Charming Arequipa

After leaving Cusco, we caught another overnight bus to Arequipa. We used Cruz del Sur again as we’d had relatively good experiences with them previously. Again, we found it straightforward and comfortable. We arrived at our hostel the following day far too early to check in (6am) so had to amuse ourselves until 2pm. We had coffee in a French café, went shopping in the supermarket (where we also ate a very strange breakfast of eggs and pasta) and wandered around the centre. The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is particularly pretty. When we were finally able to check in we both fell straight to sleep and napped for most of the afternoon. That night we cooked in the hostel kitchen and caught up on British tv in bed. Having our own room was the best. 

Plaza de Armas

Cathedral

Our own room with balcony!


On day 2 in Arequipa we took a cooking class to learn Peruvian techniques and cuisine. We chose Arthur restaurant which turned out to be an excellent choice. Arthur himself was very helpful and friendly. We had an amazing time and made delicious food. They even gave us a free pisco sour each which was a nice touch. After we made the food we got to eat it and we ended up back at the hostel completely stuffed. Obviously a brief nap followed and then some beer and rum drinking whilst playing cards to end a great day. 

Peeling prawns

The fire was meant to happen!


The next few days involved drinking coffee in various places, cooking in the hostel and trying not to spend too much money. We decided not to go to Colca Canyon as we thought the entrance fee was way too much. We visited a viewpoint and some more artesenal markets and found some quaint little side streets. One of the best things we did in Arequipa, other than the cooking class, was visit the Museo Santuarios Andinos. We watched a video in English to start the tour and were then shown various artefacts found on nearby mountains from Inca sacrifices. However, the ending was the most amazing part because we got to see the preserved mummy of a young girl once sacrificed at the top of a mountain. I won’t give too much away because the story is incredible and I would encourage anyone to go and visit when in Arequipa. The museum was so fascinating and the stories are so worth learning about. 

Exploring Arequipa


Lovely side streets

Rooftop sunset


After 4 nights in Arequipa and seeing as much as we could for not much money, we got another bus to our last stop in Peru – Puno. We only stayed here one night as it was simply another stopover for reaching the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and staying in Copacabana. I can’t say much about Puno because we arrived at night and left early in the morning. We enjoyed our time in Peru and have lots of amazing memories to take away from our time there. Hopefully Bolivia would be just as memorable.  

Advertisements

Machu Picchu trek

If you’d asked me a year ago whether I would so much as consider going on a 5 day trek to Machu Picchu, I’d have laughed in your face. Those of you who know me, or read this blog, will already know that I am not a traveller. I have never particularly wanted to travel, I am not particularly good at it and I am very much a home-bird. So, to find myself backpacking through South America is very much surprising. Now, I am even less of a trekker than a traveller. I do not enjoy walking. I find it boring and difficult. I have been on 2 treks in South America so far – one to Pasachoa mountain and one in Valle de Cocora – and I spent almost every second of each complaining. Consider my own surprise, and that of most of you I’m sure, when I tell you that I (the constantly-complaining and non-trekking me) successfully completed 5 days of hardcore trekking in a row to eventually reach Machu Picchu. 

If you follow my blog, you’ll know from previous posts that we were stupidly underprepared for our 5 day trek. We had no walking poles, hiking boots, sleeping bags or warm clothes. In the days and weeks leading up to the trek we had to buy or rent almost everything in preparation.  (See below for the previously-mentioned leggings!) The tour company we had chosen for our trek was called Salkantay Trekking. They were quite a bit more expensive than most other companies at $400 each but we were assured from the reviews that this was worth it. This included our transport, accommodation, meals and a few added extras. The night before our trek we met our guide; the very lively Ricardo and the rest of our group. There were 10 of us in total. We were provided with a duffle bag for our clothes and sent away with absolute trepidation after having the trek explained to us. Day 2 was to be 24km of walking. Day 4 was to be even further. Safe to say I was not looking forward to it…

Ready to go!

