Floating on Lake Titicaca

Our last stop in Peru was the dizzyingly-high city of Puno. At almost 4000m above sea level, coming here straight from the coast will require you to take it easy or risk serious altitude sickness. However, we’d already spent weeks in high-elevation Cusco and Arequipa already, so we were fairly well acclimatized.

Lake Titicaca, Peru

The beautiful Lake Titicaca

Puno is a chaoatic, compact little city. It’s a convenient stop for people travelling between Peru’s larger cities and La Paz, Bolivia and a gateway for those wanting to visit Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake (there are a lot of higher, smaller lakes but boats are unable to navigate through them). Floating on the lake, it feels like you’re on top of the world, as the skies melt into the mirror-like lake.

Lake Titicaca, Peru

The lake is also home to the unique sight of floating reed islands. These man-made islands were made centuries ago and are still inhabited by the indigenous people who constantly refresh the islands by adding new reeds to the surface, as older reeds at the bottom disintegrate. The reeds, which are plentiful in the lake, are also used to make their huts, furniture, and boats.

Lake Titicaca reeds

The reeds that grow in Lake Titicaca

We had a few hours free one morning, so we decided to visit the nearby Uros Floating Island to get a taste of what the Uros lives are like.

Uros floating islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

The Uros Floating Islands

We’ve read some reviews that these short 3-hour tours can seem very superficial and shallow, due to the repetitive nature of these tours. But I personally found our tour very interesting and informative.

Uros floating islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

The island ladies waiting to greet us as we arrived at their island.

The Uros islands are a group of about 70 islands grouped together – each island has its own “mayor”, who’s responsible for overseeing life on that specific island. The island we visited had 5 families living together and they eagerly welcomed us into their homes.

Uros floating islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Our guide was very enthusiastic about demonstrating how the islands were built and maintained. The mayor, who had quite the sense of humour, was also very involved in the demonstration and it was very entertaining to watch them interact. (Mayor: “the good thing about floating islands is that, if you don’t like your neighbour, you can just pull up their island anchor late at night and then you won’t have to deal with them the next morning“)

Uros floating islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Our guide demonstrating how the reed islands are built and maintained

We spent the morning wandering into their huts, checking out their handicrafts, and admiring their traditional clothing. At times, it was a little scary walking on the reed island – there were several spots that felt like you can easily fall right through the reeds

Huts on Uros floating reed island

Jason peeking into one of their huts

Uros floating islands (Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Chatting with the mayor of the island we visited: “So what is your next electorial campaign based on?”

Jason picked up a piece of dried reed off the floor of the island and braided this bracelet for me – an authentic little keepsake!

Reed bracelet

The bracelet Jason made for me

Who knew Jason had accessory-making skills? This guy never fails to amaze me. Maybe we can continue funding our travels through his newly-discovered skill? Would you buy one? 🙂

Trekking into the Colca Canyon

After a restful week in Arequipa, we were ready for another beat-down trekking adventure. Arequipa is a main launching point for the surrounding canyon country and Jason had been itching to trek the Colca Canyon, which is about 200km north of Arequipa.

Colca Canyon, Peru

View of the Colca Canyon from the start of the hike

The Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s spectacular natural sights, although it’s often overshadowed by the country’s other attractions (i.e. Machu Picchu). It’s twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in the United States and is actually the world’s second deepest canyon – just few kilometers shallower than the nearby Cotahausi Canyon.

We decided to set up our base in nearby Chivay, a popular market town that still retains a lot of its traditional country origins.

Chivay, Peru

Town of Chivay, Peru

Chivay, Peru

The market bustling in the mornings in Chivay, Peru

It’s a logical entry point into the canyon country, and holds it own with many hiking trails and some of the most impressive and expansive Incan farm terracing on the continent.

Incan terraces from Coporque to Yanque, Peru

Incan terraces along our bike ride

We spent our first day in Chivay on rented bikes, touring the surrounding smaller towns further up the valley.

Scenery around Chivay, Peru

Beautiful day for a bike ride (Chivay, Peru)

We started off making our way to the nearby town of Coporaque. There are a couple of ruins in the small town but we didn’t stop long. Out of Coporaque is a (mainly) downhill ride to the orange bridge which crosses the Rio Colca and brings you into Yanque.

Rio Colca, Peru

Unfortunately, the downhill out of Coporaque meant a crazy uphill from Yanque back to Chivay. My thighs are burning just thinking about it.

Donkey Crossing in Chivay, Peru

Warning: Donkey Crossing

Just a warning to non-bikers: it is NOT a quick ride. We were told it’s a quick 2-3 hours bike tour. We took about 5-6 hours because we were not anticipating the intense uphill riding (i.e. walking our bikes uphill) we encountered at the end of our circuit.

Biking around canyon country, Peru

Biking and photography at the same time!

