Sand Dunes & Poor Man’s Galapagos

A few hours south of Lima, the cities of Paracas and Huacachina are destinations for touring the Poor Man’s Galapagos and visiting the expansive desert for some sandboarding and dune buggying. Due to its outrageous price tag, we skipped the actual Galapagos, so the poor man’s version seemed right up our alley and the sand dune excursion just sounded like fun! To make up for our Lima splurge, we booked a super cheap AirBnB in Ica, a busy town that caters to both Paracas and Huacachina.

To be honest, Ica was awful. It is hot, dusty, and overcrowded with taxis. The only redeeming quality were the two lovely older women that ran our AirBnB. Otherwise we have nothing good to say about it. The most annoying thing about Ica was the noise. People strap loudspeakers to the roof of their car and drive around slowly to blast music and advertisements. This is not abnormal in other parts of South America, but in Ica they were more frequent and sometimes they would just park in one spot to be permanently annoying. They would even strap loudspeakers to their peddle-driven fruit cart so they could scream about papaya. The worst noise offender by far was car horns. We have never heard so much useless honking anywhere else. During our two days in Ica we began to understand the various arbitrary reasons for honking:

  • Taxis incessantly honk at you as they drive past seeing if you want a ride: “You want a ride? No? Are you sure? Maybe now? How about now??” Even when they are a half block past, they give a few more toots just to triple check.
  • A cheerful honk to say “Hey what’s up!” when driving past a friend, a cute girl, stray dog, or anytime ever.
  • A super long single honk or three quick honks in a row to indicate you are going through an intersection without stopping - even if there is a stop sign. We’ve also seen this used when going around hairpin turns that aren’t wide enough for more than one car, but at least this case seems appropriate.
  • A quick honk paired with a hand wave out the window in lieu of a turn single to change lanes or to single to someone else they can merge into your lane.
  • The angry stuck-in-traffic-lay-on-your-horn-for-as-long-as-possible honk. (Claudio - we know you are also guilty of this!)
  • The honk to jam along to your music! Also known as the “Oh, were you trying to sleep?” honk, which we learned from our tour bus driver.

Even though the honking was annoying, we were ready to have some fun! Our first morning in Ica, we booked a 5 pm sandboarding and dune buggying tour so that we could go at sunset… then spent the rest of the day sitting in front of the fan in our room to avoid the heat outside because it was so hot and dusty! Thankfully the desert gets pretty cool at night, so by 5 pm it was a much more pleasant temperature. Our tour was only an hour long, which turned out to be plenty of time: sand blowing constantly into your eyes gets old pretty fast. The trip consisted of our driver doing crazy things to get as many screams and laughs as possible and stopping a few times so that we could slide down the hill on the sandboards, which we all ended up doing on our stomachs since that was the most fun. We’ve both been to dunes around Lake Michigan and other areas, but neither of us have been in a full desert where there are only sand dunes as far as the eye can see. It was a pretty landscape and kind of interesting, but overall, we didn’t think it was worth a trip to Huacachina just for that.

The desert oasis of Huacachina.
Vesper, the dune buggy, and the couple that took a thousand selfies.

Hoping to justify our two day stop in Ica, the next day we went on a full day trip to see the Islas Ballestas (aka the Poor Man’s Galapagos) and the Paracas National Reserve. We were promised that we would see plenty of wildlife, including penguins and flamingos, get to go swimming at a beautiful beach in the reserve, and have an English speaking guide. Well… we saw one penguin, the flamingos were about a half mile away and therefore looked like any other bird, the water was FREEZING, and our guide only spoke Spanish. Guess that’s what we get for only doing the the cheap version! We did manage to get a partial refund from our tour company since we didn’t get the promised bilingual guide, but honestly - the boat trip to the islands and the reserve were pretty underwhelming. The two biggest highlights were probably the beach full of sea lions (including babies and a few huge males) and the impressive stink of guano from the islands from the thousands of birds that live there.

The “Candelabra,” a nearly 600 foot tall geoglyph whose origins and meaning are unknown.
If you squint you can make out the penguin and the flamingos.
So many sea lions at this beach, and they all sounded like they were singing super loudly off-key.
The red sand beach and the white sand beach.
Sea lions sunning near a defunct dock.
I think this guy was hungry but we were all out of fish.

