Category Archives: Peru

The Best Hostels in Latin America

Travelling for a year, constantly on the move, rarely staying more than three or four days in one place, where I end up staying makes a huge difference to my my stress levels. End up in a nice hostel, with things like comfy beds, warm showers, free breakfasts, a good location and a nice atmosphere keeps me far more relaxed and happy than when I’ve been unlucky enough to end up in somewhere lacking some or all of those factors.

Luckily, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find the vast majority of places I’ve stayed in have been brilliant. Finding the good ones isn’t too hard either – best of all is to get personal recommendations from other travellers, failing that, a quick look on hostelworld or hostelbookers gives a pretty good (and crucially, up to date) steer on where’s good. One of the main reasons to avoid using guide books is that new hostels are opening all the time, and in many places the best hostels have only opened recently.

Seeing as personal recommendations are the best kind, I thought I’d thank some of the best places I’ve stayed in by giving them a bit of a plug here – I make no apologies for the fact this list is entirely subjective (it’s not like I’ve been everywhere in Latin America, and I only ever stayed in one place in each town). But I reckon if you happen to be a budget traveller in any of these places and choose to stay in them, I hope you won’t be disappointed.

1. Casa de Dante, Guanajuato, Mexico

Me on Dante's roof

This one has pretty much everything going for it – Dante is the perfect host, welcoming new arrivals with a beer and a brilliant explanation of everything to do in the fantastic city. His mother is an amazing cook, and the free breakfasts (including fresh fruit, a cooked breakfast, delicious fresh smoothies and coffee) cooked by his mother are the best I had in any hostel by far. Add to that the peaceful roof terrace with views all over the city, and wonderful personal touches like the fact they fly flags on the roof for every nationality staying there on a given night (although let me know what Dante does if you happen to stay there and come from a small country he doesn’t have a flag for) and you have a real home from home.

2. Hostel Lao, Mendoza, Argentina

The Hostel Lao probably had the friendliest atmosphere of any hostel I stayed in. And it definitely had the friendliest (and possibly maddest) dogs too. There’s a huge garden (with a pool) too, and the weekly barbecue is really not to be missed – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that much meat (and the salads are pretty awesome too).

3. Casa Felipe, Taganga, Colombia

There can’t be many backpacker hostels in the world that have a chef who cooks posh restaurant quality food. Casa Felipe is certainly the only one I’ve ever come across. Great breakfasts too, and the rooms are really spread out, each with their own hammock, and with a lovely shaded outdoor seating area for chilling in, this is the perfect place to relax and recover after trekking to the Lost City. This is also one of the few where it’s definitely worth booking ahead – it’s always full.

4. Hostel Patapata, Valparaiso, Chile

Hostel Patapata

Valpo was my favourite city in Latin America, and a not insignificant part of my enjoyment was the wonderful Patapata. It’s in a big old 19th century townhouse on the best of the city’s hills, and is another family run place that really has a proper family feeling. Another place with great breakfasts too.

5. Albergue Churup, Huaraz, Peru

Huaraz sunset from Albergue Churup's balcony

Huaraz is a hikers’ and mountaineer’s town, and if you are either of those, Albergue Churup is the perfect place to stay. It’s really popular with the serious outdoor types, which can help if you’re looking to join up with people for activities. Best of all is the top-floor communal area, with huge windows giving perfect views of the mountains (and even better ones from the outside terrace), and a coal fire to keep you warm on the cold mountain evenings. Really hot showers are also an essential after a big hike, and they don’t disappoint. Yet again (bit of a theme developing here from me) the breakfasts are great (I can highly recommend the banana pancakes before a big day of activity).

6. Altons Dive Shop, Utila, Honduras

Alton's Dock

If you’re diving, this is the best bargain in the Americas I reckon. For a start, you get free accommodation if you’re doing a course. Even when you’ve finished a course, divers get a special rate, which was easily the cheapest I paid anywhere (just over $3!). And for that, you can get a room right on the dock, with beautiful views across Utila harbour. Hammocks on the dock are perfect for chilling too, there’s a bar right on the dock too and a weekly sunset booze cruise (more civilised than it sounds) and barbecue too. In fact if they just did decent Baleadas (yummy Honduran street food) I would barely have needed to leave the place the entire time I was there.

7. Camping Mihinoa, Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

It’s in one of the best locations on the island, sitting right on the edge of the ocean facing some of the island’s most dramatic waves. The beds are comfy, the showers are hot, and there are not one but two decent sized kitchens. Marta is the perfect host too. And best of all, it’s the cheapest place to stay on what is a pretty pricey island.

