Peru: Lima

We decided to fly one hour north to Lima from Arequipa instead of taking a 15 hour bus ride. Smart move on our part if I do say so myself. Luckily our gut issues resolved themselves in time for us to board the plane.


Lima: The Belly of a Burro

The capital of Peru sits on sandy cliffs in the desert above the Pacific Ocean. Blanketed in a heavy, gray fog much of the year, Lima is not what you’d call a city of sunshine. Herman Melville nicknamed Lima “the strangest and saddest city thou can’t see”. Other authors have likened its gray skies to the “belly of a burro”. Being from Portland you’d think we would feel right at home, but guess again. The lack of color in the sky definitely felt odd to us and made the city feel cold and dark, despite the warm temperatures.


Peru’s Seaside Desert Capital

We were in Lima for one week and had a relaxing time. A city of 10 million people, the Lima metro area is massive and sprawling. While we only explored a few pockets of the city, we feel we are in a position to give Lima the “conscientious driver” award. Instead of being practically run over by every driver on the road, we actually had a few stop and wave us across the street. Of course the bus drivers were still crazy and reckless which always makes for interesting travel.

Our hotel was in Miraflores, a 20 minute walk from bustling Kennedy Park, where at least 75 stray cats live. One day I sat down with a sandwich and was immediately surrounded by five cats begging for a bite. They seem well taken care of and honestly, after seeing nothing but stray dogs for the past five months it was pretty fun having cats around.

We did a lot of walking in Miraflores and neighboring Barranco and we were happy to have lovely 70 degree days. We enjoyed the ocean views from above the cliffs and explored the beach a few times. The Pacific was too cold for swimming, just like the Oregon coast, but the surfers didn’t seem to mind. A highlight for me was finding a Mexican restaurant. I ate a burrito with hot sauce and was in total heaven! One day we went on a walking tour of central Lima and spent the afternoon in and around the Plaza de Armas. The main square was grand and hosted several impressive churches and government buildings of varying architectural styles.


Huaca Pucllana Ruins

Only a 20 minute walk from our hotel, the ruins are located in the heart of Miraflores. This 1,500 year old temple is still in the process of being restored. It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition of the ruins adjacent to modern buildings. Imagine having a place where women and babies were sacrificed to the gods right out your door.


1087 Bistro 

Lima prides itself on being the culinary capital of South America. While we really enjoy eating delicious meals (who doesn’t?), the combination of our our tight budget and backpacker wardrobe usually means seeking out cheap eats wherever we go. However, in Lima we were in for a real treat. Thanks to Harry’s niece Emma, we enjoyed a spectacular meal prepared right in front of us. Emma’s friend Felipe works in a new restaurant called “1087 Bistro” and he invited us to dinner. We were served a five course meal using only locally sourced ingredients. My vegetarian ceviche rivaled Harry’s whitefish ceviche, every dish was full of flavor and even the flowers were edible.


World Cup + Copa Cup

It was really exciting to be in South America during the Copa Cup, especially since Peru was a big contender. We watched most of their games while we were in Arequipa and cheered them on with all the locals. We watched them play in the semifinals against Chile while we were in Lima, but sadly they lost. Chile, the host country, ended up beating Argentina in the finals.

The USA women rocked the World Cup! We watched most of their games in Arequipa but we were in Lima for the finals. In fact, the reason we stayed in Lima through July 6th was so we could be in the big city to watch the final game. Yes, I scheduled our trip around the World Cup. And they won!! Wasn’t that game just incredible? As we watched them play Japan in the finals I was filled with excitement and emotion. USA!


Next Up: Volunteering in Trujillo

Over the past months we’ve been searching for another volunteer opportunity. We couldn’t wait to start volunteering with Hilo Rojo, a non-profit school for high-poverty kids living in Trujillo. We were craving a deeper connection with a community and what better way than by working with kids.

Peru: Arequipa + Colca Canyon

Say what?! We have to take a 10 hour night bus south from Cusco to Arequipa?

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I’m pleased to report that despite waking up with a thin coating of ice on the inside of the windows (no wonder I was so cold all night!), the trip went pretty smoothly. For me, that is. Harry, on the other hand, dealt with an irritable gut for most of the way. Luckily he made it without incident (can you imagine the horror?).

