I don’t know where to begin. No really – I have so much to say about this particular item in my Bucket List. I suppose I’ll start by saying that I have always dreamed of going to South America and backpacking through many of its countries – one at a time, soaking in the culture, eating the food, listening to the music and trying to pick up some Spanish. So I started with Peru.
I had just graduated back in June from my undergraduate degree and after five very long and arduous years of studying I was hungry for adventure. My partner P had been to all of the inhabited continents except South America and we had both been hearing about and thinking about climbing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu for a while. So, we seized the opportunity. P saved us a lot of money by taking on the role of travel agent and booking all of our tour tickets, plane tickets, hostels, taxi cabs and even arranging for luggage storage and ensuring that all of our meals would be vegetarian-friendly.
The day came – and we were off to South America. I don’t do well with flying (more on my history of psychotic and terror-induced breakdowns on planes a bit later) and these fears had kept me up most of the night on the eve of our departure. However, when all was said and done I was the most composed and relaxed on a flight to date (except for that one time where I was sedated…). Anyway, we flew the proverbial coop and about seven hours later we landed in Bogota, Columbia – a place that isn’t exactly known for its travel and tourism industry. After a short stay at the tiny and luddite-esque Bogota airport (and a delicious meal of fish & vegetables!) we departed for Lima – only another two hours until we hit Peru!
Now, it was here where I ran into a stumbling block when writing this blog. I really do not want to organize these posts chronologically because I think that would take the fun out of reading. I have a different way of telling this particular tale. So, this blog will come in a few installments. P and I visited three cities in Peru: Lima, Puno and Cuzco. So, the first three blog posts will pick out some highlights of our trip from each of these individual cities including some of the historical landmarks we saw in each of the three cities we visited, the good fortune we had in specific instances and finally, I will talk a bit about some of the quirky and uniquely Peruvian things we got to experience. I will also have a separate blog post for the Inca Trail adventure – it really deserves the individual attention.
The next posts will delve in to the terrible luck that my partner and I experienced. I sat with two old friends, world travelers and former teachers of mine telling them all of the good and bad details of my trip over many glasses of wine. They sat open-mouthed in shock at some points of my tale and laughed hysterically at others, and when all was said and done they replied, “You know, we’ve traveled the world, we’ve known many people who have traveled the world, and we’ve read Holidays in Hell, and we have never heard of anything quite like this…”
Finally, because I don’t want to leave anybody with a sense that I am ungrateful or a cynic (or an ungrateful cynic) – I will finish the Peruvian posts by discussing the people that P and I met on our journey through Peru. Undoubtedly this is my favourite part of traveling and it somehow always proves to be the most interesting and fulfilling part, too. I met some of the most remarkable people, some with unbelievable stories, and I want to share those with you. So, onwards, ho!
The capital city of Peru is filled with gorgeous Spanish architecture and elaborate Plaza’s with ornate cathedrals and colonial mansions. P and I set out to explore the city after a good night’s rest at our hostel and began our tour on foot. It was a Sunday so we did not know what to expect in terms of crowds of people around the city – but we were shocked to find empty streets, barren parks and little vehicular traffic. This is the capital city, right? We chalked it up to the fact that we were indeed awake extremely early for a Sunday morning and we thought maybe most people were in church. So, we continued meandering the streets and admiring the absolutely breathtaking scenery.
I will take this time to say that despite the gorgeous building facades, Lima is sort of odorous. What we discovered was that many people take the liberty of relieving themselves on the city streets and sidewalks. So, it wasn’t uncommon to see shop keepers using a mop and bucket to clean the sidewalk in front of their businesses. Once you get past the odor though, the city really shines.
Just as the emptiness began to feel unnatural, P and I stumbled upon the most wonderful Plaza (Plaza de Armas) filled with Peruvians in traditional cultural costumes dancing and singing to music and preparing for a large-scale parade. I think we just stood by in shock – and then we thanked our lucky stars! What was this? We kept asking people in our broken Spanish what sort of celebration was going on. No entiendo, disculpe. We don’t understand?And the answer we received was “Church! Church!” Okay? I mean, we understood that Peru is predominantly Catholic, but this was more elaborate than we had expected. Perhaps it was a celebration of a Patron Saint?
