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The Good, Bad and Ugly of Peru in Parts: Part 1 – Arequipa, Cusco and a Day of Hell in Lima

PERU | Friday, 7 October 2011 | Views [17855] | Comments [7]

We ended up spending considerably longer in Peru than we’d intended, with hiking taking up the vast majority of the time. To try and avoid an overly cluttered entry, I’ve split Peru into two. This blog will tackle Arequipa, Cusco and Lima, and all of our hiking around Huaraz will be covered in the second.

Arequipa

Our first stop in Peru, Arequipa is famous for being the access point to two of the world’s deepest canyons with great Andean condor spotting; having the lovely Volcan Misti and Chachani Mountain as a backdrop and for a gorgeous centre square. After Bolivia, we were pretty stuffed when we arrived at Arequipa.

Chachani

First major action around Arequipa was a hike up Chachani Mountain. Bron was still recovering from a bad case of food poisoning from Bolivia, so I was on my own for this one. With a summit of 6,095m, this was my first attempt at hiking to over 6,000m, so it promised to be a different sort of challenge – hopefully my acclimatisation in Bolivia would help…

After base camping at 5,200m, our group of 5 gringos played some cards after our guides headed to bed just before sunrise. By the time we went to bed, it was bloody cold, and the air was so dry that whenever I touched the tent during the night the static charge was so strong I could see blue sparks on the tent wall! Welcome to altitude, Elis. At 2am, we got up. I was feeling pretty nauseous, and managed one bite of my slightly stale cheese sandwich before accepting food wasn’t an option. Within about half an hour, we were off.

Chachani is supposed to be a relatively easy climb for a 6000m mountain. And it’s fair to say to hike itself isn’t technically difficult, with only a couple of steeper sections and no real crevices to speak of. But I say without exaggeration – this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Somehow, I managed to keep getting one foot in front of the next, and despite a couple of close calls, keep last night’s soup down, with lightning flashes in the distance and a nice sunrise over the surrounding ranges a good distraction. After a few hours, we all reached the summit, about an hour ahead of schedule to our surprise! Incredibly rewarding, and decent views to pay off for our efforts.

The Good: Pretty simple climb; only 2 days to complete; Fun descent running/skiing down the scree

The Bad: Banging your head on the 4WD roof if you’re in the back

The Ugly: Altitude nausea

Colca Canyon

Bron and I headed to Colca Canyon around 2am the morning after I got back from Chachani (possibly risky call, but it worked out ok). Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world; about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and has been inhabited since pre-Inca times. Our first stop was for a below-par and under-catered breakfast, although it was exciting to see our first cacti-topped earth-bricked walls there – a common style in Peru, and infinitely nicer than using razor wire or the more common smashed glass to secure a wall.

After a nice drive along the canyon, we stopped at the Cruz del Condor, one of the best places in the world to spot Andean condors, a member of the vulture family, and with a wingspan of over 3m, the biggest wingspan of all land birds. We got lucky, and spotted a couple of condors, with a flyby directly over our heads! Very cool. At Cruz del Condor, it’s 1200m from the edge of the valley to the river at the base.

Andean condors at Colca Canyon. Up to 3 metre wingspans, these guys are BIG

Not surprisingly, the first days hiking involved a lot of descent. Once we got to the bottom, we grabbed some lunch at our guides family’s restaurant, before continuing on for a couple of hours to ‘el Paradiso’, a bunch of touristy complexes, but nice, where we indulged in our reward Snickers. We played some cards with a cool Spanish couple David and Laura, before some dinner and an early night. The next morning was the 1,100m climb back to the top of the canyon. We resisted the temptation to take a mule up the top. Both Bron and I managed to climb up the top without a break, which we were happy with, and got to enjoy some more nice views over the canyon.

Once we’d breakfasted, we headed along to the hotsprings for a gorgeous soak, then had lunch at a delicious Peruvian buffet, which included some delicious Cuy Picante – pieces of guinea pig cooked in a nice curry sauce. The trip back included some stops at some cool viewing places for the canyons, and for lots of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, before getting back to Arequipa.

The Good: Condors; Incredible views; Nice weather; Pre-Incan terraces being farmed to this day

The Bad: Mule teams trying to knock you off the mountain; Descending on bad knees; Cold ‘hot’-springs at El Paradiso

The Ugly: Souvenir touts at Cruz del Condor; Littering locals (and tourists…)

Cusco

Cusco City

From Arequipa, we made our way by nightbus to Cusco. Peru has incredible buses, cheap and excellent quality, and it makes those unavoidable long distance trips a much more pleasant experience, and we were feeling pretty rested up when we arrived at Cusco just after sunrise. We checked into a hostel, found an excellent place for breakfast (if visiting Cusco, breakfast at Jack’s Cafe is a must!).

Walking through the streets, we got mobbed by the masses of touts trying to flog massages, restaurant menus and cocaine. After a couple of streets, it became hard to even make the effort of saying ‘No gracias’ every 5 seconds or so. We sorted out our stuff for the Inca Trail and the rest of the time in Cusco was spent bouncing between cafes and checking out local handicrafts.

