Sacred Valley Magic

After saying goodbye to our pals Benny and Crystal, we headed back into the Sacred Valley to do some strenuous hiking with Johnny and Patty. On the way to the town of Ollantaytambo where we would start our three day hike, we stopped to see Salinas de Maras, a vast kaleidoscope of salt pools.

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Mmm, salty

The folks that have been harvesting salt here since Pre-Incan times carved a series of earthen pools into the side of the mountain to catch the salt from a warm, saline underground stream that flows down the valley. As the water evaporates from the ponds, salt crystals deposit at the bottom and on the sides of the pools and is then scraped off and dried. There are over 3,000 individual pools here!

Our next stop was Moray, a set of Inca agricultural ruins that form a magnificent set of concentric terraced circles. Apparently, the temperature from the top level to the bottom most circle can differ by more than 25 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to the belief that these terraces were possibly used to experiment with growing various crops, like an agricultural laboratory.

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In the evening we arrived in the beautiful little town of Ollantaytambo, nestled in a valley below the remains of an Inca fortress. After a good nights sleep in the van, we set off for the three day hike through the Sacred Valley. We walked along train tracks paralleling a river before climbing up into the hills and passing through isolated villages full of mud houses and friendly villagers. Before long we zig zagged steeply up and out of the valley past farms of corn and potatoes until we reached some ruins atop a waterfall where we would spend the first night. The view of the valley below from the ruins was spectacular and the sky graced us with a rainbow during the hardest part of the climb. We set up our tents inside the walls of the crumbling ruins that sheltered us from the wind while we slept peacefully.

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The Sacred Valley

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Sharing a bedroom with Inca spirits!

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View of the ruins and our campsite from above

Awaking with the sun in the morning, we set off after coffee and oatmeal for the most difficult day of the hike. We continued to climb up, and up, past herds of sheep tended by little old ladies until the scenery changed to golden high altitude grasslands.

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Around 14,000 ft

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The Sacred Valley below

We stopped to make some lunch on a steep, narrow part of the trail with beautiful views of the valley far below. While we sat there eating egg salad sandwiches, a condor appeared out of the clouds below us, and slowly flew right over us, just cruising by to check us out. He was so close that we could see the detail of the white collar around his neck, his finger-like wingtip feathers, and could appreciate his magnificent size. It was magical! Andean condors can reach wingspans of more than three meters in length and are pretty rare. I was too captivated to even think about scrambling for my camera but here is what they look like:

Andean Condor

Shortly after the magical condor moment we started to descend into another valley. As we carefully walked down the steep, rocky path the clouds parted to reveal gorgeous views of the surrounding snow capped mountains.

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As the sun set, we still hadn’t reached the second camp site so we continued on with headlamps and managed to find our way down through the dark. After eight hours of hiking, we made it to camp just as it started to rain. Success! Luckily our tents kept us pretty dry and the next morning was just a little three hour walk back to Ollantaytambo.

Back in town, we were greeted with Ollantaytambo’s annual festival full of music, dancing, food, drinks, and brilliant colors. We gathered in the central square along with everyone who journeyed from all the small towns in the surrounding area to join the festivities. Each village had its own local costume and traditional dance to the sound of live Andean flute music.

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Watching the festivities in Ollantaytambo below ancient Inca ruins

Some dances represented the planting and harvesting of the ever important potato, while one of our favorites was the dance of the condor, an animal sacred in the Andes. In Inca mythology, the three levels of existence are represented by the condor (the heavens or upper world inhabited by superior gods), the puma (the earthly world), and the serpent (the underworld and spirits of the ancestors).

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This beautiful preservation and continuation of ancient Peruvian culture was moving to witness and we felt so lucky to see it all come alive. The colors, the music, the dancing, the smiles, all opened our hearts to a part of Peru we hadn’t yet experienced and will always remember.

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Hanging with Peruvians- Lima to Machu Picchu

As we hopped in the van to drive to Lima we felt like kids before Christmas- Benny and Crystal were coming to visit! Our good friends from California were going to be the first familiar faces from home in over 10 months. To top it off, Benny’s mother is from Peru and much of her family still lives in Lima. Time to get down with the Peruvians!

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Just a little excited

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Aron and Benny, together again

Lima is known as the gastronomic capital of South America, so of course during our week in Lima we did a lot of eating.  A few food experiences were so amazing that they made me re-evaluate some of my favorite things. We ate sushi as good as the sushi at Taiko, a restaurant in Irvine, California that until this moment nothing has compared to. We had ceviche that we thought better than the ceviche in Mexico, something I didn’t think possible. We had some of the best sandwiches in the world. We went to the Chocolate Museum where we sampled chocolate liquor and ate a terremoto (earthquake), the most extraordinarily decadent chocolate mouse and brownie dessert ever (Monique, you would have died). And we ate anticucho, otherwise known as cow hearts- yes, even me and I kind of liked it!

