Journey with me as I board the plane to Peru, where I am to begin my epic adventure of a lifetime. There are mountains, trekking and llamas in store, as well as a chance to immerse myself in cultural quirks during a homestay on Lake Titicaca.
First stop of my journey
After an evening of swimming under the stars and tucking into a dinner of seafood and potato-based dishes (did you know that Peru boasts over 3,000 different types of potato?), we took an early boat tour to Islas Ballestas in order to avoid the rough seas forecast for later on in the day. Wildlife has admittedly never been one of my major passions, and the thought of a couple of hours on a boat birdwatching didn't fill me with glee, as it did some of my animal-loving travel companions, but the sight of the islands absolutely swarming with life took even my breath away.
We passed countless caves and arches packed with colonies of Peruvian pelicans, Peruvian boobies and Guanay cormorants, with more of the animals cramming onto discarded boats and bridges, and swooping overhead. Unfortunately I forgot to wear a hat, which, if you've ever visited an area with a high population of birds, you will identify as a huge mistake.
Indeed, it is not uncommon on this trip to be on the receiving end of guano (droppings) - and I was one of the unlucky ones. There was also an incredibly unpleasant stench throughout the tour, so it is worth preparing for that by postponing your breakfast. It had surprised me, at the beginning of the trip, to be told that you don't get off the boat, but when you see the sheer volume of the animals that live there, it's obvious that it would be almost impossible to do so.
The highlight of the trip for me was getting to see the area's sea lions up close, with plenty basking on rocks in the sun or barking in caves - a noise that sounds eerily like a human shout when amplified by the rocks' acoustics.
The next stop on the itinerary was a winery in Pisco - which was welcome news to my ears. After several days of stressful long-haul travelling and meeting new people, I was more than ready for a cool glass of dry white. However, it was not to be! The wines from the Pisco region tend to be both extremely sweet and extremely strong, to the point where the tasting involved doing shots of the wine with accompanying shouts of "salud!".
Many of the wines tasted like spirits to me - with one very similar in taste to Bailey's liqueur, and one of the strongest samples was a vino named 'Perfect Love', which is so intoxicating that at night the locals change its name to 'Baby Maker'.
If you know your international beverages, you may recognise the name 'Pisco' from the famous Peruvian drink 'Pisco Sour'. Since the beginning of the trip, I had been served a free Pisco Sour every night with dinner. These delicious cocktails are made from Pisco, egg white, syrup and lemon juice, and they're so delicious I will definitely be trying to make some of my own when I return to the UK.
The free Pisco Sours were relatively weak, but when I got to Cuzco and actually ordered one, it was so strong it led to a night of ill-advised salsa dancing - so if you're looking for a good time make sure you get a real one before your trip is out.
"The Oasis of America"
Huacachina is an extraordinary desert oasis in Peru - and it was definitely one of the early highlights of the trip for me. This idyllic village is also known as 'the Oasis of America' and it is treasured in Peru, featuring on the back of the fifty nuevo sol note. We were there to sand board on the surrounding dunes - even though going out in the hot desert to partake in an extreme sport didn't seem like the best idea so soon after our wine tasting activity!
We climbed into a dune buggy for what was possibly the roughest motoring experience I have ever had. Riding over sand dunes is bumpy enough, but in an effort to give tourists extra bang for their buck, the driver was swerving around, skidding on the sand and generally doing everything he could to throw us out of the buggy. It was so much fun.
The sand boarding itself made me fear for my life even more than I had in the buggy - but that's all part of the fun I guess. We slid down four progressively bigger dunes, with the option of lying down head first on the board, standing up or sitting down. If it's your first time, lying down is the best option - even though it might seem scarier, it's a lot harder to balance when you're further from the ground, as I found out when I attempted to sit up and ended up completely stacking it and rolling down half a dune. That aside, it was a fantastic experience, and the views were incredible. One tip is to discard your flips flops in favour of socks and shoes as if the sand comes into contact with your feet it can burn quite painfully.
