Isla del Sol

La Isla del Sol is the biggest Lake Titicaca island, and it is also the most visited by tourists, due to its convenient location just a 2-hour boat ride from Copacabana, the popular tourist stop between Bolivia and Peru.

It is apparent that the island has developed around tourism – there is an abundance of lodging (hospedajes) and restaurant options, and even signs pointing the way to tourist points of interest like overlook points.

You know international tourists come through a place in Bolivia if you find a pizza restaurant, and there are a ton of pizza restaurants on Isla del Sol.

I was really struck by the beautiful architecture and especially the facades of many of the hospedajes, most of which incorporated rock or pebble to adorn traditional adobe construction.

It is also close enough to the mainland peninsula (with a tiny tree-covered island in between), that it is connected to the electric grid of the mainland, unlike Isla de la Luna, which relies on solar panels.

Isla del Sol has three different communities and is less densely populated than Amantaní, with approximately the same population but spread throughout the 14-square-kilometer island (compared to Amantaní’s 9-square-km). (But both much larger than the tiny 1-square kilometer Isla de la Luna with just one community of 27 families).

Just like the other two islands I visited, the geography is that of a mountain rising out of the sea…er, lake. (It is very easy to forget that I am on a lake and not the sea!)

The point is that everything is uphill from the shore. And even walking around from place to place on the island is like hiking in the mountains – a lot of up and down (which always feels like there’s more up than down) at 3,800 meters of altitude.

The boat I came in arrived at the port Pilko Kaina with Incan ruins to explore.

From there to the rest of the island was a surprisingly long climb up.

I really wondered if I was going the right way and if all this climbing was going to be worth it in the end. But I persevered, meeting some friends and some awesome views along the way.

I eventually wandered upon two other lost tourists and soon we came to a house which turned out to also be a fancy restaurant on the edge of Yumani, the community most frequented in Isla del Sol and full of restaurants and hospedajes.

They stayed to enjoy some gourmet food while I continued along in search of a place to stay the night and a cheaper lunch since I was on a really tight budget, and running low on cash at this point.

The site where I did eat lunch was indescribably beautiful. The view of the lake was breathtaking (literally and figuratively at 4000 meters above sea level)… so blue, and so immense, stretching as far as the eye could see. The only sounds were a few birds and a distant conversation in Aymará, with the light sea, er, lake breeze whispering past my ears. Ultimate peace.

And it was the best meal I’d had since Amantaní – fresh trout from the lake with some fresh veggies.

Later, heading to the lookout point to catch the sunset I met and chatted with a local woman selling souvenirs who appeared slightly younger than me and who had curious and rowdy 2- and 4-year-olds. She had lived in São Paulo, Brazil and so not only spoke Aymará (the local language on the island) and Spanish, but also Portugués from her time in Brazil. She had returned to Bolivia because she said they had been treated like second class citizens, her husband robbed at gunpoint a few times, and other Bolivian migrant friends injured or killed…she said her experience was that there was no justice as the government didn’t really value their lives, safety, and rights as immigrant workers. (USA, can we please not be like that???? Pretty please.)

After doing yoga and watching the sunset with her and her kids, I headed to another overlook point.

There I met a super sweet couple – a Spanish woman and an Argentine who ended up staying two extra nights and exploring the whole island (even the northern part which we had been told could be dangerous because of an inter-community conflict that started two years ago), and they said it was incredibly beautiful!

Unfortunately I was running low on cash and had to return to Copacabana the next morning to change money and continue my journey. So, after a delicious dinner of trout from the lake (yes, again!) I headed to my hospedaje and had my last peaceful, Lake Titicaca island sleep.

The next morning, after watching the sunrise and eating breakfast, I headed down to the dock, past the Fuente del Inca and saw the grand island entrance to the Yumani community.

I had the pleasure of chatting with a few local women while waiting for my boat. This might have been one of the highlights of my stay here. Using my handy language chart, I practiced my Aymará with them, and we were all highly entertained (even if they were laughing AT me not WITH me at times!) Similar to Isla de la Luna, most people have their farms where they grow the typical sierra (highland) crops- quinoa, wheat, corn, and a variety of potatoes, and animals (mostly sheep), while the income from tourism helps provide something extra.

With a farewell photo, I said “juspara” (thank you) “jakisiñkama” (goodbye)! and boarded the boat for my last ride across the majestic Lake Titicaca.

Isla de la Luna

Every morning at 8:30am, boats full of tourists leave Copacabana heading to Isla del Sol, with an option of stopping for an hour at Isla de la Luna. Planning just to go to Isla del Sol and stay the night, I boarded a boat and met up with the two traveler friends from London and Italy that I had met in my hostel.

