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The Faces Of Peru

More than just the iconic Machu Picchu, Peru is a wealth of landscape, wildlife and cultural photographic opportunities

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Llama and Machu Picchu
Nikon D90, Nikkor 16-85mm lens, Nikon SB-800 Speedlight flash

I’m perched precariously on a ledge looking over stone ruins 30 feet below when the winds and the rains suddenly let up, sun shafts penetrating the clearing clouds, and somebody gives me a strong shove from behind. On my knees, framing a shot in my tripod-mounted camera at the edge of a wall near the Watchman’s Hut in Machu Picchu, the fabled lost city of the Incas in Peru, I topple forward, but thanks to a low center of gravity, both the camera and I manage to stay on the wall.

Swinging around to give the culprit a piece of my mind, I come face to fur with the hefty rear flank of a llama. Apparently, he was grazing with the same intensity with which I was shooting, and neither one of us noticed the other until he nearly sent me to the sun gods with an Andean hip check.

As if to apologize for his clumsiness, my doe-eyed friend proceeds to position himself just in the perfect position for an environmental portrait with the famous ruins in the background. I grab the D90 off the pod, throw on an SB-800 for a kiss of flash fill on those big eyes, and frame up the scene quickly, thankful for the late-afternoon sun and the willing four-legged subject that gives me just that much of a different twist on Peru’s most famous view.

A family paddles their reed boat near Balseros, one of the Uros reed islands near Puno, on Lake Titicaca.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 12-24mm lens

That’s the way it is in Peru—even as you frame up a great shot, a better one will present itself, usually with a bit more ease than this.

Three Perus?
Although it’s one sovereign country, most tour guides here like to say there are three Perus with distinctly different landscapes. The first Peru consists of the thin strip of desert that runs down the Pacific coast. The second is the wide area of low-lying Amazon jungle in the country’s interior. The third and most famous area, lying between the other two, is the Andes region—a dramatic landscape of high mountains, cloud forest and desolate plateaus that was home to the Inca empire.

I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph two of the three Perus, and one day hope to make it back to the jungle. But there’s enough in the other two areas to keep you happily shooting for months!

Having been to the Andes region several times on my last trip to Peru, I wanted to check out the coastal area before heading up into Inca country. My main reason for making the journey south from the capital city of Lima was to see, and hopefully photograph, the famous geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines. These huge carvings in the floor of the desert, made between 200 B.C. and A.D. 700, run the gamut from sets of geometric lines to stylized representations of hummingbirds, monkeys, spiders and an assortment of other figures.

It’s a long (185-mile) drive from Lima to Ica, the jumping-off place for most visits to the Nazca Lines, so don’t try to do it in a day. The small town of Nazca itself is another two hours south, but most tours will put you up overnight near Ica, where there’s a small airport that serves as home for the flight-seeing operations.

Although there’s one place on the road near the Nazca Lines with a 36-foot-high platform, where you get partial elevated views of the Hand and the Tree, getting up in the air really is the only way to appreciate these large figures.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A procession of village women walks from the town hall to the church on a Sunday on Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 16-85mm VR lens

Up To The Andes
Ideally, you would take a few days to work your way gradually up to Cusco, the Incan city and regional capital that sits at about 12,000 feet of altitude. That way, your body would acclimatize gradually to the thin air. But flying up from sea-level Lima in one fell swoop seems to be my fate in visiting Peru, and it’s literally breathtaking to step from the plane into the rarified atmosphere of this gorgeous colonial city.

If you happen to be lucky enough to stumble into one of Cusco’s many festivals, you don’t have to worry about tipping if you’re shooting the action of dancers or people in parades. It’s only if you ask for a pose. On a recent trip, I noticed some fireworks scaffolding being set up in the picturesque main square (a must on your shot list, especially at twilight) one afternoon and returned later to find dancers in front of the cathedral after which the fireworks were set off.

I made the most of the dancers using slow-synch flash with the SB-800 on my D90, panning with a slow shutter speed as the dancers went by me. I started at about ISO 400 in the early twilight, but by late evening, was cranked up to ISO 1600 in order to keep a shutter speed that was slow enough to register some background, but not too slow as to make that background a complete blue (for me, this means working in 1/15 sec., 1/8 sec., but hopefully no slower than 1⁄4 sec.).

There’s plenty to keep you happily shooting in Cusco for a few days, but you’ll inevitably want to head up into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. If you can, I recommend starting out on a Sunday, making your first stop at the town of Chinchero, site of a beautiful old Inca ruin and a lively Sunday market. This market is the real deal, primarily designed for locals and not tourists. But you’re welcome to wander among the food and textile stalls, and if you buy a little something here and there, you’re more than welcome to compose a picture.

