The goal for the overwhelming majority of travellers to Peru is to visit the ancient site of Machu Picchu. The average length of tourist visits in Peru is only eight days, so most travellers will fly into the capital city of Lima and then take a short flight over the Andes straight into Cusco. From there, many will travel to Aguas Caliente (the little town at the base of Machu Picchu). Hikers will make their way to Ollantaytambo to begin their trek into the site. My plan was to spend 5 weeks in Peru, so I wasn't in a rush and I wanted to see some of the other sites. My research had made me aware of the diversity of the country. During my research, I discovered a bus company called Peru Hop. For less than $200 USD, I could get a flexible pass that would take me south along the coast and then wind back north through the Andes to Cusco. The slow journey gradually climbs in elevation and allows more time to comfortably adjust to the increasing elevation. The route is also available in reverse, but I chose to fly back to Lima after my time in the Sacred Valley.
Peru Hop uses local Peruvian guides on comfortable, climate-controlled coaches and follows a flexible hop-on, hop-off city system. The company provides many written guides to help travellers make the most of their journey. The route makes interesting stops at local sites and businesses as it winds its way to Cusco. The traveller can decide how quickly (minimum 3 days) or slowly (up to a year) the journey will take, with choices in recommended activities, restaurants, and accommodations. PeruHop works for those who want to pre-book and plan everything in advance to a specified schedule, but it also works for people who travel spontaneously. I predetermined my schedule and chose to pre-book my own lodgings at each of the stops, although reports from other travellers about the recommended hotels and hostels were very positive. I did book several excursions, for discounted rates, on the bus through Peru Hop. Bookings organized through the company were paid in cash on the bus in either local currency or US dollars.
I took 10 days to make my way to Cusco, enjoying multi-day stays in some locations. The group of travellers was constantly changing but included every different type of traveller imaginable: families, young backpackers, mature travellers, men, women, couples, and singles. As a solo mature female traveller, I felt incredibly safe and confident at all times. The guides were superb. Upon my return to Cusco, the office staff went above and beyond to assist me in solving a serious problem. They made multiple phone calls and followed up the issue for 2 weeks while I was deep in the Amazon.
Lima to Paracas
I was the first to be picked up at my hotel, at about 5:30 am. (The first thing to learn about tours in Peru is that they all start very, very early in the morning.) There was a very brief stop at an Inca site, Pachacamac, which we viewed across a large field from the side of the road. Not really worth it. We next stopped at Hacienda San Jose in Chincha. This is a grand colonial, former slave plantation, with huge expansive verandas. Visitors can shuffle through the dark narrow slave tunnels, which include several "discipline cells" while learning about the South American slave trade and fight for freedom. Today the Hacienda is the site of a luxury retreat. The grounds and buildings are beautiful with lovely gardens and an inviting pool. The obvious beauty and luxurious accommodations of the Hacienda are very inviting and I applaud them for confronting their history with unobscured views of torture areas with shackles hanging from branches and instruments of torture displayed on the walls and other exhibits. The Hacienda seemed to be quite far off the route. Perhaps that's why it didn't appear to have many overnight guests (if any) the day we visited.
The first overnight stop was Paracas, where I had a lovely room in Palmeras House. Paracas is a small fishing town on the South Pacific, surrounded by the Paracas Nature Reserve, home of Ballestas Islands, or the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”. The little town has a lovely beach and a good selection of restaurants, shops, and several bars and nightclubs. The entire commercial area and beachfront (approx 5 blocks long) can be explored easily on foot. It was off-season but there was still a lively beach town feeling. Peru Hop organized my ticket for a day tour to the Nature Reserve the next morning. It was an early start in the fog but that soon burned off as we passed the Paracas Peninsula where we were able to view the Candelabra geoglyph. This was the first large geoglyph I had seen and I was very excited. My bird nerd self had a thoroughly enjoyable day that included sightings of many different sea lions and hundreds of bird species including Humbolt penguins, blue-footed boobies, tendrils and cormorants.
The next stop on the route is Huacachina, a desert oasis not far from the city of Ica. Huge sand dunes surround a pretty lagoon which is rumoured to have therapeutic properties. The lagoon is surrounded by bars and clubs. Dune buggies and sand-surfing are major activities in the area with the constant roar of engines during daylight hours. The bowl geography of the area acts as an amplifier to the competing nightclubs that seem to be open all night. For a good night's sleep, try to book as far from the center of the village as possible.
