WHOA THERE WAIT A SECOND!
Phew. I thought you were about to click out of the page there for a minute, because I know from my recent reader survey that these roundups are pretty polarizing — some of you love ’em, some of you hate ’em. I tried to use your feedback to improve this roundup by adding new categories and make it less of a recap of what you’ve already read, and more of a behind-the-scenes look at private thoughts, little moments, and other bits and blobs that didn’t make it onto the blog. For example, I might not write an entire post on my struggle with Spanish or the Peruvian war against toilet seats, but yes — those thoughts will end up in my monthly roundups.
I dreamed of South America for so long, I had a hard time shaking my trance-like state sometimes once I finally arrived. I put so much time and effort into planning this first leg of my trip to Peru, I think it made it kind of surreal. Sometimes I would kind of slap myself in the face and be like, “Alex! Wake up! You’re in Cusco!” And my brain would be like, “Am I? Or am I reading about it on Tripadvisor/pouring over my guidebook/coordinating with Hostelworld about it?”
I don’t want to always travel this way — spontaneity is fun too! — but it was necessary in this case in order to take advantage of the many opportunities and partnerships I was presented with, as well as meet up with my Brooklyn bestie Zoe for three weeks of the month.
Where I’ve Been
• Eleven days in Iquitos and the surrounding jungle / Peru
• Three days in Lima / Peru
• Two days in Huacachina / Peru
• One day in Nazca / Peru
• Eight days in Cusco and on the Inca Trail / Peru
• Four days on Lake Titicaca / Peru
• Four days in Arequipa / Peru
• My first glimpse of Peru. After three flights and twelve hours, my plane began its descent towards Lima and I looked out the window to see a sky filled with stars, reflecting the bright lights of the city below. It was a beautiful way to begin my trip.
• Landing in Iquitos. The plane ride had been amazing — watching the ribbon-like Amazon unfurl below me — and when I stepped off the plane I was immediately enamored with the hot, sticky air. The love affair continued — I think if I had to choose, Iquitos would be my favorite destination of the month. I just couldn’t get enough of this city, and I think my post about it was my best writing in a long time.
• Being photographically inspired by the jungle. I go through phases where I can barely bother to lift my lens, and others where I simply can’t stop snapping. My time at Heliconia Lodge was one of the latter. It was a wifi-free three days and without the pressure to constantly respond to email I fell into a great rhythm of exploring the jungle in the morning and afternoon, dipping into the pool at the lodge in between, editing all my photos from the day that evening while I lay in my hammock, and still having time for an episode of Orange is the New Black before bed. Bliss!
• Discovering Orange is the New Black. Season Two can’t come soon enough.
• Watching the sun set over The Aria. Damn if that ship isn’t one of the most beautiful man-made things I’ve ever seen. From waking up and watching a hazy sunrise from my bed to eating the creations of one of Peru’s most well-known chefs to sitting in a jacuzzi and watching the jungle go by, being onboard The Aria was an experience I will cherish for a lifetime.
• Launching my new Earning Abroad series. It was brewing in my mind for a while and now that it’s unleashed I’m so excited about all my upcoming interviews I’m having a hard time not publishing one every day!
• Feeling that incredibly rare and fleeting sensation of hipness in Lima. Browsing the installations at MATE, eating dinner at LA73, and getting a private after hours tour of Museo Larco — I felt like we experienced the capital in a way that would make Limeños proud.
• Loving — and learning to make — the national drink of Peru. I adore you, pisco sours!
• Riding the sand dunes in Huacachina. It was the kind of afternoon you’re nostalgic for before it’s even over. And blissing out by the pool, feasting on fresh BBQ and playing with my new GoPro weren’t too shabby either.
• Being in the same time zone as family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve never traveled in this general latitude — keeping in touch is so much easier!
• Feeling our plane touch the ground in Nazca. I was slap-happy for hours after we made it out alive — and puke-free!
• The abundance of avocados in Peru. Guacamole is everywhere. Actually, I’ve been loving on all kinds of food in Peru, from local cuisine to amazing international restaurants we’ve found along the way. Maybe I’ll break my no-food-writing rule and pen a Best Meals of Peru post?
• Arriving in Cusco to a perfect rainbow, the symbol of the Inca empire. It was a beautiful way to start our time in the eternally charming city.
• Flexing my Spanish! After years of helplessly failing at learning any Southeast Asian languages, I feel like a rockstar every time I manage a conversation in Peru. While I have a long way to go, I’ve been able to change bus tickets, chat with cab drivers, and get through the post office all on my high school vocabulary. Me encanta this aspect of traveling in Latin America.
