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Throwback Thursday: Google Earth at Machu Picchu

Throwback Thursday: Google Earth at Machu Picchu

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We had just come down from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain and had reentered the ruins.  Just as we were commenting on the remoteness of the Incan city, we spotted these Google Earth guys surveying the area. The 360 camera was originally mounted on one of their backs – we caught up with them just as they took it off to make adjustments.

Will ran over and started taking pictures. “Are you allowed to take pictures of them?” I asked nervously. “They’re taking pictures of everything and everyone,” Will exclaimed. Good point.

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Will tried to joke with the guy without glasses. “If I’d known Machu Picchu would be on the internet, I wouldn’t have come all this way,” he smiled. The Google guy misunderstood. “You’re not on the internet. We’re not recording right now,” he replied. Oh, but we are on the internet, Google guy. We are on the internet.

 

 

 

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

We knew we had to stop in San Pedro de Atacama on our way down the west coast of South America. San Pedro sits on one of two super volcanos in the world (the other is Yellowstone), and in the world’s driest desert. As such, the landscape includes breathtaking, varied formations of volcanic rock that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. The problem is that it is not completely straightforward to get from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama. In this post, I will tell you how we did it, and how it went. Hopefully it will serve to both entertain and inform – because San Pedro de Atacama is definitely worth a visit!

Here is the quick overview:

  • Bus from Arequipa to Tacna, Peru
  • Collectivo from Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile (border crossing)
  • 2 nights in Arica
  • Night bus from Arica, Chile to San Pedro de Atacama (stop in Calama)
  • Arrival in San Pedro de Atacama

Bus from Arequipa, Peru to Tacna, Peru

Try as we might, we could not find a bus schedule for Arequipa to Tacna, Peru. Based on internet research, you would think buses didn’t run between these two cities. Our hostel staff assured us that these buses left on the hour, so we headed to the bus station to find out the schedule.

True enough – Flores had buses leaving every hour for Tacna. We got there early to get on the 6:45am, and they let us hop on the 5:45am because it hadn’t pulled out yet. The bus was incredibly cheap – 20 soles (about $6), and boasted broken seatbelts, filthy seats, and a bathroom I shall not speak of. The ride was 6.5 hours long, including a stop where we all got off and had our bags squeezed by men in uniform. The signs at the checkpoint all said “fruitfly free zone” and pictured a variety of melons. I can only assume that’s what they were squeezing for.

Border Crossing (Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile)

Once in Tacna, we had two choices: get on a bus crossing the border (which means you wait for everyone on the bus to pass customs) or find a collectivo driver (a shared taxi, usually taking 5 people across the border.) At this point, I was coming down with a pretty bad cold, so I sat with our belongings and popped newly acquired Halls Watermelon while Will went out in pursuit of a collectivo.

About 20 minutes later, Will came back. “Okay, he’s outside. I think you’re sitting in back with two women and a child.” I indeed was not sitting in back with said group, but rather on the bench seat of the Ford sedan between the driver and Will. As we drove the 30 minutes to the border, the four adults passed around a clipboard with paperwork on it. The collectivo driver was very helpful with questions.

Somethings to note:

  • Collectivos post their rates on the windshield. They should not charge you more than that. There are no other fees, so don’t agree to pay any.
  • They take Peruvian Soles or Chilean Pesos.

First, we had to exit Peru, which involved having our passports stamped again. While this was happening, some other collectivo drivers pointed out that there was liquid coming out of the Ford. Our driver became very stressed out, running back and forth between the car and our group.

After exiting, we drove across the parking lot to enter Chile. Customs scanned our bags. At this point, our driver seemed to have either solved the problem with the car or resigned himself to it. Either way, he appeared calmer by the time we were headed for the Arica bus station (about 15 minutes away.)

Border Crossing Chile

Arica

No one really goes to Arica for Arica (except maybe the Tulane girls we met who are studying abroad there.) Arica is this little beach city where people going south from Peru to Chile pass by people going north from Chile to Peru. It is a crossroads of sorts, and if you ask questions of your hostel-mates you can get a glimpse of where you are about to go.

I was pretty sick at this point – so we decided to stay two nights instead of one at the very comfortable Hostel Sunny Days. It was three blocks from the bus station and across the street from a vegetable market and a school.  No bunkbeds, hot showers, a huge kitchen, good company. The perfect place to recover.

Bus from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama

The only way to get from Arica to San Pedro is via night bus. There are no day buses that travel this route. You can buy a ticket from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama, but these tickets are a combination of two tickets: one from Arica to Calama and one from Calama to San Pedro. We were hoping we would not have to switch buses in Calama, but no such luck.