8. Medialuna Art Hostel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena is HOT. Ridiculously so. And very humid too. Walking around the city by day is a sweaty and tiring experience. So what you need is a hostel with somewhere to cool down. The Medialuna has two: a pool in the downstairs courtyard, and a nice high roof terrace that frequently gets a breeze that’s missing at street level. Housed in a lovely, whitewashed colonial building, it’s one of the more beautiful hostels I stayed in too. One note of caution – out of all the ones listed here, this is one that can be a bit noisy at night.

9. DN Hostel, Bogota, Colombia

Bogota is COLD. In my first hostel I nearly froze to death, even in my room. The DN, on the other hand, comes with wonderfully warm, thick duvets, atop one of the comfiest bunks I’ve stayed in. It has a really friendly owner too, and is another place that does a great weekly barbecue.

10. Casa Margarita, Creel, Mexico

Margarita’s gets a bit of a knocking sometimes, because the staff can apparently be a bit pushy about tours (although they weren’t to me), and admittedly the rooms aren’t quite up to the standard of most of the rest on this list. But it earns it’s place here for one very good reason – value for money. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed in Mexico, and yet it included not only a two course breakfast, but also a huge three course dinner – unique amongst all the places I stayed in.

That’s it for Latin America now – posts on New Zealand, Australia & Indonesia will be on their way soon as I work through my backlog of posts!

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

You can subscribe for updates by RSS or email using the links in the top right.

Highlights of Latin America

I had such an awesome time in Latin America it’s pretty hard to pick out favourite moments. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. Here are the best things I’ve seen and done over the past six and a half months, along with links to what I originally wrote about them.

Favourite City: Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso

Runner-up: Guanajuato, Mexico
Hilly cities with lots of colourful houses are clearly the way to keep me happy.

Favourite Capital City: Mexico City

Mexico City Cathedral

Runner-up: Santiago de Chile
Quite a contrast here between enormous, chaotic, slightly crazy Mexico City vs Clean, calm, orderly Santiago. But I could live in ‘em both, I reckon.

 

Favourite Food: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
Best street food in Latin America from the Mexicans, whereas the restaurants were at their finest in Peru.

Best course: Learning Spanish in Guatemala
Runner-up: Learning to Dive in Honduras
Who knew learning could be such fun? Learning Spanish enriched my whole experience in the continent, and diving was way more fun (and way easier) than I ever thought it could be.

Favourite activity: Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru
Runner-up: Cycling tour of the wineries, Mendoza, Argentina

Favourite Hike: The Huayhuash Circuit, Peru

The Cordillera Huayhuash

Runner-up: The Lost City, Colombia
Again, quite a contrast. The Huayhuash took me to the most stunning mountain scenery I’ve ever come across, and was the toughest walk I’ve ever done. The Lost City was less visually appealling and easier on the legs, but made up for it by being with the best group of people I’ve me on the whole trip.

 

Favourite Natural Wonder: The Copper Canyon, Mexico

The road to Batopilas, Copper Canyon

Runner-up: The Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Sorry Colca Canyon, you may be deeper but Mexico’s is way better. It also gave me my favourite journey, along the Copper Canyon railway. Meanwhile, Uyuni was like a trip to another planet.

 

Favourite off the beaten track place: Mexcaltitan

Calle Venezia, Mexcaltitan

I feel like a bad traveller. I was pretty firmly on the gringo trail the entire time. Except in Mexcaltitan, tough to get to, not a lot to see, but one of my favourite stops so far.

 

Best Night out: Sargento Pimientas, Lima, Peru
Runner-up: Mazatlan, Mexico
My last night in Lima was a chance to say goodbye to two good friends I’d been travelling with on and off since Colombia, accompanied by the best music I’ve heard in ages. Mazatlan on the other hand was an entirely random night out with three Mexican women who I was introduced to by a clown.

Favourite Beach: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Tayrona National Park

Runner-up: Mazunte, Mexico
Sleeping in a hammock on the beach in Colombia was pretty close to paradise. Meanwhile the waves in Mazunte kept me entertained for hours.

 

Favourite Market: San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Runner-up: Oaxaca, Mexico
A pretty small hill town in Guatemala with the biggest, most sprawling market I’ve ever seen. Oaxaca was my favourite of the Mexican markets, especially for the crammed, smokey food section.

Favourite weird religious spectacle: Semana Santa in Guanajuato, Mexico

Semana Santa in Guanajuato

Runner-up: Meeting Maximon in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Catholicism may have its heart in Europe, but the way they do it in Latin America makes our version look pretty tame.

