Learning Spanish is hard when you’re on drugs. Here in Cusco I’m taking four hours of lessons a day for a week, hoping i can improve on the flailing attempt at communication that I’ve been wingin it with so far. But as I’m sure happens with every single long term traveler ever, I’ve gotten sick. My cold symptoms, a nose with an infinite and effectively run snot production system and a cough like a dogs bark, have been kicking around, on and off, for about six weeks now, almost the time I’ve been in South America. Then the loose bowels decided to join the party about two weeks ago, and that is what the mentioned drugs are for. Fingers crossed I’m out of the woods now – La Paz in Bolivia is my next destination, and from what I’ve heard there’s enough else there to make you sick than a bit of a cough.
When I crossed the border from Chile into Peru I made a beeline for Arequipa, having read good things in my trusty Lonely Planet. Arequipa, at least in the centre, is a colonial style town with a really cool adventurous vibe about it. El Misti, the resident snow capped mountain overlooks the city, and there are plenty of hikes and other activities in and around the city that you can tackle. I first tackled the city using my trusted strategy for finding my feet (or loosing them depending how you look at it): parking myself at the hostel bar and ordering a beer. The hostel was called the Wild Rover, and it has set me off on a quest to have the best threesome in South America. The sexual innuendo being a slogan on a t-shirt that you get if you stay at all three Wild Rover hostels. I spent a couple of nights at the one in Cusco also so La Paz beckons as the final tick box for my free t shirt.
I met a lot of cool people at the hostel, and went white water rafting with a bunch of them, organised through the hostel. After my desert escapade I was thinking that was the one time South America would try to get me, and I was home free now. Well Arequipa decided to shake that up a little more, flipping our raft on the very first rapid where every other boat had passed without incident. Being pushed along a current head down, not knowing which underwater rock will slam into my face is a pretty hair-raising experience. Especially when you do eventually right yourself and the raft is preventing you from breaking the surface for air, so you are frantically gasping underneath it, managing to get tiny breaths in the air pocket while trying to work your way to the side. Yup, in all honesty, it was awesome.
I learnt a vital lesson in Arequipa that I’m sure many backpackers have learn’t before me: NEVER have a big night before a trek. I mean playing drinking jenga is hard to resist on the best of days, couple that with free drink vouchers being given out by the bar and nine times out of ten you don’t have a choice, a big night is literally forcing itself upon you. But before a 3am bus that takes you to a two day trek of the Colca Canyon, not clever. I could have done with an ‘advice for drinkers’ section in the Lonely Planet. We drunk right up until the bus and crashed out during the bumpy journey, but on arrival, I was not happy. In my foolishness I hadn’t packed my glasses or spare contact lenses and somehow during my sleep, I had lost a contact lense. Also the cold that I thought I conquered had come back for the sequel and brought with him a headache not unlike one would get from a pillow fight with the All Blacks after they’ve eaten their Weetbix. When we did eventually start walking, alas with slightly skewed depth perception from having just one contact lense to look through, the scenery was incredible enough to allow a few moments of tranquility to override my horrendous Peruvian hangover. After a full day of hiking into and around the second deepest canyon in the world, deeper even than the grand canyon, we arrived at our nights accommodation – a green oasis with a swimming pool and warm beds, it was magnificent. During the night I had to get up for the toilet a couple of times and found it rather unsettling however to have the glowing eyes of about four mules locked on me from just a few metres away. It’s hard to pee while mules stare.
One of the coolest things I’ve done so far has to be flying up and over the huge sand dunes of Huacachina in a dune buggy, only stopping so the driver can pass you your sand board and send you over the end of some mammoth dune yourself. It’s like an unpredictable roller coaster with no rules, the rush of tumbling over the lip of a near 90 degree sand slope that has seemingly appeared out of nothing is absolutely pure and incredible. The oasis town of Huacachina itself is totally unique too. Despite being close to a larger city called Ica, everything that you can see from the town itself makes it seem like a tiny patch of vegetation surrounding a tiny lake in the middle of the desert, alas with restaurants and a few tiny stores.
In Paracas, a 7-8 hour bus from Huacachina, they have what is called the ‘mini Galapagos’. If like me your on a backpacker budget and can’t afford Ecuador’s wildlife haven, the Ballestas Islands in Paracas are more than satisfactory. I’m not much of a bird man, even coming from New Zealand where many a bird watcher have gotten a hard on, but let me say even I got slightly aroused by the magnitude of birds in the Ballestas. And the sealions. One beach was completely covered by their oily black bodies; all of them groaning like some swingers orchestra and spilling out into the sea because there wasn’t enough room on land. I swear I even saw a couple that were the size of bears.
A short spell in Lima was uninspiring, but that was unnecessary seeing as Maccu Picchu was right around the corner. I did a four day excursion called the Jungle trek, which started with a downhill bike ride from 4300 metres in the highlands of Cusco’s Sacred Valley. The weather was terrible at the top, making the first one & a half hours miserable. Instagram-able views obscured by cloud, rain stabbing your eyeballs, boots sloshing with water, my pathetic gloves soaked and doing nothing to prevent the razer edge of the chill slicing at my fingers. The weather did clear up for the second section and there were no complaints there; it was free gravity-powered gliding through beautiful valleys with nothing to interrupt you for 90 minutes – pure bliss. A full day of hiking greeted us the second day and on the third, zip lining over the trees in a valley beneath Maccu Picchu. I’ll admit before seeing it the main attraction itself felt a lot like something you just had to do, a right of passage for visitors to Latin America. Perhaps the allure was slightly dampened by the fear of that one token image that saturates travel pamphlets distorting what would otherwise be a fresh, overpowering awe. Well I was wrong, Maccu Picchu is undeniably grand and mesmorising in person, like something literally placed by the gods for us to oodle over. A full day was spent there, hiking a huge mountain to get a birds view of the ancient city and wandering its mythical avenues.
Peru has left me with a sour taste however, a sour taste brought about because I know I have barely seen it. I’ve explored the south and because of time restraints, I’m prevented from going any further north, or spending more time in Cusco where the host family I’m staying with this week are making it extremely difficult to say goodbye. Cusco itself is a city like no another, thin cobblestone streets, old brick homes straddling the hills of the valley that the city is nestled in, gorgeous plaza squares, bustling markets and a pumping nightlife. But the world cup beckons in just over a month on the other side of the continent, and I know I’ll be back to explore the magic of Peru another day. As you say in Spanish – VAMOS!