We spent 6 amazing weeks in Peru – and would have spent more time there if we could! We had heard that Peru was a great place to visit, but we didn’t really know what we were getting into.
Border crossings are often chaotic, and the bus station in Arica, Chile was no exception as we tried to figure out how to get to Peru. We had taxis, collectivos and buses all vieing for our attention. The guy who was the pushiest was the driver of a collectivo car (which means that he leaves whenever he is able to fill his car). He already had three people in his small sedan, so we completed the load. The car was crowded tightly (6 adults in a standard size sedan), but the drive was only about an hour so we survived. At the bus station in Tacna, Peru we slowly worked our way out the door but were unable to shake a particular “fly”, as we like to call the persistent vendors or hawkers or “agents” who press for our attention. This guy wanted to get us a taxi, recommend a hostel, help us exchange money, whatever he could think of to earn a tip. We kept declining, telling him that we wanted to stay in a hostel near the bus station so we could move on the next day. He walked across the street with us and pointed to the nicest of the options. We ended up in a huge room with a picture window looking out over a very busy corner. After settling in, we walked back to the bus station, exchanged our Chilean pesos for Peruvian soles, bought tickets for a morning bus to Arequipa, and wandered the nearby mercado. We bought some fruit for the next day, and found some really wonderful food for dinner at a stand in the “food court”. Even our first day in Peru was filled with stimulation!
The next morning we took a bus to Arequipa, a fairly large city about 7 hours northeast. Many of the long-distance buses are double-decker, and we’ve learned that the front row of the upper level has wonderful views of the passing scenery, along with a bit more leg-room. We were in a little bit of a hurry because we realized that Easter weekend was approaching, and in Latin America that is a BIG deal! We didn’t want to be searching for a bus or hostel late on Thursday, because we’d be fighting the crowds. We arrived in Arequipa mid-afternoon and took the first hostel we could find, shown to us by a friendly young “fly” who told us it would meet all of our needs. Unfortunately the bed turned out to be quite uncomfortable, so we quickly relocated the next morning, and then again the third morning. Ugh!
The historical city center is geared toward tourists; it’s full of boutiques, restaurants, tour agencies, and hostels. There were indeed big crowds in the city, and we saw a few events focused on the Easter holiday. Surprisingly Thursday had the most – or at least the most obvious. We saw a procession at the tail end of a reenactment of the Passion of Christ, where a number of men were carrying a limp body on a platform and they disappeared into the cathedral. There was a young woman sobbing passionately on a loudspeaker and three wooden crosses standing in the corner of the square. Later that night, huge crowds circled the square and poured in and out of several of the nearby churches and convents. We had a delightful dinner in a restaurant across the street from one of them, and enjoyed the view through the front windows. We expected that we would see the same on the following nights, but Thursday was the only night that these buildings were open to large crowds. Of course there were Easter masses held in the cathedral on Sunday, and we saw another procession on Saturday night where a parade float of Mary (?) was carried around the streets accompanied by a marching band and a crowd of women with scarves over their heads carrying incense and candles. It was an interesting time to be in the city! Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city with great views of a couple of nearby volcanoes, but we were ready to move on.
After the Semana Santa festivities, we hopped on a bus to a nearby canyon which provides lots of recreational opportunities, especially hiking. Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon (the first is nearby Cotahuasi Canyon, only 163 meters deeper). We got off at the town of Cabanaconde, at 3280 meters (or 10600 feet to us Americans) above sea level, where we spent the night in a hostel full of energetic young hikers from around the (western) world, all preparing for various treks into the canyon. We had dinner with Nick from Seattle and Michelle from Germany, and decided to leave together in the morning for a three-day trek. The scenery was spectacular, and we only encountered a few people on the trail that day, almost all heading down. The trail had many sections with loose gravel, making for unsure footing. After the first couple of hours it was apparent that we were not at the same level as Nick and Michelle, who went on ahead at a faster pace while we slowed down with tired muscles and forming blisters. About 6 hours into our trek, the trail crossed a road which we followed for the next hour or so. At the bottom of the canyon, a quarter mile up river, there was a geyser in the middle of the river. We crossed the bridge and came around a bend to see a small town which we briefly celebrated as our destination, Llahuar (pronounced “ya-whar”). Then we realized that it was so tiny it couldn’t even have a restaurant, much less a hostel. Our conversation went something like: “There it is!”, “Ya? Whar?” We slogged the next mile or so down the ridge to another river and up again to the real Llahuar, which seemed to consist almost entirely of a single hostel, the Llahuar Lodge. When we dragged ourselves in the front door, we immediately met our friends who were enjoying lunch and an amazing view. Then Yola emerged from the kitchen and greeted each of us with a warm hug! Delightful and heart-warming! We rested a few minutes in the dining area – which has an unbelievably beautiful view – before being shown to our room. Although the location is quite rustic, the room was extremely comfortable.
