Feel suspended in time and space in the magical Cocora Valley in Colombia.
Walk amongst a garden of the tallest palm trees in the world outside of Salento, Colombia.
The old war jeeps that serve as taxis in Salento, Colombia can comfortably seat eight passengers, with two up front next to the driver and six facing each other in the bumpy back. The day I decided to see the Valle de Cocora, a valley that is located in the highest of the three branches of the Andean mountains and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, we somehow managed to fit thirteen passengers into the jeep- four squeezed together in the back, three hanging off the back, and two in the front with the driver.
The 45-minute drive under a threateningly overcast sky was scenic to say the least. I smiled the whole car ride to myself as the chilly, moist air rushed at my face through the plastic windows of the jeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they scanned rolling jade plantations, feasting black and white cows, trees that I had never seen before, and a clear river running over mossy rocks.
The stopping ground before the Cocora Valley is a small town in and of itself, with shops, restaurants, hotels and horses for hire.
Originally, my intention was to simply see the valley for the tall palm trees and then take a jeep back, a short excursion. Most people do the Cocora Valley trek, which I ended up doing, which lasts about four hours and is fairly physically demanding, but we’ll get to that. As I walked up a road away from the town, the sounds of music and people trying to cater to the tourists and of horses’ hooves all began to fade slowly until there was nothing. I was alone walking down the dirt road towards the fog in the distance, and my only company was the sound of my boots on gravel.
It’s hard to express the bliss of being alone. No friends from the hostel chattering about where they’ve been and where they’re going, no chipper tour guide exploiting his country’s heritage and beauty, no cars whizzing by. The only other living things around me as the skinny palms came into clearer vision through the fog were the quietly grazing horses and cows. I paid a ponchoed man standing under a green tarp something like 3,000 pesos to enter the Valley, and walked slowly over the thick, memory foam-like grass. My mouth hung open and my head tilted back as I marveled at these skyscrapers, swaying slightly at the top and looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The cloud in the distance soon became the cloud I was standing in. The mist around me gave me a mystical feeling, and I sat down to meditate in my much-needed solitude.
I don’t know how everyone meditates, or if I was even doing it right. I sat cross-legged on the damp grass, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as I was, a woman alone in the forest of palm trees. I felt the absence of other people around me, their energies no longer clouding my own. I envisioned the palms towering above me, and imagined that I was the wind that I heard rustling in my ears. I pictured the birds I heard chirping sitting in their nests, and I followed the river that I could hear running in my mind. When I finally opened my eyes, I could no longer see the palms that I had looked at before I began to meditate. The mist was shielding them, but then just as suddenly, those palms appeared before me again, and the cloud moved on.
I took my time in the forest, making sure to stay near the dirt path while I looped through the trees. I followed grass stairs up which led to more path, going uphill and out of sight, so I continued. It wasn’t until about an hour into my walk, when the landscape started changing to thick woods and clusters of tall skinny, pine-like trees instead of mist and palms, that I realized I was probably doing the trek despite my original intentions. I looked at the map from my hostel. Not only was I doing the hike, but I was doing it backwards. Oh well. There’s supposed to be some waterfalls in here somewhere, I reasoned. It’s probably worth it.
The ascension was difficult, but doable. Thankfully, I brought enough snacks and water. Soon, the fog was so thick and I was so high up that I couldn’t even see the valley anymore. It took me two hours to make it to the Finca, or farm, on the map. If you’re doing the same trail and come across a locked gate, just climb over it. I don’t know why it’s there.
By the time I got there, I was cursing my genetics. See, I’m a healthy girl. I’m fit enough, but along with gifts of big boobs and curly hair, my mother bestowed upon me the curse of bad hip joints. Every step was agony, so I begged the people at the finca for some form of painkillers and continued onward, or should I say downwards. The path back down the mountain (by this time I realized that I had climbed some small mountain) is steep, rocky and slippery. As I zigzagged down with cautious steps, I immediately picked up a giant walking stick and partnered up with some locals, an incredibly loving couple and their friend, who were very kind and informative about the nature and culture in this part of Colombia.
Another hour and a half to the bottom, past the same river I had seen on the jeep ride here, over rickety bridges, around pools of mud.
Near the bottom, the rain began to pour. I was lucky I brought my rain jacket that protected my electronics, but I did not fair so well. We came out of the forest part and slipped about on strategically placed rocks and wood, dodging puddles poorly through the Cocora Valley, past a fresh water trout farm, and up another hill to the small town. I never truly knew the meaning of “soaked through to the bone” until that day. My hood was filled with enough water to quench the thirst of three dehydrated men. My shoes were squelching with each step. They didn’t dry for four days. We finally all made it to their car, panting and dripping and laughing. The nice Colombians offered to drive me back to Salento, which I gratefully accepted, and I shivered in the car with yet another smile on my face and another amazing experience under my belt.
The street food in Bogota and Colombia in general will have you drooling.
Munch on arepas and papa rellena as you admire Bogota’s fast paced life and impressive graffiti.
Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is by far the most commercial city that I have encountered in South America. I only stumbled through a few neighborhoods, but I could tell that I wouldn’t get to know even a sixteenth of the city in the three days I would be there. It reminded me of New York in that limitless way that can keep you constantly entertained if only you had the time, money or energy to stay put and explore. The second I left my hostel and took stock of where I was, I felt plugged in.
The streets and the people on them are sort of bleak and direct, moving nonstop underneath a smoggy sky. The indifferent pedestrians make cars stop by simply walking into the street. Bogota is not a walking city by any means, and the public transit, the Transmilenio, was confusing, but well organized, similar to the New York Subway.
The architecture doesn’t give away where in the world you are. Symmetrical modern high rises in some neighborhoods blend with Tudor style houses in others, while Spanish Colonial buildings down the street clash with whitewashed, Greek-style frameworks with tiled roofs. I felt like I could be in Europe somewhere, maybe Poland or Ireland.
What’s to do in Bogota? There are plenty of tourist options, much of which involving parks and museums and churches. Or you could do what I did and take the bus down to La Candelaria (either stopping at Las Aguas or Museo del Oro stops on the bus) and walk around taking pictures of cool people and world famous graffiti.
You could have a cup of delicious Juan Valdez coffee, Colombia’s Starbucks equivalent. The Museo del Oro, Gold Museum, was pretty cool and informative as far as museums go.
Riding the cable car up to Montserrat was beautiful and something to do. You can also walk, but the stairs were closed at the hour we tried to go, and I wasn’t having it anyway, what with the altitude and all.
But I’ll reiterate—the city was just too daunting to decide what to do. It felt wrong, almost insulting to the locals, simply going from tourist destination to tourist destination when Bogota has so much more to offer as a legitimate place of living and working, not just one of those cities like Cusco or Florence that functions off of tourism. So, I bought stuff to pass the time.
There is always something to spend your money on, whether that be cheap watches and wallets from tables that line the streets, scarves or jewelry laid out on blankets on the pavement, the latest fashions from boutique stores, adorable puppies framed in windows and cages, or food. My god, the food. For every pizza place in Manhattan is a rotisserie/fried chicken joint in Bogota. While New York is obviously the capital of delicious nourishment, serving up literally anything you could ever want to eat, Bogota has one thing on the big apple- street food.
Street food. I say it in a suggestive whisper. Hey. You wanna go find some street food? Like any good big city, Bogota is constantly moving and the locals have to keep up. Which is why, I’ve decided, they are on point with their street food options. All the carbs and flavors possible in one concise, probably deep-fried package. For those of you solid New Yorkers who think hot dogs, pretzels, halal plates and Nuts4Nuts are the best things to shovel in your mouth while you’re strutting down the sidewalk, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’ll just regale you with some of the delicious creations that I ate standing up in Bogota/Colombia in general.
Meat: Street meat is delicious. That is a fact. The end.
Arepa Con Queso: This is the classic, guys. The first arepa with cheese that I ever had was a bit sweeter and more corn-like than a classic arepa, which is basically a somewhat tasteless, ground corn dough pancake thing, for all you Gringos. The round yellow cake is savory with just a touch of sweet from the corn in the soft dough and was moist enough to eat without a drink in hand.
Arepa Sandwich:Arepas have the durability and neutral flavor to be the perfect base for a sandwich. My first encounter with arepa sandwiches was at Metro Arepas in Bogota, a small, open storefront with a kindly older man taking orders and a quiet, methodic woman filling my arepa with chicharron (fried pork skin) and cheese, brushing melted butter over the tops before she flipped it on the grill, and sprinkling salt onto the hot, greasy dough. I drooled as I watched her prepare my snack, and ate with gusto, licking my salty fingers and taking sips of Coke out of a glass bottle. The next time I had an arepa sandwich was at a super cool fast food strip along the highway in Medellin. While the menu over the counter boasted many different deli-style arepa sandwiches, I was in the mood for a burger and only didn’t order a burger at the counter over because I felt guilty not eating something Colombian. My messy, mass-produced, reheated patty topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo was the perfect combo of American and Colombian disgusting cuisines. My only regret was that I didn’t order fries to go with it.
