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For anyone interested in history, Peru, with its remarkable Inca ruins and pre-Columbian artifacts, has long been the pre-eminent destination in South America.

The country offers countless other pleasures as well: breathtaking landscapes, wonderful crafts, and very friendly people.


High in the Andes, bewitching Machu Picchu was
most probably a centre of the Inca religion.
Photo by Martin Sivek.
Although there's no law against homosexuality, the machismo principle still rules in Peru, and gays and lesbians tend to keep a very low profile. But there are signs things are changing. Notably, Lima Tours, the country's biggest travel agency, has been making a determined effort to attract gay and lesbian tourists, Among other things, it has produced a useful flyer, "Gay Life in Peru," listing bars and discos, gay bathhouses, and other meeting spots.
Peru comprises three very different geographical regions, each with its own particular climate. This can make packing for and scheduling your trip a little complicated.

Lima lies in the narrow desert belt between the Andes and the ocean, with high temperatures and little rainfall. But don't expect blue skies; a dismal mist blankets the coast April through December. In the mountains, however, the dry season - May to September - is wonderfully sunny and warm, but evenings can get chilly. The rest of the year it's usually raining. Descending eastward into the jungle, it's hot and sticky year round, and there's nearly constant rain from October through March. All in all, the best time to visit Peru is from mid-April to June, when the rainy season has passed but the highlands are still verdant.

With nearly 8 million inhabitants - about a third of the country's population - Lima is a sprawling, congested mish-mash of old and new, elegant and tawdry, rich and poor. Founded by conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima soon became the wealthiest Spanish city in the New World. Something of that colonial splendour can still be felt amid the hubbub, especially around Plaza de Armas, the lovely main square overlooked by the Cathedral and its majestic yellow bell towers. Check out the gorgeous mosaics in the chapel housing Pizarro's sarcophagus; one surprisingly sexy picture shows the conquistador sending faint-of-heart soldiers back naked to Spain. A couple blocks away is the 17th-century Monastery of Saint Francis, noted for its macabre catacombs, centuries-old library, and exquisite Seville tilework. And just off the main square is Casa Aliaga, a sumptuously furnished colonial mansion built in 1535 (visits must be arranged through Lima Tours).

Although Lima boasts some good public museums - especially the Museo de la Nación, which offers an archeological survey of Peru's 3,000-year history - the best collections of pre-Columbian art are in private hands. Best-known is the marvelous Museo Rafael Lorca Herrera, which among its vast holdings has set aside a room devoted to pottery with an erotic theme - though none featuring homosexual matings are on display. Museo Enrico Poli, housed in the collector's own home, is in a class by itself. Over the past half-century, Poli has assembled a dazzling assortment of colonial silver and pre-Columbian ceramics. But most spectacular is his treasure-trove of gold artifacts discovered in ancient tombs in northwestern Peru in the 1980s.

Most of the city's gay life is located in the fashionable Miraflores district, five miles south of downtown. Gay-friendly spots include trendy Café Café and the elegant sidewalk restaurant Haiti. Sample a Pisco sour, Peru's national cocktail of egg, lime juice, and brandy, as you trade glances with that adorable creature at the next table. You're likely to meet up later at Gitano, a hugely popular gay and lesbian club with a large dance floor, great music, and an excellent light show.

Nestled high in the Andes, Cuzco, a short flight from Lima, seems worlds away. From here the Incas once ruled an empire that covered most of Peru and extended into Ecuador and Chile. Their civilization flourished for a century, then the Europeans arrived.

The Spanish built churches and haciendas on top of Inca temples and palaces but couldn't erase the memory of Cuzco's former glory. In many colonial buildings, you still see Inca walls with their remarkable polygonal masonry. The temple complex called Coricancha, once lined with precious metals, was stripped and looted, then incorporated into the foundations of the Church of Santo Domingo. Today, part of Coricancha is again visible, providing a stunning example of Inca architecture. Other important ruins can be found just outside Cuzco; most impressive is the Inca fortress Sacsayhuamán (pronounced "sexy woman"!), site of bloody warfare with the Spanish.