New leggings


On the first day of the trek we were up at 4am to get ready and picked up from our hostel at 5. We were the last to be collected so had no choice of seats – inevitably we were sat nowhere near each other on the bus. Two hours of travelling later and we reached our stop for breakfast. Kat and I had an omelette each and then we were back on the bus for more travelling. A further hour down the road and we reached our drop-off point. Here we donned our waterproofs and I tried out my fetching yellow poncho and coat combo. We were given snacks and then before we knew it we were on our way. Our trek had begun. Roughly 3 minutes into the trek the path became very steep uphill and I was struggling to breathe because of the altitude. I wondered whether I would make it to day 5 if I couldn’t even make it to minute 5… Luckily I managed to soldier on and after 4 hours of walking, we finally made it to our first camp for the night. Salkantay Trekking actually offered very cool places to stay (we weren’t just in tents) and night 1 was in a sky lodge – a glass dome where, in an ideal world, you could see the stars. Unfortunately, it was freezing that night and the only thing you could see in the lodges was condensation. After lunch and checking into our own dome we were to trek to Humantay Lake. It was only just over 1km but the walk uphill was horrendous. It was cold, difficult and tiring. I surprised even myself when I made it to the lake in good time without too much complaining. The view was worth it and luckily the walk back down was slightly easier. It was lights out at 8pm that night after a tasty dinner, ready for a 5am wake-up call.

Humantay Lake

View from camp


Day 2 was the hardest day of the entire trek. We started early and after breakfast headed off to start the 24km slog. We had the option to take a horse for a fee but we both decided we wanted to walk (who knows why). It turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. We walked uphill for a solid 4 hours until we reached the peak of Salkantay Mountain. The trek was made more difficult because it rained for the first few hours and then we were caught in a snow storm as we ascended the mountain. At one stage I couldn’t even feel my legs but I eventually made it to the top not too far behind the rest of the group (which I was chuffed about). Kat, who is more of a trekker than me, found it slightly easier but walked with me most of the way. After reaching the peak, we then had another 3 hours of downhill walking before lunch. After lunch was a further 3 hours to the next base camp. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to get to somewhere in my entire life. That night was spent in tents inside a small building – the least luxurious of all the accommodation during the trek. Unfortunately, as we’ve found almost everywhere in South America, a dog decided to bark all the way through the night and keep us both awake. Not exactly what we needed. 

Yellow coat and poncho combo!

Salkantay Mountain


The third day of the trek was the easiest because most of the journey was on flat-ground and was only 12km – a piece of cake compared to the day before! We walked in good conditions to our third base camp – jungle domes. This was my favourite accommodation of the whole trek. We slept in massive green domes with one bed inside and not much else. They were warm and cosy and I got the best night sleep here. We had the option late in the afternoon to visit a hot springs about an hour away from the camp. Everyone in our group chose to go and we had an amazing time. We were able to have a shower for the first time in 3 days and enjoy the soothing warmth of the water. On top of that, there was a bar so we enjoyed a few beers and had a great evening. When we left the hot springs we felt so much better – we were clean, refreshed and a bit tipsy. Ricardo (our guide) stopped off on the way back to camp for us to have some tequilas and then bought 2 litres of rum and some bottles of coke for the group. That evening, between 11 of us, we drank every drop of rum. Eventually we were told to go to bed at 12.30am (4 and a half hours before we had to wake up). Maybe the rum was why I slept so well…

The group


The following morning we learnt of an overnight landslide nearby and were told (much to our delight) that we couldn’t hike the 7 hours up and downhill and would instead be transported by car to a place we could walk from. Kat was disappointed that we couldn’t walk but I was obviously overjoyed. The car took us to Hidroelectrica (a train station a few hours away) and then we had to walk along the train tracks until we reached the town of Aguas Calientes. It was gruelling and hard on the legs because the whole walk was on rocks and hardly ever any flat ground. By the end of the day we were absolutely desperate to get to our accommodation. When we got there, we weren’t disappointed. We were told we were staying in a hostel but it was more like a hotel. The rooms were massive, the beds were comfortable and the bathroom was huge; our own little bit of luxury after a long 4 days. Kat’s achilles was in a bad way and my knee was playing up so we spent a few hours resting before dinner. I tried alpaca for the first time and quite enjoyed it. After food we retired to bed ready for the main event the next day – Machu Picchu.

