Ala Archa National Park

Ala Archa NP, located just outside of Bishkek, is the number one place to visit when in the city.  The park is accessible all year round and offers breathtaking views of the Tian Shan (天山 – “heavenly mountains”) range.  The mountains live up to their name, and the park provides an easy place to explore them on a day trip from Bishkek proper.

I went to the park with fellow Midwesterner and long term traveler, Karl (@wanderbadger on instagram, highly recommended), from the hostel and hiked around for a couple hours.  Right by the beginning of the trail we encountered the fluffiest and friendliest squirrels I’ve ever seen, that kept climbing or attempting to climb up us both.  Further along, the trail runs along a rocky river with a few haphazard bridges to cross it.  It was still really snowy everywhere but it was hot enough that even just wearing a T-shirt was too warm.  I stupidly forgot sunscreen and became a tomato (in case you didn’t know, eyeball sunburn is a thing and not a fun one), but it was so nice to feel the sun and be in the mountains after being in the frozen and cloudy steppe.  The walk to the marshrutka station was less fun, as after the park entrance gate it was just flat asphalt walking for kilometers.  The only interesting part of that return journey was meeting a bunch of middle aged guys parked on the side of the road taking shots to celebrate one of their birthdays.

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To get to Ala Archa, the quickest, easiest, and most recommended way is by taxi.  For about 2-2.5k som the driver will take you round trip and wait for a few hours while you hike.  If you are cheap, there is a marshrutka stop about 10km away from the entrance that you can walk to and from.  Having done a combination of them both and feeling miserable because of it, take the taxi round trip and spend the extra few dollars.

There’s not so much more to say about the park, so I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.DSC_0139DSC_0107

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Skyrim or Kyrgyzstan?

A Cold Autumn Day at Burabay National Park

My first trip out of Astana was to the popular nature destination of Borovoe (or Burabai in Kazakh).  Located just a short three hour train ride away, this is a pretty popular weekend getaway for residents of Astana.  There are plenty of resorts and hotels around the lake which are full during the summer months.  I went with two classmates and we headed out on the first train north, which left sometime around 6 AM.  The train cost only about $3 each way and ran fairly regularly all day.  Once we arrived at the train station in the town nearest to Borovoe, we hired a taxi to take us to the end of the hiking route so that we only had to walk into the town instead of doing the same trail there and back.

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Early morning at the Astana Train Station
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Our first view of Borovoe

Now, the thing about Borovoe is that the weather is entirely unpredictable.  Unlike everywhere surrounding it which is endless steppe, Borovoe has mountains and forests that contribute to its erratic climate.  According to most of the forecasts, the weather was supposed to be fine the entire day, and many friends of mine had been there the previous day with beautiful weather.  When we arrived, it was cloudy and much colder than Astana (which isn’t so surprising considering its proximity to the border with Russian Siberia).  Since there was a cafe at the beginning of the route, we stopped for hot drinks before heading out on the walk.

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Stopping for hot drinks before our hike

Unfortunately, during the time we were inside getting warmed up, it started raining outside.  It was only a light rain and we hoped it would stop after we started walking, so we began the trek into a forested area nearby.  The scenery was lovely, and there were tied rags which are used for religious rituals on many of the trees.  After getting turned around in here, we made our way toward the town.  Of course, the rain came down harder and harder during the next 3 hours to the point that everything was pretty well soaked through by the time we arrived in town.

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Replica of the standing stones found across Kazakhstan
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This stone has some attachment to some ancient practice from what I could gather
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Clouds coming over the trees
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Tied rags symbolize many things in local religious contexts

Once we managed to find a restaurant and get food (and have a few incidents along the way) we made the journey back to the train station and to Astana.  The train station for Borovoe is incredibly cold for being indoors, so we ended up drinking a lot of hot chocolate from a vending machine to keep warm with all the wind coming inside and hitting our still pretty wet clothes.  The train back was pretty late in the evening, and we got stuck with very loud and inebriated soccer fans from a city on the other side of the country who were singing their team’s anthem for hours.  Overall though, even with pretty much everything going wrong that could go wrong, it was still a beautiful trip and definitely one I will remember.