"Enjoy your last days of oxygen"
It was when we arrived in Nazca that our guide told us to "enjoy your last days of oxygen". If we had known what was coming, we probably wouldn't have responded with laughter!
We were - of course - there to see the mysterious Nazca lines. And I mean mysterious. I really enjoy history, and I'd spent several days before we arrived in Nazca trying to find out about the origin of the strange landmarks but had no luck. All we really know is that they were created between 400 and 650 AD, but there are theories aplenty, from alien landing strips, religious ceremonies and water-summoning rituals to simply "the Nazca people thought drawing was fun".
The drawings include hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, orcas, and lizards as well as the much-debated 'spaceman' - but more confusing are the random lines that run over and around the drawings. The most accepted explanation for these is that the lines are where the artists went wrong and merely rubbed out their mistakes - on a giant scale.
There are two ways to see the lines: you can take a flight over them to see them all, or you can go to a viewpoint and look out over them, but see fewer. The option you choose will largely depend on your budget: you can access a viewpoint for pocket change, but a flight will cost you a minimum of 100 USD (£65), which is a lot of money in Peru, where there are approximately three sols to the pound. I chose to go down the viewpoint route so as not to dent my budget so early on in the trip, and also because it would give me time to visit a museum, where I could hopefully find out more about the history of the lines.
Sadly, it didn't have much information on the lines, but it did have a display case of skulls from when the Incas were fighting the native people of the region, and they would thread the skulls of their conquests onto their belts - so that was fun.
The day after we visited a pre-Inca cemetery (because I had not yet seen enough skulls), which featured 12 open graves. We were there during the middle of a sandstorm, which made for a seriously eerie yet fascinating experience. The pre-Inca people would mummify their dead using sand, cotton and chilli - among other things - and bury them depending on their level of social standing (the more important you were the deeper your grave) in rooms with their family and friends. This was also the first place we learnt about the tradition of rich people shaping their babies' soft skulls to represent their place in society, with the wealthy in this area featuring long heads with high crowns.
Guinea pigs and life goals
From Nazca we took the first of our night buses to Arequipa, which was surprisingly comfortable, and also very high-security. The staff check your bags and your passports before you get on, as well as filming your face, in a bid to cut the number of bus hijackings, which used to be rife on the quiet mountain roads.
Arequipa (which roughly means "I'll stay here" in the Inca language) boasts excellent architecture, melding European and native styles to beautiful effect. Visitors can peruse its wide array of shops, or visit the city's colourful Santa Catalina Monastery. It was in Arequipa - which is at an altitude of 2,300, that I began to get very nervous about the Inca Trail.
One night, sharing a beer with a 70-something woman in our hostel, I told her I would be attempting the trek in a week or two. After looking me up and down, she responded with:
"It's good to have goals...but it's also good to know you can change your mind".
While admittedly great - and very balanced - advice, it did not exactly make me feel better about my upcoming challenge!
In Arequipa we were also treated to a guinea pig buffet. Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru, with people in the highlands traditionally keeping several of the animals loose in their kitchens, before killing them when guests arrived. While I didn't indulge myself (being squeamish about meat at the best of times), other travellers got stuck into the guinea pig meat, and some brave souls tried the brain. By all accounts the guinea pig meat was gamey, and there was too little of it, and the brain tasted like some sort of pate.
As a kind of practice round for the Inca Trail, we got a bus up to Chivay - which lies at 3,657m above sea level - for a one-night stay. This is actually higher than Machu Picchu and so some altitude sickness medication was definitely in order. Most of us were taking pills for the altitude, which seemed to help, but we stopped on the way up to buy coca leaves (yes, THOSE coca leaves) and other coca products, which have long been used by local people to enable them to live and work so high up.
I'm just going to tell you straight gringos, coca leaves are disgusting - but they do help! You take around ten leaves, rip off the stalks, put a tiny catalyst rock in the middle and roll them up. Then the repulsive chewing begins. If you want all the benefits of the coca leaves without actually having to put them in your mouth, sugary coca tea is really the most delicious option, but you can also get candies and biscuits, which are also much more palatable.