Despite the hype we’d heard, we didn’t think the area was worth the trip. We probably should have done a bit more (aka any) research on whether we would have enjoyed the excursions. Oh well. You win some, you lose some. Hopefully we learned our lesson.

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Lounging in Lima

We spent the past week and half in Lima at an amazing AirBnB located in the bohemian district of Barranco. We splurged a bit, but it was so nice to have a beautiful apartment where only the doorman knew how infrequently we actually left. We needed time to catch up on some R&R after two months of city hopping since it can be exhausting changing locations so frequently.

Our second day in Lima we managed to leave the apartment by 3 pm and explore Barranco. After some delicious ceviche at Canta Rana, we stumbled upon Barranco Beer Company. Our favorite from their tasting flight was the seasonal farmhouse. In Miraflores, the (very) upscale touristy part of town, we went to Barbarian and Nuevo Mundo, an awesome little bar with twelve beers on tap. The barleywine was surprisingly our top pick here - although it tasted more like a stong ale, which might be why we liked it so much. We also had an awesome IPA from Sacred Valley Brewing Company, which is currently winning best IPA of the trip. Another beer bar we found was Cañas y Tapas. Most of their stock was bottled beers - including a ton from Peru - but they also had beers like Old Speckled Hen, Delirium, and La Chouffe on tap. We stuck with the Peruvian beers since we can find the other ones when we get to Europe. Speaking of European style beers, we also went to Brewpub Wicks in Barranco, a British-style pub that brews a few of their own beers and serves them on cask! This was super exciting because while we usually don’t find craft beer on tap, we definitely haven’t seen any cask ales in South America. We had their bitter and their stout, which is definitely one of the best dark beers we’ve had this trip!

Enjoying a beer at Nuevo Mundo.
Barranco Beer Company and Cañas y Tapas.
Barbarian's wall of beer.

Don’t worry mom and dad - we did more than just sample beer! One day we left our apartment at the crack of noon to tour the Huaca Pucllana ruins from the Lima culture, a pre-Incan society that lived here from around 100 AD to 600 AD. The Lima people worshiped the sea (unlike the Incas who worshiped the sun), and sharks are depicted on a lot their artwork. The ruins also include a pyramid where religious ceremonies would have been performed. Some of the ceremonies involved human sacrifices to ask the gods to restore order (these people were also affected by El Niño just like the cultures we saw in Trujillo. After the Lima people, the Waris (another pre-Incan society) took over the site and used it as a cemetery.

Huaca Pucllana, right in the middle of the city.

On our last trip to Lima, we had wanted to do a cooking class or food tour but couldn’t fit it into our schedule. This time around we found Peruvian Cooking Classes, and we were pumped to learn how to make ceviche! We also learned how to make other things, but let’s be honest - we’ve wanted to make ceviche at home but were too scared since “cooking” fish with lime juice seems like an easy way to get sick. The class started with a tour of the market, then we went back to Chef Hector’s house and put together a three course meal paired with pisco sours. It was so good! Laura’s favorite was ceviche, and Vesper’s was Huancai­na sauce, a yummy spicy creamy cheesy sauce from the dish Papa a la Huancaina, a potato dish from the Andes.

Selecting ingredients from the market.
Laura showing off.
Preparing ceviche and pisco sours.

Since we were in Lima over Easter weekend, Friday was a holiday for many people and a lot of museums and restaurants were closed. We went to the beach that day, and it was insanely busy. There was no way to get to the water without walking over someone’s towel or ducking under an umbrella. You also couldn’t avoid all the sand being thrown around as kids and parents dug holes and built sandcastles. We only actually waded in the water since it was pretty cold, but it was cool to see where all the locals were hanging out and enjoying their day off.

Everyone is at the beach!

Despite being in Lima over Easter, we were surprised at the lack of religious celebrations. We had been expecting big religious parades or parties in the square or something, but we learned many locals leave the city for the holiday so it was remarkably quiet. Or maybe we looked in the wrong places and just missed it - Lima is a huge city!