Inca Bridge


We woke up at 2.50am that morning (night) and joined a queue for buses to Machu Picchu at just before 3.30am. Never in our lives have we had to get up so early for a tourist attraction. We’d decided to get the bus because of our injuries and the fact that we had $25 left from Ecuador (the bus was $12 each). We were relatively early so were quite near the front of the queue and 30 minutes later the line was about a mile long. The bus got to the entrance of Machu Picchu just before 6 (opening time was 6) so we joined another queue to wait. When we did finally get in, we were some of the first few people in and were able to take some tourist-free photos. We watched the sun rise from behind the mountains and had various photoshoots. Machu Picchu itself was incredible and made the trek so worth it. It was an absolute once-in-a-lifetime thing to see. We spent the next few hours exploring the ruins, learning about the Inca people and enjoying the nice weather we had (very rare apparently). It was truly an unforgettable experience. Once we were ready to leave, we walked back down the millions of steps to Aguas Calientes (not easy at all), picked up our bags and enjoyed a few beers while we waited for our train. The train left for Ollytaytambo at 6pm and from there we jumped in a minibus to take us back to our hostel. We didn’t get back until gone 10 and we were exhausted and in pain.

We did it!

Machu Picchu

Sunrise

What a view

We absolutely loved our trek. It may have been incredibly difficult – in fact, it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life – but it was so worth it and we’ll remember it forever. We met some amazing people, shared some incredible moments and got to do something that is on many people’s bucket lists. Just don’t expect me to be doing any more trekking for a while… 

Chilling in Cusco

Cusco was somewhere that we spent far too much time and money but eventually became very familiar with. Before our Machu Picchu trek we spent 3 nights getting used to the altitude (Cusco is over 3,600 metres above sea level) and then another 6 nights after that because we were too exhausted to move on again. All of this time was spent at the same hostel; Cusco Packers. It was further out of town (about a 20 minute walk) and didn’t have the world’s greatest facilities, but we liked it anyway. One of the main reasons was a guy who works there called Dan who was exceptionally helpful throughout our extended stay in Cusco. Unfortunately, for our first few days in Cusco, Kat was really unwell and we spent lots of time chilling around the hostel. I’ll try to keep this blog as short as possible and only about Cusco. I’ll post a separate blog about the Salkantay trek. 

View of Cusco


We ventured into the Plaza de Armas of Cusco at least once a day while we were there and visited various cafes, restaurants and bars. The plaza itself was very picturesque and constantly buzzing with tourists and people trying to get you to book various tours and treks. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever said ‘No, gracias’ so many times in my life. There are loads of artesenal markets where you can buy anything from tablecloths to woolly hats. We decided to buy a llama key ring each and they are our favourite souvenirs from South America up to this point. One of our favourite places to visit was called Qucharitos – a quirky cafe that makes their own ice-cream and serves paninis and salads. I think we went here at least 4 times during our time in Cusco and I would highly recommend it for cheap and fresh food and desserts. Another recommendation that we have would be Jack’s Cafe for breakfast – well worth the queue out of the door! The portions were enormous and they serve good-quality coffee too. We had eggs, beans, toast, potatoes, bacon and tomatoes it felt very homely. We also visited many different places for coffee and the best 2 places that we found were Museo del Café (not cheap but a great atmosphere, good service and excellent coffees) and La Valeriana (great coffee, empanadas and cupcakes). A good place for drinks atmosphere would be Paddy’s Irish Pub – incidentally the highest Irish-owned pub in the world! I got a free poster from here but I seem to have misplaced it in all the constant moving around. We rented our trekking equipment (sleeping bags, hiking boots, socks, walking poles and a backpack) from a shop called Rosly’s and got a really good deal.
In our time in Cusco, we enjoyed experiencing the buzz of the city and thought it was a worthwhile place to visit even if it is very touristy and expensive. We had intentions of doing the Rainbow Mountain trek but decided that another 3am wake-up after our Salkantay trek was just not for us. Instead, we relaxed and waited to leave on our next night bus to Arequipa. 

