Be forewarned. Traveling is seriously addictive. Develop a case of wanderlust, and it is hard to ever feel totally satisfied. Case in point: we have an ever-evolving wish list of travel destinations that somehow seems to get longer the more we travel. And, with an endless supply of amazing new places to discover, it is a struggle for us when we visit a country and really love it. Will we ever find our way back again? Or, with so many new places to go, will we just have to be satisfied with one visit to a dream destination and move on?
For example, back in 2009, we traveled to Peru and Bolivia, two incredible countries in the heart of South America just oozing with natural beauty, fascinating cultures and compelling histories to boot. We spent five weeks in all seeing many of the countries’ A-list sites and soaking in as much culture as we possibly could. Even with a decent amount of time, we felt like we had barely scratched the surface before it was time to head home. We hoped we could make it back some day. But when?
As our interest in international (and high altitude) hiking continued to grow, we kept hearing again and again that Peru is home to some of South America’s—if not the world’s—premiere trekking destinations. When we asked other trekkers we met in places like Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Mt. Kilimanjaro where they would recommend heading next, Peru kept topping the list.
Most people, of course, are familiar with the Inca Trail, but Peru is certainly no one-trick pony. Did you know that the Central Andes of Peru happen to be the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas anywhere in the world? With countless options for trekking through stunning alpine scenery and a dry season that coincides perfectly with our summer school break, the lure of returning to Peru was becoming too strong for us to ignore.
Over the years, we’ve learned that high altitude trekking is extremely tough, and, with hikes easily averaging over the 4000-meter mark, we figured we better get back to Peru sooner than later if we wanted to give this area a go. It’s sad to say, but these hiking legs aren’t getting any younger!
But, before we tell you all about the incredible trekking we did on this year’s trip, we thought we would take a short stroll down memory lane to see what made us fall in love with Peru in the first place. We hope you will come along for the ride.
It was the summer of 2009, and we were just beginning our quest to hike the classic trails of the world. Earlier that year we had completed our first backpacking adventure, an independent trip to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia to hike the classic “W” trail.
That trip had been our first time in South America, and we were smitten both with the amazing hiking and the relaxed vibe of this very cool continent. We were ready for more.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu seemed like an obvious next step, and, when it became clear that we couldn’t do it on our own (the Peruvian government requires you to do this trek with a guide), we decided to sign up for a small group trip with G Adventures.
Our trip with G Adventures was three weeks long in total and traveled overland south from Lima to La Paz, Bolivia. Along the way, we experienced a lot of what this amazing country has to offer and had the added bonus of slowly acclimatizing to the high elevations we would encounter while hiking as we followed a popular overland route known as “the gringo trail” to Cuzco.
After a brief tour of the colonial architecture of Lima, we headed along the desert coast to Pisco (the dessicated lunar scenery alone is worth the drive) where we hoped to visit the Ballestas Islands of Paracas National Reserve by boat to see some of the incredible marine life there. Unfortunately, the sea was super choppy that morning, keeping the boats anchored safely in the marina. We had to be content with seeing the reserve by land, but the stunning coastal scenery made up for the missed opportunity out on the water.
Of course, we were kind of disappointed, but with waves like these, we understood that it was probably for the best.
From there we headed to Ica, home to Peru’s tallest sand dunes, where we were taken on a death-defying dune buggy ride up and down the sides of sheer walls made of sand. After reaching the top of the dunes, brave souls can lay on their bellies and sandboard their way down hundreds of meters in a matter of seconds.
I have to admit, adrenaline-inducing activities like this aren’t really my thing. If I had known what we were in for, I probably would have stayed behind, but I am glad I didn’t, as this was definitely a memorable experience. It’s been six years since we were in Ica, but I still think we might be cleaning sand out of our shoes from that day!
The theme of unique transport continued as we took a tiny propeller plane above Nazca to see the mysterious Nazca Lines from the air. This was our first time ever riding in such a small aircraft, and we had to try hard to hold down our breakfasts as the pilot banked the plane in each direction to give us a good look at the cryptic 2000 year-old geometric designs drawn in the pampas. Below you can see the design for the spider, dog and colibrí, or hummingbird. Were the ancient Nazca trying to communicate with aliens? No one really knows!
After all the adrenaline-packed activities, it was nice to cool our heels with a short stay in beautiful colonial Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. It was pleasant to stroll around the Monastery of Santa Catalina, poke our heads into some colonial churches and watch the locals as they milled about in the expansive Plaza de Armas.
This was followed by a visit to the impressive Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is a sight to see. We rose early in the morning to hike the canyon’s rim, hoping to spot massive Andean condors riding the thermals below us. At 3650 meters in elevation, the temperatures were quite chilly for our morning hike, and we enjoyed warming our bodies at La Calera Hot Springs later that afternoon.
From the canyon, we made our way to Cuzco and took in the charming mix of colonial and Inca architecture and culture that makes this one of Peru’s must-see destinations.
Here, we engaged in serious training for our Inca Trail trek by visiting one of the cozy tourist cafés to sample the many coca products—tea, chocolates, ice cream—on offer. Coca leaves are commonly used by Peruvians to help prevent altitude sickness. They say the natural form of coca is not a narcotic unless it is processed into cocaine, but, taking a look at our eyes in this photo, I’d say the jury is still out on that one!
Cuzco sits in the heart of the Sacred Valley, and, before starting out on the Inca Trail, we had the opportunity to visit with a family in Huchuy Qosco to get a taste of the local culture. We helped our hosts with some of the daily chores on the farm and participated in an informal ceremony to pay homage to Pacha Mama or Mother Earth by burying some coca leaves and drinking some chicha or fermented maize beer—definitely an acquired taste!
