Travels in protesting yet beautiful southern Peru (Peru)


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South America » Peru » Puno » Lake Titicaca
March 7th 2023
Published: March 14th 2023
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(Day 250 on the road)The ongoing protests in Peru are certainly not helping the country's tourism industry: Most of the fellow travellers I met over the past few weeks had already left Peru or were in the process of doing so. In fact, there were so few foreigners in some places in the south that I found myself unconsciously nodding as I walked past another traveller. Mostly though, I was the only foreigner in the places I stayed or on the tours I took. What a shame for Peru.

The protests are concentrated in the south of the country, particularly in the Puno region, which has the only two land border crossings with Bolivia, my next destination. Both have been crossed since December. More than 50 people have died in the demonstrations so far, so the decision to travel south and into the heart of the protests was not an easy one. In the end, however, everything went very smoothly.

From Lima I travelled south by bus, my first stop being Paracas, near the national park of the same name. Exploring the desert-like area (it actually stretches all the way south into Chile, hundreds of kilometres away, where it joins the Atacama Desert) by bus and boat was quite nice. They call some of the islands there mini-Galapagos because of the abundance of endemic birds and other animals like seals. But while the excursions I did were nice, they were no comparison to the real thing in Ecuador.

My next major stop was definitely more special: the desert oasis of Huacachina. Although it is only a few kilometres from the Panamericana, it feels like another world. It is a real oasis, surrounded on all sides by towering sand dunes. I have never seen anything like it, although I have been lucky enough to see a few other oases in my life.

While the oasis itself is pretty relaxed (apart from the hostal next to mine blasting music until 4am), the fun thing to do is to take a sunset buggy tour over the dunes. Now, the dunes are quite steep and we really had to trust that our driver knew what he was doing. At times it felt like being on a rollercoaster - going up a steep dune at crazy speeds, getting to the top and seeing pretty much nothing but the sky, and then coming down the other side on an equally steep slope. There have been numerous deaths in the past when buggies have overturned on the steep dunes - but as you read these lines, you know yours truly is alive and kicking. Our guide had also packed a couple of sandboards, and sandboarding down the dunes was something special.

Another highlight of my travels in southern Peru was Nasca, or more specifically the mysterious Nasca Lines. After much deliberation, I decided to take a 30 minute flight over the lines. I know I am not very good with small planes, but somehow my memory is really bad and I keep telling myself that "this time it will be all right". Unfortunately, it never does. Just 12 minutes into the flight, I was choking on the bag provided, which made the rest of the flight - and the rest of the day - very uncomfortable. However, I was wise enough to skip breakfast, otherwise it could have been very uncomfortable for the other five passengers and two pilots. However, seeing the ~2,000 year old Nasca Lines from above was an incredible experience and all in all it was worth it.

I mentioned in my previous blog post that most cities in Peru are pretty ugly, noisy, dirty and generally unpleasant affairs. So what an unexpected surprise when I arrived in Arequipa, the capital of the south. It was such a pleasant city, with perhaps the nicest central square I have seen in a long time, some pedestrianised streets, organised traffic, a very good restaurant scene (including the best cinnamon rolls I have possibly ever had).

Although Cusco is still more beautiful, I liked Arequipa a lot because of the lack of annoying touts and souvenir shops. It felt like a normal, beautiful city and I happily stayed for almost a week before my feet itched again. It also helped that I found a wonderful guesthouse: It was in a cul-de-sac so there was no traffic noise (rare), a table for my laptop (handy), a lovely terrace where breakfast was served (quaint), hot water in the shower (also rare) and a table lamp so I didn't have to sit in the harsh overhead light at night (pure luxury). It really is the little things.

Next was the dramatic Colca Canyon, which is actually much deeper than the Grand Canyon in the USA. I did a three day trek into the canyon and it was a great experience. It was extremely steep (almost 1,500 metres down on the first day and up again on the last) and extremely hot (over 40 degrees with absolutely no shade), but it was also extremely dramatic. I was also extremely lucky when I managed to see a condor - actually the largest bird in the western hemisphere - flying right above me numerous times. I could actually hear the whopping sound of its wings; it was incredible.

There are numerous small settlements inside the canyon, most of which offer basic accommodation for hikers. I chose to stay in a tiny place called Llahuar, and the guesthouse had three hot spring pools right next to the river that has formed the canyon over the past few million years. Sitting in the hot water after a hard day's walking was simply magical.

The second night I stayed in a small lodge in a place called Sangalle El Oasis. And an oasis it was, a patch of green in a mostly dry and dusty canyon. Again, magical. While the oasis is normally very popular with hikers and tour groups from Arequipa, two fellow hikers from Israel and I had the place all to ourselves, including the swimming pool at our lodge. Not very good for the struggling local economy that depends on tourists, but very nice and peaceful for the three of us.

And then it was time to leave Peru and enter Bolivia; my 90-day limit was fast approaching. Before finally making my way to Puno, I had contacted the German Embassy in La Paz (completely useless, unfriendly and standardised answers, ignoring my specific questions), the German Embassy in Lima (very helpful and friendly, but somewhat outdated information) and the Peruvian tourist information, iPeru. After considering all the information I had received, I had decided to take the safer but much longer route via Chile to Bolivia. But literally an hour before it was too late to change my mind (as I would have been too far gone to turn back), I received information from iPeru in Puno that the road to Puno had been reopened (it had been closed for a long time) and that there were now boats to cross Lake Titicaca to Bolivia.