Dinner in the creatively named "Cat Park."

Although we didn’t do too many touristy things, we felt like we experienced the city on a more local level. We cooked almost all of our meals using local produce, made a few friends, and explored areas we wouldn’t have found had we only been here a few days. We are relaxed and ready for another few whirlwind weeks as we head to southern Peru and then off to Bolivia!

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Two Months of Traveling Complete

In the last month, we have not taken any flights but rather several long and cheap bus rides. We have been to six cities in two countries including Baños, the monkey sanctuary in Puyo, and Cuenca in Ecuador, plus Máncora, Trujillo, and Huaraz in Peru.

After two months on the road, here are some of our updated and new observations.

Constants from our first month’s items:

  • No free tap water or refills at restaurants.
  • You usually have to pay for public bathrooms.
  • Bathrooms do not always have toilet paper or soap, so be prepared and bring what you need.

These will probably all be mostly true moving forward, so we’ll skip these in our future monthly observations - unless of course there’s something noteworthy.

New things we’ve experienced in our second month:

  • We are finally in warm cities! In the places we’ve been to in Peru, people (including women) actually wear shorts and sandals if it’s hot outside. Maybe we’re just noticing or looking for it more, but it’s nice to be able to wear comfortable weather-appropriate clothing.
  • Sunburns happen a lot faster at higher altitudes.
  • Overnight buses can be good and bad. Good because you don’t have to pay for a night at a hostel or waste a day sitting on a bus, but bad if you can’t actually sleep. Plus it sucks getting into a city at 6 am; the day we arrive is basically wasted because we spend half the day catching up on sleep or else being zombies. Or both.
  • The only time we’ve seen Zika referenced has been in Peru. We saw one infographic when we were crossing the Ecuador/Peruvian border, and there is another poster outside of the clinic down the street from our AirBnB in Lima.
  • Laura likes exclamation points! A lot! Vesper usually tries to cut them out of our blog, but then, he likes to use comma splices, so we’re basically even in our excessive punctuation.

A note on budget:

  • Hostels are not always the cheapest options for couples. They usually base their prices per person, which can add up for two people - especially when there are so many cute little bed and breakfasts or amazing AirBnBs that can be had for cheaper!
  • It’s almost always cheaper to book directly with a hostel/hotel rather than via a website like or It might seem obvious since those websites are probably taking a cut, but sometimes you want to have a reservation ahead of time (aka if you’re showing up at 5 am after an overnight bus). In these cases, we try to only book one night and then either switch to a cheaper rate or find a new place to stay.

Month two highlights:

  • Best street food: Kebabs in Ecuador
  • Weirdest street food: Cow hearts in Huaraz, Peru (learn more about anticuchos here)
  • Worst street food: Mysterious chicken parts (at least one being crunchy throat bits) in Huaraz
  • Best Coffee: Anywhere that doesn’t serve instant coffee. This is actually a serious problem in Ecuador and Peru.
  • Best Beer: Sierra Andina Brewing Company in Huaraz
  • Favorite City: Huaraz, Peru (beer, food, beautiful views - how can you go wrong?)

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Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz trek is a 31 mile (50 km) hike, with the highest point being over 15,500 ft (4,750 m) above sea level. We got an awesome off-season price of only $90/per person and set off on the trek Thursday morning with twelve other twenty-something backpackers. Check out technical stats of a similar hike here.

Our journey began at 6 am when we were picked up from our hostel, and then driven over five hours (3 spent on incredibly rocky/bumpy roads) to Huascarán National Park. We ate lunch at the trailhead, then hiked for three hours to our first campsite. It was a relatively easy first day, with only a few uphills and minor altitude changes.

Views of some lakes before starting the trek.
These little hustlers asked me to take their picture and then demanded I pay them for it!

The second day was handsdown the prettiest part of the trek. Our guide said we had an eight hour day ahead of us, with five hours up to the highest point (Punto Union) and three hours down to the next campsite. However, we were a young and energetic group and managed the entire day’s hike in only six hours! That meant we reached our campsite at 12:30… so what were we going to do the rest of the day? After lunch, our guide offered us another side hike to a glacier-fed lake. While everyone else napped, five of us set off on the two hour hike up to Lake Arhuaycocha. Our guide didn’t actually accompany us on this portion, so we somehow managed to lose the trail toward the very top and ended up bouldering the last 50-100 meters to the lake. It was fun, exhausting, and so worth the views along the way!

