The Atacama desert in northern Chile is known for the best stargazing in the world – and that’s why I HAD to come here. Ironically, I came during the two weeks of the year when it was cloudy and I didn’t get to do proper stargazing (other than a few minutes before the sunrise one morning.)
But, the sunsets!!! Even if I didn’t get to see the other suns of the universe, I got to see OUR sun in all its glory!
The dry desert air makes the incredible landscapes look exceptionally majestic and brilliant, and with a setting sun sending gold in all directions and casting deep blue shadows while tinting the clouds in pink, one will stop whatever she or he’s doing and run to catch the sunset every evening.
All the sunsets were awesome, but the most incredible was definitely in Laguna Tebinquinche*, where the sun set over the white, salt-covered lake and a rainbow emerged in the dark blue rainclouds opposite the sun.
Like many lakes here, the water appears to be covered in a layer of ice but is actually encrusted with a layer of white salt. The lakeshore is filled with “living rocks,” which are salty rocks made up of minerals and microorganisms that can survive some of the harshest environments on the planet. These microorganisms are some of the first living things that came into existence on Earth!
Contemplating the first life on earth, a flamingo flies across the sunset. And with friends made along the journey, we marvel at the beauty of life, the richness of the moment. We all just met each other, and yet we’re all family, born from Mother Earth, who is amazing us with her beauty.
But I digress. Being immersed in this vast desert, looking out across immense spaces and also out into the vast sky, makes one reflect on the grandness of the Earth, the universe, and the beauty of life.
While access to sensitive spots is limited to protect them, there was one salt lake that people can swim in. If you have never swam in a salt lake before, it’s definitely worth adding to the bucket list. Because salt water is more dense than fresh water, the saltier the water the more we float. I noticed the difference swimming in the Pacific Ocean in Lima, but it still didn’t compare to the unique sensation of floating in the salt lake in Atacama!
When a large moist area of salty land has dried up, a salt flat (“salar”) is left behind. I saw many salt flats, with the the Salar de Atacama being the 3rd largest salt flat in the world (after those in Uyuni and Argentina). It is so large it can be seen from space.
I was lucky enough to see a few other marvels of the desert during my stay in Atacama, the most grandiose being the National Reserve of the Flamingos (Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos). At 4,200 meters (13,800 ft) above sea level, we saw two beautiful mountain lakes that used to be one great lake until seismic activity of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates created some hills that divided the lake in two.
Another breath-taking desert lake is the laguna aguas calientes. Here, the diversity of the landscapes was overwhelming. There were huge dune-like mountains of black lava rock, a lake of hot water fed by an aquifer that sits on top of a volcanic magma layer, and red hills rich in iron minerals. All accented by the pink flamingos looking for food in the lake below.
Finally, the bike ride through the Valle de la Luna was a challenging adventure through the desert heat, where we met friends along the way, saw incredible rock formations, and watched rain develop across the flat desert plains – the same rain that cooled us off a few hours later.
One final fun fact. The Atacama desert is located on the tropic of capricorn. I’m pretty sure I learned about the tropic of Capricorn at some point in my life, but I didn’t really remember what it was. The tropic lines are the points where the sun shines directly overhead, due to the tilt in the Earth. The regions of land between the two tropic lines are considered “tropical” areas since they receive the most direct sun, typically creating warmer year-round climates than the rest of the globe.
Unless you rent (or have) a car to go see the sites (which would be a great way to explore Atacama), the way to see things is through the tours offered by the various tour companies in San Pedro de Atacama. The tours I took were:
-Tour 1: Laguna Cejar, Laguna Piedra (the salt lake where you can swim and float), Ojos del Salar, and Laguna Tebinquinche (the salt lake with the amazing sunset).*If you take the tour of Laguna Cejar in the afternoon, it usually ends at Laguna Tebinquinche so you can see the incredible sunset here.
-Tour 2: Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos (Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques), Laguna Talar, and Salar and Laguna Aguas Calientes with overlook to Piedras Rojas
-Observatory ALMA tour (free but you have to get to the meeting point early to get on the list, as I described in my blog post.)
-I rented a bike and rode through “Valle de la Luna” all day (about 6 hours), and another afternoon I rode through “Valle de Marte” and watched the sunset from an overlook point nearby.
**I didn’t get to do a stargazing tour because of weather, but would definitely recommend one!
**I didn’t get to do the geyser tour because rain had washed out the road, but would also recommend that!
The Atacama desert is the driest and highest in the world, and that’s one of the main reasons that we built “ALMA,”* the largest radio telescope in the world here! I say “we” because it was an international collaboration – an example of us humans working together to better understand the universe in which we live.
