Peru: Arequipa + Colca Canyon

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

Bus to Arequipa 2Bus to Arequipa 3

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!


Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni *4-Day Primitive Extravaganza*

On May 3rd we started our 4-day primitive extravaganza to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Yes, this is salt, not snow. Pinch me!


Perhaps the most sought-after Bolivian experience by backpackers and travelers alike is spending three or four days in a jeep traversing the incredible landscape of southwestern Bolivia. The main attraction is the salar, nearly 7,000 square miles of bright white landscape dotted with cactus and rock formations.

What Do I Mean By “Primitive”?

We drove 500 miles in four days all on unpaved surfaces. In fact, there were many times that we weren’t even driving on a road at all. We were literally in the middle of nowhere for days on end. There were a few pueblos located in strategic places along the route with the sole purpose of supporting this popular tourist trek. These pueblos provided basic nighttime accommodations for tour groups like ours, and our cook – along with the other cooks – used the kitchens to prepare our food for each day.

At night the electricity turned off at 9:00 pm and it never came on in the morning. We bunked in rooms with at least four people and shared one bathroom for up to 13 people. We didn’t have any heat and trust me, it was cold! The temps got down to freezing two of the nights. Forget about showering. We were lucky if the toilets flushed.

While the accommodations were bare-bones, the tour, the people and the scenery more than made up for the saggy mattresses, frigid temperatures and long bathroom lines.

Our International Peeps

There were 13 of us in three jeeps. Lilia (our Canadian friend), Harry and I were in one jeep with Laurie, a Chinese woman living in Paris. Our driver was a 24 year-old Bolivian named Antonio who has been working the circuit for five years. The cook also rode in our jeep with us. There were two British backpackers and one German in another jeep, and the third jeep was filled with a French family — mom, dad, two young kids, grandma and grandpa. The family of four is traveling around the world for one year! We had fun playing card games with them at night and being goofy with them during the day.

Day #1

We drove up and out of Tupiza and immediately felt worlds away from the small western town. Our wildlife safari began almost immediately when we saw five condors flying above the edge of the canyon. Antonio actually pulled over and jumped out to take a picture, making us realize what a special occurrence it was. (Credit to Lilia for the condor photo). Everyday we saw countless numbers of alpaca and their vicuna cousins roaming on the varied terrain.


We saw sand dunes one minute and high mountain, snow-covered peaks the next.


This massive peak was in our sites for quite a while and it was fun to watch it get bigger and bigger the closer we got. We stopped to walk around the ruins and we were quickly out of breath due to the high altitude. I’d never been at 13,000 feet before! For reference, Mt Hood in Oregon is 11,200 feet. Our hearts worked overtime to pump oxygen into our bodies and we were all a little dizzy.


Shortly after the ruins we reached our high point of the trip at just over 15,000 feet. Woohoo!


It was cold sleeping at 14,000 feet! I went to bed wearing most of my clothes and slept inside my sleeping bag, under the covers. The weight of the several heavy wool army blankets made turning over a real challenge.

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 Day #2

Damn, it was hard to get out of our sleeping bags because it was so cold! Luckily we had each other to cuddle with in the jeep, because wouldn’t you know it — there wasn’t heat in there, either. Our first stop of the day was the Llama Hotel.

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Later that day we had our first glimpse of a salt field, a sign of things to come. We just couldn’t get over how quickly the landscape changed.


We visited an area of impressive geothermal activity and felt like we were on the moon.


The minerals in Bolivia’s soil are rich and varied, turning the lakes different colors. This lagoon was literally red. And yes, those are pink flamingos!

IMG_8227Red Flamingo

We played card games in the evening before the lights went out, and it should be noted that some of us got a little competitive. It’s no wonder that the young French kids stuck to playing UNO with their grandparents.


Day #3

We saw a petrified tree and played on some big boulders. Behind Harry is the semi-active Ollague volcano, which sits on the border of Chile and Bolivia. Unfortunately you can’t see the smoke spewing out of it’s top. We visited another lake with more flamingos, had a picnic from the back of the jeeps, and marveled at the hard, rough green lichen growing on the rocks.


