Colca Canyon and a torn ligament

I would hike down, and through, one of the deepest canyons in the world but manage to tear a ligament in my foot just several hours afterwards… from tripping trying to get on a bus. All I can think right now is “typical Rachel.”  That, and a huge sigh of relief that I didn’t break a bone or seriously hurt myself to the point where I’d need to go home. I just have to be off my foot for a few days, and then I should be good to go. Even after one nights rest and some painkillers/anti-inflamatories, I’m feeling much, much better, and can put some weight on my foot.

It was nearly 4 AM, and I’d been waiting at the bus station in Arequipa for close to 4 hours. The woman I bought my bus ticket from specifically told me (and even wrote on my ticket) to be at the station by 12 AM. Although the bus schedule indicated the bus arrived at 1:30 AM, I decided I’d better listen to the woman instead. Two hours passed, and no bus. I paced, asked the attendant, who said it’d be another hour. After an hour, he said it would be another 20 minutes. Finally, around 3:45 AM, I was sleeping on and off against Dora when he woke me with a start, saying the bus was here. I grabbed my backpacks and my plastic bag of snacks and dashed for the door. Exhausted from being up for nearly 23 hours straight, and out of it from sitting at a bus station for 4 hours, I missed the curb and tripped, slamming my left knee onto the pavement and twisting my right foot inward, landing on top of it, my gigantic backpack slamming me further into the ground.

Everyone around me rushed to help, but when I tried to stand I nearly blacked out from the shock and pain. In complete disbelief, I let the driver stick my bag in the back of the bus, wiped my tears and hobbled up the steps to my seat on the second floor.

I managed to sleep a few hours, but I was so worried about the pain in my foot, and how little weight I could put on it, that I was mostly just freaking out.

Was I going to have to give up six weeks of travel and go home? Was I going to have to fork over a thousand bucks for x-rays? Were my parents going to flip out and try and force me to come home? Could I even walk on crutches with my enormous backback?

When I got to La Paz, I originally had every intention of getting right on a bus to Cochabamba. Instead, I grabbed a cab to the only place I knew: Loki Hostal, the party hostel where I’d stayed almost three months ago. I mostly hated the place for its atmosphere, but I knew they’d keep my bags safe and have a good doctor to send me to, and they did. Fifteen minutes after my arrival, my bags were locked up and I was in another cab, off to a clinic. After I explained what happened in my exhausted form of Span-glish (thank god for my hospital vocabulary lesson in Montanita!), the doctor assessed the pain and explained that because there wasn’t much swelling and I had a wide range of movement, there was no way I could have broken a bone.

Fourteen hours later, I could finally breathe again. I had, however, torn or significantly sprained a ligament on the top of my foot. He gave me a prescription for 800 mg of ibuprofen, cleaned my scraped-up and bruised left knee, wrapped my foot/ankle in an ace bandage and sent me on my way.

Because of the convenience, I asked for a night at the Loki hostel, stumbled pathetically up the stairs, and settled myself into my bunk bed, where I’d been instructed to stay, immobile, for at least 24 hours.

The damage…

After a much needed 12 hours of sleep, I am feeling a lot better, and I can now put a significant amount of weight on my foot. Since I’ve already spent several days in La Paz and don’t particularly want to be here, especially in this cigarette-smelling hostel filled with party travelers who never leave the building, I’m spending the day relaxing with my foot elevated, then heading to Cochabamba on an overnight bus. I don’t plan to do much walking there, but at least I’ll be in a new city.

And since I’ve got nothing else better to do than write, I’ll make this blog post ridiculously long by including my four days in Arequipa and at Colca Canyon. 

I’d anticipated that Arequipa would be a city I’d like, and I was definitely right. Smaller and more quaint, with beautiful architecture and lots of people out and around at all hours of the day, I really enjoyed my two days in the city.

Filiz and I spent our time relaxing, wandering, doing a bit of shopping, seeking out good coffee (a task which proved relatively costly), cooking our own dinners for ridiculously cheap, and taking an interesting walking adventure to the bus station, which wasn’t quite on the city map we had.

Arequipa’s pigeon-infested main plaza

The main square of Arequipa all lit up at night

After talking with several tour agencies and the woman at our hostel, we finally committed to a two day, one night tour of Colca Canyon — one of the deepest canyons in the world, and one of the most popular trips on Peru’s gringo trail. We’d been told the first day would involve 8 hours of walking, after which we’d spend the night at the bottom of the canyon, and the next day would be a 3 hour hike straight back up the canyon. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, persay, but everyone we talked to who’d done it hadn’t had major problems, and really enjoyed it. We figured if everyone did it, we could too.

And we could — we did — but it certainly wasn’t a cake walk, that’s for sure.

After our 3 AM wake-up call and 3:20 AM hostel pick up, we drove 3 hours in a packed, 12-person van to Chivay, the small town that serves as the gateway to volcano row and Peru’s stunning canyon country. After paying our steep 70 soles ($26 bucks!) entry fee, we got to a restaurant for the typical South American breakfast: bread, jam, and tea. We had another 3 hours or so of driving, broken up by a stop at the Condor lookout, where we were lucky enough to see several condors gliding gracefully above our heads and into the valley below.

View of the mountains from the Condor Lookout

Gorgeous condor (with a 15 foot wingspan) gliding over the outlook + lots of tourists

Just past 9:30 AM, we began the first half of our walk: 3 hours straight down the canyon. As a total klutz (oh, the irony), the steep, and very dusty, path made of rocks and lose gravel wasn’t exactly my favorite, and I quickly fell behind the group – slowly taking my time getting down the mountain, stopping plenty to take photos and steady my feet. We all met at the bridge crossing the river at the bottom of the canyon, and spent the next half hour walking uphill on the other side of the canyon, finally making it to our lunch spot.

After lunch, we had another hour of uphill walking (yes, up the other side of the canyon, after we’d just climbed all the way down the opposite side), then an hour of relatively flat paths through small villages, and then an hour of downhill walking. Yep, you read that right. We climbed all the way down, then up, just to go back down to the very same river. When we crossed the river for the final time, we’d made it to the ‘oasis’ — a set of bungalows with swimming pools where we’d be spending the night.