 

Favourite Country: Mexico
Runner-up: Peru
I’ve probably bored everyone I’ve met on this trip to death by going on and on about Mexico. But I don’t care. I love it.

Peru: Budget & Other Numbers

I spent nearly six weeks in Peru, and right up to the day I arrived in Cusco, nearly five weeks in, it was on course to be my cheapest country yet. So what went wrong? Well, firstly, Cusco is quite expensive compared to other Peruvian cities, thanks to its popularity. Secondly, I was travelli ng with a friend on holiday from home, which always pushes costs up, as we had quite a different idea of what constitutes ‘cheap’. Finally, was the fact that I’d completely forgotten I hadn’t paid yet for a big chunk of the cost of the Inca Trail (turns out before I left I’d just paid a deposit. Whoops).

So in the end, I finished up over budget yet again. Not by loads, but still enough to be slightly annoying. Oh well, it was such good fun I can hardly complain.

So where did the overspend come from? Well, on the plus side, my spend on miscellaneous stuff (internet, laundry, stamps, purchases and so on) was the lowest yet. Transport and Food & drink were the second lowest (after Guatemala), and accommodation costs were significantly lower than in Mexico & Colombia. However those figures are slightly misleading, as 17 of my 40 days in Peru were spent on multiday hikes, where there we no food or accommodation costs. Take that into account, and my real daily accomodation cost would nearly double (although would still be cheaper than Mexico), and my food and drink costs would shoot up to being easily the most expensive I’ve had in Latin America. Need to watch those nice restaurants going forward.

Biggest single item by far was the cost of activities – because in Peru I did way more organised trips than before – 4 big hikes, a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas, sandboarding, flying over the Nazca lines, and visiting the floating islands. At over $24 a day, that’s nearly half my daily budget on its own. But I’m not going to compain – it was all worth it, and I suspect that I’ll be unlikley to do anywhere near as much of that sort of thing in any other country.

So on to the numbers themselves:
Transport: $4.49
Accommodation: $4.98
Activities: $24.12
Miscellaneous: $0.82
Food & Drink: $19.92
Total: $54.32

And of course, here’s how the rest of Peru shaped up in numbers terms:
Days: 40
Days hiking: 20
Days over 4000m: 12
Days over 5000m: 2
Nights in tents: 14
Nights on buses: 4
Nights in beds: 22
Buses: 16
Taxis: 18
Flights: 1
Boats: 3
Dune buggies: 1
Sandboards: 1
Sand dunes boarded down: 7
Churches: 6
Canyons: 1
Condors seen: Dozens
Hot Springs: 2
Laundry: 5
Postcards: 2
Phone calls: 5
Cash withdrawals: 16
Islands: 5
Museums: 2
Alpacas eaten: several
Guinea pigs eaten: none

and finally, the usual round up of people I hiked and had Pisco Sours with. Only new entry this time is for the Ukraine. Other than that, it’s the usual suspects at the top.
UK: 20
USA: 16
Germany: 13
Israel: 11
Peru: 8
Australia: 7
Ireland: 5
Switzerland: 4
Canada: 3
France: 3
Spain: 2
Ukraine: 1
Netherlands: 1
Brazil: 1
New Zealand: 1
Italy: 1
In terms of how that affects the overall ranking, the Brits are getting ever closer to overhauling the Americans at the top of the list, and since I’ve been in South America, the Germans, Israelis & Australians have gone up a fair bit, at the expense of Swiss & Canadians.

Impressions of Peru

I was starting to get a bit worried that my trip had peaked a bit too soon. Much as I loved Guatemala & Colombia, neither could quite compare to how much I adored Mexico. And then I got to Peru, and I fell in love all over again. Here’s why.

The mountains

Cordillera Huayhuash at sunrise

Cordillera Huayhuash at sunrise

Before I left the UK, the single thing in the trip I was most looking forward to was trekking in the Andes. It didn’t disappoint. The Colca Canyon and the mountains round Machu Picchu were special enough, but it was the northern Cordilleras that really stand out: The three weeks I spent around Huaraz is the highlight of my trip so far. From the moment I arrived in the city after a long night bus from Lima, and saw the stunning, snow-capped Cordillera Blanca rising up behind, I was hooked. My first hikes to Laguna Churup and the four day Santa Cruz trek were simply breathtaking, but nothing could have prepared me for the Huayhuash circuit. Nine days of the most incredible scenery I have ever seen, and in the most remote, peaceful wilderness too, it was a very moving experience. I’ll definitely be back to do more hiking in the area one day.

