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Peru, a Country Where Culture and Nature Vie for Attention

1Part 2 of 3: Huacachina, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Puno, Cusco, Sacred Valley

 

By Marga Hart

 

This time we drove about four hours to the south of Lima, to Huacachina, an oasis amidst sand dunes. It’s popular for sand-boarding and hiking to the top of the dunes, but we spent the first day there sitting under a tree, reading, chatting and watching the courtship of the vermillion flycatchers, of which the male has a beautiful red colour.

 

The second day we made a trip to the Ballestas Islands, which are inhabited only by birds, seals, sea-lions and penguins. Pelicans, boobies and Inca terns were diving into the sea left and right from our boat and crowding the rocky islands. We circled the islands for about an hour, sometimes very close to the rocks, so we could have a good view of the animals on them. In the afternoon we toured Paracas Peninsula, a Nature Reserve consisting of wonderfully coloured sand dunes, cliffs and beaches.

 

The next day we repeated our non-action of the first day, as we had a long ride the following day: 12 hours to Arequipa, further south and up in the Andes. We arrived there in the middle of the night and were awfully glad to get into our comfortable beds at the hotel.

 

AREQUIPA IS a very pleasant city, with beautiful coloured buildings and churches. The main square is impressive and the shops on two opposing sides have restaurants upstairs from which you have a great view. An enormous convent is taking up a whole block of the city. The Monasteria de Santa Catalina was founded in 1580 and is a town in itself. A few nuns still live in a closed area, but you can walk through the narrow streets and admire the beautiful chapels and courtyards that are now open to the public. Arequipa is already high up in the Andes at 2,000 metres and we had to take it slowly, as we were struggling a bit with altitude sickness.

 

This got worse the next day when we went up to 4,500 metres towards the Colca Canyon. Our guide made us buy a lot of water and coca leaves before we left and advised us to keep on chewing on the leaves and drink a lot of water. The sights were impressive and we saw the snow-capped peaks of the Andes for the first time. When we made a stop at a viewpoint and I had to get up a few steps for the “banos,” I was gasping for breath. Our guide had warned me to go very slowly, but I simply couldn’t go fast at all. We were all feeling a bit light-headed, despite the coca leaves.

 

OUR TRIP ENDED at El Refugio, a beautiful hotel at the edge of the canyon with a great view of a waterfall. Unfortunately, it had started to rain and it was bitterly cold, so we dug up our thermal underwear and watched the scenery from behind the panorama windows of the lounge. In these areas temperatures can drop from 24ᴼC to 4ᴼC within an hour, so we always dressed in layers to be prepared for anything and had a poncho ready in case of rain.

 

The following morning we were picked up at 6:30am and driven into the canyon. Again the scenery was breathtaking. We stopped at a place where condors were supposed to rise on the thermal waves. It was rather crowded there and we had to wait quite a while, but finally one soared up right in front of us. What a majestic beast!! It totally ignored all the shouts, and after a few circles disappeared behind a mountain top. It had really been worth the wait.

 

IN THE AFTERNOON we continued our trip by bus to Puno, situated at Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. We were still suffering from the altitude sickness and after having arrived at the hotel, we were happy to find a restaurant next door, as we didn’t have the energy to walk far. That’s why we also decided not to take a trip on the lake the next day, but stroll through the town at an easy pace and watch the birds on the lake sitting on a bench at its edge.

 

The following day we continued by bus to Cusco, about which we had heard raving reviews. Indeed, the city is beautiful, but with cars speeding through the narrow, cobbled streets and vendors every other step, we were not so charmed by it. We finally started to get back our breath a little, as Cusco was situated a little lower in the Andes, and the city was pleasant enough to enjoy a day of rest. Moreover we had found a very good Peruvian restaurant, called Pachapapa, close to the hotel.

 

THE TOWN we fell in love with was Ollantaytambo, situated in the Sacred Valley. We had booked the tour from Cusco and on the way we visited a silver shop (silver is mined in the area), the pre-Inca ruins and terraces of Pisac and a farm with llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guans that deliver the wool for the famous, colourful Peruvian knitted sweaters and caps. We had a delicious lunch in an old hacienda, situated in a beautiful garden at the Sacred River. But the highlight of the day was the ruins of Ollantaytambo. We climbed the 18 terraces with over 200 hundred steps and looked at the foundation of a temple of enormous stones, dragged there by the Inca from the other side of the mountain, about eight miles away. Scientists had calculated that it must have taken 1,300 people two and a half months to do so, and repeated the effort to prove their theory. The Inca left the temple unfinished when they fled into the mountains after the arrival of the Spaniards.

 

Our hotel had a nice garden and we spent some time there reading and relaxing before exploring the town a bit more. There were no cars here in the narrow, cobbled streets and many flowers and blooming trees. In Peru, October is spring time and except for the barren coastal area, we saw lots of flowers in the greener areas. We were very happy to spend another day in the pleasant town before boarding the train towards Machu Picchu Town.

 

 

Info: We planned the trip using Lonely Planet’s travel guide and the Internet and booked the flight and trip to Iquitos ourselves. We also made the bookings for Chaparri Natural Reserve. (www.chaparri.org). The other bookings of transfers, buses, hotels and tours for the first part of the trip, from Lima to Arequipa were taken care of by Pocha Cruz (www.exploringperuandservice.com). The tours, hotels and bookings for train, bus and flight for the second part of the trip from Arequipa back to Lima were taken care of by Riksja Travel (www.peruonline.nl). We can certainly recommend Hotel Kamana in the Historical Centre of Lima. Excellent service and very affordable. (www.hotelkamana.com).

Copa Airlines flies from St. Maarten to Lima via Panama.