It had been ridiculously hot all day, and though I’d specifically purchased a horrifically touristy hat for the hike, the two liters of water I’d drunk throughout the day were clearly not enough. I immediately got a pounding headache and intense nausea and yes, you’ve guessed it: puked for the second time in southern Peru. Sun stroke, dehydration, who knows. My poor body, I just can’t stop abusing it.

Thankfully I managed to keep some coca tea down, and somehow fell asleep around 8 PM, which gave me a solid 10 hours of sleep before we had to be up to catch our mules back up to the top of the canyon.

Yes, you read that right. I copped out. There were four of us in our hiking group: Filiz, myself, Tom and Chloe – a couple from London. Though we felt a tad guilty, Chloe and I both opted for the mules. After being sick, not to mention challenging and exhausting myself the day before, I decided I deserved a ride up, instead of killing myself walking straight up hill for 4 hours. I know my resistance was mental: if I wanted to get up the side of that canyon, I absolutely could have, but I simply didn’t want to. After all, this is my vacation, hah!

The mule ride was slightly terrifying — steep, narrow paths aren’t exactly easily traversed when you’re sitting on top of an animal — but after adjusting to the bouncing and learning to trust our new four-legged friends, we ended up having a great time. I took a slightly nausea-inducing video as we climbed, but the internet here is too weak to let me upload it.

We walked 30 minutes from the entrance to the canyon to our breakfast restaurant, where were all shocked to be served eggs instead of bread — a welcome change. We hopped back in the van and made our way slowly back to Arequipa, with several stops for photo pops, bathroom breaks and an amazing vicuna (another high altitude animal similar to the alpaca and llama) spotting.

So there you have it — how Rachel Kossman traversed a canyon, but managed to tear a ligament in her foot getting on a bus. Like I said, typical Rachel. Moments like this make traveling alone a little bit lonely and a little more scary, but the clinic was wonderfully helpful and in the scheme of life, I’m completely fine, and everything could be much, much worse. After another few days of rest, I’ll be ready for more adventure!

Puking over the Nazca lines

My post title pretty much gives this one away, and I’m once again forced to report that my motion sickness got the best of me. I swear, this trip would be much easier if my body would just cooperate with what my mind would like to do!

It wasn’t quite as horrific or disgusting as it sounds. Thankfully, the only thing in my stomach was a small lemon-flavored candy our co-pilot had handed us just before we took off, so there wasn’t much to up-chuck. And, once it was out of my system, I felt much better, and could easily enjoy the rest of the flight.

Let me, however, start this story from the beginning.

On Saturday night, I was practicing my Spanish with a nice man who works at my hostel in Huacachina. Nicknamed “Tiger,” this gentleman seemed very nice and well informed, and told me he could easily organize my trip to fly over the Nazca lines. He told me that I’d have an hour long flight instead of the standard 20 minute one, that my taxi would come right to the hostel to pick me up, I could store my luggage at a hostel for the day during my flight/time in Nazca, and then hop on a bus to Arequipa that night. Marie, a sweet Danish girl also staying at the hostel, agreed to do the trip with me, so the two of us put down a 100 soles ($40) deposit, packed our bags and went to bed early, anticipating our 8 AM wake up call.

8:15 AM came, and we were still sitting, sleepy-eyed, on the couches. 8:30, still no sign of anybody. At 8:45, our stomachs started growling watching our bunkmates order delicious looking breakfasts at the bar. By 9:15, we’d half given up and ordered our own breakfasts, figuring that if the driver showed up at that point, he’d just have to wait for us to finish eating. At 10 AM, I started harassing Fernando, the only person working at the hostel that morning, to call my dear friend Tiger. When we finally reached him (there were many unanswered calls) an hour later, he said it was too windy in Nazca to fly that morning, he got delayed, he was sorry, but he could come pick me up and we’d go now. Frustrated, I said no, I’d rather go the next day instead, since I knew the lines were best viewed first thing in the morning.

I walked down the street to some travel agencies and began asking questions. Tiger was, to put it politely, full of it. And of course, as soon as Fernando, and the other guides I spoke with  (in a town with 4 travel agencies and very few people, it seems everyone knows everything) found out Tiger had been a no-show that morning, they laughed and rolled their eyes. Turns out, he’s reliably unreliable.

That, and a liar. Flights took off yesterday without a hitch – the wind problem was completely falsified. And, flights don’t run for 60 minutes, they only go for 35, no more. Needless to say, I called him back and demanded a refund of my deposit and discount for my second, now necessary, night in the hostel since I was stuck in Huacachina for an extra day, no thanks to him.

Thankfully, even though I’d been up waiting for 3 hours, it was only 11 AM. So I had a relaxing day in the sun, laying by the hostel pool reading, booking a real Nazca flight tour with Marie and Feliz, and joining Rachel, Belinda and Filiz, other girls I’d met at the hostel, for some Pisco winery tours in the afternoon. We came back to relax for a bit and then had a delicious Italian meal next door before heading to bed.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but I will admit I wasn’t overwhelmingly wow-ed by the flight or the Nazca lines. And not just because of the puking. It was interesting, and I’m glad I did it, but I think the patterns would have been better appreciated had we had a guide who explained the history/theories of the designs. I think seeing the lines from up close, to comprehend how gigantic they really are, would have been helpful as well, since they look so small from so high up. That, and puking 2,000 feet above earth came at a high price: $110 USD for the flight, airport tax, 2 1/2 hour bus ride to Nazca, and taxis to/from our various hostels, bus stations and the airport. Not a cheap day, that’s for sure!

We were picked up in Huacachina at 7 AM, on the bus station in Ica by 7:45 AM, in Nazca by 10 AM, and at the airport by 10:45 AM. We were back on the ground and at our ‘hostel’ with our mochillas grandes (aka our gigantic backpacks) by 11:30 AM, and our 12 hour, overnight bus to Arequipa wasn’t leaving for another 11 hours. So we grabbed a cheap local lunch, wandered a bit through the ‘city’ (there’s nothing to see), and then forked over another 25 soles ($10) to lay in the sun by a gorgeous pool at the singular posh – and expensive – hotel in town. Money well spent, since the $10 included a soda and sandwich, plus baggage storage and unlimited use of the pool, showers, wifi and electric outlets — so necessary for three girls with several dying electronics.