We took Frontera del Norte, but Pullman and Turbus also travel this route, among others. Somethings to note:

  • The attendant will take your passport and will not give it back until you are arriving in Calama. It’s okay. He will give it back. Every passenger has to hand over some form of ID.
  • Don’t count on sleeping through the movie. They started it at 10pm after we were on our way. The sound was blasted throughout the cabin. We got to watch Pound of Flesh, which is a Jean Claude Van Damme movie in which his kidney is stolen the day before he’s supposed to donate it to his niece. He tracks down the thieves to get the kidney back. Luckily(?) they left it on in English with Spanish subtitles.
  • There is a middle of the night security stop (it happened for us at 3:30am) where they make everyone get off the bus, pick up their luggage from the cargo hold, and pass through what is basically a TSA check point. You then have to drag your luggage to another location and wait for the bus to come get you. You bring your luggage back to the cargo hold and get back on the bus. The whole thing takes about an hour.
  • Calama bus stops are notorious for theft. We were warned by Hostel Sunny Days that there are many tricks thieves play in Calama, including dressing as a bus attendant so they can get at your bags. While we were stopped in Calama, waiting for our connecting bus to San Pedro, one of the passengers had his bag stolen from inside the bus. He had left it there to go pick up his larger bag and when he got back it was gone. Always be careful on buses and at bus stations and never leave your things, but be especially careful in Calama.

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Arriving in San Pedro

And finally, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. The entire week we were there, I think I saw one taxi. The bus station is not far from most of the hostels, so you can plan to walk. The people of San Pedro are notoriously friendly. We were stopped by no less than three people asking if they could give us directions (and indeed, they were all helpful.)

And then we collapsed. Between the Jean Claude Van Damme, the check point, and Calama, we had about 2 hours of sleep. Luckily the beds at Backpacker’s San Pedro were comfortable! Photo galleries of our amazing six days there coming soon.

Curious what to do when you arrive in San Pedro? Check out pics from our 4 day trips:

Ancient Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley

Red Rocks and the High Lagoons

Cathedrals of Salt

Valley of the Moon

Arequipa: Highlights from Peru’s 2nd Largest City

Arequipa: Highlights from Peru’s 2nd Largest City

We arrived in Arequipa off an overnight bus from Cuzco. The streets were abuzz as people prepared for the weekend long celebration of Arequipa Day, the 475th anniversary of the city. As the afternoon turned into night, comedic dancers drew large crowds in the main square. Pop-up restaurants appeared throughout the streets – long tables where people could get tea and chicken. Parades of varying sizes marched in different directions. We made a loop through the main area, arriving back at our hostel to find a large parade rolling down the street. We went up to the roof and watched the dance troops and bands play from above. Arequipa started our stay with a bang.

In Lima, we got our traveling feet wet. In Cuzco, we explored Peruvian culture and did the tourist thing. In Arequipa, our third, and final stop in Peru, we took it easy and settled into the long term travel life.

roof deck in arequipa misti volcanoe

Arequipa turned out to be the perfect place to slow down, rest up, and get back on budget after Machu Picchu. As the second largest city in Peru, it boasts many traveler desires (markets, restaurants, museums, nightlife) but is also steeped in Peruvian culture. Everything we needed was walkable from our hostel, including the beautiful Plaza des Armas (the main square), and the only taxi we had to take was to and from the bus station.

Where We Stayed El Albergue Espanol

Probably the cheapest hostel in the city, this place only cost us $13 a night for a double room. The roof deck/kitchen had a view of El Misti the Volcano that couldn’t be beat, and we met many other travelers on a budget with stories of their own.

 

How Long We Stayed 8 nights

 

What We Ate Potatoes, veggies, and olives from the local market, Fresh Fruit Juice, Sandwiches from La Lucha (a Peruvian sandwich chain)

 

What We Spent $72/day – which includes the guided   tour to Colca Canyon, and buying a hair dryer

*Without the trip and hair dryer it would have been $61/day

 

Highlights from Arequipa:

Cooking from the Local Market

Arequipa Food

One of the tenets of long term budget travel is that you need to cook for yourself. Between Lima and Cuzco, we had only ventured into sandwich making (peanut butter and jelly) and had not yet tried to cook a full meal.

