Story and photos by Felicia Ennis Big Sky Weekly contributor

Peru is a vast and varied country. In its 496,414 square miles, there are remote
rainforests in the Amazon basin, snow-capped peaks in the Andes rising
above 20,000 feet, historic colonial architecture, legacies of Incan and other
pre-Columbian civilizations, and cultural treasures like beautifully handwoven
textiles. Here are a few spots of interest:

Arequipa
Peru’s second largest city is known for its colonial
center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing
elegant churches and mansions carved from sillar—
white volcanic stone. In the shadow of the volcano
El Misti, the city boasts some of the finest colonial
architecture in Peru. You won’t want to miss the
fine Baroque churches, and the Recoleta and Santa
Catalina Monasteries. Arequipa is surrounded by
farms producing onions and garlic, which are featured
heavily in the local cuisine.

Choquequirao
The trek to Choquequirao is 4,000 vertical feet, but
the payoff is enormous. Known as the “Cradle of
Gold,” this ancient Inca city in the Salcantay Mountains
was built in the 15th century as the spiritual
retreat of emperor Topa Inca, whose father Pachacuti
built the magnificent Machu Picchu. For centuries
Choquequirao lay shrouded in obscurity, protected
by its remoteness. Today you may explore its palaces
and temples, fountains, canals and aqueducts free of
the crowds that gather at its sister city Machu Picchu.

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Cusco
The historic capital of the Inca Empire possesses an alluring
blend of pre-Columbian and colonial history, along with
contemporary Mestizo culture—people of mixed European
and Amerindian ancestry. The Incas laid the stone streets and
building foundations of the city more than five centuries ago.
Highlights include Incan ruins such as Sacsayhuaman; Qoricancha,
the Temple of the Sun; and colonial-era Baroque and
Renaissance churches and mansions. Cusco is the gateway to
the imperial city of Machu Picchu.

Ballestas Islands
Flowing from the equator south along
the Peruvian coastline, the Humboldt
Current creates a rich marine ecosystem
with the largest concentration of
birds on Earth – about 7 million in high
season. The Ballestas Islands afford
a glimpse of rich biodiversity: huge
colonies of barking sea lions, endangered
turtles, Humboldt penguins, red-footed
boobies, pelicans and turkey vultures.

Nazca Lines
Etched into the desert along Peru’s
southern coast, the Nazca Lines are one
of South America’s great mysteries.
These 10,000 shallow designs in the
ground were made between 300 B.C.
and A.D. 700, and depict varied shapes
like a monkey, spider, hummingbird,
fish, and abstract triangles and trapezoids.
Archaeologist Johan Reinhard,
who extensively studied Nazca, theorizes
the lines served in religious ceremonies
associated with the availability of
water. They’re best seen from the air.

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Cordillera Blanca
Referred to as the Peruvian Andes, the Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest
tropical mountain range. Almost the entire range is glaciated, and it forms the
continental divide of Peru. The range is 110 kilometers long and only 12 km
wide. Waters on its eastern slopes flow through to the Atlantic Ocean, while
western slopes drain into the Pacific. It is a mountaineers’ and hikers’ paradise.

Machu Picchu
The magical “lost city of the Incas” is South America’s greatest archeological
attraction and one of the few Inca sites that is relatively intact. Missed by the
raiding Spaniards, then revealed to the world in 1911 by Yale scholar Hiram
Bingham, Machu Picchu lay undisturbed for more than four centuries. The city
is cradled in the arms of the Andes and is regularly shrouded in mist. Its staircases
and terraces, granite and limestone temples, gardens, and aqueducts were
designed in harmony with the landscape, and are prime examples of the Incan
belief in sacred geography.

Felicia Ennis owns and operates the Livingston-based travel company, Bella Treks.
bellatreks.com