Our short time in Peru has been filled with adventures, chance encounters, and highly memorable experiences. Even though we’ve only been here for 3 weeks, this place already feels like home. We left La Paz, Bolivia in the early morning, and after a very long day of travel (including 3 different buses and a road block, of course) we found ourselves in the immaculate, colonial city of Arequipa in southern Peru. Our week in Arequipa was spent exploring the town and adventuring out into the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. From Arequipa, an overnight bus drove us to Cusco, another surprisingly well-kept and lively town. We originally intended to spend about a week in Cusco and the surrounding area of Machu Picchu, but life surprised us with some great new friends and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we could not pass up. Two weeks later, we are finally planning our overnight bus to Lima, where I´m sure we´ll be lulled to sleep by colorful memories of high mountain passes, clear star-studded skies, and tasty roasted guinea pig.
Arequipa was not what we expected. On our first full day in town we decided to take the free walking tour, which we discovered was an experience that we should have been taking advantage of in every city we visited. Our guide was great, and she showed us many different sides of the beautiful colonial city that is Arequipa. She, like most Arequipeñas, had immense pride in her city, and hardly considered herself Peruvian at all. In fact, Arequipa was once separate from Peru, and they still hold out hope of someday being their own nation. As a major colonial hub for the Spanish, Arequipa is still full of old colonial homes and beautiful churches. The price they pay for their perfect weather and stable economy is the constant threat from earthquakes and the looming active El Misti volcano that sits only 17 km from town. Arequipa was a delight for the senses. We drank the world’s best cup of organic independent coffee (it won the title multiple years in a row) and Don had to refrain from yelling “Congratulations!” when walking into the cafe, we sipped on chocolate tea at a make-your-own-chocolate bar, and we even indulged in our first Starbucks since leaving the states. Unfortunately, despite all the pleasant blue skies and endless sidewalks that called our name, I felt sick for most of my time in Arequipa, and had a hard time fully enjoying my experience there. It is hard to say for sure, but we think Bolivia might have had one last go at my stomach when I ate fried trout at a beach-side stall in Copacabana during our long travel day into Peru.
The real purpose for our visit to Arequipa was the nearby Colca Canyon, which was said to have some great trekking and which holds the title of second deepest canyon in the world (topped only by the Coutahausi Canyon a few hours away). After a long 6 hour bus ride we arrived in the small town of Cabanaconde right on the edge of the canyon, and I immediately retreated into a bed in a hostel and worked on not feeling too sick to hike. I slept, ate fruit, and drank tons of water, all the while begging my tired, aching body to be well enough to hike the next morning. To my incredible delight, I woke up the next day refreshed and full of energy. My sickness seemed to have passed and we were able to start off on an exceptional 3 day, 2 night trek into the canyon. Our first day brought us down into the canyon, over the river at the bottom, and out to a neat lodge/campground/hot spring resort where we soaked, played some monopoly, and just gazed out at the beautiful view before sleeping that night in our tent (all for less than $10). The next day began with a long, uphill climb, followed by a flat walk along one canyon wall, and eventually a steep decline back down into the canyon at a place that is aptly named the “oasis”. We could see the oasis for much of our second day’s hike, and at times we thought it might actually be a mirage. Lush forest sat enclosed by steep canyon walls, bright blue pools dotted the landscape, each with its own waterfall feature, and small bungalows and adobe buildings opened to riverfront views and grassy, sun-filled yards. We had heard the oasis was extremely touristy, but we felt that the beauty made up for the fact that we shared the place with a few other travelers. It only cost us about $3 to camp, which included use of the pools and bathrooms. We even passed a huge natural waterfall as we climbed down into the bottom of the canyon! It felt like we were staying in paradise, and we tried to soak in every smell, sound, and experience. On our third and final day of the trek, we got up early and began a long, steep ascent all the way out of the canyon and back into Cabanaconde. We climbed 1,182 m. (3,877 ft.) in 3 hours and we were exhausted, but immensely satisfied, when we finally got to the top. We took the bus all the way back to Arequipa, and then bought a ticket for Cusco the following night. With one final day in Arequipa we ate more tasty food, got organized, and even made a few friends at our hostel. Unfortunately, while “getting organized” I managed to throw out our bus tickets (after taking a picture of them, thinking they were from an old bus ride) and we spent a long hour at the bus terminal going back and forth with the bus company who initially refused to work with us and claimed that there was nothing that could be done. There was no way I was forfeiting our money, and after enough convincing (and angry, rapid-fire Spanish that seemed to come out of nowhere), they finally allowed us on our bus.
