Cusco is the starting point not only for Machu Picchu tours but a bunch of other destinations as well, such as the Sacred Valley and Rainbow Mountain. The city, which lies on over 3’400 masl, was also the capital of the Inca empire around 1450 before Quito took its place at the end of the century.
I stayed in Cusco a few days before going on the Salkantay Trekking and inbetween tours. The city centre is a beautiful place with an enormous square and surrounded by colonial style buildings and churches. From the square, dozens of small sidestreets littered with small businesses and tour agencies fan out in all directions. Also, Cusco must be the massage capital of South America; you can’t take a step without being shouted at and a flyer of some masseuse being waved in your face – “masaje, masaje amigo!”. Other street vendors are so diversified they try to sell you everything from chewing gum and weed to paintings and cocaine. While this can get rather annoying after a while, you can also find good food, nice pubs and even party in Cusco.
Besides the Salkantay Trek, which I wrote extensively about in post #30, I decided to check out Vinicunca, also known as Rainbow Mountain. Surely, the actual mountain has been there for some time, but apparently, the attraction is quite new because this part of the Andes used to be permanently covered in snow. Nowadays, hundreds of tour operators offer this day trip. Prices can vary greatly and it is definitely worth shopping around a little since there is no need for a guide and the tour merely consists of transportation, breakfast and a small lunch.
The van picked me up at 3 AM and made its way up the valley in the direction of Ausangate. Three and a half hours later we stopped at a local place to have breakfast. At that point we were already above 4’000 masl. We reached the trailhead after another fifteen minutes in the van.
As I was already well acclimatized, I had no problems with the altitude this time and could keep a steady pace. The first hour or so led me through a green valley with Alpacas and locals looking after them. Later, the surroundings became rockier and it became clear why the place was called Rainbow Mountain: the mountain range in front of me became ever more colourful. The trail kept getting steeper and the wind blew colder as I approached the 360° viewpoint on 5’100 masl. It was really cold up there, but the view was one of the craziest and most beautiful I ever enjoyed.
While I was snapping pictures and taking in the amazing views, more and more hikers made it to the top. It was definitely worth getting to the top as one of the first ones. The clouds started closing in on us and by the time I was descending, it even started to rain. I couldn’t help feeling a little pity and a little schadenfreude for the people just arriving.
Quite happy with the experience of the day I lied down in the grass next to the van and awaited the rest of the group. On the way down we had a nice lunch in the same place we had breakfast. I slept most of the ride back to Cusco…
From Cusco I went on to Puno at Lake Titikaka and entered Bolivia near Copacabana. After a quick stop on Isla del Sol the Peru Hop bus continued to its final stop: La Paz.
Machu Picchu is to Peru what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, it’s simply impossible to get around it. I chose to visit the most famous of all inca ruins as part of a five-day hiking tour, the Salkantay Trek. With a total of about 65 kilometers, this route is approximately one and a half times as long and therefore less crowded than the better-known Inca Trail.
The size of the groups that embark on this adventure can vary greatly, in the worst case around twenty people or more. I consider myself very lucky; our group consisted of only three people plus guide and porters.
The day before the trekking, I checked in at the tour agency’s office in the center of Cusco. That’s where I met our guide Rosel and my two Aussi hiking companions Amy and Harrison. Rosel gave us a little preview of the route and difficulties of each day of the trek. In the end, we also collected the duffelbags to pack our cloths to be carried by the porters.
On the first day, we got picked up at our respective hostels at 4 AM. The ride in the minibus up to the trailhead took about three hours, a great opportunity to get back some of the missing sleep. As soon as we arrived, the porters unpacked some of the bags and prepared our first full-blown breakfast, including fresh fruit salad and Coca tea. A few Llamas were browsing around us while we dug in.
With thick clouds hanging in the sky, we could see little of the mountain range we would soon be crossing. Rosel was optimistic that the clouds would thin out soon. Turns out, Rosel is always optimistic about the weather.
