Images of Peru have circulated and recirculated until hardening into stale cliché. Peru, in my mind, was Cusco tucked away in the snow-capped Andes, baby-toting cholita women in bowler hats, and Machu Picchu.
That face of Peru eluded me until the very end. The Peru I experienced was a vast coastal desert of fuming volcanos, palm-fringed oases, gaping canyons, condors, hairless dogs, and weathered pyramids. For me, Peru was the luxury and comfort of Miraflores, the maddening chaos of Chiclayo, the thick nostalgia of Arequipa. And then, finally, there was Cusco.
In Peru, there are three options on the menu. You can have the Andean Peru you were expecting. But if you’re over-landing like me, you’re bound to hug the desert coast. Peru’s third stripe is Amazonia, that vast tropical wilderness that spans the most territory and the least headspace. Fatigued of both Andes and Amazon, I tended toward desert.
Few tourists make it to Peru’s northern half, and when they do, it’s usually to hit the beaches of Mancora or Tumbes. I visited two cities cities in this region on my way south to Lima. One was worth my time, and one was not.
Chiclayo was the one I didn’t particularly care for. Even so, I had fun with my my host there, a 22-year-old microbiologist named Alyss (below). I was really touched by his dedication to his darling grandma, with whom he shares everything, including his bed.
I had to rush out of Chiclayo before the upcoming Peruvian elections left me stranded there. I went to Trujillo to wait out the elections.
Trujillo is Peru’s third largest city and the main hub of the north. Trujillo’s historic center is known for its colorful renaissance facades and elegant wrought-iron window railings.
Just outside Trujillo in the middle of the open desert lie the ruins of Chan Chan, the ancient capital of the Chimé civilization which flourished until the Inca conquest of 1470.
On the opposite side of Trujillo, lie the ruins of two enormous pyramidal temples built by the emperors of the ancient Moche civilization beginning in 600 AD. The larger of the two temples, the Temple of the Sun, is the largest Pre-Colombian structure ever built in the Americas.
The Moche decorated their temples with colorful polychromatic friezes depicting themes central to their religion and culture, such as ritual human sacrifice and the supreme deity with an octopus body and human head.
Lima, the Capital
With a metropolitan population of over 12 million and a land area quadruple that of New York, Lima is far and away Peru’s largest city. There’s a lot to love about Lima and a lot to drive you crazy. In keeping with the old maxim, Lima is what you make of it.
What are these mansard roofs doing in Latin America? Lima has enough baroque and renaissance architecture to rival any European capital.
The main drawback of Lima is the ungodly traffic. On my first day, it took me 2 hours by bus to cover a distance that would have taken 20 minutes in any other city. After that experience, I retreated to Miraflores and rarely left.
Miraflores is a bourgeoisie waterfront neighborhood full of malls and luxury high-rise. I’ll be the first to admit living in Miraflores was very off-brand for me, but I was working in a hostel there, so I had my excuse
Quite out of place in the leafy suburbs of Miraflores is this enormous adobe pyramid called Hauca Pullcana. Built by the ancient Lima culture from 200 to 700 AD, the pyramid survived the Spanish onslaught thanks to its relative isolation in a time before Lima swallowed what is now Miraflores.
Barranco is known for being Lima’s artsy bohemian district, though some would argue those days are long-gone for this charming but thoroughly gentrified neighborhood. Even so, Barranco’s folksy turn-of-the-century architecture and quaint cafés give the district an endearing small-town feel that sets it quiet apart from the rest of Lima.
A small town called Paracas has cropped up in the deserts of Southern Peru to help connect eco-tourists to the nearby Ballestas Islands. Often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos,” the Ballestas Islands are a biodiverse hotspot home to sea lions and penguins along with millions upon millions of marine birds. As the nickname suggests, you can visit these islands for a tiny fraction of the price of visiting the actual Galapagos Islands.
The indigenous people left this mysterious pictograph of a candelabra in the deserts of what is now Paracas NationalPark. The “Candelabria” has remained undisturbed thanks to its relative isolation. Legends abound, but nobody knows exactly what purpose it served.
Animals of the Ballestas Islands
All those black dots… those are birds. They produce a lot of guano (bird droppings), which is harvested and exported as fertilizer by the local community. The gauno has also helped transform the sparse arid landscape around Paracas into fertile green farmland.
Huacachina is a small desert oasis on the outskirts of Ica in Southern Peru. According to local legend, the green lake at the center of the oasis was created from the tears of a goddess mourning the loss of her husband. Mermaids purportedly live beneath the surface, though I didn’t manage to spot any. Maybe next time.
Arequipa, Peru’s second city, is often said to be the most beautiful city in the country, though personally I don’t know why anyone would say that. Arequipa is pretty, but it’s not Cusco.
I accidentally went into a brothel in Arequipa thinking it was a hotel.