Successfully warmed up, we embarked on our 2D/1N trek into the Colca Canyon the next day. Although almost all tour companies in Chivay offer Colca Canyon treks, it’s pretty easy to do the trek solo.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Trekking into Colca Canyon

To properly experience Colca Canyon trekking, you have to make it as far as the little town of Cabanaconde. (Only about 20% of Colca Canyon visitors get this far – most only make it to the scenic viewpoint of Cruz del Condor). The shortest way to the canyon floor is the 2-3 hour hike from Cabanaconde to Sangalle (aka ‘the oasis’).

Colca Canyon, Peru

It’s a 1200m descent on steep, zigzagging paths, where upon reaching the bottom of the canyon, you can stay overnight in basic thatched-roof bungalows (S/.15 or CDN $7/pp) or campgrounds.

Colca Canyon, Peru

The ‘oasis’ is almost immediately visible once you start the trek into the Colca, but like any desert oasis, it’s deceptively far. (and here’s hoping it’s not just a beautiful mirage)

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

View of Sangalle (the oasis) from afar

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Getting closer to the oasis!

After 2.5 hours of watching the oasis grow closer and closer, we finally made it.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

What the oasis looks like, up close and personal

Sangalle (“the oasis) is beautiful. A rich patch of green bound in by the Rio Colca and the sheer canyon walls.

Rio Colca, Sangalle, Peru

Rio Colca cutting through the Colca Canyon

Bungalows (Sangalle, Peru)

The little bungalows we stayed in while in Sangalle.

With no electricity, no phones, and no internet access, there was no choice but for us to relax. I even finally perfected the art of lounging in a hammock!

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Thanks to Jason’s tutelage:

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

After a evening of candlelight dining (out of necessity, not romance), card-playing, and star-gazing, we called it a night.

The next day, we left around 8am to start the tough climb out of the canyon. We were told it’ll take 3-4 hours, so we wanted to start in the cooler morning air. I’m a slower trekker than Jason, so I decided to get a head start on the trail, while Jason was packing up.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Goodbye beautiful oasis!

As I was climbing up, I noticed that the trail seemed much narrower and steeper than the climb down. ‘How did I climb down this yesterday, with such ease?‘, I found myself wondering. Typically, the climb down requires more concentration than the climb up, since the trail is covered with loose rocks. Any momentary lapse in concentration would likely result in me losing my footing and slipping (not enough to make me fall flat on my arse, but enough to make me concentrate hard for the next 30 minutes).

Colca Canyon, Peru

Concentrating on the trek down

However, on the climb up, I was concentrating way too hard for it to seem right. After about 20 minutes up, I realized that I had taken the wrong trail (Groan!) And by ‘wrong trail’ I meant the crazy-steep, really narrow trail that perhaps only mountain goats were sure-footed enough to take. So I had to turn around, edge slowly back down, and start all over again. By then, Jason had already caught up with me! So much for my head start 😛

On top of that, (oh, you’re gonna laugh) after we trekked up for about half an hour, I suddenly realized that I had left my iPhone in our bungalow. Back in the oasis. Back at the bottom of the canyon!

So Jason decided that I should keep on going, while he turned back around to trek back down into the oasis to get it. He gave all his valuables to me, tied his backpack to a nearby post, and sprinted back down. I continued my slow ascent up the canyon. Every 10 minutes or so, I would turn around and see if I could catch a glimpse of him.

Two and a half hours later, I was finishing the last leg of the trek out of the canyon and I still hadn’t caught sight of him. I was really getting worried – until some power trekkers caught up with me near the top and told me that they had seen my husband (i.e. the only other Asian person in the canyon) further down. About 20 minutes after I reached the top, he rounded the corner into view.

And he had my iPhone with him. That’s my hero! 🙂

Colca Canyon, Peru

My hero!

Eating: (and Savouring) Arequipa

Our next stop was Arequipa, Peru – a beautiful city surrounded by impressive volcanoes on the country’s southern coast.

El Misti, Arequipa Peru

The majestic El Misti volcano that’s visible from almost anywhere in the city of Arequipa, Peru

After finishing the rather tough trek to Machu Picchu, Jason and I just wanted to sprawl out in relative comfort for a few days. So we rented a beautiful little apartment in a Spanish-style house for a week – complete with a full patio set and a fancy, modern BBQ!

Spanish-colonial house in Arequipa, Peru

Our home in Arequipa for the week!

We made immediate use of the BBQ upon arrival. We picked up some summer eats (i.e. chicken, vegetables for grilling) even though we’re in the middle of winter here in Peru.

Arequipa, Peru

Jason in his natural element – barbequing meat

Eating on the patio in Arequipa, Peru

Me, in my natural element – eating!

It was great to be able to cook up something that reminded us of Toronto in the summer – chicken on the barbeque, grilled veggies and cold beer!

Arequipa, Peru

Another fantastic home-cooked meal by Jason

Arequipa is a very liveable city: beautiful little neighbourhoods, an impressive main square, and clean, pedestrian-friendly streets.

Arequipa's main square

The palm-tree lined main square of Arequipa

It felt very different from drab Lima and tourist-choked Cusco. We actually didn’t check out many of the tourist attractions while we stayed in Arequipa.. Instead, we just “lived” in Arequipa for the week: walking into the city every day, window-shopping, checking out cafes, people-watching, grocery-shopping, and of course eating food.