The hiking started and as we were already over 4’000 masl, everybody felt the height. At some point the path got rocky and steep; we were gaining altitude quickly and soon we would reach the high point of the Salkantay pass, the highest point of the trek at 4’630 masl. It was windy and the temperature dropped to 2°C or 3°C. We went for cover behind some rocks and had a break while listening to Rosel and the inca tunes he was playing on his flute.
As if the cold wasn’t enough, it started to rain as we started our descent. A few kilometers down the path the porters set up the lunch tent and started to prepare our food. We defrosted our hands on a warm cup of Coca tea and listened to some anecdotes of Rosel. What came next was one of the bigger surprises not connected to natural beauty of the last months; the porters started handing us one platter of food after the other, and we couldn’t believe our eyes nor our taste buds. Rice with vegetables, fried fish, salad, some kind of potatoes with cheese and more, all beautifully prepared and very tasty. Weirdly enough, what these guys cooked up in an improvised kitchen in the corner of the tent would put many cooks in a modern kitchen to shame. After stuffing our bellies in awe, we continued down the mountain until we reached our camp site. The weather was kind enough to allow us a glimpse of the stunning surroundings and the clouds made for a rather dramatic scenery. After our tents were set up, we made ourselves comfortable and awaited dinner time. Who would have thought that this trekking would also turn into a small gourmet trip through the Peruvian cuisine?
The next day we walked further down, pretty much to the bottom of the valley that was opening up in front of us and along the river, until we reached the next camp site. It was raining from time to time and the views didn’t really call for a lot of photo-activity. The camp site was a piece of land next to the mosquito infested river where Alpaca Expeditions was setting up an infrastructure with a swimming pool, showers and a house with a kitchen and dining room etc. Given the huge amount of mosquitos in the area, I couldn’t really share the guide’s enthusiasm for the place.
In the morning, after an amazing breakfast, there was another surprise. Rosel had learnt the day before that it was Amy’s birthday and so he instructed the cook to prepare something for her. Once again, he outdid himself by miraculously producing a decorated cake that, while prepared with simple ingredients, was both nice to look at and a pleasure to eat. And I have no idea where he got that chef-uniform from.
Rosel had warned us that the third day would be the toughest one, and I guess he wasn’t wrong. The rain was gone and the sun was strong. After about an hour and a half of hiking through plane terrain we took a right and started climbing up a part of the original Inca trail. The heat called for as little clothing as possible, but the freaking mosquitos turned it impossible to dress adequately and I ended up with long trousers and my rainjacket. I was practically a walking sauna.
At the top of this never-ending uphill hike we stopped at a small ruin called Llactapata from where we could see Machu Picchu glued to the mountain across the valley; two days before we would step through its gate.
A short but steep walk down we reached our campsite for the night.
Day #4 was a nice 15km of hiking through the valley and along the train tracks towards Aguas Calientes, the small city at the foot of Machu Picchu. It’s an ugly little town full living exclusively off Machu Picchu tourism. After dinner Harrison and me checked out a little bar and had a few drinks including the mandatory Pisco Sour.
After a few nights in the tent I was glad to lie down in a proper bed this night, eventhough I knew it wouldn’t be for long: the alarm rang at 4AM. The idea was to catch one of the first buses heading up to Machu Picchu. Yeah, I know, kinda disappointing to drive up there after hiking close to 70km during the last four days. The night before it was raining and the sky was completely grey when we left, so we were more than happy to see the cloud cover break open as we arrived. We were one of the first to get into the ruins that day at 6AM and eventhough expectations were high, it truly was a fantastic experience to stand there and take in the view of these mysterious and legendary temple ruins and the nearby mountains with fin clouds hanging from them like cotton candy and the early morning sun coating it in a golden layer. We went completely picture and selfie crazy before having a single breath, so you will excuse the monotonous nature of pictures to follow…
By the time more people arrived we have had enough time to appreciate the full glory of the place and to take pictures. We made our way to the Inka Bridge, a narrow and hidden path entering Machu Picchu. It’s partly carved into the mountain and opens up a cliff of up to 600m beneath it. While not accessible anymore, it used to be a secret entry for the inca army.