Arepa Con Huevo: Ok, so I know I need to quit gushing over arepas. I know so many people who hate them, although I can’t imagine why. If you’ve read the last two descriptions, you should have a decent idea at how versatile this Colombian staple is, so I don’t need to keep talking about it. I will, however, explain to you my final favorite, the arepa with an egg. On the corner of this street near my hostel in Cartagena was an angel who never smiled and was always making fresh arepas, empanadas and papas rellenas. While everything she fried in her makeshift street deep fryer was the most tasty, I kept coming back for those egg arepas. She stood every night behind a table, flattening and rounding out premade dough, filling it with ham and some other mystery ingredients, and frying it for a minute, then slicing it open a bit to drop in a raw egg and fry it again. The egg cooks fully in this time and once the masterpiece is handed to you, you join the crowd of Colombians standing around the table, alternating between spooning sauce onto their snack and taking bites.
Papa Rellena: Stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas differ in innards from shop to shop and city to city, and none has ever been as legit as the first one I had. From the lookout point on the sidewalk, these lumpy yellow balls are about the size of a softball. They sizzle in oil before an attentive Colombian pulls them out with a slotted spoon and offers one to you, hot and fresh because they go that fast. The first tentative bite offers the taste of fried egg batter and mashed potatoes underneath. The second bite uncovers meaty rice beyond the layer of mashed potatoes, and under the rice is a hardboiled egg. Genius. Not all of the ones I’ve had were as good as this one. If you want this exact papa rellena, you can find it at one of the stands outside that big white Gothic church in Bogota. K?
Hot Dog: After a night of drinking and salsa dancing in Medellin, I was quite famished. I asked the cabbie who was taking Laura and me back to our hostel if there was anywhere we could stop and eat. He pulled over on the side of a city road where a couple of men at a stand were serving up burgers and hot dogs. I ordered two dogs for myself and watched patiently as they completed what I thought was someone else’s order. Dogs were fit into warmed buns, and then topped with, if memory serves, melted cheese, cooked ham, bacon bits, beans, mayo, ketchup, pineapple sauce, potato stix, and more sauces. When the man handed them to me I laughed in his face, thinking it must be a joke. But I ended up taking them like a champ (aka giving one to my cab driver). It was the most serious hot dog that I ever put down.
Patacón con Todo: Patacón, fried green plantain, with everything, and they mean it. I was wandering around the streets of Cartagena when I stumbled upon the Plaza de Trinidad, an open, brightly-lit square in front of a church with impressive Christmas light fixtures. Among the few steaming street food stands, one in particular caught my eye. The two men working it had a good thing going. They worked together like a machine, bantering in between creating nine plates of food, one of which would go to me. One man cut up the fried plantains while the other dumped two kinds of shredded meat (I assumed pork and beef) onto the griddle, onto which the first man immediately squeezed a bunch of some brown sauce while he added some cut up hot dogs to the mix. The woman who accepted the money (at these stands, there were usually one or two people preparing the food and one getting paid) laid out the plates as best she could given the limited space, and one of the men immediately plopped a heaping portion of plantain on it. The second man sprinkled a healthy handful of shredded lettuce over it with one hand while he stirred around some white cheese that he dropped onto the grill to melt with the other. On top of the lettuce went the meat mixture, then the cheese, then all the sauces, then potato stix and quite probably some chicharron, and voila, Patacón con literally Todo.
Bogota was whatever, but here’s what I ate. Hope I made you hungry.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile offers endless adventurous activities.
From Sandboarding in Death Valley to the Salt Marshes at the Salar de Atacama.
So, in my last post, San Pedro de Atacama: Part 1, we explored the Moon Valley, the Lagunas Cejas, and las Termas Puritamas. Here’s the rest. Enjoy.
Day 4- Sandboarding in Death Valley:
There are many speculations as to how Death Valley got it’s name. Some say that it’s because there is no life there, but that’s not true because we passed a few bushes, foxes and falcons on the way. Some say that the area was a sacred place where shamans came to die. Our guide from San Pedro Sandboard told us that the real name came from hippie guides who came out to San Pedro to work in tourism and named it Death Valley to make it more commercial and attractive to visitors. Whatever the reason, it’s still pretty badass to say that you went sandboarding in Death Valley.
As our van rocked and swayed through the high rock walls and dodged giant pot holes, our guide explained that La Valle de la Muerte is similar to La Valle de la Luna in that it is a salt mountain range, which more or less means that it was molded by desert rain, wind and sun overtime to raise vertically, giving the region a unique natural sculpture with different colors due to a variety of minerals. (Shout out to my high school science teacher, Doc Rachell. If you’re reading, Doc, how’d that sound?) I tried to grasp the science behind the scenery while I kept an eye out for Tusken Raiders.
Our guide, a sun-and-wind wrinkled dreadlocked chainsmoker, turned up the deep-bass electro music as we pulled up to the bottom of the valley. We all stood sweating in the sand as he passed around ancient snowboarding boots that fit no one and pushed people who didn’t already know if they were goofy or regular to see which foot they instinctively landed on.
Once we all had a board, we trekked diagonally up the sand mountain, taking small steps to conserve energy. About fifteen of us lined the tip of the ridge and strapped ourselves into our boards as the guide dragged on a cigarette and explained how to ride. The thumping bass at the bottom of the hill was amping me up, and I tuned in and out of the guide’s speech. This was the same as snowboarding, I assumed, and I kind of knew how to do that. An eager German who was the first one to strap himself into his board went down the hill first. Everyone waited hesitantly when he made it to the bottom, reluctant to attempt the feat in front of everyone else. A cool Aussie with a wicked beard named Blake was the next one down.
I looked around again at the nervous tourists and decided I’d be the first girl to go. I jumped a bit to get some sand off my board and slid down.
The first turn I tried to make, lifting my toes and leaning a bit on my heels, had me on my ass. The sand is much thicker and more resistant than snow, and the only way I could make it down fast and with any adrenaline rush was to point my board straight down and lean on my back leg, something I’d be terrified to do on a snowboard.
It was over as quickly as it began, and I stared up at the hill, reluctant to carry my board up it again. I made it up and down again three more times before I was too exhausted to continue. Walking in the sand is hard enough without the added stress of wearing heavy, uncomfortable board boots and carrying the board up. The people of San Pedro truly needed to invest in sand lifts.
Day 5- Salar de Atacama:
As you might have gathered thus far, it is nearly impossible to see any of the desert sights in San Pedro de Atacama without booking a tour. Or maybe I just didn’t try. Anyway, you catch yourself conversing with other tourists in your hostel or in a restaurant or just on the street because, let’s face it, San Pedro is literally made up of tourists and the people who serve them, saying things like, “We’re doing the Moon Valley tonight and the geysers tomorrow,” or “Nah, we’re not doing the salt marshes or the geysers because we just came from Uyuni and did all that in Bolivia,” or “Yeah, I have to book my Uyuni tour and buy a few rolls of toilet paper for it.” It almost makes you not want to participate. Almost. But I didn’t take an overnight bus all the way out to this uninhabitable desert to kick it at my hostel. I had already done the Moon Valley sunset tour, the bike ride to the Lagunas Cejas, the day at the hot springs, and sandboarding at Death Valley. The two big leftovers were the geyser field called El Tatio, which would have me up and at it in below freezing temperatures at 4 am, and the Salar de Atacama, at 7 am. The geysers, bursts of hot air and water shooting out of the ground, were obviously the cooler choice, but silly me I forgot my winter coat and I definitely forgot my will to wake up before the sun rose. So, salt marshes it was.
I have this annoying habit of booking tours without doing proper research about said tour. Maybe I should put a stop to this. My tour group of about thirteen people piled sleepily into a minivan. We stopped in the peaceful village of Toconao, known for some church of San Lucas, which is made of volcanic stone and adobe, causing it to be warm when the sun is out and cold at night, like a cold-blooded snake. The wood that makes up the ceiling is made of dried cactus, an aesthetically cool, light-colored wood. On the outside of the church are carvings of a llama and a donkey to signify the unification of Chile and Spain. Our tour guide, who conducted the tour in Spanish making me strain to listen before my first cup of Nescafe, talked about the four characteristic trees of the region and their respective uses, like making flour for bread or something.