I stayed at Desert Nights ecocamp, on the outskirts, nestled against the dunes. I enjoyed coffee and drinks next to the pool and found my tent very comfortable. In good weather conditions, it is possible to book a morning flight over Nazca and do dune buggy runs in the afternoon. I ended up staying an extra night in Huacachina because my flight over Nazca was delayed due to low cloud cover and I rescheduled my dune surfing. I really enjoyed the little town but I found it to be very loud at night.
Many, many, many years ago I read a Nancy Drew book, The Clue in the Crossword Cypher that included the mystery of the Nazca Lines. Since then, I was always intrigued. I decided to take a small plane flight over the lines. The Nazca valley is a desert with a strip of very fertile agricultural land, thanks to the aquifers designed by the Nazca people who lived in the area about 1700 years before the Inca arrived. (The Inca get most of the attention but they occupied a very short period of South American history). The pilot did a good job of following flight lines that allowed passengers to get good views of the lines and the aquifers. The guide was not as skilled in his narration as he followed an obviously memorized script. I was very glad to have had previous knowledge to appreciate the magnificence and significance of what I was viewing.
Thanks to the excellent written guide provided by Peru Hop at the time of booking, I knew that there really isn't anything much in Nazca except the little airport. The only flights seem to be small airlines offering tourists flights over the desert to see the famous Nazca lines. Peru Hop recommended organizing flights from Huacachina, which I chose to do. Once I booked the flight, Peru Hop organized the transportation from Huachachina to the airport and back. They also booked my dune buggy and sandboarding adventure upon my return.
The plan was to enjoy one of the first flights of the day and then head back to Huachachina where I'd enjoy some pool time at my camp before joining the last daily dune buggy and sandboarding run. Unfortunately low cloud cover delayed all morning flights that day. By the time everything cleared and flights began, it was clear that I wouldn't get that pool time and that I would have to reschedule the dune fun. This is where the flexibility of the Peru Hop pass really shines. I resigned myself to missing the dune fun to carry along my journey as planned. I went to check out the little market near the airport. By the time I returned to the waiting room the Peru Hop guide not only had new flight times and rearranged return transportation to Huacachina but she had also rescheduled my dune excursion, contacted the Ecocamp about getting a late checkout, and relisted the next leg of my route to a later bus.
There have been many theories about these lines (including a suggestion that it was the work of aliens) but the scientific consensus is that they were used for religious rituals and as navigational points. The Trapezoids point to various important ancient settlements. Some of the geoglyphs seen on the flight included the Astronaut, the Monkey, Dog, Hummingbird. Spider, Condor, Heron. Parrot, Tree and Hands.
Travel between Huacachina and Arequipa included a tour of a Pisco winery. Pisco is a type of brandy very popular in Peru. The "National Drink" is the Pisco sour which includes lime juice and egg white froth. I am highly allergic to eggs so I got to know the Pisco Chilcano which includes ginger ale and bitters but without the egg white. The distillation is done in copper-lined concrete, the gasses are sent down these tubes into pools of water, which keeps everything at the right temperature. There are 3 distillations. The first is not used due to lethal levels of alcohol. The second is used for Pisco, and the third is used as a disinfectant! After the tasting, it was back on the bus to Nazca. We would be stopping at the viewing platform on the PanAmerican highway to see some of the lines I had seen from the air the day before.
The platform is a bit rickety but I enjoyed seeing the lines a bit more close-up. I’m really glad I took the flight since the whole figures of these smaller geoglyphs couldn’t be fully seen. The only figures close to the platform are the Tree and the Hands. It was still impressive, just not awesome. See the fellow in the corner? He became the subject of people watching as we worked our way to Cusco. He was travelling solo on several of the same legs, but different bus, as I am. He is a huge selfie fan and records a lot of himself talking. (He didn't seem to speak English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish). First time I saw him in Paracas, he was wearing a three-piece business suit. After a stop, he added a colourful knit hat. The next time I saw him, he had added the sweater. This time he showed up with the pants! By the time I saw him in Cusco, he had boots and poncho. No idea what happened to the three piece suit!
Some travellers hopped off the bus in Nazca but the majority were going to ride overnight to Arequipa. The seats in the bus are very comfortable and reclined. I had my travel pillow and blanket and didn't anticipate any issues. Unfortunately, it was a long night with some minor mechanical issue which made sleeping challenging. We arrived in Arequipa fairly early but I was able to check in to my room at Posada Neuva Espana in Arequipa.
