10. Plenty more fish. Peru 2: Nazca, Huaccachina, Pisco, Paracas, Lima, Amazon

In a coincidence calling free-will into question, we decided to leave Arequipa on the exact day that, unbeknown to us, the coastal road reopened after an earthquake had closed it for 2 weeks. The pristine beaches and rocky scenery were mesmerising and, after numerous hours of sleepy bus window gazing, we arrived at the gigantic and mysterious pre-Colombian sand geoglyphs that Nazca is famous for. With not a single alien in sight but a rapidly setting sun, we sprinted up the observation tower before continuing on to the desert oasis of Huacachina for a cheeky gluten-filled pizza.Built on a picturesque green lagoon with supposed healing properties, the palm tree lined tiny village of Huacachina is completely surrounded by enormous golden sand dunes. Thanks to the Dutch courage gained from a local vineyard’s numerous free samples of Pisco (local liquor), we jumped aboard dune buggies for an exhilarating (aka terrifying) roller coaster ride on the dunes. Feeling elated at surviving the high-speed sudden twists, turns and free-falls of the ride, we waxed our boards (not a euphemism!) and tried our hand (or rather feet) at sand-boarding. After surprising even ourselves and somehow managing to remain standing whilst sliding down the dunes, we took in the incredible view before an even more nerve shattering ride back!

Thankfully, just a short journey further north, the beautiful scenery of Paracas’s nature reserve was calming before our adrenaline levels were pumped back up by a horrendously claustrophobic tour of the Chincha slave tunnels. Whilst in 18th century Peru slavery was legal, to avoid paying import taxes, these secret tunnels were built to smuggle over a thousand slaves into the Hacienda (plantation) to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields. Whilst nervously walking the completely pitch-black windy tunnels, the horror stories of people forced to spend weeks crammed into these tiny, airless, dusty spaces were enough to get my heart racing back to dune buggy levels.Managing to escape confinement, we took our final Peru Hop bus (highly recommend) and journeyed to the capital. With confidence at a high from our recent sand-boarding success, we arrived in Lima and headed to the beach to catch some waves… aka participate in a woefully inadequate surfing lesson followed by an hour of a lot of this:a little bit of this:but mostly this: 

In need of less sea water and more sea food, we tested Lima’s reputation for gastronomical excellence and were not disappointed. From the best grilled fish we’ve ever eaten courtesy of “Pescados Capitales” (so good we had to return… twice), to delicious vege pizza (and gluten-free) from the aptly named “Vege Pizza”. After eventually being too full to eat anything else, we hired bikes and toured Lima from the huge mud brick pre-Inca temple of Huacachina Pucllana to the street art of Mira Flores and Barranco. With Shabbat rapidly approaching, we headed to Chabad where, along with unexpectedly bumping into a friend from home, we were overjoyed by the meat and tahina despite several days of glutinous gorging. To misquote Mother Goose, then these little piggies went to the Amazon.Iquitos is just a 2 hour flight from Lima but is worlds apart from the temperate, urban settings we’d visited this week. Sitting on the banks of the Amazon river, our initial elations at the rainforest’s higher temperatures were quickly drowned out by the pools of sweat emanating from… everywhere! With no air-con, fans, or even electricity for most of the day, our stay at the cheap but very “rustic” Jacamar Lodge was somewhat warmer than us Brits were used to. Whilst the accommodation and food were nothing to write home about (#irony), our guide Juan and our group of Ozzies made it into the great experience that it was.After days of swinging on Tarzan style vines whilst trekking through the jungle and bakingly hot mud baths on the banks of the river, we’d fall asleep to the surprisingly loud buzzing of the forest fauna (and yes, a lot of mosquitoes). Helped of course by the powerfully strong jungle “wines” aka sickly sweet alcoholic concoctions of either:

  • Highly concentrated ginger that burned all the way down to the stomach
  • Tongue numbingly sour berries “packed full of vitamins”
  • Tree barks akin to what I suspect would result in taking a blender to Cinnabon
  • Or a mixture of all three which surprisingly was the most palatable!

Wildlife was everywhere, from the plethora of exotic colourful birds swooping and diving in search of food, to the waters teeming with fish, alligators, turtles and snakes.Monkeys cheekily jumped from tree to tree after stealing items from unaware humans, and swarms of colourful butterflies fluttered all around. Even the local pets were somewhat different from the norm. Meet Slothy McSlothface (patent pending):For me, one of the most standout moments was fishing for piranha which it turns out are kosher! The thrill of a catch quickly washed away our initial hesitation and, despite it being our first time ever fishing, we successfully landed numerous fish with the most basic of equipment. With the sun setting we contently sailed back where, thanks to being attracted to the light of our head-torches, we were amusingly pummelled by small jumping fish which we’d then scramble to throw back into the water. Eating our catches that evening was incredibly satisfying (despite being packed with tiny bones) and a nice change from the rice and jungle “spaghetti” aka shredded palm trees.All jungled out, we had one last game of spot the Roamington before the 2-hour return journey along the amazon, this time during an epic tropical storm. Whilst the boat’s tiny engine chugged along at a painfully slow pace, it did result in finally spotting dolphins, before arriving back to civilisation and much welcomed air conditioning.

