South America: Peru

November 2010, by Tom

After an exhausting last day in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we were looking forward to a nice relaxing, comfortable, £400, 5 hour flight to Lima, Peru. Did I mention it was £400 per person? Unfortunately we lucked out on that one.

We were the unlucky ones who had to sit in front of the emergency exits. This meant, due to evacuation issues, our seats had less leg room and didn't recline. In fact the seats were so far anti-reclined that if you relaxed your body, it fell forwards. Adding to this, almost as soon as we were airborne, the seats in front of us went fully back - which pretty much meant we were wedged in place, with nowhere to go. The two Peruvian guys with the same issue opposite us were using the chairs in front as their headrest - forehead resting comfortably on the back of the chair in front. Unfortunately we couldn't make this work, despite trying.

So we tried to whittle away the hours by watching the in-flight entertainment - which was a movie or two on a shared fuzzy screen in voice-over Spanish. The title's of which escape me.

By the time we reached Lima, around 1am, we were rather tired and grumpy to say the least. Luckily, this is where things quickly picked up. We breezed through customs and waiting for us on the other side was a driver with our names on a board ready to pick us up! Most hostels in SA seemed to offer this service at prices which were cheaper than alternatives. The last thing we felt like at this point was figuring out the public transport system.

We piled all our luggage into the boot, which the Lonely Planet guide recommends doing as Lima is prone for passenger window smash and grab syndrome ... A dark but scenic 40 minute drive later we were at our hostel, a very quiet friendly hostel in one of the nicer areas of Lima - Miraflores.

We had only planned on one day in Lima as the Lonely Planet guide book painted a rather negative and dangerous picture of it in general and the highlights were few and far between. We spent the day we had wandering the neighborhood where the hostel was. We had the best sandwich ever from the Miraflores main square, bought a few necessities from the local supermarket such as wine, water and snacks for the impending bus journeys and returned to the hostel to relax before venturing out again for a vegetarian dinner at a local restaurant.

The hostel was very accommodating with as much coco leave tea as you could drink, a nice selection for breakfast and flower lined court yards. The owners were also nice enough to book our next bus journey for us - a relatively short 5 hour bus journey down to Ica, to break up the journey between Lima and Cusco. We had heard great things about "Huachachina" an oasis on the outskirts of Ica. The place sounded fascinating so as soon as we arrived in Ica we jumped on a tuk-tuk type taxi to take us to the Oasis de la Huachachina.

Huachachina is a bizarre place. It consists of a small lake surrounded by sand dunes and desert. It serves as a resort for local families from Ica but it has increasingly become a tourist trap for foreigners. Foreigners mostly come to take a tour of the sand dues on a dune buggy and to try their skills of sandboarding. Being foreign tourists ourselves, we had to give these a go! We booked on the 4pm tour for the following day and joined a group of others for an adrenalin pumping sand dune experience. The dune buggy's were amazing - they climb almost vertical slopes only to launch into their air and land on the other side. They may look like hand constructed bits of metal welded together with a large lawn mower engine strapped to the front, but they sure went for it!

The sandboarding was fun too. We were each given a snowboard type board which we had to wax using a piece of candle, before either strapping it too our feet (the harder way to descend a slope for those non-snowboarding types) or to either lie down on the board feet first or face first. We both tried standing and boarding our way down the slopes, but it was actually way more fun sitting on the board and letting momentum take you down the slopes at breakneck speeds.

The evening was spent reliving our adventure with a few young Aussie guys who were at the same hostel as us as well as trying to remove sand from every nook and cranny of our body and clothes.

With little else to do in Huachachina we decided to high tail it out of there and jump on the next 12 hour bus ride to Cusco - where we intended to relax for a couple of days acclimatising to the high altitude before embarking on a 4 day trek to Machu Piccu. By this point, we were getting used to the long bus rides - and they went pretty quickly. This one went especially quickly as they had free WIFI on board! Very odd to say the least from a country such as Peru. It relied on cell phone coverage for it to work which meant that chatting to friends back home via iChat was a little on and off - but it was still pretty cool.

