Peru has so many amazing places to visit that we were at a loss trying to figure out what we could and could not fit in during our short time in the country. Ok, three and a half weeks is not all that short, but that’s how fantastic (and spread out) Peru is! We ended up skipping the most Northern parts of Peru for the sake of time, which meant we missed the best beaches, the majority of the jungle, and some Incan ruins that supposedly rival those of Machu Picchu. What we have seen and experienced, however, has been pretty incredible!
Our first stop was Trujillo, partly because of the nearby ruins and partly because it was on the way to Huaraz. At our first experience of food in Peru, Bryan was very pleased to finally have true hot sauce – a green salsa with a good kick set out at many of the restaurants – for the first time in South America so far. We spent our first morning trying to find the local bus, a.k.a. collectivo, to the Huacas de Moche (temples of the Moche people). We stood at a round-about watching a hilariously chaotic display of local buses and collectivos (vans that pack ‘em in) dodging one another to get to the customers while someone hung out each door yelling out their routes. We never saw our route symbol so we trekked back to our hotel, where we found out the collectivo we needed passed by right out front. That was much easier! I had to smile all the way to the ruins watching Bryan being squeezed between two plump ladies on a bench behind the driver, while I sat as cozy as possible in a real seat.
(Bryan trying to stretch his mouth over something called “King Kong”, which turned out to just be a fancy PB&J.)
At the Huacas de Moche we paid our entrance fee and began exploring the museum before the ruins, as recommended. A few moments in, Bryan realized we were short changed 50 soles (about $18) and we rushed back to the entrance with little hope. The two employees counted their cash drawers against the tickets sold and thankfully acknowledged the mistake. Phew! In the museum we saw examples of the pottery similar to nothing we had previously seen (sorry, no pics in the museum), and learned that the Moche people were a bit on the violent side with gladiator-type battles and human sacrifices. They were eventually overruled by the Incas. The Huaca del Sol (temple of the sun) was the largest adobe pyramid in the Americas before the Spaniards did major irreparable damage in the pursuit of gold. It is currently being excavated so it was closed to us. We were able to tour the Huaca de la Luna (temple of the moon). The most interesting detail about these temples is that the Moche built a new temple on top of the old about every century, filling in spaces with mud bricks and adding another layer, making it larger while preserving the earlier temples and art. Between the two temples, little remains of what was once the capital city of the Moche. At the site I was also fascinated by a strange, hairless dog running around. I later looked it up and found out it is the Peruvian Hairless dog and the breed has been around since pre-Incan times. Maybe the dog was waiting for its Moche family to come home!
(Exterior wall of Huaca de la Luna – the hole made my Spanish conquistadors.)
The next day we checked out Chan Chan, the largest pre-Colombian city in South America, built by the Chimor people also from adobe bricks and surrounded by massive adobe walls. This was different from the Huacas de Moche primarily because it consists of the structures in which the people lived, but also many of the design styles differed greatly. The majority of the Chimors’ diet came from the nearby ocean, but they also became reliant on irrigation farming. It was hard to believe they could grow enough crops from that sand dessert, but apparently they did. We were able to see what is believed to be many crop storage rooms throughout the ancient city. A design symbolizing fish nets make up many of the walls (the holes made for ventilation of the storage rooms) and repetitive symbols for fish, birds, and squirrels can be seen. A lot of Chan Chan has been reconstructed, which is both nice and somewhat disappointing. A lot of erosion occurred making it hard to imagine what the structures once looked like, so the reconstruction is helpful in that way, but it also takes away a bit of the ancient feel.
(Symbolism of waves, ocean currents, fish, and ducks.)
We walked from Chan Chan to another temple, Huaca Esmeralda; an interesting walk because it was set back in a neighborhood and we had to stop and ask several people for directions. Not very much attention is given to this temple, and we weren’t able to learn much about it as a result, but the style seemed similar to both the Moche’s and Chimor’s.
On the way to Huaca Esmeralda, we passed a packed restaurant that seemed very out of place being so far from the city (until we noticed it was next to a cock fighting place). The food looked amazing so we decided to try Ceviche there for the first time. People all over Ecuador had been raving about how good Peru’s Ceviche is. Daaaanng! Essentially it is raw fish marinated in lime juice with onion, sweet potato, corn, lettuce, avocado, and whatever else that particular restaurant adorns it with. The “mixto” we had also included shell fish and crab. Definitely our favorite single dish of South America so far.
