First-Time Lessons Learned by an American in Peru

After I visit a new country, I always like to reflect on what I learned during that visit. Inevitably there are things I should have done differently, things that surprised me about the people or places, and things that I can say I would never do again but I learned something from the experience. Peru is no different and here I would like to share some of the things I learned while I was there.

During the two weeks I recently spent in Peru, I found myself surprised on many occasions. This wasn’t my first time to South America, but it was my first time in Peru. I’ll share some of the things I learned in this beautiful country so that you can learn from some of my mistakes or just be wiser than I was and be better prepared. Peru was undoubtedly the hardest vacation to plan for of all the places my family and I have been, although we have never been to Asia or Africa and I imagine those places would also take a lot of planning by an American. I wrote up a post while I was in the midst of planning, which you can read here Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru.

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We saw so many llamas and alpacas in Peru- I loved it!

Here are just some of the things I learned while in Peru:

Peru is an extremely poor country so don’t expect your accommodations to be like what you typically find in the United States. That being said, there is a range of accommodations from hostels for just a few dollars per night to hotels that cost a few hundred dollars per night. The accommodations also vary widely based on what city you’re in.

Machu Picchu is every bit as stunning and special of a place as you have in your head from all of the photos we all see online. However, it does get crowded, especially as the day goes on, even with the recent restrictions on daily admissions. Get there as early as you possibly can, which you’ll likely do anyway if you’re traveling with a tour group. Pay the extra admission to climb Huayna Picchu. It’s worth every penny and every second of the elevated heartbeat that you will have climbing it. My post on Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is here.

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At the top of Huayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu

Take a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu. My family and I took the 4 Day Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions, which I highly recommend but there are other treks of varying degrees of difficulty and length. Meeting and interacting with the Peruvian school children and families is something so priceless it’s difficult to convey to others. The views along the trek are like scenes from some of the most epic movies you’ve ever seen, and completely incomprehensible until you’ve experienced them. Just go. Don’t worry if you’re not a “camper” or you don’t think you can do it (unless you have valid health reasons. Talk to your doctor first). You can find my posts on the Lares Trek here: Day OneDay TwoDay Three.

Areas in the Highlands region including Cusco, Aguas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo (all of which many people pass through one or more nights on their way to Machu Picchu) are cold at night and in the mornings. Depending on the time of year, they are also often rainy. There is usually no central heat in the hotels and hostels in this region either (despite what they might tell you at the front desk), so bring warm sleeping attire. I wore long-sleeve wool thermal underwear and wool socks to sleep in every night while I was in the Highlands (yes, even in my hotel room).

Temperatures and climate in Peru can vary widely depending on what part(s) you’re in so wearing layers is always advisable. Arequipa is a much warmer city than Cusco and much drier so (at least where we stayed) it was noticeably warmer than where stayed in Cusco. More information about Cusco plus climbing the famous Rainbow Mountain is here. Arequipa has a European feel to it and is a beautiful city with white stone buildings.  There is a huge range of accommodations in Arequipa just like any other city. My post on Arequipa is here.

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One of the plazas in Arequipa

Traffic in Peru is more chaotic than any other city I’ve ever been to, which includes Greece, Italy, Chile, and other areas known to have aggressive drivers. Drivers are so aggressive especially in Lima and Arequipa they make New York City drivers look laid-back. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, pretty much anywhere at all. From all of the research I conducted, I read over and over that cars are sometimes stopped by robbers especially at night and even buses can get robbed like this. I’m sure plenty of people take buses all over Peru and are fine but we chose to fly over large distances between cities. We did take some buses with the tours we took, but the longest bus ride was 3 hours and most were during the day. Flights within Peru are very affordable and efficient (although some airlines more so than others).

Peruvians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, especially in the Highlands areas like Cusco and the surrounding rural areas. One evening in Cusco, we went into a small store to buy bottled water and the man working there ended up asking us where we were from, showed us his drawings, and told us he was glad we stopped by as he shook our hands in a friendly way. This was all in our broken Spanish since he spoke no English. Another woman that owned a small restaurant chatted with us while we waited for our take-away food and gave me 2 bags of tea for free to help with my stuffy sinuses, a bag full of extra bread, and an extra container of soup (she also spoke no English). There were many other warm and kind people we met along the way as well.

Unless you travel to Peru with a travel group, you really should have at least a decent grasp of Spanish. We found very few people who spoke English fluently even in hospitality sectors like hotels and restaurants and even on tours where the guide supposedly spoke English. It was far more common for the people we met to speak no English at all, regardless of their age or city. There is always Google translate when you’re really stuck but I wouldn’t rely solely on that.