My host in Arequipa was a 19-year-old zookeeper named José. I met him at the zoo where he works, and he took me around after closing hours to feed the parrots and play with the jaguar. I was his first guest ever, so he really pulled out all the stops. His lovely grandparents did, too.
North of Arequipa is one of the biggest canyons in the world, the Colca Canyon. I found the route to Colca more beautiful than the canyon itself.
Although Catholic, the indigenous peoples of the Colca Valley believe they descend from volcanos and that the physical and cultural differences between them were influenced by the traits of their mother volcano.
In the distance you can see the national animal of Peru depicted on the Peruvian flag, an endangered camelid species called the vicuña. Llamas and alpacas descend from the wild vicuña, but the extra fine wool of the vicuña is rarer and more expensive because it can only be shorn once every three years and must be caught from the wild.
According to tradition, the girls of this village would dance in the main square, but their possessive fathers forbade boys from dancing with them, so boys began dressing as girls so that they could dance together.
Cusco, the historic capital of Peru, once administered the vast Incan empire before being sacked and destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1534. Today you can still find Inca ruins littered throughout the Sacred Valley surrounding Cusco, though the city itself has a strong Spanish colonial aesthetic.
As touristy as it is, my favorite thing to do in Peru is to cuddle baby animals that don’t love me back. This one doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about my company, and her keepers look downright hostile.
The architectural wonder of the Incas is the way they cut, transported, and fitted together giant stones without the use of the wheel, oxen, or mortar. To this day, nobody has managed to replicate their feat or explain how they did it.
I felt weary of how expensive, touristy, and over-commercialized the ruins of Cuzco and the Sacred Valley are, so my host suggested I go out and find my own ruins. And in a place as saturated in archaeological sites as Cusco, that’s entirely feasible.
I walked up the hills to the ruins of the moon temple, which I had all to myself. Then I followed a trail behind it and found lots of other ruins and some big terrace complexes, which were completely neglected by tourists.
I met a sweet lady named Lisa who lives next to the ruins. She has a little lamb named Didi that follows her everywhere. “Didi!” she would scream and the lamb would go running around like an excited dog.
I got into an accident in the Sacred Valley, but instead of going to the hospital, I went to Machu Picchu. Getting to Machu Picchu was the struggle of a lifetime. I’m glad its finally over.
I have mixed feelings about Machu Picchu. Its geographic setting in the lush tropical mountains of Eastern Peru is absolutely gorgeous. The ruins are, too, but having seen pictures of Machu Picchu for all my life, I felt a bit desensitized when I finally saw them in person.
Machu Picchu was named one of the new seven wonder of the world in 2001. Several magazine covers and TV documentaries later, Machu Picchu has become a victim of its own success, and authorities have sought to curb the damaging effects of mass tourism by setting quotas and raising the cost of entry.
I had to come up with a crazy stressful DIY plan for getting to Machu Picchu because I couldn’t afford the only conventional route – an exorbitantly expensive train ride operated by a monopoly company. No other vehicles are allowed to drive there, so I did quite a lot of walking.
Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable waterway in the world, straddles Peru’s southern border with Bolivia. Along the shores of the placid still lake, Puno has become a popular gateway to the Uros, a string of floating manmade islands constructed of reeds by the Uros people in the 16th century as a refuge from Incan conquest.
Our boat was packed full of Cusco school children decked out in regal costume. Our boat delayed an hour before embarking from the port because Peru. We got going only after some locals yelled at the crew to get going already.
I think there was confusion over which island we were supposed to visit. Several times the captain would sail onto an island and then turn away when he realized we weren’t supposed to be there.
Finally, we landed on an island and as our boat approached the shores, the islanders emerged from their huts to greet us in Aymara. That was the last time the islanders would make any kind gesture. They ignored my questions about their culture, instead pushing mw to buy souvenirs.
Apparently, the island is only 11 years old, which is a bit suspicious if you ask me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ministry of Tourism is subsidizing the construction of the new islands.
The villagers use lake water to drink, bath, and cook. They use solar powers for electricity, and they eat mostly fish and water fowl.
After a half hour, we were directed to get into this traditional reed boat to set sail to the main island, which is the oldest, most populated and commercialized of the Uros.
I’ve heard a lot of travelers complain that the Uros Islands are touristy, inauthentic, and over-commercialized. I knew to expect as much going in, so I enjoyed it for what it is; a strange experience.
Peru was a lot. I struggled to plan how I could tackle it in any reasonable amount of time. I hit most of Peru’s highlights in my forty days in the country, but I hardly saw any of the Peruvian Amazon, and the only bit of Andes I took care of was the Sacred Valley and Puno. It’s up to you, dear reader, to go forth and discover these regions for yourself. As for me, I am off to the magical Andean republic of Bolivia.