Cuzco and Machu Picchu

We headed to Cuzco to meet up with my brother Patrick, and his friend Christine, who flew in to join us for the next 2 weeks. Our first order of business was booking our hike to Machu Picchu, which we decided to do the 5 day 4 night Salkantay trek due to the diversity in ecosystems along the trek as well as the fact it is much less popular than the Inca trail. We were set to leave in 2 days, and spent our time enjoying the fine cuisine of Cuzco, including the sister restaurant to Astrid y Gaston in Lima (only 1 course each) and heading to Pisac to browse the local handicrafts at the extensive market there.

The day of the hike began at 4 am with a few hour drive to where we had breakfast, and began hiking. Our first day had some tough uphill sections for the first few hours, but after lunch it was mostly flat to our first campsite. Unfortunately, it began raining with an hour left to camp, so we arrived rather soaked and very tired. Hot coffee, tea, and chocolate as well as snacks helped raise our spirits. It was an early night for us as it would be an early morning to begin hiking to reach the Salkantay pass.

On our third evening we spent the night in a little town that had hot springs that our guides preferred to those of the town of Aguas Calientes. The were by far the most beautiful hot springs I have ever been in, they were so clean (especially compared to those in Banos, Ecuador) and the setting was so serene. We had a great few hours unwinding in the hot springs, nursing our tired legs.

On our fourth day we had the option of hiking 4 hours with all of our gear, or ziplining and only hiking 2 hours. For us it was a very easy decision. The ziplining was an absolute blast, we did one line that was 1.5 km long and you were able to get going 80-90 km/h, we had one line that was extremely high from the bottom of the canyon, and one line that we landed on a floating platform and repelled down from the platform to the ground. None of us had ever ziplined before so it was a very fun experience, not to mention cutting out a few hours of hiking was a major bonus!

After ziplining we had to walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu where we would spend the night and leave at 4:30 am the next morning to reach the ancient city. We had a few Pisco Sours and a delicious supper, before hitting the hay early. We began hiking a little later than intended, so we hustled hard to reach the gates at Machu Picchu for opening at 6:00 am. There are buses that would drive you to the gates, but after hiking 4 days we felt it would be an injustice to take a bus. So up the approximately 1000 – 1500 stairs we went, the humidity doing us no favors, and reached the gates shortly before opening. It was a very exciting moment, as we had in ways forgot the end goal with all the excitement along the way. Our first glimpses of Machu Picchu, were much like those at the Salkantay pass…..

However, within an hour the rain stopped and the clouds began to dissipate and we were able to begin exploring the city. After seeing so many pictures of Machu Picchu it was very surreal to be there in person, and to imagine the city at the peak of its empire. It would have been nice to do a more indepth tour, our tour guides knew…the bare minimum. Not their fault, we cheaped out. But their explanations consisted of, “Okay my friends, this, is a house. It has windows. Okay friends, lets move on” Lol.

 After a few hours of exploring the city we headed towards Machu Picchu Mountain to complete our final mountain climb. We chose the mountain over Huayna Picchu as it is more than twice as high and we had heard the view is better and far fewer people do the mountain. That was very accurate advice as there were only 16 people who completed the mountain the day we were there. It was another excruciating amount of stairs along some very precarious terrain, but once we reached the top we were able to see exactly how the Inca people integrated Machu Picchu into the natural surroundings. It was incredible.

Although we were exhausted, we were happy we made the final climb up Machu Picchu Mountain. Not only did it provide a very unique view of Machu Picchu it was a nice ending to an insane amount of hiking and climbing during our trip. I was very happy to hang up my hiking boots and begin the last few weeks of relaxation.

Would I recommend the Salkantay trail? 100%. We started in the mountains amidst freezing temperatures and unpredictable weather, descended into the hot and humid cloud forests, and ended up at Machu Picchu. I haven’t done other trails, and each trail offers its something special of its own, but we did really enjoy the Salkantay for the diversity of the surroundings and the challenge it offered. Certainly you can avoid hiking altogether and take a train to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus to Machu Picchu, but that would just be- easy?

 

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

I know some people may be confused as to why my blogging mysteriously stopped. No, I was not kidnapped or something equally as terrifying (albeit that would be an interesting story), Chris and I surprised our families on Christmas Eve (full story to come later) and as the end date of the trip neared I did not want to spend time blogging, I wanted to enjoy our last days. So I am writing to you from Halifax, and I have made a promise to myself to finish the blog. As such, there will be pictures in every post (hooray!) and I am aiming to have the blog finished before I start back to work.

