Men scurry along either side of the barrier which divides the congested highway in two. They carry paper-covered boxes of snacks to sell to car drivers through their windows: small biscuits, wafers, hot peanuts. Boys with stacks of newspapers pass women wearing tracksuits and pushing supermarket trolleys, who yawn as they delve inside their bumbags filled with loose change.
The car horns are already sounding, even though its only 6am and barely light. Tiny buses with place names painted in elaborate cursive script along their flaking metal sides are crammed full of standing, swaying figures. Businesses of every kind are booming in this street in Peru; people are ready and raring to go, no time to waste.
I cannot stop smiling. I’m back in the continent that makes my blood hum and my stomach pull me into movement. This is where I feel excited, happy, ready for anything. This is where I belong.
But first, let me explain what’s going on.
Last summer, I was working at my desk in London when an email popped onto my screen. “Congrats, Flora!” it read. “You entered our annual writing competition a while back and I’m delighted to tell you that you’ve won!”
I shook; I screamed; I’m not ashamed to admit that I danced around the room just a little bit. It was unbelievable – to the extent that I had to google the editor’s name to check she actually worked for Nat Geo and wasn’t just scamming me.
Spoiler: she was telling the truth.
For a few agonising weeks I had to keep the news to myself until Nat Geo publicised the announcement online – and then it was wonderfully surreal to sit on the bus, fresh out of my first radio interview (unrelated but weirdly well timed!), watching my phone notifications begin to blow up.
But something more surreal was about to happen: a tweet from the editor of an American magazine, who said she’d seen my Nat Geo win and had a potential assignment for me.
“Fancy flying to Peru for a week to write an article?”
In seemingly no time at all, I was off to Peru on assignment for Coastal Living magazine. Being employed as a bonafide freelance writer – valued solely for my writing skills not my social media stats – just made the experience all the sweeter.
I went to Peru in late August, wrote the story in early September, spent a month on edits and finally submitted it the day I started walking the Camino. But although my week on the Peruvian coast was rife with adventures, I couldn’t write about them on my own site until the story was published in Coastal Living magazine.
So now that I own a hard copy of my first ever piece of print journalism, we’re going back to Paracas.
Sorry it’s six months late.
Paracas, Peru: the best place you’ve never heard of
My fancy air-conditioned car and I drove along the Peruvian coastline until we reached Paracas, a tiny beachside town on the southern coast that at first glance doesn’t seem particularly special.
But what many people don’t know is that Paracas is an undiscovered wonder. Huge sand dunes dominate the arid climate, resulting in the jagged and dramatic coastline of Paracas National Reserve. Just out to sea, the Ballestas Islands provide an idyllic haven for sealions, Humboldt penguins, the occasional pod of dolphins and hundreds of species of birds (so many, in fact, that they’re known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos Islands).
Paracas is the main departure point for trips up into the sky where tourists fly over the ancient Nazca Lines, and the coastline’s blazing sunshine means that it’s long been a favourite weekend destination for wealthy Peruvian families.
But as we pulled into the driveway of Hotel Paracas, the fanciest hotel I’d seen in a long time and my home for the next week, all I could think about was my Spanish language worries.
“Bienvenida a Hotel Paracas!”
Eighteen months of travelling through South America are frighteningly long ago now. Though I chattered away in steadily improving Spanish throughout that period, it had been almost a year since I’d last been in a Spanish-speaking environment – and I was desperate to maintain the skill.
Not making an effort to practice in London was really coming round to bite me.
So from the moment I stepped inside this luxury hotel, the tight-lipped, overly proud version of Flora vowed (as ever) to speak only Spanish as much as possible. Maybe I could convince people I was actually Spanish and get my confidence back?
Of course, the hotel staff clearly had copies of my very British passport and knew exactly who I was. They greeted me by name as I walked through the grounds, knocked on my suite’s door with a beaming smile and a welcome cocktail in hand, and showed me the view from my private balcony as I felt both luxurious and a bit confused.
In case you didn’t know, my eighteen months of travel in South America were the opposite of this type of treatment. I’m more used to heaving my backpack in and out of buses, to cramped dorms in busy hostels and getting sweaty more often than not.
Lucky, then, that the aim for my Peruvian week was to write a piece about the adventure opportunities in Paracas. Starting with exploring the nearby sand dunes.
My first attempt at sand-boarding
My two guides for the afternoon were Davide and Frank (or Frankenstein – his nickname, not mine). Under brilliant blue skies we careered off the highway and onto the sand dunes inside a 4×4, my heart lurching around my stomach.
Frank told me that August is basically winter time in Peru, which means activities like sand boarding are possible. It’s off the table the rest of the year – “much too hot,” said Frank – but we were lucky. Despite a huge sandstorm the night before, our evening air was calm and quiet.
Amazingly quiet, in fact: once we stopped trading jokes in Spanish, I realised I couldn’t hear a single thing apart from my own breath and the soft breeze stirring the sand.
I’d have been more than happy staying in the soft sandy bubble of near-silence, but my two new Peruvian friends had something else in store. Grabbing two weatherbeaten boards from the back of the car, Frank laid himself carefully atop one of them and gestured for me to do the same.
And I couldn’t do it.
Not at first, anyway, and not on the giant dunes: but eventually they cajoled me into riding a few baby slopes which were more fun than I’d expected. We talked about what I was doing in Peru by myself and both men got very excited when I mentioned I’d just reached 5,000 followers on this blog’s Facebook page – so much so that they initiated a jumping photoshoot to celebrate the occasion.
