The Peruvian Amazon that most visitors get to witness is not the wilderness it once was. Iquitos, the one-time frontier town in the first rubber boom has bloomed into a small metropolis; the river as busy with traffic as a highway, luxury jungle lodges stretching for hundreds of kilometres into the once virgin jungle.
Meanwhile in the south, Puerto Maldonado, the most popular access point to the jungle, has transformed from a small logging town into a chaotic outpost of mass tourism. Five-star jungle retreats, luxury spas, global cuisine and a chance to witness a small, tamed parcel of the rainforest without getting your feet wet.
Fortunately for the more adventurous travellers, there are still a few chances to get up close and personal with the real and undomesticated jungle.
Following the road east to its final conclusion, the last stop before the river finally takes over is the town of Pucallpa. From here I set off into the jungle with my guide Achiles on his narrow riverboat. We were heading deep into the Amazon for five days to visit Achiles’ friend Don Luis in the village of Nueva Utuquinia, roughly halfway between Pucallpa and the Brazilian border.
Tourism is a barely developed industry in this stretch of the central Amazon; there are no five star lodges in sight, I would be hanging my own mosquito net in abandoned riverside huts and if we wanted to eat anything other than the rice and eggs we had brought with us, we would have to go fishing first.
Matthew Barker is based in Peru where he is writing about his life.
Backpackers heading to South America are in for a treat. Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and La Paz are some of the world’s most famous and intriguing cities. And the beaches; everyone goes for the beaches. But the life of a backpacker is more than sightseeing and sunning yourself on the beach; any trip has to be the adventure of a lifetime.
So, there’s bungee jumping, skydiving, and snowboarding in New Zealand and Australia; but what does South America have to offer? Here’s what.
Mountain biking the death road, Bolivia
You may be a mountain biking specialist, knowing all there is to know about Shimano shoes and Specialized bikes, but that won’t necessarily prepare you for cycling the death road in Bolivia. Don’t worry you won’t just be grabbing any old rusty bike and taking your chances on your own; it’s one of the biggest attractions in the country. That doesn’t make it any less scary though!
Descending 3,400m from a high mountain pass near La Paz to the tropical lowlands of Coroico, the North Yungas Road is said to be the most dangerous in the world. Prior to the new road being constructed in 2006, the narrow unpaved highway was responsible for hundreds of deaths every year, with cars and busses toppling over the cliff sides at the rate of one each week. Nowadays you can throw on your cycle clothing, jump on the back of a bike and ride hard with one of the many tour companies offering trips.
Sea kayaking the Patagonia, Chile
This is a haven for extreme sports junkies, with climbing one of the biggest draws here. Coming in a close second is sea kayaking. Travellers will find hundreds or glacial lakes and crystal clear waters traversing the Andean Mountain Range and the fjords. The scenery is awe-inspiring. Get yourself on a tour (ranging from 2-9 days) as much of the lakes are un-spoilt, so a guide is essential.
Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
When you mention getting on a board in South America, snowboarding in Argentina probably springs to mind; but for those heading to Peru there’s the chance of some adrenaline fuelled action without the snow. Sandboarding in the large dunes found in this spot 5 hours outside Lima is the perfect alternative for those winter sports lovers dying for their fix. It’s not as fast, but it’s still cool.
Piranha fishing in the Amazon, Brazil
OK this one may not involve throwing yourself down a sand dune or pushing your body to the limit, but piranha fishing is still pretty damn scary. Your guide will take you out in a boat on the Amazon while you drop a line for these feisty fish.
Other favourites include ziplining in Ecuador, Bungee jumping in Brazil, kitesurfing on the Brazilian coast and canyoning in Mexico. What will you choose?
Jerry offered me a glass and I took it. Almost everybody did and as soon as I drank it my body relaxed, my stupid laughter stopped, I warmed up and began to breathe properly.
Suddenly, it was my turn. I stood holding the rail; I could see the mountains covered in green vegetation for miles. The blue sky was speckled with clouds spreading around as if they were daring the sun to show its face. The only thing in my life at that moment was the idea of jumping into an abyss, like if I were given the opportunity to fly.
The first three steps were crucial. Freddy and the assistant were go to hold me steady. Jerry would be on the other side of the bridge to check me after I had jumped. All I had to do was focus on jumping as if into a swimming pool, stretching my arms as much as I could and literally intend to fly.
The only thing in my mind was then Freddy’s words, he went on motivating me, telling me how easy and amazing this would be. His words were just part of the wind, I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just held his shoulders and took my first step. Then, not even in a second, I knew there was not going back, just upward.
