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D6 [Arequipa] Espanol es muy difficile

PERU IS A WONDERFUL COUNTRY TO TRAVEL IN, significantly easier if you have some basic Spanish skills. After spending a week practicing more sign language gestures than Spanish, I’ve decided to stay for a few more days in Arequipa and make good use of its cheap and high quality Spanish classes.

The guesthouse Casa de Avila doubles as a Spanish School, and one of the best in town. I booked myself a whole week worth of classes, spending 4 hours a day with 2 different teachers. Jennifer is a proud Arequipena, who specializes in conversational Spanish, and is constantly cheerful. Beatriz is my grammar teacher, very down-to-earth, somewhat strict, but always helpful.

These one-on-one lessons helped me so much. Within the first day, I am comfortable greeting and asking for directions. After two days, I can order in restaurants, confident that I won’t get surprised with food that I wasn’t expecting. In a week, I can communicate with the friendly janitor lady about her family, and explaining about my life back at home. The teachers here skillfully allowed me to manage through the bare basics, just enough to survive my days here in Peru.

ANOTHER GREAT WAY TO KNOW THE CULTURE IS TO GET INTO A CITY TOUR. The tours have good reviews. I find them very informative, and gets you out from the tourist sites and into the locals life. The trip to the local market is especially eye-opening. Maca drinks are sold like orange juice. Same thing with cow placenta and dried baby sheep.

Peru is blessed with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. No matter how weird they look, they taste incredibly good. Street food are also typically cheap and large portioned.

The walking tour lasted at least 3 hours, and only requires a USD20 suggested donation (you can pay more or less if you want). At the end of the tour, we bumped into another tour, who spoke in Spanish. I am glad that I joined an English-speaking one. Even with my fantastic teachers, Spanish is still a very difficult language to master.

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Only 7 of us in the walking tour

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Lots of fruits on sale, some familiar, some downright strange

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Maca has a very distinct flavor and smell

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Dried baby sheep with medicinal properties

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A peculiar green cross in front of a church

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View of the suburbs

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Brightly decorated saints

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D5 [Arequipa] Salsa amigos

WHEN IN LATIN AMERICA, SALSA! And with salsa, I mean both the sauce and the saucy dance. Although Arequipa may not be your typical salsa city, its fantastic views and warm weather make every travelers’ feet happy dancing. Not wanting to waste any time, I sashayed my way to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which is one of the main attractions in the city.

This brick walled community was once inhabited by almost 500 nuns and their servants. I was told that to gain residence, the ladies have to be from wealthy families. Servants and many luxuries came with them when they entered the nunnery, and musicians were employed to entertain them back in the olden days. Because of the good life and lack of worldly stress, the nuns often live until the ripe age of 80, which is a rarity during the 16th to 17th century.

Now a museum, the monastery still holds various antiques the nuns left behind. While lingering in its green patios and lavish courtyards, I can understand how nice it would be for a lady to live here – away from her nagging husband, impatient children and gossipy neighbors. I bet most ladies ponder about this when they visit the monastery.

THE BARS IN AREQUIPA STARTS PLAYING HEAD-BANGING MUSIC LATE AROUND 11PM. Jess, a local couchsurfing friend, invited me to a bar for salsa lessons. Arriving at 9pm, the bar is still half empty. Half an hour later, someone spoke in Spanish, gathered everyone to the tiny small dance floor, and started teaching. The DJ played some salsa music while the teacher continued with explaining the dance moves of the day (again, in Spanish).

The crowd seemed like a fun mix of people. Some of them look like obvious tourists, while some seemed comfortable enough to be regulars. I picked my partner randomly and got paired with a young Peruvian girl in her 20s. This poor girl spoke little English and I am Spanish-deaf. It was a very interesting experience to mimic the dance moves without understanding verbal cues. Nonetheless, I figured out a way to “fake it until I make it”, and almost got into a violent face bump accident.

After 30 minutes of shimmying, the teacher said something in Spanish. I suspect that he meant “let’s dance” because everyone started looking for new partners. There were some really good dancers on the floor. I became dizzy watching them swirl and turn. Jess did not enjoy dancing so we brought our beers somewhere quiet so that I can get to know her friends.