In order to complete my Machu Picchu experience, I made the hike up to the sun gate, once the main entrance to the city and the endpoint of the inca trail.
We then made our way back to Aguas Calientes where we caught our train to Ollantaytambo. From there a van of Alpaca Expeditions picked us up and brought us back to Cusco where this unforgettable adventure ended.
The Colca Canyon lies around 150km from Arequipa is, with almost 3’300 meters, one of the deepest Canyons in the world. While not as deep as Cotahuasi Canyon, which is also in Peru, it’s more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. The valley leading to the canyon is still being cultivated in the old terrace style by local families that largely maintained the culture and traditions of their pre-Inca ancestors.
There are several ways to visit the place depending on how much spare time you have. A rather rushed program takes you for a one day tour by bus to the top of the canyon to snap a few pictures. As I wasn’t exactly in a hurry, I decided to do a three day trekking with overnight stays at a local family and in an oasis. It is also possible to explore the region by yourself, with the obvious advantages and disadvantages of planning your own thing. The three day tour cost me 170 Soles (about USD 50) including accommodation and food, so I really couldn’t be bothered to plan anything by myself.
Our group consisted of two Japanese girls, two Swiss girls, a Swedish guy, a Belgium girl and myself. Our guide James, accompanied by his “assistant” which turned out to be his wife, spoke broken English and often left us guessing what he actually said. Speaking Spanish came in handy when there was something important going on for a change.
The first day started with a long bus ride from Arequipa to the Colca Valley. Somewhere on the way we stopped for breakfast and later at Cruz del Condor, a spot where it is often possible to observe one or more flying condors. We had a fourty minute window, but nothing happened until minute 38 or so, when suddenly a Condor took off and flew a few circles above our heads. Our group was lucky enough to see another one flying closer to us later the same day. It’s definitely a nice thing to see them sail with their majestic wings spread wide, but have you ever seen a Condor’s head? Wow, that creature has some ugly mug!
The hiking of the first day consisted of entering the canyon and getting down to its lowest point and partly up on the other side until we reached our accommodation site at a local family home. There was a small kiosk where they sold drinks and snacks and a few very simple huts to sleep in.
On the second day we hiked about three to four hours downstream with several uphill and downhill sections. From time to time James paused to explain the medicinal or industrial value of different herbs, plants and fruits along the way. I couldn’t help wonder how they found out what cures what and if they might maybe have gotten it wrong sometimes. Isn’t it likely that a plant they use to make tea to aliviate stomach problems might actually be much more efficient as an ointment against, I don’t know, let’s say hemorrhoids? They couldn’t possibly have checked all the possibilities.
The oasis of San Galle was the final destination for day number two. After walking in the sun for hours, we were happy to arrive there at about 1PM. The huts were once again very basic and without mosquito nets, but there was a pool and a lot of green in the middle of this dry land. Even more importantly, they had cold beer; the promised land, hallelujah!
The third and last day was all about getting out of the canyon again. When we started hiking at 4.30AM we had about two hours of steep zigzag in front of us. For the first fifteen to twenty minutes or so we walked in the dark with our headlamps on. But it got brighter and warmer quickly, so I started to take off one layer after the other. At the top, great views of the canyon in the morning sun waited for us. After a few more minutes of walking we reached Cabanaconde, where we had breakfast (or “Bredfakst” how James used to call it – yes, I know, I’m an obnoxious prick for making fun of his English, but come on; Bredfakst!).
From Cabanaconde we took the bus and made our way back to Arequipa. On the way we stopped at another community with a small church and some tourist stands, including a Colca Sour bar (a Pisco Sour with Cactus fruit juice instead of lime juice) which I couldn’t resist.
The rest of the way seemed endless, an impression made worse by the fact that the suspension of one of the bus’ wheels was completey broken. But that didn’t deter the driver from engaging in a few passing maneuvers that could have turned this tourist bus into a steel coffin.
