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
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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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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

The Finnish Capital, Helsinki, shot from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

  • The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air
  • The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki

DUBAI: Access to Helsinki has just become easier for Gulf travelers thanks to the introduction of a new route from the UAE to the Finnish capital. Last month, budget carrier flydubai launched its Dubai-to-Helsinki flights, offering the best connection from Saudi Arabia as well.
Our first port of call after the six-hour trip was the utterly enchanting Hotel Kämp, arguably the best-known hotel in Helsinki — after all, it has been around for over 130 years. The classy, comfortable five-star property is known as a place to see and be seen.
While there, do check out Kämp Spa, where saunas are, of course, available. (There are almost as many saunas as there are people in Finland.) Kämp Spa offers two options: the eucalyptus-fragrance grotto steam sauna and a traditional Finnish one.
The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air. The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. You can take in the glorious architecture of Helsinki Cathedral, while also viewing the Government Palace, the main building of Helsinki University, and Sederholm House, Helsinki’s oldest building, dating back to 1757.

For shoppers, Helsinki is home to one of the world’s most exciting and influential design scenes, and a treasure trove for unique pieces. Try TRE, which stocks over 300 brands of well-known classics as well as mostly homegrown products — including fashion, jewelry and furniture — from new designers.
Be warned, though: Helsinki is expensive. Very expensive. So you’re probably better off investing in a cool design piece for the home rather than the usual gifts and gadgets. You’ll leave with something memorable that’s high-quality and, of course, unique.
For something on the quirkier (and cheaper) side, second-hand clothes store UFF has chains across the city, where you’ll find some gems that are as good as new.
Dining out in the city also doesn’t come cheap, but it is an experience to savor. For casual snacking, The Old Market Hall sells cheese, beautifully fresh fish (we’d recommend the salmon), fruit and veg, and has cute little cafés.

For dinner, it’s worth treating yourself. Garden by Olo is an official ‘spin-off’ of the Michelin starred Olo and serves Nordic ingredients fused with Asian elements.
One of the newer eateries on the block is Restaurant Andrea at the newly opened Hotel St. George. Here, Nordic and Anatolian kitchens come together to offer a variety of sharing plates, inspired by both cuisines.
If you fancy taking in some of Finland’s stunning scenery, head to one of the national forests close to Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park — forests and lakes spread over Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti — is easy to get to by public transport, and features eight marked trails for hiking in the freshest of air.

If you are visiting for more than a couple of days, then it is well worth exploring Lapland, the official home of Santa Claus. You’ll need to take a one-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
If time is tight, try a reindeer sleigh and husky sled experience, where you can interact with the animals on farms and enjoy rides through the snowy forests.
There’s so much more to see and do than is mentioned here, of course. We’re sure we’ll return to Finland one day, it’s definitely a trip worth making. Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.