Following the Pan-American Highway: Hidden gems of Peru
If you talk Peru, you talk Machu Picchu. Am I right?
Of course Machu Picchu is a must-visit destination, it is mind-blowing! Situated on top of the mountain, covered by a mystic fog, it will take your breath away. But this post is not about Machu Picchu (sorry, but that place will be covered in a next post).
Please, PLEASE, don’t just travel from Lima by plane to Cusco/Machu Picchu. If you ever wanted to really discover a country, read on. Fly to Lima, put on your walking shoes and start a roadtrip following the Pan-American Highway!
I will take you on a trip from Lima south along the coastline, all the way to Arequipa. The coast line is amazing as you will encounter extremely different landscapes, from desert to volcano, from islands with sea lions to the most impressive mysteries on earth (Nazca lines).
We took this trip in the year 2000. And you know what, this was our honeymoon! Honeymoon most of the times equals lying on the beach close to a luxury hotel (right?). But not for us. We went backpacking to Peru. And we loved it!
If you are planning a trip to Peru, don’t miss out on this journey along the Pan-American Highway. Let me show you 6 Peruvian gems. Let’s hit the road!
1. Ballestas islands
Just south of Lima we were surprised by a nice bunch of islands, the Ballestas islands. They call it Little Galapagos. OK, I guess if you have never been to Galapagos you might think it’s alike. But really, if you know the other name than you know what it is really like. It is also called Poor Man’s Galapagos.
Don’t be afraid, the Ballestas islands make a really great day out! And if you only stay in Lima before traveling to Cusco, the Ballestas is a place you should not miss.
What is to be seen there? Lots of animals: pelicans, sea lions, even a pinguin if you are (very) lucky. The islands are rocks and you circle them by boat. Great fun (for the poor and the rich)!
After you have visited the Ballestas islands, get on the road again (Pan-American Highway that is)!
2. Sand boarding – oasis of Huacachina, near Ica
Yes, yes, yes! This was so cool. Have you ever sandboarded from a dune, in the middle of the desert? Neither did we.
When we finished sandboarding, we found sand everywhere. I mean everywhere. All over our bodies. Places you didn’t even know could be reached by grains of sand.
That was the result of one hour of sand boarding! But I felt so cool, as you can see on the picture.
We took the Pan-American Highway bound south from Lima. Reaching the oasis of Huacachina. This is an oasis as an oasis should look like. It’s a place to relax….but not for long because the sandboard is waiting for you!!
The landscape is stunning! Just a few miles away the coast (part of the Paracas National Park) is taking your breath away for a second time. And this will not be the last time I can assure you..
3. Skeletons – mummies of the Peruvian desert.
On the road again! If you dig bones, this is the place to be! A bit further down the Pan-American Highway, close to the city of Nazca, you can visit an old Inca burial site. This is a terrifying place, as bones and skeletons were just lying all over the place. Many of the graves were looted, leaving bones scattered.
The Incas burried their death in bundles, layers of textile. Many of them are well-preserved.
It is so strange if you walk the grounds of these burrial sites. You can still find bones everywhere! The mummies have now been put on display in special tombs in the ground, and they are quite impressive as you can see!
If you don’t like these images, let’s get on the road again quickly then…
4. Mystery of the Nazca lines
A bit further south you stumble upon one of the biggest mysteries in Peru: the Nazca lines. Actually you cross them, as the Pan-American Highway cuts some of these ancient lines (the government were not willing to detour the Highway).
What are the Nazca lines? Well, still nobody on this planet knows.
There are straight lines, geometric shapes and pictures of animals carved in the desert. The shapes and figures can only be seen from high in the air. It’s a true mystery: who made them and why? No one has been able to explain. Are they a sort of calendar or landing spots for UFOs?
Actually, I am glad we still have these kinds of mysteries on our planet. Don’t you?
Straight lines of Nazca, parallel to the Pan-American Highway. Leaves us no choice then to hit that road again!
5. Stunning Arequipa plains
It was a long ride to Arequipa. But oh dear, so worth it!
Wow, wow, wow. What can I say? You arrive and the stunning El Misti volcano rules the horizon. Outside of the town you come across amazing landscapes, full of llamas and vicunas.
Vicunas are confused with llamas all the time. It’s a relative of the llamas, but they are different. Vicunas produce extremely fine wool and are the national animal of Peru (so much for the Wikipedia part of this post).
Arequipa and the surrounding plains were the highlight of our journey.
I hear you asking: even more than Machu Picchu? Ah, let me think…do I dare to say yes? I mean, everybody talks highly of the ancient Inca town. But Arequipa…let me show you why I adore the place.
Look at these plains. Full of vicunas and llamas. I was grasping for breath, and I am not kidding! We had been traveling to Asia a lot at that time, but the landscape of South America blew us away.
Arequipa is also home to one of the most famous mummies: Juanita (also called the Inca Ice Maiden). Juanita was found around Arequipa in 1995 and believed to be sacrificed by the Incas 500 years ago. If you go to Arequipa, make sure to pay Juanita a visit. She deserves it.
6. Colourful Santa Catalina monastery
If I would ever end up in a monastery (hey, who knows, life can be unexpected), I would choose for Santa Catalina. The colours, amazing!
Best thing about this place is that is was so quiet. Not crowded by tourists we could slowly wander around.
And we wandered and wandered. Enjoyed.
But then, you know what’s coming, we had to hit the road again. And what road it was: the highest pass crossing the Andes! We were on our way to visit the Colca Canyon and watch the majestic condors. Before reaching the canyon we had to travel a 4800meter high mountain pass. That’s high…
You will get dizzy for sure! The air was so thin we had to chew on coca leaves (Peruvian remedy to altitude sickness) and even use the oxygen bottle in the car.
Have you ever experienced that feeling? Just taking a few steps makes you dizzy. The strenght of your body means nothing anymore. Your body is beaten by nature..
Nature is amazingly beautiful in Peru’s coastal area. Our trip to the Colca canyon was the transition to the more higher parts of the country: Puno, Cusco and (of course) Macchu Pichu. More about those places later on this blog.