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Rainbow Mountain

The toilets in the rural areas are usually a hole in the ground that you have to squat over but in bigger cities you can find actual toilet seats. However, bring a roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times because there often isn’t toilet paper or soap. When there is a sink, it’s almost always just cold water (no hot water). However, we always had hot water in our showers at hotels everywhere we stayed, which was a welcome relief.

I would stay away from venturing out in Lima. We had a couple of bad experiences the second time we were there and we were told by someone who used to live in Lima and moved to Arequipa that it’s extremely unsafe and to stay away from the city. If you have to fly through Lima to get somewhere else, just spend that time at the airport. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the airport where you can easily spend hours. Although you may have a perfectly good experience, you just never know and it’s not worth risking it in the city. My post on Lima is here.

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Machu Picchu

Finally, the food all over Peru exceeded my expectations as far as taste and presentation. Who knew Peru was such a foodie country? Everywhere we went, the food was exceptional and beautifully presented. Try a Maracuyá Sour, which is made with passion fruit and is a delicious variation on the pisco sour. Other Peruvian foods I really enjoyed are ceviche, Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef), Aji de Gallina (creamy chicken), Causa Limeña (potato casserole), and Pollo a la Brasa (roasted chicken).

Have you been to Peru? If so, where did you go and what was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru Other Than Hike Colca Canyon

Do you know the feeling you get when you first go to a new city and you are immediately drawn to it? That’s how I felt when our plane landed in Arequipa from Cusco in Peru. I usually don’t fall in love with a city so quickly but right away I liked Arequipa. There are white stone buildings everywhere and the historical section is especially beautiful. Our hotel in Arequipa was in the historical section and when we entered our hotel room, I could feel right away that it was much warmer than our room in Cusco. Yes! This was a much nicer hotel overall than that in Cusco, too although the price difference was only about $25/night. (If you’re wondering about my reference to Cusco, you can read my post here.)

Originally the rough plan was to spend two days and one night in Colca Canyon, the most popular attraction in Arequipa. I didn’t make reservations in advance because honestly I wasn’t sure how we would feel after our adventures in Cusco. We did a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, camping in tents for the first 2 nights and staying in a hotel on the third night before going to Machu Picchu on the fourth day (you can read the posts about the trek here, here, and here). We also had tickets to hike up Huayna Picchu, a notoriously difficult climb to the top of the huge mountain overlooking Machu Picchu (you can read the post about that here).

I also wasn’t sure about the weather in Arequipa and didn’t want to camp out again if it was going to rain. Finally, I read that it would be considerably cheaper to make reservations in person in Arequipa rather than online in the US. It turns out that decision to wait until we reached Arequipa to make reservations wasn’t necessarily the best one because it meant we couldn’t go.

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Plaza de Armas near the historical center in Arequipa

I wasn’t thinking that it would be so late on a Saturday evening and none of the tour agencies would be open by the time we finished checking into our hotel and eating dinner, nor were many of them open when we tried Sunday morning (since the tours all leave very early in the morning, it was too late to make same-day plans anyway but we wanted to see what was available for the next day). Long story short, a visit to Colca Canyon was not to be this time around, so we figured out our best options for the next couple of days in Arequipa.

What did we end up doing? Well, we went on a free walking tour and ended up hitting most of the hot spots and learned some things about Arequipa along the way. For starters, Arequipa lies on a fault line and has had multiple earthquakes over the years. The city was completely destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the 1600’s. There are three major volcanoes (El Misti, Mount Chachani and Pichu Pichu Peak), but Arequipa and the surrounding area has more than 80 volcanoes, most of which are in the Valley of the Volcanoes. The historic center was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in December 2000 due to its architecture and historical integrity.

On the walking tour, we walked by several churches (there are so many churches in Arequipa), the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Plaza de Armas, Mundo Alpaca, and a street the equivalent of “lover’s lane.” The tour was a little over 2 hours and our guide was funny and informative. I highly recommend doing this if you’re in Arequipa and want to learn about the city.

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That’s a snake skin over the tops of the display cases in the Monasterio de la Recoleta!

On our own, we visited two former monasteries, Monasterio de Santa Catalina (the more popular of the two) and Monasterio de la Recoleta (which I liked even better than the first one). Both places charge a small admission fee and both are filled with historical information, but Monasterio de la Recoleta has a few unique things going for it that I feel put it a bit over the top than Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Monasterio de la Recoleta has  rooms with artifacts from the Amazon, textiles, stamps, money, pre-Columbian artifacts, animals, religious, artwork, an amazing library, the church that’s still being used for services, and stairs to the bell tower with great views. Monasterio de Santa Catalina has former rooms of nuns and monks and artwork but not nearly as many artifacts as Monasterio de la Recoleta.