The enormous local market located three blocks from our hostel was intimidating at first. We went there three times just to look around before buying anything. Will was really excited about the variety of potatoes, so we decided to make some sort of vegetable and potato stirfry with cheese. We also bought a bag of fresh olives (there was a whole olive aisle!) and a bottle of Peruvian wine. You can see most of our items here:

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We spent about 20 soles on the food ($6.10) and 14 soles on the wine ($4.27). It was a delicious feast envied by other hostel guests sharing the kitchen.

 

Juanita, the Ice Maiden*

I’m sure we have all heard about a number of ice people found over the years – usually on a mountain, astonishingly preserved. I always found these stories fascinating, but I never thought I’d get to see an ice person in the (well preserved) flesh!

Juanita, as she is called, was discovered on one of the volcanos near Arequipa in 1995. A neighboring volcano had begun to erupt, melting the ice that encapsulated her. She had been a human sacrifice during the Incan Empire. There are a number of other sacrificed children that have been found on other volcanos and mountains in the area. The museum that holds Juanita is dedicated to explaining as much as we know about how these human sacrifices occurred, as well as the science behind why the bodies were so well preserved. The museum was a double whammy of ancient history and science. Plus you actually get to see Juanita!

 

Colca Canyon

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I won’t go into too much detail because the pictures speak for themselves here. I still can’t believe I accomplished this hike. The walk down was hard on the feet, but not that bad. We hiked down over 6km, zigzagging back and forth so it wasn’t that steep. On the way up we only hiked 4.5km – a much steeper climb. Basically, I almost planted myself on a rock and refused to go on. My legs felt like jello, the altitude was getting to me, and this was all before breakfast. I climbed very slowly – barely faster than the Italian girl with the bum knee who was essentially using her walking sticks as crutches. Three times, we were passed by donkeys. Three times, I had to tell myself I’d regret getting on one of them. We finally made it to the top, and the instant coffee and eggs they served us never tasted so good. I’m glad I pulled myself out of the second deepest canyon in the world, and I’m glad they took us to the hot springs for some healing waters on the way home.

Arequipa is not one of the country’s more talked about cities, but it has been one of my favorites so far. Between seeing the annual celebration and enjoying the slower pace and beautiful weather, Arequipa was the perfect capstone to our time in Peru.

Ciao,

Elizabeth

*Image from www.pic2fly.com

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

Machu Picchu Without a Tour: Logistics and Highlights

It’s no wonder Machu Picchu was only rediscovered about a century ago – it’s not easy to get to.   We did the trip in 5 days and that seemed fast. Getting to the Incan city involves arriving in Cuzco (we did it by bus, but you can also fly), getting to the town of Aguas Caliente (we took a 4 hour train), getting from Aguas Caliente up to Machu Picchu (we took the 30 minute bus), and then the whole thing in reverse to get back.

And that’s only one way to do it. Some people hike the Incan Trail (a 4 day excursion) or stop in the Sacred Valley on their way from Cuzco. You can also skip the 30 minute bus ride and hike up to Machu Picchu from the town. These are not the only choices. Options and combinations abound!

Some people hire a tour company to put together portions or all of this trip. Knowing this would be one of our most expensive excursions, Will and I decided to do Machu Picchu without a tour and put together the whole thing ourselves. Here’s what we booked.

Our Trip Breakdown:

Item US$ Total Tips
Lima to Cuzco Bus Ticket

$63 x 2 tickets

$126

We did an overnight bus. You can read about it here.
   
VIP House Hostel (Cuzco) $21.72 x 3 nights $65.16 Right across from a supermarket – a life saver!
   
Peru Rail Train Tickets $154 x 2 round trip tickets $308 Expensive, but a high class affair.   Go to the bathroom before you board – it’s too bumpy to use the onboard facilities.
   
Ecopackers Hostel (Aguas Caliente) $29.53 $29.53 4 person dorm was perfect for 1 night.
   
Bus ticket to Machu Picchu from Aguas Caliente $24 x 2 tickets $48 You can buy them day before at the bus station starting at 2pm. Be in line by 4:30am to get on the 5:30am bus if that’s your plan!
   
Machu Picchu Tickets w/ La Montana $45.58 x 2 tickets $91.16 Make sure you print your tickets! The extra hikes sell out early.
   
“Machu Picchu: The History and Mystery of the Incan City”Edited by Harasta & River $0 with Kindle Unlimited $0 If you go without a tour, purchase some sort of guidebook so you know what you’re looking at.
   
Cuzco to Arequipa Bus Ticket $42 x 2 tickets $84
 
Taxis to and from Bus Station: $6Train Station: $14 $20
 
Total: $771.85**

 

**We spent another $130 on food in Cuzco and Aguas Caliente combined. We ate out for dinner but made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Breakfast was included in both our hostel stays.

