Taking a bunch of international flights around South America can get pretty pricey, but taking the bus isn’t so bad, if you have the time. Plus, you get to see a lot more when you’re on the ground. We bussed through Peru, crossing the border from Ecuador in the north and Chile in the south. I’m going to cover this trip in 2 parts: Backpacking: Cuenca, Ecuador to Lima, Perú and Backpacking: Cuzco, Perú to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. We flew from Lima to Cuzco. It’s a super long bus ride since you have to go around a huge chunk of the Andes, but it’s a pretty short and inexpensive domestic flight.
When we were researching about crossing the border from Ecuador to Perú, we read some pretty alarming stories. I guess the border crossing used to be pretty sketchy, but that is no longer the case. Truly, it couldn’t have been any easier. (We decided to go during the day since we didn’t want to risk a shady experience in the middle of the night. We always try to err on the side of caution since we’re traveling with a kid.) If you’re curious, this is how it went: The bus took us to a town just outside of the border where we changed to an international bus. Then, the bus took us to the border where we got off and stood in line to have our passport stamped to exit Ecuador, and then we got in the line next to it to have our passport stamped into Perú. Then, back on the bus. That’s it. I think if you take the overnight bus, you can skip the part where you have to change buses, but I’m not sure.
Peru offers some great bus options. We even took one that had amenities such as bed-like seats, meal service, pillows, blankets, and individual tv’s with headphones. Taking overnight buses is a great way to combine travel expenses with a nights lodging. It’s basically like getting a free night. Even if it’s not a terribly restful night of sleep for the adults, Will loves it. He reminds us often that his favorite form of transportation is long, overnight bus. He couldn’t be a better travel buddy.
We broke our journey from Cuenca to Lima into 3 bus trips as follows:
Cuenca to Máncora
Our first stop in Perú was the beautiful beach town of Máncora. If I’m honest, we chose where we would stop on the way to Lima based on location and convenience. We had no idea what a pleasant surprise Máncora would be. People drive from all over Perú to vacation in this popular party town. We stayed a bit south of the main area which was a little calmer that party central.We were there during low season so it wasn’t as much of a big party, but it was definitely in the air. The town is full off hippies, surfers, and people looking to enjoy life. We felt right at home.
TukTuks are available for cheap transportation all over town and nothing is too far way. It’s really easy to just walk everywhere here though.
The beach was super fun! The waves were strong and perfect for surfing, but we preferred jumping into them the old fashioned way. There are plenty of restaurants with tables right on the beach, and although they were a little expensive by Perú standards, they were quite affordable. We enjoying being able to sit and have a drink while Will fought the waves only a few feet away from us.
Even though we were only there a couple of days, we took two amazing excursions. If you find yourself here, I highly recommend them.
Yes, we did! Not far from Máncora is an area where sea turtles seem excited to swim with people. Well, it’s either that or they know that the boats bringing people tend to bring turtle snacks… Either way, we got to swim with tons of sea turtles. The turtles were everywhere!! You’re not supposed to touch them, but they regularly just swam right under you or get in your face. I know it looks like I’m petting one in the photo, but I’m actually just trying to stay out of it’s way. They are so cute!! Their eyes look permanently unamused, and it was so amazing to see them so close up. They have so many little creatures growing on their shells!
When we went whale watching, we weren’t expecting much… maybe some water being spouted in the air or a tail sinking under the water, but we decided to go since Will was really curious. On our way out to sea, we saw tons of dolphins jumping in rhythm through the water. I never seen so many dolphins, and they were all jumping out of the water together. It was incredible, and we agreed that if we didn’t really see a whale, the dolphins were totally worth the trip.
We figured we’d just enjoy the boat ride and hope for the best… but what we saw was so much more! It was mating season for humpback whales, and they were totally putting on a show. They were literally shooting out of the water like giant torpedoes. It’s so beautifully terrifying to see such gigantic animals dart up out of the sea. They would slap their fins against the water as though they were waving at us, making it seem even more special. Although they are fellow mammals, they are just so unusual, so extraordinary, so huge! Seeing them in person had everyone on the boat exclaiming in their respective languages. We all gasped in unison each time we saw one jump out of the water.
Máncora to Trujillo:
Trujillo is an inexpensive city that offers several interesting excursions.
If you only have time (or interest) for one set of ruins, Huaca de la Luna was a surprisingly unusual find. In my opinion, you shouldn’t miss it. Most of what is visible has only been uncovered since the 1990’s, and Huaco del Sol isn’t accessible at this time because of current excavations.
Built during the Moche empire (100-800 CE), Huaca del Sol was more of a municipal complex while Huaca de la Luna was the religious temple. The space in between these structures was where the city lived, near the river and not far from the sea.
Like many cultures, the Moche culture participated in human sacrifice. Many archaeological discoveries at this site, such as human remains and artworks, support the claim that their victims were most likely war captives. Their primary god, Ai Apaec, is often lovingly referred to as the “decapitator.” Although he can appear in many forms, such as a spider or a crab, his face is portrayed all over the temple. It is said that he has the eyes of an owl, the nose of a human, the mouth of a feline or puma, and wave-like or octopus-like hair. I really enjoy understanding some of the symbolism that underlies the ancient work we see, even when it’s a dark history. There is so much to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors.
Something that made this archaeological excursion extra interesting was how vibrant the original colors were. The murals found in the temple include bright reds and dark blacks. These incredible colors have stayed this way, despite salty ocean air and dozens of decades, because when there was a change of power, the walls were covered with adobe bricks and new walls were added further out, providing immaculate preservation. It was so interesting to be able to see something as old as this in the way someone who had lived there over a thousand years ago may have seen it.