It was a beautiful 2 hour boat ride and I even saw some little fish swimming along side of the boat. Instead of getting off at the first stop at the Isla del Sol, I stayed on with my new friends to go to the Isla de la Luna.

The boat only stops for an hour at Isla de la Luna and the guide on the boat says there’s not much to see there and you can do it in an hour…and they only give you an hour before the boat leaves to go to the Isla del Sol. And if the boat leaves without you, you’re stuck in the island until the next day because the boats only come once a day for an hour.*

Entering the island the smell of muña caught me by surprise and reminded me of my stay in Amantaní, the island in the north part of the lake. As I was walking up the stairs to enter the island with the other tourists, I passed a little 4-year-old boy who, without prompting, greeted me saying “Hi, my name is Miguel Ángel”! It was so adorable!

I started exploring late because I chatted for about 10 minutes with the guy who was charging for bathroom use, geeking out about the water and electricity access on the island. (Islands have always fascinated me because they present unique infrastructure challenges ripe for alternative energies and exploring the idea of sustainability.)

Geek out about the island’s infrastructure:

They used to not have power but now they use solar panels (“because the kids want their cell phones. And also tv.”) He said the panels are great but the batteries only last a couple of years and they have to be careful not to let them drain to zero or they stop working well. They use what look like basic car batteries that charge during the day.

They also have solar hot water heaters in most of the houses.

They use water from the lake but have to buy gas to power the pumps that pump the water up from the lake. (They charge for the bathroom in part to cover costs of the gas).

End Geek-out.

Finally, I headed up the hill to the ruins of the “temple of the virgins”, which was supposedly a type of boarding school for young women to learn to do womenly things in the Incan times.

There, I met an older woman from the island who explained that life living on Isla de la Luna is really calm and peaceful, and she liked it much better than the city (La Paz) where she lived for a few years. Here they grow their food, have a few animals- (llamas, pigs, chickens, sheep), they have fish farms within the lake, they and buy what they don’t have on the island from Copacabana. There’s a primary school and a church and a football field – everything they need, she said.

As I started to hike the hill from the temple to see what was on the other side of the island, I passed a woman knitting in the shade who asked if I was going to stay the night in the island.

“That’s an option?” I asked her.

Part of my travel purpose is to go off the beaten path and get to know some places and the people that live there… so when she said that her mother owned a hospedaje, I negotiated a price to include my meals, and I decided to stay the night instead of going back with the boat to Isla del Sol.

The boat companies from copacabana don’t promote the fact that there are hospedajes on the island, (maybe because it’s a tiny island and most tourists want more entertainment and conveniences? I don’t know.)

But if you are looking for a quiet and incredibly beautiful place to pass 24 hours (or more), where you can chat with one (or a few) of the 27 families that live on the island, learn about their daily lives, and walk along the perimeter of the 1-square-km island in the afternoon sun…then it’s worth the stay.

The tourists only come one hour per day, at the same time every day, and the community rotates selling things, collecting the entrance fee, collecting bathroom fees, and helping/keeping an eye on the tourists.

On the other side of the hill, and down the length of the island are the houses where the community (called Coati) lives…So the tourists only see the ruins and a view of both sides of the island from the top of the hill, but don’t see or go into the community, unless they stay the night.

The community of Coati, Isla de la Luna

The hospedaje where I stayed overlooks the lake, with a little pier extending into the lake. In the patio between the rooms are beautiful plants with flowers and the constant buzz of bees that I even hear from inside he room.

The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore can also be heard from inside if you listen closely.

This half of the island, the opposite side from where the tourists land, smells of muña for parts and eucalyptus for other parts.

I loved chatting with the woman who owned the hospedaje. It challenged my conversation skills a little because she wasn’t super talkative, but every time I asked her a question I saw her face light up a little and I felt her open up a little more, like she viewed me with a little less skepticism each time.

She commented that the president/government built part of the hospedaje last year (or at least convinced them that he did so they’ll vote for him at the end of this year), and the alcalde bought the water pump. The entrance fee to the island goes towards paying the locals to do restoration of the ruins or other community-based things.

The woman has 5 kids, one still living here on the island, a few in Copacabana and a few in other cities, but she’s content because they talk on the phone. When she first moved here with her husband (who is from here), there wasn’t running water or electricity so it was a rough adjustment for her, but she adapted, and now it is much easier with the solar power and pumped water. She feels at home now and likes that it’s quieter with less people than where she grew up, (in a community on the peninsula).

We chatted as the sun set over the pier, and she told me that tomorrow would be her turn to sell her artesanías in the temple so I would see her there when I leave.

