Sights to see when volunteering in South America: Peru

While volunteering in South America, make a special effort to visit Peru, one of the most naturally diverse and culturally rich locations in the world. Peru’s wealth of breath-taking views, snow-capped mountains and ancient ruins make it every travellers dream. Hiking the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu will already be part of your plans, but here are some top sights to see off the beaten track:

Lima to Huancayo train
Lima is not everybody’s favourite city, and this 12-hour tourist train to the altiplano town of Huancayo provides the perfect getaway. Taking you through the heart of the Andes, Peru’s Central Railway route is 15,689 feet above sea level at its peak, the second-highest in the world.

This route provides a breath-taking slalom through snow-tipped mountains, sun-bleached countryside and clear blue skies. For a £25 one-way ticket, you can enjoy the view through panoramic windows and skylights, with a reclining seat, local dinner and pisco cocktail all included. The 206-mile journey includes high-alpine lagoons, elongated tunnels and the most wonderfully charming, old-fashioned bridges.

Inca Trail – Community Trek
The classic Inca Trail is usually very busy and you will need to share your journey with many other travellers. An Inca Trail community trek will allow you to combine sightseeing with community help, perfect for budding volunteers. Here you can stay with local families, learn their culture and help villagers with crop planting or schooling.

The Peruvian locals are extremely hard working, polite and eager to share their culture with visitors. You can sample local delicacies, like Lomo Saltado, Ceviche Mixto, or even ask for ‘cuy’, roasted Guinea Pig meat served on a spit – juicy and tender but not for the faint hearted.

Surfing in northern Peru
Peru is well known for its beautiful beaches and many are familiar with its popular surfing culture. The most popular surfing spots include Herradura, Costa Verde, and Punta Rocas south of Lima. Punta Sal is also really popular, with crystal clear water, pure white sands and excellent waves. At Huanchaco, close to the ruins of Chan Chan, you can also watch fishermen perform an ancient surfing tradition, where they stand up in reed boats called ‘caballitos de totora’.

This beautiful ‘White City’ is located immediately below the Misti Volcano, providing the most breath taking view on a clear day. El Misti is hard work to climb and you will need plenty of energy and a decent ice axe; it’s also best to climb between July and November, with the later months being warmer. Santa Catalina Monastery is a wonderful white and blue building which perfectly matches the beautiful backdrop beyond it. Majes River Lodge also offers three-hour rafting trips that pass through class IV rapids on the Rio Majes; these are not for those of a nervous disposition.

Iquitos is the world’s largest city that is unreachable by road, located on the left bank of the Amazon River and surrounded by rainforest. Travellers usually come to the city for an excursion or Amazon riverboat trip, but you should certainly stay a few days. With thousands of motorcycles and three-wheeler ‘moto-kars’ weaving through traffic, the town has a unique atmosphere which is both charming and slightly manic at the same time. Be sure to visit the Museo Amazonico, a museum which contains the sculptures by Felipe Lettersten. You can also watch the sun rise over the from the Malecon, this is really beautiful. Belen is the Venice of the Amazon, with houses built on balsa rafts which float on the river.

Backpacking tips (what _to_ bring)

Picture the scene; An idyllic seafront village on the north coast of Peru, near Trujillo; A walk along the beach followed by wonderful fresh-fish supper; Settling down for the night I was completely chilled and at peace with the world. Well, until about 04:50am …

At that point one of the fishermen staying next-door woke up and started cracking *hilarious* jokes that had his compadres rolling in the isles.
And that was the point at which I decided that earplugs would be part of my backpacking kit for all future trips. Since then, I’ve found ‘plugs to be very useful in coping with snorers, overnight-bus journeys, late-night revellers returning to dorm rooms after a night on the town, etc. etc.

On a similar theme, here’s some more general backpacking kit that I like:
Starting with the earplugs: I like Macks, ( which are effectively a blob of gum that covers the outer ear. You have to wash your ear before use, but the big advantage is that you can sleep with the side of your head on the pillow without feeling the plug pulling your ear – unlike other earplugs which put slight pressure on the eardrum when sleeping.


Duct Tape (or Duck Tape), which is usually silver/grey in colour, is very useful for quick, waterproof and robust backpacker repairs on the road, e.g. fixing holes in window fly-screens, hanging points for mosquito nets, temporary repairs of backpacks, boots, clothing, and holding a myriad of other backpacker kit together. Duct tape rolls are quite large (see picture), but you can roll 2-3m of tape onto a pencil if you want to bring a smaller amount. Don’t leave home without it.

Water purification tablets. I like Micropur, available from Boots in the UK, it’s active ingredients are Silver Chloride (antimicrobial agent) and Troclosene Sodium (releases Chlorine). Micropur tablets are cheap, lightweight, effective and a great back-up option if you’re on walkabout. You dissolve a tablet in a litre of clear water (i.e. taken from a local water source) and leave for 30 minutes. I’ve used Micropur on water taken from mountain streams – although the instructions say not to do that. They’re a good option for those people who don’t want to leave a trail of plastic water bottles in developing countries. Water treated with Micropur tablets – and this applies to other brands as well – has a slight after taste, but it’s nothing you can’t handle.