Cusco proved to be an even greater surprise than Arequipa. We knew to expect a lot of tourists, but we didn’t know to expect perfect temperatures, beautiful buildings, cobblestone streets, and a 360 degree view of lush green mountains. Because of all the money pouring through the city, it has a great infrastructure and is very easy to navigate and enjoy. We spent our first couple days exploring central Cusco by walking everywhere. We ate some delicious meals, including cheap, fresh veggie food, the world’s best chocolate cupcake (truly!), a steak sandwich that put Philadephia to shame, and a delicious Peruvian concoction called “causa”. We took another informative walking tour, gathered information regarding the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, and perhaps most importantly, we became quick friends with an ex-pat family while eating dinner one night and after learning that we all loved to mountain bike, exchanged information and promised to get in touch the following week.
The four most popular ways to reach Machu Picchu are to either hike the Inca or the Salkantay trails, to take public transportation all the way to Santa Teresa and then hike a couple hours along railroad tracks into the steep canyon-walled town of Aguas Calientes, or to take a train. Whereas the Inca trail requires a guide, the Salkantay trail can be done solo, and as it turns out, is completely doable, and is worth every ounce of effort and planning. It took us 6 days to hike from the village of Mollepata (a couple hours outisde of Cusco by colectivo) to the campground in Aguas Calientes right near the entrance of Machu Picchu, and it is hands down the best backpacking trip Don and I have ever done. Everything from the beautiful, winding drive to the trailhead to the picture perfect campsites and towering snow-capped mountains make for an epic trip. The first full day was completely uphill, but we were rewarded with canyon views, and even a rainbow that kept us climbing all afternoon. We camped at a man-made mirador with insane views of Nevado Tucarhuay on the first night, and on day two we hiked along a river that seemed to be from another planet, and up and over Salkantay Pass (4,630 m/15,190 ft), where Nevado Salkantay (6,271 m/20,574 ft) stole the stage, looming directly over us, its rocky ridges covered in snow and shrouded in clouds. On our third (almost all downhill) day we saw our first tourist groups (we were ecstatic to have the trek to ourselves the whole first two days), but managed to evade them quickly enough and found another perfect man-made campsite that offered shelter from a quick rainstorm and also gave us privacy from other hikers.
On our fourth day of the trek we dropped so much in elevation that we found ourselves hiking through a full-blown jungle. Within hours of walking we had exchanged alpine grass for overgrown ferns and banana plantations. The temperature and humidity seemed to double, and stunning waterfalls replaced snow-covered peaks. We hiked along a raging river for hours before spotting the perfect “stealth”campsite along the side of the trail/dirt road that would eventually lead us into Santa Teresa. Just off the road, the spot was just large enough for a tent, the flat ground was covered in decomposing leaves, and we felt quite hidden among the jungle’s maze of plants and limbs. As it turned out, we had forgotten to account for the amount of time, use, and familiarity rural Peruvians had of their own land compared to most people in the states, and we were visited a few times in the late afternoon by curious neighbors, all of whome were nice enough to let us stay. The looming presence of bugs (and especially spiders) combined with a torrential downpour that had us questioning whether we were in a bowl that would collect water and leave us swamped, didn’t make for the best night of sleep. However, the next day, as we walked along the road and spotted thousands of species of plants, including coffee beans, avocados, papayas, and limes, we felt grateful for the opportunity to experience so many eco-systems in such a short space of time.
We finally arrived in the small town of Santa Teresa on day 5. We had heard rumors that there might be hot springs, and so we planned to spend the night and hike to the town of Machu Picchu the following day, but nothing could have prepared us for that night’s campsite. A short walk out of town led to the best hot spring resort Don and I have ever seen. Four huge pools, perfectly clear water, cold and hot waterfalls, and a nice flat tent site with showers and bathrooms made us two very happy campers. The entry fee is less than $2 each and we were able to spend all afternoon and evening soaking in hot springs alongside the same river we had spent the last 2 days following. The following day we hoisted our backpacks on our backs, and prepared for one final long day of hiking (at the time we didn’t know to expect the same of the following day). From the hot springs we hiked about 10km to what they call the “hydroelectric” station, which is also where most tourists begin hiking into the canyon town of Aguas Calientes. From there we joined a bunch of other tourists for the 2 hour walk along train tracks into Aguas Calientes, arriving in the touristy, but we thought charming and ski-chalet-esque, town in the late afternoon. We decided it was only right to treat ourselves to a tasty dinner at one of the hundreds of establishments in town, which, although nice to eat something other than pasta for a night, was still a total rip-off. We spent the night in the town’s only campground and prepared ourselves for the next day’s early morning hike up to Machu Picchu itself.