After Lima we headed down to Arequipa which is known as the “White City” due to all of the old colonial buildings, and is the second most populated city in Peru as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took in the museum that is home to Juanita the Ice Princess (also known as Lady of Ampato or the Inca Ice Maiden) who was discovered at the summit of Mount Ampato at 6309m by an anthropologist. Her discovery happened after an adjacent volcano erupting and spewing ash caused snow and ice to melt from the summit of Ampato and uncover Juanita. She was found in the crater  wrapped in Inca textiles with various offerings scattered around her. She was perfectly preserved as she had been frozen in the glacier of the summit, meaning her remains and garments were as they were at the time of her death. This was a monumental discovery as it allowed scientists a very unique glimpse into the life of the Inca people. She was just a child, between the ages of 13-15, chosen to be sacrificed to the mountain gods for if a volcano was erupting, the Inca people believed the mountain gods were angry and thus needed an offering to appease them. Juanita made the long journey to the summit on foot, was given a fermented corn drink that would have intoxicated her, and then was struck on the head which was the cause of her death. She was in the fetal position, as the Incas believed she was being reborn into the afterlife. After watching an educational video regarding Juanita, and wandering the exhibit of artifacts found on the summit with her, we were able to see Juanita. She is in a specially designed freezer box (for lack of better term), and it is absolutely astounding how well preserved she is. Her face had been exposed to sunlight over the years of her slow uncovering and tumbling into the crater, so it is slightly yellowed, but still remarkable. It was very surreal to look at the face of someone who lived so long ago. Pictures were strictly prohibited in the museum to preserve the artifacts, and Juanita of course. Chris and I are not huge museum nerds, but this museum was a definite highlight.

The next day we headed out very early (4 am) to begin our 2 day 1 night hike into the Colca Canyon, which is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We began hiking midmorning and it was explained that we would hike down for several hours, up for a few hours, then slowly down again to an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. It was stifling hot, dusty, and at this point I was very much becoming all “hiked out” so it was a long, long day. We also were able to see where we were going the entire time and the landscapes did not change, so it was a challenge to stay enthusiastic.

We hiked all day through the heat, and at 5 pm just as the sun was starting to descend in the sky we arrived at the desert oasis at the bottom of the canyon. We were greeted with an adorable little hostel with a very inviting pool, but the temperature was quickly dropping and only Chris and Sean were brave enough to jump in the pool. There was no electricity aside from the kitchen area at the hostel, so we spent the evening sitting around the table joking and laughing, and dreading the next day.

The next day we departed at 5 am for a 1000 m in altitude ascent out of the canyon. Our guide assured us that it would take 3 hours, perhaps the “fast males” would be able to do it in 2. Sound like a challenge to you? It certainly did to me. I set the pace out of the canyon for Chris and I, and luckily because we were not at high altitude it wasn’t incredibly difficult, but certainly not an ideal way to wake up.

At 1 hour 55 minutes we reached the top of the canyon, much to my delight. We had to wait for the rest of group to catch up, so we passed the time with pictures.

Out of all of the hikes we did during our entire trip, we found this to be the most anti-climatic and one that we probably could have done without. OR, if we did it again, we would definitely stay at the oasis for more than a few hours. It just did not seem worth it to wake up crazy early for 2 days, hike for hours and hours in the heat, only to spend a few hours at the destination. It was still an experience and we did enjoy it, but it was a lot of hiking for little reward. Luckily, we had one more hike on the horizon that would be our last hike of our trip and would end the hiking saga on an epic note. 

Lima: Miraflores and Astrid y Gaston

It has almost been a month since my last post. As unacceptable as this is, it is due to the whirlwind of activity the month contained. I promise to get caught up, and where possible include pictures. I will start where I left off.