We took a taxi and visited the Molino de Sabandía (Sabandía Mill), a water mill set in the old Arequipa countryside about 20 minutes from downtown Arequipa, built in 1621. In addition to the mill and various artifacts, the landscape is lovely and there is an  extensive collection of cacti and succulents, as well as a variety of local plants and flowers. You can see vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, roosters, local birds and an enormous Arequipa fighting bull. There was a family having a photo shoot at the mill when we were there, and I can see why since it’s such a photogenic place. There isn’t much else in the area but we did find a resort within walking distance and had lunch there before having the front desk call us a taxi back to town.

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Sabandía Mill in the countryside of Arequipa

Casa del Moral is an 18th century mansion that we visited that’s filled with period furniture, paintings and sculptures. Its name is derived from the moral (mulberry in English) trees that grow in its courtyard. Although I read reviews that said the house is small and not worth visiting, we really enjoyed our visit. The mansion has such ornate woodwork and details that it’s not really a place to just quickly whiz by in 10 minutes. Now owned by the bank, there’s also a section in the house with very old coins and bills, which was interesting to see.

Finally, we visited the Mercado Central and found it to be utterly intriguing. We went for the queso helado (“cheese ice cream” but really the name is misleading since it’s actually just ice cream) and stayed for the sites. Queso helado looks like sliced cheese but tastes like vanilla ice cream with cinnamon sprinkled on top. This market is so colorful and so vibrant we loved walking around and taking it all in. There are huge sections for everything from cheeses, fruits and vegetables, clothing, meats, juice bars, flowers, and more. This is where local people shop but we did see the occasional tourist there as well, walking around in awe like we were.

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Mercado Central in Arequipa

There were so many restaurants in Arequipa that we really enjoyed but some of our favorites are Mixtos, Crepisimo, Inkari Pub Pizzeria, Manolo’s, and Chaqchao Chocolate Factory. We stayed at SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western Tierrasur Colonial, which we loved, and it’s a short walk to Plaza de Armas and many other shops and restaurants in the historical district.

When we left Arequipa we were already talking about the next time we come back. We will of course go to Colca Canyon for a two-day tour and we’d like to climb the volcano El Misti as well. I’m already looking forward to going back!

Have you been to Arequipa and if so what did you like best when you were there? Would you like to go? Have you been to other parts of Peru?

Happy Travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in Peru

Anthony Bourdain once said, “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”

I was fortunate enough to visit Machu Picchu and it was everything you hear and read about, and more. It’s difficult to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been there and photos of course don’t do it justice. A cab driver in Cusco, Peru told us before we went there that Machu Picchu holds a special place in his heart, that it’s a magical place that he feels drawn to. For me, however, as special as Machu Picchu is, the journey to get there is what holds a special place in my heart.

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We took a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, called the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions and it surpassed my expectations. You can read about the trek here (day one),  here (day two), and here (day three). By the time we reached Machu Picchu, we were exhausted but thrilled to finally be at the famous ruins. There are four hour time limits on visits which must be within one of three daily shifts:  early morning (6-9 am), late morning (9 am-12 pm), and early afternoon (12-3 pm). You have to sign up to enter at a specific hour within these shifts and supposedly only 600 people are allowed to enter at each hourly interval, meaning no more than 2,400 people would be allowed in the ruins for the four hour time, but I’m not sure how much this limit is enforced because it seemed very crowded to me, especially as the day went on.

All of our tickets including the train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, entrance fees to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, and returns back to Cusco were taken care of by our guide from Alpaca Expeditions, which made everything much less stressful.

However, to add to our stress, the morning of our tour of Machu Picchu, our guide was supposed to be at our hotel in Aguas Calientes at 5 am and didn’t show up until 5:50, at which point we were just about in a total panic about what to do (no way to contact the guide so we sent an email to Alpaca Expeditions but didn’t get a response by the time the guide showed up, which by the way his excuse was he had drunk too many beers the night before and over-slept). Long story short, he apologized about a dozen times and in the end I completely forgave him because he was so stellar in every way before this.

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There were so many llamas all over Machu Picchu!

Although we arrived at Machu Picchu a bit later than we were supposed to, everything worked out fine. My first impression was that it’s pretty much what I thought it would be. We’ve all seen photos of Machu Picchu so many times and maybe even seen TV shows about it. Well, it’s exactly like it looks in the photos. It’s also crowded, despite the attempts to limit tourists (although our guide said things do seem to be getting better on that front). It’s every bit as grande and beautiful as it looks.

