Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Amazon Adventure - to the Jungle! - March 2012

We headed to the airport to board our flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado. We had packed light and were ready to head out to explore the unknown with just our backpacks. Upon arrival in Puerto Maldonado, we were greeted by our guide from the Corto Maltes Lodge. It always feels like a bit of a relief when you arrive somewhere and you have someone waiting for you! We all piled into the tour van and headed on our way down to the river. Here we loaded ourselves onto a long river boat and were ready to navigate down the Madre de Dios river. It was hot and the air was heavy, but I was so excited that I really didn't even notice. The views were amazing, and our guide taught us all about the history and wildlife in the region. After one hour of navigating the river, we finally reached the lodge. We unloaded our bags and got checked into our rooms. The lodge itself has a big dinning hall, reception, bar, and gift shop - and each of the rooms is actually a private bungalow located on the property. The rooms were really nice and fit into the jungle atmosphere perfectly. We enjoyed a delicious lunch before heading out on our excursion. I must say that the food was extremely good and presented as if we were at a 5* restaurant - very impressive for a jungle lodge! Our first excursion of the day was a nature hike around the region. We spent about 2 1/2 hours exploring the trails near the lodge and learning about different trees, plants, insects, and birds of the rainforest. Our guide, Saay, was excellent and seemed to know everything there is to know about the plants and animals within the rainforest. It was amazing to look up and have our heads covered by the jungle canopy as we hiked along the trail. That evening, we headed out via river boat in the dark to hunt for caiman. (species of crocodile) We were lucky enough to spot a couple of the smaller caiman along the river banks. More than anything, it was just so enjoyable to be out on the boat in the middle of the amazon rainforest. I just kept thinking to myself, "How in the world did I ever get so lucky :)."
The next morning we got up at 5:00am to begin our full day of events! We started with an early hike to a parrot clay-lick which was about 30 minutes away from our lodge. The clay lick is basically an eave along a small cliff edge that is made of clay - the parrots and macaws need to eat this for their digestive system. We hid in the brush as we waited for the birds to come. After about 30 minutes a group of about 2 dozen macaws slowly made their way down to the clay-lick. They were a little hard to see, as they are green in color, but we definitely got some good photos of the birds! It was then time to head back to the lodge for a big breakfast before heading out for the rest of the day. We got our things together and once again loaded onto the river boat where we sailed down the river to Lake Sandoval. The Lake is located on the Tambopata National Reserve and is known to be home to a lot of wildlife in the region. Upon reaching the entrance point, we headed to the office to check-in. Then we began our 1 hour hike to the lake access. We trudged with our rubber boots through a lot of mud along the way, but it was well worth it once we reached the lake. The access point was a sort of lagoon of low lying water that the rainforest was basically still growing in. It was absolutely beautiful and felt like something straight out of a movie! We then climbed into a smaller canoe and our guide navigated us through the trees until we reached the lake opening. We flowed around the ledge of the lake looking at the wildlife and learning about the region. Eventually we stopped and enjoyed a traditional packed lunch along the riverside. Our guide then informed us that he could hear a large group of monkeys moving. We all rushed up the river bank where we could see the monkeys passing by. Monkeys sometimes travel in large groups when they are moving through the rainforest, and we were lucky enough to witness this. We starred in amazement looking up as over a 100 monkeys crawled over our heads for about 20 minutes. By the end of the day we got to see three species of monkeys - squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, and a spider monkey. It was so fun to watch the monkeys look at us and we starred up at them. It was then time to continue on our tour of the Lake and we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon navigating our way back. After hiking bike out, we boarded our river boat once again and went back to the lodge just as the sun was beginning to set. A lovely dinner that evening, followed by a dip in the pool, was the end to a lovely day.