Well, we made it back. And I was ready to move on to Cusco the next day.
On the way from Huacachina to Arequipa we stopped to have a look at a couple of the famous Nazca Lines, a collection of hundreds or even thousands of manmade geoglyphs in the desert. By removing the top layers of the surface, members of the Nazca culture drew different kinds of motives (simple lines, animals, plants etc) in the sand, sometimes several hundred meters wide. Apparently they stem from around 500 BC and were created for religious reasons.
Probably the best way to see them is to take a flight for about USD 80. The pilots are said to be crazy and it’s not uncommon for passengers to have another look at their half digested breakfast after the first few death defying turns. Some reasearchers were and still are very intrigued by the lines. Call me ignorant, but I have to admit that I couldn’t exactly see why I should be that fascinated by some carvings in the ground. Therefore, I decided against the flight and simply had a look at a couple of the figures from the top of a viewing platform located next to the road. It didn’t make me regret not taking the flight.
From here, the journey went on overnight to Arequipa. After dropping my stuff in the Flying Dog Hostel I joined a free walking tour through the city. We visited the main square, the marketplace with all its weird products including llama embryos for sacrifices, frog juice (yap, a real frog smoothie) and cheese ice cream (helado de queso). In the end we went for a free pisco sour in one of the local bars. After that much walking, I was ready for a nice lunch in one of the Picanterias. The local speciality chupa de camarones (see picture below) seemed like a great option, and it really was delicious.
In the evening I met up with some travel companions and we went to see the city from aa different angle. The viewpoint also allowed for great pictures of Arequipa’s house volcano Misti.
But the main reason I went to Arequipa was not the city itself, but the nearby Colca Canyon. The three day tour left the next morning at 3 AM and I had to prepare my backpack. Therefore, the evening was a short one and I headed back to the hostel early.
Check out the next post about the Colca Canyon trekking.
The first overnight stop on the way from Lima to La Paz was Paracas. While the town itself, doesn’t have anything to show for besides a few bars, restaurants and hostels it is the starting point for visits to the Ballestas Islands, also called the poor man’s Galapagos Islands.
The bus arrived around lunchtime and we had the afternoon to chill out or enjoy some kind of activity. I opted for an hour at a wake park. After you get into the boots mounted on top of a wake board, a cable tow system pulls you through a large swimming pool, obstacles optional. It doesn’t take long for you to figure it out and have some fun. In the evening we met in the Kokopelli Hostel for pre-dinner drinks. Pretty quickly it became clear that most of us would be back there after dinner…
By the time we came back, the hostel bar had a drinking game going on, pitching all present nationalities against each other in a Jager-Bomb drinking contest. For the first time in my life I was actively supporting the German team as team Switzerland, consisting only of myself, would not have been a promising contestant. Three young German boys led the pack and as far as I can tell we won about 55 to fourtysomething against second placed USA. Classy evening.
The next morning we were off to Ballestas Islands. For 50 Soles each (about USD 15) a boat took us there. To be honest, I had imagined something slightly different. Instead, what awaited us was a few smaller Islands covered in bird poo of several dozen or even hundred kinds of birds. The only time you didn’t see bird poo was when there was a bird sitting on top of it. So while we cruised around these rocks with a smelly breeze in our hair I snapped a few pictures of lazy sea lions, pelicans and clumsy penguins.
Later the same day, I took the bus to Huacachina, an oasis in the desert, surrounded by high sand dunes. The program couldn’t have been more touristy; sandbuggy riding through the dunes and sandboarding down a few of them. Touristy it was, but also a hell lot of fun! The buggy driver was a suicidal nutjob racing up the dunes, throwing the buggy sideways and down a steep hill that let the passengers scream and maybe pee their pants a little. Before heading back down into the oasis, we sat in the sand watching the shadows getting longer and longer until the sun disappeared behind the dunes.