In the morning, heading back over the hill to the other side of the island, I saw the little boy from the previous day, Miguel Ángel, walking with his mother, taking their sheep out to graze. She had a few of them on a leash, and the similarity to people walking their dogs in the morning made me smile. A few loose sheep stopped to eat and wouldn’t follow her so she sent Miguel Ángel to collect them, and I went to help herd sheep, while the talkative, friendly boy told me stories of his sheep.

This visit had a different feel than my stays on Ccotos and Amantaní, mostly because the business arrangement is different. Here, they are following a more traditional hotel-type tourism model, where the host is simply providing a space to stay, and doesn’t even live in the same area where the guest rooms are. Whereas in Amantaní and Ccotos they are following a homestay model where the tourist is a little more integrated into the daily life with the host – through sharing meals and sometimes community events, in addition to the guest rooms being more physically close to where the family lives and considered part of the family’s house.

While I personally preferred the homestay model and the culture-sharing atmosphere it fosters, I still greatly enjoyed my stay here. There aren’t many words to describe the peacefulness and beauty of this place, but hopefully you can catch a glimpse of it through the photos!

As I left the island in the morning for Isla del Sol, I saw the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, a reminder that I was on a lake in the middle of the Andes, not the ocean, and a foreshadowing of my future travels through Bolivia.

Famous Footnotes

*If you really needed to leave the island, you could pay a local a very high price to take you in a private boat to Isla del Sol or the mainland.

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!

Travel Blog: Chachapoyas, Amazonas – Kuelap, Gocta, and more

I have had the great fortune to have found some incredible friends in my site, and not one day passes that I am not thankful for them! With two of my best friends, we had been talking about escaping Oxapampa and traveling together…and this year we finally made it a reality! We left the high jungle, or “ceja de selva” (eybrow of the jungle) of Oxapampa and we headed north to the other side of the country, to the “ceja de selva” of Chachapoyas, in the department of Amazonas.

The arrow points to Chachapoyas, and the red dot is Oxapampa.

Chachapoyas hosts tons of international tourists who come to see Kuelap (sometimes referred to as the Machu Picchu of the north), the grand waterfall Gocta, and tons of other ruins, artefacts, and beautiful natural sites, all a day trip from the city of Chachapoyas, where there are plenty of accommodations.

We were lucky to find a special and got a cheap flight from Lima to Jaen, Cajamarca, and from Jaen, we took a 4-hour bus ride (MovilTours) to Chachapoyas. (Some people fly into Tarapoto and get a car to Chachapoyas, which is about 8 hours in car. Or, there is always the option to take a bus from Lima to Chachapoyas, which is about 20 hours, and worth paying for the more expensive seats on a luxury bus like Cruz del Sur.)

In Chachapoyas, we stayed in Backpackers Hostel, and each day we did a day trip from Chachapoyas. Our itinerary included:

  • Day 1: Rodriguez de Mendoza – Leo’s cave (Caverna de Leo) and hot sulfur springs (Aguas Termales)
  • Day 2: Kuelap
  • Day 3: Gocta (waterfall)
  • Day 4: Karajía

We wish we had had about 2-3 more days to be able to visit Leymebamba, which is 3 hours from Chacha and home to the Laguna de Los Condores and a museum with bones, mummies, and artefacts found around the laguna and in the area.

Day 1 Rodriguez de Mendoza. After eating breakfast in a small restaurant (and laughing until we cried when the waitress took Carolina (who is Argentinian) for a non-Spanish speaking tourist and spoke really loudly and slowly and simply to her in Spanish), we headed to the terminal, where we caught a car to go to Rodriguez de Mendoza (S/20). It was a beautiful 2-hour drive through the majestic, green, rolling hills. There were also palm trees, which we were told were brought in by an outside organization to cultivate, but they didn’t really turn into a big venture so they aren’t really maintained, but they remain an interesting feature in the landscape.

In Rodriguez de Mendoza, we took a 20 minute car ride (S/5) to where a man named Leo gives tours of a cave on his property (S/20). (Slightly less sketchy than it sounds, but worth it!) Leo is about in his 60s and he led us up a hill, through his beautiful property, filled with native plants, coffee plants, and fruit trees, to the opening of a cave. He gave us all flashlights and led us down into the cave, which was many stories deep, with different levels and tons of great formations. He claimed it was incredibly extensive and that he could lead a 6-hour hike through the cave and still not see everything, but since we only had one hour, he proceeded to tell us what he thought each formation resembled (Biblical figures, animals, etc.) We were a little disappointed because we would have much preferred to walk around and see more of the cave, but overall, it was a really cool cave (and a great hike to and from the cave), so I’m glad we did it, and I would recommend it.