We continued boarding down the sand, waiting for Davide to drive down and get us then moving to a new sand dune – until the car’s engine suddenly gave out, meaning Frank and I had to climb back up a particularly huge dune which seemed to loom above us forever.
From the driver’s seat, Davide played Árabe music on the radio: “the rhythm of the desert,” he told me when I finally reached the top.
Making fresh ceviche with Chef Franco (tongue twister, much?)
Back at the hotel and at the end of the hotel’s private pier sits La Chalana, a restaurant which uses only the freshest of fish that local Peruvian fishermen catch from the same water that flows beneath the pier’s wooden planks.
It’s also where Chef Franco Rivadeneyra gave me a hands-on lesson in how to prepare ceviche – a dish which I’ve honestly dreamt about re-eating in Peru ever since I discovered the ceviche stalls in Arequipa’s covered market.
Franco talked me through the ingredients, and together we seasoned the fish, mixed in ‘leche de tigre’, garnished with onion, lime juice and sweet potato before finally sprinkling a handful of cancha: roasted and salted corn kernels from a type of Peruvian maize.
Cancha has been eaten in Peru for centuries (often instead of bread) and it’s a standard Peruvian snack food, laid out on bar tables and as something to munch on when travelling. But cancha is also a necessary addition to a plate of ceviche, where the tang of salt and the sudden crack of the kernel’s crisp shell when you bite into it, alongside the acidity of ceviche’s lime juice marinade, makes an utterly delicious mouthful.
I pestered Franco for more foodie facts and we ended up sitting outside on the deck, chatting in a mix of Spanish and English about Peruvian food culture, his ‘zero kilometre food to table’ ethos – and the Paracas way of life.
A perspective of poverty in Paracas
Eighty years ago, a Swiss couple arrived to what used to be Paracas – a tiny settlement that didn’t even have today’s single main street – and decided they wanted to build a hotel. Various US presidents have stayed at Hotel Paracas over the years since, although it was reserved only for the rich back then.
Peru’s earthquake eight years ago destroyed much of the Ica province where Paracas is located, and there were hundreds of deaths. Undoubtedly it’s also affected the economics livelihoods of local people living here.
Chef Franco sees Paracas as a very interesting place: there are private properties a few yards from the hotel that easily cost millions of dollars, yet just as close in the other direction are extremely poor communities of people.
Yet he also told me that every person working at Hotel Paracas (known as ‘ambassadors’ of the hotel instead of ‘staff’, which I think must change their self-perceptions of their roles for the better) is from somewhere in Ica. Presumably it fosters a sense of connection between the people living in the area and the hotel?
So with this financial divide weighing on my mind, I decided to explore Paracas myself and see what the place was like.
Back to basics: practicing my Spanish in Paracas
To celebrate the blog’s Facebook page milestone I had posted asking for people’s weirdest travel stories, with the eventual plan of sending some Peruvian goodies to my favourite. Hunting for appropriate souvenirs quickly led me to Rosa, an extremely chatty woman running a handicrafts stall on the main beachside strip.
Rosa had been learning English for the past month and was overjoyed to find someone she could practice with; soon, the exercise book she used at evening classes was laid out across bracelets and magnets while I scribbled down the right English translation of some of her sentences, and she painstakingly repeated the words she had difficulties pronouncing.
When I eventually got around to paying, she insisted I take a present for myself as well – a choice from a basket of magnets or a rope filled with colourful bracelets – but there was a caveat.
Could I come back tomorrow and help her English class with their project?
Becoming an inadvertent English teacher
Rosa was alone when I went back to her stall the next afternoon. Amidst her apologies (and a gift of a huge orange to snack on), I kept an eye on the stall for her while she attempted to round up her classmates like a mother hen.
Eventually she returned with just one: a teenage girl named Soleya who seemed a little unsure about who on earth I was. But as they explained what their project entailed – to practice asking simple English questions to English-speaking tourists while I filmed the interactions – I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm.
For the next hour we roamed the Paracas waterfront, arms linked together and eyes peeled for potential victims. Both women were much too shy to make the first move so I had to stop tourists in their tracks and explain in English, then give the all-clear to the Peruvians and hold in my giggles while their questions unfolded.
Within our little Spanish threesome we joked and laughed, engaged in easy conversation. They took me off the main strip and into their neighbourhood for a quick ice cream before their class, and I realised yet again how speaking a local language can relax your interactions into a normal relationship.
I wasn’t a tourist; I was their friend. Even if just for an afternoon.
My never ending love affair with South America
As I stood in Lima’s airport waiting to board my plane back to London, I found myself beside a group of backpackers who’d clearly been part of an organised travel group. They had the colourful trousers, the alpaca sweaters and the sunburned noses; they looked so excited and happy.
Dressed from the somewhat smarter end of my wardrobe with a small rolling suitcase, I didn’t look anything like them – but my internal feelings were still exactly the same. They had no idea that being in Peru had felt like I’d come home after missing it for so long.
Before returning to Peru I was slightly apprehensive that things would be different. The country might have changed – after all, I knew I’d definitely changed in the interim – but thanks to the magazine assignment, I was primed to make as much as I could of the week. A seemingly inexhaustible range of willing conversation partners were there to help allay my Spanish fears, too: taxi drivers and chefs, sand-boarding instructors and shop owners.
Now I feel there’s something extraordinary about coming full circle, returning to my favourite continent for my first real writing job. It’s given me renewed appreciation for just why I love this part of the world so much; where I feel the most comfortable and real in my travelling skin.
Whether it’s luxury living or sweaty backpacking, Spanish speaking or magazine writing, South America is always going to do it for me.