Hop Hopping Along

How many backpackers can you fit in the world’s smallest taxi? On this occasion, the answer is three. The minibus transfer out of old Cusco town to the waiting Peru Hop had failed to materialize. So taxis were flagged down to transport the waiting adventurers. Ours turned out to be the smallest in the world. So with a little bit of human origami, we and a fellow traveller squeezed in with the bags perched uncomfortably on our laps.

Our journey from Cusco to Ecuador would take 7 days. Not the quickest but we would be hopping off the buses at five locations en route to take in more of this amazing country. Unfortunately, the promised heated bus failed to reach even mildly warm and we spent much of the first overnight leg shivering our butts off. This despite being fully dressed and under several blankets. A couple of days later we received a long winded but nice apology from one of the guys that owns Peru Hop.

We arrived in Arequipa at 5.30am. After dropping our bags at the Flying Dog Hostel we were jumping onto a two day tour of the Colca Canyon. One of the neat things about Peru Hop is that they drop you right outside your hostel. No messing around trying to find your way out of the bus terminal at some ungodly hour. Unfortunately our arrival coincided with a planned power outage in the neighbourhood, so no breakfast as pretty much everywhere was closed.

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the Peru. With a depth of over 10,000 feet, it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. And that’s very deep; 2 miles deep. If you decided to jump off it would take roughly 30 seconds to hit the bottom. Give or take a second or two. SPLAT.

Colca Canyon, Peru

The mode of transport for canyon tours is the proverbial white minibus and there was a bucket load of them. An armada of buses whisking snap happy tourists from one photo opportunity to another. Not sure what we had done to upset the guide gods but we had three different guides within the first two hours of leaving Arequipa. The last one managed to hang in there for the rest of the two day tour.

Our first stop, Mirador de los Volcanes, offered spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes. There are 86 volcanoes in the Valley Volcanoes. We then headed to the small town of Chivay for a yummy buffet lunch before being dropped at our hotel for the night. Did we mention that the tour was ‘cheap’ and so was the accommodation. A tiny box room where swinging a cat would have only been possible with somebody with very short arms and a very small cat.

There was an option of visiting the local hot springs for a relaxing soak followed by dinner with culture entertainment. We decided to skip both and mooch around the town chilling in the town square. We embraced the local culture with a pizza dinner in the Irish pub. Yep, even in deepest darkest Peru you can find an Irish bar, sadly no Paddington sighting.

The next day, we were collected bright and early and stopped at the tiny village of Yanca where the locals were already dancing in the street at 6.30am. In cultural dress with enough colour to make Joseph green with envy, the locals put on a pre-breakfast show for the visiting tourists. Very tacky, very forced and very unnecessary.

The highlight of the tour came at our next stop, Mirador Cruz del Condor. In fact, we stopped just before the lookout as  three huge condors were gliding by on the drafts from the canyon floor. The lookout offered several vantage points to sit and get a glimpses of these ugly but majestic birds. The hour we had there flew by (boom boom).

On the way back to Chivay for lunch we stopped at another small village. The one street town jammed packed with tourists posing for photos with birds of prey and browsing through the myriad of stalls.

These birds need to be flying free not tethered for tourists

Back in Arequipa late afternoon and straightaway we regretted not having more time to spend in this gorgeous city. With a UNESCO World Heritage historic centre, Arequipa to our minds has the best looking square in the whole of South America. Stunning architecture, much of it European influenced. We only had a couple of hours to explore before dinner at Zingaro. A great looking restaurant with wonderful food and good vibe.

We were back on the Peru Hop the following morning. A full bus started to empty as the sleepy folk who had traveled down from Cusco were deposited at their hostels. Our next destination was Huacachina, a small oasis town where we hoped to hop off and immediately hop on the next bus north. Sometimes things don't go quite how you would like them to.

As we wound our way up the hills from Arequipa, we watched Fast & Furious 23 (OK it was only 7), but it was the one where the bus is perched perilously on a cliff edge. Not a great choice when the view from your bus window is a sheer drop of hundreds of feet just inches from the bus wheel. Add to this the desire of the bus driver to get home before his tea got cold.  It made for an uncomfortable journey. Julie slowly and secretly put her seat belt on. At least this would have kept her in the seat as it was ripped from the bus and tossed to the bottom of the chasm.

There was a lunch stop at some dodgy looking Peruvian transport cafe that came complete with emancipated dogs. Following Julie’s lead, it was not long before several passengers were heading out the door with napkins of rice for the hungry pooches. The next stop was in the middle of nowhere at the fascinating Nasca lines. Just by the side of the Pacific Highway was a viewing platform that had the look of a temporary scaffolding structure. Our bus ticket included the admission cost to climb this rickety construction. From the top, you can clearly see the drawings which are believed to have been created a few years back. In fact between 500 BC and 500 AD by the Nazca culture. Most researchers believe that they have some religious significance, other believe the lines were created by aliens. Either way this is an amazing site with some of the drawings over 600 feet tall. Unfortunately, what Mother Nature had left alone for many centuries is now being disturbed by humans. Then there was the Greenpeace cock-up from late last year.