We then took a car about 15 minutes (S/5) to a site with a natural spring feeding thermal baths (S/3). This was my first time in thermal baths and I was enchanted by the experience. There were two pools of turquoise water, in the middle of nature, surrounded beautiful scenery on all sides. I don’t think I’ve ever swam surrounded by mountains on all sides, a tiny drop in the middle of paradise. The sulfur smell took a while to wash out of our hair, but it was well-worth it. We ate at a restaurant just above the springs, on the same property, and were lucky enough that two different cars gave us rides back to Rodriguez de Mendoza, where we caught a combi (van) back to Chachapoyas (S/15), just in time to be able to arrive before dark.

 

Day 2. Kuelap – ruins from a fort of the Chachapoyas culture (1100-1400 AD), in the high selva of Amazonas, with a recently-built teleferico (ski-lift type of air transport) over the mountains to arrive at the entrance. (Fun Fact: Machu Picchu is also tucked in a high selva zone, but in Cusco.) We talked to a guide agency in the plaza and secured a day trip to Kuelap, with teleferico, entrance fees and lunch included for S/75. Unfortunately, it was a drizzly, grey day, so we didn’t get quite the spectacular photos that one normally gets at Kuelap, but even through the mist and clouds, it was spectacular…and I would say that the mist and clouds passing through the mountains gave it an enchanting feel in its own right.

The teleferico …getting into a pod with 8 people and crossing green mountains and valleys, from tens of meters above, was an experience in and of itself.

Arriving at Kuelap, we had a light, beautiful (even if foggy) hike up into the mountains, where we began to approach the remainders of watch towers and walls some 900-years old. Approaching the main grounds, the entire settlement was surrounded be a wall, many meters high.

Entering, we saw the outlines and remainders of different parts of a city, living quarters, temples, storage areas.

And a llama. (Not sure if they brought in the llama for show like they do at Machu Picchu, or if llamas actually live in the area, but I’m guessing the former since llamas tend to live at higher altitude…sorry to burst your bubble.)

Our guide explained that Kuelap was used by the Chachapoyas nation independently from 1100-1450AD. Though the Chachapoyas were overtaken by the Incas, the site continued in use and didn’t change much under Inca rule because the Incas tended to let the people they conquered continue with their way of life, implementing certain additional administrative requirements to manage their rule.

In the mid 1500s, the Spaniard conquistadores came, and while the Chachapoyas resisted the conquistadores longer than most, they were finally overcome and forced to leave the site of Kuelap. Our guide was a great storyteller, and I liked that he made a point to distinguish between “assumptions” and “facts backed by evidence” (a difference that is lately getting confused by many popular mass media sources).

 

Day 3. Gocta – The 771-meter (2,530 ft) waterfall with two drops (registered as the 3rd or the 16th largest waterfall in the world, depending on who you ask). We wanted to do the hike to see the whole waterfall – both of the two drops, and we found someone who knew a guide from the village that could take us there and later pick us up for S/60.

The village that is near the waterfall (San Pablo de Valera) has organized themselves well and they require a guide from their village to accompany all visitors to the waterfall. (We paid our guide Maria S/40.) The village you pass through also charges an entrance fee (S/20), and they use the money to maintain and improve the trails to the waterfall, as well as to improve their own community. I really liked the system since it brings jobs and income to the local people while they maintain and conserve the natural area on their property, and also are able to share it with visitors.

The first stop was the pool at the base of the first drop. Unfortunately, we had another cloudy day without sun and with a little bit of rain a few times, but it was still an amazing hike with amazing views.

The second stop was a lookout point, where we could see both the upper and lower drops of the waterfall.

From there, because we had asked to see the lower drop as well, we continued the descent until we arrived at the huge pool at the very base of the fall. Again, it was cloudy, cold, and even rained a little, but that didn’t keep us from diving into the pool; afterall, how often does one get the opportunity to swim in the pool at the base of an incredible 771-meter waterfall? (Ok, I admit, it was way too cold to swim. I jumped in, screamed because it was so cold, and could only stand about 3 more minutes before I got out and hid under my rain poncho to warm up.)

From the pool, we descended about 1 hour to the nearby village where the hike ends. One of the local dogs had followed us from the very beginning, all the way to the village below, and my friends convinced our driver to let us drop the dog off closer to home.

Since we all have that adventurous spirit, we agreed that the all day hike was our favorite day of the whole trip…being surrounded by nature all day, bathing in a grand waterfall, climbing and descending, crossing through the mountains from one village to another, immersed in incredible landscapes…it was a perfect day for us all, one of the best in a lifetime.

Day 4: Karajía. For our last day, we decided on a half-day trip to Karajía (S/30 for a private car), which is where there are sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) high up in a cliff .

