Tatacoa Desert – Huila, Colombia

The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.

All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.

While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.

Desierto Gris (Grey Desert)

Desierto Rojo (Red Desert)

The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.

Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)

It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!)
Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.

The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.

Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).

On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.

While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.

The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)

We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:

*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

Barichara – “The Cutest Town in Colombia”

Turns out that Colombia is full of tiny adorable towns, and I might have to revise my statement from my previous blog that Guatapé is the cutest small town, especially because it turns out that BARICHARA is popularly known as the cutest town in Colombia (“el pueblo más lindo de Colombia”). (Also it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.)

Upon hearing that, I revised my travel plans and went to investigate.

I would have to say that Barichara certainly deserves the title, though I would not change my statement about Guatapé, which is cute in a different (colorful) kind of way.

I am so glad I had the pleasure of visiting the small town of Barichara and neighboring Guane, where, with the natural landscapes, tranquility, and friendliness of the people, you feel relaxed from just breathing in the air of the countryside. It’s no surprise that so many city-dwellers come here for vacations to decompress and take a break from the noise and rush of city life.

Heading north from Bogota in a bus, I watched the city landscapes transform into rolling green hills. My seat-mate lives in bogota but does construction projects in a rural area a couple hours outside of the city, so he takes on the role of tour guide and points out all the interesting things along the way.

As I see more and more cows grazing, he points out milking stations and informs me that we are in dairy country. We pass a town statue indicating that we are in the self-proclaimed milk capital of Colombia where you can get fresh dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.

In between the cute, small, rural towns were grazing pastures, houses of brick or adobe, kilns with tall chimneys for making bricks, and I was completely surprised when we passed a series of coal mines.

About 7 hours later, when I arrived in San Gil, the air was filled with that familiar smell of burning wood or vegetation that I encountered when stepping off the airplane in El Salvador and in Cairo. From the busy little city of San Gil, I hopped on another bus that takes me to the small, quiet town of Barichara in about 30 minutes.

With its cobblestone streets, adobe buildings and colonial Spanish style balconies and flower pots, it almost seems like the town hasn’t changed much since it was a Spanish colonial hub in the 18th century.

And the views! Located in the hills above a river valley, there are multiple overlook points where you feel tiny as you stand in awe looking out over the the Suarez river far below and the mountain backdrop in the far distnce.

The town is connected to the nearby tiny town of Guane by “the Camino Real”, a stone path through the countryside that takes about 1.5-2 hours to hike. It used to be an Inca trail and more recently was a rehabilitated by a German engineer in the mid 1900s.

The hike to Guane was divine. The sun shone down, birds and insects were singing and chirping, there was a cool breeze, and while it was extremely hot in the sun, it was cool in the shade (and the path was mostly shaded by trees).

This is going to sound weird, but it was kind of welcoming to arrive to the village and be greeted by the light smell of smoke in the air and cow or horse poop. I guess those smells of rural areas grow on you after a while. ?

Guane was a kind of magical place for me.

The mirador provided an incredible view of the river valley with the river rushing through, and I spent some time there taking it all in, and later chatting with a Venezuelan artisan.

In the middle of Colombia, in this tiny little town of Guane, there is a hidden gem – a fascinating little museum that recounts the site’s history from millions of years ago to the present. (I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, sorry!)

There are incredible fossils of fish and shells and plants from when the site was under the ocean. There are artifacts, some writing in pictographs, and even a mummy from the pre-Colombian Guane (the town is named after a group of indigenous people that lived in the region).

There are paintings from Spain that had been brought over during the colonial times. And there were coins – from the original “patacones”, (imperfectly round, made of silver from the colonial mines), to the perfectly formed colonial coins fabricated after mints were built, to the current coins in circulation in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the artifacts from the Guane people are pretty much all that remain because they were forced to stop speaking their language and practicing their customs many generations back. In fact, present-day Guane is where those indigenous Guanes that survived the epidemics were sent to be forced to forget their language and culture and be educated in the Spanish colonial language and culture in the 1700s.

Ironically, this incredible museum exists largely thanks to a dedicated priest who worked tirelessly to compile the fossils and artifacts in the late 1900s.

