel had the requisite creature comforts to keep me happy for the next 3 days. My handsomely decorated, air conditioned suite had a sitting area and floor to ceiling windows for scenic viewing. Waking to the sun rising over the Amazon from the comfort of my bed was glorious.
Innovative Peruvian fare highlighted the gourmet cuisine, locally sourced, of course. After savoring exquisite dishes including Dorado fish, braised short ribs and amazing seafood tiradito paired with fine South American wines, I was not surprised to learn that chef trained at Le Cordon Blue.
Daily, we boarded skiffs for wildlife safaris on the mighty Amazon, passing water taxis, women washing clothing on the riverbank and a father and son in a fishing boat. Our excellent guides spotted harpy eagles, turtles, macaws, herons, egrets, falcons, caimans, sloths and capuchin and howler monkeys, examples of the region's rich biodiversity.
It wasn't all watching: I swam with pink Amazon river dolphins, fished for piranha and had the sweetest experience bottle-feeding an adorable baby manatee at the Manatee Rescue Center. Interacting with indigenous people in their homes and schools in the native village of Puerto Prado was a memorable experience. So was a healing ceremony with a local medicine man reputed to have great curative powers, a reminder that sixty percent of the world's medicine is derived from plants in the Amazon rainforest. Our trek in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve gave a thrilling view of both a baby anaconda and a tarantula.
Mystical Machu Picchu:
Set in a cloud forest and resembling a sprawling Andean village, the Relais & Chateaux Inkaterra Machu Picchu is a splendid nature retreat with stone pathways threading terraced hills, lush gardens, waterfalls and mountain vistas. My lovely casita featured a veranda with chairs and private garden for reading, relaxing or meditating. I enjoyed the guided nature walks and a visit to the sacred ancient petroglyph. After an indulgent massage at Unu Spa I headed to the outdoor Jacuzzi and soaked in the heated water with cocktail in tow. A dinner of Andean trout and beef tenderloin with vegetables and herbs fresh from the garden was the perfect end to a perfect day.
The highlight, of course, is the visit to Machu Picchu Citadel. An architectural wonder 8,000 feet above sea level, its palaces, temples and gardens seem to be miraculously carved from the hillside. The spectacular beauty and majesty of the magnificent ruins take you back in time to the ancient kingdom of Inca emperors. Mystery surrounds the actual functions of the structures now known as the Chamber of the Princess, Royal Tomb, Three Windowed Temple, Temple of the Condor, Temple of the Sun and Intihuatana. Immerse yourself in the mystical, spiritual energy of the Inca culture and take in the grandeur.
Driving through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, I arrived in Cusco. This vibrant capital and spiritual heart of the Inca Empire enchants with its elegant balconied buildings and picturesque squares with trees and fountains. In this fascinating city, you'll find the international smart set side by side with locals in traditional garb. The Quechua women's brightly colored skirts, hats and adornments inspired high-end shoe designer Tabitha Simmons to fashion her new line of resort sandals after them.
Cusco boasts both old world charm and a modern trendy vibe. Strolling the cobble stone streets with Inca and colonial architecture, I passed art galleries, swank jewelry shops and a shaman shop that ran healing circles in the Andes Mountains. And there is no shortage of stylish restaurants. I still dream about the mouth-watering ceviche, chili chicken and huge selection of Pisco drinks at Calle del Medio.
Fashionistas will love the boutiques offering the finest alpaca and vicuna clothing you can't find in New York. At the center is Plaza de Armas gloriously illuminated at night, with Koricancha, once the richest temple of the Incas, now an ornately decorated cathedral. Marvel at the lavish gold crown of the Jesus effigy. Also worth a visit: the Inca Museum, and San Blas, the artist's quarter.
The stunning Relais & Chateaux Inkaterra La Casona, near Cusco's main square, is an 11-suite mansion that has been spectacularly converted to a luxury boutique hotel with sumptuous courtyard. My elegant suite was decorated with Spanish accents, plush fabrics, colonial furnishings and striking objets d'art. Gastronomic dining, a cozy fireplace and oversize marble bathroom with butler at the ready to draw my bubble bath make this posh palace a home run.
I Arrived at Puerto Maldonado Airport and transferred to a motorboat for a 45-minute ride down the Madre de Dios River, a tributary of the Amazon in south east Peru. Eco lodge Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, adjacent to the spectacular Tambopata National Reserve, gives the ultimate up-close and personal experience with nature. I entered another world at this exotic retreat, waking to the serenade of tropical birdsong, imbibing the serenity and beauty of the rainforest.
My thatch-roof wooden cabana had its own bathroom with hot water & shower, and a screened siesta lounge with hammock. Perfect for lolling and relaxing. There's a tree house for romantic evenings and celestial dinners in the clouds. I enjoyed locally sourced food and jungle pampering at Ena Spa.
Guided excursions include spotting impressive tapirs, capybaras and agoutis on a twilight boat safari with stars in the gorgeously black sky. On the exhilarating canopy tour I got a bird's eye view of the Amazon from walkways suspended high in the treetops. My favorite was trekking the scenic wildlife reserve with its lovely cobalt blue butterflies, followed by a canoe excursion on picturesque Lake Sandoval with giant river otters, white caimans, hoatzin birds, side neck turtles, harpy eagles, point-tailed palm creepers and adorable monkeys playing on the vines.
Both Aqua Expeditions and Inkaterra, a top Peru specialist that arranges travel in addition to owning luxury properties in the country, support wildlife and rainforest conservation. By visiting them, you are not only a luxury tourist but also an active participant in preserving this most precious rainforest and its people.
Lan offers flights from major US cities to Lima as well as in Peru.