While planning our trip we knew we would spend the bulk of our time in Chile and Argentina. But after that we really didn’t know what we would do, and still didn’t until we came close to the end our stay in Chile in February. Countries like Peru and Bolivia are arguably at the top of many people’s lists when they travel in South America, not least as they house some of the continents’ quintessential attractions. But for us with Amber, the altitude at which much of these countries reside and the remoteness of some of their destinations were concerns.
That said, we knew we needed to head roughly north and furthermore we had planned to meet up with friends in Costa Rica in March, so we looked for somewhere that could act as a stepping stone to Central America. Peru was the choice, with direct flights from the capital Lima to and from both Chile and Costa Rica. We would only have around two weeks in the country, and after what had been an incredibly busy period in February, we decided we would only visit one other place aside from Lima. With highlights of the country like Cuzco, Machu Pichu and Lake Titicaca all sitting at well over 3,000m above sea level it simply wouldn’t be responsible to visit these places with Amber without spending time acclimatising and that was time we just didn’t have. So we decided to stay at the more sedate altitude of 2,400m (still nearly twice as high as Ben Nevis it should be said) in the historic city of Arequipa. What we didn’t know at this point was that these two weeks in Peru would end up being the most challenging and intense period of our entire trip.
In our experience there is a very rough correlation between how developed a country is and how wild its roads are. When we landed in Lima on 25th February it became pretty clear in the taxi from the airport that Peru was some way behind in development terms compared to the likes of Chile and Argentina. Peruvian drivers seem to specialise in the near miss. Not one inch of space is given and quite how cars never seem to collide, or even touch, is a mystery. Lane use is optional, as is indicating. Horns are obligatory. The similarities to driving in India were striking.
After a hectic introduction on the roads we arrived at our property in the Miraflores district of Lima (essentially the really nice bit where all the tourists stay). We were only in the city for three nights so wanted to be close to the action. After the roads the other thing that struck us about the city was the climate which had become far more tropical now we were further north on the continent. The temperatures at night rarely fell below 24-25 degrees, and unfortunately it turned out our little one bedroom apartment was similar to an oven, retaining the heat of the day and never really cooling down, despite the best efforts of our one hard working fan.
Thus commenced a rather uncomfortable night for all of us that ended when Amber woke at around 5am, a habit that she would only break some 3 weeks later. Being at the mercy of a child’s sleep habits is something you would think that as a parent you gradually learn to accept, given you are exposed to it every day. But not us, I don’t think we’ll ever be at peace with waking up at 5am – why can’t she just sleep 12 hours a night like all those other babies with healthy looking, well rested parents?!
Anyhow, although Lima on the one hand was hot and congested, on the other hand the Miraflores district was green and pleasant. We managed to sample some of Peru’s famous cuisine which we had been very excited about, given the country’s status as arguably the gastronomic centre of Latin America. In one particular meal we had a taste of some Peruvian classics including ceviche (raw fish cured in citric juice) and anticucho (an exotic way of saying cows hearts) and they were very tasty indeed. We also had tripe which we will not be having again any time soon. You can’t win them all.
To be honest however, with the heat, Amber’s disrupted daytime and nighttime sleeps and our overarching tiredness after moving seven times in under two weeks, we were relieved to leave the city after only three nights. For a long time now, we had envisaged our next destination of Arequipa as the place we could really recharge our batteries, particularly as we had 11 nights booked there, the longest we had stayed anywhere since spending most of January in Santiago.
So, after what felt like a long time coming, we finally landed in Arequipa on the evening of 28th February, after circling above the runway for what felt like hours (weather conditions are notoriously changeable in the mountains and Peruvian authorities have very strict guidelines on when you can and can’t land – a fact that would come back to haunt us later on). At 2,400m above sea level Arequipa is not really high enough to cause any real difficulties, but I immediately felt the elevated altitude upon arrival, huffing and puffing up the stairs in the airport. To our surprise it would take a few days for these effects to become less pronounced.
On our first morning (yep, at 5:30am again) we immediately saw why Arequipa was such a popular destination for visitors to Peru. Not only does it have a wonderful historic centre but it is surrounded by the beautiful, imposing mountains and volcanoes of the high Andes. From our apartment we had crystal clear views of both Misti, a 5,822m high perfectly symmetrical volcano and Chachani, the highest mountain of the range at 6,057m. As has been the case throughout our trip, we immediately felt privileged to be among such beautiful mountains, and this time to see them so clearly from the comforts of our home. In what would become a typical trend throughout our time here, later that morning the clouds rolled in, the rain came, and our view was obscured until the following morning.
Despite the early mornings our first few days were exactly what we had been looking for; relaxing and restorative. However that all changed after our first weekend as Amber started to show signs of illness, a fierce cold we assumed. By far our greatest fear before and during this trip was how we would cope and what we would do in the event of Amber getting sick. We knew it was inevitable that it would happen, and we had already been through her first bout of illness in Buenos Aires, but regardless there is something deeply unsettling about being in a very foreign land with a very ill daughter.
