Day 27: Puno, Peru
At 10pm on our last day in Cusco we boarded a bus headed for the town of Puno, a lake town at the far southeast end of Peru.
After seven hours of tossing and turning, the driver turned the lights on at 5am and we were instructed to disembark and wait for a van to take us to our hostel. We had signed up for a hop on hop off bus tour which would loop around the southern half of Peru and end at Lima. For $190 each, we figured it’d be the best way to see the highlights, eliminate the confusion and delays of public transport and meet fellow travelers along the way.
After a week of high altitude and chilly weather in Cusco, I was looking forward to returning to a normal climate and wasn’t expecting the 39° air as I stepped off that bus. There’s also apparently no heaters in Puno, so we bundled up and waited in a lobby for hours for another van to take us to the dock.
Puno is the gateway to the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, which straddles Bolivia at over 12,000 feet above sea level.
Here is where you’ll find the village of Uros, a community of man made floating islands (big enough to hold just a few huts) constructed from reeds, which are still inhabited by the indigenous people.
Our boat landed on one of the islands where we met with one of the leaders of the community who paddled us around on his reed boat and explained his history and culture.
From there we were transported to Taquile Island, where around 1500 people live and still practice traditions passed down by their ancestors.
We climbed to the top of the mountain (even though it was higher than Cusco it felt much more manageable), past sheep-filled rocky pastures and two year olds selling bracelets, and ended the tour feasting on trout overlooking the water.
That evening in Puno was quiet, as I was still trying to recover from the flu and we had several more hours to kill before the bus without a room to retreat to. We found shelter in a restaurant with two girls from Malta, chugging tea to stay warm while killing time. I was counting down the hours until I had access to a hot shower and a bed, but still had one more night on the bus.
Day 31-32: Arequipa, Peru
Our bus that night was much older and rattled the whole way, but fortunately due to pure exhaustion I was finally able to get some sleep. We arrived in our next destination of Arequipa before dawn and happily paid the extra $10 to check in early and crawl into a real bed.
After a relaxing morning, we joined the Maltese girls for a walking tour of the city and were relieved to be at a lower elevation with warmer weather.
Arequipa sits at the base of the Andes below a range of volcanic mountains, which makes for a pretty stunning backdrop.
The buildings were constructed from volcanic rock in the 16th century (though most have been repaired/rebuilt due to numerous earthquakes).
We kept to the central areas but the city felt very safe and walkable, much like Cusco and everywhere else we’ve been in Peru. The best part of the walking tour? Meeting this little one:
My love for llamas has been solidified.
After our tour, our guide pointed us to a local restaurant outside of the touristy areas, in which we were served huge portions of fish soup and delicious relleno for a bargain. Every region in Peru seems to have a different food specialty, although rice and French fries on the side are standard everywhere. And much like Brazil, they can’t get enough sugar and bread.
We found the local market and it was filled with rows of every kind of fruit imaginable, among a random assortment of meats and potatoes (Peru is home to over 2,000 types of potatoes!)
Always up for surprises, we picked two random fruit juices off the menu—one of which had the texture of chalk and tasted like roasted marshmallow (Lucas disagrees).
The following day we took a bus around the countryside which was my personal favorite part. There’s so much more to Arequipa than just the downtown central district.
After two days in the city, it was time to move on to our next destination.
Day 33-35: Nazca & Huacachina, Peru
We woke up at 5am, ready for a full day of bus travel. Shortly after leaving the city limits, the landscape began to turn into sand, and soon enough we were surrounded by mountains of dunes in every direction.
Suddenly the desert met the ocean and we were reunited with the Pacific for the first time in over a month. The ride up the coast was beautiful and familiar, like we were headed up highway 1 in central California (but more deserted).
We stopped at a small fishing town along the way for ceviche, then made it to a town called Nazca before sunset.
There, on the side of an open highway with nothing around for miles, we climbed an old metal viewing tour and peered out over the desert landscape in search of large drawings in the sand drawn by the ancient Nazca people dating back to as far as 500 BCE. From the viewing tower we could only see a couple drawings as the largest ones cover up to 1,200 ft.
Thirty minutes later we were en route to our next destination—the desert oasis of Huacachina.
I’d come across this place in my South America research and immediately added it to our list of places to go.
Apart from a photo of a lake and sand buggy, I had no idea what to expect (which is my favorite way to travel) so we chose a hostel at the last minute and prepared for a fun night.
At some point during the drive to sea level, my congestion finally cleared and my hearing was fully restored (after 3 weeks!) so I was ready to celebrate. We joined a big barbecue then headed to a bar/club with our bus tour guide, drinking pisco and dancing salsa for hours. The club was also full of dogs (stray/resident animals are typical at nearly every establishment here), one of which was very pregnant and loved being at the center of the dance floor.
