I know I say this about everywhere in Peru, but the Colca Canyon was a stop I was really, really looking forward to. Named for the Colca River in its valley, the canyon is navigable only by foot or mule and takes a minimum of two days to hike. At the top of the canyon you’ve got bone-dry desert; at the bottom, a river that gives life to lush little oases. On the list of things I was excited to do in Peru, I knew this would be one of only a few that I would be really disappointed to miss.
And for a while, it looked like Nick and I might have to skip it. Luckily, we decided to ignore our bodies’ pleas for rest and make the hike, whose difficulty level no one could seem to agree on. I’ll save you the suspense: it was haaard. As the world’s second deepest canyon (it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon!), that probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
When I wrote about Arequipa, I sort of ventured away from the more fact-based kind of writing I’ve done about places like Huacachina. Instead, I wrote more about my own experience there, an approach that’s fitting for a blog but that can leave out all kinds of interesting facts. For example, I totally forgot to mention that Arequipa’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or talk about Arequipa’s unique blend of architectural styles. So, as I was sorting through my photos of the Santa Catalina Monastery, I figured this would be a good opportunity to amend that.
The Monastery is a fascinating city-within-a-city. Where else could you find a convent whose atmosphere more resembled that of a 16th century cloistered Peruvian Moulin Rouge than that of a pious religious citadel? That Moulin Rouge comparison might be an exaggeration, but only barely. (Presumably, the nuns at Santa Catalina didn’t enjoy liquor or men— though there are rumors.)
While churches and museums might get priority in guidebooks, there’s nothing I enjoy seeing more in a new-to-me city than its markets. Walking into a market, you’re inundated with the smells of produce and meats, the bright colors of competing stalls, and the shouts of vendors calling out their wares. I do enjoy museums, to be clear— but this is undeniably a more organic experience. In Arequipa, the San Camilo Market was one of my favorite spots in the city.
Somehow, this market doesn’t get hyped like the city’s other sights do, and I think that’s unfortunate. For one, shopping at local markets is a really direct way of contributing to the local economy. And beyond that, it’s just more interesting than shopping at the nearest grocery store. Vendors are usually happy to answer your questions, you never know what you’ll find, and you’ll usually learn something.
By the end of our first week in Peru, I was exhausted. We had spent a fun few days walking around Miraflores and Barranco in Lima, climbed the dunes in Huacahina, and then spent two full days sick in bed. When we finally left for Arequipa, it was mostly out of stubbornness— we spent our first day there still sick in bed. So, by our second day, we were overdue for some relaxed, aimless wandering. Luckily, Arequipa is just the place for it.
Before I dig in, I’ll admit to being a bit of a spoilsport on this one— which is part of the reason it took me so long to write about it. The flu that Nick and I got in Huacachina ended up lingering for over a week, and it was endlessly frustrating to feel a little better every evening only to wake up congested and headachey each morning. Add to that Arequipa’s shifting temperatures (hot in the day, freezing at night) and air pollution, and I wasn’t having the time of my life. So, while we ended up spending five full days in Arequipa, much of that was spent working or eating soup at the hostel. The rest of it— the stuff in this post— fit into just two of those days.
I’ve come to accept something about this trip through Peru: for most of it, I’ll be sticking to a very well-established tourist trail. That’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there it is. There are just so many appealing (and famous) stops, and I only have so much time.
Peru’s Gringo Trail, as it’s maybe-not-affectionately known, involves a few major stops. There’s Lima, which most visitors give anywhere from one night to a week, depending on their disposition toward South American capitals and traffic. Then there’s Arequipa, the colonial city to the south, and Cusco, the Incan city best known as the jumping-off point for treks to Machu Picchu. And for those who have the time, there are a few stops along the coast: the Paracas National Reserve, the Islas Ballestas (or “Poor Man’s Galapagos”), the Nazca lines, the Ica wineries, and the Huacachina sand dunes.
We had plans for most of the above.
When most people think of tourism in Peru, they think of Machu Picchu. And maybe, if they’ve done some research (or just watched that one episode of Parts Unknown), they think of the Amazon, the food scene in Miraflores, the trails through the Colca Canyon, or the popular cities of Arequipa and Cusco. Rarely do the ruins of Huaca Pucllana end up on “bucket list” Peru itineraries.
And truthfully, I wouldn’t argue against that. The idea of a universal travel “bucket list” for any destination makes me a bit queasy, especially somewhere like Peru– it’s simply too large, diverse, and beautiful to capture in a rundown of “must-sees.” Even so, I am surprised that I haven’t heard the Huaca Pucllana ruins hyped up more by guidebooks or fellow tourists; for me, they were the perfect introduction to Peru’s capital.
Disclaimer: I know I said I was going to be a “stickler for chronology,” but I was wrong. After writing up 4 months worth of travel through Central America, I’m temporarily skipping past my time in Colombia, Mexico, and Hawaii because…I just got to Peru! So for now, I’ll be sticking as close to present-tense as possible as I write up my stops through Peru and Ecuador.
This trip has seemed so, so long in the making. Nick and I decided to come to Peru over a year ago, and it’s taken that long for everything to line up. In the meantime, I’ve done tons of planning— which is maybe why, when we finally landed in Lima, the transition into traveling here felt almost seamless.
Walking down Caye Caulker’s main oceanside street, you’re bombarded— in a very laidback, Caribbean way— with touts offering the island’s many snorkel tours. But for my mom and I, there was no convincing needed. In fact, we arrived on the island already decided on where we wanted to go: the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a 3-square-mile area of the Caribbean encompassing reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.
Better yet, we quickly settled on a tour operator: Ragamuffin Tours. Their tours of the Reserve— snorkel gear, snacks, and drinks included— were comparable, cost-wise, with other shops that didn’t offer the booze cruise amenities. And beyond that, they were the best-reviewed shop on the island. Looking back, the price we paid would have been worth it for the snorkel tour alone. But as it turned out, the super gregarious guides, clean and spacious boat, and constant flow of rum punch made it the best money we spent in Belize.
When my mom decided to visit me along my Central America route, Belize stood out as the perfect meeting point. She was planning for an indulgent vacation; I was very much backpacking Belize on a budget– and this country can accommodate both.
While I would’ve been content with any beach town along my trip, my mom was understandably a bit choosier about where she spent her limited vacation time. For her, comfortable accommodations, proximity to a beach, and (relatively) easy access to the airport were all key considerations. And in Belize, the beach town of Hopkins Village and the island of Caye Caulker were the perfect stops. We could visit both without frittering too much time in transit, we wouldn’t have to worry about a language barrier, and as it turns out, the beaches were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
I picked up on a pattern in Central America: the more planned for a place, the less I seemed to enjoy it. That held true for Granada and El Tunco (which I didn’t love), and for León and Antigua (which I did love but did next to no research on). So in Guatemala, it followed that my vague plans of having some quiet time in Flores would pan out beautifully.
I could walk around this island in less time than it would take to walk to the coffee shop back home, so just a couple of days gave me plenty of time to see the sights. Plus, the whole town was quiet, colorful, and charming– pretty much the trifecta for relaxing anywhere. And, as ever, I found that Flores is so much more than a base for trips to the nearby Tikal ruins. This town, once the last Mayan Kingdom, has an incredible history.