At the precise moment of jumping from the bridge I didn’t see anything other than the landscape flowing around me. The feeling of pure adrenaline invaded my body, replacing the panic that I had accumulated.
My heart raced briefly but then, just as quickly, I felt an overwhelming sense of sheer calm. Everything was over; I was swinging on the ropes like a little girl, lying on the sky, at 150 meters in the air and without a worry in the world. Someone passed me a rope and pulled me back to the ground. I went up the bridge where everybody was waiting and clapping for me.
I sat on a rock next to the other jumpers Miguel, one of them, showed me some photos he had taken. He also told me how he had done this several times before.”No matter how many times you do it, the feeling of fear never goes away.”
One by one, we watched all the participants jumping, each of them at their own pace but without giving up. Before long, a few drops of water announced the possibility of rain. The sun was hiding behind ominous clouds. We had spent hours there and yet it all seemed to have gone in a flash. I felt completely exhausted and absolutely starving, thankful for the snacks I had saved from earlier.
On our journey back we stopped at Barba Blanca, a tiny village hidden among the mountains. There, the locals rushed to our bus to offer drinks and food. We had corn and cheese, fruit, chicken wings and even burgers. After five minutes of devouring anything edible that came into our sight we resumed our journey home.
Nobody said a word, everybody was sleeping and my body had stopped responding to my commands. I had exhausted my body and my mind, the adrenaline and extremes of the day had flushed my entire system and I felt ready to face anything. I knew I would be able to succeed no matter how difficult it seemed or how high the jump would be.
A Puenting trip can be organized by almost any tour operator but be sure to check for a reliable outfit with a good safety record.
This specialist in South America tour packages offers various adventure activities.
I had spent weeks absorbed with the stress of my son’s diagnosis for attention deficit disorder and transfer to a specialist school. “I need a break,” I was thinking when I decided to sign up to go puenting. Puenting translates literally as “bridging”, the perfect way to describe what I was about to do: jump from a bridge into a 170m deep canyon held only by a 20m rope.
I didn’t mind getting up before dawn to reach the meeting point in Lima, Peru’s capital city and gateway to the country’s many adventure destinations. A friend was taking care of my son and I was going to spend a day working off the stress.
We headed out of the chaos of the city and up towards the highlands, in the foothills of the Andes, just two hours away from my downtown home. Stopping for snacks along the way I realized I was too apprehensive to be hungry, so I ended up stashing my biscuits for after the jump.
As the road climbed, the polluted city seemed to fall away from behind us, with mountains and greenery replacing the urban grime.
There were two guides with us, Freddy and Jerry, and eighteen people. Most of them were university students, excited by their impending adrenaline rush. The bus was full of nervous chatter and laughter, conversation occupied by final exams, presidential candidates and the elections, although I expected only as a way to put the fear out of their minds.
But for me, the most terrifying prospect was the perilous road and the steady flow of vehicles racing past us, often no more than inches away from our bus.
Finally arriving in one piece, we got off the bus and stood on the bridge looking out over the Autisha canyon. The mountains were overwhelmingly high and incredibly steep. The canyon seemed like an enormous throat ready to swallow us whole as we jumped in. At the bottom, rocks pointed out of the earth in forms that seemed purpose designed to scare us, far above. From this distance, the narrow ribbon of river didn’t even look like it was flowing.
Freddy provided a detailed explanation. Basically, the secret of a successful jump lies on not thinking about it too much. “Great! “I thought to myself, as if that would work. When they asked for volunteers I raised my hand immediately. Every muscle in my body had tightened and I noticed myself laughing over every meaningless comment I heard.
One of the assistants helped me into my harness and spoke some encouraging words. “My mind hears you, Italo, but my body doesn’t,” I thought.
Then Freddy and Jerry brought over a sports bag that contained the ropes and the rest of the safety equipment. Plus several bottles of pisco, Peru’s famously potent liquor. “Ok,” said Freddy. “How about some pisco to overcome your fear?”
It sounded like a joke but it was true. I looked at the bottles and looked at Freddy smiling. Then I thought:
“First, I don’t drink pure pisco. Second, why would I drink pisco when doing a sport? Third, ok, who cares if I drink a bit?”
While the northern hemisphere hunkers down for cool autumn months, Ecuador blooms with warm breezes, clear skies, and the beginning of the festival season in October.
Down the spine of the Andes Mountains just one hour south of Quito, the city of Latacunga fills its streets with streamers and parades the cathedral’s statue of the Virgin and Child through several neighborhoods.