(The incredible “ceviche mixto”)
We ended up with less time in Huaraz than we had wanted due to sold out buses, but our two days there were incredible! We would be happy to go back in the future to spend an entire week or so trekking. This was the first time we saw the Andes looking like what you expect the Andes to look like – steep, dramatic, snow-covered peaks that make the Colorado Rockies look like child’s play. Our bus arrived at five in the morning and we went straight to bed at our hostel. We pleasantly woke up to a big breakfast a few hours later and the owner helped us make plans to do a mountain bike route that had great views of the surrounding peaks and overlooked the town. With bikes strapped to the roof, a collectivo brought us to the start on a gravel road high above Huaraz. We continued uphill for another 5.5 miles, thighs burning, surrounded by breathtaking views. The route down was really fun as we bounced through traditional villages on a rough route, dodging school children, crazy dogs, and hardworking people carrying big loads on their backs.
(From the hotel rooftop – now this is the Andes!)
Our hotel organized a van to take a big group of us to a popular day hike to Lake 69. It was a very long day starting with a two hour drive followed by the most physically challenging experience of the entire trip for me. Nine months ago (when I was in good shape and acclimated to high altitude) this wouldn’t have been as difficult, but being at sea level for so long with lack of regular exercise hasn’t been helpful. Yet, I have absolutely no complaints! After passing two gorgeous turquoise lakes enclosed by sharp, snow-capped peaks on the drive in, the trailhead began at around 12,630 feet elevation. For the next four hours we went up, up, and up – through mountain fields, over two passes, and past the hairiest cattle I had ever seen – until we finally reached Lake 69 at 14,435 feet. I’d say it was breathtaking, but I didn’t have any breath to take by that time! As we crossed the last field before climbing the second pass, we were faced by enormous cliff faces topped by thick glaciers. Countless thin cascades from the melting glaciers dropped a very long way to the field below. Just after making it to the top of the second pass, the most perfect site came into view: an enormous waterfall dropping from another cliff face straight into the most turquoise water we had ever seen. As the rest of the lake came into view, so did the continuing wall of marble-patterned rock face topped by glaciers and pristine peaks, with several more wispy-thin waterfalls. The sky weather stayed clear just long enough for us to take it all in, and then the clouds changed form and dropped down, covering the peaks and hiding the sunlight. The temperature dropped fast and it began to snow/rain on us just as we finished our lunch. Needless to say, we hurried back to the van in just two hours – wet, cold, and happy!
(A lake before the trail head.)
(Lake 69 backed by a marble-patterned cliff, waterfalls, glaciers, and sharp peaks (fish-eye view))
After all that, we had just enough time to take showers before our night bus to Lima. We were really excited for Lima because it is the home of one of my best friends, Vanessa, who I met in grad school and who still lives in Colorado. Vanessa has an incredible family who welcomed us into their home and took the time to make sure we experienced Lima the right way! Her parents, Julio and Merida, don’t speak English (although they know quite a few words), which is the biggest reason we took that Spanish class in Quito and had been practicing so much. We are very far from fluent, but we did ok considering the short amount of time we’ve been studying. We can understand more than we can speak, and Julio and Merida are wonderfully animated, which made them quite easy to understand. Vanessa’s brother, Arturo, was also a life saver when he wasn’t working because he speaks fluent English, and Vanessa called a few times to make sure we understood everything. Julio and Merida met us at the bus station that morning and had the next two and a half days all planned out for us. At breakfast we met Vanessa’s grandma, aunt, uncle, and Agida, who helps around the house. It was actually really fun trying to tell them about ourselves and our trip with our broken Spanish and animations!
(An amazing lunch with Julio, Merida, and Arturo)
After breakfast, we went downtown where we watched the changing of the palace guards and then had a really nice lunch where Arturo met up with us. We got to try another Ceviche which was even better than the first, some drinks made with pisco and passion fruit (yum), and a couple other seafood dishes. This was a good start to experiencing the “Gastronomical Capital of South America”. Julio, Merida, Bryan, and I took a city/coast tour on an open-topped bus where we laughed about dodging tree branches and got to watch people paragliding off the edge of a cliff over the beach. The city sits much higher than the ocean, with a sudden drop down to the beach all along the coast. It’s still springtime in Peru, and Lima’s weather was a bit chilly while we were there, so after that open-topped bus we headed for hot cocoa and coffee. Churros with my hot cocoa? Yes please! The day ended perfectly at a bar rated for the best Pisco Sours in Lima several years in a row, Huaringas. Pisco Sour is the Peruvian drink. We have had many with Vanessa in Denver when her parents bring up the pisco and sour mix, but having it with fresh fruit is a whole different experience! Pisco is a grape brandy; I describe the taste as a few steps past wine. We had told Julio and Merida that we plan to have children eventually after the trip, and we laughed hysterically as Julio told us about Peruvian witch doctors that people go to see when they want to have children. In his very animated way, he told us that the men get the juices from a freshly killed guinea pig rubbed all over them by the witch doctor. Now that sounds fun! We’re still laughing every time we remember Julio acting it out! After Arturo showed up, Julio and Merida left us to keep experimenting with all the flavors (Bryan and I always got different ones), and we had a blast with Arturo and his girlfriend, Gianinna. That didn’t make the next morning so easy, though!