But finally we tracked down the real answer: Peruvian Independence Day. We are so lucky. These are the types of things that backpackers like us can only wish to stumble upon.
Situated in the Plaza de Armas it is an amazing religious site and monastery. Here P & I saw the tombs of the three Peruvian patron saints: San Juan Macias, Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martin de Porres (the continents first black saint!). P & I struck up conversation with our tour guide and talked her into taking us up into the Bell Tower for a private viewing. (We were getting much better at our Spanish, obviously).
Next we hit the Monasterio de San Francisco a gorgeous, yellow Franciscan monastery featuring the absolute coolest eeriest catacombs you’ll probably ever see. This monastery had a guided tour (in English!) and we toured rooms throughout and saw an impressive library featuring over 25,000 texts (no photos were allowed, but just picture that famous scene out of Beauty and the Beast). Needless to say I was drooling over this particular room…P practically dragged me kicking and screaming out of there. The catacombs in this monastery are what make this attraction so appealing to backpackers and tourists.
These underground canals are lined with the bones of those belonging to this particular Franciscan order. At one point, our tour guide turned a blind eye and let us take a photo of a huge receptacle of bones.
Afterwards, we walked over to Bar Cordano for lunch – and for all my resident foodies this place comes highly recommended. So, eat here if you ever descend upon Lima. Besides having a menu featuring all of the Peruvian delicacies they are also inexpensive with friendly service and a great drink menu. Sorry to disappoint, but I did not have ceviche here or even tapas – no, I had spaghetti. What can I say? It had been a few days since I had eaten anything hearty and was feeling a bit sluggish. Don’t worry – we’ll get to the Peruvian-style food soon. P had an Inka Cola – which tasted like a cross between bubble gum and banana medicine – which is a famous Peruvian drink. It is definitely an acquired taste.
Following lunch, P & I hopped in a taxi and went to the Ministerio de Cultura – a free museum with few exhibits and no English information. If you are strapped for time in Peru and are debating about which sights to rule out – this would be my recommendation. It was the least impressive museum that we visited. It was a shame because the facility has so much potential. So, after a thoroughly disappointing tour of the Ministerio de Cultura we hailed another cab that drove us to a different part of Lima so we could see the Museo Larco – featuring the famous Sala Erotica (or Erotic Gallery for those of you keeping track at home). [As a side note: P and I tipped our cab driver, something we habitually do back home in North America, and as a result this lovely man waited for us at the Museum to take us back home when we were ready. This would not be the last time that this would happen to us.] So, there we were at the Museo Larco – my favourite Peruvian museum. I won’t spoil the treasures that this gallery holds by posting photos. I truly believe that these ancient sculptures and pieces of pottery need to be seen by the naked eye (pun intended). I will say though that this gallery is not for those who are offended easily! And, even if erotic pottery isn’t your thing, this museum held many other impressive galleries with ancient art and artifacts as well as a gorgeous garden and seating area. Definitely worth the traveling time from Central Lima.
For dinner, P & I wanted to visit the young, trendy and modern neighbourhood of Miraflores. We arrived into the neighbourhood after dark, and as if we hadn’t had enough incredible luck with the Peruvian Independence Day celebrations during the day – we stumbled on the most impressive fireworks display that I have seen in a long time. P & I are not fans of fireworks at all for a variety of reasons – and even we were impressed. This past New Years we celebrated in Times Square, New York (more on this later) and so as we were watching the show P remarked: “We’ve managed to find the Times Square of Peru.” It was sardine-jam-packed. But, we embraced our good luck and eventually were pushed in the direction of the exact restaurant we wanted to try. I had seafood fried rice – which was to die for. For dessert we had ice-cream with lady finger cookies, fresh fruit and whipped cream. Delish!
To finish off our perfect day in Lima, P & I walked down one of the main streets in Miraflores until we hit the coastline. We stumbled upon a huge shopping/tourist mall-like area which featured a number of North American restaurants and shops. We avoided this and instead opted for the panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean at night. It was simply magical.
So far, Peru was shaping up to be an amazing trip! We would depart for Puno the next day – keep an eye out for my next post about our adventures at Silustani and Lake Titicaca!
Until next time, keep wandering.