On the third day, we got to have a private tour since the other 5 in our group were returning home that morning. We headed out with our guide and began the tour at a local farm. This farm was definitely not what you think of as a traditional farm. To anyone, it would just look like a couple of shacks surrounded by the rainforest. However, after meeting the family and walking through the property - we learned that everything on the land was something they could use. The trees were all various forms of fruit trees, and the ground was crawling with lots of medicinal plants. We pretty much got to sample everything we came across - and the fruit was so good! After the farm tour, we headed back on our way to monkey island. We hiked through the island for about an hour in search of another group of monkeys, but we weren't as lucky today. We returned to the boat and continued on to the last top of the day, a small adventure lodge. It was finally time to enjoy the much anticipated zip-lining through the rainforest. I was definitely more excited than nervous, but I must say climbing up the rickety tree house to the platform did have my stomach on edge. The zipline consisted of two seperate zip lines connected by a a tiny bridge made of 2x4s. The bridge was without a doubt the scariest part - it was pretty much like walking the tight rope - 60 feet in the air! The zip lines were really thrilling as we zipped through the trees and brush below, with our feet narrowly missing the trees we passed. I can't imagine any other way to end a vacation!
The experience at the lodge was definitely fun. Not only was the staff great, but we got to meet some really cool people who were staying there as well. One of the best parts of traveling is no doubt meeting other travelers and sharing stories with them. Our guide, Saay, did an amazing job, and the entire staff made us feel extremely welcomed. I was sad to leave that next morning, but after breakfast, we loaded back into the boat and headed back to Puerto Maldonado. We took our flight back to Lima and enjoyed the views from our plane of the river weaving through the Amazon like a snake below. I highly recommend an Amazon excursion to everyone who comes to Peru. It is a place like no other, and I can not wait until I have the opportunity to return again one day!!

Please visit my website at www.expertperutravel.com to learn more about Peru vacation destinations.

Return to Cuzco - discovering the unknown - February 2012

I had the opportunity to travel to Cusco for my third time. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Cusco is the historical capital of the Incan Civilization. It is a historical city with all of its original buildings being around 500 years old or more. Cusco is also the destination city closest to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu can be accessed from Cusco by a 3 1/2 hour train ride through the Sacred Valley. For this reason, Cusco has really developed into a home point for tourists traveling to the nearby Incan Ruins. Luckily, the tourism hasn't transformed the city too much, many of the original old buildings have been restored and turned into hotels, restaurants, museums, or other tourist friendly stops. All of the roads in the old downtown are cobblestone, with hardly enough room for one car to fit through. As the city is constructed in the mountains, the streets are uphill everywhere you go - making both walking and driving around the city quite the challenge. (This city was definitely not made for cars!)

The history of Cusco goes back a couple of thousand years even before the Inca Civilization exhisted. However, it really was developed into a lively capital city with the rise of the Incan Empire. Around the year 1250 AD, Manco Capac founded Cusco as the capital city of the Incan Empire. During this time the Incan Empire was very strong and growing, covering a large area of South America at it's peak. During the Incan Empire's most prosperous years, every aspect of the culture was advanced far beyond it's time; construction methods and architecture of the ancient cities, development of new textiles and agricultural methods, the social organization of the community, advanced science and astronomy, deep religious beliefs, etc... The Spanish invasion of the city happened in the 1530's, which was eventually the fall of power of the Incan Empire. However, Cusco remained a central and important part of the development. The Spanish brought new ideas of religion and construction, which you can see incorporated in the city of Cusco today. Much of the stone work on the buildings in Cusco was done by the Incan culture, but you will notice a destinct line in most buildings where the construction style changes. The bottom half of many buildings were constructed by the Incans, and later the buildings were restored or completed with a very evident Spanish influence. Cusco continues to be very cultural influenced city today. It is evident that craftmanship, art, construction, preservation of the culture, and community development are still important to the people.

My favorite place to visit in the city of the Cusco is definitely the main Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas. This building is unbelievably massive and an obvious central point of the city. Inside the cathedral is really beyond words. There are so many little niches with seperate alters set up for different prayers or different saints. Each individual one is unique and an intriquite work of art. The alters are constructed from wood and beautiful metals - gold and silver. There are also beautiful tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and mirrors - each with it's own significance and placed in it's exact position for a specific reason. There is a large mix of the Incan and the Spanish cultures within the cathedral - you can see it in the pictures and figures carved or drawn. There are two points I think are the most impressive in the cathedral - the organ and the main alter. The organ is constructed of wood with such detail and the main alters are massive works of art in both wood and gold.

There are of course an endless number of other places to visit in and around the city, but I won't go into such detail about this. Some of the most famous places are Koricanchi, Monasterio, Sacsayhuaman, and many other historical cathedrals, plazas, and museums. The historical sights really only begin within the city, as the entire Andes region around Cusco is full of Incan history. You will find worship grounds, ancient cities, temples, agricultural terraces, burial grounds, fortresses, and a number of other sites all located within the vicinity. Machu Picchu is definitely the most well known, accessible, and probably most significant of these sights; however, other cities just as massive have been uncovered in the region as well.

