Woman haggling at the market

Machu Picchu y Sacred Valley

One of the Modern 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is the undisputed main event in Peru. A quick #machupicchu search on Instagram reveals a daily photo deluge of gringos in wide-brimmed hats and ponchos, llamas and Peruvian school children proving that they’ve been to the Incan citadel. If you follow us on IG, you’ll have seen our proof…

While Machu Picchu played a key role, it was not the only highlight in the Sacred Valley. Our adventure started in the Inca capital, the “Puma City” of Cusco.

Cusco

The city of Cusco
Cusco from the hills

Our home-from-home, Cusco will end up as the city in which we have spent the most time by the time we say goodbye to South America. At 15 days/14 nights, we’ve seen a lot of what it offers; it has been a base for day excursions into the nearby valleys; and the hostels and hotels have been a backpack storage solution for our travels further afield. The barrio of San Blas was where we chose to settle, which is a district steeped in history, has great places to eat and drink, and is a short walk to the main tourist attractions.

Umbrellas in Cusco
Umbrellas only required occasionally

The city of Cusco was wonderful. For a place its size, it enveloped us into its warm, winding streets, artisanal “Concept Stores” and world-beating chocolate caliente; the darker the chocolate, the better the flavour.

It’s also a city that contained, and was surrounded by, a huge amount of history.

Travel tip: if you have more than 72 hours in the city,  purchase a Boleto Turistico del Cusco for 130 soles. This ticket gives you access to 16 sites and museums in the Sacred Valley Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Chinchero, Pisaq, Tipon, Pikillaqta, Monumento a Pachacuteq, Centro Qusqo de Art Nativo and Museos Art Popular, Historico Regional, Arte Contemporaneo, Sitio Qurikancha. Many of the sites that are outside of Cusco can be reached on day trips.

Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay

All of these sites were on the outskirts of Cusco, and our first excursion was to Saqsaywaman, which can be reached on foot from San Blas. The site was huge, with a number of different miradors of the city, as well as some very well-preserved Inca walls. In general, the masonry on show in Cusco was very impressive, not just in Saqsaywaman.

Our next trip was to the other three sites. After a lot of haggling, we got a taxi to Tambomachay for 17 soles. Our advisor in iPeru said that we could walk there, but we would not recommend it because you would need to climb up a very steep hill.

Conversely, the hike downhill back to Cusco was great. The route took us along the main road, which only had a few cars passing through the small villages; this was an easy way to see the three sites on the tourist ticket. Overlooking Cusco, there was also a beautiful forest near Q’enqo, which provided an excellent vantage point for photos. This excursion was around 6 miles, and the distance added to the time taken to explore the Inca ruins resulted in a full morning trip.

Cusco did provide one scare, and remind us how the Andes came to be. A few days into our stay, we were woken up in our 4th floor apartment by a Richter Scale 6.49 earthquake. Everything was shaking. Sunday mornings are supposed to be restful, not utterly terrifying.

Machu Picchu 

Daisy looking at Machu Picchu
Sans poncho

During our time in Peru we have become more comfortable taking excursions without guides. Frankly, it goes to show how easy the country is to travel, with only the distances and night buses being the main drawback. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu was very easy to book and travel, and the distances were short enough to make it a comfortable experience.

Machu Picchu Self-Guide Itinerary

  • Machu Picchu entrance ticket & added ticket to hike Machu Picchu Mountain: 200 soles per person
  • PeruRail Vistadome train from Cusco Poroy Station to Aguas Calientes: $75 USD p/p
  • Taxi to Poroy Station: 25 soles
  • Inka Wonder Hostel private room in Aguas Calientes: 110 soles (inc. ensuite and breakfast from 4:00 am)
  • Machu Picchu Museum ticket: 11 soles p/p
  • Machu Picchu bus to Aguas Calientes: $40 p/p

After much deliberation, we decided to go with Peru Rail over Inca Rail due to price. Cusco Poroy Station at 8:55 am on the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes was fantastic. The Vistadome seats had windows above, which allowed for great views of the Sacred Valley, and even though the journey was only around 3 hours, it was an attraction in-and-off itself.

We departed the train around lunch and had a half-day to kill in Aguas Calientes, which was very chilled because we had a big day the following day. We did go to the Machu Picchu Museum, which was a great idea in hindsight because we got a map of the site and a complete history of the site. Win!

The Day of Machu Picchu Hike

3:45: Our Machu Picchu day started at an eye-watering 3:45 am and 2040m. We’d arranged to have breakfast at 4:30, however upon glancing out of the window we saw the rain was pelting it down, which delayed us by an hour. “Let’s not get soaked before we get to the entrance” we decided.

