Off the beaten track in Peru

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Terraced land in Colca Canyon.
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The sillar rock building in Arequipa.
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Colca Canyon is a sight to behold.
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The Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa.
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Altiplano, between Cusco and Arequipa, viewed from a plane.
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The landscape of the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve is unique.
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Condor-spotting in Colca Canyon.
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The Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve.
Updated 07 July 2017

Off the beaten track in Peru

Peru is far from almost everywhere. Tucked away in a remote part of a remote continent, it is understandable that most visitors check out the highlights, visiting Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca, while devouring ceviche — Peru’s seafood delicacy — by the bucket load. But that is just the starting point of this diverse nation that spans rainforest, mountains, deserts and coastline in an area twice the size of Texas.
Venturing off the regular tourist circuit — one that usually sees visitors land in Lima, then fly to Cusco to tour Incan ruins — often follows on from Cusco, and there is no better place to push onto than Peru’s understated second city of Arequipa. In just an hour’s flight you are whisked from the subtropical lushness of the soaring Andes (where the airport is some 3,300 meters above sea level) to the semi-arid flatlands of Peru’s desert region (landing at a still lofty 2,300 meters), but the difference is immediate and astounding.
Departing Cusco’s narrow, steep, often wet streets, you land into Arequipa’s dep
endable warmth and clear skies. Founded by the Spanish in 1540, the city is famous for its Old Town built mostly from white volcanic rock, sillar, which provides not only a shimmering, pure look, but also practical protection from the earthquakes and tremors that rock the region. Arequipa was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1868, after which most of the city was reconstructed, and the Old Town’s sturdy sillar walls (built around 1.5 meters thick) have so far prevented the need for a similar rebuild.
The city center’s Plaza de Armas is the main magnet for visitors, offering shade and a window into colonial Peru, featuring lily-white rows of broad arches along three of its sides, and the baroque Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa as its mighty centerpiece, shining bright by day, captivating all at night, with subtle, artistic lighting. You can while away several hours people-watching in the square, admiring what is a beacon of stubbornness — the cathedral having been rebuilt and patched up half a dozen times since its original incarnation in the mid-1500s.
Inhaling the view, it is now time to focus on adventure-planning, and in the Arequipa region that means a trip to Colca Canyon, famed for its gargantuan condor birds, predators boasting a 3.3-meter wingspan that tease tourists with fleeting appearances, akin to spotting vacationing royalty or fully-clothed Kardashians. Getting there is best done with a tour, which meant hopping aboard a Colca Trek minibus, riding the truck-laden road out of town, and weaving through hectic pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns) that envelop much of Arequipa’s outlying areas. Dotted with indolent dogs, semi-complete homes and tangled cables, these shanty towns are at once sad and joyful, a mixture of need and nesting, framed in a patchwork of jostling concrete, choked by poisonous traffic. After hours of crawling, finally you will be liberated, emerging into the dry folds of the altiplano (high planes), then passing into the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve to spot the vicuña camelid (a sort of small, rather dainty llama). Box ticked, the tour ascends, all the way to 4,900 meters above sea level from where you can spot three volcanos — Ampato (dormant), Sabancaya (active), and Hualca Hualca (extinct) — along with the supposed source of the Amazon river, Nevado Mismi mountain.
Seeing the Colca Canyon itself begins the following morning, after a night sleeping at its edge. An early start is made bearable by driving to the Mirador Cruz del Condor, a viewpoint overlooking a 1,200-meter drop, from where condors are best spotted, especially early in the day. None were in flight, so we turned our attention to tackling one of the world’s highest bike rides, free-wheeling down a winding, empty, recently-asphalted road for almost an hour, only having to pedal a few short uphills, before cruising on down the gentle declines, stopping regularly to snap the canyon. At the bottom, you are scooped up and taken back to the viewpoint for more condor-spotting; with relief, our attentive guide yelped at the sight of the elusive birds; three condors were swooping low and distant, over a kilometer away, viewable through his essential binoculars. They appeared to be adept at teasing tourists, but even at such a distance it was easy to see why they have long been held in reverence in South America, with the condor being a national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The Colca Canyon is almost the world’s deepest, pipped by the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon (3,354 meters deep), but debate rages as to whether it is even a canyon at all. At its deepest point it drops 3,270 meters, twice as deep as North America’s Grand Canyon, and yet our guide honestly pointed out that Colca Canyon snakes between mountains, rather than carving its way across plains, marking it out as more akin to a gorge, rather than a canyon. Either way, its beauty is remarkable, corrupted slightly by a disrespectful smattering of litter, something that is sadly common to much of Peru.
As with any tour, your enjoyment may be determined by those with whom you share your journey; pray for likeminded types; pray for condors in the canyon; pray for clear weather, as traveling in a mountainous area means inevitably experiencing all that nature can throw at you. The free-wheeling, high-altitude cycling is worth the price alone, but this is also rewarding travel, far-removed from the Disney-esque masses of Machu Picchu, and a must-do for those seeking adventure in Peru.
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Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