Now to talk about my weekend. I traveled with my boyfriend Julio again, so that was very nice. We left early on Friday morning and came back on Monday afternoon - so a fairly quick trip. The first day we spent our time taking care of business to get that out of the way. I had 3 meetings set up and also some hotels that I wanted to visit. So the first day was pretty hectic, but we got everthing done and out of the way. I also met with some pretty cool people that I am excited to hopefully be working with very soon. In the evening we went out for a nice dinner and enjoyed some time with Julio's sister, Jocelyn. She works with the government on development projects, so she gets to spend a lot of time working on different projects through regions in Peru. It was very nice to sit down with her and enjoy a nice evening in the city.

On the second day, Julio and I got up early to head out on an adventure into the Sacred Valley. We had hoped to be able to rent a car, but as none were available, we rented a taxi driver to take us for the day. Surprisingly this is actually quite a bit cheaper than renting your own car anyways. We headed out of the city with a brief stop at Sacsayhuaman (Ancient Incan Ceremonial Grounds - famous for Inti Raymi Festival), then continued through the Urubamba river valley onto the city of Pisaq - one hour away. We enjoyed a nice lunch in Pisaq and walked through the local market before heading up to the ruins. The ancient construction of Pisaq is a site above the city within the mountains. The city is gaining more popularity as a tourist destination as it is a large city with 3 seperate and distinct parts connected by Incan Trails. We walked through the first site which is largely used for agriculture and some housing complexes, then continued along the trail to the main religious center where the temple and worship sites are constructed. The worship grounds are always constructed with the utmost skill and perfection - the massive rocks are cut and carved to interconnect perfectly and form skillfull designs and construction. The citadel is really very similar to Machu Picchu in the way it is constructed and the significance of each building. The trail then continues on to the final stop of the city - the community. The granite stone buildings were constructed to house the majority of the people in the city and provide a central point for community activities and work. After the somewhat strenous hike back - I was ready to head back home. (Either I am really out of shape, or the altitude was getting to me. I am not sure how the Incan people ran up and down these trails, stairs, and cliffs every day!)

On the third day, we finally were able to rent a car! I don't think Julio has ever been so happy as he was driving the car through the Sacred Valley. The reality is Julio has never had a car and therefore loves to drive every chance that he has! I must admit it was pretty fun to just have the freedom to go where we wanted, drive on the open, and stop in little villages along the way. It definitely provides a more intimate experience and time to really enjoy. After a couple of merely scenic stops, we eventually reached our first destination - Maras. Outside of this little, untouched by the modern world, city, are two famous incan sites. Moray is a natural circular indentation in the ground formed by the different sediments in the region. The Incans constructed perfect circular rings into the ground in this region and used it test crops - it was an important agricultural development. The second destination was the nearby Salineras - salt mines. This salt mines were first harvested by the Incans, but continue to grow and are active salt mines today. It is a massive system of pools set up along the mountain side where the salt is collected.

After enjoying the two stops, we continued on our way and happened to come accross a local festival taking place in one of the villages. We of course decided to stop and enjoy the fun! It was a comunity festival with games for the kids, lots of food and drink stands, a stage set up for a beauty contest, music, and native dance performances. It was fun to stop and take part in the festivities - I even got to eat some cotton candy - who would have thought!

Our final destination of the day was Ollantaytambo. This fortress was built by the Incan's in a strategic point along the river valley blocking access to Machu Picchu. The massive construction above the Urubamba River gave them both a lookout point and an advantage over anyone trying to cross. The fortress if most famous for a battle with the Spanish army led by Pizarro. The Incan's defeated the Spanish from this point and in that moment kept the Spanish from continuing to conquer the region.

The trip to Cusco was definitely fun, and different for me this time. I got to get off of the traditional tourist path and explore some of the lesser known regions. It was a full and productive weekend - definitely a nice a get away for Julio and I. I would sure love it if we could do this every weekend!

Navigating Lake Titicaca - January 2012

 

In January I had the opportunity to finally visit one of the most famous sights in Peru - Lake Titicaca. I had been waiting anxiously to go on this trip for a number of reasons. I have been selling vacations to Peru, which almost always include the beautiful Lake Titicaca, yet I had never even seen it myself! Also, last August, I was lucky enough to have won 2 free nights at the 5*Libertador hotel located on a peninsula stretching out into the lake. I had made our reservations and bought the plane tickets for Julio and I back in October, so I was excited the day was finally here!