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The famous standing stone in the center of the lake
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Cool root systems on these trees near the lake
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Rentable boats near the famous rock
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Grey skies and grey water
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A cyclist who was also stuck in the rain

El Calafate and Ushuaia – five days in Argentine Patagonia 

El Calafate is a town in Argentina known for one thing – Perito Moreno glacier. This is the world’s only glacier which is not shrinking, but rather at a state of equilibrium. At the far south of the country lies the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth. In contrast to the rest of Patagonia, Ushuaia was covered in a thick layer of snow and slush. Because of this, during the winter months the town is alive with skiers and snowboarders from around the world.  
My first sight in Argentina was the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had to take a tour to the glacier from Puerto Natales, Chile, in order to see it at all, as I had to change my plans due to lack of buses. This involved a 7 AM bus, a very easy border crossing in the middle of nowhere, and a very long and convoluted route to El Calafate before continuing to the glacier.  

 

Chilean border office
  
Crossing into Argentina
 We got to the glacier at about 3 PM and had two hours to wander around the many boardwalks and viewpoints. Since I brought lunch with me, I went straight for the boardwalks instead of eating in the very overpriced cafeteria attached to the visitor centre, and it was perfect. Just as I made it to the first viewpoint, I heard a large crash and saw a huge chunk of ice calving off the glacier and fall into the lake below. It was impressive, especially since the snow was falling so hard I could barely see the glacier in the first place, but this part was crystal clear. The snow cleared up after about 40 minutes, showing much of the 14 kilometers of ice behind the front cliffs. In warmer and clearer weather, I think that 2 hours would not be enough to enjoy the entire area, but with cold and snow it was plenty.  

 

The barely visible glacier
  
Perito Moreno glacier once the snow let up
  
The boardwalks
  
The ice is extremely blue
 The bus left for El Calafate at about 5, and we made it back a little after 6. I was the only one who was staying in the city, so I got dropped off at the gas station and walked to my hostel. I stayed at America del Sur and it was incredible. They have heated floors. HEATED FLOORS. After freezing in Bolivia and then again in Patagonia, heated flooring was pretty much the greatest thing. The staff was great, breakfast was included, and it was so warm. When I got here, I also ran into my French friend from the previous two towns and the Brazilian guy from my hostel in Puerto Natales.  

 

Shops in El Calafate
 
I spent the last hour of daylight walking around the downtown area of El Calafate. It’s super touristy, but unlike Puerto Natales, it was actually open! There were lots of crazy overpriced tourist shops and restaurants, but the area was nice enough to make up for it. I went back to the hostel after dark and then went to dinner with my Brazilian friend at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by the hostel. I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant in a few weeks so I was ready so spend a bit more than normal. The place we went was the #1 in town and quite upscale, and the food was incredible. I had a huge portion of Patagonian lamb in a calafate sauce (it’s a local berry). By the time it was all said and done I spent 300 pesos ($20 at the blue dollar rate) but it was worth it!

 

Patagonian lamb dinner
 
The next afternoon, after dealing with the hassle of cancelled flights and talking with customer service in Spanish, I flew to Ushuaia. The flight was short, though it was almost prolonged due to a snowstorm at the airport when we were about to land. We ended up landing 20 minutes early somehow and I made it to my hostel by 4. I just walked around the centre for a bit and saw the city for the first day, which was quite nice. The “Fin Del Mundo” sign was only 2 blocks from the hostel, so it was very conveniently located for walking about. The park along the waterfront was really nice, though my photos kept getting bombed by ski teams from random countries (especially the Polish team) who were in the city for a competition.  

 

Lago Argentino from Above
  
Ticket vendors along the Ushuaia streets
  
It’s the End of the World!
 
