Monthly Update – September 2019
At the end of August, we said goodbye to Colombia and headed down South to Peru, our third South American country. We would spend the next five weeks there.
We weren’t sure what to expect from Peru. Would it be too touristy? What would the weather be like? Would we survive the altitude?
Fortunately, we loved Peru. Its people are friendly, it has some incredibly diverse landscapes and you can still avoid the crowds. Read on to learn about our month in Peru.
We flew from Bogota to Lima, and as we landed we were greeted by some rather gloomy skies. That was rather depressing, having just spent a month in Colombia with mostly beautiful sunny, warm weather. Having spent seven weeks in Ecuador previously with similarly miserable weather, we weren’t looking forward to the prospect of returning to it.
But fortunately, this weather was mostly confined to Lima. It turns out that Lima is like this almost all year round – grey skies but almost no rain.
We had four days to kill in Lima and to be honest, we struggled a bit trying to fill them. We did have a lovely, spacious AirBnb apartment though which was very relaxing to chill out in.
While Lima does have a few interesting areas to explore, they don’t take that long to cover off.
The highlight of our time in Lima was a morning sightseeing trip to the Palomino Islands. After taking an Uber out to the port (through a particularly dodgy looking part of town), we then took a boat out to these islands to swim with the sea lions.
One of the islands has a huge colony of sea lions living on it and we were given twenty minutes to jump into the freezing cold water and try and coax them to come over and say hello. We all swam over to within a few metres of the island. At first, the sea lions looked down on us curiously. Then, one by one they slid down the rock-face into the water to come and check us out.
As instructed by our guide, we floated on our backs and stuck our feet out of the water to make the sea lions feel more at ease. Some were more curious than others and a few of the young ones came quite close, sticking their heads up out of the water, like meerkats to get a good look at us. One even came over and sniffed my feed. I could feel his whiskers tickling them!
It was a pretty amazing experience and if it hadn’t been for the icy cold water and the time limitations of the tour, we could have easily spent a lot longer with them. They are amazing creatures.
From Lima, we began the first leg of our Peru Hop bus trip. Peru Hop is a hop-on-hop-off bus service that is designed for travellers service. They provide you with an English speaking guide and a lot of extra niceties along the way that makes travelling by bus a lot easier. Your journey is broken up by sightseeing stops and they can help you arrange tours and accommodation.
Our first stop after leaving Lima was Paracas. The main reason for visiting Paracas is to visit the nearby Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve. Paracas itself is nothing special but the islands and the national park are beautiful. In particular, the national reserve has some incredible coastal scenery that reminded us of some of the coastline in Namibia.
After one night in Paracas, we headed down to the desert oasis of Huacachina. Huacachina is an interesting place. From the photos you see online, you’d think that it’s a tiny little oasis in the middle of a large desert but really it’s just a five-minute drive from the nearest decent-sized town. In a lot of ways, it’s a bit of a tourist trap but it’s fun to visit for a day.
The highlights of Huacachina were heading out over the surrounding sand dunes in a dune buggy (with some dubious safety standards but oh well!) and sand-boarding down a few of the dunes. The following morning, we also climbed one of the large sand dunes surrounding the oasis which gave us some great views over the landscape.
What was slightly disappointing was the amount of rubbish that was left lying around the town and all over the sand dunes. Most of South American has been fairly clean but Huacachina was a bit of a dumpsite.
After leaving Huacachina, we took an overnight bus to Arequipa, the second biggest city in Peru. We arrived there bright and early in the morning but were able to check in to our hostal straight away which was a godsend.
We had five days planned for Arequipa because I’d started doing some remote work and needed some extra time to work in between sight seeing. But we weren’t really sure what to expect from the city. We’d read that a lot of people loved it but there really didn’t seem a lot to do there. We half expected to be bored of it within a few days.
But as it turned, we loved Arequipa. In fact, we almost wish we had stayed longer; it was one of our favourite places to date in South America. There isn’t a whole lot to do there but it’s a great city just to relax in and wander around. It also helped that we had perfect weather while we were there. During the day it was beautifully warm, with lots of blue sky and sunshine.
The colonial style buildings in Arequipa’s central district are predominantly made from white volcanic rock sourced from nearby quarries. It’s some of the nicest architecture that we’ve come across in South America. To top that off, the city is surrounded by three separate volcanoes which you can see from many vantage points around town. All in all, Arequipa is a beautiful city.
Just before leaving Arequipa, we undertook our first hike in quite a while and our first ever multi-day hike. Colca Canyon is about three hours away from Arequipa and it’s the deepest canyon in the world.
We took the slightly easier option which was a three-day hike down into the canyon and back out again, instead of a two day one. This left us with only three hours of hiking a day. However, the first and last days were still quite challenging.
On the first day, we spent three hours hiking down into the canyon on a very slippery gravel surface. It was very hard on our knees and ankles. On the last day, we had to hike back out of the canyon, ascending over 1000 metres in just under three hours.
