Majestic Peru with Intrepid: Trip Review, Part 1

Wildlife sign on the road in Peru

Peru is undoubtedly one of the most engaging countries I’ve visited. I may have only spent just over a fortnight there, but I managed to pack so much into every day that I don’t feel short-changed. What’s more, I got to meet fellow travellers from around the world and discover the country with them.

If, like me, you can’t afford to spend months here but you’d like to really get to know what Peruvian culture and history involves, guided by experts, you might be tempted by the trip I booked – Majestic Peru, with Intrepid Travel. Knowing how important peer reviews are when picking a specialist tour operator, I’ve broken down my review into three stages so you can get a clear idea of what to expect.

Wildlife of Peru in the valley.
Seeing vicuñas in their natural habitat – an Intrepid bonus.

Before I give you an overview of Day 1-5, here’s why I chose Intrepid:

  • Lots of other tour operators bypassed Arequipa, which I was desperate to visit, and others pushed tourists to do the Inca Trail without much cultural sightseeing, whereas I preferred to see more of the country and people instead. Essentially, Intrepid offered my kind of itinerary.
  • This was a Carbon Offset Trip, meaning all our activities had no carbon footprint. Knowing I’d have to fly to Peru, I felt it was important to try and give something back on the ground.
  • Having studied customer feedback and looked at another blogger’s review, I got the feeling the company was well liked and trusted. I also loved the way they took an interest in local communities, supporting independent cafes and businesses.
Lima graffiti and murals
Lima was worth the wait and the indirect flight route.

Pre-Trip Notes

As a tourist from the UK, flying to Lima needs a bit of co-ordination. There are no direct flights from London, so I took a connecting evening flight to Madrid, which was pretty straightforward. In order to arrive in time for the holiday, I had to book a Madrid-Lima night flight arriving in the early morning on the day before the trip began – yes, I could have arrived on Day 1 and joined the party a couple of hours later, but I can’t sleep at all on night flights and they leave me pretty cranky. It was much easier to schedule a recovery day and an extra night at the hotel, bookable through Intrepid, knowing I’d have a packed two week schedule ahead.

If, like me, you choose to arrive early, bear in mind that your designated first hotel, the Girasoles, will let you check in early for no extra charge. And don’t forget to organise your free transfer to the hotel, provided by Intrepid.

Motorbike and highway at the Nazca Lines.
These views were for free, obviously.

Review Notes

Unless otherwise stated, all activities were pre-paid as part of the trip costs. Where an activity was optional or involved an extra charge, I’ll tell you the price. I should also point out this wasn’t a press or blogger trip – I paid for everything myself and my review is impartial.

Bright red stone building in Peru with carved facade.
A church in Lima with intricate carvings.

Day 1 – Lima

After a brief introduction, we caught the bus downtown from the Miraflores district to explore Lima. Our guide, Holger (nicknamed Olly), was quick to point out some of the city highlights that we easily could have missed on our own. He also introduced us to street food, taking us along by the river to try different dishes, all for a few soles.

My personal highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the catacombs of the San Francisco Cathedral (6 soles), followed by a peek at the incredibly beautiful library upstairs, which the cathedral tour guide mentioned as a casual aside; the design is anything but an afterthought, so make sure you see it. We ended the day with our first group meal, overlooking Parque Kennedy, accompanied by Pisco Sours. I tucked into some very traditional lomo saltado, which is beef with onions, peppers and rice.

Fishing boats beside mountains in Peru.
En route to Paracas, we stopped beside this little oasis of blue water.

Day 2 – Lima to Paracas

Today involved a four hour journey to Paracas. We stopped for lunch in a quiet fishing village and got the chance to unwind by the water, watching fishermen paint their boats, then made tracks before another pit-stop – this time at the Navarro winery. The winery tour was fascinating, but let’s just say Peruvian wine is an acquired taste.

Our hotel in Paracas, the Zarzillo Paradise, wasn’t far from the water. We each had our own outdoor lounge area – not that we spent much time in it, as we sloped off into town for a group meal. There was no pressure to tag along as a unit, but everyone got on well with each other and we enjoyed swapping stories about our home countries. As a solo traveller I liked having company during the trip, but also the freedom to have some time to myself too.

Nature offshore near Pisco port.
Sea lions lazing about on the rocks at the Ballestas Islands.

Day 3 – Ballestas Islands to Nazca

We started early and were rewarded with blinding sunshine as we set off for our boat tour of the Ballestas Islands, spotting sea lions, penguins and plenty of birds at close range. I was a little distracted as the boat guide looked like Javier Bardem… but I did manage to compose myself and learn about these unusual islands, which are a haven for professional guano, or bird poo, gatherers. It’s quite a lucrative business if you can stand living on an isolated island for a few months of the year, knee deep in seabird droppings.

The Nazca Lines appeared on the side of the highway that afternoon, after a long drive through vast canyons and dusty hills. Climbing an observation tower for a couple of soles, we could finally appreciate the scale of the patterns. Later on, some of the group took a microflight across the area (costing the equivalent of about £100): one to avoid if you’ve got a remotely weak stomach! The rest of us chilled out by the pool in our new hotel, the Majoro, which used to be a convent and is still dotted with religious art. It was also home to some very outsize but friendly pets – two vicuñas, which look a bit like llamas, and made excellent poolside companions.

Chauchilla burial site.
One of the well-preserved desert bodies, hundreds of years old, near Nazca.

Day 4 – Nazca to Arequipa

Time for another early start, with a mammoth 10 hour drive inland. We made our first pit-stop just half an hour from Nazca, at the Chauchilla Cemetery, home to several well-preserved 700-year-old mummies that had been uprooted by the Spanish conquistadors in their search for gold. Yet again, we were treated to a private tour guide, and this time the site was otherwise deserted.

The road trip ended up being a little more eventful than expected, as our bus broke down a few hours later, but the whole incident was handled professionally by Olly and it wasn’t a major inconvenience; instead I took the opportunity to get snap-happy at the side of the road and see a bit more of the real Peru. When we eventually reached Arequipa it was in darkness, but the Hotel Asturias was really welcoming and we enjoyed our one and only quiet night in.

Monasterio in Arequipa
The technicolour surroundings of Santa Catalina Monasterio.

Day 5 – Arequipa

This was the day I’d been most looking forward to on the whole itinerary: a chance to step inside the Santa Catalina Monastery, as featured in one of my favourite novels, The Book of Human Skin (not as gruesome as it sounds, honest). After a whistle-stop tour of Arequipa’s highlights, like the cathedral, the main square and a beautiful vantage point overlooking the mountains, we finally stepped inside Santa Catalina, which is called a monastery despite being home to women, not men.

Far from being a conventional setting for nuns, the convent is a riot of colour, with earthy red and piercing blue walls. Many of the nuns came from rich families and lived in relative luxury here, with servants to attend them and the chance to play musical instruments and appreciate great art. When I could finally tear myself away from the convent, I spent the afternoon wandering around the city, trying seafood and picking up souvenirs.

Just like that, my first five days in Peru were complete. In the next post I’ll take you through Day 6-10, including Arequipa, the Floating Islands and our first visit to Cusco, the Incan capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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