• Ticking the Inca Trail off my bucket list! There were quite a few highlights within this highlight — the amazing food Llama Path provided, the fantastic fellow hikers in my group, our blissful weather on the third day, and a llama blasting past me while I hoofed it up a particularly challenging stretch of trail.
• Bike riding along the shores of Lake Titicaca. This was the most authentic view of Peru I think I had all month, and it was a unique experience not replicated by every other backpacker in South America.
• Getting front row seats to Puno Day. Has there ever been a more colorful festival on the planet? We splurged for a private boat to follow the procession, and it was worth every sole! I still watch the video and smile.
• My birthday dinner in Arequipa. Here’s a city where I’m more likely to wax poetic about the meals and drinks I indulged in — pineapple bacon avocado sandwich at Crepisimo, cocktails in an ostrich egg at Zig Zag, be still my heart! — than the sights I saw. Zoe went out of her way to make sure my birthday was special and I can’t thank her enough.
• The amazing range of quality accommodation in the country. From hostels to five star hotels, there really is something fantastic for travelers of every budget in Peru. As I’m heading into Ecuador and struggling to find hostels I’m excited about, I realize what a rarity that is.
• Getting in some good reading. In my pre-blogging days, I looked forward to traveling as I time I could tackle my ever-expanding Amazon wishlist. Now I feel guilty if I don’t spend every spare moment working — a feeling I’m trying to fight. This month I read and reviewed several Peru-inspired books, including Walking the Amazon and Turn Right at Machu Picchu.
• Getting to travel with my best friend. How lucky am I? I was worried we might drive each other crazy (I’ve never traveled long term with a “non-travel/real life friend”) but in the end I think it was exactly what we needed — not saying there weren’t moments of crazy driving on both ends. I got to know my bestie on a different level, and I’m forever grateful for that insight into this special person who amazingly loves me as much as I love her.
Lessons & Lowlights
• Wasting money on a stupid airline lounge pass. I had eight hours in the Lima airport between landing on my international flight and departing on my domestic one, and I thought I was being soooo smart by buying a Admirals Club pass on Ebay for just $20 (they retail for over $60). Except they wouldn’t let me back into the international terminal after I got my bag, so I basically wasted $20 and then laid on the floor of McDonald’s for eight hours. Welcome to Peru!
• Cringing at fellow Americans. In Southeast Asia, the Americans you tend to come across are pretty awesome, and make me proud we are all fighting the Stupid American Complex. In Peru… I can’t make that same blanket statement. It’s too safe, too easy to get here. In the airport, I cringed as an American couple wearing zip off hiking pants and money belts slowly and unnecessarily loudly asked an innocent bystanding Peruvian if the payphones took “UH-MER-I-CAN MO-NEE.” They’re called US Dollars, you tools. And no, they payphones don’t take them. You are in Peru.
• Seeing animals treated as commodities in the Amazon. I thought the sad one-man zoo was depressing, but I was shocked to see endangered animals chopped up and sold off in pieces at the Belen market while police stood by. I was also a bit annoyed with my guide that day and his refusal to tell me how much his services cost (“whatever you feel like paying!” is not an acceptable answer) but that was put into perspective.
• Feeling on display in Iquitos. Men gave me a lot of attention which I’m sure was due in equal parts to my pale skin, my blonde hair, my gender and my solo status. Single White Gringa, indeed. I found myself going out of my way to neutralize the very sexualized view of Westerners by wearing baggy clothes, throwing my hair in a messy bun, and going sans makeup. I am curious if I would have felt the same way in the rest of Peru had I continued to travel alone.
• Fighting with the internet in the jungle. It was terrible. Isn’t it funny that I have more lowlights about my favorite spot of the month that I do about anywhere else?
• The weather in Lima! They aren’t kidding about that fog. But in addition to the perma-gray skies, it was also much colder than I anticipated. To be honest, all of Peru was colder than I anticipated. Maybe I was deluding myself. But at times, I really felt the weather weighing on me.
• Our hostage tour of the city in Ica. Okay, this is kind of funny now (as are several of these bullet points) but at the time it was torture! We signed up for a wine tour and after one tasting we were dragged around to look at tree stumps and dusty parks where everything was dead and listen to twenty-minute Spanish descriptions of them. At least we got a full refund.
• The bus to Cusco. The wifi didn’t work (liars!), someone decided to listen to a broadcast sermon on a staticky hand-held radio at 6am, and I was so motion sick I vaguely wanted to die. Did I mention it was sixteen hours?