We arrived at Cusco and jumped in a taxi to take us to our hostel - a lovely hostel by the name of Hostel Los Ninos I which we would end up being very familiar with over the coming days. After checking in and dropping our bags, we set out to explore the town a little and to also pay Peru Treks a visit to pay the remainder of the 4 day Inca Trail trek expenses and to pickup our free t-shirts. Cusco is a fantastic town. Nestled between various mountains, and at 3,400m above sea level, it was quite a sight to behold - especially when viewed from above.

It didn't take us long to start feeling the high altitude effects though - with both of us feeling very drained after only an hour or so of wandering. We decided to call it a day, but not before popping in on a Lonely Planet cafe recommendation - Muse. A fantastic Australian owned cafe where we pigged out on the best food we had had in a long time. The BLT sammy, various wontons and pumpkin soup were all great! Washed down with a large cup of coco leaf tea and we were content. We actually ate from here a few times over the coming days.

We returned to the hostel all full and sleepy and put heads to pillows for a slightly delirious nights sleep. Unfortunately I awoke the next morning to find a sickly Gini. During the night she had started feeling the effects of a nasty case of travelers diarrhea. At the worst possible time as we were due to set out on the Inca Trail the following morning. With Gini bed-ridden, I returned to Peru Treks to see what our options were with regards to postponing the trek or to get a refund. Unfortunately as we had already paid in full and that it was less than 24 hours till we set out, this was not possible. Our only option was to meet up with the rest of the group in 4 days time at the gates of Machu Picchu by train and get to use our pre-paid entry pass to see the site. Bugger. Still, all was not lost.

The following day, when we were supposed to disembark on our 4 day Inca trail trek, I started coming down with the same thing as Gini. So instead of enjoying the splendors of walking the Inca Trail we were both taking turns at using the bathroom and in a pretty delirious state. The low was now at a new all time holiday record and definitely a situation which either strengthens or ruins a relationship - luckily for us, it wasn't the later.

After another day and night of trying to feel better we decided to leave our little hostel room and venture into the big wide world once more. After being in Cusco for 4 days now, we hadn't really seen much outside of the Hostel room and so decided to trek up the hill to the most highly recommended Inca ruins near Cusco - the Sacsayhuaman (or Sexy Woman) ruins. The short walk up the hill was exhaustively slow - with both the altitude and TD still causing us grief. The views over Cusco, however, were well worth the walk. The ruins weren't too bad either - as ruins go.

With one more day left before we caught the train to Machu Piccu town to meet up with the Inca Trail group and with our TD still in effect, we decided to visit the local medical center to get a doctors report which we could use to claim back the lost expenses through travel insurance. This was an interesting adventure as the only person who spoke English was a lady receptionist who had to translate everything between the doctor, the nurses and us. Eventually we walked out with some drugs and a piece of paper written in Spanish hopefully explaining the circumstances sufficiently.

(As a side note, it was enough, luckily, as in a few months time we did in fact get reimbursed by our travel insurance people - the first time travel insurance has paid off! My claim was paid out straight away, however, Gini's was at first declined with a reason citing that we had already left our place of residence before canceling the trip. Huh? So you have to actually have foresight that you will get ill and have to cancel a trip before leaving home? Of course! Makes sense. Thankfully, after a few arguments on the phone, Gini also got her claim paid out in full.)

The following morning we were finally, after about a week of being in Cusco, on our way to visit one of the most highly anticipated attractions the whole of South America has to offer - Machu Piccu! We arrived at Machu Piccu town in the afternoon and spent the evening wandering through the very extremely touristy village with every restaurant touting their food on the sidewalk and every restaurant with an almost identical menu and price. No fine dining to be found here - it was all pizzas, burgers or roasted guinea pig... We opted for a decidedly average pizza before returning to the hostel to try and sleep the sore bellies away.

We woke at the crack of dawn to jump on the first (or perhaps second) bus heading up the hill to the Machu Picchu entrance. We were now at the gates - so very close and yet so far as we had to wait for the tired trekkers to arrive with our entry passes.  After about an hour of waiting they arrived. Phew! We were introduced to the group, who all felt sorry for us not making it on the trek. Next time, we told them all. Finally we were given our Machu Piccu passes and were able to enter into the ruins! There was a very low cloud covering which prevented us from seeing much ahead of us, but as this slowly lifted, the scenery beneath was breath taking. We were on top of the world - an Inca world. Where on earth they dragged these massive stones from we don't know.

