Category Archives: Peru

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A stopover at Lima, Peru

Lima was mainly a stopover for us to connect between Iquitos and Cuzco. We were running short of time and had to quickly see Machu Picchu as our time to enter Chile was running out. We were even contemplating dropping Chile out of our itinerary.

Lima had really tasty veg food, starting from the 6.50 sole meal at Govinda’s and corn from street carts.

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A few hours in Arequipa, Peru

We only had a few hours in Arequipa, Peru. We arrived via overnight bus from Cuzco and had a flight later in the morning to Santiago, Chile. Our friend Cat from England was kind enough to let us tag along with her to her hostel where we could freshen up. We all went for an early morning walk which was really enjoyable.

A military parade in the main plaza

Fruit vendor starting the day

We ran into this little shop that was offering an early breakfast. The locals who were awake were all wandering in for a porridge like drink made of soya and maca, mildly sweetened. Address: 427A Sucre

Soya maca drink – major hit!

We want some more!

Snowcapped mountains in the background

 It was on to the airport after this, to Santiago, Chile.

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Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

For the unplanned visitor to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail is often not the best way to go. The Inca trail gets booked months in advance, is closed in February and is very expensive (at least $500 per person and climbing up each year). We did not want to be restricted by booking the inca trail in advance as we had no idea when we’d be in Peru.

Yes, we biked down that road!
Relaxing on hamacas at one of the lunch stops after long hours of hiking
Cat – powerful but effortless hiker, most of us struggled to keep up with her
Steep narrow verdant hiking paths
Our patient and charismatic guide, Ebert
Relaxing at a hot spring towards the end of the day

When we arrived in Cuzco (we used the 20+ hour Cruz Del Sur bus service) it was already February and the Inca trail was closed. We have heard about a lot of other beautiful treks in the region, so we didnt think it was particularly important to go on the Inca trail. Some of the other treks offered from Cuzco are:

  • Salkantay trek – long, hard and very beautiful
  • Choquequirao trek – leading to the ruins of the same name. A shorter, far less common trek. I came to know about this when it got featured on the New York Times years ago. You can continue from the ruins for a few more days to get to Machu Picchu.
  • Ausangate – Ausangate and Vilcabamba are harder and more off the beaten track.
  • Vilcabamba
In addition to these treks, the Huaraz region in Peru offers fantastic trekking (Cordillera Huayhuash/Blanca etc.). Keeping all this in mind, the structure and complexity around the Inca trail didnt really appeal to us. Given it was February, none of these options were open to us anyway. We finally discovered the Inca jungle trek – a biking/hiking combo trek through tropical jungles that leads to Aguas Calientes. And it cost a fraction of the Inca Trail at $180.
Other aspects of the trek:
  • No camping. You get to stay in small family owned lodges every night. The lodge will prepare your meal based on your request.
  • You carry your own stuff – we packed a very light day pack with just a change of clothes.
  • In the villages you can buy stuff
  • You’ll walk next to the roaring river on several occasions, sometimes crossing it on bridges
  • The food was really good. Simple vegetarian fare was very easy to get.
  • Its not cold! Except for the first day and the last day, the weather is tropical and heavenly.

Inca Jungle Trek

The Inca Jungle Trek sees four days of fun filled action and costs ~ $180. We booked our tour at the Loki hostel tour booking desk. Anyone is welcome. They pick you up in the morning of day 1 at Loki and other designated spots and here is a rough overview:
Day 1 – pick up from Loki hostel, drive past ollantaytambo to a high altitude spot at 4200 meters + at Abra Malaga. Crazy and fun downhill bike ride from here. When the ride ends at a village, you get lunch and a small walk later, rest for the day.
Day 2 – long walking day. Involves a very beautiful section on an old Inca trail. One of the rest stops is a small house with hammocks and a monkey. A visit to a hot springs along the way. Mostly in jungle, so the weather is great.
Day 3 – Some more walking and you arrive at the hydroelectrica station near Aguas Calientes. You can take the train if you are tired, but we walked along the rail road tracks for a few hours. Sleep at Aguas Calientes.
Day 4 – Early AM walk/bus to Machu Picchu. Bus cost is not included. Guided tour at MP. Return to Aguas Caliente for evening train back to Ollantaytambo (train fare included). Bus transport to Cuzco (included in fare).
More details here – we booked it through these guys by simply walking to the hostel where our British friend we met in Iquitos was staying.
The trek was really well organized and was a great experience. We had excellent company – in fact, there were two Chilean girls whom we met again in Santiago and an English girl who visited us during her travels in India much later. It rained a lot, but we’d dry off quickly once the sun came out.

