We decided to skip some time in Chile and instead spend more time in Peru so we headed to Cusco a week early. This is part 1 of 2 for Peru, the second post will share our experiences on our trek to Machu Picchu which we started on Tuesday, April 7th.
Here are the highlights from our first two weeks in Peru:
- Lake Titicaca – We did a 2 day visit to Lake Titicaca and a home stay with locals on an island in the middle of the lake.
- Colca Canyon – 3 day, 2 night trek down into the world’s deepest canyon in southern Peru. So beautiful.
- Arequipa – Rock climbing and city exploring. We enjoyed the markets, Peruvian restaurants and the parks. Also, not a highlight, but I did screw up and make us miss our overnight bus back to Cusco!
- Sacred Valley – Hiking (longer than expected), exploring some Inca Ruins and finding our favorite vegetarian restaurant.
Ready to read about the adventures of our highlighted locations? Read on about out time in Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, and the Sacred Valley.
Puno & Lake Titicaca
After arriving in Cusco, we spent only one night before taking a tourist bus service down south to Puno, Peru. There were a few stops on our bus ride, our highest point was over 14,000 feet, and we visited our first Inca ruins dating back to the early 1400’s. It was nice to have breaks along the bus ride instead of driving straight for 7 hours. We saw many green rolling hills with fluffy white clouds you could practically touch, fields filled with a variety of livestock (alpaca, sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, dogs, chickens, etc.) and occasionally farmers outside of their huts tending crops of corn or quinoa.
Puno sits on the northwest side of Lake Titicaca. We took off from the docks around 8:30 the next morning for a 2 day tour of Lake Titicaca, including a homestay with locals on Amantani Island. After a short boat ride we arrived at our first stop: a little group of floating reed islands and their local inhabitants. The islands are made of their lake reeds and the “island” we visited had 5 families live in reed huts on the island, with 17 members total. They showed us how they cooked, dressed and crafted. Tourism was a large source of income for those on the island so Jenny allowed one of the women dress her up in local garb. Very stylish!
We then took a traditional reed boat to a neighboring island where we received a unique passport stamp. And finally we set off on a 3 hour trip to the island where our homestay would be: Amantani. It felt great to be out on the water, and the views from the top of boat were beautiful.
After arriving at the island we were assigned to Mama Presentacion, who is a sweet old Peruvian who has four sons! After seeing our room we went on a walk through the village and observed how they farm and tend to livestock. Their stone paths are improving through the use of concrete from Puno. It was fascinating to see how the island is self sufficient from crops and livestock as well as how they function as a community for the good of all.
Our lunch consisted of quinoa soup with vegetables followed by a plate of local veggies (corn, tomato, cucumber, potato, carrot/yam like vegetable called ‘oka’) and a fried piece of locally made cheese. Dinner was again a soup starter followed by a hearty stew of veggies (including local fava beans), rice and bread. At both meals we had tea from local muña plants and coca plants.
After our walk and a short rest we we met up with the group again to trek up to 4200 meters to Pechamama. We participated in a ritual of carrying a small stone to the peak, walking three times around the temple and then placing our rocks in the temple wall. Along the loops we stopped for a few views of some high Bolivian snow capped peaks on one side, and an awesome lightning storm on the other. We headed down as the lightning storm moved our way. After a hot cocoa in the town square we headed back for dinner. As we neared the house a lightning bolt struck what seemed like a few hundred feet away, and the smell of something burnt entered our noses as the thunder cracked loudly above our heads. Our pace quickened back to our home stay!
After dinner we donned some local clothing and went to a fiesta with a live band. We danced (which was mostly running in circles while all holding hands) and “danced” faster when the song picked up. Afterwards we climbed under the mountain of wool blankets on our twin beds and fell asleep.
In the morning before breakfast we headed out for a morning walk up near the peak we walked to the previous day. It was nice to greet the day in that way, and while Jenny stretched I sat to do a quick, but relaxing, set of breathing meditation.
Our breakfast consisted of fried bread cakes, similar to pancakes, with butter and jam, and of course coca tea. Today we packed up and headed out
on the boat for the next island visit, Takili.
After an hours boat ride we arrived just as the clouds cleared on Taquile island. After a short walk and a purchase of a knit headband by Jenny from The Knitting Men shop (on Taquile only the men knit, the women weave) we arrived at our lunch location. And what a location it was. On the side of the slope with a long bench that fit our full group with a view of the lake. A light breeze and a meshed awning above to keep us out of the direct sun. We ate quinoa soup, a large veggie omelette and fresh caught trucha (trout). Absolutely delicious! Of course the meal was followed by a mix of muña and coca tea.
