Published: June 5th 2009June 5th 2009
We had a great time during the 3 weeks we spent in Peru. Outside of Machu Picchu, this is a very inexpensive country... we actually got by one day spending only US$8 each (for food, lodging and transportation)! In smaller towns, the going rate for a room with private bath in a small posada is S-20 ('S' is for Nuevos Soles), which is about US$7.
The food is also very cheap, with set meals in non-touristy restaurants costing US$1.00-3.00 (usually including soup, an entree and a refresco-- a homemade Tang-style drink that we passed on, since we weren't sure about the water supply). However, the dishes were not very tasty and we had tummy troubles for the entire trip. Our ultimate splurge was Snickers, which cost S-3.50 and up (about US $1.20)... that's more than a set lunch in a restaurant! The chocolates seemed to be pushing the expiration date... many contained promos for the Super Bowl in January. Of what year, we're not sure!
Overall, the Peruvian people are very friendly and helpful. If we walked into a hotel and found it was way out of our price range, the receptionist would often help us find a cheaper
place, giving us detailed instructions and in one ocasion even calling the other hostal (which was not affiliated). Even cab drivers seemed more sincere and open to conversation... we kept expecting something sketchy to happen (overcharging or the dreaded 'express kidnapping'), but we never had a problem. One cabby didn't have change, but ran around asking different cab drivers until he got us our S-1 coin (that's about 30 US cents).
The towns and cities were very clean, compared to the rest of South America. In the towns, the arrival of the garbage man is a grand occasion that brings the whole town out, and is often signalled by ice-cream truck style jingles that start playing at 4:30AM and continue for the next couple of hours. Little, stout ladies in braids run out with plastic bags to greet the garbage truck, or garbage man walking through town. Quite a sight! Peruvians are also sticklers for public urination, as evidenced by the constant signs warning not to pee on the street and list penalties such as incarcaration. On the long distance buses, stewardeses clearly repeat several times that the bathrooms are for 'Urination Only'... so think twice before booking that
next 25 hour bus trip!
We kept getting the feeling we were in Southeast Asia-- Northern Thailand or even Laos-- especially in the smaller towns where there are no chain stores and houses are made out of cinderblocks, mud and thatched roofs. The street markets were also similar to Asia; Peru seems to be the South American capital of cheap, Chinese-made products. We bought some 'Very Good' brand socks that ended up disintegrating after one wash :)
Peru is fascinating and we'd love to go back and see more of the country one day.
After driving through a barren desert on the Chilean/Peruvian border, the share taxi dropped us off at the bus station in Tacna, Peru. The traffic near the station was at a standstill, due to a violent fight/stabbing that was going on in the opposing lane of traffic. Two bloody guys were going at it while other drivers watched. An interesting start to Peru!
It's no surprise fights break out on the road, since there are few stop lights, lots of cars, insane drivers and incredibly windy roads. While we were there, 90 or so people died in one day in
highway accidents. Most were on a bus that fell off a cliff. Fortunately, we survived our bus trips unscathed.
From Tacna we took a bus to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. We chose the Cruz del Sur bus company, which is the most popular with foreigners and is supposed to be the best, but the bus was pretty shabby. As with most long distance buses, the staff filmed us getting on, for 'security' reasons. The next bus we took actually required finger printing!
We took a taxi from inside of the bus station (these cabs are supposedly registered, and therefore less sketchy than the cabs outside) and had the driver drop us off at a Lonely Planet-listed hotel. We never intended to actually stay there, since the LP hotels are usually way overpriced, but it seemed like a good launching point for our hotel search. We asked about vacancy/price there, and they were full but referred us to a nearby partner hotel and said we could get the same rate (S-66, or US$22). We ended up staying at that hotel, called Conquistador. It had a great looking courtyard and lobby, worthy of a '3 star'
hotel, but the room was nothing special and we couldn't shut out the sounds of thumping cumbia music from a nearby club. During the day we were the only guests, but at night huge groups of package tourists occupied every room in the place. They all woke up at 6AM to go on their excursions, and their shouting and shuffling meant we also woke up at the crack of dawn.
The main benefit of the hotel was its amazing staff, particularly a receptionist named Rosemary that helped us go independently to Colca Canyon. She called the bus companies for us to confirm their schedules, without expecting a comission. Most foreigners make this trip via a van tour, which is the top activity pushed by local travel agencies and hotels. We're glad we went on our own, since our local buses passed groups of vans parked at every designated 'tourist lookout' filled with vendors selling handicrafts.
