Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Nasca, Ica, Huacachina, Paracas, Huaraz, Huanchaco and Lobitos
13.08.2015 - 17.09.2015 25 °C
Once again, I've failed to keep up with this and will now give you another huge post. I guess it shows I'm having fun! The last month has been hectic to say the least, and I've also had very limited internet access for most of it. While it's actually quite nice having a break from the Internet and reading a lot, it makes it difficult to stay in touch with everybody so apologies for neglecting you!
After returning to Cusco from the jungle, I left on a night bus for Arequipa. I managed to get a cheap ticket on Cruz del Sur, the most reputable bus company here, and basically had the bus to myself so had a pretty good night's sleep. We were also treated to a game of bingo before the lights were turned off (why?!!). I arrived in Arequipa at 5.30am and took a taxi to the house I was staying in for my workaway project. Workaway is a website that matches volunteers with projects all over the world. The idea is that you work a few hours a day in return for a free stay, like I did in Cusco but more organised. I eventually arrived after the taxi driver had driven me around for half an hour before admitting he didn't know where the house was. There are no sat navs here (Peru doesn't even have postcodes) and the idea of taxi drivers having to pass a test as thorough as in London is laughable, but I got there in the end. I felt welcome straight away and had breakfast with Kaori and her mischievous but lovable dog Spi. Alongside Kaori, there were two other girls - one from Latvia and the other from Argentina, so it was a very international house. I enjoyed hearing about everyone's different cultures and I got a chance to get used to Argentinian Spanish, which is much less clear than Peruvian, before going there. Kaori's plan is to open a hostel and is in the process of making all the furniture from wooden crates. It's a really clever idea and looks great, but it's hard work. I quickly realised that I am terrible with a hammer so stuck to helping out by cleaning instead. Apart from work, I spent a lot of the time in the kitchen that week. After having just a stove and a single pan in Cusco, this kitchen was a luxury and I was able to do some baking which made me feel at home. I made scones and two batches of brownies for the girls in the house. Kaori is really passionate about cooking so I also learned a lot from her. She's half Japanese, half Peruvian so I got to try all sorts of different things. Among them were chicken feet, cow's stomach, queso helado (a milk ice cream with cinnamon from Arequipa that looks like a big cheese before it's scooped) and rocoto relleno (a large chilli stuffed with mince and cheese). Overall it was a nice relaxed week. In the mornings I went running. Though at 2300m, it seemed easy after spending so long a thousand metres higher. I spent the afternoons wandering around the colonial town, which is charming, though I prefer Cusco, and enjoying the sun. What is impressive is the backdrop throughout the city of the three 5000m+ volcanoes (Misti, Pikchu Pikchu and Chachani) nearby. I couldn't take enough photos.
At 3am on the 20th I was picked up by a tour agency to head to Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world, supposedly only beaten by the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon. It was a long and rough drive but we arrived in the village of Chivay, just inside the Colca national park at 7.30 for a quick breakfast. Not having been given much information to prepare me for the trip, I hadn't realised it would be so cold, but the altitude (3640m) and wind at the top of the canyon made it very uncomfortable. Luckily, we got straight back in to the van and by the time we reached the Mirador del Condor, the sun had come out. We were very lucky to see several condors from this viewpoint and they flew very close. It was truly spectacular, though difficult to capture on camera. We then headed to the starting point for our trek and left there around 10.30am. Pretty much all of the first day involved a long descent into the canyon. The views were incredible, we just had to be careful in the strong sun. I met some great people in my group and we talked all the way. Unfortunately, our guide was disappointing. We were all a little bemused when he seemed to be struggling with the walk and turned up 10 minutes after everyone else, dripping with sweat. We all made jokes about his non-existent time-keeping skills, referring to "Peruvian time" (half an hour later than planned). He also didn't speak English and enlisted me to translate. I didn't mind but it was frustrating for the people who couldn't understand him. Luckily, we didn't need much help, though it would have been nice to learn a little more about the area. That evening we arrived in the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. I had a quick icy shower to wash off all the dust and sun cream and we all headed to bed early. The next day we set off in the dark at 5am to hike back up to the top of the canyon. I've done a fair bit of hiking before, but I have to say that this was one of the toughest walks I can remember doing. In just over two hours we ascended 1200m from 2200m to 3400m with about 15 false summits, all before breakfast. One of our group started wheezing (probably altitude sickness) and had to go up on a mule. Having said that, the hike was very rewarding. We saw the sun rise and were treated to more spectacular views as we climbed. Breakfast was very welcome at the top and we then got back into the van to slowly head to Arequipa. We stopped off at the highest point of 4900m, officially the highest I've been, to take pictures, and for an alpaca steak for lunch. We made it back to Arequipa by 5 and I then got on another night bus to Nasca with my very achy legs.