• The tourism onslaught in Cusco. It was so touristy. Sooooo touristy. And I’m not normally one to be bothered by that — places are popular for a reason, right? But I was so sick of the touts attacking me to sell tours/paintings/spa treatments every five minutes, I really wanted to scream.
• The weather on the Inca Trail. In my posts I claimed it didn’t get me down and at the time it didn’t, because I was on such a high from my physical accomplishment. However, every time I’ve seen a sunny and beautiful photo of Machu Picchu since, I do feel a pang of sadness that our day there was so rainy and foggy.
• Not dressing up for Halloween. Seriously, Halloween costumes have been a point of personal pride for me throughout my life and arriving back from the Inca Trail at 9pm on October 31st simply did not provide me with enough time to pull myself together. It was a great night but I was noticeably costume-less.
• Do NOT take the WonderPeru bus from Cusco to Puno. It was about $10 less than the popular Inca Express version, and we thought we were being so smart by choosing the cheaper version. Not so — the air conditioning broke, the heavily advertised wifi was non-existent, lunch was a farce and our guide drove us to the brink of madness. It was a huge waste of money and a day.
• I miss Southeast Asia in a deep and profound way. This is not a new sensation — it’s one I feel whenever I’m stateside, for example — but it is one that I thought would go away when I was on a grand adventure elsewhere. It hasn’t.
While hiking the Inca Trail I was telling Zoe a story about how in order to get a visa extensions in Indonesia, I would walk into this nondescript restaurant and hand over my passport to a guy named Bagus and three weeks later I would get it back in a manilla folder and that was totally normal. Then I was like, “I need a category in my roundup for stories like this.”
• Somewhere in history, the concept of queuing did something to deeply offend Peruvians. I’ve never been so blatantly budged in my life! From nightclubs to food counters to bathrooms, the hierarchy of a line is just not respected in Peru.
• Also, toilet seats. Toilet seats did something to offend Peruvians. Where are they?
• Speaking of toilets, in public bathrooms in Peru you typically have to pay a 1 sole entrance fee. But the best part is you get this tiny little receipt every time — like, what am I going to do with that? Put it in my scrapbook? Claim it on my taxes?!
• A woman in our Inca Trail group was absolutely terrified to pee outdoors. She had a brilliant plan to work around this though — she was just not going to drink water! Excellent idea, we assured her — there will be plenty of bathrooms in the hospital you’ll be airlifted to after collapsing from dehydration and altitude sickness.
• Peruvians have this slightly endearing, slightly irritating habit of answering the most non-obvious of questions with a straight-faced “of course.” Zoe and I hypothesized that this comes from the direct translation of the informal “claro” response, but it is still hilarious. “So, Julio, do you have brothers?” “Of course.”
This month I did a decent amount of physical activity — hiking the Inca Trail, biking around Lake Titicaca and Lima, trekking through the jungle and getting in the most scenic treadmill run in the world onboard the MV Aria! I’d say I was significantly active an average of every other day, and that’s not a bad average.
However, I have been loving Peruvian cuisine a little too much and I felt my eating habits slip out of control in this first month in the country. Most dishes are heavy on sugar and carbs, which are my two weaknesses. I feel like this was the beginning of a downward spiral that I’m currently trying to work my way out of.
My trip to Peru started out on a great foot, budget wise — I scored a flight for just 15,000 AAdvantage miles plus $20 in fees! Things then kind of went downhill. Trailwallet, my spending tracking app, only allows me to calculate totals by calendar month rather than a set period of my choosing (hint, hint, developers!) but in my first three weeks in Peru (the last three weeks of October) I spent $2,040! Yikes. Comparatively, I spent $1,550 in the entirety of November.
Why was October so expensive? I had a lot of major line items in my budget: The Inca Trail ($776 — see my breakdown here), my flight to the jungle and tips on my jungle tours ($146 and $195 — press trips ain’t free!), our day trip over the Nazca lines ($109), our overnight bus to Cusco ($63) and new SD card ($50). In general, Zoe and I were pretty bad influences on each other budget wise and it was an indulgent month.
I was moving was too fast to take on many freelancing projects during this period but advertising was decent, and my profits overall were okay. Due to my enormous spending I still ended up in the red for the month — luckily I saved hard while I was home so I had a huge safety cushion to allow for this.
Another six weeks in Peru, moving north!
I hope you’re enjoying my Peruvian adventures as much as I’m loving sharing them! Thank you, as always, for spending some of your day with me!
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.