Inca Jungle Trek or Inca Trail?

Everyone who visits Peru want to try the Inca trail. While I dont deny for a second that it would be a great experience to be on the historic trail to Machu Picchu, I think its not an easy trek to plan, unless you are exclusively visiting Peru or have rigid timelines. If you are looking for simply a great experience and an opportunity to be amidst natural beauty to forget the rigors of daily life, the Inca jungle trek works just as well! I am quite sure you wont regret doing either trek. Given a chance, I’d happily do the Inca jungle trek again.
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Cuzco and Machu Picchu…assorted thoughts and pictures

After two months of backpacking in South America, some of it through really off tun-touristy areas, we finally reached Cuzco and the first thing we noticed were the number of tourists/travelers/backpackers. The semi cama seats on the Cruz Del Sur bus from Lima to Cuzco was luxurious and I was pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian food served to me on the bus. Yes, the bus has an attendant, a restroom and food served to your seat! I slept through most of the 20+ hours from Lima. The bus was filled with foreign tourists, mostly carrying heavy backpacks and the bus station at Lima has a check in facility for bags. Its not much different from an airport really.

Once in Cuzco, it hit us quickly how much more expensive everything is compared to the rest of Peru we’ve been in. The food, the lodging, the tour prices are in dollars, the shopping! Cuzco is a vibrant tourist base – you can see that its a really old city and has so many plazas and beautiful buildings and museums. One can wander around for a few days and still not see everything. Machu Picchu is mentioned everywhere – tour operators abound near the central plaza and one has to be careful before choosing one. We made several trips to iPeru office on the plaza to understand how the tours work and whats the best way to pick a good company. As I described in a different post, we finally settled down for the Inca Jungle Trek from Loki hostel to visit Machu Picchu. iPeru has been a reliable source of tourist info for us across Peru. They are very hard to locate on the central plaza – do ask around, I think it is the same building as the BBVA continental office. There are many other tourist info offices nearby and the information is not all that good.

To see all the ruins nearby and museums in the city, you need a Boleto Touristico which costs 130 soles. We gave this a skip as we’d recently seen many ruins and wanted to just take some day trips out of Cuzco.
Just the train ride to Machu Picchu costs $70 round trip. All tour prices are in dollars in Cuzco. A budget trip to Machu Picchu is not very easy to do! Entrance fees cost 140 soles and 70 soles if you have an ISIC card.
Cuzco has great veg food options. There is a popular Indian restaurant here called Maikhana at Av El Sol on the 2nd floor. El Encuentro has 6 sole dinners and is located on Santa Catalina Ancha 384. There is a very nice Govindas on Saphy street. The folks at Maikhana own Om Cusco on Calle Saphy 661, where you pay for the meal at your discretion. All proceeds go towards feeding poor children in the area. Our favorite though which we repeatedly went to was Prasada – literally a hole in the wall spot in an apartment building on 152 Choquechacha. Awesome lentil burgers here and very pleasant people staff the place. No place to sit, so be prepared to stand or take away.

