3 Weeks in Peru - The Gringo Trail and the Inka Trail

When we started researching our trip to Peru we found that basically if you have three weeks to spend in Peru everyone does this "gringo trail" itinerary starting and ending in Lima. Here's my account of the gringo trail with my favourite (and least favourite) destinations in Peru and top tips.

Mar 24 - 1 nt Lima

We flew to Lima direct from NYC via LAN Airways on an overnight flight. We arrived in Lima, exhausted, in the morning and caught a taxi from the airport to the hotel. We had read about all kinds of taxi scams (like being required to pay 10x the going rate) and getting mugged at red lights (because the taxi driver is in on it!) at the airport so our spidey senses were tingling as we tried to get a taxi. As we came out of the airport there were plenty of higher end taxis for what seemed like $100 but we kept walking and as we left the airport found cheaper ones. When we agreed on a price  (I think it was the equivalent of $30) the taxi driver took us to his unmarked car and removed his ID. I could see my friend K cringe - her eyes went white. We got in the car anyway and realized how easily you could be mugged at red lights in this area since it was kind of deserted. Luckily nothing bad happened and our driver was quite competent. When we arrived at the hotel they informed us that when we want a cab to never hail one on the street as it's dangerous to do so. Instead we should ask the doorman to get a cab for us (which is what we did to get to the bus station the next day).

Our first Pisco Sours in the Hotel Bolivar bar

We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Bolivar (recommended if you can find a deal). If you're a fan of the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel you will love Hotel Bolivar. It reminded me of a more run down version of Las Ramblas in Barcelona but had it's own South American charm nonetheless.

Festivities were abound for Easter. There's tons to see in the city which is truly massive compared to my hometown in Canada. It was warm but comfortable in a light sweater around 20C. We stayed downtown but also made it over to the suburb of Miraflores which was a lot more affluent.

Easter festivities in Lima

On our first night  after wandering the pedestrian streets we came across a big Easter parade in the main square. As I was looking through my camera lens K wandered away and when I looked up she was NO WHERE TO BE SEEN. I figured she'd wander back but after 20 minutes of staying-where-I-was she was still not there. I started to panic and actually got up the nerve to ask the police officers (in Spanish mind you)  if they had seen a woman wander off. Oh my god she is dead in a ditch somewhere. We are in South America and separated on OUR FIRST NIGHT. What am I going to tell her family?? These are the thoughts that were running through my head.

Trying to distract myself by taking photos of the parade - it didn't work!
After a good 45 minutes of panicking I decided to go back to the hotel. It was about a 15 minute walk back through a populated area but it was dark so I was a bit nervous all the same. The entire walk back I repeated to myself she's just gone back to the hotel, she'll be there when you get back. When I arrived I desperately asked the front desk person if they had seen my partner come back. I received a confused look in return. Since she had our only key I asked the front desk person to let me into the room. To my dismay she was not hiding in the bathroom to surprise me ... or under the bed. After about 10 minutes of pacing the room the door knob rattles - K's killer come to get me too? K happily entered the room as if nothing had happened.  Clearly my paranoid brain is more active than her's. Oh I figured we'd meet up again here. She said, very unconcerned. I need a drink...  At least we had a good excuse to try the hotel's famous Pisco Sour at the bar that night. In less than an hour our third traveller L arrived safely from the airport - no taxi mishaps for her either.

Lesson of the day: stick close to your travel partner.

Our first day in peru at the Hotel Bolivar

Mar 25 - 1 nt  Paracas

We went to the local tourist centre in Lima and booked a bus to Paracas in the morning. In the afternoon we took a very nice bus to Paracas and overnighted there. It was very hot and sunny and we were in t-shirts and our quick dry pants (we all had matching Cloudveil pants, that you can see in the photo above, from Costco which did the trick for only $20 a pop). It was a very small town but very touristy so there were a lot of restaurants. Don't drink any fancy blended ice drinks - promise? We stayed at Paracas Backpackers House (not recommended, we had a crappy room with a broken window and the beds were broken as well). On
our tour of the town we met an outgoing guy named Alfredo who booked us a tour to Huacachina and Nazca for the following day. Alfredo convinced us that he was legit because he had a ton of reviews printed out from trip advisor about how awesome he was. I guess testimonies really do work because we signed up for the tour.

Huacachina dune buggy tour on the way to Nazca from Paracas.