Eating ice cream on Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

Eating ice cream on the pedestrian-only Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

We spent an afternoon walking around and eating whatever looked good to us.

Ceviche in Arequipa, Peru

Ceviche: a must-have in Peru. This dish pictures here cost us 11 Soles (CDN $5)! It might be a little sketchy to have cheap ceviche, but we lucked out with this dish – so delicious and fresh!

Portuguese-style tart in Arequipa, Peru

Portuguese-style tart – as delicious as it looks!

A strange thing I kept seeing on the streets of Arequipa were these little stands that were labelled with the words “Queso Helado”. I looked up the definition – it literally translates to “Iced Cheese”. Sounds gross, yes? I tried it anyway.

It tasted delicious – sweet, light, icy, creamy with a touch of cinnamon. Upon further research, I found out that this delicious dessert had nothing to do with cheese. It uses the unfortunate description of cheese because of the way it looks when you prepare it. It actually consists of sweet milk and sometimes a touch of coconut or cinnamon for flavour.

Queso Helado in Arequipa, Peru

Queso Helado stand: she scoops out the sweet, icy treat into little plastic cups and sprinkles a bit of cinnamon on top. So good!

And then for dinner, nothing says Peruvian cuisine like cuy (guinea pig). The thing to do in Peru is to try this delicacy. In Cusco, they bake it which dries it out a bit. We were advised to try cuy in Arequipa where they fry it, which helps retain some of its juices. But we were going to do something completely different: we were going to prepare our own cuy! Warning: kind of gory picture coming up!

Pre-cleaned cuy (guinea pig) from the butcher

Cuy (guinea pig) cleaned and gutted by our local butcher.

I debated awhile as to whether I wanted to try cuy in Peru. I knew it was a delicacy and people had told me about what it’s like (note: it’s a little gamey, not very meaty, and tastes like chicken). You see, I had a guinea pig as a pet when I younger. I have a personal thing about never eating any animal that I would own as a pet (i.e. dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, cat, bunnies). However, Jason mentioned that I owed it to my blog to try cuy – since the blog is partially about our travel adventures in food. So I put my big-girl pants on and bit the bullet (or guinea pig?), and made the conscious decision to try the Peruvian delicacy.

We bought some Peruvian spices, picked up a pre-cleaned cuy from the local butcher, and some more grilling vegetables. Warning: another kind of disturbing picture coming up!

Marinating cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Marinating the cuy. Jason kept putting the guinea pig in these little poses. Sigh.

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Cuy on the barbie

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

The finished product: barbequed cuy with grilled vegetables.

The guinea pig was actually as described: tasted like chicken and not very meaty. Not my favourite thing to eat, but it was better than expected.

The next night, to make up for the traumatic experience of eating an animal that can be a pet, we went out for a nice, fancy dinner. Date night! Our first one since we started our travels over a month ago.

Zingaro in Arequipa, Peru

Date night at Zingaro

Travelling for 6 months means we have to stick to a pretty strict budget. Jason and I typically stick to street stalls, little hole-in-walls, or places that seem to serve mostly locals – which is totally fine by us since we prefer to eat that way. But once in a while, it’s nice to scrub the backpacker dirt off our faces and get all dolled up for a nice night out.

Bread basket at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Complimentary bread basket! We haven’t seen that at any of our meals since we left Canada. Why yes, I’ll have 5 refills please.

Our rare splurges requires quite a bit of research though, since we don’t want to walk into just any ol’ tourist-trap restaurant. We checked online for restaurant reviews, read through all the comments, cross-referenced it with travel blogger recommendations, and then cross-referenced it some more with other travel literature. Sounds a little obsessive-compuslive, eh? Well, when we only get to splurge once a month, it better be on a really well-prepared meal.

Zingaro kitchen (Arequipa, Peru)

We got a prime spot where we watched the chefs at work in Zingaro. They weren’t messing around – it looks like an episode of Iron Chef in there all night.

We ended up choosing Zingaro for a few reasons: 1) we wanted to have traditional Peruvian cuisine 2) it looked like the restaurant catered to locals and tourists.

Jason and I had slightly different impressions of our the meal. He wasn’t that fond of it, I thought it was fan-frickin-tastic! I’m perhaps a little biased because seafood is probably my favourite food group.

For an appetizer, we ordered the rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers), which is made using the very spicy rocoto pepper (which looks deceptively like a normal red bell pepper). Good thing both Jason and I love spicy food, otherwise we would’ve both been pretty surprised by how spicy the pepper was. It’s stuffed with ground meat, egg, olives, and then covered with melted cheese. It was amazing. I, unfortunately, don’t have a good picture for you, since we gobbled it down before I even remembered to take a picture of it. This is what it looked like, if you’re curious.