A fun cocktail bar


Enjoying Museo del Café


Coffees


Umbrellas in Qucharitos


The next post will be about our incredible 5 day trek to Machu Picchu. 

I liked Lima

Lima was one of the few places of South America that I truly enjoyed being in. I liked the atmosphere, I liked how safe I felt and I liked that it had character. We stayed in the Miraflores area which was where most backpackers stay. We had loads of restaurants to choose from, coffee shops and different markets. On the first day we got to our hostel far too early to check-in (a common theme in the next few weeks of travelling). Luckily, the staff at the hostel were kind enough to let us shower after our night bus and leave our bags there until we could. We had a quick breakfast and then went out to explore Lima. Our main aim was to find clothes for our Machu Picchu trek the following week. Conveniently, Lima is full of proper clothes shops and even shopping centres (one of our first experiences of this in South America). It doesn’t take much to excite us these days but we were in our element. We spent hours wandering through Adidas, Nike and other sports/camping shops. Eventually we settled on a pair of ridiculously patterned leggings each (you’ll see these in the next blog) and a two more sensible t-shirts to wear as layers. We also purchased matching jumpers from the market. Much to Kat’s annoyance, I also spent way too long trying to find a decent knee support for the trek. I had very little success. We grabbed a quick fast-food lunch (Lima is full of KFCs and Pizza Huts) and left feeling very chilled and comfortable. 

Kennedy Park


On the way back from the mall we visited El Parque del Amor (the park of love) – a popular spot for tourists, wind surfers and people wanting to enjoy the chill vibes. Eventually, after a quick coffee stop, we headed back to the hostel to check-in Unfortunately, this was when I learnt that Barclays had blocked my debit card and refused to unblock it until they spoke to me on the phone. Any traveller will know that this is easier said than done. I had no credit on my phone, I used all of Kat’s to make a 30 second phone call to them that didn’t even make it through security and I was in Peru. At one point they actually suggested that I write them a letter. From Peru. After about 4 hours of faffing and trying to convince Barclays to speak to me, the hostel kindly let me use their phone. (As a side-note here, I would highly recommend Kokopelli hostel). It took another set of security questions (for the 4th time), lots of arguing and frustration, a foreign call centre and a UK call centre to finally sort it out. A couple of very kind ladies finally sorted my issue and unblocked my card to allow me access to my own money again. Yay. 

El Parque del Amor

Kat enjoying the park and her new jumper


After the Barclays issue I needed a beer or 6. So we went out in search of food and drink. Every restaurant near our hostel was offering a free Pisco sour (an interesting Peruvian drink that tastes a lot like tequila) so it was a case of choosing the best. Or, in our case, choosing the one with the best vegetarian options for Kat. We settled on one shared a couple of litres of beer for ridiculously cheap, a pizza and a salad. We probably got some of the best service that we’d had in South America and I have no idea what the restaurant was called so I can’t even recommend it. 

A litre of lager


The next day; our last in Lima, we got a bus into the historical centre just to see what it was like. We weren’t too impressed and should have just stayed in Miraflores. Still, we enjoyed a nice coffee and then KFC for lunch and spent some more wasted time trying to find me a knee support. Again to no avail. After only a few hours, we caught the bus back to Miraflores. That night we ‘cooked’ instant noodles and then went out for some over-priced and tiny churros. Seriously, there must have been about 5 on the plate. Early the following morning we set off for the airport to catch our flight to Cusco. We’d decided to fly because it wasn’t that much more expensive than the bus and it was MUCH quicker. VivaAir was the cheap, no-frills airline that we chose. Everything was extra money on top of the flight price but we got to Cusco in an hour instead of 12. 