When I arrived in Nasca, I quickly found an agency that could offer me a tour of the lines from the ground. I had already decided that 100$ for a half hour flight over the lines wasn't worth it. I'm glad I chose to do it that way - I had a brilliant guide for 3-4 hours who really knew his stuff, from the history of the Nasca culture to the various theories and conspiracy stories surrounding the lines. From various viewing towers I saw a selection of the lines including the tree and the hand. It was sad to see that part of the Panamerica highway cut directly through one of the images, though the government knew about the lines at the time. It seems like protecting cultural heritage can still be an uphill battle here. We were also briefly taken to see gold being produced in Nasca. While they assured us that working closely with mercury (to separate out the gold) without protective clothing is perfectly safe, as it won't evaporate, I couldn't help being dubious.
In the early afternoon I boarded a very hot bus to Ica, a couple of hours further north. I managed to find a very cheap hotel so I had the luxury of a private room for the night. Once I had checked in I decided to wander into town to have a look around. This was a mistake. People don't walk in general in Peru. I had a frustrating moment when looking for a village near Arequipa that I knew was less than 2km away (so easily walkable). I asked how to walk there and was simply repeatedly told where the bus left from. Ica was worse. I don't think I've ever been harassed so much by both taxis and people on the street. It didn't help that I didn't see another gringo while I was there. I eventually gave up and just took a taxi back. I decided to cut my losses and headed straight to Huacachina the next day, hoping to have a better time there.
Huacachina could hardly have been a more different experience. While annoyingly touristy, I enjoyed not being stared at and generally feeling safe. Huacachina is an oasis in the desert around 5km from Ica. The dunes are what attracts the tourists, as everyone wants to try sandboarding and to go for a ride in a sand buggy. With the perfect dunes you could almost be in the Sahara - it's very surreal. I decided to climb one of the larger dunes to watch the sunset that evening. The best way to get up is to follow the more worn 'path' up the less steep part of the dune. Unfortunately I ignored that advice and ploughed straight up. I regretted that decision almost instantly as my legs started to burn and I slipped down half a metre for every metre I climbed. Eventually I made it to the top and watched the beautiful sunset over the sand before having a great time sliding back down. In the morning I went for a run on the dunes before the haze cleared and the sun got too hot. Running uphill on sand is so hard, but it was one of the best and most surreal runs I've done. You don't get that every day in central London. After breakfast I headed out on my sand buggy tour. The best way to describe it is like a roller coaster. The driver took us up and down the steepest dunes. I just had to avoid opening my mouth so I didn't swallow sand. We then found a spot for sandboarding. The first couple of runs I stood like on a snowboard but realised that you can't carve so stopping is pretty tricky! After hitting the sand hard, I decided to try the next run lying on the board. By the time we were done I had sand everywhere - in my teeth, my ears, under my clothes... I did my best to shake everything off and then set off for Paracas, as I wanted to get there by that evening.