The town of Toconao boasts their hand made crafts. We stopped in one shop that sold Alpaca wool weavings, among other things. Their ancient loom sat in the back with the llamas, and as our guide fed the spunky animals hay, he explained that the people here don’t eat llamas, but they do eat llamos, the males. I thought that was OK.
Toconao, meaning, “place of stones” in Kunza, the language of the Atacameno people, is made up of about 1000 inhabitants who mostly work in agriculture, cultivating potatoes and corn or making sweet wine and pisco.
After our short, but informative tour of the village, we settled back into the car and drove next to views of limitless desert. The air around the looming sand mountains was wispy in the distance. I would have thought it was fog if I didn’t know how arid this desert is, so I deduced that it must be a combination of sand in the wind and wisps of smoke from the active Lascar volcano.
Our first breathtaking stop in the Salar de Atacama was the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which is managed by the Atacameno community of Socaire, along with the National Forest Corporation. Not that this place was a forest, in any common sense of the word. The reserve itself covers 180,000 acres of desert. We stopped in the Soncor Sector and watched pink and black flamingos create a mirror image in the Chaxa lagoon, dipping their heads in the water and wriggling their long necks like snakes as they searched for tiny shrimps to eat. The three rather graceful species of flamingo that live here (James, Andino, and Chilean) spend twelve hours a day with their heads in the water, devouring 800 grams of shrimp a day.
The salty pathways through the garden of white volcanic rock and salt crusts crunched and sparkled beneath my hiking boots. I didn’t know flamingos could fly, and was in awe to see their pink bellies soaring above my head and against the background of the valley of San Pedro and the five principal volcanoes surrounding the 100 kilometers of salt marshes, each one marking the border with Bolivia or Argentina. Dragonflies whizzed by my head and mated over the crusts of sulfur along the shores of the lake, giving them a yellow color and making the air smell like how I imagine Munchkinland smelled after the Wicked Witch threatened Glinda and then left in a huff.
While at the reserve, our guide prepared us a lovely breakfast, complete with rolls, mashed avocado, scrambled eggs, cookies, coffee, tea and more.
What would a tour in South America be without more churches? The purely tourist church of Bartolomeo de Socaire is made of adobe and stone and topped with a hay roof. It was whatever. The building was surrounded by crops of corn, alfalfa, green beans, sunflowers, potatoes, quinoa…yada yada. The town Socaire is the last town before Argentina and it is made up of a whopping 150 residents. Moving on…
We drove on smooth, paved roads that wound rhythmically around the mountains and volcanoes and through fields of rocks and sturdy, yellow tufts of sun-stained grass called paja brava. If you squinted as you sped by the plains, you could trick yourself into looking at a field of poppies or sunflowers.
When we arrived at the Miscanti and Miniques lakes, spreading out before us like a couple of large sapphires, you could feel in your bones how fresh the air was at a 4000 meter altitude. The lakes aren’t fresh water, and bits of salt crusted along the perimeter of that royal blue lagoon. According to the guide, the lakes were formed thousands of years ago when the Miniques Volcano erupted and blocked the waters that ran freely from the high system of mountain ranges, damming the rivers and streams. The area around the lakes was empty of tourists. In their place were vicuñas munching on the yellow grass, a type of camelid that are so climatized to the cold, high weather that they can run up to 40 kilometers an hour.
All in all, it was a very pretty tour. But like I said earlier, I wish someone had told me that it would just be pretty before I woke up at 6:30 in the morning.
San Pedro de Atacama offers endless activities for adventurous backpackers.
Watch the sun set at the Valley of the moon or ride through the desert to float in the salty Laguna Cejar.
The sun seems to touch every inch of the plateau of San Pedro de Atacama, 2,400 meters above sea level, and definitely quite far from the sea. The gridded tourist town is made up of perfectly white, sun-bleached adobe huts that aesthetically match the uniform exterior of brown, wooden lettering on all the buildings and the light tan dirt streets. While the center is filled with great cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, hostels and tour agencies, the surrounding areas of the city are made up of cement shanty towns where the locals who serve the tourists reside, satellites studding the tin roofs and stray animals finding shade under dusty pickup trucks.
The town itself is merely a watering hole for the surrounding sites and activities, nearly all of which you end up booking a tour for. While I didn’t get around to all of them, due to a lack of funds and will, I saw my fair share, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the desert.
Day 1- Town and Valley of the Moon:
Laura and I checked took an overnight bus from Arica to Calama, and then a two hour bus to San Pedro from there. (There are direct buses from Arica to San Pedro, we missed ours.) We checked into Hostal La Florida, a newer hostel in the middle of town that I HIGHLY recommend. I loved the laid back feel, the cheap tours offered, the fully stocked kitchen, the warm beds, and the hammocks. The showers weren’t bad either, if you went one at a time. After a quick jaunt around the plaza and in the markets, buying yet more Inca-inspired gifts for friends and family back home, we went on a sunset tour of the Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna.
Through the driest desert in the world we went, the expansive scenery around us looking as if it were painted on. Literally, as far as the eye could see, the orange, red and brown sand dunes rolled like waves against the cloudless blue sky. It looked like a choppy sea had frozen in time and turned to sandstone. Some parts were jagged and treacherous, and others were soft and curved, as if a river were running through the canyons. I wondered if thousands of years ago, it was possible that this desert was once an ocean, but seeing as how it may be the oldest desert on earth, experiencing extreme hyper aridity for over three million years, I began to doubt it.
Our first stop on the tour has us walking for about fifteen minutes to the edge of Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley, where we stood at the edge of a gorge, staring at the surrounding volcanos. The wind was strong and made it impossible to hear our guide as he pointed out some ancient route that the native Atacameña people would take to Calama. All I could hear, besides the whooshing in my ears, was the clinking sounds of million year old, light tan igneous rocks under my feet. I found it interesting that volcanic magma could turn into such a light colored rock, after spending a few months in Sicily last year, where the evidence of Mount Etna’s eruptions was evident in large black rocks studded throughout Catania.
Our next stop was the Rock of the Coyote, as in the coyote from the roadrunner cartoons. We all took our pictures on the jutting ledge before moving on to some caves.
Lascuevas were a cool retreat from the endless sun and wind. The high walls were formed from wind erosion, and you could taste the sand in your mouth as you bent low and stood up when necessary. A few young New Zealanders that Laura and I walked with made us laugh by making Lord of the Ring jokes as we crawled through the tight spaces.
Back on the bus for our last stop, the pièce de rèsistance, the Puerto del Sol of the Valle de la Luna, the gate of the sun in Moon Valley. As we walked the length of a road (unnecessarily in my opinion- we had a van) to the slow climb up the valley, the wind picked up, and sand hit the back of our calves and neck like hundreds of tiny needles. Tourists lined up along the top of the valley’s ridge to await the setting sun. Before it sank, it filled the untouched sand of the valley, making the land below us look like a golden carpet for the gods. The sunset itself, I thought, was a bit overrated. At our high elevation, we were very close to that star, and even with sunglasses on, I couldn’t watch the sunset without being blinded by light. When it finally settled out of our field of vision, the cold was immediate. We huddled in our sweatshirts as we made the steep ascent down back to the minivan.
Day 2- -Bike ride to Laguna Cejar:
In an attempt to save money on tours and to beat the late afternoon rush of tourists, Laura and I decided to rent bikes from the hostel and head over to the Laguna Cejar, in the morning. We were told that the salty lake has an effect like the Dead Sea in Israel, causing you to float, and that it was 18 km from town. It took us an hour and fifteen minutes to make it there. We seemed to be the only ones on the long, bumpy desert road, so there was no one to ask directions from when we wanted reassurance that we weren’t just trailing aimlessly through the desert only to get lost and die of dehydration and be eaten by buzzards or vultures or whatever carnivorous desert bird is common in Chile. Despite my hard pedaliing, I noticed that I barely broke a sweat, as if the thirsty desert air was drinking up my persperation before I got a chance to let it cool me down.
Finally we made it, exhausted and hungry and kicking ourselves for not packing a lunch or eating breakfast. There were two lakes, one for show and one for swimming. They sat like two turquoise eyes on the desert’s face, a proper oasis if the water wasn’t too salty to drink. There were only a few others there enjoying the views. We basically had the place to ourselves, and we realized later on that in this part of the world, the hottest part of the day isn’t actually noon, when we were there. The temperatures usually peaked around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, hence why the tours to the lakes happened later in the day.