The food

Peruvian junkfood: yummy Gloria yoghurt & Lays Peruanissima spicy crisps

Peruvian junkfood: yummy Gloria yoghurt & Lay's 'Peruanissima' spicy crisps

If the mountains were an expected highlight, Peruvian food turned out to be a totally unexpected one. I’d never heard the food was quite that awesome, and it meant eating out returned to being something to look forward to (rather than slightly dread as it had been in Colombia). My personal favourite was Rocoto Relleno – roundish, spicey Peruvian chilis, stuffed with a creamy meat sauce. Absolutely delicious. But there were plenty of other dishes to rave about – the national dish, ceviche (raw white fish ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with raw onion and chopped chilis) was always a delight, so delicated and refreshing; another menu staple, Lomo Saltado (stir-fried meat, onions, vegetables and potatoes) was a pretty reliable hit too, and especially nice made with Alpaca instead of the usual beef. Alpaca meat generally was a surprise hit, quite like beef, and often very tender. Peru is home of the potato too, so they feature quite heavily on menus, with my favourite being Papas a la Huancaina (in a creamy, herby, mild chili sauce). One surprise was the Peruvian’s fondness for one of my favourite desserts, Lemon Meringue Pie (which I’d previously assumed was quite English, but turns out to be even more popular over in Peru), as well as lots of other great cakes. Final surprise was the best supermarkets I’ve come across so far in my trip, in fact some were so good they were even better than the ones back home, meaning it was even easy to make great meals myself thanks to all the fantastic local fresh ingredients.

The people

Mixing with the locals on the Huayhuash Circuit

Mixing with the locals on the Huayhuash Circuit

Sadly, so far on my trip, I haven’t had all that much interaction with indigenous people. Quite often, they are wary of tourists (for various, understandable reasons), which makes interacting and talking to them hard, especially when there are many who don’t speak great Spanish. It was quite different in Peru. From the moment I arrived in Huaraz, the local people were incredibly friendly, always smiling and saying hello. Once, when I was the only gringo on a collectivo up into the mountains, I had the whole bus talking to me, asking me questions about England, and how I was finding Peru. In the one village we came across on the Huayhuash circuit, I spent quite a while chatting to the family of the local shopkeeper, and ended up having a real laugh. At the end of the trek, I got to have a really interesting talk with another local about what the area was like when the Shining Path guerillas were still active in the area, and how much life has improved since. Outside of the mountains, everyone I met was equally friendly too, and they made traveling round the country a real joy. They certainly know how to party too – the night out clubbing I had in Lima was the best I’ve had so far, and the two nights Adrian & I went to see Peruvian live music (and both times were the only gringos in the house) were awesome too, with a really lively crowd on both occasions.

The rest

Aside from all that hiking, I had loads of fun with various activities and excursions in Peru, including flying over the Nasca Lines and especially sandboarding on the giant dunes around Huacachina, although I’m gutted I missed out on rafting in Cusco because I couldn’t get a group together. All the pre-Hispanic history is of course very special too, with the ruins of the Inca Trail (as well as Machu Picchu itself, of course) being the best I’ve seen this trip. The colonial cities of Cusco & Arequipa are both stunning too, as well as having some the best restaurants and finest nightlife I’ve come across on my trip.

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular six weeks. Muchas Gracias Peru!

You can see all my photos of Peru here, and read all my other posts about the country here.

How touristy is too touristy?

I make no claim to be the world’s most adventurous traveler. Most of my time in Latin America has been firmly on the gringo trail, and therefore it’s no surprise that most of the places I’ve been to have been pretty well discovered by tourism. And that’s fine – most places that are touristy are touristy for good reasons, such as stunning scenery, fascinating history, lively culture or beautiful architecture, and it’s no surprise that those sort of things draw crowds.

Puno harbour

Puno harbour

Cusco was a prime example of that – it’s probably the most touristy place I’ve been to, and loved it. But at the same time as being touristy, it’s clear that the city is a vibrant, living place that has a life and personality separate from tourism. My next stop in Peru was quite different, and had me wandering at what point does touristy become too touristy?

The main attraction of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca are the Uros floating islands, which were originally constructed by Uros indians as a way of keeping away from attacks by their much more numerous Aymara and Quechua neighbours. That reason to exist has long since died out, and in fact today the islanders have intermarried significantly with Aymara, to the extent that their own language has died out.

Many other travelers I’d met told me I should skip the islands, as I’d been told it comes across as a very fake cultural experience, and that the islands you visit only exist for the purposes of tourism. Still, I had a morning to kill in Puno on my way to Bolivia, so I decided to see for myself.