Antibacterial or Antiseptic wet wipes; Hygiene is pretty important on the road, whether it be hand-washing before meals, using (the often eye-popping) third world public loos, or cleaning minor cuts and grazes. A bumper pack of wet wipes (other brands are also good) – get them in a resealable pack, are an essential part of my kit.

Platypus water bottle, made from soft ‘collapsible’ plastic, they are stronger than they look, easy to drink out of and only take up the space they need. They work well with water purification tablets because the bottles are transparent and you can see the tablets dissolve. My platypus is almost 10 years old, hence the Duct tape in the mid-section to  prevent the plastic creasing (see picture). A similar, cheaper bottle is now made by Evernew amongst others.

Anything to add? Tell me your backpacking tips or favourite piece of travel kit:

What not to buy …

I’m always banging on about how I’ve a backpacked around South America – and various other places – but the truth is that I don’t actually do much backpacking… Backpacking is where you disappear into the mountains, *living* out of your ‘pack, i.e. carrying a sleeping bag, tent, food etc. and walking 10-15 miles a day.

My version of  ‘backpacking’ is nowhere near as hardcore, I grab my pack from the airport luggage carousel, put it in the back of a taxi to the hostel, the next morning I walk a few blocks to the Bus station and onto my next stop…  The longest I have ever walked with a full kit backpack is about 4+ miles when, in a fit of peak, I walked into town from Nouadhibou railway station (Mauritania) rather than pay a massively inflated taxi fare.

Which brings me onto the first thing that you shouldn’t buy: A top-end backpack.
An expensive pack will usually have an aluminium frame to balance the weight and thick padding to sit in just the right spots on the users’ shoulders & back, great for high mileage hikers, but a complete waste of money if your pack spends most of it’s life strapped to the roof of a bus.

My first ever backpack was purchased second-hand from a local army surplus store for £10. For my 2011 Africa trip (3 months), I bought a 65 litre olive-green military pack from ebay, a snip at £29.

My other questionable purchase ‘pet-hate’ is high-end walking boots and/or Jacket – for pretty much the same reasons – unless hiking is a core part of your trip (in which case you’ll probably already have your own kit?) your existing shoes/boots/trainers will be fine for general travel use which includes an occasional lengthy trek into the hills.

Prepping for independent travel will usually require you to splurge some cash, my advice is to bring your old, well-worn clothing/kit away with you and avoid buying expensive items that won’t see much use once you’ve returned home.

Why I love ‘Open-Jaw’ tickets

Open-Jaw flights (tickets) are great option for independent travellers:
An Open-Jaw (OJ) airline ticket allows you to fly out to one destination but return home from another, giving you the freedom to plan a route without having to worry about returning to your point of arrival.

On my last big trip to South America I had an OJ ticket; I flew out to Ecuador (Quito)
then travelled overland to Brazil, via the southern tip of Argentina. A great trip, which took just over 4 months. My return flight to London was from Rio De Janeiro.

OJ tickets can also work well for shorter trips; e.g. a three week trip, flying out to Lima Peru and returning home from La Paz, Bolivia would be a good, whistle-stop introduction to South America.

Because of the vagaries of overland travel, you should buy your OJ ticket with a flexible return date, flexible in this context, means giving a nominal return date when you purchase the ticket, but having the ability to change that date, for free, with a phone call to the airline when you’re out on the road. This flexibility has limits however, an OJ ticket will have a maximum stay, e.g. 6 months, requiring you to return home within that period. The longer the maximum stay on the ticket, the more expensive the ticket will be, so choose carefully.

An Open-Jaw ticket with a long maximum stay gives you the freedom to take a lengthy diversion or extend a volunteer stint en route, the flexibility works both ways though, allowing you to bale-out of your trip early if required; a friend of mine injured his knee sand-dune surfing near Pisco in Peru, although not seriously injured, he opted to bring forward his departure date, take a local internal flight direct to his departure point (Buenos Aires) and jump on a plane home.

For those people travelling from Europe, I’d recommend flying to South America (SA) on a European airline such as KLM or Iberia, as opposed to flying on US-based airline. Why? because when flying with a European airline your stop-over will be in Europe,
e.g. KLM flights stop in Amsterdam, Iberia stops in Madrid. So with European airlines there is a short flight followed by a long flight when travelling to SA: In my case, London to Amsterdam, duration 1h 30m, then Amsterdam to (say) Lima, duration 15 hours.
I find it much easier on the brain and the body to have a short and a long flight, rather than two medium length flights of ~6-7 hour duration, which is what happens when you fly with an American airline via the USA.  I find the stop-over between mid-length flights – when you literally don’t know what day it is – to be purgatory 😉