It was a beautiful drive (as all the drives had been), that brought us to a little town, and from there, a short 30-minute hike to see the sarcophagi. You can’t get very close to them because they are high in the cliffs, but you can see them from below or from the sides.

Arrow points to the sarcophaguses

We dawdled a while, hiking around and taking photos and goofing off and enjoying the views, until we climbed back up the hill to the village.

Unfortunately, we only had four days to explore the area, but one could easily spend a week or more discovering Chachapoyas and the surrounding areas.

The amazing views, the history, the culture, the adventure….this trip had it all, with the best part being the memories shared, deepening our friendship, and finally traveling together – something we’d been talking about doing together for a year!

Wonder of the World

After not seeing any of my family members for a year and a half, I was so happy to see my mom and my aunts walk through the door of the Lima airport! It was also a little surreal to see them in Lima. My two worlds collided…here I was in Peru, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living a simpler life in a rural area trying to integrate and live like a local, and I hadn’t seen my family this whole time, and suddenly my family was here and we were going on a family vacation here! (After a year and a half living here, I still had not had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu, and we were going to go together!)

So, that means I was going to be a tourist…something I have been trying hard not be, as I try arduously to “integrate”. This was going to be a super interesting experience as I tried to use what I had learned over the last year and a half – language, culture, and how things work in Peru –to navigate like a local, while being a tourist.

Beach time in Lima

What do I mean by that? Navigating transportation, the language, and trying to not always pay the “gringo price”. For example, in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, they tried to charge an additional 20% on our bill, saying that all the restaurants do it. Considering that there was no notification in the menu or anywhere that they were going to charge an additional 20%, I had argue that it was unfair and that I wasn’t going to pay it.  I was super uncomfortable doing this kind of negotiating when I first got here, but after a lot of practice it starts to come naturally, (and I get a lot of practice, being of light-colored skin, because I often get quoted a price twice or three times as much as the going price).  But I digress.

With only 7 days of vacation, we had a pretty tight schedule, but the great thing about Peru – and Cusco is maybe the epitome of this – is that the journey is often as amazing as the destination. So even though we had a full day of travel the next day, (flight to Cusco, and 3-hour car ride to Ollantaytambo), it was full of great sites (and surprises).

In addition the beautiful mountains and scenery on the drive, we stopped in Chincheros, where we saw a demonstration of how wool from sheep and alpaca is made into wool thread and dyed to make textiles, (and of course had the opportunity to buy some great handmade items like shawls, scarves, hats (chullos), socks, gloves, sweaters, blankets, etc.

Chincheros – textile shop

And randomly…our driver was awesome, and completely coincidentally, had grown up in Oxapampa where I live now (which is very far away from Cusco).

The next day we started with a 3-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes to catch the 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu. And again, the journey itself to Machu Picchu was amazing and beautiful.

View from the train window (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes)

But, of course, nothing compares to the marvel of Machu Picchu. As my Aunt Michelle said, she was a little worried she wouldn’t be that amazed because she had already seen so many photos of it online, but then seeing it in real life is just something completely different and stunning.

Adding to the photos of Machu Picchu on the internet that just can’t do it justice.

First, it’s got its views – Machu Picchu is set in one of the most amazing spots, tucked in the mountains of the high jungle, and therefore surrounded by verdant green mountains, and overlooking a valley.

Then, it is built on the side of a mountain, but engineered in a way that prevents it from being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion.

And unlike a lot of cities of today, it doesn’t exclude nature from its design, it incorporates it, keeping green terraces, and natural streams as an integral part of its structural and functional design.

You see an interesting combination of the complex shapes and rounded, soft edges found in nature, molded into the straight edges, corners, lines, and simple shapes of the human-constructed world.

For me, this was a sight where the beauty of nature comes together with creativity and engineering brilliance, and it demonstrates the evolution of human knowledge.

And while, the beauty and marvel of Machu Picchu is unique for its location and how well it has been preserved, even the journey back to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, was a journey that was, in itself, a destination.

Sacred Valley – Pisaq

We were able to explore the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sacred Valley on the way back to Cusco…and still we barely scratched the surface of the sites that offer breathtaking views ruins that give hints into the lives of past civilizations.

Our final full day in Cusco, we explored a few sites nearby the City of Cusco, including the famous Saqsayhuaman (basically pronounced Sexy Womán), until we felt like we were experts in Incan mythology, architecture, and engineering (not even close).

Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

Turns out that 4 days in Cusco was a good amount of time to see a lot of the highlights, but an extra day, or few, would have been even better, to be able to see the city of Cusco itself, some museums, and maybe to take another day trip or two to some other cool spots like Rainbow Mountain or the salt farms.