Harvesting reeds on Lake Titicaca

Harvesting reeds on Lake Titicaca

The islands themselves sit a few kilometres offshore from Puno, and are entirely constructed from the reeds that grow in the lake – the islands themselves are made of layers of reeds, and all the buildings as well. The boat trip out passes through fields of reeds, from where we could see islanders harvesting them (the reeds the islands are made of need to be continuously replaced as the ones at the bottom rot away), and soon we cruising through the islands, dozens of them, and we were passed by numerous smaller boats, all made out of reeds as well.

A very friendly welcome

A very friendly welcome

As we approached the island we would be stopping at, we were greeted by a group of smiling, waving islander women, in brightly coloured skirts. They helped us off and we were seated in a circle in the middle of the island (which was no more than twenty metres across) where we were given a talk by one of the men about how the islands were made, and how they survived on fishing and hunting lake birds. After the talk, we broke into smaller groups each accompanied by one of the women, who showed us their reed houses and then showed us the various handicrafts they had for sale.

Buildings made of reeds

Buildings made of reeds

It soon became clear that essentially the islands exist solely for and because of the tourists, which was quite weird. It felt a bit like the whole thing was just an elaborate show, put on for us, which was quite an uncomfortable feeling, and increased the guilt I felt for not buying any of the handicrafts on sale. But then something strange happened. As we headed off (sailing, on a reed boat to another island – yes, it had become clear that the reed boats were also part of the tourist spectacle), the women all came to the edge of the island, to sing songs to us, first one in Aymara, and then bizarrely, in English, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’. It really could not have been more cheesy. And yet, as they did so, the women were smiling and laughing and clearly enjoying themselves. There was none of the forced smiles (or worse, full on bored looks) I’ve seen elsewhere when I’ve come across various ‘cultural’ tourist attractions. Which got me thinking. Yes, the islands may not exist any more if it weren’t for us tourists, and yes, the whole spectacle was all clearly one big show. But at the same time, if it wasn’t for us tourists, these people would probably be much poorer, or have had to move to the mainland, and may well be leading far less happy lives, like many of the mainland indigenous people I’ve seen.

Singing goodbye

Singing goodbye

So is it so bad that it’s so touristy, almost a disneyfied experience? Or does the fact that the whole thing allows them to keep some of their centuries-old traditions make it all worthwhile? I must admit I started off the trip feeling very negative about it, but the obvious fun the women seemed to be having by the end swung it round for me. Has anyone else reading this been to the islands? What did you think?

You can see my photos of Puno & the Floating Islands here.

Seeing Machu Picchu (despite the clouds)

It has been noted in the past that I can be somewhat…competitive, and the prospect of competing with two hundred other trekkers to get to Machu Picchu made me determined to beat them all.

So despite a few two many beers the night before, Adrian & I found ourselves getting up at the ungodly hour of three to make sure we made it to the starting point for the final stretch before all the others. Despite our best efforts, when we made it to the gate at around 4.15am, we found that two Americans had beat us to it – but we were soon very glad we’d left as early as we did, as just fifteen minutes later pretty much all the other hikers were lined up behind us in the dark, waiting for the gate to open at 5.30am and start the final hike up to the Sun Gate.

Now bizarrely enough you’re actually at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to getting to Machu Picchu before everyone else if you do the Inca Trail, as they say it takes about an hour to get from the campsite entrance gate up to the sun gate, and from there another half hour or so to the main site – whereas all the day trippers enter right into the main site from 6am.

With that in mind, we were determined to try and negate as much of that disadvantage as possible, so the moment the gate opened we sped off, almost running the final stretch to get to the sun gate as early as possible, see the sun rise over the mountain and get a clear, empty view of the site itself. All that effort paid off, and at 5.59am Adrian & I were the very first people of the day on site. Only to be greeted by a wall of clouds. Yep, as we came through the sun gate, we couldn’t see a damn thing. Which was especially annoying after having really clear mornings every other day of the trail.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

The "view" of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Still, all was not lost – the other reason we’d been determined to make it to the site early was to get a chance to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the tall, steep-sided mountain that you always see in the background of the ‘classic’ photo of Machu Picchu. Again, doing the Inca Trail means you are at a disadvantage of getting to climb Huayna Picchu, as tickets are limited to 400 a day, and are given out to people in the queue for the main gate. So, after rushing to the sun gate, we then had another rush to make it all the way down to the bottom of the site, out of the gate and back into the queue (!) to get the tickets – and we just managed it, they’d already given out 350 of the 400, but at least we made it, especially in the knowledge that we’d be among the very few who get to do both the Inca Trail and the Huayna Picchu climb.

