Last July a couple of friends and I went Backpacking in Peru! They had extra time to afterward go to Colombia, but I only had 17 days for this trip, so we tried to work our stay in Peru according to my limited schedule, to make the most of it.
We didn’t actually have a plan when we got there, but it was pretty easy to develop a general itinerary on day 1 just talking with other backpackers and asking for further information in our hostel.
Lima, the capital city, was our meeting point since we were coming from different places. Unfortunately, it was always grayish during our stay, but still, the city is monumental and quite developed. Our hostel was located in Miraflores, which is a good, young and safe neighborhood, where we felt pretty good. However, the district that we most liked was the Barranco District, for its bohemian feel, lovely architecture and romantic vibe.
We wandered around Lima for a couple of days and even took a free walking tour, courtesy of our hostel. We had some friends living there who took us out eating wonderful ceviche, we bought ourselves some SIM cards and warmer jackets (that became very useful later) and planned our next stops. I’d say 3 days in Lima is more than enough.
As backpackers, we traveled by bus and we were positively surprised on how easy it is to get around Peru using the Pan American road.
One remark regarding safety: Although bus transportation is quite good, it is recommended to book with bus companies that go straight to your destination. We were advised by locals to not to take buses that make many stops due to safety reasons, even though it’s a bit cheaper. One can save a night in a hostel by taking a night bus, lean back the chair, have a meal, watch some movies and arrive safely at the destination.
Huacachina is a small village located in the desert. It is known for being an oasis, however, unfortunately nowadays the lake it’s artificially fed and maintained. Nonetheless, it is still an amazing landscape, especially seen from up the desert dunes.
To get there from Lima, we got bus tickets to Ica and in Ica easily grabbed a taxi to Huacachina. We arrived early morning and went straight to the desert on a buggy tour previously arranged through our hostel in Lima. It was good fun going up and down the desert dunes in the buggy, the drivers try their best to give us rush sensations, but the best part, in my opinion, was going sand boarding! You can slide down sitting, lying down or standing, but I must warn you, my first fall trying to do it standing left me with sand in my ears for at least 3 days! Still, I found it to be was totally worth it!
There was not much more to do in Huacachina, so later the same day we headed back to Ica and got ourselves a night bus to Arequipa.
Another safety remark: we were advised to be careful when taking taxis, making sure we wouldn’t give the driver the change to leave with our backpacks still inside the trunk. I think it’s a nice advice to share.
AREQUIPA AND THE COLCA CANYON
Arequipa is beautiful! An old town with lovely streets where the colonial heritage meets the development of an independent country. Besides the sightseeing, the fact that you can feel the warmth of the sun when walking the streets and at the same time contemplate great snowy mountains filling the landscape is just incredible.
We didn’t stay long in Arequipa, for our plan was actually going on a 3-day hike in Colca Canyon! This was, in fact, one of my best experiences in Peru! The paths taken, the sleeping in a remote shack of an old lady, no water, no light, freezing cold, the mountains, the campfire we made ourselves, the amazing night sky with the clear milky way, the sparks from static electricity in our bed blankets that took us a while to understand that were not fireflies, the very suspicious and degraded wood bridges we had to cross, the hot springs, the stops to taste fruits and learn about trees and cactus, the final exhausting climb up the mountain that started at dawn. So many things, all so good, all so intense. Totally amazing!! No need to say more. One must do it to completely understand.
PUNO AND LAKE TITICACA
Afterward, we headed to Puno, which is on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We booked a 2-day tour that included the Floating Islands, Taquile Island and sleeping in a local family home in Amantani Island. I’ll be honest here: although the landscape is indeed amazing and the colors filled our hearts, this tour was so touristic that made us feel a bit uncomfortable. In the Floating Islands, we were taught about how they are built and the Uro’s way of living. But then we were “harassed” by the locals to buy souvenirs. So much for the romantic idea of a floating island tribe that hunts and fishes for food and resists capitalism. In Amantani Island, where we slept, our host family was very kind but at the same time wouldn’t eat with us, just serve us meals like our employees. Furthermore, it was almost imposed on us to dress up in traditional clothes and we were “thrown” in a dance hall for a traditional dance. We do not regret the tour, but it felt a bit like being stuck in a touristic mechanism. Well, it was an experience.
A relevant health issue to be considered: Puno’s altitude is 3.830m but on the way there we went as high as 4.950m. This trip comes with a risk of getting altitude sickness which is a very serious condition. I strongly advise any traveler to previously do some research on the subject, carry altitude sickness pills with them and regularly drink coca tea (available everywhere in Peru) to avoid any health issues during the trip. The 3 of us got headaches on this trip but, fortunately, it didn’t get more serious than that.
o get to Machu Picchu we had several different options on the menu, but since we didn’t book in advance, the famous Inca Trail was completely off the grid, sold out for ages, and even the train tickets to Aguas Calientes were not available. Considering the available options, we chose a 4-day trek named “Inka Jungle Trail” that started in Cusco. This trail had a wide range of activities including biking, rafting, sliding, going to the hot springs, chewing coca leaves and tasting tequila from a jar filled with snakes. We stopped in Santa Maria and Santa Teresa until we reached the hydropower plant. From there we walked another 12km on the train rails to Aguas Calientes. From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu we climbed 40 mins of stairs at dawn. This last part was physically demanding I must admit, but if one is not up to it, can alternatively take a bus.
We got to Machu Picchu when the sun was still rising behind the mountains. The landscape is almost indescribable. It was at that moment that I understood the magic of Machu Picchu: is not about looking down at the old village, is about being IN the village looking out and around. Amazing! No wonder it’s one of the 7 wonders of the world.
An expensive mistake from our part: During the tour, we realized that we had paid much more than our fellow travelers for our package. We then learned this happened for 2 reasons: first, we booked in Arequipa, while booking in Cusco would be cheaper, second, we booked with the first agency we walked into. Therefore, since backpackers are usually on a budget, I strongly recommend that you go to several travel agencies in the town where the tour departs from and still discuss the prices for a better rate.
I’ve saved Cusco for last because it was my favorite city in Peru. It has such a good vibe! After Machu Picchu, we chose to spend the last 3 days in Cusco instead of going anywhere else and we don’t regret it! The city has plenty of life, it’s absolutely beautiful and also was the only place where we enjoyed the nightlife. We salsa danced like crazy for 7 hours straight one night. We went every single day to the Café Museum, for coffee, brownie or cocktails. Although we love nature and trekking, it felt pretty good to give ourselves this 3-day treat after 2 demanding weeks of traveling.
Finally, I caught a flight from Cusco to Lima and went back home.
There are several places I’d also like to have been able to go in Peru, like Lares, the Rainbow Mountain, Nazca, Iquitos, and Trujillo. But one has to make choices when the time is limited and I’m pretty happy with our choices for those 17 days. Also if I had more time, I’d jump the border to Bolivia for the Salar de Uyuni, but that experience will have to wait for now.
The link below is the “trip movie” produced by Diana, one of my girls. With just an old action camera, a lot of creativity and hours of post edition, she developed this beautiful video. This includes their time in Colombia after I left.
Hope the share of our experience is useful for future travelers.