After a relaxing dip in the volcano-warmed hot springs of Chivay we were off to Colca Canyon for some condor spotting. Again, I was dubious as to how a day of bird watching would hold my attention, but this turned out to be one of the best days of the trip for scenery. Everywhere you turned was completely breathtaking, with deep valleys lush with greenery and stunning terraces leading up to snow-topped mountain peaks.
The people of Colca Valley traditionally worshipped the mountains as deities - with some even shaping their skulls in the form of their chosen mountain - and this day it was so easy to see why as views like this do almost feel like a spiritual experience. While most of Peru is Catholic, due to the Spanish conquest, there are still some native religious traditions left over from before the invasion. One of these is the goddess Pachamama, who is a sort of Mother Nature character. Often before taking a drink, you'll see locals splash some of their beverage on the ground as a way to give back to Pachamama.
There are around 40 condors that live in Colca Canyon, and we were told we would be lucky to see one or two of the elusive birds. However, upon reaching the viewpoint, around 20 of the majestic condors were swooping around, with many of them coming very close overhead. We had lucked out by visiting on a day when a donkey had fallen and died at the bottom of the canyon, as all the birds were there to feast on it.
The Inca Trail
Ahead of the Inca Trail we got a flight to Cuzco and then up to the tiny village of Ollantaytambo, which would serve as our jumping off point. Needless to say, we were all quite nervous at this stage, with a number of people in the group having been struck down with ailments that could potentially hinder their trek.
You can read all about my incredible experience on the Inca Trail in my next post.
Gringos do salsa
After the slog up to Machu Picchu, you would think dancing would be the last thing on my mind, but somehow, just two days after finishing the trek, we shuffled our way over to a salsa club in Cuzco for a lesson in Latino moves. Our guide had told us that in Peru:
"If you don't know salsa, you'll never get a girlfriend."
So understandably everyone seemed keen to learn the dance.
I'm not sure we were very good - especially after all the free drinks they plied us with, and we did get a lot of stares from the locals (who were incredible dancers), but I would say a salsa class is an absolute must-do if you're visiting Peru. Many of the clubs play mainly salsa music, so if you want to experience Peruvian nightlife, you need to learn to dance like a local.
Cuzco was one of my favourite cities in Peru: there are plenty of bars, restaurants and shops, and - as it is a bit of a tourist haven - you feel really safe there. In terms of culture, it's a great place to learn about Catholicism in Peru, with the Cathedral of Santa Dominga being a really interesting site to visit. This heavily gilded church features one particularly interesting artwork: a Peruvian version of The Last Supper in which Jesus and his disciples are chowing down on guinea pig (although some believe it to be chinchilla).
Lake Titicaca: The highest navigable lake on earth
We stayed in Puno to visit Lake Titicaca, which is entrenched in Inca folklore, as it is believed the Sun God was born there. As you would imagine, the lake is simply huge, and on it are the famed Floating Islands of Uros. According to Peru, it owns 60 per cent of the lake, while Bolivia has 40 per cent, however Bolivia claims the direct opposite so no-one really knows!
We sailed to the floating islands, which are made of layers and layers of reeds. This community was, for me, the most fascinating we came across on the whole trip. They build their own islands by creating blocks of reeds and tying them together. However, they have to constantly maintain their islands, or they will sink. Our local guide told us one of the advantages of living on these islands is that if you don't like the other people on your island, you can simply saw up the reeds and float away without them. This apparently happens more than you would think. The people of the islands make money by selling handicrafts to tourists, and also by trading fish for other goods at the markets in Puno.
From the floating islands, we boated across the calm waters to a non-floating island for a lunch of fish, where our hosts wanted us to dance with them, and as it turned out that would not be the last dancing we would do that day. The people of these communities were all clad in national dress - while you would see some hints of this in the cities, it was mainly just the older women who would don traditional skirts in urban areas.