Mar 26-27 -  2 Nts Nazca

In the morning we did the tour of Islas Ballestas in Paracas which was a little dissappointing since it was very touristy (like not in a good way - there were what seemed like hundreds of people lined up to see these islands) and the speakers in our boat didn't work so we couldn't hear the interpreter anyway. We took quite a nice mini bus to Huacachina where Alfredo had set us up to hang out in a nice pool area at a hotel in the oasis before a dune buggy ride. The pool was really appreciated since it was quite hot in the dessert. Plus after drinking the fruity blended ice drink in Paracas K was happy to have a place to hang out close to a bathroom. This was the first, but not the last, time we broke out the antibiotics and imoodium. The dune buggy tour was fantastic - it was like a roller coaster ride through the desert. It was totally worth it. Afterwards we took a much sketchier bus to Nazca where when we got on the bus driver said to me in Spanish "watch your bags and make sure your friends do too".  When the bus driver is saying his bus is sketchy I tend to believe him. 

When we arrived in Nazca we were up for more confusion ... there was no one there to meet us because we got an earlier bus than expected. We realized we didn't know the name of the person Alfredo had arranged to pick us up, we also didn't know Alfredo's number or the name of the hotel we were supposed to go to. Perhaps too trusting, we got in a guy's car that said he was the guy sent to pick us up by Alfredo! He took us to a hotel in the main square where we stayed the night. Thank goodness the dude took us to a hotel... any hotel. In retrospect it was quite dumb of us to get in the car. In the morning we awoke to find someone else waiting for us at the hotel who handed us his phone. It was Alfredo on the line and it turned out we were taken to the wrong hotel and this other guy was sent to take us to the right hotel. Alfredo implied the guy that owned the other hotel was a bit mad at the other dude for stealing his business.  

 If I were going to Nazca again I would probably try getting a fancier hotel here because we found the two hostels we stayed at to be really loud at night - either from dogs barking or people watching TV all night with the volume way up - what's up with that? If I were going back I'd stay somewhere upscale with a pool in Nazca because there doesn't seem to be many nice hostels here. It was also very hot so the hotel would be nice.

The highlight of our stay in Nazca was the plane tour of the Nazca lines and our tour of the cemetery with a local guide that had a masters in history. A top tip for Peru would be to always pay extra for a guide. They are usually very cheap and very knowledgeable, we never regretted paying extra but I did regret not getting a guide a few times in Peru.

Lesson of the day: write down the name of the hotel you're booked in at.

Our plane to see the Nazca Lines
Up in the air - I felt pretty sick since I was looking through the camera most of the time - even though I took gravol beforehand! Pro tip: wear polarizing sunglasses to see the lines - I literally couldn't see them without the sunglasses.
The view from the hostel in Nazca with the dogs across the street.

Mar 28-30 - 2 Nts Arequipa

 We took a fancy sleeper bus (worth the extra money! They feed you a nice meal and everything) to the high elevation city of Arequipa and over-nighted for 3 nights to acclimate to the altitude. It was slightly cooler in Arequipa but still warm. 

We started taking our acetazolomide/dimox on the first day and felt kind of drunk and had tingly hands and feet but were otherwise fine. We didn't feel like doing anything to strenuous so we recuperated at the hostel and did some light touristy stuff. The hostel we found (Arequipay Hostel) was really nice and had plenty of friendly backpackers that also didn't keep us up at night. The hostel even had a place for us to do our laundry. Pro tip: pack clothing for one week and plan to do laundry sporadically throughout the trip. Or just wear dirty clothes.

Near the main square in Arequipa with the mountains in the background.

Catching up on our laundry in Arequipa

Mar 31-Apr 2 - 3 Nts Cabanaconde and Colca Canyon

We took a bus to Cabanaconde (we actually had to get a taxi to the first bus stop since we missed it initially!) to go hiking in the Colca Canyon. It was nice and warm here and it wasn't overrun by tourists which was nice - and no one trying to sell you stuff when we got off the bus. Hiking was very tiring as we were feeling the altitude. We could only take a few steps before resting on the hike. 

Trekking poles are a must have for the hike because going down in the loose gravel is kind of scary. Up top we stayed at Pachamama (recommended, the pizza was fantastic) and in the canyon we stayed at El Eden, also recommended because it had a pool. The hike was much much more difficult, in my opinion, than the inca trail. It was probably the hardest trek I've ever done in my life. We loved it though because there were hardly any tourists and the views were incredible.

Hiking into the canyon.

Our hostel in the canyon - the pool felt amazing after the hike.
Our hostel (Pachamama) and amazing pizza in Cabanaconde.

