Guide to Peru

Ok so firstly, I’ve written a few posts about Peru already: Cusco, Peru: The Navel of the WorldThe Orphanage (not the movie)Machu Picchu and final days in CuscoMachu Picchu: Part 2Final days in Cusco, and Lake Titicaca, although I wrote them more as blogs to update people on my progress rather than guides. I thought that because I’d spent quite a bit of time in Peru (just over 2 months) I am qualified to provide a bit of information on it, even if I haven’t travelled everywhere.   When people make the decision to ‘do’ South America, Peru, mainly because of that big town on the mountain, is generally top of their list. For this reason most places are pretty crowded with tourists young and old, long term and short term, which is fine. I’m not going to get all travel hipster on this, as you want to meet other tourists while travelling, although when we were volunteering in Cusco, living in a beat up area far away from all the tourist places, we did get a little snooty over them. Come to think of it however, most volunteers didn’t do anything touristy in there time there, and a few didn’t even do Machu Picchu! They took being a local a little too far. Anyway, every country in South America is diverse, but Peru is super diverse. From the amazon jungle surrounding northern Iquitos to the white beaches of Mancora through the vast, wealthy city of Lima down south to the desert oasis of Huacachina, Nazca lines, Colca Canyon, Incan Jewell of Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. It has everything, but can be taken slowly or quickly, depending on your time frame and what you want to do… So lets start with

The North:

Image   Now northern Peru is vast and seems overwhelming, but isn’t, it all depends on how long you want to take going down. Now I don’t actually know this area, so what I’m going to recommend is based on what friends have told me:

Mancora Mancora has made its name in Peru for specializing in three things, sun, surfing and soirées (just wanted an excuse to keep the alliteration going. I meant parties). Located right at the tip of Peru, 85 miles from the Ecuadorian border, it’s a tourist hub and is very aware of that. Expect some great nights out, time chilling on beaches and if you’re into surfing, some great waves. Stay at Loki.  

Stock beach photo that could be anywhere in the world. Trust me, google images said it was Mancora.

Los Organos Pretty similar to Mancora but a little less well known, it will doubtlessly provide the same experiences, although apparently is a better place for first time surfers to learn, as the water’s a bit more forgiving. It is also home to Pacifico Adventures Ecoturismo, a company that allows you to head out into the ocean and view humpback whales, dolphins and other marine life in their natural habitat. Trips last about three and a half hours and tickets cost S/. 120 for adults and S/. 100 for children.

Poser

Chicama I’m merely including this for surfers. Chicama is a tiny town that also happens to have a stretch of coast line that has created the longest wave in the world, at 1.6 miles. Pretty narly.

I’m sure someone has come up with some cool Chicama pick-up lines (“That wave’s actually not even the longest thing in town ;D”)

Huanchaco A little north of the city of Trujilo, this beach town is a bit more low key than Mancora, but still has some nice beaches.

You can get photos like this too if you come to Huanchaco

Trujilo- While I’m sure this is a really charming, nice city on its own, it is also close to Northern Peru’s best Pre-Colombian (pre-European influence) archaeological monuments, Chan Chan, the largest adobe (mud-brick) city in the world and Las Huacas del sol y de la Luna (temples of the sun and moon).

Chan Chan (no influence on the can can)

Huarez- Huarez is home to the less expensive and alternative (hipster) trek to the Machu Picchu Inca trail, the Santa Cruz trek. The pictures I’ve seen of it look really awesome, and I think I’d like to do it when I come back to Peru, but here’s an article by someone who did it without a guide. I’d recommend doing an organised trek though, and through this agency http://www.huascaran-peru.com/, it seems 3 days is the minimum. If you have the time and money it looks stunning. Iquitos The best way to visit the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, Iquitos is actually the largest city in the road inaccessible by road, although to be honest, getting there from other parts of Peru or Colombia would be a week long bus ride anyway. So you either have to fly in, or get a boat (fly, it’s relatively cheap). The attraction of the city is obvious, go there to take an Amazon tour, but while there, expect certain things. First, it’ll be hot and humid all year round, with humidity averaging at 90% (that’s very humid). Second, as there are no roads, the city is dominated by motorcycles and motorcarros/rickshaw, so watch out for that. Third, as there are no roads, it’s amenities are also very basic, so don’t expect luxury here. Apart from an Amazon tour, which you can book from your hostel (although this- http://www.dawnontheamazon.com/ looks the best), maybe also check out the Amazonian Manatee (sea cow) Orphanage, and the Monkey island (included in a Dawn on the Amazon tour), but Wikitravel has some useful info on ithttp://wikitravel.org/en/Iquitos, as will lonely planet.

