As I turned over to my other side for the 6th or 7th time in the last few hours, trying to find a position where my hip didn’t dig into the hard edges of my seatbelt fastener, I heard the unmistakable sound of snoring coming from the seat behind me, merely a foot away from my own head. Having done a few overnight buses over our travels, I can say with confidence that it’s not my preferred travel mode. That said, when you’re making the long descent out of the Andes Mountains from Cusco to Arequipa, there are few better options when you don’t want to fly, but you don’t want to waste an entire day in Peru sitting on a bus either. So, a nighttime commute it is.
- Day 1: Depart Cusco on an overnight bus
- Day 2: Arrive in Arequipa, Free Walking Tour, and Dinner at Chicha
- Day 3: Full Day Colca Canyon Tour
- Day 4: Bus from Arequipa to Nazca
- Day 5: Nazca Lines flights, bus to Huacachina, Dune Buggy Tour, bus to Paracas
- Days 6-7: Paracas, Ballestas Islands, and Paracas National Reserve
- Days 8-12: Lima
Dates: April 10-22, 2019
When we arrived in Arequipa early the next morning after a rough night of little sleep on the bus, we were ready for a morning nap. Thankfully we had been able to arrange an early check-in at our hotel Casa de Avila. As charmed as I was by the beautiful sunny courtyard, I couldn’t have been happier to jump into the plush bedding and pleasant air conditioning in our room for a bit of rest.
We had been planning on doing a tour of the unique Salar region around Arequipa, where we would have been able to see some of the mining of the unique white sillar volcanic stone local to the region and even some creative lifesize sculptures that, in photos anyway, reminded me of Jordan’s Petra. Unfortunately, it was canceled last minute, so we instead did a Free Walking Tour.
While the walking tour wasn’t the most interesting one I’ve taken, it was still excellent for getting a feel of the city. The city itself is gorgeous, with one of Latin America’s most beautiful main squares and volcano views in the distance. It felt like a more modern version of Antigua, Guatemala (one of my favorite cities in the world). The highlight of the tour was the finale at a Thai-Peruvian fusion restaurant. We had a short lesson on how ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in citrus and garnished with large corn kernels, onions, sweet potato, and more) is prepared, and then got to eat a delicious green curry ceviche. Green curry is one of my all-time favorite meals, as is ceviche, so combining the two was a winning combo for me!
That evening we walked back to the main square and ventured up to the rooftop of a popular bar and restaurant that we’d learned on our tour has excellent sunset views over the main square, including the magnificent Arequipa Cathedral. In a style that combines European and indigenous influences, the building is considered an example of “Andean Baroque”, and this particular church is the only cathedral in Peru that stretches the full length of its plaza. It’s also made of the blindingly white volcanic sillar stone, which is only found in this region of the world.
The next morning, we were up early again for a tour of Colca Canyon. My notes say that I was “not super impressed”, which in hindsight is ridiculous because the photos we have are stunning. I’m guessing I was probably just sleepy and annoyed with the random tourist stops we had to make along the way to the main event, including a very mediocre breakfast spot where we were fed bread with ketchup, followed by a bit too long at a small village. That said, visiting small villages like this is important for local economies to benefit from tourism in the region, so while it’s not my favorite way to spend my time, I appreciate the importance of making sure our tourism dollars benefit local communities.
As for Colca Canyon itself, it is actually the second deepest canyon in the world at 3270 meters (for comparison, the Grand Canyon is only 1857 meters deep), and visitors can spot the world’s second-largest flying bird, the condor, flying overhead frequently. On a day tour of the canyon, we didn’t have the opportunity to explore very deeply since our time was limited, but we were able to see dozens of stunning condors flying overhead, sometimes getting quite close to us. To get a more intimate experience in the canyon, visitors can sign up for overnight hikes. We didn’t have enough time to include this in our itinerary, plus we knew we’d be exhausted from hiking Ausangate just a few days prior. The day tour, as cursory as it was, was the right option for us.
After visiting the canyon, our tour had one last stop at some nearby hot springs. This was an excellent way to relax after the long day en route back to Arequipa – and the views were lovely too!
The next day we were on the road again, traveling to Nazca a few hours north. I’d been wanting to visit Nazca for nearly a decade since first hearing about the mysterious (and possibly alien) Nazca Lines etched into the desert. The Nazca Lines are a group of large geoglyphs formed by depressions or shallow incisions made in the soil of the desert. They were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE. No one knows for sure why or how they were made. Some people suspect aliens. As for me, I think ancient mysteries like this are incredibly fascinating.