Both sides of the summit.

The third day, our guide asked our group whether we wanted to finish the whole trek that day. She thought it would only take us another six or seven hours to make it to the finish, where we could camp in the little village for the third night. We all voted to do that, otherwise we probably would have ended up at the third campsite by 10 am. Our legs and knees were pretty achy from our ten hours of hiking the previous day, so we took it slowly and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The last night of camping, we enjoyed a few cervezas with our fellow hikers and had the pleasure of listening to some traditional harp music played by our campsite host.

Overall it was a beautiful trek, and we are so glad we learned about it from other travelers.

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Mountains, Food, and Beer in Huaraz

We had heard from numerous travelers that we had to go to the small town of Huaraz to do the Santa Cruz trek and check out its beer scene. Located about 8 hours north of Lima, Huaraz is a hiking mecca with its beautiful snowcapped mountains (some of the highest in Peru and the world’s highest tropical mountain range) in Huascarán National Park. We arrived in Huaraz on Monday after another overnight bus, this time to a hostel with awesome wifi! We actually specifically searched reviews to find a place with a reliable internet connection since so many of the places we’ve stayed at have had crappy wifi, and we really needed to catch up on our emails, blog posts, and syncing our pictures to the cloud.

Since we arrived at dark, we didn’t see the amazing views of mountains surrounding the city until we went out for lunch that afternoon. The scenery is so pretty! I seriously don’t know why more expats don’t move there. Plus they have good beer! We had lunch at Trivio specifically to check out the beers from Sierra Andina. We first tried the Shaman IPA, and oh my god - we were in heaven! A real IPA in South America! We also tried their Pachacútec Imperial Ale, which was also delicious. Of the several beers we tried over the course of the next few days, those were definitely our favorite two. We also checked out some beers at Trece Buhos (“13 Owls”), a bar the locals we met in Trujillo told us to go to. We tried two beers made with coca (interesting flavor), plus their black and red beers.

The Shaman IPA from Sierra Andina and the Black Ale at Trece Buhos.

We also had some interesting food while in Huaraz. We had dinner one night from a street vendor who was always surrounded by locals - must be good, right? We ordered one of each option, which turned out to be cow heart and chicken parts. Maybe they were intestines? Throat cartilage? We didn’t really understand what the cook said in Spanish. Cow heart wasn’t that weird - a lot like regular beef but with a slightly funky texture. The chicken dish was another story; we don’t know what it was, and it honestly wasn’t very good. We ended up at another food vendor to get a piece of pizza and Inca Kola (an insanely popular Peruvian soda) to wash that down. We also tried yellow passion fruit for the first time. We’ve had passion fruit flavored food back at home, but honestly had no idea what one looked like until we saw a local eating one and had to try it. I’ve been telling people the texture feels like eating baby aliens (it’s both slimey and crunchy) and tastes amazing. At the market we were able to get a kilo of passion fruit for only 3 soles (less than $1)!

Laura really likes passion fruit.
Cow heart skewers and passion fruit up close.

In addition to our culinary adventures, we also spent time preparing for the Santa Cruz trek, a 4 day/3 night 50 km (31 miles) hike through the stunning Huascarán National Park. Despite often being labeled as one of the best hikes in the world, it’s nowhere near as popular as the Inca Trail and doesn’t need to be booked months in advance. Plus, it’s off season (rainy season) for hiking, so we were able to shop around to find the best price. We settled on one that would leave on Thursday morning, so we spent our time until then relaxing and doing an acclimatization hike to Lake Wilcacocha. Located in the Cordillera Negra mountain range, the hike up to the lake is only about two hours and provides amazing panoramic views of the Cordillera Blanca mountains. The locals were very helpful when we lost our way and some even chatted with us for a while! The friendly people in Peru are one of the many reasons we love this country so much.

Dogs enjoy the view as much as we do.
Laura’s future house on the hill, and more stray dogs hanging out with us.

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