Tales of a City Girl

Gringo Diaries Part 1: Peru, from Lima to Puno

Gringo Diaries by Florence Buswell


Lima seems to have been a good place to start our adventures. The touristic parts seem almost European: coastal parks with Barcelona-esque design and statues including Paddington the bear, and looming brightly lit giants of the Marriott and Hilton Hotels over the Larcomar shopping centre where teenagers hang out to skate.  Miraflores, where we stayed, and Barranco, where we spent a lot of time, felt very Westernised and upper-scale, and it’s not unusual to see maids walking pampered pooches with shoes on in the setting afternoon sun, or to bump into an amateur photoshoot on the coastline (dog, baby, prom, they seem unfussy).

It can give you a biased view of the realities of Peruvian life – but we were there just long enough to see the fingers of reality creeping in – the striking teachers blocking the main square in protest at their 1200 soles monthly paypacket (£300 equivalent) or the shanty towns dotting the roads out of Lima, populated by people pushed out of their homes in the mountains.

We had a free walking tour of Barranco admiring the intricately drawn garish graffiti down in the artistic quarter, and a cycling tour led by the wonderful Chris who talked to us about politics and culture in between taking us to incongruously placed huge clay Inka structures tucked down residential streets and olive lined tree parks in San Isidore. Like most Lima days, this had to finish with a beer.

The food and drink here is great. Although we’re not brave enough to sample the butterflied fully in tact ‘cuy’ (guinea pig), we’ve discovered lomo al saltado  -a rich beef stir fry with peppers and onions, served with crispy potato and tuctuc (rice and black beans moulded in a sticky and delicious slab) and plenty of frothy Pisco sours. There’s also a heavy Chinese culinary influence here (the restaurants are known as Chifas).

Despite enjoying the city, my favourite day has to be our trip 2 hours south to the incredible and visually luscious Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve. Picked up at 4am in our private car by Natalya and Alfonso, by 8.30am we were in speedboats zipping through water the colour of molten graphite with birds wheeling overhead to the truly spectacular Ballestas islands.

Here, gothic vultures share space with a colony of 10,000 cormorants, which from afar look like lichen clinging to the rock such is their density. But the highlight of it all is definitely seeing huge doleful slate-grey sealions close up enough to touch. Seeing animals like this in the wild was incredible – the way they drape and arch themselves on the rocks in impossible boneless contortions and simultaneously look so fierce and vulnerable.

After our boat trip, Natalya and Alfonso took us to the national park, a disorientating vast space of seemingly hundreds of different microclimates and scenes, from rows of fossils set into the hazy desert to lush swathes of coastline where the beach is dyed brick-red by minerals from the cliffs.

We stayed in – Hostal Torreblanca, Miraflores

We ate and drank at- Tanta, Larcomar; Barranco Beer Company; Haiti, Miraflores; La Muna Restobar

We booked with – Lima Cycling Tours; HakuTours – Ballestas Islands; Free Walking Tour Peru


The city vibes of Lima melted away quite quickly on our flight to Cusco, revealing something that felt more Peruvian – more of a different adventure. Sprawling coastal paths and brightly lit shopping centres were replaced by colonial-style squares and squat buildings framed by the surrounding peaks and wildlife.

Maybe it was the smaller feel, or more possibly the disorientating nausea of being 3,400m up, but we were a lot lazier in our time in Cusco, content to wander around the squares and watch the hordes of stray dogs dig up the parks and chase each other.

However, on the second day we did go horse riding in the Sacred Valley – with much persuasion on my part for Dan – which turned out to be a simultaneously nerve-wracking and beautiful experience (I’m not sure which side won). Many Peruvians seem to be, for better or worse, very ‘get up and get on with it’ types. So no sooner were we there than we had to get up onto some seriously pissed-off looking horses and try to suppress our desire to get the hell off as we clopped over rough terrain and down winding mountain paths. The scenery was incredible though – the kind of place where the sky looks enormous and scrubby craggy mountains stretch onto the furthest horizons.

After that, it was time to experience one of the most anticipated parts of our trip – a 4 day Lares trek to Macchu Picchu – the emblem of everything that attracted me to South America. If we thought the scenery in the Sacred Valley was spectacular, it was nothing compared to the sights we experienced on tour. As Lares is slightly less well-known than the coveted (and consequently extremely quick to sell out) Inca Trail, our little crew of 5 trekkers and a guide often didn’t bump into any other people, aside from Peruvian men with blackened feet in sandals overtaking us on the mountains while leading horses and mules like it was no big deal, and the odd wind-chapped group of children who would stare at you wide-eyed and  silent.

The trek itself was often hard (especially on the second day when I had to stop to periodically vomit behind rocks due to altitude sickness) and sometimes the only noise you would hear is people’s ragged breaths and the steady clips of walking poles on mountain ground.

However, the experience makes it all totally worth it. The scenery ranged from frosty early morning walks through dense forests, to sun-dappled treks by babbling ice-cold brooks and streams, and blistering sunshine on paths winding down to ice-blue lagoons where sheep and llamas unselfconsciously drink and mingle next to you and mountains rear in the distance.

Our meals were cooked for us by chefs that would pitch camp in picturesque valleys where we slept in bone-chilling conditions – and on the second night, by beautiful natural hot springs we bathed in. The food was exceptional and made in the equivalent of a 2 man tent with course after course of freshly made soups, ceviche, stews, curries and digestive teas with fresh herbs in them.

