When it comes to Peru, I spent years dreaming about Machu Picchu, but that seemed to be the extent of my knowledge. Machu Picchu will blow you away; but once you start researching Peru, you’ll find there are lots to see beyond the well-known Inca city.
Most people arrive in the Lima, and this is also where I began my adventure. Many visitors who are short on time tend to fly straight out of Lima, and they overlook what’s on offer close by, which is a real shame. I spent a few days exploring the city, then took trips out of the city to Paracas and the Ballestas Islands (the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’), then I took a Nazca Lines tour by plane. Here are a few of the places I recommend visiting in and around Lima:
The Barranco District is a great place to start exploring the city; it’s very Bohemian, and this is where Peru’s musicians, artists and creatives tend to live. You’ll find randomly placed, colourful pianos in the streets that welcome you to play. It’s full of quirky cafes, art exhibitions and an evening market to while away the hours and seek out Peruvian souvenirs.
From here, it’s a relatively short stroll to the upscale shopping district of Miraflores, where high-end hotels and exclusive apartments line the coast.
If you’re a cat lover, then a visit to Kennedy Park is a must, with over 100 cats lounging the hours away! Nearby, you can also visit the Larcomar shopping centre which looks over the Pacific Coast. There are plenty of great cafes here to sit, have a fresh juice and take in the views of the surfers below.
Speaking of surf; there are beaches in Lima but don’t expect to be sunbathing as they are very rocky, and combined with the waves they make for great surf, but they’re not really for swimming. If you do surf, you’ll find an abundance of surf shops to hire equipment or take a lesson.
For something even more daring, you can paraglide off the coastal cliffs. Providing there’s enough wind, you can take to the skies for dramatic views over the ocean and city!
In recent years, Peru, and Lima, in particular, has been putting itself on the map as a foodie destination, and many places now offer Peruvian cooking classes. Most classes include a visit to the food markets to select your fresh ingredients before you learn the delights of Peruvian dishes such as the traditional raw fish dish Ceviche and Lomo Saltado.
Ceviche is one of the classic dishes you will find on a Peruvian menu. It’s a popular dish of raw fish stewed in the juices of either lemon or lime, with salt and coriander sometimes added in too.
I first sampled the dish called Aji De Gallina in Lima. It’s a tasty chicken stew mixed with garlic, walnuts, Aji Amarillo chillies and parmesan that leaves you craving more. Lomo Saltado is another of my favourites to look out for – it’s a stir fry with marinated strips of sirloin steak, onions, tomatoes, French fries and rice!
Be warned, Peruvians enjoy their carbs, so you’ll soon find that every meal comes with both rice and potatoes! Avocados and Quinoa grow locally, so you will find these also pop up on every menu. The locals wash everything down with a refreshing Chica Morada juice, which is made from purple corn. This drink originated in the highlands but is now found everywhere.
When it comes to the local tipple, there has long been a battle between Peru and Chile as to who invented the Pisco Sour. Having visited both countries, I have to say that in my opinion, Peru has the edge on this drink! A blend of lime, syrup, egg white and angostura sours are the makings of this fine cocktail, but I found myself hooked on the Maracuja Sour which is made with passion fruit. Both drinks are very strong, so drink responsibly!
A pleasant coastal drive of 3 hours (260km) from the capital brings you to Paracas. This town is the jumping off point for the Ballestas Islands or ‘Poor man’s Galapagos’ (not my words, you will hear this from your guide!). It’s not difficult to come here as a little side-trip from Lima.
Paracas itself has a range of accommodation including some high-end hotels here and a small beach, so if you want a few days of relaxation, then this is a great place. You’ll need to stay overnight in Paracas order to catch an early boat, so plan ahead.
You’ll need to make an early start to catch the boat to the Ballestas Islands. Make sure you bring a waterproof jacket, a hat (there are a lot of birds flying overhead), sunscreen and camera. Also, a nose clip if you’re very sensitive to smells, as those sea lions have a very distinct smell!
The speedboat tour lasts approximately two hours, and you’ll visit several islands which are rocky outcrops. You’ll be able to get fairly close to the marine life, but you’ll be on the boat throughout.
Your guide will explain the history of the islands and how sea-lions, pelicans and Humboldt penguins came to be living here. You’ll see plenty of seabirds, but keep an eye out for pelicans, humpback whales and sea otters too!
Tantalisingly, you’ll get a taste of another classic Peru sight - the Nazca Lines. One of the prehistoric geoglyphs has been etched on the hillside and is visible from out on the water. I saw the line as a Candelabra, but others say they see a cactus – see what you think!
Back on dry land, Paracas is a good base from which to visit the mystical Nazca Lines.
I joined a small group tour which included the Nazca Lines and more of Peru – but this Paracas and Nazca Lines tour is a round-trip from Lima. You can also see these places as part of a tailor-made, independent itinerary we can design for you.
My tour included some adrenalin activities en route, and it’s safe to say these next two days were the highlight of my time in Peru!
Our first stop was the town of Huacachina, built around a small Oasis. It’s a town encircled by some of the tallest dunes in South America, so it’s perfect for trying out a dune buggy and to sandboard down the massive slopes.
If you’re here with a tour, your guide will supply the boards, and then you set off in the dune buggies. I don’t remember if I was laughing or crying (probably both!) as I screamed my way around the dunes in the buggy. Being a wimp, I couldn’t believe how instantly I got hooked on the thrill of bouncing over the dunes at crazy speeds! You will get thrown all around as you whirl up, down and around at great speed, so hold on tight.
Having only just met the rest of my group, when it came to trying out the sand boards, I had to save face and throw myself into it face first (literally!). As you lay on that board face first at the top of a dune and wait for them to push you off, you’ll scream all kinds of words your mother should not hear, but it’s an incredible sensation, and you’ll leave Huacachina with the biggest smile on your face!
After lunch, it’s back onto the road for a two and a half hour drive over to Nazca, your base for visiting the lines.
There are many myths and theories as to how and why the Nazca lines were created, yet there’s no confirmed theory. It’s believed they have been around since 500BC, but the most recent depictions were discovered as recently as 2011.
A flight over the Nazca Lines needs to be thought through carefully because you need to choose a reputable company. Previously, many operators did not comply with health and safety standards resulting in some crashes over the years. Thankfully now, the tours run like a well-oiled machine.
Most aircraft are a propeller planes seating 6 (including the two pilots). You wear headsets with microphones so that everyone can communicate. The pilots will talk you through the theories about their formation and no doubt you will come up with some of your own.
It’s a magical flight as you soar above the lines which depict a hummingbird, condor, monkey, whale, human, spider, dog, tree and some hands staring up at you. However the formations appear to you, they are certainly breath-taking and unique flight experience.
The Nazca flight is in the morning, so after lunch, you will come back to Paracas. If you’re heading straight back to Lima from Nazca, it’s a 6-hour drive. I would recommend spending a few more days in Paracas, before visiting the Pisco wineries on the route. You could spend a few days relaxing or venture further up to the highlands for a longer adventure in Peru.
If you’re interested in visiting the Ballestas Islands or a Nazca Lines tour as part of your Peru trip or as part of a wider South America itinerary, we can tailor-make your holiday. We can arrange for you to travel independently, or as part of a small group tour and give you advice on how to make the most of Peru.