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.

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

India Day 5: Getting Up Close and Personal With the Taj Mahal

Welcome back, everyone! As you may know from my previous post, today was a big day: my parents and I visited the glorious Taj Mahal!

We started our day at 5:20 AM because we wanted to beat the crowds and the heat. At 6:30, we met our new guide, Masood, who told us which items would be prohibited inside the Taj. Our driver, Rajesh, dropped us at the street entrance of the site around 6:45 AM and we could already feel the humidity. Families of grey monkeys hung out on pink pillars lining the dirt roads we walked up, their babies chasing each other and eating bananas.

Monkeys!

Our excitement mounted as we walked up to an archway of a building that gave us a glimpse of the Taj. I think my heart skipped a beat (that sounds dramatic, but you’ll understand if you’ve been there) when we finally feasted our eyes on this view:

Everyone stopped in their tracks to look!

But I soon realized that this view was nothing compared to what awaited us. I stepped under the archway and suddenly had this breathtaking and picture-perfect vista of the Taj Mahal:

Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

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India Day 4: Drive to Agra & First Glimpse of the Taj Mahal

I already miss Delhi’s thrilling and chaotic streets, rickshaws speeding alongside us! Note the lush greenery lining the road.

This morning, I woke up feeling really disappointed that we were leaving Delhi. It had been an awesome couple of days exploring the city (check out my recap of our final day in Delhi here) and I hadn’t expected to like it so much. However, on today’s schedule was the drive to Agra, which put us one step closer to visiting the Taj Mahal. I didn’t need much convincing to pack up and leave! 

Our time with Vikas, our tour guide in Delhi, was over, but thankfully we still had the same driver. Obviously we don’t know Rajesh well, but it’s been comforting to encounter the same person each time we get into the car; exploring a developing country is clearly much simpler when one has a reliable guide and driver and doesn’t have to worry about personal safety and taxi fares. 

After breakfast and a hassle-free check-out from the Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel in Delhi, Rajesh picked us up and we headed for Agra. I loved seeing Delhi streets on a weekday morning, where passengers in automated rickshaws furiously typed or talked on their iPhones and children in uniforms made their way to school. We passed the Supreme Court of India, where busy-looking men and women rushed down the street in black barrister gowns, arms loaded with papers and books. We shouldn’t have been so surprised to see an equal number of female barristers, but I think something like that is a rare sight in developing countries. Later, we took a bridge over Yamuna River, which had a lot of garbage floating in its murky water but looked like it was once beautiful. From a distance, we saw the majestic Swaminarayan Akshardham, one of the largest Hindu temples today  (see below), as well as the stunning Lotus Temple.

The third-largest Hindu temple in the world! What a splendid site.


We also noticed miles and miles of rice paddies surrounded by straw huts, neither of which I had seen before. About two hours into the drive, we came upon a roadblock where a large electrical wire had fallen onto the highway. It took workers about fifteen minutes to move it off the road safely, and while Rajesh used the time to stretch his legs, many of the other drivers stayed in their cars to continuously honk their horns. Definitely expect constant and aggressive honking if you’re ever in India!

After four hours, we had arrived at our destination: the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Agra. (We glimpsed the Taj Mahal from the main road, and we all fell silent for a moment as we realized exactly what we were looking at. The Taj has such a commanding presence, even from a few kilometres away.)  The hotel’s modern decor was a stark constrast from the city streets, which resembles the “dirty and smelly” part of India that people and guidebooks had warned us about. Cows and goats were everywhere (even on the roads), people in torn clothes rode in carts filled with household materials for them to re-sell, and skinny children sat on the ground with younger children in their laps, wild looks on their faces. Meanwhile, the hotel looks like this:

Beautiful lobby with intricate wall hangings and designs.


It felt wrong walking into such splendour after driving through what felt like slums, a feeling I’m sure many foreigners experience when they stay in Agra. We realized after seeing the city that there isn’t much shopping or eating to be done outside of the hotels, but tomorrow (Saturday) we’ll visit the Taj Mahal at 6:30 AM followed by certain historical sites nearby. Stay tuned for an account of our day!

India Day 3: Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb & a Luxurious Ayurvedic Scalp Massage

I can’t believe it’s our third day in India already. We leave Delhi first thing Friday morning for a weekend in Agra. I’ll miss this loud, chaotic city!

If you’ve read my post from yesterday (find it here), you’ll understand why I was a little  nervous about what our tour guide, Vikas, had planned for us today. Luckily, there were no elephant rides or riding backwards on motorcycles (which I imagine would be as thrilling yet uncomfortable as yesterday’s rickshaw adventure)! On today’s itinerary was a historical tour of New Delhi, concluding with free time at a large mall nearby. Our first stop was a photo op at India Gate, a 1931 war memorial for Indian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. The arched gate and long stretch of road in front of it took me back to Paris for a few minutes – it’s strikingly similar to the l’Arc de Triomphe and, in some ways, the Champs-Élysées.

Vikas gave us some history about the city’s politics and army, then we made a quick U-turn and parked on the same street in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, or Presidential Residence. It’s a palatial estate where – you guessed it – the President of India resides. The country has a President and a Prime Minister, but apparently the Pres. has a lot more power and influence.

India Gate could be the little sister of Paris’ l’Arc de Triomphe…

We got a close-up look at the red sandstone of the buildings (such as army offices) surrounding the Presidential Residence. The construction for these structures began in 1911 and finished in 1931 – imagine taking 20 years to complete a set of buildings! It was mainly because the workers back then would have had very few tools to work with; they did almost everything by hand.  Continue reading

India Day 2: Jama Masjid, the Red Fort & a Hair-Raising Rickshaw Ride Through Chandni Chowk

If you missed my post about Day 1 in India, you can catch up here.

View from my room – you can’t imagine the ruckus these cars made with their horns!

Normally I’m not the kind of gal to be up at 6:30 AM, but that was when my internal clock decided to wake me up this morning. Good thing, too, because the famous Delhi honking symphony was just starting and it would’ve been tough to fall asleep with all of that going on. While my mum went for a swim, my dad and I decided to scope out the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which had everything from vegetable curry to croissants to mini quiches. The freshly-made puris and dosas were so addictive! But it was surprising to see so many guests fill their plates with fresh fruit, which the three of us had been told to avoid in India.

Our half-day tour of Old Delhi started at 9:30 AM (kudos to my dad for finding a reputable Indian travel agency and organizing a personalized tour for us). We stepped outside and were hit with an intense wave of heat – it was 36C today, which is at least 10 degrees hotter than what we’re used to in Toronto. Our guide, Vikas, and driver, Rajesh, explained that we would start our day at Jama Masjid, one of the largest and most revered mosques in the country. On the way there, we passed by Chandni Chowk, a busy outdoor market filled with clothing stores, fruit stalls, firecracker shops, and vendors selling one-of-a-kind accessories. Vikas said we’d be taking a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk’s tiny, crowded alleyways after the Masjid tour, so naturally my first reaction was to shout, “Those things are death traps!” while running in the opposite direction. Just kidding, but I did repeatedly ask Vikas about the safety of the rickshaws and he repeatedly assured me that nothing bad would happen.

At the Masjid, we removed our shoes and I donned a patterned wrap dress (see the picture below) to cover my leggings. A few Indian children near us held out their hands for money, which was kind of heartbreaking to see, but they went away when we simply smiled at them and continued on our way. Vikas gave us some history (the structure is roughly 375 years old!) and then we walked around the stunning site, taking pictures and enjoying the calm atmosphere. A number of men were praying inside, but they didn’t seem to mind that all of us tourists were snapping photos.

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