We were told that archeological sites are required to have a male and female Perro Peruanos (Peruvian Dogs), but we really only saw them at the sites in Trujillo. People have stories to tell about how they can take sickness from people and how they are very expensive. I was particularly fond of this one at Huaca de la Luna. We saw similar hairless dogs all over Peru along with many other stray dogs. Somehow there seemed to be an amazing amount of stray, friendly dogs wearing sweaters… we came to realize after talking to someone in Cuzco, that many dogs are just loose, not stray.
I don’t know if everyone would love this excursion as much as I did, but I absolutely love horses. The Peruvian Paso horse is an especially beautiful breed with an incredibly smooth gait. If you’re interested in a unique cultural experience, this is a great stop. Basically, the show demonstrates the horses training through a few different uniquely Peruvian displays. We got to watch a man hold a wine glass full of Peruvian Pisco while the horse trotted around without spilling a drop, and we were super impressed when a barefoot woman danced Peruvian Marinera with a horse and rider. Will even got to play a “cajon” (box drum) with other kids during one part of the performance. It was a beautiful display of Peruvian pride, and we all had a great time!
Once the home of South Americas largest civilization of the pre-Columbian era, the Chimú. Chan Chan was taken over by the Inca in the 1400’s. This walled city is huge and beautifully laid out. Many of the walls are fashioned to look like fishing nets and others are covered in relief sculptures that portray significant symbols such as birds, fish, and ocean currents. Our guide explained how the Inca stole engineering ideas from the Chimú culture by creating stronger walls with larger bases. A ticket here includes admission to the nearby Chan Chan museum and the not-so-nearby Huaca Esmerelda and Huaca Arco Iris. Our taxi driver at Chan Chan offered to take us to all of the sites for a good price, so we went ahead and went to all of them. It wasn’t far by car. They were all pretty similar, but we enjoyed seeing all of them.
Right outside of Trujillo is Huanchaco Beach, a cool little area for beach walking. The long reed boats lining the coast give it an interesting ambiance, and there are plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood. We grabbed a taxi and spent a wonderful afternoon wandering around the beach.
Trujillo to Lima:
(9-10 hours by overnight bus)
Lima is one of the largest cities in the world, and as we arrived by bus, that became apparent. We woke up to the sound of honking horns, and I warned Will that he might not get to finish the movie he was watching on the bus. However, he had more than enough time… traffic is just that nutty. Once we heard honking, we still had over an hour before arriving to the bus terminal. We stayed in the beautiful Miraflores district, and if I’m honest, most of our time was simply spent wandering around the neighborhood. We loved it!
Kennedy Park was right next to where we were staying in Miraflores, and we went many times. There is a great playground, and it has a really unique feature… it is covered with friendly cats! Seriously, they just crawl into your lap and curl up. It’s hilarious to look around and see cats in everyone’s laps. Even on the playground, cats lounge around and occasionally get pestered by children. There are always people cleaning the park, and I never saw any poop. I did, however, see people feeding the cats on more than one occasion, which helped me not feel sad for the homeless kitties. If you miss you pets at home, this is a great place to get a cuddle fix.
El Malecón is a boardwalk that runs along the sea in the Miraflores district of Lima. We spent a lot of time wandering around the Malecón, and there are many things to do along the way. The views alone are worth the trip.
The Larcomar is a big, fancy mall like any other mall in many ways, but there are a few things that make it worth a stop. It has beautiful outdoor spaces where you can see the ocean. There are many food choices, from cheap to expensive. There is free wifi, and the restrooms are nice. There are even kid-sized restrooms with kid-sized counters, stalls, and toilets… it’s amazing how excited a kid can get about something like that. On the lower level, there is a bowling alley with a game area where we spent a fun couple of hours one afternoon.
- Parque del Amor (along El Malecón)
This park is a great place to stop along the Malecón. The view is gorgeous, there are colorful mosaic benches and other features, and there is a huge, gorgeous statue of lovers in the middle. Parque del Amor literally translates to “Love Parque” and all of the artistic elements support this theme. While we were there, we saw people taking wedding photos and a bizarre, choreographed Hello Kitty themed proposal. It definitely lives up to it’s name with couples everywhere, but it was family-friendly as well.
The Barranco District is an artsy, bohemian area of Lima with beautiful beaches. From the Malecón, we were able to walk to Lima’s Contemporary Art Museum (MAC). The museum is gorgeous and has a beautiful outdoor space with a coffee shop. We really enjoyed the temporary exhibitions that were up at the time, but the permanent collection was interesting as well.
There is no shortage of catholic churches to visit in South America, and Peru is full of them. The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima is unique because of some gruesome details. There are catacombs underneath the church, and you get to go in the creepy catacombs to look at them. I’ve seen many catacombs in my travels, and I always find them both horrifying and interesting. The art is beautiful and pretty typical of this type of church with some interesting additions. I was particularly interested in the library that housed some huge ancient books with giant letters meant to be read by a choir. There is an amazingly Peruvian rendition of “the last supper” in which Christ and his disciples are eating cuy, or guinea pig, and potatoes. The tour is guided and there is plenty of weirdly interesting eye candy to observe while wandering around.
A lot of people recommend seeing the water fountains at night because the colored lights add ambiance, but we thought they were pretty awesome during the day as well. We combined our trip with seeing the Monastery of San Francisco in the city center. Since most people say not to hang out at the city center at nightfall, we made it a lunchtime visit. After our visit at the church, we grabbed some lunch and walked to the park. If you’re interested, there are a many places to stop by along the way such as the Plaza del Armas and the Museo de Arte.
After our time in Lima, we took a cheap, domestic flight to Cuzco to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.