Ahhh Peru, a country that is vastly bigger than I or I think anyone who has travelled around it realized, has so much more to do than is ever given credit for, and far less daunting than many made out. Needless to say, its made for a great (if a little random) destination to travel around for the past few months.
After a month apart, my boyfriend flew 6,196 miles from London to Cuzco to spend the festive period together. We spent a good week in Cusco, wanting time to catch up and not be racing around the country in a race to tick as much off as possible. Sometimes, especially over Christmas, it’s better to slow down. You see more, enjoy it more, and end up with more stories to tell as you really get to know a place.
Cusco is a city unlike any I have ever seen before. It is a lot smaller than we expected, but that was always going to be the case after it had been so hyped up being the gateway to destinations such as Machu Picchu. The colonial architecture is most prevalent in the Plaza de Armas, where the dark brick, balcony-lined buildings frame a beautiful square with fountains and gardens to look over as you drink your morning coffee from one of the many balcony coffee shops. Usually, the Plaza de Armas is surprisingly quiet given its centrality to the city, but from Christmas eve to boxing day, the square is jam-packed with locals and indigienous communities who have travelled down from the surrounding Andes mountains to sell their crafts and produce in the famous Santurantikuy Christmas Market. Its an experience to say the least, with everything from maize and mangers to china pigs and woven jewellery and leather goods.
The cobbled streets of Cusco spread out from the center like a spider web. Walking through them is a skill in itself, as the roads are just wide enough for one of the million taxis to whizz down, and the pavements are scarcely wide enough for a child. With walls that lean into the road, I’m surprised there are not more accidents there! These streets are filled with shops selling crafts, jumpers, hiking gear… you name it, it’s there. Whilst the majority are full of the same tourist trap items, there are a few shops selling 100% alpaca wool clothing and beautifully woven cloths. It took every ounce of self control I had to not dispose of all my clothes and fill my rucksack with beautiful blankets and carpet to take home! If there’s one must – see street in Cusco, it’s the San Blas neighbourhood about a 10 minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. Filled with little cafes, restaurants and hostels, this area of the city is quieter than down the hill by the plaza, without the tourist shops, and much more authentic.
However, there is more to Cusco than the Plaza de Armas and surrounding neighbourhoods. We walked up to the Saqsaywaman ruins for the best views over the city, and some incredible Incan architecture. There’s even fluffy Alpacas at the top, win! The Christo Blanco is also well worth a visit, about 15 minutes up from the ruins. As a smaller take on the Christ the Redeemer statue, its a sight to be noted.
Naturally, being based in Cusco we ventured to the classics, Machu Picchu and Rainbow mountain. Being lovers of natural beauty, we both agreed the hike up to Machu Picchu is much more beautiful and impressive than Machu Picchu itself. Like any wonder of the world, we had a good idea of what to expect, and thank god we went on the early 5am hike because by the time we left I doubt we would have been able to see the ruins through the crowds. I’d take the early morning mist and clouds over the crowds again anyday. Something worth of note: the Inca Rail is hugely expensive, but is a great experience. Had David not have had food poisoning the night before, we would have walked the train tracks as any backpacker on a budget does, however we were glad of the train having been ill.
On Boxing day, we took the traditional walk to new heights of 18, 000 feet by climbing rainbow mountain. If I have learnt anything from our hikes around the Andes, it is that it’s always worth waking up early to be first ones there to simply beat the crowds that were always passed on the way back down. The hike to rainbow mountain was a serious battle of David and Jemma vs Altitude. Standing at the same elevation of Everest base camp, two steps felt like 10 and despite being relatively fit and active people, we were both struggling to catch our breath. The scenery of the snowy mountains is however incredible and well-worth the efforts!
After Christmas, it was time to swap the mountains for the desert and head to Ica, the gateway to the desert oasis of Huacachina. Note to anyone who gets car sick: I would not recommend the overnight bus option. The middle of Peru is literally just mountains, and therefore less than ideal to travel through on a bus. On a budget, we did it regardless, and lets just say I will never be doing that again, no matter how much a flight costs. Ever.
Huacachina felt like a little holiday within our travels. Imagine an oasis surrounded by palm trees in the middle of the desert with sand-boarding, hostel parties, and a cold beer to wash away all the sand you will most definitely inhale, and you have the paradise that is Huacachina. Sand boarding was exhilarating and slightly terrifying on the bigger dunes, we both literally flew a few times as you hit bumps in the dunes, and I even lost my sunglasses, so its not something to miss! Plus, tip your driver to take you to the top of the dunes for sunset, and I’m sure it’ll be one of the best of your life.
Many people I have met travelling Peru had not heard of Huacachina, and I suppose that is half the beauty of it. Whilst a notable tourist destination, most of the tourists were from Peru itself, and we met surprisingly few people from overseas. I’d like to think it will stay that way, but seeing how incredible it is, I highly doubt it. It won’t be long before tour companies are all over it.
For new years, we hopped back onto another overnight bus and headed to my new home for three months, of Arequipa. We brought the new year in with friends I had met in Zorritos, jumping from bar to bar before counting down to midnight in the Plaza de Armas as fireworks went off across the entire city. Just like in Cusco on Christmas eve, unofficial, impromptu fireworks were being let off everywhere and it wasn’t long after midnight that we quickly decided to vacate if we wanted to keep all our limbs for 2019, and head to the Wild Rover hostel to dance into the early hours of 2019. Arequipa was a great destination in which to spend new year, but more on Arequipa once I have explored it a little more.