Tag Archives: Peru

First impressions of Lima

It’s 7:00AM in Lima, Peru and the city is getting ready for the We Run Lima 10km run sponsored by Nike. Stands are being set up and areas of the street cordoned off and sound systems tested.

At 9:00AM the horns blow and the music starts. A group of young guys are ready with their ‘junk’ band – metal bins and brooms – along Malécon de Reserva on the bridge by Parque del Amor. Onlookers join in, clapping, and the occasional runner breaks from treading tarmac to shake their hips to the beat.

I’m walking into the flow of runners (no, not being totally annoying, I’m out of their way). The sea of red t-shirts bobbing up and down makes one dizzy. There’s a real mix of age groups taking part although I can’t help but notice that the majority of runners are male. What’s that all about?

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I duck out and sit in Parque del Amor. The huge stone statue of lovers entwined serves as a backdrop for couples photographs and the colourful mosaic seating outlining the park acts as a rest point for couples emulating the statue. The mosaic spells out messages of love, declarations of affection and positive messages: Viva la vida, Angela’ says one. Live the life.

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Looking out to sea, the surf is coming in in perfect lines and peeling steadily to allow the clusters of surfers to catch rides. Most surfers stick to the Redondo breaks left of the pier, away from the beginners learning to surf at Makaha Surf Beach. They catch long left handers. The better, bigger waves are farther out; even the ones being surfed are a considerable paddle out, although it’s fairly relaxed, not too heavy on the inside.

Little parks and pedestianised walkways are dotted along the road that runs the stretch of the sea front. People of all ages rollerblade, skate or longboard along the pavements, peddle their bikes, wander along hand in hand or walk their dogs. It’s a lazy Sunday morning but these guys are in full swing despite the grey start. The sun tries to push through; it’s warming up.

The walk back into Miraflores up Malecon 28 de Julio takes you by the pristine tennis courts of Club Tennis Las Terrezas Miraflores, a place that smells of affluence. From the courts there are far reaching views out over the sea and for a moment I try to imagine myself living that life: weekend tennis with my friends followed by a coffee or cocktail (or is that too unhealthy for this place?). I shake the thought pretty quickly.

By the time I make it back to the central park of Miraflores, the early morning stillness has been replaced by the sound of vehicles and chatter, and the streets and the parks are heaving with people of all nationalities.

The Miraflores district of Lima feels wealthy and westernised, full of comfortable, homogenised places to eat, drink and shop. It feels nothing like the other parts of Peru that I have visited. On the one hand it is pleasant and familiar; on the other hand it’s horribly boring. I realise that this can’t be the full picture.

Show me more of yourself, Lima.

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How was Huaraz?

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Outskirts of Huaraz – view from Andes Camp

Sitting at an altitude of 3,100m, Huaraz is a stop-off for travellers wanting to do some serious hiking and trekking, with options like the Santa Cruz, Huayhuash and Laguna 69 being very popular.

I arrived early in one October morning and already, at 7:00am, the streets were full of moto-taxis and vehicles and honking horns. The place felt alive. I hadn’t read much about Huaraz beforehand but for some reason I had expected it to be a fairly small place.

Wrong.

With approximately 100,000 inhabitants and a sprawl of buildings, it wasn’t the quaint, little town that I anticipated.

Huaraz is busy and chaotic, especially around the market area where you can buy anything from clothing to vegetables to live cuy (barbequed guinea pig is a South American delicacy).

The main street is full of tour agencies, all trying to sell you trips and treks at ‘best price’. There are plenty of warnings and rumours about dodgy dealings, about collaboration between agencies to push prices upwards. I went directly through Franck at Andes Camp and felt confident that he was being fair and honest. He wasn’t the cheapest but was also far away from the higher quotes.

Alongside tour agencies are places to eat and banks and pharmacies and loads of shops offering photography services (triple check costs! – I ended up paying what felt like an extortionate amount after mixing up a quote for one photo and fifteen photos).

Something that I noticed was even more evident than in other parts of Peru was the massive Italian influence with pizzerias on every corner and shops dedicating entire shelves to pannetone of all different flavours.

