Blog #30 - Guinea Pigs, Llamas and Alpacas, Oh My!

Last we left you we were on our way to cross from Chile into Peru by bus, and this was to be Alex’s first over-land border crossing (other than Canada into the States of course), and our second in South America.  We didn’t really know what to expect or if we should be worried but we were ready to start our Peruvian adventures.

Once we arrived in Arica from the desert, we were told we would have to catch a taxi to cross the border but we soon discovered that info was incorrect.  There was actually a cheap local bus that would take you over for about five dollars each.  And in our travels we’ve come to learn it is often simpler (and safer) to just follow the crowd, so we lined up with the locals and got on the next tin can on wheels to cross the border.

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It was an unusual ride.  As soon as we sat down, we were serenaded by the finest Spanish rapper you have ever heard  http://youtu.be/Nhw52dlvl4Q   Hahaha…already this journey we were on the right foot, thanks Vanilla Ice!

Once at the border it actually was a bit of a breeze and quite organized.  Other than one of the customs guards giving Vince a strange look for his Che Guevara beard, we had made it through!  The bus dropped us off in Tacna, a very small industrial, middle of nowhere kind of town in Peru and after 20 hours of travel, and now we were expected to find our way to Arequipa by bus to finish the day…geez!

We three tired musketeers were looking to jump on the next bus heading to Arequipa, and maybe because we were so tired, Alex and Steph’s judgment may have been altered as they overruled Vince in electing to take an ‘Economico’ bus. 

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Let’s just say Vince was not impressed with the decision as this is the closest thing you can get in Peru to a ‘chicken bus’.  Many passengers got on carrying potato-sack bags, with odd edible items, and every few miles we would pick up a vendor of some kind.  One person who got on the bus had a reasonably fresh laceration on his head.  (we think he was still drunk from the night before…).  In any event, we were by miles the only Gringos on this thing.  We sat at the very front, looked a little scared the entire time, but otherwise tried to enjoy it through the mix of music blasting from the driver’s cabin and the Kung Fu movie playing overhead.

We didn’t think we were going to make it.  However, after a very scenic (scary!) drive we arrived in one piece at our hotel in Arequipa, ready to pass out and die for the night.  Overall, more than 24 hours of constant travel to that point…

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But we were quickly rewarded.  In Arequipa we discovered the food in Peru was some of the best in the world, and generally kicked Chile’s butt.  We got into the ‘foodie’ thing and swapped notes on where the hot restaurants were: we tried ceviche and alpaca, but we passed on the guinea pig.  We just weren’t ready for that yet. :)

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One main reason to see the Arequipa region is to explore the nearby Colca Canyon, which is vast, deep, beautiful, and most importantly, full of condors.  Now if you’re like Steph, you might not know what the big deal about a big bird is.  Well she (and we) found out quickly.  Basically a condor is a crazy-huge vulture that’s so heavy it (apparently) can’t fly without using the canyon’s huge burst of thermal air (between the hours of 8 am and 10 am, of course).  Also, the Incas believed it was the condor that carried their spirits into the sky after death. 

Colca Canyon is definitely the best place to see these crazy birds, however, if you’re on a day trip (like us), you have to leave Arequipa at 2:30 a.m. to get there!  Yes, we did this.  On our tour bus we were handed blankets and tried to sleep, however we had to wake up for breakfast at 7 a.m.  A few hours later we managed to see 3 or 4 Condors, pretty cool!

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We said goodbye to the condors and soon were on our next overnight bus to Cusco, which is 3400 meters above sea level, and which would be our home base for the next week.  When we rolled in we were shocked at how hard it was to breathe!  Nevertheless, we started walking to our hotel.  Slowly.  No problem…and after about 30 minutes of huffing and puffing we arrived at our hostel and we were pleasantly surprised – it was actually really nice, cheap and had a private en-suite bathroom…phew! 

We quickly dropped our bags and ran for a hop off, hop on city sightseeing tour of Cusco.  Considering how remote it is, Cuzco is a large city!  We wanted to see everything, from the main square and the Inca foundations to the ruins in the outer landscape (the Inca name for the upper ruins above Cuzco sounds like “sexy woman”, seriously!).

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On the next day, we signed up for the Sacred Valley tour, which was a small sneak peak of various Inca ruins with beautiful landscapes and Inca terraces.  We learned even more of the area including its flora and fauna.  Definitely getting an education in the history of the area.

By now we were getting acclimatized to the altitude and feeling ready to go higher than 3400 meters… only a few more days to go.  So, since we’d be roughing it on the Inca Trail we decided to cash-in on Cuzco’s better cuisines.  Over the days we were there we had some world-class food.  One night we had beef, fish and alpaca served sizzling on volcanic hot rocks, and on another night we managed to have Indian food (in a restaurant run by a UK expat … ;).  However, the night before our big expedition we settled for a burger in the worlds highest Irish Pub.  So cool! 