In the evening many of the group gathered for a barbecue and drinks. Peru Hop representative Nilo aka the Diva joined the group and led the bar crawl and made sure that the free shots kept flowing. But eventhough the night was long and the hangover considerable, everybody was accounted for by around 11 AM the next day, even the guy that slept on top of a nearby dune. As some Peruvians like to say: Huacafuckingchina!
After the night before, not too many were looking forward to the upcoming Pisco tasting in a close by winery. The tour was interesting anyway and who could seriously turn down a few sips of delicious Pisco?
Now it was time to move on. The legendary Nazca lines and much more are waiting for me in Peru. Hang on…
Nine million people live in Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city. In travel circles, Lima does not enjoy a very good reputation. I am not sure why; it has a lively high street leading up to a lovely historic centre, a bohemian district (Barranco), a beach and a gringo district riddled with shops, bars and restaurants (Miraflores). And let’s not forget about the food. Lima has some high level cuisine and it’s a great place to try out some of Peru’s delicacies.
While I liked Lima, it didn’t seem to like me much. In my first few hours in the city I was made aware that the famous lightshow fountain was closed during the days I was there, the fancy beachside shopping center Larcomar was closed because of a fire incident just a few days before my arrival and Burger King let me wait in line for fifteen minutes just to inform me that they are out of ice cream. Life can be just cruel sometimes.
With my tourist options seriously limited I spent my few days here wandering around the historic center, eating good food in Miraflores and enjoying the relaxed vibe in Barranco.
Lima was also the start for my journey with Peru Hop which would take me all the way to La Paz, Bolivia. Peru Hop is a company that offers a hop-on hop-off bus system on pre-determined routes. People are free to spend as much time as they want in each place but can rely on a safe bus service and get help with bookings of hostels and tours if needed. It’s also a great way to meet other travelers which will be along the same route for a while.
A Peru Hop employee picked me up early in the morning and escorted me in a taxi to the point where the bus would pass and welcome the passengers departing to Paracas. Nilo, the Peru Hop representative on this first bus, is quite a character and was responsible for some laughs, intended and otherwise. The bus took off and before heading to Paracas, he made his way up the hills outside Lima for a quick break with a view over the city and a history lesson.
It became clear very quickly that I, along with the fellow travelers I talked to, would be a fan of Peru Hop. I am not very fond of guided tours and group traveling, which is why I greatly appreciated the freedom of staying as long as you want in every place and the fact that each person is responsible for managing his own travel itinerary via online access. Not having to research and organize each stretch of the way with different bus companies was a welcome change in comfort for once.
Now, enough of the advertising I am not being paid for and on to the next stops. Travelling south we will hit Paracas and the desert oasis Huacachina next.
Huaraz is the main city of the Cordillera Blanca, America’s highest mountain range and part of the Andes. At an elevation of 3’100masl and surrounded by inumerous peaks and embedded lagunas, it is a mekka for hiking and trekking.
Coming right up from sea level overnight, the height difference was noticeable to say the least and the short walk from the first hostel, which was fully booked, to the second one left me out of breath. But I’m not usually one to let my body tell me where to stop. Where would we get if we listened to our bodies, right? No, I just prepared my daypack, stored my luggage and ran to the next corner where I should find a colectivo that takes me up to Pitec, a place with a few farmhouses at about 3’800masl. Together with two English guys that also waited for the colectivo to fill up with locals and boxes containing live poultry I convinced the driver to charge us no more than ten Soles each (about USD 2.80) for the one hour ride. Once he dropped us off we checked in with the National Park Ranger (10 Soles entrance fee) and started what I thought would be a rather easy hike and a good choice to acclimatize. Yeah, not quite. For about one and a half hours the trail led steeply upwards. Then it got even steeper for the last thirty minutes, including some proper climbing and pulling my tired body up on a wire rope.
I was tired from the overnight trip, not used to the height, clearly didn’t drink enough water and the sign in front of the Laguna read 4’450masl. A slight headache was creeping in. But the staggering views and the peacefulness of that beautiful spot let me forget my bodily discomfort for some time.