I ordered the chupa de camerones (shrimp chowder) – but it actually translates literally to ‘suckage of shrimp’. Which doesn’t sound as appealing….but might be more accurate. Why, you ask? Because this hearty bowl urn of soup is filled to the brim with succulent, suck-able shrimp and crayfish. The aromatic broth seeps into the shells, heads, and tails of the shrimp – just begging you to slurp the deliciousness up with happy abandon. Then, there’s still the flavourful potatoes, corn, egg, and melted cubes of cheese to savour after all the ‘suckage’. Seriously, a bowl of heaven. (Gimme a second while I close my eyes and reminisce).

Chupa de camarones at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Chupa de camarones (shrimp chowder) – a bowl of deliciousness

Jason ordered the ceviche – which he thought was too chewy, but I adored. It was the way ceviche is supposed to be prepared – with pieces of raw fish that’s marinated in citrus and hot peppers. I’ve noticed that a lot of ceviche we’ve had uses cooked fish (which might be safer), but a really good restaurant will use sushi-quality fish to prepare it. The few pieces of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the citrus juices was perfection.

Ceviche at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Delicious and fresh ceviche

Arequipa definitely served up some delicious delights. Some of the ones mentioned above originated specifically from Arequipa (i.e. chupa de camerones, rocoto rolleno, queso helodo), so make sure to definitely seek those out if you’re ever in this wonderfully gastronomic city.

Machu Picchu: It’s All About the Journey…

…and I guess, a little about the destination too.

Having started our 6 months of travel with hardly more planned than a one-way ticket out of Canada, we found ourselves in Peru without anything booked for our visit to Machu Picchu.

There are several ways to see South America’s most popular tourist attraction, but we knew we wanted to trek our way to the famous ruins. (Interesting little tidbit from our guide: most people take the train to see Machu Picchu, only about 20% trek). 

PeruRail - train to Machu Picchu

The train that takes you to and from Machu Picchu (PeruRail). We opted against taking it to Machu Picchu. But there was no way we’d pass up the return trip after 4 days of trekking!

The most popular trek is the classic Inca Trail but since the Peruvian government has restricted the number of Inca Trail trekkers, only 500 people can take that trail up a day (including guides, porters, donkeys…ok, not donkeys).  As a result, it has become nearly impossible to book the Inca Trail unless you’ve done a bit of planning beforehand.  During the high season (which we’re in right now), the trail is booked up months in advance.  And since we had no idea when we’d be in Peru when we first started out travels, we were out of luck when it came to the Inca Trail.

Luckily for us, there are several great alternative trekking routes to Machu Picchu that don’t require booking way in advance.  Jason did some research and after comparing the available routes, we decided that the Salkantay Trek was right up our alley.

Salkantay Trek, Peru

The Salkantay Trek

It’s a demanding, longer, and more scenic trek to Machu Picchu than the Inca Trail.  Available in a 4D/3N or 5D/4N option, we naively chose the 4D/3N option thinking it may be a little easier.  Wrong!  The shorter trek is more difficult, we discovered –  as we had to cover the same ground but in a shorter amount of time.

Peak of Salkantay Moutain, Peru

Our first glimpse of Salkantay Mountain from afar. We’ll be coming to within 1500m of its peak.

As for which trekking company to go with, we researched quite a few companies and read tons of reviews, as we wanted to make sure we chose an ethical and eco-friendly trekking company.  There are a lot of trekking companies out there, but not all treat and pay their porters well and some do not care about keeping the environment clean and carrying all the waste back out of the trekking route.  It came down to two companies that seemed to offer all the things we were looking for – the well-established Llama Path and the newer but well-reviewed Inca Trekkers.  After reading up on the differences between the two companies, we decided to go with Inca Trekkers as we felt a newer company would likely ‘go the extra mile’ in terms of offering their clients an excellent experience, as opposed to a well-established company that already had the benefit of building a good reputation (i.e. comments on TripAdvisor confirmed the growing complacency of Llama Path).  Looking back, we really appreciated the things that Inca Trekkers did do to go that extra mile (i.e. holding the briefing session in the comforts of your hostel, bringing you back to your hostel after the trek instead of ending the tour in Aguas Calientes – the town at the foothills of Machu Picchu).

One more bonus: on a tour that typically consists of 12-16 people, it would just be Jason and I! Score!

Oh, and If you want a more detailed itinerary of the 4D/3N Salkantay Trek, click here.

Day 1: It’s all Uphill from Here

On the brilliantly sunny first day, we started off hiking to the highest point of the trek – a breathtaking high pass of 4700m (called Salkantay Pass) right next to the spectacular, snow-covered peaks of Salkantay mountain (6270m).

Soraypampa - start of Salkantay Trek

At the beginning of our trek in Soraypampa with our guide, Hugo. You can see the giant peak of Salkantay looming in the background.

This scenery was magnificent – glacier peaks on our right, green mountain tops on our left.  We even spotted a couple of Condors – Peru’s national bird.  (It’s supposedly good luck when you spot one – so we hoped this was a good sign for the upcoming couple of days).

Approaching Salkantay Mountain, Peru

Approaching Salkantay Mountain. You can appreciate the sheer size of the mountain by comparing it to the people on horses at the bottom of the picture.

