Wonders and Waste in Peru


We’ve started to move faster than we used to down South as we’re getting too short on time to spend months in one country. The reason is we have a flight to the Galapagos islands booked for May and in June 3 dear friends will come to join us in Colombia, so lots of fun ahead! Anyway we go faster because we think that in between the main sights, there’s a lot less to see than before. Especially during our 3 weeks in Peru this was the case.

We want to leave Bolivia via Copacabana, on the shores of the famous Titicaca lake, but that means we have to conquer busy La Paz first – ring roads are not a thing in South America… The closer we get, the busier it becomes and soon we’re stuck in one big chaos. We’re surrounded by countless minivans, which serve as collective taxis, scooters, cars that look like they’re not supposed to be driving anymore and none of them have any regard whatsoever for traffic regulation. It’s the law of the strongest in the urban jungle. If you’re big, they stop. If you care less about denting your car, they’ll give way as well. So we realise the only way is to go for it and be our most arrogant self. Luckily our van is of a decent size so we manage pretty well. Open manholes and a couple of blind siders on the highway don’t facilitate the journey but we get through without accidents and want to leave the madness behind as soon as possible. Alas the van overheats and spills all its cooling liquid, but not from the usual pressure valve. It’s not the first time so we wait for it to cool down and look for a mechanic to check for a leak. A very friendly VW fanatic spends an hour under the car and tells us nothing is wrong and it’s probably just the altitude and the fact we filled up with water and not cooling liquid. If we just watch the temperature carefully we should be fine. He doesn’t want to charge us anything so we repay the favor by having dinner at the pollo y papas stand of his wife a block away – she’s ecstatic when we give her a tip. We can continue to lake Titicaca, but Hannes is not very confident in the diagnosis. It’s dark already when we arrive at a quiet spot on the lake before crossing the border the next morning. So only then we see one of the beautiful reed boats in the water, the same material out which entire islands have been constructed on the lake.

We arrive at the border in the middle of some kind of ceremony involving both the Peruvian and Bolivian villagers, so we have to wait a while before crossing. This gives us plenty of time to enjoy the traditional outfits and habits of the locals. When everyone has had its moment in the parade, we continue into country number 6! We knew in advance it would take some time at this border as we have to go into town without the car on the Peruvian side to purchase car insurance. So Hannes takes a taxi there while Stefanie cooks lunch in front of the immigration office. Without much more delay we finish the procedure and we drive our first kilometres in Peru until the pink village of Lampa, where we spend the night. In the morning we visit the local church after a well-deserved shower – it’s been a week with only hot springs for a quick wash. The small town has a surprisingly massive colonial church in which the main attraction are the hundreds of nicely stacked skeletons that decorate the chapel. It’s equally lurid as it is impressive but we’re glad we made the detour.

From Lampa we set course for the Rainbow Mountain, thanks to Instagram one of the obligatory tourist sights in Peru and for us an ideal stop on our way to Cusco. It’s a steep drive up to get there and halfway up again we loose our coolant. We simply can’t drive any demanding road anymore before finding the problem and fixing it. We have no choice but to turn back after it has cooled down and will have to look up the mountain on Instagram instead… Much easier to reach are the Inca ruins of Raqch’i so we go check these out before continuing to the city. In Cusco we can sleep on a campsite just outside the city so we can avoid the busy centre by car. But of course our GPS has a different idea and sends us right into Cusco’s busy maze of tight one-way streets. The central square is splendid. Uniformity is key here to conserve authenticity and even the chain restaurants don’t have any big logos or signs up on their facades. We trade the brownstone of Plaza de Armas for the white chalked walls and blue windows of the San Blas area and have a stroll in this beautiful neighborhood before having lunch in the local market. Now that we’re visiting the Inca capital, the Inca Museum is of course a must on our to-do but we’re a bit underwhelmed… Comparing art, ceremonial attributes and everyday objects we must admit that it all looks rather primitive compared to Europe in similar periods. That night we end the day with drinks for Isabelle’s birthday, as we randomly met Mathias and Isabelle again on the campsite.

