The Southern Highlands


Terrain and Weather
The northern reaches of the region are mountainous with glacial valleys, high plateaus, temperate cloud forests, semi-tropical valleys and central jungle. The canyon areas have dry days and cold nights; if it's going to rain, it will likely do so in January and February, and nights are coldest from June to August. On the lower eastern slopes of the Andes, temperatures are mild but humid and rainy from November to April.

The region contains many natural wonders. Lago Junin National Reserve at the top of the region is a pleasure for birdwatchers. Located between two communal reserves in the Vilcabamba Mountains, 757,000-acre Otishi National Park was established in 2003 and contains many waterfalls, tropical pasture land and low forest that is home to diverse wildlife.

Located 100 miles north of Arequipa, Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. About 100 miles further to the northwest, Cotahuasi Canyon is even a bit deeper. International adventure travelers on Peru tours love the hiking, mountain biking, rafting and kayaking opportunities these two river canyons provide, as well as the greater likelihood of glimpsing the endangered condor than elsewhere in Peru. The distinctive condor, black with a white ruff and a wingspan of up to ten feet at maturity, is one of the world's largest birds. On the rim of Colca Canyon at the Cruz de Condor viewpoint, the species may be seen floating up on warm air currents.

Between the canyon and the city of Arequipa is the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, the site of a dam that has created lagoons that attract many bird species. At the largest of the lagoons, Salinas, flamingos may be seen. In the Pampa Canahuas portion of the reserve, vicunas are the main attraction.

Fifty miles east of Nazca is the Reserva Nacional Pampas Galera, a 29,653-acre reserve where some 8,000 endangered vicunas roam. This petite camel species, measuring just three feet at the shoulder, was hunted almost to extinction before gaining the protection of the Peruvian government in the 1960s.

While located in the Andes, the Ampay National Sanctuary, near the town of Abancay, has a semi-tropical climate where palm trees grow. It protects a forest of endangered conifers in an area of lakes and mountain vistas.

The Cities
Most visitors on Peru tours come to the city of Huancayo to visit the distinctive villages that surround this highland city in the Mantaro Valley. The communities hold many festivals, and each village has its own specialty craft including weaving, embroidery, alpaca articles, silverwork and pottery. The village of Cochas Grandes is known for its gourd-carving, an ancient tradition called mate burilado. The valley town of Jaura was the provisional capital of Peru before Lima took its place.

Ayacucho, called La Ciudad de las Iglesias, is known for its many churches, some dating back to the 1500s, and the high level of its artists' craftsmanship. Meaning "City of Blood," Ayacucho was re-named to commemorate the scene of the final Spanish defeat, ending colonial rule in Peru. The city's Santa Ana neighborhood is filled with workshops where retablos, ceramics, furniture, metalwork and most notably weaving are produced and sold in its shops and galleries, offering visitors on Peru tours some unique souvenirs.

Between the region's famous canyons and the city of Arequipa is an area called the Valley of the Volcanoes, comprised of some eighty volcanoes. Arequipa sits at the base of 19,100-ft inactive El Misti. While volcanic eruptions here have been the source of much misery down through Peruvian history, for Arequipa, they have also produced sillar, the city's main construction material, providing its image as La Ciudad Blanca (the white city) and its beauty. Among the city's most famous sights is the immense and colorful Santa Catalina Convent, dating back to 1580. The city's pleasant climate, picturesque valley setting and fine alpaca textiles and leatherwork crafts, make Arequipa a popular highland stop on Peru tours.

Archeological Sites
The region contains many Incan and pre-Incan ruins, some easily accessible, others requiring stamina and commitment. Twenty miles north of Abancay and 100 miles west of Cusco is Choquequirao, an Incan city built after Machu Picchu and more difficult to reach. A tourist destination the travel media now calls "the other Machu Picchu," it is an archeological work in progress with seventy percent still to be excavated. As yet, it remains mostly undiscovered by international tourists on Peru tours, a situation that will likely change, because its size and significance rival Machu Picchu. Near the city of Tarma, the Rupestre Pintish Machay Sanctuary protects some 600 ancient cave paintings.

In February, the best of the region's Carnival celebrations is held in Ayacucho. The best cities in the south to experience Holy Week are San Cristóbal de Huamanga, capital of Ayacucho Department, Arequipa and Tarma. Founded in 1538, Tarma is known for its intricate flower carpets around which it holds an annual competition, the Concursco de Alfombras de Flores in March/April. In May, a pilgrimage takes place from the foot of Mt. Shalacoto to the city of Tarma. In September, the folklore-based Virgin of Cocharcas Festival in Andahuaylas and Junin honors the Patron Saint of the Mantaro Valley. The Mantaro Valley is the site of many festivals throughout the year, so whenever you go on your Peru travel, you'll be likely to experience one. For New Year's Eve, head to Huancayo.

Four of Southern Explorations’ Peru tours visit Colca Canyon and Arequipa: the ten-day Machu Picchu and Colca Canyon Tour, the thirteen-day Inca Trail and Colca Canyon Tour, the fourteen-day Best of Peru Tour and the eighteen-day Adventure Peru Tour. A four-day tour extension is offered that visits these locations as well.