Okay, so in a lot of ways, Peru wasn’t the most romantic setting in the world. But it’s who you’re with that matters. Logan and I really enjoyed our time exploring all sorts of landscapes throughout Peru. We saw deserts and jungles and beaches. We met friends from Peru, Switzerland, Argentina, South Korea and the United States. We did some yoga (in my case) and jiu jitsu (in Logan’s). We had our minds completely blown by the ancient city of Machu Picchu. And in the end, other than perhaps Brazil, we got to know Peru better than any other country on our itinerary, simply because we got to see so much of it. This is that story.
I left off in Lima, where we spent about three days enjoying the sights and sounds of Barranco and Miraflores, the city’s two most attractive neighborhoods. Our bus trip to Cusco was delayed at first, so when we finally managed to secure our seats on a Cruz del Sur bus to Cusco (I definitely recommend those guys if you’re bussing round South America), we breathed a sigh of relief. We were still a little bit nervous, though – the bus trip was about 18 hours long and we’d be traveling overnight. We were worried about the rocky terrain of the Andes and the overall experience of the bus.
But we were fine, if a little uncomfortable. The first big learning experience was leaving Lima by bus. As we left the city, the urban bubbles of Miraflores and Barranco faded into the background as we got an up-close look at the poorer communities scattered outside of the city. Little shacks were everywhere…up and down mountains, across from big, fancy car dealerships, next to factories. But these communities also had plenty of roadside restaurants and bars for residents to gather at. They usually looked like big kitchens with communal tables for customers to sit at and enjoy a beer and some conversation. It was both sad and interesting to see the other side of Lima.
The food on the bus was pretty horrific and gave us both upset stomachs, which made sleeping through the night practically impossible. But when we finally woke up around 8 a.m., we were suddenly in the heart of the Andes. Drivers in South America, including our bus driver, give zero f**ks about speed limits (or maybe there just aren’t any). We nonetheless felt pretty safe, and enjoyed winding through the mountains on our way to Cusco.
Cusco was totally worth the long, tiresome, mildly uncomfortable bus ride. Cusco is a very old city high up in the Andes, at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet. If any of you readers are Zelda fans, all I really need to say is that it is basically Hyrule Castle Town. Right down to the wild yet lovable packs of dogs that roam the streets at night.
Anyway, to say that Cusco’s cityscape is beautiful and charming would be an understatement. Tiny cobblestone streets barely big enough for a car to fit through form the basis of the city, and the architecture itself is clearly thousands of years old.
Cusco is also a very touristy town, and seems to be a popular location for spiritual-minded expats to settle down. This is where yoga and jiu jitsu finally came into our trip. I took some classes at the Yoga Room, where I met yogis from the United States, Canada, France, Australia and the UK. The vibe at the studio was simply amazing…it was a tiny little space in an old Cusco city building, and throughout the entire practice, I could hear the gentle street noises of the town outside. I found that this made me feel incredibly connected to the town. My teacher was amazing, and if felt insanely good to get back into my practice in a real studio – I haven’t really had access to much yoga since moving back to Twin Lakes.
Logan also found a jiu jitsu school run by a British expat who’d moved to Cusco a few years prior. Logan’s jiu jitsu experience here has been a little different from what he expected. In fact, this school in Cusco was one of the very few places Logan actually got to practice during our trip. Often, he’d show up for class only to find that it had been canceled or the location moved. This was pretty frustrating for him – but at least he did find some good people to roll with in Cusco.
Other than yoga and jiu jitsu, our days in Cusco were spent roaming the city, eating at (admittedly not great) restaurants, and practicing our Spanish. We loved Cusco, but it primarily served as the jumping-off point for one of the main attractions in Peru: Machu Picchu.
Getting to Machu Picchu is quite a process. We took a cab for more than an hour to the town of Ollantaytambo in order to catch the only train that goes to the area, Peru Rail. Like I said, it’s the only option – and it’s EXPENSIVE. Like, more than $100 per person expensive.