The South:

Image  The South is more my area of Peru. The only bit I didn’t do was the Colca Canyon, but obviously do that if you get down here (I didn’t because I was being good and working so hard at my orphanage).

Lima If you want a bit more of an in depth review of Lima, I have one here. Effectively, while it is a vast, sprawling city, its best bits, and where most tourists go, is Miraflores. An upmarket neighborhood situated on the coastal cliffs that overlook the Pacific, most of the hostels surround Kennedy Park, a large and pleasant park that usually has local music and dancing going on in the evenings, and a large wild (but not feral) cat population. Stay at Flying Dog Hostel if you want to be beside the best sandwich place in Miraflores, or Parawana for a large, well-run party hostel. There’s also some decent paragliding off one of the cliffs, and surfing below on the beaches. Try out ceviche at La Mar on Avenida La Mar. Don’t stay more than a few days though, as there’s not a huge amount to do and it was cloudy all the time I was there. Pisco/Paracas Urgh, Pisco. This complete dive of a town is where I had my passport and camera stolen, so try to spend as little time as possible there. From the bus stop it’s a 15 minute taxi to Paracas, the coastal town which offers boat tours to what Peruvians call the ‘Little Galapagos’, some rock formations that have wildlife and similar geography to the Galapagos. I did the tour and it was pretty cool, but nothing to write home about. I got a cool picture of a sea lion doing an awesome pose, but then my camera got stolen, denying the world some great photography. Go if you’ve got some spare time, and stay at Kokopelli. Ica/Huacachina Ica is similar to Pisco in that it’s effectively a gateway to something more interesting, and what a place Huacachina is. It’s really the closest thing I’ve seen to an oasis, although upon closer inspection it’s a little… artificial. However it’s not the town that makes Huacachina interesting, it’s the desert. You can book a sandboarding/dune buggy tour from your hostel (I stayed at Bananas Hostel, pretty sweet), for about 35 soles, which is about 8 pounds, and it is pure awesomeness from start to finish. The buggies are driven by local guys who evidently get a little bored of what they do, so to spice things up generally seem to drive in a way that the ride feels like a rollercoaster- slowly ascending the dunes before dropping suddenly and careering downwards. Eventually he’ll stop and give you an opportunity to attempt some sandboarding. I’ve never snowboarded so was pretty terrible, but our group quickly worked out that belly-boarding was a lot more fun, although a little painful at times. Advice: Go for the later one, I think it was 4pm, as then you get a sunset at the end. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152261352773052&set=vb.710168051&type=3&theater Link to a video of it.

Bananas Hostel

Nazca– This depends on if you enjoy seeing far off shapes in the ground. I didn’t have the money to shelve out $80 for a plane ticket to see the lines, but a friend did and gave me the pictures, which is the equivalent of actually doing it.

