Living in Lima Part 2: Day Trip to Peru’s Mini Galapagos & Natural Desert Oasis

If you research the best day trips to take from Lima, the towns of Paracas and Huacachina will be high on the list. Both are located in the province of Ica, and they’re situated close enough to each other that tour buses can stop at both towns and return to Lima on the same day. This past Sunday, I took this tour after pre-booking with Peru Hop, a hop-on, hop-off bus/coach service that my colleagues recommended. The coach itself was clean and comfortable, making it easy to take a nap after my very early 5:40AM pick-up.

En route to Paracas at 6AM

Our first stop was Paracas, located on Peru’s west coast. We arrived at 9:30AM and went straight to the docks, where we settled into the waiting speedboats. The cloudy skies didn’t take away from the beauty of the rock formations and structures that we saw, many of which were thousands of years old (according to our bilingual boat guide). 20 minutes later, we reached the Ballestas Islands, a group of protected islands that are home to dozens of species, including sea lions (see video below), penguins, cormorants, pelicans, mussels, crabs, and star fish. It’s easy to see why these islands are nicknamed the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”!

We returned to shore at noon and had 45 minutes to explore before departing for Huacachina. Our tour guides had pointed out restaurants where we would receive 10% off our meals for being Peru Hop passengers, so I stopped at one to try their famous maple hot cakes. This was my first time trying hot cakes, and I can promise you that it won’t be my last! They were delicious and really hit the spot – I guess the boat ride worked up my appetite.

2-hour boat tour of the Ballestas Islands

Beautiful old structures in the middle of the ocean

A charming tourist area in Paracas

Maple hot cakes for breakfast!

Next up was Huacachina, a stunning desert town 1.5 hours southeast of Paracas. Our central meeting point was at a surprisingly gorgeous hostel, where we were offered free wi-fi and the option to dine at a poolside restaurant. Many of us decided to preorder food for later so that we could eat it on the way home. I chilled out in the shade and bought an extra bottle of water because it had suddenly gotten hot and sunny (approximately 28 degrees Celsius). The Peru Hop website was definitely right to suggest bringing sunscreen and sunglasses!

At 3:30, we met up with the tour guides and were split into groups of 6-8 for dune buggying. If you watched that video and thought, “Wow, dune buggying looks terrifying”, that’s because it is. The driver took us up to a lookout point, but on the way there, he sped up and down extremely steep sand dunes. I’m not a fan of rollercoasters and neither were the four Mexican girls in my group, but the driver didn’t care – he gleefully raced up and down the vertical dunes, to the utter delight of the only male passenger in our vehicle! The rest of us were hoarse from screaming with terror. The guide had explained that he would expect a tip for taking us through the dunes at full speed, so the male passenger covered the tip for everyone as he was the only one who wanted the buggy to go at the fastest speed possible. (FYI, the costs of the day’s activities were already included in the fee for this full-day tour. The only extras were tips, food, and optional desert supplies, such as bandanas).

Getting ready to head out for a nerve-wracking ride!

I have to admit, however, that the stomach-churning rollercoaster ride was worth it for the views of the sunset and the only natural oasis in South America:

The natural oasis in Huacachina

I couldn’t get enough of this view!

There was an option to try sand-boarding (see video below) down the dunes, but I opted out – it looked like an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, we later saw a woman being driven to the nearby hospital with what looked like a neck injury.

We walked back down the dunes and picked up our food at the hostel at 6PM. The bus had unforeseen mechanical issues and was delayed by almost two hours, but I ran into two Canadian colleagues and was in good company while we waited. After the 4.5-hour coach ride, I got back to my apartment around 1AM, exhausted but so happy that I had taken this day trip. Peru Hop itself was a great experience, in spite of the delay – the tour guides were helpful and professional and I felt safe travelling across the country with them. I highly recommend a trip to Paracas and Huacachina for anyone who has a day or two to spare while in Peru!

Living in Lima Part 1: New Job, New Foods, and New Experiences Every Day

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you tuning in from Canada! Myself and my Canadian colleagues here in Lima are truly sad to be missing Thanksgiving dinner, not to mention Ontario’s incomparable autumn colours.

Today is a national holiday in Peru, so I finally got the chance to sit down and pen this update about life here. My first three weeks in Lima have flown by! In the past month, I started a new job (the one I moved here for), celebrated my birthday with new colleagues, tried tasty Peruvian dishes, explored a local market, and took a guided walking tour of Lima’s historical centre. I also stayed at a hostel for the first time, am trying to improve my Spanish each day, and am learning to balance full-time work and full-time online classes. The best part is that I’m not experiencing these things alone; one of my roommates is a close colleague at work, and we’re having fun getting to know Lima and learning the ropes at the office.

