We had fond memories of our last visit to Peru in 2009. We spent 3 weeks backpacking around Puno, the Sacred Valley, Lima, and Mancora but we knew we had left with so much unseen. Strangely, we were very tepid about entering Peru again this time as overlanders. Along the way other travelers had told us so many stories about horrible roads, corrupt police, and piles of garbage. We would also be entering the country at a somewhat notorious border crossing near Copacabana, Bolivia AND we would be doing so without the mandatory Peruvian government vehicle insurance (SOAT). To be honest, we were dreading this crossing.
Leaving Bolivia was straight forward, as was the Peruvian immigration, but as soon as we met the Peruvian Adauana (Customs) officer things got interesting. When he learnt that we did not have our SOAT his eyes got big and he called over his police buddy. We explained that we knew the rules and we planned to buy our SOAT at the next town, maybe 1km down the road. Sadly, they could not allow that. However, they began to explain that they could “make an exception” for us if we would step into their office for a “little talk” (ie. bribery discussion). Unfortunately for them, we made a vow to not pay bribes on this journey (mostly to prove our nay-sayer friends wrong back home) so Rob played the naive/friendly tourist and brought Liam into the office with him to discuss “the exception”.
We find that having the children with us when we talk with officials usually breaks the ice and disarms them. As Rob sat, with Liam on his lap, and promised in smiling, broken Spanish that we would purchase the insurance at the next possible opportunity, you could clearly see the defeat in their faces. A few minutes later we had our vehicle import permit and were lifting the chain to enter Peru!
Minutes later, at the limit of the next town, we hit our first police check point. Our stomachs hit the floor. We put on huge smiles and made sure the kids yelled “Hola!” when the window was rolled down. The officer was very friendly and gave us directions to a SOAT office down the street. What? No shakedown? We found the SOAT office but were denied by locked doors and no one to answer the “emergency phone number” written on the sign. Strike 2.
The next morning we pressed on into the city of Puno and immediately hit yet another police check point. This time we were asked to pull over! Strike 3. This was going to go badly. We rolled down window and… he checked our import permit, wished us “buen viaje”, and waved us on. We drove away in shock, again. Where were these corrupt police we heard so much about? Why were we having it so easy in Peru?
Buoyed by our good luck, we bravely drove El Condór into the heart of Puno and within a few hours we had our SOAT document and a fridge full of groceries. Suddenly we were cruising beautiful Andean highways towards the highlands of Cusco. We had just learned a very valuable lesson about basing our expectations on other people’s experiences. Peru was going to be great for us!
As you may know by now, we HATE driving in cities. South American cities are extremely congested and the drivers are unpredictable, to say the least. This problem is amplified in the old colonial city centres, where the cobble stone roads are barely wide enough for two tuk-tuks to pass, much less our giant American camper van. Cusco definitely fits this description, and unfortunately our campground was on the opposite side of the city from our approach highway. After a few wrong turns, and way too much swearing, we located the Quita Lala campground, situated nicely on the hills just a short walk from the old city centre.
Cusco is a special city. One of those places which, for us, exudes charm, despite its touristy nature. It’s easy to look past the selfie sticks, crowds, and gringo souvenir stands when the architecture and scenery are so amazing. The Spanish tore down the great Inca citadels to build the foundations of the their colonial city, including the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, and that combination of perfect Inca masonry with picturesque colonial architecture is hard to beat.
One of the things on our Cusco “to do list” was to attend a chocolate making class. It’s not hard to find one, and we ended up being the only students. It was a fun lesson and we were intrigued to learn about how the Cacao plant will pick up different flavours depending on the region in which it is grown and the other plants growing in its vicinity (coffee, banana etc.). All of us enjoyed roasting and crushing the beans, making hot chocolate, chocolate tea, and especially our own custom chocolate bars!
The other items on our to do list included shopping for alpaca goods (which we accomplished with great proficiency), getting a haircut for Rob and Liam, and attending an Andean dance performance. We found a local restaurant which provided an entertaining dance show, as well as a roast Cuy (Guiney pig) for Rob. They taste like chicken, in case you are wondering. However, in our opinion, they have hardly enough meat on them to be worth cooking at all.