But the architecture of Huaraz is distinctively un-Italian, full of blocky buildings and unfinished construction work. ‘Huaraz is Peru’s ugliest city’, joked Franck of Andes Camp (and Italians surely wouldn’t dare to create anything lacking in aesthetics).

Indeed, it is not the prettiest of places. To be fair to the city, as Franck explained, Huaraz has had to try and rebuild itself following the devastating 1970 earthquake which killed around 70,000 people and destroyed nearly all of the buildings.

What saves Huaraz from being truly ugly is the striking, beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountains that reach high into the bright, blue sky and glisten in the early morning sun. The light here, like much of Peru, is penetrating and brilliant.

After a week in Huaraz, I wouldn’t say that I had fallen in love with the place but I was really quite comfortable there, although much of that was to do with the hostel and the host himself. Andes Camp was a friendly, social place to hang out, – use of the kitchen and free movie screenings being a definite draw. Watching Touching the Void in the actual area that it was set added to the intensity of the film.

And it put me off ever wanting to do any serious mountain climbing.

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Altitude effects: Sad about the Santa Cruz

After some bad times dealing with the altitude around and about Huaraz, I realised that doing the five day Santa Cruz trek wasn’t going to be the best option and that what I needed was to get back down to lower ground. Others had managed to do it propped up on altitude medication but I didn’t fancy filling up with a load of drugs at this point. Churup and Pastoruri had been amazing, some good experiences and memories to take away from the area.

When chatting to others about how the altitude had affected them, the most common symptoms included:

  • A thick head with a lot of pressure around the frontal section. For me, going over bumps in the road was incredibly painful as my whole head bounced and hurt. One guy had a throbbing pain down one side of his face, particularly around the forehead, eye and jawline. A bit scary, particularly when you read up on what can happen when your body can’t cope.
  • Many people experience dizziness, particularly when standing up too quickly. Our guide suggested never taking a rest sitting or lying down, but rather to stay standing.
  • Shortness of breath. Going uphill is a real challenge as breathing in enough oxygen in the thin air is difficult (I was told that at 5000m there is only 1/5 of the oxygen here compared to the coast)
  • Feeling nauseous and actually being sick were common complaints. One Israeli woman I talked to couldn’t stop being sick on the way back from Pastoruri. It seems that coming back down from high altitudes can trigger altitude effects rather than just being at the highest point.
  • Accelerated muscle fatigue. Climbs in particular can seem like a real effort, even if you’re a fit person. Strangely, muscle aches (and shortness of breath) seem to quickly alleviate once you take even a short break.
  • This is a funny one but for some reason you can get a runny nose and a good case of the sniffles when reaching higher altitudes. Bring tissues!
  • Dehydration. You need to pack more water than you would usually think necessary and ensure you drink regularly, although I have also read about the risks of overdoing it and damaging your kidneys. (In terms of food, it is recommended to only eat light meals to help with the acclimatisation process).
  • The need to wee is an effect that many people experience when going to high altitudes. And I mean needing to go very, very often. It’s a weird one.

Some of the solutions to dealing with the effects of altitude, as offered by guides and sufferers, include taking a deep breath in to full lung capacity and trying to breath in a little bit more before holding it, and then releasing the air as slowly as possible.

Drinking coca tea, chewing on coca leaves or sucking coca sweets is also recommended.

Sorachi is a local medicine sold in capsule form to help alleviate negative effects of altitude (approximately S/.3 per capsule) but there is some scepticism about its usage, suggesting that it actually relies on caffeine and aspirin to perk you up. People who go for the full on treatment usually take two doses (either 125mg of 250mg) of Diamox per day, but again some of the side effects are really questionable including serious dizziness and strange tastes in one’s mouth.

Finally, many shops in places of high altitude sell oxygen in a canister. In Peru the most common is OxiShot, available in two sizes and costing upwards from S/.20. They’re a bit bulky but super light (of course!) and can be helpful whilst on a high altitude trek.

Some people are absolutely fine with the altitude, some people only feel light effects and others are just no good with heights at all. Like me. Another thing I’m figuring out about myself.

