Peru Minus the Backpack
When I first went to Peru some years ago, I was on my university year abroad and backpacking up from my adopted home of Santiago in Chile.
This time was a completely different experience and there was not a backpack in sight. This was travelling in style and I could certainly get used to it!
I went on this 2-week trip with my friend and colleague, Rosie, and our first stop was Lima, the capital of Peru. Here, we became possibly the first, and perhaps the last, tourists to fish in the Pacific Ocean surrounding Lima. As a capital city, Lima is no London but fishing there would be a bit like fishing in the Thames. You can imagine the locals’ bemused faces when two Brits began to cast their lines!
Needless to say, we didn’t have fish for dinner; instead we were treated to some traditional Peruvian fare at a local limeño’s home. There was ceviche to start (a must for any visitor to Peru) followed by a delicious stew, all washed down with a few too many Pisco Sours. Pisco is the local tipple in Peru…or so Peruvians claim. The Chileans also claim the same thing and having lived in Chile for a year I couldn’t resist asking my fellow diners, “But I thought Pisco came from Chile?” What a mistake! After much debate, I conceded – I mean, there’s even a Peruvian town called Pisco. After much jesting, Rosie and I left feeling part of the family – we were even introduced to the pet terrapin called Jose Luís.
Our next stop was Arequipa and the Colca Canyon and this for me was the highlight of our trip. It may have had something to do with the fact that we were staying at the amazing Casitas del Colca hotel. The 12 casitas(little houses) are in an idyllic setting and have been beautifully finished. As Rosie and I sat sipping a glass of wine in the outdoor heated oversized “bath”, we gazed up to the star-studded sky and four words sprang to mind:
This is the life!
The next morning we were up early to go condor spotting. The condor is the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere and the Andean condor has an average wingspan ranging from 9 to 10 feet. The last time I’d been to the Colca Canyon I’d been lucky enough to spot more than a dozen. This time, however, I wasn’t feeling so lucky and after about half an hour of scouring the canyon for a glimpse of a condor we were almost ready to give up. Suddenly, a huge bird soared right over our heads as we scrambled for our cameras to get a shot. The condor’s wings were at least 6 feet from tip to tip – only a baby, then! Mum, dad and the rest of the family soon joined him, and at one point there were 12 condors riding the thermal pockets of wind above our heads.
Dragging ourselves away from the condors we headed to our next destination – Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. We visited the floating reed islands of Uros and the island of Taquile before we were off again. This time we weren’t travelling by road or air but on the luxurious Andean Explorer train. Ten hours on a train did not sound appealing to me but the time flew by as we chugged through stunning scenery and Andean towns, passing at one point, before arriving at our next destination, Cusco – the historic capital of the Inca Empire.
Having spent my last time in Cusco sleeping in a 12-bed dorm I was not remotely prepared for the Monasterio hotel, a converted monastery where each room is unique and which now has the much-deserved honour of belonging to the Orient Express chain. Cusco is a fascinating city with so much to see and do. There are Inca ruins, traditional markets, Spanish imperial churches, llamas and more Inca Cola than Coca Cola.
Cusco is also the nearest city to the world-renowned Machu Picchu. When most people think of Peru, they think of Machu Picchu. Over 2,500 people visit the site every day and more than 30,000 people endure the high-altitude challenge of the Inca Trail every year to marvel at the pre-Columbian Inca site.
In January of this year, however, tourism ground to a halt following flash floods that left nearly 2,000 tourists stranded near Machu Picchu. Fortunately the site itself remained intact but the aftermath of the floods left the area devastated, and visiting the area just four months after the disaster I couldn’t help but wonder what would await me. Amazingly though, the Peruvian government had managed to rebuild the majority of the train tracks to Machu Picchu in record time, so the route was up and running again.
Seeing Machu Picchu for a second time was just as good as the first, and offered the pleasure of discovering parts of the site that I’d missed last time. Rosie and I spent hours wandering around the site and taking a million photos. That evening we stayed at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu hotel in Aguas Calientes, just below the ancient citadel – a fantastic place to relax after a full day’s exploration.
Two weeks had flown by, but we still had one final destination to go to – the Nasca lines. The lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs created by the Nasca culture between 400 and 650 AD. They range from simple lines etched in the sand to more complex forms including a hummingbird, a spider and a human male figure. Anyone who does this trip has to have a strong stomach as the small plane dips to the left for everyone on the left to see the lines and then circles and dips to the right. That said, it is certainly the best way to see the Nasca lines and I was glad I’d done it.
It had been great to be able to visit Peru again minus the backpack. Maybe it was because last time I was happy to sleep in a dorm room with 12 strangers, paying just £4.00 for the privilege, but I had never before noticed the abundance of top quality places that Peru can offer. In fact, I had never really understood the fuss about hotels and had assumed that I would care far more about the surrounding area than my hotel room. That was until now. Casitas del Colca, Monasterio and Inkaterra Machu Picchu hotels had all been top highlights in their own right, and each property goes to show how much Peru has changed over recent years. Leave me wandering through the grounds of the Inkaterra hotel, a stone’s throw from Machu Picchu, and I would be perfectly contented just to explore the orchid garden and watch the hummingbirds.