Peru is so much more than just the Inca Trail. Need we mention Huacachina, Nascar and Colca Canyon…
Many people fly in to Peru for the Inca Trail and Macchu Picchu, and then leave again without going any further afield. While Lima is easily forgotten as far as South American capital cities go, there’s so many more landscapes and climates to see. Here’s our top 3.
Granted, you’ve either just come off, or about to go on to do, a four-day trek, so a hike of similar-if-not-harder calibre is probably not high on your priority list. But there’s every reason it should be. Because – controversial call here – but we think this was almost as good as the Inca Trail. And Machu Picchu isn’t even waiting for you at the end.
Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest canyons (or the world’s deepest, depending on what tourism operator you ask and how hard they’re trying to sell you something), and is near to the Peruvian town of Arequipa. Arequipa is dominated by the volcanoes that loom over it in just about every direction, the most famous being El Misti, which can be climbed – albeit with a high degree of caution and a tour guide.
You’ll find plenty of tour guides offering 2-night, three day trips to Colca Canyon in the main square, and as with the rest of South America, it’s all about the haggling.
You’ll likely be picked up before the crack of dawn, which might be getting annoying depending on how many tours you’ve done throughout the continent, but is actually for bloody good reason on this particular one: condors. En route to the Colca Canyon start point, there’s a famous condor viewing point (which seems magical and wondrous until you realise the locals are just dumping cow carcasses nearby every day at the same time so the condors have just learned when and where to go to get fed), and they’re only around for an hour or so in the morning. Thus, the need to arrive there spot on time. So, unless you’ve got a particularly narcissistic tour group member who couldn’t care less and decided to sleep in, leaving a tour bus full of grumpy people to wait listlessly outside, you’ll be there right on time. Otherwise, like us, you’ll be shit out of luck and arrive when there’s not a condor to be seen and all you can do is hurl soundless abuse to the guy who made you late. Nonetheless, you’ll have a couple of nice interactions with locals and might buy some more woollen jerseys you absolutely need at that moment, but will never see the light of day upon return to your home country.
Unlike most hikes, this one starts off with a steep descent, and continues that way for the entire day. Easy going it may sound, but easy going it is not – your knees will feel like jelly after about an hour. Also – please for god’s sake wear sunblock. I got singed to within an inch of my life that first day, due to the valley pinging all the sunlight off our white, pasty skin. My hands copped it the worst, and I now have sun spots all over them. Yes, those marks 90-something-year-olds get.
Your first night’s accommodation will be in fairly basic lodgings at the bottom of the canyon, at which you can go for a swim in the river and relax for a bit.
The next day involves a bit more up and down and flat walking, but is just as excruciating because you’ll inevitably be ridiculously sunburnt, especially on your hands. But, lo and behold, the aptly-named ‘oasis’ is waiting for you at the other end – a green, leafy cluster of something that seems like it should be a mirage. You’ll stay at a hotel with a pool (because all the hotels at the bottom of this gigantic canyon have pools, naturally), and a dip in that cool water will be the greatest thing your sizzled skin has ever felt.
And then, because you haven’t put your body through as much as it can take just yet, you’ll take your guide up on the offer of a 4am start to see if you can clamber out of the canyon in time to get a second go at seeing the condors. But this is no amateur hike. This 3,400m canyon is absolutely brutal – at 4am or a normal hour – and is basically straight up, without relief for hours on end. Starting off in the dark is particularly stupid. But alas, at about 8am, you’ll damn near crawl on all fours out of there, look out at the sky beginning to turn a dusky pink, and hope to god Jeff hasn’t slept in again.
Luckily, our extra effort (and money, because we had to book a taxi to get us from the end of the hike back to the condors because our van was waiting for those who opted out of our little excursion) paid off, as the condors were there. And, only there for the food or not, it was absolutely worth rising in the dead of night for.
We got a bus from Lake Titicaca/ Copacabana in Bolivia to Arequipa over night, which is absolutely not advised. The road to Arequipa is supposed to be particularly hairy over this route – and judging by the amount of times we whacked our heads on the side of the window due to potholes flinging the bus from side to side, we’re inclined to agree. It’s also a lot safer for the anxious driver during daylight hours. So, travel when the sun’s still up.
Though it’s marketed as an ‘oasis in the desert’ Huacachina is actually just over a sand dune from Ica, so close it could just about be counted as a suburb. However, when you descend into the basin and see the sand dunes stretched out before you, and this little dollop of green and water in front of you, you could believe you were in the middle of a dehydration-induced fantasy.
This tiny village is centred around Huacachina Lagoon and fringed with palm trees, pedal boats and tourist-angled restaurants. While in recent years, it’s bordering on the tacky – there’s no denying what an amazing sight it is to see this flurry of green rise out of the middle of seemingly endless sand dunes. Again, all the hotels in this oasis (just about) have pools. Because an over-supply of water in the middle of the desert is normal.
This also means plenty of sand-based activities:
Sand buggying: Flying at highly dangerous speeds, horizontally and vertically, up, down and over sand dunes? Yes please. And it’s one tour that seemingly, the driver is getting just as much out of it as every one else. Each hotel in the oasis will usually offer you a buggying trip for a small charge with your room. Expect to pay $15USD.
Sand boarding: Expectation – standing upright on a surf board-type contraption, sliding down a giant sand dune. Reality – lying on your belly on said contraption, hurtling out of control down a giant sand dune and clutching it for dear life. Forgetting how utterly not-pro you might look, this is good fun – and will please you to note that most people can’t actually stand up on the boards either. This is usually included with a sand buggying trip, but can be booked separately.
Note: Just, whatever you do, don’t agree to a trip to a ‘vineyard’ with the owner of a bar, which involves multiple car and driver changes, at least an hour into an unknown direction in the dead of night when you’ve told no-one where you were going. While there will eventually be a ‘vineyard’, which means no need for inverted commas, it will be actually the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. And the vineyards wine will be actually quite shit.
Any bus to Ica, and then a bus to Huachachina from Ica bus station.
Not to be confused with the American stock car-racing league, these are the crop circles to end all crop circles. These huge, ancient geoglyphs are scattered across the Naza Desert, and some are up to 370 metres long. Details of by whom and when the markings were made seems to mostly be all up in the air, but many scholars believe they can be traced back to the Nazca culture of between 500 BC and 500 AD. Because of the arid, dry climate, the lines have been preserved naturally, and in 1994 they were designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Each marking is different, with varying complexity. Some are just a bunch of squiggly lines. Some are birds and monkeys and llamas. And that simply blows my mind.
While the tour companies will tell you the only way to see them is by air, we were hesitant due to reports of crashes, lack of safety regulations, and because we’re irrevocably stingy and $80 was well out of our budget at that point. While the plateau on which the markings are carved are scattered across 80km, there is one spot with a viewing tower that we thought was as good as any airplane ride. While it obviously was not, it did provide a fair enough vantage point to make out three of the geoglyphs, which left us with our fill of ‘Is there life on Mars’ enough for one day. The viewing tower costs a couple of Sol, and it can easily be reached by public bus.