We explored the ruins for a few hours until the tourist numbers had built up to an uncomfortable level and it was time for us to make our leave. We made our way back to the bus, which took us back to Machu Piccu town, which we then had to wait for the next train to take us back to Cusco. We ended up back at Cusco late that evening, another long day, but we had finally seen Machu Piccu! Although the build up probably didn't do it justice as is often the way with "must see" tourist attractions, they are usually let down by being over touristed. Still - it was quite a sight and well worth the effort to see although perhaps next time we could do without the frequent toilet stops!

Our last day in Cusco was spent booking bus tickets for the next leg of the journey and a little bit of shopping at the numerous handicraft market stalls. Out of our whole South American trip, we spent the most time in one place in Cusco. Sure, it wasn't planned that way, but it was really nice to get to know this quaint town instead of just rushing through it as we normally would. There were many good restaurants (most of which were owned and run by foreigners), the shopping was excellent (various t-shirts, blankets, rattles and other items) and the people were very friendly. There were also numerous dogs roaming the streets - but these dogs looked like well kept pure bred dogs, not the usual scruffy don't go near me street mongrels we were used to.

That evening, we yet again took a taxi to the local bus station and jumped on a 8 hour bus ride to get us to Puno, on Lago Titicaca. We arrived after a few hours sleep in the early hours of the morning and walked through town, packs on our backs in search of accommodation. Being 5am, nothing was open so it took a wee while to find somewhere. We ended up at a hotel but after looking at the prices, asked for a recommendation of somewhere less expensive. We were directed to the other side of the main square and arrived at what looked like an apartment block. We think we were the only people here as the place was deserted and we had a two room apartment all to ourselves - not to mention the breakfast room setup for just the two of us. We couldn't complain though, as after only a couple of hours sleep, the clean and comfy bed was a godsend!

After catching up on some zz's we ventured out to a tourist office to book tickets to see what we were actually here for - the floating islands. We had missed the full day tour so we booked in on the afternoon tour. We had a few hours to kill, so walked down to the waterfront to check out the lake itself. Lake Titicaca is the largest high altitude lake in the world. It was massive. It also appeared to be over touristed and the shoreline was very dirty with a slightly polluted look. Luckily we were there in low season so only a fraction of the moored boats were actually in use - I imagine it would have been bedlam during the high season.

It was time for us to tour the floating islands. The tour was actually pretty good. A boat carrying about 15 people took us out to one of the floating islands - where the inhabitants make the islands out of tying together reeds and roots which eventually bind together to form a floating platform. The reeds have to be continually added to as the older submerged reeds become rotten and fall away. These days, the islands serve only tourists, and serve them they do well! After landing on the island we were given the opportunity to purchase items from their little handicraft stalls -  which we bought a little hanging ornament made from reeds (a smaller version of Lauren and Pauls). Then we were able to pay extra to have a ride on a reed boat - which, little to our knowledge, the little island kids joined us on and would treat us to various singalong songs after which they extended their hands out expecting payment. Very cheeky, but it was all pretty amusing.

Finally we were taken back to shore to a the view of a very beautiful sunset.

Our last night in Puno and also our last in Peru we decided to treat ourselves to one last meal out - a lama steak dinner! Although they were fairly tasty, they were very very chewy! Poor old lama's. On our last morning in Puno while waiting for our bus to take us across the border to Bolivia we visited the Coca museum. A very simple museum - consisting of a few boards of information and photos on the history of the plant and its uses. The whole place was straight from the 80's - including this bizarre video on costumes and local traditions. An interesting experience to say the least!

Farewell Peru, we have enjoyed our time within your borders (at least mostly!).

Tastiest sammy ever in Lima.

Tastiest sammy ever in Lima.

Oasis de la Huachachina

Oasis de la Huachachina

The classic Machu Picchu shot with us to prove we were there!

The classic Machu Picchu shot with us to prove we were there!

Numerous boats - some on dry land?

Numerous boats - some on dry land?

The floating islands

The floating islands

The sunset as we returned to Puno

The sunset as we returned to Puno