Chinchero market find

Lentil burger with guacamole at Prasada
Markets in Cuzco are fun. Explore and spot all the cool products made out of quinoa, maca and amaranth that you will not find elsewhere.
We took a day trip to Chinchero. Bus rides cost 2.5 soles per person one way. The market is small and interesting, but there are some lunch ladies who will sell you food. I snagged a plate of greens with broad beans for <2 soles.
From Aguas Caliente, bus rides to Machu Picchu cost $9 one way. At the top, a simple sandwich costs 20 soles.
For our stay in Cuzco, tucked away in a small alley, we found a family run hotel called Jardines Del Inka. They have a kitchen and private rooms for 40 soles after a small bargaining session. Mostly frequented by Chilean and other south american tourists.
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Why you should see the Kuelap ruins in Peru (Kuelap vs Machu Picchu)

In 2011, a million people visited Machu Picchu (MP). That is quite a lot of tourists! And justifiably so… Machu Picchu is old, enigmatic, located amidst immense natural beauty and Cuzco is a really charming base to visiting tourists. It is also draws people who want to simply trek the Inca trail, a really ancient trail used by the Incans to get to MP. When I saw dreamy Che in Motorcycle Diaries years ago, I decided that I simply have to go there one day.

However, there is a gem in Northern Peru – the Kuelap ruins which gave me an entirely different perspective! We saw both MP and Kuelap and at the end of it we decided that we’d rather skip MP, but not skip Kuelap. Again, to put confused minds at rest, both are really beautiful places and you will not regret visiting either of them.

Crowds

MP is really crowded. Its a world famous attraction and people world wide come to see it. You’ll try to go in a meditative state and visualize life there 300 years ago, only to be brought back to reality by a loud tour guide with his group that just passed by. We had  a tour guide in Kuelap, but the day we visited, 30 people visited the ruins.

Costs

Kuelap is a better deal for backpackers on a budget. You have to go spend the night at Aguas Caliente to be able to get to MP early in the morning. AC is a VERY expensive town where rates are in dollars! From AC it is a steep uphill walk for 2 hours (for the unfit) or pay $9 per ticket for the 20 minute ride up. $9 sounds cheap, but in the rest of the country you’ll pay 9 soles for a similar ride. A sandwich at MP food court, the most basic version, cost me 20 soles. Cheapest train tickets to Aguas Caliente from Cuzco cost $48/way.
In comparison, a sightseeing trip to Kuelap including entrance fees, guide, food (excellent veg fare customized for us – placed orders on the way to the ruins, had lunch upon return), transportation all in a day’s time cost us 160 soles or $62 approximately (2012).

Getting There

Its easy to fly into Cuzco, but not Chachapoyas. Getting to Chacha is not as easy to But Chachapoyas to Kuelap is a breeze if you book a tour or even if you just take a taxi/combi. To get to MP from Cuzco, you have to:

1) Book a train ride to Aguas Caliente. Stay at over priced Aguas Caliente so that you can check out the ruins early in the morning. No roads go to AC.
2) Hike the Inca trail. 4 days of walking is great if thats what you want, but a lot of people agree that there are several other fantastic hikes all over Peru (in the Cuzco area, in Colca Canyon and in Huaraz). Inca trail will set you back by $500, while Inca Jungle Trek, a just as much fun option, costs less than $200.
3) Take the bus to some place near Santa Maria and walk 2-3 hours from there to Aguas Caliente along the railway tracks. Not easy to plan with public transport, but not impossible either.

From Chachapoyas, there are collectivos and taxis going to Kuelap.

I loved Machu Pichu itself, but I was not enamored by the crowds, the very high un-backpacker costs or the not-for-public-transport tag it carries.

Culture

Kuelap is older and bigger than MP and is in remarkably good shape. 
Kuelap was built by the Chachapoyan people long before the Incans came into the picture. They eventually did and ousted the Chachapoyans and ruled over them, thereby exerting their influences on the the architecture.

Iquitos: Back to Land

When we arrived at Iquitos, I was tired and ready for a few days on land. We had spent way too much time on the river and I was craving decent vegetarian food that wasn’t made of plantains and wanted to just enjoy a nice air conditioned room (remember, it was really hot, but it would also rain every now and then). So you can never really step out without your rain jacket.

We checked into a hotel that we randomly found, as we hadn’t done any research. But we headed to the restaurant “Dawn on the amazon” for this meal:

A meal with fresh guacamole after forever!

