hanging out in santa catalana in arequipa peru

How I explored Peru and saw more than just Lima and Cusco

My trip to Peru started in Lima and then hopped over to Cusco on an affordable Viva Air Peru flight. The rest of my time in Peru was previously unplanned, and I picked a southern route back to Lima via the tour company Peru Hop. I didn’t get to see the entire country during my three months in Peru, but I saw enough to know that I’m not done with Peru yet. I’m going back!

what is peru hop?

Peru Hop is a hop on, hop off bus service that helps travelers navigate between Cusco and Lima and to La Paz, Bolivia. They advertise safety, comfort and unique experiences. In retrospect, I could have navigated a cheaper way to all the places I visited with Peru Hop. However, I’d say the structure and safety provided by Peru Hop was worth the extra expense, especially traveling alone.

I didn’t go to Bolivia, but I have heard great things from Americans who enjoyed the assistance of Peru Hop when getting across Bolivia’s boarder and through their visa process.

Here are the visa requirements for US citizens traveling to Bolvia.

my experience hopping

I traveled with Peruhop from Cusco to Lima, stopping along the way in Puno, Arequipa, Nazca, Huacachina and Paracas. I didn’t have anything planned after Cusco, so I had no idea how much Peru had to offer and how diverse of a country Peru was, both in terms of culture and landscape.

uros island on lake titicaca near puno, peru

Islas de Uros on Lake Titicaca

puno: a little town on the shore of lake titicaca

The bus from Cusco to Puno was over night. Being able to sleep anywhere–it’s an odd superpower–this arrangement suited me fine. We stopped for a modest breakfast and then Peru Hop shuttled us to our hotels. I stayed at Marlon’s House and went to the Central Market everyday for a s/.5 hot lunch and a s/. 5 juice. My favorite place to work was Cafe Bar de la Casa del Corregidor. Rupha Cafe was also a great place to camp out for a few hours.

The main draw to Puno is Lake Titicaca. I previously thought that Lake Titicaca was a fictitious body of water from cartoons, but it’s a real place. It’s the highest navigable lake in the world. How the lake was created is unknown.

Forty-five minutes by boat from Puno are the Islas de Uros. These floating islands are man-made from roots and reeds. I visited for a few hours, though a friend of mine found an AirBNB on one of the islands and stayed there over night!

Farther across the sea-like Lake Titicaca are the islands of Amantani and Taquila. I did a homestay on Amantani and stopped by Taquila for lunch before heading back to Puno via a two-day tour I purchased through Peru Hop.

Another thing to do/ see in Puno is Sillustani, an Incan and pre-Incan burial site near Puno that I enjoy visiting. There is also popular Condor Statue in the city, but I was warned against visiting it as many tourist have been robbed there.

plaza de armas in arequipa, peru

Plaza de Armas in Arequipa

arequipa: a deeply beautiful town near Cocola Canyon

In Arequipa, I stayed at the Dragonfy Hostel, which had breakfast, decent wifi and rooftop hammocks. Just down the street was Mercado San Camilo where cheap lunches, juices and amazing queso heraldo can be found.  I worked mostly from the hostel, but found Las Gringas and Chelawasi Public House to be quiet enough to work before dinner and they both have a great beer selection.

Arequipa has a great history that is well documented in the city. I suggest going on a free walking tour, first thing. to get your bearings in the region and in history. Some of my favorite places include:

  • the Museo Santuarios, which has the near-perfectly preserved body of Juanita, a young Inca woman sacrificed to the volcano in the 1500s.
  • Santa Catalina Monastery, a colorful monastery where rich, Spanish families use to send their second-daughters so they could spend the rest of their lives as nun, praying for the family.
  • Mundo Alpaca has beautiful clothing to buy and a free museum showcasing how wool from llama, alpacas and vicuña are processed dyed and woven. They even have a few camelids that you can pet, feed and take a selfie with.
  • Yanahuara Scenic overlook is a beautiful vantage point from the old aqueducts.

condors in colca canyon

Condors in Colca Canyon

colca canyon, near arequipa

Then there is Colca Canyon, which is stunning. Just the opportunity to watch dozens of condors gliding through the sky is well worth anyone’s time, however much you have. Peru Hop served up two options to enjoy the canyon:

  1. a bus tour on which you drive around the top of the canyon to various view points before returning to Arequipa.
  2. a hike, two or three day options. I did the three-day trek, and was incorrect in assuming that I’d see more. The two-day trekkers did just as much hiking as we did, but in a shorter period of time. Trekking with a tour isn’t necessary. I met plenty of people that were going-it alone.