A useful site for information on altitude, its effects and possible treatments is The Travel Doctor (also great for any other medical travel questions). If you want something more in-depth then take a look at the Institute for Altitude Medicine’s website.

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Stone drawings, giant plants and ice caves

I’m sitting in Restaurant Turistico 7 Hierbas, a 40 minute drive up and out of Huaraz, my head in my hands. I am in pain. My entire brain feels like it has swollen and is threatening to explode. I feel sick and my eyes can’t focus. And I am so, so frustrated because it’s been such a beautiful, interesting day but my body just isn’t adjusting to the altitude. Dammit.

Earlier that morning I had travelled in a little yellow van alongside a wide, dry river and an old Inca road with a German girl, an Israeli guy, two Brazilians, a few Peruvians and a street kid from Huaraz who had been invited along on the tour.

Daniel was our guide, an animated man in his forties with a rhythmic, musical voice and a face and body full of expression. He spoke only Spanish, rolling his rs and accentuating each syllable, barely stopping to take a breath. He outlined the plans for the day and commented on the landscape features as we passed by.

Daniel told us about Huayna Capac, the last great Inca ruler, a powerful, ferocious and social man by all accounts who also managed to find the time for 700 wives. ‘I’ve a problem with one wife’, joked Javier, our Brazilian-tourist-cum-translator (it was his wife that had volunteered him for the role of translator, although he seemed truly happy to put his English skills to practise).

We took a quick pit stop to grab a bite to eat and stock up on warm clothes and coca leaves and altitude sweets. Most people opted for the sweets. I chewed on a coca leaf. It was not as disgusting as I had expected, just a little bitter. ‘It takes 1.5kg of coca leaves to make 1g of cocaine, so you won’t get high’, assured Javier, ‘It will just alleviate the altitude sickness’. Maybe I should have bought considerably more?!

Before we continued, a village funeral procession passed by, a car at the front followed by a coffin carried by some of the local men. Children in school uniform played percussion and brass instruments to give sombre structure to the march by which to remember and send-off the deceased.

The road passed between two mountain ranges: Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca. The Cordillera Negra stops some of the warm coastal air from hitting the second range, which as a result sees much more snow and ice (therefore blanca – white). Initially the landscape was rolling, with craters in the hillside where underground lakes had erupted through the earth’s crust. The ground was dry and stony with tight tufts of porcupine brown and green grass. There was an occasional collection of cattle. ‘There used to be more’, explained Daniel, ‘but many people have now chosen a different life in the city’.

It got increasingly colder as the bus climbed ever higher along winding roads with open, empty views. We made various stops: a natural, fizzy spring where a woman with a dressed up child and lamb asked for money for photos; a small, clear and deep, deep lagoon; a ‘forest’ of Puya raimondii  whose one hundred year lifespan sees the plants grow up to ten metres in height (how they find the nutrients to grow on the inhospitable ground is a bit of a mystery); and 14,000 year old rock paintings alongside some graffiti from 2007.

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By the time we arrived at the pathway to the glacier – our final destination – the weather was starting to get moody. We disembarked and some of the group opted to ride horseback for the first kilometre whilst the rest of us walked slowly up the gentle incline to the 5,000m mark.

A further kilometre later, a wander over muddy, stony ground with snow lightly falling on our faces, and we reached a mammoth wall of ice surrounding a lake. Known as the Pastoruri Glacier, this huge chunk of ice is said to be shrinking due to the effects of global warming.

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The light shone blue on some of the ice caves, gigantic icicles hanging and threatening to plummet into the water below. You could hear the occasional sound of cracking and whooshing as pieces of the glacier gave in to the spring melt. It was stunningly beautiful, a true wonder of nature. Having never seen anything like it, I was in awe. And then I ruined it all by trying to do some ice climbing where I got told off by a little old lady in traditional dress, the acting guardian of the glacier. Lesson learned. (There are, however, options to do ice climbing in the area, just not here, obviously).

Back in the café, and after some medicine I start to feel a teeny bit better. We make the last downhill stretch back down towards Huaraz and one of the Peruvian tourists starts to puke. The altitude has got her too. Daniel helps her out, strokes her hair and continues to keep the mood light by joking.