Lake Titicaca is considered the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,500 ft.. It is a massive body of water boarding both Peru and Bolivia. The Lake is over 100km in width and 60km across. The habitat around the lake is very unique as well. You can see the views of the beauitful mountains all around the lake, but it is also located at the dividing point were the vegetation really changes from a mountainous region into the Amazon rainforest. If someone had the time, I think it would be an amazing trip to trek around the lake and visit the local communities and historical sights.

Our journey began early on Friday morning to catch our flight to Juliaca. (city 40 minutes from the lake) We had a bit of a delay getting to our destination which caused a long layover in Arequipa, but finally we did arrive to Juliaca about 3 hours later than expected. We had no real plans in place for this first day, so all was well and good =). We took a combi from the airport along with a couple other travelers and headed on our way to Puno. (Lake Titicaca) Every time I travel outside of Lima, I am still surprised at what I see. Even though I know that the rest of the country lives in much different conditions than I do in Lima; it is like you forget how different it really is when you don't see it everyday. I guess that explains how a small 15% or 20% of the population in Lima's modern districts can live completely modern, almost luxury lifestyles while the majority of the people in the country live with hardly anything. I will save some of these comparisons of economic class for another post. Back to the trip, the ride through the Andes was absolutely beautiful as we made our way up and down the curvy roads until we reached our destination. It was wide open countryside, green, animals, farm houses, I guess you could say it kind of made me feel like I was back home!

We finally reached Puno and were dropped off at our hotel, just outside the city limits. We quick checked in and explored our hotel. We had an amazing room with a perfect view out to Lake Titicaca, along with all the perks of staying in a 5* hotel. Julio and I are pretty used to traveling on a budget and finding whatever cheap hostal we can, so this was definitely new to both of us! I was anxious to get out and see the city, so we got a cab and headed back into the city center. We were able to walk around and see some of the hisoric buildings on the main plaza, check out a couple of hotels, and grab a bite to eat at a market next to the lake. The weather was good with fair temperatures and clear skies, which was lucky as normally January begins the rainy season. So we took advantage of this by going out on the lake a little bit after renting a paddle boat. After a couple races with some kids up and down the lagoon, we docked our paddle boat just before the rain began. It was time to head back to the hotel and relax for the evening. When traveling from sea level to such high elevation, it is important to allow yourself some down time to avoid getting altitude sickness, and we had already reached our limit.

We were woke up very early by the sunrise at about 4:30am, but I can't complain as it was probably the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. We had an amazing breakfeast buffet and then were picked up for our full day boat tour of Lake Titicaca. We met up with our tour group and got into our seats at the front of the boat, and off we went. Our guide told us all about the history of the Lake and the development of different tribes that lived and still live in the area today. If you are looking to learn about native cultures still living the way their ancestors did 100s of years before, this is a great place to visit. Our first stop was at the Uros Islands where we got invited onto the island by the president of the native tribe. These islands are very unique, as they are completely man made floating islands. The islands used to be located out in the center of the lake, but have recentely been moved a little closer inland due to the profits they receive from allowing tourism. The culture still lives in the native form that they did; however they are not completely seperated from society as they do need to occasionally come inland for goods and local events. The islands, homes, and boats, are all constructed from the reeds and boyant soil in the lake. The construction process, as you can imagine, is very time consuming and tidious work done with very few tools available to them. The second stop on our trip was quite a trek out to a real island, Taquile Island, located in the middle of the Lake. The people of this Island are completely self sufficient and live as a community working together to support each other. They have pretty much everything they need on the Island, including stone homes/buildings, terraces for agriculture up the sides of the island, livestock living on the island, and a organization of government on their own. Obviously the society has been touched by some modern advantages as well from tourism, but for the most part, they still live as an independent community. The views from this island were amazing. You can see across the lake in each direction and the shadows of the mountains in the distanct background. After learning about their culture and enjoying a nice lunch, it was time to head out on our journey back to Puno. It took about 2 1/2 hours to return to Puno, and I think everyone had a nice nap on the way back from the trip.