Unlike the Dead Sea, the water was absolutely frigid. We waded out slowly, our feet numbing with each step across the shallow plane before we reached the edge of a sort of underwater cliff. The water was so clear. I held my breath as I let my toes curl over the top of the shelf. I turned to face Laura, posed for some pics, and sat into the freezing water, trusting the salt concentration to keep my head above water. I forgot the cold as I buoyed in the water, giggling at the wonders of the world and hovering over the deep, blue sink hole.
Day 3- Puritama Hot Springs
Laura and I were feeling a bit exhausted after biking it to and from the lagunas the day before on empty stomachs in the hot, hot heat, so we decided to treat ourselves to a chill day at the hot springs.
Las Termas Puritamas are located about 40 minutes outside of San Pedro. The babbling creek spreads out in a curving line below you as you walk along a cliff from the parking lot. A red boardwalk lies parallel to the little brook, with the regular platform before each small pool. We picked one and laid out our towels before dipping into our chosen pond. The water was not hot. It was warm, but still pleasant. The rocks along the sides and bottom were slippery with pond scum that also gravitated in furry green clumps to tickle the sides of your body. The water from each pool spilled over the sides of mossy rocks and fell into the next pool, and when we weren’t sitting lazily in a pool, we used the boardwalk to follow the waterfalls, each little paradise more beautiful than the next.
I think you’ve all read enough. Check out my next post to read about the rest of my adventures in San Pedro.
Arica, Chile is a chill beach town on the border of Peru.
Enjoy perfectly sunny days by the salty Pacific.
The small beach town of Arica, known as the city of eternal spring, was the perfect place to recuperate after a month of jungle, high altitude, and constant learning about Inca culture. I couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, work on my tan, and rub salt water from my eyes.
Laura and I took the night bus from Puno to Tacna, a small desert town near the border of Chile, and then took a cramped colectivo (Colectivos change from city to city. This one was a 4-door that fit 5 passengers) across the border into Chile. After a few immigration procedures (Note to self: If you ever go back to Peru, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, lose the customs form you get when you enter the country. You will have to pay a fine upon leaving.) that were oddly strict about bringing in fruit from the other side, I was again sandwiched between the driver and Laura in the front seat of the taxi. Three pushy Peruvian women with bags of groceries and God knows what else hogged the back seat.
The air in Chile was already different than the air in Peru. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the oxygen levels, maybe it was our proximity to endless ocean, but it felt simply more pleasant. I would soon learn that the people were, in my opinion, kinder and more patient than many people I dealt with in Peru. The sun was bright as it rose over the desert we were driving through at record speed. The driver began to point out a blue fog to our right, claiming it was the sea. I got butterflies. You could see a city and a tall, sandy cliff forming through the mist. Arica. Where flat square buildings painted bright orange, yellow, and pink studded the streets before the impossibly calm, light blue ocean and old ladies swept the sand from their tiled front porches. I couldn’t wait to strip off my many layers and slip into a pair of flip flops and a bikini.
We booked at Hostelling International Dona Ines, due to the good reviews about the staff and breakfast on Hostelworld. While the hostel is a little outside the main part of town, we chose this hostel over one closer to town due to the importance of having wifi in bed.
The main mode of transport in Arica is via colectivo, albeit slightly different from the colectivo that took us across the border and the one that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. These shared taxis are more organized than desperate Peruvian colectivos. Each passenger pays 600 pesos (about $1) to ride in the assigned route of the shared taxi. (PS- Yeah, spending thousands of pesos each day took a lot of math and a lot of getting used to, especially when we’re talking big numbers in another language.) The colectivos that we’d get to know so well were the A and the 4, which passed through the town center, the bus station, and took us more or less directly to our hostel at the corner of Chapiquiuna and Blest Gana.
A door in the middle of a cool mural opened to reveal an outdoor space filled with colorful art, a Christmas light covered tree, and a pool table. The walls were covered by notes to the hostel and funny jokes or insightful quotes, to which we naturally added. We were greeted by an old brown pitbull named Randolf and a long haired, sleepy-eyed Chilean named Brian. I dumped my multiple bags on the nearest table, removed my poncho, and sat on the floor to pet the good boy.
We checked in quickly to a three-bed dorm with a hungover, sleeping Frenchman, a mini-kitchen and a private bathroom, raced into our swimsuits, and walked a half an hour in the sun to the beach, getting honked and whistled at the whole way. Normally, the raging feminist in me would have gotten mad at the audacity of these pigs forcing unwanted attention on me. But, I was in a good mood that day, so I smiled and waved at passing cars, feeling like an utter celebrity when they stopped to let Laura and me walk across the street rather than almost run us over like the drivers in Peru.
The beach in Arica was windy and the water was cold, but Laura and I convinced ourselves that our blood could handle it. We were Northerners, after all, used to braving the nearly arctic Atlantic waters of New York and Ireland. Well, this water can’t have been much colder than what we were used to, but the wind chill made the 70 degree air feel like 60 degree air, and here we were without a towel or change of clothes. We air-dried as we walked the length of the beach and into town, stopping every ten minutes or so to apply baby powder to our chub rubs whenever we were in areas free of leering Chileans. (To be clear, I was never creeped out by the Chilean men, and never felt threatened. They only looked and said hello. Everyone here seemed too nice to cause harm or to offend.)
The walk along the pavement was filled with bright colored street art and buildings to contrast the hazy, light brown sand. The city center was pretty chilled out. We found the main streets where one can dine or buy things one doesn’t need, both of which we did. Calle 21 de Mayo is a long, white-tiled pedestrian street. Restaurants, bars and stores line the sides while the pathway comes alive with shoppers, skaters, locals, tourists, and people selling handmade jewelry or bouncy balls or homemade sandwiches. The cliff, known simply as El Morro, which I hear offers a beautiful view of the city and sea, greets you near the bottom of the downhill commercial center, towering high and tan.
These sites were enough to keep us entertained for our first day, so we set off back to the hostel, stopping first at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients for dinner.
Brian is a good DJ, and the chill waves of indie electro were already bumping when we returned. The over-excited, very friendly host Robert, who refers to every female as his “future ex-wife,” explained to us that we were going to party that night. So, after dinner, Laura and I put on makeup for the first time in a month and a half. I wore a dress that I hadn’t worn before or since. It felt nice looking like a real person instead of a hairy-legged, baggy-eyed, harem pants-clad traveler. Oh, did I mention that this was also the first time I bothered to engage in leg hair removal on this trip?
The four or five other guests all began to filter into the courtyard, along with a few older friends of Robert’s. One very large man I recall roared an awful lot. Rib-flavored Lays potato chips and airy cheese puffs were passed around as bottles of vodka, rum and whiskey were slowly emptied. When I wasn’t sitting quietly and happily, munching on free chips and listening to the conversations around me, I made my rounds, having engaging discussions with guests and visitors alike. I spoke to a Bolivian guest about threats to the rainforest, argued with an Aussie about who the best characters are from A Song of Ice and Fire, dabbled with the idea of letting Brian tattoo a wave on my back, and learned about the specifics of paragliding from one of Robert’s pilot friends. My hosts were gracious and generous, and wonderfully 420 friendly, and I slept peacefully after a night of good food and good company.
The next few days, Laura and I really took it easy. We went back to the beach and rented boogie boards from Punto Surf. The waves were too small to ride and we were soon too cold and freaked out by the giant jellyfish to continue playing. We checked out a smaller beach past the cliff, walked with our feet in the clear water, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on our skin. When we got hungry, we found a restaurant called Cafe del Mar on 21 de Mayo, which we returned to the next day because the food was so delicious. I highly recommend any of the crepes and the Churrasco, a steak sandwich that is very popular in Chile.
For us, Arica was a chance to chill out. When you’re traveling and constantly moving, it’s nice to afford yourself some time to be lazy, walk along the beach, and take advantage of strong wifi. Our next adventure would come in a few days with our trek to the beautiful desert of San Pedro de Atacama. Stay tuned!
Below you will find our additions to our dorm room wall:
Iquique, Chile is a great place to learn how to surf.
After two cheap hours of surf lessons, I was standing up on my rented board on the salty waves of Iquique.
Not many people can say that they stared at a desert while being rocked by ocean waves. But as I balanced on my stomach on a surfboard facing the shore, waiting for the next wave, I kept my eyes on the tan sand dunes rising in front of me under a clear blue sky. Closer in my field of vision was my instructor, his long hair wet and stringy, his hands steadying the tip of my board, his eyes intensely scanning the water behind me, occasionally scurrying forward, pushing me back, a sign which I learned meant that too big a wave was coming, and to lift my ribs up so the crest wouldn’t smack me in the back of my head and knock me over. With my hands grasping the side of the board, I waited patiently for him to say, “Dale, rema, rema!” and give my board a push towards the shore. I’d paddle hard like he told me to, until I felt the wave start to break and pull me forward, then I’d swiftly put my hands back on the board, push up, and bring my feet to a crouching position, riding the surf a few triumphant feet.