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

What we hand’t factored in was the difficulty of that climb. It looks ridiculously steep in photos. And that’s because it is. I can honestly say it’s the steepest section of mountain I’d climbed in a month of trekking in Peru, and after four days of Inca Trail we were exhausted when we got to the top, yet again to be confronted with more cloud.

Waiting...

Waiting...

But we had time on our hands, so we sat and waited…and waited…and eventually they cleared, giving us a totally different view of the site to all the usual photos you see. Beautiful, and well worth the hike. The site is absolutely incredible, perched on a steep mountain, surrounded by other stunning mountains, it is rightly one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, and I can recommend it to anyone.

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

When we made it back down, we had time to wander round the site. But to be honest, after taking in the impressive views, we had no desire to spend ages there. After seeing so many impressive (and empty) ruins along the way, and working so hard to get to the site with hours of walking every day, to be suddenly confronted with thousands of (clean and fresh) daytrippers was a bit of a shock to the system. So we decided to leave…only to find out that in a final infuriating error, our tour company had forgotten to give our guide our bus tickets (and we had no money left on us to buy more). So, absolutely exhausted, we had to walk the hour or so down the steep hill to Aguascalientes, made all the harder by having shiny air-conditioned buses whizzing past us every step of the way. (Note to anyone reading: do not under any circumstances book your Inca Trail with Exotic Adventures of Cusco. Aside from the mistakes I’ve mentioned here, there were countless others too dull to go into. But really, please avoid giving any money to the bastards).

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Despite the slightly infuriating ending, a couple of hours later we’d recovered with a refreshing soak in the hot springs that give the town its name, eaten pizza and drunk beer (by now my traditional post-hike celebration), and the problems with the tour company suddenly seemed not to matter so much. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu are worth every bit of time, money & effort it takes to get there.

You can see all my photos of Machu Picchu here.

The Inca Trail

To think I wasn’t even going to do the Inca Trail orginally. I’d fallen into the trap of listening to too many other backpackers talk about how it’s too touristy, too expensive, and not even as good as the many alternatives such as the Salkantay Trail.

Luckily, a comment from Gillian on this post started to bring me to my senses, and when my friend Adrian decided to fly out to join me for three weeks on holiday that settled it – as Gillian says, it would be a shame to travel all that way and settle for the first runner up option. Because after doing the Inca Trail, I’d have to say anything else would be a disappointment – don’t believe the naysayers, it’s worth every penny.

The start of the trail

The start of the trail

We were lucky to make it onto the Trail in the first place though – the company we booked with forgot to give our entnce tickets to our guide, meaning we had an agonising three hour wait at the start for them to be driven down all the way from Cusco – and the guide had already told us that if they didn’t arrive before 12.30 they’d have to start the trail without us in order to make the camp by nightfall – and we wouldn’t have got a second chance, as the tickets are for a specific day only. Luckily, the arrived with minutes to spare, and we were finally on our way.

Walking along the sacred valley

Walking along the sacred valley

Day one is a relatively gentle start, heading along the sacred valley. I’d heard beforehand that we’d pass some other minor Inca Ruins along the way, but I was expecting themto be pretty small. So when we rounded a corner and found ourselves looking across at the vast ruins of Llaqtapata I was stunned. They’re pretty huge in themselves, and served as a guardhouse at the start of the trail and was also used for agricultural purposes.

Llaqtapata

Llaqtapata

We reached camp around nightfall, and settled in for an early night to get a good rest as we knew the next day would be the toughest. Day two has the longest day of walking, and includes the trail’s highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s called that because it allegedly looks like a woman lying down, although to be honest other than a vaguely nipple-like bump on top of a mound, you have to really stretch your imagination to see it.

The climb itself is pretty relentless – we started climbing right at the start of the day, and just kept going and going. While not as steep or as high as several of the passes I’d tackled elsewhere in Peru, in some ways it’s tougher going, as several chunks of the trail are on original Inca stone steps, which are much more punishing on the legs than a standard slope. As we slowly slogged our way up hill, it was amazing to see our porters racing past us carrying huge packs with all our food, tents and spare gear (pack animals aren’t allowed on the trail, so everything is carried by porters). Every day they left camp after us (giving them time to pack up) and every day they had everything erected again by the time we made camp. Quite incredible.

Eventually we made the top…just in time for it to cloud over, after a beautfiful clear day. Typical. But we made the most of it by taking lots of photos of us jumping at the pass.