And now we’re sitting in a coffee shop trying to kill the evening — only an hour until we need to leave for the bus station. Marie is traveling north to Lima, and Filiz and I are off to Arequipa together. I’ve got two days to spend in Arequipa, and then I think I’ll do a 2 day Colca Canyon trek and afterwards, head into Bolivia. Cross your fingers it’s an uneventful 12 hours to Arequipa tonight!

My camera cord is buried deep in Dora somewhere and my laptop battery is dying, so no pictures tonight, but I’ll post some good ones of the lines/our group with the pilot later this week!

Cruising down sand dunes

The Peruvian dessert, especially south of Lima where I’ve spent the last two days, is truly spectacular. As I’ve been wandering and exploring and taking a million photos, I’ve been trying to come up with the right adjectives to describe it, and it’s been quite the challenge.

This may be one of those instances where photos, even though they don’t quite do everything justice, will have to be worth a thousand words instead.

In Paracas, I was shocked at the juxtaposition of a gorgeous, turquoise ocean and vast fields of hilly, goldenrod sand. In Huacachina, just an hour and a half south of Paracas, the sand dunes literally look like the opening scenes from Aladin — enormous hills with seemingly-sharp tops and edges; perfect, half-moon shaped mounds that are completely untouched, molded only by the wind. As you stand on the edge of gigantic dunes, there is not a single thing in sight but millions and millions of tiny grains of soft sand that stick to every surface of your body as soon as you take a single step.

Yesterday morning we took a two hour boat tour of the Isla Ballestas. The islands are protected and you can’t disembark on them, so the boats just drive around the rocky coasts and through the massive archways carved out by the oceans — close enough to the “shore” that you can practically touch the gorgeous birds and adorable sea lions basking in the sun. After the boat tour, we took a tour of the northern part of the Paracas National Reserve, where we saw more of the beautiful, sandy coastlines.

I was, admittedly, relatively terrified to go sand-boarding today and I considered skipping it altogether, but I’m so glad I went because I actually had a complete blast. Our group was great and we had a ton of fun posing for photos and encouraging each other as we went tumbling – literally – down the dunes.

Clearly, I’m a pro.

Huacachino is a town based around a small lagoon in a massive dessert — it really is a stunning landscape, and I’m glad I made the last minute decision to stop here instead of going directly to Nazca. That, and my hostel here is great: tons of hammocks, a miniature pool, delicious food, and two adorable pugs.

And now, a million photos. Be thankful for these, they took ages to upload!

Solo Pisco, no Paracas

I’m more than sure my very nice, new Peruvian friend Daniel had no intentions of steering me in the wrong direction when he suggested I take the Soyez bus line instead of Cruz del Sur — the tourist-oriented, but expensive, bus line that runs throughout Peru.

“You can take Soyez directly to Paracas,” he told me yesterday, explaining that those buses leave every few minutes and are much cheaper.

Well, he was right — the busses do leave every 20 minutes and are half the price — but they only go to Pisco, the town adjacent to Paracas, aka 30 minutes away by taxi.

You can imagine my surprise when the bus assistant (in South America, all buses have a driver and an “assistant” — on the fancy buses this means the ticket taker, meal and drink server, and helpful attendant when you have questions. On the cheap buses, they simply collect your ticket money) told me we were in Pisco, and that this was my stop.

No señor, yo necesito Paracas. No Paracas. Solo Pisco. Tu salida aquí. Pero yo pago por a boleta a Paracas. No, tu boleta es por Pisco.

Turns out, he was right. My ticket was, indeed, marked Pisco. Total fail, because in my attempt to save myself 30 soles (about $12) I failed miserably, because I then had to fork over 25 soles to take a cab from Pisco to my hostel in Paracas. Why on earth the lady at the ticket counter let me believe I was buying a ticket to Paracas I will never know. You live and you learn right?

I’m relatively sure at some point my taxi driver was trying to convince me to go out to the discoteques tomorrow night with him (after, of course, he told me he has two young children) but regardless he was very nice, and we had a wonderful Spanish conversation, of which I understood approximately 85% of. It’s amazing, I always thought my comprehension would be much better than my ability to speak, but then people throw out vocabulary I just have never heard before, and I stumble pathetically trying to understand what they’re asking me or telling me.

Anyways, I’m safely at my Paracas hostel, slightly poorer, but in the end, no major harm done.

I spent the last 2 and a half days in Lima, wandering the city and making new friends in my hostel. I hadn’t heard such great things about Lima, and I’m learning that this trip and seeing new cities is all about managing expectations. I think because I expected to hate Lima in the same way I hated Quito, I was actually pleasantly surprised with the city, and didn’t find myself repulsed in the least.

Sure, it’s a major city with massive intersections and smog and insane drivers, but the city itself, especially the suburb of Miraflores where I stayed, definitely has some charm, and I enjoyed spending time walking around and taking it all in.

Of course, Miraflores is a wealthy neighborhood, and I didn’t spend any time in the poorer sections of the city, so I will admit to having a bit of a skewed perception. But the Miraflores cliffs overlooking the ocean (pictured), the Barranco neighborhood, also in the south, and the old city center are all great areas with beautiful architecture, and plenty of green parks. The city is very walkable, and the public transportation was easy to manage and understand (and exponentially cheaper than taking cabs everywhere!)

Unfortunately, Lima has a constant marine layer over it, so it was overcast and grey my entire time there, sans two or three hours on my second day when the sun made a brief appearance before slipping back behind the fog.

On day two in Lima, our hostel got a nice surprise: a gigantic Venezuelan middle- and high-school-aged badminton team (I couldn’t make this up if i tried) checked into the hostel. Incredibly young and very noisy, you can imagine myself and my fellow backpackers were less than thrilled (to put it nicely) with our sudden new bunkmates. Luckily I was only there for one more night, but the others chose to vacate to a new hostel to avoid the children. So bizarre!