It turned out to be an amazing trip with the family, and I am so lucky that they were able to come, and that we were able to experience these amazing sites together. While the role of being a tourist took getting used to, the role of translator, negotiator, and vacation planner was fun and challenging. In a way, for the first time in my life I felt like I was taking care of my mom and aunts, instead of the other way around. Considering that they have taken care of me my whole life, I was honored to be able to do that, at least for a few days.

First Impressions of Oxapampa, my site

So I joined Peace Corps as a Water And Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, and after working on water projects in El Salvador and Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders for 7 years, I had prepared myself to live in a small village without running water.

When I got my site assignment and came to my new home fore the first time, I was pleasantly disappointed to find myself living in a nice room with running water. (Well, usually there is running water. Without warning, we lose water for a few hours about 5-10 times a month). The showers are cold so I often take the health advice that it is not great to shower every single day. (Thank you Jessica for this entertaining article!)

My site is Oxapampa (town), Oxapampa (district), Oxapampa (province), Pasco (Department), Peru. Or Oxapampa for short.

The entire province is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the town of Oxapampa is a beautiful little tourist town as well as the provincial capital, and it takes a lot of pride in being a part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve, having clean air, and being “tranquillo” – safe and calm. The schools put a lot of emphasis on environmental stewardship, and most people have a pretty strong sense of wanting to do what’s best for the environment.

In some ways it has the feel of a small or medium-sized rural town in Texas (or in any state, but I’m more familiar with Texas), though the motorcycles and mototaxis outnumber the cars (and it’s a lot more green and jungly).

They have rodeo here a few times a year, where cowboys from here and from other towns come to compete. They play country music at the rodeos and at some local events, and they host Country Fest once a year, which includes performers from all over the world (mostly South America) singing various country songs, including many popular country songs from the US.

There are chickens and/or cows in some yards (I walk past a cow and sheep on my way to work every day,and when I hear rustling in the grass, it’s not a squirrel, nor a bird – it’s a chicken). I know this sounds weird, but the sound of roosters regularly every day is kind of comforting for me.

Most everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from the family (though the town has grown drastically in the last 10 years and that is changing.) It is very common to see women in skinny jeans and a plaid long-sleeve (which I think might be a general fashion trend?), but it definitely reminds me of the rural US.

The majority of people have farms and raise some type of animal (chickens, cows, and/or pigs usually) and/or grow some type of crops – zapallo (a large pumpkin-squash thing) and granadilla are the most popular. You can find many artisanal products made here such as honey, coffee, cheese, and yogurt.

People’s farms are usually outside the town, so the houses in town are relatively close together and the town is very walkable (which I love!) – it is about 30 blocks by 15 blocks, and there are moto-taxis for public transportation.

Just about everyone rides a motorcycle to go everywhere. Except me. Peace Corps does not allow us to ride motorcycles.

Lucky for me, I love walking and riding my bike, and I always have. Anyway, it’s actually pretty great because I have a little more time to appreciate the INCREDIBLE landscapes that surround me every day.

From Oxapampa town, there are beautiful tree-covered mountains in all 360-degrees of your vista. They call them hills, and it’s true, they are probably the forested foothills of the Andes, but they are so grand the best way to describe them is mountains. (Yes, I said grand.)

Like all the districts in Peru (and maybe all of Latin America that has Spanish influence? Help me out history people…), the city center has a small park called a plaza de armas, with the municipality and a catholic church.

In the case of Oxapampa, it has the oldest wooden church in Peru, and built of wood from a tree called diablo, or “the devil”, so they say it is the only church where god and the devil live together.

Most of these photos are around the plaza, so things look pretty ordered and the streets are paved. Currently the town has quite a few paved streets, but the majority are still dirt roads, and the dust blows around in the wind during the dry season.

Speaking of the weather…I LOVE it. One day I swear I experienced 3 seasons (as they are defined in Washington, DC weather) in one day…the morning was cool like an autumn morning, then it rained (could have been a spring or autumn rain), then the sun came out in the afternoon and it was HOT like a summer day, and then the evening was like a cool spring evening. I would say that day accurately describes the weather here…a little bit of everything, sometimes all in one day, but never too hot and never too cold.

Usually the days are 70-80°F, but even when the air doesn’t feel very hot, the sun burns – thanks to being close to the equator, and thanks to the altitude of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). And maybe it has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer which I think is nearby, a little more south of here…(but is getting smaller thanks to global efforts to curb ozone-depleting substances!!! But I digress.)