Happy to have made it to the top

Happy to have made it to the top

The third day was definitely the most special. After winding our way up to a smaller pass, and past another couple of minor ruins, we found ourselves on a narrow path that basically hangs off the side of a cliff, with sheer drops to the valley below and stunning views across the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The path passes through an Inca Tunnel in the rockface after a while, before finally reaching a ridge with incredible views down onto the Sacred Valley, the town of Aguascalientes, and the back of Machu Pichhu mountain itself. Just below the ridge sits yet another set of ruins, and when we got there we had them all to ourselves – despite the fact that 200 people a day do the trail, everyone sets off at different times and walks at different speeds, meaning it’s still pretty tranquil most of the time – giving us the time to sit down, chill out, and marvel at the views

More ruins on day three

More ruins on day three


With the toughest bit of the trail out of the way, all that remained to do was make the final descent to our last campsite, by the ruins of Winay Wayna, reward ourselves for all our hard work with a few beers, and get some sleep to prepare ourselves for a stupidly early rise the next day: we were determined to be the first people to reach Machu Picchu itself the following day…
Wiñay Wayna

Wiñay Wayna

You can see all of my pictures of the Inca Trail here.

Cusco

In my first few months of traveling, I’ve hardly managed to get away from the gringo trail, so I’m quite used to seeing places that are full of tourists. Nothing could have prepared me for Cusco though – it’s easily the most touristy place I’ve been to so far. The city is absolutely heaving with travellers, and quite a different mix to the usual backpacking crowd.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

As the jumping off point for the number one tourist attraction in Latin America, Machu Picchu, it attracts travelers of every age from all over the world. Luckily, the city has more than enough charms for that not to matter one bit. I’d been particularly excited about visiting the city ever since reading The Last Days of the Incas (you can see my thoughts on that from an earlier post here). Far from just being a colonial city, Cusco was the capital of the vast Inca empire before the Spaniards arrived.

Narrow streets in the district of San Blas

Narrow streets in the district of San Blas

At first sight, with its beautiful colonial houses and churches, the Inca heritage isn’t immediately obvious, but as you wander around, it son becomes clear that the city the Spaniards found was too impressive to wipe out completely (as they had with Aztec Tenochtitlan). Several of the buildings are built on top of original Inca constructions, which stand out because of their massive stone walls, impressively put together with huge stones, precisely cut and slotted together without mortar. The fact that they were all put together without the use of the wheel is just mind-boggling.

Dancing bears (from Puno, apparently) in the Plaza de Armas

Dancing bears in the Plaza de Armas

Best example of all of this stonework is the huge fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which sits on a hill overlooking the town. From down below it doesn’t look all that impressive, as the side facing Cusco is steep enough to be its own natural defence. Round the back is a different story though. After a steep climb up the hill, we arrived round the back to be faced with a series of absolutely massive, zig-zagging defnesive walls, with some of the individual stones being vast, and the view from the top is spectacular – well worth the climb.

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

Looking down on the Plaza de Armas from Sacsayhuaman

Looking down on the Plaza de Armas from Sacsayhuaman

With the prospect of seeing so many ruins on the Inca Trail, we decided to skip the other sights in the Sacred Valley and just spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude and just wandering around the city. It may be full of tourists but it’s such a beautiful city it makes a great place to chill out for a few days.

You can see all of my photos of Cusco here

The Colca Canyon

After nearly five months of traveling, I’ve got depressingly used to early starts for tours. But 3am was a new one for me, and waking up at that ungodly hour had me thinking that the Colca Canyon would have to be seriously special to justify it.

Yanque dancers

Yanque dancers

Those fears were magnified by our first stop, at a little village near the edge of the canyon where we were treated to a display of traditional dancing by local girls who could not have looked more bored, and the chance to have our photos taken with indigenous women & their cute alpacas. It was all quite a depressing spectacle. My mood failed to lighten shortly afterwards, as our bus broke down just outside the village. As we stood in the freezing cold outside the bus while the driver changed into overalls and disappeared underneath we all began to worry the whole thing would be a write-off.

Condor

Condor

Soon enough though, our luck turned. The morning sun gradually began to warm up, and soon the bus was fixed and we were on our way again, just in time to make it to the Cruz del Condor for the finest display of wildlife I’ve seen so far on the trip. The place is so-called because it’s a nesting point for condors, and every morning as they wake up they put on the most incredible show. From a viewpoint right on the canyon rim, we got to watch a dozen or so of these magnificent birds swooping, soaring and floating on the thermals coming up from the canyon floor. The birds are absolutely enormous, and the sight of them gliding over our heads was simply breathtaking.

Cruz del Condor

Cruz del Condor

Aside from the condors, the other reason everyone wants to visit the Canyon is because it’s the second deepest in the world (the deepest is a mere handful of metres deeper, and is about 100km further north and much harder to get to), and the most popular visit gives you the opportunity to walk all the way down to the bottom and back up again.

