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Finding mindful adventures

Something for everyone amid vivid terrains, wildlife, history, food

By Bella English
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

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AREQUIPA — Maybe it was on the Urubamba River as our chain-smoking guide hollered, “Paddle like you’re drowning!’’ Or maybe it was on a rocky dirt road, when, in a vain effort to ward off altitude sickness, I chewed cheekfuls of coca leaves. It could have been in the muddy Amazon jungle, when I was certain the next boot-sucking step on the five-mile hike would yield an angry anaconda. Perhaps it was when a waiter passed with a platter of the traditional delicacy “cuy,’’ roasted whole guinea pig.

But no. The worst moment of our family vacation in Peru? Leaving.

We had come seeking adventure in the Andes and the Amazon, a recent trip that all four of us — daughter, 23; son, 18; husband and I (ageless) would enjoy. We wanted to see the world’s deepest canyon, where the giant condors fly; the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu in all its glorious ruin; and the legendary Amazon, which contains thousands of species of flora and fauna — including the anaconda.

We flew into Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, the better to visit Colca Canyon, which, at 11,000 feet below, is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Arequipa is called “la cuidad blanca’’ because it is built from white volcanic rock, and is the center of the country’s alpaca trade. It is also the site of the 16th-century Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a block-long convent where wealthy families traditionally sent one of their daughters to spend the rest of her affluent if cloistered life. Today, only a part of it is occupied by a few elderly nuns.

The next morning we boarded a van for a four-hour trip to Colca Canyon. Soon, the pavement gave way to a bone-rattling dirt road and an eerie moonscape formed by volcanoes. Alpacas, llamas, and vicunas grazed away. Vicuna wool makes some of the finest sweaters in the world, and they sell for up to $4,000. We settled for the $5 alpaca scarves in the local markets.

As the van climbed to 14,000 feet, I doubled my coca-chewing — and was awake for about two days. We were headed for Chivay in the Colca Valley, an area cut off from the rest of Peru until the late 1970s, when engineers set out to extend a road system. They were astonished at what they found: a river churning thousands of feet below the snow-capped Andes, villages high up on the canyon rim, and, higher still, condors gliding across the skies.

After a night in Chivay, where the locals still dress in traditional costume, we set out for a two-hour ride to the Cross of the Condor, where the birds, weighing 25 pounds with wingspans of 12 feet, hang out. Our trip was in January, during the rainy season, and when we arrived at the cross, fog blanketed the valley. But as we traveled back, the sun burned through and we pulled over to a lookout. There, cruising over the canyon were several condors that swooped low enough for us to see their white neck ruff. On the way back to Arequipa, where we had gotten sunburned two days earlier, it snowed.

The next day we flew to Cusco, capital of the Incan empire, situated at 11,000 feet. With cobblestone streets and alleys, an imposing cathedral built by the conquistadors, and nearby ruins, Cusco is also the setting-off point for Machu Picchu.

The area around Cusco is called the Sacred Valley; most impressive are the Incan ruins that overlook the town. Weighing tons, boulders were somehow hauled to the hilltops to build fortresses against the Spaniards. Archeologists still cannot figure out how the Incans managed to shape the rocks so that they fit together with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle.

Farther down the valley, Pisac has fine ruins and a wonderful native market, where one can sort through alpaca sweaters and scarves, woven placemats and jewelry. We spent an hour with Indian women who showed us how they take raw yarn and, using berries or dead bugs, dye it a spectrum of colors before weaving it into bright tablecloths and runners. Lunch was at Ollantaytambo, the oldest continually occupied village in the Americas, which still uses an Incan water canal system.

With prodding from our son — who had seen enough churches and ruins — we signed up for a guided rafting trip on the Urubamba, which during the rainy season has some Class 4 rapids. We drifted in the shadow of the Andes with their terraced farms and white peaks. But then came several Class 3 to 4 rapids — with screams to match. We were all soaked at the end, though no one had gone overboard.

We adored Cusco, especially the bohemian San Blas neighborhood of narrow streets that overlooks the red-roofed city. But it was time to leave for Machu Picchu, a 3 1/2-hour train trip alongside the turbulent Urubamba. This isolated “lost city of the Incans’’ was hidden from the world until 1911, when Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham was led there by a farm boy. The leading theory is that it was built in the 15th century as a winter home for Incan royalty.

It’s hard to do justice to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) in words or photos. Surrounded by jagged peaks that plunge steeply to the Urubamba, the breathtaking remains of terraces, temples, and houses are a testament to the ingenuity of the Incans. But then our guide told us about the Incan punishment for lying, stealing, or laziness: Men would be castrated, women thrown off the mountain.

From Aguas Calientes — “hot waters’’ named for the springs — Machu Picchu is a 20-minute bus ride that winds upward another 1,500 feet, with hairpin turns and no guardrail. Since there is only one hotel at the site, most people stay at Aguas Calientes, a rather charmless town redeemed by a decent crafts market. A week after we were there, tourists were evacuated by helicopter because of mudslides at Machu Picchu.

Our Andes portion of the trip was over; on to the Amazon, a short flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. From here, we took a motorized dugout to our lodge, not an hour down the cocoa-colored Rio Madre de Dios. The river is Peru’s biodiversity center, with untouched rain forests that contain 20,000 plant species and more than 1,000 species of birds. After the stingy Andean air, this oxygen-rich sauna was a balm.

