South America is a beautiful beast and the opportunity to gallivant through (realistically, only some of) its 6.9 million square miles is not one to be passed up. Even more so when you don’t have to pay through the nostrils for it.
Which is the case if you head North to the clutch of Andean nations that have gallons to offer but remain mercifully cheap. The biggest of these is Peru, who’s well-trodden Gringo Trail (gringo being the semi-racist but generally affectionate term for white people in Latin America) which avoids being as touristy as the Far East favourites of Thailand and co, but nevertheless meanders a healthy number of dishevelled backpackers through its range of breath-taking landscapes.
Lush rainforests sprawl across the North, sand dunes undulate through southern and west-coast deserts, while the monstrous mountain ranges of the Andes weave throughout. All of which makes the unavoidable cross-country bus marathons (just) bearable, as window views fight to distract you from the wails of snotty infants and relentless Spanish jabber of badly dubbed Eddie Murphy films that have you lining up a steering wheel hijack and a head-on collision with something suitably fatal to end the on-board suffering altogether. But yeah the views stopped me from doing that.
As it homes the country’s biggest airport, most will begin their Peruvian jaunt away from the aforementioned scenery in the capital, Lima, which in spite of its vibrancy and bustle can actually lead to a slightly subdued stay. This is partly because backpackers are warned off the seemingly unsafe city centre and Old Town streets and are instead ushered to the wealthier, but rather sterile, Miraflores district. While safety concerns in Lima are no doubt valid, avoiding the ‘danger-zones’ altogether means the more traditional and authentic elements of the city are sadly bypassed.
Being a person I tend to find there’s plenty of scope for walking during my day without having to set aside some time to have a concerted go at it.
Miraflores does boast a well-kept coastline with some attractive beaches but hopes of enjoying panoramic sea views are emphatically dashed by walls of smog that linger sporadically through the city and worsen on the coast. When the smog strikes in the traffic-ridden, industrialised centres you could be forgiven for thinking you’re just in a glorified, humid Middlesbrough. A comparison that ultimately renders those ‘traditional, authentic’ spots pretty worthless.
A few days in Lima has us craving the fresh mountain of our next destination Huaraz, a small city nestling amongst the famed Cordillera Blanca. Its location sees Huaraz dubbed a ‘hiking Mecca’. In fact the opening paragraph of every travel guide I read instantly spewed out the ‘hiking Mecca’ tag, inducing mental images of seething masses clad in Berghaus, heaving toward the mountains like giant colonies of waterproof ants. Trekkers rolling out sleeping mats to bow and prostrate to the scenery five times a day.
It all seemed a bit intense and unappealing, especially as I am no hiker myself. Now, I don’t mind walks but I won’t go out of my way to walk for the sake of walking. Being a person I tend to find there’s plenty of scope for walking during my day without having to set aside some time to have a concerted go at it. Yet even the most fiercely ambivalent walkers such as I couldn’t help but enjoy a Huaraz hike. Each stunning mountain or waterfall is superseded by the next visual colossus. The views stick two fingers to your altitude headaches and blistered feet every time as you marvel at the scenes your Facebook album will never do any justice.
Cradling your drink like a water bomb and piercing the plastic lining to sup out warm alcohol feels odd on a number of levels
Trekking toil warrants an evening drink or three and while Peru’s national tipple, the Pisco Sour, can be found in plentiful supply it is worth hunting down the fabled Chu-Chu Wasi - a hot rum-based cocktail that is, of course, drunk out of a bag because cups and bottles just seem a bit bloody mainstream when you’re travelling. Cradling your drink like a water bomb and piercing the plastic lining to sup out warm alcohol feels odd on a number of levels, but three Chu-Chu Wasis later and nothing has ever made more sense in your life. Its lethal strength combines with the Huaraz altitude to make you feel the necessary effects in no time at all, so at the equivalent of 25p a drink its finance savvy boozing at its best and a clear nod to the Peru-can-be-done-on-a-budget thesis.
For our next stop, Cusco was calling. “24-hour bus journey anyone?” a man yelled at the terminal. “Will there be obnoxiously dubbed versions of 2003 classic, Daddy Day Care screened on board?” I threw back in perfect Spanish. “Si”, the response. And the next morning we were on our way to the ancient capital of the Inca Empire.
Cusco is the place ‘everyone goes’ when in Peru, not just shabby young travellers escaping employment and reality at home. Suddenly you’re confronted with older, smartly-dressed holidaymakers breezing in and out of their boutique hotels exuding smug affluence. Porters and tour guides scurry alongside to shield their masters from leering backpackers and locals. But it is no surprise Cusco attracts the full range of visitors; it is an architectural delight that deserves an extended stay. For most tourists, time in the city nonetheless feels like a polite formality before heading to Peru’s trump card, Machu Picchu, which lies just a few hours outside town.
