Leaving Arequipa, we took a bus up to Chivay, a town just upstream of Colca Canyon. We had thought we might travel further up past Chivay the next day and do a hike/overnight down into the canyon, but we were still pretty exhausted from our Andes trek near Machu Picchu, and decided to instead relax a bit in Chivay. We also learned that the section of the canyon you can access hiking is not nearly as deep as the deepest sections that make it unique.
So instead, we roamed a bit in the area around town, explored some old igloo-like rock structures built centuries ago as way-places to stay for travelers, and enjoyed a beautiful hot springs facility with many pools. We stayed in a small hostel run by a man who runs tourist trips in the region – a very interesting man to talk with, and he had a super-cute kitten.
Area surrounding Chivay
People used to stay in these structures when traveling. There are a number of them around here, and a rock tower as well behind this one.
I did not get any pictures of the outdoor pools, which looked much nicer. Here is one of the indoor hot springs pools.
The next day, we walked around the marketplace a bit and enjoyed fresh papaya juice and alpaca meat cooked by street vendors. It was delicious, but perhaps not the best decision, seeing as I got sick the next day.
With several hours until we needed to catch our bus back to Arequipa, we decided to explore the area a bit and rented mountain bikes. We set out on a loop around through several nearby towns. Not a long loop, maybe only about 12 miles, but Chivay sits at about 12,000′ elevation, so even the smallest hill is enough to get winded. We decided part-way to split off of the roads we were following and take a hiking/mountain biking path. This was much harder, especially for me, but also more rewarding.
We passed many places where there were terraces built into the hillsides, originating hundreds of years earlier in Incan times. There were also a few old Incan ruins sites along our route. We also had clear views out to some of the nearby very tall (18,000’+) volcanoes, one of which was currently erupting (smoke and ash clouds).
The peak to the left, just behind the hill, is erupting.
Agricultural terraces from Incan days.
Taking the single track took longer than we expected, and we had to book it back into Chivay to catch our bus. Not easy to do at high elevation!
The bus ride back was interesting. On the way out, we’d passed most of the ride in the dark, so couldn’t see much, but enjoyed talking with a Canadian couple who were doing the same thing we were. On our way back, we sat next to the same couple again and enjoyed trading adventures from the last couple of days.
The road between Chivay and Arequipa goes over some REALLY high land. In that bus, we got to the highest elevation we have ever been (topping the hike the week before) at over 16,000′. From the top, which is a broad plain, you can look out and see El Misti and several other volcanoes which are close to 20,000′ elevation. Crazy high. We also passed a pack of camelids – alpacas, llamas, and others, crossing the road. Our guidebook said you could find 3 of the 4 South American camelid species here, the fourth being the Guanacos we had seen in Torres del Paine.
Next stop: Arequipa, Peru. Also known as the “White City” and the second largest city in Peru.
Arequipa is the launching point for a number of outdoor adventures. From here, climbers have access to several very tall peaks, including El Misti, over 19,000′ and non-technical. The city is also not far from Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. We came here with a rough plan of going to see Colca Canyon and possibly hike down into it.
In the meantime, we had some extra time in Arequipa, and explored a bit of the White City. You can see where it gets its nickname:
These are both taken in the main square. We also toured through an old Dominican convent, the Santa Catalina Monastery. It was built in 1579, and accepted only high-bred Spanish girls. Tradition at the time dictated that a second son or daughter from wealthy families would enter a monastery. Many of these girls brought beautiful and expensive things with them, including many sets of fine china still on display. Though the life of a nun here was supposed to be isolated from the world (this was a cloistered community), stories of the early days include having singers and other entertainers brought in and parties. Distance from Europe and the Pope encouraged a more laid-back attitude. In 1871, the Pope sent a sister to reform the monastery and bring it back in line.
The monastery is notable for its bright colors and living quarters that must have been somewhat luxuriant for a nun at the time, but seem ascetic to us now.
Nun’s spoke to any visitors through these grills in the wall. Because they were cloistered, they were not allowed to see any visitors.
Simple living quarters. Some were more ornate than others, with many having fine china and other expensive gifts or heirlooms from home.