Sam, one of our travel companions and I wanted a very specific vegetarian pizza at Chez Maggi, Iquitos. Not knowing how to explain to the waitress, we drew her a circle on our notebook and indicated the toppings on each side. The pizza was perfect! Mine is the cheese-less side, with mushrooms. Sam’s is the cheesy side, minus the mushrooms. Say that in Spanish, now!

Pizza at Chez Maggi

Riding the local bus from Quistaquocha

Las Boras – a day trip on the boat from Iquitos

The floating village of Belen

How will they bring this out?

The market at Belen

Interesting ways to buy oil. I like the variety.

Just like India

Another vegetarian meal

Mamey – the local version of sapota

We discovered Iguana Haus shortly after our first day. They had excellent air conditioned, clean rooms for 40 soles, with wifi and kitchen. We cooked several meals here. We decided to fly to Lima from here on as time was running short and our visa for Chile would be expiring soon.

So we walked around the airline companies and finally bought tickets to Lima for USD 170 for two people. Not a bad deal within a few days notice. We just hung out with Sam and Law and eventually met Cat for the first time! We’d go on to meet Cat later in Peru and go on the Inca Jungle Trek with her and almost eight months later, she’d come to India and stay at our place in Bangalore! Travel friends are so much fun!

Vegetarian food to try out at Iquitos:

  • Dawn on the amazon
  • Yellow Rose Texas
  • Pizza Chez Maggy will make Pizza whatever way you like
  • There is a veg resto on Jr. San Martin between Jr. Prospero and Ramirez Hurtado
  • Rest. Vegetariano Darshan on Jr. 2nd De Mayo between Av. Elias Aguirre and Av. Miguel Grau – near plaza 28 de Julio.

Sightseeing:

  • We went to Las Boras and Quistacocha. Las Boras is an Amazonian tribe which tourists can see and interact with the tribe members. I dont think we’d go specially for this, but if you have time to kill, why not?
  • Quistacocha is a big zoo and entertainment park. Okay to go. Kids will enjoy.
  • Belen – the market is very interesting. The floating village is okay, but gives a very different perspective on how people live. I would recommend going as a group.

Lagunas – where time stands still

We finally made it Iquitos, 12 days after we left Chachapoyas. I felt like we had lost a sense of time and left all that we knew far far behind. Being in the Amazonas makes you feel very isolated, even when you are surrounded by tons of people. Life is so laid back out here, but people have jobs and lead real, full lives. There are many foreign tourists in Iquitos, enjoying a laid back life. I couldn’t help but wonder, how will I ever move back to busy corporate world after this?

Main street, Lagunas

Jungle tour office information

Boat office timings – Lagunas

Breakfast at Lagunas

Near the “port”

Village boys throwing water balloons at the boat to Iquitos

Our boat

Waiting to get off!

Finally, Iquitos!

 When we finished our jungle trip in Iquitos around noon on 31st Jan, 2012 – there was a moto waiting to take us back to Lagunas, a 25 minute ride through extremely bumpy roads. We walked right up to the port, only to discover that there are no boats the following day! Apparently, this is very normal. There are simply no boats to Iquitos on all days! And here we were, stuck in charming, but severely limited in choices Lagunas. Its very important to find out the boat timing schedule ahead of time. The rest of our travel companions were still in the jungle, choosing to stay one day longer than that. So, we decided to chill in Lagunas. There are power cuts here and there is no internet, so really not much to do other than read, write or just hang out.

Lagunas is so unlike any other place we have ever been to. Its incredibly basic and hot and there is nothing much to do except walk around. There are a few stores on the main street leading to the really small “port”, and a few hotels for people who work on development projects. There is a plaza de Armas and the restaurants are really hole in the walls or homes converted into makeshift eateries.

