After almost two weeks in the Peruvian mountains, Matt and I boarded a night bus towards Arequipa. As a base during Spain’s colonisation of Peru, Arequipa was a trading centre and jewel of a city; one which has been beautifully maintained to the present day. Beyond city’s skyline are the towering volcanoes of Misti, Pachani and Pichu Pichu. Being that much of the surrounding landscape is flat, these 5500m+ volcanoes stand tall, with Misti’s peak located less than 20km from the city centre.
Looming stone churches can be found on most corners in the city centre, all with intricately carved fronts. You can even spot the Incan influence of vegetables and snakes interwoven into the sculpted catholic walls. Similar to a Peruvian replica painting of “The Last Supper” that hangs in Cusco’s Cathedral Basilica by Marcos Zapata, a similar alternative can be found in Arequipa’s grand La Campania church. Instead of the traditional bread and wine that is so commonly associated with the scene, a guinea pig, corn and avocado can be scene on the table (and even a small devil crawling up Judas’ shoulder).
We weren’t just going to let the walls and paintings enjoy Peru’s varied cuisine – we enjoyed our fair share too. There is a surprising Indian and Chinese influence to many restaurants in the city, although we chose some more traditional options. One restaurant was famed for cooking with several multi-coloured varieties of potato (which of course was originally sourced in Peru before being carried and grown across the globe), along with various other locations serving ceviche dishes made up of fresh uncooked fish, lime, chillis and sweet potato.
Now facing limited time, we hopped through the highlights of local towns towards the capital, Lima. An 11 hour bus journey (which turned into 16 following a few blown tyres) landed us in Peru’s desert city of Ica, where we journeyed towards the sandy peripheries for a few quiet days there. With enormous difficulty, we made regular ventures up the nearby dunes to get better views of the whole desert. The static waves of sand continued as far as the eye could see – Peru never ceases to surprise.
From the desert, we continued to the coast. The Ballestas islands, that sit a short boat ride from the town of Paracas, are frequently coined as the “Poor man’s Gallapegos”. With such a well suited name for Matt and I, we could hardly give it a miss. The main island bulged from the water with rough sides, painted white from the extensive birdlife who lived there. Sea Lions dozed on the rough rocks, occasionally stretching or diving into the water for a morning feed. Huge Pelicans swooped by, and smaller Peruvian boobys speared into the water from the air to collect shallow swimming fish.
We circled the island slowly, and even came across several Humboldt penguins cautiously waddling down the cliffside whilst we hovered nearby. Brightly coloured crabs clung to the rock face not far from the waterline, occasionally sparring with each other or simply resting in the shade. A beach of several hundred Sea Lions sounded like a choir of moans from our safe distance of 50m.
Taking the local bus routes along the coast were always entertaining and confusing in equal measure. The shared minivans (collectivos) would only leave once crammed with maximum passengers to have your face firmly pressed against the window. Fast paced local buses would never really stop for you – just slow down enough for you to be able to jump on. Fortunately the locals were always willing to help you move in the right direction…then gesture wildly and shout if you didn’t get off the bus quickly enough.
On the way to Lima we had enjoyed experiencing various sporty escapades with the elements of Peru. Whitewater rafting on the Rio Chili near Arequipa brought back nostalgic memories of Matt and my kayaking days. Attempting to sandboard in the deserts surrounding Ica was hilarious. One final venture I promised to take Matt on was surfing in Punta Hermosa, a small town just 20km south of Lima.
“The swell is big today” said Mario, our host. Naively, we merely grinned back. My experience in Indonesia had given me a foundational knowledge of surfing, the waves there are predictable and the water is warm. The Pacific waters on Peru’s coast held a different spirit; the blue-brown waves crashed quickly, especially with the strong wind pushing them on from behind.
I was attempting to teach Matt the fundamentals, but frequently a wave would carry him off before the lesson could begin. Only his luminous yellow shorts left him visible as he was eaten alive by a hungry wave.
After 90 minutes of splashing around and very little successful surfing, I noticed Matt was beginning to tire. I gestured to him that we should return to shore. A lethargic nod was returned. Matt’s energy was almost completely drained. His front crawl on the board had devolved into a doggy paddle. Consumption of salt water and pure fatigue even forced him to vomit into the sea. I pushed him along as much as possible, but a current moving away from the shore meant we were making slow progress. It took over thirty minutes to return to the beach, where the waves finally took over and threw us onto the beach in a pile. Our bodies shook and we laughed in exhaustion; we had made it.