Though I had been told there was a direct bus, it turned out there wasn't, and I ended up taking a bus and two colectivos to get there. To be honest, I don't know how well a bus would have coped as there wasn't even a proper road for the last few kilometres. Paracas is a pretty little fishing town on the Pacific Coast. Sadly, it is slightly ruined by the sheer amount of litter, but it still has charm. I found a nice cafe for an incredibly fresh ceviche. Ceviche is probably Peru's most famous dish. It's raw fish or other seafood (cooked) with red onion, lime juice and sometimes chilli. It's served with potato or yucca and cancha (a type of maize that's fried dry and salted). It's delicious and I'll miss it when I leave the coast. The next morning I headed out at 8am to go the the Islas Ballestas, also called the Peruvian mini Galapagos. On the way we stopped at another drawing, similar to those at Nasca, but carved deeply into the rock rather than just drawn in the sand. It's amazing how these pictures seem to have been made independently, at completely different times. We then headed to the islands. There is so much wildlife for what seem like such barren islands. I saw pelicans, Peruvian boobies (I know!), turkey vultures, Humboldt penguins, sea lions, guanay cormorants, incaturns, starfish and mussels, along with so many other birds whose names I've forgotten. One patch of the island appears black from a distance because of the sheer density of the birds on it. There is just one man living on the islands and he is there to harvest guano, which fetches very high prices. It wouldn't be my ideal career - I don't think Freshfields needs to worry! In the afternoon I headed to the Paracas national park. The landscape is beautiful but bleak. It seems amazing that such a desert would be given national park status but then you learn that most of what is being protected is in the sea. There is a huge diversity of sea life under protection and I learnt that Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. I had a relaxed evening with another ceviche and then headed to Lima the next day on the bus. Unfortunately my cagoule and other jacket were stolen on the bus so I had to go to the police station for a report when I arrived. It doesn't seem like much but when you travel with the bare minimum and something as important as your cagoule is stolen, you feel very vulnerable. I assumed I would be able to find another when I arrived in Huaraz, a trekking Mecca, but for whatever reason, they had no outdoor shops! Luckily I found a shop that would rent me a jacket for my treks.
On the first day in Huaraz I relaxed after another night bus with little sleep and then headed to the hot springs in the afternoon. I then had a very early night and was out by 5.45 the next day to trek to Laguna 69. We saw three lakes, all an intense blue because of the glaciers. We trekked for around 5 hours in total up to the final lake at an altitude of 4650m. Though much higher, the walk was much easier than the Colca trek. Unfortunately, I chose the worst day for weather. Other people who had done the trek advised me to wear shorts because the sun is strong and very hot when it comes out. Luckily I didn't take their advice because the sun never did come out and it was snowing at the top - not ideal conditions for hanging around to enjoy the view. Thankfully, I had great weather on the Santa Cruz trek, which I set off for at 6am the next day. This is probably the most well-known trek in the area (Cordillera Blanca, Peruvian Andes) and covers 36km over 3 or 4 days, reaching an altitude of 4750m. The first morning was spent on the bus on a very narrow road with breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains. When we arrived at the start of the trek, we were divided into groups and had a fairly easy, flat walk for around 4 hours to our first camp. The mules took all of the heavy equipment so we were able to focus on the walk. The camp (as with all of the camps we stayed at) was spectacular, with beautiful views of the 6000m+ peaks in the area. We were truly in the middle of nowhere for four days - the 'toilet' was a hole in the ground, I wouldn't even call it a long drop... Having said that, we were all surprised by the quality of the food. The guides were not just there to lead us in the day, they also prepared our breakfast (including pancakes!), lunch, tea and two-course dinner! I certainly wouldn't be capable of preparing all of that in a tent. Sadly, the equipment didn't live up to the same standard. On the first night, none of the group slept because the sleeping bags just weren't designed for those temperatures. It turned out they had forgotten to give us extra blankets that we were meant to have... With those, filling plastic water bottles with hot water and putting them in our sleeping bags, and wearing everything we had with us (literally everything) the following nights were more comfortable. The second day, we set off at 7.00 to avoid the insects in camp that come out when the sun rises. This was the longest and hardest day of walking, including our trek up to the pass at 4750m. However, thanks to a month spent in Cusco and another couple of weeks at altitude, I coped well and was surprised not to be too out of breath. At the top we were almost at the snow level of the mountains and again, the view was incredible. We arrived nice and early in camp and had a great evening sharing stories and jokes from each of our home countries. On the third day, most of the walk involved going down through a spectacular canyon. A few years ago there was a huge landslide which wiped out a lot of the plants and animals there, leaving it strikingly bare now. We followed the river all the way down, through a much more fertile landscape and our final camp was in a relatively 'urban' village, meaning that there was a shop and a real toilet. We celebrated with a beer and enjoyed the relatively warm air. On the final morning we all headed to the hot springs nearby, which were very welcome after so much walking, then headed back onto the bus to return to Huaraz. We all met up for a final meal there before going our separate ways.