Amazon Jungle: Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Lagunas, Peru

There are many ways to experience the Amazon jungle in South America. Before we started our travels, the Amazon was one of the top things we wanted to see. When I mention Amazon throughout this blog, I usually refer to the Amazon basin, not the specific river itself, though we did get the opportunity to go on the river once in Iquitos.
Cute little monos in Pacaya Samiria NR

The Amazon basin is so big, you can take a trip through it from one of several COUNTRIES. Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia all have huge areas of “selva” or jungle that tourists can go to. This is not an exhaustive list, I am sure. We skipped Colombia right away as we had researched that selva trips from there are not safe. Ecuador didn’t work out due to timing issues. But in Peru, we were finally able to realize our dream. We zeroed down on the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, as it is not far from Chachapoyas, and it is also on the way to Iquitos, a city that is connected to the rest of the world only by water and air, not land. 

Getting to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru


There are different ways to book a trip into this reserve – either from Iquitos or from Yurimaguas. When booking the trip from Yurimaguas, your starting point will be the tiny village of Lagunas, which is an eight hour boat ride from Yurimaguas. There are different authorized tour agencies who can take you into the selva (jungle), and all of them have a presence in Lagunas and Yurimaguas.

We booked our selva trip with Huayruru Tours. We first contacted them via email and received a quote from them before visiting their office in Yurimaguas. We also joined a few other travelers in Yuri – Sam and Law – the cousins from England and an English couple who all made excellent travel companions. We stayed overnight in Yurimaguas as the boat to Lagunas leaves early in the morning and we needed a day to get money and supplies – hammock, a lunch box, medicines (moquito repellant), snacks and other sundry items. Definitely make sure you are well stocked on toothpaste, mouthwash and other hygiene items. There is nothing available in the jungle and Lagunas is not a safe bet – you may/may not find things.

The boat from Yurimaguas to Lagunas


If possible, go to the port the previous day to confirm the boat leaves the following morning. The boat may or may not leave the following day. The ticket cost us 25 soles. Hammock is compulsory as there are no seats on the boat (or lancha, in spanish). There is plenty of space to hang hammocks in an organized manner in rows.  Get to the boat well ahead of time as you’ll find a good spot for your hammock. There are people available to help you hook up a hammer for 3 or 4 soles on the boat. Or you can do it yourself. The boat ride is typically 8-10 hours long. Restrooms on the boat use river water and are not the cleanest. They will do for an emergency, but its best to be planned. :)

Hammocks strung in the boat to Lagunas
The path to Lagunas

In Lagunas, someone from Huayruru tours will be available to pick you up and take you to the office, if you have notified ahead of time in Yurimaguas. In the office, you will get details about the jungle trip and you can negotiate a bit. This is where you will state your dietary preferences, decide how long your trip should be and this is where you will leave your bags. They put us all up in a couple of local hotels. Lagunas doesnt have too many of those! Breakfast is provided the following morning before starting the trip.

The Jungle Trip

Transportation to park entrance

We started early next morning from our hotel and the tour company will take us in a moto-taxi : a motorbike outfitted with a cart of some sort. We then stop at the park entrance and get our permits. Our canoes are loaded with food for the next 5-6 days. All our bags are back in the tour office and we are asked to bring very limited luggage. Just one or two change of clothes for the night, rain gear and medicines, mosquito repellant etc. When we went, the water level was very high – so we did almost no walking during our trip. It was all on the boat and we stopped at campsites along the way for the night. We returned to Laguna after a 5 day stop in the jungle.

The Huayruru tours office in Lagunas. Hammock space on top for travelers to wait.


Accommodation for a night in the jungle




Our transport for the next 5 days

Victoria Regis – strong enough to hold a baby without sinking!

Gear for the trip for the customers and the guides

Food – clearly, we mostly ate plantains

 Our jungle trip was a very low key experience. We were very close to the water throughout, on canoes. We ate simple food and stayed in very basic lodging. And we encountered very few tourists (<10). Our guides were fantastic and we spotted some really beautiful bird life and monkeys. Our choice of timing was a bit unfortunate, as the water level was too high to see jaguars or puma, but when we went to sleep, we heard the mono rojo (red monkey) which roars like a lion and one hot evening, we stopped by a secluded part of our campsite and dipped an old mug into the river and bathed like in an Indian movie from the 70’s. The memory was truly unforgettable!