There’s not much to do in the little beach town of Iquique but shop, drink, surf, or paraglide. While paragliding seems like fun, an expensive tandem glide through the air wasn’t my idea of a challenge. Shopping is always fun when you’re traveling, so that was a no-brainer.
That left drinking or surfing, so obviously, I picked surfing. I can drink in Boston. Now is the time to try every extreme sport possible.
A skinny, indifferent instructor told me to run the length of the beach and back to warm up. I ran past hordes of young men playing four square and volleyball, who were kind enough to stop what they were doing and catcall at me as my breasts moved around uncomfortably in my bikini.
When I returned red-faced to the tent, my instructor (I think he said his name was Liter, so we’ll go with that) had me do Russian twists and push-ups and other core/arm exercises to warm me up for the cold, salty Pacific waters. It felt good to engage in strength training after a few months without. After some stretches, he handed me a wet suit and left me to figure it out while he put on his own. It probably took me about ten minutes to pull the thing on. I grunted and yanked and panted and fell in the sand, realizing that all my training with stockings and leggings would be no use with this thick, still-wet, ankle-to-chin fabric. When I finally got suited, Liter had me top off my skin-tight onesie with a bright green, newbie-alert t-shirt. He wore a bright orange instructor shirt that he tied behind his back like a girl would when wearing her boyfriend’s t-shirt. I held the surf board while we walked to the shore, Liter occasionally calling out to fellow brown, long-haired surf friends, giving them the universal ‘surf’s up, dude’ hand gesture. A few practice runs pawing at the sand and standing up quickly, and we were heading into the water. Seaweed clung to my ankles as I tried to dodge rocks and crabs and jellyfish.
“Arriba,” he said once we were hip-deep in the water. Ok, we’re doing this. Up on the board, and the balancing act began. I tried not to look like the fool I was, teetering from side to side as I managed to inch my head to where it was supposed to be. Liter told me that my nose should touch the logo on the board. If I’m too far forward or back, I could tip the board. Not thirty seconds into it and he’s telling me to paddle hard. I did as I was told, and listened for him to tell me to stand up. I tried, got my feet planted, and fell off. Not bad. This went on a few times, me kind of standing and then plopping into the shallow water, landing easily on my feet.
“The waves aren’t big enough,” I complained in Spanish. “They don’t have the power to bring me anywhere. They slow me down.”
“You can feel that?” he asked me seriously.
I said that I could, and told him I wasn’t scared of a big wave. He smiled and I could tell that I was starting to melt his indifference and probable boredom with the mundane task of teaching a gringa how to nail a baby wave. He pointed me in the direction of a few big ones, which I almost landed, when I didn’t get inside my own head. I was getting better the more I focused on how I could complete the task at hand rather than how I could fail. So, as I looked out at the desert and watched Laura appear and pull her iPhone out of her bag, I reminded myself what I would have to do when I began to feel the wave crash under my board. Stand up quick, stay low, lean on your back leg and straighten your front leg. Like snowboarding and sandboarding and kiteboarding. Easy.
“Puedes sentirlo? Can you feel it?” I asked him.
“Que?” Liter asked in return.
“This is the one,” I told him, making us both laugh.
Not ten seconds later, he got that look on his face like, it’s time, and he didn’t even have to tell me what to do. I paddled as hard as my tired arms and shoulders would allow me, and I did it. It was cake. See for yourself.
A memorable experience on Lake Titicaca, despite the mass tourism.
Read about the entertaining tourist exploitation of Lake Titicaca, the floating islands, Amantaní and Taquile in Peru.
Puno, rising even higher than Cusco at 3,800 meters, is Peru’s gateway to Lake Titicaca. Before heading on to Chile, Laura and I decided to check out the renowned city, lake and floating islands.
We booked our two day, one night tour through our hostel in Cusco, who told us things that didn’t make much sense at the time, partly because he spoke in Spanish and partly because I didn’t know what he was talking about. According to the brace-faced man behind the EcoPackers tour desk, we’d go on a boat to the lake to see the floating islands of Uros, then Amantani, then sleep at a host family’s house (no they don’t have wifi), then see the island of Taquile the next day. Sounds good to me. I only knew I wanted to see Lake Titicaca, because, well, the name is funny and famous. Having not done my research, the other places, I assumed, were worth a visit. So, we took our first night bus up to Puno, the higher altitude already forming a tight-gripped fist around my heart before the bus came to a stop at around 5 am next to the giant, glittering lake.
After being ushered to Jumbo travel agency/house, we waited around and had breakfast, all more or less in silence, the people who either lived there or worked there making sparse contact with us. Then it was time to go, so at our “tour guide’s” behest, we stashed our cumbersome backpacks in an upstairs bedroom that we assumed we would slumber in that night and made our way to the port. Our minivan filled steadily with tourists from other pick up locations as we made our way through Puno’s lively, somewhat dirty streets. Looking out from my window, I almost wondered if Puno was holding a casting call for authentic Peruvian women. Small, stout old ladies in wide brimmed hats, velvet pleated ankle-length skirts and two long, black braids down their back were everywhere, waiting in line, carrying children or groceries on their backs, selling juice. It was a sight, to be sure. I wondered what they would have thought of my cargo pants and hiking boots and tank top.
The port was already bustling at 8 in the morning. We climbed across the decks of small tour boats that bobbed and swayed with the weight of each of us, green pond scum covering the wavy water like a carpet.
As we sailed along the highest navigable lake in the world, shared between Peru and Bolivia, our upbeat tour guide began to tell us what to expect. The soft rocking of the boat and the guide’s steady monologue had me dozing, until I heard him say that we’d be staying with a family on one of the islands. Come again? I waited impatiently for him to stop talking, annoyed at how chipper he could be when I was so tired and now worried. I walked over and clarified that we would not be spending the night in Puno, and asked if we were to head back to Puno before night fell. He dismissed me by saying that we would not.
“But, we left all of our things in Puno. We thought we’d be spending the night in Puno. We were told that we’d be spending the night with a family in Puno,” I said, each word I spoke coming out angrier and crankier than I intended. The guide was unsympathetic and explained calmly and cooly that everyone else knew what the deal was, not his fault we didn’t. I marched back to my seat next to Laura, also cranky and frustrated, let out a steady blue streak from my mouth, and then began to laugh with my friend at our bad luck while we cursed the tour guide in Cusco who misinformed us.
After living for two weeks in the jungle, I was used to being a little dirty. What’s one night without a change of underwear or socks, or brushing your teeth? What concerned me was my lack of female, ehhhemmm, products. I brought with me but one tampon, so I asked the guide if I could buy some on the island, both shocking and horrifying him. No, I couldn’t. There wasn’t even running water on this island.
“Well, fine, I’ll just bleed everywhere,” I said loudly. The guide ran away disgusted. TMI, readers? Sorry, I’m not sorry. Don’t worry, there were other females on the boat who were sympathetic to my cause.
Back to the lake. Explorer Jacques Cousteau, searching Lake Titicaca in the 1970s for Inca treasure, discovered that the lake is 284 meters deep and filled with “little monsters,” giant frogs, now identified as Scrotum frogs (LOL), that could be up to 12 inches long, weigh up to 10 kilos (you like that combo of Imperial and Metric systems?), and have lungs like fish.
This sacred lake of the Incas is filled from five different rivers that run from the Andes. While foreigners are not meant to drink the water, the people of the 80 floating islands, about 20 thousand Aymaru speakers (a pre-Inca language), do so without a problem.
The name Titicaca, according to our guide, but debatable according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, means “Gray Puma,” titi meaning puma, and caca being the color of stone. Legend has it that looking down from above, the lake takes the shape of the sacred puma. But how did pre-Inca people know the shape of the lake? Hhmmmm.
It was quite gray, at least in the early morning. However, as we glided farther out towards the floating island Uros, and the sun rose higher up, the water turned turquoise and then a royal blue. They call them floating lakes because they literally float. The islands are made by man of reeds and anchored to the floor of the lake by eucalyptus tree sticks. The president of Uros Island, who leads the 25 people who make up the 10 families who live there, described how to make a floating island in Aymaru, a pre-Inca language with lots of hard consonants. This was just for effect. The people of the floating islands all speak Spanish because they learn it at the six floating schools funded by the Peruvian government.
