Across a long swath of smoke-filled jungle in South America, a magical country rises above the horizon. The amazing array of scenes it presents includes a mountainous fairy-tale city enveloped in thick white fog, puzzling giant sketches etched on the earth, a series of wicker islets bobbling in a whimsical lake and Apollo-worshiping locals offering sacrifices to a rising sun. Welcome to an ancient Incan kingdom - Peru.
Nicknamed "Rainless City", Lima, on the bank of Rio Rimac, about 13 km away from the Pacific, has an annual rainfall of 10-20 mm. Though extremely humid, the rain clouds are cordoned off from the city by the Andean mountains.
Lima has a large distribution of churches, government offices, plazas and civilian residences from the Spanish colonial era. But to get a feel of the ancient Inca empire, Museo Oro del Peru is the most obvious destination. The museum houses a collection of several thousand cultural relics from the Inca reign, an overwhelming majority of which are utility items made of solid gold.
One of the world's largest private museums until 1966, Museo Oro was purchased from the famous financier and diplomat Miguel Mujica Gallo by the Peruvian government. Located in the Monterrico district of downtown Lima, its awe-inspiring facade and heavy-duty security at the gate might seem somewhat forbidding.
Inside, over 8,000 cultural relics and treasures are on display. All exhibits - ranging from gold and silver ware, mummies, clothes, sculptures and ceramics spanning a period from 5th century BC to 5th century AD carry a high archaeological and artistic value. A golden statue of Incan deity Naylam - one of the most valuable national treasures in Peru - and 16th-century Spanish army general Francisco Pizarro's sword, are the two most-prized items. The latter was smelted back in 1530.
Former Chinese premier Li Peng had paid a visit to the Museo Oro in 1995, and left an inscription and a few gifts that now form part of the collection.
Nazca Township is about 420 km and a 6.5-hour drive away from Lima. If you find fellow visitors heading the same way, hiring a sedan at $180 a day makes sense. It's both flexible and safe, and the driver may double as a tour guide.
Located in the southeastern corner of the coastal province of Ica, Nazca township was discovered by chance. In 1939, an American couple flying a small airplane noticed the giant pictures scrawled over the area. There were figures of animals, plants, insects and even human beings. The patterns were precise and non-intersecting. Prior to this grand aerial discovery, these were taken to be trenches in odd shapes cut by the ancient people, for unspecified use.
A cluster of light-plane rental firms has grown around the area. A standard 40-minute flight costs $60. Tourists can also go atop a steel tower to have a panoramic view.
The plane we boarded flew at 718 to 923 meters. The ancient Nazca residents had scraped away a 0.9-meter layer of black lava and gravel, to expose the white earth beneath and create the images.
Our local contact Anthony had some interesting information on the Nazca Lines to share. The image of the "astronaut" was actually that of a local resident, wearing a traditional hat. The "humming bird" might have been inspired by an image brought by a wandering missionary.
Located in the world's driest patch, Nazca has virtually no rainfall, nor strong winds - the reason why the images have survived over the years, with minimum erosion.
Given that they date back to a period well before men learned to fly, it's indeed amazing how these giant images could have been created with such precision. It's a mystery that has not been solved yet.
Alpine Holy Lake
Titicaca is the second-largest lake in South America, split through the middle between Peru and Bolivia. It is also the world's highest, at an altitude of 3,906 meters above sea level. Against the backdrop of the Andes, Titicaca looks like an unending mass of still waters.
The ethnic Uru people, living on the artificial floating islets, are the top tourist draw. The islets are hand-woven, using grass and wicker and have remained afloat for several centuries. Legend has it that the ancient Uru chose a floating existence to escape clan wars.
According to our guide, there were 55 floating islets on the lake, each housing three to five households. When we stepped on one of them, the islanders came forward to peddle their handicrafts. What followed was a cashless barter, though by no means a soundless one. The din raised by voices trying to strike a great bargain was deafening.
A 2.5-hour speedboat ride took us to the islet Taquile, one of the 41 natural ones on the lake. Archaeologists believe that the Incan civilization has its roots here. Ancient architectural relics of solar gates and holy temples could be sighted at Taquile. Its Inca connection has been confirmed by historians.
Richard Meng, a Shanghai-based advertising professional and a photographer, has visited 140 countries, including the North Pole, in the last 10 years.