After finishing grad school in 2008, I still wasn’t ready to face the real world and get a grown-up job. Instead, I decided to cash in some skymiles and head down south to Peru with a pilot friend, L, with whom I had worked over the summer in Alaska. We didn’t do very much research for the trip and kind of played it by ear where we would go next when we got there. Looking back, I feel we were very fortunate to have had such a great time, and frankly, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Here are the top five things that we saw and did in this bonita South American gem.
Paragliding the cliffs of Lima
I met up with L in the Lima airport and after we had dropped off our packs at our hotel we headed to the coast. Lima is a huge city. Like over EIGHT MILLION people huge. The downtown area has a cool stretch that runs up right next to the coastline where there are some pretty dramatic cliffs to the water below. I had read in my trusty guidebook about how people ride the airwaves and paraglide right above the city and wanted to check it out. The guidebook said there were several different companies that took people on a tandem ride in that general vicinity and sure enough, we saw the paragliders in the air and headed that direction. Just a little context–paragliding is when you are strapped to a big kite and you use the air currents to go up and down.
When we got to the cliffs, L was a little skeptical about the whole operation, and to be perfectly honest, justifiably. But we both decided, ‘when in Lima’ so I put on the straps (like a backpack) and a helmet and the next thing I knew, Juan Carlos was telling me to walk straight towards the edge of the cliff and just step off. I didn’t even have to sign a form or get a safety briefing, which was hilarious because I had spent the last four months having people do just that before they flew in a helicopter. One of the many differences between other countries and the U.S.A…..much less red tape.
Up, up and away
Luckily for me, Juan Carlos knew what he was doing and instead of crashing to the water we flew up, up, up into the air. I asked Juan Carlos to show me his best tricks and we had a great time spiraling and soaring. All too soon it was time to go back to the terra firma. He guided us down and we hit the ground running, coming to a nice stop without so much as sitting on the ground. I did land a little hard, but I think if I was wearing actual shoes instead of Chacos it would have absorbed it better. Looking back, this was probably not the smartest adventure to have. But B’s theory is that if you die traveling, you are going to die doing what you love. So I don’t regret strapping myself to a handsome Peruvian and running off a cliff one bit.
Trekking on an Incan Trail
I had always heard about hiking the Inca trail and thought it would be awesome. But once we booked our flights for the following month, I realized something. There isn’t just one Inca trail. Makes sense, right? Incas were all over, so they had to have had more than one road going places. The official ‘Inca Trail’ actually requires permits and you have to sign up for it months in advance. Because we weren’t really big on the planning ahead thing this trip, we instead did the Lares Trek. (Side note: B hiked the Salkantay Trek while she was in Peru.)
On the Lares trek, we spent three days and two nights hiking through the Andes with a group of other weirdos who thought this sounded like fun. Our group and guide were really great and we had a fantastic time getting to know them as we trudged along. Here’s a little secret on hiking Inca trails: it sounds all hard core but it really isn’t that bad. Granted, there are different hikes and if you wanted to do it all yourself it would be rough. But if you go with a group, things are provided which make it easier. For example, we had a team of staff with us.
We all headed out at the same time, but these incredible Peruvians packed up horses and cruised down the path, leaving us in the dust. By the time we met up with them again for lunch, they had set up a nice resting place, cooked lunch and were waiting to share it with us when we arrived. After we ate we headed out again and the magic staff cleaned everything up, passed us like we were standing still, and set up dinner and camp so when we finally caught up again they had everything ready. This was the routine for the next few days. On our tour, we carried day packs but let the horses carry our main bags. Some tours allow you to carry your own gear the whole time (like the one B took), but I still can’t quite figure out why I would want to do that. Sounds hard.
Machu Picchu–worth it
We completed our trek in a town called Ollantaytambo and caught a train to another town, Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. Early the next morning, we took a bus up the hill to the ruins, passing people along the way who wanted to hike to the top (again….why? So hard). The ruins of Machu Picchu are incredible. There frankly is no way to adequately describe what it is like being so high in the mountains and looking at this incredible city. Go. Just go see it for yourself. The experience of hiking through the Andes was really fun and it made it all the more impressive to think about the Incas doing it all the time. And then hauling massive rocks up cliffs to build a town.
Visiting Lake Titicaca
After spending some time in Cusco (which also comes highly recommended), we decided to head south to the border of Peru and Bolivia to Lake Titicaca. This lake is huge, one of South America’s biggest, and high, the world’s highest navigable body of water. We stayed in a town called Puno and booked a tour of the lake for the next day. Imagine our surprise when early the next morning we were picked up for our tour and there were three of our buddies who did the trek with us. Small world.
Lake Titicaca is famous for a lot of things, but is probably most well known for the floating villages. The indigenous people tie reeds of the totora plant together and create islands that they live on. We took a boat to the Uros Islands and were treated to a demonstration of how they use the reeds in many different ways. The tour was a little kitschy, I’ll be totally honest, but just when you think ‘this is a big tourist trap’ you realize you are standing on an island made of plants tied together in the middle of a huge lake. As we were leaving, our guide told us a joke that they must tell all tourists who come visit: the lake forms the border between Peru and Bolivia; Peru claims the ‘titi’ and leaves Bolivia with the ‘caca.’ Ha!
Seeing the condors in Colca Canyon
Our next stop took a little work to get to. We took a bus to a small town called Chivay where we would stay overnight. Early the next morning, we visited the Colca Canyon. The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world–twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We weren’t there to hike (although we did that too); our purpose was to see Andean condors soar in their natural habitat.
Soaring like a condor
Early in the morning we joined a throng of other tourists lined up on the edge of the canyon. After about half an hour I was questioning whether all this was going to be worth it. All of a sudden, several huge birds came out of nowhere. They flew up and around us, diving and soaring through the air. These birds are huge, so they would be easy to spot at a distance, but we were lucky enough to be in the perfect spot and they flew so close to us that I was able to see their curvy beaks, weird necks and scaly feet. They really are incredible creatures and I was so glad we took the time to visit this remote canyon.
Flying above the Nasca Lines
Our last great adventure of the trip was to visit the town of Nasca. Now, as I might have mentioned once or twice, Indian Jones made a big impression on me growing up. One scene has them flying and down on the ground you see a bunch of weird straight lines and strange figures. These, my friends, are the Nasca Lines.
What are they? Still not sure.
The lines themselves are shallow trenches dug into the desert and no one really knows for sure why and when they were made. Archeologists have narrowed down the when to about a 1,000-year stretch between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. There are loads of theories about why there were made, most wackier than the next. What is certain is that when you are walking around, you have no idea that geometric shapes and animals are right next to you. You have to get up a little higher to really appreciate what is going on.
Pay for the flight
We took a flight on a small Cessna and experienced the shapes and figures from the air. I was only able to pick out lines at the beginning of our flight, but I soon got the hang of it and could identify different shapes as we went along. My favorite figure was that of a monkey, because of its really curly tail. The flight was probably the most expensive one I’ve taken when you figure cost/time, but it was definitely one of my most memorable.
Peru is an awesome country, chock full of interesting things to see and do. Your trip might be a spur of the moment. Or you might be in the fifth year of planning. Either way, I would highly recommend the experiences above.