The 3-hour uphill battle was the hardest part of the 4-day trek.  The incredibly thin air at that altitude (the highest we’d been, at that point) meant that you feel like you’re sprinting up the mountain.  Your heart is racing, you’re gasping for oxygen that doesn’t exist, and your legs can barely plod forward.  We had to constantly stop every couple of minutes to catch our breath.  High altitude climbing is really difficult, even with all the extra precautions we took: taking pills to prevent altitude sickness (soroche, as its known in Latin America), eating chocolate to increase our blood glucose levels, sipping water to stay hydrated. 

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Jason posing for a Salkantay Trek ad 😛

People were not kidding when they tell you to make sure you acclimatize in Cusco (3300m) for a few days before doing this trek.  Otherwise, you might have to turn around and head back down before the trek even starts.

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Finally reached our lunch spot! We’re at a breathless 4200m here.

We stopped for lunch at a plateau near the top and had some deliciously hot chicken soup, avocado salad, fried trout and rice, and hot cups of tea.  Quite possibly the best lunch ever after trekking in the freezing cold temperatures for 3 hours.  Our chef was amazing and we had him all to ourselves!

Lunch time during Day 1 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Jason, happy as a clam, as we warmed up with hot tea during lunch.

After refueling, we put on a few additional layers of clothing to continue to climb for another hour to reach the top of Salkantay Pass (4700m) – the highest point of our trek.

Salkantay Pass, Peru

Jason and I huffing and puffing at the highest point of our trek – the top of Salkantay Pass. We made it! (barely!)

Then it was downhill for another 2 hours until we reached our camp for the night.  Our tent was already set up and there was hot chocolate, tea, and the best salted popcorn we’ve ever had waiting for us!

Warm water to wash up on Salkantary Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

They provided warm water to wash up! Talk about luxury camping.

Day 1 campsite on Salkantary Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Our home for the next few days. Pretty roomy actually – it had a front “foyer” for us to store our muddy hiking shoes.

Our campsite was at 4200m – the air still really thin and freezing cold!  Once we got into our high-tech sleeping bags, we didn’t want to come back out. I debated for half an hour in my warm sleeping bag before deciding that I really should make one last run to the washroom before heading to sleep.  It was 8:30pm.  When you’re camping with no electricity or even a campfire, it’s pretty  much bedtime when it gets dark.

Day 2: Downhill into the Jungle

Salkantay Peak, Peru

The mountain we slept under and the view we woke up to.

Instead of the usual 6:00am start time, we started at 7:00am since our guide, Hugo, decided that we were actually pretty good trekkers (based on our progress and speed from the first day).  Yay! The extra hour of sleep was very much appreciated since getting out of the warm cocoon of a sleeping back and stepping out into the freezer-like temperatures outside our tent was really REALLY difficult to do.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Wearing every single piece of clothing we brought on the morning of Day 2

We started the day wearing every single piece of clothing we brought with us and spent the next 9 hours hiking downhill from the glacier-covered mountains into the jungle.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Cooling off at the waterfall

Luckily there was cloud cover, or the jungle would’ve felt even more tropical.  We stopped every hour to shed another layer of clothing as we descended deeper and deeper into the valleys of the subtropics.

Descending into the subtropics of Salkantay Trek

About an hour into Day 2 of our trek, we were already into the beginning of the subtropics of Peru.

We reached our lunch spot on a local farm just before the clouds broke and the rain poured!  We had delicious corn chowder and a platter of protein to help heal our aching muscles.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek, Peru

Another delicious lunch!

Jason made friends with some of the farm’s cute little dogs.  They had such wonderful little personalities.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek, Peru

Adorable dogs at the farm where we had lunch

Awww, we totally miss our dog, Weezer.  Gratuitous shot of Weezer 🙂


Our little guy that we left back at home in Toronto

We set off again just as the sun shot out through the clouds.  Perfect timing.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek, Peru

Our guide, Hugo, feeding the dogs on the farm at lunch

The grueling 9-hour trekking day came to an end at a small town near the base of the mountain on which the Llactapata ruins lie.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Random cows relaxing in the middle of the road.

We were hot and sweaty from the long hike through the subtropics, so Jason decided to take a dip in the frigid waters of Rio Urubamba.

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Setting up camp the night of Day 2

He also brought along a bar soap since we hadn’t showered in a couple of days 😛  He said it was actually really refreshing.  By refreshing, he meant his skin felt like it was on fire after dipping into the icy cold waters.

Rio Urumbamba, Peru

Jason debating whether to jump into the icy waters of Rio Urubamba

Before dinner, we talked with our guide, Hugo, as to whether we want to do the 7-hour climb over Llactapata the next day (4 hours up, 3 hours down in poor weather conditions).  It would be a very difficult climb and descent as it was very steep and can be dangerous when it’s rainy.  Jason really wanted to do it since the site of these ruins was part of Hiram Bingham’s original route, but my toes had taken a beating from the entire day of trekking downhill and were in a lot of pain.  Before we arrived in Peru, both Jason and I had read an excellent (and funny) book by Mark Adam called Turn Right at Machu Picchu (2010).  We had wanted to read up more about the history of Machu Picchu and the famous explorer Hiram Bingham who “rediscovered” the ruins in the early 1900s and the book provides an excellent layman’s account of Inca history and a first-person view of the Inca Trail and the alternative routes.