Another favorite of ours in Arequipa was the many rotisserie chicken restaurants. Rotisserie chicken is a favorite dish of Peruvians, kind of like a not-quite-so-bad-for-you fast food. We enjoyed some great chicken here at several places in our short stay. 🙂
After our arduous trek through the Andes and a two hour hike in the dark along the railroad line, we arrived at Aguas Calientes. This tourist trap of a town sits below Machu PIcchu and is the access point for travelers all over the world to see this Incan marvel. The town was a shock after 5 days in the mountains: a bustling little place chock full of overpriced western-style restaurants and loud tourists.
The next day after a nice big breakfast, we caught the bus up to the ruins. We decided to climb up first to get a good panoramic view of the site:
One of the most impressive things about Machu Picchu is its setting. Set atop a small mountain and surrounded by taller peaks with a river running below. Very picturesque. Another impressive part of the site is the tight-fitting stonework, found especially at the Temple of the Sun (pictures farther down).
It is unknown now what the site was originally constructed for. Theories include defense, religious, and a retreat for the Incan king. It was never discovered by (and thence not looted by) the Spanish, which is why it is so well-preserved today. The site was built in the 15th century but abandoned in the next century when the Spanish invaded Peru. It only became known to the wider world in 1911 as the result of work by the American Hiram Bingham. When he “discovered” it, the site was completely overgrown by jungle. Must have been quite a challenge to uncover everything!
Some obligatory standard pictures of Machu Picchu:
Other interesting views:
And a few interesting features:
A ladder of sorts between terrace steps
I think this was used for sacrifices?
The Temple of the Sun – some of the best stonework of the site is found here
Closeup of the curved portion of the Temple of the Sun. Built on a bedrock, you can see how tightly the stones are fitted together for this building. No mortar.
For contrast with the Temple, here’s some poorer stonework. Most stonework at Machu Picchu is somewhere in between these in quality.
Water running through the city in a stairway of fountains. We filled (and treated) our water bottles at another stone fountain nearby.
A sundial-like stone table on a high point. Apparently not actually a sundial.
A massive rock carved to look like the mountains in the background (if you could see them).
Buildings on top of Wayna PIcchu (the tall spire in the background of the first images)
Steps carved into the stone
We spent several hours wandering around the site and admiring the views. I was charmed by the location and definitely enjoyed seeing Machu Picchu. Jeff thought it was nice, but maybe not worth it – overpriced and overrun with tourists (even on a slow day like we had), and not hugely better than other sites we had seen. On a peak day, the site will see 2500 people. A little different than having the Choquequirao site all to ourselves.
The next day, we took a Peru Rail train out of Aguas Calientes, headed back to civilization. The only ways into Aguas Calientes (and therefore Machu Picchu) are walking or rail (and maybe helicopter). There are no roads in. Pro tip if you go: train tickets from Aguas Calientes to Cusco are quite expensive; you can cut the trip cost in half or more by only taking the rail to Ollantaytambo and catching either a shared taxi back to Cusco (remarkably cheap), or taking buses to Urubamba and then to Cusco.
We had one more adventure before flying out of Cusco. We arrived in Cusco a few hours before our flight, had lunch, and went to collect our stuff from the hostel to head to the airport. At the hostel, we couldn’t find one of the bags we had left. The only person on duty did not speak any English and it took a while to sort out what had happened to the bag…
Short version: the hostel had flooded again in our absence and the storage room had flooded, getting several bags (including one of ours) wet. I’d placed the bags high just in case this happened, but it must have been moved lower. Since the bag had been soaked in sewage water and everything in it was wet, they sent our stuff out to be cleaned and it was currently at the laundromat. Which was a problem, since our flight left in an hour and a half and the laundromat was half an hour away. Once we got this point across, they rushed our clothes and bag back to us and we took a taxi to the airport, barely making our flight. I discovered later that all my toiletry items were in the flooded bag. Most of them had to be tossed. Jeff’s nice new down jacket was also in there and was laundered along with everything else which was nice of them, but very bad for the jacket. He was not pleased. 🙁
Jeff tells about cactus fruits we encountered hiking:
The video cuts off early. The second half of the story is that Jeff’s second attempt at eating these involved picking a bunch and using his pocket knife to scrape off the thorns as he walked. Great idea! Unfortunately, that meant that the thorns fell down and onto his upper legs as he hiked. He was a little jumpy that evening…
From Cusco, we started off on our trek through the Andes. The most popular trek around here is the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. This trail is famous and therefore very busy – they limit the number of people on the trail to 500 per day and require everyone to have a guide (and porters too, I believe). Since we had no desire to share a trail with 498 other people and didn’t really care to be guided, I went searching for alternatives.