On the night before we went to Macchu Picchu we made the ill-advised move of getting plastered with our group in the imaginatively named Machu Pisco, and we were very lucky to be able to get up at 2.30am for our final push to Machu Picchu unscathed.

To put it simply, Machu Picchu was one of the best places I’ve ever seen in my life. A beautifully preserved Inca citadel, it’s architectural brilliance is difficult to put in words and I’m not too proud to say I welled up when I first saw it (and that was only 10% hangover related).

We got there for 6am, after 2 and a half hours queuing in Aguas Calientes, and got to watch the sunset spread from behind the mountains turning everything immediately from a calm, cold, serene darkness to brilliant warm light. We also climbed Wayna Picchu mountain and saw Macchu Picchu matchbox-sized and spread below. An incredible section of our adventure I will never forget.

We stayed in – Hostel Marqueses, Cusco

We ate and drank at – Papillon, Cusco; Papacho’s, Cusco; Tunupa, Cusco

We booked with – STA Travel (Lares Trek and horseriding), Free Walking Tour Peru, ChocoMuseo


As we flew south to Arequipa, the neat colonial squares of Cusco were nudged a degree or two again. The same grid system of streets remain, but down them lie more local shops – polloterias jostling for space with empanada stalls and tiny mini-marts.

I liked Arequipa a lot. It was a strange and beguiling mix. For example, there are definitely a lot of strong Catholic roots, as demonstrated by the Monastery of Santa Catalina, a 16th century monastery where cloistered nuns still live in sparse rooms under arches splashed with Mediterranean colour and flowers. There are also 26 points of religious architecture tucked within the town.

Then there’s the recognition of more traditional Andean culture – the museum which houses the spooky frozen mummified remains of ‘Juanita’, believed to be an Inca sacrifice, and Mundo del Alpaca (Alpaca World), where the alpacas are housed in a more sprawling mansion and gardens than most Arequipans, are both must-sees.

There’s also Colca Canyon, which I have on good authority you must see if you have time – but we were damned if we were spending our couple of days in Arequipa doing more trekking.

This is also where our trip picked up pace. So after 2 days in Arequipa we were ready to move onto Puno, a 6 hour bus drive with a nail-bitingly irritating tour guide called Oscar who would periodically turn on all the lights to say things like ‘close your eyes if you have altitude sickness’ and ‘don’t drop your passport in Lake Titicaca’.

The teacher protests are still going on strong throughout our trip in South America and the plazas were packed full of peaceful protesters often with their whole families, drinking Inca Cola and biting whole into oranges.

We spent our smattering of days in Puno walking around with only a vague aim of what we planned to do – climbing up to Condor Hill to take photos of the sprawling town below, wandering into intricate iglesias (churches), or meandering down to the ports to see the boats. I also managed to nearly get into an argument with a waiter who thought I was accusing him of taking my purse, so that added a frisson I suppose.

However, Puno was just a warm-up to the next couple of days staying in Lake Titicaca. This trip was the first time I’d felt fully immersed in Peruvian culture – not just as a tourist or surveyor, but as someone living with Peruvians – staying in their home, eating at the table with their family and going dancing with them. Each family may choose to be involved in the homestay and communities are rotated every few months.

I’m not naive enough to think it was an exact replica of how our host family (led by the diminutive, smiley and extremely lovely Mama Isobel) live but it felt good to experience a couple of days with them, even if at times it felt slightly exploitative, or a little condescending, especially when we dressed in their clothes (yeah, I know…)

Isobel cooked us simple meals of potatoes, rice and vegetables over a single hob, the toilet was operated by pouring water down it (no automatic flush here) and in the evening we were given traditional Peruvian clothes to wear (an embroidered shirt, puffy skirt – called a pollera – with a thick woven puyro belt to cinch the waist in for me and the Austrian girl also staying with us – ponchos and hats and tassels for Dan and the Austrian guy).

We were then taken via head torch through the the fields by Isobel to a large concrete hall where all our tour group of embarrassingly white people clasped hands with our host families and danced in circles to panpipes and box drums. It was one of the most surreal evenings I’ve ever experienced. And if it did start to feel condescending at times, we just made sure we didn’t seem condescending in my manner – we bought what we could and liked from the crafts they made, were polite and tipped.

During the days we visited the Uros islands – incredible floating islands made wholly of reeds. The sensation of feeling anchored while also floating is difficult to describe, and you can also choose to ride in a reed boat where you are taken to an adjacent island to buy sticky pastries and buy more souveniers if you choose (the Uros islanders are pretty commercially savvy – I saw one woman pay 160 soles – £50 equivalent – for a hand-made tea towel).

We also climbed the Pachamama mountain (Pachamama is a fertility goddess) to watch the sunset, and to Taquile, a tiny island which you can walk the perimeter of to wonderful views.

Next stop and next chapter  – BOLIVIA!!

We stayed in – Posado Nueva Espana, Arequipa; Qelqatani Hotel, Puno

We ate and drank at – Museo del Pisco, Arequipa; Pacha Restaurant and Draft Bar, Puno; Cafe-bar de la Casa Del Corregidor, Puno; La Table Del’Inca, Puno

We booked with – InkaExpress bus, Bolivahop.com homestay tour