The next day I decided to go winter hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the way to the bus station, I had my passport stamped with an “End of the World” stamp at the information centre near the port. The bus to the park was an outrageous 300 pesos ($20 at the blue rate) though it was only 15 km. However, the park was worth the cost. When I arrived, it was snowing quite hard but it quickly let up, with only random heavy downbursts of snow throughout the trek. I spent most of the walk with an older Argentine couple who both had studied some English and wanted to practice, so we had an interesting talk in basic English with Spanish to fill in the blanks. The hiking circuit took about 3 hours, at the end of which was an overpriced cafe for the cold and wet hikers who spent the day in the park. I caught the next bus and made it to the hostel by 4, where I spent the rest of the day keeping warm in the lounge area. I also met a group of Filipino travelers at the hostel and spent most of the night hanging out with them.  

 

Tierra del Fuego National Park
  
   
The following morning, I slept in way longer than anticipated, but when I finally made it to the lobby, my German friends I had run into so many times were checking into the hostel. Since they showed up, we ended up all trying to hike to the Glaciar Martial but had to turn around near the top due to the weather and the sun going down. The walk wasn’t bad though, just a bit slushy in the streets. We made it back by nightfall and I went to bed early, as I had an early flight to Buenos Aires the following morning.  

 

Shopping streets
  
Stranded ship in the port
  
Mountainous landscape surrounding the city
  
So close to Antarctica!
 

Puerto Varas and the Lakes District – tranquil German villages and snow capped volcanoes 

Puerto Varas is a charming little town on Lake Llanquique in the Lakes Region of Chile.  This area is the beginning of Patagonia, and it’s a perfect place to begin a trip through the region.
I arrived in Puerto Varas after an overnight bus from Santiago.  The weather was miserable when I arrived, and the walk to the hostel from the bus station was a very wet ordeal – which was made longer by the marathon taking place on the road I needed to use to get to the hostel. I made it eventually, cold and wet, and the Margouya Patagonia hostel was a welcome relief with its warm sitting area and log cabin atmosphere.  After warming up a bit and waiting for the rain to subside, I took a walk around the thoroughly drenched town and along the lakeshore.  The town was quaint, with a blend of authentic and touristy shops and restaurants.  I didn’t get too much of a chance to walk around though as the rain came back with a fierce vengeance after about an hour so I made my way back to the hostel.

Large metal statue along the waterfront

Puerto Varas

The church in Puerto Varas

Colorful houses on a rainy day
The following morning was a completely different story.  The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue.  After breakfast I walked toward the bus stop to visit Vincente Rosales Perez National Park in nearby Petrohue. When I got the to bus stop, I ran into two Brazilian guys who were also at my hostel so we all went to the park together.  When we arrived after the hour-long bus ride, we grabbed a quick lunch by Lake Todos Los Santos and went to the trail.  The first few kilometers of trail was mostly forest walking, but after that it suddenly opened up to stunning views of Osorno Volcano, which is located at the edge of the park.  Continuing further up the trail and toward the volcano, there was a magnificent viewpoint of Lake Todos Los Santos and the mountains surrounding it.  We headed back down the trail and toward another mirador, with equally impressive views, before taking the trail down a dried alluvial river bed toward the lake.  While the views from the first two miradors were impressive, the scene at the lake was outstanding. The blue water was crystal clear and waveless, causing the mountainous landscape surrounding it to reflect off the surface.  It was very hard to leave the beauty of that place.  However, we were running dangerously close to the time of the last bus back to Puerto Varas, and still had 4 kilometers to get back.  We had so little time we had to run most of the final 2 kilometers in order to make it back by the time (we were told) the last bus left.  We made it just in time, just to find out the bus didn’t arrive for another half an hour.  It was nice to have time to crash after the run through the sandy trails, but it would’ve been nicer to avoid the entire run altogether.  In any case, we got on the bus and made it back to Puerto Varas for a stunning sunset from the lakeshore.

Lago Todos Los Santos

Volcan Osorno from Vincente Perez Rosales National Park

Lago Todos Los Santos in Vincente Perez Rosales NP

A man fishing at sunset in Puerto Varas
The next day, I decided to visit the neighboring town of Frutillar.  Frutillar is a little German inspired village located a short distance north of Puerto Varas, still along the lakeshore. The local bus cost $1 each way, so it was a nice place to take a cheap trip.  The village is famous for its decidedly German architecture, as well as Teatro del Lago, a stunning theatre situated over Lago Llanquique.  I spent some time wandering the streets and around the theatre; however, the town was mostly closed down as it was the off season so I didn’t find it especially interesting to visit.  After about an hour and a half I headed back to Puerto Varas, where I had lunch before heading south to Puerto Montt.

