Peru: Waiting for the Mists to Part

Words by Ben Walker
Photos by Ben Walker

It’s about 8:30 AM. I’m sitting in an Airbnb in Paracas, Peru enjoying this relatively quiet time in the morning. You can still hear the constant beeping of taxis in the distance, intermixed with construction work and a hawker riding by on his tri-bike yelling something indecipherable through his megaphone. “Chatarra” (scrap/trash), “tamales”, “panes” (bread)–I’m not really sure because his voice gets so warped by the electronic instrument. It doesn’t matter. I swear it’s the same guy riding around in all parts of Peru, though, usually waking people up at 5:00 or 6:00 AM.

Walking around this morning looking for some pan fresco (fresh bread), palta (avocado), and jamonada (sliced meat) was like a blast from the past. It’s been 11 years since I first came to Peru and then lived here for two years, but I’m starting to fall back into the daily routine like I never left, although I’m pretty sure I got ripped off earlier when I paid siete soles for two paltas and some jamonada. Well, maybe. It could just be the negotiating spirit is beginning to rise within me once again. If you’ve ever traveled to Latin America, or many other places around the world, you’ll find haggling is a huge thing, and it’s no different in Peru. I recall arguing with a mototaxista about how much a fare should cost and after a few minutes my visiting family asked how much we were haggling about. It was less than a dollar. Something that didn’t actually mean a whole lot to me and was most likely worth quite a bit more to that young man. Getting “ripped off” for being a foreigner isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, which is something I’m coming to further realize as I travel more.

This is Lauren’s (my wife) first time to Peru. I feel like the subject of this South American country has come up so many times over the past few years between us that maybe the actual idea of it had been built up a bit too much. Also, it doesn’t help that Peru, or Machu Picchu to be exact, has long been included on the bucket lists of travelers worldwide and it seems there has been a constant barrage of Rainbow Mountain and Sacred Valley photos across social media lately. However, maybe there’s something behind all the hype.

Obviously, there is! Peru is absolutely riddled with cool places to see, has world-class food, is budget-friendly, and has lots of very amicable people.

Peru has mountains, beaches, volcanoes, rainforest, glaciers, and deserts. I spent years in the country and saw and experienced only a small fraction of what it has to offer. I also didn’t get to try the full scope of Peruvian cuisine, which ranges from Chinese-Peruvian fusion to ancient Quechua dishes, and Spanish-derived recipes. As excited as I was to see friends, eat food, and visit cool ruins, I was mostly hoping that Lauren would come away with some appreciation of the Peruvian culture and country like I did.

 

Our Itinerary

Our itinerary was largely comprised of a hop-on/off bus tour that would start in Lima and end in Cusco, hitting many towns and cities along the way with varying points of interest. The full bus tour was as follows:

  • Lima
  • Chincha Slave Tunnels
  • Paracas
  • Paracas National Reserve
  • Ica (La Huacachina)
  • Pisco Vineyard
  • Nazca Lines Viewing Tower
  • Nazca (dinner stop)
  • Arequipa
  • Puno
  • Cusco

From Cusco we proceeded on our own around the city itself, then the Sacred Valley, and, of course, Machu Picchu. We then ended up flying back to Lima and spending more time there.

I think this type of itinerary would work for anyone that has at least 1.5 weeks available (if you have more time, that’s even better). It will be very fast and not the most relaxing, but you can check off a few things from your travel list and get a lot of cool shots along the way. Just be aware that it’s always smart to have an extra day or two wide open (free of plans) for your arrival to Cusco. Altitude sickness is a real thing, especially there, where you’re sitting around 3,400 meters (over 11,000 feet) above sea level. In comparison, Machu Picchu is at a much lower elevation around 2,400 meters (just under 8,000 feet).

We thought we would be alright since we were arriving to Cusco by bus and spending time in Arequipa (about 2,300 meters or 7,600 feet) and then Puno (about 3,800 meters or 12,500 feet) before then, but, alas, Lauren still fell ill upon arrival and was bedridden for a full day. We ended up canceling our Rainbow Mountain tour because we wanted to be prepared for Machu Picchu and the Huayna Picchu hike.

Not to worry, though, we still had plenty of adventures along the way. Check out some of the highlights for this trip.

 

Our Highlights

There’s a lot to see in Peru, but here are some of our favorite spots.

 

Lima



Lima is the capital of Peru and home to about 10 million people. It’s a bustling metropolis with many different districts, although most people will probably stick around the Miraflores and San Isidro parts because, quite frankly, they’re nicer areas. You’ll find high-end shopping, 5-Star hotels, amazing restaurants, and beautiful beaches. That doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to stay here, though. Heck, we stayed in a hostel for two nights, so there are plenty of cheap options as well.

A few popular spots include Larcomar, the Costa Verde coastline, the Plaza de Armas, and Parque de la Reserva.

We particularly enjoyed walking along cliffside paths near Larcomar in Miraflores and enjoying the views of the Costa Verde.

 

Paracas



This popular seaside town is about four hours south of Lima (by bus) and is situated next to a national reserve where the desert meets the sea.

Popular spots include the Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands.

We didn’t go on a Ballestas Islands tour, but we did hear both good and bad reports from other travelers that did, so your mileage may vary.

We did have a very enjoyable sunset walk along the water right next to houses in town, though. Also, the next day, our visit to the National Reserve was great. It’s amazing seeing the sprawling desert landscape go straight up to the Pacific Ocean.