Barichara and Guane are located in the department (state) of Santander, which has its own little sub culture, for which it is very proud. In addition to beautiful landscapes and fascinating history, I got a taste of the Santandereana food and music (specifically “bambuco”), and I felt very welcome thanks to the incredibly friendly Santandereanos.

In a very embarrassing moment in Guane I found I didn’t have enough cash to pay for my lunch. Thinking quickly I asked if I could leave the rest of the payment with someone in Barichara and without flinching the woman said it was not a problem and gave me the name of a store where I could leave it. I was much more worried about the situation than she was.

Finally, I have to note that the hotel where I stayed (“Quédate Aquí”) is run by the nicest woman EVER. She made me feel so at home, cooked delicious food, and emanated a really loving and caring spirit.

I wish I could have stayed a few more days here, but I was intrigued to check out a theme park nearby…which I’ll tell you about next!

Sites of Sucre

Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.

People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.

It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)

I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.

The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!

The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.

Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)

This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.

To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.

The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.

The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.

The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.

Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.

The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)

I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).

But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.

On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.

Famous Footnotes

*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia

**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!

Travelogue: Adventures in Arequipa

Co-written by Miluska Pachas Moron

Haz click aqui para la versión en español.

To celebrate Independence Day of Peru, 28 of July, we headed to the 2nd most populated city in Peru – Arequipa. But, crazy as we are, we didn’t choose a relaxing vacation with umbrella drinks, enjoying the city…no, we chose the adventure vacation: 2 overnight hikes, first in the heat of Colca Canyon, and then in the freezing cold of the snow-capped volcano Misti.

In fact, the very day we arrived in Arequipa (a 16-hour bus ride from Lima), we headed straight towards the Canyon to get started on our trek down into the canyon the next morning, so we could return to Arequipa and climb Misti Volcano all within the 7 days we had in Arequipa.

Hiking Colca Canyon (without a guide)

Encouraged by a blog we read, we decided to do a 2-day Colca Canyon hike on our own, to enjoy leaving on our own schedule, hiking at our own pace, and hoping to do it cheaper than if we had paid a guide. It turned out well, and we share our experience here.

Our bus arrived in Arequipa en the early afternoon, and we headed directly to the “empresa” Centella to take a minivan to Chivay (15 soles), where we would spend the night and get a good night’s rest before starting the hike the next morning. At 3,650 meters above sea level, Chivay is a pueblo about 1.5 hours from the start of the hike down into the canyon. At night, the temperature got down to the low 30’s, just below freezing.

We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Rumi Wasi (22 soles), and coordinated to leave the next morning at 6:30am with a minivan that was giving a guided tour for a group of tourists and agreed to drop us off at the trailhead for the Colca hike, near Cabanaconde, for 30 soles. On the way to the trailhead, our driver explained some of the history of the area, including the two indigenous cultures that had lived in the different parts of the canyon, and the sophisticated canals they used to carry water from one part of the canyon to another.

We stopped in the plaza of a pueblo called Yanque where some children were doing traditional dances in traditional clothing for the tourists. In the distance, you could see Volcano Sabancaya smoking like a chimney (they said it was normal.) After about 25 minutes in Yanque, we stopped for 30 minutes in Cruz del Condor, a part of the canyon 130 meters higher than Chivay, where the huge condors can be seen flying above the rising walls of the canyon, with the backdrop of the majestic mountains on the other side of the canyon.

   

When we arrived at the trailhead for the Colca Canyon descent, there were a few different guided tour groups and a handful of people also doing the hike on their own. Our first day was a hike of about 7 km to spend the night in the canyon at “Sangalle”, where there is a group of hostels referred to as the “Oasis”, and the second day would be an early morning for a day of pure climbing back up to the rim of the canyon.

The starting descent was fun, like a trail run, with some tough parts, but mostly a smooth descent. We noticed that there are many different settlements, or pueblos within the canyon, in the walls of the canyon and below.

We arrived at the bottom of the canyon (2,200 meters above sea level) to a wooden bridge in a district in the canyon called Tapay, where there was an outhouse and a place to rest.

After crossing the bridge, we took a switch-back to the left – a steep ascent that was said to save about 40 minutes. After about a half hour, we arrived to a pueblo, “San Juan,” where the tour groups stopped to eat a 15-soles “menu” (soup and “segundo”, which is rice and a typical plate defined by the restaurant offering the “menu”), and where you could buy a bottle of beer for 10 soles – more expensive than in a night club in Lima!