Theatre on the Lake in Frutillar

Dock and Volcan Osorno in Frutillar
Puerto Montt was also a $1 bus ride away, this time to the south and the Pacific Coast.  The local bus arrived right to the bus terminal, which was very conveniently located along the shore in the downtown area.  The city is much larger and industrial than Puerto Varas, and had a much more touristy atmosphere.  There were tons of shopping malls and tourist shops in the downtown core, especially around the main plaza.  There wasn’t anything especially appealing about the city, so I didn’t stay too long here either.  I made my way back to Puerto Varas for dinner and ended up having a great conversation at my hostel with people from the UK, Germany, Austria, Peru, and Brazil until after 3 AM!

Since I was flying out in the afternoon, I didn’t have time to do anything else on my last day in Puerto Varas.  I took the bus to Puerto Montt around noon and from there the bus to the airport for my flight to Punta Arenas – my first stop in Patagonia!

Puerto Montt coastline

          Puerto Montt

El Camino de la Muerte – Biking Bolivia’s Infamous Death Road

I’m writing this post from the bus back to La Paz after doing the 63 kilometer Death Road bike tour. The North Yungas Road, more commonly referred to as the Death Road (El Camino de la Muertes, runs from outside of La Paz to the town of Coroico. It was named the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995 due to the large number of deaths which occur every year on its sometimes only 9 ft wide path. In the early 2000s it was replaced by a newly paved highway between the two areas so use of the Death Road has greatly declined. Today, mostly bike and ATV tours use the road on a regular basis. 

 

The Death Road
 
I had intended to take this tour yesterday, but it was cancelled due to a snowstorm in the area.  The tour (which I took with Altitude Biking, highly recommend) started at 7:30 this morning with a pick up from my hostel in La Paz. I was at the last hostel for pick up so after me and the two others at my hostel were picked up we headed toward the beginning of the tour. The road to Coroico is stunning – it looks just like a scene out of Skyrim with its stunning snowy mountain landscapes. It took about an hour to get to the beginning of the tour, a place called La Cumbre. At this point we all got out of the vans for photos, the explanations of how the tour worked, and to split into groups, as Altitude had a number of buses there.  My group was made up of mostly Brits, a couple of Aussies, a German guy and one other American.  The ground was covered and snow and it was pretty chilly at this spot. Even so, we got our bikes here and began the first 20 km of the ride.  

 

View of La Paz on the way to the road
  
The start of the trip
  
“Only God Can Save You”
 
The landscape here was absolutely amazing; we started at 4,600 meters above sea level and quickly descended downward along a paved highway as we got used to the bikes. The entire section was downhill so it was completely unnecessary to use the pedals, only the brakes. The amount of speed you could gain here was amazing. As we went down the road, the climate and vegetation slowly changed – first from low brown grasses to more green and lush plant life. There were signs along the road that said things like “Endangered Bird Zone” and “Bear Crossing,” among other things.  
When we reached the bottom of the paved road, we had to stop at a checkpoint where there is a 25 Bs charge for biking the Death Road. Once we paid this, we loaded the bikes up in the car and took the van to the beginning of the Death Road, as there was an 8 km uphill section of the road.  

 

Brief stop halfway down the paved road
 
As the van began down the road, clouds began to fly up the side of the mountain cliffs to our left and zoom overhead. The view was incredible. We got back on the bikes and began riding the first 12 km stretch of the road, which was the most narrow. There were many sections of road which were only 3.5 meters wide (about 11 feet). While this was perfectly fine on a bike, I’d never want to drive down it with a car. Many parts of this section had drops which were probably 2000 ft down. There was still traffic along the road, though only a handful of cars were not associated with a tour of some kind. We made our first photo stop after the 12 km stretch at one of the most famous parts of the road.  