What did surprise me was the scale of the mountain that lies behind Machu Picchu, the one that you see in the background of the majority of photos of Machu Picchu- Huayna Picchu. You see, we had a separate entrance ticket to climb Huayna Picchu once we were done touring Machu Picchu. Guides aren’t allowed on Huayna Picchu for reasons unbeknownst to me, so we would be climbing that behemoth of a mountain all by ourselves. I was terrified.

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One of the views from Huayna Picchu. The people at Machu Picchu below look tiny!

After we felt like we had seen all we needed to see of Machu Picchu and got all of the history and background from our guide, he walked us out the exit, said good-bye, and my family and I used our separate entrance ticket for Huayna Picchu to get back into Machu Picchu, working our way through the ruins back to the entrance for Huayna Picchu. The peak of Huayna Picchu is 2,693 metres (8,835 ft) above sea level, or about 260 metres (850 ft) higher than Machu Picchu, according to Wikipedia. The truth is, the climb up is strenuous and should only be undertaken by people in good shape.

The climb up Huayna Picchu begins easily enough, and is full of switchbacks to make the climb easier. Still, you will be drenched with sweat and gasping to get your breath unless it’s a cold and rainy day, but then the steps would be slippery and you’d still be out of breath because of the steep increase in elevation so that wouldn’t be ideal either. There are some cables to hold onto that I was grateful to have both on the way up and down.

Here’s the part that most people gloss over in their reviews about Huayna Picchu- the final ascent to the top is like climbing a ladder, only on narrow little rocky, sometimes crumbling stairs. There are no cables or anything else to help you up here. I’m terrified of heights and I had to focus like I’ve never had to focus on anything before just to control my shaking body. I found it easier to use my hands as I climbed up, since it gave me something to do with them, and I just focused on one step at a time. Finally I reached the summit and it was the best feeling ever! Honestly, I’ve never climbed anything as difficult as Huayna Picchu, and I’ve done quite a bit of hiking around the world, although nothing like the via Ferrata in Italy.

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On top of the world- at the top of Huayna Picchu!

The way back down Huayna Picchu wasn’t as bad as going up and I never felt any real pangs of fear like I did going up. I passed a guy who was going up and looked scared to death and he hadn’t even reached the worst part yet. I told him if I could do it, he could do it and told him to use his hands going up and just focus on one step at a time. I hope he was able to conquer his fear and make it to the top. The view really is one of the best views I’ve ever seen and absolutely worth the effort.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? Did you go up Huayna Picchu? If so, what was your experience like? Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Three

You can read about day one of the Lares Trek here and day two here, if you haven’t been following along until now. If you have, welcome back. On the morning of day three, we were told our fellow camper who was transported 2 hours away to a lower elevation was doing much better and we would do our final day of hiking and meet him at our campsite later that day. Since our guide had stayed with him in a tent overnight and would remain with him for the day to monitor his health, one of the female porters was our stand-in guide for the walk, which would be our easiest of the four-day trek. However, she almost exclusively spoke Quechuan, the local language, and only a little Spanish, so she was very quiet during the 3 hour hike. 

I should back up, though. As usual, we were woken up early with hot coca tea and given some time to get dressed and pack up before going to the tent for breakfast. As had been the case every other morning, breakfast was a huge spread of food that we all quickly devoured. To our surprise and delight (well, I had actually heard about this part but I didn’t spoil the surprise for my fellow campers) our chef had baked us a cake! He had been cooking this entire time using propane but how you bake a cake at high elevation with propane gas in the middle of nowhere in Peru is beyond me. These guys do this all the time, though so I guess they’ve got it figured out.

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Just one of many “Wow!” photo moments during day three of the trek

After we started on our final hiking portion of the trek, we began seeing more and more llamas and alpacas. We had seen some the previous day but not as many as we saw on day three. This area was obviously farming country, and we passed several small farms. Our porter/guide for the day tried to point out vegetables, flowers, and fauna, but unless it was obvious what she was pointing out, we usually just smiled and went on our way. As we descended from the Highlands, it began to get warmer and the landscape began to noticeably change.

After hiking for 4 hours we reached the final destination of the hiking portion of the Lares Trek, the town of Huaran. This is where our fellow hiker was transported by horse the night before, along with our guide. We had lunch here then said goodbye to the horsemen, porters, and chef, who all went back home. Only our guide, Abelito stayed with us, and a driver for the van that we all climbed into with our duffel bags.

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We saw so many llamas and alpacas on our third day!

We drove to the Salinas salt ponds in the town of Maras and got to walk around the beautiful salt ponds set in a canyon that descends to the Rio Vilcanota. These salt ponds have been in use since the Incas and are farmed by members of the community. You can buy salt very cheaply from various vendors onsite. Honestly I don’t know how they make a profit from the salt itself or from entrance fees which are only $2. Ever since I visited the salt pans in Gozo (part of Malta), I’ve been fascinated by salt pans so I was thrilled when I saw this was part of the itinerary for the Lares Trek. I was not disappointed either.