The great majority of Cuzco's 300,000 people are Quechua, descendents of the Incas. On first arriving, you might think Cuzco is the queerest city in the world; everywhere rainbow flags are flying. Actually, this colourful striped banner is the Inca Flag - what you are seeing is a display of Quechua Pride!

But gays and lesbians do find a welcome here, especially at two establishments, both in the San Blas neighbourhood: The Witches' Garden, owned by three gay men from New York, offers delicious food in a romantic setting, while another gay-owned place, the cafe Macondo, serves tropical food in a jungle atmosphere (try the yucca balls) - this is where the local hipsters hang out.

At 11,000 feet above sea level, Cuzco is one of the highest cities in the world, so avoid strenuous activity until you've acclimatized. It's advisable to bring medicine for altitude sickness; the native remedy - drinking tea made from coca leaves - can help, too. You may also want to first spend a few relaxing days in the nearby Urubamba valley, about 2,000 feet lower than Cuzco.

Also known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the area is dotted with ruins, from picturesque farming terraces to the magnificent Ollantaytambo fortress. Here, too, are the markets of Pisac and Chinchero, where you can purchase colourful woven goods of fine alpaca wool - rugs, blankets, and sweaters. You'll be charmed by children in native dress posing for pictures with their llamas (be sure to give the children a sol, a coin worth about 20p). Activities such as rafting and horseback riding are great ways to admire the valley's extraordinary beauty.

Further along the valley, enigmatic Machu Picchu climbs the side of a mountain in an intricate arrangement of ghostly plazas, terraces, and temples. Archeologists believe this was once a major Inca religious centre, but no one knows for sure why it was built or why it was deserted. Still awe-inspiring, the site is accessible by bus from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. For the full effect, arrive early to see the mists lifting off the ruins.

If you have enough time, you might consider exploring Peru's third region by spending a couple days at a rainforest lodge. There are several in the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve Zone in southeastern Peru, and they are reasonably priced.

One of the best is the remote Sandoval Lake Lodge; getting there requires a 40-minute boat trip from Puerto Maldonado, followed by a 1.5 mile jungle trek, then a half-hour canoe ride across a shimmering lake. The facilities are rustic but comfortable, the food excellent, and the guides extremely knowledgeable. Touring the lake at dawn and dusk, you're likely to see monkeys, parrots, giant river otters and the bizarre-looking hoatzin bird - bring a good pair of binoculars. Less charming are the ubiquitous mosquitoes, so don't forget your insect repellant and malaria pills, and get a yellow fever vaccination before you arrive.

From fast-paced Lima, to the bewitching Andean highlands, to the teeming jungle, Peru offers a seemingly infinite variety of delights. And now more than ever, it's opening its arms to gay and lesbian travellers.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Peru's country code is 0051
Café Café (Martír Olaya 250, Miraflores, Lima, 1-445-1165).
Casa Aliaga (Jirón de la Unión 224, Lima, call Lima Tours to book visits).
Gay Peru website.
Gitano (Berlin 231, Miraflores, Lima, 1-446-3435).
Haiti (Diagonal 160, on the Oval, Miraflores, Lima, 1-445-0539).
Lima Tours (1-424-5110) website.
Macondo (84-229-415, Cuesta San Blas 571, Cuzco).
Museo de la Nación (Javier Prado Oeste 2466, San Borja, Lima, 1-476-9875).
Museo Enrico Poli (Lord Cochrane 466, Miraflores, Lima, 1-422-2437, 1-440-7100).
Museo Rafael Lorca Herrera (Bolívar 1515, Pueblo Libre, Lima, 1-461-1312, 1-261-3397).
Witches' Garden (84-242-175, Carmen Bajo 169, San Blas, Cuzco).
Martin Sivek has written extensively on international gay and lesbian culture.

Revised January 2016

 

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