Locals and visitors alike gather in the main plaza. They snap pictures and dance to the bands. They buy snacks and pop open bottles of Pilsener beer. Horses enter the courtyard and astride one is the figure of Mama Negra, the city’s protector against volcanic eruptions and destructive weather. The band strikes a fast beat and Mama Negra herself unveils a black bottle and sprays the crowd in a ritual cleansing.
At the Fiesta of Mama Negra, prepare yourself for dancing in the streets and non-stop festivities.
On each plaza corner, bands whip up festival-goers with hip swinging music. All year long, musicians and townspeople have been saving up for this event.
And they don’t hold anything back. Pastel-hued colors burst across the promenade. Pink coats and blue skirts twirl to the melody. Costumed men carry portal altars on their backs, offering devout tokens of respect to the patroness that include a dozen bottles of whiskey, roasted chicken, smoked guinea pig, and one immense BBQ pig.
Ribbons decorate the spaces in between as each man hews the altar down the parade route. Even small boys get involved as each one carries a miniature sized offering.
While bands blast trumpets and beat drums, each parishioner dances euphorically through the streets of Latacunga. In between altars and bands, they strut their choreographed hips through the cobbled avenues.
With handkerchiefs men guide their partners through the routine, hollering and celebrating each step. The women purse pink lips, swirling with the beat and smiling with pride. At the Fiesta de Mama Negra, the parade snakes up and down the streets for miles.
For hours, the bands march and dancers dip and twirl their partners. Mama Negra sprays the crowd with alcohol and gangs of masked men cleanse innocent bystanders with branches of green leaves. In the crowd, onlookers share beer and whiskey. They cheer and push each other into the midst of the dancing parade. Amongst friends and family and strangers, they jest and joke from noon past midnight.
Latacunga, a city high in Ecuador’s Andes, offers an authentic insight into everyday life in the mountains and is a great cultural extension either in between the usual tours to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.
Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.
Ancash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.
The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.
Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.
The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.
The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)
The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.
The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.
The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.
A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.
The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.
I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.
We were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.
To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.
One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.
We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.
That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.
We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!
Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.
What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.
The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.
When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.
Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.
An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.
It can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.
We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.
After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.
Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!
Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: email@example.com. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.
Everest Base Camp, Nepal
Mount Everest is known by all as the highest peak in the world, it is known by climbers and adventurers however as an immense challenge that is best left to the professionals. A classic Himalayan trek with incredible views and rewards that can be enjoyed by all adventure enthusiasts is a trek to Everest Base Camp. Trek takes you through an exciting forest and over mountains giving you stunning views of the surrounding peaks whilst the dramatic landscape around you changes as you continue to climb higher and higher up the Khumbu Valley.
Grand Canyon, Colorado
For adventurers, the most exciting way to appreciate the Grand Canyon’s natural capacity and power is to raft through it; the Colorado River through canyon is one of the wildest stretches of white water in the United States. The full journey through the canyon (from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead) is 275 miles in length and makes for a challenging, fun adventure with some staggering scenery, white-water thrills, and magical hikes.
Masai Mara Safari, Kenya
For a safari with real-life, thrilling adventure try a Masai Mara Safari. The Masai Mara reserve is one of the best destinations in the world for viewing wildlife in its natural habitat and offers plenty to see. During the winter months, it’s easy to assume that all will be quiet on the reserve however you couldn’t be more wrong. Many tourists aim to target their trip to coincide with the migration season but there is life to be seen throughout the year. Between August and November, you can spot the two million wildebeest charge across the green-land as they migrate from the Serengeti in search of water, or in spring, experience the first sightings of new-born life. For frightening thrills, predators such as lions, cheetahs and leopards can be spotted prowling the terrain whilst graceful giraffes can be found flaunting their astonishing stature.
Inca Trail, Peru
Being the best-known and most popular hike on the South-American continent, the Inca Trail is an exhilarating, challenging and unforgettable experience. The journey starts in the village of Qorihuayrachina and takes three or four days of strenuous walking to complete. The trail is surrounded by breathtaking scenery, crossing the Andes mountain range and sections of the Peruvian jungle and rain forest Ending at the old citadel of Machu Picchu provides a rewarding finale and time to discover the ancient citadel. Together, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu make up one of the wonders of the world.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef, covering over 350,000 square kilometers of the sea and is the only living collection of organisms that are visible from Earth’s orbit. Most of the Reef’s diversity occurs in the top 4 meters of water and the best way to experience this is by snorkeling The reef is believed to be the densest assemblage of living organisms to be found in any comparable area in the world thus the thousands of beautiful coral gardens and abundant marine life will leave you mesmerized.