 

The beginning of the Death Road
  
Chilling on a cliff
  
A bus going down the road
 
From here we continued onward for another 10 km before stopping again. All the smoothness of the paved road was but a distant memory by this point. The road was extremely bumpy and rocks would regularly shoot out of under the tires. At one point a girl on my tour slipped on the rocks and fell into the cliff face on the inner portion of the road (she was fine and this was the only incident, she was going slow and stayed on the bike the whole time – she mostly just tipped over). This part was also completely downhill, so pedals were still rarely used. On part of this section we drove under a waterfall, which was pretty cool. 

 

Biking down the road
 
The next chunk was a bit more challenging, as it went from completely downhill to having a bunch of flat sections. At this point I made it to the front of the group because I had less trouble with the flat parts since we were at a low altitude and I hadn’t encountered such oxygen levels since May. We stopped for a long break at the tourist center and this part of the road before finishing the last 20 minute ride to the end. It was sweltering at this place and we were able to take off the protective pants and jacket they gave us for the first part of the ride and we could change into more comfortable clothes. After the stop we continued on the last section of road, which took us to the village of Yolosa. There were substantially fewer cliffs on this section but I thought it was the most difficult, as the rocks in the road were larger and there were lots of ruts from water draining down the middle of the street. There was one place where I thought I might fall into the wall because I hit a rock, but it ended up being fine and no incidents were had.   
View from the penultimate stop
 

When we reached the end, located at 1100 meters, we received an “I Survived the Death Road” shirt and then took the van to a hotel where we had a buffet lunch and could go swimming. The buffet had a weird assortment of food (fries, spaghetti, fried chicken, etc.) but it was wonderful after 63 kilometers of biking. The swimming pool was freezing, so I didn’t use it long. The weather at this place was gorgeous though, and the gardens around the pools were great – lots of tropical flowers and some coconut trees. We stayed for about two hours before starting this car ride back to La Paz (which will probably take about 3 hours).  

 

Tropical paradise at the end of the ride
  
I Survived the Death Road and have the T-Shirt to prove it
 
This trip was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done and I would absolutely do it again if given the opportunity. It wasn’t the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve experienced, but the change in landscapes and climates along the ride, which dropped 11,500 feet in elevation, were stunning. I highly recommend anyone visiting La Paz to take a day to do the ride, it was incredible and probably will be the highlight of my time in Bolivia, and maybe in South America.

Me not dying on the Death Road

A short post about Copacabana sunsets

This post diverges from the usual trip report type entries I usually post, but I have to acknowledge the gorgeous sunsets that I’ve seen for the past 2 months in Copacabana. I’m lucky enough to have a stunning view of the lake out of my bedroom window, so I’ve been spoiled with the magnificent array of sunsets that occur every evening. Sunset is probably the most beautiful time of day in Copa, and if you visit you must watch the sun drop below the lake from one of the rickety docks along the shore, but I digress. Anyway, here are some pics of the amazing sunsets over Lake Titicaca!

 
     
    
   

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (also known as Coati) are two islands located in Lake Titicaca, not far from Copacabana. Isla del Sol is the most popular with backpackers as it has great trails for day hikes, however both islands are great to visit. Isla del Sol is the larger of the two, at about 8 kilometers long. Isla de la Luna is much smaller, and only consists of one village and an Inca ruin on the other side of the large hill that splits the island in two.  
Kirsten and I visited Isla del Sol on Aymara New Year in hopes of seeing the festival which we had heard would be going on that day. Unfortunately we did not make it on time, as it had apparently started at 5 AM and the boats don’t leave Copa until 8:30 AM. However, it was still a lovely day for a hike, so we began at the north end of the island and began the 4 hour hike to the village of Yumani at the south end. There’s a small museum at the town on the north end, which includes a couple sets of (commingled) human remains. You have to buy a 5 Bs ticket here to continue along the trail toward the Inca ruins. Once you leave the museum, it’s about a 45 minute hike to the Inca ruins located at the far north of the island. These ruins are pretty pathetic compared to those in Peru, but they still make for nice photos.  