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The Salinas Salt Ponds

After we left the salt ponds, we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo and had our final meal with the other family from our trek. Our guide talked with the staff at the restaurant he had chosen for us and arranged for our dinners to be ready at a certain time, with spare time for us to walk around the town if we wanted or just find a spot to sit and have a drink. Ollantaytambo is a small town so it didn’t take us long to take a quick walk around to take some photos then go back for dinner.

We reminisced on our journey together, received shirts from Alpaca Expeditions, were given more instructions by Abelito (our guide) and exchanged contact info with the other family. Since the other family had signed up for a second trek, a two-day trek, concluding at Machu Picchu, we would be parting after dinner, but otherwise they would have been with us and Abelito at Machu Picchu the following day (they were assigned a different guide from Alpaca Expeditions for their second trek, while my family and I retained our original guide for Machu Picchu).

After mostly living for three days without seeing anyone else outside our small group, it was strange to once again see crowds of people. As I said in my post on day one of the Lares Trek, one of the reasons I chose the Lares Trek over the Classic Inca Trek was because the Classic Inca Trek is so popular (a.k.a. crowded). We literally saw only a handful of other trekkers while we were hiking, and that’s it. It was fantastic, really. Who wants to be in nature hiking in remote areas of Peru and have hordes of other people around you? Well, actually that would come later, which you will see if you follow my posts regularly.

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Ruins on the mountain in Ollantaytambo that would have nice to have explored if only there was more time!

So my family and I followed Abelito to the train station in Ollantaytambo, where we took a train to Aguas Calientes, and from there we walked to the hotel where we would be staying for the night (a very nice hotel arranged through Alpaca Expeditions). A hot shower and bed the night before touring Machu Picchu was the best idea ever. We set the alarm for yet another early morning wake-up, which really was a theme for our vacation in Peru thus far, and collapsed into the comfy beds. There was no time for any sight-seeing in Aquas Calientes on this day, but there would be some time after we toured Machu Picchu.

I fell asleep looking forward to finally getting to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. For most people, touring Machu Picchu is probably the highlight of their time in Peru, but honestly, for probably the first time in my life, I could say that the journey was more important than the destination (Machu Picchu). The Lares Trek had taken us past some of the most awe-inspiring views I’ve ever seen in my life. We met people that don’t even own a computer and only recently got electricity in their tiny town. I got to touch an alpaca (actually several) and see many more alpacas and llamas that were in the wild, only a few feet from me. I was able to physically push my body up and down the Andes Mountains at the highest elevations I’ve ever hiked with basically no side effects. Inevitably, this glimpse into Peru and the Peruvian people I saw along the Lares Trek will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Total miles for day 3:  6.2 miles. Elevation of Aguas Calientes:  6,562 ft.

Have you been to Machu Picchu and/or on a trek to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Two

For day one of our trek, see here:  Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One. Day two of our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu began with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up and steaming cups of coca tea (it’s supposed to help with the high altitude). After getting dressed and packing up our things, we had breakfast consisting of a hot chocolate porridge, bread, pancakes, fruit salad, tea, and coffee, then we headed out for the most difficult part of the trek. We hiked up to just over 14,000 ft and went through Condor Pass. Along the way we saw llamas, alpacas, and lakes that were a gorgeous shade of blue-green. The trail was full of loose rocks and we were once again grateful to have our walking poles.

After reaching the highest point of the trek, we hiked down the mountain, stopping briefly for a snack and only taking short breaks the rest of the time. We finally reached our campsite where we had yet another hearty and delicious lunch:  soup, bread, mixed fruit, mixed vegetables, cauliflower pizza, corn tortillas with broccoli, and a maize drink.

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A group shot doing the llama sign (as instructed to do so by our guide)

After lunch we walked to a one room school and talked with the teacher and children. The teacher, a male, spoke the local Quechuan (a language that goes back to the Inca Empire), and was teaching the children in that language. Our guide, who spoke Quechuan, Spanish, and English, translated for us all and explained where we were from. We gave the children the bread we had bought at the market the previous morning and gave them some things brought from the US like stickers, pens, and pencils. The children were happy to see us and were all adorable. Even though none of us spoke the same language, it was clearly communicated that we were happy to be there and they were happy to see us.

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Inside a Quechuan school in the Highlands of Peru. Their smiles were priceless!