Without a doubt, one of the best things about Lima is its food. While I have yet to try Peruvian classics such as ceviche and Lomo Saltado, a restaurant near my office has a constantly revolving menu of local staples (it’s less than $4 CAD for an appetizer, entree, and a juice of the day). Take a look at the photos below, and check out the video to witness a truly Peruvian lunch – potatoes with the famous Huancaína sauce, chicha morada (Peruvian purple corn juice), and live music via a Peruvian pan flute.

Rice and lentils with chicken

Palta rellena (avocado stuffed with vegetables)

Rice, chicken stew and a yellow-green Peruvian potato

Rice and chicken in mushroom sauce

Pollo al Sillao (rice and chicken in soy sauce)

Unsurprisingly, my recent visit to the local market culminated in a fridge full of fresh produce. Keep an eye out for a separate blog post about the goodies that my roommate and I found there!

Work has been very busy and slightly overwhelming. I’m working at a project called EQWIP HUBs, which offers entrepreneurship and employability training sessions for youth in 6 countries and provides graduates with the opportunity to receive seed capital for their businesses. I’m part of Peru’s four-person Youth Leadership Team, which is designed to collect and analyze data about the livelihood statuses of local graduates. Our main goal is put together a comprehensive report (to be shared with the project’s partners) detailing how the graduates’ businesses are doing, the main takeaways from their months of training, and their suggestions for improving the project’s quality and delivery of classes and workshops. Our contracts with the project end in mid-December, so we have two months left to interview (by way of surveys and focus groups) approximately 100 graduates and then analyze the findings.

On my birthday, I was able to leave work a little early with my roommate (since we had worked late earlier in the week) and we checked out the famous outdoor shopping mall, Larcomar. We enjoyed the ocean views and I had some fantastic chocolate cake and coffee from Juan Valdez Café – I highly recommend both. After that, we met some of our colleagues at Mercado 28, a newly-opened restaurant where I had a delicious birthday burger. The restaurant has a cool “market” concept where diners can choose from various small restaurants located inside the space. They have a wide variety of foods, including ceviche, sushi, paella, poké bowls, Peruvian street foods and, of course, the burgers.

Relaxing with a great view of the Pacific

A classic burger – calories don’t count on your birthday!

The best chocolate cake I’ve had so far in Lima!

View from the outdoor shopping centre Larcomar

That’s all for me, folks – I have to be up early for work tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

I’m Moving to Peru on Thursday: Join Me in Exploring a New City!

It seems like it was just yesterday that I was mulling over the idea of moving to Lima, Peru to work at a youth development project. Tomorrow – which marks 6 months since I applied for the job – I’m actually going forward with it! Lima is a cultural hub, boasting a vibrant arts scene, world-renowned foods, and stunning beaches (see below). Google tells me Lima is home to roughly 11 million people – I wonder how different that will feel compared to Toronto’s 2.7 million. It’ll certainly be a welcome change of scenery!

Have you been to Lima? Tell me about your experiences in the comments below. 🙂

A few Lima-based members of the project that I’ll be working at, EQWIP HUBs, were able to find accommodations for myself and another Canadian staff member/volunteer. Our third roommate, who already works at EQWIP HUBs, has been living in the furnished three-bedroom apartment in the San Isidro neighbourhood with two other staff members. Their contracts ended recently, but she’ll be working there until this November. We connected via Facebook recently and she’s been kind enough to answer all of my burning questions about the lifestyle there and which necessities I should bring from home. I’ll meet her on Thursday night; the project has arranged for each of us Canadians (8 in total) to be taken to our accommodations in taxis when we arrive in Lima at 11 PM. The same taxi will pick us up at 8:30 AM on Friday to drop us off at the office for orientation and training, and then we’ll have the weekend free to rest and explore the city.

I’ll make sure to post regular updates, so feel free to subscribe and join me on this new adventure. Ciao for now!

lima peru

Beautiful Lima. Source: Fotos593/Shutterstock

In Honour of Canada Day: 15 Crazy Facts About Canada You Didn’t Know

Happy 150th, Canada! This year marks a big anniversary for our great nation, and while not all Canadians will be celebrating, the majority of us will be sticking Canadian flags on every bare surface we can find and admiring the fireworks with our friends and families. I’ve compiled a list of 15 fascinating facts about (I mean, ‘aboot’) Canada – feel free to use these tidbits to impress your fellow Canucks this weekend.