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Some of the most delicious sandwiches in the world

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Handmade chocolates at the Choco Museum

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A terremoto, an earthquake of chocolaty goodness

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Benny’s cousin Giovanni diving into a meat bonanza. The cow heart is on the skewers at the top of the massive pile of steak, liver, sausage, and intestine.

One Saturday afternoon, Benny’s cousin Giovanni, a professional chef, cooked an eight course Peruvian meal for us so we could sample a some of Lima’s famous culinary delights. We started off with maracuya sours, a delicious traditional Peruvian alcoholic beverage made with pisco (grape brandy), sugar, egg white and fresh maracuya (passion fruit) juice. The highlight of the meal was the three types of traditional ceviche made with fresh fish and octopus and the simple combination of lime, salt, onion, and different types of aji (hot chile) that make Peruvian ceviche so amazing.

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Chef Giovanni working his magic

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Going to miss this family!

We also had a chance to meet up with the VW Club of Lima thanks to our new friend Miguel who magically found us. He rallied up a group of Westy’s and Vanagons including another couple from California traveling with their two year old daughter. Go Westy’s!

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We sadly had to say goodbye to Benny’s wonderful family in order to get a start on the three day drive to Cusco where we would start our adventure to Machu Picchu. To break up this road trip within a road trip, we stopped for a wild dune buddy ride and some sand boarding in Huacachina, a little oasis town surrounded by enormous sand dunes.

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A quick stop at the world famous Nazca lines, a series of ancient geoglyphs representing plants and animals, was nice but underwhelming. After hearing theories that they were created by aliens, we expected them to be unfathomably big. Instead they turned out to be nice sized pictures created by removing dark surface stones to expose the lighter sand beneath. Still cool, but definitely doable by human hands. However, we only got to see the tip of the iceberg from a viewing tower on the side of the highway since one would have to take a bumpy plane ride over the desert to see more.

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El arbol- the tree

After endless driving up and down the Andes mountains we finally arrived in Cusco! A beautiful old city full of history, Inka stone lined streets, and tons of tourists. We hung out for a few days while figuring out an affordable way to get to Machu Picchu.

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Since the train (the most pleasant and common way of getting to Macchu Picchu) was prohibitively expensive for us, we decided to go with a $100 package that included a bus ride to and from Santa Teresa, the closest town to Machu Picchu reachable by road, two nights in a hotel in Aguas Calientes (the gateway to Machu Picchu), entrance to Machu Picchu (which is $50 in itself), a guided tour of the ruins, and meals. Along with Benny and Crystal, we joined forces with our friends Johnny and Patty of Wandaroundtheworld and their friend Kassy so that we might enjoy this adventure with good company.  The crammed 7 hour bus ride winded us up and over a high pass and included a final stretch of what I call death road to Santa Teresa, a super sketchy road dug into the side of a steep cliff. As we drove along the bus driver told us stories of people falling asleep at the wheel and cheerily had us peer over the edge at ghostly trucks far below in the rubble that had gone over the edge. Yikes.

After narrowly escaping death on the death road, we arrived in Santa Teresa. From there, we walked three hours along the railroad tracks until we reached Aguas Calientes, a pleasant but expensive place also known as Machu Picchu town because its existence is solely due to the location of Machu Picchu.

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Walking along the tracks to Aguas Calientes

A hot shower and bed put and end to the long day of traveling. We woke up at 4:30am to the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof of our hostel. We threw on our ponchos and rain gear and sleepily walked down the street to get in line for the bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Luckily we were able to catch one of the first couple of buses which got us to the ruins when they opened at 6am.

And all of a sudden there we were, standing in the mist at the ruins of Machu Picchu. Wow. It was even more amazing than we could have imagined.

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A hundred photos later, we started the hike up Machu Picchu mountain, overlooking the ruins and the surrounding valleys. It was like being on a stair climber for two hours straight, going up and up and up the steep, slippery stone steps. With the amount of times we all had to stop to catch our breaths we made slow progress but eventually we made it to the top where we could see the ruins in all their glory. The mountains surrounding the mountain that Machu Picchu is on are high enough to block the entire valley from outside view, keeping Machu Picchu super hidden. DSCN2566 (640x481)

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Of course no visit to Machu Picchu is complete without a game of frisbee!