Cusco At last we’re on to Cusco, the place I lived and worked in for 7 weeks and where the Incans started their vast civilization (no coincidence those two are connected). As well as being the place to visit Machu Picchu from, Cusco is also full of culture and fun. During my stay there for example, there was a festival held every Sunday for 4 weeks based on water fights. As in the entire city would have one massive water fight. Like it was urban warfare with water balloons. So. Much. Fun. Plus there’s some great museums located just off the Plaza de Armas. Check out the Inka Museum, which is in need of renovation but interesting nonetheless, but probably the two best are the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino and the Centro de Textiles Traditionales del Cusco. The Chocolate and Pisco museums are a decent way to spend some time too. In terms of archaeology, something you’d hope to see when visiting the Incan capital, Cusco is a little weak. The Spanish managed to destroy pretty much everything when they sacked the city, meaning only a walled complex remains on one of the hills above the city named Saksaywaman, part of the attraction being the fact you’ve just been to see sexy woman. HA! Eating in Cusco: If you’re in the plaza and fancy a smoothie and quick sandwich, head to Yajuu! which is pretty cheap and very tasty, with loads of interesting combinations. Two great places for hungover (or otherwise) breakfasts are Jack’s Cafe, which is great but generally has a long queue outside, and Cicciolina, which is a block away. Both aren’t too pricey and serve up top quality food. Others- Chicha, MAP Cafe, Limo, Inka Grill, Greens Vegetarian Food. If you can try out some Cuy, or Guinea Pig. Loveable animals are so much tastier.   Anyway… Drinking: Cusco is a great, great place for nightlife. Did I mention it was great? It is. Pubs- Paddy’s and Norton’s. One’s Irish, one’s English, both were great places for the volunteers to start a night out, or just play some pool and shoot some darts. Bars- Ukuku’s. Wow, we discovered this off Tripadvisor and it immediately became our favorite bar. Decorated with some interesting murals and cool lighting, it begins by playing alternative and pop music in the early evening, before eventually hosting a local band or salsa night. The quality of these varied, but we definitely had some good times in there. There’s also the Muse, a good chill out bar and salsa club on fridays and saturdays, Km 0, El Pisquerito and London Town. If you’re English just go into London town for a laugh. In terms of clubbing, there’s Inka Team and Mama Africa for some Latin infused-pop (Inka Team also does free salsa lessons from 9-11pm) and Mushroom’s (below Mama Africa’s) for electronic. In terms of a rave, The Temple is the place to be. If you’re at Wild Rover, Loki or Milhouse, you should be taken here as part of a night out. If you’re a guy, watch out for over-zealous gringo-hunters. You’ll know when you see them. Booking Machu Picchu and other activities: For the best prices and loads of travel agents, head to Calle Plateros, just off the Plaza. If you’re going to do the Jungle Trek (the one I did, unreally awesome), don’t pay more than $250, for rafting included. I had a friend get everything- rafting, ziplining, biking etc for $170, and he said it was the same experience, so try to shop around a bit. Salkantay will probably be a bit more. From Cusco you can also visit other parts of the nearby Sacred Valley. From that same street you can probably book a general tour that covers most of the sites, but if you want to pick a couple, Ollantaytambo and Pisac are the best.   Cusco will always have a place in my heart for the times I spent at the orphanage there, it’s brilliant weather and the friends I met. If you are thinking of doing some volunteering in Cusco, you can’t go far wrong with Elim, sponsored by Original Volunteers, and run by Jeremy Cuba Escobar (his name on facebook). The work they do there is simply incredibly considering some of the stories of these kids.

Final photo from Cusco on Facebook had this caption: “My final day in Cusco with the boys of Elim, an organisation that takes in children from the street, broken homes, and orphans. It is hard to put into words the job that Jeremy and Nilda are doing, with the help of people like Yeicob, but the effect is evident as soon as you step through the door. These are some of the most happy, thoughtful, and inspiring children you can find, and it´s safe to say the effect they´ve had on me has been far greater than any material gift or entertainment I could bring to them in my 6 weeks. I would recommend anyone visiting Cusco to spend some time there if possible.”

Lake Titicaca The lake is actually split 60/40 with Bolivia, and although both sides are listed by Lonely Planet as essentials to do in South America, if you were to choose one, I’d recommend Isla Del Sol on the Bolivian side. Nevertheless, I had a great experience on my 2 day tour from Puno after a nightbus from Cusco. I think I paid about 180 soles, although you can probably get it for less. Lake Titicaca is a magical place, so serene and calming, and the different cultures on each island are really interesting. Don’t miss it.

So this was my guide to Peru. I know I’ve missed out Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, but I never went there and know everyone else has raved about it, so thought it would be a little excessive to say more. Peru can be a little bit of a shock to the system if you’ve come from the West, but its variation, beauty and people will not disappoint. Enjoy.

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Lima

Because I came to the Peruvian capital off getting my passport stolen, I wasn’t a particularly good tourist there. It’s an absolutely huge city, something you don’t realize when you just stay in the tourist area, Miraflores. The actual city stretches out 300 square miles out from the Pacific coast, and it holds nearly 8 million people. Historically, its growth was down to its status as the port the Spanish used to hold then transport the gold and silver they took from Southern Peru and Bolivia, meaning it became a hub of trade and activity.

The area you will most probably be in while visiting is Miraflores, which hugs the cliffs beside the sea, and to many locals and citizens of Peru’s other areas is representative of what is worst about Peru. There you’ll find the most tourists, hundreds of restaurants pandering to them, plenty of flash department stores and all of Lima’s young professionals. As I was told when talking to a man selling maps from Cusco, these people are too rich and pampered to understand the real Peru, and its real problems. They have their wealth and are happy maintaining it. Miraflores really doesn’t conform to other parts of Peru. The cars don’t honk, there are outdoor tennis clubs, outdoor gyms, huge apartment blocks overlooking the sea, and even a shopping centre built into one of the cliffs (Larcomar). There I actually saw Peru’s own Simon Cowell, the ‘harsh’ judge on Peru’s Yo Soy (I am), an X-Factor like competition, standing in a queue to go to a movie.