Arequipa: The White City

We were looking forward to settling down in Arequipa for almost three weeks. While we loved our stay in sweet Cusco, it was time to get away from the hoards of tourists and lose ourselves in a city for a while. We were ready to dump out our backpacks and call Arequipa home.

A city in southern Peru, Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes that dominate its landscape. El Misti, the largest one, sits right on the edge of town, treeless and brown with a little snow frosting on top. Except for December and January, it rarely rains here as evidenced by the dry, barren landscape surrounding the area. Arequipa boasts the nickname “white city” because many of the buildings were built from sillar, a white volcanic stone. Truth be told, we thought the buildings were actually more like a dingy gray than white. There were also a freakish number of pigeons in the main plaza and we were surprised and a little grossed out by the number of parents who tried to get them to land on the heads of their children.

We stayed at a B+B this time around and the owner and his staff became like family. They took good care of us and while they spoke English, we were encouraged to speak Spanish as much as possible. Arequipenos are really proud of their city and consider it to be the best place in all of Peru. We had many great conversations about life around the world.

Fun fact: in Arequipa, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and it always starts out with a bowl of soup…. and there is actually a specific soup schedule that all restaurants and households follow. On Mondays you’ll eat caldo blanco, on Tuesdays you’ll eat menestron, and so on. It’s a tradition they’re very proud of. Soup’s on!


Evil Peruvian Gut Monsters

It finally happened. We got sick, really, really sick. For four days we were fighting over the bathroom. We’re pretty sure the lettuce we ate was the culprit. Whatever it was, it was bad. Really, really bad. Rest assured we don’t have any pictures of that dark and depressing time.

World Cup + Copa Cup 

To say that soccer in South America is a big deal would be the understatement of the year. The Copa Cup, a tournament between the South American countries, took place in the month of June. All of the games, regardless of which countries were playing, were watched in every bar, restaurant and home. It was fun to watch the games and talk to everyone about “last night’s game”. Peru was a big contender and advanced to the semifinals where they sadly lost to Chile. Chile, the host country, ended up beating Argentina in the finals. We were cheering for Argentina.

The only downside to the Copa Cup was that the women’s World Cup was held during the same period of time. This made watching games nearly impossible since men’s soccer took priority, of course. I didn’t find one person (man or woman) in Peru who knew that the women’s World Cup even existed. We managed to catch the first five of the USA games either by a live-stream or by going to TGIFridays (shhh! Don’t tell anyone). We normally make it a habit to avoid all American stores, but for my women we made an exception! (We saw the finals in Lima… that’s the next post).

Spanish School

The main reason we stayed in Arequipa for so long was to take two weeks of Spanish classes. This time we upped the ante by taking classes five days a week for four hours a day. I really liked my teacher and finally felt like I found someone who understood my style of learning. We had a lot of fun in class together.


Colca Canyon: 3-Day, 2-Night Adventure

Before we started Spanish classes we wanted to explore Colca Canyon and the surrounding valley. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa described Colca as “The Valley of Wonders”. The area proudly showcases massive volcanoes, narrow gorges, desert landscape, pre-Inca terraced agricultural slopes and remote traditional villages. The Colca River, one of the sources of the Amazon River, slices through the massive gorge.

Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon at 11,150 feet, Colca Canyon is part of a volcanic mountain range more than 60 miles long. We spent a few days at the Grand Canyon this past October and we were excited to explore another impressive natural wonder.

Planning our 4-day journey to Machu Picchu took a lot of time and energy, so I simply asked our hotel to just book our trip for us. I was burnt out on doing research and dealing with logistics. The thought of handing the reigns over to someone else felt like a really good idea for a change. We paid our money, packed one backpack to share between us and went to bed early because we were being picked up at 4:00 AM.

Day #1

The ridiculously early start was necessary because access to the trailhead was six hours away at Cabanaconde. Also, the condors that inhabit the area are most active in the morning so we had to leave early to catch them in action. Once the sun rose we all woke surrounded by spectacular scenery.


The sun was already beaming with intensity by the time we started hiking down into the canyon. The trail was steep and slippery with dry scree. The three miles we hiked straight down were BRUTAL on our knees. Our quads took quite a beating as well. The combination of the steep, rocky path and tired legs had me tripping several times, toppling forward like a drunk turtle with my pack on. Even all the younger hikers complained about the non-stop stress on their knees. Our eyes on the Colca River prize down below, we chatted with the others in our group and made our way down to the water.