South America may be a big continent, but it’s still a small world down here: in the last two days I managed to bump into Chloe, who was the first other gringa I met when I first got to Ecuador, on the beach in Huanchaco. Turns out we were on the same overnight bus down to Lima. And my first morning in Lima, I woke up in my shared hostel room after a quick nap to Milou’s voice — another girl I studied with in Montanita! Who knew we’d all randomly be reuniting several hundred kilometeres south.

Other than all that randomness, I’ve had 3 very relaxing, low key days. It’s crazy to think I’m almost halfway through my time in Peru: at this time next week I expect to be crossing the Bolivian border! Next on the agenda? A boat tour (I know, I swore I wouldn’t get on another vehicle in the water this trip, but I just can’t resist) of the Isla Ballestas, flying over the Naza lines, checking out Arequipa, and hiking through one of the deepest canyons in the world. Not a bad itinerary!

‘Now let me introduce you to my friend, the Lord of Sipan’

I just had a shot of Peruvian pisco with our hostel owner, and now I’m sitting on the roof terrace watching the sun sink into the ocean as dozens of surfers ride the waves toward shore. Ben, my new friend from Kentucky, is laying in a hammock and plucking at his guitar. This, right here, is what vacation is all about.

The sunset from our roof terrace

The glamorous beach town of Huanchaco

Thanks to the suggestion of Diego, my amazing Ingapirca tour guide, I convinced Aaron and Kyla (the couple from McGill that I’ve been traveling with) that we should stay in Huanchaco, a small beach town several kilometers outside the noisy, and busy, city of Trujillo. His suggestion was right on target — our hostel is dirt cheap, the food is great, and the town is incredibly relaxed. And for 1.50 soles (about 65 cents) we can take a bus right into the center of Trujillo.

On Saturday, we spent the day relaxing at the beach and at our hostel, which has gorgeous wooden terraces that look straight out onto the ocean. We had fresh ceviche for late lunch/early dinner, drank some beers and hung out, then went to bed early.

Today, the three of us made our way into Trujillo and to the Huaca de Luna — a Moche temple built in 500 AD but discovered only 20 years ago because it was completely buried by sand. It was different than any ruins I’d ever seen, with intricate carvings and paintings still mostly intact, and I really enjoyed it. We wandered through the city, found a good lunch place in our guidebook, saw the main plaza then hopped a bus back Huanchaco in time to see the sunset.

Seven layers of intricately carved out stone at the Moche Huaca de Luna (Temple of the Moon) that has survived nearly 2000 years because up until 20 years ago, it was completely submerged in sand.

The Plaza de Armas in Trujillo

On Friday in Chiclayo, we opted for a full day tour of some ruins in the area, since Chiclayo itself isn’t a city with much to do. Our tour group consisted of an anti-social man from Amsterdam who refused to speak more than two words to us (or anybody), a tattoo-covered couple from Australia, a Taiwanese woman living in Pasadena, a German woman from Munich who is living in Trujillio teaching English to elementary school kids, and two families with young kids.. who only spoke Spanish.

One of my tour guide’s many ‘friends’ – aka 1,500 year old bones of the ancient Lord of Sipan

Our poor tour guide had to spend the entire day switching from English to Spanish for absolutely every explanation. His English wasn’t the best, but his Spanish was relatively clear. I joked that I understood about 50% of his English and 50% of his Spanish, so altogether it’s possible I got the whole tour. Regardless, he was a nice man with some funny idiosyncrasies — every time we walked up to a skeleton, he would say “Now let me introduce you to my friend…” — a set of bones from nearly 1,500 years ago. I also learned that Chifa restaurants everywhere in the northern coastal cities aren’t just an attempt at imitating Chino food. Instead, when the rice fields of northern Peru were first established, thousands of Chinese indentured servants “migrated” to this area. I would have never known!

First, we saw the tombs of Sipan, discovered in 1987, ironically, by grave robbers who stole dozens of pieces of gold from the underground structure. In 1988, with the help of the arrested robbers, archeologists were able to uncover a total of 9 different tombs, each one more and more elaborate. The Lords and nobles of Sipan were buried with kilos and kilos of incredibly ornate and delicate gold and turquoise jewelry, breast plates and headdresses, not to mention llamas, concubines, and guards with their feet cut off, meant to protect the tomb forever. All of these jewels — plus many sets of disintegrating bones — were displayed in two different museums. It was sort of strange to take a step back and realize we had dismantled a burial site that these people had put such intense effort into creating. This man, despite only being a set of barely distinguishable, disintegrating bones, was once a father, grandfather, and uncle. Though uncovering the history and traditions of these people is an honorable reason to dismantle these tombs, it’s a bit bizarre to think about the reverse situation — what if someone had done this to my great grandfather, or even to my grave in 2000 years? Sort of creepy!

We also saw the Tucume pyramids — a group of flat-topped pyramids that were once tall standing, presumably beautiful, structures. Now, because of rain and wind destruction, they simply look like gigantic sand piles. Unfortunately, that was the part of the tour that was very rushed in an attempt to make it back to Trujillo in time, so we got very little information about the structures themselves.

Tomorrow will be another relaxing, beach-filled day and then Aaron, Kyla and I are off to Lima on an overnight bus. I like traveling at night because it saves me a bit of money (no hostel necessary!) but I also don’t feel like I’m wasting an entire day sitting on a bus. Traveling alone at night, however, isn’t my favorite, so I’m glad to have other gringos to keep me company!

The sun sinking below the Peruvian Pacific

The sea is chock full of fish, hence the millions of birds flying everywhere!

Peru: Mi segundo pais!

One very interesting thing I forgot about South American culture and was reminded of today: People have absolutely zero concept of the personal bubble.

In lines for buses, customs, checking luggage, even buying groceries or walking on the sidewalk, people get so close to you it’s absurd. And I’m not talking about potential thieves trying to get at my purse. We’re talking little, pushy old ladies or mothers with children who just inch their way so close to you I find myself flinching.