Nazca Lines

Yes they actually wrote on the ground, this is not photoshop magic,photograph Rodrigo Abd/AP

So we arrive in Huacachina later than expected and missed the connection to Paracas. Not a biggie as there was another bus the following day and plenty of accommodation available. The hostel we were recommended by Peru Hop came with the caveat ‘best of a bad bunch’.  Hmmm.  Turns out it was part way through a make over, not too much of drama if was only for one night. 

Imagine our joy when we woke at 2.00am to find the walls reverberating to music from the nightclub at the back of the hostel. It was like our bed was on the centre of the dance floor. Heavy drum and bass, not really our cup of tea. So we laid there trying really hard not to tap our toes in time to the music when at 5.30am the music stopped. We drifted off to sleep like babies until 7.00am when the workmen gathered outside our room to climb passed our window with tools and wood onto the roof. Without any shadow of a doubt the worst hostel during our four months traveling through South America. 

The main attraction of Huacachina is the sand dune boarding. This small oasis is towered over by sand dune on all sides. Now having tackled the dunes at 90 Mile Beach (New Zealand) we had no desire to partake in this Peruian version.

The other attraction is pisco making. Turns out we were a few kilometres away from the home of the liquor that’s the key ingredient in pisco sours. Yep we signed up for that one straight away. A great insight to how pisco is produced, and more importantly there is a tasting room. Now some of this stuff I’m sure is used by the local painter as a way to clean his brushes, but some was smooth and yummy.

Fire water

Our Peru Hop bus departed late afternoon for the short hop to Paracas. We found a funky restaurant called Misk’i, run by a Kiwi girl and her man. The music was great and the food even better. But the main attraction of this seaside town is the Ballestas Islands. Described as the poor man’s Galapagos, it’s a quick 40 minute boat ride out to the islands and there is no shortage of boats. The islands are home to millions (no exaggeration) of sea birds. Huge black clouds weave across the sky looking for the next big feed. Not so common are the Humboldt penguins but we did manage to see a few. Sea lions and fur seals blend into the rocks barely moving as the tourist boats get as close as possible. The whole trip took a couple of hours and was well worth the NZ$25 cost. And the seas were pretty smooth so one of us was very happy.

Peru Hop also whisked us around the nearby Paracas National Park. The landscape looks like huge sand dunes but is actually very light coloured rock. There is even a striking red sand beach. Not sunbathing weather though as the wind whisked through.

Early evening we continued north to Lima with an unusual stop at Casa Hacienda San José, which dates back to 1688. This huge colonial house that was part of a plantation has a secret below. Slave tunnels run under the building. These were used as escape routes initially and later to supply slaves from the port after slavery was banned. The tunnels are very claustrophobic and run for 30 kilometres.  A fascinating history and stunning building that is now a hotel.

We arrived in Lima around 1.00am to find the road around our hostel closed. We still managed to get dropped off just a 5 minute walk from a much needed bed. The hostel another Flying Dog wasn’t great, but there wasn’t much choice and it was pretty central. One plus was that it included breakfast. This however was at a cafe across the park, and Julie was in her pajamas, but standards have slipped since we started traveling so across the park we went.

We spent our one full day in Lima walking along the cliff face promenade. Watching paragliders launch themselves over the Pacific. We did a little shopping in our first proper mall for months. Then watched TED2 (has to be watched if only for the Tom Brady appearance) in the local cinema that had a power outage for 10 minutes halfway through the movie. One thing that stood out for us with Lima is the cats. Every South American village, town and city we had been through had stray dogs. But not Lima, well not our neighborhood. It was like an audition for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The park between our hostel and the breakfast cafe was cat heaven. You only had sit down on a bench for second before some moggy snuggled up. 

  Pussies galore

Peru Hop only runs as far as Lima so we had to swap to another bus service for the final leg to Ecuador. We broke this up with a couple of nights in Mancora. This is a happening beach town, well happening in Peruvian terms. We managed to find ourselves in town during a public holiday so the tiny strip of beach was heaving. All that was missing was the ‘kiss me quick hats’ and sticks of rock. We stayed at Kon-Tiki hostel that sits at the top of a hill over looking town. Pretty basic accommodation but the owner did come and pick us up and dropped us at the bus terminal. The mattress was one of those that included free acupuncture. A quick word with the owners saw the mattress swapped out for one with smaller needles.

Just a couple hours north of Mancora is the border crossing into Ecuador. We had read many a horror story of the crossing between Peru and Ecuador, but our crossing went without a hitch.

So that was Peru, a wonderful country full of amazing history. The trip up the coast was so so. A couple of places we would have been quite happy to skip, at least one place we would loved to have spent more time. The boys and girls at Peru Hop certainly made the trip entertaining and fun. We highly recommend these guys if you are thinking of traveling through Peru or Bolivia.

Next Stop, Boobies everywhere