Amazingly beautiful, wonderfully diverse, incredibly far yet strangely familiar – that is what comes to mind when I look back on my summer getaway in Peru. No amount of research and reading before the trip could have prepared me for what I was about to see. And so after three weeks of exploring what the country has to offer, I feel an obligation to share what I have seen, felt, and experienced. After all not many Filipinos get to be on that far side of the world(I was the first Filipino most hostels and foreigners encountered). Join me as I revisit my first South American experience in Peru.
Lima: First look at Peru
I entered Peru via Lima after a total of thirty hours in the air (plus a 6 hour-layover) to find that some parts of the city were strangely like Manila. The crazy drivers and car-filled roads made me feel like I had left home and then went back. Aside from that feeling of familiarity I will never forget Lima for its coastal fog which would descend early in the morning and then eventually clear up to reveal vibrantly blue skies in the summer. The afternoons would be a perfect time to go get a view of the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs of Miraflores as you take a walk along El Parque del Amor. Here you can catch a breathtaking sunset view, a sight of oranges, yellows, and reds which Lima is known for. The historic centre is also one of the noteworthy spots to be visited. I would have wanted to see more of it as I only drove by the area on my way to the airport. It looks to be filled with very interesting architecture that is worth a visit.
Aside from the scenery one thing I will never forget about Lima is the food. As a self-proclaimed foodie I did not miss the chance to try some ceviche, one of the country’s prized dishes which is the Peruvian equivalent of our kinilaw. It is fresh fish cooked in some sort of acid, usually lime juice, and seasoned with other aromatics. Some items on the menu looked very familiar, such as the escabeche and bistek. If you are up for something rich a plate of aji de gallina (chicken with creamy pepper sauce) will satisfy your craving. You also need to have the fresh trucha, trout fried to delicious perfection. Most dishes are accompanied by a side of rice, potatoes, corn, or two out of those three so it’s best to put aside your fear of carbs, if you have such.
Most people treat Lima as nothing but an entry point into the country, but as I have discovered it has a lot to offer which leaves much to be explored.
Huacachina: A desert oasis
Need I say more about Huacachina? The word oasis perfectly describes exactly what it is. Imagine tall, endless sand dunes, where you can sandboard and take thrilling buggy rides. And then think of a green lagoon right in the middle of all that sand. I had never seen such a sight until that point and so I was thoroughly in awe. It was such an incredible view to behold.
Getting there is just as remarkable. As soon as you get to the outskirts of Lima the landscape starts to change immediately. The bustling city becomes endless stretches of sand and once in a while you catch glimpses of the coast. The white scenery is occasionally peppered with patches of vineyards. Several hundred feet of sand on both sides of the road prepare to greet and amaze as you enter the tiny village.
If you ever find yourself in Huacachina, go up the dunes and stare at the wide expanse of space; envelop yourself with the feeling of nothingness. Catching the late afternoon sun as it sets will surely give you a memory you will not soon forget.
Imagine cobblestone streets teeming with people, quaint eateries filled with delicious goodies, shops selling colorful Peruvian souvenirs and old churches whose walls have stood the test of time. I must say Arequipa is my favorite stop throughout the whole Peruvian adventure. There is never a shortage of things to see, do, and eat. The Plaza de Armas (main plaza) in front of the city cathedral is filled with people (and pigeons). Night life is bustling and very exciting. You can do a pub crawl and get a good headstart as their ‘happy hour’ starts as early as 7:30 in the evening and lasts up until midnight! Hot and spicy grilled skewered meats called anticuchos in between bar stops make for a good snack especially on a chilly night.
And when you’ve had your fill of alcohol make sure you salsa the night away. In the morning when you’re hung over, just have more food-empanadas, pollo milanesa, and tamales, to name a few. A view of the snow-capped El Misti volcano will surely give you the energy to take on a new day.
Puno & Lake Titicaca: A Natural High
Again, this is one road trip I will never forget. Travelling to Puno from Arequipa was more than just a journey. The abundance of mountains, alpacas, and vicunas kept my eyes open.
There is not much to see in the sleepy town of Puno, but it was here that I had my first of taste of chifa, a rather curious Peruvian permutation of Chinese food. It’s quite fascinating and unusual to be in South America, eating food from my side of the world.
I entered the city of Puno at night and so the morning view of Lake Titicaca outside the bus terminal hostel window was my first proper introduction to the place. Literally the highest point of my trip at more than 3,800 meters above sea level, I am glad I did not get a bout of altitude sickness. The world’s highest navigable lake, Lago del Titicaca, is known not only for its exceptional elevation but also for its man-made islands. Stepping on the Uros floating islands, made solely of stacked reeds, is a unique experience. You can stay on one of the islands overnight if you want to, given the weather permits it.
Cusco: More than just a stop to Machu Picchu
Here is where it gets more touristy, since the goal of most visitors to Peru is to see Machu Picchu. This does not come as a surprise because Cusco is usually the jumpoff point to this ancient wonder. But in spite of this the town’s charm did not fail to capture me. Going to the Mercado Central de San Pedro for a hearty breakfast of chicken soup was one of my staples while I was there. Here in the bustling market you will find an assortment of cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, souvenirs, meats, and just about anything that can interest you. Going away from the main square will lead you to little side streets filled with little artisan shops, bakeries and restaurants. If the weather gets too cold you can warm up by getting yourself a comfy alpaca wool sweater, hat, or scarf which are available everywhere.
The nearby areas of Moray and Maras are not to be missed. The green circular terraces of Moray, believed to be an ancient agricultural experiment station, is a proof of Incan ingenuity and skill. The stories and legends behind this archaeological site are just as interesting. The terraced salt fields of Maras are a must-see as well. As we were approaching them the view of the place already took my breath away. Against a backdrop of green and red mountains and blue skies is an intricate layout of white salt evaporation ponds that have been used since Inca times. Magnificent should suffice to describe the landscape.
Final stop: Machu Picchu
Getting there can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be. I had no choice but to take the cheaper, ergo more taxing journey to Machu Picchu which involved a long ride on treacherous cliffside roads and then a hike along a railroad and into the lovely forest to make it to Aguas Calientes. I was treated to a great view of mountains, rivers, and a dusky sky. It’s not as scary as it all seems; you have fellow tourists to while away the time and make the task seem less daunting.
The following day after hiking for almost two hours starting 4:30 a.m. from Aguas Calientes I made it in time for sunrise at Macchu Picchu and I must say, it made me tear up. First, it was out of exhaustion. Second, they indicated in my ticket I was Canadian so that’s one less Filipino on the already short list of Filipinos on their tally. And third, I still could not believe I was on the other side of the world, facing this ancient creation that still stands today. Not too many people get that chance and for that I was overcome with a sense of gratefulness. I spent a good length of time at what they call the guardhouse, where the postcard photos of Macchu Picchu are taken. Here I just fixed my eyes on the stone structures, the mountains and rivers, trying to take in as much as I can knowing that as soon as I leave everything would be a memory.
For me Peru is a great way to start discovering South America. If it is a sneek peak into what else is there on the continent then I am in, long plane rides, jetlag, language barrier and all. The diversity and beauty is certainly something I will never forget for the rest of my life.