We returned to our hotel and enjoyed a relaxing evening with a nice small dinner at the restaurant, then relaxing in the hot tub. I was surprised to learn that Julio had never been in a hot tub before.. haha.. I guess this is not something that really exists in Peru. The only place you are likely to find this would be in a 5* hotel. I definitely enjoyed the busy weekend, but I was exhausted and ready for bed. The next morning we enjoyed a quiet morning with another amazing breakfast (this breakfast buffet was amazing!) and walking around a little to enjoy the grounds outside of the hotel. It was then time to head out in route back to the airport so we could get our flight home. The flight back home was without incident and we arrived back to Lima at about 2:30pm. It had definitely been a quick weekend, but we enjoyed our time at Lake Titicaca. The only sight we didn't have time to really visit that I was hoping to see were the Chulpas (Towers for funeral/burials). They are historical burial tours located outside of Puno dating back to the pre-Incan culture. I guess that gives me another reason to return again someday!!

The North Shores - Beach - July 2011

Discovering the city of Lima - Review of sights

Cuzco and Machu Picchu - March 2011

I spent last weekend on a little trip for work. It was a 4 day / 3 night trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu - packed full of tours and hotel visits. I won't explain everything about this trip, but there are definitely some highlights worth mentioning. The ancient city of Cusco was the heart and driving force of the Inca Empire. Learning more about the history and power of this Empire is incredible; I highly suggest any history buffs out there to go do some reading about the rise of this colony and era. The architecture, art, intelect, spirtuality, and power of the Inca Empire can not really completely be understood until you are standing there in front of something like Machu Picchu. Breathtaking is truly an understatement. Looking down on this massive ruin temple you literally feel the energy and spirit of the place come to life. There is no doubt that the significance of this site can not be fully understood by us today. There are many unanswered questions about the purpose of this site, how it was constructed, and the capabilities of the people whom dwelt here. The fact that these Inca ruins have withstood hundreds of years of abuse - hidden under brush, withstanding several earthquakes, massive floods, and have been uncovered in nearly perfect condition is astonishing. Can you honestly imagine any buildings we build today will be standing in 500 or 1000 years from now? Obviously we haven't figured out how to build buildings that withstand earthquakes, yet the logic of building something at a 9 degree angle leaning inward to withstand any ground movements was very aparent to ancient societies. The architecture and manpower is absolutely mind boggling.

My trip had a very busy schedule with tours and hotel visits during my downtime.  I arrived at about 11:00am and had to begin my city tour that day at 1:00pm.  We visited the most famous sights in the city, including; Cathedral, Koricancha, Plaza de Armas, and several smaller ruin sights outside of the city - most importantly the Sacsayhuaman Ceremonial grounds. The next day I had a full day tour of the Sacred Valley.  The tour bus stopped at some beautiful viewpoints, a traditional yarn factory (with lots of llamas), Pisac Ruins, Pisac Market, Ollantaytambo Fort, and the village of Chincheros.  The full day tour left us just enough time to take a short tour of each place before moving on to the next.  Finally, I was able to visit Machu Picchu on my final day!  The train ride from Cusco was about 3 1/2 hours, but I was able to enjoy a 2 1/2 hour tour followed by almost 2 hours of free time exploring the area. It was a truly amazing experience! Although I was able to see plenty of Machu Picchu, I would recommend more time for anyone traveling here.  I would have loved to have been able to hike up the Huayna Picchu Trail.  I guess that saves something for me to look forward to the next time that I visit!

Another important thing I took away from this trip was the experience of being a tourist - and doing it alone. Of course I was on tours with different groups everyday, but it is a totally different experience to arrive somewhere and travel alone. A lot of people tell me I am very independent and brave, and I also like to think I can be at times; however this isn't always true. Being a solo traveler in a group, people are very receptive of you. I made a lot of friends and had some great conversations with travelers from all of the place. The other solo travelers tend to group together, and many other young and old adventurers become very interested in finding out how you got here and what your story is. I was definitely received much differently than I would have been had I been traveling with a friend or boyfriend by my side. I have a new respect for many of those people who head out on vacations and adventure treks completely alone. It is a totally different experience from traveling with friends, and I think many new doors are opened to you when you are solo. Although it may be hard to take that first step off the plane alone or walk onto a bus with no one to sit next too, I think everyone should try it. It is definitely not something I always want to do, but it really taught me a lot about myself and made me feel more confident. I am not in any way saying that traveling alone is better than sharing a vacation with a spouse or friend, but I honestly feel it is something everyone should experience.

Adventure to the South - Paracas - Ica - Nazca - January 2011


Julio and I had been planning a little get away to get out of the city. After work, I packed my bags, did some laundry, and then headed over to Julio's house. We ate a late dinner and finalized our plan for the trip. We were taking an overnight bus to Ica ( about 4 1/2 hours). We arrived at the bus depot at about midnight and got tickets for a 1:00am bus. Sleeping on a bus isn't that fun, but I have to admit it sure makes for an easy way to travel cheap.

