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Overview

Think of ancient temples ensnared in jungle vines, jaguars prowling at night, wild raging rivers, imperial crumbling tombs basking in the sun, and five-hundred-year-old hallucinogenic shamanistic rituals. Lying just south of the equator on the Pacific Ocean, "Peru" to the Quechu Indians meant "land of abundance." Sacred sites like Machu Picchu—the majestic mountaintop Incan citadel, and Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, recollect the vast wealth and remarkable innovation and advancement of the Incas. From the huge coastal deserts, the giant sand dunes, the perfectly formed volcanoes, the vast Amazon rainforests, the Cordillera Blanca Mountain range with peaks topping 5000 meters — the geography and history of Peru are staggering.

One of the world's most spectacular lakes, Lake Titicaca is also its highest navigable lake. This is where the Andean plateau collides with the peaks and valleys of the magnificent Andes. Gemlike islands of deep green are scattered across the shimmering lake, while in the background are crumbling cathedrals, old agrarian villages at the water's edge, rolling hills and the highest mountain in Bolivia in the background. This is where the peasant women wear sandals from recycled tires and their famous bowler hats as they watch over their llamas. Andean myth tells us that Lake Titicaca gave birth to the sun along with the mother and father of all of the Incas. Pre-Incan Pukara, Collas and Tiwanaku lived on the lake and their monuments still exist in the area — everything from burial hills for dwarfs to oversized rock penises.

Arequipa is known as Ciudad Blanca, or "White City" because it's surrounded by snowy and extremely active volcanoes. Also surrounding the city are thermal hot springs, high deserts, the deepest canyons in the world, and salt lakes. This is where you have a choice of mountain biking, white-water rafting, trekking, or hiking up Andean peaks. Arequipa is the ultimate base camp for all these activities. There's no place else quite like it in Peru as it's the perfect blend of outdoor and urban life. Travelers can run down a sandy volcano in the day and eat spicy local food for dinner and end off the excitement with an all-night dance party. Make sure you take in the landscape surrounding the city also, as it's full of hidden wonders such as ancient ruins, Andean condors, and dinosaur prints.

The archeological capital of all of the Americas, Cuzco is also South America's oldest continuously settled city. It also happens to be the gateway to the renowned Machu Picchu. This is definitely a tourist city, but the powerful history of the place is never out of reach or forgotten. Huge Incan walls line narrow and steep cobblestone streets and form the structure of modern buildings. Quechua-speaking Inca descendants are everywhere in the town, and Incan treasures are on display inside the colonial churches.

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