We all took a well-deserved siesta in our tents then walked to meet a local family who lived nearby our campsite. Their house was one room built of stone with a thatched roof. There was a pot simmering over a fire in one corner and one woman was peeling potatoes. The man of the house did most of the talking for the family (in Quechuan, which was translated to English by our guide) and he told us there were 6 people who lived in the main house as well as in the other small house just across the main house where we heard several chickens inside.

There were 2 beds in the main house along with the kitchen, dining area, living area, and a loft storage area on one side. The man and his family, along with the rest of the people in the town were farmers. Some people from our group asked some questions and the man asked us where we were from and what kinds of jobs we had. He said he was very happy to have us in his home because so many people went through the area on treks but hardly anyone stopped by his house. He was hospitable and seemed genuinely happy to talk with us. His wife sang us a song before we left.

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One of the most beautiful views we saw on our second day of the trek

I’ll be perfectly honest here. I wasn’t sure how it would go with meeting the Quechuan family and I didn’t want it to feel like we were just there to stare at them and have everyone be uncomfortable. After talking with them (through the help of our guide), however, it became apparent that they really were happy to share a glimpse of their lives with us, and they were glad to have us as visitors. It seemed they were perhaps as curious about us as we were about them. Meeting with this family and the school children was definitely a highlight of the trek.

We had yet another tasty and filling dinner before bed and once again grabbed a hot water bottle from the cook to sleep with. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of our fellow trekkers (there was my family of 3 and a family of 4) had to be transported by horse after dinner to a town 2 hours away at a lower elevation because his oxygen levels had become dangerously low. He had been struggling from the beginning with altitude-related problems but other problems as well (truth be told, even before the trek began) and he had been riding the horse almost the entire time but he had gotten steadily worse. One of the horsemen, our guide, and a porter took him to the town then the horseman rode the horse another 2 hours back to our campsite, only to have to get up about 2 hours later for an early morning wake-up.

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Our horseman from the trek with his family’s alpacas (and coca leaves stuffed in his cheek). He was a kind and hard-working man.

Having finished the hardest part of the trek, I was feeling really good about the rest of the trek. I knew the final day of hiking would be a piece of cake compared to the second day. I slept the best on the second night of all of the nights of the trek and was looking forward to our third and final day of hiking and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

Total miles for day 2- 8 miles hiked; highest point reached 14,250 feet.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One

If you want to go to Machu Picchu in Peru you have many options. You can stay in Aguas Calientes and take the bus to Machu Picchu and tour the ruins with a guide, you can stay in Cusco and take the train to Ollantaytambo then the bus to Aguas Calientes then the bus to Machu Picchu, or you can take a guided hike and camp along the way finishing at Machu Picchu. The latter is what my family and I chose to do.

There are seemingly hundreds of companies that offer treks to Machu Picchu. As far as options for hiking routes, there is the more popular Classic Inca Trek, the more difficult Salkantay Trek, or the Lares Trek in addition to alternative treks. I decided to take the Lares Trek for several reasons:  it isn’t considered as popular as the Classic Inca Trail so it’s not as crowded, it has stops along the way at salt pans (which I find beautiful), thermal baths (which I find incredibly soothing and relaxing), at a local market where we would buy foods for local families along the trek, at a local school where we would talk with the children and give them some supplies and bread, and at a local family’s house. We chose the 4 day/3 night trek, which meant we would be camping in tents for 2 nights and at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the third night then take the short bus ride to Machu Picchu the next morning.

I chose Alpaca Expeditions because it came recommended. I later found out Alpaca Expeditions is the most popular trekking company to Machu Picchu for Americans. They promise an English-speaking guide, delicious food prepared by an on-site chef, a horse if you need assistance along the hike, a satellite phone for emergencies, small groups, and much more. There are options to upgrade some things for your hike, which I recommend. Let me just say every single one of us said many times on the trek how glad we were to have the walking poles.

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Day one of the Lares Trek- just the beginning!

The evening before our trek began, we met at Alpaca Expeditions headquarters in Cusco. We paid the balance that we owed and met with the rest of our group, a family of four from Connecticut, which meant there would only be seven of us not including those working for Alpaca Expeditions. We also met with our guide, Abelito, who explained briefly what we would be doing each day of the trek. He told us that the porters and horsemen would be in charge of carrying the tents, sleeping bags and pads, all food, water, cooking supplies, and basically everything we would need on the trek except for  personal items in a small backpack. Each of us was given a duffle bag to put our clothes and personal items in, which we would get each evening. We only had to carry a small day pack with any items we would want along the trek during the day, like sunscreen, bug spray, camera, and things like that.