That being said, my 15 and a half hours of bus rides from Loja, Ecuador into Chiclayo, Peru went without much of a hitch. After a painless hour ride from Vilcabama into Loja, I grabbed a ticket for my overnight bus and sat down next to a very sweet Australian girl who is spending a year traveling through Central and South America. We spent the hour and a half before the 11 PM bus we were both on chatting and learning about each others lives and travels. Around 10:20, a couple who had gone to McGill and was staying at the same hostel as my new Australian friend (small world!) in Vilcabamba showed up, so the four of us English-speakers decided to band together.

Because yesterday was a huge holiday in Ecuador and there was a large parade in Loja, they were running two overnight busses into Piura. The bus I was on was scheduled to depart at 11:06 (why, I really couldn’t tell you) and there was mass confusion about the number of the bus since half the peoples tickets said numero 05 and the other half said 80. Regardless, it all got sorted out and we were on our way by 11:15 or so, which, for all intensive purposes, is 11 PM Ecuadorian time. I had a rather gordo, although very nice, man sitting next to me who, again, didn’t quite understand the whole personal bubble thing and, as a result, had his elbow on top of me for part of the ride. I think the trick is to shove back juuust enough that the person figures out that just because I’m little doesn’t mean I don’t need my space. Regardless, I slept on and off, jolting awake everytime the bus would crawl across unpaved roads or stop suddenly to let people on and off. And yes, despite it being 2 AM, people were still getting on and off the bus. Direct buses are apparently non-existant in Ecuador.

My horrific, camera phone photo of the 4 AM border crossing — Thanks for visiting Ecuador in the foreground and the red and white striped Peruvian flag in the background!

At approximately 3:45 AM we arrived at the border. Everyone piled off the bus and waited in line to get their passport stamped out. Then, just like at the Peru/Bolivia border crossing, the bus drives up ahead and you walk the several hundred yards to the official country entrance, fill out your forms and get your passport stamped into Peru. Both border officials were very nice, understood my Spanish no problema and stamped my passport with very few questions asked. Despite taking 30 minutes total for all of us to get past the two customs desks, I felt completely safe the entire time, and it really was an incredibly easy process (especially compared to my nightmare at the Bolivian border!)

As we waited in line, we made friends with a very nice Peruvian man who was listening to music out-loud on his blackberry. At some point, a Toni Braxton song came on, and he proclaimed that she was his wife, laughing. We continued talking on and off as we waited. Little did we know this man would be our saving grace.

Lesson number one: Never cross into a country without at least a little bit of the right currency.

Lesson number two: Don’t assume that just because you’re on a bus you will be arriving at a central bus terminal where your next bus will be departing from.

I bet you can imagine where this is going. As the four of us piled off our respective busses and met to figure out where our busses to Chiclayo (for myself and the couple from McGill) and Trujillo (for the Australian girl whose name I can’t remember for the life of me — oops!) were leaving from, our new Peruvian friend informed us that, there is no main bus station in Piura. I’d been warned by several people that Piura is not a nice or particularly safe place, and to be especially careful with your bags when you’re leaving the bus station. The easy answer would have been to simply grab a cab, but none of us had Peruvian Soles. Major fail.

Thankfully, our amazingly nice Peruvian friend took the time to walk us several blocks away to an ATM and then to our respective new bus stations. When the ATM wouldn’t work for any of our cards, he happily traded us $20 US cash for 50 soles.

I will admit that he was definitely attempting to hit on me, and started saying that Toni Braxton was his wife but I would be his next wife. It was all in clean fun though, and he was so sweet and I never felt uncomfortable or creeped out. When he left, he told me I was beautiful and bien viajes (good travels). Such a wonderful reminder how how sweet and incredibly helpful people can be. I’m sure had he not been there we would have figured something out, but he made everything so painless, and we were all so thankful!

We only had to wait 30 minutes for an 8:15 AM bus into Trujillo. Three hours later (I completely passed out for the entirety of the ride, thankfully) the three of us were in a cab on the way to a hostel. We showered, found a working ATM, got ourselves some lunch, then spent a few hours out and about in the city. After a long night of on and off sleep on the bus and an even longer day trying to keep myself awake, it’s time to pass out. I promise another blog post soon with my impressions of northern Peru and Chiclayo!

I found gringoland…

Today is an awkward day because checkout at my hotel is at 11 AM, but I don’t get on my 14+ hours of bus rides until 8 PM. Entonces I’ve got 9 hours to kill in a very little town with absolutely nothing going on. I could take a hike, but considering how humid it is, I’d like to spare myself (and the person next to me) from smelling nothing but BO on the bus for that many hours…

I spent the first half of the day in Loja on Monday. I wasn’t as charmed by the city as I thought I would be, but I did make my way to the botanical gardens, which were lovely and a great excuse to take lots of flower pictures with my DSLR. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you.) After lunch and checking out of my hostel at 2 PM, I made my way to Vilcabamba, a quiet town an hour and a half south of Loja on the edge of the Podocarpus National Park.

Despite some on and off again rain, yesterday was a great day — I went on a two hour horseback ride into the hills with a beautiful view of the national park and the surrounding mountains. Pinto, my red- and camel-colored horse, and I had a lovel time, but we did lots of trotting and galloping, which has resulted in an inordinate amount of back pain. (Yes, I realize I sound like an old lady). After my ride, I had a quick lunch and then went on a walk through a nearby nature reserve. Regardless of the fact that I got horribly lost and walked for way longer than I should have in a gigantic loop (this time I couldn’t even blame South American maps, it was just my own, stupid fault), the nature reserve was beautiful, with well marked paths (who knew that was even possible in Ecuador?!) and beautiful flowers, trees, and plenty of butterflies to see. Afterwards, I lay in the hammock, finished The Lost Girls, read the copy of Vogue I’ve been hanging onto from cover to cover, and went to bed at 9 PM. It was a perfect vacation day.

A little slice of heaven…

Vilcabamba has lots of gringas and gringos who now call the town — which is approximately 5 blocks long and another 4 blocks wide — home. This morning after I checked out, I grabbed a smoothie and made/studied spanish vocab cards at a juice place on the main square, which apparently is the place to be if you’re white and speak English. There were at least a dozen older, clearly retired, couples with American accents talking about neighbor drama or their newest born goat (I kid you not… pun intended). Another four or five younger couples with kids under the age of 5 also joined the pack, letting their kids run around with each other as they chatted about what they were going to be for the big town Halloween party tonight.