While it’s in this area where you can eat some amazing ceviche, go paragliding etc, a little inland is where many of the hostels are. There’s a Loki party hostel, which apparently isn’t as good as any of the others, but I stayed at Dragonfly, Parawana, and Flying Dog. Dragonfly wasn’t great, Parawana was a really well run party hostel, and Flying Dog was well situated (as it was by my favourite sandwich place), but a bit more chilled than Parawana. To be honest though, I wasn’t in much of a mood to party while there, and I stayed there with friends, so enjoyed it. These hostels all surround Parque Kennedy (JFK park), which is a great place to get some street food, watch some dancing or live music, and stroke some of the many cats that inhabit it. There’s a church next to the park, and apparently the nuns take care of them, in case you were wondering if they’re diseased or dying or whatever. There’s a tonne of them and they’re kind of cute.

A cat that and a friend and I played a kind of cat-jenga with, using leaves. My cat, nicknamed Zencat, won, and is rumored to still be sitting there with leaves all over its head to this day.

Once I’d sorted my passport out at the embassy, I booked a ticket to Medellin to get to the American embassy, and also booked a place at the paragliding they do off one of the cliffs in Miraflores.

I headed there a couple of hours after I was due, as a friend hadn’t been able to make it, and met the guy who was going to be taking me up.

All the prep was done very quickly, and I paid the 18 or so pounds just before gearing up and being swept off the cliff by the sea winds.

I had people tell me they were really scared about going paragliding, and someone in Medellin in Colombia even said they’d heard of people throwing up during it. I don’t quite understand this, as it’s effectively similar to being a bird. Tranquilo, serene, quiet. You get an awesome view of Miraflores, the sea, the beach, people playing tennis etc. The dude who brought me up (with a go pro attached), was trying to make it into some other extreme sport by shouting WOOOO in my ear, which I thought was a bit exaggerated, as by the end you do get a little bored. Overall though, paragliding is an awesome experience, and can be taken to the next level, as I would find out in Medellin.

 That night I went out with my American friend Rick and various other people from ours and other hostels, and although it was only dinner and pub afterwards, we had a great time. I hadn’t met many Scots in South America up to that point, so took it upon myself to discuss the independence movement with the three that were in attendance, which ended up with me writing something very inappropriate on their flag in the pub. Let’s just say it would confirm any suspicions Alex Salmond has about the English opinion of the movement.

Anyway, Lima’s a nice place, you just can’t stay there more than 3 days or so.

A return to Peru

After flying back from Argentina, I spent three days back in La Paz, Bolivia, not doing a whole lot, before getting a night bus back to Cusco, Peru. There I again stayed at the orphanage (or casa de mi padre) that I had been volunteering at for a little less than 2 months before I left to go travelling.

Cusco, and that place, will always have a special place in my heart. I had some amazing times there, and the work that is done on kids who were drug addicts, lived on the streets, were members of gangs and often were abused, is amazing. When I arrived back I was given a really warm welcome, and immediately asked where my tablet was. I didn’t see it for the next two days. Apart from going out to watch the Champions League Final at our old favorite hang-out, Paddy’s Pub, I mostly spent my two days in Cusco at the orphanage hanging out with the kids. It was strange because when I had left there were about 20 volunteers, a large tight-knit group of friends. When I arrived I was the only volunteer at the boys’ house, and there were just three (English) girls working at the girls’ house.

On the Saturday evening, it was a girl’s birthday, so everyone came to the boys’ house to have a party. I’d attended plenty of these in my previous stint, but this was nice because I was given an official ‘thank you’ by Jeremy, the founder, and a round of applause. We had cake, the kids did some (choreographed) dances and then I led a Macarena, not particularly well, but I still did it.

The next day, we did a World Cup sweepstake, where each boy took a piece of paper out of a hat that had the name of a team on it, and that would be their team for the World Cup. The one that had the winner would get a prize. Watching the most cocky of them, Steven, getting Japan (Japan won’t win it), and the quietest, Lucio, get Brazil, was pretty sweet.

In the evening we continued a Sunday tradition of going to a local pitch to play football, which was a great way to say goodbye. In La Paz, I had got them a sticker book and each boy a pack of Panini World Cup stickers each, so I gave them this, said my goodbyes, and headed for a bus to Ica.

My final post on Facebook about the orphanage: “My final day in Cusco with the boys of Elim, an organisation that takes in children from the street, broken homes, and orphans. It is hard to put into words the job that Jeremy and Nilda are doing, with the help of people like Yeicob, but the effect is evident as soon as you step through the door. These are some of the most happy, thoughtful, and inspiring children you can find, and it´s safe to say the effect they’ve had on me has been far greater than any material gift or entertainment I could bring to them in my 6 weeks. I would recommend anyone visiting Cusco to spend some time there if possible.”