That concluded our Titicaca adventure, and the experience left us with a few thoughts:
Do the reed families survive these days mostly off of tourism? It was difficult to get the thought out of my mind that it was all for show, but at the same moment I had respect for their culture and values: if that’s what they know and that’s what they enjoy and that’s how they survive, well then keep on living.
The islands were so rural, and it made us realize how lucky we are to have been born into the families we have. Even the small comforts of using soap to wash your hands before dinner were left to be desired while on the homestay.
We returned to our hotel in Puno that afternoon for dinner and to FaceTime with each set of our parents.
Friday 3/27 – Free day in Puno before heading to the bus station at 2:30.
We awoke and ate breakfast, then headed out for a workout: climbing a few hundred steps to the condor that oversees the city. We stopped for a few pull-ups and then hit the stairs. Wow, after running 7 sets of about 8 stairs we were both sucking major wind and our throats hurt due to the elevation. We quickly dialed it back to a walk for the rest of the way. Up top we did a few more strength exercises and enjoyed the view.
We jogged down a different road and made our way to the stadium that was built in the 70’s using stones all the way from Amantani, the island we stayed at a night before. Our tour guide said the stones were taken to Puno with the help of the Uros and their reed boats!
We then had a scare catching our bus as the arranged transportation was late and we had to hustle to catch our bus to Arequipa. We made it, albeit a little stressed out unnecessarily (our taxi should have been on time).
Arequipa & Colca Canyon
We spent a quick day in Arequipa before our adventure into the Canyon. On our drive to the canyon we learned from our guide that they have around 150 volcanoes on the area, with 4 being active letting off some steam… yikes!
Our first stop was to see the viciuña in the national reserve. We learned that their wool is worth 1000 Soles (~$333) per kilo, and they are endangered but have been making a comeback recently due to increased protection. Once a year the local people surround the reserve and close the circle slowly and then shave them. They share the profits with all of the farmers. We then stopped near 4900m/16,000ft for some pictures and to see yareta, a plant which grows at an astounding 1mm a year!
We arrived at the trailhead around 1pm, and unlike Marcello (our guide) said, the clouds didn’t move on so it was quite warm. The first part of this adventure is a 6km route along the canyon wall that takes you ~1km/~3266ft down to a small bridge above Colca River.
We arrived in San Juan de Chuccho for our homestay in the canyon 2h 48m after departing, a “good strong time” said Marcello. We were happy to rest and refill on water, then we watched the sun fade away further down the canyon until it was time for our home cooked dinner. Jenny continued to play with the house puppy, Pepè, who was throughly entertained by sticks until dinner. We quickly ate up the soup and scarfed the potatoes, veggies and rice that was served. Our treat after dinner was our last chai green tea we had bought a month ago.
Jenny read her book while I went out to take a few canyon night shots while the skies were clear, but with the brightness of the moon, my best subject was the canyon wall with a star backdrop.
We awoke on the second day of our Canyon tour by opening the shades and viewing the first rays of sunshine on the rock wall on the opposite side of the canyon. We were happy to see it wasn’t raining. After pankcakes, bananas and tea we used our Steri-Pen to fill our water bottles from the tap instead of purchasing water. It was our first real use of it, and since we drank 3 last night and 4 more today, it has saved us ~35 Soles or about $10 in water on the trip, it’s starting to pay itself off.
It’s springtime in this part of Peru, and our guide says that the hills are green and the flowers in bloom for only a short time; we are lucky to be here now and for the weather we are having. Along the trail our guide points out some natural red dye that grows on cacti that is used in makeup and other products. He tells us that some of the yellow flowers are arnica, used as a salve for sore muscles.
After a steep uphill hike, we stopped at a small village at the top of a ridge to rest and try some local fruit, like sour kiwi and also tuna (prickly pear). Our next stop was a swimming in a pool, relaxing and lunch before trekking out of the canyon. To our amazement their was a few small cabanas with pools at the bottom of the cannon.
We arrived at Sangaye around 11, and after a quick dip in the beautiful pool, I’m now sitting under a mango tree typing up this part of the post… Life is good.
After our rest we escaped the other tourists and headed down to the river for some relaxation and reflection. Six more water bottle sanitizations this afternoon.
We then had to hike out of the canyon. It was a 4k walk, 1.2k vertical up the side of the canyon. It was hot and steep, but everytime I picked my head up from the dusty, dry, rocky trail I was amazed at the beauty that surrounded us. 2 hours later we reached the top of the canyon, and a short, flat walk through corn fields got us to our hotel for the night. After wood fired pizza in this little town of 1,500 people (Cabanaconde), we headed early to bed.
