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!

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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