I guess he’s seen it all too often.

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How much?! Costing travel in Peru

Peru has thus far proved to be a little more pricy to travel in than Ecuador, especially the bus travel, but then it’s taking me a little time to adjust to using the Nuevo Sol rather than the US Dollar. Dealing with such big numbers can mean that you get through what feels like a scarily huge amount of money in no time at all. But it does seem to get used up all too quickly. Why?

At the time of writing, S/.1000 is equal to UK£234.63. In Peru, hostels cost on average S/.25 (£5.87) for a dorm room, often not including breakfast.

Fresh juice seems to come in at roughly S /.6 (£1.28) and a cheap meal somewhere between S/.10 (£2.34) and S/.20 (£4.68). Eating street food or at the markets is considerably cheaper. I cooked up an English breakfast and the ingredients, minus sausages, cost S/.30 (£7.03). Not cheap.

Bus journeys are EXPENSIVE in comparison to Ecuador (granted, it’s nothing compared to the cost of public transport in the UK) coming in at between S/.5-S/.15 per hour. That’s between £1.17 and £3.52 per hour. And with typical gringo trail towns a good ten hours or more apart, the overall costs soon stack up.

So what is good value? Clothing seems to be inexpensive, for example at the market you can buy a set of woollen gloves or a hat for S/.6 (£1.40) or a hand knitted jumper for S/.30 (£7.03). In Trujillo I needed to stock up on some tops to replace ones lost along the way and was able to find a store offering two for S/.10 (£2.34), so deals aren’t impossible to find.

This discussion is of course only measuring cost relative to travelling for a longer amount of time. When your money’s got  to last, a S/. here and there is worth haggling over and saving. If I was still in full time employment and holidaying here in South America, my concept of cost would be very different. 

But where I am, here and now, I am feeling a bit confused as I’m watching my money disappear. It’s not like I’m lavish. So what’s going on? And how are all these other travellers managing to eat at posh places and not worry? I’m still trying to figure this all out, but I’m not buying into the hype that it’s the cheapest place to travel in South America. No way.

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The long way round: Laguna Churup, Huaraz

It was 5:50am and my alarm was buzzing and I didn’t want to get up. I had arrived in to Huaraz a couple of days earlier and had planned to do a one day test hike – the Churup trek – to see some of the area and to assess how I dealt with the altitude. But now my alarm wasn’t shutting up and I’d had a bad night and I was finding reasons to talk myself out of going. I could do it another day. What was the rush? But I did get up, and I’m glad that I did.

Getting to the starting point

It was bright morning. The distant razor ridges covered in a smooth, snowy blanket stood out vividly against a brilliant blue sky. A taxi to Pitec cost S/.40 for a fifty minute ride up rocky, unrefined roads and narrow passes through villages. The jolty ride rattled the taxi interior, and my teeth rattled in my head.

The early morning sun was streaking through the trees as the taxi driver skilfully dodged other vehicles and avoided steep drops. Donkeys blocked the road and dogs ran along with the car, barking madly. A man sitting in a field waved as we passed by another village of low mud brick buildings with red tiled roofs where another man led three sheep on a lead and carried a cockerel under his other arm.

Thirsty shrubs and trees and parched grasses decorated the landscape, the overall colour scheme yellow, orange and brown. The landscape started to open up to reveal far reaching views and rolling hills and mountains, a coarse landscape with fewer trees, tufts of spiky grasses and the odd hardy shrub and chunky rocks. We had arrived!

‘Take only photographs
Leave only footprints
Kill nothing but time and mosquitos’

The hike itself

It was a confident start: a definite pathway and a point in the right direction from the ranger who had taken our details and a S/. 5 entry to the reserve. Within a few moments the path sprawled into a multitude of possibilities.

It’s really obvious and easy to see’, another traveller, Raz, had said when we had discussed it yesterday. Really? We made a choice. It was the wrong one. Pathways disappeared and then possible pathways reappeared. We pushed on, not wanting to backtrack. And then finally, after two hours of scrambling over rocks and pushing bushes to the side, Pacha Mama guided us and we saw her, and she was beautiful. A proper, well-trodden path. Amazing.