Cusco could be an excellent destination in its own right, and is very popular with hordes of backpackers, hippies and wealthier travellers. As the old Incan capital, there are some excellent old buildings, which have been nicely incorporated into modern day Cusco. The people are friendly. There is a lot of Incan history to explore in the region. But it’s so damn touristy, and has been for too long. The streets are basically a mixture of gringos and vendors trying to take their money. There are shabby operators everywhere, and everything is very expensive. One interesting tidbit was that the world’s highest Irish-owned Irish Pub is there – only thing is, it doesn’t stock Guinness. ¿Como?

The Good: Nice food (honourable mentions to Jacks and Los Perros for their incredible fresh spring rolls); Good shops to stock up for hiking (gear and food); History

The Bad: Relentless touts; Expensive; Shoddy tour operators

The Ugly: Lots of steep streets at altitude for tourists straight off the plane

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu was one of the top few highlights we were looking forward to coming to South America. We arranged to travel with United Mice, a Cusqueñan company, highly recommended by our friends Matt and Alicia who used them a few years ago. There were a few driving reasons: they were locally owned (apparently foreign companies operating in Peru are tax exempt, for reasons I am unclear on); they travel further on the first day meaning you miss the vast bulk of the crowds; and they are about half the price of the big international companies.

I am pleased to say that the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu and United Mice all lived up to our expectations. The food was exceptional, there were only four of us (me, Bron and our new Belgian friends Frank and Lynn) in our group meaning we could make excellent time and had a lot more freedom and time to relax than the big groups, our guide was charismatic and well informed, an excellent story-teller – thanks Jaime! Our porters (like all the porters on the track) were troopers. So company wise, I couldn’t recommend United Mice enough (although online credit card payment would have made booking whilst on the road MUCH easier…).

The Inca Trail took us through many different terrain types, including cloud forest, Andean tundra and jungle. There are incredible views throughout, with the snow-capped mountains and Rio Cusichca at the start, several Incan ruins (including our favourite Wiñay Wayna – a gorgeously situated ruin in amongst terraces looking down a huge valley). Jaime explained that in establishing a new settlement, the Quechua (what are normally called the Incas, only the Inca was specifically the king of the Quechua, so it’d be like calling the English, for example, The Regent or The Queen – or at least so I’m told) the aesthetics of the location were as important as its agricultural potential or other considerations.

Machu Picchu was incredible. Due to the small size of our group, we were able to overtake all the big groups despite a slightly later start on the last morning, and were one of the first at the Sun Gate – just as well, because a couple of minutes after arriving at the top, the clouds moved in for a bit. Most of the day we had excellent weather; lots of sun. The Machu Picchu ruins were really incredible, amazing stonework and some incredible design with regards to hydrology and sunlight. The llamas wondering around the place to eat the grass was a nice touch. The only drawback is the number of tourists, although by about 1:30 or 2pm, most of those had headed out. Definitely a must do in South America, it lived up to the hype.

The Good: Amazing views on the trail and at Machu Picchu; No touts; Incredible food; Excellent guides; Great ruins

The Bad: Loads of tourists, especially at the ruins; Very expensive food at Machu Picchu; Aguas Calientes

The Ugly: Deterioration of the track and ruins from tourists; Porters being overloaded by some operators, and forced to move too fast with heavy loads

Lima

We’d only planned an 8 hour stopover in Lima between Cusco and Huaraz. We had to send some packages home, get some proper food after a 20 hour bus trip and wait for our bus out – you’d be hard pressed to find a Peruvian, even from Lima, who’d recommend a visit. The package sending bit went off without a hitch (assuming the package arrives – time will tell there, but we’re confident). It was getting fed we hit a snag.

Wondering around the Plaza de Armas (normally a city centre is pretty decent for tourists, but apparently not in Lima) we found a place just off the street that did reasonably priced set menus. We went in and sat down and a guy came up and started chatting to us, all very friendly. A little bit later, his friend came up and joined us as well. They insisted we tried the local pisco sours, which they insisted were different to the Chilean variety (the origin of the Pisco Sour is almost a matter for fist fights between the two countries). They ordered some from the waiter and four huge jugs of pisco sour arrived at the table. We finally managed to order some food, but after a bit we realised we weren’t feeling quite right. All of a sudden, six people from the restaurant came up to the table and presented us with a bill for 420 soles (about $140). We had our day packs with all our valuables with us, and weren’t really in any state to try and resist – they’d spiked our drinks! We paid and got straight out of there, and headed to a coffee shop to try and recover.

Within minutes of getting to the café, I’d passed out on the toilet floor. Fortunately, some locals had seen something was wrong, and came up and helped Bron, looking after our gear whilst they went to identify the restaurant (which didn’t turn out to have a name, although a neighbouring shop described it as a dangerous place, and gave the girl their name), and then get the police. The police came to the café and took us to the hospital, where I was put onto a drip and given something else, and after about 6 hours was considered well enough to be discharged, from where we spent 2 hours in a taxi looking for a hotel that had a vacancy until 2.30am. We’d missed our bus, but fortunately in the morning, we were both feeling well enough (although still very weak) to travel. Lima, go to hell.