To make a floating island: you must remove the roots and soil of the reeds that grow in the lake’s shallow water and leave them in the sun to dry, giving them a cork-like consistency which makes them buoyant. Then you must cut blocks out of the dried soil to use as a platform for the island, then unite these blocks with eucalyptus sticks and rope. Interwoven reads cover the floating soil, and voilà, you have a floating island. Houses are merely shells which can be lifted and moved by four men if necessary. The kitchen is made of clay and rests in the center of the island. And if the anchors break, to prevent the island from ending up in Bolivia, the people create a sail which they stick in the middle of the island and pray for wind to take them home. When they need to use the restroom, be alone, or head into town, they have little reed boat taxis that can fit up to 30 people. I rode in one called the Mercedes Benz.
While Mr. President spoke, I watched as barefoot women in pastel-colored skirts, straw hats, bright vests, and wind/sun burnt cheeks went about spreading out homemade cloths on the floor for sale or tending to children or handling dead birds, all the while their long braids with little balls at the tips swaying. Apparently, in addition to a mostly fish diet, the people of Uros also hunt birds and eat eggs. They used to barter their fish with the mainland for potatoes and corn, but times have changed, and Puno wants money, not fish, so Uros has opened its shores to tourists, selling their way of life alongside textiles and crafts. A few of us doubted that they actually lived there and wore those costumes every day, but it was still a cool attraction.
The next stop was the island of Amantani, where we would spend the night. This is a real island, not a floating one, large and looming and tiered with ancient steps for agriculture. The island has nothing but the basics. There is no running water and any electricity is run by solar power.
Straight off the boat, we were assigned a host family. My host mom was named Maritza, and she was adorable, probably in her twenties, and two months pregnant by one of the tour guides, Ruben. They walked us up the hills, past bahhing sheep and hoeing farmers, to our individual houses. We filed into a lovely, flower-filled, sunny courtyard, and were greeted with hugs and kisses by Maritza’s mother and father, two sweet-hearted individuals with faces, hands and feet like burnt leather.
With our family was a nice German man, a kind Canadian couple, and a happy Ecuadorean couple. After we settled into our comfortable rooms, we settled down to a lunch of quinoa soup, about four different types of potatoes, some rice, and fried salty cheese. After, Maritza served coca tea and some sort of mint leaves.
As I walked with the herd from the house to the hill we were to climb to watch the sun set, I marveled at the communities on the island, and how they seemed to know nothing about the world around them. But, then again, the world probably knows nothing about them. The ten communities, each with their own two springs, are made up of Adventists and Catholics, still with a strong base in Indian culture. For example, the hill we climbed for about half an hour was called Pacha Tata (Father Earth), and the locals hold Pacha Mama rituals on it, offering Pacha Tata potatoes, beans, corn, and other produce from the island. They believe in the mystic energy of opposites and the cosmic energy of life. Everything, from animals to rocks to earth, holds life, and there is a counterpart to everything.
While it all sounds quite magical, there is a down side. The island schools finish at the high school level. Children then go to the mainland for university, and often don’t want to return. The shrinking communities lead to intermarriage, and, you guessed it, genetic disorders.
Still, I’m not sure if I’d like to leave the simple life on this beautiful island. From the top of the hill that has become the home to an organized rotation system of carrots, potatoes and green beans, the biggest lake I’ve ever seen spread out blue and shining like the sea. Women selling alpaca sweaters, jewelry, and chocolate bars exchanged words in Quechua while sheep grazed the sides of the mound and bahh’d hilariously. As the sun set, I realized with a kind of nerdish glee that it was setting in the east, and therefore rises in the west, because we were in the Southern Hemisphere! A few of us Northerners then tried to figure out which way was North and which was South, and I wished I had paid more attention during my high school earth science classes.
The sun set quickly, and we made our way back down in the twilight, our flashlights illuminating our paths towards the rocky bottom. After dinner at our home- more potatoes and rice with a smattering of peas and carrots- our hosts gave us traditional Peruvian garb to don for the party at the local community center/dance hall. The girls put on flowy pleated red skirts, peasant tops, and colorful fat-sucking belts while the men wore ponchos and knitted caps. Laura and I twirled around the courtyard singing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, much to the amusement of our new family.
We left the solar power lights of Maritza’s home and walked in the dark to the festivities. Lightning illuminated the star-filled sky, unaccompanied by rain, as I stumbled about staring straight up in wonder of the astrological scene expanding infinitely above me. I felt like I had stepped into a fantasy world, which only continued when we got to the dance hall. A group of local teens made up the band that played traditional music and had us all, gringos and Amantani residents alike, holding hands and jumping around, twirling our skirts and giggling like school children. My starch-filled belly could only be active for so long, and soon I knew it was time to retire to bed.
After a 7 am wake-up call, a breakfast of crepes (yay, more carbs!), and hugs and kisses to our new family, we were back on the boat and on our way to our last stop, Taquile Island.
The island looks much like Amantani, except perhaps slightly more technologically orientated. Stone paths and arches decorated with stone faces wind about the hills. Leathery men and women walk around carrying heavy loads without the use of horses or mules to assist them. 2,400 Quechua speakers make up the six communities, each with an elected president, that inhabit the land. Covered in agriculture stairs, for lack of a better word, that were hacked into the hillsides in pre-Inca eras and were continued by the Incas, and then the Spanish, Taquile Island, originally Intika Island meaning sunflower, is named after conquistador Pedro Gonzalez de Taquila.
UNESCO recognized Taquile Island as the home to the best weavers in Peru in 2006. In fact, they are so serious about their tight stitches that men can’t get married if they don’t work hard at their threading and weaving skills. The males begin their knitting lessons at five years old and work to knit a hat of good quality by their teenage years. You can tell a married man from a single man by his hat. Single men’s hat are red and white, while married men wear red hats. When the time is right, the single men peacock their hats by allowing the woman of their choice to pour water into the hat. The more water the hat holds, the closer the stitch, the better the weaver. Romantic, isn’t it? And what does the lucky lady do to earn her new beau’s heart? Why, after three years of living together and sharing a bed to see if they are compatible, the female cuts off her long hair and makes her man a belt that he wears every day, under another belt that she also made him. So sweet. I had tears in my eyes as I listened to a married man showed us his silky black braided belt. Tears of laughter, actually, as Laura and some English couple and I giggled silently like a couple of naughty kids in Math class. To top off these strange ways of life, the native man showed us how to make a curiously well-working and nice-smelling shampoo out of a plant, which he used to more or less bleach some dirty gray sheep’s wool, and how married men greet each other. Instead of a handshake, they open up their married-man’s weaved purse, and put coca leaves from their bag into their buddy’s bag. All very neighborly stuff.
This crash course of Taquile Island life was the side show to a 20 sole lunch of bread, soup, grilled fish, and you guessed it, potatoes and rice. The family who owned the restaurant in which we dined also performed a graphic song and dance about hoeing the fields. Charming. All that was left was a sleepy two and a half hour boat ride back to mainland Puno and I could be reunited with my backpack. Overall, a good experience, but crazy touristy.
Home of the Incas and high in the sky, Cusco will leave you breathless.
From shopping for Inca trends to enjoying world-class Peruvian cuisine to engaging in cheap extreme sports, you won’t run out of things to do in Cusco.
Altitude lethargy is different from jungle lethargy. Rather than melting into and with your sweat among the palm trees, the thin mountain air of Cusco makes it feel as if your veins, from your heart to your fingertips, are lighter than the air they’re missing. Like if you stood up too quick, without inhaling as you ascend, you’ll float away. The only solution is to take it slow, drink water, and enjoy the healing and energizing effects of the bitter coca tea leaves like the natives have done for centuries.
Cusco, shaped like the sacred puma, sits 3,339 meters (11,152 feet) high in the sky, nestled near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountains. Qusqu, in Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the capital of the powerful Inca Empire until Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores swaggered in like White, horse-mounted gods and destroyed Inca temples in favor of Catholic churches. Inca stone bases and small even steps blend seamlessly with Spanish balconies and smooth cobblestone streets, an aesthetically pleasing and constant reminder of the muddling of the two cultures.
While Cusco is often overlooked as a stopping point before the famous Machu Picchu, I find that I’m having a hard time leaving, despite the effects the dry air is having on my skin. Maybe it’s just the hostel I’m staying at or maybe it’s the way every time you turn your head, you seem to rest your eyes on an image from a postcard, but the picturesque city seems like it provides endless opportunities for activities and sights.