While the bus from La Paz to Cusco wasn’t so bad for a Bolivian bus, it was a welcome return to be back with a good bus company in Cruz Del Sur, which effectively had the ‘cama’ treatment. Pretty much business class.

Map for reference. Ica is south of Lima

When I arrived in Ica I met my American friend Rick, who’d I’d actually met the last time I was in Cusco through two guys I met on my trek to Machu Picchu, and then had met again in La Paz. We took a 15 minute taxi to the town of Huacachina, effectively an ‘oasis’ build in some sand dunes just outside of Ica that has become a tourist trap. It’s a pretty cool place, but don’t stay there more than a day or two. Huacachina, being in a desert, has become the prime location for trying out sandboarding and dune-buggying in Peru. For about 35 soles, or around 15 pounds, you can have a 4 hour experience doing both these activities, although my hostel, Banana hostel (very nice), gave me a room and included activities for 55.

The dune buggy ride is seriously awesome. The buggy can do pretty much anything without flipping over, so the driver tests this principle to the limit, taking you up and down pretty tall and steep dunes at speed. Really fun.

You get about 6 or 7 tries at sandboarding, but after my first, shocking attempt, I decided to do what pretty much everyone else in my group was doing: stomach boarding. As the name suggests, this is where you lay on your stomach and rocket down the dunes until you fall off or come to a halt. Definitely do this if you can, although if you see other people bumping up and down near the bottom, you’re probably going to wake up with some bruises the next day, but it’s so worth it.

While I was in Huacachina I actually managed to meet up with one of my best friends from Utila, Honduras, the first place I did volunteering on this trip, which was cool.

That evening Rick (the American) and I boarded a bus to Nazca, the location of mysterious line patterns carved into the earth by ancient Peruvian people. I opted not to take a flight over the lines, as it was about $75, and gave my camera to Rick instead.

The day after this (don’t spend more than a day there if you wish to do it), we headed back up north to the town of Pisco, where you can get a taxi to nearby Paracas. Here is a national park and also, just off the coast, the islands that are named the ‘Little Galapagos’, due to similar geography, flora and fauna. I took the boat ride and saw a variety of sea birds, penguins, and sea lions, which was cool, although if you’re short on time you can skip this stop off.

While the hostel I stayed in was really cool (Kokopelli), I booked a flight for Cali in Colombia for two days from then, and decided to head back to Pisco and on to Lima to catch the flight. I said goodbye to Rick, and set off for Pisco.

There I decided to take a cheaper bus (National Peru or something), as it was only a 4 hour journey. This would be my downfall. I’d been on cheap buses before, but usually with friends, or at least other gringos on board. This bus had neither. About 15 minutes into the journey, with my bag next to me, I was beginning to drift off, listening to music, when a guy sat next to me, putting my bag in the overhead storage. I stood up and took it from him and put it between my legs, thinking that would quell his attempts to take it. It didn’t. While I was again looking out the window, he must have got his water bottle, uncapped it and soaked the bottom of my bag with it, as he suddenly tapped me, exclaiming “mojado!!!“, ‘wet’. Bewildered, I allowed him to pick it up and dry it off with a towel he’d produced. Watching him the whole time to prevent him from running off with it, he managed to remove both my passport bag and camera from inside and place them in his bag. About 5 minutes later he got off the bus, and that was the last I saw of him. I checked my bag, tried to run after him, and was blocked off by people trying to get on. Not knowing what to do, or if I could trust anyone (no one apart from the ticket inspector was making any kind of attempt to help, especially not the driver), I got him to take me to the nearest station, where I got off with my remaining things, left them at the ticket office (a risk in itself) and headed to the police station.

Using a bit of Google translate, I managed to explain what had happened and describe the guy who did it, but I was informed there was no hope. I was staying calm, but when I remembered that I hadn’t backed up all my recent stuff as my back-up USB had become corrupted, I began to grow more and more despondent. At last I got on a bus up to Lima, in which another man attempted to take my ticket for my larger bag in the bus’s lower hold, and arrived late at night. Much to my chagrin, the idiotic hostel worker who greeted me asked me for my passport after I had just told him it had been stolen, then claimed he couldn’t check me in without it, or my immigration proof. I gave him the photocopy and managed to convince him it would be enough.

A trip to the Embassy the next day revealed the fact that I would be missing my flight on that Saturday as my passport wouldn’t be ready, so I would be staying in Lima at least until the following Monday.