After our incredible hike out of Huaraz we caught a night bus to Lima where we booked a hostel in Miraflores, which is the more scenic part of the massive city. We arrived very early in the morning and spent most of the first day relaxing and recovering after our big hike. In the evening we went to a fountain and light show in a local park, which was surprisingly well-done and entertaining. The next day the rest of the “Cotopaxi Crew” arrived to the hostel and we headed off to explore Miraflores. We lazily began our day in the park across the street, which was a very interesting park, especially for Chris and I. The park is called “Gato” (which is the spanish word for cat) park, and there are about a hundred cats that inhabit the park full time, and are cared for by park maintainence. You could lay in the grass and cuddle with as many as you could call over. Crazy cat person heaven. After we begrudgingly were torn from the park we went for lunch at Punta Azual, which is famous for its ceviche, a national specialty in Peru (see below for a picture). It was an absolutely massive portion of delightfully fresh fish, snail, octopus, squid, and shrimp, in a perfectly prepared traditional sauce of lime. It was ceviche like none of us had ever experienced, and incredibly well priced. We knew of the reputation of Limas gastronomy, and our first encounter did not disappoint. We continued our day on the cliffs of Miraflores, where we had a spectacular view of the surfers catching waves below, and paragliders in flight above. There is also a mall built directly into the side of the cliff, which is quite unlike anything we had experienced before. We stumbled across a movie theatre in the mall as we browsed, and decided an afternoon matinee was exactly what we needed. We took in Gravity in 3D, which was a spectacular piece of cinematography. After the movie we all remarked how strange and refreshing it was to do something so “normal” The next day we rented bikes (gah) and biked along the cliffs which admittedly, was an excellent way to cover ground and see more of the area. We stopped in a local park for some shade and a siesta, unfortunately there were only dogs (with owners) in this park.

The evening comprised of one of our major “to-dos” while in South America. Our friends recommended it to us ages ago, and the recommendation was reinforced by an article read in a magazine during our only flight to date in Colombia. Around the block from our hostel was the restaurant Astrid y Gaston, ranked #1 in all of South America and #9 in the world. We booked reservations 3 weeks in advance for the 24 (yes, 24) course tasting menu. It was called El Viaje (the voyage), and it certainly lived up to its name. It came with a leatherbound “passport” to guide us through the meal, consisting of short poems or stories explaining each act or part of the meal, and details regarding each course. I unfortunately do not have access to that right now as we brought only our daypacks with us, or else I would detail each course. Instead, I will say few words and allow the pictures to do the talking. Each course was very small, no more than 2-3 bites, but packed an enormous amount of flavor and texture. Some courses were that of molecular cuisine, which none of us had ever experienced before. We tried many things we had never tried before; alpaca, guinea pig, and sea urchin to name a few. There were mixtures of extreme heat and cold, the contrast beautifully paired. It was as much a meal as an art. It lasted 3.5 hours, and I worried I would be so full I would be unable to finish courses or be uncomfortable, but I found I was neither. It was an impressive evening that we shared with amazing friends (photocredit to Sean Maloney, I stole all your pictures). The only downside? It was election weekend in Lima, thus making it illegal to sell alcohol. The wine pairing is meant to be a beautiful addition. I highly recommed this experience to anyone, you needn’t be a foodie to enjoy.

One of the most amazing experiences of our lives

Hola amigos!

I have such an exciting blogpost, that includes pictures (yayyy!!!). We planned to do a 4 day guided trek through the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, but after completing all of our errands we had to do in Huaraz we did not have enough time. We regrouped and did a bit of research and found a 2 day trek that would take in 3 Lagunas, that were all suppose to be spectacular so we headed to an agency to get some quotes. We were quoted 438 soles ($164 USD) per person, which is absolutely crazy! We then inquired how much renting our own gear and doing the trek unguided would be, and it was $30 USD dollars per person (plus food cost, which was basically nothing). That is all it took for us to decide that we were going to do it solo. The owner of the agency assured us that the trails were super easy to follow, and very well marked. As with any information given in South America, we were worried we needed to take this with a grain of salt. The greatest concern was the map we were given as it was handdrawn with cute little trees and rivers dotting the trail, and it was most certainly not to scale. We decided it was all part of the adventure (love you moms), and excitedly inspected and gathered our gear. The gear consisted of a tent, 2 sleeping bags, 2 sleeping mats, a propane stove with pots, bowls, and utensils. We then headed to the grocery store to buy enough food for the two days. We then had to pack our packs, store our other bagthat we would not be taking on the trek in the bodega, and head to bed early as we had to be at the bus station the next day at 5:45 am.

