The gentleman traveller: Peru

One is in Peru. Specifically at this moment, one is in the high-altitude town of Cusco, at the local airport where one is waiting for his flight back to the capital, Lima. 

One’s journey began over a fortnight ago, when one landed Lima. The capital is a nice, modern, well-developed and well-planned city, if a little unremarkable. Architecture is a mix of modern and Spanish colonial era type. One only spent two and a half days there and liked what he saw. However, a modern big city is a modern big city, and one has seen enough of those in his time, with same themes recurring.

The best of Peru is found away from Lima. Hence the first stop on one’s itinerary was the town of Paracas. It is a rather nondescript beach town with what some would term a “lively backpacker scene”, i.e. bars and hostels catering to the proclivities of Brits, Americans and Antipodeans. One must say, Paracas has a rather serene beach; a beach on which one spent a good few hours lying the afternoon of his arrival. An upset stomach and the associated symptoms had rendered one enervated and listless. It must have been something one ate. However, the serenity beach aided one’s convalescence. Indeed, one would gladly do it again. The desert itself is absolutely beautiful, stunning. It is a sight to behold. Watching the sun set behind a sand dune was the icing on the cake, a beautiful moment that will long live in the memory.

Huacachina Desert

As for the village of Huacachina itself, it is rather unremarkable, except for the Huacachina Lagoon (a most scenic spot), which is the source of water for the village. In fact, notices at one’s accommodation cautioned against wasting water, given the desert location. One suspects that it was in the interests of water conservation that water pressure from the showers happened to be noticeably low.

From Huacachina, one headed to the city of Arequipa. Mid-journey, however, one detoured to the town of El Catador, home to a Pisco vineyard. Pisco is Peru’s national drink, made from fermented grapes. It’s strong stuff in its neat form, and the first syllable of the noun is most apt. It was rather interesting observing how it is manufactured, as well as its wine derivatives of varying strengths and sweetnesses. Indeed, there were free samples galore. All consumed in moderation, natch.

One recalls, another pit-stop on the way to Arequipa was made, to see the apparently famous Nazca Lines. I say apparently, because I hadn’t heard of them – in my ignorance, I must say. These works of art have been given the UNESCO seal of approval as a world heritage site. In a nutshell, the Nazca Lines are a series of pictorial inscriptions carved into the ground in the Nazca Desert, dating back a couple of millenia. They apparently cover a vast swathe of the desert and are best viewed by plane. However due to time constraints, one stuck with viewing a small portion of this ancient artwork from a tower which, one opines, does not do it justice.

One eventually arrived Arequipa around 5am, after an overnight coach journey that took several hours. It is observed one does not find transportation in any form conducive to good sleep, hence one arrived at his accommodation in a rather groggy state. After a few hours shut-eye, one embarked on a walking tour of Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. Despite that fact, it seems rather small in comparison. In its own unique way though, it is rather beautiful. Architecturally, one was beholden to the washing powder-white structures that abound. This particular point of uniqueness is due to their construction from the white rock mined from the surrounding volcanoes which, as well as neighbouring snow-capped mountains, casts a stunning backdrop to the city.

Arequipa is the jump off point to the Colca Canyon, which is apparently double the depth of the more illustrious Grand Canyon. With spectacular views across the expansive valley, it really is an awe-inspiring natural wonder. Also spectacular are the changes in scenery around the canyon, varying from lush, green terraced farmland, to brown and grey rocky edifices of grand proportions. The ornithology is also most impressive, with the majesty of a condor in full flight something to behold. 

It was during the journey to Arequipa, and subsequently the Colca Canyon, that one noticed the effects of altitude on one’s person. Both locations are a few thousand metres above sea level. The effects were nothing serious – shortness of breath, slight headache and a bit of nausea – the latter which was alleviated by masticating on coca leaves, a widely available remedy that locals swear by. For the curious, coca leaves are rather bitter with a minty aftertaste. Unlike it’s processed, powdered, snorted and high-value derivative, sometimes known as Peruvian marching powder, it’s narcotic properties are non-existent. 

At an even higher altitude is the city of Puno, which is where one ventured to next. One did not stick around long, only one night, but it allowed easy reach to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake and the largest in South America. It is a body of water that expands into neighbouring Bolivia. In hindsight, one should have had Bolivia on his itinerary, for it was a stone’s throw away. But alas, it escaped one during his planning. 

The Lake Titicaca region is home to many indigenous cultures that have maintained their traditions for centuries. Amongst them are the Uros people, who live on the islands that take their name, the Uros Islands. These are 20 floating islands in Lake Titicaca that the Uros have constructed from beds of reeds. Atop the islands sit huts, again constructed from reeds, that serve as dwellings for the Uros. One had the pleasure of being invited into an Uros Home on one of these floating islands. The only nod to modernity one noted was a TV (electricity from solar panels). A family lived four to a room and the only furnishing that one can recall was a reed bed covered by a traditional blanket, on which slept a one-year old child. Each island consists of five families, each having its own hut. Life is communal and cooperative. The islands as a whole are self-governing, with one of the islands serving as a capital, where one can get their passport stamped if so desired.

The Uros Islands

As mentioned in the beginning, one is in Cusco. He has been here for five days. From here, one embarked on a two-day trek to the coup de grace, Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city. Discovered by outsiders only in 1911, it possesses an air of mystery with several back stories that are both fascinating and disputed.  It is majestic, magnificent and, dare I say it, inspires a spiritual reverence. The ruins and high-quality stonework that has gone into them are a source of wonderment that one can confect many narratives from. One can only conclude, that it is an architectural and engineering marvel.  

Machu Picchu

Thus far, it has been a great trip travelling around the south of this fascinating nation. There is much to recommend it. In the area of cuisine it is a gastronomic paradise. Food is varied and unique, suiting vegetarians and carnivores alike. One’s highlight so far is alpaca steak, which is rather reminiscent of beef. Juicy, succulent yet firm, are probably the most fitting adjectives for this hitherto unknown meat. The national delicacy that is the guinea pig was something that one sought to try. My conclusion – tastes like chicken with a firmer, tough texture.

It is observed that the general populace is noticeably short. One first noticed this when on public transport in Lima. Despite himself being 5’9 ¼, one happened to be the tallest person on the bus. The populace is largely of indigenous or mestizo stock, whom are not known for their height. 

Those of European stock are in the minority and those of African stock are even more of a minority. Despite this, one is largely left in peace and is not the point of curiosity that one is in some places where his ethnotype is rare. Still, one’s coiffure does pique the interest and admiration of a few. 

Despite being in the tropics, it is noted that the climate between places can vary vastly, depending on the altitude. Lima, Paracas and Huacachina, were hot and humid. At subsequent stop-offs at higher altitude locations, temperatures were often in single digits in the early mornings and in the evenings. Early teens were typical during the day. Cusco, also at altitude, shall follow in this vein.

One shall be in Lima for a couple of days before returning to Blighty. Not a bad place to draw his trip to an end, admittedly, though not a place for the adventure quest one has hitherto been engaged in. Still, a couple of days of “big city gallivanting” is a pleasure in itself and not to be sniffed at. As a city-boy, one is partial to the delights of a big city.

So long.