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Despite the expense and the extreme amount of floppy hat wearing tourists, the ruins as well as the setting of Machu Picchu are magical, beautiful, spectacular, magnificent, and every other superlative you can think of. We could have sat there all day gazing at the ruins below in awe. Being there with our friends from home really put our journey in perspective. Pretty crazy to think that we drove from San Diego to Machu Picchu!

Categories: Peru | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trekking in the Peruvian Andes

After knocking the sand out of our hair and every other possible place from the dry, dusty coast of Peru we headed into the Andes mountains to do some power hiking! After a windy six hour drive past farms and apple orchards, we arrived in Huaraz, the base town for our hiking adventures in the Cordillera Blanca. Although anxious to get out of the hustle and bustle of Huaraz and into the peaceful mountains, we were advised to take it easy for a few days in order to acclimate to the 10,000ft altitude after arriving from sea level.

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On the road to Huaraz. The town is tucked down there in the valley with the peaks looming all around.

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The city of Huaraz with a view of some of the surrounding peaks

After two days of acclimating and stocking up on supplies in Huaraz, we drove past the little town of Yungay to Llanganuco Lakes, two beautiful blue lakes in a narrow mountain valley in the shadow of Mt. Huscaran, the highest peak in Peru. We stopped to admire Chinancocha Lake and drove along a narrow dirt road past Orconcocha Lake before we reached a grassy campground in the middle of a bunch of grazing high altitude cows. One of them actually ate our doormat while we were sleeping… Anyhow, we made a quick dinner as the sun set and the temperature quickly dropped before waking up early the next day to do a long day hike to Lake 69, one of the most beautiful sights in the Cordillera Blanca.

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Chinancocha Lake

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Orconcocha Lake

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Yurac Corral Campground

We set out hiking along the river in the valley before climbing higher and higher into the mountains. When the clouds cleared for a bit we could see the peaks of the some of the monstrous mountains around us, including the two peaks of Huascaran. In 1970, an earthquake caused a portion of Huascaran to collapse, sending a landslide of ice and rock down the valley and burying the entire town of Yungay below, killing 20,000 people – heavy stuff.

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Huascaran’s two peaks momentarily visible through the clouds.

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Getting higher!

After four hours of spectacular scenery and shortness of breath, we were rewarded with the literally breathtaking sight of Lake 69. Purest of turquoise and seated below snowy peaks and glaciers, it was an unreal setting unlike anything we have ever seen before.

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Lake 69

The next day after resting our weary legs we drove back through Huaraz and into the mountains just outside the city to camp at The Hof Hostel. The Hof is a non profit that works with the Quechua indigenous community to spread the practice of sustainable building and permaculture. It also happened to be the perfect starting point for a number of hikes in the area- pretty darn cool.

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Camping at the Hof

With our new friend Philip from Wyoming (more commonly known as Onion), we set out to do another acclimatization hike to Lake Churup in order to warm up for a  tough three day trek that we would be starting together the next day.

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Road from the Hof into the mountains

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Aron and Onion

DSCN1701 (640x480)The hike took us steeply up to 14,600ft, so steep in fact that we had to climb a section of rock wall while gripping nervously to wire cables and trying not to slip.

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Trail to Lake Churup, which is tucked under that peak

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Just a little amateur rock climbing

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There’s another lake up there but the altitude got the best of Aron

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Lake Churup high up in a mountain bowl

After enjoying some lunch at the lake, we made our way back to the Hof to get some rest for the big excursion the next day. The three day trek would take us through Quilcayhuanca Valley, over a 16,660ft pass, and down through Cojup Valley back to the Hof with about nine hours of hiking each day. We set off early in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely section of the hike through the flat river valley dotted with grazing cows before starting to steadily climb.

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Quilcayhuanca Valley

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Cruzin along

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The start of a long climb up

The second day of the hike took us higher and higher until we reached the level of the snow and glaciers on the surrounding mountains.

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Not much O2 up here

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Then came the moment we had been dreading, climbing over the 16,660ft pass. Not only does this involve scrambling up a steep mountainside over loose rocks and debris with the chance of getting lost or falling to our deaths, but we had heard firsthand of other hikers getting altitude sickness or dealing with serious pounding headaches and disorientation here. Well, we had come this far and there was no turning back. As we climbed higher the air got thinner and colder. When we hit the scree, or section of loose rocks, we had to tread carefully in order not to go sliding down while nervously looking up at huge boulders on the steep ridge above, hoping that nothing would come loose and roll down at us. Not gonna lie, we are smiling in the photo below but it was pretty frightening.

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Almost at the top! Scrambling over shale to cross the pass at over 16,000ft.

Despite the height, the thin air, our fears, and the rocky terrain, we made it to the top! Our reward was a sense of accomplishment and spectacular views of the valley below. Anything is possible!