 

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol
 
From there, continue uphill toward the second checkpoint, where there is a 15 Bs fee to walk across the center portion of the island. This is the most beautiful section of the hike, so don’t skip out because of the fees to cross. There’s nothing in particular to see in this part of the island, other than the breathtaking (literally) landscape and deep blue colors of Lake Titicaca. There are two killer hills in this section, so make sure to bring a lot of water and some snacks as there’s only one place to buy stuff and it’s way overpriced. You’ll have to show your ticket a couple of times on this part, but don’t have to pay again until reaching Yumani.  

 

Stacked stones in the middle of Isla del Sol
  
Hiking trail across Isla del Sol
 
At the end of the hike, you reach the village of Yumani, which is where the boats that return to Copacabana are docked. This is the largest of the villages on the island and it has the most options for hostels/hotels and restaurants. I personally don’t think that it’s necessary to stay on the island overnight, while others say to spend at least two nights, so it’s a personal preference. I would definitely recommend starting the hike at the north end, as Yumani has a very tall and long set of stairs which take forever to go down, so climbing up that at the beginning of the hike would be awful. Boats return to Copa in the late afternoon, and usually arrive between 5:30 and 6 PM. The roundtrip boat ticket should cost no more than 40 Bs ($5.81).  

 

Village of Yumani at the south end of Isla del Sol
 
Isla de la Luna is also accessible from Copacabana, though at less regular times due to the few people that visit. We went to the island on a private boat with a resident of the island, as we were invited to their house to have lunch. The lunch consisted of potatoes, oca, fava beans, and pork, which were cooked in a stone oven (called watia). This was the first time I had seen food cooked in a stone oven, I had only seen earth ovens prior. The flavor of the stone oven was different, and it made the food substantially less dirty than the dirt oven. After lunch we hiked over the hill to visit the Inca site located on the other side. The site had earlier been excavated and partially reconstructed by archaeologists, however, in the past two years the locals have taken it upon themselves to “restore” the site. This actually means that they built a bunch of new “Inca ruins” which are quite poorly done. Comparing photos from two years ago to this year’s visit shows the drastic changes that have occurred in that short amount of time. Even with the problematic “restoration” process which is going on there, the ruins are still interesting and worth visiting if spending a few days in Copacabana. The island really survives on tourism, and there are a few cheap guesthouse in the village for those who want to relax in a quiet place for a night or two. To reach the island, talk to one of the people in the ticket booths along the beach in Copacabana and ask for the rate for the day – there is definitely a combination ticket for sale with Isla del Sol and the Floating Islands with one of the companies. 

 

Stone oven cooking on Isla de la Luna
  
Inca ruins on Isla de la Luna
 

The Sacred Valley – Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray

The Sacred Valley of Peru, located just outside of Cuzco, is packed with fascinating archaeological sites. Many of these sites are included in Cuzco’s multi-day ticket and are absolutely worth visiting if given a chance. Kirsten and I visited 3 of these sites, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray.
We took an early minibus on a Sunday morning to Pisac from Cuzco for about $2. Sunday is Pisac’s market day, so the city was packed with tourists when we arrived. The market is mostly tourist junk but it’s fun to wander around for a bit before going to the ruins. When we were done with the market, we took a cab to the entrance to the site. It is possible to walk to the top, but having done that on my previous visit, we opted for the cab as it took 20 minutes instead of 3+ hours of uphill walking. Pisac is a fantastic site located on top of a mountain, and it’s very well preserved. There are a series of agricultural terraces toward the entrance which descend down the mountain. The site is almost divided into two sections which are about 15 minutes walking apart. The higher portion has less impressive stonework and is on top of the mountain peak, while the second part is in a more level area and has very fine stonework. The lower section has the characteristic Inca doors and windows, as well as some ridiculous stones carved in very difficult ways. After touring the site we hiked back to the bottom, which took about an hour and a half. By the time we got to the bottom we were starving so we went to one of the tourist restaurants that was open and had lunch before heading back to Cuzco for the evening.