A note on booking Machu Picchu trips
Our 2007 Lonely Planet was very outdated, suggesting you can book an Inca Trail hiking trip several weeks in advance. We looked into it months ago, and all of the trips for the entire summer were
booked up! Since we couldn't do the trail, we decided to just go for a day trip and spend the night in the neighboring town of Aguascalientes. We took advantage of the free Internet at the hotel (we had practically unlimited access since we were the only guests there during the day) and booked the train to Machu Picchu via the official website. It turned out the cheaper 'backpacker' train to Aguascalientes was sold out for the next week, so we booked a later train and decided to stay in the Colca Canyon area for several nights.
The bus to Colca Canyon... and the dreaded 'tourist tax'
Since it was already midday, we decided to take the bus to a small town called Chivay and not all the way to Cabanaconde, which is next to the Canyon entrance. We got to the bus station about an hour before the bus left, and managed to get the last real seats. It was a basic bus that became increasingly crowded as locals got on at random stops; there seems to be no limit on how many people can cram onto the bus, and the company charges the same fee for standing
as for sitting (S-2.40, or US$1.20). Jake was in the aisle seat and had a man leaning on him for 3 hours. We also saw a woman sipping spaghetti and meatballs out of a plastic bag, which brought back memories of the Greyhound Atlantic City bus. It was a bumpy, hot ride (for some reason, no one opened their windows) but we made it to Chivay without falling off a cliff, so we were happy.
At Chivay we were constantly asked by locals to buy a S-35 (US $12) tourist pass, which the Lonely Planet described as an optional ticket sold by 'semi-official' agents. According to the book, ticket vendors only confront tourists in Chivay, making it relatively easy to avoid paying. In reality we were hounded by vendors in Chivay, on the bus, and at Cabanaconde, and it takes nerves of steel and good Spanish skills to succesfully resist. We talked our way out of buying the pass at least a half-dozen times; vendors ranged from random guys in line with us at the bus station, to an official looking man in uniform with a laminated credential. They seem to have caught on to the excuse promoted by
the Lonely Planet - 'I am not going to see the condors, so I do not need to buy this pass'.. and now claim that the pass is necesary to set foot ANYWHERE in the Canyon, including the local bus and the towns. If there had been an official stand at the Chivay bus station, with an official-looking person selling the tickets, we would have had no problem paying the fee, although it is exorbitant by local standards (one pass cost nearly twice as much as a double hotel room). However, we weren't about to pay some random person for a pass that didn't benefit anyone except him.
We almost gave in after a man with a 'security guard' vest and laminated ID card boarded the bus at Cruz del Condor (the lookout point for condors that is supposedly the only place you need the ticket), and proceeded to badger all foreigners who had not bought the pass for the entire bus trip to Cabanaconde. Thankfully, a French couple with excellent Spanish skills steadfastly refused to pay and were the main focus of the guy's attention. We stuck with them, and managed to sneak past this self-appointed 'official' when
Cross mowed into the side of a mountain
...not sure how they achieved this, since the mountain is so steep...
we got into town.
Apparently, the Cabanaconde locals do not support this fee since they see none of the money. We mentioned our situation to a local man, and he went out of his way to help us sneak through the town and get to a back-entrance of the Canyon hike, where he assured us we wouldn't see a ticket collector. We felt like we were on the underground railroad! He said that the money goes to the government officials and does not benefit the community whatsoever... which makes sense given the ramshackle state of these towns.
So, in the end we managed to AVOID paying the fee, but it was very stressful and we were constantly nervous about being approached. We were the only foreigners (besides the French couple) we met that didn't cave in and pay it. If you are a foreign traveller heading to the Canyon, we suggest you get the pass from returning tourists at the bus station or in Arequipa... they'll sell it to you for a fraction of the price, since they won't need it anymore. All you have to do is flash the pass at these vendors to avoid their sales
pitch, so a few dollars spent will help avoid this aggravation!
We didn't have a map of Chivay, so we followed a local woman from the bus station into town and promised to check out her hostal. It was a clean but simple place, and we took a room with private bath for S-20 (about US$7). Her name was Angela and she was very friendly, telling us about the local attractions. When we signed in, we noticed we were the only guests in the past month! Apparently Angela and her friend, both college grads in tourism, picked a poor location for their hostal... most independent tourists go straight to Cabanaconde without stopping in Chivay.
We arrived on Sunday, which was predictably sleepy... not many restaurants open, and not much going on. Monday was a Market Day, so the town was bustling with vendors, shoppers and tour buses, which lined the plaza. We went from being just about the only tourists in town to 2 more faces in a sea of camera-weilding foreigners.
We decided to check out the local hot springs, and chartered a taxi for S-4 (about US$1.30). After paying the entrance fee, we looked
Church on the road between Chivay and Cabanaconde
... note the hawk (falcon?) in the front. You can pose with them for money.
at the pools and realized the surface was covered in slime and dead bugs. The one nice, crowded pool was designated 'for the town residents' so we weren't allowed in. We were also turned off by the idea of dipping in a hot pool on an extremely hot day, so we decided to skip the swim and walk around the neighboring 'ruins' (basically just a series of stone walls by a creek). We had a nice walk back into town on the donkey-lined road.