The next morning we woke up at 5 a.m., packed our little bags, and ran over to the meeting point.  Soon we would begin the journey to the Inca Trail and ultimately climb and walk for four days to the end prize, Machu Picchu.  It’s something that was on all of our bucket lists (but especially Alex’s) as she did a project on Machu Picchu it when she was a kid in school. 

We met our guide Jimmy at a close by hotel.  He was very nice and was now responsible for the three of us, and two of our new friends on the tour, Ofer and Ronit.  They, like us, were excited and nervous to start the trek. 

Nervous, why?  Well aside from the weather and the altitude, some details that can make people nervous (incl. Vince) are you are walking somewhere between 8 and 10 hours each day, sleeping in tents (every night!) and are without any showers or proper toilets around.  Peeeyewww.  Oh well, we’re tough (or were soon to get tough), and we like roughing it!

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We piled into the little van with all our gear and drove three hours to the starting point.  For those who don’t know, only 200 hikers, and about 300 porters per day (= 500 ppl.) are allowed on the trail.  This is the reason this, the “official” Inca Trail trek, requires booking in advance about 6 months out. 

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So day one can be anti-climactic.  By the time you’ve shown your passport at all the checkpoints, and stood in line, it’s about noon before you really start walking.  However when we arrived at our first stop our team of porters had already set up lunch in a big-top circus-style dining tent, and we ingloriously scarfed down the most amazing camp cooking you could imagine.  Fantastic!  Who knew five star chefs could cook out in the wilderness?

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After lunch we continued on to our last and final stop for the day, our overnight camp site, where our porters had run ahead of us and already set up all of tents and gear for us.  This isn’t roughing it, it’s just a lot of walking before being pampered!  The sights on the first day were very impressive, and overall the terrain was relatively easy (mainly flat terrain and lower altitudes). 

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On day two we woke up nervous, as we were told that this day is would be the hardest.  The day starts off with six hours of steep incline, to the highest point we’d be on the whole trek (4,200 m).  It was definitely a struggle but we all made it and we were so happy when we reached the top.  What an amazing feeling to beat the beast and work so hard.  We even saw Porters struggling this day, so you can imagine how it was for us.  This was one of the most rewarding days.

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That night as we swapped war stories over dinner, it slowly began to hail.  And then it started to come down!  Our Canadian training came in handy because these ice pellets didn’t melt until the next morning.  Our tent was OK, however, Alex’s didn’t fare as well and as such, she was our honorary guest for the night (sleepover!).   

Day three was supposed to be the longest day, 10 hours mainly downhill.  Oh geez, watch out knees.  We descended and descended for hours and walked and walked.  Definitely a hard day.  Different than day two but hard in other ways.  We rolled into the campsite just before the sun went down and literally passed out once again.

Day Four is the easiest day, you walk for about one to two hours until you reach the Sun Gate, and, ta daaa!!!  Machu Picchu.  What a glorious sight after three full days of trekking and not showering.  Such a great reward.  We ooohed and awwwed for hours and our guide talked for hours as he led us through one of the most mystical and magical places we had ever seen. 

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So interesting and such a great experience.  If you ever get a chance to go to Peru, we highly recommend you take the time to do a trek to Machu Picchu, rather than just taking the tourist train there.  It makes the experience just that much more memorable.

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After we were done exploring, we jumped on a train and headed back to Cusco.  It was massage time.  We had booked ourselves a few spa services to help us recover, and boy was the timing right….  Not only were our muscles hurting us but we all began to come down with a really bad cold (probably a holdover form that really wet and cold night on Day 2…).

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We spent one more day in Cusco, including a great lunch with our new friends Ofer and Ronit, where we congratulated ourselves for a great job on the Inca Trail (especially Ronit, who had knee surgery just this past December).

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Next was Lake Titicaca to rest and recover and do some small tours of the area.  After a short overnight bus ride the cold still had a hold of us.  So we literally spent the next 48 hours in bed.  The only significant achievement was that Alex and Vince managed to split a Guinea Pig (Alex took the right side, Vince the left…), and we saw the famous floating islands of Uros. 

 It was all a snotty blur until we jumped on a flight to Lima in time for Alex to grab her flight home.  It was such a great month having Alex with us and her planning of our itinerary was awesome, ambitious and complete.  With her back home now, we finish this blog entry from our hotel room in Lima, where we’ve been burning time waiting for our discount (i.e. Sunday morning) flight to pull up to the gate. 

Tomorrow we begin our next and final chapter of this crazy trip, California, more specifically the Los Angeles area.  We have rented an apartment for three weeks in Encino and have already been putting together a jammed-packed, super-fun, celebrity-filled itinerary, which we are excited to report back about. 

Hey you never know, maybe we’ll win an around the world trip on the Price is Right!  Could you imagine?  Adios amigos and don’t forget to check out Alex’s corner below to hear about her experience on the Inca Trail.

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