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Pisac Sunday Market
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Terraces at Pisac
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Pisac Ruins

The following day we took another minibus to Ollantaytambo, where we were spending the night before our early morning train to Machu Picchu. I stayed in Ollantaytambo for four days on my previous visit, and wanted to spend a night there as I really enjoyed the laid back and historical atmosphere of the town. Ollantaytambo was the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish, and most of the town is still intact like it was when the Inca were there. The main site in town is extremely impressive, and I find it comparable to Machu Picchu in terms of archaeological sites worth visiting. We grabbed lunch at Heart’s Cafe (best place in Ollantaytambo) before hiking around the ruins, and spend a few hours wandering the site. Once we finished at the official site, we hiked up the opposing mountain to visit some other Inca ruins and take some pics of the entire fortress of Ollantaytambo. We ended up taking a few wrong turns and found ourselves on top of the mountain, which took a while to climb back down. By the time we finished with the ruins it was getting late so we found dinner and went to bed early for the early train to Machu Picchu, which I wrote about in a separate post.

 

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The old city streets
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The main section of ruins
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Some of the amazing stonework on top of the ruins
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The valley surrounding Ollantaytambo

The morning we got back from Machu Picchu we booked a tour of Moray and the Maras Salineras through our hostel. I normally don’t like taking tours of sites, however it was substantially cheaper than any other method of getting there so we took it. I didn’t get a chance to visit on my previous trip to Cuzco, so this was one of the only things I didn’t repeat on this trip. Moray was an agricultural testing center for the Inca, where they could grow lowland crops as well as highland crops in the series of concentric circles. The deeper the circle the warmer the microclimate, which allowed for non-native crops to grow well in the site. There were three of these circular fields, only one of which was fairly large. The tour only stopped here for about an hour before continuing on to Salineras.

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The circular terraces of Moray

The Salineras of Maras are a series of salt pools which are created by a natural spring of salt water which runs over these shallow pools and forms a brine. The water evaporates and leaves a thick crust of salt which is then harvested and sold around the world. Different families own each of the 1500+ pools at the site, and it’s the biggest economic input in the town, both from tourism and salt exports. The area was really pretty and the different colors of salt allowed for really good photos of the salt and surrounding valley. This was definitely one of my favorite places in the Cuzco area due to how bizarre and beautiful it was.

 

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Salineras of Maras

All three sites are must-see destinations for anyone visiting Cuzco and the Sacred Valley region.

Arequipa and Colca Canyon – colonial architecture and stunning Andean landscapes 

We arrived in Arequipa early in the morning after a long overnight bus from Huacachina. Most of the bus got dropped off at the Flying Dog hostel, which thankfully allowed us to use their lobby area to rest and charge our phones and cameras. Since many of us were booked there for the following day, we were able to have our backpacks stored before our two day one night tour of Colca Canyon. We left for Colca Canyon a little after 9 AM with a number of our friends from the bus and made our way toward Chivay.
We made a couple of stops along the way, first at Salinas National Park, which was home to herds of vicuña (llama relatives) and stunning mountain landscapes. We made a few stops in the park, one of which was a for a herd of llamas grazing along the road. The landscapes in this area were absolutely amazing, especially for fans of the barren and desolate. The bus continued higher and higher in altitude before our next stop, Mirador de Los Andes, a viewpoint located at 4,910 meters (16,017 ft) above sea level. Since this was our first day at high altitude, a few of our friends had some difficulty with the low oxygen content, though Kirsten and I had no troubles. After taking a few pictures of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains, the tour descended into Chivay, the base town for Colca Canyon treks and tours. There was one last overlook where we took a number of pictures of the town and were able to pet and take photos with a baby alpaca (who later tried to push a small boy off a cliff).

 

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Salineras National Park
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Sassy llamas in the park
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Homicidal baby alpaca -don’t let his cuteness deceive you

We finally arrived in Chivay around 2:30 PM, when we went to a tourist restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Peruvian food, which was actually pretty decent. After lunch our guide drove us to the beginning of the canyon where we took a short hike through into the canyon with absolutely stunning views of the valleys and snow capped mountains. The hike probably lasted for an hour or so, after which we headed to the volcanic hot springs located outside of the town. A friend and I managed to get separated from the group and ended up in a thermal pool by ourselves, which was really relaxing. The waters were filtered to get rid of the sulfuric smell but retain the minerals and heat, which felt wonderful after long bus rides and the earlier hike. We had dinner at a crappy tourist place that had terribly slow service and filled with smoke from the pizza oven inside, which made it really hard to breathe. Once that ordeal was finished, we checked into our hotel and went to bed early for our early morning trip into Colca Canyon.