For you science or weather geeks:

Since I’m in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter here when it’s summer in the US and vice versa, right? Well, yes but no. Since I live in the selva alta (high jungle), and we’re close to the equator, the climate is more tropical, so instead of winter and summer we have rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is about October-March and they call it winter because we don’t see the sun much and so the air generally stays cool…so our “winter” actually corresponds to winter in the States. The rest of the time is called summer because the sun is usually out and so there are more days that feel hot…however, the nights get cooler than they do during the rainy season, sometimes almost reaching freezing. So this winter/summer business is a little confusing. I just always carry sunscreen, sunglasses, a jacket, and an umbrella, and life is good.

Being a Tourist in your Own City

Sometimes you can live for years, or decades, in one place, going about daily life, knowing your part of the city, but often not really spending much time doing the “touristy things” in your city. And then someone comes to visit and suddenly you have to be the tour guide and different aspects of your city come alive for you for the first time, or again after many years?

I’m still new to my town of Oxapampa – I have been here 9 months now – so I am still getting to know some of the gems that are here. I have been getting to know my family, making friends, and trying to “integrate” (and improve my Spanish so I can actually understand what’s going on around me and connect with people). I’ve been getting to know my way around the city and the surrounding areas (sometimes on bicycle with friends). And I spend a lot of time thinking about, planning, and navigating my work here…the daily grind so to speak.

I have learned that Oxapampa is a rural tourist town where Limeños (people who live in the capital city of Lima) like to vacation. It is known for its tranquility, landscapes, fresh and natural agricultural products, and interesting history of native inhabitants that have centuries of history here and the Austro-German colonists that settled here in the 17th century. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But in the midst of all the newness and trying to be part of the community, trying to make Oxapampa my home, I have not really stopped to think of Oxapampa from the tourist perspective – what gems would a tourist want to see if they only had 1-2 days here? Naturally, everyone expects me to know the answer since I live here, but you really have to step out of your daily life to think of your city from a different perspective to be able to answer that question.

Luckily, last weekend I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was invited to participate in the inauguration of a new tourist route called “Oxapampa, authenitc and natural”. With about 30 people – from the regional government, a local NGO, local coffee producer, and a local tourist agency – we got to participate (for free!) in the inaugural tour of the nearby native community Tsachopen (“Satchopén”), a dairy farm, and a co-op that produces fair trade and organic certified coffee.

Day as a tourist

Our first stop was one of the dairy farms in the region that produces cheese and yogurt. They have about 100 cows and they don’t give the cows supplements to make them produce milk year-round; they produce when they are pregnant, so they rotate production. In this way, they explained, the cows continue producing milk their whole life, whereas cows that are made to produce constantly stop producing after a few years. The cows were well-trained…without any direction from a person, they all filed into their stalls waiting to be connected to the machine that pumps their milk.

Cows waiting patiently to be milked

The baby calves don’t drink milk directly from the mothers, they get the milk that doesn’t go into the products (including the milk from cows that have recently been given any kind of medicine, or anything they don’t want going into the products.)

Calves having lunch

And we got to sample the 7-8 different kinds of cheese they make and the yogurt.

Our next stop was the coffee co-op, made up of producers from around the region, including native and colonial descent, men and women. They pride themselves on representing the various cultures of the region and making sure that women have leadership roles in the co-op. This woman explained the process of the plant we visited – the producers bring their product to be processed at the plant – weighed, de-pulped, washed, and dried. The product they produce is certified organic and fair trade and exported to the US and Europe.

Our guide from the coffee co-op explains that this is where they dry the coffee

Our last stop was Tsachopen, the native Yanesha community 15 minutes from the town of Oxapampa. Here we had the privilege of seeing a few dances with native costumes, drums and chanting, a lunch of smoked chicken with yucca and sweet potato, and the opportunity to purchase artisanal products (jewelry, bags, hats, etc.) and locally harvested vegetables and fruit.

A dance performance in the Yanesha community of Tsachopen
Danza en Tsachopen

This tour is not the only tourist thing to do in Oxapampa, but it was a great way to get put myself in the tourist shoes and get to know my town and appreciate it on a deeper level. I definitely recommend taking some time every now and then to be a tourist in your own city! (And come visit me in mine if you can 😉

 

*For those who read Spanish (or want to practice), there was an article in the Peruvian news about the event.

**Finally, I want to apologize for the poor quality of photos…I think I dropped my phone too many times!

El Niño

I should have known it was an omen predicting the fate of my entire journey, when the taxi broke down about one block from the bus station. On the bright side…we were just one block from the bus station…so I could haul all my luggage to the bus station on foot…inconvenient, but doable.

At the bus station, I checked my luggage and boarded the bus, trying to mentally prepare myself for the 19-hour bus ride from Lima to Bagua, Amazonas for a week-long training in Bagua and Chachapoyas (and afterwards, a short vacation to see the amazing Kuelap ruins (“the Machu Picchu of the north”), Gocta waterfall (one of the tallest in the world), thermal baths of Rodriguez de Mendoza, and other wonders of the beautiful region of Amazonas).