Historical centre of Lima

Blog-writing and crosswording with coffee


Personally, I really liked Lima. It felt a little bit like London – more of what I’m used to culturally than other places we’d visited. I could have stayed longer but we had to get to Cusco for our Salkantay trek and to acclimatise to the altitude beforehand. Read all about it (and see the crazy leggings) in the next blog post!

From Vilcabamba to Lima in 2 days…

It turns out that border crossings don’t get any easier the more you do them. The next stage of our journey involved getting from Vilcabamba to Piura in Peru (and then on to Lima). A bus from Vilcabamba to Loja, a bus from Loja to Piura. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. A top tip: if you are ever travelling on buses in South America at the weekend, book in advance! We were informed by our hostel in the afternoon before we were due to leave for Loja that every ticket on our second bus at 11pm was booked. Our only hope was to leave straight away and try to get on the only other alternative; a second bus at 12am. In a panic, we immediately left Vilcabamba and caught the first bus to Loja. We arrived just before 5pm and quickly booked 2 of the last few tickets for the next bus. Unfortunately, we were 7 hours early and were forced to hang around in a packed bus terminal. We played a riveting game of scrabble, ate a questionable dinner in a fast-food chicken restaurant, bought what we thought was fudge but turned out not to be and spoke to lots of Ecuadorean families who were very surprised that we were on our way to Peru. 

When we finally got on our bus we were surrounded by locals and Peruvians on their way home. Only 2 other tourists boarded the bus with us. It certainly wasn’t luxurious but between us we managed a few naps until we reached the border. At the border we had to get off the bus and queue to be stamped out of Ecuador by a not-so-friendly woman behind the counter. Then we walked across the border and joined the queue to be stamped into Peru. Even at 3am the whole process took almost an hour. I dread to think how long it takes in peak times. Once we were stamped we boarded the bus again and carried on our journey to Piura. At around 7am we arrived at the bus terminal in Piura, sleep-deprived and hungry. Perhaps stupidly, we’d made the decision to make the 16 hour bus journey to Lima that same day and had to wait around for the next stage of our epic journey at 3pm. 

Piura turned out to be nicer than we expected and we actually enjoyed the half-day we spent there. We went for breakfast, visited a brand-new shopping centre, travelled in a tuk-tuk, enjoyed coffee and quiche for lunch and wandered around the town. When the time finally arrived for our overnight bus to Lima, we were in high spirits, refreshed and full. I’m pleased to say that Cruz del Sur delivered the best bus journey we have been on in South America and our journey to Lima was completely seamless (for once!). We had leg rests, cup holders, tray tables, a tasty meal, reclineable seats and  loads of leg room (all of which seemed like the height of luxury for us). At 10pm we settled into our makeshift beds and slept. We didn’t wake up until 6am; 20 minutes before we reached Lima. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed being on a bus so much and a free night’s accommodation is always a plus! Our adventures would continue in Lima; the capital city of Peru.

Sorry for the lack of photos – there was nothing particularly interesting to take them of!

Vilcabamba’s very best. 

After Montanita, we made our way to Vilcabamba with a quick overnight stop in Cuenca. We had to get the bus from Montanita to Guayaquil and then another bus to Cuenca. Both journeys were relatively painless despite stopping many times on route (incredibly frustrating) and we arrived at our hostel in Cuenca in good time.

We stayed at Mallki hostel for one night in a very cramped and basic 8 bed dorm room. The bunk beds were so wobbly that we thought they might collapse – both of us were on top bunks. We ventured into the centre shortly after checking in and found a lovely coffee shop before exploring the beautiful colonial buildings. Then we stumbled across a lovely little Italian restaurant and enjoyed some wine, beer and pasta. The following day we went back for more coffee and ate burritos for lunch before catching our bus to Vilcabamba.