In South America, accommodations are classified into categories and awarded stars for service, similar to the way guidebooks and AAA function. But travelers coming to South America for the first time may be a bit confused over the categorization of the sleeping arrangements south of the equator. For example, just because one business is a hotel it is not necessarily better than a hostal, or small guesthouse. Visitors to the region must do their research and investigate star-ratings for each place that they stay. Overall, hostals are a good budget choice where private bath, clean sheets, and family-run service is provided. Hospedajes are also nothing to ignore. They are even smaller establishments than hostals with perhaps 4-5 rooms often with private bath, but lacking in other amenities such as restaurant, bar or communal kitchen. We’ve found some of the best deals via hospedaje in Huanchaco and Nazca, Peru. But a new class of accommodations has emerged in South America and savvy travelers should take note. Private homestays are a fantastic way to relax but also immerse yourself in the local culture. What is a Private Homestay Unlike hostals, hotels, and hospedajes, a homestay is often a rented room in a private home. In the past, companies would arrange “homestays” with local families in order to allow travelers to see what life is like for the locals. Often, the experience was trite. But now from Ecuador all the way down to Patagonia, private homestays offer more authentic and sincere experiences.
Neil and I have had four homestays overall, two in Ecuador and two in Peru. All have been fabulous. In a homestay, you live in the home of a local, practicing Spanish, taking your meals, and learning about the best places to shop and visit from the insider’s perspective. You’ll receive your own key, sometimes your own entrance. But for 4 days or 3 weeks, you will get an experience that cannot be mimicked in a hostel or hotel. Guests eat and socialize with the host family and other travelers. The experience is not about partying all night or locking yourself in your room. Here, the crowd is diverse—ranging from traveling couples, 30-something backpackers, expats, and even young families with kids. For all four stays, we’ve utilized Craigslist and AirBnb. Do your research. Find comments left by previous guests and secure a deal that suits your budget. As two people traveling on the road for over 2 years, Neil and I love homestays. The room is usually slightly more expensive than a hostal guesthouse but less than a hotel. However, security, cleanliness, and warmth of each place have been fantastic, especially in the city. When we stayed in Quito and Lima, our hosts gave us specific information about the city regarding safety, bus routes, and restaurants. Our hosts took great care in making sure we had everything we needed. That doesn’t always happen in the other accommodations. Every Homestay is Different Depending on the family, every homestay is different. In Quito, our “Ecua-mama” picked us up from the airport, offered us dinner and even played a very competitive round of Rummikub with us. In Manta, our hosts let us have the run of their waterfront apartment. Dinner was not included but breakfast was a culinary event with homemade broccoli pies and hand-ground plantain and cheese fritters. While in Lima, we had a private apartment with bathroom, TV, living room, and private access to the kitchen. Currently in Cusco, we are in a cozy cottage-like house with flatscreen TV and great WIFI.
So, before booking and after you’ve researched their online reputation, think about asking your homestay hosts the following questions:
Are they renting a private room or an entire apartment?
Are there private bathrooms?
Is there a kitchen to use?
Are there any discounts for multiple guests or longer stays?
Can they pick you up from the airport or bus station?
What meals are included?
Do the hosts live in the house?
What kind of neighborhood is the homestay in?
How far is the walk to the city center?
With four homestays under our belts, Neil and I have had four unique experiences. While some homes were about total integration into the family, others give travelers space to rest and relax. Though you never know for sure which host you’ll have, from what I experienced, both are fantastic with accolades of their own. In April, we will be in Buenos Aires and have already started to research homestays and apartment rentals. Since three friends will travel with us, I’m toying with the possibility of renting a homestay that is an entire penthouse or maybe a multi-level colonial house. Though I love affordable hospedajes and even party hostels, our preference for homestays has eclipsed them lately especially in the big city.
Exclusive for Vagobond by Jo Self
Living in Cusco I find myself constantly reminded of what a small world it is. Sitting on a bus waiting to leave Cusco for the weekend, I was pleased to hear the conversation behind turn to CouchSurfing. Talking up the merits of the CS experience, Marco was telling the young, French traveler to his left about all the great people he’s met and how much he enjoys the experience. As an active member of CouchSurfing over the last four years, and a regular attendee to the weekly meetings here in Cusco, I was thrilled to find that the groups in Peru are thriving.
CouchSurfing, for those who are unfamiliar, is an online organization that is set up as a hospitality exchange. The network provides travelers the opportunity to act as hosts, by showing others around the city, meeting for a coffee or actually housing travelers free of charge in their home.
However, this isn’t just a free room for the night. Most members take the project quite seriously and see it as a chance for true cultural exchange.