Spirits lifted, we pushed on, but steep climbs and increasing altitude meant that every ten to twenty metres we had stop to catch our breath. I felt dizzy. I had a serious case of the sniffles and my head hurt. I popped some paracetomol.

A gentle downhill stretch passed a more rocky landscape brought some respite, winding slowly down to a waterfall that split and then trickled over boulders into a little pond. It was to be our picnic spot. And it was where we were overtaken by a group of fit, acclimatised Peruvians, who stopped for a quick chat and then marched onwards.

The path took us to the left of the waterfall and put my limited climbing experience to the test with an unavoidable ascent passed patches of snow. Although there were plenty of footholds and ledges to grab, the drop was steep. I didn’t look down. Grabbing thick wires bolted into the rock face and launching up to the next flatter section reminded me a bit of via ferrata that I had done a few years back. I wished I had brought a carabiner. The drop down would have been horrific: no helmet, no first aid kit, no way of calling for help.

A further ten minutes on from the climb and I arrived at Laguna Churup (4,450m). Finally, a destination success! And wow! Cliffs on the far side rising straight from the lake that sparkled in the sunshine, the bottom visible with black and turquoise and yellow patches, the water icy cold from the snow run-off of Mount Churup in the near distance. A stiff breeze rippled the surface, the lapping water on the mighty boulder peninsulas and the distant rush of the waterfall the only audible sounds.

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Re-energised, the way back felt like something out of an action-adventure film: swinging from branches, sliding down rock faces and running and bouncing along like a mountain goat

Um, okay, I can’t think of any action-adventure films with goats and I really wasn’t that agile, managing to lightly sprain both ankles on the way down.

We took the right path all the way back. Phew.

If you do this day trek then – if you want to do the regular, less adrenaline filled and random route – take the path to the left and up once you’ve paid the ranger, and not the tempting one to the right. Or take the one to the right and enjoy an unmapped scramble and ramble. Why not?!

Afterword

Bouncing along in a shared taxi-minibus (S/.8) the 3:00pm rain accompanies us on our journey back to Huaraz. The collectivo bursts a tyre and we sit on the roadside whilst the driver changes the wheel. We continue onwards and a young girl waves from the field as we drive by and I wave back. And we smile and wave at each other. I think about the altitude, about getting lost, about the walk in general: it was tough for the body, but good for the soul. I feel great.

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Time out in Trujillo

Trujillo, Peru is a six and a half hour bus journey south of Piura. ‘Trujillo es muy peligroso’, said the taxi driver who dropped me at Itka’s terminal in Piura. ‘Es muy peligroso’, said the taxi driver who took me from Trujillo terminal to my hostel.

Great. Danger, danger all the way. I debated whether to just move on to Huaraz but then thought better of it. I’d prefer to figure this place out, and its dangers, for myself.

El Mochilero had been recommended to me as the only real hostel in town (many of the other places being more hotel based). Only a few blocks from the shops, cafés and parks, it was a convenient spot.  I was craving company so some social space was a must and this place offered it with hammocks, sofas and communal kitchen. Messy beds and a few belongings scattered around signified that there were people there. It was a good start.

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Trujillo centre has a real charm with blocky, colourful buildings and churches that poke out of a relatively low skyline kept to three storeys. The streets are busy, the pedestrianised Francisco Pizarro acting as a nice starting point to explore the city centre. The streets are lined with ice-cream parlours (with the first mint choc chip ice-cream I’ve found in South America) and eateries and fashion shops selling branded trainers stacked high to the ceiling. And pharmacies. (My experience of Ecuador and Peru thus far is that you’re never far from a pharmacy and if everything else is closed, a pharmacy is still likely to be open).

