More About Peru and Cusco
Stretching from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes down to the Pacific Ocean and from the steamy jungles of the Amazon to high-altitude Lake Titicaca, Peru is a land of dramatic landscapes and rich ethnic cultures. It’s home to iconic tourist destinations like Machu Picchu and one of the world’s most famous treks, the Inca Trail, as well as colonial cities draped in history and idyllic beach resorts.
Those who opt to volunteer in Peru will discover traditional Andean cultures, an enticing cuisine which fuses Incan and Spanish influences, and a fascinating cultural legacy displayed in music, dance, art and literature.
Top tourist destinations near Cusco
Plaza de Armas
The historic heart of Cusco is the Plaza de Armas which (according to legend) once marked the center of the Inca Empire. After the Spanish conquered Cusco in the early 16th century, they erected the churches of La Compañia and La Catedral which still dominate the square today. The square is abuzz with activity both day and night, making it an ideal spot for people watching while soaking up its architectural magnificence.
Dominating a hill overlooking Cusco’s colonial center, Cristo Blanco is an 8-meter tall white statue of Christ, standing with his arms extended outwards. It’s reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s “Christ the Redeemer” but on a smaller scale and was given to the city by Christian Palestinians who sought refuge in the city following World War II. There are sweeping views across the Plaza de Armas and Cusco’s surrounding residential areas with their distinctive red tiled roofs. Cristo Blanco is just a ten-minute walk from the ruins of Sacsayhuaman or it can be accessed by the double-decker sightseeing bus.
Situated just to the northwest of Cusco’s city center are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, originally built by the Killke culture in the 12th century and expanded by the Incans into a towering fortress. There are expansive views on offer and impressive stone masonry to discover, including zigzagging stone walls, carved Incan thrones and the Explanada platform where the Raymi Festival of the Sun is still celebrated.
Aside from its charismatic cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, Cusco is most famed as the gateway to Machu Picchu. Set on a ridge overlooking the magnificent Sacred Valley, “The Lost City of the Incas” dates to the 15th century and managed to remain hidden during the Spanish conquest. Today it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its temples and aqueducts exhibiting fine Incan masonry within what is a breathtaking setting.
Sacred Valley treks
For many visitors to Peru, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a “bucket list” experience, traversing the spectacular Sacred Valley along an ancient Inca route which is dotted with ruins. But other lesser-trodden trails are also worth exploring, including the Lares Trek which visits local Andean communities and hot springs along the way.
The culture of Peru blends ancient Amerindian traditions with those of the Spanish colonizers and exhibits a vibrant ethnic diversity which results from the country’s varied geography. Spanish is the official and most widely-spoken language, although Quechua is spoken throughout many of the Andean regions and Aimara predominates in the southern Andes. In the Amazon, Shipibo, Ashaninka and Aguaruna are among the many indigenous languages spoken.
Catholicism is the main religion, brought by Spanish colonialists, although religious festivals often display influences of pre-Hispanic cultural beliefs and their coexistence with Christianity. Showing respect to Pachamama (Mother Earth) is an important part of many Peruvian celebrations in recognition of her ongoing generosity to the people.
The country boasts a rich and varied folklore, with diverse expressions of music and dance which combine indigenous and Hispanic elements. Zampoña panpipes, terracotta trumpets and putotos are among the most important instruments in Peru, although shells, reeds and animal bones were all used in ancient times for musical purposes. The marinera is considered Peru’s national dance, combining elements of the Spanish fandango, African zamacueca and indigenous couple dances, with each region having its own distinct style. Peruvian weaving, pottery and silverwork also have ancient origins, resulting in beautiful handicrafts to purchase in most towns and cities.
Fusing ancient ingredients from its indigenous populations with those brought by the colonial Spanish and immigrants from across Europe, Asia and West Africa, Peruvian cuisine has a rich multicultural history. The four main traditional staples were corn, potatoes, Amaranthaceaes (quinoa, kañiwa and kiwicha) and legumes, and although native ingredients were largely overlooked during the colonial period, there has been a resurgence in interest as Peruvians are rediscovering their ancient culinary history.
Because of the country’s varied climatic conditions and geography, its cuisine varies dramatically depending on the region. Along the coast look for ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice and chillies) which is often served with camote (sweet potato) and cancha (toasted corn), as well as its spicy juice which is known as leche de tigre, or “tiger’s milk”.
In Arequipa keep an eye out for chupe de camarones which features thick freshwater shrimps cooked with milk, chillies and potatoes, while in Lima you’ll find favorites like lomo saltado (sliced beef stir-fried with garlic, tomato and cumin and served with French-cut potatoes and rice) and ají de gallina (chicken in a spicy sauce made with yellow chillies, cheese and milk).
The Andean region still relies heavily on traditional indigenous ingredients, with corn and quinoa featuring heavily, alongside meat from alpacas and guinea pigs. Cuy chactado is basically fried guinea pig which has become a “must try” for many visitors to the country, while pachamanca is a popular meal for celebrations and festivals, with meats, herbs and vegetables slow-cooked underground on a bed of heated stones.
In the Amazon, the large freshwater paiche fish is often featured in a variety of different dishes, while juane is a popular rice dish made from chicken and seasoned with turmeric before being wrapped in banana leaves. There is also a wide variety of different jungle fruits to try, including cherimoya, guanabana, mammee apple and camu camu which is rich in vitamin C.
Airlines which fly to Peru from Europe, North America and Australia
Jorge Chávez International Airport is the main gateway to Peru, situated just outside of Lima’s historic center. From here there are regular daily flights to Velasco Astete International Airport or you can opt to take a long-distance bus from Lima to Cusco which takes around 26 hours. Many who come to volunteer in Peru prefer to break up this long journey by traveling to Arequipa by bus, then on to Puno to explore Lake Titicaca, before taking the train from here to Cusco.
If you’re coming from North America, there are direct flights to Lima from Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami with American Airlines, from Atlanta with Delta Airlines, from Houston and Newark with United Airlines and from Fort Lauderdale with JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines. You can also fly direct from Los Angeles and New York-JFK with LATAM Chile or from Washington-Dulles, Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles with LATAM Peru. If you are coming from Canada, there are direct services with Air Canada Rouge from Toronto-Pearson.
For those coming to volunteer in Peru from Europe, there are direct flights from Madrid with Air Europa, Iberia, Plus Ultra Líneas Aéreas and LATAM Peru, with the latter also flying to Barcelona. There are also direct services from Paris with Air France, while British Airways flies direct from London-Gatwick and KLM flies to Amsterdam.
If you’re coming from Australia, the most direct route is through Auckland and Santiago de Chile with LATAM or Qantas.