Tuesday 3/31: End of canyon tour
Before breakfast we went on a short walk to a nearby mirador (lookout). It served a great view of the canyon in addition to telling us which muscles were sore from the past two days the ability to work them out first thing on the morning. Our trip back to Arequipa included a stop at the ‘Cruz del Condor’ – a spot for watching the impressive and massive condors fly on the edge of the canyon – a quick dip in some hot springs, and another filling lunch buffet in Chivay.
Wednesday 4/1: Back in Arequipa
Today we signed up for our second round of South American rock climbing. This time, however, it was on Peruvian basalt rocks that originated from the lava flow from the Vulcan Misti. Misti is the closest volcano to town, and our guide said that without a proper evacuation plan, Arequipa is in great danger of a catastrophe the next time Misti blows. Our guide was an ex-Peru climbing champion and he taught us some new techniques and had us climbing some pretty dynamic routes. With our arms like jelly we called it a day after about 3 hours.
We killed our time waiting for the bus departure by eating dinner and surfing the web. We got to the train station about a half hour early, which turns out was an hour and a half too late. I April Fool’ed us by thinking our bus was at 10 pm, when instead it was already long gone, having left at 8 pm. We scrambled, I swore, Jenny swore, it wasn’t fun. We booked again for the next day and with my tail between my legs I asked the hotel in Arequipa if they had another room for the night. They did, and they helped me call ahead to the sacred valley to update our lodging there, and finally they gave us late checkout at 6pm the next day.
With a new “free” day in Arequipa that we hadn’t planned on, I knew I had to try to make it up to Jenny without spending much money. So, my plan was to go get a workout in and go swimming. How to do that on a budget? Go to your local 4 Star hotel and walk straight to the fitness center, and when the nice man asks you what room you’re in, calmly say “dos zero cuatro.” We used their vacant gym for an hour, and the pool for another hour before grabbing some lunch.
To kill time this afternoon we went back to the giant market we visited the day before. This time for some snacks and for some cheap gloves we can use on our trek next week. The market is incredible and the best in all of Peru. So many things for sale, fruits, veggies, bulk goods, cheese, meat, a row of vendors for sombreros, juicers, and much, much more. As we were leaving, Jenny almost bought a new puppy for just 35 Soles, or about $11.50! Crazy!
On time for the bus today, we boarded and headed overnight to Cusco.
Sacred Valley – Ollantaytambo
Arrived in the sacred valley after dozing off during the taxi ride after our overnight bus. After resting in our guest house, and in light of my time table blunder, we skipped the expensive ruins and opted for a self tour of some free ruins that overlooked the city; it felt great to stretch the legs, but both agreed that we would never take an overnight bus again. We were walking around like zombies all day.
Today was up and down, then back up again. This was not just in terms of elevation, but emotions and physical strength, too. After breakfast we decided to take a run, and it started as I led Jenny to the only path I knew in the town. We were hoping for a leisurely jog, but it turned out to be much more of a hike than a run, which frustrated Jenny to no end. After hiking for 8 miles we frustratingly exchanged verbal threats and in the end made each other feel bad and upset. There was talk of abandoning the trip and other down thoughts. We both got sunburned, too, which never helps anything.
We walked together to talk after we’d both emotionally calmed down, no trip like this is free of frustrations.
In the afternoon I made up for a little of the lost cash by sneaking us into the Ollantaytambo ruins by taking a path around the back. It saved us about $80, so that felt good! We also listened in on some other tour guides, since of course we didn’t pay for one ourselves. We finished the night by enjoying another healthy vegetarian meal at Hearts Cafe and closing out Downton Abbey Season 5… what a great ending to the season! Also, we had hugged and made up by then.
Today we woke up around 6:30 and took a short walk before breakfast. We then went our separate ways and had two very different experiences: Jenny went on a run but was almost attacked by dogs and I snuck back in the ruins to explore again.
Jenny was venturing to a path along the train tracks when 3 gruff dogs started charging her. She was scared and ended up frustrated and embarrassed because as she yelled for help, the locals nearby did nothing to help or offer a hand as she fought off the dogs. It was an event that made her seriously contemplate heading back to the states although she did manage to run for an hour to let off steam before deciding.
Meanwhile, I made my way to the back entrance of the ruins of Ollantaytambo. There I paused to think about where we should live next, and what I should try to focus on when we get back. Nothing concrete yet, but we’re forming some thoughts on what we want to do when this trip is over.
After packing up and getting lunch at our favorite spot (Hearts Cafe) we decided to take local transportation, called a chicken bus back to Cusco. It cost us 3 soles to get to Urubamba and then another 8 on a local bus to Cusco. While uncomfortable, it was bearable considering our original trip to the Sacred Valley cost us $45, or roughly 135 soles.
We just finished the trek to Machu Picchu… stay tuned for our adventure story!