Three hours later we arrived at the river, red-faced, sweaty and covered with dust. We walked over the suspension bridge, hiked up a steep incline and then walked another mile paralleling the river until we reached San Juan de Chucco, our home for the night. We were promised “basic” accommodations and that’s what we got. We didn’t mind not having heat or electricity, but clean sheets would have been nice.


Day #2

The next day we hiked for three hours across a section of the canyon. The lateral movement felt good on our legs and gave us a chance to look around and observe our surroundings. One side of the canyon was a sheer rock wall, dry and inhospitable. The other side was thick with desert vegetation. There are 14 traditional villages/pueblos throughout the valley and we hiked through several that day. It was eye-opening to see how people live in such remote and desolate conditions. We were fascinated by the practical farming techniques, specifically water management. Water was gathered in containers at high elevation, using gravity to disperse it through channels to the crops below.


We spent the second afternoon and night at Sangalle, nicknamed the Oasis, a village located at the base of the gorge. Lush vegetation and natural pools dotted the landscape thanks to the channels of water cascading down from the mountains. While it seemed a contradiction to have such a lush environment in the midst of arid, desert mountains, we didn’t hesitate and jumped right into the cold pool. We spent the remainder of the day hanging out with our five hiking companions, whose average age was 21. As usual we were the elders of our group. We all had a good time together and we especially enjoyed getting to know Asta and Simone from Denmark.



Day #3

We started hiking up the canyon at 5:00 AM in total darkness, our footsteps illuminated only by our headlamps. The hike down was so brutal that we were all pretty much dreading the hike back up. And for good reason because it, too, was BRUTAL! Three miles straight up the side of a dry, dusty and rocky mountain path. We passed one woman who was weeping out loud because the hike was so challenging. There were even a few people who had to ride donkeys to make it to the top. We forged ahead, three hours in all, and felt like champs when we reached the top.


On the way back to Arequipa we made the obligatory stop at one of the small villages where we, once again, didn’t buy anything but walked around and took photos.


The last stop of the day was at a 16,000 foot mountain pass. Here we are with Sabancaya, an active volcano, blowing steam behind us. The air was thin, the view was spectacular and we were feeling very happy and oh so tired. Gracias, Colca Canyon!


Peru: Machu Picchu *Our 4-day Journey*


Often referred to as the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu is the most iconic image of the Inca Empire. Located in the Sacred Valley only 45 miles away from Cusco, there are several ways to get to and from Machu Picchu. Most people take the train because it’s the easiest option. There are also people who go with a tour company and embark on a multi-day hike through the valley to get there. Neither of these options really suited us and I was convinced we could come up with a better route. We had some major planning to do!

I was determined to make our journey both special and exciting, so we spent a lot of time over the course of many days in Cusco talking to travelers and agencies prior to making arrangements. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to visit such an incredible place!

The plan I concocted was multi-modal: we took taxis, a bus, several minivans, a tuk-tuk and a train. Plus we walked six miles and climbed 2,000 stairs made by the Incas. In order for everything to fall into place we needed good timing and a little bit of luck.

Our 4-Day Journey to Machu Picchu 

On Wednesday morning we grabbed a taxi from our hostel to the bus station. We took a local minivan two hours into the Sacred Valley to a junction in the road. From there Harry bargained with a taxi driver to take us to see Moray and Salinas, two more archaeological sites in the valley.

It was a beautiful sunny day. Here you can see a red field of quinoa growing in the foothills of the Andes.


Moray: Farming Terraces 

Our first stop was to see the amphitheater-like terracing of Moray. The Incas used the terraces for farming with each layer having its own micro-climate. Some say that this location was a laboratory for crops including potatoes. This successful experimentation is part of the reason there are more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes native to Peru. Note: I’m pretty sure this is the first, and only, selfie that Harry’s ever taken of us.


Salinas: Salt Factory 

We approached Salinas from a high mountain road, driving down to the salt factory located at a mere 11,000 feet. Nestled into the mountains, the salt pans are fed by a hyper-saline hot spring and curated by locals. The end products are cattle licks and the ever-popular Peruvian pink salt. This was a spectacular place to visit! And I’m not just saying that because I love salt.