We awoke early and started our day by walking to the bus terminal, tentatively testing the weight of our packs and assessing whether or not we would be able to make the two full days of treking (or at least I was lol). We made our first collectivo but unfortunately had to sit the entire 1.5 hours with our massive packs on our laps. It was extrodinarily uncomfortable, and as Chris gets motion sick it was not ideal situation. We made it through however, and upon arriving in the next town of Yungay boarded another collectivo headed into the park. The driver was kind enough to strap our packs onto the top of the roof The drive to the park was absolutely magnificant as the sun was rising and the lighting was stunning over the mountain range. After a quick stop for a coffee, we arrivedto the start of our trail. We strapped our packs on and began our walk to the first Laguana.

The first 45 minutes were not so bad as our adrenaline was pumping with the beginning of this amazing adventure, and it was still cool as the sun was hidden behind a massive rockwall. The longer we continued, the heavier our packs felt, and the warmer the day became. Nonetheless, the views were absolutely amazing and we were able to take as many breaks as needed. We finally rounded a bend, and just ahead of us was the glistening Laguna. There is no better feeling in the world than when you are tired, hungry and in need of a break and see your destination in the distance.

After our quick breakfast we quickly set off again (my pack slightly lighter as I was carrying the food), as we wanted to ensure we made it to our campsite before the afternoon rain. The second part of the hike consisted of walking on the road for approximately an hour, and then reconnecting with a trail.

After Laguna number 2 we walked for approximately 1 hour before arriving at the first potential campsite, but decided to keep on treking as the further we got on the first day, the “easier” the second day would be. We continued approximately another hour until reaching campsite 2 which was flanked by the highest mountain in Peru (and the second highest in South America) Huascaran at 6768m, 2 other snowpeaked mountains (I am not sure which these were), and several gorgeous waterfalls. It seemed like the most perfect place to put a tent. We picked a spot that was a bit sheltered by tall grass, to protect us from the wind. We just finished setting up our tent when the rain started, it couldnt have been better timing.

The grass certainly did provide shelter, but it also attracted some unexpected guests. During our entire trek we couldnt help observe the number of cows, and particularly bulls that were present in the area. While playing crazy 8s I heard what sounded to be a cow eating grass very close by to the tent, which prompted Chris to take a quick peek outside. He quickly pulled his back in the tent and stated, “man, that bulls horns are huge” Not he most comforting statement, but we continued to play. However, it became very apparent the bull was coming ever closer to the tent, which had my heart rate elevating. I then proceeded to go through everything I knew about bulls in my head, which wasnt much. First: they eat grass, not humans. Phew. Second: in Canada, they are known for their poor temperment. Not phew. These were wild, perhaps that made them less angry. Third: if there are this many around, that means there are no predators, which is a bonus, right? As I was doing this, I kid you not the bull pressed his snout on the side of our tent and inhaled deeply, very deeply. That image was nothing but pure terror. It proceeded to walk alongside the tent and press his snout againstthe tent periodically.His horns were illuminated beautifully in the evening light. He then arrived at the back of the tent and stuck his snout UNDER the tent and continued to inhale deeply. Tears. There were tears. All I could think was what happens if he gets his horn caught in the fabric of the tent and freaks out and tramples us? Of course Chris thought the entire thing was beyond hilarious, which I can appreciate the humor now, but at the time it was horrifying. He comforted me with the fact bulls are not nocturnal creatures so as soon as the sun went down they would go to sleep. Not before more bulls came to check things out, and one actually ran in our general direction. The sound of a bull running combined with the inability to see what he is running at was horrifying. Once the sun went down, there was no more bulls and so we happily drifted off to sleep after a very tiring day. The equipment we rented was absolutely spectacular, I was actually too warm in my sleeping bag and had to take my sweater off. We were on a bit of an incline so unfortunately slid down during the night, but we awoke to fresh air, the sounds of birds chirping, and some of the most spectacular views thus far.

We packed up all of our gear and began hiking at 7:15 am to the final Laguna. The hike was incredibly difficult, mostly due to the weight of our packs, and the fact we ascended over 600 m in altitude, but the views along the way in the morning sun were just phenomenal.

These lined the way of the trail, very very helpful. I did not include any photos of the final Laguna because it was so beautiful, but so hard to capture that I did not want to do it injustice. We took a video that captures it a bit better, so I will try and upload that. I will do my best to put it in words. We finished a gruelling set of switchbacks that I was not sure I was going to be able to finish, rounded a bend and came across the most pristine Laguna we have experienced thus far. The water was crystal clear and the most beautiful shade of blue-green, it was being fed by glacier run-off from the massive mountains on its three sides via gorgeous waterfalls, and we were the only people there as we arrived at 9:30 am before any other tourists. There was not a single cloud in the sky. The moment couldnt have been any more perfect. We wont soon forget this trek, this is what it is all about!