Cuenca’s colonial buildings


The journey to Vilcabamba took about 5 hours and we reached Hostel Izhcayluma at 6pm on the dot (typical German efficiency). The luxury we found at this beautiful ‘hostel’ was unlike anything we’d had on our travels to date. It was more like a hotel. We had an enormous dorm room with single beds, a massive stone shower, a stunning view from the restaurant and an amazing natural water swimming pool. No meals were included in our stay but the restaurant food was reasonable, huge and delicious. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all great. We only left the hostel twice; once to head into town to grab some essentials and another when we checked out. We spent hours reading in hammocks, chilling around the pool and just enjoying the relaxing experience for 4 days. Kat also went to a free yoga class every morning which was a great addition. On our final night we splashed out on a double room but actually found we preferred the dorm room (a bargain at $9.50 per bed).

Hammock time

Views from the restaurant

Enjoying the pool


Vilcabamba itself was also very relaxing and is somewhat of a Mecca for expats – particularly from the US. We found quaint, little artesenal shops, smoothie cafes and a quirky, colourful church in the main square. But the main reason we loved Vilcabamba so much was the relaxing time we spent at Izhcayluma. If you are ever looking for somewhere to experience budget luxury when travelling South America and want to feel completely at ease, then this is the place to go. We both felt completely refreshed and calm after our time here and consider it one of our favourite places to date – we probably should have stayed even longer. Maybe this travelling lark isn’t all that bad…

Feeling relaxed and refreshed

Vilcabamba’s main square

Colourful church

 

Unfortunately our time in Vilcabamba came to an end and we had to make our way to Peru. We had such fantastic experiences in Ecuador and loved the country but were ready for our next adventure – albeit after another dramatic and LONG border crossing. Read all about it in the next blog…

A whale of a time on Ecuador’s coast

The next part of our journey was the best so far. After Mindo we had to somehow find our way to Puerto Lopez – our base for visiting Isla de la Plata. It proved to be quite difficult to get to from Mindo; we were told we had to get a bus to Los Blancos, then a bus to Santo Domingo, followed by a bus to Portoviejo, then a bus to Jipijapa and then finally a bus to Puerto Lopez. Luckily the journey actually involved fewer buses than this (3 in total). 

We got to Puerto Lopez at around 9pm and checked into our hostel (which incidentally had great reviews on booking.com). I have no idea how it had anything but awful reviews as it was the worst hostel we had stepped foot in – the tiny kitchen was in someone’s bedroom, there was a shop at the entrance of the hostel, the bedding was filthy, the bathroom was disgusting and the mattresses were wafer-thin. The killer for us though was that there were bed bugs all over some of the beds. It was this that made us leave the hostel without staying a night. So the two of us and another girl left to find a new place to stay for the night. We found one very quickly with 3 single beds and a hot shower for the same price! Safe to say we had a much more comfortable night than we would have done in the previous hostel.

The next day was amazing. We’d booked a tour to visit Isla de la Plata and go whale-watching. We set off with our group at around 10am on a boat to the island. On the way we saw some whales in the distance doing all sorts of somersaults. Unfortunately, something happened to our boat and we had to climb onto another. On the second boat we saw more whales, closer this time, but found it hard to see due to all the people. When we reached Isla de la Plata we saw sea turtles all around the boat which was incredible. We then set off on a 2 hour hike around the island and saw blue-footed boobies, lizards and other cool birds. 

Whales in the distance


Blue-footed boobies

After the trek we were able to go snorkelling, This was the first time that I’d ever been snorkelling and I loved it. The fish were the brightest I’ve ever seen and I loved swimming amongst them. It took some convincing for Kat to get it but she eventually did and loved it too! Then we got back on the boat and headed back to Puerto Lopez. The best part of the day was on this journey. We saw a baby whale and its mother swimming along with us. The captain of the boat got so close to the whales that we could see their sheer size. It was literally breath-taking and one of the best experiences of my life. When we reached Puerto Lopez again we were absolutely buzzing.

Dory?

Snorkelling

Whale hello there!

 

We decided to head to Montanita next and spent 2 nights there. We spent our only full day exploring the streets lined with market stalls, enjoying delicious food from the restaurants and drinking all day. I was a little tipsy by the time we got back to our hostel and opted for an early night. Next would be our journey to Vilcabamba, including a quick stop-over in Cuenca.