We were surprised and disappointed at how challenging we had found the trek (our legs were painful for 3 days afterwards, and Dan is likely to lose 4 of his toenails as a result). There was no way we were going to be able to continue on the next day as planned. We visited with another couple, Maria and Alex, who are German but currently live in New Zealand. They arrived at the lodge accompanied by a sweet dog – which was not theirs! They had tried to turn it back towards the town it came from, but he persisted in joining them for more than 4 hours along the trail. It turns out that there are half a dozen of these dogs, which have a home base but disappear for a few days at a time, trekking around the valley with all of the tourists who pass through every day. The next morning we said goodbye to both sets of friends, who continued their treks on through the valley – but we knew that we would see them at the top in another couple of days. Although we were sad to relinquish our plans of trekking back out of the valley, we were equally pulled to the pleasures of staying an additional day at the lodge. We had not expected to find such a pleasant refuge at the bottom of the canyon! We spent some time in the geothermally-fed swimming pools at the bottom of the property along the river. (Some people jump back and forth between the warm pools and the chilly river – but we just watched!) We helped Yola prepare dinner in the evening, and we enjoyed a couple of sweet conversations with her about her life’s story. It was truly a heart-warming experience! We learned that there was a bus (or more accurately, a 12 passenger van) that passed by daily at 11, and so on the third day, rather than hike back up the same way we had come down, we hiked up to the road and waited. As we sat in the warm sunshine, two German boys (traveling in their “gap year” between finishing high school and starting university) joined us. Half an hour later, 5 Spanish vagabonds also arrived. When the bus finally showed up, it was basically full, but we doubled the passenger count! Kathy was sitting on the housing for the engine, which got extremely hot – she had to shift from one cheek to the other every few minutes. It was a very uncomfortable ride for nearly everyone – but no one decided that they’d rather walk the 12 miles with more than 4000 feet of elevation gain! We were all glad to arrive back at the main square of Cabanaconde, at the top of the canyon! We met up with our friends who had hiked the whole way, and had a pleasant but exhausted dinner together at the hostel.
After a good night’s rest, we hopped on a bus for a 6 hour ride to the city of Puno, located on the shores of Lake Titicaca. This huge lake is known for being the largest navigable lake at high altitude – and by “high altitude”, they mean 3860 meters, or almost 12,500 feet. We arrived late on Friday night, and were pleasantly surprised to discover an amazing market going on in the streets the next morning. There must have been thirty city blocks taken over by small stands selling all kinds of stuff, from clothing to hardware to food. We were amazed to see one stand selling big wash basins made from truck tires, where a large tread was handsewn around a disk of rubber, and handles were also sewn on. Ingenious! We were also tickled at the large selection of animals for sale, from chickens and goats and guinea pigs to puppies and kittens – at first we were a bit concerned for the safety of the puppies, but we convinced ourselves that they were indeed intended as pets! We also saw a cool tool that looked a lot like a Swiss Army knife, but consisted of a fork, spoon and eating knife; we now regret a little not having purchased them – for just under $5! We signed up for a tour (and are just a little bit embarrassed to admit to it ) which took us out to three of the islands in Lake Titicaca. The first was horribly touristy, which was not surprising but disappointing nonetheless. Over the last 1000 years, the Uros people have constructed and lived on a group of “floating Islands” from reeds growing on the lake’s shores. But they are no longer refugees from the Incas, and many of them actually live in the city, returning to the islands greet the tourists. The historical story and cultural traditions are fascinating, but the sense that it is just a show is off-putting. They opened up a “grandma’s attic” of clothing for the tourists to try on and photograph themselves, and gave a lecture/demonstration of how the reeds are piled together to produce a firm surface capable of supporting half a dozen tiny buildings. Walking on the islands feels somewhat like walking on a very firm waterbed.