We are now safely in Lima, experiencing some of the best cuisine of our lives. Stay tuned for a very exciting post about our supper tomorrow at the number one restaurant in Latin America!

Cheers!

 

 

An overdue update

Hola!

I apologize for the tardiness of this post. Since I last posted it seems my blog has been disabled for some unknown reason, I apologize for that! Everything should be back to normal now. I will pick up where I left off..

After the action packed week or so recounted in the last post we have kept things relatively tame, i.e. we have not jumped off anything or climbed anything ridiculously high, so no need to hold your breath as you read this post. Following Banos we headed to the city of Cuenca, which is a gorgeous city that has some obvious wealth. We visited a local microbrewery, to compare it to the excellence we are used to from the Halifax breweries. We can safely say it wasn´t poisonous, but it wasn´t quite up to the standard set by the Halifax brewpubs. We also did a 7 hour hike outside of Cuenca in the Cajas National Park which was an absolute Ecuadorian highlight. We did not see another soul the entire hike, and took in some of the most spectacular views encountered thus far. We ate lunch in the ruins of an old Inca settlement, and came across several caves used by the Inca on their travels as well as grazing wild llamas and alpacas. It was a spectacular hike and it only cost us $2.25. Can´t complain about that!

From Cuenca we decided we wanted to cross into Peru, and the easiest way was to head through Tumbes to Mancora which is a beautiful beach town in the middle of the desert. We took a nightbus and arrived very early to Mancora so we were able to take in the beautiful sunshine, pool, and amazing food at the hostel, and the beach was only a short walk away. The hostel had its own chef so the food was exceptional, and ridiculously cheap. An absoluely amazing tuna steak accompanied with rice and fresh vegetables was 12 soles, which is $4 USD. We spent 3 days relaxing in the sunshine (and letting loose at night) before heading on to Chachapoyas. We did a day trip to the fortress of Kuelap which is the ruins of a city that has 20 meter high walls, is 600 m in length, and contains over 400 buildings. It is set high on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba valley. It is known in Peru as the “other Macchu Picchu” but without the massive crowds. There was less than 20 people visiting the ruins the day we did our trip. The ruins were absolutely incredible, it took over 1000 years to build and the remnants are in amazing shape. We were able to see the unique construction of houses, which are circular in shape and the same structure is only found in a few other places in the world, one of which being Nova Scotia! So interesting. The houses in which prominent members of the city lived were decorated with designs, symbolizing the eye of the panther, crocodile, and a snake. Some of the houses contained structures that they believe to be cages that held guinea pigs. There were several tombs which you could see human remains through the rocks. There were 3 entrances to the city and they were all built with a bottle neck design to protect the city. It was really really interesting, and the views from within the city were out of this world. It was easy to see why they chose this location, from both a safety and scenery perspective.

We planned on heading to the Gocta waterfall the next day, which is one of highest waterfall in the world, but it torrentially downpoured the night before and the clay roads were in rough shape so we had to forgo that adventure. We decided to head to Huaraz to try and organize some hiking, which turned out to be quite the journey. It took a total of 23 hours, 4 buses, and 5 cities/towns to get from Chachapoyas to Huaraz. In Peru, you are able to purchase luxury seats on buses that fully recline and you are served a meal on (how crazy is it that a 30 dollar bus ride serves a meal but a 1500 dollar plane ticket in North America buys you nothing), which made the journey more tolerable, but still exhausting. We have been in Huaraz several days now, relaxing at an absolutely stunning hostel (Churup) before heading out for some treking in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. The top floor of the hostel is equipped with a kitchen, an entire wall of tempered glass windows with views of the mountain range (including snow capped peaks), and a beautiful fireplace. All for USD $13 a night including breakfast. I doubt I am ever going to be able to stay at a hotel in Canada ever again. The Cordillera Blanca mountain range is the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas with 22 peaks over 6000 m and more than 50 peaks higher than 5700 m. There is a ton of spectacular hiking to be had, and we plan to arrange a multiple day trek in the next day or so. The fireplace is just so inviting…

That is all for now! It seems like we haven´t been up to much, but with how large Peru is a lot of our time has been spent on buses. The next few weeks will be incredibly exciting, we have a lot of big things ahead of us!

Cheers!