JESS IS A FELLOW COUCHSURFER WHO STUDIED FOR 2 YEARS IN TAIWAN. She spoke little Chinese so was very empathetic with my situation here in Peru. Me and her friends got along so well (a little liquor goes a long way at high altitudes), we decided to go bar-hopping, experiencing different vibes of the city.

We were first rejected by a club pretending to be upscale and exclusive. There was another Irish pub where everyone had a stereotypical jug of beer in hand. It was too noisy and so we left. We found one playing nice EDM music. There was a foosball table, so I teamed up with my new found friend Mario, while Jess found a random guy as her partner.

Looks can be deceiving because we found out that Jess was unbelievably good! I knew I was weak in real football, but FAKE football too? We might have lost with a score of at least 50 to 5, but being good sportsmen, we hugged it out and called it a night.

JESS AND HER FRIENDS EVENTUALLY INVITED ME OUT THE FOLLOWING NIGHT but I had to let it pass because I was not feeling too well. I realized that although salsa (both the dance and the food) may be fun, foreigners should consider them in moderation to avoid having too much of a good thing.

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The white walls of the monastery

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Some of the walls were painted red to reduce glare

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A typical room

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The streets often have blooming flowers

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Expensive art on display in the monastery

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Salsa class!

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D4 [Arequipa] I Like Arequipa

I LIKE AREQUIPA. I ended up telling everybody I meet along the road that Arequipa is my favorite Peruvian city when in fact I fell in love with it since the very first day. Clean, white and interesting; Arequipa’s charm is fully expressed through its vibrant Plaza de Armas. Crowds of tourists and locals wander at the main square day and night. The people exhibit a hardworking work ethic while retaining a relaxed feel. The weather, sunny yet cool. It is just a perfect place to be.
I started the day with a short bus ride to the Recoleta museum. A Franciscan convent that holds many pre-Inca artifacts, this museum is small but interesting enough for an hour or two. A short walk away is the Yanahuara mirador (which means viewpoint). There are two cute alpacas in the park and no other tourists to be seen. I really like to pretend to be just another local but my attire gave me away.
THERE ARE QUITE A LOT OF VEGETARIAN CHOICES IN AREQUIPA. However, here in Latin America, lunch is the meal of the day and so many eateries do not serve dinner. A typical set lunch menu costs S./8-10, and consists of an entrada, sopa, segundos, fruta and refreshar. Rice and beans are a common staple but there are more choices than what I would expect.
Lights brighten the main square as soon as dusk kicks in. Things slow down, there were less vendors, and crowds of families were replaced by groups of young couples. I must have sat on the bench for too long, taking in the cool night breeze and feelings of contempt. Arequipa is truly a city worth savoring.
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The cathedral at Plaza de ArmasIMG_5422
A quiet day in officeIMG_5424
Charming main squareIMG_5547
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Alpacas at a roadside parkIMG_5517
Good vegetarian food
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D3 [Nasca] A Very Big Art Project

I WOKE UP AT 4AM WITH A GOOD FEELING THAT LADY LUCK IS ON MY SIDE. It turned out to be true because I received a call later that they found my backpack and it is on its way to my next destination. I had only one other goal for today – to see the Nasca lines.

The bus to Nasca from Paracas took 3.5 hours. All tour agencies were located on the same street. I did booked a day before with my hotel but I guess it was easy to book on the spot as well. These flights last for 30 minutes, and they bring you to see some of the figures etched into sand by the Nasca culture thousand of years ago. I bought my trip for USD80. There were agencies selling them for USD120 online. I heard touts screaming USD40 in town.

We first assembled in the office before a mini-van brought us to the air strip 10 minutes away. We were asked to leave our belongings at a locker. Most planes can accommodate 4-6 persons and my group is a comfortable 5. Once we got to the airport, they asked for my passport.

I realised that I left my passport in the office. The agency person said he did remind us to bring our passport, but I remembered him saying a lot of stuff in Spanish which I do not understand. I even remembered asking him “Sombrero? (Hat)” in Spanish. Why did I even think that the hat is more important than my passport? The driver had to drive me back to the office to get my passport. The group waited for me before they could board. I felt so bad I was blushing all the time.