After San Juan, we continued towards the pueblo “Cosñirjua,”, which was about an hour and a half, with the last half hour being a fairly tough climb, and arriving at a restaurant/hostel that has snacks, drinks, and a bathroom, all for a higher price than anywhere else in Peru…but not surprising considering there are no other options in the area and it’s not exactly easy to import things to the site. We bought a Gatorade that looked like it had been brought there about 100 years ago, took advantage of the bathroom and a short rest, and then continued the route towards Sangalle, where we would find the Oasis lodges.

We had heard that it would take about 2 hours, or 1.5 hours at a good pace, to arrive at the lodges so we opted to walk-run so we could rest in the horizontal position as soon as possible. The first part of the trail was a dirt road wide enough for trucks, and as we continued we didn’t see any signs, nor the pronounced descent that the blog had mentioned. We passed a woman outside her house washing clothes, and she pointed us to a turnoff to the left that we had missed a few hundred meters back.

Descending, we came to an overlook with a gazebo-like structure, took some fun photos, and continued the descent back to the base of the canyon. After about an hour, we came to another bridge, where we would cross back to side of the canyon we entered (though further down), and where we would find the lodges after 30 minutes of a steep ascent.

Caught up in the adventure, we hadn’t thought to try to reserve a space in one of the lodges, and almost all of the spaces were reserved when we arrived. Luckily, there was a room with 3 beds and its own bathroom with hot water that we got to ourselves for 30 soles each, in a lodge with a pool fed by naturally warm water from the canyon. The lodge also provided dinner for 15 soles – prices that are reasonable for most travelers, but quite high for the area, but again understandable that they are taking advantage of the limited options available.

We had read that we could buy snacks along the way, but we recommend that you bring all the snacks you need for the two days, and a way to treat water, because the snacks they offered in the lodge were limited supply and exorbitant prices – a bottle of 2.5L of water was more expensive than the room! Ok, not really, but it was half the price of the habitation – or 5 times the normal price of a bottle of water this size!

But luckily, the Girl Scout/Peace Corps WASH volunteer in me had brought everything I needed to treat water (Iodine pills and a Steri Pen) to have potable water for the next day.

The area is known as the Oasis because while most of the canyon is rocky, with desert-like plants, common in the “sierra”, this part had green grass (probably planted for the lodges, though we did see another naturally green part of the canyon where there was a waterfall, near where we had crossed the bridge.) We took advantage of the grass to stretch for about 15 minutes so our bodies could recover from the day’s hike and be ready for the next day’s ascent.

The hot shower, eating even the last grain of rice on our plates, looking for constellations (Scorpio dominating the sky in our case), and resting under the starlight in this corner of paradise, was the best way to recharge for the tough day ahead.

(Side note: At 8pm they turned off the power for the hostal, so if you need to charge phones or use the light, it’s important to do it before hand, and always good to bring a portable charger if possible.)

We had planned to start the ascent at 5:30am, as recommended by everyone, to avoid the heat of the day during the tough ascent, but our alarm didn’t go off, so we got a late start (story of my life…surely the fault of my late curse)! So we ate breakfast at 6am – the breakfast of gold – the most expensive breakfast ever: 10 soles for two pieces of bread with butter and jam, with a cup of tea/coffee, but also very necessary for the day ahead.

We hit the trail at 6:30am, and the scenery was incredible, as we ascended along with the sun, which painted the canyon walls more and more throughout the ascent. The first hour was peaceful, silent, like a walking meditation. During the second hour, the ascent got more intense, like a never-ending rocky stairway that made the quads and glutes burn with every step, not only carrying our own bodyweight, but also the weight of the backpack of water and supplies. A great workout in an incredible and peaceful corner of paradise!

Towards the end, it can be discouraging to look up because there are many “false peaks” where you think you are close to the rim, but it turns out you still have a ways to go. As the sun comes out, the heat intensifies, so it is important to have enough water and snacks to power you through, as well as sunblock, hat and sunglasses…and toilet paper just in case (and a bag to put used toilet paper to throw it away afterwards and not add trash to the trail.)