I was already on the bus back to Arequipa (and on to Tacna on the Peru-Chile border) when I received this information. I made a gut decision to risk it and asked the minibus driver to drop me off in the middle of nowhere, at a turn-off on a road to Puno. I tried hitch-hiking for about an hour (unsuccessfully), but eventually a bus came along. Suddenly everything was fine and I had one of those rare but wonderful moments of a - traveller/spiritual (?) - high. Instead of spending countless hours on buses and wasting three or four days travelling to Bolivia via Chile, I was in Puno three hours later. Fantastic, I had given up on that possibility. The icing on the cake was one of the most dramatic roads I have ever driven. The bus driver let me sit in the jump seat next to him and the drive across the Andes, mostly over 4,000 metres, was nothing short of spectacular.

Funny, as I have seen so many times here in Peru: Of course the bus driver wasn't wearing his seatbelt. But he knew where the police checkpoints were on the route. After all, he makes the 5 hour trip twice a day. So he buckled his seatbelt 100 metres before a checkpoint and took it off 5 metres after the checkpoint. He has done this about 4 times on this route. So stupid, but I guess this is one of the reasons for the ridiculously high number of road deaths in Peru. On the particular winding and mountainous road we took, the number of roadside graves I saw in the three hours we were there must have been in the hundreds. But apparently even that is not enough of a warning for people to wear their seatbelts (and generally drive a little less crazy and risky).

Now a word or three about the wonderful people who work at iPeru. I have never experienced such competent, dedicated and helpful tourist information. First of all, iPeru has a 24 hour hotline in English, which I used a couple of times. Basically you can call them at 22h with any question (in my case about the latest roadblocks and border crossings) and they will help you out. Even better are the many iPeru offices around the country. They are always staffed by very knowledgeable people who speak perfect English (very unusual in a country like Peru where almost nobody speaks English).

I had used iPeru a few times in the three months I had been in the country, mostly with normal questions about places of interest, bus timetables and the like. But the offices in Arequipa and Puno really blew me away. I had rung them to enquire about the security situation in the Puno region, and in particular the border crossings into Bolivia. Both offices went out of their way to help me. When I lost mobile phone reception on a mountain road, the woman tried to call me back five (!) times, and also had another office try to call me. She also sent me numerous WhatsApp messages with tips, and when I arrived in Puno she offered to meet me in person at the port to buy the boat ticket to Bolivia. I have never experienced such helpful tourist information; the level of attention was almost frightening. Well done, Peru!

When I arrived in Puno, I was thrilled. Although I don't have a written bucket list, Lake Titicaca (Puno is on its shores) has been on the back of my mind for many years. Not quite in the same league as Machu Picchu or the Nasca lines, but still. And with the protests and violence surrounding it all, it felt extra special to finally be here, on the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at a cool 3,800 metres.

I spent a few days in the city of Puno and on the lake, and was particularly impressed by the floating Uros islands. The Uros are thought to be descended from the earliest inhabitants of Lake Titicaca and have maintained a floating lifestyle for hundreds of years. To protect themselves from hostile groups, they built floating islands from a local plant called totora. I learnt that the plant lasts for about three months before it rots, so the Uros have to keep adding new layers to the top as the bottom rots away. A fascinating life, floating on a reed island in Lake Titicaca without electricity or running water; it could not be more different from mine.

Although the roads leading to the Bolivian border were completely blocked by the protesters, enterprising boat owners on Lake Titicaca had converted their tourist boats into border-crossing vessels. They left Puno in Peru at 4am each morning for the six-hour journey to Kasani in Bolivia, and had even organised minibuses to pick up passengers from their various guesthouses in Puno. Peruvian immigration had also opened a temporary office in the port of Puno, where I was able to get an official Peruvian exit stamp the day before the boat left the next morning. All in all, it was a very straightforward affair.

This smooth border crossing service had been in place for about a month when I used it. I told the German embassy in Lima that the border was indeed officially open and that it was very easy to cross. However, almost two weeks later (as I write this blog) they are still insisting on their website that the border is completely closed, that there is no way to cross from Peru to Bolivia (and vice versa) and that the border has been officially closed by the authorities. This is definitely not true, and the route I took was not exotic, dangerous or illegal. Strange that they choose not to provide accurate information after receiving (and verifying) it.

Anyway, I felt I was done with Peru, having seen many corners of this beautiful but sometimes testing country. Or to put it in the words of a fellow Israeli traveller whom I spent a few days in Arequipa with: "I am ready for another country."



My route in Peru: Tumbes – Mancora – Lima – Cusco – Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu – Aguas Calientes – Urubamba – Cusco – Lima – Paracas – Pisco – Huacachina – Nasca –Arequipa – Cabanaconde – Llahuar – Sangalle El Oasis – Yanque - Puno.

Next stop: Copacabana (Bolivia).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.

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15th March 2023
Promenade in Puno

Promenade in Puno
What a stunning picture of a more idyllic Puno...the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca. I am posting some of your pics in TB's "Follow that Road" thread in the Photography Forum. Check 'em out.
15th March 2023
Protests in Puno

Protests in Puno
A great addition to TB's "Demonstrations & Protests" thread in the Photography Forum that is highlighted by Sud American images.
15th March 2023
Smoking volcano near the Colca Canyon

Smoking volcano
Absolutely love this photo. I will post it in TB's "Majestic Mountains" thread in the Photography Forum.
1st April 2023

Protesting Peru
Enterprising boat owners providing a needed service. The world is ever changing. Travel allows glimpses into the good, the bad and the struggles for change. Stay safe.

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