The second stop was the reason that we signed up for the tour. It was a homestay opportunity on the island of Amantani. While the Uros people speak Aymara, the folks here speak Quechua. Although Spanish is the national language of Peru, Quechua is the second most spoken language, and Aymara a distant third. Our host family consisted of 65-year-old Sebastiana, her middle-aged daughter Paula, and her 15-year-old son Juan Carlos. Although they host guests a number of times a year (our guide told us that the tour boats use a rotation system among the dozen or so communities, so no one gets overloaded), they were warm and friendly to us. We had a very nice lunch, followed by an outing of the whole tour group (about 30 people) up to a pair of temples on nearby peaks at the top of the island. Since we were at altitude (the peak was more than 4000 meters/13,750 feet) and our legs were still quite tight, we only went to one of them. Pachamama (Mother Earth) is an octagonal pre-Inca structure still used for annual sacrifices (mostly crops) to the gods. Our tour guide told us to find three small stones, circle the temple counter-clockwise three times and deposit the stones inside for good fortune this coming year – who could pass up such advice? The island is divided into many small plots and terraces of farmed land, where they use a rotation system between grains (such as wheat, barley and quinoa), potatoes, vegetables, and a season of rest. We began descending shortly before sunset, which was a good choice because dark set in quickly. We got back to our house with the help of a neighbor who was passing by, and Sebastiana served us another delicious vegetarian meal (the tour guide had explained that the islanders were exclusively vegetarian for financial reasons). Paula and Juan Carlos joined us, but Sebastiana had eaten earlier. Juan Carlos told us that he was beginning high school the very next day, and that the school was in another community an hour’s walk away; he would begin to learn English as one of his new classes. We were pleased with ourselves for learning to say “thank you” in Quechua, although it took half a dozen times for it to begin to stick! (It sounds something like “you-spa-ra-soong-key”.) We slept in a bed covered with 3 heavy wool blankets and a down comforter – and were glad for every one of them! The bathroom was a separate building set between the kitchen and bedrooms around the center courtyard. The toilet was modern, but without a seat or plumbed water: there was a nearby bucket of water with a pitcher that one used to scoop up water to flush the toilet manually. We left with a warm place in our hearts for Sebastiana and her family. In the morning, Paula handed Kathy an armfull of branches of an herb that is used for a minty tea we’d enjoyed, called muña. Sebastiana walked us down to the dock, where we reboarded our tour boat that took us to another island called Taquile. This island also had some pre-Inca ruins, but we decided to pass on that walk and instead spent the hour in the town square watching the town come to life. Nearly everyone wears their traditional clothing, and many of them have their hands busy whenever they are walking, often spinning yarn or even knitting. The men wear hats that boldly declare their marital status which they knit themselves; a fully red hat is worn by a married man, while a half-red/half-white hat means a single man. When the group came together again, we walked across the island to a home that was set up to serve lunch for 30. They gave us a presentation that included a demonstration of a couple of dances, some knitting and weaving, and a few other local specialties. This visit also pushed our “tourist overload” buttons, and we were glad to board the boat back across the lake at the end of the day!
From Puno we boarded a bus bound for Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire and gateway to the Sacred Valley. Similar to Arequipa, this is a large city with a well-preserved historical center. The center of town is packed full of tourist-focused businesses, including tour agencies, restaurants, hostels and souvenir shops – and a surprising addition here is massage spas. We chose our hostel based on a second-hand recommendation from Sarah, a girl we met in Puno. Although she didn’t end up staying at the same place, we ran into her the next day and spent a wonderful afternoon together, having lunch at a terrific vegan restaurant followed by a massage for each of us – it was the best massage Dan had ever had in his life! Kathy really wanted to visit Machu Picchu, but we decided to forego the Inca Trail for a number of reasons (including cost, availability, time and concerns about our level of physical preparedness), and we signed up for another tour that took care of the transportation, lodging and entrance fee, and included a 2-hour overview tour with a guide. After trekking, a train is the most popular way to get the 30 miles from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of the peak where Machu Picchu is located and which is often called Machu Picchu Village. These trains are surprisingly expensive, though, roughly $150 a person, so we decided to take a 3-hour tourist bus to the nearest stop possible, called Hidroelectrico – you guessed it, a hydroelectric plant! – and hike the remaining 9 kilometers along the railway. The entire way we were surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery, which unbelievably continued to get more dramatic as we approached our destination. We walked along the Urubamba River most of the way, which was wild and noisy and full of dirt eroding away. Kathy was fighting “Montezuma’s Revenge” (Pachacutec’s Revenge?), so was trudging along pretty slowly, but we arrived before dark and were relieved to have the work of selecting a hostel already taken care of. The village was much larger and more bustling in a tourist-oriented way than we expected (which should not have been a surprise, for one of the world’s top travel destinations!). We had a snafu in hooking up with our tour guide that evening (we thought we were supposed to meet him in the plaza at 7pm, but there was no one there), and went to bed feeling discouraged that, since we didn’t yet have our entrance tickets, we would have to buy new ones ($46 apiece!) in the morning. A couple of hours later there was a knock at our door, and our guide introduced himself and told us where to meet up with him in the morning – we were very impressed! Because Kathy was still drained, we decided to take a bus up and down the mountain, rather than climb 1000 meters of uneven rock stairway. The bus took 30 minutes to wind back and forth up the face of the mountain. Our guide did a nice job of dividing his time between English and Spanish and giving us an overview of the site. At the end we lost the group (unintentionally, but not with much sadness ), and we spent the last half hour on our own. We were impressed at the natural grandeur, the amazing engineering feat, the sense of history, and the crowds (even though it’s still low season, and the guide told us that in the high season one would never be able to get a selfie photo in front of any of the features)! We were fortunate to arrive on a day in between rainy days, where our sky was mostly blue. Our hike back along the railroad tracks and the tourist bus back to Cusco were uneventful.
