Independent travel advice for Peru

IF you are travelling over land from Ecuador in to Peru you will probably arrive first in Piura a fairly uninteresting border town.  From here it is a further 4 – 6 hours to Chicalayo which has a few half decent places to stay (try www.hoteltumbasreales.com).  From here you can travel on to Huanchaco – a beach side resort where you can watch the local fishermen bring in the catch on their straw boats.  There are some good restaurants along the sea front and good hostels here.  Near Hunachaco is the town of Trujillo with some interesting architecture and also the Chan Chan ruins (very reminiscent of star wars).

Lima is the capital and transport hub for the country so difficult to avoid. The capital doesn’t offer much to stick around for but if you’ve been backpacking on a shoestring for a bit and want some creature comforts – head to Mina Flores for some decent accomodation, bars & restaurants.  Most of the hostels are on this modern island with in the city but you will find significantly cheaper prices in the old part of the city.

Peru is a great country from which to explore the Amazon.  You can fly direct from Lima to Iquitous in the centre of the Amazon – this rainforest town is only accessible by air or water.  You will be swamped with taxi drivers offering you their recommendations for accomodations and tour companies so be prepared to defend your personal space upon exiting the terminal.  Shop around and negotiate when choosing the tour company to go with – local guides will offer you authentic experiences in isolated villages (often involving all night ferry journeys down the Amazon river accompanied by all kinds of animals, livestock, fish & produce) …. a fantastic experience but be prepared to rough it – no running water or electricity!  Alternatively there are lots of luxury options available which may be don’t provide the authentic Amazon experience, & the treat of getting to know the locals, but are perhaps more suitable for the squeamish (expect to be getting up close & personal with all things that creep and slither)!  Remember to bring tons and tons of very strong deet insect repellent with you – the mosquitos are every where, love the blood of a ‘gringo’ & are strong enough to bite through clothing … even jeans!

Highlights of the Amazon include fishing for Piranhas in little wooden canoes with your fishing rod / twig & string – these canoes are very flimsy so don’t rock the boat!  For the very brave a swim in the Amazon is an amazing experience and if you’re with the locals expect some mud slinging matches – if you’re very lucky you will get up close to the famous pink dolphins, but unlike their salt water cousins this rare breed are pretty shy.  Obviously the Amazon offers many an encounter with wildlife of all shapes & sizes – snakes, spiders, toucans, monkeys are some of the most common spots.  On our trip we actually camped a night under the stars in the heart of the Amazon jungle with nothing for protection but banana leaves under our sleeping bags – with the fireflies for nightlights it was truly spectacular but definitely not an experience for the faint hearted!

The Inca trail is undoubtedly a highlight of any visit to South America and is certainly the jewel in the crown of any backpackers visit to Peru.  While it is certainly hard work it is entirely possible for any one of average fitness and doesn’t demand any specific training – just take your time, pace yourself and if you’re worried about altitude sickness invest in some pills before you depart Cusco.  The trail is very peaceful – walkers are limited to only 200 people a day so you can walk for quite long distances with out seeing any other tourists.  It is an amazing feeling to tread the path of the Incas, witness some of the most incredible views on this earth and almost feel alone while doing so.  The access limitations do mean that you need to book your place on the trail well in advance however.  Tours differ in price from the very basic ‘carry your own backpack’ (only for the very fit) to the norm of basic food & accomodation with porters to carry all camping, food and personal luggage, all the way up to the very luxurious camping and food options.  We took our tour with the midrange option – Gap Adventures, enjoyed every second and would highly recommend them.  Day 2 is the hardest of the 4 – the ascent of ´dead womans pass` – but the views at the top are well worth it and you will feel a great sense of achievement once you reach them.  The porters are an integral part of the Inca Trail experience, there are a total of c. 300 of them per day on top of the 200 walkers .. we had 12 porters for 6 of us in our group.  Each porter carries about 25 kilos on their backs and they lug this up literally vertical slopes and then back down again … at a run and in flip flops!!  It´s unbelievable to see … apparantly one of the porters actually managed to complete the whole Inca trail (with out any weight on his back though) in 3 hours 45 minutes … this is a trail which takes all the tourists 4 days!  The porters run ahead of the walkers and then set up camp for lunch, then go ahead again to set up camp for dinner and tents for the night.  When we walked it there were porters as old as 58 in our group and apparantly there were 70 year old porters still working the trail!  Having a very knowledgable guide who speaks good english makes a big difference to the experience so do your research when picking a tour company.  The last stretch of the trail is begun at 4am on the 4th morning to ensure you’ll arrive at the sun gate in time to see the sun rise and mist roll off the valley to reveal Machu Picchu.

East of Cusco on the border with Bolivia is Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world.  Take a boat tour out on to the lake to visit the amazing floating reed islands of the Uros people.  The community here have been making their homes from the reeds of the lakes and living upon them since pre incan times.  Walking on the islands as they bob up and down is a very strange experience but the reeds are layered up very thick as the islanders simply add a layer every time they feel concern over sinking!  It is also possible to stay in home stays on some of the bigger non reed islands of the lake – very basic accomodation with no running water or electricity but a real chance to witness the local way of life which has remained unaltered for generations.

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