Cusco and Lima are generally heralded as the two main areas of interest in Peru. Cusco is the departure point for Machu Picchu and is surrounded by a number of other Incan ruins (it also happens to be a beautiful city on its own). Lima, the capital, is large, modern and features dozens of North American fast food chains. Between these two major cities, however, are a host of other entertaining things to see and do.
Anecdote 1: A Sandboarding Success
Huacachina is a beautiful desert oasis that most backpackers visit in order to go sandboarding after a bumpy roller coaster-like ride in buggies across the dunes.
If you’re a consistent reader of my blog, you may remember my last attempt at this sport all those weeks ago in Chile. This day was quite different. Instead of having to trek up mountainous dunes, I was driven around. Instead of being by myself, I was with dozens of other tourists. Instead of tumbling face-first into the sand, I was able to remain upright on my board from the tops of the ridges to the bottom. And I had a fantastic time.
Between whooping on buggies as our guide shot us over the tops of dunes to meeting new friends as we raced each other down the hill, my day in Huacachina was filled with fun. Although I used only a basic board with simple straps that wrapped around my shoes, if you really want to look like a pro you can pay a few dollars more to rent sandboarding gear that is almost identical to snowboarding equipment.
Anecdote 2: The Poor Man’s Galapagos
I’ve loved animals since I was a kid. In fact, when I was in (a very alternative) elementary school, I spent most of my time voluntarily writing research reports on various animals around the world (polar bears were my favourite). I was so excited to get to see some of the wildlife of South America, but sadly decided I didn’t have the time or the budget to visit the Galapagos on this trip. Luckily, I found a compromise. The coastal town of Paracas is about a fifteen minute boat ride from Islas Ballestas.
Although you can’t actually set foot on the island or swim in its surrounding waters, you can pay for a fairly inexpensive boat tour around this natural wildlife reserve. On my tour I saw thousands of birds, families of small penguins waddling on top of a hill and even spotted a couple of dolphins splashing in the waves. Best of all, I was mere metres away from sea lions, napping on rocks, sunbathing, even mating on a beach. Have you ever heard the sound a sea lion makes? It’s like a “ERRRNNHHHHjjj” (this may be one of those you-had-to-be-there things). The whole tour takes only a couple of hours, leaving you free to head back to shore and sample some fantastically fresh seafood at one of the many restaurants along the coast. Speaking of, if you find yourself in Peru and are a fan of fish, do yourself a favour and give ceviche a try. It sounds strange, but tastes delicious (you can thank me later).
Anecdote 3: The Chincha Slave Tunnels
About 200km south of Lima is a large colonial house called Hacienda San Jose that is now a boutique hotel. From the outside, it resembles the mansion from Django Unchained, only with fewer plantations and no Leo. What it does share with that film, however, is a history of slavery.
Slavery existed in Latin America from precolonial times, but reached its zenith when African slaves were transported for sale into Spanish, Portuguese or French colonies. Most arrived in Cartagena, Colombia where they would be sold at an auction in the main square. The former landowners of this Hacienda needed cheap labour to help harvest the sugar and cotton that had brought them their fortune. If they could smuggle slaves into the house they could avoid paying tax on the slave since the government would have no official record of his or her purchase. In 2007, a series of catacombs were discovered underneath the house, linking San Jose with four other haciendas in the region and the main port. This maze of tunnels runs for nearly 20km and served both as a route for slave trafficking and as a means of escape from pirates and thieves for the landowners. Today, it is possible to take a tour of the tunnels and hear a little more about the history of the slave trade and its legacy in the area.
I can’t claim to have discovered any of these activities on my own. All three were coordinated for me by the founders of Peru Hop – a new hop on, hop off bus company running through the country. If you take their bus from Cusco to Lima you will have the opportunity to visit all three sites. If you have more time and are willing to pay a little extra, you can also see the floating islands of Puno, bike Colca Canyon outside Arequipa or fly over the Nazca lines. For those of you who are a little more budget conscious, local buses also run to most of the above sites, although you may need to rent a car to visit Hacienda San Jose. No matter what you choose, remember that there’s more to Peru than Machu Picchu. With just a little effort you can find some remarkable gems hidden among the more popular tourist sites.