“The purpose of ALMA is to study star formation, molecular clouds and the early Universe, closing in on its main objective: discovering our cosmic origins.”
To most of us, a telescope is an apparatus of lenses pointed at the sky to see stars, (or far away visible light in the sky). But the ALMA telescope is not one, but 66 antenas pointed at the sky! Just like we have 2 eyes that give us a single image of the world, the telescope has 66 eyes to give us a single image – it’s like a mom that has eyes in the back of its head. Or like a fisheye camera.
The other unique thing about the ALMA telescope is that it isn’t viewing light in space like an optical telescope, it’s looking at the dark and cold part of space, capturing radio waves* emitted by stars and planets.
That doesn’t mean that stars and planets are broadcasting songs. Radio waves are emitted by the cold and cool matter in the universe that doesn’t give off light and so can’t be seen with our eyes (or with optical telescopes). But the ALMA telescope can receive these signals and tell us about that matter out there in space.
For example, the ALMA telescope was able to detect sugar molecules around a young sun, indicating a good possibility for a life-supporting planet to develop in that solar system.**
In some cases, scientists can combine the information from an optical telescope and ALMA (and x-ray and infrared telescopes)* to give a fuller picture of a solar system or galaxy, and to “see” what’s happening in the dark spots of the sky.
Also, since it’s not optic, ALMA can point at the sun and study the sun’s atmosphere without burning.
For me, one of the most interesting abilities it has is to study the early universe – it has found evidence of the earliest known solar system – suns that formed just 250 million years after the Big Bang. (Sounds like a long time, but it’s only 2% of the universe’s current age, which is about 13.8 billion years.)
I know, this is a lot of high tech modern science stuff. But according to our guide, the basic principle behind the antena design is actually something that was used hundreds of years ago by the pre-Incan culture, the Tihuanacu.
Just outside of La Paz, you can visit an archeological site of the Tijuanacu. Then you can head a thousand miles south to the ALMA observatory in northern Chile to see the modern day use of this technology studying the origins of the universe!
While the tour to the observatory is free, it takes a bit of luck to get there. To be on the official list you have to reserve online, usually 6 months to a year in advance. If you don’t make the official list, you might be able to get on the online waitlist. But since the list fills up so far in advance, a lot of people on the list end up not making it on the dates they reserved. So you still have a chance to get on the “hope list” the day of the tour. The bus leaves at 9am, but people show up sometimes 2 hours early to wait in line to be on the “hope list”. If there are any empty spaces from people who didn’t show up from online reservations, next priority goes to the wait list and then to the hope list, in order of arrival. It makes it that much more exciting to get chosen from the hope list! It’s like winning the lottery!
*The ALMA – Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array – captures electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the range of milimeter wavelenths in the electromagnetic spectrum.
(There are also other non optical telescopes that exist- infrared and X-ray telescopes that capture information from other non visible light parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.)
Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.
I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.
I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*
Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.
Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.
In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):
First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.
The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)
Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.
The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).
Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)
The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)
That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?
The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.
All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.
Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.
We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.
What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!
The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.
We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.
The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.
Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.
We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)
Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called “Tcha’lla”.
We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.
After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!
Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).
However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).
I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***
*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.
** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!
***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)
Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).
As I was walking on Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, I caught my breath as I looked across the lake and saw grand white peaks rising out of the horizon.
If you know me, you know that I have a love affair with mountains, and especially those majestic white, snow-covered mountains (“nevadas”). The mountains seductively said to me “You’ve hiked in the Peruvian Andes, are you up for the Bolivian Andes?”
So after leaving Copacabana, instead of taking the usual route to La Paz, I got off the bus early and caught a few cars to get to Sorata, a small mining town of about 4,000 people about 3 hours from La Paz and a starting and ending point for a few different treks through the Bolivian Andes.
I had heard that Sorata was a mining town, but I was still blown away when I saw a sign in a store off the main plaza that said “I buy gold. I sell mercury.”
I had laughed when my uncle heard I was going to Bolivia and told me to take a metal detector and to look for gold…but turns out he knew what he was talking about!
Other than the sign about gold, the town reminded me of any small mountain town in Peru. With a nice plaza in the center,* the main church and municipality building off the plaza, and shops filling the streets around the plaza. And because the town is on the side of a mountain, the streets off of one side of the plaza were an incredibly steep climb up, while the streets off the other side were a steep descent.
I arrived on Sunday when they had their “feria”, or market day, when people from the surrounding areas bring their products to sell – potatoes, acacha (a long, skinny, knobby potato), habas (a big, protein-filled bean), snap peas, herbs, carrots, green beans. Similar to Peru, they would bring their big colorful “manta”, spread it out on the ground and neatly arrange their products to sell. Common to all markets I’ve ever seen in Peru and Bolivia, there were many different vendors, all selling the same things.