EVERYTHING WENT ON TO BE AMAZING ONCE WE BOARD THE PLANE. It was a small aircraft, so there were many dips and turns, not pleasant for the tummy. Nothing can compare with looking at the patterns from above. They are so gigantic, I could only appreciate the size when comparing them to the cars and houses. It is still a mystery why these figures were build. It is like an art project that no one from their time can see. Was it for the gods? Did they foresee that people would invent airplanes? Was it for aliens? Who knows?

THE REMAINING BUS RIDE TO AREQUIPA WAS SCENIC NONETHELESS. It was many many hours before I arrived in the hotel but fortunately, my backpack arrived before me. It is amazing that I got both my wishes accomplished today. Seems like luck is truly on my side.

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It gets scary once you’re up in the air
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The pilot and co-pilot
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Nasca city right below
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Miles and miles of lines for what?
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Yeah! I survived!
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Fun photo with the crew
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D2 [Paracas] Shit happens

HEUVALITAS, JUGO, ENSALADA FRUTA, PAPAS FRITAS Y CAFE. Simple fresh breakfast staples that would wake a jet lagger up. The hotel has a nice balcony terrace overlooking the beach. Early in the morning, everything seemed calm. There were only the sounds of the ocean waves, seagulls hooting and the occasional rooster.

The Ballistas Islands off shore of Paracas are also known as the “poor man’s Galapagos”. However, I like its other name better, las islas guaneras, because it is filled with bird droppings. Guano (bird droppings) are a valuable source of natural fertiliser. Now, it can only be collected once in while by official “shit collectors” to protect the reserve.

The tours here are quite standard. All agencies offer the same exact 2-hour tour to Ballistas Islands at either 8am or 10am. The ocean waves get crazy during the afternoons, so they only have morning departures. Around 11am, tours to the Paracas National Reserve commence.

En route to the islands, the boat stops near to the famous Candelabro, a candelabra-like drawing, that seems to be related to the Nasca Lines. No humans can set foot on the islands (except “shit collectors” and researchers) so all the animal viewing occurs on board the boat. This being the summer season, baby sea lions are born and the colonies are very noisy. Humboldt’s penguins also live on the island, along with various different types of birds and mammals.

With so many birds hovering above, accidents are due to happen. The French lady beside got a huge blob of bird shit on her thigh, I sarcastically commented that it is good for the skin. I had a small trickle on my arm too.

THE TOUR TO PARACAS NATIONAL RESERVE IS A STRAIGHTFORWARD ONE. I never imagined to see a desert just beside a coast. This is one of the unusual ecosystems in the world. On the beach, there are many fishing ports. On the desert, huge sand dunes conquer the landscape.

THE TOUR WAS ALRIGHT, BUT I WAS WAY MORE EXCITED TO SEE MY BACKPACK. I asked the hotel receptionist many times if they received calls for me. Late evening, I’ve decided to call LAN to confirm. Many calls were made with my poor Spanish and their poor English. The receptionist was kind enough to help me translate. What I got from the other end is that they do not have my backpack yet, but will send to me when they get hold of it.

The problem is that I have no concrete travel plans yet. I have not booked any onward buses or accommodation. I emailed the credit card insurance company and they replied that claims can only be made if I use their “credit card” for purchase. Shit, I used another credit card! My travel agent, Rolcoco, was kind enough to offer help for the claims. And as of now, I am stuck with my small day pack and 2 changes of clothing.

Oh well, shit happens during travel (and in life as well). I might as well suck it up and make good use of it. I contemplated on my “wisdom of the day” while scrubbing off the bird shit stains on my arm.

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The Candelabra
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Noisy birds with lots of guano to offer
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A large male seal taking a sun bath
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In the middle of the sand dunes
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The Red BeachIMG_5492
Peruanos having a fun day at the beach
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Sea gulls walking on the shore
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Bird droppings are good for your skin, look at her left leg
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D1 [Lima] Hola! Esta bian?

WHAT DO YOU ANTICIPATE with a 27 hour flight? During my flight from Taipei to New York, I had to make do with glitchy movies while trying to sleep according to the Jet Lag Rooster app’s suggestion. The long and tiring formalities during my connection in JFK airport reminded me of why transits in USA should be avoided. But then, a great tasting hummus spread and Greek yogurt in JFK made me almost forget the hour-long queues that just occurred. My flight from New York to Lima on LAN was uneventful, fortunately.