Plaque of Hiram Bingam at Machu Picchu

Plaque of Hiram Bingham (Taken at the entrance of Machu Picchu)

Having read all about Llactapata and its ruins, we both wanted to climb and see the ruins.  It’s been called the “suburb of Machu Picchu” since it’s so close to the forgotten Incan city – you can actually get a clear side view of the entire site of Machu Picchu from Llactapata.

Since Hugo was leaving the decision up to us, I was leaning towards skipping the climb to Llactapata and meeting Jason and Hugo on the other side at the Hydroelectric station.  However, over dinner, Hugo made the executive decision that all three of us would be doing the climb the next day.  He told me that I was a good trekker and was in good shape for the climb since it wasn’t my knees that were bothering me.  If I had any trouble descending from Llactapata then Jason and himself could always help me down.  His confidence in me, along with the finality of his decision, renewed my own confidence in myself.  I was actually excited for the climb now!

Day 2 of Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru

Self-portrait on Day 2 of the trek

After another incredible meal by our chef, Mario, we watched the stars for a bit before settling into our sleeping bags.  It was so much nicer not being in sub-zero temperature. 🙂   We slept early knowing that we had a tough day ahead of us.

Day 3: A Steep Climb up to Llactapata

Salkantay Trek, Peru

Gorgeous mountain scenery on the Salkantay Trek

We started at 6:30am the next morning after a hearty breakfast of sausage, omelettes, and bread.  We got off to a good brisk start and made it up to the top of Llactapata in just under 3 hours.  It was a hot, sunny day so I’m glad we started in the cool, early morning air.  The view of Machu Picchu at the top was pretty awesome – our first glimpse of the famous city!

Machu Picchu from Llactapata

The view of Machu Picchu from Llactapata.  You’ll need to squint a bit, it’s a little hard to see.

The Llactapata ruins themselves were pretty cool – it showed us what Machu Picchu would’ve looked like prior to its rediscovery and restoration.

Llactapata Ruins

The Llactapata ruins – overrun with flora

We sat in the shades of the ruins while Hugo gave us a little Incan history lesson.

Llactapata Ruins

Llactapata Ruins

We then made it back to the bottom in 2 hours (we had the ideal trail conditions – sunny and dry) and then continued for another hour along the river to the Hydroelectric station for lunch.

Day 3 of Salkantay Trek

Trekking towards the Hydroelectric station on Day 3.

After lunch was the last leg of our trek.  After all the uphill through sub-zero temperatures and downhill through the subtropics, you would think the final leg of our trek would be easy – a flat hike in a mild climate along the train tracks from the Hydroelectric station to Aguas Calientes (the small town at the base of Machu Picchu that everyone has to pass through to get to the famous Incan site).  Turns out that the final 3 hours was much harder than anticipated.  By then, our bodies started really complaining from all the abuse.  Our muscles started stiffening up and screaming in pain and we pretty much hobbled our way through the final excruciating hours.

Railroad tracks leading from the Hydroelectric station to Aguas Calientes - Salkantay Trek

Hobbling along the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes

We finally made it into town around 4pm where we flopped down on a patio and had the coldest, best-tasting beer we’ve ever had in our lives.  We checked into our hostal, had our first shower in 3 days, and met Hugo for dinner.  We cleaned up pretty well…Hugo hardly even recognized us.

Dinner at Aguas Calientes

Dinner at Aguas Calientes

Day 4: Machu Picchu

Some people who like to remain purists prefer to hike up from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.  After 3 grueling days of the Salkantay trek, I was so relieved that Hugo had planned for us to take the 20-minute bus ride up from the town to the steps of Machu Picchu.  We lined up on a rainy morning outside the bus stop to catch the 7am bus up.

Terraces of Machu Picchu

Terraces of Machu Picchu

The sky was overcast and drizzly as we entered Machu Picchu.  Hugo decided not to take us out to the look-out spot yet as the entire site was still under cloud cover.  We walked around the site, while Hugo provided us with wonderful little tidbits of information and history.

Perfect Incan stonework at Machu Picchu

Perfect Incan stonework at Machu Picchu – you can’t even fit a knife between the stone blocks.

He’s actually writing a book about certain parts of the ruin  – specifically an acoustic room that allows sound captured in any of the window alcoves to be clearly transmitted to any other window alcove in the room – kind of like transmitting sounds through tin cans and string but…without any tin cans or string 😛

Acoustic Room in Machu Picchu

Jason appreciating the sounds of the Acoustic Room in Machu Picchu

After the tour, Jason and I had time to wander around the site by ourselves.  We waited patiently for the cloud cover to lift so that we can take a few photos of the entire site.