Day one of our hike began with a 5 a.m. pickup in a large van at our hotel in Cusco. We drove 3 hours on curvy, winding roads, where we had to pull over after maybe an hour so I could throw up on the side of the road (and yes, I had taken an anti-nausea pill before I got sick). After I no longer had anything in my stomach, I was fine for the rest of the drive. We stopped at a market in a small town and bought sugar, flour, rice, pasta, bread, and coca leaves that we would later give to a family and school children. We took a guided tour of the market and were told all about the vegetables and other things sold there. 

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Waterfalls!

After driving for a while longer, we stopped for breakfast at a spot along the roadside overlooking a mountain. This was our first taste of food prepared by the chef and it was a great start with fruit salad, bread with jam, freshly squeezed mango juice, hot tea, coffee, and more. After a short drive to the Lares Hot Springs, we put on our swim suits in the changing area and had 45 minutes to relax in the pools. There were multiple pools with varying degrees of temperature. I’m a huge fan of hot springs so I thought it was a great way to start the hike!

We drove the short drive from the hot springs to the trailhead for the Lares Trek, got a quick lesson on how to adjust our hiking poles and we were off! After hiking for 2 hours we had a huge lunch at a beautiful spot along the trail then hiked for 1 and ½ hours more when we stopped at our first campsite that was near a lake, aptly named the Blue Lagoon. We had hiked 7.8 miles for the first day past waterfalls, sheep, and mountains, and re-fueled that evening with a hearty dinner of pasta, soup, roasted chicken, vegetables, bread, tea, and hot cocoa. Before dinner was served, we had some light snacks like popcorn, which we all devoured.

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This was a short walk from our campsite. Listening to the water flow at night was soothing.

We all happily took our hot water bottles from the cook to sleep with and collapsed into our warm sleeping bags for the night. It was cold that night, as is usual in the Highlands of Peru, but the sleeping bag was the kind that goes around your head to keep you warmer and we also had insulated mats to keep us off the ground and a super-warm blanket (not sure if it was alpaca or wool but I got so warm in the middle of the night I took mine off and put it on my daughter). I should also note that there were two people max in each tent (my husband had his tent to himself), which was fantastic.

The first day was pretty easy because the hiking we did was moderate and not for terribly long stretches. It was a good start for our trek and I was feeling really good about our decision to choose the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions. We hadn’t yet reached the highest point in our trek, and I knew day two was set to be our most difficult segment of the trek. I was anxiously looking forward to what we would see and do the next day.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Cusco, Peru- Things to Do and Places to Eat Plus a Day-Trip to Famous Rainbow Mountain

Many people go through Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. My family and I were in Cusco for 3 days/3 nights before our trek to Machu Picchu (which deserves separate entries that I’ll post later) to help acclimatize to the high elevation and for another 2 days/2 nights after Machu Picchu before we flew to Arequipa. My immediate reaction when we were flying into Cusco was surprise at how much bigger it was than I thought it would be. There are just over 400,000 people in this city that sits at 11,152 feet above sea level.

On our first day in Cusco, my husband wasn’t adjusting well to the elevation, but he also had stopped drinking coffee cold-turkey so who knows how much of his reaction was to caffeine withdrawals. We just walked around the city and took in the sights before he asked to go back to our room to rest, where he did so for several hours then woke up feeling much better. My daughter and I both had headaches that first day but they were manageable and we adjusted pretty quickly to the elevation.

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Plaza de Armas in Cusco

We ventured out on our second day in Cusco and saw a parade going on at Plaza de Armas so we watched some of that (we had also seen a parade the evening before while we were at dinner). We did some shopping at the many markets and took a ton of photos. I found Cusco to be a beautiful city full of friendly people and on more than one occasion the locals started conversations with us (completely in Spanish). They weren’t trying to sell us things either, but they were being genuinely friendly.

On our third day in Cusco we were feeling pretty adventurous and decided to walk to Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. The Statue of Christ is large but don’t expect it to be on par with Christ the Redeemer in Rio. However, the views of Cusco are amazing from here and worth going just for that. It’s about a 10-minute walk to Sacsayhuaman from the Statue of Christ, which is the real reason to come to this part of Cusco. These ruins are impressive and you can spend hours walking around and exploring. We walked here from the main section of Cusco, up what felt like a million stairs straight up through various neighborhoods. On the way back we smartly took a taxi which was worth every Sol.

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Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco

The evening of our third night in Cusco, we met with Alpaca Expeditions where we paid the remainder due for our trek to Machu Picchu, met with the family of four that would be joining us, met our guide, received instructions for the next day, and received the duffel bag that would remain with us for the trek although carried by porters during the day. We were all looking forward to the trek and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

After we returned to Cusco from our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, we went to hike the famous Rainbow Mountain, or locally known as Montaña de Siete Colores (aka Vinicunca). This was the one specific thing my daughter requested (insisted) we do in Cusco, although I was a bit skeptical after reading some of the reviews and blog posts about it. We booked our tour locally rather than online from the US and saved a ton of money by doing that; however, we didn’t do much research and just randomly chose a tour company, which maybe wasn’t the best idea (our so-called English-speaking guide barely spoke English but luckily we spoke enough Spanish to be fine).