Up next: The Galapagos, where the range of wildlife and proximity to it was insane. More on that next time…


9. Machu and Macho! Peru: Cusco, Machu Picchu, Colca & Arrequipa

On crossing into Peru we discovered that, much like in Bolivia, protests are an extremely popular pastime. After learning of impending road blockades, we decided to skip Puno, pull an all-nighter and head directly to Cusco, the heart (or rather the belly-button to Liv’s disgust) of the 2,500 mile long Inca empire. In Incan mythology the three levels of existence are represented by animals: the snake for the underworld, the puma for the world of man and the condor which soars up into the world of the gods. Attempting to ignore our lack of sleep, we joined a free walking tour and roamed the streets of the puma shaped city.

From giant multi-faceted polished Inca stone foundations, to Spanish invasion, revolution and Peruvian independence, our sleep deprived brains were overwhelmed with the flood of insightful information. 

Luckily we had incredible gluten-free crepes from Qucharitas and delicious meat from Chabad to fuel us.

The main tourist draw of Cusco is it’s proximity to Machu Picchu and whilst it is possible to get there and back by train in just one day, most sadistic tourists opt to spend a few days following in the footsteps of the Inca and trek there via one of the many trails. 

As the official Inca trail is booked up 6 months in advance, we opted for a 4-day Salkantay Trek with the aptly named and highly rated (even with a 4am pick-up time) Salkantay Trekking company. Whilst steep hiking was made even trickier by the 4,600m high altitude, the traditional remedy of chewing coca leaves, along with great food and even greater company (#teamsexyllamas) kept us going throughout. Inca smiles all round!

The scenery was also incredible, from the snow capped mountains of Salkantay and Humantay, to the colourful rocky valleys and the lush green dense jungle of the “cloud forest”. This of course provided a great excuse to “stop and admire the view” aka catch my breath. The most spectacular view though was of the stars on the first night when falling asleep in the less than private but picturesque glass domes of the sky lodge accommodation.

From summit to valley, the lower altitudes of the jungle made breathing a little easier, however the heat and the mosquitoes provided new challenges for us weary hikers. Luckily a brief stop at a coffee producer perked us up with some cheekily numerous free samples of coffee and cacao liquor. After finally managing to pry ourselves away from the intensely intoxicating aroma of grinding coffee, and all caffeinated up, we had time for one last chivalrous carrying of bags (#herohubby&machomatt) whilst munching on sweet and fragrant local grenadillo fruits.

Liv even managed to get a quick yoga session in whilst I kept an eye out for local wildlife. 

After a tough few days, we arrived into the town of Aguas Calientes (literally meaning hot water) for an ironically cold shower and a few hours sleep before our 3am Machu Picchu ascent. 

Alas, our guide suffering from shock at getting his first “good” rather than “excellent” review (mostly down to how awkward he made our group feel about mandated tipping), overslept and turned up an hour after the “beat the queues” time. With a gigantic line of tourists waiting to get the pricey coach, we split from the rest of our group and set off by foot where 20 minutes later we arrived (to our despair) at an only marginally smaller walking queue.

Thanks to the guide’s impressive trickery worthy of an episode of Hustle, we were whisked to the front and began climbing the 1500 Remi sized steps still in complete darkness. 

39 minutes later we emerged at the top feeling accomplished but mostly relieved. With the rest of our group yet to arrive (literal slow coaches), we entered the site and had our first views of the sun rising over the astonishing Machu Picchu.

An hour later (and with a now very grumpy guide), we began our tour of the Condor City. From an Inca compass rock shaped like the southern cross (a star constellation), to the water channels, numerous temples and stepped sides, it really was an impressive site to see.

When booking our tour, I for some reason thought that after hiking for numerous days, climbing the steps to Machu Picchu and walking around for hours, it would be a good idea to also tackle the Machu Picchu Mountain. With Liv’s back having had enough, we successfully managed to sell her ticket to a passer by who turned out to be an Israeli mountain hiking extraordinaire called Amir. Ruud (fellow Salkantay trekker), Amir and I then set off on the 1.5 hour roastingly hot and very steep climb (652m elevation gain) to the summit. Whilst the views from the top were spectacular, this was one hike I definitely could have done without! 

Liv (being wiser than me) made the better call hiking to the Sun Gate which was free, much gentler and also offered great views of Machu Picchu.

After an amazing but gruelling four days, we descended the steps of Machu Picchu and returned to Aguas Calientes where thankfully it finally lived up to it’s name with an extremely welcome hot shower. All scrubbed up, we returned back on the fanciest of  trains, complete with a full dinner service and amusingly a fashion/cultural show.

Back in Cusco and after binging out on excessive amounts of meat from Chabad, we once again headed out at 3am for a Winicunca (aka Rainbow mountain) hike. With multi-coloured layers of rock due to the oxidation of different minerals (#science), the climb (1km elevation gain) up to the summit was beautiful but tough, especially considering the 5km high altitude.

Having hiked all that we could, we treated ourselves to a relaxing day of food, more food, massages and a somewhat less relaxing overnight bus to Arequipa. Wanting to make the most of our time, we jumped straight on a 2-day tour of the Colca Canyon. The views from the different miradors (viewpoints) of the stepped hills, deep canyon and soaring condors were beautiful and validated us shlepping round a long zoom lense. The thermal pools in Chivay were also nice and soothing on our sore muscles although a little on the toasty side.

After an achingly active 2 weeks, we returned to Arequipa to treat ourselves to some relaxation and fine dining before, in the words of the M People song, movin’ on up the Peruvian coast and exploring the Amazonian jungle. More on that in the next post…