We take our time to check the car and indeed it seems that more is causing the issues than just altitude: a rubber tube in the cooling system is perforated and when the system comes under pressure, the hole expands and spurts out boiling coolant. We hope some heat resistant silicone glue will do the job so we have to leave the car be for a couple days for it dry completely. In the meantime we can visit Peru’s world famous ruins of Machu Picchu, some 200 km from Cusco. Our German friends will go there at the same time so we hitch a ride with them. Along the way we would like to visit some other ruins as well. But we shouldn’t linger because that distance with stops in the Peruvian mountains is quite ambitious… The first one, Moray, reminds us a little of a Roman amphitheatre. Not much is know about the purpose of it, but it’s assumed the terraces had religious roles as well as agricultural ones. At the Ollantaytambo ruin it’s so busy that we decide not to enter. We have a long drive still ahead of us and we can see the ruins from the entrance. Also, by now we know what an old wall looks like from close up and we don’t fancy joining the hordes to go check it out. It’s dark by the time we arrive to the hydroelectric plant of Santa Teresa where the train to Aguas Calientes leaves, the village next to Machu Picchu. The train doesn’t go anymore at this hour and therefore we will walk the 9 km into town. It’s pitch black out here in the jungle so not the most fun thing to do after a long day, but we just have to follow the train tracks and we should be fine. Around 10 PM we arrive at our campsite in Aguas Calientes and we can have a “decent” night sleep before our alarm will wake us up at 4.20 AM to start hiking up to the citadel. Well, we could take a seriously overpriced bus instead, but our legs will carry us up just as well. When we arrive not much later at the entrance a long line of people is already waiting to get in. It takes us a bit more than an hour to ascend the 450 meters of stairs and then we can finally enjoy the first views of the most famous Inca ruin. It’s truly magnificent and more than worth the effort. It’s still relatively quiet and we can fully enjoy the place. Upon arrival you’re immediately presented with the postcard view before you head into the city on a one-way trail. So we stick around quite some time to take in the views and make fun of the posing hordes passing by. The morning light is magical and as the site starts to fill up we realise how fortunate we were with these first moments of near-solitude. The most amazing is the location of this place. It’s incredible how they’ve ever built such a city perched atop a steep mountain peak in the middle of the jungle. After 4 hours we start the descent and head back to pack up our tent. We’re pretty exhausted by the lack of sleep and all the kilometres in the last 12 hours so we’re not really in the mood to walk all the way back to Santa Teresa. Hannes heads into town to check what a train to Cusco would cost, but at 115 dollar per person he laughs and walks away. The train for just the 9 km hike is also 35 dollar each so we man up, strap on our hiking boots again and start walking along the train tracks. We’re very happy that on arrival a swarm of taxi drivers storms towards us to offer rides to Cusco. So at a fraction of the price we give our legs a rest the coming 7 hours as we crawl into a collectivo and start the long ride back to Cusco. Knackered we go to bed that evening and in the morning we get ready to drive on in our fixed car. 

We break up the long drive to Lima with a stop in Arequipa to shop for wool and woollen souvenirs for ourselves. Hannes finally can eat the local specialty here: Cuy, or guinnea pig, is a popular dish all over the Peruvian Andes. The Plaza de Armas in the old town is also worth a stop, with its huge, white cathedral. Next we make a quick stop at the mysterious Nazca Lines – where an airborne plastic bag  introduces us to an all too familiar problem in the country – and then we would like to go sandboarding in Huacachina. But upon arrival in this desert oasis we’re not really in the mood for it and we just stick to a relaxed evening of rooftop cocktails. As we continue towards Lima we realise why there’s a very clear “Gringo Trail” in this country from which few tourists deviate. Only these touristy places are being kept moderately clean while the rest of the country seems like one big garbage dump. No matter where we go, trash is everywhere. In contrast to Bolivia, where the issue was situated mostly around the cities, even the remotest desert roads in Peru are lined with plastic crap. It really makes us sick and we feel we have a lot of trouble respecting a country doing that to itself… Peru also feels more unsafe than what we have been used to and both other travellers and guide books urge you to be cautious.

In Lima, however, we arrive to a different world. Miraflores is no doubt one of the safest barrios in Lima and feels like a true oasis far from Peruvian reality. Clearly this is where the upper layer of Lima resides! We’ve made it to the culinary capital of South America and therefore our plan is mainly going out to restaurants. We end up in the renowned IK restaurant where we get served a superb lunch with terrific cocktails. Also the lesser known Awicha hits the sweet spot with grandma’s Ceviche duck and proves that not only the famous chefs here know what they’re doing. The food is so amazing and affordable that we just eat the days away. In between lunch and dinner we also decide to check out some non-foodie culture… It’s clear that Jezus is still a rockstar here! We’re visiting during Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter, and all squares and streets are buzzing with Peruvians who want to visit 7 churches in a day, waiting in endless lines to enter the most popular ones. We also now understand why all other archeological museums in Peru were a bit underwhelming. All of the most beautiful pieces have been brought to Lima. So we’re more impressed with what we see here, but still we feel like the Incas’ skills are to be found in architecture rather than in fine arts. The skull deformations are really intriguing though! Depending on the social class of a person, their heads were wrapped up in certain ways during childhood so that they would grow in particular, weird shapes. A very different museum is that of Mario Testino. This fashion photographer is mostly known for his iconic pictures in Vogue Magazine. The museum is a collection of familiar faces on and off the catwalk and sometimes it’s even hard to believe that all these famous photos come from the same hand.

During our last days in Peru we succeed in finding some tranquil, beautiful spots, after some more kilometres of plastic and desert. First we stop by a place to have our tires checked. The car feels like a rolling vibrator so something must be wrong. And indeed, 2 out of 4 tires have bumps in them and one of them is actually in extremely bad shape. We guess the mechanics in Bolivia were wrong after all because it’s that exact tire. After a change to 2 new rubbers, a friend of a friend can also repair our dented spare wheel – remember Bolivian roads – and then we’re good to go again. We head into the mountains for a scenic detour and pass by Yungay, a village that was buried by a landslide in 1975 together with its 25.000 inhabitants. Back on the coast we park our van next to a surf school in the relaxed town of Lobitos. Stefanie has her first surfing experience here and she does very well. We both succeed in getting up on the board – albeit for a short while. The place is awesome and we just enjoy doing nothing and watching sunsets so we stay much longer than planned before we pack up and drive to Ecuador. At first we thought 3 weeks wouldn’t be enough for Peru, but we’re not leaving with the feeling we had to spend more time here. Our expectations were very high but were not really met. Yes, Peru abounds with gorgeous places, but it’s the sight of thrash in between that sticks in mind. Perhaps a Gringo Trail by night bus isn’t always a bad thing, because Vanlife simply wasn’t the same here…

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