The trail we settled on went from a town called Cachora, a few hours from Cusco by bus, to the Inca ruins of Choquequirao (ask Jeff to pronounce that for you – he still can’t quite say it). From Choquequirao we had the option of continuing on to Machu Picchu or returning to Cachora. Our extra time acclimating in Cusco had cut down on our time for the trek, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to make it all the way to MP. We had a trip description from some people who had done the trek in 5 days, so our goal was to see if we could match what they did.
What we didn’t really know going into this was that hiking through the Andes involves huge amounts of up and down through high elevation. Over five days, we climbed and descended more than 20,000 feet and climbed a pass every day. One day we climbed over 7,000 feet and went over a pass around 14,000 feet, and the day after we topped a pass at 15,500 feet, the highest either of us had ever been. The mileage was only about 60 miles total, but was the hardest backpacking trip I’ve ever done. We would get up with the sun every day and hike until dark.
A farmer was herding a mother cow up the trail (with much difficulty). Look at the side of this mule(?) and you’ll see the calf. We saw cattle in some incredible places.
I was still recovering from a cold when we started hiking, and the stress on my body made the cold worse again for several days. I also picked up mild food poisoning for the last couple days, just as we were climbing to our highest pass. These didn’t help make hiking any easier.
Though hard, the trek was also amazing. The scenery in the Andes was spectacular, and since we were at the end of the wet season, everything was super green. It was interesting to go through all the different climactic zones from rainforest to alpine. As high as we got, there was still plenty of mountains higher than we were. As we crested the 14,000 foot pass, we saw a mountain ahead that was waaaay higher than we were. We think it must have been around 20,000 feet high. Because it was still in the wet season, most of the high mountains were covered by clouds most of the time, so we only got a few good views of the really high mountains.
Wild and plant life:
Fog at 14,000 feet
Really high mountains:
We has the hike mostly to ourselves as far as non-native people go. We saw about 6 white folks on our way to Choquequirao, and none at all for the next three days until we intersected with another popular trek. Not that we didn’t see anyone – we passed several small towns and homesteads along the way, and there were local people working on the trail in a few sections as well (who always managed to ask us for a donation, despite already being paid). We decided that the Peruvian trail maintenance happening was actually making the trail a good bit worse in the long run, as they were just taking out rocks and not adding any water channels. A few good rains, and that trail would be a river. I hope they do a better job on the more popular routes. In contrast, the sections of old Inca-made trail we encountered were amazingly well done and well preserved.
Trail made by Incas
To get to Choquequirao, we had to cross a fairly large river. Upon approach, we could see that the bridge across was completely submerged. Even the handrails were under water. Instead of the bridge, we took a cable car across. Nothing new for Jeff, as they have these in the Cascades, but a new experience for me. Kind of terrifying and awesome as you hang over a roaring river pulling yourself across (which was hard for this weak-armed girl).
There’s our bridge. You can barely see the hand rails.
View upstream from the cable car
Jeff in the cable car
We had the ruins of Choquequirao all to ourselves, with just two rangers to keep us company and make sure we didn’t do anything too bad. Apparently hanging our wet tent on the walls was okay though. The ruins were interesting. I’ve heard that they are considered the second best site after Machu Picchu. Though much smaller and with less impressive stonework, they were still very impressive, and maybe more fun since we weren’t sharing them with hundreds of other tourists. This site is known particularly for the llamas which are worked into some of the terrace walls in white stone. It was a bit of a hike down to them and also gave us more perspective on just how big and steep their terraces were. To get back to our trail, the rangers told us to climb up the water channel that once brought water into the site. Definitely would not have been allowed at Machu Picchu. We heard rumors about a proposed gondola into Choquequirao from a town across the valley with road access; if put in, it would really change the experience of the site.
Near the top of the 14k pass, we walked through a mine tailing. I convinced Jeff to stop so we could look for interesting rocks. We quickly found that there were galena deposits here, and spent a while trying to find heavy rocks that might contain galena. Jeff got really into it, and it was hard to pull him away or convince him that we didn’t need to bring every rock home. He still probably ended up carrying ten pounds of rocks for the rest of the trip.