About one hour into the ride, on the outskirts of the greater metropolitan area of Lima, I was gazing out the window and saw our bus changing lanes, despite the fact that there was another large truck already in that lane. There was a barely noticeable crunching noise, and soon the bus pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Turns out we had broken a mirror and would have to wait to replace it before we could move on. They played a movie to entertain us, but after the movie was over we still hadn’t moved. I went outside and started chatting with the bus driver, and it turns out they were waiting for someone to bring a replacement mirror from Lima (and Friday evening traffic in Lima is no joke). Three hours later the mirror arrived, and after about 4.5 hours of waiting, we were back on the road again.

So, after leaving Friday night at 4pm, I had hoped to be in Bagua by Saturday morning at 10am, but now I was looking at arriving Saturday afternoon. A little frustrating, but I would still have time to get a day’s rest before the 6-day, intensive training that started Monday.

I got a decent night’s sleep on the bus that night and the journey was going pretty well until we came to a complete stop at about noon the next day (Saturday). There was a line of traffic and it wasn’t moving. Long story short, at 7pm it was getting dark and traffic still hadn’t moved. We got word that there was a landslide blocking the road ahead – about 6 miles ahead – and the tractors clearing the road had stopped for the night and would not resume until the morning.

We were going to be spending another night on the bus, and this time with the bus stopped and without air conditioning. Luckily, there were some restaurants nearby so the passengers went to go eat and then we sat outside the bus chatting. I started stretching and jokingly said I could lead a class of yoga on the side of the highway, but a couple of women and kids were legitimately interested so we proceeded to stretch and do exercises in between the stopped buses.

I did not sleep much that night and instead walked to see the situation with the landslide. It was in fact about an hour and a half walk ahead, and while there were not large rocks (pieces of mountains) blocking the road like I had seen in my previous travel delay due to landslides, the road was covered in a thick layer of mud which swallowed my shoes and left them a new color brown for the rest of my journey.

The next morning, it took the tractors a few hours after the sun rose before they started working, and the road wasn’t clear until about 10am. However, because the line of stopped traffic was so long and there was only one lane cleared where the landslide was, we didn’t actually pass the landslide and emerge into smoothly flowing traffic until about 4pm. That would be 4pm Sunday (I had completely lost track of the days). So finally, I was hoping to arrive in Bagua at about 7pm Sunday, 30 hours after my predicted arrival time.

But, no, it wasn’t that easy. About an hour later, we were stopped again, waiting for tractors to clear yet another landslide. This time, we could see the landslide, and they were close to finished clearing it, so it was only about another 2-hour delay. When we finally passed this landslide, our driver wanted to stop and eat, despite the fact that the entire bus (except 1 woman) was begging to continue so we could just finally reach our destination.

Finally, at 10pm Sunday night I arrived in Bagua…54 hours after leaving Lima. Extremely inconvenient…but I survived it (and thanks to the camaraderie with my fellow passengers it wasn’t so terrible). However, I did “need a marker”, which is a joke here meaning that you have sat for so long your butt is flat and the crack has disappeared so you need a marker to redraw it. A little crude but hilarious.

Throughout the rest of the week while I was in training, the conditions worsened on the roads and also in cities along the northern coast of Peru. Due to the flooding caused by the El Niño phenomenon, tens of thousands of people lost their homes in floods, hundreds were injured, and almost 100 are reported dead. Some photos here.

After training ended, I was evacuated by plane since the roads were inaccessible. Nope, I didn’t get to see the amazing sites of Amazonas, nor see my friends from the US who were visiting Peru, but were fortunately safely enjoying themselves in southern Peru…but I am alive and well.

I understand the Peruvian government is mobilizing to help the victims, sending aid to local governments and raising money through text message campaigns and telethons. Right now, with roads blocked and flooded, it is pretty tough to even get supplies to many affected areas, so the local governments and neighbors are helping the most. There is a national campaign “Peru: una sola fuerza”, and internally, people are helping each other (though there are of course the stories of the looters and those who take advantage too).

The recently elected president has said some intelligent things (like that when rebuilding they need to model their northern neighbor Ecuador who was also hit by El Niño but did not suffer so much because of better infrastructure. (Of course there is also finger-pointing that the previous president misused funds that were supposed to be used for infrastructure projects to prepare for El Niño.)

They predict El Niño will start to weaken at the end of April, so there is not much rebuilding they can do now; mostly locally they have to take care of the victims in the short term. I still haven’t heard of any organizations (other than national and local governments) that are providing aid, but I will keep searching and let you know if I find a way that you can help.