After arriving in Ica, we had to get on another bus line that went to Nazca. We got on another bus right away, this ride was a little less than 2 hours long. It was through the dessert and some small villages. The difference between the city of Lima and the rest of country absolutely amazes me. Outside of Lima, life is pretty different. People live literally in little shelters built out of scraps of wood and whatever they can find all over the place. Most of the buildings are falling apart, all of the walls have grafitti ( old political campaigns mostly ), and there is virtually no evidence of business or jobs. Well besides people selling crafts or food at the most trafficed intersections. It seems sad, but in a way it kind of just is the lifestyle most of the people have always lived. Not much has changed in the last few hundred years, and the changes that they do make don't seem to stick. Right outside of Nazca there was a really fertile valley that the river passed through. There was a lot of farmland in this area. Grapes, other fruits, potatoes, and who knows what else was being grown. There were tons of workers in the field digging, planting, and whatever else they do all by hand. The only source of technology in the farming seemed to be a single plow. One row being pulled by a mule. Man, our farmers back in MN sure have it good! :o)
Ok, finally, we arrived in Nazca! We had breakfast and headed out to the tiny local airport. Literally you wouldn't believe what they call an airport unless you saw it. We had been warned by a lot of people that travel in and out of this airport was very dangerous in the past, but recently with the tourism boom more regulations were in place. Anyways, we were planning to go out on a small plane to view the Nazca Lines. They are famous drawings done in the dessert over 2000 years ago by the ancient Nazca people. The lines are massive, mysterious, and can only be seen by plane. I won't waste to much time talking about them, but here is a link if anyone wants to learn more about the Nazca Lines. After some haggling over prices, we booked a flight. At about 11:30 we were loading the plane in some extreme dessert heat. It was a little scary being in a 6 passenger plane, but I was still excited. Once we were airborne, all worries were gone. We spent only about 40 minutes in the air. I have to admit it was better than I had thought. You really could see the lines and it was a pretty impressive view. The ride was quite shaky, and there was a moment I thought I may loose my breakfast, but I made it through with a smile!

Our next destination for the weekend was back to Ica. Outside of Ica there is a small oasis called Huacachina; it has a beautiful tropical lagoon and is surrounded by sand dunes. The sand dunes are a popular destination for sandboarding and dune buggies. Julio was pretty darn excited to get out there and try it, I on the other hand not so much. Intense heat, sand in the face, and knowing that it really doesn't work that well, were not very motivating factors. Anyways Julio had a pretty good time giving it a shot, and I did give it a half hearted attempt as well. I think it made for better pictures than actual enjoyment. However, the people flying by on the dune buggies seemed to be having the time of their lives.  Next time we come back, I will definitely give them a shot!  Watching the sunset over the sand dunes was probably one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever scene. I've never taken the time to really appreciate sand before. We spent the evening enjoying the little boardwalk where vendors sold goods and there were several restaurants and hostals. We went back to our hostal to find that they were preparing for a huge party. Parties here typical begin at 11 and go until about 6 in the morning. We had to leave for Paracas at 6:30 the next morning. Needless to say, it was a long night, and not because we partied, we were far too tired for that. Sleeping through the music shaking the walls was worse than sleeping on the bus. And Julio freaking out and waking me up at about 2:00am to inform me that we were being eaten alive by mosquitos was not what I wanted.

We woke up early and headed out to Paracas. It is a small town on the ocean about an hour away from Ica. We took a boat tour to the Ballestas Islands. The Islands are actually beautiful rocks that are a sanctuary to a lot of marine life and birds. A huge ( I mean 1,000s if not 10,000s ) colony of sea lions live along some of the rocky shorelines. There were tons of sea birds of every kind, and the rocks are actually a beautiful white color due to years of bird poop landing on them. The most surprising animal was the penguin. Apparently there are penguins off the coast of Peru, and I thought they only lived in Antarctica. They were a different kind of penguin, but a penguin none the less. There are also supposedly dolphins that frequent the area, but we didn't get ot see any this time. After returning back to shore and having a little lunch, we went to the National Reserve right outside of Paracas. It is a dessert area with a beautiful sand/cliff coastline all along the bay that inlets from the ocean. We spent a couple hours on the beach enjoying the view and taking in the sun. Wow, what a packed full weekend it had been, so it was time to start heading home. We got on a bus to leave Paracas at about 5:00 and returned to Lima a little after 8:00. Since the weekend had been so full with virtually no sleep, I think we were both kind of glad to be back. I know I was.