  1. Our national motto is “A Mari usque ad Mare”, meaning “From Sea to Sea”.
  2. Canada is the second-largest country in the world, second only to Russia. Many Canadians insist that it’s also the second coldest country in the world, second only to Russia.
  3. The coldest temperature ever recorded here was -63C (-81.4F) in the Yukon. See what I mean? Brrr!
  4. We’ve created overpasses for wildlife. In Alberta’s Banff National Park, there are a number of curved highways and tunnels covered in greenery which allow animals such as bears, moose, deer, wolves, and cougars to safely cross highways instead of wandering onto the road and causing collisions. Neat, eh? Read more here.
  5. The North American beaver is our national animal.
  6. About 75% of the world’s pure maple syrup supply is produced in Canada. Yum!
  7. During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, our athletes set two records: most gold medals won by a country during a Winter Olympics and most golds won by a host country during a Winter Olympics. That’s definitely something to brag about!
  8. Canada has about 1400 airports, the largest and busiest of which is Toronto Pearson International.
  9. In Saskatchewan, hoodies are called “bunnyhugs”. Aww.
  10. About 30% of Canada’s land mass is covered in forests.
  11. Canada is home to nearly 60% of the world’s polar bear population.
  12. The name “Canada” is said to come from the Iroquioan word kanata, meaning “village”.
  13. British author A. A. Milne fashioned the beloved Winnie the Pooh after a black bear cub he frequently visited at the London Zoo, who was named “Winnipeg” by the Canadian soldier who donated her. The soldier’s hometown was, of course, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
  14. Montreal is the the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world. Ooh la la.
  15. Residents in Churchill, Manitoba often leave their cars unlocked during the winter to provide shelter for pedestrians who might encounter polar bears.

Happy Canada Day!

Cancun: A Week in Pictures

As some of you know, my family and I returned on Saturday from a sunny vacation in Cancún, Mexico! We had six blissful days of swimming in the turquoise ocean, feeling the white sand between our toes, and gazing up at beautiful palm trees – quite a change from the cold Canadian winter we’re currently having. We didn’t venture into any cities or take any day trips (why waste a single minute of potential beach time?), so rather than boring you with descriptions of our daily routines, I’m going to show you what we did via the four hundred photos I took during our time away. (Oops.) Warning: photos may cause extreme envy!

Day 1 

We arrived in Cancún at 10:25AM and got to the Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancún by lunchtime. The Royalton is a large and elegant hotel complex situated right on the beach, and the Hideaway is a smaller, adults-only section of the hotel where we stayed once before in 2015. The Royalton’s buffet food is fantastic (we couldn’t get enough fresh seafood and vegetables) and it boasts a great variety of restaurants. Everything is included, so you can eat to your heart’s delight. As soon as we checked in, we had a quick brunch at Dorado, the small restaurant within the Hideaway complex, and then headed to the beach for the afternoon. The beach and ocean were gorgeous, even with clouds and a ton of seaweed (results of a storm from the previous day). Luckily, the beach wasn’t too busy and we had no trouble finding umbrellas to lounge beneath. Before dinner, I went to the gym to work out in front of the sunset, which became my daily habit (while my mum swam laps in the pool). We ate at the Royalton’s Japanese restaurant, Zen – the food wasn’t as delicious as we remembered from 2015, and there was a frustrating hour-long wait for a table. Still, the food tasted fresh and the presentation was really inventive! (See the matcha cheesecake below.) The Royalton entertainment that evening was a terrifying yet impressive fire show where performers juggled flaming batons while leaping and dancing around the stage.

View from the gym

Giant chess set on the Royalton side

View from the lobby

View from my 4th-floor room


The green tea cheesecake was really tasty

Day 2

It was another partly cloudy beach day, which meant less burning from the sun and more gusty winds (both of which were welcome in 27 degrees). I caught a gorgeous sunset at the gym and we later ate at the Royalton’s Hunter Steakhouse, where my parents had scrumptious steaks and I had – don’t laugh – salmon. (I’m not much of a steak-eater, and the salmon was very fresh and cooked to perfection!)

Breakfast at Dorado

Stunning views of the beach from everywhere in the hotel!

Talented housekeeping staff

This view motivated me to work out every day!

Funny how the sun coming out for a few minutes totally changed the colours of the ocean

Back to partly cloudy skies.