Near the top of Pizarro is a park pequeña with some small statues and benches that serve as a place to take a pause from the day, but further down at the opposite end by Diego de Almagro you have the more impressive Plaza de Armas. Flanked by wide roads, this is the place to sit and eat toffee apples (maybe part of the Halloween efforts that have taken over this town?), meet with friends for a chat or pose in front of the Freedom Monument. Traders of all sorts attempt to sell you chocolate, books, drinks and tour to surrounding attractions, such as the Chan Chan mud ruins. Yellow, blue and white buildings stand out against a bright sky, the strong and consistent breeze blowing in some occasional cloud cover. Sweepers quickly brush up any litter from the smooth, stone pathways. I get told off for lying back and putting my feet up on the bench. My shoes weren’t dirty but it simply wasn’t allowed. It’s a clean park, a clean place and obviously I was negatively affecting the image of their town.

Walking through Trujillo, I was approached by four different Peruvians, all who wanted to chat and help out with directions or practise their English or tell me about how their parents were forced to leave China due to communist rule and ended up here, happily. They all seemed friendly enough. In fact they all seemed really friendly. None of them tried nick my wallet or hold me up at knife point. The stereotyped dangerous Peru? Nah.

But I was also approached many times over by people asking for money: for their children, for their families, for treatment for their infected leg (and it was horrific and would surely needed amputating if he waited any longer). Some traders were really pushy, shoving chocolate bars in my face, refusing to accept a firm ‘no gracias’ and only leaving once I adopted and held an averted gaze. It wasn’t comfortable.

But then why should it be? I might feel poor and on a tight budget but the fact I am here, travelling, having new adventures and seeing the world, well, it does highlight a massive disparity.

Trujillo also seemed to have a real disparity of wealth amongst its own population: fashionable folk wandering around buying up S/.50 goods without hesitance and paying with S/.100 notes, others bedding down for the night wrapped up in makeshift blankets of cardboard pieces left out by the shops.

And the dangers? I’ve read about them, been told about them, but thankfully did not experience any trouble first hand. I couldn’t decide whether the high presence of park wardens and ‘securidad cuidano’ and police officers made me feel safer or more nervous. I left feeling positive; the people had been kind, friendly and welcoming and the town itself was a pretty place to get on with normal life.

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Waking up in Peru: night border crossing from Ecuador to Peru

Dawn broke and the immediate comparisons with Ecuador were the colour palette and landscape: where southern Ecuador had been about lush hills and mountains covered in rich, green vegetation, the scenery on the approach to Piura was yellow and brown dominant, and flat into the far distance, a sandy, dusty scrubland occupied by some spindly bushes and trees. Rubbish evenly littered the place, introducing a splash of colour to the otherwise neutral setting. The sun rose quickly, highlighting a bright blue sky strewn with a splattering of cirrus clouds.

I rubbed my eyes. It had been another long night but the surprising comforts of the Loja International bus had enabled me to grab some dozy snatches of sleep on the trip from Loja, Ecuador to Piura, Peru.

At daybreak the roads were dominated by hoards of moto taxis (think tuktuks) – red, yellow, blue and white – whizzing along and darting in and out of traffic. By 7:00am they were matched in numbers by cars and collectivos (minibus taxis/buses). There were people everywhere, crossing roads and catching lifts and rushing about to get to work and school. The city was alive with voices and traffic and movement.

The bus had left Loja at 11:00pm, making what felt like a continuous downhill journey, the brakes grinding and the vehicle lurching for the first few hours. At 03:30am we reached the Ecuador-Peru border at Macará. Everyone had to disembark and queue for an exit stamp (it was also necessary to hand back over the immigration card from when one entered Ecuador, although those who had lost it or never received it simply had to fill out another one then and there).

Walking across the unlit bridge of what was effectively no-man’s land, Peruvian immigration were waiting to check you into Peru – another passport stamp for a 90 day tourist visa, another Andean immigration slip. I passed up on changing some dollars from a short, old guy offering ‘soles, soles…’, but it’s good to know there is that option (instead I took a taxi to a dodgy little street in Piura where I was given a crap exchange rate, but at least the money was legit and it was enough to get me out of the place). A few hours later I arrived into the early morning energy of Piura.

So here I was, in Peru with it’s dry heat and what already felt like busy, crazy chaos. I had a few Nuevo Sol and a bus ticket onwards to Trujillo. I felt ready for some new adventures and places and people. I was curious and a little apprehensive, having been told all sorts of stories about this country. Please be a safe place, Peru.

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