I Love Beaches: Ilo, Peru

Growing up in Upstate New York, I never imagined myself to be much of a beach lover.  I always associated the beach going crowd with plastic blondes from California and was perfectly content with my ski slopes in the winter and nature trails in the summer.  Even when I had moved away from home after university, the idea of going to the beach as a vacation seemed foreign to me.  It wasn’t until I had been taken captive under the perpetually grey and rainy skies of Amsterdam for a couple of years that I first said, “I need sunshine and warm beaches, ASAP.”

I credit 2010 as the year of my discovery of my love for beaches.  Of all the three trips I made to the beach, they were all somewhat accidental.  First there was Diana’s wedding in Varna, Bulgaria, then the trip I made to Portugal with my roommate, Elisabete, and finally, the trip that sealed the deal for me, Sardinia with Elisabete and Nidia.   The weather was amazing, the color of the water rivaled that of the Caribbean, and the paddle boat equipped with a slide was everything we hoped for and more.  I ended 2010 on a very tan note and very much in love with the idea of adding beach itineraries to my future travels.  As I planned my RTW trip I promised myself that I wouldn’t go more than three months at a time without splashing around in the waves.  Now after one month into my trip, I can finally report on my first beach visit.

View of Ilo from the harbor
View of Ilo from the harbor

The Journey is Always Half the Fun

Traveling from Puno to Ilo turned out to be a little more challenging than expected.  Stacey, my colleague from Pro Mujer, and I went to the bus station a day early assuming we would easily find a comfortable bus with plenty of seats still available.  Unfortunately, the only buses scheduled for Ilo left late in the evening, which would mean an arrival time in mid-morning – not the safest option for arriving in a city with which you’re unfamiliar.  Our only other option was to make the five hour journey in a collectivo, a large minivan fitting up to about ten people.  I’m not sure how the idea of being packed in with nine strangers sounds to other people, but I think I was slightly more excited about this option than my friend.  Though this probably had something to do with the fact that I’m immune to motion sickness and I usually love the sense of community that can be fostered amongst ten strangers who are forced to spend a considerable amount of time together.

My excitement, however, quickly died down the next day as we were confronted with the realities of what is considered to be an efficiently running bus operation in Peru.  It’s somewhat of a cliché right?  The modern Westerner expects everything to run on time and all to go according to plan, but of course it never does.  We first had to wait over an hour until they filled up every last seat of the van and then there were the numerous stops along the way – one to get a new spare tire, which we all sat helplessly watching as a 14 year old boy desperately tried to unhinge the tire from the rim, another to actually change a flat tire, and the last one to pick up hitchhiker.  Along with all of this bedlam, came the stereotypical bad driving right on cue.  To sum up my thoughts about the drive to Ilo – If you don’t believe in God, you obviously don’t understand physics.

However, all death defying driving maneuvers and chaos aside, I was incredibly calm during the bus ride.  I would have thought that given my increased levels anxiety as of recently, I would have been a nervous wreck, but aside from asking Stacey if I had heard correctly when the tires squealed going around another hair pin turn, I was very Zen about the whole experience.  I think part of the reason I was at ease during the trip was because I successfully convinced myself that the driver knew what he was doing and didn’t want to die, therefore he wouldn’t do anything too risky.  I was also rather preoccupied with the amazing change of scenery that took place in only five hours.  We began the trip high in the Altiplano plateau and ascended further into the Andes to the point where it was actually snowing, before finally descended to sea level which happened to be a desert coast.  To this point in my travels, I’ve yet to come across a more diverse landscape in such a short distance.

Hello, Oxygen!

I knew going into the RTW trip in general that I come to certain points along the journey where I would begin to realize all of the luxuries I take for granted.  Up until this point, I figured these so called luxuries would be things such as hot water showers, comfortable beds, vegetables, etc.  However, shortly after arriving at our hotel in Ilo and climbing up the flight of stairs to our room, I added an unexpected luxury to that list: oxygen.  For those of you who may not know, Puno sits at around 12,600 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level.  Even after three weeks of adjusting to the high altitude I still cannot climb a flight of stairs without obnoxiously gasping for air here in Puno.  However, after climbing that flight of stairs with exceptional ease, I was amused at the fact that I was all of a sudden for grateful for something as simple as air pressure.

The warm weather too, was something for which I was very grateful.  When I first organized my internship in Puno, I for some reason, didn’t believe the weather reports that called for daily showers and moderately cold temperatures.  It simply didn’t sink into my aerated head that it could possibly be cold in Peru, so I foolishly thought I would feel perfectly comfortable in this ‘more tundra than tropical’ climate.  I’m pretty sure I even lied to people back in the U.S. and Europe about how great the weather was here because I couldn’t accept that I decided to live in the Peruvian equivalent of Amsterdam for two months.  After two weeks though of wearing gloves and long underwear to bed, I feel it’s probably about time that I come clean and admit that I’m freezing in Puno and was therefore extremely grateful for a brief weekend of warm weather.

Desert Beaches

You’re Not in Spain Anymore

I should start off by mentioning that Peru isn’t exactly known for its beaches, and thus in no way do said beaches have the notoriety of say Ipanema in Brazil or South Beach in the U.S.  If anything, Ilo was the exact opposite of those more boisterous beaches and was more reminiscent of some of the plain vanilla beaches in the Northeastern region of the U.S.  Still, Ilo has a giant plateau of sand that reaches into the ocean and that was my only requirement for enjoying myself on this trip.

We headed out to Pozo de Lisa for the afternoon and this is when my inner European came out.  I felt entirely over exposed and out of place here.  After spending almost every day for a month surrounded by half-naked women and tatted up people on the beaches on Valencia, I felt scandalous walking around in my bikini amongst the fully garbed people of Peru frolicking in the ocean.  Looking around, I was genuinely confused as to why people were not simply sporting modest bathing suits, but instead, were wearing t-shirts, shorts, dresses, etc.  I can’t imagine it was a modesty thing, because if you ask me, their bathing outfits were more revealing than what I was wearing, so that leaves me with the theory that they simply don’t see a need for specially designated attire for swimming activities.  That would certainly make my life a whole lot easier, but I’m high maintenance when it comes to tan lines, so no.  People observations and lack of beer vendors aside though, Ilo does make for a nice beach destination if you’re passing through and in need of some sun, sand and wave action.

Foodie Letdown

I’ll save a more complete write-up about Peruvian food in general for a later article but suffice it to say for now, that I was highly disappointed by the food in Ilo.  I really had my hopes up about feasting on delicious seafood, similar to the beach trip I took to Sardinia, but I found the fish here in Ilo to be suspiciously not fresh.  I think what put me off immediately was the brown abomination that this one restaurant stuck on a plate trying to pass it off as a mussel.  Granted, we were at a more touristic beach restaurant, but I lost my appetite to try anything with a high risk factor for being spoiled this weekend after this and kept my food choices simplistic.  Though after eating the most plain piece of chicken one could possible order, I did remember to make a note that upon returning to Puno, my first order of business would be buying a small bottle of hot sauce to carry in my bag wherever I go.

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