Day 3

The sun was a little less shy today! It made several appearances during the afternoon and we finally got to put our sunglasses and beach hats to good use. We dined at Opa, the hotel’s Greek-sounding Mediterranean restaurant, where we started with warm pita bread and a selection of tasty dips, including roasted red pepper hummus. My dad and I had Greek salads and the fresh catch of the day (tender sea bass on a bed of risotto) and my mum had tagine, a flavourful Moroccan stew made with meat (often fish, chicken, or lamb), potatoes, coconut milk, and spices. Needless to say, the tagine was delicious! We shared three small desserts: French créme brûlée, a platter of Spanish manchego cheese, and a Sicilian cannolo (also known as cannoli).

Cute towel elephant from housekeeping

The lights in the hallways were mesmerizing at night

Sadly, use of those white beds was not included – there was a fee of USD $75 per day.

Créme brûlée

Cannolo/cannoli

Sea bass

Pita with dips

Greek salad

Picture-perfect.

Day 4

Today was a full beach day followed by dinner at Grazie, the Italian restaurant at the Royalton. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous the sky was during the day! Hardly a cloud in sight, and bluer than I ever imagined it could be. Just gorgeous. But you don’t have to take my word for it – see for yourselves!

Tartufo (vanilla ice cream surrounded by a dome of hardened chocolate and dusted with cocoa)

Crepe with chocolate ice cream and some Nutella (chocolatey, hazelnut spread)

My pappardelle – slightly undercooked pasta, but still delicious

Lamb ravioli. Very tasty, but again, slightly undercooked

I lay here for hours, soaking up the sun’s rays and enjoying the sounds of the crashing waves



Day 5

I woke up with the sunrise today, and thankfully my phone was by my side when I went out on the balcony to watch the sun come up. An hour later, the sky was even bluer than it was yesterday! We found a more secluded part of the beach where there was less noise (and much less seaweed) and properly swam in the ocean for the first time. What a perfect way to spend our last full day at the beach! Dinner was at Mexican restaurant Agave, which we assumed would have fantastic local dishes. Ironically, it was the most disappointing meal of the week. Apart from the delicious shrimp, guacamole, and freshly-baked tortilla chips, the food was surprisingly bland and lukewarm.

6:45AM sunrise above the Hideaway complex

There was so much lush greenery on the property.

That brown structure is a wedding chapel overlooking the beach! We actually spotted a bride and groom there the following day.

Can’t decide whether sunrise or sunset was more beautiful…

Paradise!

Not a bad nighttime view!

The fish tacos were nowhere near as tasty as they were when we ate here in 2015

Vegetable tacos – cold, no spices or sauces, and the only flavour came from the corn!

Chicken salad – three cubes of chicken, hard cheese, and tasteless vegetables. Another pass!

Black bean tamale…awful. I noticed we weren’t the only diners leaving more food than usual on the plates.

Delicious! Fresh and juicy shrimps, which we each had as an appetizer.

Incredible fresh tortilla chips and guacamole! We filled up on these.

 

Day 6

Today was our last morning in paradise, so we spent it wisely: early morning wake-up call, an hour walking and relaxing on the beach, and one last buffet brunch. The blue sky shone brilliantly and the turquoise ocean was calm and glinting, making me wish we could stay just one more day in Cancún. Overall, the hotel was fantastic – friendly staff, not too crowded, a great variety of (mostly) excellent food, plenty of beach chairs and loungers, tons of activities for kids and adults, great nighttime entertainment, a clean gym with many machines, filtered water everywhere on the property so you don’t need to worry about falling ill, etc. If you’re travelling as a couple or as a group of adults, I’d recommend staying in the adults-only Hideaway section rather than in the main Royalton buildings; it’s a little more exclusive, more private, and the staff are more attentive as they cater to fewer guests (there are 340 rooms in the Hideaway section versus 800 in the Royalton). There were some little glitches here and there, but that’s usually to be expected in large resorts in Mexico or the Caribbean. I can’t wait to go back!

Me, taking it all in.

World Elephant Day Confession: Here’s Why I Regret Riding Elephants in India

Happy World Elephant Day! Below, I share some thoughts with you regarding the recent elephant ride I took with my parents in Jaipur, India.

