Few countries are as endlessly fascinating as Peru. A succession of ancient cultures can be dated as far back as 3200 B.C. And in the 16th century, the Incas administered what was probably the largest empire in the world at the time. When their last stronghold, Vilcabamba, fell in 1572, Peru’s gold and silver became the foundation of Spanish wealth and power. Today the inhabitants of Lima are mostly mestizo or of European descent, but 45 percent of the country’s people are still Amerindians, and in the mountains, indigenous populations continue to speak the native languages Quechua and Aymara. Peru’s terrain rises from stark coastal desert to the glaciers of the Andes — Peru has 37 peaks over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) in height — and then descends steeply to the Amazon jungle.
Alas, Peru is not an entirely straightforward country in which to travel. Although there are hotels that meet the Harper standard, they tend to be concentrated in a few areas, chiefly in Cusco and the adjacent Sacred Valley of the Incas. For example, I have long tried to find a suitable property close to the famously enigmatic Nazca lines etched into the southern desert but have so far drawn a blank. And although there are a number of jungle lodges, none that I have experienced is exceptional, and the best way to see the Peruvian Amazon is still on a river cruise operated by Aqua Expeditions. Politically, Peru is volatile, and its economy is relatively weak. In some areas, shocking levels of poverty persist, and on my recent visit, I was inconvenienced by strikes called by poorly paid public-sector workers that led to blocked roads and train lines, as well as the temporary closure of the airport at Juliaca on Lake Titicaca.
In addition, the country’s capital, Lima, is very much an acquired taste. True, the historic center contains grand Spanish Colonial architecture, and the districts of Miraflores and Barranco offer some vibrant restaurants and galleries, but from April to November, the city is usually covered by a foggy drizzle known locally as garúa, the result of the cold Humboldt current, which flows up the Pacific coast of South America to mingle with warm water at the Equator. Only from December to March does the sun reliably put in an appearance. Outside of this period, I would consider a brief stay at the best airport hotel, Wyndham Costa del Sol Lima Airport, before heading directly to the mountains.