The Colca Canyon

The Colca Canyon

The hike down was impressive enough, although I must admit that despite being deeper it didn’t look half as dramatic as the Copper Canyon in Mexico, with its vertical sides. The real challenge however, was the hike back up. After staying the night at the bottom of the canyon, we had yet another ridiculously early start (4.30am) to begin the long slog back up.

The Colca Canyon

The Colca Canyon

I thought after my two weeks of trekking around Huaraz would prepare me for anything – but in fact this was the single hardest ascent I’d done. The path just zigzags relentlessly up the face of what is basically a cliff, and it seems to go on forever. After an hour or so the top looked like it was just another ten minutes or so away, so I sped up wanting to get it out of the way. Big mistake – that ten minutes turned out to be another hour, by which time my legs were burning and every step got harder and harder. When I finally got the top I was ready to collapse – but luckily enough there was a little old woman waiting for me with bananas, chocolate and Coke to sell me, so I ate my way back to life.

You can see all of my photos of the Canyon here.

Frog Juice and Fried Guinea Pig

So far on this trip I’ve eaten some strange things (grasshoppers in Oaxaca and ants in San Gil, Colombia), but I have to say the things I saw in Arequipa market have to take the biscuit.

As in all Latin American markets I’ve been to, there are plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed juices and delicious smoothies. It’s just in Arequipa, the range of smoothies available contained the odd surprise – such as beer, milk & eggs. Which really sounds like one of the most disgusting concoctions imagineable.

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Beer, Milk & Egg Smoothie

Or so I thought until I wandered further into the market and came across this little stand.

For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, Jugo de Ranas means Frog Juice. Yes, that’s right, that tank contains lots of little frogs all waiting their turn to be popped into a blender and served up to a local – apparently they are great for helping women get pregnant and for those with memory problems. And sure enough, there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming up to give it a go.

Did I give it a go? Of course not. It looked disgusting, and anyway, I have nothing to prove on the frog front after having polished off a plate of whole deep-fried Mekong river frogs in Laos a couple of years ago.

Strange smoothies aside, Peru has quite a few other unusual culinary specialities to serve up, so the night my friend Adrian arrived from the UK (for a three week visit), we took the advice of our guide book and headed out to ‘the best restaurant in Arequipa’ – one specialising in local cuisine that was apparently so good it was picked out as one of the five highlights for the whole chapter of the book. Located ‘a few blocks east of the centre’ we decided we’d walk.

And walk we did. Further and further out of town. Down deserted, slightly-menacing looking lanes (in a city we’d been warned to be careful about after dark). Past the ring road. Past a sign announcing we’d entered the next municipality. Down a lonely dual carriageway. After an hour of walking we eventually realised there must be two streets in town with the name we were looking for, and decided we’d cross the road to jump in the taxi waiting on the other side of the street.

As it turned out, the reason he was there was because he was sat outside the (signless) restaurant. It looked shut, be he assured us it wasn’t, so we went in – to find the biggest restaurant I’ve been to in Peru. A huge affair with giant tables and a dancefloor. The kind of place you might go to on a bad office party – of which there were two in place when we arrived. After walking that long, we decided to go for it anyway, only to realise just after we’d ordered that the office parties were leaving, the DJ had stopped playing, and we were sat alone in a rather cavernous, empty restaurant (the guidebook had neglected to mention the place is only worth going to at weekends).

Still, we’d heard the food was great, so we’d ordered some of the native wildlife to try. Adrian went for Cuy, and I figured I’d give the Alpaca a go. Turns out I made easily the best choice. Alpaca is fantastic – like a tender, lean beef, it’s great in stir-fries and as a steak. So good was it I ended up having it quite a few more times later on in the trip.

Adrian wasn’t so lucky. Cuy is better known in English as Guinea Pig. It’s native to the Andes, and is quite the delicacy, apparently. I’m not sure I can see why. The traditional way to serve it is cooked between two hot stones. Whole. So what you end up with looks like roadkill, with its legs splayed and head squashed. It’s really not the most appetising sight in the world, and after staring, rather disgusted for a while, he tucked in. Only to find about five mouthfuls of meat. Rather him than me.

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Arequipa Cathedral by Night

Other than our culinary adventures, I had a lovely time in Arequipa. Five days of chilling out and enjoying one of the most beautiful cities in Peru. Most of the town’s buildings are made of a nearly-white volcanic rock called Sillar. The Plaza de Armas is particularly fine, with the cathedral taking up the whole of one side, and the other three having terraces full of cafes with views towards the massive Volcan Misti rising up above the city.

Volcan Misti

Volcan Misti