Our overnight bus journey turned into an adventure. The bus was an hour late leaving Nasca — we didn’t depart until 12.30am. Needless to say we were both exhausted by the time we took off. Luckily we had booked the big, plush seats that reclined 160 degrees, with leg rests, blankets and pillows. At least we were as comfortable as one could be on a bus.
The journey was meant to take 10 hours. It ended up taking 12. Many times I had just drifted off to sleep when I awoke abruptly to the bus swaying as it went around a sharp bend. More than once I had the feeling that we were going to tip over. Not a great feeling to wake up to, let me tell you.
Nazca sits at 520m (1706ft) above sea level. We climbed steadily throughout the journey until we arrived at Arequipa which sits at 2,330m (7644ft). Despite packing a few snacks, we arrived in Arequipa feeling pretty dreadful. Hunger, tiredness and lack of decent food all combined with altitude to make us feel less than ordinary.
We checked into our hotel, which was a lovely place with Arequipa’s largest garden. It was down a side street off the main square of the city in a quiet, safe area. We were sorry we didn’t have more time to stay there as they ran a Peruvian cooking school that looked like a lot of fun.
We headed off to the main square and ended up having lunch on a rooftop terrace overlooking the cathedral. It was sunny but windy and we had a great view out over the main square, the cathedral and to the three volcanoes that guard the city. I tried alpaca and quinoto, a risotto type dish made with quinoa and cheese. Both were delicious. The alpaca was incredibly tender, cooked medium rare and was as nice or nicer than any beef steak I’ve had. Guinea pig was also on the menu but neither Zoë or I could bear to think about eating them. We also had a jug of passion fruit juice, another Peruvian speciality that we’ve enjoyed every day so far.
Arequipa, founded in 1540, is filled with baroque style buildings built from sillar, a white volcanic stone, and has a nickname of the White City. It is Peru’s second most populous city after Lima, but the old part of the city where we were felt relaxed and welcoming. The historic centre is actually an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heritage, the amazing view of the volcanoes and various cultural and nearby natural sites make Arequipa popular with tourists.
Arequipa is the jumping off point for trips to Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US). Colca Canyon is also home to Andean Condors and Zoë and I were both hoping to do a trek and see them, but we just don’t have enough time to squeeze a trip to the Canyon into this trip. But after spending even half a day in Arequipa, we’re both convinced we need to come back.
We had an afternoon siesta since we still weren’t feeling great. And we took advantage of the warm weather (25c/75f) to sit in the garden in the sunshine to book our train tickets to Machu Picchu as well as hotels for the next few nights.
Zoë had noticed a hotel with a rooftop bar back in the main square where she thought we’d be able to get some great photos at sunset so in the late afternoon we headed back there. We planned to visit the Cathedral which was open from 5 to 7pm for tourists after stopping for some photos from the rooftop bar.
Things didn’t go to plan, but in a good way. To gain access to the rooftop we had to go through a bouncer at the hotel who eventually allowed us in, telling us we had the last table available for the night and that we needed to spend at least $15 (USD) each. After agreeing to that, we made our way upstairs. It turns out the bouncer guy was telling fibs. There was more than one table available. As we sat down at one, two others sat at the one next to us. They heard us talking and asked if we were Australian. I’m never sure what to say to that but said yes we were from Canberra. She, Kellie, was from Melbourne but was an Aussie Army kid so had spent quite a few years living in Canberra. Her friend Luke was from London but had lived in Sydney a few years ago. Over the next two hours the four of us became good friends over Pisco sours. Kellie is a TV producer who has worked on shows like ‘I’m a celebrity, Get me Out of Here’ and other ‘reality’ shows. Luke is a make-up artist for tv, film and the porn industry (which provided for some interesting conversation). They have both worked and lived in the UK, the US and Australia, just like us. We had a lovely evening talking with both of them and taking some stunning photos of Arequipa from the best vantage point in town. The cocktails were good too.
By the time we left the bar, the Cathedral was closed. Zoë and I needed dinner to soak up the Pisco sours which were rapidly beginning to feel like a bad idea for my head. We found a great little restaurant behind the Cathedral with another rooftop terrace. This city really knows how to make the most of the views and the weather here.
We were up at 5.20am this morning (Friday) to catch a plane from Arequipa to Cusco. We both felt sad leaving this stunning place but were excited about the next phase of the trip.
Cusco is an hour’s flight from Arequipa and is another 1600m higher. We got to our hotel, the Monasterio San Pedro, which it turns out is quite swanky for Cusco but I was lucky and got our room for half price on Booking.com. It’s (like it’s name suggests, an old monastery). Across the street is the main city market where just about everything is for sale. I doubt there’s anything you couldn’t find there.
Our room wasn’t ready until noon so we wandered the market and the streets. The first stop was the office to buy our tickets for Machu Picchu. Zoë was nervous that they would be sold out for the day we want to go, but we were lucky and got them with no problem. She even got hers for half price! They start charging adult prices at 18 and she still has a few months before that happens.
We then ate a late breakfast and drank some coca tea (sworn to by the locals for helping altitude sickness). We both felt dreadful by 11.30 and were glad to get to our room for a big siesta.
We ventured back out in the late afternoon to San Blas, the bohemian area of the city. It was fun to check out some of the alleys and streets – some have the original Inca waterways and rock carvings in the walls. We tried to climb up to some Inca ruins above the city, but our nausea, dizziness and tingling hands and feet stopped us. We ran into a guy from Minnesota (of all places) who lives here now teaching English online to Chinese people (don’t ask) and when he explained that we had another few hundred metres to climb up to the ruins, we decided we were defeated. We might try again on another day once we’re better acclimated to the altitude.
We found a shop selling gluten free stuff (hooray!) so I’ve stocked up on snacks and fruit for the next few days as we’re heading to Machu Picchu.
Early night for us tonight as we’ve got a 5am start tomorrow to take the train to Aguas Calientes. We have to leave our backpacks in Cusco for the next two days as we’re only allowed to take 5kgs with us on the train. We’ve had a mad packing and re-packing session tonight. But I think we’re ready.