There is no Diet Coke in Peru; or “Is Coke Zero okay?”

I flew into Lima last Sunday night with the bare feet of a sleeping gentleman – a Peruvian James May lookalike as it happens – resting gently in my lap. In a stroke of pure Englishness, my response to this unwelcome intimacy was to roll my eyes, tut silently in my head and settle in with a lovely Diet Coke for the 12 hour flight. Once disembarked, I found my transfer – a Russian chap who, after enquiring after my nationality, proceeded to name every single thing he hates about the UK and all of its people. In my second moment of being-very-British abroad, I responded to this by failing to tip him.

Lima

I met my tour group in Lima – everyone is really nice and friendly, and they’re all into their travelling, as you’d imagine on a 45-day tour. They’re also a big improvement on some of those in my last tour group, which included two VERY pro-gun Americans who walked around Cambodia in ‘MURCA’ t-shirts. Here are some of us on a speed boat:

On a speed boat in Peru at the Ballestos Islands

Lima had a weird feel to it, and we didn’t spend long there. The Peruvian economy is on the up, and the capital is clearly benefitting, with construction sites everywhere you look. However, this gives it a bit of a half-finished retro Spanish costas feel, with wasteland along the coast and scaffolding burying the centre. It also didn’t feel particularly safe – although this could be because my mum recently emailed me an article that named it the third most dangerous destination in the world for female travellers. Thanks Gezza.

I will remember Lima, however, as the first place I tried a Pisco Sour – a delicious Peruvian cocktail served with almost every meal – and the place I learned Peru boasts over 3,000 types of potatoes (you can have that one for free). It’s also the place I learned that Peru favours Coke Zero over Diet Coke. Every time I ask for a DC I get “Is Coke Zero okay? which is a very special form of blasphemy. There is literally not one can of DC on Peru’s beautiful shores, and at the time of writing I am in the midst of aspartame withdrawal. 

Anyway, first world problems aside, after just one night in Lima we boarded a bus to Paracas – famous for being one of the first places in the world to successfully perform brain surgery. Damn straight.

Paracas and the Ballestos Islands (and some vino)

We arrived in Paracas in the evening, but it was still pretty warm so we jumped into the pool for a starlight swim, which felt amazing after the bus ride. We stayed at a really cute place called Hostal Refugio del Pirata (no prizes for translating that one), which was made up of pretty basic huts around the pool area.

I’m quickly learning that Peruvians are really big on seafood – and our meal that night was no different. In my efforts to avoid eating any food with a face when we’re at these seafood restaurants, I’ve so far had to subsist off this weird spinach and potato paste type thing (I just looked it up and it’s called Causa FYI). However, Peruvians are luckily really into their sweet bread as well, so I’ve been filling up on that at breakfast, and there’s the odd meal where pizza or pasta is on the menu, so it’s not too bad overall. Last night they served garlic bread as a starter and I knew I was golden.

Anyway, Paracas is a small town that is usually used as a jumping off point for trips to the famous Ballestos Islands, and of course that’s why we were there.

Sea lions basking in the sun at the Ballestos islands in Peru

I am not an animal lover by any stretch, but even I thought the islands – which are swarming with wildlife including pelicans, seagulls and other general bird life, as well as sea lions and the odd penguin – were like totes majestic. That is until I OBVIOUSLY got covered in bird shit.

Thousands of birds flying around at the Ballestos Islands in Peru

If you’re considering a trip there it’s a good idea to put your breakfast off, and go early in the morning before the sea gets choppy as the stench (which really is the only word for it) is revolting.

Afterwards we got a bus to a winery to sample some shots of authentic Peruvian wine, but sadly it was not the cool glass of Pinot I was dreaming about, because Peruvian wine tends to be REALLY sweet and so strong that some are basically spirits. Here’s your takeaway: There’s a famous wine here called ‘Perfect Love’, but at night, they change its name to ‘Baby Maker’. In my humble option, no amount of babies could make up for the syrupy taste.

Peruvian wine anyone?

 

Huacachina: Dune buggies and sand boarding

Huacachina is stunning. It’s the only desert oasis in the Americas and is my favourite place we’ve visited so far.

A group of us rode a dune buggy out into the desert (this was just a couple of hours after the wine tasting) which was really, really rough. Imagine the worst turbulence you’ve ever experienced, but on a roller coaster. And you have some serious doubts that the roller coaster is up to Health and Safety code BUT NO-ONE CARES! It was really fun!

Once we got out into the desert we went sand boarding – which is essentially like sliding down sand dunes on snowboards. We thought the guide would start us off easy but he took us to this HUGE dune and told us to go down it head first. That was pretty much the briefing, so obviously, fearing for our lives, no-one wanted to go first. However, we all managed to have a successful couple of goes before I completely stacked it and ended up rolling down half the dune. If you’re a fan of slapstick I invite you to picture that scene.

The guide then drove us to this dune that must have been over a mile from top to bottom, and actually expected us to board down it. I was about to wimp out but then I reminded myself that I would never ‘find myself’ if I didn’t continuously risk my life so I got on my board and did closed-mouth screaming the whole way down to avoid eating sand. EXTREME.

Fun fact: Huacachina is also famous for being the birthplace of a famous Peruvian writer (who is on the back of some of the 20 nuevo notes). Sadly, he died by drunkenly drowning in an olden day cesspit.

The Nasca Lines and seeing dead people

There are many theories as to why the Nasca lines exist: from religious ceremonies and ancient astronomical calendars to alien landing strips (this one is largely thanks to the ‘astronaut’ drawing). As well as the drawings there are loads of random lines, which some experts think are from when the Nasca people did the drawings wrong and had to erase them. The problem is, no-one really knows why they’re there.

We viewed the lines from a tower at sunset, and some people chose to take a stomach-churning flight over them for a better look. Instead I went to a museum to look at some skulls with ropes still threaded through their heads from when the Incas would tie severed heads to their belts after defeating them in battles. It was graphic to say the least.

The day after we went to a pre-Inca cemetery in Nasca to look at some open graves. Yep.

The pre-Inca people mummified their dead using sand, chilli, and cotton, among other things, and buried them sitting up in baskets. The more important they were in life, the deeper they were buried in death. The royal classes deformed their babies skulls at birth using some sort of torture machine as a form of status symbol, meaning they have really long heads. Oh, and the witch doctors and warriors had really, really long hair – which has been preserved for our viewing pleasure.

As interesting as this was, it was really, really windy, and it was kind of eerie listening to the guide bang on about ancient mummification techniques while stood next to a bunch of dead people, as sand storms blew across the terrain. The first couple of graves were fascinating but by the time I approached Open Grave 12 I was a bit like “Oh, I wonder what will be in this next PIT OF HORROR…maybe it will be some cute bunny rabb…ohnowait! IT’S MORE HORROR!!!!!”

All in all I was glad to leave for the night bus to Arequipa, where we did a ten-hour overnight (and rather treacherous) journey to 2,380 metres, with our guide’s ominous warning of “ENJOY YOUR LAST FEW DAYS OF OXYGEN” ringing in our ears.

I’ll keep you updated on the Diet Coke situation.

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