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After we visited Moray and Salinas our taxi driver dropped us back onto the main road. We flagged down a local bus to Urubamba, where we switched into another minivan heading to Ollantaytambo (Ollanta). We arrived in Ollanta in the middle of the afternoon with enough sunlight left to hike up and explore the major ruins above the town. We experienced our first tuk-tuk ride in Ollanta and ate a delicious lunch in the square. We fell in love with this cute little place and were happy to spend the night.


In the morning we boarded another minivan for a five-hour ride through the mountains down to Hydroelectrica. The road was incredibly steep and windy, with hairpin turns about every 30 seconds. Within a half-hour many of us were feeling ill because the driver was crazy, taking the tight turns a million miles per hour as though he were racing Daytona. I took a Dramamine and prayed I wouldn’t get sick. Three other girls weren’t so lucky and one actually threw up four times (with her head hanging out the window). Although everyone was yelling at the driver to slow down he carried on like the lunatic he was. The final hour was off-road which added relentless bumps to go along with the curves. It was the worst five hours of my life and I swore to Harry I would never do it again. Luckily the scenery was phenomenal. But still.


Everyone was so happy to finally get out of that minivan! The best part of the day was about to begin and we couldn’t wait to get moving. Next up: hiking six miles to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We hiked with Cole, who was from California, and a young Peruvian couple. The trail followed along the train tracks, next to a river, in the humid rainforest. It was a fantastic day to hike!


We spent the night in Aguas Calientes and woke up at 4:00 AM. A half hour later we were walking in the dark of night along a gravel road. Using only the light of our headlamps to guide us, we could barely see three feet in front of us. Our senses were alive and we could hear the river, jungle insects and birds and the quiet steps of other people walking around us. The air was already warm and humid. We arrived at the bridge and stood in line with approximately 300 other walkers, waiting for the gate to open.

5:00 AM quickly arrived and we walked across the bridge, still in total darkness, excited to start walking up the Inca stairs to Machu Picchu.


Immediately we began walking up the old Incan staircase. Up and up we climbed the seemingly endless stairs.The steps were awkward because they weren’t a uniform height and depth so we really had to concentrate. Harry found energy and pushed on ahead of me. Soon the crowd thinned out and I found myself walking alone in the dark, again using my headlamp to guide my steps. I loved the peace and quiet and enjoyed the solitude.

2,000 steps (woohoo!) and 50 minutes later I arrived at the top, red-faced, sweaty and really happy! Harry finished 10 minutes before I did so he was already relaxing by the time we reconnected. He’s amazing, don’t you think?


While we waited for Machu Picchu to open at 6:00 AM we watched the big buses pull up loaded with lots of non-sweaty tourists. We were really happy that we’d made the effort to walk up to the top, even though my quads wouldn’t stop shaking.

Surrounded by fog, we entered the gates and walked up (more stairs!) to the Gatekeeper’s Hut. We could tell the sun was rising in the sky yet the pea soup was still too thick to see through. While we stood listening to our guide a magical thing happened! The fog began to dance around the mountains and we were able to peek at the view in front of us. It was truly a special moment.

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We stayed at Machu Picchu all day. At times we walked around and at other times we just sat and enjoyed the magnificent scenery around us. I loved all the llamas that roamed around like they owned the place.

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We left Machu Picchu knowing that we were saying good-bye to a very special place. We had a wonderfully perfect day and as we took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes we sat in silence, reflecting. And then I’m pretty sure I fell asleep.

Return Trip Back to Cusco 

Remember that horrible five-hour bus ride down to Hydroelectrica that I vowed never to take again? True to my word, I made Harry throw away our return tickets via minivan (which he happily did) and we bought train tickets.

The next day we took the two hour train ride through the beautiful canyon back to Ollantaytambo, our favorite little town in Peru. Our legs were happy for the rest and it was fun to look out the windows and see where we had hiked two days prior.

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Ollantaytambo Earth Day

We only had a few hours back in Ollan, just long enough to eat a delicious lunch and to enjoy the Earth Day celebration in the square. The local schools had a parade and all the kids were dressed up in clothing made from recycled materials. I just couldn’t get enough!

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We caught one final minivan back to Cusco and three hours later we were back in our hostel. We had an incredible 4-day adventure and while it certainly was a lot of effort to coordinate, we were glad we did it our way. Gracias, Machu Picchu!

Llamas MP