It was a pretty challenging three days and we were very happy with our achievement. It was also good preparation for our upcoming Salkantay trek which would have less steep terrain than the canyon but at a much higher altitude and with much longer distances to cover.
Our next destination in Peru was Cusco and again we had planned for almost two weeks there without really knowing if we’d be bored of it within a few days. Fortunately, despite the fact that we struggled a lot with the altitude and despite the fact that Cusco is super touristy, we really enjoyed Cusco.
It helped that once again, we had amazing weather almost every day of our stay. There’s nothing like sunshine and blue skies to keep your spirits high. We also stayed in a super friendly hostal tucked away in a small courtyard. It was like a little oasis in the middle of this bustling town.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most about Cusco (after the weather) was the quality of restaurants on offer. All the restaurants we ate at were clearly a level above anything else we’d eaten in South America. Of course, this is largely due to the level of international tourism (and hence money) flowing into Cusco. It was certainly welcome.
Hiking Rainbow Mountain
We definitely struggled to adjust to the altitude in Cusco, Our room was on the third floor of our hostal and we would get out of breath just climbing the stairs at the end of the day. We thought that staying in Cusco for a while would help us acclimatise but it turns out that you acclimatise a lot faster if you actually do some exercise.
It also turns out that the locals themselves still struggle with the altitude, so it’s not something that you just magically overcome after a couple of weeks. Regardless, we decided to embark on our highest altitude trek to date, to the Insta-famous Rainbow Mountain. This mountain is not far outside of Cusco and at over 5000 metres, it would be a test of just how well we were acclimatising.
To say that we struggled with the 3km hike to the top would be an understatement. We found ourselves stopping every twenty or thirty metres to catch our breath. It was tough. I also started to get weird tingly sensations in my fingertips, face and then chest as we walked higher. It was rather disconcerting! Fortunately, we made it to the top and the symptoms disappeared when we descended.
Despite the altitude, Rainbow mountain is super-popular with tourists and it was extremely crowded. Fortunately, our tour also included a hike back through the much less visited Red Valley, which was equally as spectacular. We arrived back at the bus just before it started to bucket down with rain, so again we were very fortunate with the weather.
The Salkantay Trek to Machu Pichu
Our biggest trek to date was still to come. This was the four-day trek over the Salkantay Pass and on to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu Mountain. We were a little apprehensive about the trek, mainly due to the altitude that we’d be hiking at, rather than the distances.
Cindy was also rather worried about the weather because we’d be sleeping in sky domes and huts on the first two nights and we were expecting it to get very cold. Fortunately only the first night was cold and even then it didn’t fall below zero outside. But Cindy slept with about ten layers of clothing on plus a thermal sleeping bag liner, her sleeping bag and an extra blanket and still complained about being cold!
The second day of the trek was the toughest as we hiked up and over the Salkantay Pass which topped off at 4650 metres. It was just as tough as the hike up Rainbow Mountain, perhaps tougher since it took longer. It was a great achievement.
After that, we still had another thirteen kilometres of hiking to go, mainly downhill. As we descended, we passed through a range of ecosystems including a cloud forest and sub-tropical jungle, before arriving at our next campsite which was a lot lower down and therefore a lot warmer.
The next day, we hiked the remaining trail into Aguas Calientes (with a short bus ride in between for part of the journey). It felt great to get the main trek out of the way but we still had the hike up Machu Picchu to do the following day.
Hiking Machu Picchu Mountain
The final part of our Salkantay Trek was visiting Machu Picchu and climbing Machu Picchu Mountain to get a birds-eye view over the ruins below.
Although we could have taken the stairs to get to the Machu Picchu ruins, given that we were climbing Machu Picchu Mountain as well, we opted to take the bus. That turned out to be a smart move because we were one of the first groups to enter the ruins. We took plenty of photos before the hoards of tourists descended.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain meant hiking up more than 600 metres of elevation, all of it consisting of very steep flights of stairs with practically no flat bits. We made it up in an hour and a half with a few stops for photos and catching our breath. The views were amazing and it made the effort totally worth it.
We made it back down from the summit to the ruins in just on an hour. Then, after wandering around the ruins for a bit, we went to find the bus to head back down to Aguas Calientes. However, we discovered that not only was the queue for the bus super long (at least an hour of waiting) but the lady who sold the bus tickets had gone to lunch and no-one had replaced her!
We decided to walk back down to Aguas Calientes, which seemed like the right decision at the time but which almost killed our legs. Going downhill is so tough on the knees and ankles, especially when it consists of lots of high steps and when you have short legs like us!
We were pretty relieved to make it back down in time to grab lunch and then catch our train back towards Cusco.
On to Puno
After Cusco, we headed on to Puno, our last destination in Peru. But that’s for next month’s update!