Seabirds off the Ballestas Islands, the so-called “Galápagos of Peru,” in Paracas National Reserve.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens

I like to work with two bodies in market situations, one with a wide zoom, one with a tele-zoom. That way, I can get wide establishing shots or environmental portraits, plus tele-detail shots and candids. If you have only one body, you might consider doing a pass through the market with a wide lens, then go back through with your longer lens to look for those different perspectives.

Not far from Chinchero, on the road to Ollantaytambo, are the salt pans of Maras. There are over 3,000 small pools to dry and harvest salt that have been in continuous use since before the Inca times! You’ll get some great pattern shots looking down with a long lens from the windy and treacherous road leading down into the salt pans, and again from the small market area right above the pans. Look for people walking and working among the salt pans to break up the pattern and create a sense of moment. It’s incredible to think that local people have been working this way for thousands of years.

Ollantaytambo is a living Inca town, and you can see the Inca engineering still in use in the narrow cobblestone streets and their drainage trenches. This is where the train to Machu Picchu is picked up (there are no roads; it’s train or hiking to get up there). Most people whiz through here, giving a quick look to the wonderful stonework of the temple and moving forward.

But Ollantaytambo is worth exploring because it’s a transportation hub for a lot of the outlying Quechua villages, and you can catch interesting indigenous faces in colorful garb if you hang out by the market and the bus station, especially near the end of the day when people are making their way back to traditional towns such as Willoq and Patacancha.

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The main square of Cusco at twilight.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 16-85mm VR lens

On To Machu Picchu
You can do Machu Picchu as a day trip out of Cusco via train or bus and train, but that’s not the way you want do it. You want to spend at least one and maybe even two nights in Aguas Calientes, the small town at the foot of the mountain where Machu Picchu sits that’s the rail terminus from Ollantaytambo.

That way, you get to go up to the site at least once and hopefully twice. A good plan is to arrive on a midafternoon train, get settled into your hotel in Aguas Calientes and then plan a late-afternoon excursion to the ruin. It’s open until 6 p.m., but most of the day trippers are gone by 3 p.m.-ish. So not only do you get better light the later in the afternoon you go, but you get fewer fellow tourists crawling all over the place.

Then you can plan on going back up early the next morning (it opens at 6 a.m.) to try to catch some early light. This plan gives you two cracks at shooting the ruin, and gives you twice as good a chance of not getting rained on—a distinct possibility, especially in the rainy season (October to April). Tickets are very expensive, about $40 a day, but how often will you get back here, and what is it worth to have some decent weather to shoot one of the world’s most impressive ancient sites?

My strategy shooting the ruins involves climbing up to the Watchman’s Hut first for the famous overview. Depending on weather, I’ve waited up there for up to about four hours for rain to stop and fog to lift. It shapes up nicely with a wide-angle, and hopefully you can get some of the local llamas in the shot (if they don’t push you off the wall first!).

It’s all more or less downhill from there, and I work my way down from there, shooting tighter shots, details and other angles. Make sure you have enough cards, batteries, water and rainproof gear for both you and your equipment (and a small umbrella so you can shoot in the rain), as there’s no “running back to the hotel” for something you forgot.

A little girl peeks from behind her mother’s backpack during the Sunday market in Chinchero.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens

The no-tripod, no-backpack rules at Machu Picchu are, shall we say, fluid. On my last trip in January 2009, I had no problem with my Tamrac Velocity 9x sling bag. I tucked my Gitzo Traveler tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead under my rain parka and walked right in, and nobody hassled me when I used it.

I’ve heard recently of all kinds of restrictions—charges for lenses over 200mm, etc.—but I only can report that I’ve never had any problem. Then again, I go out with minimal gear, I tape over the names and logos on my cameras with black electrical tape so they look generic and harmless, and I always have a few bucks at the ready for any necessary on-site “permits” a security guard may require. Discretion is the watchword here, as in many travel situations, and the less “professional” you can appear—anywhere—the easier it will be for you.

Going Higher
Once you’ve had a few days in Cusco, it will seem like nothing to take the Andean Explorer train across the highland plateaus toward Puno and legendary Lake Titicaca. Here, the altitude is more like 13,000 feet, but I felt much more chipper having already been at altitude for several days.

You’ll want to take at least the one-day boat tour on the lake to the reed islands of Uros. Here, you can meet families who live out on these reed islands in a traditional manner. Now, you definitely won’t be the first photographer to set foot here—they’re well accustomed to tourists. But what I really like about Peru is that, even in the more touristed areas, they don’t seem so jaded by your presence that they can’t be bothered to demonstrate their crafts and way of life.

Be sure to take a short trip on a reed boat, and enjoy these folks’ hospitality, as it still feels genuine. There’s some nice images to be had here and on Taquile, a gorgeous Mediterranean-like island where the native dress is almost a dead ringer for that of the fishing villages around Nazaré in Portugal, and the landscapes look like Corsica or Sardinia. These islands are just two more threads in the gorgeous and eclectic tapestry that is the country of Peru.

To see more of Bob Krist’s photography, visit