“They” say that if you’re going to hike up to Machu Picchu (rather than taking the bus) then it must be done in the wee hours of the morning in order to provide that perfect first glimpse (think: no people and all sunrise). Well, we got up at 4:30, were allowed to begin the hike at 5, and all we got in return was an hour of dark, cold, rainy hiking followed by a lonesome, quiet walk through thick clouds when the gates opened at 6. We may have been the first people into Machu Picchu that day, but we couldn’t see a thing for the first couple hours, and by the time we did glimpse that ever-photographed citadel, it was crawling with tourists in all sorts of colorful rain protection. We joined up with a free tour group in order to learn a bit, but were unimpressed with the trite, boring information that we garnered. Finally, we began to walk around the ruins on our own, but without any signage what-so-ever, it didn’t take long for us to get bored of piled rocks and grassy terraces. The highlight of our visit was our hike up the impressive, and underappreciated, Machu Picchu Mountain, for which the ruins are named. Most people hike up Huayna Picchu, the iconic peak that sits directly behind the ruins, which leaves the much longer and steeper Machu Picchu mountain with fewer tourists. On this hike, as long as clouds don’t obstruct your view, you get the famous view of the ruins the entire way up. Fortunately, not long after getting to the top, the clouds finally began to break up and the views on the way down meant that we stopped every few minutes for hundreds of worthwhile pictures. We left the ruins in the early afternoon, still smiling from the Salkantay Trek, but a little underwhelmed by Machu Picchu itself. We decided that we had had quite enough of the jungle, and so began a long trail run back down to the campsite in town. We packed in a hurry, hightailed it back to the hydroelectric station, and then hopped two different colectivos, arriving in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas before 10pm that same night, exhausted, hungry, and incredibly enchanted with our whole Machu Picchu adventure.
The next morning, after a long night of recovery sleep, we got in touch with our new friends and began planning our next week of adventures. When we met Nicole and Bill at the Irish Pub in town they were with Bill’s father (who was visiting from New York) and had four little kids in tow. Don and I sat impressed with their multi-tasking skills, and entertained by the children, until Nicole struck up a conversation with us about travel. After introductions we began to explain that our main goal in taking this trip was to become fluent in Spanish. Nicole is not a woman who beats around the bush. She asked us where we had been and where we were going, and after gleaning that we were definitely stuck on the “gringo trail”, she offered us an incredible opportunity. She explained that her and Bill had been living out in el campo for the past 6 years and that they had a Peruvian friend who would be more than happy to have us come stay with him in order to experience the “real Peru”. Our interest was already piqued, but when her and Bill began talking about mountain biking, and all the trails that they’d love to take us on if we stuck around for a while, we were sold. Our first day back in Cusco, we headed over to Bill and Nicole’s house to learn more. We were invited in and treated like old friends, spending hours learning each other’s stories, and discussing our stay with Guillermo and his family out in a tiny pueblo, about 45 minutes from Cusco. When everything was settled, Bill and Nicole (who had just moved into the city to begin an AirBnB) offered for us to stay at their place that night and we agreed that Bill will take us out to Guillermo’s the next day. We truly enjoyed getting to know the four kids a little better and spending some time with our new friends.