One of the best things about travelling is the new experiences you get to have. If you’ve read my daily blog posts from our trip to India and Dubai, you’ll know that my parents and I had many new and exciting experiences during our two weeks abroad. We tried new foods, met some of the locals and thoroughly enjoyed exploring India. But there was one thing we did that left me questioning its ethics, and that was the elephant ride. We didn’t have much of a choice because going on elephant back was the simplest way to get up a mountain that led to Amber Fort, a sprawling palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Rajasthani city of Jaipur. It’s the main tourist attraction in Jaipur and one of the most well-known forts in India (you can read about our experience here.) 

I really hope the elephants were treated well…

I remember being mesmerized by elephants we saw during our trip to Africa back in 2001. I had seen them at the zoo before, but there was something so special about spotting them in their natural habitat. They slowly roamed around, going about their day, free to go wherever they pleased. Elephants were (and still are) slightly terrifying to me, given their enormous size, but they’re awe-inspiring nonetheless. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re the largest animals I’ve seen up close, or maybe it’s hard to believe that I’m staring at (or riding!) the animals I loved watching in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Either way, there’s no denying that elephants are majestic creatures. 

So, back to Jaipur. As we climbed aboard the elephants (which were all female) and slowly made our way up the mountain, it dawned on me that these gentle creatures were probably suffering. They seemed to be huffing and puffing as they climbed up the winding path, carrying 300-400 pounds on their backs (each elephant carried two passengers plus the driver). Several times, we came to a halt because there was an elephant traffic jam (yes, I made that up), so our driver would tap the elephant with a small stick in order to get her to trot past the six or seven other elephants that were ahead of us. I didn’t notice any of the drivers actually hitting the elephants, and we were told that the rides up to Amber Fort were only available for two or three hours per day so that the animals could get enough rest, but something still didn’t sit right with me. 

While I believed that the animals at Amber Fort were treated fairly, I had to wonder if riding them meant we were promoting the global mistreatment of elephants. It’s widely known that elephants are killed or maimed for their ivory tusks, the trading and selling of which is a booming (and very illegal) business in Africa and Asia. It’s also known that the treatment of elephants at zoos and theme parks is likely subpar at best; unsurprisingly, they’re often unable to thrive in those manufactured and restrictive environments. I understand that zoos and animal theme parks can generate jobs and money, but it’s sad to see elephants (and dolphins, penguins, orcas, etc) forced to perform tricks for an audience. Animals are not our entertainment, which is why I had to wonder if we were helping to exploit them by riding on the elephants’ backs. 

Should we have boycotted the rides and simply walked up the mountain? Should we have inquired about the treatment of Rajasthani elephants? Maybe, but I’m not sure what good it would have done. Perhaps it would be more prudent to educate myself about the global treatment of elephants, to sign petitions that endeavour to protect their homes and species, and to vow never to ride one again. I would be much happier watching them happily roam free. 

Dubai Day 5: Meena Bazaar, Burj Khalifa & a Scrumptious Dinner at Dubai Fountain

Welcome to the last chapter of my trip to India and the Middle East! My parents and I are finally back in Toronto after a long and stressful journey home (more on that later). I’ve had a delightful sleep in my big, comfy bed for the last couple of nights, but keep waking up missing Dubai and the excitement of attending the Jubilee Games. When we left the house yesterday, Toronto felt boring compared to Delhi’s constant honking and insane driving!

We wanted to make the most of this past Sunday because, sadly, it was our final day in Dubai! We had the whole day to explore the city, so our first stop was Meena Bazaar, a famous shopping area in Bur Dubai. Contrary to popular belief, the Bazaar isn’t actually a souk (outdoor market); it’s a few streets filled with little shops selling clothes, jewellery, textiles, and souvenirs. After passing some empty streets lined with modern-looking buildings, we turned a corner and I immediately felt like we had stepped into a city in India. The streets were dirty with garbage and had puddles of something that did not look like just water, many of the buildings and stores appeared to be falling apart, and Indian men with thick accents harangued us to come inside their stores or buy knockoff designer handbags. I realized we were probably seeing the poorer parts of Dubai that people usually don’t talk about because they either forget about them or want to concentrate on the opulence within the newer parts of the city. While I understand that impulse – after all, rich sheikhs, magnificent buildings and over-the-top attractions are what Dubai is known for – it was a jarring reality check to see those few crowded streets, which were just a few minutes away from swanky hotels and shopping centres. If I ever go back to Dubai, I’ll take a river boat into the older parts of the city, where you can gain a better understanding of the authentic, day-to-day lives of the locals. I think that would be more interesting to see than Meena Bazaar, which felt like a tourist trap.  Continue reading