Peru: Doing it Yourself

Trip Start Jan 17, 2013
Trip End Aug 12, 2013

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Flag of Peru  , Cuzco Region,
Wednesday, July 3, 2013

As the holidays have started back in Europe, most of my friends have head out to go travelling too and finally relax after a hard year's of work and study. For me, after having done this for almost half a year now, relaxing doesn't seem to be part of my itinerary anymore. Time is not on my side and many sleepless nights have put their stamp on my travels through Peru. As I have told you earlier, travelling through the Andes mountain range (which stretches throughout whole Peru and nearby countries) is slow and painfull. Any kind of bus travel will set you back at least 12 hours, sometimes 18, sometimes 24 and sometimes 30 hours. Out of the six weeks total I have in South America, I reckon I have spent at least one week in buses. The result is I sleep too little and shower even less.

Entonces, to get to the point (as in 'what have I done in Peru?), I continued traveling with the two other boys. Both are into drinking a couple of pints and like to do some hiking here and there. I could stop here because basically it is a quick summary of my time in Peru but let me elaborate a bit more.

Peru as I see it, is divided in North and South with Lima in between as the worst place imaginable on earth. All Peruvians talk bad about the place, so are travellers. North Peru is a big ugly desert too with no interesting places for tourists apart from the cocaine town of Mancora where parties are good but food and safety are not. After the dodgy border crossing into Peru we spent three nights there to booze up. I don't remember much of the evenings but I know I passed out in a couple of weird places (I'll save you the details). Not many pictures were made, I managed to take only one, which is a panorama from the balcony of our 5-euro-per-night dormitory. Not bad at all...

After my mini-holiday, it was time to hit the oasis town of Huacachina (or as the locals call it 'Huacafuckinchina'). It is located 5 hours south of Lima, total travelling time 24 hours from Mancora, total costs €23,-. In this little town, only consisting of 3 streets and where no real locals live, we spent only one night. We did some sandboarding and did a night climb up on one of the hills to take a picture of the stars. After a brutal 15 minutes only, we were exhausted and not even half way up. I decided to take the picture from there as with the sand I did not feel like going up even more with my expensive camera gear. I tried to edit the pictures a bit, but with the low-tech software I had available I think I made the pictures look even worse.

After the short stay, we jumped in a night bus once again towards Cusco, the Inca capital and the starting point for all travellers visiting Machu Picchu. It is for this reason that Cusco is quite lively and a good place to have a couple of parties. We managed to arrive unscared, without any bus hijacking (I heard of two different groups that got hijacked in the last two weeks) and booked into a hostel. That first evening I don't remember much of (something with 3 euro for 1.1 liter beers, whisky shots and a bottle of wine as I won the bingo) but I do remember the good food we ate. The hostel had a kitchen, which I used multiple times a day to prepare some of the best food in a while. Shopping I did at a local market, giving a nice opportunity to put my Spanish into practice by talking the price down with all kinds of different excuses. I loved that market, San Pedro, so I returned there each day to get a feel for the local life and spent my money at old market ladies rather than at restaurants inside backpacker hostels owned by foreigners. I have been traveling around the world now for a while and I realise more and more how unlucky we are in NL with our own cuisine, it is pretty bad. Even getting a good piece of meat or fruit is almost impossible.

Cusco itself needs almost no explanation, it is a beautiful and safe city. At great altitude, most people struggle with the lack of oxygen during their first days. Walking around can be quite a challenge but it is worth it, everywhere you can find traces of the Inca period. One of them is the famous 12-corner stone, which is the embodiment of the Inca perfection that can be found in all their architecture. With these tight connections between the stones, no cement was necessary and building up the walls must have been a great puzzle.

Do the Machu Picchu
Visiting the well-hidden ruins of the Machu Picchu (old mountain) is a defining moment for everyone traveling South America. It is so popular that the government has put a limit of 2500 visitors a day on the sight and entrance fees are sky high. Combine this with the fact that most people choose to visit the sight by the most expensive train in the world or through a 4/5 day trek, it has the potential of blowing your budget in a matter of days. I decided to DIY (do it yourself) and leave my two travel buddies who wanted to go on a five day trek. Knowing how to do it on your own requires some research and preparations but tons of people have left their trace on the internet so it made things a lot more easier.

There is only one way to visit the Machu Picchu, and that is to pass through the remote tourist village of Aguas Caliente. The village sits right next to the Machu Picchu and is not connected by any roads to nearby places, there is only a train track that goes right into the heart of the town. I estimate that out of 2500 visitors a day, around 1700 take the train (£150 for a 3-hour return ride) from Cusco or another place (2 hours from Cusco by bus), 700 do a trek and walk into the village and the 100 others do It the way I did.