I had sought out a local, Sorata-based guide association and “Eduardo”, a local guide met me in the plaza when I arrived and introduced me to his wife and daughter who were enjoying a Sunday walking in the plaza.
I was fascinated with the option of doing an 11-day trek through the Andes that included climbing a snow-capped peak and ending in the “Yungus” (the lower altitude, warm climate of the jungle on the other side (east) of the Andes, but I wasn’t able to pull together a group to do it with. Since it would be just me and the guide, I decided to do a 3-4-day trek to a glacier lake between two snow-capped peaks, “Illampu” (Aymará for “fat of the llama”) and “Ancouma” (Aymará for “white snow”).
That evening we bought food and supplies and the next morning we started off from the town’s center, which is located low in the hills at 2,600 meters above sea level (8,500 ft). Eduardo pointed to the mountains in the far distance. I could not believe that we were going to arrive all the way there walking, (and with 15-20 kilos in my backpack) within a day. But he confirmed that we would do it. So I just put one foot in front of the other and waited to see what would happen.
It happened to be “Día del peatón”, or “Pedestrian Day”, the one day of the year in Bolivia where cars weren’t permitted to drive, which was lucky for us because our hike started along a dirt road, and when cars (illegally driving that day) did pass by, they kicked up a ton of dust which didn’t help breathing through the uphill climb.
Finally we got off the road and the smell of eucalyptus (one of my favorite smells of all time) filled the air and I realized we were walking through a eucalyptus forest.
Fun fact: Eucalyptus is an invasive from Australia that sucks the water and nutrients out of the soil…. But it produces wood quickly so people keep it around.
Later, the climb got steeper and the smell changed to muña. Another smell that I love, and this time there’s no worry about it being an invasive species. Muña is native here, it’s used in tea and is helpful preventing and alleviating the effects of altitude.
The first day was pure steep, uphill climb, like climbing stairs for 6 hours, without any flat parts to rest, so we took breaks every 30 minutes or so. It reminded me of the constant climb up Volcán Misti in Arequipa, including the burning glutes with every step (yep, for 6 hours).
My guide is a really nice guy who’s been a guide since 1993. He started as the front desk staff at a hostel that did tours. Trekking tourism started to boom in Sorata and one day they needed a guide so he went out with a group, and he loved it, and they loved him. He knew his way through the mountains because as a kid he used to take sheep out to graze through the mountains to make cash and as a curious spirit, he would go exploring new parts every time.
As more and more tourists flooded to Sorata to do treks, he formed the Association of Guides in Sorata, which ultimately had 30 guides and 20 arrieros (donkey handlers), all professionally trained. He loved meeting people from all over the world, learning from them, and exploring with them. He especially loved learning about new foods and ways to cook in the mountains. He picked up English and even a little French and Hebrew.
Everything was great until 2003. That’s when the Bolivian gas conflict exploded, with the country divided between plans to build a gas pipeline to export gas to the US and Mexico and a growing movement calling for Bolivia to build a local processing plant to get more value from their product and to meet internal gas needs before exporting. Between internal protests and international relationship problems, the booming tourism suddenly halted.
Since then, tourism in Sorata is starting to pick back up, but now most of the tours are dominated by agencies out of La Paz that charge double or more and often contract local guides anyway. When Eduardo goes out with big groups, his wife sometimes comes along to help, and his sons had come along a few times too, (but they didn’t enjoy it as much).
We ate lunch at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), (the same altura as lago Titicaca), and then after about 3 more hours of climbing, we arrived at our campsite at at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft), a mountain lake “Lago Chillata”.
“Chillata” is Aymará for “the sacred lake where people go to pray, sobbing for help from the divine”). Or, to the Incas before Catholicism, the lake was called “Kotaato” – Aymará for “the lake in the middle of the rocks”.
Here, the clouds roll in thick around 4pm every afternoon and the fog hangs around until the middle of the night, where it clears up and the temperature drops below freezing.
As the clouds are rolling past, visibility sometimes would clear for just a few seconds, leaving an incredible view of the sun setting on the great white peaks of Illampu and Ancouma. (Many times I ran to a high point to get a photo, and within 10 seconds it was already covered in fog again by the time I got there.)
Tomorrow we’ll be able to leave the heavy stuff at the campsite as we head towards the great peaks to find the glacier lake that is tucked between them.
*Famous Footnote/Bonus content:
While wandering around the plaza the night before the trek, I saw a group of people speaking English in the plaza. I approached them and learned they were a chapter of Engineers Without Borders doing an Eco-bathroom project in a nearby rural town! I find my people all over the world!
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.
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!