South America travel: A tour of Peru from Cusco to Lima

Mariella Frostrup is enchanted by the scale and riches of Peru

If Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his way and Earth is designated a residential zone, then Peru will certainly qualify in a top five of global recreational parks.

With its awe-inducing Andean peaks dropping abruptly down to desert, culminating in a surf-bashed rocky coastline, this is a country of epic scale. For those seeking to absent themselves from the frenetic demands of 21st-century connectivity and get out and about in a world of geological wonder, ancient traditions and omnipresent pan pipes, it’s hard to think of a better location.

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Cusco, the ancient Inca capital and gateway to the extraordinary civilisation that dominated South America for 100 years from the late 15th century, was our first stop. Jet lag propelled me from my opulent pillow-strewn nest at Palacio Nazarenas, an old convent set in a series of courtyards with fountains, blooming hydrangeas and rosemary bushes, to the town square.

At 7am the Plaza de Armas, dominated by its 17th-century Gothic cathedral, was already a hive of activity. Schoolchildren were practising for the next day’s regional dancing competition in the early sunlight. A heavenly choir drifted from the cathedral, enticing me closer — but not before I’d assured the security man at the door that my intention was to pray, not to sightsee.

Inside was dark, cool and the scent of incense thrust me back to my Irish Catholic childhood. Draped in white and gold-threaded cloth below a crucified black Christ, the altar was resplendent with vases of pink and red gladioli. In the dim light the priest, in purple and gold vestments, knocked back the blood of Christ from a gold chalice.

The high walls boasted more gold, framing the vast 17th- and 18th-century paintings of the bloodiest sufferings of Christ. This was religion in all its gory, fear-inducing pomp, brought to South America by the conquistadors who concluded the Incas’ domination of that huge continent in less than a year.

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