Peru — land of the Inca, Andes and Amazon

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Updated 14 April 2016

Peru — land of the Inca, Andes and Amazon

Ever wonder how one could travel and experience sun and sand, then mountains and steep slopes without the need to travel thousands of miles just to get there? To relive an old civilization, to feel the warmth of freshly damp soil of a rainforest, to feel the touch of a cool breeze off the side of a mountain, the warmth of the blazing sun as your toes dig into the sand while the cold ocean waters wash ashore below your feet and eventually realize that it is possible. South America is a boiling pot for all of that, the continent has just the right amount of history hanging on to by scattered indigenous communities mixed with the modernity of progressing and advancing civilization.
Peru, the third largest country in South America, is one with a complex mix of landscapes giving Peruvians and visitors alike the chance to experience something new, different and wild beyond belief. We live in a world deprived of normalcy in the sense that we live in the confines of concrete walls, surrounded by technology and we are very very fortunate for civility. But there will always be humans who relate to nature, a need to be in tune with it and succumb to its force; it’s an innate feeling and one that needs to be fulfilled every now and then. Peru is surely a must visit.
First stop of the trip would be Lima, the modern capital of Peru, a city alive with culture, art and innovative architecture mixed with the appreciation and passion of their historic heritage. Lima is also known as “The City of Kings” after the Spaniards aptly named it its new capital in the South American continent, the discovery of gold and silver put the new capital in the spotlight. Peru became a viceroyalty meaning the viceroy ruled on behalf of the King of Spain at the time over all of South America. Because of Lima’s difficult past with the Spanish monarchy, Limeños now pride themselves for building their city up and returning it to its original setting to show off their pre-Columbian past. When the first Spaniards first arrived in Peru in 1532, they brought with them the riches and civility of Europe thus sweeping away traces of its Inca civilization. The last trace of the city’s founder, Francisco Pizarro’s statue was removed from its old historic center or La Ciudad de los Reyes, and replaced with the flag of Quechua “Inca Nation.”
Located on the coastal waters of the magnificent Pacific, the city has much of the best of what the Spaniards brought with them but this prosperous city has so much more potential than one thought earlier. The mosaic that is Lima is a combination of over 40 districts, from ultra modern designed neighborhoods facing the seaside to shantytowns on the nearby hills. Although it’s technically built in desert lands, it’s considered one of the greenest cities of the world, even housing one of the largest fountain parks. Nicknamed the “Garden City,” the government honed in on one of Peru’s most potential asset, its’ gastronomy, putting Peru in the world spotlight with its emerging national cuisine.
Start your visit at Lima’s Miraflores district, one of the most upscale districts of the historic city, housing most of the hotels and upscale shopping centers. The area is home to modern art galleries, art deco buildings, modern architectural structures and one of the most important archaeological sites in the city, Huaca Pucllana. Located in San Isidro, a laid-back residential area of Lima, this pre-Inca mud-brick temple is an adobe and clay pyramid that served as an important ceremonial and administrative center for the Lima Culture society, founded between 200-700 AD. Nestled between the high rises of the Miraflores district, visitors can roam the preservation and visit the museum and restaurant attached to the pyramid, a night visit to the restaurant provides a magnificent view of the lit pyramid. While it’s not allowed to actually step into the pyramid itself due to ongoing excavations to uncover artifacts and mummies (three mummies were discovered along with a child), the surrounding areas provide sufficient viewing.
A short walk along the seaside area in the Miraflores district comes Larcomar, a multilevel entertainment, food and shopping complex. The view from the area is magical. Set atop the cliffsides, restaurants offer some of the best of Peruvian cuisine, known for its big flavors and spices, clean and crisp and others deep and heavy. To name a few dishes, ceviche, also known as Peru’s national dish, is full of crunch and punch using the freshest of fish combined with hot chili and lime citrus, lomo saltado (stir fried beef), aji de gallina (creamy chicken), papas a la huancaina (potatoes in spicy cheese sauce), pollo a la brasa (literally chicken on coal) and so much more. The prime location of Larcomar makes this gastronomy experience ever more pleasurable with the vast deep blue of the Pacific ocean below.
A major attraction would be El Beso or “Love Park,” a beautiful green space along the ocean inspired by Barcelona architect Gaudí and featuring a sculpture by Peruvian artist Victor Delfín. Not far from Larcomar, it was said that many plunged to their deaths from a nearby bridge because they were unlucky in love, ironically within close range to El Baso.
Next would be the Palaza de Armas, considered to be the birthplace of modern day Lima. It is one of the most beautiful squares, even by European standards. With beautiful architecture surrounding the square, the exquisite bronze fountain surrounded by several government buildings is home to the Palace of the Viceroys and center for all kinds of ceremonies and festivals. Established in 1535, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded the area and designed the main square in order for all important institutions to be built around the square itself.
Lima is home to a large number of museums yet the Larco museum is one of Lima’s most unique museums, it’s built on the site of a pre-Columbian temple and houses a vast collection of over 2,000 ceramic, textile and precious artifacts, mummies from the different ancient civilizations that conquered Peru and many more archaeological treasures. Not only are visitors allowed to tour the galleries, what makes this museum more significant than others is allowing visitors to enter the store rooms and look at other artifacts that aren’t on display. Artifacts are preserved and protected since many were destroyed by the Spaniards when they first arrived, destroying much of Peru’s precious history while at it. Unlike the old Egyptian artifacts spread around the world’s most famous and prestigious museums, Peruvians prohibited the extraction of their artifacts outside its borders, making them even more enticing to view.
For a truly interesting Peruvian gastronomy experience, head down to the Surquillo district where a “Boulevard of Gastronomy” was established turning a traditional farmer’s market to a a pedestrian mall showcasing the freshest of ingredients used in Peruvian cuisine. The restaurants never fail to impress visitors, it’s a reflection of local practices and ingredients, heavily influenced from the indigenous populations including the Inca that once ruled the land. Peruvians truly understand the meaning of “holding on to the past” in the most positive and tasty way.
Lima might seem as an extremely far city to visit, but it doesn’t disappoint in the least. History and modernity efficiently coexist and it’s well worth a visit for a truly amazing experience. It’s best to visit during the summer and fall months, May-November, when the weather is warm, the surf is great, festivities are held all over the city and who can pass a great gastronomy experience.

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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019

Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.