Southern Peru: Wild and Windy Deserts
The area south of Lima is quieter, with fewer people and vast stretches of barren, rocky landscape.
Most overlanders leave the PanAmerican Highway, turning inland to Arequipa, Cusco, and the allure of Machu Picchu. Which are locations not to be missed! Back in 2012, we loved Arequipa: exploring the former nunnery, and venturing into Colca Canyon for sightings of condors and long soaks in hot springs.
Cusco is wonderfully busy and dripping with Incan ruins and culture. Tourists in REI zip-off pants and quick-dry safari shirts run around, making their last minute preparations before setting off on the Inca Trail, a long and rocky pilgrimage to the mysteriously magnificent Machu Picchu.
That said, we skipped all those wonderful places on this trip. Here’s why.
Some scientists categorize this stretch of land as an extension of the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar region in the world. Villages are scarce. Massive industrial chicken farms line the roadway and the traffic consists mostly of long-haul truckers heading for Chile.
We found a nearly deserted hotel on the edge of the sea and set up shop. It felt good: they kids played on the beach, Chris grilled up dinner, and I downed one (or multiple) pisco sours. It was our most relaxing stay since our very first night in Peru, several weeks previously.
Funny story: right after we shot these pictures with the drone and settled into dinner, a GIANT overland vehicle pulled up and disgorged 25 people that promptly fanned out and covered the entire area with tents, tables, and a bonfire. Lonely beach, no more. 🙂
After a few more days on the coast we turned sharply inland and started climbing mountains. We were headed for the Bolivian border at Desaguardo, near Lake Titicaca.
This was tough day for us: the border between Peru and Bolivia is firmly in the Andes Mountains. We had planned to spend the night near 6,000 feet above sea level but we weren’t comfortable with the available overnight options: there were no proper campgrounds and the road-side pull-offs didn’t inspire confidence as they were far too exposed. No gas stations, our emergency overnight stop-over of choice, were to be found. We kept going, hoping to find an acceptable spot.
The road climbed straight up into the mountains and soon we were at 4300 m with night falling and the temperatures dropping. In desperation we asked the if we could pop the top at a lonely outpost staffed by the Peruvian military. They generously agreed, wedging us in between the tollbooth and a massive generator. It was our longest and coldest night: -10C (14F) and all suffering from altitude sickness. I brought both kids up to the big bunk and Emma right into my sleeping bag. They were bundled up in their parkas and hats, and we looked like giant caterpillars huddling together for warmth. Chris had the worst of it as he had both the thinnest sleeping bag and the worst altitude headaches. It was a long night, semi-trucks thundering by mere feet from our bumper and the winds howling outside.
The next morning we rose at 6, said a very grateful thank you to our exceptionally kind hosts, and headed towards Bolivia. Little did we know it was to be the start of a very, very long day.
Campgrounds (South of Lima)
Puerto Inca was the hotel/campground perched on the edge of the bay with the Incan ruins on both sides. In the high season they have a restaurant and pool and it can get quite busy on the weekends. For us it was a quiet night in an area that boasts relatively few proper campgrounds.
We spent the next night at the Sun Valley Hostel, which was a perfectly fine if unexceptional location.
I’m not going to put the name or location of the military outpost here on the blog or on iOverlander. They kindly helped us out of a jam (and would do the same for any other traveler) but they were not equipped with resources or space for regular guests and we would not want to intrude on their hospitality by making it seem as though this was an acceptable overnight spot for those not in need of emergency accommodation. We will forever be grateful for their generosity.