 

Highlights:

Trying New Foods in Cuzco

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Coca Tea: Made from coca leaf, this tea is used to calm altitude sickness – which we greatly appreciated! Our hostel offered an endless supply in the form of loose leaves and hot water.

Alpaca: We paused for a second when the filets came out medium rare, but I’m so glad we threw caution to the wind, because it was tender and delicious. Better than elk (Will tried it at Yellowstone).

Quinoa: Unlike any quinoa we had tried before! Creamy, cheesy, with potatoes. I can’t wait to figure out how to make this at home.

Cuy (Guinea Pig): Our guinea pig arrived with an orange pepper in its mouth, perched on top of a larger, stuffed pepper. After setting the platter down, the waiter crowned it with a little vegetable hat and offered to take our picture. The guinea pig was then returned to the kitchen to be quartered for sharing. It tasted a lot like rabbit, unsurprisingly. This traditional Peruvian food is obviously quite celebrated – we saw it depicted in several Peruvian churches on the table at The Last Supper.

The Vistas in Aguas Caliente

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Aguas Caliente is lost in time – a tiny city nestled between rainforest covered Andean peaks. The streets are connected by bridges, and trains (the town’s only connection to the outside world) run through the center. Our hostel had a rooftop bar that felt perched in paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Seeing the Ruins (almost) Alone

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What’s better than gallivanting around cloud-ringed ruins by yourself as the sun comes up? You feel like the original explorers, discovering something ancient and mysterious. You get to have one on one encounters with the resident llamas. You get to see the views without all those people in the way. We had to take the first bus to get up there in time for this experience– which meant a 3:45am alarm. We also bypassed the ruins near the entry gate, where many tour groups get held up, and made a beeline for deeper locations. Being at Machu Picchu almost alone? Worth every effort.

Summiting an Andean Peak (La Montana)

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When I read the description, it said that the climb up Machu Picchu Mountain (La Montana) was a moderately challenging hike on a wide path, following an old Incan road. Well, Incan’s didn’t really build roads as much as staircases. This hike was a 2 hour staircase up a mountain.

I didn’t consult Will when I booked our Machu Picchu tickets with the La Montana hike included. I told him it was the easiest hike available (which I believe it is…yikes.) About half way through he turned to me, exhausted, and asked, “Are we SUMMITING this mountain?” Luckily, he was excited to do it.

Worth it. From multiple points along the way, we saw Machu Picchu from above, in addition to the surrounding landscape. Not to mention the accomplishment of summiting a mountain in the Andes! I successfully didn’t throw up.

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More pictures coming this week!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Confession: we were completely freaked out by the thought of taking a bus through the mountains of South America. Will even cited it as his greatest fear on our journey. I binged on negative TripAdvisor reviews and created contingency plans in my head if we were robbed or in an accident. When buses crash in Peru, they sometimes fall more than 1000 feet.  But we wanted to see the Andes, and we didn’t want to pay the high cost of flying. So we took the bus. In hindsight, we are so happy we decided to travel this way because, not only were we safe the entire time, we got to see the countryside of Peru and some awe inspiring scenery.

When you hear “traveling South America by bus” you usually think of a rickety bus with the luggage strapped to the roof. While that is definitely still an option, South America also has some beautiful buses with big leather seats, on demand movies, and meal service. Given the treacherous nature of the Lima to Cuzco route (there was a US travel advisory about this route in 2013), we decided to take one of these very safe, more comfortable companies that tracks their buses by radar and has two drivers who take shifts. While more expensive, it was still about a third of the price of flying (if you count the hotel room we didn’t need to book.)

We arrived at the Cruz Del Sur bus station in Lima at 4:45pm for our 5:30pm bus. In Lima, each bus company has its own station, so you must go to the right one. We checked our bags at the central desk and waited in the cafeteria for boarding to begin.

Boarding was quick and easy – they checked our passports and inspected our carry-on bags. The whole bus was loaded in about 15 minutes. Heading out of Lima, it got dark very fast. We unfortunately didn’t have much to look at as we departed. This is what our seats looked like:

Cruz Del Sur bus Seat Lima to Cusco by bus

Everything was smooth sailing down the Pan-American highway. We settled into our leather recliners and each watched a different movie on our entertainment screens. After about 4 hours we tried to go to sleep. That was around the same time the road turned into an amusement park ride. Back and forth, up and down mountains. Just when we thought we’d hit a stretch of straight road, the bus would turn again. I’m not sure when I dozed off.