Near-riot at the Chivay bus station
After one night in Chivay, we decided to head to Cabanaconde and hike the canyon. At the bus station, we got on a huge line for the 3PM bus and managed to get standing room spots in the back of the bus. There were as many people standing as sitting, and after 10 minutes of waiting to leave we were already tired of the smell and the heat! We were resigned to the fact we'd have to stand for the 2-hr bus ridbut were getting annoyed that the bus was not leaving. So were the Peruvian passengers, who started yelling 'Vamos'(let's go) and pounding the walls. Finally after a
passenger shouted for a few minutes at the driver, she was told that the bus was broken and wouldn't be fixed for an hour. We knew there was another bus at 5PM, and it was already nearly 4:30, so we squeezed our way off of the bus and got to the front of the line for the 5PM bus. Unfortunately, when a replacement bus came all hell broke loose, the line disintegrated and about a hundred people charged the new bus. People who had already bought tickets were fighting to get through the pushy crowd... it was total chaos. We didn't have tickets so we knew if we did get on, we'd be standing. We decided to spend another night in Chivay and try again in the morning. Coincidentally, we spotted Angela from the hostal, who was waiting for the incoming bus. She led us back to the hostal and we spent another uneventful night in Chivay.
The next day woke up super early and set out to catch the 6:30AM bus to Cabanaconde. It turns out the bus is always late, and everyone except the tourists knows it comes at 7:30. The bus company desks weren't even open
when we arrived! We deflected a few more attempts to sell us the tourist pass, and managed to get seats on the bus. The ride to Cabaconde was bumpy, but we passed through some amazing scenery--mountains with tiered fields cut into them, donkeys, and women in traditional dress.
Cabanaconde, and Jake´s near death experience
After ditching another semiofficial tourist pass vendor we checked out the top foreigner hostel, Valle del Fuego, but the rooms were really rustic and smoky... it was a total backpacker flophouse. We walked back across the town square (successfully avoiding the ticket guy again) and got a room at the other main hostel, Villa Pasteur, which was better but still not very nice. There were crumbs and hairs in the bed, lingering smells and cold water showers... but at least it was only S-20 a night.
After checking in, we set out for the Colca Canyon hike. It's the opposite of a normal hike-- you start out at the top, which is about 11,000 feet above sea level, and then you descend to about 7,300 feet, then you have to ascend back up to the higher elevation. Armed with water and cookies, and having
been at high elevation since northern Argentina, we were confident that we could do this in one day. We set out around 11AM, and quickly realized the descent was a lot harder than it looked. The trail consisted of pebbles and large rocks, so we slipped a lot in our non-hiking shoes. We were relieved to get to the bottom, where there is a restaurant with swimming pools, appropriately called the 'Oasis'.
Our hopes were dashed when we realized the restuarant was serving a set meal that was not vegetarian, and would take at least 30 minutes to make a special meal. We passed, since we were worried about getting back to the top before sunset. We had been looking forward to a cold drink, but they did not have any refrigerated beverages or ice, so we stuck with our warm water. After a brief rest, we started back up the Canyon.
I was the one struggling at first, and kept stopping to take photos... a convenient excuse for pausing to catch my breath. When I hit ym stride, Jake started getting short of breath and developed a headache. He was so affected by the altitude that we
A rare photo of us together, at Colca Canyon
... taken by some of the other tourists that lapped us on the way up! They were carrying heavy packs, too.
had to stop after almost every switchback and rest. He was getting so despondant I thought I might have to leave him there and save myself. (Just kidding!). I seriously thought I might have to hire a donkey to carry him up the hill, and was regreting bringing only a couple dollars worth of soles. Fortunately, he mustered all of his strength and managed to make it to the top. Then we walked about 20 minutes through a field to get back into town, and he collapsed into bed the second we reached the hotel. He was weak and nauseous and could barely move. The woman who managed (or owned) the hostal was very helpful, offering to call a doctor and suggesting he drink coca tea and have some soup. We held off on the doctor and Jake ended up feeling better the next morning. That was a close call! Apparently coca tea really does cure every ailment... from then on we drank at least a cup a day.
Back to Arequipa
We bought bus tickets back to Arequipa the next morning, and somehow managed to get back into the city without confronting any more ticket vendors. What a
We settled back in the noisy but friendly Hostal Conquistador and started planning our trip to Machu Picchu.
We also checked out the local mummy museum, where we saw the body of the frozen Inca girl Juanita, who was sacrificed to the gods on the top of a nearby volcano. We rarely pay money to go to museums, but this was too interesting to pass up.
Next stop... Cuso and Machu Picchu!
There are more photos below