In 2014 my boyfriend and I took a career break to travel through South America independently. We flew to Peru from the UK and subsequently spent a whole three months (two of those illegally, but that’s another story!) exploring the country’s diverse and beautiful landscapes, enjoying its delicious array of culinary options, and experiencing the vibrance and energy of its colourful festivals.
We’d been able to tick off some incredible bucket-list adventures, such as visiting the Peruvian Amazon, and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
We tasted Ceviche for the first time and sampled Pisco Sour. We learned how difficult it is to hike at altitude before you’re properly acclimatised. We touched a glacier, tried our feet at sand-boarding, and survived the most frightening (and equally spectacular) bus journey of my life.
We enjoyed a serendipitous paragliding experience high above the city of Ayacucho. We explored the ruins of Kuélap, Wari, and Pinkuylluna. We hiked independently (well, kinda!) through the world’s second deepest canyon, and visited two contrasting islands upon the world’s highest navigable lake. And we’d fallen in love with the historic charms of Cusco and Arequipa, and the cobblestone streets of Ollantaytambo.
But if I had to choose just seven highlights from all of the above, then these are the ones I would pick….
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
When I was planning my trip, hiking the Inca Trail was the experience I was most looking forward to above all else. It was one of the major reasons I wanted to travel to Peru in the first place. For that reason it had a lot to live up to.
I’m sure everyone’s experiences of hiking the trail are very different but we were lucky enough to have some great weather and a professional, well-organised trekking company, together with a fantastic group and an amazing guide with a wicked sense of humour. This lead to some brilliant camaraderie between us, and some great friendships.
In addition to this the enormous sense of personal achievement (the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass is hard!) coupled with the sheer beauty, diversity, and quietness of the landscapes through which we walked, made hiking the Inca Trail a truly unforgettable adventure.
Ok, I admit, I’m a sucker for beautiful landscapes, and I could have photographed those at Pastoruri Glacier ALL DAY. According to our guide Pastoruri is famous for being the only glacier in the world accessible by road, and is one of the few glaciers left in the tropical areas of South America. It can be found in the southern part of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, and is accessible by day trip from Huaraz.
The Imperial City of Cusco
In spite of the tourists that crowd Cusco’s streets (2 million visitors pass through the city each year; that’s 5479 per day!) – a factor that’s normally guaranteed to make me loathe a destination – Cusco managed to totally charm the socks off me.
There were spacious plazas, grand, well-preserved colonial buildings, and quaint, cobbled streets.
I especially loved the steep hillside neighbourhood of San Blas with its confusing network of narrow streets and artsy, alternative population. It’s simple, humble and beautiful, a place for curious wanderers and creative souls, and somewhere that draws you back – time and time again.
It also reminded me of the Albayzín in Granada, Spain, which is another of my favorite places in the world.
Hiking independently through The World’s Second Deepest Canyon
The beauty of hiking the Colca Canyon independently is that – aside from the oasis at Sangalle – you barely see any other hikers (or locals for that matter) on the trail – especially if you make the steep climb up to Tapay.
Again, the landscapes here really blew me away, but what made our experience extra special was that we had our own personal guide – a scruffy, loveable hound who followed us when we left Cabanaconde, and didn’t leave our side for the entire two-day trek. He even slept outside our little wooden bungalow overnight.
Santa Catalina Monastery, Arequipa
Arequipa boasts a picturesque location in a fertile valley tucked between desert and mountains, and guarded by three dramatic volcanoes. Whilst I loved the city as a whole (its historic heritage, cultural sites, and diverse range of quality culinary options), my absolute highlight of the week I spent there was my visit to Santa Catalina Monastery.
For me, as a curious adventurer and an aimless wanderer, and someone who appreciates architectural beauty, aesthetics and design, Santa Catalina was the perfect place to spend my birthday afternoon. I loved the bold colours within the monastery – the rich blues blended beautifully with the skies above us and the burnt orange hues reminded me of the mineral-rich waters at Pastoruri Glacier and the terracotta-tiled roofs of the Mediterranean.
The village of Ollantaytambo in Peru’s Sacred Valley
Dominated by two massive Inca ruins, the charming village of Ollantaytambo features a traditional Inca grid system of narrow byways, traditional stone buildings and babbling irrigation channels. Wandering through this maze of centuries-old cobblestone streets truly makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Whilst Ollantaytambo does have an established tourist infrastructure, there’s a definite sense of being surrounded by history, nature, and quietness here.
Our forays into the Amazon Jungle – via Iquitos
Whilst I hated the mosquitoes and the humidity, and I didn’t particularly like our late-night walks through the darkness of the jungle floor, surrounded by all manor of (potentially dangerous) bugs, spiders and creepy crawlies, I did find our Amazon adventure fascinating. And fascinating is good.
But what I really loved about our forays into the jungle was the opportunity to stop in the thriving metropolis of Iquitos – the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, and the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road.
Iquitos reminded me so much of Southeast Asia – the climate (lovely hot temperatures and just the right level of humidity), the colourful tuk-tuks, the dusty roads, and the thriving markets – that it instantly stole my heart.
I also loved strange mix of grandeur and decay, and the fascinating contrast between the vibrant, buzzing city life, and the languid pace of life on the Amazon.