I do know I woke up at 6:30am high up in the mountains with a terrible case of altitude sickness. Will stumbled to the bathroom as the bus followed the swerving road. “I just almost threw up.” He reported. I ate one of the rolls we brought from Lima and started my regimen of Pepto Bismol tablets and Advil. This is also when we noticed the breathtaking scenery – the reason we took the bus. We wanted to see the Andes Mountains. Please note, most of these photos were taken through a dusty bus window, while in motion.

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Right after Abancay (a very small city), perched on the side of a hill, the bus came to a stop and the doors opened. Several people got off. Curious, Will and I stepped outside to find one of the two drivers feeding a stray dog out of his lunch container. Will asked him what was going on in Spanish. He replied, “It’s the middle of the day,” and gave an emphatic shrug. We saw that we were in a long line of stopped vehicles. Suddenly a boy selling soda and a cart selling oranges appeared, going from stopped vehicle to stopped vehicle. People from the vehicles in front of us were walking up and down the road, chatting, smiling, buying oranges. Will and I took some photos and chatted with a French couple for about 30 minutes until the driver called, “Amigos!” and motioned for us to get back on board.  The title photo shows the view from the road.

Lima to Cusco by bus pictures

We arrived in Cuzco around 4:30pm. After picking up our luggage from the check desk, we hopped in a cab with a couple from Italy and were at our hostel in 10 minutes.

The truth is: there are some risks associated with bus travel in Peru, but many of those same things (motor vehicle accident, robbery) can happen when you are living your life at home. The route from Lima to Cuzco is extremely winding, and you feel it even on a good bus.  But if you can handle sitting in a recliner and watching movies for 20+ hours, you can handle this bus.  The payoff is seeing all of Peru, and hours of priceless views!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

P.S. Prior to this trip, I searched all over the internet for information about bus travel from Lima to Cuzco.  I hope this is helpful to others!  Feel free to reach out with questions.

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

Our First Destination: Travel Anxiety Overcome

On the eve of our first flight, Will went to bed congested, and I woke up with a knot in my stomach. When the alarm went off, I sat up and asked him how he was feeling. He said, “In love,” and I poked him in the ribs. He smiled and asked if I was sure I still wanted to do this. I couldn’t believe he was asking me that when I felt like I wanted to throw up. “Of course,” I said, “Let’s go.”

Over the past year, our departure date has grown to mythical proportions. We’ve repeated the phrase, “On August 4th we fly to Peru” hundreds of times. But as we actually set off for the unknown – knowing we wouldn’t return for 10 months – it was scary.

I started out a nervous ball of energy, feeling homesick, anxious, and a little weepy. Flying south with the east coast of the U.S. in the window, I tried to sleep off the urge to cry. When we landed at the Panama City Airport for our layover, my nerves downgraded to mild. The Hub of the Americas reassured me with its early 1990’s décor and ridiculously high end shopping. Just like when I first moved to Louisiana – I realized that in many new places things are different, but not that different.

Once we landed in Lima, most of my nerves were gone. The airport was bright and friendly. Immigration and customs were a breeze. We got our new SIM cards and hopped into the hostel car service. We’re staying at The Healing Dog hostel, which is complete with its own Peruvian Hairless Dog, Pisco. We decided to start out in a 6-person dorm to see if we could handle the cheaper option. Verdict: it’s okay, with earplugs. We have private rooms for the next two cities.

Day one was filled with travel gaffes. First, we spent way too many soles on coffee. Then we went on an odyssey around a high end mall to get our Machu Picchu tickets reprinted (I lost the reservation number.) Then we got ripped off by a cab driver. But the day was also filled with good food, new scenery, and general settling in.

Day two left us more empowered. We took off from the hostel early to meet with Ensena Peru (a Teach for America cousin) and visit with teachers and students. We will post about this experience soon – in short, it was wonderful and energizing. The visit reaffirmed that visiting schools around the world is the right thing for us to focus on. My ball of nerves is nowhere to be found.

There are some great blog posts out there about dealing with travel fears, filled with excellent advice. The trouble is that none of that perspective actually eliminates the anxiety, it mostly assures you it will pass. But this is okay, because I don’t want to eliminate the fear, I want to overcome it. When you are scared, or homesick, or worried and that feeling passes it is transformed into freedom, empowerment, and a smaller, more familiar world. This has now happened once, and I look forward to it happening many more times in the coming months. Thank you, Peru, for being my first anxiety transformed.

Cheers,

Elizabeth