Roundup 5: Peru Part 1
Before we embarked on our big trip across Latin America, we made a list of those countries that we really wanted to visit. Peru ranked second on our list, so that’s exactly where we headed after Mexico, flying straight from Mexico City to Lima, the capital of Peru.
April in Peru was a month of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we enjoyed the country’s amazing landscapes and interesting culture. On the other, we had some problems adapting to the people and the fact that many towns, though interesting, are often unpleasant, super noisy, and unbelievably dirty. This was particularly discouraging coming down from lovely Mexico, where the towns are so colourful and the people are so warm.
But we slowly learned to deal with those things that we didn’t like, which allowed us to focus more on those that we did. From Lima at sea level to Puno at 3,800 metres above the sea level, here’s how our first “adaptation” weeks in Peru developed.
We knew that there’s not much to do in Lima in terms of sightseeing, but we stayed in Lima for one week anyway. Partly because of the weekly discount on Airbnb and partly because we wanted to catch up with blogging. We also wanted to slowly adapt to this new country (new currency, new food, new people), before we started exploring it. Lima, or more specifically the fancy area of Miraflores, was perfect for such a stop.
We got a nice room in an apartment in the centre of Miraflores. We blogged, cooked, and played with Lala – our host’s little noisy doggy whom we disliked at first. She probably didn’t like us either, but after some days of playing Fetch we grew an affection for one another. It was actually nice to have a pet in our otherwise pretty routine daily life in Lima.
Playing with little Lala confirmed our desire of having a dog or cat when we settle down. Just not sure which one to go for. Cats are less demanding, but dogs are more playful. We’ll see.
Because Lima is said to be the best place to try out Peruvian cuisine, which has garnered quite some hype in recent years, we had very high expectations. Especially, once again, after having been spoiled in Mexico.
Our first Peruvian signature dish, lomo saltado, was indeed tasty but it left us a little confused. It’s a rice dish with sliced beef, onions, and french fries coated in some kind of dark gravy that tasted very… Chinese! I later looked it up in Wikipedia and confirmed my suspicions – lomo saltado is a stir-fry dish seasoned with soya sauce.
Next in line was the ubiquitous Peruvian speciality arroz chaufa. To my surprise, it looked and tasted exactly like Chinese fried rice (a very good one, might I add). I immediately realised the connection: Chaufan in Mandarin literally translates “fried rice”. So this dish is actually called “fried rice rice”.
Whaaat?! Never in a million years could I have imagined that Peruvian cuisine is so heavily influenced by the Chinese. Where’s the Peruvian influence, actually? Where’s the corn, and the potatoes, and quinoa that they grow around here? This was weird!
Later, as we travelled more in Peru, we realised that Peruvians actually love Chinese food. Other than the Chinese-inspired dishes, Chinese restaurants are everywhere in the country. I don’t have the statistics, but I’d even go as far as saying that one-third of all the restaurants in Peru are Chinese.
There’s even a special name for these restaurants – Chifa, a word that literally translates to “eat rice”. Although, the right spelling should be Chifan. Lost in translation. It’s funny to think that the sentence “Vamos al Chifa a comer arroz chaufa” means “let’s go to the Eat Rice, to eat fried rice rice”. Do Peruvians actually know this?
Ica – Paracas – Huacachina
Before we got too comfortable in our little Miraflores bubble in Lima, we decided to move on. Besides, the city wasn’t really our dream place. The traffic is very heavy, drivers are quite aggressive towards pedestrians, and the weather was getting cold and rainy, as the southern winter approached.
The idea for this first part of our trip was to tour the Southern part of Peru in a circuit covering all the attractions from Nazca to Puno to Cusco. So, after Lima, we stopped at a town called Ica that is famous for 2 things that have nothing to do with Ica itself – the Paracas National Reserve and a desert oasis named Huacachina.
Other than its strategic location, there’s nothing worth mentioning about Ica. The little town is chaotic and noisy with hundreds of tuk-tuks honking frantically (to pedestrians, to other cars, to potential customers, or just because) and driving like maniacs through every single one of the town’s ugly streets. We really couldn’t wait to leave, even when we had just arrived.
As for food, there wasn’t much around and we didn’t have a kitchen, so we ended up eating lots of chaufa and KFC for lunch. Our dinners became invariably a glass of milk, some bread and fruits.
Luckily, outside of Ica, everything was much calmer. Our day tour to the Paracas National Reserve and Islas Ballestas was fantastic. The Ballestas Islands, also called the poor man’s Galapagos, are teeming with wildlife and the cost to visit is only a fraction of that of Galapagos. The islands lived up to their reputation; we saw hundreds of sea lions with their pups and a great variety of birds, including penguins!
And speaking of desert, the second attraction we visited when in Ica was an oasis surrounded by dunes called Huacachina. OK, this Huacachina place has nothing to do with China or chinese food. It’s an overdeveloped tourist destination that is famous for sandboarding and partying.
