Of all the South American countries on our around the world itinerary, Peru was the country that I was looking forward to visiting the most.
In photographs, I saw bold and beautiful textiles, women in traditional clothes posing with pet alpacas, and stunning scenery like Machu Picchu. I read about the world class food scene in Lima and was relieved that we as Americans wouldn’t have to pay the steep reciprocity fee that so many other South American countries require. Peru also has a highly developed tourism infrastructure and welcomes the world with open arms.
Getting Around with Peru Hop
Peru ended up far exceeding my expectations, thanks in part to the fantastic experience my husband and I had traveling the country with Peru Hop. Over the week we spent touring the country by bus we saw and experienced so much more than we would have by planning our own point-to-point itinerary. I wish every county had this!
Peru Hop offers several bus tours but we opted for the Full South to Cusco tour which picked us up in the upscale Lima suburb of Miraflores. We stopped in four cities before reaching the ancient Inca city, turned tourist capital, Cusco.
The Full South tour ended up being a fantastic value considering we had door-to-door transportation, a fantastic guide, a few free tours, and discounted accommodation. Our days were jam packed with tours and activities as we made our way around Peru. Below is a description of each stop on the Peru Hop tour.
Miraflores to Paracas
Paracas Elevation: 7 ft (2 meters)
Duration of Stay: 1 night
Accommodation: Hotel Residencial Los Frayles
Our Peru Hop tour started in Miraflores where our guide, Alex, personally picked us up from our accommodation. En route to our first overnight destination, we had a few interesting free tours that gave us a feel for the history of Peru.
Christo Statue (Free)
After picking up all the passengers, the bus climbed high into the hills to a lookout point where we saw a smaller scale Christ the Redeemer called Cristo del Pacífico or the Christ of the Pacific.
At the Monument of the Unknown Soldier on top of the hill, our guide filled us in on some of the country’s history including a rocky relationship with Southern neighbor Chile which dates back to the War of the Pacific, also known as the ‘Bird Poop War’. Tensions continue to this day only the debate involves Pisco, the liquor that has become the national spirit of both countries. Bottom line, don’t ever tell a Peruvian pisco is from Chile, and vice versa.
Chincha Slave Tunnels (Free)
We boarded the bus again, and after a quick breakfast stop for clay oven baked bread, we headed to a 17th-century hacienda that has hidden slave tunnels. The Hacienda San Jose in El Carmen serves as a luxury hotel today but in the past, it was a plantation where hundreds of African slaves worked in the sugarcane and cotton fields.
Underneath the hacienda is a labyrinth of well-preserved tunnels that stretch a whopping 35km (21.7 miles) long and connect to five other haciendas and the nearest port. In order to avoid taxes, the plantation owners would smuggle the slaves through the tunnels from the port and hold them underground in unthinkable conditions until they could be gradually brought upstairs without raising suspicion. Our group walked through the tunnels crouching through the passageways and squeezing into rooms that held four times the number of people for weeks at a time.
I found the history and stories of the hacienda to be fascinating and this was something I would have never seen or known about if we didn’t travel with Peru Hop
Our final stop of the day was just four hours south of Lima in Paracas. Paracas is the closest town to the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve, making it well worth a stopover on any Peruvian vacation itinerary.
We arrived midday and checked into our accommodation. Alex invited the group to meet at a restaurant for lunch. We attended, and became acquainted with fellow passengers whom we’d spend the next few days with, parting as friends.
Paracas to Huacachina
Huacachina Elevation: 4,647 ft (1,416 meters)
Duration of Stay: 1 night
Accommodation: Curasi Hotel
Ballestas Island Tour (50 soles/$15 USD pp)
We booked a tour of the Ballestas Islands through Peru Hop that left early the following morning. Lonely Planet refers to as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’ because it is home to millions of birds, including, the Humboldt Penguin! The bird guano on these rocky islands is a valuable resource as it is harvested and sold as a rich fertilizer.
