LIMA, Peru — The flight into Jorge Chavez International Airport is surprisingly packed this spring night.
Passengers, mostly young, many with backpacks and nearly all in hiking boots, bubble with anticipation as they disembark.
“Machu Picchu?” the customs officer asks lazily before stamping the passport.
The scene plays out daily as Peru deals with an unprecedented wave of tourists, drawn largely to the iconic lost city of the Incas and the rugged Andean culture left behind. (Since 2004, the number of visitors to Peru has more than doubled. Arrivals from Canada have increased an astounding 130% from 2004-2012.)
Certainly the jaw-dropping mysticism of Machu Picchu is worth the hike and by all means take time to inhale the rareified air — and not just because you’re 3,500 metres above sea level — of Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire until it was overrun by the Spanish 500 years ago.
But in their haste to absorb this archaeological treasure, North Americans are missing out on even more in the opposite direction.
You want mountains? Arequipa — the country’s second-largest city and only a 75-minute flight from Lima — has three of them: Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu, towering volcanoes watching over the White City (so called for the glossy white silla, or lava rock, from which buildings were made, or re-made, following an eruption 800 years ago).
You want Incan mystery? The saga of “Juanita,” the tiny young girl whose frozen body was found high among the volcanoes in 1995, more than 500 years after she was sacrificed to the gods, ranks up there with Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu 84 years earlier. “The Ice Maiden’s” mummified remains are on public display, kept in a frigid glass box in Santuarios Andinos Musuem.
Another thing unique about Arequipa: It’s spotless, from the cobblestone streets outside the famed ochre walls of the Santa Catalina monastery — a city within a city and still partially in use by Dominican nuns, 430 years after it was built — to the river raging through the city centre to the impeccable restaurants. So much does it stand out that locals half-joke a passport should be required to visit.
And mysteries don’t get much deeper than the Nasca lines, an astonishing 350 km worth of immense geometric formations and figures carved in the desert floor. They’re some 5,000 years old and only a few centimetres deep — therefore only visible from the air — but how they got there and by who remains unknown.
There’s not nearly as much mystery as to what happened to Paracas. Once a seaside tourist mecca, it was levelled by a 2007 earthquake. It is now re-emerging as a playground for the wealthy and is being rebuilt into what locals call “the next Malibu.”
The road, or at least the Pacific Coast highway, back to Lima is also filled with treasures, from hectares and hectares of agriculture — from avocado to paprika, both for domestic use and export — to archaeological ruins (Tambo Colorado) and bird-watching .
Lima, a world heritage site, is home to 10 million people and it seems everyone of them is on the road during rush hour (this is a sprawling city, remember, without subways or streetcars).
But the city centre almost resembles a European capital for its cleanliness, architecture (despite being Spanish, there is a definite French influence), cathedrals (San Francisco is the most spectacular), pomp and ceremony (presidential palace) and main square (Plaza de Armas).
For a taste of the real Lima — away from the typical tourist hubbub — head to the Barranco district, a bohemian enclave of coffee shops and other epicurean delights.
NEED TO KNOW
Lima is about a 10-hour flight from Toronto non-stop, although other routes are available through Houston or Atlanta. For tourist information, go to peru.travel/en-ca.
— In the heart of the Machu Picchu/Cusco region — close enough, yet far enough away — Tambo del Inka in Sacred Valley is a perfect combination of serenity and culture.
— Arequipa is filled with former colonial mansions one — Casa Andina — has been transformed into a stunning retreat, including stone courtyard and private gallery, behind a giant wood door in the heart of the city.
— The Lima Marriott hotel provides stunning waterfront views, a casino and an easy walk to attractions in the Miraflores district.
— In Ica, Vinas Queirolo is set among 400 acres of vineyards, where grapes for both red wine and pisco are harvested. The pisco is made right on the estate.
— The Sheraton Paracas offers oceanside luxury and convenience.