Afterwards, we were served a traditional lunch featuring the Peruvian staples of quinoa and potatoes and the local specialty of cuy or guinea pig. As vegetarians, we politely took a pass on this delicacy, but we are sure our hosts couldn’t comprehend our hesitancy to chow down on what is regarded in these parts as a special treat.
How cool it was to spend an afternoon with a local family! This is where taking a small group trip with companies like G Adventures is so rewarding. They work hard to build sustainable relationships with the local communities and provide their clients with access to experiences that we never could have had on our own. Interactions like these are priceless and become part of the travel memories that we will never forget.
We stayed in Ollantaytambo the night before beginning our trek on the Inca Trail. Don’t let the cobblestone streets and quaint houses of this charming town fool you. Quiet now, Ollantaytambo was once a stronghold of the Incan resistance during the time of the Spanish conquistadors, and legendary battles took place here in the 16th Century. We spent the late afternoon and early morning hiking the steep hillsides flanking the town and wandered the terraces with their impressive ruins of the Inca Empire—an exciting preview of the many days to come!
From there, it was on to conquer the Inca Trail! We spent four days and three nights hiking and camping along the famous trail leading from the traditional starting point at Km82 to the Sun Gate and then on to the sacred lost city of Machu Picchu. Along the way, we visited numerous stunning archaeological sites and learned the history of the mighty Inca Empire who ruled this area for hundreds of years.
This was our first experience trekking at higher elevations, and it was definitely a challenge for our group of hikers. What a relief we all felt when we made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2, which at 4200 meters, represented the highest point of our trek.
Along the way, we were amazed by the beautiful, unusual flora on display. Peru has an amazing variety of orchid species, and we couldn’t help but pull out the cameras whenever we spotted them. Peru is also home to the largest hummingbird on earth, and we were lucky to capture a few with our cameras during our trek.
Of course, finally reaching Machu Picchu after four days of trekking was the ultimate reward, and, even though we have all seen hundreds of photos of this incredible place, nothing can quite prepare you for seeing it in person. We hit the trail in complete darkness and hiked for several hours in order to reach the Sun Gate just as the sun was rising and illuminating Machu Picchu below us. We entered via the Sun Gate and got incredible views of the site before the tourist throngs arrived by bus from Aguas Calientes for the day—a perk that definitely made up for not showering for four days!
Our last stop in Peru before heading into Bolivia was Lake Titicaca. We had been hearing about the Uros Islands, where the Uru people live in villages built atop islands of floating reeds, and we were excited to see them. In recent years, a visit here has become more of a tourist attraction than an authentic cultural experience, but it was still cool to learn about the traditional lifestyle of the Uru people. While on the island, we had to be careful not to stand in one place for too long, or water from the lake would start to seep up and wet our feet. How crazy is that?!?!
We spent the night with a Peruvian family in the small, lakeshore farming community of Llachon. Upon arrival, we were told that we would be expected to participate in the daily life of our host family. We were totally game, but we figured they would humor us and give us some easy tasks to do. Boy, were we wrong!
First, we went with Ricardo to haul in reeds as feed for the cows. This involved carrying wet, slimy bundles of harvested reeds weighing upwards of 40 pounds each from his boat to the shore through the ice-cold waters of Titicaca.
After leading the cows down to the feed and then in to the water, it was time to help the ladies with their work. We picked bean pods, snapped barley heads and peeled potatoes for soup. Though not quite as physically challenging as feeding the cows, this was no piece of cake either. Peeling potatoes without a proper peeler is a lot harder than you might expect!
After a night spent playing cards in traditional dress (hats and all!), we were eager to find what our hosts had in store for us the next morning, and, in a million years, I don’t think we ever would have guessed.
We all convened at the village fields, which were in the process of being plowed by hand for the next planting. There, we were told to construct an oven out of the mud “bricks” that had been churned up by the plow, so we could cook lunch for ourselves and the workers. Without having the slightest idea of what to do, we were pretty certain that we would be fasting for the rest of the day, but, some kind villagers took pity on us and jumped in to help. We divided into two groups and followed their lead. We made a small ring of the mud bricks and then began to stack them in smaller and smaller concentric circles, forming an igloo of sorts. It felt like a challenge straight out of The Amazing Race. Super fun!
A small opening in the design at the bottom allowed us to create a small fire inside the oven to heat the mud bricks.
Once the bricks were hot enough, we started baking our lunch: roasted potatoes. More than 4,000 varieties of potatoes grow in the High Andes of Peru, and they are quite delicious. Peruvian potatoes kind of make our spuds look a little dull, no?
Once the potatoes were placed in the oven, it was destroyed by collapsing all of the hot bricks onto the potatoes for cooking.
Unfortunately, the oven I was helping build collapsed before we ever go that far, but, lucky for us, Matt is an Eagle Scout and can do any random outdoor task you throw his way. He definitely earned his “Build a Mud Brick Oven” merit badge that day, which was a good thing, since our lunch depended on it!
From Lake Titicaca, we said goodbye to Peru and crossed into Bolivia for two weeks of travel on our own. What a fun adventure we had in this fascinating country, and we had only scratched the surface. We weren’t sure when, but we knew then we would have to get back to see more. It took us six years, but our return trip to Peru lived up to our expectations. In our future posts, we will be sharing our trekking adventures in Peru’s incredible Cordilleras, so be sure to stay tuned!
What is your travel style? Do you like to revisit places you have already been or only travel to new destinations?
Which countries have you been drawn back to?