Personally, I’m not sure I get the appeal of Vilcabamba, but I have admitted and confirmed my city girl nature, and this is yet another reminder of why I belong in a bustling city. That being said, I definitely liked Mindo more than I like Vilcabamba. And though my hostel is breathtakingly beautiful, you can only stay at a hotel for so many days. I guess if you’re looking for a tranquil – and cheap – place to retire, this is your pueblo, but I’m happy to be moving on.

Unfortunately, moving on means approximately 14 hours on 3 busses across the border into Peru and down to Chiclayo. Stay tuned for that blog post, and cross your fingers that I have uneventful ride(s)!

Floating islands tour and crossing the Bolivian border

After my conversation with both the receptionist at my hotel and the tourist office on the main square the night prior, I got the impression that Puno isn’t exactly a safe, happy tourist town the way Cusco is. It certainly isn’t beautiful or picturesque either, and I’m glad I only had 24 hours there, I definitely wasn’t upset upset to be leaving so soon. My floating islands tour was a bit frustrating — I was with a group of 5 Argentinians speaking in very loud, fast spanish, a Russian couple who shoved their way to the front of everything to get a ridiculous number of photos, and a Japanese woman who got on the boat and immediately took her socks and shoes off and began scratching her scab-covered feet. So bizarre.

Our “tour” was supposed to be bilingual but it wasn’t much of a tour at all. Our guide didn’t speak a word the entire 30 minute boat ride to the islands, and once we got off onto one of the floating islands he explained a few things for less than 10 minutes, almost entirely in Spanish. When I got frustrated and tried to tell him I couldn’t understand the Spanish explanations, he said “Oh, sorry” and then continued speaking in Spanish. And on top of that, the Argentine girls kept yelling and shouting things over everyone else, asking questions and getting answers that I also couldn’t understand. Regardless of the weird group, the floating islands and our boat ride were really interesting, and I’m glad I got to see them, even if I didn’t really enjoy them. It was a strange reality to observe these families living on individual islands, meant just for them and their close family members. It was hard in many ways to tell what was authentic about their lifestyle and what was a sort of show for the hundreds of tourists that come to their island each month.

I will admit it was a very unique experience to be standing on an island made entirely of reeds, suspended above an enormous lake. Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side is beautiful in its expansiveness, and very calm, in comparison to Bolivia’s side. If I were to do it again, I’d probably skip Puno entirely and spend more time in Copacabana instead, but I’m glad I had the chance to do them both, and I know for next time!

One of the family members of the island we visited spoke relatively good English, so he took me inside his home and showed me around. He explained that he goes to Puno once a week to get groceries and anything else the family needs, but that high school children go to the city every day. Elementary school children are educated in the island community on the “main island,” another floating island just a few minutes away by boat. Once we paid an additional 5 soles, the family took us on an extra boat ride around the islands on their personal boat. Though I was happy to give them the $2, I felt sort of obliged to go on the boat ride. I also felt a lot of pressure to buy the unimpressive souvenirs they were selling. Saying “no, gracias” just didn’t seem good enough, and it was frustrating that I’d pay to go on a tour to feel pressured to spend more money. The whole experience felt very touristy and very routine, which I didn’t enjoy.

When I got back to Puno after the tour I had an hour or so at the hotel before I had to be at the bus station, so I asked the guy at my hostel for a good local restaurant recommendation. His answer? He couldn’t suggest anything good in the area aside from the restaurant I’d already eaten at last night. Not so impressive, and also made me glad I was leaving! I ended up walking down to the main square and getting a cheap chicken sandwich at a local heladeria. Not great, but for 4 soles, it did the trick!

A few minutes after I got back to the hotel from lunch, a woman rushed into the lobby, calling my name frantically. For some reason I still can’t figure out, she had my bus ticket for the bus to Bolivia I was getting on in an hour and a half in her hand. I was under the impression I needed to pick up the ticket with my passport at the actual bus station, which is why I was planning to get there an hour early, and was super confused as to who she was and what was going on. I kept trying to ask questions, but she and the hotel clerk spoke to each other in Spanish and didn’t really explain anything to me, all I know is that she somehow was connected to GTB, and she had my name on the bus ticket, spelled “Racel Cusman.”

In the end she just handed me my ticket, called me a cab, and warned as it pulled away that I shouldn’t pay more than 4 soles for the ride. When I finally got to the bus station, I had to ask 3 people questions before I figured out I needed to pay a 1 soles tax on my ticket out of the city. Sweaty and frustrated, I finally found my bus.

The guys in charge made sure I had all my paper work, a photocopy of my passport, a photo for my visa, and my paperwork from entering Peru. Their diligence in checking my paperwork made me feel a bit reassured, but not much. I was very anxious for the entire 2 1/2 hour bus ride — crossing the border to Bolivia was something I had read a ton about and was the most nervous for during the entire 10 days of my time alone. I had heard such crazy things, including my friend Sarah getting left at the visa office, of people being scammed, etc. As we were driving, I kept thinking we were finally at the border but it turned out we weren’t even close.

The actual border crossing wasn’t as horrific as I had imagined, but it was quite bizarre. When the bus pulled up, the driver made the 3 Americans get off first, in anticipation of us taking the longest. First, I had to get my passport stamped out on the Peruvian side twice, in two separate offices, one right next to the other. Then I had to walk up the hill to Bolivia and into the visa office, a tiny whole-in-the-wall building that looked far from official. There, I had fill out a visa application form. Once I handed the officer my application, all of my customs forms, the copy of my passport and my passport photo, I then had to watch him deeply inspect my $20 bills (Americans have to pay $135 as an entrance/visa fee) for any possible tiny rip or flaw. He could have cared less what was actually written on my forms, what I was doing in the country, where I was going or who I was, but because one of my $20’s had a slight line at the top, middle part of the bill where it had been folded, he simply crossed his arms and said he wouldn’t accept it. Luckily, another guy in line from my bus, also from California, had extra $20’s on him, so he was willing to trade one of his bills with me. Not sure what I would have done otherwise — seriously ridiculous!