We spent our last night at the Salt Hotel, and guess what? The bricks for the walls, beds, tables and chairs were all made out of salt! I felt like a princess in a palace…. we all know how much I love salt. And no, I didn’t try to lick the walls. I was happy to discover that salt bricks have an insulating factor which meant that it wasn’t ridiculously cold inside.


Day #4

We left the Salt Hotel at 5:00 am and drove an hour to catch the sunrise from the top of a coral island. On the way there we officially drove onto the salar. Antonio turned off the headlights for 10 minutes and drove in the dark using the light from the moon reflecting on the salar to guide him.

Bundled up (but still freezing cold) we watched the sunrise. What a spectacular, special experience.


We hiked back down for breakfast and hot tea. To warm ourselves up we played soccer on the salar as the sun rose in the sky. Two of my favorite things: soccer and salt! That’s when things started to get a little surreal.


We were chased by a red dinosaur and Harry and I had to personally put him in his place. But then I made up with him because he sure was cute – and just a little misunderstood. 


I’ve got this guy in the palm of my hand…



And that, my friends, is the story of our 4-day primitive extravaganza across southern Boliva. We will always be inspired and humbled by this experience. Viva Bolivia!


Chile: Pucon *Active Volcano*

Chile is Argentina’s neighbor to the west. The two countries are divided by the volcanic Andes from north to south. Chile is a long, narrow land mass with its widest point only 217 miles from east to west. Even though I’ve loved my time in Argentina, I was excited to experience something new.

As the crow flies we’ve been really close to Chile several times the past month, but officially crossing over the Andes takes some planning as there aren’t that many bus-worthy roads connecting the two countries.

We decided to use San Martin de los Andes, Argentina, as the launching pad for us to enter Chile. Our first destination was Pucon, five hours northwest by bus. The old man who sold Harry the bus tickets winked as he assigned us seats on the left side of the aisle because he knew we’d be staring out the window at the amazing volcanic mountain Lanin for hours.


Immigration: No Meat Allowed

The reason the bus ride took five hours was because we had to stop at two different immigration centers. The first time we got an exit stamp from Argentina, which we needed because our ninety-day stay was almost up (I know, can you believe it?). Now our slate is cleared and we can spend another ninety days in Argentina if we choose.

The second stop was at the Chile immigration center. We’d been reading how Chile has really strict laws against bringing any food into the country. Normally we bring lots of snacks on our bus rides, but not this time. We made sure our food bag was empty before we got on the bus. Apparently this young Israeli guy didn’t do his homework because, under the instruction of an immigration officer, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a raw steak. I’m not kidding! Everyone standing in line burst out laughing while he looked bummed about having to throw away his dinner.


Pucon + Volcano Villarrica

A go-to destination for outdoor adventure activities of all kinds, Pucon is a thriving tourist town during the summer and winter months. We were more than happy to be there during its tranquil off-season. Surrounded by the volcanic Andes, Pucon is a beautiful place. We spent a few days taking local buses to the outskirts of town for hikes and walks. We spent an afternoon at a beautiful mountain lake one day, and on another day we bathed in some nearby hot springs. But honestly the most exciting part of staying in Pucon was was being surrounded by the smoke-breathing Volcano Villarrica!

Three weeks before we arrived Volcano Villarrica, one of South America’s most active volcanoes, blew its top after 30 years of dormancy. The explosion didn’t hurt anyone or damage any of the surrounding towns but it sure created a lot of excitement. The volcano is the region’s showpiece, visible from every angle. Everywhere we went we stared off into the not-so-distant sky to see if it was smoking or not; its behavior seemed to change hourly. Locals stood on street corners looking at Villarrica with awe, respect and fear, wondering if, or when, it would blow again.

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Up Next: The Big City of Santiago

After spending the last month on the road, we had a hankering to spend some extended time in one location. We’ve both come to realize that we prefer to stay in places longer rather than moving about every three or four days. Santiago seemed like the right choice so we booked bus tickets for an 11 hour journey north.