Cost of Jungle trip: ~100 soles per person per night. Includes three meals. Vegetarian possible, though you will all get sick of the food by the end of the trip. Interestingly, everyone opted for a vegetarian meal on our trip. But some folks chose to have some freshly caught fish right from the river.



Chachapoyas to Yurimaguas – The Amazon experience begins

Chachapoyas to Pedro Ruiz

We were really excited to experience the Amazon basin and decided to do it in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve near Lagunas, Peru. Its on the way to Iquitos and is an immense national reserve that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Navigating this part of Peru needs a lot of time and patience. Timings are never quite what you expect – its all + or – half a day. Thats how this part of the world rolls. There is beauty in it and we learned to appreciate it in time.
Highlights:
Chacha to Pedro Ruiz – 2 hrs and 10s/person by collectivo
Pedro Ruiz to Yurimaguas – 50 soles/person in a/c bus. Buy tickets from travel offices on main road. 
Pedro Ruiz is a small town that is 2 hours from Chachapoyas and it is only from here that one can go to Yurimaguas. Now is about where you need to start going with the flow – stock up yourself with snacks, drinks and reading material and let the Amazonian world unfold around you at its own pace.
Once we reached Pedro Ruiz, it was about 7 pm in the evening. The main road where you will get off the collectivo is lined with tourist offices and you can enquire for bus tickets here. Once you buy them, you will need to find a place to eat. One look at the dusty, remote town and I was sure there would be nothing vegetarian here. But Swami, ever the optimist, decided to ask. I had made up my mind that he would get recommendations for pasta or rice, but I was completely confounded when a local answered to S’s question: “vegetarian food? of course, walk that way and there is a restaurant.”. When I pressed him for the name of the resto, I got a reply “solo restaurante vegetariano”. Needless to say, we discovered that EVERYONE in that remote, Peruvian town, knew this place! I absolutely cannot remember how to get to this place. But I can tell you, if you find yourself in Pedro Ruiz, give yourself a chance and ask the locals where to find “Restaurante Vegetariano”. Update: I do have a picture of the restaurant, absolutely go here!

Vegetarian restaurant in Pedro Ruiz, Peru: Restaurante Monte Sinai

soy saltado in Pedro Ruiz

Pedro Ruiz to Yurimaguas

We boarded the bus to Yurimaguas, it cost us 50 soles each. It was really late and we ended up sitting next to the driver in the spare driver’s seats. I think they took the bunk beds right behind us. Once a few seats cleared up, we went back into the bus. The bus had a flat tire and we reached Yuri at least 5 hours late! Welcome to the Amazon.
Yurimaguas is a river town and not a place for sightseeing. We checked into hotel Rio Huallaga, which is the river the town is situated on, as they had very inexpensive dorm beds that no one else was using. Very clean though! Yuri also has a nice chifa that looks the town’s only fine dining place. Just ask “Donde esta chifa grande, and someone will tell you”.
For those who want to do an amazon jungle trip in Pacaya Samiria, Yurimaguas is the cheapest way to do it. It is much more expensive from Iquitos. From here, you will go by boat to Lagunas and there you will commence your Amazon basin jungle trip. We don’t actually see the Amazon river until we are in Iquitos, but this is the Amazon basin.
In Yurimaguas, remember to do the following:
  • Buy snacks (plenty of it) and some food for the boat trip to Lagunas next day. No vegetarian food on the boats. We packed tomatoes, avocado and bread and made our own sandwiches.
  • ATM – the last ATM until you reach Iquitos. Get enough money for the Amazon trip, which costs ~100 soles/person/day. This was a great deal in 2011, so expect to pay more!
  • Hammocks and a lunch box – you absolutely need a hammock. The boats do not come with hammocks nor do they provide plates/spoons for your food, if you choose to eat there. We bought hammocks and boxes for our food. Even if you plan to not eat, it is easy to keep things like bread or just get some rice.