Where To Stay:
I am staying at EcoPackers hostel on Santa Teresa, 375, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While some people may opt to stay at Pariwana, the party hostel chain with a roof bar, I find EcoPackers the perfect mix of cozy and trendy. When you walk in to the hostel, rated Top 3 in South America by TripAdvisor in 2013, you are greeted by an open Spanish-style courtyard with lawn chairs and hammocks. Around the lounging guests are other rooms to relax in after a long day of traveling or exploring, including a dining room with a beautiful Machu Picchu mural, a fully stocked bar, and a living room with leather couches, bean bag chairs, a fireplace and movies playing on the big screen. The staff is friendly and professional, the wifi is decent, and the place is simply convenient, offering laundry services for 5 soles, locks for 3 soles, towels for rent, an ATM, a tour agency on site, a proper bar, an affordable restaurant, breakfast and coffee included, coca tea leaves, candy and drinks for sale, a book exchange and hot showers. The dorms and bathrooms alike are clean, comfortable and warm. Rates range from around $11 for a bed in an 18-bed dorm to $18 for a 4-bed dorm to $56 for a suite with a private bathroom. I paid $12.50 for a bed in a 10-bed dorm where I met plenty of kind, interesting people from all over the world. The hostel also offers promotions of four nights for the price of three in February and March.
Where To Eat:
NunaRaymi– Located just outside the Plaza de Armas, this warm restaurant caters to tourists with a menu in English while still remaining authentic and affordable. Most main dishes cost anywhere from 31-33 soles, or $12-$13. I tried an alpaca dish covered in a plum and chincha (purple corn) sauce, served with a creamy rosemary spaghetti and a quinoa-crusted trout filet covered in a citrus-ginger sauce and served with vegetables. Did I mention that if you show your EcoPackers bracelet, you receive 15% off your bill?
PachaMama– Named after the Inca goddess mother nature, this small restaurant is like so many others calling out to you near the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, I found their Aji de Gallina, a very traditional Peruvian dish of chicken and potatoes in a slightly spicy yellow sauce, to be divine. I was doubly pleased by the offering of a salad bar with my meal and the kitchen’s willingness to substitute my rice for vegetables, all for 25 soles.
I’m also a sucker for street food. Things worth trying are “choclo con queso,” (big corn with melted cheese), ANY street meat, guinea pig (like the Quechua Jesus ate), and empanadas, sweet and savory.
Where to Drink:
MamaAfrica in the Plaza de Armas, next to Mushrooms, is a great club to get drunk and dance with locals and tourists alike to a good variety of music from salsa to techno to hip hop. They also offer salsa lessons!
KM0 in the stylish San Blas barrio plays live music every night in a smoky atmosphere. Sip on a chilcano and puff on a hookah while you listen to local artists.
What To Do: As a tourist town, Cusco offers a wide variety of activities to partake in while enjoying the sights. Here are a few that I tried:
Free Walking Tour:
First of all, I’d like to say that I love free walking tours. I’ve joined them all over the world, from Krakow to Barcelona to Quito, and the guides are always incredibly informative about the history and architecture of their city. Of course, the tours are not completely free as the guides work for tips, but they more than earn it with their positive energy and helpful tips, and by pointing out the highlights of the city that you might not have seen on your own.
I believe EcoPackers usually offers one that meets at 11:40, but for whatever reason their tour was canceled on the day my companion and I went, so we met up with a different group, called Free Walking Cusco, in the Plaza around 12:15 for a two hour tour.
As our guide walked us towards the beautiful Compania Church, he began to explain how the Inca and Catholic cultures combine. While we weren’t able to enter the church without paying a fee, he described the famous Last Supper painting inside, with Jesus and his apostles dining on a big Peruvian style loaf of bread, a guinea pig, and beer, Peter’s cheek apparently full of coca leaves. On our walk, our guide spoke about Cusco as a region very strongly connected to the cosmos. The northernmost part of Cusco, called Saqsaywaman, he said is the best location to see the movements of the stars and to find portals to other dimensions. This Inca spirituality has been repressed by the Catholic religion, but it is prevalent that the locals still take this way of thinking to heart.
Our guide led us through the winding streets, up steep stairs, making all of us pant from the exertion made difficult by the altitude, to the bohemian neighborhood called San Blas. The neighborhood was styled like Granada, Spain, as can be identified by the signature Andalucian balconies, but is also influenced by the early Middle Eastern residents, painted clean white and blue to ward off the evil eye. I was pleased to see original arches over the doors, one claiming to have been built on September 9, 1660.
While in the now-artsy neighborhood, we went into a music shop to sample some of the local tunes. An artisan who makes these curious small guitars (the Spanish wouldn’t let the natives play their guitars so the Incans created their own, small enough to fit under a poncho) called charangos, among other Peruvian instruments, played for us the most amazing music on 16 strings. You could almost hear the history of the Andes mountain region coming from under his fingertips, sorrow making way into joy as he applied more or less pressure to the acoustics.
At the end of our tour, we were treated to delicious pisco sours, a classic Peruvian cocktail.
Mercado de San Pedro:
Every city has its own lively market. The San Pedro market is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and groceries, tchotchkes and tripe, hot soup and cold juices, Chakana necklaces and harem pants, ceramics and cat food. My friend Laura and I spent about three hours there yesterday, haggling over prices of hand-made hats and alpaca blankets to be sent home to friends and family.
Not far from the San Pedro Market, this smaller and calmer market is filled with hand-woven, Inca-inspired, old as dirt, cut from stone, tediously beaded, beautifully painted goodies. Go to the San Pedro Market first to see what the best price of items is, because this market tends to try to charge a bit more for their wares.
Horseback Riding near Saqsaywaman:
Saqsaywaman (signifying Satisfied Falcon in Quechua) is a walled fortress of even higher altitude than central Cusco in the north part of town. This smooth-stone blocked complex, built in 1100, is said to have a strong spiritual presence. Legend has it that when the Spanish followed the Incas there from Cusco during the wars, the outgunned and outnumbered Peruvian warriors would tackle the conquistadores over the cliffs, killing themselves as well as the Spanish, rather than die at their hands.
The historical park costs 70 soles to enter, but we found a way around that while still including another activity. Try taking a cab to Cristo Blanco, a place where red-cheeked children play soccer in fields next to mountains and alpacas, and asking about the horses, caballos. Our cabbie’s family just so happened to own horses for hire, and a ten-year-old boy named Raul tailed behind our horses on a tour among infinite, dry mountains and plateaus to the backside of Saqsaywaman, some really cool caves, a pretty lagoon, and la Templa de la Luna. The horse ride cost 30 soles, but I tipped little Raul an extra 5 for being such an informative and equestrian-skilled guide.
The tour dropped us off in a rather secluded spot, but Raul told us how to get into Saqsaywaman. We snuck in among the tall eucalyptus trees and admired the beauty of nature and the scattering of an occasional ruin. Laura and I each took a minute to sit and meditate on the ground, and something about the energy of the place and the vibrations of the earth beneath me and the whistling of the wind around me made me feel rooted to the world, and very much a part of it, however small. All I could think was, I am grateful.
Bungee Jumping: Right near our hostel is the office for Action Valley Cusco Adventure Park. As Laura and I were walking by, we decided to see what it would cost for our first bungee experience. An hour and $95 later, we were on our way to the outskirts of Cusco to free fall among the watching mountain people. When we got to the venue, which also offers paintballing, a climbing wall, and a slingshot, we were instructed to jog and stretch to warm up. I went first, listening intently to the instructions in Spanish as I was strapped in by my legs, waist, chest and neck. Up the steel-caged cherry picker 122 meters, a few deep breaths, and a gentle push from my guide and I was falling, falling and then something happened that I can only truly describe with a noise like “hhuuuuunnnfff.” I felt the tightness of the harness where there was just only air, bounced a few times, and finally settled, feeling the weight of my upper body as the blood rushed from my feet to my head and I watched the tall, thin trees spin around me. I heard the guys working the bungee yell, “Abrazos, Rebecca! Abrazos!” What? Hugs? I looked up, or was it down?, and saw the white landing circle quickly getting larger as it came up to greet me, and saw the men who had yelled at me for hugs with their arms outstretched, and opened mine up just in time for them to catch me and settle me down on a mat. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I finally did with a smile on my face. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but it was well worth it.
Get a Tattoo: On another whim, Laura and I decided to get tattoos to symbolize our journeys. Tattoo Willka in the Plaza offered us the low price of 90 soles each for our small, separate mountain-inspired tattoos. The shop was clean and well decorated, the artist was skilled, and it cost about $70 less than it would have in Boston or New York.
Get a Massage: I totally would have done this if I weren’t terrified of anyone touching my muscles after the shock of bungee jumping. Women on the street offer massages to passerby for as cheap as 20 soles an hour. That’s like $6, people. I can’t attest to whether or not they’re any good, but it’s still an option for weary travelers.
