When my boyfriend and I started planning our summer trip last year, Peru wasn’t even on our wish list. As often happens, driven by curiosity of the many beautiful destinations around the world, we were discussing options that ranged from U.S. National Parks to the Bahamas, Cuba to Portugal.

Then we spoke with a friend we didn’t know was spending some time in Lima, who told us how beautiful Peru was and how much we would enjoy it, too. We looked at each other, a bit surprised that we hadn’t thought of Peru in the first place. We booked our flights the following day, with a thrill in our stomachs that meant an adventure was imminent.

I must admit, aside from Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, I had a very little knowledge about this country. It was also my first time in South America, so I began researching as soon as we bought our tickets. I wanted to create an itinerary that included as much as must-see landmarks as possible, but also allowed for spontaneity.

Peru surprised me in so many ways.

I was surprised by the richness of the country, in terms of natural environment and wildlife. Peru has everything from glaciers to deserts, mountains to jungles to ocean, to beautiful beaches, canyons, and volcanoes. These different climates create landscapes with equally diverse wildlife. There were cute sea turtles, playful dolphins, and sea lions quietly soaking up the sun. I saw whales for the first time in my life — they were so close and so beautifully majestic. When you go on a whale watching tour, you’re not guaranteed to see a whale at all. I was excited and my excitement only added to the atmosphere on the boat, as we all looked at the horizon in search of a burst of water or a tail. The mutual joy when we spotted the first one was tangible. We saw many others that day, sometimes swimming alone, sometimes along with their calves, and the feeling was the same each time.

I was surprised by the mash-up of different architectural styles (colonial, baroque, native) resulting sometimes in colorful and vibrant buildings in the historical areas of Lima, Arequipa, Trujillo, and Cuzco. I loved Arequipa with the three volcanoes dominating the skyline behind its beautiful Plaza de Armas and the bright red and light blue walls of Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a former monastery that, was shrouded in mystery until it was opened to the public in 1970. Walking inside this place was like walking through a village in Spain, with streets named after Spanish cities, a main plaza, and beautifully decorated cloisters and housing units. It’s fascinating thinking about how this monastery once represented a city within a city, hidden from everyone with its own secret life.

Trujillo, also known as the “City of Eternal Spring” because of its sunny, mild-climate year-round, has one of the best well-preserved examples of colonial architecture of Peru. Plaza de Armas is home to most of these buildings, such as the bright yellow Cathedral and the light blue painted walls of the Municipal offices. But it was Casa Urquiaga, an elegant colonial mansion with beautiful wrought iron grillwork windows and pastel shade facade, that stayed in my memory.

Lake Titicaca fascinated me like no other place in Peru. Maybe because it is the highest navigable body of water in the world, or because of the peace found only in places at a certain altitude, or because of the fierce, proud simplicity of its inhabitants. I also felt completely awestruck by its beauty — the wild nature surrounding the area, the blue of what looks like an endless lake, the complete silence, the slow rhythm of the life, the bright light of stars at night. Now, when I need a safe, happy place to shelter myself from the chaos of daily city life, I close my eyes and imagine myself back at Lake Titicaca, looking at the peaceful, beautiful water.  

I was surprised by how different life can be lived around the world. The Uros people, the inhabitants of the little islands of Lake Titicaca, build their floating homes using buoyant totora reeds, a type of reed that grows abundantly in the shallows of the lake. These islands are constructed with many layers of totora, which are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. Although most of the Islas Uros are touristic now, it was still interesting to learn about their unique way of life.

And finally, Machu Picchu. I was surprised by how much excitement I felt to actually be there. I learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you have heard about this place or seen it in pictures, documentaries, or travel essays. It doesn’t matter how touristy this area has become. Machu Picchu is worth it. The ruins sit, nestled among gently sloping tropical mountains, so green and full of life. The Urubamba River zigzags through the valley below. The frailty of such an ancient place resonated within me, uncovering my fears, reminding me that we are only passengers on this exciting, marvelous, sometimes unintelligible, surprising planet.

I will always remember what our guide told us during the visit through the ruins. Unfortunately, every now and then, a wall falls due to heavy rain or other weather conditions and the passing of time. In the past, the people working in the conservation team of the archeological site were allowed to rebuild the walls, but due to new regulations, they can’t anymore.

I looked at him, my eyes wide open, and asked, “Why?” He replied with a peaceful smile. “Beautiful things sometimes come to an end. We have to accept this, it’s the circle of life.”

I hope one day I will be able to let go of something I love with the same level of serenity and self-awareness the tour guide felt about letting Machu Picchu slip away. In the meantime, I will hold on to the memories I have of visiting a small part of this incredible country.

I think this is also what travel teaches us — to make the most of our time, grasp as much beauty as possible, immerse ourselves in the culture, food, and way of living of a place, and then be able to step back, let it go, take home the memories, know that we have good stories to tell, and make space for the next adventure.