Yet on the islands, men wear hats and rainbow pom-pom bags to determine whether they are single or not. When the Spanish invaded, much of its culture was transferred to South America, with most of this being Catholic. While the people of these islands are Catholic, the women picked up on some of the Islamic aspects of dressing and protocol, and as a result they wear headscarves. However, they also have rainbow pom-poms attached to their headgear to make clear whether they are single or not.
I was finishing off my trip to Peru with a homestay on one of the islands of Lake Titicaca. Aside from the Inca Trail, this was probably the aspect of my trip I was the most nervous about during my time in Peru. This was partially because my Spanish is not good, and also a bit because we would be expected to do farm work, which - as a city girl and professional writer - is massively out of my comfort zone.
When we arrived at the island, we were greeted by a Peruvian band, who followed us all the way up the mountain for ten minutes, ceremoniously banging their drums. It felt like being in one of Peru's many parades. First on the agenda was a game of football with the locals, who had the serious advantage of being used to the altitude and obviously won by quite a margin.
Then it was time to meet our host families! My roommate Tiffanie and I met our host 'dad' Juan, who was only 20. He gave us some Peruvian national dress to put on over our clothes. This consisted of five multicoloured, luminous skirts, a fancy black jacket, a sort of cummerbund, and a tiny bowler hat. He then handed us some pom-poms and told us it was time for the dancing. We were taken aback as we had not been warned there would be dancing.
It was quite a surreal scene, watching around 200 people - half native and half gringos - do traditional Peruvian partner dancing on the school football field. I evidently didn't pick it up quickly enough as my partner kept shouting things at me in Spanish. What he was saying, I don't know, but the whole experience was hilarious.
Then, still clad in Peruvian national dress, it was time to say goodbye to our group and embark on the 20-minute uphill walk to our new abode. By this point it was pitch black, and we kept hearing animal noises both in the distance and alarmingly close by. Upon entering the rustic kitchen of the house, we found an older woman, cooking our tea. Due to the language barrier we sat in silence as we ate our delicious quinoa soup and potatoes, and then they suggested (by way of charades) we go to bed, at 7pm. Our bedroom was cheerful and clean, and we fell asleep quickly, only to be woken by the sounds of farm animals at sunrise. It was time for us to start work.
Some of our group did heavier labour, like picking potatoes, but we just did some sheep herding, picked some herbs and fed the bulls, and all in all it was a really enjoyable morning. After a scrumptious lunch of cheese and potatoes (because of course potatoes) we went for a walk with Juan, who took us for a hike up a mountain to the island's prettiest viewpoint.
After a sad goodbye to our host families and a boat trip back to Puno, it was time to swap our sols for bolivianos as we left Peru.
So were my Peruvian expectations correct?
Pretty much! There are mountains, woolly hats and guinea pigs aplenty in Peru - but there is also so much more I couldn't have known or appreciated without visiting.
To begin with, a lot of the country is at a really high altitude, which means it's cold. As a Brit going on holiday, packing things for cold weather was a foreign concept, meaning I had to stock up on leggings and alpaca jumpers when I arrived.
I knew there would be a lot of mountains, but I didn't understand quite what that would mean for visitors. It's not just the Inca Trail: whatever city or town you visit will also involve a lot of uphill walking. In fact, everywhere you ever want to go seems to be uphill. I could also never have appreciated quite how stunning the mountains would be: our trip to Colca Canyon featured potentially the most stunning scenery of my life.
While Peru is a developing country, I was also surprised to see how many of the communities we visited lived purely off the land, and how many were religiously carrying on the traditions of their ancestors: whether this be how they dress or how they live their lives. I'm very grateful I got to see Peru when these customs and cultures are still very much alive.
Essentially a trip to Peru is not for those holidaymakers who want beaches, cocktails and relaxation, but in terms of hiking, incredibly varied scenery and unique culture it's hard to beat.