Arriving to Peru
As our flight to Peru descended, my boredom shifted to excitement. We had been in the airplane for close to seven hours. “Hey look, that’s Lima,” I told Kim.
We both leaned over to check out the nighttime view from our window. There seemed to be fewer lights than you might expect for a metro area of about 10 million people. I remembered learning about Lima’s extensive slums and assumed this might be the reason for that.
Our ultimate destination was Cusco, where we had booked the Ancascocha Trek with Action Peru Treks.
For our 12-hour layover in Lima, we stayed at Hotel Ginebra in the Independencia District. Our taxi driver made sure to mention that the area was unsafe for foreigners. When we arrived at the hotel, we found out they offer hourly rates. I am sure that is a great convenience to the sex workers in the area, but not our favorite amenity. There was also a lot of deafening noise coming from the club next door, lasting the whole night.
We were relieved to catch a cab back to Jorge Chávez International Airport the next morning. It was interesting to people watch and soak in the local vibes as we drove through Lima’s rundown suburbs. I spotted several hombres wearing wife beaters with the shirt lifted up and resting on their beer bellies. Without a doubt, this was a shameless method to cool off on a hot humid day.
We almost missed our flight due to some sort of mishap with the airline, but hustled and made it just in time. After witnessing incredible views of the rugged green foothills of the Andes, we landed in Cusco and met up with Allie of Action Peru Treks. She picked us up and dropped us off at the Golden Inca Hotel, where the lobby is stocked with mate de coca (also called coca tea) 24/7.
Founded in A.D. 1100, Cusco sits at 11,152 feet above sea level, which makes it a great place to acclimate to thinner air in preparation for adventures into the high Andes. We spent two days and two nights hanging out there, which is probably the bare minimum needed for the Ancascocha Trek. We did have the advantage of coming from Salt Lake City, UT, which sits in a high valley at 4,226 feet.
We adored Cusco. For one, the architecture there ranges from old to ancient and is beautiful. Because the city was settled by indigenous people and became the capital of the Incan Empire, it is surrounded by ancient ruins, like Saksaywaman. By contrast, the city’s center is dominated by Plaza de Armas and two prominent cathedrals built by the Spanish, who battled and conquered the Incas (with the help of smallpox) in the 16th century. Most of the streets there are narrow cobblestone roads and many of them are situated on steep hills.
The food in Cusco is delectable. Of the dishes we tried, my favorites were lomo saltado – a Peruvian stir-fry that features sirloin, and ají de gallina – a slow-cooked, creamed chicken variation with just the right amount of spice.
Kim and I caught on to the pisco sours early on and continued to order them throughout our stay. This is a delightful cocktail made with grape brandy and sours. We also tried chicha (or corn beer), which was surprisingly good.
The Ancascocha Trek
Of the many possibilities, we chose the Ancascocha Trek because it is an alternate, high elevation route that receives far less traffic than others nearby (like the famous Inca Trail, for example). The Ancascocha provides access to multiple Inca sites, including Perolniyoc, Paucarcancha, and Llactapata. On the final night, Action Peru Treks puts you up in Aguas Calientes and sends you up to Machu Picchu early the next morning.
We did a 50-mile iteration of the Ancascocha Trek in three days and two nights, which meant we had to wake up at 5am and hike until nightfall to complete the journey. It was hard, but our guides worked tirelessly to make it enjoyable.
As experienced backcountry hikers, we are used to giving up creature comforts in order to get to cool areas. To us, our tour was a luxurious way to travel. Our crew cooked incredible meals (they baked a cake one night!), carried most of our provisions on horses, and our multilingual guide Jose Condor was a charming, fun-loving guy that made great conversation.
Jose grew up on a remote potato farm in the Andes, much like the ones we visited on our trek, and spoke Quechuan to the locals. It was fascinating to meet people still living off the land in the same way that their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Despite topping out at 15,298 feet., we were fortunate enough not to encounter altitude sickness. The going got tougher at those elevations, but the biggest discomfort was the incessant rain. For instance, my North Face rain jacket got soaked through which made it difficult to stay warm. At one point, Kim started shivering (an early sign of hypothermia). Wisely, she changed to a dry set of clothes and the guides made her some hot mate de coca. That seemed to do the trick. Next time, we will come prepared with extra waterproof layers.
The Peruvian Amazon
After our trek, we flew to Lima for a brief layover then onto Iquitos to check out the Amazon. Somewhere in between, we were surprised when the twin-engine prop plane landed in a rural area and dropped off some passengers. While seated and waiting, we noticed the overstaffed groundcrew get frisked (by their supervisor) to ensure that no passenger’s belongings were stolen from the cargo. When the pilot fired up the engine for take off, the group waved us off in an endearing and memorable way.
Stepping off the plane in Iquitos, a wave of heat and dense humidity hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never experienced weather that muggy.
We had accommodations at the San Pedro Lodge and met with our first of several mototaxi drivers at the airport. We took a raucous ride over unpaved roads that were muddy and pothole laden. Either we got lucky or our drivers that day were skilled, because we did not get stuck and saw several other mototaxis do so.
On our walk to the beach (where we loaded onto a scrappy motorized boat), we observed some caution tape and a deep trench in the middle of the road, full of murky rainwater. It became clear to us that this was either an unfinished sewer line or one in disrepair. We were astonished when our motoxtaxi driver mentioned that local children like to swim there.
San Pedro Lodge
Our stay in San Pedro Lodge was lovely, though no amount of DEET was sufficient for the onslaught of bug bites that ensued. During the day, we went on three day trips offered by the lodge, which included a river tour, city tour, and a visit to Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm.
On the river tour, we saw Amazon river dolphins and ate juanes (a reference to the beheading of St. John), which are among my favorite cuisines we tried in Peru. We ate a traditional juane, which featured a chicken leg encapsulated in rice, spices and wrapped with bijao leaves.
On the city tour, we roamed around Iquitos and got to experience some of the local markets. There we saw and smelled some bizarre stuff, like alligator heads, exotic fruits, and slimy beetle larvae. We were disgusted at the thought of eating these.
The butterfly farm was strange and compelling in its own right. On our arrival, the volunteer staff emphasized the importance of removing any personal belongings (e.g. phones, wallets, keys, etc.) from our pockets and stashing them in lockboxes, away from the monkeys.
I had never interacted with people as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about butterflies before and we learned a lot. We also had the chance to see all of the wild animals in the sanctuary. Perhaps the coolest one was the jaguar. She paced back and forth behind a chain link fence that seemed particularly flimsy. I noticed her flex the powerful muscles in her forehead, as if to demonstrate how easy it would be to crush our skulls.
Later that day, we were forced to confront a huge tarantula that had crawled into our bungalow. This was the single time I have been charged by a spider, but managed to crush it with my TEVA sandal.
Our afternoons and evenings at the lodge were spent buying beer from the nearby San Pedro village, canoeing around, eating fresh-caught fish, and drinking starfruit juice. Though we told ourselves we would never swim in the Amazon (because of dangers like piranhas and parasites), the heat got to us and we dove in head first. The water was cool, refreshing, and plenty safe.
Before returning to the U.S., we spent a few more days in Lima. We treated ourselves to Lima’s gastronomic revolution, took in the sights of Miraflores District, and imbibed at Ayahuasca, a killer bar. At one restaurant, Kim ordered guinea pig – a Peruvian delicacy. I am not a big fan because of how bony the meat is, but many people love it.
Toward the end of our stay, we received a Thai massage by a young couple that lives in the hip and trendy Barranco District. We were amazed by the experience and both count it as the best massage we have ever had.