Peru:Alpacaing it all in. Five backpackers, two weeks

Yes, you did read that right. Brave Auntie Ann arrived in Peru to accompany us for this part of the trip. Paul wasn’t looking forward to Peru at all (he’d been to Lima for work before and was unimpressed), but in fact it’s ended up as one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been. Easy to travel in, fun and with some amazing sites for adults and kids – we couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Two weeks isn’t very long though. If that’s all you’ve got, too (or even if you’ve longer) here are some top tips for wringing the very most out of Peru for adults and kids.

Skip most of Lima: I’m sure it’s lovely – and apparently a foodie capital – but Lima didn’t thrill us much. The weather is foggy and the sites spread out, and it’s just very ‘capital city ish’.

Things we did love

  • a trip to the shopping centre with Semillas school friends Bjorn and Emil (what it is to know other globetrotters) for Emil’s birthday, where we ordered all the cake in sight and poor Ann suffered her jetlag in an welter of Spanish and children’s magic tricks (Daisy and Emil need to work a little on their sleight of hand).
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  • The cat park – full of friendly cats and kittens that live there and are fed by charity – nice play equipment too.
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  • Seeing a very old friend- there’s only one famous literary stowaway from Lima after all – and his statue is just above the shopping centre. We even had a few marmalade sandwiches in his honour. Thanks to Paul’s guiding colleague Ana Maria for showing us the way.
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Get Peru Hopping

The Peru Hop backpacker bus might seem an odd choice with kids but it was perfect, dropping us off in all of the right places, showing kid-friendly films for the girls and introducing us to ever-glamorous backpackers. I think I may have mythologised these rare beasts too much – Daisy was clearly expecting ‘real backpackers’ to be much more exciting. Turns out millennial gap year students are very clean-cut. The only drugs we saw on the bus were our own Kwells Kids, and no-one was drinking either.

Peru Hop allowed us to do the following without skipping a beat

  • The Ballestas Islands – dubbed the poor man’s Galapagos, and allowing us to see sea lions fighting and lots of birds including penguins in an amazing two hour trip. We loved it (fighting sea lions always remind me of the girls having a bit of a barney over the back seats in the car) but Clover says it ‘smells of fish’. Sometimes you can’t please everyone.
  • Pisco tasting – An important lesson learned here. Do not allow Daisy to dip her finger in the pisco. She became, if you can imagine this possible, even more chatty. Sorry fellow Peru Hoppers. I can now imagine what she’s going to be like ‘sneaking’ back from the pub as a teenager.
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  • Dune boarding – without Peru Hop we’d never have spent a night at Huachachina, home of huge sand dunes. The girls loved trekking up and rolling down the dunes at the back of our hotel, and we even took a private dune buggy tour (yes, with seatbelts) and slid down the big dunes on our tummies using waxed boards. Hilarious. Clover managed two smallish dunes, and Daisy would have gone higher. An unexpected highlight.
  • The Nazca Lines – We never expected to have time to see these mysterious lines in the desert, but the Peru Hop bus goes straight past the ‘viewing tower’ – so we duly hopped off and hopped up. One of the most terrifying experiences of my life as we walked high above the Pan American Highway (which cuts right through the lines) using ancient metal steps with huge gaps. My fear meant I didn’t really see enough of the lines, but the flights sounded terrifying too – and we made out a foot or two of the mysterious glyphs, or in Clover’s case a parrot with a sock on its head. She was adamant. Nazca experts take note. Never been so glad to be back on the ground.
  • The Colca Canyon – Deeper than the Grand Canyon, and terrifyingly high, we took a two-day trip into Colca directly off the night bus, winding our way up to a breathtaking 5,000 metres. Yes, we felt the altitude, but were grateful for hot springs, and awed by showoff soaring condors riding the morning thermals. We bought crazy Peruvian hats and more alpaca products than we could shake a stick at, and all developed quite a coca habit (the traditional altitude sickness cure). Don’t worry, we’ve weaned ourselves off now.

At Arequipa (gateway to Colca) we left the Peru Hop itinerary and struck out alone. We would have liked more time in Arequipa, which is stunning and has a fantastic chocolate café called Cha Chiq (buy their lipbalm, it’s the best), and a hotel called Wayra with a small girl in it who watches endless Peppa Pig (Peppa is perfect for the girls’ Spanish – nice and slow and great vocab).

Also (Daisy’s choice this) we visited the frozen mummy museum. She now knows a lot about Inca sacrifice and was particularly struck by the fact that most of the children were about her age – it was ghoulishly fascinating and I am thankful it didn’t cause nightmares. We also very much enjoyed the convent, which is so big it is like a Spanish colonial city in itself.

We took the posh night bus to Cusco with Cruz del Sur (note, this was far too hot, and the serving of hottish meals on buses seems a bad idea, and made Daisy throw up). However, we arrived on time, with just enough sleep.

