Peru was the first country we had visited in South America, and all our research (and a couple of worried parents) had recommended we keep an eye on our belongings and our safety. With this ringing in our ears, on landing in Lima and getting a taxi to our hostel, our expectations of the city were largely dismissed as we drove past modern apartment blocks and a bustling oceanside walkway overlooking the Pacific. Little did we know at this point that we had other things to look out for aside from pickpockets and bag snatchers.
Our first day in Lima saw us explore the “safe” quarters of Miraflores and Barranco, including diving into our first ruins of our trip in Huaca Pucllana. This pre-Inca site provides great views over the city and also a small farm which is home to llamas and alpacas. As Peru newbies, our excitement at seeing these iconic animals was evident, but the guide quickly ran over to warn us that alpacas always draw their ears back when feel threatened and are about to spit vomit. We walked on quickly, but the poor woman behind us obviously didn’t hear the warning as she tried to take a selfie with the animal and got quite an unpleasant surprise over her cheek.
After five months in Asia, cloudy skies and a maximum forecasted temperature of 23 degrees, it was nice to feel less sweaty and not have to top up the sun block every half hour. Mistake number one. We were later told Peru has the highest level of solar radiation in the world and our lobster coloured sun burn only a few hours later attested to this. Indeed, the number of red and radiant tourists wandering around Miraflores with a pained look on their faces is testament to this little communicated fact.
Our plan for Peru was based on using the hop-on-hop-off Peru Hop service to work our way south through Paracas, Arequipa, Cuzco (for Machu Picchu) and Puno (for Lake Titikaka).
Paracas is the jumping off point for the Islas Ballestas (also know as the “poor man’s Galapagas). A bumpy boat ride took us out to these islands inhabited by thousands of seabirds, penguins and sealions, as well as two coastguards who live there for three weeks each month. Whilst you are not allowed to step foot on the islands, it was pretty amazing how close the boat gets you – at one point it seemed like one angry sealion was about to jump on the boat, but thankfully the rest were just sleeping.
The region stretching from Lima down to Nazca is largely desert, but home to a few great sites for gorgeous sunsets such as the “oasis” of Huacachina (a bit like Magaluf in the desert but with nice sand dunes) and the mysterious Nazca lines (2000 year old lines carved into the desert floor which form large images of animals and figures which are only fully visible from high in the air).
To begin our altitude acclimatisation, we stopped for a few days in the city of Arequipa. Known as the White City for its colonial architecture, it doesn’t have the buzz of Lima or the famous Incan sites of Cuzco, but Giles and I really liked Arequipa. We might have been out of breath most of our first days there due to the altitude, but it had a lot of charm about it with lots of nice little cafes and restaurants specialising in Andean cuisine (yes, including Guinea Pig – but the Guinea Pig racing we experienced in Lima put me off eating the cute little things).
A 15-hour bus ride took us to what was always going to be the highlight of our trip around Peru – the city of Cuzco, which is know as the gateway to Machu Picchu. Whilst the centre of Cuzco is filled with old Spanish colonial buildings, it was also the centre of the Incan empire so the area is full of ruins of Incan temples and palaces.
Cuzco is a tourist town, so, for better or worse, the city has everything you could possibly want for your travels and food needs, but many places have got bad reputations on the hygiene front. The evening before our train to Machu Picchu, Giles and I decided to take a little stroll around the old squares and bought an ice cream as we didn’t want to risk anything ahead of the main event. Mistake number 2. Both Giles and I were up most of the night fighting over who could get to the bathroom first. The six hours via bus and train the next day were miserable with both of us avoiding any unnecessary movements or conversations for fear it would set off an unavoidable and embarrassing chain of events. Getting off the train, we headed straight to our hotel and passed out with the alarm set for 4.30am for the main event the next morning.
Thankfully, the next morning arrived and whilst not perfect we at least had the excitement and buzz to head to the bus stop the get up the mountain to Machu Picchu. It may have been rainy and cloudy but seeing this amazing site was always going to be the highlight of our time in Peru and it lived up to all expectations.
After Cuzco, we headed south to the city of Puno located on the shores of Lake Titikaka and the nearby floating islands. These islands (according to the guidebooks) are inhabited by locals who use reeds to build the islands and their homes on them. It was interesting but it felt a little like some historic costume re-enactment with everyone aggressively trying to get all the money they could from you.
Far from the criminal hotbed of activity that some family members were expecting, Peru surprised us with the sheer level of tourism and the variety of nationalities visiting here. The sites are truly amazing and we loved learning about the melting pot of Peruvian culture. Also, the food was beautiful. Would we like to return in the future? I don’t know.
Unfortunately we weren’t quite so lucky on the crime front in La Paz…