The following afternoon we took public transportation all the way out to the small pueblo of Utu (which isn’t even on Google maps, haha!) and met Guillermo and his family. Guillermo’s wife Juana sat us all down in their mud hut of a dining room/kitchen and immediately fed us some delicious quinoa soup. Their two daughters, ages 18 and 23, were home for the weekend, and everyone only spoke Spanish, so we jumped right into our 24/7 Spanish class. That evening we walked with one daughter to collect their cows from the fields and when we got them back to the house, we each took a turn at milking them, something that takes a lot more skill than we realized. We hadn’t commited to any specific length of time in el campo, but that night, as we gazed at the huge stars hanging in the sky, chatted with the whole family in our broken, but ever improving, Spanish, peeled “choclo”, a type of South American corn, and then climbed up our wooden ladder to sleep in a bed covered with blankets that Juana made herself from wool from her own sheep, we knew that this was a priceless experience that we would need to make the most of. The next morning we got up with the roosters and went down to the kitchen to help prepare breakfast. With Juana’s help we prepared homemade tamales from the choclo that we peeled the night before, and then drank delicious boiled cow’s milk (again, from the night before) mixed with chocolate, cinnamon, and cloves. We also ate “tostado””, which was toasted corn, and I watched and learned as the family soaked the tostado in the hot milk and then ate it out of the cup. With full bellies we followed Liliana (the older daughter) up a steep hill near the home on a little hike with great views. Liliana new almost all of the plants along the trail, and as we hiked, we dutifully collected herbs that could do everything from cure a cough or a stomach ache, to put you to sleep, wake you up, or just add flavor to a soup or tamale. That afternoon Bill brought another family out to visit (Mark and Laura and their children were from Canada and were staying as AirBnB guests in Cusco) and we all enjoyed delicious homemade chicken soup. It was fascinating and impressive how self-sufficient and hard-working Guillermo and his family were. Juana was always working in one way or another, and the food she prepared was always straight from their farm and full of flavor and nutrition. Equally impressive was the fact that Guillermo himself had just graduated from college (at over 60 years old), his two oldest sones had graduated from college, and both his daughters are currently in college. It is incredibly rare in the pueblos for even one family member to attend college, so clearly Guillermo was doing something right. We slept like rocks on our second night, and woke up early the next day prepared to mountain bike with Nicole and Mark.
Despite an early-morning rainstorm, everyone felt eager to ride when we met up in a plaza down the hill from our small pueblo. We headed toward a big mountain that Nicole said we would be riding up and around, and began a 2 1/2 hour uphill journey on a pitted dirt road that ended in magnificent views of 4 different valleys. Despite a few setbacks (the bikes malfunctioned a bit and we didn’t have the correct replacement parts and we got a little lost once or twice), we enjoyed a long day of mountain biking and got back to town with the perma-grin that always accompanies a day spent on bikes. We spent another (final) night at Guillermo’s (we could feel our Spanish improving every hour that we spent there) and prepared ourselves for the following day’s plan. One of Peru’s delicacies is “cuy”, or guinea pig, and we figured the best way to enjoy it would be to participate in all the preparation and eat it along with some local Peruvians. In the morning before we began, we accompanied Juana out to their “chakra”, or farm, and spent a bit of time cutting and hauling grass to feed the cows. When we got back to the house, Juana declared that it was time to kill the cuy. With about 10 of the little guys scurrying around the floor of the kitchen, the little chirps and squeals betraying their naivety, Juana and Don first had the challenge of catching two for lunch. I will spare all the gruesome details, but suffice it to say that catching, killing, de-furring, shaving, gutting, and stuffing a cuy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, at least for these gringos. Juana said she killed and prepared her first cuy at age 15, and has probably cooked up hundreds of them since then. Despite our general surprise and horror at parts of the process, Don still put on a brave face and remained open to the whole experience, even when it involved swallowing the raw bile sack that Juana pulled out of the poor cuy’s open belly and claimed had all sorts of health benefits. When it came time to enjoy the (very tasty) cooked cuy, Don bravely pulled the brain from the cuy’s cracked skull and slurped it down like a true Peruvian. Guillermo claimed that the brain was his favorite part of the cuy, but Don said that something about its creaminess was a little off-putting. After finishing off our furry friends and indulging in a couple glasses of beer with Guillermo and Juana, it was time to head back to Cusco. We couldn’t have begun to thank Guillermo enough for his generosity and openness, but we tried. We promised to visit if ever back in the Cusco area, and made sure they knew that they had a home in the states. We headed back to Nicole and Bill’s home a little exhausted, but with a whole new appreciation for the many privileges and conveniences that we take for granted on a daily basis.
The next few days were spent at Bill and Nicole’s, where we babysat (and successfully, and surprisingly put 4 children under the age of 8 to sleep before the parents got home), painted a bedroom, had family-style taco and spaghetti dinners, and also enjoyed the company of Mark and his family from Canada. We felt right at home in Cusco, and kept joking that we might never leave. If it weren’t for the consistent countdown that we have going (now that we’re well-past the half-way point of our trip) and the ever-present concern about funds running out, we might have stayed for good. Now we are off to Lima and to a whole new set of adventures. From Lima we will head into the Cordillera Blanca for more backpacking, and then up Peru’s coast where we hope to find white sandy beaches, a couple tropical drinks, and ideally, a place to finally hang our hammock for a few days.