Our first 72 hours in Peru have been fantastic. I’m already in love with this country and the people here.
We spent Sunday night in Lima, getting our bearings, trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep and buying a few basics like a SIM card for my phone and bus tickets for our onward journeys.
I had been warned by friends that Lima isn’t a place to spend a lot of time, so we didn’t. After a quick trip to the supermarket (one of the first places I try to visit whenever I go to a new country as I love to see the differences and similarities to back home), we spent hours on Monday at the bus station in Lima or on a bus. The bus service here is wonderful. The seats are comfortable, they recline, everyone has their own personal TV, they serve us food and there is a concierge on board.
The bus to Ica was four and a half hours. As we left the suburbs of Lima, the landscape quickly changed to a moon scene. Desert sands. We followed the coast of the Pacific for much of the time. In Lima, we had been struck by how clean the city was. Outside the capital, sadly, it’s not the same. Peru has the same rubbish problem many other countries have; it’s everywhere.
We arrived in Ica after dark and, as we got our bags off the bus, were accosted by men offering their taxi service. One was very insistent and wanted to charge us 15PEN (about $6) to take us to Huachachina but I refused as I knew he was overcharging. He walked away disgusted and this quiet man came up and said he’d take us for 10PEN (the normal price). We went out to his car and as we got in the back seat, his wife and newborn baby got in the front. I was glad to give our money to this man and his family. We had a sweet discussion about his baby and I explained that Zoë was my baby. This was all done in a mix of my bad Spanish and Zoë’s Italian.
And that’s how we’re communicating with the locals. My Spanish was learned mainly by watching Sesame Street almost 50 years ago. It’s amazing that I remember as much as I do. (Sesame Street and I were both born in the same year. Thank goodness someone thought it would be a good idea to have a Spanish speaking couple on the Street.) Zoë does better with her 13 years of Italian from attending Italian bilingual schools. She can understand most of what people are saying to us. She just can’t always reply. Or we reply in a mix of Spanish, Italian, English and I even found myself speaking a bit of French yesterday (and my French is really terrible)! And of course, our google translate app comes in very handy too.
Traveling by intuition and booking our next stop the day before means we don’t always get to stay where we want. The hotel in Huacachina that we hoped to stay in was full so we ended up at the Mr Llama Hostel on Monday night. The hostel itself was clean and we had our own room and a tiny bathroom to ourselves. We were able to organise with the manager to book a tour to Islas Ballestas for Tuesday morning and were told we had to be ready to leave the hostel by 6am.
We had dinner by the side of the oasis at a bar. The food was cheap and cheerful and after not eating all day, we were hungry. We ate quickly whilst watching Serena Williams play at the US Open on TV and returned to the hostel ready for an early night. Our first night in Lima had been very broken with the noise of the street below our apartment. Neither of us had slept well. Our second night was even worse. In fact it was so bad, we stayed up laughing half the night. The local nightclubs, one on either side of the oasis, tried to out do each other playing music like the Macarena until after 3am. Most of the music was bad, but every once in a while there would be a great tune and we were both so past it that we’d laugh. I even suggested getting up at one point and joining the dance party.
At 5.45am we were glad we hadn’t. We were ready when the bus arrived to pick us up at 6am. As we waited, we were surprised to see a dog outside the front of the hostel that looked just like Reg and we both had a quick homesick moment.
It took more than an hour to pick various people up from around Huacachina and nearby Ica and then an hour to drive from Ica to Paracas. Everyone else on the bus was from Peru or Colombia.
We were dropped off at Paracas harbour and boarded a speedboat that took us past the Candelabro, a 128m high candelabra carved in the side of the rock. It’s a mystery why it’s there. Some say it is an ancient navigation point as it lines up with the Southern Cross in the sky. But there are quite a few other ideas as well. Each are about as plausible as another.
Our guide on the boat spoke Spanish over the loudspeaker but then would come back to Zoë and me and tell us what he said in English. He was lovely and when he found out we were from Australia, kept talking about kangaroos.
From the Candelabro, the boat continued out to the islands. Nicknamed the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’, they are known for their population of Humboldt penguins (highly endangered), sea lions, Peruvian boobies, turkey vultures, pelicans and a number of smaller sea birds. The boobies in particular produce high quality guano (poo) that is harvested and sold as fertiliser.
Tourists aren’t allowed to get off the boats and wander on the islands, and it’s easy to see why. They are mainly rocky outcroppings, not conducive to trails or hiking. And with the amount of guano around, one would slip and slide everywhere.
The penguins were a highlight for me. We saw hundreds up on top of one of the islands and then a smaller group down close to the boat. And of course, the sea lions were everywhere. Swimming around the boat as well as sunning themselves on the rocks. It was fun to watch them swim and then launch themselves out of the water.
We returned to the harbour two hours later and had a quick chance to get a drink or snack at a cafe before piling back on the bus. This time we headed to the Paracas National Reserve and we had a different guide. This one didn’t speak English so Zoë and I did our own thing and wandered off from the group as much as possible.
At the visitor centre the information displays were in English as well as Spanish. Here we learned that the ocean ‘belonging’ to Peru represents 0.1% of the total surface of the ocean but provides 10% of the world’s fisheries. The cold water coming up from Antarctica means the water is full of plankton and attracts many species of fish. It also attracts the sea lions and seals. They are king of the castle here, with no orcas or sharks to eat them.
Paracas means rain of sand and the area is known for sandstorms where the sand literally rains down. The sand looks rainbow coloured depending upon the light.
We visited a few lookouts and viewpoints. All were stunning to see where desert meets the sea.
Our final stop was a small fishing port within the reserve, where there were a number of restaurants. It was 2pm by then and we hadn’t had breakfast or lunch so we were happy to have some of the freshest fish we’ve ever had. I had the local cerveche — fish, onions, salt, lemon and chili peppers. It was divine and served with sweet potato and corn. Zoë loved her fish and chips too.
The bus to Ica headed back at 3pm, but we were caught by a number of roadworks and traffic. So what should have taken an hour, took two. We were worried that we’d miss sunset at the dunes in Huacachina so we hopped off the bus in Ica and grabbed a cab. We were able to get back in time to climb the gigantic sand dunes and take some beautiful photos out over the desert oasis.
The Llama Lodge had stored our stuff for us for the day so we picked up our backpacks and walked around the oasis (or ‘pond’ as Zoë called it), to our hotel. The El Huacachina Hotel was beautiful and although we wished we’d been able to stay here two nights, we both agreed that staying at the Llama Lodge made us appreciate our new hotel much more. The dunes formed a stunning backdrop for the hotel and we had dinner looking out over the pool and dunes.
We had a traditional Peruvian dish for dinner, tacu tacu. Mouthwatering beef chunks cooked to perfection over a sweet potato, rice and bean mush, with onions and tomatoes. It was delicious. I tried a local Pisco Sour which could easily become my new cocktail of choice.
The Pisco Sour, all of the fresh air, sunshine and walking, combined with sleeping tablets meant we finally had a decent night’s sleep. We had breakfast at the hotel Wednesday morning and then took a taxi to Ica where we caught the bus to our next adventure – Nasca.