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!

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.

An Autumn Hike in Northumberland Forest & Scenic Drive Through Cobourg, Ontario

Last Sunday, my parents and I went on a pre-Thanksgiving hike to get some exercise and enjoy the beautiful colours of autumn here in Ontario. We decided to check out Northumberland County Forest, situated near the town of Cobourg, which is about an hour’s drive from Toronto. Northumberland Forest offers over 45km of hiking trails as well as routes for snowshoeing, horseback riding, hunting and ATVing. Having never been there before, we weren’t sure where to find the hiking trails; vague road signs led us to Morris Trailhead, a series of trails located in Northumberland County (which is about 15km north of Cobourg). The first thing we saw was a massive warning sign for black bear sightings in the area! This freaked me out more than I’d like to admit, though you can’t really blame me given this terrifying Leonardo DiCaprio VS Bear fight scene from The Revenant that was recently burned into my brain.

Surprisingly, we hiked about two hours (7km) without running into a single creature, bear or otherwise. Two ATVs whizzed passed us and we heard the occasional hunting rifle go off, but apart from that we saw no one else on the trail. I strongly believe in safety in numbers, so little wonder I was so jumpy with the three of us walking through a secluded forest in the middle of nowhere! My heart skipped a beat every time a twig snapped, but eventually I realized that the recurring sounds of dirt bikes and hunting rifles would likely keep bears away from the trail during the day.

I really enjoyed the relative quietness of that trail. We’ve hiked many a time up north in Algonquin Park, and although the scenery and colours were always unreal, the trails could get a little crowded. There was something special about the feeling of being removed from the hustle and bustle of Toronto while we walked through Northumberland Forest. The colours weren’t too shabby, either:

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