We took the train to Aguas Calientes, which is essentially the town that Machu Picchu is located in. And man, was Aguas Calientes cool. It’s at an altitude that makes is extremely jungle-like, so it was really rainy, lush, warm and moist.
The entire city is built around tourism, so there are tons of restaurants to hang out at. We splurged on a meal of guinea pig (overrated, by the way) and then spent our evening sitting at an open-air bar right at street level, sharing a cigar and watching people walk by. All while wearing extremely fashionable panchos.
The next morning, we set off for Machu Picchu. Now we had to take a bus to get up into the mountains. Once we finally got on the bus, the ride up the mountain was pretty incredible. When people say that Machu Picchu is a city on a mountain, it’s hard to really conceptualize what that looks like. But if you’ve ever hiked, you know the feeling of standing on one mountain, looking across at another, while a valley lies between the two. It’s breathtaking. And the entirety of Machu Picchu is just like that – and it’s AN ENTIRE CITY.
Machu Picchu is so unreal. It’s an ancient Incan city built sometime in the 1400s, so it’s unfathomable how the residents were able to carve out the mountains and put such elaborate stonework in place. It’s meticulously well-maintained and simply stunning to behold. We spent a few hours simply walking around the ruins, resting and enjoying the scenery along the way. And that’s all there really was to it.
After our adventures at Machu Picchu, we returned to Cusco for another day, and then set off for our final destination in Peru: Arequipa.
The second-largest city in Peru, Arequipa is a lot more built up than Cusco, but much smaller than Lima. It’s primarily low-rise, and the neighborhoods we saw were all pretty standard for city life. We stayed near the Plaza de Armas (essentially the town square) in an area that was full of hostels and hotels, and in that area, the architecture was stunning. European-inspired columns, white buildings made of volcanic rock, countless courtyards and numerous city parks dotted the area. In fact, the Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas has been named the most beautiful in all of South America, according to one of the locals we talked to. And pretty much every city down here has a Plaza de Armas.
Other than the pretty architecture, though, our time in Arequipa was pretty short and relatively uneventful. We spent one day venturing out into less-tourity areas, where we found a lot of stores (including a Peruvian shopping mall), bought an umbrella, and drank seltzer waters at gas stations.
On our last day in Arequipa, we decided to go on an excursion to the Colca Canyon. And let me tell you, that was an exhausting day.
We had to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to be ready for our bus ride at 3. The bus picked us up right from our hostel, and we spent the early morning hours on a 3-hour ride toward Colca, Peru. The people who live out near the canyon are relatively poor, and many of the women set up shop along the street to sell textiles and clothing.
Our tour of the Colca region lasted until mid-day, and some highlights included scenic overlooks and a foray into the canyon itself, which was definitely a desert landscape. It was fascinating to see that we could find ourselves in a desert just three hours after being in rainy Arequipa. But although the landscape was desert-like, it wasn’t devoid of moisture…there was plenty of fog, and Colca is known as a farming region, so rain must not be completely unheard of.
So, while that was all fun and great, the “exhausting” element isn’t over yet. After getting back to Arequipa around 5 p.m., we had to immediately check out of our hostel, head to the bus station, and catch the next train for Tacna, the southernmost city of Peru. We were able to secure a bus ride at 10 p.m., so we waited around the station for the remaining four-and-a-half hours. Then, we bussed to Tacna overnight on about four hours of sleep – and the bus to Tacna was no Cruz de Sur. But I’ll get to that later. The trip from Tacna into Arica (Chile) is a story in itself, and this post is getting pretty long.
All in all, our time in Peru was incredible. Like I said, we got to see so many different cities and landscapes, and in the end, I think we got a really authentic picture of the people of Peru, their struggles and joys. Other than the fresh ceviche we had in Lima, we didn’t much like the food – spaghetti with french fries is a commonly served dish – but we loved the places and the faces. Most importantly, we got to see it all together. It was an exhilarating and busy two weeks, two of the most interesting weeks of my life. And our South America adventure was just getting started.