After getting my permit at the Ministerio de Cultura in Cusco to enter Machu Picchu and stocking up on 4kg of food and water, I woke up the next day at 6:15am to get a local bus to a place called Santa Maria. After 7 hours you arrive and jump into a shared taxi, a collectivo, which takes you over some dirt roads for 1.5 hours to a place called Santa Theresa. There, together with 17(!) other ones, you jump in another one to take you half an hour later to the Hidro electric station. After registering yourself in a small booth, you will start a three hour walk along the railway tracks that lead into Aguas Caliente. It is the same track the trek operators take and it is the only part of the journey which is free. Getting to Aguas Caliente thus is a full day of travelling, but instead of spending £150 for the train, I spent €20 for a return trip, which is at least a 85%25 saving. Not bad...

That evening in Aguas Caliente I got myself a hostel and went to bed realy early. I needed to be at the MP at sunrise so I had to be at the gate when the site would open at 6am. To make it in time, you can either take the lame bus for 10$ or climb together with 200 other backpackers up on the mountain for 400 meters at 5am (!). Flash lights are mandatory as you will not see a thing in the pitch black, except for the countless stars that hover above the mountains. It was an epic climb on an early morning but I managed to get onto the site as one of the first 100 people. For the rest of the day I took many photos and climbed up to another mountain, 600 meters above the Machu Picchu. Epic views, epic climb and an epic descent all the way back to Aguas Caliente. I refused to take a bus as I think climbing and walking is the only way to experience the site, just like the Incas used to do 500 years ago. I might have pushed myself to hard that day, after spending 10 hours 'doing the Machu Picchu' I was destroyed and hurt. A hot spring in the evening was an okay relaxation, so was the other hot spring I took on the next day on my way back. But back in Cusco I really felt ill for a day and did absolutely nothing while waiting for my friends to return. Little did I know this would not be the only time I would push myself too hard...

Colca Canyon
After some other days in Cusco, reuniting with my travel buddies, we set off to Arequipa to walk the second highest canyon in the world. With zero preparations we headed off too late (5am) and set to the wrong place, resulting in a 35 km walk across some villages and up and down mountains, trying to look for a bridge and then taking a bus in the evening. The next day we were in the right place, where we would set off on the intended walk across the canyon. It comprised of a walk that tour operators do in two to three days, we only had time for one day. All in all it was a 20 km walk, including a 3-hour 1200 meter descent, next a 400 meter climb, then 400 down and brutally at the end a 3-hour climb straight up the canyon, which is 1200 meters up back to the nearby village. An epic battle with gravity, with the altitude (3000 meters), a mental battle, a physical battle and for one of my friends with his stomach. It left the group split, the Swedish guy could not handle it as he was really ill and miraculously there was an opportunity to put him in the back of a truck and drive him back to safety somewhere halfway the track. I definitely pushed myself a bit too hard that day, especially considering the fact we did not bring the necessary food (like I did when I was at the Machu Picchu) and I was carrying excessive luggage all day (my camera equipment weighs around 10kg). We came back to the village after 10 hours of non-stop climbing and descending, resulting in massive muscle ache. That day it was like I had climbed to the observation deck of the Empire State building (or the Eiffel tower, fact check if you would like) five times and equally have come down it five times as well. After finally stuffing myself with cheap local food, we took the night bus back to Arequipa, broken.

I hope if you, my dear reader, will ever travel one day too and have to choose between taking a tour or doing it yourself, you will think about my following recommendations. Bare in mind people often make the wrong assumptioms, thinking that the main toursit spots can only be accessed through a tour operator. This is almost always a wrong assumption, mostly triggered by the excessive promotion you see in the hostel lobbies. Doing it yourself should be the standard, not the other option. So:

Why should you do Peru by yourself?

  • It is cheaper, tours always charge more money than the face value because they need to make a profit. Moreover, they are able to charge more money since people quite often are willing to pay a few bits extra if it makes them not having to decide their own decisions.
  • When you do a tour, you have no control on who you will be spending the next few days with. Quite often groups are not optimally mixed and there are always some people that don't seem to be willing to socialise with others, creating a sub-optimal atmosphere. Considering the fact that you have been spending well for the tour, that is kind of a waste of money.
  • In a group you are always as slow as the slowest person. Getting things done in a limited time is virtually impossible in tours. What you will see is that three-day tours can be done by yourself in just two days, and sometimes even one day (especially when 26 and in the prime of your life).
  • DIY means that YOU are in control, you decide your pace and you decide what you like and what you want to see. It is far more rewarding to have done a hike by yourself by figuring out how to do it then by just simply following your guide together with 10 other people.
  • In tours you often don't get to see the real thing. You should remember tours are done every day all year around. When you think you are visiting off-the-beaten-track villages when you sign up for this awesome 'go local' tour, you are actually one in thousands of visitors each year that all exactly stop at the same sights. What you see is that the local community will just perform a show (as it is basically their full time job) and real conversations to interact with the community are not possible. You will just be part of a show, boasting tens of thousands of euro's each year.

Now it is time to leave Peru, a country with extremely friendly people, beautiful nature, massive mountains, food that is definitely up to standards and sometimes can take on the challenge with some Asian countries. I still have all my belongings, which sometimes seems a miracle. Today I will be on the road for exactly 6 months. This milestone I will be celebrating in the world's highest Irish Pub, in La Paz at almost 4000 meter altitude. Stay tuned!
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