Foggy Machu Picchu

Waiting for the cloud cover to lift at Machu Picchu

We trekked the 20-minutes to the nearby Incan drawbridge. Pretty scary trek as there are parts that that are only 2 feet wide and then a sheer drop into oblivion.  Jason, who is quite afraid of heights, caressed the rock wall the entire route there.

Incan drawbridge, Machu Picchu

Jason timidly peeking beyond the drop, on the way to the Incan drawbridge

You can only take a picture of the bridge from afar now, since in 2005 a visitor crossed the bridge and sadly fell to his death.

Incan drawbridge, Machu Picchu

The Incan drawbridge can be seen in the lower right part of the photo

We wandered back to the Machu Picchu ruins to discover the clouds slowly lifting!  Hugo had told us that sometimes, the clouds  never lift and disappointed guests have to go home without ever glimpsing the ruins in full.

Machu Picchu

Fog lifting over Machu Picchu (finally!)

Machu Picchu

Another selfie in front of Machu Picchu

The views are really quite spectacular up there.  The clouds that linger around the mountain tops lend such a mysterious aura around the entire lost city.  It’s interesting to think that experts are still trying to accurately figure out why this place was built in the first place.

Cloud-covered mountains near Machu Picchu

Mysterious cloud-covered mountains near Machu Picchu

Even with the crowds of tourists swarming around the site, Machu Picchu still manages to remain mysterious and full of secrets.

Eating: Nazca Street Food

I would never have guessed that Nazca would be such a good street food destination. Jason and I were reminiscing about our honeymoon in Vietnam and how the street food there was so delicious.  We missed being able to walk down a street, stop at a stall to gawk at what the locals were eating, and then order whatever they were having. Colombia and northern Peru didn’t have much of a street food scene – which happens to be our favourite way to sample local food.

However, when the sun dipped below the horizon in Nazca, street food vendors started coming out of nowhere and setting up shop along the main streets (much to our surprise and delight!).

The first vendor we saw setting up at twilight was a woman who was grilling mystery meat.  We ordered a skewer and was surprised by how delicious it was.  Super tender and tasty! Yum!

Nazca Street Food

Grilled mystery meat in Nazca

We followed our noses down the street (FYI, all the street vendors were within a 2-block radius of each other), and discovered a guy grilling more mystery meat.  This time, the street vendor was serving miscellaneous grilled chicken parts (i.e. liver, feet, hearts, etc).  It was really tasty, but Jason wasn’t too fond of the crunchiness of the cartilage. I thought it was delicious though.

Grilled chicken everything (Nazca, Peru)

Grilled chicken everything (feet, cartilege, heart, kidneys)

My favourite street food find was a Chicken Noodle Soup (Caldo de Gallina).  Her stall was packed with people. so we knew that was a good sign.  She served the huge bowls of noodle, chicken, and hard-boiled egg in a delicious herbed broth, along with a bowl of maize kernels, and homemade hot sauce.  At this point in our travels, I was really craving noodle soup like crazy (noodle soup being one of my favourite meals).  And this really hit the spot.  Really reminded me of Vietnamese street food actually.  Steamy, delicious goodness.

Caldo de Gallina - Nazca, Peru

Caldo de Gallina – Chicken noodle soup

Our last street food stop was a woman who had set up a deep-fryer on the street.  She was deep-frying rings of dough into the lightest, fluffy, homemade doughnuts.  She included a packet of honey, which you drizzled over top of the crispy delights.  She was even cool enough to pose for my picture 🙂

Homemade donut (Nazca, Peru)

The woman made the most addictive donuts right on the street. Fluffy, light, and crispy on the outside.

The amazing street food experience in Nazca definitely upped the overall appeal of this sunbaked little town.

Nazca Lines vs. Sandboarding Cerro Blanco

Natural mirador in Nazca, Peru

The natural look-out point in Nazca

We were told that visiting Nazca without seeing the Nazca Lines is like visiting Cuzco and not seeing Machu Picchu.

Or for a more Canadian reference, it’s like visiting Toronto and not seeing the CN Tower (But that’s actually very difficult to do since the CN Tower is pretty impossible to miss if you visit Toronto, so that’s probably not a great analogy).

Anyways, Jason and I have indeed managed to visit Nazca and not see the Nazca Lines.  Which we did not regret at all.

One of the little plazas in Nazca, Peru

Little plaza in Nazca

Nazca is a small, sun-baked town in Peru’s southern coastal region.  Its star attraction is the Nazca Lines, a series of mysterious lines forming various animal and geometric shapes (like the monkey, spider, or hummingbird) – some as big as a football field.  You can only really see them clearly from the air, and the town is full of airline companies waiting to take you on a 40-minute flight over the lines.

View of the Nazca desert from the PanAmerican Highway

Panorama of Nazca desert

During the high season, the cost of a flight over the Nazca Lines is about CDN $90/pp.  While Jason and I both share the belief that, when traveling, you shouldn’t let costs prevent you from doing something you really want to experience – after weighing the benefits vs. costs of seeing the lines from the air, we both came to the conclusion that we were totally okay with skipping the Nazca Lines flight.  We did some additional research that confirmed our suspicion that, although the sight of the lines during optimal conditions are pretty amazing, there were a lot of discouraging stories of crowded planes, poor context-setting by the guides (if any), crazy motion sickness on the tiny aircrafts, and just a general let-down after seeing the lines.