A great deal of hype surrounds Machu Picchu and it is thus one of the few Peruvian outings that will cost you. Though a bit of online scouring for the best prices can see a return train fare and entrance tickets sorted for a not too damaging £100 or so. And it is worth it. The trip itself throws everyone out of their segregated comfort zones with no hotel glass to separate the back-packing paupers from the all-expenses paid kings and queens, and the tension is palpable as grubby oversized backpacks knock neatly-placed panama hats askew amongst the jostling for window-seats on the train.
The structure and layout is impressive, but it’s the almost surreal location that transforms Machu Picchu into the atmospheric wonder that it is
But on arrival at the historic site when the clouds lift all around you, Machu Picchu surprisingly justifies the hype, not to mention the quantity of key-rings and pencil erasers paying homage to it across the country. It’s a truly majestic scene. The structure and layout is impressive, but it’s the almost surreal location that transforms Machu Picchu into the atmospheric wonder that it is. Postcards cannot convey the dizzying backdrop adequately. You are quite literally up in the heavens with towering mountains and sheer drops all around you. How and why those Inca scamps climbed so high to carve out the place is anyone’s guess. But while you’re gazing in wonder at your surroundings, you’re grateful they did.
Our next destination was not a typical Gringo Trail stop-off, or at least it hasn’t been since 2007. Pisco, on the West coast, was once a thriving tourist city until a devastating earthquake five years ago shook its buildings to the ground and tragically took hundreds of lives in the process. Crime, poverty and government neglect has seen Pisco all but removed from the backpacker radar, besides those who are attracted by the sterling work of the popular NGO, Pisco Sin Fronteras. PSF feeds and accommodates its volunteers who help with numerous construction and community projects in the city. With a stunning beach on its doorstep and sizzling desert climate, relaxation time with PSF is particularly sweet, and despite all the city’s troubles, you can’t help but feel those who steer clear are missing out an unpolished Peruvian gem.
Heading further South, Arequipa brings you right back onto Gringo Trail territory with museums, cathedrals and restaurants drawing in the travelling hordes. And just as Cusco funnels you to its outpost attraction in Machu Picchu, Arequipa is supplemented by the nearby Colca Canyon - another location worthy of the tour company sales patter. With my hiking credentials already made plain, the job of describing the canyon’s offerings should probably be left to this excellent review previously featured on Sabotage Times. My only advice would be that the next time you find yourself embroiled in a Canyon-based game of Top Trumps and your opponent fires the depth statistic of the big daddy, the Grand Canyon at you, slap down your dark horse Colca card and deliver the killer blow: “Twice as deep pal”, you can legitimately chirp at your stunned adversary. The scale of the canyon is indeed quite something.
The route to our final Peruvian destination, Puno, on the South-Eastern border with Bolivia, was disrupted by the not-so-rare occurrence of an earthquake. Boulders varying in size from the small to the extremely alarming littered the roads, forcing everyone off the bus to trudge by foot in the middle of nowhere, engulfed in pitch blackness. Our eventual arrival owed itself to the kindness of those driving smaller cars who had weaved through the debris and quite literally squeezed us on board. The episode was unnerving, though not at all unusual given the precariousness of both Peru’s roads and tectonic plates.
Boulders varying in size from the small to the extremely alarming littered the roads, forcing everyone off the bus to trudge by foot in the middle of nowhere, engulfed in pitch blackness
Puno plays host to an unremarkable city centre but a wholly more remarkable lake, in Lago Titicaca. As with the Colca Canyon above, I wanted a killer fact to encapsulate Titicaca’s significance and grandeur and excuse me from giving a proper description, but my best offering, that it represents ‘the highest commercially navigable lake in the world’, does little to excite or justify the impressive reality. Yet the ‘commercial’ aspect of this label is perhaps more significant than one would initially think, as an over-emphasis on milking tourist interest is ultimately its downfall. While you gladly support the efforts of lake-dwelling communities to enhance their living, the extent of the hard sell tips the balance when you are forcibly dragged into their homes to have their ‘traditional’ dress literally thrown on you before you’re demanded to pay for the privilege.
Having already shelled out for your tour ticket, politely acquiescing with these little money-spinners makes the day a pricey affair, so the best way of enjoying Titicaca should be given some research if you’re still adhering to that budget. One alternative is taking to the sacred waters on a pedelo as me and my travelling accomplice did. But before you write us off as uncultured philistines, it was a pedelo elegantly crafted into the shape of a swan, like the classy ones at Alton Towers, so sophistication can obviously be retained when enjoying the lake this way.
Lake Titicaca is the end of the line when it comes to the Peruvian Gringo Trail. Some backpackers successfully stretch their pennies to encompass neighbours Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, but the more costly virtues of Brazil, Argentina and Chile may have to be funded by gainful employment before significant headway can be made into those 6.9 million square miles.
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