On the rim of the canyon.
Apr 3 - 1 Nt Chivay

 After Cabanaconde we took a bus to Chivay. We were planning on going to Lake Titicaca and Puno at this point but skipped it because we were sick and tired. Some of us had bad stomach issues and a few of us had a cold. We stayed at an underwhelming hostel and kind of got duped into going to the off-the-beaten-track sketchy hot springs that were still under construction (!?). On the long ride over we were all silently thinking why hadn't we gone to the regular hot springs like everyone else! And are we going to make it out of this alive? The sketchy hot springs were about 30 minutes away from town down a bumpy road in the pitch black. Eventually, when we finally arrived, the hot springs did feel great because our legs were aching from the hiking - even stepping up a few inches was hurting. Thank goodness we still had a few days to heal before the Inca Trail. As you can tell we were underwhelmed by Chivay.

Lesson of the day: Popular things are usually popular for a reason.

Not too many pics of Chivay - we were exhausted by this point.

Apr 4 - 6  - 3 Nts Cusco

We returned to Arequipa by a milk-run bus and booked a nice sleeper bus direct to Cusco. While we were waiting we had dinner at a chicken house (like a local version of KFC) down the street. The sleeper buses are very high security and you check your bags like at the airport. I attempted to take my bag on the bus with me and they denied me and I had to run back inside and check my bag. Purses are okay though so I would pack my purse with my essentials (take gravol because the roads are very windy and it's dark). The chairs are kind of like dentist chairs so they're pretty easy to sleep on and are much nicer than typical buses in Canada. I still liked the gravol to help with sleeping though. Sleeping on the bus isn't ideal but it's a bit of a two for one - transportation and a night's accommodation in one! 

We arrived in Cusco in the morning having gotten a bit of sleep but obviously not as nice as in a real bed. It was pouring rain so we got a cab to a hostel I had picked out in the book. When we got there it turned out they were actually full but they let us use the bathroom and their wifi to find a new hostel - it's so nice having a place to sit down when you're lugging all your stuff around. We managed to find a place (Samay) just up the road and they had space for all of us (we were 6 people at this point). It turned out they provided cold breakfast and you could even upgrade to a hot breakfast for a buck or two which of course I indulged in. The view from the balcony was unreal.

There's a ton of stuff to do in Cusco so even though we had skipped ahead in our itinerary by skipping Puno we had lots to do. We went on a day long bus tour of the sacred valley, explored the city, toured the ancient church and went to the local market. We were really tired - maybe from the altitude, maybe because we were cold or maybe just because we were starting week 3 of the vacation. I wanted to go to bed around 7pm every night.

We were lucky that throughout our trip there were all kinds of festivals going on for Easter and the harvest season. It was kind of chilly in Cusco since it's high in altitude. We were wearing jackets most of the time and at night were in our sleeping bags with blankets piled on top. We were happy for warm coca tea in the kitchen. 

By the way, the hostel staff informed us not even the locals drink tap water in Cusco so don't even brush your teeth with it. Only use boiled water for washing dishes and stick to bottled water for drinking.

The last night before the inka trail hike we had dinner at the

Lesson of the Day: Take gravol everywhere.

Celebrations for the harvest festival in Cusco.
Back in Cusco after our trek -  it was pretty chilly there but our hostel had such a great view!
Touring the market in Cusco. It was a little rainy that day!
Our sacred valley tour around Cusco.
The view from our hostel in Cusco.

The city of Cusco

Apr 7-10 - Inka Trail

 Inka Trail hiking with Llama Path. Weather was variable from stinking hot in t-shirts to cold wearing down jackets and rain jackets. It was usually lightly raining in the morning and then warm and humid in the afternoon. The food on the dike was the best I had eaten in Peru. The hike was difficult but not as hard as the Colca Canyon hike as the guides kept us at a fairly slow pace by stopping to talk about history. We also were at an advantage because we had already been in high altitude cities for about a week and had taken diamox. There were a ton of ruins and archaeological sites along the hike which were almost more special than macchu picchu because it was just us there. Most of us were feeling good but one was very sick from what we think was accidentally drinking the tap water back in Cusco compounded with the effects of altitude. 

The highest pass of the trek - it was pretty chilly because it was high altitude.
The waterfall on the last full day of our inka trail trek.
The vistas along the inka trail.
Arriving at Macchu Picchu
All the gear that I hiked the Inka Trail with

Apr 11-13 - Cusco

Back in Cusco for two days before flying back to Lima then to NYC.