In the valley after this pass, we reached a town called Yanama. Set in a stunningly beautiful place with mountain, valley, and river views, it was a very traditional community and lifestyle with maybe around 30 families. There are no roads into Yanama, though we discovered on our way out the next day that they are putting one in which will no doubt change the town completely. We stayed the night in the yard of a family on the outskirts of town. We also bought some dinner from them (which is likely where there food poisoning came from) and they invited us into their hut. It was interesting to see something of the way they live, cooking on wood fires and with guinea pigs (a local delicacy) running around under foot. A simple but hard life, though they seemed to have enough.
View from the pass at 14,000′
Yanama from above
Where’s the trail go?
The next day we made our way out of Yanama and encountered the bulldozer that is making a road into town. Such a strange sight. We made our way over the highest pass partially on the new road (which was often covered in rock slides) and partially on the old paths. Once down a ways from the pass, we were picked up for the last hour or so of our hike by a passing dump truck and dropped off at the town of Ccolapampa. We’re still not sure how he got the truck as far in as he did but were grateful for the ride. At Ccolapampa, we were hoping to find a hot springs to ease our muscles. It took a while to find though, as the first several people we asked told us it did not exist. When we finally found it, helped by some locals, we found that they are putting in a very nice pool area (clearly for tourists) that is not yet complete – probably what people thought we were looking for. What we used was a small concrete bath put in by locals at the natural hot springs above a roaring river. The path down was steep and sketchy.
View back toward Yanama
View up toward the next pass
Bulldozing a new road
The trail goes up to the saddle on the left at 15,500′ elevation
At the pass. The highest we have ever hiked: 15,500′
The new hot springs pool being constructed
The old concrete tub, used by locals for bathing and tired hikers for soaking
The hot spring pool was directly above a steep drop to a rushing river. You can just see the tub in the middle.
From Ccolopampa, we followed the road for a while before turning off on a path up and over our last ridge toward Machu Picchu. At the top of the ridge was another small ruins site and a great view out toward MP. A large waterfall came pouring out of the rocks on the other side about halfway down, created by a hydroelectric company. At the bottom of the valley we reached the hydroelectric station and mine where we were hoping to catch a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of MP that is only reachable by foot or train. We were too late for the train, so had to walk another two hours along the tracks into town. It was an hour from dark at this point and our flashlights were almost completely out of batteries, so we were happy to find some batteries at the train station and trudged our way into town exhausted but excited by the idea of a shower, bed, and good food.
The ‘cloud forest’ at our last pass that our guide book was so excited about. Turns out it looks just like the Pacific NW!
Our first view of Machu Picchu. Just above my head.
Waterfall above the hydroelectric station. It pours out of the middle of the mountain.
Cusco sits at about 11,000 feet altitude, and is therefore a good place to acclimatize before hiking in the Andes. We had planned to spend 2 nights in Cusco before heading out on our trek, but we did not acclimate as quickly or well as we expected. Instead, we spent 4 nights in town and did a lot of shopping, walking around, and exploring the sites. Cusco has several old colonial Spanish churches and beautiful squares and hills.
This Jesus statue sits on the hills above Cusco, much like the more famous statue in Rio
The Inca site Sacsaywaman lies above the town not far from where we stayed. Through the site has been looted for building material ever since the Spanish conquest, there remain interesting ruins and a very impressive wall with some of the best stonework we saw the whole trip. Huge stones were brought in by slaves (I’m not sure how) and form the base of the walls. There are actually three walls that run parallel to each other in a sawtooth terraced formation. Apparently the original Incas who built Cusco set up the city in the shape of a puma, and the walls of Sacsaywaman are the puma’s teeth. The entrance to these ruins was steep (literally and financially) but worth it.
The Puma’s teeth
Look at that stonework and such large stones!
The city of Cusco spread out beneath us
No mortar. Hand cut stones fit perfectly together
One of our last evenings in Cusco added an extra adventure to our time. During heavy rains one evening, a pipe got blocked somewhere down from our hostal and the place began to flood with sewer water. Absolutely disgusting. We helped set up a fireman line for bailing out the kitchen and main room and bailed out our own bathroom to keep it from spreading to our room. Did I mention this was disgusting? Thankfully none of our stuff got wet.