Almost 3 hours had passed and we didn’t see any sign of the rim, but suddenly a group of hikers appeared, descending from the top, and they told us we were just 10 minutes from the rim…just the words of hope we needed to awaken the surge of energy that carried us almost running to the top! We arrived 10 minutes before our planned arrival time, thanking our legs of steel and celebrating that we made it out alive and strong, even if exhausted!

After celebrating, we realized that we still had a 15-minute hike to the plaza of Cabanaconde, where we would be able to catch a bus back to Arequipa…but at least it was a flat 15-minute walk!

We were able to catch bus that left at 11:30am – just enough time to eat lunch before the 5-hour ride. And luckily, the bus stopped in the pueblos along the way, so we were able to pick up our gear that we had left in the hostel in Chivay.

 

Volcano Misti (5,825 meters) (Only for the strong-of-heart! Have you seen the movie Everest?)

Returning to Arequipa, we took a day to rest, try some of the delicious food in Arequipa, and to find a guide to climb the volcano Misti the following day.

To climb Misti, we went with a tour company that offers “pool service”, (puts you with a group of around 5-15 people), for a trek of 2 days and one night, and we paid 250 soles each. They also provided the warm gear (pants, jackets, gloves) needed for the extreme temperatures in the night and at the higher altitudes, tents, main meals, and sleeping bags.

We only had to bring a few basics: a hiking backpack, boots, (they rented the backpack and boots if you didn’t have them), light clothing for the first day of ascent (which would be hot), warm clothing for the night (which would be ridiculously freezing cold), snacks, and 5.5 liters of water – 4 to drink during the 2 days and 1.5 for the guides to cook with.

We rented hiking poles from them too because the ascent is steep and the descent even more tricky. And I heard that hiking poles eliminate about 25% of the strain on knees on the ascent, and 75% on the descent…so I was happy to pay to rent hiking poles now to gain a few years before I will need knee replacements!

It is recommended to climb Misti with a guide because it’s easy to get lost, and the altitude and cold really do affect the human body and its ability to think well, (and there are plenty of stories of people getting lost and dying).

The guide company picked us up from the hotel at 8am and we met up with the rest of the group to outfit our gear and head to the trailhead. A 4×4 brought us out of the city, to the base of the volcano, where we would start the ascent at about 3400 meters.

Between the hot sierra sun and the constant climb, with backpacks of more than 5 kilos, the sweat was pouring, and we tired quickly, with aching legs, hips, and shoulders. But like all marathon challenges, we took it step by step, advancing little by little, resting every 30 minutes to drink water and eat fruit to refuel.

Finally, after about 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at 4,600 meters, where we set up camp.

We were lucky enough to experience an unbelievable sight – the contrast of the awesome sunset in the west and the incredible full moon rising in the east – which made the intense cold that came with the setting sun, slightly more bearable.

setting sun
rising moon

We ate dinner as quickly as possible and immediately climbed into the tents to escape the cold and try to sleep 7pm-1am: our wake-up call to eat breakfast and start the climb before 2am.

The morning cold was like no other I have experienced, but luckily, the full moon was a huge light in the sky, illuminating our way through the snow. We learned that the secret was to move at a pace fast enough to stay warm and not die of cold, but slow enough so that the lungs could deal with the low levels of oxygen at that altitude.

The trek was like no other I’ve ever done – freezing cold, in the middle of the night – dark, but illuminated beautifully by the full moon, a steep ascent through the beautiful rocks and snow, at altitude. It was incredible. It was difficult – physically and psychologically. Our heads were hurting from lack of oxygen. Hearts pounding. Loving and hating every minute of it, all at the same time.

We were in a group of 7, and the majority didn’t make it to the peak because there were two different paces in the group but one guide stayed behind babysitting someone who had never been on a hike before, much less in the altitude, and kind of ruined it for the rest of the group.

I definitely recommend this trek (especially if you can time it with a full moon!), always remembering:

1. If you haven’t climbed a mountain or done a hike at altitude in the last few months and aren’t in shape, this is not a good hike to start with. Do easier hikes at lower altitudes, and work your way up to this one. Also, if you can do work-outs in the altitude in the week before the hike (without exhausting yourself), it will help immensely.

2. When going on hikes, take some plastic bags for trash, including bags for your used toilet paper, and don’t leave trash on the trail. Respect nature and leave it beautiful for the next person!