All in all, it was a fun weekend getaway.  The area definitely has a lot of places to visit and fun to be had.  It is just wonderful for me to get to experience first hand the different adventures that Peru has to offer!

Meeting Peru for the first time - July 2010

My relationship with Peru began in July of 2010 as I arrived to Peru excited about meeting a friend and enjoying 3 weeks of my summer backpacking through the different regions.  To be honest, I had virtually done no research on Peru and was leaving the itinerary completely in the hands of my friend.  My "friend" was actually a boy I had dated for a short while and stayed in touch with.  Julio is Peruvian and had invited me to come visit him at his home in Peru.  This was really a great opportunity for me to travel the country with someone who was from there - a rare opportunity. 

Arriving to Peru was a little scary and chaotic for me as it was my first time traveling out of the country alone.  Everything was foreign to me, but very exciting at the same time!  Taking in the sights within the city of Lima was a lot of fun.  I had no idea that Lima was a city of almost 10 million people right along the coast.  Each region of the city is a little different than the other, and I had the opportunity to explore both the historical and modern areas of Lima.  The traffic was INSANE, but overall the people were extremely friendly and welcoming.  The most challenging part was that I didn't remember hardly any of the Spanish I had learned in high school.  I guess since I haven't traveled outside of the States a whole lot, I was a little bit unsure of how much English would be spoken in Peru.  Many people were very kind and tried to help me out by speaking a bit of English, but it was definitely still a challenge.  With a mix of Spanish and English, I seemed to be able to get around to where I needed to go each day.  (I was on my own for the first couple of days - as Julio was finishing his work week.)

With the arrival of the weekend, we headed out for the start of our trip.  Our first destination was a smaller city located in the Andes north of Lima - Huaraz.  We headed to the bus station on Friday night and waited our turn in line to board the next bus.  The place was so crowded and the process was extremely hectic - I definitely recommend booking your bus ahead of time!  Finally we boarded our evening bus in route to Huaraz, which was a 7 hour ride. 

We arrived to Huaraz early in the morning (6:30am), and headed directly into town to find a hostal for a few days.  We quickly found a cheap, suitable accomodation and headed on our way for the first tour.  We boarded a tour bus by 8:30am, and were headed out of the city through the Andes mountains.  The destination for the day was the historical site of "Chavin".  This pre-incan temple and ceremonial grounds is a famous construction of the Chavin culture - 1000 BC.    The construction of this temple was very advanced and impressive for it's time.  I was absolutely amazed to learn how they moved rocks, carved their sculptures, designed their water systems, and built their buildings to withstand earthquakes.  This society was no doubt ahead of it's time, and it is amazing that their constructions still exist for us to enjoy today.  The access to Chavin was about a 4 hour drive from the city, but the trip was broken up with several stops along the way.  We got to visit a small village and do a short hike around a beautiful lake in the mountain region.  Although the trip does make for a very long day, I have to say that the views, culture, and experience are definitely worth the time!