Delightful Delhi:a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 January 2019

Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

  • New Delhi is where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions
  • The best way to discover this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets

DUBAI: Mirza Ghalib once poetically quoted his own soul as saying: “The world is the body and Delhi is its heart.”

Lofty as the claim is, there are probably few better ways to describe this chaotic, colorful city, where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions, where the country’s power players live minutes from abject poverty, where many different cultures, cuisines and faiths seamlessly coexist. For such extreme contrasts to find a rhythmic harmony, heart needs to be a big part of the equation.

While there are guidebooks aplenty to show you around the many historical sights, the incredible architecture, and the museums and art of Delhi, the best way to discover the heart (and soul) of this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets.

Delhi’s finest food can arguably be found at Indian Accent. Regularly ranked as India’s best restaurant in various awards, this upscale eatery is one of the pioneers of modern Indian dining, offering an inventive take on traditional Indian flavors, and combining them with European-style finesse. There are many others doing similar things in India now, but under the stewardship of celebrated executive chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent continues to maintain its podium finish status.

The contemporary, intimate venue oozes understated sophistication — with not a hint of Indian kitsch in sight — providing the perfect setting for the seasonal menus. An amuse-bouche could include delicate carrot shorba (soup), aloo tikki (potato croquettes) and mini dhoklas (steamed fermented rice cakes), while a must-try dish is the restaurant’s refined take on that quintessential street food phuchka (‘potato spheres’ stuffed with spicy mashed potato and doused in flavored waters — served here as shooters in five different flavors). Best to place your trust in the chefs however, and try the degustation menu (which should include their signature dessert, daulat ki chaat, an Old Delhi classic of chilled mousse-like cream; but if it doesn’t, ask for it).

Elsewhere, Lavash by Saby — a classic example of Delhi’s multi-faceted dining scene — specializes in the delicious micro-cuisine of Bengal Armenians. This trendy venue is located in the chic precinct of Mehrauli.

Delhi is home some of India’s largest Hindu temples and mosques, but the non-denominational Bah’ai Lotus House is my top recommendation for those seeking some spirituality. Acclaimed for its unique lotus design — not dissimilar to the Sydney Opera House — the white marble temple is worth visiting as much for its award-winning architecture as for the tranquility that suffuses its atmosphere. Bah’ai temples welcome everyone, without discrimination, and this is a true oasis, offering a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.

For more wonderful architecture, visit the “spiritual-cultural campus” of Akshardham. It’s a relatively modern structure among the thousands of ancient temples across India, but what it may lack in historic value, it more than makes up for in the beauty of its buildings and their surroundings. The impressive architecture incorporates a variety of traditional styles, and Akshardham provides a diversity of attractions for visitors, from exhibitions to its stunning gardens.

If you’re looking for retail — rather than spiritual — therapy, Delhi runs the gamut of options, from designer boutiques to street-side stalls. To shop like a local, head to Mehar Chand Market, the city’s latest retail district. A (relatively) recently gentrified precinct, this neighborhood market has replaced its groceries and tailoring shops with chic stores, all with a distinct skew toward the indie and artisanal. Amidst the quirky street art, the stylishly updated heritage shophouses are now home to handspun garments in Ekmatra, unique homeware in Nicobar, eclectic designs in The Shop, plus boutiques by a new brigade of Indian designers including Masaba. The enclave is also emerging as a dining hub, with venues such as Altitude Café (a healthy eatery offering locally-inspired gourmet goodies) punctuating the stores.

Also popular among Delhi’s trendsetters is Hauz Khas Village — a historic complex in which the medieval-era buildings now house an achingly hip selection of designer boutiques, galleries and cafés.

Even if you’ve only got a few days to spare, a trip to this thriving city should satisfy any visitor, regardless of their aims. Delhi really does have something for everyone, and fully justifies Ghalib’s lofty claims on its behalf.