The lake of this oasis used to be natural, but not anymore since some years ago. Nowadays, to prevent it from drying up due to the increased well-drilling around the area, it is constantly being filled it up with water transported from miles away as the local tourism industry simply can’t afford to lose the oasis.
Because our visit to Ica coincided with the Easter weekend, the place was packed beyond control. All tuk-tuks in town (including ours) got stuck in a terrible traffic jam trying to reach Huacachina, so eventually we all gave up and started walking. It looked quite biblical, an exodus through the desert. We spent just a few hours in Huacachina and left as soon as the sun sank beneath the horizon. Nothing remarkable there held us back. We walked half way back before finding a tuk tuk driver that didn’t want to rip us off.
Following the desertic coastline south we reached Nazca, after 4 hour of beautiful landscapes that we enjoyed from our bus window. Guess we don’t have to tell you what the city is famous for. The Nazca lines are one of the greatest mysteries of human history. Experts are still debating about the actual purpose of the ancient geoglyphs drawn on the desert. Was it for alien spaceship landings? Or for religious ceremonies? No consensus yet. That’s perhaps a good thing; everyone can have their favourite hypothesis about the Nazca lines.
We had 2 options to see the lines. A cheaper way would be from a viewing platform that offers low-angle views of only 3 of the main “figures”, meaning that we wouldn’t be able to see much due to the huge size of each geoglyph. The more expensive way, would be to fly over the Nazca lines in a small aircraft, which would set us back between $60 – $100 (US dollars). This was expensive for our tight budget, but that’s not why we had doubts about this option. Our main concern was actually the safety, since there were so many plane crashes in the past. Besides, the flights are also notoriously rough especially for people who are prone to motion sickness, which Diana wasn’t happy about.
After some research and several back-and-forth discussion with Diana, we decided that I’d fly alone. It’s not that I’m tougher or anything, but she wasn’t up for the motion/vertigo challenge and I really wanted to see the lines after so many years of reading about them. Plus, it’d coincide with my birthday! What better gift than this unique (despite risky) opportunity?
As it turned out, the flight was great and the lines were really impressive from the sky. I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me, so I had both the left and the right windows all for myself. Our pilot tried to show all the 13 Nazca lines to all passengers, so he flew by each line twice, first through the left side then the right. As the only lonely guy with both windows to himself, I got to see every line twice! Seventy bucks totally well spent : )
Regarding the town of Nazca itself, well, suffice it to say that there’s nothing to see and not much dining options there. We ate grilled chicken every day and tried not to think too much about it. Anyway, we kind of needed the extra calories: we had to be prepared for the nightly mosquito-killing marathon, which was lots of exercise. We kid you not, we spent every night a good hour jumping, chasing, smashing… we had to shower afterwards from all the exercise!
By now we had started resenting the noise in Peru. Taxis never stop honking, dogs never stop barking, music never stops blasting…. Even though the Nazca lines are truly amazing, I’d be lying if I said that we had enjoyed Peru up to this point. We actually thought of going back to Mexico, where people are much friendlier and everything looks much prettier, but that’d be the childish thing to do, right? We can’t just run away as the road gets rocky. Besides, we were only just getting started.
After spending a week in those not-so-pretty towns with bad food, we arrived in Arequipa, a pleasant contrast that we welcomed with enthusiasm. Not only is Arequipa one of the largest cities in Peru, but it’s also one of the prettiest. We spent a good one week in Arequipa, trying to maintain a balance between blogging and exploring the city. Things seemed to be changing for the better.
Arequipa was a rich city centuries ago, which is evident from the many colonial buildings with elaborately decorated facades scattered all over the historical centre. They’re made all the more pretty by the snow-capped peaks that surround the city, serving as the perfect backdrop.
And, what’s better: this part of town is quiet, as car access is limited. The only noticeable noise was that of the garbage truck, which apparently circulates all day long playing ”Under the Sea” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (of course, it was Diana who identified the song). It was a little funny but it didn’t bother us, although Diana got a bad case of little-mermaid ear worm.
Outside of the centro historico, it’s a different story though: the traffic is a complete mess and the town acquires a surprising resemblance to Ica, only many times bigger. For the same reason pollution is very strong here, which is only made worse by the ultra strong solar radiation in this part of the world. So we were happy to stay inside the white, beautiful part of the city, only crossing “the border” to leave the town for good.
The white city of Arequipa gifted us with lots of perfect-picture moments, especially during sunset, which was our favourite time of the day. We made it our mission to find the perfect spot to capture the magical moment and we succeeded. But, as it’s often the case, the spot was taken by the most expensive hotel in town.