After checking all of our boxes in Cusco we moved down to the Sacred Valley, where we literally screeched to halt as we drove past the Sacred Valley Brewery. After sampling a flight of tasty brews we could finally make our way into the quaint town of Ollyentaytambo where we would catch our train to Machu Picchu.
The kids, especially Liam, enjoyed the luxurious Peru Rail train ride to Machu Picchu Pueblo as much anything we had done on the trip so far. Which somewhat redeemed the massive expense ($600). Once we arrived in the Pueblo we still had to purchase bus tickets (for another $100) to get us up and down the mountain. We recalled from our previous visit to Machu Picchu that it is busiest in the morning, when the Inca Trial hikers pour in from the Sun Gate and the numerous trains spill their eager gringos into the town. This time we purchased afternoon entry tickets (yet another $100) so we could move at a leisurely pace and hang around to enjoy more solitude once the worst of the crowds began to descend back down to the Pueblo to catch their trains back to Cusco.
To see more of our visit to Machu Picchu check out this link.
We are happy to report that Machu Picchu was as impressive the second time as it was on our first visit. However, we were more than a little annoyed that they now prevent tourists from freely wandering the ruins and instead usher them around a predetermined one-way path with ropes and numerous overbearing park rangers. Regardless, even the kids were mesmerized by the impressive ruins and impressed us with their stamina, hiking up and down the steep Inca stairs for hours.
Before we descended from the highlands we decided to visit a few more archeological sites, including Moray, which was believed to be a sort of Inca agricultural laboratory. The shape of the unique concentric terraces was mesmerizing from every angle.
We also checked out the Mara salt mines. These terraced evaporating ponds have been producing salt for centuries from a single salty spring at the head of the valley. Each terrace is privately owned and are passed down through the generations.
Here at Moray we were thrilled to stumble into our friends Leo and Olivier from Un Petit Tour. These were the French backpackers we had picked up as hitchhikers along the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile, way back in November! We had a fun little reunion and spent some time comparing notes of our journeys, which somehow brought us back together at the exact same spot three months later.
The drive from the Sacred Valley / Cusco region towards the coast was spectacular to say the least. The views were breathtaking and the switchbacked roads up and down the high passes were some of the most engaging driving of the entire trip to this point. Thankfully the traffic was light, but we did need to be vigilant for the locals who do not hesitate to pass around blind corners.
We spent a few days working our way West towards the coast and spent one windy night at the Reserva National Pampa Galeras, where we learnt about the Vicuña. This unassuming little camelid is prized for its short, soft fur, which fetches an astounding $800 per kilogram! The animals in this reserve are still captured and shaved using (mostly) traditional methods once every year. The substantial bounty is supposedly shared amongst the local community.
Dropping down from the highlands in one massive 4000m plunge we found ourselves back in the sweltering desert at the city of Nazca. This area is famous for the mysterious giant petroglyphs carved into desert soil in various shapes that can really only be seen from high above. Many tourists will pay for cheap flights above the valley to view all of the images at once, but due to our budget we were confined (literally) to climbing one small viewing tower to see the two nearby images of a tree and a bird.
A little further up the desert coastline we skirted the city of Ica to find the oasis of Huacachina. This little collection of hotels was originally constructed for the pleasure of the Peruvian elite, but has since lost its lustre and is now being overrun with backpackers and noisy hostels. The main tourist attraction is the dune buggy tours out into the vast sand dunes to the East. Countless V8 powered buggies roar out into the dunes every few minutes from dawn until dusk. Despite the noise, it was a relaxing place to stop and enjoy some quality pool time, complete with swim up bar! We also met several new friends, including Russ from Motorambler. We read in his blog, weeks later, that he is still taking care of the imaginary kittens that Averie gave to him just before he departed.
We waited until our last night in Huacachina for our dune buggy trip. We chose a smaller buggy for a private tour and Rob also rented a proper board and boots to see how his snowboarding skills would translate to the sand. MJ and the kids tobogganed down the slopes on pieces of thick plywood, at alarming speeds. We all had a great time on the roller coaster buggy ride and the sandboarding, culminating in an unforgettable sunset over the dunes.