After the officer finally accepted my money, he put a visa sticker in my passport saying my entrance fee gave me until 2017 to come back to visit the country, then sent me across the room to another border control officer who took my immigration paperwork, very slowly stamped my forms and my passport, then wrote a “90” next to my stamp, which apparently means I can be in the country for 90 days on this visit.

My heart racing, I left the building and was more than relieved to see my bus was sitting outside, my luggage intact. It was a very short drive from the border into Copacabana, but I got to see an absolutely beautiful sunset over the lake, which was very calming!

When I got off the bus in town and tried to ask a handful of people if they could help me get a taxi, no one would help or even give me a map. Finally, one guy told me I couldn’t get a taxi, that my hotel was just 2 blocks “up” and that I had to walk. So with my purse, backpack and very heavy duffel bag, I shlepped myself up the relatively steep hill, thankful to see signs with my hotel name, pointing me in the right direction. Even though I’ve been up in Cusco since Saturday evening, the altitude in Copacabana immediately started getting to me — I had a major headache from sitting on the bus, and I was huffing and puffing by the time I got the three blocks, uphill, to Hotel Cupula. So much for being in shape after my trek!

After I checked in I spent an hour or so in the TV room, watching Rain Man with a couple from Sweden (I’m telling you, there are SO many couples traveling around South America — who knew?!) and reading about Isla de Sol and Copacabana online. I had a quinoa salad for dinner at the hotel restaurant that would have been good had it not been absolutely drenched in balsamic vinegar. It was wonderful to have a private room at my hotel, even though I was paying $20 a night instead of the $10 average at most hostels in the city, I was in desperate need of a room to myself — well worth the extra $20 splurge!

Back in Cusco, then heading down to Puno

On my first day back in Cusco after the trek, I was planning to let myself sleep in as late as possible but when you sleep at a hostel in an 8 bed dorm room someone is bound to wake you up. That, and I think my body has officially adjusted to early alarms!

When I had stayed at the Pariwana hostel before my trek I really liked the girls in my room, but my second time there I had a mix of not so friendly roommates which was kind of a bummer. Three of them were friends traveling together from New Jersey, so I was excited to have some east coast bonding time, but they weren’t at all interested in talking to me or hearing my advice about Machu Picchu, so I gave up trying. The other two girls were Norwegian and nice enough, but fairly loud at odd hours, and not very interested in making friends either.

That morning, the Norwegian girls warned me that the shower was ice cold, and needless to say, I was not a happy camper. A half hour later I decided to try it out anyways and luckily there was scalding water coming through the shower head. There is no such thing as a nice, hot shower in South America. You’re either burning your skin off or freezing cold, it’s nearly impossible to find a happy medium.

Since I hadn’t met anyone at the hostel I wanted to spend time with, I spent the majority of the day wandering the streets of Cusco, having Rachel time, and falling even more in love with the city. It was definitely an adjustment to go from having 5 constant companions and a tour guide to coordinate everything to suddenly being on my own again, and I was a little emotional that the trek was over, since it was the part of my trip I was so highly anticipating. Regardless, I had a really wonderful Sunday!

I walked over to the local San Pedro market and saw more dead, skinned animals that I’d like to remember, wandered up the hills to San Blas square and ate at Jack’s Cafe, an amazing restaurant run by an Australian guy, where I had one of the best veggie burgers of my life. I went souvenir shopping and perusing, then ended up back at the Plaza de Armas to watch a huge festival/parade. I got a fresh passionfruit-pineapple juice at a local juice market on the square, then wandered into McCoy, an English-run pub that Stian and Gene had told me about on our trek. Coincidentally, I walked upstairs and there they were!

I hung out with them for a bit, then Hege pointed me in the direction of the amazing, and very cheap, massage place she’d tried out earlier in the week. For 25 soles, just over $9, I got a great back and neck massage. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to let her massage my legs because they were seriously sunburnt from sitting in the sun at Machu Picchu all morning the day before. Oops.

I went back to my hostel to do some research on places to stay in La Paz, committed to a large, but very cheap, party hostel because it seemed like the best option, then met Stian and Gene back at McCoy for dinner.

When I walked back into McCoy, I ran into one of the girls we had gone rafting with on our trek — she was from another group doing the same trail at the same time as us. It’s a very small world in Cusco, since everyone is there mostly to go to/from Machu Picchu, and it was great to run into her again!

Monday, June 18 — Driving from Cusco to Puno

On Monday morning, I was up bright and early for my 10 hour tour bus ride from Cusco down to Puno. I got to the tour office at 7 AM, as suggested, to find that my name wasn’t on the reservation list. Considering I had booked this bus over a month ago, I was relatively pissed, but thankfully a phone call to the tour company’s main offices and then another to the GTB offices got everything sorted out.

The drive down to Puno from Cusco is between 7 and 8 hours and most people, like Dan and Millie, opt to do it overnight. I chose to do a day trip that stopped at four different ruins sites, plus a fifth stop for a buffet lunch. It was a nice way to break up the drive, and I love staring out the windows at the scenery, so I was happy to do the drive during the day instead.

I was traveling on a relatively luxurious bus with a group of 50 tourists, including 15 older Australian tourists, most of whom were grandparents. They were super cute and kept asking me lots of questions about LA and traveling by myself, much different from meeting young, dirty, hostel-staying travelers like myself!

The first ruins we stopped at were Inca ruins and were really interesting — much different than anything I’d seen in Northern Peru as they were constructed with adobe, not just stone. Our second stop was a very ornate church that had been used by multiple denominations — interesting, but absolutely FREEZING inside! Our third stop was at La Raya — a gorgeous outlook where we officially left the Cusco region of Peru where you could see the beautiful snow-capped mountains. Our last stop was a pre-Inca museum that was very run down and almost entirely in Spanish, so unfortunately, it felt mostly like a waste of time.

