PERU part 2. Winging it? That’s not an option! Go to Peru with a plan and a specific goal in mind!
Usually, we plan our trip avoiding the classics, and opting for the touristic rock and roll or alternative music instead. We like to march to the beat of our own drum, far from the beaten and crowded tracks. This time, we made an exception.
Lima – Paracas – Arequipa – Titicaca – Cusco – Machu Picchu, i.e. the classic Gringo Trail. We saw it all, travelling on our own, spontaneously adding Isla del Sol in Bolivia, and dropping by Colca Canyon for a two day trek. The choice was perfect, we had a wonderful time. We were really lucky because without a good plan, we would've had to pay more for accommodation and we wouldn’t be able to take a four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – the government lets only 500 people a day on the trail, including the carriers and guides, who are necessary to make the journey.
We decided that there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when we have a ready, fantastic plan and force ourselves to find something else only not to be... a classic gringo or a lost American, who speaks only English and resembles a luxurious but well-functioning cash machine for the locals. And so we took the beaten track, although, our encounter with Peru began... half a year earlier. Spontaneously, as it often happens in our lives. I remember it as if it was yesterday: my plane landing in Istanbul, turning on the mobile phone and a text message from my then girlfriend, and now wife that Air Europe had an absurd promotion and we had to move fast – that' how we got plane tickets Barcelona – Lima – Paris for around 1,200 zloty. Yes, zloty, not euro. Departure in 8 months, in June, i.e. the best possible time to visit the region. We were overjoyed. But also riddled with uncertainty. We were wondering if the tickets bought on a Slovak site pelikan.sk (because this is how the promotion worked) will turn out to be authentic when our plane lands in Barcelona.
To avoid being pigeonholed as a gringo, I quickly started learning Spanish from CDs while I was travelling around Poland from match to match as part of my professional duties. It turned out to be enough to understand what a local wanted to say to a Polacco and to explain some simple matters. I regret that I didn’t continue learning after we came back because already in the second week I could understand the guide, with whom I spent two days trekking in the Colca Canyon and I even merited an individual invitation to a frog juice and a damn strong beverage at a roadside stall around 2 am (sic!) at a height of over 4 thousand metres (technical disclaimer for future reference – when going from Arequipa in the direction of Colca Canyon, it's good to bring a sleeping bag to the bus. The trips usually end at night, and the temperatures at the height of up to 4,850 m above sea level drop down below zero).
But let’s go back to planning: start as soon as possible.
Of course, without the tickets and waiting for some last minute airline promotion, you won't have a chance like that but you can plan your dream route, places where you’re going to stay, and the time you’re going to spend at each attraction. You should probably think about the things you just cannot miss (Machu Picchu is a must, even if have to take the train-coach option. You shouldn’t miss out on one of the wonders of the world just because it’s mainstream and you prefer less crowded sites. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life), what you really want to see, and what you can put off for later. For example, we gave up the giant Nazca Lines, which many people consider to be a proof of alien presence on earth. We were close but to really see something, we’d have to spend a whole day there and a lot of pesos on a plane or a helicopter flight because apparently, there’s not much too see from the ground. What can I say, life's all about choices.
Learn some Spanish. At coach stations – we visited them often because coaches are the best means of transportation in Peru – you’ll be able to communicate in English but it might be a problem in some tourist agencies. It doesn’t mean that such a local agent is worse – actually, it’s often better and cheaper. But you need to be able to communicate somehow... You really only need the basics, and you’re going to make further progress as you talk with the local people. You’ll learn more and make more friends... I guess this goes without saying because everyone knows the importance of language when travelling. And it's even more important in Peru because English doesn’t always work on the trails, not to mention other languages.
If you choose the "Gringo Trail", read about the attractions and think about how long you want to spend in each place. Some people need only two days for Arequipa – just the very city centre and the giant Monastery of Santa Catalina de Siena, others will also go to the Colca Canyon, which takes additional two days and nights of trekking (you leave the city right after midnight). Some will drop by Paracas and see the small Galapagos during a three hour boat or motor pontoon trip, others are going to want to stay longer and rest. The same goes for the capital – check off Plaza de Armas and the nearby attractions and then run off to heart of the country and less populated areas or follow in the footsteps of Mario Vargas Llosa’s heroes and wander around the Miraflores cliffs? The decisions are yours.
Choose your means of transportation, especially how you're going to go back from Cuzco to Lima. Coach is a convenient option, with food and very comfortable airplane seats, but it takes 20 hours; the plane is expensive – much more expansive than for Peruvians. We chose the coach – we had good experiences with coaches during the whole trip and wanted to live the adventure of a journey through narrow roads over high mountain passes, however, there were a few times on the way when we were scared. The best Peruvian lines don’t have a lot of accidents but the worse ones... Well, the coaches fall down the cliffs quite regularly in Peru.
Coach is the best means of transport, the network is great, and the level of comfort is equal to business class on planes. Usually, it’s enough to buy the tickets a day or two ahead, you can book them on the Internet. As the distances are quite long, we spent a few nights on the road, saving money we’d normally spend on accommodation but, above all, a lot of time. This is why, we don’t understand people who buy organised trips, where you only sleep in hotels, and do more driving around during the day than sightseeing, spending a few hours a day in the coach. Tiring and not really satisfying. When planning a coach trip, we made sure to spend the next nights, or at least a night, in a hotel. We used the largest chain at the time – Cruz del Sur but now we know that Peruhop has great reviews. Anyway, it’s good to check how often the coaches depart and see if it might be worth to buy a monthly pass or a ticket for the whole trail with an option to get off and in multiple times.
Speaking of transportation: watch out for the taxis. The biggest danger is a taxi driver who can take you from the city centre or the station outside the city and rob you. When we were taking a cab, even in the middle of day, we always asked a waiter from a nearby restaurant to call the taxi for us or looked in the vicinity of the hotel.
Hotels – book them as soon as possible. Cancellation option is a must. It’s worth considering in advance where the trip might take longer and where shorter and to book hotels for subsequent days in different places so you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg when you'll need to cancel one stay a week before your arrival and book another one. This system allows you to save a lot of money and also leaves time and space for some crazy ideas – like our trip to Bolivia when we realised the border is so close and Isla del Sol looks lovely.
There’s one trip you HAVE TO book from Poland, and it’s best to start the bargaining process (a difficult one because we’re talking about scarce goods) at the end of the calendar year as you never know when the agencies get will have the licenses for trekking on the Inca Trail. It’s best to check their credibility online, and then agree on the details and confirm the date by e-mail, paying the advance. In February, there usually are no places left for most of the dates.
You can buy the rest of the trips on the way, and its best to buy them at the point of departure. In Lima, they wanted to sell us a trip to Paracas ("best offer, my friend, very best price") for more than three times the price we ended up paying for a coach and a long trip by raft. Thanks to buying a trekking trip to Colca in Arequipa not only were we able to make a good bargain (we had a lot of time to visit several agencies and check the lowest price we could get) but we also got a recommendation for the boss’s brother in Puno, who picked us up from the station at 4 am, let us stay over until 7, and sent on a two day trip to Titicaca for peanuts. A package deal, it’s always worth talking. It’s also worth to plan – even if the plans later change, to a smaller or a greater degree.
In the next part of the Peruvian series, we’re going to talk about our impressions from Lima, and then, Paracas and Pisco, i.e. turtles and penguins within the reach of your hand.