On the way to the island, we paused to photograph the Paracas Candelabra, a 595-foot tall geoglyph carved 2 feet deep into the hardened sand of the desert hillside.
Much like the Nazca lines, the origin and meaning of this figure are unknown. Some speculate it was for navigation as it can be seen 12 miles out to sea. There are several other theories of its purpose and resemblance but whatever the case, it’s incredible that it has remained intact for centuries, especially given that Paracas is known for sandstorms. The name Paracas comes from the Quechua word para-ako meaning “sand falling like rain”.
Onboard the speed boat, we were suited up in our guano-proof gear. In addition to a hat and poncho, I even broke out my waterproof pants. I had two previous encounters with bird droppings this trip and was not wishing for a third.
We approached the first island where some sea lions were lazily lounging on a rock.
Far up the cliff, we spotted a few Humboldt Penguins walking with purpose.
Around the bend, a flock of Peruvian pelicans stood relaxing after their morning fishing expeditions.
The birds grew denser as we went on, one hillside was completely dotted with white sea birds.
Line after line of birds flew in “V” formations overhead. Fortunately, none had any ‘good luck’ charms for us.
Paracas National Reserve (Free)
Shortly after we got back from the Ballestas Island tour the bus took us on a free tour of the nearby Paracas National Reserve where we could take pictures before heading out to Hucachina.
With a population of just over 100 people, chances are you’ve never heard of Huacachina. This small town circles a lagoon in the middle of sand dunes, making it a bonafide dessert oasis. These aren’t your average rolling dunes, however. They are mountains of sand that measured several stories higher than our two story hotel.
Needless to say, the town is a hotspot for dune buggying and sandboarding. Our guide described how fun and thrilling the experience is but we choose not to sign up for a tour. I was thinking twice when I saw the size of the dunes, though, they were nothing like what we experienced dune bashing in the Middle East!
That evening we meet up with the rest of the group at a BBQ dinner organized by Peru Hop and had a great night dancing and laughing with our new friends.
Hucachina to Arequipa
Arequipa Elevation: 7,740 feet (2,359 meters)
Duration of Stay: 3 nights
Accommodation: Flying Dog Hostel
Pisco Winery (Free)
The first stop of the day was at a pisco winery in Ica, just outside of Hucachina. The one hour tour walked us through the process of making pisco and walked us through the area where they store the wine in huge clay vats.
Next came the fun part of sampling the goods! Before trying each picso we had a brief, yet comical, description of the liquor like one that was nicknamed ‘divorce’ because it started out sweet and ended sour.
Nazca Viewing Tower (Free)
En route to Arequipa, we had a free stop at the Nazca viewing tower. From the top of the tower (43 feet high), and with the help of an aerial picture in hand, we could see two of the ancient geoglyphs. Looking down it looked as though the small rocks in the dirt had just been pushed to the side to make the formations.
It was mind-boggling to think these have been intact for over 2,000 years. Also puzzling, is how an ancient civilization might have been able to make such large scale designs without the assistance of an aerial view. Many theories exist as to the meaning and origin of the lines, including alien encounters which after seeing these wacky designs in person, isn’t so far-fetched.
Colca Canyon Tour (2-day tour with basic accommodation 100 Soles/ $28 USD)
Our overnight bus arrived in Arequipa just before 5am. With such a full itinerary the previous two days, we didn’t get around to hashing out the logistics for the next stop until we were on the bus. It was then we realized that the overnight Colca Canyon tour we wanted to do left at 8 am, just a few hours after arrival in Arequipa.
While not ideal to embark on a two-day journey after little sleep, at least it was an efficient use of time and we could stay with the group we had already bonded with.
Stead forth, we ventured high into the mountains to view the world’s second deepest canyon, just behind the depth of Cotahuasi Canyon and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The first day we had a few roadside stops to photograph the llamas and vicunas and try our first Inca tea. Made from coca leaves, this is a natural remedy to help altitude sickness. With a pinch of added sugar, it was quite good.