The second day in Huaraz was even more exciting than our first.  We rented mountain bikes and were headed out on a mission to bike to another lake in the Andes mountains.  The route was about 35 miles up and down through several small villages along the way.  Our plan was to bike all the way there, and then return with our bikes via bus and/or taxi on the way back.  It was a pretty intense undertaking to say the least.  The beginning of the trip was definitely the roughest part. As we were biking our way out of town, through some traffic, Julio was unfortunate enough to get hit by a car.  Yes, he got hit by a car on his bike!!  We were crossing the street, me first, then him, and a taxi flew out of nowhere without and even looking.  Julio landed on the hood of the car and the bike fell down in front.  Luckily, Julio was not at all hurt, and the bike was ok.  However, this definitely created a huge argument in the middle of the street with the cops coming over to get involved.  Finally, we resumed our route as he was physically fine, just mad.  The next four hours were spent with some intense uphill climbs, followed by some extremely fast downward speed.  We finally reached our destination, Huascaran National Park, and were able to enjoy a nice boat ride on the beautiful lake.  The snow capped mountains in the background were gorgeous, and the turquois colored really made for an amazing sight.  The sun was beginning to set and we needed to hurry downhill back to the nearby village where we could get a taxi.  The ride was an intense downhill down the mountainside with loose gravel and lots of curves.  Everything seemed to be going okay until it started to get dark very quickly.  If the dark wasn't bad enough, some wild dogs started chasing down the mountains.  As I screamed and rode for my life, Julio jumped off and started throwing stones at the dogs to try to scare them away.  Unfortunately the dogs were jumping at our feet and almost knocking us off the bikes - so the only choice we had was to ride as fast as we could.  I have done some pretty stupid things in my life - but this one is probably close to the top of the list!  We are so lucky neither of us had a major wipeout.
Our final day in Huaraz, we just enjoyed walking around the city and exploring the area.  The town was celebrating the Peruvian Independce Day, so we got to take part in the local fair and enjoy the music and dancing that evening.  It was nice to have a relaxing day after!!
We then continued on to our next destination via  night bus from Huaraz to Trujillo.  This bus was the only was left (since it was holiday), so we were left with no option but to take the small backseats and continue on our way.  What I thought was going to be a normal bus, turned into being something completely different.  Not only was it the most crowded bus I had ever been on, but it also probably had the worst smell.  About 20 minutes into the trip - after sneezing 100 times - I realized the lady next to me had a baby goat wrapped up in her lap.  We also started to hear the sounds of chickens, cats, and dogs who were all along for the ride.   The trip was 6 hours, and I wish I could say that the animals were the worst part, but they were not.  We were on a road that had just been opened, but was still under some construction - it was apparently a shortcut.  It was all gravel and only had room for one way traffic as it curved up and down through the mountains.  Apparently, it is acceptable to drive a hundred miles per hour in the dark around blind corners and nearing cliff edges when you are in Peru.  I was shaking the entire time!  At one point we had to reverse up the mountain for about 15 minutes so that another truck could get through, and after that, we had to lay boards down in one point so that the wheels did not get stuck in part of the road that was falling away down the cliff edge.  In the end, we lived, and I had once again learned the importance of maybe planning your trip ahead of time to avoid these situations. 

We then spent the day in Trujillo relaxing before heading on another bus to our next destination of Mancora.  After a short walk around the city and lunch, we relaxed until we could catch the next night bus the remainder of the route to the beach in the North.  Finally we were on our way to enjoying a good time on the beach.   Once arriving to Mancora, we had to find a hostal for the night, which was apparently not a very easy task.  Many of the hostals were full, and our budget was limited our choices.  We stayed in a pretty shanty hostal the first night, but it was a place to sleep. 

The next day was a day for relaxing on the beach.  We took in the sun, walked around the market, and hunted down a new hostal.  We were able to find a much better hostal and moved our things to the new room to enjoy the rest of our trip.  That night we were able to go out on the town and enjoy some of the parties that were going on to celebrate the Independence Day.

The following day, we were heading out on an excursion to the northern most point of Peru.  We took a combi about 1 1/2 hours to the north until we reached the Mangrove Swamps.  This little oasis feels like a jungle setting and is an oasis for a lot of unique wildlife in the area.  It literally is a serious of swamps or small rivers that travel through the jungle like reach that is full of wildlife.  We got on an adoreable little river boat with our guide and began our tour through the swamps.  We saw a ton of different birds, plants, and crocodiles.  The highlights of the trip was definitely walking through some intense mud to view a flamingo island, then hiking through the island to get to the crocidile refugee.  It was such a fun afternoon enjoying the boat ride, taking pictures, and learning about the flora and fauna of the region.

Our final day of the trip was again spent all day on the beach.  The beaches in the north are absolutely beautiful, and the weather is tropical.  I must admit, I was surprised to find that the water was still pretty cold, but it was refreshing none-the-less.  We relaxed, enjoyed some great food, and had a wonderful time getting to know eachother better.

The next day we returned to Lima, and I just had two more days in the city before departing back home.  I knew at that moment that Peru was definitely a place I wanted to return to.  I had only gotten a taste of the different cultures, regions, and adventures that Peru has to offer.  Even the trip was a bit of a "disaster" - it actually was perfect.  I learned so much about the people and the country by traveling the way that we did.  I am still hoping that I can relive this trip someday and follow the exact route that we took once again.  :)

I have to say, if you ever really want to get to know someone you are dating, try going on a backpacking trip with them.  You will definitely see both the best and the worst sides of that person and be allowed to work on overcoming problems together.  Traveling with an amazing person that I grew to rely on, trust, and have fun with is probably another reason that I loved the country so much.  When I finally left the country, I was already making plans for the next time I could return.