A friend of mine in Mexico told me about the project back in 2007 and I immediately became a member. There is no cost to join, unless you feel the desire to contribute. Every member is expected to fill out their profile thoroughly and each profile is then enhanced with references from friends as well as those travelers with whom one has surfed or hosted.
Upon arrival to Lima at the end of March, my first course of action was to see if there was a local meet-up happening while I was there, and with luck, there was.
I met Morgan, a fellow ex-pat living in Lima at Café Maquina for the weekly Friday language exchange. A fairly informal gathering of locals and CouchSurfers alike mingled and chatted, sharing their languages and cultures.
Here in Cusco there are two different weekly meetings, one on Wednesdays at Indigo, which is mostly just a social gathering, and then a weekly language exchange that meets on Fridays, which was recently started and is still looking for a permanent home. In Arequipa, there are frequent get-togethers to go out dancing or to enjoy a coffee or beer together, but at the moment, no regular weekly meetings are scheduled.
In addition to the meetings, members frequently use the online group forums to find travel partners, information on local events and tips for getting around the city. I’ve met some amazing people through the service.
While still living in the US, I hosted easily 8-10 people a month in my home and while the median age of CS members is 28, I hosted folks from 17-72 and am still in contact with more than half of them. The good news is, whenever and wherever I travel, I know I have a place to stay and a friendly face to welcome me – a small world indeed.
For more information on each of the groups in Peru, just do a search under the ‘Community’ tab and explore the options. If you’re staying in hotels during your trip but are still keen to mix some cultural exchange into your Peru travel experience, either talk to your operator about cultural tours or get in touch with the local CouchSurfing group.
Exclusive for Vagobond by Amanda White in Cieneguilla, Peru
Sometimes I forget that life, that adventure, that travel is just and/or equally about the journey as it is about the destination. I know it’s a saying, and it may be cliché, but it still holds true. I’ve always been goal oriented, task efficient and sometimes have a hard time letting go of the End Result. I have to remind myself to stay in the moment. This is what I want to learn here in Peru; how to be, to exist, to live, to love, where and what and when and who I am. I take my bike–how quick I am to assume possession of what’s been loaned to me–and head towards the Cieneguilla ruins. I have a vague idea how to get there. I pedal fast, until I realize I’m not on a deadline. I’m not running a race. So I slow my mind and step off the bike (mostly because my legs are burning from doing this crazy PX90 leg work out and a long bike ride the day before). I listen to the roar of the river going on its journey beside me. Calm. Now I’m here entirely here and nowhere else. I look for the beauty in the dust of the road. I see the contrast of barrenness and fruitfulness. I give half smiles to the cars, taxis, bikes, and people I pass. I don’t want to be overly friendly, but neither do I want to be rude. Some of the cars honk at me, but this is Peru, everyone honks. One taxi passes by slowly as I cross the bridge and I lean over to ask him if I’m going the correct way to the ruins. He doesn’t lead me astray. “Go up to the end of the road and then take a left,” he tells me in Spanish. I thank him; do a quick double-step with my foot against the dirt to get going and bike on. At the fork, I go left as instructed. Trees overhang the road casting pleasant shadows. To one side of me are enclosed houses with elaborately painted walls and exotic flowers. To the opposite side are makeshift huts with piles of trash in the yards, if they can even be called yards. It’s quite a contrast; the rich inside their walls and the poor practically out in the open. Both right there together.
Before I quit my job and moved to Peru I was middle class American on the cusp of the lower class. I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t impoverished either. I lived comfortably. Here though, the color of my skin and the color of my hair scream out wealth. This isn’t true. “I’m just like you,” I want to tell them. “I’m human just like you. Please don’t value me by how much or little money I have in my hand or in my bank account.” They see me through the filters that television has given them. “Thanks a lot, Hollywood,” I say. I make it to the ruins. Even though I’ve enjoyed the journey I still have a sense of satisfaction on arriving at my destination. It’s hard to lick old habits the first go. I leave my bike against a still standing wall and hike to the top of the hill. Who lived here? What did they do? How did they think? What did they want? Was this place their destination and had they enjoyed the journey there? What happened to them? I want to know everything.
I find a rock and sit to eat my apple and bar. Like a good boy scout (I envied my brothers getting to be scouts. I always wanted to get a Rocket Merit Badge) I pack out what I’d packed in.
When I go, I look behind one last time. These people left their mark, however ruined, behind them. What will I leave? Deep, but not unpleasant thoughts accompany me on my journey home.
Amanda White lives and blogs in Peru. You can find more of her work at My Llama and Me
As always, if you are heading to Peru and want to ask anything about it, Vagobond travel advice is free for the asking or you might find the resources in the box below to be helpful.