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On top of the world!

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View of Cojup Valley after crossing the pass

Categories: Peru | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Nine Months, Ten Countries- Ecuador into Peru

After picking up our special coolant hose delivery from California and patching up the van, we decided to blow off the rest of the Ecuadorian coast due to the abundance of grey skies and lack of waves. Instead, we headed southeast to explore the high altitude lakes and paramo of Cajas National Park. When we reached the park after a long day of driving we both felt terribly nauseous and lightheaded. Perplexed by what it could be, we realized that in one day we drove from sea level up to 14,000 ft. That sort of abrupt elevation change can wreak havoc on the body.

Feeling better in the morning, we hiked through a section of the park in which we saw many beautiful lakes, wandered through forests of trippy looking quinua trees (paper trees in English), and even encountered some high altitude shaggy llamas.

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We didn’t last long in the bitter cold so we made our way down to the lower altitude portion of the national park where Aron fished for miniature trout along a beautiful creek as a herd of llamas looked on curiously.

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Got one!

Ready for a hot shower, we drove the final half hour stretch to Cuenca, a beautiful university city of rivers and trees surprisingly full of American ex-pats. Without planning to, we spent nearly a week in Cuenca, camping at Cabanas Yanuncay alongside a river just outside the city center. When we weren’t strolling around the city, we were hanging out with chickens and eating fresh cherimoyas from the orchard on the property.

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Camping at Cabanas Yanuncay in Cuenca

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Street art along the river in Cuenca

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Cathedral and central square

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Had to buy a handwoven basket from this sweet little lady

Our new friend Taylor (one of the students we stayed with in the Galapagos) and her now fiance Bassem (congrats guys!) happened to be in Cuenca at the same time, as were our friends George and Teresa of Road Adventure. The six of us piled into the van for a Sunday outing exploring the nearby villages and markets. Our first stop was the market in Gualaceo, famous for it’s roasted cuy (pronounced koo-ee), also known as guinea pig! Although extremely unappealing with their little claws and gaping mouths, we felt that we had to try one for the sake of the experience. George bravely stepped up and chose out the cuy on a stick that would be our lunch. The woman manning the coals brutally chopped it up and presented it to us on a paper plate. None of us were quite sure how to begin when I looked over and saw the woman next to us break off a crispy cuy ear and happily crunch it in her mouth. Dig in I guess! Although I only managed to try one little sliver, the overall verdict was that it tasted like chicken, but greasier and with less meat. Checked off the list… never again.

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Guinea pigs roasting over hot coals

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How about a little drumstick

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Market in Gualaceo

From Cuenca, we headed south into Peru, country number ten! As soon as we hit the coast and crossed the border, the landscape changed into dry, dusty hills and sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Apparently they call this the Sahara of South America.

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Our first stop in Peru was Mancora, a super touristy, party surf town with streets full of hawkers trying to sell things. While not our scene, the weather was beautiful and we were happy to be at the beach. We found a place to camp at a nice hotel right on the point where the waves rolled in and Aron headed out for a surf while I went for a walk on the beach. Bad decision apparently, because within twenty minutes two thieves ran by and snatched the little iPod I was carrying. Pinche ladrones!

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Mancora, beautiful despite my bad luck

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Nice bronzing center at Punta Ballena Hotel where we camped in Mancora

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George and Teresa caught up with us in Mancora and we headed down the coast together in search of waves. We stopped in Lobitos, a dusty ghost town that originally sprang up as an English oil development but is now a surf hub due to a long firing point and a number of other nearby waves. The English were eventually kicked out but left behind old colonial buildings made of beautiful Oregon pine which is rare and expensive these days. The oil extraction in the area is visible everywhere, from “caballitos” pumping oil out of the ground to enormous offshore oil platforms visible from the beach. Despite the crowd of Brazilians and kite surfers in the water, Aron had fun surfing nice waves a few times a day during a week of camping on the beach.

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Remnants of English oil exploration

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Waves rolling in at the point on a small day

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Our next stop on the coast was Pacasmayo, an hour north of the famous Chicama which is known to be one of the longest left point breaks in the world. Pacasmayo is less known and is said to be even longer with a proper swell. Aron surfed the point and other empty spots nearby with a fun group of Aussies and we enjoyed some fresh, delicious Peruvian ceviche before leaving the coast.

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View of the point in Pacasmayo from El Faro Adventure Resort where we camped

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Beautifully restored colonial buildings on the Pacasmayo boardwalk

Up next, we head into the Peruvian Andes for some mountain adventure!

Categories: Ecuador, Peru | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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