We almost turned our backs on this fancy rooftop bar (it didn’t exactly fit our travelling style) but Diana argued that it’d be the perfect ending to my birthday celebration, so I caved in. It was great! The restaurant has irrefutably the best view of Arequipa’s main square and its surrounding chain of snow peaks. As we saw the sun slowly setting and colouring the sky pink, we took the opportunity to try our very first Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru.
Arequipa was also the first place in Peru where we saw alpacas and llamas. These iconic camelids are part of the “amazing Peru” experience, so we were wondering all along where they were. Funnily enough, the place where we saw them was a shop selling garments made of wool from the Andean animals – Mundo Alpaca.
It wasn’t exactly the ideal setting, but we ended up enjoying a lot anyway. To our delight, the shop turned out to be a mansion hosting a very educational mini “wool museum”. A free tour was offered upon arrival where we learnt about the process of producing alpaca wool and how it is then turned into expensive garments. Plus, we got to pet and feed a small herd of alpacas and llamas as part of the experience. Diana had a great time feeding the animals and couldn’t resist buying a discounted scarf.
Arequipa seemed to be the entry gate to camelid land. After our first encounter in Mundo Alpaca, we started finding llamas and alpacas everywhere. What we didn’t expect though, was to find their legendary relatives – the vicuñas – effortlessly on the way to our next destination, Puno.
Vicuñas are shy, exclusively wild animals that until recently were at the brink of extinction. They’re highly valued for their wool, which is considered as one of the finest fibres on earth. During the Inca times, only members of the royal elite could use vicuña garments. But beyond that, they’re extremely beautiful! Seeing them gracefully roaming in the breathtaking Andean landscapes was a heartwarming surprise.
By this point, we had come to love travelling by bus in Peru. Other than the drivers, which depending on the bus company can go from very decent to downright crazy, bus travelling in Peru is a very enjoyable activity on its own. The scenery is amazing everywhere we went. Deserts, coastlines, canyons, valleys, rivers, glaciers, each landscape is more bewildering than the last one. On this particular way from Arequipa to Puno, the sights of wild vicuñas and countless herds of domesticated alpacas and llamas on such sceneries were truly awe inspiring.
From Arequipa, we travelled south to Puno looking for a very particular attraction: the offshore floating islands of the Uros people (aka Uros Islands) on Lake Titicaca, an enormous lake that is shared with Bolivia. But Puno is high up in the Andean mountains: 3,800 meters. Since we’d never been to such altitude before, we were a little anxious: the impact of altitude is not to be taken lightly and we didn’t know how our bodies would react to it.
In order to prevent altitude sickness in Puno, we took some medication that we’d brought with us all the way from Basel. Thankfully, the drug worked its magic and we didn’t experience any major symptoms, but we got some funny, numbing sensation in our palms and feet as part of the side effects. Like what I sometimes experience when I had one too many beers the previous night. But I guess it’s better numbness than the awful altitude sickness? Or at least I hope so; the numbing sensation was no joke. It even hurt. Those floating islands had better be good!
The city of Puno is extremely cold and unattractive, like a shanty town made out of buildings that looked half finished or still under construction with exposed bricks and metal skeletons. But we didn’t care much because we weren’t there for the city and by now we had learnt to somehow ignore the ugly parts of Peru.
So, whenever we weren’t out eating or taking pictures of the colourful indigeous people, we stayed in, covered in countless layers, drinking coca-leaf tea and watching food shows on Netflix. Anyway, moving too much at this altitude would give us a headache immediately.
The floating islands, on the other hand, were surprisingly nice! We were expecting something very touristy and not authentic based on what we’d read in many blogs, so we were glad to be wrong on this one. Perhaps we should follow this approach more often: lower our expectations and allow the places to blow us away.
These floating islands are very unique because they’re entirely made from scratch using only a kind of grass-like plant called Totora reed that grows abundantly in and around Lake Titicaca. The Uros people started building these islands to protect themselves from the assaults of the aggressive tribes from the mainland. Now that the threats are no longer an issue, the islands have been transformed from a safe haven to a tourist haven.
Tourism is now the main source of income for the Uros people. Everything around these islands revolves around the economy of tourism. Even our self-guided tour, that we naively thought could give us a little more freedom to explore the islands at will, felt just like a professionally organized tour where everything was “planned” from the time we boarded the ferry. But we can’t complain about it; the least you have to deal with different “operators” in Peru, the better.
End of the Peru Part 1
These all sounds like a lot but it’s only the first half of our journey through Peru. Things were slowly looking better and the second part was actually quite amazing, so stay tuned. Next, we travelled to heart of Peruvian tourist mecca – the Cusco region and the world-renowned Machu Picchu. From Cusco, we took a short flight back to Lima and continued our journey to the north. Several long bus journeys took us to Huaraz, Trujillo, Piura, and eventually crossing the border to Ecuador, where we flew from Guayaquil to the amazing Galapagos Islands. There’s still so much to tell!