(Paragliders over the coast of Lima)
Julio and Merida had a big day trip planned for us, so we woke up early to catch a four-hour bus ride South to Paracas, where we first had a nice boat tour the Ballestas Islands. Bryan and I actually had no clue why we were hopping on this little boat and where we were going (these were all new Spanish words to us) and the guide spoke fast Spanish, so we figured it all out as it appeared in front of us. The first sight was a very large geoglyph, called El Candelabro, in the side of one of the islands. It looks like a big cactus and is similar to the more famous Nasca Lines (mysterious large-scale, ancient geoglyphs on the desert floor best seen from airplanes) a little farther South. But the real sight was the wildlife: Humbolt penguins, sea lions, and millions of other birds blanketing the islands. It was pretty exciting to see penguins in the wild for the first time, and the sea lions looked so goofy! The two islands were white with guano (we were told they are important for the agriculture industry) and species included blue footed boobies, guanay guano birds, and pelicans. Of course we couldn’t understand what species we were seeing at the time, but after looking it up, I’m pretty excited that I can say I saw blue footed boobies! For lunch we got a ride into Paraca National Reservation on the peninsula for a fantastic lunch (two types of ceviche plus grilled fish dishes) at a very peaceful and beautiful location. Next to the restaurant was a quiet little beach overlooking men fishing with bare hands and fishing line while pelicans and guanay guano birds watched closely. Merida and Julia tried to convince us to go for a swim. It wasn’t exactly warm. In another month it would probably be great, but we had a chilly wind and the water was even colder. Bryan did it, though! He made it all the way in and right back out! Back in Paraca (the town), we strolled along the beach, enjoyed hot drinks and deserts, and taste-tested pisco at a beach-side bar.
(Blue footed boobies.)
The next day we had another amazing lunch, this time at the country club that Julio is a member of, with a great view overlooking the coast. Each day the lunch kept getting bigger, like they were stretching our stomachs little by little. Actually, they kept telling Bryan they were going to fatten him up to make him strong for babies! Ha! Julio found out that Bryan loves spicy food, and he wanted to see if Bryan could handle the local hot pepper, rocoto, so he had the waiter bring out a sliced, whole pepper. Needless to say, Julio was impressed that a “gringo” could take it. From then on, we had fresh rocoto at every meal. The food was fantastic, and we both loved this side dish of potato and beans mashed together and grilled on the outside. Once we were full up to our eyes, out came the desserts. Despite how amazing they were, it was a difficult task. Julio and Merida had a baby shower to go to, so Bryan and I wandered around for a bit. We found an interesting mall inside the cliff over the coast. It was right below the view out the restaurant window and we had no idea. We spent some time using the internet at Starbucks, and then hopped on another open-topped bus for a night tour of the city and the fountain park. The fountain park was pretty cool, with several pretty, but regular fountains, a fountain tunnel to walk through, and then a really cool laser/projector/water show like we had never seen before. The water was sprayed up in a mist and an animated image would be projected into the mist, and it absolutely looked 3-D like a holographic projection from Star Wars. Really cool!
(A ‘holographic’ ballerina)
The next day we had the largest meal yet, and the most variety of Peruvian foods. We got to try Papa a la Huancaina (potatoes in a creamy/cheesy/mustardy sauce) – one of Vanessa’s favorite dishes and the one that she brought to our house a few times for Thanksgivings and other get-togethers. Mmm! As soon as we finished one round of food, another followed shortly. We had all different types of meats, vegetables, potatoes, sauces, and then three types of desserts.
(Papa a la Huancaina)
On our last full day in Lima, Julio and Merida took us to the zoo where we got to see animals from all three climate zones of Peru (jungle, Andes, coastal). We were most impressed by the many birds that we had never seen before, for example, the giant Condor with its wrinkly, naked head and a small, safety-orange bird with a mohawk. During the drive between the zoo and their house, a 5.8 earthquake shook Lima and we didn’t feel a thing since we were in the car. I’m bummed we missed out on feeling our first earthquake. That day we had a delicious homemade lunch and dinner, of which we especially liked a stuffed potato dish (I think ‘papa rellena’). That day was pretty relaxing and we were able to recover a little from the food coma before leaving the next afternoon for Cusco.
(Bryan’s favorite bird at the zoo)
We are extremely grateful to the De La Puentes for treating us like family, taking great care of us, and making sure we had such a memorable experience in Lima! Peru had exceeded our expectations so far, and we still had the most popular sites to come: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and Colca Canyon.