Cusco and around – family tips

  • Cusco is an amazing city. We were there just before the major winter solstice festival – Inti Raymi, so saw plenty of parades in the streets. Just hang out and enjoy these – but pick a hotel out of town if you’re there for the festival – it was lovely and quiet where we were but we met a family staying on the main square who looked distinctly ringed around the eyes. Plus our hotel had an amazingly groomed miniature schnauzer called Stitch – what’s not to like?
  • Do the chocolate and ceramic making course at Faces of Cusco. A highlight for the girls. We made chocolates full of quinoa and amaranth (supergrains used by Nasa, chaps), and painted pots and tiny Cusco bulls. Expensive, but worth it for the memories.
  • Don’t go too fast. Cusco is still high up, right? Lots of cafes for acclimatising – the chocolate course also forced us to sit down.
  • Take the Sacred Valley tour. We stayed one night in Ollantaytambo on the way to Macchu Picchu. Do try to do this – Ollanta is beautiful. Our cheapie hotel (cheapie in relation to Machu Picchu is relative) had a stream outside the door, and we had an amazing evening with a harpist playing at the restaurant on the station platform. Great food, and the girls tried to learn Quechua from their placemats. Southern Rail should take note.

Machu Picchu tips

Yes, we went to Machu Picchu. Yes, it was definitely worth it despite the fact we’ve seen many ancient cities. The setting is stunning and the ruins amazing. The girls will tell you it is great for hide and seek. But do take these things into account.

  • You pay for everything and it is an administrative nightmare. From children’s tickets that can’t be bought online (we bought an adult one for Daisy, and they didn’t query the fact that she’s apparently 116 years old, so that’s OK) to pricey and incompetent buses – the Machu Picchu process is frustrating. Probably more frustrating if you trek, but that’s not a fun idea with small kids.
  • Then you pay to store luggage. Can I just say now that the luggage storage INSIDE the ticket gate is cheaper and nobody tells you this. You’re welcome.
  • You also pay for loos (only outside the gates) and there are very few food options. The empanadas and fries outside the gates are delicious though and easily feed two.
  • The train is fun – though I think we’d have been fine with the backpacker version both ways – the accompanying fashion show on the Vistadome (one step up in price) was excruciatingly embarrassing. Just grit your teeth for the panpipe music.
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  • Don’t feed the llamas. You’ll get in trouble – they should not be drinking Gatorade – US tourists take note.
  • The one way system is a right pain – we walked for miles in the wrong direction and kept getting told off. Whoops.
  • Don’t forget to bring your passports and get them stamped at the entrance – we did the first part but forgot to do the second.

Our final big trip in Peru (have we covered enough yet?) was the ‘posh train’ running from Cusco to Lake Titicaca. This, it turns out, was worth the eyewatering pricetag. You’ll see the countryside in the most beautiful way, it’s really relaxing and the food is FANTASTIC. The girls made a friend, and we enjoyed watching the rest of Peru slip by, stopping at the highest point to take pics and buy even more alpaca tops. Yes, it’s touristy, but it took us where we wanted to go without the usual coach-related nausea. A total treat.

Finally we took a boat out on Titicaca with Ann to the floating reed islands. These are well worth seeing, despite the fact they’re touristy. The people here live on a big mattress of reeds that are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. All very sustainable, and surprisingly comfortable. But you will be forced to go on a touristy boat ride and buy some stuff, so have your soles ready. We then left Peru for Bolivia, after saying goodbye to intrepid Auntie Ann – a fantastic travelling companion who we are looking forward to seeing VERY SOON!

Final Peru tips

  • Use oxygen if you need it (Daisy did). Most hotels and buses have it and it turned her from grey to pink and bouncy in a matter of minutes
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  • Do try the cuy (guinea pig). It doesn’t taste like chicken, it tastes like guinea pig, but you only live once.
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  • Llama and alpaca steaks are fantastic. Don’t tell the children that’s what they are eating though – it puts them off.
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  • The alpaca woollies seem cheapest in the Colca Canyon
  • Pay the alpaca tax. Every second step is a child with a baby alpaca. The children will want to cuddle every one, and sometimes bottle feed them. Just give in – even if you suspect some of the alpacas are really lambs!
  • Peru is lots and lots of fun, and well set up for tourists. Go and enjoy. We did!
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Brazil: Christ, Capybara and Cheeseballs

Ah, Brazil. The first question anyone asked us when we said we were going was ‘are you going for the Olympics?’. The answer, however, was no – in fact we’d changed our trip planning entirely to avoid the crowds and extra expense, meaning that our trip to South America isn’t quite as geographically tidy as it otherwise might be.

No matter. We arrived in Rio, tired and frazzled, via Sao Paulo airport. In fact, we spent an awful lot of our time in Brazil in Sao Paulo airport. We now know it intimately, and it seems impossible to cross this huge country without spending some time there.

What our time in the constantly-under-construction airport taught us was that Brazil really isn’t ready for the Olympics. The current airport tagline ‘A new airport everyday’ could be translated as ‘no-one knows where the heck anything is’. Then there’s the hole in the runway – always a worry, despite the reassuring orange cones someone has placed around it. Then there’s the small matter of the only half-constructed beach volleyball court. But I digress.