Once we arrived in Nazca and checked in to our hotel, we ventured out into the town to find dinner. We had heard that Nazca itself is a rather lackluster city, but we actually found it really charming in the same way that we found Naples charming in 2014. It was a bit gritty, but there were tons of locals, especially young adults, just out and about walking through the plazas and parks, sitting outside at bars, etc. It was definitely not a tourist scene, so I can see why visitors would feel out of place there. For me and Tim, though, we loved the local vibe!
The next morning we were up early for our big day. We were taking a scenic flight over the Nazca Lines, which is the best way to discern what each geoglyph depicts. From the airplane, we could see a whale, many trapezoids, a monkey, a dog, as well as a viewing tower that overlooks the lizard, tree, and hands geoglyphs. Lastly, my favorite geoglyph is the Astronaut, so-called because it resembles a man wearing a spacesuit and waving up at whoever is above.
The thing that is so compelling and mysterious about these formations is that they were obviously carved with the intention that someone should view them from above. Without airplanes or advanced technology, though, who would be looking at these from the sky? People weren’t going up there at that time. Were they carved to send messages to the gods? Or, like some suspect, aliens? And how, without being able to see them from above, did they know what their finished product looked like? You can fall down a deep rabbit hole of theories around these mysterious formations – and it’s one I particularly enjoy.
After our morning flight, we were back on a local bus heading to Huacachina, where we would sync back up with our Peru Hop bus, play around in the desert, and then continue on to the beachside resort town of Paracas.
Backpackers love Huacachina, but I found it to be rather artificial. It felt like a Palm Springs-type resort (and don’t get me wrong, I like Palm Springs). My discomfort with it was that developers took a beautiful oasis in the desert and then built a bunch of businesses for tourists all right on top of it. There is no local community here, just the transient tourists that come in and out for a few days at a time. The place looks like those artificial lakes with fountains that you see at amusement parks.
That said, it is definitely a beautiful place and the sand dunes are stunning, especially when you’re looking down at the oasis from atop of one of them. The main activity (aside from pool lounging and partying) in Huacachina is taking a dune buggy ride out into the desert. We had done something similar in the Namib Desert in Africa a few months prior and really enjoyed it, so we figured this would be similarly exciting.
Again, don’t get me wrong, it was a fun time…but…it was also really poorly organized and chaotic figuring out where to be. I think the main issue was that they had too many people trying to participate all at once and they didn’t appropriately cap participants or organize resources to accommodate them all efficiently. Once on the dunes, it was a fun ride, but decidedly more tame than our experience in Namibia. This is definitely an adventure activity you could bring your kids on without much to worry about. Plus, with someone else driving you can focus on enjoying the ride.
The highlight for me was watching the sunset over the dunes. Deserts are one of my favorite landscapes and there’s nothing better than seeing the setting sun light up the flecks of sand aglow.
Shortly after sunset, we boarded the bus to Paracas, our final destination for the evening, and our home base for the next 3 nights. We redeemed Marriott points to stay at a luxury resort called Hotel Paracas, which had a pier with a sushi restaurant, an amazing pool, and a decadent breakfast. It was the perfect place to unwind and relax after being on the go pretty much constantly since our Ausangate hike.
We did of course still make the most of exploring the local area. Paracas is the primary base for visiting the Paracas Islands, which some compare to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador thanks to the abundant and diverse wildlife that reside there. We took a boat trip out to the islands for a few hours one morning, where we were able to see sea lions, penguins, and other birds.
That afternoon, we took a tour through the Paracas National Reserve. The coastline was beautiful and dramatic, but I don’t think it’s worth going out of your way (especially when the resort is so spectacular).
The next day we took the bus to Lima, en route visiting little known Inca ruin site. In Lima Tim and I mostly spent our time relaxing (more!). We didn’t do too much in Lima, since we’d been there in 2014 and had already done the touristy things. Instead, we focused our time on good food. We returned to La Mar, an incredible cebiche restaurant we had eaten at in 2014 on our first trip to Peru. On our last intended night in Peru, we ate dinner at the Huacapucllana ruins one night and then went to El Circuito Mágico del Agua Fountain (literally, The Magic Circuit of the Water Fountain). And I have to say, it’s name about sums it up! A dozen water fountains light up at night, accompanied by music and lasers. It feels kind of like the county fair back home, with a few rickety rides, a bounce castle, and stalls selling deep-fried food.
The next day we left for Quito, only to discover our airline no longer existed (long story) so we had to book a room last minute at the Wyndham at the airport. Thankfully we were able to get a flight for the next morning to Quito, where we would prepare for our next bucket list adventure to the Galapagos Islands!