The Good: Free medical treatment for foreigners, although you have to buy your own drugs; Helpful locals for drugged tourists; Patient taxi drivers; the soccer stadium looks quite nice

The Bad: No central bus station, making comparing options difficult; Spending a night there

The Ugly: Dangerous; Getting drugged and robbed by restaurateurs

 

Comments

1

Err, any smart traveler knows to never accept anything from strangers (especially consumables) and to only eat/drink at places with a clear pricing menu that can be disputed if need be...........sounds more like your own stupid decision rather than just being a problem with Lima. (There's bad people everywhere - hence why mother's teach their children to not accept candy..........)

Hope you learned!

  amanda Nov 9, 2011 3:47 PM

2

bro youre own fault... you have to know where to go as a tourist you should always be careful no matter where you go, lima is a wonderful place as long as youre smarrt and know where to go or get a good tour guide. your ignorance is ridiculous.

  ale Dec 5, 2011 4:55 PM

3

If we all played it safe we would all eat at tourist restaurants and not experience anything else. That's why we explore and experiment wherever we go. Some of my best experiences were while trusting strangers, hangingout with them, and eventually making good friends.

The only thing you did wrong was not listen to other travelers. Most travelers know that Lima is a crazy place for a lot of danger, but if you're careful you could have a wonderful time there.

Everyone has a crazy story from Lima. And I refuse to believe all cities are like Lima. But when we find ourselves in crazy cities, we have to keep our guard up.

Thank you for sharing your story. It's the only way people can learn... Albeit from your mistakes.

  Marc Double Jun 15, 2013 3:46 AM

4

Wow. Scary experience right there. I disagree with the above comments I don't believe it's their fault. I'm an Australian living in Peru (Arequipa but have spent time in Lima) and eat at plenty of local, set-menu restaurants where you'd be hard up to see any gringos and I've never had an experience like that! It's hardly your fault when you receive spiked drinks that you've been recommended and actually ordered yourself (from a restaurant). Yes, it's never wise to converse with strangers that approach you in Peru, or anywhere really (definitely rule #1) but being a couple together, in someone's business and in broad daylight, i'd say this was a very daring attempt for your bags/money/kidneys and wouldn't be expected or could be avoided by anyone, no matter how seasoned a traveller you are! Thank goodness for the kind local Peruvians, which I'm happy to say make up the vast majority of the population! Glad you're both OK!

  Sarah Aug 21, 2013 9:35 AM

5

I have a lot of family in Peru. It is a dangerous city. I would recommend staying to the very touristy sites, especially, if you look like a tourist. I speak spanish so it is easier for me to get places and I even fake my accent so that I sound more peruvian. You should be alert no matter where you go. If you are seen as a "tourist" in most countries it is easy to be a target. If you're gonna be daring I think its best to go with a group of people. I know that the Plaza de Armas has a lot of thieves so I always dress down. I dress down when I go to Downtown LA to buy wholesale.. so try to fit in when you are in downtown very urban cities because its just like any other city. I feel that the people in more rural areas seem to be a lot nicer and friendlier. I trust them a bit more than the city folk in Lima, at least the ones in the more ghetto areas. But that is pretty bad! I havent heard of that happeing to anyone, it is rare, but I guess it was just not your luck.

I have heard of strangers approaching women and offering to sell them perfumes, which are really poision to make you pass out. You just have to be careful, research, find a local tourist guide you can trust, travel in larger groups, if you want to explore and experiment outside of tourist boundaries than those are the risks you take. Just like any other city in the world.

  Giana Sep 27, 2013 12:04 PM

6

Gosh sounds likea scary and potentially life threatening situation in Lima.

I'm in Lima right now; spent 2 days here and to be honest I wouldn't particularly recommend it compared to other cities in South America. According to guide books the old central area (around Plaza de Armes) is really not the heart of the city anymore; it's got some lovely old buildings but I only spent an 90mins in the area before heading out. It just isnt very interesting beyond the buildings and I wouldn't recommend any tourists eating or staying in the area. I felt safish but not comfotable.

The safe and nice part of Lima is Mireflores but its pretty souless. Peruvians are very friendly, with nice restaurants/cafes etc and the streets feel safe enough but there isnt much of interest otherwise. The number one attraction is a shopping centre (Lacomar); it has a nice cliff face outlook of the pacific but that's about it - its just a shopping centre. But even in Miraflores I am constantly approached by overly friendly trangers and am sure they were have all been attempts at scamming me. I'm looking forward to leaving to be honest.

Basically I'd only recommend Lima for a short stopover, stay and eat in the Mireflores area only and use it as a rest point if you feel like a few consummerist Western comforts. I am passing through Lima again on my way home but fortunately will be staying overnight at the airport hotel.

  Dom Mar 3, 2015 7:36 AM

7

Thank you for your blog. What a terrifying story. Thank you for sharing. Definitely not your fault--how unlucky. It will teach me to be more careful when I head down there.

  Glo Jun 24, 2016 7:09 AM

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