During the boat ride, Frank Del Alcazar Chilo, 24, our ponytailed guide, told us about piranhas (“they usually only attack you if you have a cut’’) and anacondas (“they usually stay in the swamp’’). It was the “usually’’ that bothered me.

At the Corto Maltes Amazonia Lodge, we were given rubber boots and took off on a two-hour nature walk with Chilo, who pointed out various medicinal plants and shucked some Brazil nuts for us with his machete. We were fascinated by the squawks and shrieks of parrots, macaws, and hoatzins, the “walking’’ palm tree, and the ironwood tree that resounded with a metallic ping when whacked with a machete.

Back at the lodge, I rested in the hammock outside our bungalow. “How are you?’’ someone asked in a nasal tone. It turned out to be a bright green parrot named Lola, who took to following us, on foot or wing, around the grounds, often with a wolf whistle.

In the Amazon, you take your wildlife where you find it. One night, as we shot pool in the lodge bar, a mouse fell from the rafters and landed in the middle of the table, DOA. If that wasn’t bad enough, a tarantula as big as my hand made an appearance.

Each night, we boarded the dugout to look for white caimans, and we did see a few of the crocodilians. We also spied capybaras, the largest rodents in the world. But the best show was overhead: the Southern Cross glittering on a black velvet sky. Add the surround sound of birds and insects, and the nightly boat trip was a highlight.

Our bungalows had gleaming wood floors and thatched roofs. Though there was no electricity after dark, a flickering kerosene lantern was placed on our porch each night. We slept under a mosquito net, and each dawn awakened to a cacaphony of birds and bugs trying to out-sing each other.

One day, we set off for Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata Natural Reserve, home to a lone family of giant river otters. After an hourlong boat ride from the lodge, we took a 2 1/2-mile hike, slogging through mud that was often up to our knees. I have a deathly fear of snakes, and imagined that each step would bring me closer to an anaconda or its smaller cousin. Fortunately, the only snakes we saw on the entire trip were in the water, much to my son’s disappointment.

The hike brought us to a makeshift dock in the middle of a swamp, where Chilo bailed out a rickety rowboat. We quickly reached the lovely, palm-ringed lake. We never found the 6-foot otters but saw all sorts of monkeys, including the aptly-named howlers, with babies, swinging in the trees. Another morning, we woke at 5 for a hike to a salt lick that attracts parakeets. It was an impressive scene, with hundreds of the small birds forming a solid green wall on the clay.

Another day, we opted for a canopy walk in a reserve downriver. After the boat trip, a muddy slog brought us to a series of wooden ladders that led to a platform atop a giant acacia. From there, we set out across a rickety, swaying bridge built God-knows-when. I didn’t dare look down until safely across it, 150 feet up in another acacia. There we enjoyed a grand, green view of the treetops and bird life. Unfortunately, we had to cross back, carefully, in the rain. Back on firm ground, we stopped to see a jungle rescue clinic, with a playful jaguar, several monkeys, toucans, and other exotic birds that would be reintroduced into the wild when they healed.

Our jungle trip ended way too soon, and it was time to say goodbye to Peru. As the family’s recording secretary, I conducted the usual exit interviews: best view, favorite meal, funniest and scariest moments, best animal, and so on. When I got to “biggest disappointment,’’ only my son had an answer. His biggest disappointment was my biggest relief: We didn’t see an anaconda.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

If You Go

Peru Vacation Tours

www.peruvacationtours.com

Makes arrangements for hotel, air travel, and guides.

Arequipa

Zig Zag

Calle Zela 210

011-51-54-20-6020

www.zigzagrestaurant.com

Sizzling platters served on hot stones: steak, alpaca, lamb, tuna, about $13. Try the fondue to share, about $22.

Cusco

Hotel Sueños del Inka

Calle Alabado 119

www.suenosdelinka.com

011-51-84-24-2299

Find friendly service, decent rooms, and hot breakfast. Double with breakfast $110.

Centro Artesanal Cusco

Avenida del Sol

Native market with handicrafts.

Bagdad Cafe

Overlooking the main square, this informal upstairs cafe has great coffee, pastries, and pizza and is a good place to people-watch or read. Food $4-$10.

Pacha Papa

In the artsy San Blas district, this restaurant has wonderful clay-oven pizza and great steaks. Sit on the patio and listen to a harpist serenade you. Dinner for four with wine, $60-$70.

Hotel Monasterio

Calle Palacio 136

Plazoleta Nazarenas

www.monasteriohotel.com

011-51-84-60-4000

A former monastery in San Blas, now a luxury hotel. Central courtyard with colonial fountain surrounded by gardens and stone cloisters. Drinks about $10 in the bar.

Chi Cha

Calle Plaza Regocijo 261

011-51-84-24-0520

Great pizza, skewers, and pasta. Entrees $9-$15.

Aguas Calientes

Inti Inn

www.grupointi.com

Located just off the main pedestrian way, but rooms are small. Double with breakfast $130.

IndioFeliz

Calle Lioque Yupanqui 4

www.indiofeliz.com

One of the nicer restaurants in this tourist town. Good pastas and pizza and a colorful bar, $6-$15.

Corto Maltes Amazonia Lodge

Madre de Dios

www.cortomaltes-amazonia.com

Owned by a Frenchman who married a Peruvian, you get both cuisines here. Four nights, three days, all meals, guide, and transport, $300 per person.