One day while we were in Cusco (we stayed almost a week), we noticed that a lot of people were dressed in fancier clothing than usual, and then that there was a lot of activity in one of the parks we walked by. We wandered closer to see what was going on. There were a few bands warming up and quite a few small groups of dancers practicing moves. Many of the performers in this park were dressed in outrageous costumes of fantastical figures, but others simply had on traditional clothes made from fancy fabrics. We watched for a while but didn’t really understand what we were seeing. We asked a local, and the answer seemed to be that it was an annual event celebrating something like the founding of the city. When we headed back towards our hostel, we passed the main square which was also filled with dancers. A platform had been set up in front of the cathedral with a dozen or so people sitting on chairs viewing a parade, while crowds gathered nearby also to watch. The parade consisted of a group after group of performers dressed in matching attire, each of which performed a dance accompanied by their own small group of musicians. The dances typically seemed to tell a story of the harvest or courtship, and often included a few simple props such as a stalk of corn, a whip, or a colorful bundle of pompoms. Most of the performers were teenagers or slightly older, but many groups included one or more elders, who we envisioned were passing on the local traditions. We decided that the groups must represent towns or clans from the surrounding areas. We watched for more than an hour, fascinated by all of the activity and people who surrounded us!
There are an incredible number of sites, mostly archaeological, near Cusco. We quickly became overwhelmed with the tourist “scene” though, and felt less inclined to visit any more. However, we had heard of an “off-the-beaten-path” site, a “new” place if you will, that caught our interest. People were calling it Rainbow Mountain, although the local name is Vinicunca; either way it can be described as a natural wonder. A bit of a Google search produced a couple of blog sites from people who had sniffed it out on their own, and a few photos that were repeated over and over again. Later we turned up a couple of guide services that either were quite pricey or didn’t include a price, but one of them had a local address and we tracked them down. We found Gregory Tours in a tiny space but conveniently located near the main square (Plaza de Armas). They told us that they “created” this tour! While it had begun to sound as if we’d need to have 4-6 days, this place also offered 1- and 2-day options. We decided to go for the 1-day hike, because we’re starting to notice that our three months are rapidly disappearing. The hike goes through very high altitude, so the tour included a horse and oxygen bottle in case of emergency. This was the deciding factor in whether to try to find the place on our own or to go with the tour. Our friends from Colca Canyon had told us about this tour, and mentioned that Michelle had had troubles with the altitude, even displaying blue lips for several hours! The path spends several hours over 4000 meters (13,100 feet) and perhaps an hour over 5000 meters (16,400 feet). After our Colca Canyon experience we were a little concerned that we might slow down a group, but that concern was allayed when we found that there was only one other person with us on the hike – a real treat! We were picked up at our hostel at 4am for a 3 hour drive to the trailhead. The drive got off to an awkward start when our driver made a wrong turn and ended up going against traffic on a highway, but he backed up 100 yards and found the correct entrance. It turned out that it was his first time doing this tour, and our guide had only done it once before. But we arrived safely at our hike’s starting point, a llama farm (which also had some sheep and horses), along with half a dozen other tour vans. One group of roughly 15 people headed out just before us, but soon left us in their dust. We hiked across a pasture with dozens, maybe hundreds, of llamas grazing nearby, and up a stream bed which became a minor waterfall before we were done with it. The next 4 hours we moved steadily upwards, across beautiful terrain with stunning mountain peaks (some snow-covered) and steep river gorges. Over the course of the day we were frequently passed by local people heading up the mountain carrying several long poles each, perhaps 8 feet in length. We wondered what was going on, but our guides couldn’t really say. It turned out that they were building a fence to help keep the livestock (llamas) on the right side of the ridge – and perhaps the tourists as well! The Inca culture has a tradition similar to the Catholic tithing, where a day or two each month is allocated to community work. We saw more than 25 people participating in this project, from early morning until after dusk. As we approached our destination, we began to see the colored stripes of rock that gave the hike its name. Our companion Marcella struggled with the altitude, and ended up riding the horse for an hour or so, but hiked the last steep quarter mile on her own for a breathtaking (literally and figuratively!) view of the ridge. Most tours double back at this point, returning the way we all started, but our tour continued down the other side and around a sparkling lake. We got closer to the Ausungate peak, which is a local holy spot, reaching more than 6000 meters (19,600 feet), and truly awe-inspiring. We stopped for a surprisingly large lunch in a meadow overlooking the pretty lake (sorry, don’t remember the name!), and quickly wrapped up when it began sleeting – tiny little pellets of ice which bounced energetically when they hit the ground. We got a little nervous when they began accumulating in the troughs, but it blew over fairly soon and uneventfully. We crossed through more pastures with llamas before coming back to the farm where we began our day. Our tired but satisfied group nodded off most of the 3 hour drive back to Cusco.