We took it all in and stayed for a while to relax and to have a little snack. What I knew from the unpleasantness altitude can cause was that it should get better once you descend. Somehow it didn’t and by the time I sat in the colectivo again I had troubles to keep up with the discussions we had about different concepts of truth, liberation through acknowledgment of the inevitable perishability of life itself and other philosophical crap.
Remember what I said about not listening to my body? Stupid. Did I learn anything from it? Hell no! After feeling miserable for the rest of the evening and not having dinner because I couldn’t get out of the bed anymore I got up at four o’clock the next morning to start my tour to Laguna 69. The perfect preparation for a seven hour hike from 3’800masl up to 4’600masl and down again.
As soloing the Laguna 69 trek might actually take you longer and cost more than taking advantage of an organized transportation with breakfast stop etc. I opted for the tour. The shuttle picked me up at the hostel at 4.30am, collected a few more hikers around the city centre and then drove off towards the mountains. At some point we stopped for breakfast and later at this pretty laguna for some pictures.
Until we arrived at the trailhead my own batteries felt almost re-charged. The napping on the bus and the breakfast seemed to have worked. But I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy hike. It started slowly with about 45 minutes through a gorgeous and almost flat, grassy river landscape. Then it started. Zig-zagging uphill for about an hour to the next high plateau. By then, some fatigue has started to kick in. Let’s not forget, at 4’400masl your body has a harder time getting the oxygen it needs. So, the last 30 to 40 minutes were no walk in the park as the trail got once again steeper. At the top I lied down exhausted and slept for twenty minutes. When I woke up again the last part of the group wouldn’t arrive for almost another hour. I was finally ready to enjoy the jaw-drapping scenery in front of me.
The way down was like a picnic compared to the ascend. Tired but happy I sat in the bus back to Huaraz. A beautiful day was coming to an end and Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain glowed as the sun went down.
Now it was time to rest and recover, right? Wrong. The nightbus to Lima was waiting for me.
My overnight bus from Ecuador stopped around six o’clock in Máncora, a small beachtown in the north of Peru. Together with my English busfriend Huw I caught a moto rikschaw to the Psygon Surf Camp where I would stay for the next few days. The hostel was a relaxed place though and the owner was a very nice Peruvian who, as it turned out, lived in St.Gallen for about eight years.
As it was too early to check-in I put my wetsuit on, grabbed one of the camp’s boards and went surfing. The famous point break was working nicely and two and a half hours later I dropped dead in my bed. After a few hours of sleep I had a look at the town. Conclusion: If you don’t surf, don’t even think of coming here. The beach has been washed away in front of the town within only a few years. Several concrete constructions intended to form a beach promenade are being slowly taken apart by the waves washing up to them. What is left of the beach is littered with all kinds of stuff, including the odd dead animal and a twenty minutes stroll takes you through the whole village.
Although the wave and its consistency are great, the fact that it’s a single break means that it usually gets crowded and apparently, the locals can be rather territorial. So, after three days I wrapped things up in the surfcamp and took a bus to Trujillo and from there to Huanchaco. That’s a nice little beachside town, blessed with several beach breaks and fishermen that still use the traditional straw boats to make their daily catch. I stayed at the Frogs Chillhouse Hostel for four nights. The place was great, but its coolest feature was the terrace offering amazing sunset views.
Huanchaco is also a good starting point for a little surftrip to Puerto Malabrigo, known for the longest left breaking wave in the world, called Chicama. With the right swell, the legend goes that the wave can break for as long as four kilometres, although nobody has ever been ridden it for that long. It wasn’t the right time of the year for Chicama to show off all of its magic which would be between March and October. Nevertheless, it was impressive to see the waves go and even with the swell coming from the wrong direction, it still broke way longer than anything else I have seen so far.
Two travelers I met in the hostel told me about their experiences in Huaraz, a place high up in the Peruvian Andes which at first I wasn’t sure if I should bother going. As it was more or less on my way to Lima and because of what they told me, I was sure that I have to see it with my own eyes. So stay tuned for some gorgeous hiking…