For better, greater thoughts on Arequipa:

paracas national park in peru

Burial site near Nazca

nazca: lines in the desert

The trip between Arequipa and Nazca took about 12 hours and it was one of my favorite experiences in Peru. I happily read, dozed and watched the lush mountains fade into desert and then drop off in the Pacific Ocean.

I didn’t know much about the city of Nazca before I booked my bus and hotel, so allow me a moment to share what I’ve since learned. The Nazca people predate the Incas by about 1,500 years. They lived in the desert, built genius aqueducts that skill function today, created pottery that is wildly considered the best in the world and carved out lines in the sand that would last long enough the 21 century to marvel at.

Things to do in Nazca:

  • Fly over the Nazca lines, a mysterious system of designs in the desert that modern history is unable to explain nor assign meaning to. I’m most intrigued by the image of what looks like a cartoon martian. I would suggest waiting until you get to Nazca to buy your flight. PeruHop has an offer, but there are enough options in town that you can find a better price.
  • Visit Chauchilla Cemetery, located just outside of Nazca, contains mummified human remains and archeological artifacts. Before such sights were protected by Peruvian law, grave robbers took artifacts and left the human remains exposed to the desert air. You can tour part of this cemetery and better see how the Nazca people buried their dead in the fertile position facing east, a practice continued (or copied by?) the Incas.
  • Visit Cahuachi Pyramids, another large site important to the Nazca people. It’s a huge structure that faces the Nazca lines. Archeologist try to use the two to define one another.
  • Dune buggy and sandboarding in the desert. This is something advertised for Haucachina, my next stop, but I enjoyed it more in Nazca.
  • Climb Cerro Blanco and sandboard down. Cerro Blanco is the tallest sand dune in the world (2,078 meters above sea level). After a 3 hour, early morning hike, you then get to sandboard your way back to the flat earth. Hiking in sand is not my favorite, so I skipped this bit. For more on how to visit Cerro Blanco, visit Tripedia.

I stayed in Hostel Nazca Trails, which was a 4 minute walk out of town and owned by the sweetest family, and worked from La Maison Blanche and Mom’s Cafe. Walking around town, you’ll find ample options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My favorite menú del día place was Limon Sazon. S/.9 for a delicious, three-course menu… do not argue, just go.

desert near haucachina peru

Out for a dune buggy near Haucachina

haucachina: peru’s proverbial oasis

Peru Hop just lists this as “Haucachina” but it’s really a neighborhood of Ica. Haucachina is the super-touristy area, littered with backpackers, dunebuggies, and bars. I enjoyed my time here, but don’t let the hype get you over excited.

From Haucachina, I went on several pisco tours and dune buggy tours into the desert. I stayed at Banana’s Adventure, which I highly recommend, and spent most of my working hours aa Samarana around the corner. Banana’s is a bit more expensive that other hostels, but you get a free adventure for every night you stay there.

paracas national park in peru

Paracas National Park in Peru

paracas: go for the national reserve not the beach

I moved on from the the Pleasure Island qualities of Haucachina to Paracas, about 2 hours up the road. Hoping for beach, I got beach and it was an okay beach. What won me was the Paracas National Reserve. I went three times and could have gone more.

Paracas National Reserve if where desert runs into ocean. There are red, volcanic beaches, seals swimming about and all types of birds. You can take a bus tour, a go-kart tour, a scuba trip or rent a bike to explore all the beauty of the National Reserve.

Islas Ballestas is advertised as the thing to do, and I guess you have to do it, but I wasn’t impressed. It felt more like a ride at Disney World than exploration into wildlife.

I stayed at Hostel Kokopelli Paracas, which I highly recommend, and worked from Pisco and Ole when not working from the hostel. There is plenty of menú del día and funky restuarants, so you’ll never be wanting of food (nor sea food!). Kokopelli is the nightlight, so if you stay there, you’re set. Once I did crave fine-dining and walked over to the Doubletree Resort by Hilton. I paid $20 for dinner instead of $6 and enjoyed the lush-life outside of hostel world.

then back to lima

I’ll be writing another post specifically about Lima. I love this city, so very much, and am currently overwhelmed when charged to say something about it. It seems to me to be a city of balance–of industry and nature, of noise and peace, of art and business. Chances are, you won’t be able to move through Peru without stopping over in Lima for some period of time…don’t consider this a bad thing.

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