Poisonous Snakes, Spiritual Tribes and Crazy Beer in Peru
The Rio Carnival. The Inca Trail. The Galapagos Islands. Iguazu Falls.
These places are synonymous with South America and Peru, though not off the beaten track. They're high up on the 'to do' list of any traveller visiting the continent. They adorn the walls of hundreds of thousands of backpackers who have since returned, and they will remain in the memories of these people for the rest of their lives.
If you're interested in finding out more about these sites, then pick up any guide book about Peru and have a read.
Getting off the beaten path in Peru
If, however, you're interested in discovering some of the more unusual sights that Peru has to offer, then allow me to lead you down a path strewn with poisonous snakes, wild cats, spiritual temples, local tribes and mind altering beer. It's probably not the path your parents would have chosen for you, and I can't guarantee it will lead to anything you'll want to put on your CV, but I can assure you you'll have an awesome time.
So, to where I start this adventure - Peru. More specifically: Mancora.
Madness in Mancora
This place is often overlooked by backpackers in Peru but it's an awesome place to lose a few days. When the Spanish first landed in Mancora, they declared they had found paradise; a few nights out here and you'll probably be agreeing with them. It's simply a phenomenal place to party, and after a few jars of Pisco Sour the locals are more than happy to go for a secluded 'walk' along the beach once the sun has set. Imagine an Ibiza chillout after-party; Mancora has the same vibe all night long but without the blokes chewing on their own faces.
Being on the beach, there's also the chance to do a number of water sports; surfing, scuba diving or simply sun worshiping. You could easily spend a couple of months in Mancora, diving the various dive spots by day, and partaking in a completely different type of diving with the locals on the secluded beaches at night.
Visiting the jungle in Peru
If you can bring yourself to move on from paradise, then there are plenty of other surprises to be unearthed in Peru. One of the biggest surprises for me was that Iquitos is not the best place in South America to go into the jungle.
Sounds like a ridiculous statement, doesn't it? After all, that Lonely Planet your friends have been smashing down your throat for the past few months clearly states that Iquitos is the 'gateway to the jungle'; surely they can't be wrong?
Yes. Yes they can.
Whilst a Lonely Planet book is invaluable on a trip around South America, you should take the term 'guide book' literally. It is a guide, not a gospel. Listen to other backpackers who have been there and done it; you might find yourself discovering a world beyond the books.
If Peru is the only country you're visiting in South America, then a trip to Iquitos is mandatory; you simply cannot miss out on seeing the jungle. If, however, you're visiting other countries, then I would skip visiting Iquitos and enter the jungle at another point.
Visit Lima, the capital of Peru
So instead I'm going to leap straight to the beating heart of Peru; the city of Lima.
Some would argue that the heart of Peru would be the jungle; the ancient civilizations, the tribes and the majestic river.
I would argue that I have never felt more alive than when I was in some grimy salsa bar in Lima, surrounded by local people, all dancing with a passion and heat that would make Peter Stringfellow blush, with a girl dancing against me in such a way that the only thing between me and a nasty rash was a thin linen crotch. That's what living is.
Lima is a metropolis. It hums with activity. You could easily lose yourself for days in the colonial architecture and museums, or the modern shopping centres, or the surfing beaches. Still, many backpackers dismiss Lima and use it solely as a stepping stone to get to Cusco or Nazca. This is a real shame as Lima has made a massive effort to entice tourists to its shores.
Miraflores is a fantastic place for backpackers to grab a Turrones from a street vendor and sit with a coffee or (more likely) a Pisco Sour and watch the world go by. Once the sun begins to set, grab one of the locals who have come to surf, and find out where the nightlife is going to be that night. From there, sit back and let yourself be carried off into the very heart of Lima's after-hours establishments.
Cruising to Cusco
After your hangover subsides, you could head over to Cerre De Pasco if you're passing that way. There's not a great deal there for your average backpacker, but it's an authentic little mining town that offers a glimpse into true Peruvian life. It also sits at 14,000ft above sea level, making it one of the highest towns in the world. Sitting with a beer you're quite literally on top of the world and it is one of those experiences that really sticks with me when I think back on my time in South America.
After you've sat on top of the world, what could possibly be next? Well, an obvious choice would be leave this world altogether, and I managed this very feat in Cusco.
Now, I realise that when people hear the word Cusco they immediately associate it with the Inca Trail. It is true that Cusco is the starting point for all Inca Trail treks, but I'm not going to dwell on it. Instead, I'm going to explain why Cusco is one of my favourite places in South America.
Cusco has become a kind of Mecca for backpackers. The problem with travelling in South America is that you don't encounter other travellers with anywhere near the degree of regularity you'll have become used to in places like Thailand and Australia. As such, when backpackers do come together in large numbers in South America, they really come together... if you catch my drift.
There is no shortage of bars, restaurants and clubs in Cusco, all aimed solely at giving backpackers a chance to catch up and share their experiences and stories, all whilst clutching a cold bottle of Cusquena, the local beer. If you needed any further proof of Cusco's party potential, then you'll find not one, but two Irish bars in the centre of town. Case closed.
As well as this, however, there's architecture that would make Da Vinci weep with joy and a hoard of local people who will bend over backwards to ensure that you experience the best of their little town; all you have to do is ask.
I was taken to see a 'shaman' just outside of Cusco. Despite looking like Skeletor, I trusted him enough to drink his 'spiritual drink' and go through some of his rituals. To this day I don't know what was in the drink, but it made mushrooms in Amsterdam look like tea in Bognor Regis. With your Nan. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
If you're interested in being involved with a traditional Peruvian experience, and you trust yourself not to jump off a cliff if a piranha starts dancing towards you, then you should definitely seek out some of the spiritual guides around Cusco.
Arriving at Arequipa
Once you've had enough of other backpackers and eternal hangovers and you're still looking for a taste of 'real Peru' then jump on a bus and head to Arequipa. This town sits down on the border with Chile out in the desert. While it does have a certain touristic appeal, with the churches and old architecture dotted around, my reason for reason was to take 'a taste of Peru' in its most literal sense.
As Arequipa isn't overly frequented by tourists, you tend to find all kinds of 'traditional' Peruvian foods on the menu; from Llama leg to Guinea Pig. Whilst I accept that some people have reservations about eating animals which would be more at home in a petting zoo in the UK, these are foods which have been eaten for generations by Peruvians, and I can assure you that Guinea Pig tastes a lot better as a meal than it does sitting in your girlfriend's bedroom pretending to be something more than a glorified rat.
Unfortunately, it's very difficult to recreate the dish back in the UK, and the staff at Pets at Home can be very unhelpful, so make sure you fill your boots whilst you're in Arequipa.
From here, the last stop on my alternative tour of Peru is the little town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. This place is well worth a visit as it successfully manages to offer a boozy backpacker scene but yet retains enough culture to impress that French fitty you met on the bus and told you were a curator at the British Museum.
The lake itself is incredibly clean, probably due to the fact that it's one of the highest lakes (I mean it's a lake at high altitude, not that it's always hungry and great at Fifa) in the world. Take a pedalo out onto the lake and see for yourself. A word of warning though, the lake is very, very cold. I'm talking balls-into-ribcage cold. You have been warned.
With that, my meandering tour of Peru comes to a close. We stand on the Bolivian border, ready to plough headfirst into the Amazon jungle wearing nothing but a pair of swimming shorts and flip flops. It's at that point we realise we're face to face with an Anaconda.
Still, that's a story for next time...