After a shower and a nap, I headed out to explore the stunning city of Arequipa. The Plaza des Armas (main square) was surrounded by shops, hotels, bars, and restaurants, a perfect place for people-watching and listening to live music. Arequipa is also the stop to arrange a hike to the Colca Canyon, another excursion that can be arranged through Peru Hop while onboard. The Colca Canyon is a renowned trekking canyon surrounded by volcanoes and home of a condor population. It is high elevation (4000m+). It is also possible to see the canyon on a coach tour. Believing myself to be fit enough, I chose the trek. While the actual terrain wasn't hugely challenging, the combination of cold and elevation did make the trek more difficult than I had anticipated.
There are many things to see and do in this large city and it's worth taking some time to enjoy the area while becoming acclimated to the elevation. I referred to the Peru Hop Guide for choosing things to do and see. I did a lot of walking around enjoying the (winter) sunshine, the parks, and the activity in Arequipa. The city definitely shows the architecture of the years of Spanish conquest. The historical center is a UNESCO site that includes many cultural displays and museums. I discovered an art gallery with a display of traditional textile arts. I thoroughly enjoyed my days in Arequipa.
The next leg of the journey began very early and included a breakfast stop at Chinitos Patahuasi (4018m). Literally in the middle of nowhere, it's a scruffy bus/truck stop and gift store. They had some alpacas, sheep, and geese grazing out behind the restaurant. It was underwhelming, but I did enjoy seeing the alpacas and getting a hot cup of coffee.
Next was a brief stop at Mirador Lagunillas (4413m), with absolutely stunning views. ... and the inevitable marketplace. The quality of the hand knitting and other crafts are amazing. Mixed in amongst the crafts, however, are some mass-produced stuff or non-wool blends. This was not uncommon in the marketplaces. The Peru Hop guide explained to me that many tourists just aren't willing to pay fair prices for the handmade crafts or for the pure alpaca wool. I was directed to craft collectives for the higher quality goods and given directions to good collectives in Puno and Cusco.
Puno (3900m) is a small city on the edge of Lake Titicaca in southern Peru very close to the Bolivian border. The main attraction here is the floating Uros Islands and as a jumping-off point to Bolivia by joining up with "Bolivia Hop". The influence of the 19th-century Chinese railway workers is very evident in the restaurants and artwork around the city. It is known for its hospitality and festivals.
The adventure I chose from the Peru Hop suggestions took me on an all day boat trip on Lake Titicaca. We were at the docks by 8am ...we set off across the bay to the Uros Floating Islands. The islands have been created by the Amaya people from the materials in the bay. There are many little floating islands all tethered together in a community which includes 2 small schools for the children. The Uros people live following most of their traditions, with a few modern touches provided by solar panels. Each island has 4-10 families, with one elected President for each island. They use reed boats to get into town once a week with fish and fowl that they use to barter for their needs. Tourist dollars go to improving their comforts, such as the purchase of solar panels
Then off we went across the lake to a natural island, Taquile. Taquile is a Quechuan island, and an archeological area. We arrived at the dock and needed to walk up a very steep path to get to the main plaza located at the top of the island (4100m). Starting the walk didn’t seem too bad.......but we were soon gasping and panting from the high altitude exercise. 2 members of our group got very ill on the way up. I stopped often for photos. *pant, pant*. Finally made it to the main plaza, which is in the same place as it was in Pre-Incan times. We had a superb trout lunch and then went for a hike....Luckily most of the hike was downhill.
This lady was sitting in the sun, spooling her wool. I had a bit of a chat with her, with help from my guide. She’s 62 years old (yes, that's what I was told but I think there might have been a translation error or... I can feel much better about my skin care routine) and has never left the island. Three of her 8 children have left. The other 5 still live on the island with their families. Four of her sons are master knitters. She has “too many” grandchildren. I thoroughly enjoyed this trip. Other offerings included overnight family stay on one of the floating islands or kayaking.
The travel day from Puno to Cusco had us headed north on the eastern side of the Andes range. Much of the journey was past various agricultural areas. The winter dry-season weather is predictable. It is always cold in the mornings and overnight but the sun burns through the clouds mid-day and then the day heats up between 23 - 28C until the sun sets around 5:30ish. This last drive is fairly unremarkable but the lunch stop buffet was fabulous. We arrived in the city center of Cusco in the late afternoon. Taxis were quickly arranged by Peru Hop to take us all to our various hotels. We were encouraged to drop by their head office and pick up a complimentary t-shirt.
I enthusiastically recommend Peru Hop to any slow traveller who wants to see more of Peru than Machu Picchu. Every interaction I had with them was pleasant, efficient, and demonstrated impeccable customer service. Their guides spoke excellent English and provided excellent recommendations at every stop. Excursions and accommodations could be arranged onboard, When I encountered an issue totally unrelated to Peru Hop, head office staff went out of their way to assist me.
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