Mirador viewing tower in Nazca, Peru

Mirador viewing tower

We found out that you can catch a (slightly askew) glimpse of three of the Nazca line figures from the Mirador viewing tower just 20 minutes out of town, so we caught a local bus and paid 2 soles (CDN $0.70) to climb to the top of the tower.

Mirador viewing tower in Nazca, Peru

Mirador viewing tower – the next best thing for viewing the Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines from the Mirador Viewing Tower in Nazca, Peru

Our view of the Nazca Lines from the top of the Mirador Viewing Tower.

The view of the lines wasn’t that great but we could definitely appreciate the enormity of the shapes.  The landscape of the desert itself was worth the trip to the Mirador viewing tower.

On the natural mirador in Nazca, Peru

Awesome desert scenery

The next day, we used the money we saved on something we both really wanted to try: sandboarding on Cerro Blanco – the world’s largest sand dune!  Standing at an impressive 2078m, it’s just roughly 100m shy of Whistler Mountain in British Colombia, Canada.

Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Near the peak of Cerro Blanco

Our trip started at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, where we were driven to the edge of the mountains that surround the sand dune.  Inaccessible by sand buggies, we would have to hike at least 3 hours to get to the top of the behemoth.

Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

On our trek to Cerro Blanco. You can see the Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, far off in the background.

Combine searing desert heat with the high elevation, it’s quite a dizzying hike up to the top.  It takes about 1.5 hours just to get to the base of the sand dune and as you look up to the top of monster sand dune, it takes every effort just to not turn around and go home.

Approaching Cerro Blanco

Approaching Cerro Blanco. Trust me, it’s a lot bigger in person! (TWSS – for you, Kpoo)

At the foot of Cerro Blanco

Cerro Blanco looks like a small pile of sand behind us. To accurately picture its size, imagine a sand-covered version of Whistler Mountain in the background.

But as we neared the top and starting taking in the eye-popping views, we were glad to have soldiered on.

Climbing up the sand dunes on Cerro Blanco

Climbing up one of many sand dunes

Climbing up the sand dunes on Cerro Blanco

Climbing up one of many sand dunes

The smooth sand dunes against the dry Andean mountain ranges made for some surreal landscapes.

On top of Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Gorgeous view from atop the sand dune

On our way to the top, we practiced on some smaller dunes.

Sandboard practice on Cerro Blanco

Trying not to fall

Sandboard practice on Cerro Blanco

Trying not to eat sand

When we finally reached the top, we strapped in for the crazy vertical drop.

On top of Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Finally! We made it!

Our guide quickly made the sign of the cross with his hands before dropping off (what seemed like) the edge of the earth.

At the top of the highest vertical drop on Cerro Blanco

Smiling to hide the intense fear!

We had no choice but to follow him.  From the top to the bottom, it takes 25 minutes going at top speed.  We took over an hour to get down 😛

From halfway down Cerro Blanco

The view up  from halfway down Cerro Blanco. It was so steep!!

Sandboarding is not at all similar to snowboarding (with the exception of strapping a wooden plank to your feet).  The wooden board sticks to sand like ‘a fat kid on cake’.  Our guide gave us a piece of candle to apply wax  to the bottom of the board.  Every couple of minutes, we would come to a standstill – requiring us to unstrap our boards and re-wax the board.  The clunky board is also pretty difficult to control.

Re-waxing my board halfway down Cerro Blanco

Spending more time sitting on top than cruising atop the sand

We also had to constantly remind ourselves to keep our mouth shut, lest we wanted mouthful of sands when we fell.  It’s pretty difficult to remember to keep your mouth shut though, when you’re screaming your lungs out as your hurtle down the monster sand dune.

I half-expected to be a superstar sandboarder (you know, since I’m a superstar snowboarder back in Canada..haha), but my expectations were quickly quashed  when I realized that I would be spending more time rolling around in the sand than cruising atop it.  I got sand in places I never thought possible (and continued to discover bits of sand days later!)

Sand dunes near the top of Cerro Blanco

Love the contrast of the sand dunes against the clear blue sky

Regardless, it was a really fun (albeit grueling) experience.  In total, we spent 3 hours trekking up, 2 hours sandboarding, and another hour trekking out of the desert to where a car picked us up and dropped us back at our hostel.  I’m glad we tried sandboarding, for our first and likely last time.  At least until they install ski lifts that take you to the top.

To mend out aching muscles, we decided to gorge ourselves on protein and ordered a monster platter of meat and a couple litres of beer when we got back in town.

Huge meat platter in Nazca, Peru

Our pile of muscle-healing protein

Ok fine, the litres of beer had nothing to with mending our muscles.  It was more for rinsing the sand out of our mouths.

Sandboarding on Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Our last time sandboarding 😉