My night bus arrived in Trujillo on the northern coast at 4.15am rather than the scheduled 6am. With no buses running until 7, I had no choice but to wait it out in the bus terminal trying not to fall asleep (I didn't want to be robbed again). I had originally planned to spend the night in Trujillo, another pretty colonial town, before making my way slowly further north, but for whatever reason, there are no affordable hostels there. I was recommended to head to Huanchaco, a surfing village around 10km away and I ended up staying for 5 days. I got some breakfast and headed straight out for my first surfing lesson. After struggling into a wetsuit and practising paddling and standing up on dry land, we got into the water. Huanchaco is a great place to learn to surf - the waves are fairly small but consistent and, of course, it's sunny all year round. I had difficulty believing it was winter when walking around in shorts (for the first time on my trip). I was really happy to stand up on my first wave and within a few days (surfing for an hour or two, twice a day) I was able to do some basic turns. While snowboarding certainly helps with my position and balance, surfing is very different. You don't have lifts to help you, so most of the time when you're a beginner is spent paddling back out after trying to catch a wave. The ceviche and beer was certainly welcome at the end of the day. A highlight in Huanchaco was meeting and having drinks with the current surfing world champion, though it was hard not to feel a little nervous when he wished me luck for my lesson!
After that, it was time to head up to Lobitos for my next Workaway project. I arrived at 8am after yet another night bus. Everyone in Huanchaco had raved about the surfing there but had told me that there was nothing else there. I thought it was strange that people living in a pretty small village were telling me this, but they were right. Lobitos is not really even a village - it's a desert with a few houses where water is hard to come by (we had to ration it at times), let alone Internet. If you don't surf, there's no point being there, but it's easy to sea what they were raving about. The waves were perfect, though difficult for a beginner. I had a bit of a shock the first morning when I went out to surf just after arriving and was pulled under by the current a few times. Thankfully, after a day or two of practice I was more used to battling the current and, though not catching the big waves, I was happy to be able to catch some smaller ones myself (without having someone to push me). It was also nice to have sand underfoot rather than the sharp rocks that cut me all over my hands and feet in Huanchaco. I was staying with Hugo, who is originally from Lima but moved to Lobitos a few years ago for the relaxed lifestyle and great surfing. He rents and repairs boards and is a surf photographer. His home was simple and still under construction but I had everything I needed, including Hugo's excellent cooking! He also has a beautiful golden retriever who loves the sea and even climbs onto the board to surf a couple of waves. While quiet, I can see the appeal of living there and I really enjoyed my 8 days surfing, running, reading and having a beer with the locals and other surfing tourists. Surfing is definitely something I want to carry on with in the future - next stop Cornwall!
It's hard to believe it but I'm almost at the halfway point of my journey, which means it's time to go and meet Sophie. I'm now in Lima and tomorrow I'm flying back to Cusco from where I'll head to Bolivia. I'll miss the warmth of the North but it's exciting to be moving on to a different country and I'm looking forward to having someone to share the rest of my travels with. I'll keep you updated!