Rainbow Mountain, while definitely worth doing, wasn’t even the best part of the day, in my opinion, but I’ll back up before I go there. We had yet another early morning wake-up (a consistent theme for us in Peru) in order to be picked up by the driver at 4:30 am and after driving around for another hour to pick up the other people (so much for a “guaranteed” small group) we finally began the drive to Rainbow Mountain.

After an hour and a half we stopped for “breakfast” at a roadside restaurant that didn’t have heat where they sat us (and was freezing at the early morning hour) and we had what amounted to about a half an egg, some bread with jam, and tea. Good thing our hotel packed a breakfast for us to take with us when we left that morning! We drove another hour and a half and reached Rainbow Mountain. We were given a wooden pole (better than nothing but by no means a walking pole) by our guide and were told to be sure to be back at the van in four hours at 1 pm. There was no commentary about the area, no information given, nothing other than I’ll see you later!

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Rainbow Mountain

I’ll tell you something about Rainbow Mountain you may already suspect- it’s extremely crowded. The majority of the walk there was pretty easy although it was at 17,060 feet at the peak (starting altitude is 14,189 feet), that is, until the final 400 meters, where it went straight up and I was huffing and puffing to get my breath. One of the women from our group wasn’t acclimated to the elevation and was having a really difficult time before she even reached the climax of the climb. There are horses there you can pay to take you up the mountain to the base of the final steep point, however, and many people were taking part in that.

We chose to pay the extra admission fee to Red Valley, which is adjacent to Rainbow Mountain, and I liked that even more than Rainbow Mountain. When you’re walking through Red Valley, you can see all of the colors of the earth one at a time as you walk along, including black, white, red, brown, green, white, and purple. It may sound easy to hike back down the mountain, but I actually found that part even more difficult than going up. You pretty much slide down the mountainside, trying not to fall (although many people around me fell multiple times) while you “walk” down loose rocks and/or sand. On the way back to Cusco, we stopped at the same place where we stopped for breakfast for lunch that consisted of mediocre soup, baked chicken on skewers, salad, bread, red jello (really?), and some vegetables. Our guide also gave us a very brief talk about Rainbow Mountain that didn’t contain any information I didn’t already know.

On our final day in Cusco we discovered what I wish we had known about for the first part of our time in Cusco:  Avenida el Sol. This part of Cusco had a very different feel from the rest of the city to me. It felt more modern, cleaner, with more locals and less tourists. In addition to the shops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels, there is a nice mural and a large market where you can buy local items (sweaters and other clothing, jewelry, artwork, etc.). Maybe the best part is there were no baby alpacas on leashes held captive all day by women sitting around who want you to take their picture for a fee (absolutely horrible and illegal although it still happens).

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Some cool artwork on Avenida el Sol in Cusco

A note about the temperature in Cusco in relation to hotels and hostels. Cusco is quite chilly at night and in the mornings so if you go be sure to dress in layers. I wore a light down jacket and gloves at night and early mornings when we were out and was comfortable but would have been cold in anything less. The hotels and hostels also often don’t have heating on par with what you’d find in the United States. I found our hotel room, which was the basement of the building to be downright freezing and the space heater they gave us was useless. Although our accommodation had two-bedrooms, two bathrooms with kitchen and sitting area for only $60/night, I “down-graded” us to a one-room, one-bathroom accommodation for $55/night that was higher up in the building in hopes that it would be warmer for our return stay after our trek to Machu Picchu. It was warmer but still not what I would consider warm, just tolerable. It’s not just me, either, I read review after review of multiple hotels where people said their room was too cold.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Cusco include La Bodega 138 (get the wood-fired pizza), Cafe Balkon Azul (phenomenal service and food), El Paisa (great seafood, huge portions, and good drinks), and Deli Monasterio. Nuna Raymi was good but the server was too pushy with the drinks, appetizers, and desserts and it was very loud when we were there (I realize this isn’t always going to be the case). View House Restobar has amazing views of the city but the service is notoriously horrible if you’re going for food (I heard nearby Limbus Restobar is great but they were closed when we went there).

If you want to book a trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu, I highly recommend going with Alpaca Expeditions. There are literally hundreds of options but I found Alpaca to far exceed my expectations, which were set pretty high.

Have you been to Cusco, Peru? If so, what did you think of the city and its people? Were you as surprised as I was to see how big of a city it is?

Happy travels!

Donna