We decided not to dilute our “peak” experiences of Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain with a myriad of other interesting but less significant sites, so we left Cusco on a high note. We headed north across the rest of Peru – which is most of it! But we had one more major stop, which we’ll cover in a separate blog entry: a visit to the Amazon Basin. We broke our travel up into several legs of 8 to 20 hour bus trips, mostly overnighters, with our first stop in Lima. Lima is located along the coast, and it was pleasant to spend a few hours at sea level again before continuing on to the small city of Huaraz. Huaraz is fairly central, once again up in the mountains at just over 3000 meters (almost 10,000 feet). This town is a popular jumping off point for outdoor adventurers, located in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which is home to many of Peru’s largest peaks. But we were just stopping in for a short visit to a very old city, called Chavin de Huantar, built some time around 1000 B.C. Although we investigated taking another tour, we decided to do this one on our own. We found a bus line that went to the nearby town, about 3 hours away on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, and purchased some tickets for the next morning. The bus ride was a real local experience – there were even chickens packed in half a dozen crates loaded on the roof – and we loved it! It went up and up and up, more than 1000 meters (3200 feet), and then went through a short tunnel before winding its way back down. Just after passing through the tunnel we were greeted by a huge statue of a Jesus figure. When we arrived in town, we quickly purchased our return tickets and then set about finding our way to the ruins on the outskirts of town. Chavin is a sweet but sleepy town that doesn’t actually host many tourists. We stopped half a dozen people on our way, to confirm our route, and got slightly confused directions, but we eventually got there and enjoyed our visit to the oldest continually occupied place (yet) known in the Americas. The city was built on a mountain at the confluence of two rivers. It was built in several waves, with the older temples being revised into new ones. They apparently started by flattening the mountain top and building it back up, with layers of stone structures, including a well-designed system of drainage and ventilation. There was also evidence that these passages were designed to transmit sounds, especially the sounds of a conch trumpet that would then echo around and emerge quite dramatically in the main plaza. There was a huge temple building that was constructed with a main stairway divided in half, one side made of black stone and one side white. The sight must have been quite impressive, when a priest emerged from a small doorway and suddenly seemed to appear high above accompanied by the moving musical sounds! Lots of carvings on the walls also imply that their rituals probably involved psychedelic substances derived from local plants and a focus on transformation into the form of their god(s) that was rather feline in appearance. There are a series of carved heads attached to the outer walls which seem to show that progression, from human to more and more god-like. Inside the temple is a labyrinth of passages, and a small chamber where an elaborately carved stone figure could be seen lighted up by the sun on December 21st.
After visiting this impressive site we were ready to continue our travels north. We arranged for another 20+ hour bus ride to Trujillo, where there are a few smaller nearby ruins available for touring. Unfortunately though, when we arrived Kathy was again having trouble with her belly, so we decided to stay in town for the day – near a bathroom. From Trujillo we pressed on to Tarapoto, another overnight bus, and when we arrived mid-day we grabbed a collectivo car along with a Norwegian man currently living near the jungle town of Iquitos. He was an interesting character, splitting his time between this home in the jungle and another above the Arctic Circle – neither of which had electricity or running water! He had an “indian family” that looked after his place in Peru when he was gone, and it sounded like they lived cooperatively when he was there. And he enjoyed ice fishing when in Norway. Quite a hardy and adventurous individual! We arrived in Yurimaguas late in the afternoon, the gateway town to visiting this portion of the Amazon Basin. But that’s a story for another posting…