After our fill of Latin music, we all climbed to the top of a sand dune carrying palm leaves and branches up to a bonfire, which we gathered around for into the early hours of the morning. Sidenote: scaling sand dunes is much more difficult than you’d think—one small hill took more effort than the entirely of Machu Picchu.
The next day we ventured into the nearby town of Ica, where we toured a local vineyard and tasted pisco before grabbing tuk tuks (although here they just call them motor taxis) to a local market for ceviche with our guide—he knew all the best local spots.
When we returned, it was time for the fine buggy & sandboarding tour. This is the main draw of Huacachina and we’d been looking forward to it for days.
We were strapped into a buggy with 8 other people and told we’d been given the craziest driver.
For the next two hours we were holding on for dear life as our buggy flew through the sand, getting sideways and catching air while coming inches from other buggies and people (GoPro video coming soon!)
Along the way we stopped at the top of the peaks, grabbed a board and slid head first 100 feet down the face of the tallest and steepest dunes in South America.
Right behind Machu Picchu, this was my second favorite experience in Peru. We didn’t want it to end—so much so that we extended our trip and stayed another night in Huacachina.
That night we met a British couple and went to dinner with them to exchange GoPro footage, and we met up with them the next day to get some amazing drone shots (just wait for the next video!)
It was the setting of this desert oasis that got me. Neither of us had any idea that a vast and breathtaking desert landscape made up so much of Peru—most people picture Machu Picchu and the highlands when they think of this country, but it’s much more diverse. And bonus, the desert makes a killer setup for photo & video shoots.
After an amazing two days in Huacachina, I didn’t want to leave but we were anxious to continue our journey and get to Lima. With sand still clinging to our every crevice of our bodies, we caught the 6pm bus headed north—next stop: Paracas.
Day 36-37: Paracas, Peru
Just a couple hours up the coast, Paracas is a small port town serving as the gateway to Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands, otherwise known as the poor man’s Galapagos.
We arrived late in the evening and booked an early boat tour to the islands, as recommended by our bus company.
The tour was a quick two hours, as we circled rocky islands full of birds, crabs, seals and even saw penguins!
It was interesting to see but felt like it had ended almost as soon as it had begun. We barely had enough time to take photos, let alone take in our surroundings.
Fortunately there was still a full day left in Paracas after returning, so we spoke to a handful of tour companies and ended up finding a guy who agreed to take us on a private ATV tour of the national reserve for 120 soles ($40) for 2 hours. Sold.
Hands down, best thing to do in Paracas. We rode through the barren landscape that was once the ocean floor, finding ancient fossils and marveling at miles of scenery that felt somewhere between New Mexico and Mars.
Along the way we stopped at a few viewpoints to catch a glimpse of the coastline…
And dramatic red sand beaches…
I could have spent all day there, but we had to catch the night bus to Lima that evening. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend exploring the reserve via ATV or sand buggy.
The town of Paracas itself is quite small and lackluster (it’s all for tourists) so we were happy to get back on the bus for Lima.
Day 38-40: Lima, Peru
In the wee hours of the morning our bus finally arrived to Lima—the final stop on our bus route. We’d made it to the end!
We had no plans upon arrival, booking our hostel at the last minute and hoping for the best. We knew to stay in the Miraflores or neighboring Barranco areas, as Lima has a reputation for being quite unsafe (even moreso than Rio).
During our final few days in Peru, we toured both the central district and Barranco (absolutely loved Barranco), explored the beaches and restaurants and ate enough ceviche to hold me over for months. I’m no ceviche connoisseur, but it all seems to be exactly the same everywhere in Peru. It always looks like this:
Fish, lime juice and spices, raw purple onions and a sweet potato. Lima is known as the the ceviche capital of the world (you can’t go a block without someone advertising it) and I’ve never had so much raw fish in my life. Another dish everyone talks about is the lomo saltado (stir fry beef with peppers & onions, served with white rice and fries) but we tried it a few times and didn’t understand the hype.
My favorite Peruvian dish actually wasn’t discovered until reaching Lima (apparently it’s only available in Lima?)—it’s the tacu tacu which is pan fried rice and beans, topped with a meat or fish in a sauce. It is the closest thing they have to Mexican food and what I wouldn’t give for a good street taco or enchilada these days…
Anyway, we enjoyed being back in a big city with a variety of cuisines and modern amenities before heading off to the jungle. By the time this post is published we’ll be on a plane to Ecuador, where we’ll spend several days in the Amazon before traveling to Colombia to wrap up the South America leg of our travels.
It seems like ages ago that we landed in Cusco—and feels as if we’re worlds away from Machu Picchu. One of the best parts of traveling is how it slows down time, giving you years worth of memories in a month and more years in your life. While there are many parts of home we miss, we wouldn’t trade these days for the world.
Stay tuned for our Peru video, coming soon! In the meantime you can follow my stories on instagram for our daily adventures from Ecuador. Until then…