Usually, we would tend to skip the big cities, but I have a good college friend who now lives in Lima. Erin and her husband Pepe lead missions trips through Peru and are awesome people. We met up with them for a couple of days and they introduced us to a Peruvian favorite dish – roasted chicken and fries. Much better than our roasted chicken at home, and sort of a healthier equivalent to fast food.
Erin also took us downtown so we could see the square and tour a very interesting church. It was an old Franciscan church with impressive artwork, architecture, and catacombs. She also introduced us to a few unusual jungle fruits.
While in Lima, we also enjoyed checking out the Inca market and buying fun souvenirs. Jeff is perfecting his haggling skills.
A jungle-fruit flavored popsicle and Lima’s main square
To recover from backpacking in Torres del Paine, we spent a few days in Chile’s lake district in Pucon. A definite tourist town with a special emphasis toward adventure sports. We arrived late one evening in the pouring rain and went searching for a campground. We were thoroughly exhausted and frustrated with each other by the time we got the tent set up. But we were greeted by a beautiful morning:
Pucon is known for hot springs and for being close to Volcan Villarca, a fairly easily climbable active volcano. We thought about climbing it, but iffy weather and the cost of tour groups you had to join to do it deterred us and we instead went out on an impromptu backpacking trip in Huerquehue national park.
Totally different vegetation and scenery than southern Chile. This area was heavily forested and clearly quite wet. We did a 2 day out and back trip through the hills to a natural hot springs. Longish days through forest and by many beautiful lakes. Not too many views, but still pretty. The hot springs were wonderful. So refreshing and secluded; we had the baths almost to ourselves and decided we should do more trekking to hot springs in the future. The way back was less fun as it rained all day. The rain was fine for a few hours, but once I was completely wet, backpacking became much less fun. I’m learning to hike in rain but am still definitely a fair weather camper!
Never have I been to a park with so many annoying rules.
Nor have I ever been to a park where the rules are so little enforced.
I think we broke every rule the park had. And no one cared.
A few examples:
Trails have closing times.
What?! Apparently they don’t want inexperienced people on the trails after dark. We obey this rule for about a day, until we see others break it with impunity. I have a feeling that we never again obeyed that rule. Jeff and I prefer (okay mostly Jeff) to get up late and hike later in the day. Many days we didn’t get on the trail until 2. We developed a bit of a reputation among our fellow backpackers. One day we started on a section of trail probably several hours after its closing time and were approached by a ranger as we started. I figured for sure he’d make us turn around, but after talking to him for a minute, he waved us on. Clearly the rangers don’t care too much about their rules either.
(I don’t have a picture for this one, so here’s a pretty flower)
Camp only in designated camping areas.
Okay, I understand this one. Given that there are at least 40 – 200 backpackers on each section of trail every day, if camping anywhere were allowed, the park would be destroyed. Still annoying. Nearly all designated camping areas are privately run and cost anywhere from $8 to $16 per person per night. Talk about expensive back country camping! We only broke this one once. On a section of trail with a ridiculous span between viable campgrounds. We later discovered that the closed campground we would have preferred to camp in actually accepts campers if you arrive late enough. Probably to avoid what we did. Oops.
Never hike off trail.
Anyone who knows us well will understand how hard it is for Jeff and I to obey this one, as we love to hike cross country. We did a good job until the last day, when we had an extra day and decided to see if we could climb a peak near the towers. I was nervous about being caught all day (Jeff is better about breaking rules than I am), but we had an awesome hike and saw the best views we had all trip. We also saw some deer that we later discovered are very endangered.
We came away with a renewed appreciation for the maintenance of American trails. Chile’s CONAF did a ridiculously poor job of maintaining sections of the trail, ultimately creating more work for themselves in the future as the trails get torn up.
Really hope those ropes hold!
There are two main backpacking options in the park – the ‘W’ and the ‘O’ (also known as the circuit). We chose to do the ‘O’, which is the ‘W’ plus the backside of the park. The W section was awesome and well worth doing. The rest of the O, however, was not worth the extra time with one exception – the Grey Glacier as viewed from the pass was great.