Peak Peru: Our travel guide leads you on a colorful path to Machu Picchu and beyond

The colors of Peru's aptly named Rainbow Mountain of Vinicunca line up like a box of crayons.
The colors of Peru's aptly named Rainbow Mountain of Vinicunca line up like a box of crayons. Fernando López / PROMPERÚ

Graffiti covers almost every inch of everything in Lima’s hipster Barranco neighborhood. Otherwise soulless buildings in Peru’s capital city are given life by emotional portraits and landscapes worthy of a gallery show. Others offer fortune-cookie-like messages: Pensar con el corazón, in bubble letters, reminding us to think with our hearts.

We pull down an alley without any of that beautiful artwork. “You’re going to love this place,” promises our guide for the night, Julio Ferradas, a Lima native, expert on all things Peru, and executive chef at Lima’s JW Marriott.

The restaurant he leads us to, called Isolina, fronts the main drag in Barranco, which splays out its trendiness along the Pacific Ocean like a South American version of Brooklyn. Ferradas explains that they serve Peruvian abuela food. Inside is a crowd that you could envision in Brickell: young and handsome and traveled and wanting the food they ate on Sunday nights as a kid.

We expect the things everyone in Miami knows of Peruvian cuisine: tart and citrusy ceviche, the umami gravy of lomo saltado, a dash of bitters atop a pisco sour. We find nothing like that at Isolina.

2 Street art has become a draw in Lima, photo by Eric Barton
Street art is everywhere in Lima's hip Barranco neighborhood. Photograph by Eric Barton.

Peeling Away the Layers of Peru

On vintage dishes come papas rellenas the size of a wine bottle, stuffed with boiled egg and a dark, rich, ropa vieja-like filling. A skillet holds two old standards: boiled chicken blood on one side and potatoes with tripe on the other, earthy and gamey and deeply satisfying. We finish with two-bite pastries piped with dulce de leche, a flaky and delicate version of alfajores.

“This is what we eat,” Ferradas says during the middle of it, spooning up a scoop of tender short ribs covered in a fried egg and served with a starchy baked banana. “You might think you know Peruvian food, but this is it. This is Peruvian food.”

It’s the moment we realized, during a week split between Lima and the remote Sacred Valley, that we had just begun to peel away the first few layers of this country’s culture. Many visitors have taken the near-spiritual journey up to Machu Picchu — or have dismissed it outright as too touristy. And some, perhaps, have thought the ancient Incan city was all there was to Peru.

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The Art of Lima

But from sandy mountains striped the colors of a mandala to world-class art — not to mention the food; oh, the food — there are many reasons to return to Peru.

“You might think you know Peruvian food, but this is it. This is Peruvian food.”

Lima’s cliffside position along the Pacific often leaves it with San Francisco-like weather. When a cool mist is falling from gray mornings, head to the museums. Begin at Museo Larco, which uses ceramics, jewelry and artwork to document the 10,000 years of local culture before the Conquistadors showed up.

Afterward, see that history firsthand at Huaca Pucllana, an earthen brick pyramid smack in the center of Lima and older than the Roman Empire. After all that ancient history, sample the works of South America’s modern masters and experimentalists at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Lima; with its modern, windowed walls overlooking reflection ponds and giant banyan trees, the building on the edge of Barranco is itself worth a visit.

5 Machu Picchu, courtesy Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel
Machu Picchu. Photograph by the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel. Photographer:a.bryce

Machu Picchu Done Right

It’s a shame that most tourists to Machu Picchu — 5,000 a day — scratch off this place in just a couple of hours. Many make a day trip out of it by staying in Cusco and taking the train, creating a scramble of connections. That plan limits their time at this 8,000-foot-high city somehow built on a mountain the shape of a bent knee, surrounded by Andes peaks that jut up like knife edges.

Instead, create a base of operations in Aguas Calientes, with its Spanish-style square and quaint pedestrian-only streets that rise from a rushing river. Wake before dawn to take the bus up to the top, where you’ll watch the sun rise above the mountains. The day’s first light reveals a city preserved from ancient times in a spot that looks impossible for even today’s builders to reach.

A decade ago, Peru’s tourism industry catered to college kids backpacking across the countryside to the next hostel. Now the cities and mountain towns offer fine hotels with luxurious spas and restaurants with multicourse tasting menus. In Cusco and Lima, stay at the JW Marriott. In Lima, the American luxe chain lords over the Pacific cliffs, surrounded by the upper-crust neighborhood of Miraflores; in Cusco, it occupies a former Colonial-era convent with a charming Spanish courtyard in the center.

On the way to Machu Picchu, book the Belmond Hiram Bingham, regarded as one of the world’s best trains, with a Gatsby-ready bar and black-tied servers working the dining car. In Aguas Calientes, shake off the dusty streets in the plush Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, with a full spa, comfortable rooms overlooking the river and some of the finest dining in town.

8 The Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel sits along the banks of the Urubamba River, photo courtesy Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel
The Sumaq Machu Picchu hotel sits along the banks of the Urubamba River. Photograph by the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel.

Meals to Savor in Peru 

Peruvians typically eat the hearty homestyle meals served at Isolina for lunch. So, after a siesta to sleep it off, head to Restaurante Punto Azul for a relatively light cauldron of chupe, a pumpkin soup with fish and fresh cheese. For a splurge, consider Central Restaurante, where you’ll dine on Peruvian ingredients like rarely seen chijchipa leaves with duck. At Maido, delve into Nikkei cuisine, a merging of local dishes and the ingredients brought by Asian immigrants.

A visit to Peru almost certainly has to include a visit to a restaurant by star chef Gastón Acurio. His outpost in Cusco, Chicha, highlights local items from the Sacred Valley, like a ceviche of artichoke; smoked-trout potato salad; and curried alpaca with quinoa.

In Aguas Calientes, once home only to tourist traps, climb an alley stairway to Tree House, where vegan and vegetarian dishes shine, or wash down a gingery chifa fried rice with a pint of the housemade IPA at Mapacho.

9 Locals eat big lunches and then lighter dinners, like this bowl of chupe from Punto Azul, photo by Eric Barton
Locals eat big lunches then later dinners, like this bowl of chupe from Punto Azul. Photograph by Eric Barton.

Painting or Landscape?

The Rainbow Mountain of Vinicunca undoubtedly lives up to its name, looking like someone who just finished a Color Run, with splotches of neon yellows and reds and greens. Along some of the peaks, the hues line up like crayons in a new box.

Getting to this truly otherworldly location is downright difficult. Begin with a flight — from Lima or Bogota via Miami or Fort Lauderdale — to the mountain city of Cusco. There, either a travel agent or your hotel can arrange for a three-hour bus ride through the Andes foothills.

After three more hours of high-altitude trekking along soft-sand trails, you’ll find yourself in a spot that’ll make anyone wonder whether a higher power broke out a special paintbrush for this section of the world.

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