Whew. This was a LONG trip. We actually debated making the first part of this journey — bussing from Cusco, Peru to Santiago, Chile — it’s own post. After all, we initially set our “time spent in location” threshold for whether a location warrents it’s own blog post at 3 days. And, well, we just about hit that in travel time alone. Between our overnight ride through the Andes and the subsequent bus that covered half of Peru and Chile, we hit a grand total of…
Salkantay was our first multi-day trek, ever. Eek! Going into it I was equal parts anxious, and rediculously excited. We walk a ton, but not 20+ kilometers a day, up mountains, with a pack, at altitude, for 5 days straight. This was going to be the most challenging thing we had taken on thus far, but the reward at the end would be more than worth it. Aside from eating and drinking everything we encountered, this was one of the things we had most looked forward to in planning out our trip.
Here’s our story…
Ica, Peru is a small-ish town about 4-6 hours south of Lima, making it a popular weekend getaway from the city. The climate is dry and desert-like, and it’s perhaps best known for its wine and pisco Bodegas outside of town. Ica is Peru’s primary wine and pisco producing region, and we were excited to both check out the local wine culture and taste the national beverages!
Our last stop in Peru was Cusco, homebase for our 5-day trek to Manchu Picchu via the Salkantay Trail. We booked 4 nights in Cusco so that we would have time to find and book our tour and adjust to the altitude before we needed to start hiking. It also gave us a much needed chance to recover from the Grape Incident of Ica.
Cusco ended up being a really cute destination in itself and quickly earned a spot as our favorite little city in South America. The picturesque cobblestone streets and colonial architecture are situated in the middle of a valley surrounded by the lush, green Andes Mountains. The two main squares are great for relaxing and people watching: parks surrounded by ornate churches, shops, and restaurants.
Lima was a last minute addition to our itinerary after Carnival interrupted our original plans to stick around Ecuador, and it turned out to be a great decision. Kyle found a Spanish school with great reviews in the Miraflores neighborhood (Peruwayna), and we arranged to spend a week there taking classes and exploring the city.
We arrived in Lima on Sunday afternoon after about 30 hours on busses and happily settled in. Upon arriving at the bus terminal we said goodbye to our new Argentinian friend and hopped a cab over to the homestay we had booked through our school. Willie, our host, greeted us at the door (in Spanish) and showed us to our room where we unpacked before taking a quick tour of the neighborhood. We were on a quiet street in Miraflores, a safe, nice area with a young vibe from the local universities. Everything we needed was within a few blocks – the bank, a real supermarket (the first we had seen in weeks!), and tons of restaurants. It was nice to be back in the familiar landscape of a modern city.
The next morning we started our classes. After months off from work it was nice to have a regular routine again, if only for a week: classes were 9am – 1pm every day with a coffee/snack break mid-way through. When we arrived at the school we waited with the other new students and each had a short 1:1 interview with one of the instructors to determine class placement. Nothing like a test on a subject you haven’t studied in 12 years, on the first day of class! 😉
It all worked out though, and we both ended up in classes where we learned a lot. Kyle was in basic survival Spanish where he got a crash course on grammar and learned a long list of new words. I was in pre-intermediate 1, which ended up being more conversational. We had a lesson each day, but also spent a good majority of the class talking as a group, which improved my speaking skills and, more importantly, my confidence in my ability to speak in Spanish. In the end we were really happy with our decision to take the class. We’re certainly not fluent, but we can now at least get by without constantly having to ask “habla ingles?”
Our class schedule left us with the afternoons free for long almuerzos, exploring our neighborhood, and generally catching up on life. On our first day out we tried the local drink (pisco sour!) from one of the outdoor restaurants overlooking the ocean. We also booked a city tour on the double-decker Mira Bus where we got to see downtown Lima and the San Francisco Cathedral and Catacombs. Other highlights included hanging with the cats at Parque Kennedy and checking on pre-Incan ruins in the middle of the city.
We arrived at the Guayaquil bus station early Saturday morning to the biggest mess of people we’ve seen at a transportation hub. And having flown through major US airports during snowstorms, hurricanes, and holidays, that’s saying a lot! We had to push, squeeze and shove our way back to the Cifa ticket window to pay our 50 cent exit tax amongst crowds of holiday-ing Ecuadorians and a number of loud chickens. Luckily, the guy behind the counter remembered us from the day before and we were able to squeeze in when the window opened and get our stamp in plenty of time to catch the bus.
We encountered the second mob of the day later, at the Ecuador-Peru border. It was our first boarder crossing on a bus and we didn’t quite know what to expect, but we definitely were not prepared for the 2-hour long line outside the customs office. It took so long for everyone on our bus to get through that we ended up ditching the bus and hopping a cab with a guy from Argentina that we had made friends with earlier, just so we could make our next bus to Lima. Hooray for friends that speak fluent Spanish! Happily, it all worked out and we made our bus, which ended up exceeding our hopes with full cama (180 degree reclining) seats, 3 decent meals a day, and personal TVs at every seat. Go Civa!
We opted for a homestay through our Spanish school, and it turned out to be a great way to experience the neighborhood. Willie, our host was patient with our (lack of) Spanish skills, and it was nice to have the use of a kitchen again.
The Catacombs and San Francisco Monastery are a must-see. The history in both is astounding: a library with books dating back thousands of years, huge intricate paintings and tapestries, and underground caverns filled 20 meters deep with bones.
The Mira Bus tour itself we had mixed feelings on. It was a great way to see the important areas of the city without the effort of trying to figure out cabs or busses. However, it was pretty expensive, and with traffic in Lima being the worst we’ve seen yet we spent a lot of time inching along smog-filled streets.
We also missed out on the Plaza del Armas, because there was a demonstration going on and the police power to keep people (including tour busses) away was intense with machine-gun armed guards and tanks blocking surrounding streets. In summary, I would probably skip Mira Bus in favor of a private tour, or take cabs directly to the sites we wanted to see.
In Miraflores alone there was a lot to do and this was where we spent the rest of our time. One of the coolest spots (in our opinion) was the ruins from the pre-Incan city of Huaca Pucllana.
It was a quick walk from the place we were staying, and admission included a guided tour of the ruins, an archeological site that’s still being explored. If you’re looking for a treat they also have an on-site restaurant that’s highly rated. The dining area overlooks the ruins which are lit up at night, and the dinner reservation includes an after-hours tour.
For cat lovers, Parque Kennedy is not to be missed. It’s one of the main parks in Miraflores and home to about 150 stray cats and kittens. It’s unclear exactly how they got here (some claim that a nearby church brought the first cats in to deal with rats in the ’80s), but they are now a staple in the neighborhood. Locals come to pet them on their lunch breaks, and there’s a group of residents that come twice a day to lay down food and water. After our first trip here we bought a bag of cat food from the supermarket and returned the next couple days, sneaking food to our new furry friends while park security looked the other way.
- Beware Carnival. All countries have their own version on different dates, and it effects everything. While I’m sure the parties can be fun, don’t count on getting anywhere on time unless you’ve booked far in advance.
- Taking the time to (start to) learn the local language was absolutely worth it. It helped us feel more comfortable going to less touristy restaurants and less like self-centered Americans that expected everyone else to learn English. And it feels great to be able to do basic things like direct a cab driver, or check in at a hostel without expecting the other person to speak English. I’m continuously amazed by all of the Europeans we meet that speak 3 or more languages.
- I am very grateful for California’s smog regulations on vehicles. The exhaust from the Collectivos (mini buses) was intense and left me with a perpetual sore throat.