Not far up the coast is Paracas National Park, where blue ocean meets stunning red sand beaches. This was also the home of the ancient Paracas culture who inhabited the area from 800 BCE to 100 BCE. The Museo de Sitio Julio C. Tello provided a fascinating exhibit which included vivid tapestries depicting cruel gods and a display of human skulls which had undergone ancient brain surgery! Presumably to attempt to treat major head injuries. The Paracas also left behind many extremely well preserved mummies, who were bound up in the fetal position and placed in underground tombs.
After few more travel days North we turned East and back up into the Andes to find Parque National Huarescan. This stunning park encompasses the Cordierlla Blanca (White Mountains) which are the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas! In the valley below the National Park we chose the town of Caraz as our base and made two forays up into the mountains. The first trip we were joined by our compatriots Don and Sam (Fullbelly Canada) from Toronto. We spent the night just outside the park entrance at the most impressive ceverseria we could imagine. This shipping container beer bar sits literally on the edge of the valley with the most scenic bar stool view one could ever hope for. Thankfully, Sierra Andena also know how to make some very good beer.
Our second trip into the Cordierlla was to visit Lago Parón. This involved driving up and down the most extreme mountain road we had yet to drive on this adventure. We had heard the reviews and decided to start as early as possible to avoid meeting other tourist vans on the narrow switchbacks. The road was incredibly narrow, fairly steep and loose, but what caused us the most issue was the very tight turns. The long wheelbase and wide turning radius of El Condor was literally at its limit to make it around several of the hairpin bends.
However, all of the effort and risk paid off when we when we arrived at our destination. Our vantage over the still emerald waters of Lago Parón was one of the most breathtaking scenic camping sites we had ever had the pleasure of using. Despite the 4200m, which left us feeling weak and light headed, we could not resist hiking to the far end of the lake to get some closer views of Mt Pyramid (?) and it’s handsome glaciated neighbours.
Our departure from the Cordierlla Blanca would entail driving through the Canyon de Pato. This infamous canyon road snakes along the side of an impossibly steep gorge for dozens of kilometres. The single lane road passes over multiple bridges and through countless tunnels. Some of which curve and twist, leaving the entry blind to oncoming traffic. Once again, we were thankful for a light volume of traffic and we only had to make way for a handful of oncoming vehicles.
We arrived at the coast again at the beach town of Huancachito on the outskirts of the city of Trujillo. We spent a few evenings enjoying our campground swimming pool and took one day to explore the ruins of the ancient city of Chan Chan. This massive archeological site was the epicentre of the Chimú culture. Despite their penchant for human sacrifice, they were considered a “peaceful” fishing people and were eventually conquered by the more formidable Inca. The sprawling adobe city that they left behind was dominated by nine separate (although nearly identical) palaces that were built for each successive king. We had heard that the site did not contain much interpretive material, so we hired a local guide to provide a tour before we visited the museum.
After a one-nighter in the city of Piura to stock up on groceries, we charged up the pothole ridden highway towards the Ecuadorian border. The roads in this part of Peru had been decimated by flooding in 2017 and were still barely drivable. It was also in this stretch of Northern Peru where the roadside garbage reached its sad pinnacle. We were shocked and dismayed by the extent of the pollution. It’s hard to describe, except to compare it to driving through a city landfill, for hundreds of kilometres.
After such an arduous drive we were ecstatic to finally find ourselves in the legendary overlandering campground of Swiss Wasi. Situated on the white sand beaches south of the town of Zorritos, it is not uncommon for campers to come for a few days and stay for weeks or even months. The owners, Jacques and Melba, were so extremely accommodating, helpful, and friendly. The facilities were new and well kept. The beer and ice cream were cheap. And the coconuts were in endless supply. Combine that with the soft sand, warm water, and plentiful overlander friends, and you struggle for reasons to leave. Ever.
Our plan was to stay for five or six days, but once we discovered a problem with our auxiliary batteries we had the perfect excuse to stay for another few days. We played in the waves, tossed the frisbee, lounged in hammocks, sang songs around the fire, and eat coconut after coconut after coconut. The kids still consider this the best camping spot of the trip, and it’s hard to argue.
Once we recharged the auxiliary batteries (not to mention our personal ones) we begrudgingly set back on the road towards Ecuador. We had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Peru once again, but it was time to explore another country. The jungle was waiting…
To see more of trip through Peru check out these other links.