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First view of Colca Canyon
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Geothermal pool

We began the trip into Colca around 7 AM, which felt way too early but the morning light made the landscape brilliantly colored. We stopped in a small village with a church about an hour later to use the bathrooms and buy snacks and souvenirs. At one point a friend of ours had a large bird perch on her head for photos, which was hilarious. The stop was fairly brief, and afterward we continued on into the canyon.

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We arrived at the condor viewpoint around 9:15 AM, which at first was pretty but underwhelming, especially since we had a couple hours to kill there. At first there were only a few condors flying around, but after about 30 minutes at least a dozen began flying around the canyon near where we were standing. There were a couple of viewing platforms available to watch from, so we hiked all over them to see the birds from all the different angles. After about an hour and a half our guide gathered the group up and we took a moderate hike along the valley to see the landscapes and various local plants that grew in the area. We finished the hike around noon and continued toward another viewpoint before heading back to Chivay for lunch and then onward to Arequipa before nightfall. Bonus: at the last stop we got to eat cactus ice cream, which was amazing.

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Condors at Cruz del Condor
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Viewpoints for condor watching
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Colca Canyon

 We got back to Arequipa around 6 PM and checked into our hostel, and then visited the Santa Catalina Monastery with a group of friends from the bus. On certain nights of the week the monastery is open at night, and that night happened to be one of them, which was convenient as most of our friends were leaving for Cuzco in the early morning. We all toured the various streets and buildings of the monastery — which is essentially a walled off town within the center of Arequipa — for an hour or so before heading to the main plaza to see the cathedral and other colonial architecture.

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Santa Catalina Monastery at night

After wandering through town for a bit, we went out in search of a restaurant that served cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. We got a great recommendation from the hostel for a good local place that served it and all but two of us ordered it for dinner (the other two were mortified at the thought and could barely watch – though one did manage to try a bite). Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, and the owner of the restaurant even made an earring for one of our friends out of the tooth of the guinea pig she ate. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to many of them in Arequipa as we were staying an extra day to see the city.

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Mmhmm, deep fried guinea pig

The next day we spent wandering the old city of Arequipa. First we visited the Jesuit church, which had stunning architecture and intricate murals on the domed ceiling in one of the side rooms. After the church we visited the Museo Santuario Andino, which houses the Juanita mummy, and perfectly preserved mummy of a child sacrifice which was found frozen on top of a local mountain. The features of the body are incredibly preserved and the associated artifacts were explained well by our guide, who was an archaeology student at the university which runs the museum. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos, and cameras must be checked at the entrance to make sure the rule is followed.

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Colonial architecture near the Jesuit church

We left the museum and grabbed lunch before heading to the Basilica of Arequipa, which also required a tour guide. Thankfully the service was included in the ticket price and the two of us were the only ones on the tour. The guide was knowledgeable about the history of the church and the former priests, and I ended up being glad we had to hire her for a tour. There were a number of rooms available to tour which held various relics from the church’s history. Toward the end of the tour the guide took us on the roof of the church to show us the bells and the view of the main plaza, the monastery, and the volcanoes in the distance. The views from the top were great and the tour was absolutely worth taking.

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The basilica from La Plaza de Armas
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Inside the basilica
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View from the roof of the basilica

Once we finished at the church we returned to the Santa Catalina Monastery to take more pictures during the day, since it was so impressive during the night prior. The difference between night and day is striking, as the colors were much more vibrant than I had expected after seeing them the day before. We stayed much longer on the second visit in order to see everything we missed the night before. I would recommend visiting during the day and the night if possible, as both experiences are fascinating and worth the price. Once we finished in the monastery, we wandered through the town centre again before grabbing dinner and going to bed before our early morning bus to Cuzco.
 
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