When we’d initially planned our trip through Peru we knew we’d be doing the Inca Trail mid-August and expected to take around two weeks to make our way down the north of the country to Lima – where we’d meet our friend Rossi and start preparing for the trek. Our plans changed when we met other travellers heading north who told us about some of the amazing things they’d already seen and done in the country, which we would miss without venturing further south.
In an effort to pack in as much as possible before we had to be in Lima, we created a full-on itinerary that would take us from Mancora in the north, down to historic Chiclayo and Trujillo, followed by the snow-capped mountains of Huaraz. Then we would head south to desert-surrounded Nazca and the picturesque oasis of Huacachino before heading back up to meet Rossi in Lima – all within two weeks. It was ambitious and we were a little worried about tiring ourselves out before the Inca Trail, but we reasoned that if we planned as much as possible before doing it, it would just be a case of turning up and letting our journey unravel itself.
Our first stop after Mancora was Chiclayo, which we chose for its proximity to the famous Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan in Lambayeque. Although many generally think of the Incas when they think of ancient civilisations in Peru, there was actually far more – including the Moche people who lived in northern Peru between 100 and 800AD. One of their biggest cities was Sipan, which is close to Chiclayo, and archaeologists uncovered an impressive tomb of Moche royalty there in the late 80s. The find was described as the South American version of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, with thousands of pounds worth of gold and jewels; the majority of which now rests in the museum.
We had anticipated paying for an English-speaking guide for this museum, as we’d been forewarned that all of the displays were in Spanish, but we were ushered into the museum and past the airport-style security before we’d had a chance to notice all the guides had been waiting outside. Instead, we tagged along behind another English-speaking group to hear some occasional snippets of information about the most interesting exhibits. The museum itself was very well presented and included a full reconstruction of what the ‘Lord of Sipan’s’ tomb looked like when it was discovered (complete with the Lord of Sipan himself and eight other bodies that were found placed around him – two of his wives and some ‘guardians’ that were sacrificed when he died). It was also interesting to see images of what the artefacts looked like as they were dug out of the ground, and then see them fully-restored to their former glory in a neighbouring case.
After the museum, we caught a bus straight to Trujillo and its neighbouring seaside town Huanchaco – where we stayed the night. Huanchaco is tiny but well-known for its fishing industry. It’s the only area in Peru where the fisherman still know how to make tortora boats out of reeds and you can see them paddling out on to the Pacific Ocean each day.
Although the beach was a nice place to stay, we were in Huanchaco to see the famous Chan Chan ruins of the Chimu people and the Huaca del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the Sun and Moon) of the Moche. There wasn’t a lot left of the Chan Chan ruins, which were built around 850AD, but you could see the foundations of what would have been an impressive city when it was in use. The detail on some of the remaining bricks was astonishing considering how long it had been in the desert before it was discovered.
For us, the Temples of the Sun and Moon were even more impressive and we were glad that we’d saved them for last. The only temple that is currently open to visitors is the moon temple, which was used by the Moche people about 1,500 years ago as a sacred religious place where human sacrifices were made to the gods. Although the façade of the sun temple looks better preserved– you can see the staggered pyramid shape jutting high out of the desert – apparently a large proportion of it has been destroyed over the years.
A guide took us around the moon temple and described to us how sacrifices were chosen and eventually killed. It was a fascinating (and somewhat morbid) process, but the most interesting aspect of the temple is its beautifully detailed decoration – which has survived the centuries surprisingly well.
After Trujillo and Huanchaco, we were to catch a night bus to mountainous Huaraz. Unfortunately, on arriving at the bus station we were told by the staff that there had been a mistake with our tickets (we’d been accidentally booked onto the wrong bus) and there was no space left on the bus that we’d wanted to catch! The staff were very helpful and apologetic and gave us our money back on the spot, but it was a massive spanner in our very tightly-wound works. We had planned to arrive in Huaraz early in the morning, take a leisurely climb to a beautiful glacial lake called Laguna Chirup and get back to the town in time to catch another night bus to Nazca (via Lima). The only option available to us was to catch the next available bus (at 5am) to Chimbote and then try to find a connecting bus to Huaraz from there. After staying in a very questionable hotel right next to the bus station for four hours, we got up – bleary eyed and exhausted – and started our nine hour journey to Huaraz (five hours later than expected).
We eventually arrived at around 2pm and made a beeline for Laguna Chirup – hoping to get a glimpse before it got dark. We’d been told by a few people that, if we got a taxi as close as we could to the laguna, it would only take about one or two hours to hike there. An hour’s taxi journey and two hours of walking later, we were still nowhere near the lake.
The walk itself was a challenging one. At 3,000 metres high the air is very thin and after plodding up the steep incline for just a few moments we were both gasping for breath and could feel our heads throbbing with our heartbeats. The views were spectacular though – and it was much-needed practice for our up-coming Machu Picchu trek.
We’d been enjoying the walk, but weren’t encouraged by the sun, which was rapidly sinking down towards the horizon. We also met several groups of walkers that were heading back the other way – and none of them had good news. One group said it had taken them four hours to reach the Laguna earlier that morning (which meant that by the time we reached it, it would be dark) and another group told us they’d started an hour before us and not reached it at all – they’d turned back when they saw the sun starting to set. Feeling a little deflated that our efforts to get to Huaraz and see the lake had failed so miserably, we sat on the mountainside and enjoyed another stunning sunset before turning and heading back to the taxi (which was thankfully waiting for us at the bottom of the trail).
By the time we reached the taxi, it was pretty dark. We were feeling much more buoyant for at least making it to Huaraz and seeing some of the amazing scenery it offered before the end of the day, but our taxi driver was distraught when we told him we didn’t see the lake – and was even more so when he realised we were leaving that night and wouldn’t get to give it another go the next day!
In contrast to our travel to Huaraz, our 15-hour journey to Nazca went by without a hitch – and we even managed to get some sleep on the way. The next day, we were up and at the tiny airport by 8am – ready to negotiate a good price for a 30 minute flight over the famous Nazca lines. We’d heard that a few months before, people had managed to get flights for around $65, but it turned out that they’d flown during the low season – and now we were in the high season, we were being told flights were $80 per person. The little airport is packed full of companies trying to sell you their flights, so we had expected to be able to play them against one another to get a good price, but it soon became clear that they had all agreed to stick to the $80 price as a minimum and no one would budge. In desperation, we started to ask people waiting for their flights how much they had paid and were shocked to find that many had paid upwards of $100 through tour companies back in town. After an hour of negotiating (begging and pleading) one company eventually offered the flights for $75 each. It was still more than we’d hoped, but we couldn’t face leaving another destination without seeing what we’d come for, so we went for it.
We weren’t disappointed. The co-pilot was very friendly and pointed out all of the symbols as we flew over – and the pilot circled back over all of them twice so we had plenty of opportunities to take pictures. Although the sharp banking of the plane from side-to-side left us both feeling a little queasy towards the end, we felt very lucky to have seen the lines the best possible way.
Later that day, we took a collectivo to Huacachina – a beautiful desert oasis surrounded by giant sand dunes.
Here we would try our hand at ‘sand boarding’ – the tropical version of snowboarding. It was amazing fun to slide (or roll) down the dunes, but walking back up to the top was not quite as entertaining. We also had to be careful not to get run over by the dune-buggies, which raced around the desert at break-neck speed like a ground-based roller-coaster.
We could have carried on for hours more, but eventually the sun went down so we watched another beautiful sunset from the top of the highest dune we could find and headed back to the hostel.
It was a jam-packed week and we felt like it went by in a flash, but we were happy we managed to see so much and it was time to head back to Lima and meet Rossi!