Our buffet lunch, however, in between all of our stops was delicious, and we got to hang out with llamas and alpacas in the fields outside the restaurant after we ate, which was pretty sweet. Check out these action shots from when I tried to pose with the llama — it tried to spit on me!!

When I got to my hostel in Puno, I was very proud of myself for carrying on a conversation with the receptionist almost entirely in Spanish. Granted it was very basic Spanish, but it was much better than giving a blank stare and a typical gringa “No Habla Espanol” answer.

I wasn’t quite hungry when I got in, so I wandered down to the main square and went into a tourist information office to ask a few questions. I was going to be ambitious and wake up early, before my 8:45 AM floating islands tour, and hike up to an outlook I’d read about in my guidebook. The woman at information, however, told me it was relatively unsafe to do on my own, especially around sunrise, and even though I was disappointed, I took her advice and chose not to go.

I got dinner at a cute restaurant I’d read about in my guidebook and recomended by my hostel. I had an adorable table on the second floor overlooking the plaza and ordered a traditional peruvian dish of chicken breast in mint sauce, over sweet potatoes and quinoa salad — delicious!

I headed back to the hotel with the intention of catching up on blogging and emails, but the internet connection was terrible, so I just passed out early instead. What is vacation for if not to get an excessive amount of sleep?

Trek to Machu Picchu: Day 4

Waking up at 4 AM isn’t really so bad when you know you’re finally going to see the thing you’ve been waiting (and killing yourself) to see over the last three days: Machu Picchu. We dragged ourselves out of bed, put our luggage in storage , then walked in the pitch black, freezing cold up to the bus line, which at 4:50 AM was already a full block long.

I was seriously beginning to question everyone’s logic who suggested we get up at that crazy hour to be on the first 5:35 AM bus up the mountain, but I was already up, so that was that. The bus ride was dark but slightly nauseating so I didn’t get in the nap I was hoping for, but the adrenaline and excitement kicked in once we were finally at the entrance gate. Just after 6:15 they began letting us through the gates.

It was bizarre, yet incredible, to see this huge ruins site in person after I’d pictured it, and seen it in so many pictures, for so many years.

Juan Carlos spent the first two and a half hours of the morning walking us around the ruins, explaining the history and showing us the various temples on the site. We saw the sun rise, which was spectacular over the jagged peaks, and at around 8:45, Juan Carlos said his goodbyes and left us on our own to explore and wander. Mat had disappeared somewhere on his own, but the 5 of us found a spot in a corner overlooking part of the site and sneakily ate some of our snacks and bagged breakfasts the hostels had supplied us (you’re not supposed to eat at the site… oops).

From there we walked up toward the Guard House, which is where the perfect picture overlooking the ruins is taken. We sat on the edge of the cliff for a while and took too many pictures, then decided to let some other tourists in and made our way to the start of the walk to the Sun Gate, which is the very end of the commercial Inca trail where many hikers arrive into Machu Picchu. We were all exhausted and Juan Carlos had really been able to show us the entirety of the ruins, plus Dan’s leg was starting to ache, so instead of splitting up, we decided to pick a spot in the sun overlooking the ruins, sunbathe and enjoy the view.

We hung out and watched the crowds completely fill the site — hoards and hoards of gigantic tour groups were making their way up the stairs. I had to leave the ruins to pee at one point, and it was like working my way against Los Angeles rush hour traffic. Only then did I appreciate waking up so early to be at the site before sun rise — it was really great to be able to have a guide explain everything without being swarmed by other groups.

There really are no words for how stunning Machu Picchu is — there’s no doubt in my mind why the Incas chose the spot they did, nestled between beautiful mountains, overlooking the gorgeous river valley — but it’s mind blowing to try and grasp how they built such an intricate city at such a high altitude in the middle of nowhere. Where did all of the stones come from? How did they manage to be so precise, so many hundreds of years ago? The questions are endless, and as we were sitting taking it all in, I decided I had to read Hiram Bingham’s (the man given credit for discovering Machu Picchu) “Lost City of the Incas” when I got home.

After 6 1/2 hours in the sun at the ruins, we made our way down the steps to discover two llamas seriously goin’ at it. Be thankful you’ve never had to witness llama sex, it is one of those train wrecks that you can’t look away from. Hundreds of tourists were taking pictures, and the noises as we walked by were just… scarring. Apparently these two llamas like to get it on at the ruins, because as we lined up for the bus, one of the many Peruvian souvenir sellers tried to sell us the “llama sexy time” postcard. I guess humans are humans, wherever they are in the world, everyone is obsessed with sex, even llama sex!

Dan, Millie and I went back to our hostel, grabbed our bags then perused our way through the souvenir market on the way to the train station. Our Inca Rail train from Aguas Callientes to Ollantaytambo was quite luxurious — we had complimentary beverages and snacks, and a beautiful view through huge windows and smaller windows in the ceiling of the beautiful mountain scenery we had walked through the day before.

When we arrived in Ollantaytambo a van was waiting to drive us back to Cusco. We thought it would just be the three of us, but the driver and a woman assisting him crammed it full with locals looking for a cheap ride back to the city, so we were relatively crammed for the hour and a half drive.

The van dropped us off at the plaza just a half block from my hostel, so Dan and Millie came with me to grab my suitcase and re-check in. I quickly changed and stuck my stuff in my locker, then hopped in a cab with them down to the bus station in the southern part of the town. Instead of staying the night in Cusco, they were taking an overnight bus down to Puno that night, since they were only on vacation for just over 2 weeks, they wanted to save some time.

Being at the bus station was a big slap in the face — it’s so easy and so cheap to book bus tickets between cities in South America, prepaying for all my busses was not only a huge rip off but a big mistake. I wasted a ton of money booking my “hop” through Green Toad Bus, but of course I could have only known this after coming down to SA and doing the traveling myself. You live and you learn I guess — next time, I know!

Once they got their bus tickets we went back to their old hostel, grabbed their bags and got some dinner. My lasagna was relatively unimpressive, but they had some good pasta. Then we had to say our goodbyes, and I was off to my hostel to find my sweats, take a long hot shower and pass out!

The internet at my hostel is very slow, but I will try to upload the rest of my MP pictures ASAP!