Upon arrival, I quickly noticed how the Lima  airport is better with advantages such as fuss-free customs, plenty of ATMs, English-speaking ground staff and more. However, my backpack have decided to stay another night in New York. I took the news surprisingly well. Not a surprise actually. Since my brother Kennie foresee that I will have to claim for insurance, just before I board the flight (Thanks, but no thanks, bro~). As I said, the staff was helpful, but I now I had to find a decent change of clothes.

MY FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF LIMA are that it is way much easier than I thought it would be. Maybe that is for Peru in general. I’ve always had stereotypical scenes of tout-filled dirty streets like India, the hassle and crowding like China, and the slow and confused employees like Indonesia. It seems that only the third one is true. Service is somewhat slow compared to East Asian standards, but still, they do smile.

Determined to leave Lima for my next destination, I know that I had to buy myself some clothes with my credit card so that I can claim for insurance. The helpful lady at the tourist information center suggest Larcomar shopping mall in Miraflores, which is an affluent neighborhood for Limenos, comparable to what Malibu is to Los Angeles. I arrived at the shopping area at 9am. It opens only at 11am. I tried many ATMs from different banks but could not get it to work. Cash withdrawal via credit card was a failure too. I had only a few hundred US dollars and I changed it all to New Peruvian Soles. Without any other ways of getting cash, my plan is to use my credit card as often as possible (which will be a big problem outside big cities), and pay in cash only if there are no other possibilities.

As soon as the stores opened, I rushed in the GAP and Nike stores, grabbing a few essentials, all the while reminding myself of the insurance claim limit. As swift as a shopping fox, I finished what I came here for, took a cab and got to the bus station just in time for the 1pm bus.

PREMIUM-CLASS LONG DISTANCE BUSES IN PERU ARE FREAKINGLY COMFORTABLE. One of their best companies is Cruz Del Sur (Oltursa is a close second), and they provide luxurious reclining seats with full service on board. Passengers have to check-in baggage as they would do on a flight, have their personal identification checked while a video camera records just like in the immigration counters, and they serve drinks and meals like an airline would. The only difference is that the seat reclines up to 140 degrees, just like flying business class! All these for a fraction of what a flight would cost.

I had a perfect second-floor front seat view. The sceneries were amazing!

THE ONE STREET TOWN OF PARACAS CATERS MOSTLY TO TOURISTS. My hotel room was small but clean, yet I can’t get over the view of the badly littered beach. Packed with vacationing Peruvians, it feels kind of touristy. Food here can be expensive. I had a very unpleasant vegetarian pizza at a pizzeria. Their pisco sour was good though.

After a long flight and a hectic day, nothing matters more than a good bed. Fortunately, I am happy with mine. Hola, Peru. Everything is esta bian!

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Perfect seat with front row views

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The Panamerica road to Paracas looks dusty

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Bus meals resembling those on an airline

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Lima can be hectic and heavily littered at some places

Transportation
Lima airport is quite compact. The most recommended way to get to the city is via Green Taxi. There is an official kiosk when exiting the baggage claims area. Taxis do not have meters so customers and the driver have to decide on a price beforehand. Make sure communication is clear, be it US dollars or Peruvian soles. A taxi to Miraflores costs 60 soles.

Money
There are 2 money changers inside the international arrival baggage area, more can be found outside at the main hall. Although rates may be cheaper in the city, it will be easier (and arguably safer) to change some money while in the airport. There are Global ATMs in the arrival hall, and more ATMs on the second floor of the airport. Most ATMs require a commission when making an overseas withdrawal. Until now, only Scotiabank ATMs do not require a commission and has an upper limit of 600 soles per transaction. It is worth trying at different ATMs because some of them won’t take foreign cards.

Communication
Prepaid SIM cards are the easiest way for internet and calls. There are only Claro kiosks in the airport. Other telecommunication dealers such as Movistar can be found in the city. Claro’s staff in the airport speaks decent English, and their packages are the cheapest. There is either the “pay per day” package with unlimited calls and data, or the “pay as you go” package. With the “pay as you go” deal, activation fee is USD$10, and the fees are settled before leaving Peru. This can be done at any major Peru airport, or at the last city before leaving Peru. I find the connection quite stable even in the outskirts.