The air grew thinner and colder and I bought my first Peruvian souvenir, a chullo hat. It would be a good investment as I would wear it to bed that night. Peruvian accommodations aren’t commonly heated and temperatures at night were in the 30’s.
Our last stop the first day was at the highest peak Mirador de Los Andes. Here hundreds of apachetas made of stacked rocks said to be offerings to the gods for luck and protection dotted the landscape. After seeing the narrow, curvy road lined with crosses one could understand there would be so many offerings!
At 16,108 ft (4,910 meters) I was as at the highest altitude I had ever experienced in my life and feeling like it might be the end of my life. Through labored breath, I snapped pictures of the active volcanos in the distance and, ever so slowly, walked back to the van.
After an overnight stay at the bottom of the Canyon in a small town called Chivay, we rose early to see the rest of the Canyon.
We visited two markets where we mingled with traditionally dressed locals that looked like they might have once been a feature story in National Geographic.
Several photo stops along the way revealed stunning views overlooking the Canyon.
Finally, we visited Cruz del Condor where we saw seven Andean Condors with a 7-9 foot wingspan graciously soar through the canyon.
Instead of leaving on the first bus the following day we took two days to relax in Arequipa. This is the second largest city outside of Lima and has a lovely Plaza de Armas at the center. Many tourists come to acclimate to the altitude before visiting the Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca. After all the activities of the past few days, we were happy to take a break.
Arequipa to Puno
Puno Elevation: 12,420 ft (3,785 meters)
Duration of Stay: 2 nights
Accommodation: Independencia Suites
Lake Titicaca (60 Soles / $17 USD)
Lake Titicaca was a must see for us in Peru. It has deep meaning to the Inca’s who believed that god, Viracocha, rose up to create the sun, the moon, the stars and the first human beings. They would probably not be pleased to hear we equated it to The Great Cornholio Beavis and Butthead episode which makes mention of “the stigmata tatta from Lake Titicaca”. In any case, we had such an affection for Lake Titicaca that we opted for the full day tour instead of the two-hour tour.
The enclosed boat took us first to one of the floating islands the lake is famous for. These islands are made entirely of reeds. A resident of the island gave a comedic demonstration of how the island was constructed.
Next, we broke into small groups and ventured inside of one of the shelters where they slept. This too was made entirely of reeds.
Docked next to the island a giant pontoon boat also made of reeds awaited us. They called this their ‘Mercedes Benz’.
For 10 soles each, we had the unique opportunity of riding it a short distance to another floating island where we had the unique opportunity of getting a passport stamp.
Next, we were off to Taquile Island for lunch. Unlike Uros, Taquile is a natural island where about 3,000 people live. It took over 2 hours to get there from Uros which gives you an idea of how remote it is. We could tell we were on the world’s highest navigable lake when we saw the clouds floating just about the horizon.
Unfortunately for us, Taquile Island is mountainous and lunch was at the peak, 13,0287 feet (4,050 meters). We took no less than ten stops to catch our breath on the 20-minute walk to the center plaza.
After 10 minutes there and a lot of lamenting that we didn’t do the 2-hour tour, we were told we had to walk another 10 minutes to the other side of the island where we would be having lunch.
Lunch had a beautiful view overlooking the azure blue lake. From there it was all downhill. About 500 uneven rock stairs downhill, that is. If the way up was bad this was even more punishing, my legs were shaking at the end as were my nerves from fear of stumbling and knocking out my teeth, or worse.
Alas, we made it back to shore with just some sore legs and Lake Titicaca checked off the bucket list.
Peru, hands down, was our favorite country in South America and we discovered so much more of it by traveling with Peru Hop.
The day trips were extremely affordable and we loved that we could book them right on the bus for the same day. We stayed exclusively in private ensuite rooms at prices we would not have been able to secure by booking on our own. Our guides were well trained and personable and meeting people from all over the world to share the experience with made it that much better.
Is Peru on your list? What sites do you want to see?
If you like it, Pin it!