We started our trip to Rio on the sunny side of the street – Leblon to be precise. Someone told me that Leblon is the most expensive place to live in South America and I can well believe it. Every other shop seemed to sell outfits for your beloved fluffy dog (pugs particularly popular, particularly in tiaras), while the supermarket was a bit like Waitrose – if your local Waitrose had a pianist and sushi bar.

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We had a nice flat, and when we managed to resist the lure of Waitrose-a-like, even managed to get out for dinner a bit. The flat was two blocks from the beach, and how the children have missed the sea! The waves were fierce but they didn’t deter them, and – if we hadn’t covered as many tourist destinations as we’d hoped by the end of our first three Brazilian nights – we had had a very good time.

We’ve not really got to grips with Portuguese, however. Paul has been practising on DuoLingo, which promises him that he is 18 per cent fluent. Since he can only say ‘I like a woman’ and ‘I can’t speak Portuguese’, I think he’s got a bit of a way to go before not just coming across as incompetent or creepy.

From Rio we flew to the Iguazu Falls (via Sao Paulo, naturally, even though we’d booked a direct flight, that was cancelled – always good to see my favourite airport again). The falls, which sit on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, are immensely impressive. The width and power of them is unimaginable. We spent one day on the Argentinian side of the falls, where you can get up close to the water, and another day on the Brazilian side, where you can take in the wider view.

The Falls are also home to many, many coatimundis – raccoon-like creatures that are supposed to live in the forest on nuts and berries. But these coatimundis like to live in the cafeteria area and snaffle baguettes. And boy, are they sneaky!. Clover was somewhat terrified – even though the cafes employ ‘coatimundi shooers’ using a bottle of stones on a stick to try to drive them away. We watched many, many people lose their lunches. Daisy preferred the endless butterflies, which rested happily on her hands.

From Iguazu we flew to the Pantanal via (yes, you’ve guessed it) Sao Paolo. The Brazilian wetlands are home to an immense range of creatures, including the jaguar, capybara and many, many birds. The area is impressively remote – a flight into Campo Grande, followed by a long minibus trip, followed by a long trip on a jeep.

We stayed at a farm that was long on authenticity and short on tourist comfort, which would have been less of a problem if it hadn’t been freezing cold. Still, if flocks of macaws outside the window and capybaras wandering across your path at breakfast are what you are after, the Pantanal is the place.

From the electric shock you got if you touched the shower taps with wet hands, to the poisonous snakes in the strangler fig trees – the Pantanal took us out of our comfort zone with the children. We were fine with the horseriding, and mostly OK with the night walk where we were shown sleeping coral snakes and woke up sleepy macaws with our torches. When walking through the flooded fields in the morning and the guide suggested Paul picked up Clover ‘because of the Caiman’ we were a little more freaked. Clovy is a bit big to make a tasty snack for a caiman, but we didn’t want to take any chances.

We didn’t see a jaguar, alas, but we loved seeing the armadillo, macaws, flamingos and other stunning wildlife – and we did see a big cat in the distance on the way home. And the girls LOVED the horseriding they did with Paul (and not with their allergic mother). Clover’s horse even managed a canter…perhaps it doesn’t like caiman either.

And it was three nil to us versus the scary local wildlife, when Daisy, Clover and Paul caught three piranhas using raw meat on a bamboo rod. We had them for dinner, lightly battered.

We returned from the Pantanal on my birthday, allowing me to have a birthday trip to (yes!) Sao Paulo airport. Daisy was pleased – apparently the airport’s Montana Grill does ‘the best tomato pasta in the world’. Sadly we returned minus Clover’s carry-on bag, which had fallen off the jeep somewhere in the wilderness. In it were her tablet computer (almost new) and a variety of favourite dollies. Thankfully though, not ‘Special Monkey’ as losing him would mean immediate return to the UK. No monkey, no sleep.

We finished our trip back in Rio de Janeiro, in the far-too-hip-for-us’ Santa Teresa district. Finally we did some proper tourism, including Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset (under some serious construction at the top – guys, the Olympics is really soon), and the ‘Big Christ’ which both girls were desperate to see.

“He doesn’t look very happy” announced Clover. I guess having all of the sins of the world on your shoulders can do that to you. Unfortunately our final afternoon on Copacabana beach, whilst lots of fun (the girls found a little Chilean girl to play with, while Paul watched the surfers) led to the Great Flood -a huge wave from which our belongings barely escaped with their lives. Some didn’t – including Daisy’s Kindle and my iPhone.

Brazil, then, whilst not being kind to our technology, was kind to us. It was perhaps fitting that we said goodbye to it during a six-hour layover at Sao Paulo airport – at least this time in the posh lounge at the international terminal. Many cheeseballs and glasses of champagne later, we were bound for Lima – without so much as a marmalade sandwich to sustain us.