To compound matters Claire and I immediately and simultaneously came down with a stomach bug and without going into details our home soon resembled a war zone. The next few days went by in a blur of Peppa Pig episodes and an almost endless amount of worry about the lack of food and fluids Amber was taking on. Not to mention our own malaise. The truth is we had never seen Amber so ill and given the remoteness of our location it was a difficult and emotional time for all of us. Not to mention this:
Eventually however, when Amber’s health only seemed to deteriorate and not get any better, we took her to the hospital to be checked out. It was the day before we were due to fly back to Lima (where we planned to spend two nights before flying to Costa Rica). We were soon told however to make new travel plans, as she had an ear infection and shouldn’t fly. In a way we were relieved, as we ourselves had felt she was just too ill to be put through so much travel.
We were due to move out of our accommodation the next day, so we found a new place in Arequipa and moved there with the intention of getting ourselves back on track. Fortunately Peruvian doctors don’t mess about with their prescriptions, and although slightly nervous at what exactly we were putting into Amber, we took the view of “when in Rome” and very quickly her condition started to improve. It had been a draining 4 or 5 days and although we had a way to go we were relieved to see a glimpse of the Amber we know and love very slowly coming back.
In the end we decided to skip the two nights in Lima and rebooked both flights (Arequipa to Lima and Lima to Costa Rica) for the same day, to arrive in Costa Rica two days later than planned. And with all of us back on track, we were very excited about finally leaving Arequipa and Peru in general after what had been a pretty torrid time.
At this point the bad weather came back to haunt us. We woke up on the morning of our flight to a deep fog that had enveloped the city. Our flight was delayed so we would now miss our connection in Lima – gutted. To compound matters, in a moment of madness we decided that I should take Amber back to the flat – the one we had just moved out of – for a nap while we waited for our delayed flight. Around 15 minutes after putting Amber to bed, I received the call from Claire that our flight was being called unexpectedly early and would take off in 30 minutes. Poor Amber did not know what was going on. Despite quickly waking her up (not pretty) and literally running down the streets to get a taxi back to the airport, we ended up missing our flight. We simply couldn’t believe it.
The next hour was a torturous one spent trying to negotiate with check in staff to rebook us on a later flight. Despite an initial rejection, we persisted – Claire got highly emotional, Amber had a meltdown, I felt like I was having a heart attack – and the check in staff relented, clearly taking pity on the shambles of a family in front of them.
We made it out of Arequipa to Lima that afternoon and in a rare moment of decadence booked a suite at the hotel over the road from the airport, having earlier managed to rebook our Costa Rica flight for the following day. The afternoon and evening in the hotel were brilliant – the relief at simply having got out of Arequipa was palpable. We even managed a smile when Amber woke the next morning at 4:30am, no doubt partly as a result of the fact we were all in the same room together (typically there are no winners in that situation).
We made our Costa Rica flight, arriving in Central America three days later than planned and probably a lot more days than that shaved of our life expectancy thanks to the trials and tribulations of Peru. Peru can rightly feel a little hard done by as a result of our experience. For many it is THE highlight of South America. For us it was a turbulent, unsettling, emotional and stressful period that we were relieved to have drawn an end to. At least the cow hearts were tasty though.
It would be easy to read our previous blog entries and think that we have coasted through South America having a consistently wonderful time. The truth is that throughout our trip we have had to face challenges, stresses and difficulties. We just don’t like to dwell too much on them, partly as it doesn’t make great reading and partly because we realise how lucky we are to be doing this trip. In Peru however, there was no getting away from it, and there was no point trying to sugar coat what was a tough period for all of us. In the same way that some places see all the seasons in a day, travelling with a baby often means you see all the emotions in a day, and Peru will go down as an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions. But we made it and it didn’t kill us, so on that basis it must have made us stronger, even if that particular cliché is hard to believe at times.
Peru facts and figures
- Peru’s national language – Spanish
- How we got by – it became very apparent just how much Claire’s Spanish had improved when discussing ear infections, flight itineraries and insurance policies with the medical centre in Arequipa
- Number of kms travelled – 1,000km each way to Arequipa and back
- Different types of transportation used – two internal flights and good old Uber
- Beer brands consumed – Cusquena, Pilsner and Arequipa’s tasty local beer, Arequipena
- Beers brands favoured – Cusquena, lovely and crisp
- Bottles of wine consumed – One bottle of bubbles on arrival in Lima to celebrate getting to Peru and that was it
- Favourite animals – We went to a cracking llama and alpaca farm before the shit hit the fan in Arequipa
- Least favourite animals – Yet again I was mercilessly chased by a pack of stray dogs while out running in Arequipa. I really never want to see a South American dog ever again
- Country highlights – Errr… no, we loved the views of the mountains from Arequipa and the food in Lima was excellent
- Most treasured moments – Another difficult category for this particular part of our trip but realising Amber was on the road to recovery when she started eating an entire block of cheese was a great moment for both of us