Choco Museo: This free museum of chocolate hooks you in by offering free samples of chocolate on the street. Learn all about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate. You can even take a chocolate workshop and learn how its made from bean to bar.
More Walking!: Cusco is not too big of a city, and if the weather is nice, every street seems to offer a beautiful sight. Cruise the Avenida del Sol after the Plaza de Armas, looking in at shops as you pass by the Qoricancha, a revered Inca temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Pay a braided haired lady in traditional mountain garb to take a picture with her and a baby alpaca. Check out the churches and cathedrals if you’re into that sort of thing. Take in the mountains around you, rising like gods above the tiled roofs. The city is just gorgeous. Enjoy it.
Victor Zambrano Gonzalez fights illegal mining and deforestation in his home in the Peruvian Amazon.
Gonzalez nearly single-handedly re-forested 40 hectares of land on the Tambopata River, which is now home to his medicinal plant refuge, Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet.
The 360% increase in the price of gold from 2001 to 2011, according to NASA, has led to a boom of unlicensed miners in Puerto Maldonado and the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon, the most biodiverse area of the world. The Peruvian government has estimated that illegal gold mining, and the deforestation and mercury poisoning that comes with the highly destructive hydraulic mining, has devastated over 40,000 hectares of Amazonian forest in Peru.
The poor town is now dependent on the illegal mining, becoming slaves to this culture that has not only ruined even protected parts of the rainforest like the Tambopata National Reserve, but also led to human trafficking, forced labor, extinction of indigenous groups, and countless deaths. People and wildlife alike are suffering at the hands of multinational corporations with no souls and deep pockets, and it is up to conservationists like Victor Zambrano Gonzalez, president of the National Tambopata Reserve management committee and founder of private conservation area Fundo Refugio K’erenda Homet, to fight big business to preserve Pacha Mama’s culture and history that goes deeper than the roots of the biggest Capirona tree.
“I am on the front of a war with illegal gold miners destroying this zone,” said Gonzalez. “Mining and logging are permanent threats to the Madre de Dios region.”
Victor can proudly say that his 40 hectares of government-protected land is free of illegal mining and logging, a luxury he had to work hard for. He founded the reserve, about 3.5 kilometers down the new Interoceanic Highway outside of Puerto Maldonado, in 1988. A Madre de Dios native and kin to the first Peruvians to colonize this part of the jungle from Arequipa and Cusco in the early 20th century, Victor always identified with the Indians of the region who lived as one with their land. In his youth, he spent 15 years away from his home training and teaching in the marine corps. When he returned in the ’80s, he was shocked to find the land around the Tambopata River where he now resides completely deforested due to small-scale mining that took off with the increase in gold prices in 1973.
“People told me I was crazy to try to restore it, that the land was dead now. But I feel a love for this land…I would give my life for it,” he said.
So Victor set about planting trees in the region in the hopes of returning the earth to her original splendor. With the help of a donation of 1,000 trees from an American organization, he used the disorganization of the jungle itself as inspiration. Rather than trying to make order of which trees and flowers and plants he was planting, tracking the sun like other farmers have done, he planted trees among flowers and medicinal plants with no particular order. Pachamama isn’t organized, he reasoned, why should he think that he could do better?
“I always try to break the boundaries,” he said, gesturing emphatically with his hands as he stood next to a wall covered in his framed recognitions, such as the Carlos Pince de Prado Prize for Conservation in 2014 and international recognition as an Ashoka Fellow, a social entrepreneur who provides innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change societal patterns.
Victor found that by planting trees closer together, they were able to grow faster because they would compete for sunlight. Within the first ten years, he was able to grow 1,000 trees per year. Now, his beautiful land along the brown Tambopata is home to 20,000 trees, made up of 120 different species. 60 percent are native trees and 40 percent are tropical, and similarly 60 percent are fruit trees and 40 percent are medicinal. He donates half of whatever produce his lands create, like lemons, peppers or flowers, and sells the other half locally.
“The flowers are not separated from the trees. They grow in harmony with the trees. I’ve demonstrated that it is possible to regrow giving nature the opportunity to help itself,” said Victor, who included that it is his dream to fill the land with animal life, both native and farm.
The reserve is named after his daughter, one of five children, who, now 18, showed the most interest in his work. Victor recalled with clear love in his eyes how, as a girl, K’erenda Homet would accompany him on his tours around the grounds and tug his pant leg and whisper up to him if he forgot to mention something like this plant or that flower.
“She will take on the responsibility of the fundo,” said Victor, exclaiming that he wants to be able to leave this world knowing that someone is continuing the struggle to protect the land.
Another such struggle is making sure the Interoceanic Highway is built with the environment in mind. The project, that is meant to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Brazil and Peru, has been talked about since the 1960’s. The Brazilian and Peruvian governments finally reached an agreement to begin the highway that would cross the Andes and the Amazon in 2004, citing a potential 1.5 percent increase in GDP per year that the highway would create. The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) backed the highway due to its desire to improve communication and reduce poverty in South America, seeing nature as a barrier to the unification of the Latin countries. Victor and other conservationists at first promoted the highway, thrilled with the prospect of being connected more easily to Puno and Cusco (MAP). He and others whose lives revolve around conservation and development thought, idealistically, that the forest around the highway would surely become government-protected land, and that the project would be done in line with the Law of National System of Public Inversion, which dictates the cost-benefit analysis of any public works project after conducting a comprehensive study of the methods, execution and potential consequences.
Victor lamented that then Peruvian President Toledo more or less ignored the regulations when he embarked on the project. The $84 million budget, that was created in 2004 for the highway that started in Brazil, was spent in its entirety within 100 kilometers of cleared forest. The new budget for the project is estimated to be around $1.6 billion, backed by CAF, the Latin American bank for development created in 1970.
“They started the project without a full study and calculation of the effects, despite the warnings of conservationists and scientists,” said Victor.
Now, as it is clear that there is a serious lack of enforcement in the Madre de Dios region, Victor worries that the Interoceanic Highway will only make it easier for illegal miners to transfer their booty and lead to untouched land more easily accessed for plunder.
Victor claims that he is a farmer at heart, and says that we need to ask the land for help when it comes to the conservation of natural resources.
Walking around Victor’s land full of natural resources, it is not hard to see why he fights so hard to protect the forest. As he glided past the plants, tapping big leaves like blankets or pulling weeds out of the ground, he explained that he sees the plants as his children. He began pointing out different plants, fruits, trees, barks and roots and describing which heals what ailment and how to take the medicine. There’s santa maria for inflammation of bug bites, limoncillo for stomach aches, caña caña for general pain, para para for male stamina, pan de arbol sap for broken bones, cilantro to help pregnant women dilate while in labor, uña de gato trees (of which he has 4,000) for immediate relief of inflamed prostate, duerme duerme which shrinks when you touch it and helps children sleep. We passed a tree with slashes in the bark, and I asked if someone had been measuring the height of their children. He shook his head and informed me that this is the Sangre de Grado tree and its sap is used as antibacterial cream on fresh wounds. The list goes on and on. Victor even collected leaves of ishanga, marañon, cocona, limoncillo and guyaba for me when he noticed me rubbing my sore throat and instructed me to make a tea and drink it three times. I did as I was told and was healed the next day.
We passed by the sacred ayahuasca tree, and Victor spoke gravely about its use as a medicine. If you are not sick, however, the plant, when prepared properly by a shaman and administered during a mystic ceremony, will clean the organism of negative charges. It also cleans out your digestive system of all bad bacteria, but leaves the good. Ayahuasca, Victor says, aligns the neurons in the brain that become disorganized due to traumatic events.
“During the Ayahuasca ceremony, you are forced to face your fears, and after you have no fear.”
Victor has partaken in the ceremony five times in his life, most recently when his Shaman friend alerted him to the negative forces around him. He feared for his life due to the enemies he’s made of the dangerous illegal miners, and said the ceremony helped him survive.
He will continue to do his part, taking care of his expanse of forest and fighting for Pacha Mama’s rights, finding the beauty in the land where so many others are only seeing economic potential.
“Everything carries the mark of our hands,” he said.
*Please note that all quotes are translations.
Below are some photos of the reserve that also hosts people who want to help tend to the grounds or just stay and enjoy the beauty of the jungle. Make bookings here.
Photos of my time on the beautiful Tambopata River in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
As I sit in the chilly, dry mountain air of Cusco, I marvel at how different a few hours west can make to a landscape. Just last week, I was sweating and enjoying looking out at the beautiful Tambopata River and Playa Cayman as my backyard and getting to know the loving Woods-Lena-Castillo family.