 

Ica (La Huacachina)



The main draw to this desert city for most people has been the iconic oasis in the desert called “La Huacachina.”

For most, seeing an actual oasis is a thing of dreams, but in Peru it’s a reality.

The village of Huacachina is set up as a resort town and caters largely to visitors of the oasis. You will find restaurants, bars, and plenty of dune buggy and sandboarding tours.

If you’re just looking for some nice shots with a board then we’d suggest renting a cheaper board and walking up the dunes yourself instead of going on a tour because it will be a lot less money.

 

Nazca



We only stopped by a viewing tower to see the famous Nazca lines and then stopped in town for dinner. I had never been to Nazca before, but I had lived for six months in the closeby town of Ica. Nazca is more in the desert than Ica and it’s much smaller. The only real draw is the Nazca Lines and it’s up to you whether you want to do a full plane tour or just check them out from a viewpoint.

We were quite content to see some of the lines from the viewing tower, but I can definitely see the appeal in booking a plane tour because the size of these things is ridiculous.

 

Arequipa



Honestly, one of our favorite stops along our Southern Peru journey. We didn’t even leave the city and we still enjoyed it quite a bit. After spending any amount of time in Lima you might feel a little out-of-sorts because of the sheer number of people and the crazy driving. Enter Arequipa.

Arequipa is Peru’s second most populated city, but it was kind of hard to tell because no other city in Peru is even close to Lima’s size. If you’re sticking close to the area where the Plaza de Armas is located then you’ll find that things are a bit more controlled in that area. There isn’t as much traffic, which basically means there’s less commotion in general.

The cathedral here is very beautiful and there are great views of it all around the main plaza. Also, the Santa Catalina Monastery is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. We didn’t expect too much, but the place is actually quite large and it’s very appealing, especially for photos.

 

Puno



We only stayed for part of a day and then caught the night bus to Cusco. We also just decided to explore the city itself instead of going on a Lake Titicaca tour. It may sound like blasphemy, but since we were leaving the same day for Cusco we actually didn’t have enough time to do the tour we wanted to where you go farther out into the lake.

Overall, it seemed like a pretty cool place, although, to us, more touristy than Arequipa, which was surprising. However, that may make sense since travelers use Puno as a gateway to/from Bolivia.

Our one activity was climbing a lot of stairs to reach the giant condor overlooking the city. Honestly, if I had known Puno was a higher elevation than Cusco I may have foregone this hike, but seeing as that wasn’t the case, I regret nothing. It’s tiring and probably not the best thing before a night bus to Cusco, but the views were spectacular!

 

Cusco



There’s so much to see and do in and around Cusco, but unfortunately we were dealing with a bout of altitude sickness so we spent most of our time in our hotel. Fortunately, our hotel was within walking distance of both the Qorikancha (Sun Temple) and the Plaza de Armas, which are both popular places within the city.

To me, Cusco seemed a lot bigger than Arequipa, and I’m not exactly sure why. Either way, it’s a big city that should have whatever you need or want.

 

Sacred Valley



Some people like to go straight to Machu Picchu from Cusco, but I think it’s more than worthwhile to spend a few days in the Sacred Valley itself on the way to Machu Picchu. There are more than enough sites to keep you occupied for days on end, including Pisaq, Maras, Moray, and Ollantaytambo.

We had a wonderful couple of nights in the small town of Yucay (outside of Urubamba) and had a great outing to the Maras Salt Ponds. We didn’t tour Ollantaytambo, but it’s hard to miss this mountain fortress when you’re headed there to catch the train to Machu Picchu.

 

Machu Picchu



For many, this is the only reason they’re in Peru. If that’s how it is for you, then that’s great, but just be aware that Peru has so much more to offer. However, Machu Picchu still more than lives up to all the hype, at least to me.

First, it’s an adventure just trying to get here. To get to Cusco you basically have to fly into Lima and then either fly or take a bus to Cusco. To get to Machu Picchu from Cusco you have to either take a train or train/bus combo to Ollantaytambo and then Aguas Calientes. From Aguas Calientes you have to take a shuttle to the gate of Machu Picchu.

It’s really a whole process and part of the beauty of getting to one of the Wonders of the World. Just along the way you’ll see amazing, rugged landscapes that really deserve some visitors of their own, including seeing parts of the famed Inca Trail while riding the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Taking the shuttle up to Machu Picchu involves hairpin turns on mini-buses on roads that border steep cliffs. It’s not for the faint of heart and yet millions of people still go. Why?

Because it’s worth it.

When you first see the mists part to reveal the ancient Inca ruins and the Huayna Picchu peak in the background you can’t help but think, “it was all worth it.”

 

No Better Time Than the Present

Machu Picchu has been a tourist attraction for many years now, but every now and then you’ll hear rumors of it being shut down. The gravel and dirt road switchbacks leading up to the ruins are always under constant repair and the amount of visitors to the area is only increasing each year. Also, constant strikes by local groups have forced railway closures many times along one of the only routes to Machu Picchu.

However, is it worth it? Yes! Yes, it is! Machu Picchu is worth it. Peru is worth it.

Peru is a lot busier to me than it was 11 years ago, what with more tourists, migration from Venezuela, and other factors, but it’s still an amazing place. The drivers are still crazy, people will still try to rip you off if you look and/or sound like a tourist, and, at the end of the day, when the mists part, it’s beautiful.

 

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