5:20: We were on our way, the rain just about stopped. Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the mountain trail was a 30 minute walk, and most people chose the bus option so we had much of the walk to ourselves. The only frustration on the way up the mountain trail were the school kids playing loud reggaeton on their smartphones and taking photos of us. Why does no one in South America have sodding headphones?

7:20: The climb up to 2430m to the citadel was over, but we only had a short rest and photo opportunity of Machu Picchu shrouded in clouds before we started the ascent up to Machu Picchu Mountain. “It can’t be that difficult?” we thought.

8:20: Just over halfway up the mountain and it was way more difficult than we had thought. Thankfully, the rain hadn’t started again so the steps up to the summit weren’t slippery. We also met Alfonso, an eccentric Ecuadorian bloke who was in Peru to watch the partido, and he made the climb much easier. It was here where I made my first joke in Spanish…Duolingo was paying off.

9:00: A few more steps to go and we reached the top of the mountain, and were standing at a cool 3064m, making our ascent of over 1000m in less than 4 hours. Crisps and biscuits were devoured and then it was a waiting game to get “that picture” of Machu Picchu. “When were the clouds going to clear? It won’t be that long, surely?”

11:00: It was amazing to be on the summit of a mountain and see the valleys below, however 2 hours standing up looking at clouds dissipate was the hiking equivalent of watching paint dry. Nevertheless, we got “that photo” and began our descent. Not 5 minutes into the steps downwards and Daisy’s knee gave up, so I removed my sweaty knee brace and lent it to her. Delightful.

12:30: Ouch, step, rest. Ouch, step, rest. 90 minutes later and we were at the wooden shack entrance to the mountain. More biscuits, selfies and a short rest, and it was time to explore the citadel.

15:00: Machu Picchu citadel was so interesting. We spent a lot more time exploring the many different parts than other people who had guides, which was a blessing because we were knackered. After a few hours walking around taking photos, we decided to meander our way back to Aguas Calientes. We also chose the bus as an option because of our knees…


Photos and videos on the internet do not do justice to Machu Picchu. Yes, you will want to get “that photo”, but the citadel had a lot more impact on us than we thought before going into the experience. The audacity to build a city perched on top of a mountain is a true feat of human ingenuity.

One additional point of interest is the town of Aguas Calientes. Not often mentioned, Machu Picchu “base camp” was pretty awful, save for an excellent craft beer and burger restaurant called Mapacho. Aguas Calientes felt like a mini Vegas, or a new theme park in on the outskirts of the M25. Either way, if you plan on making a go of Machu Picchu yourself, spend as little time here as possible.

Ollantaytambo

Possibly our favourite place in the Sacred Valley, the small town of Ollanta was a short train journey from Aguas Calientes. It’s not in the cloud forest, which meant very little rain, and a chance to enjoy the sunshine in our hostel’s garden. Mama Simona was slightly out of town but easily walk-able, and was so good we extended our stay by a night.

The immediate area around Ollanta had lots to see, with the main attractions rising up on either side of the town; the Ollantaytambo Ruins (70 soles or included on the tourist ticket) and the Grain Stores (free entry between 7:30-16:00). After an early morning breakfast, we opted to visit the former, which not only was a fantastic ruins to explore, but we missed the tourist rush and had the place to ourselves for thirty minutes. The early bird and all that. 

 Our hostel recommended a restaurant in the main square – Apu Asugate – which did the menu turistico, a 3-course meal for 15 soles. That’s less than 4 quid! It was a family-owned place, and the food was muy bien. We ate there twice and have no problem admitting that!

Moray, Maras Salt Mines and Chinchero

Our final jolly through the Valley was a day trip to Moray RuinsMaras Salt Mines and ending on what we thought would be two nights in Chinchero.  

Moray was undoubtedly our favourite tourist attraction beginning with “M” on that day. The ruins are set into the base of a small mountain and are surrounded by amazing views. Also, and perhaps our most interesting fact from Peru, historians have a number of theories as to why Moray exists. Our favourite is that the terraces were used by Incan famers to perform agricultral experiements! Apparently, the temperature can drop as much as 5 deg C for each terrace, making the perfect way to test how to grow the best fruit and vegetables. Interesting!    

After spending an hour in Moray, Dante con su familia drove us to Chinchero, via Maras. The salt mines in Maras were an odd tourist attraction. Of course, the story behind the centuries-old, Inca salt mine was super intriguing. Salty water is channeled from the nearby mountains into flat pans the traverse the edge of a cliff. 

One frustrating thing that we witnessed in Maras was the behaviour of a handful of tourists. Of course it’s a unique site, but it is also a working salt mine, and I am sure that the workers and owners would rather not have people walking all over the salt pans to get selfies. 

A few audible tuts and visible displays of disbelief later, we were in the taxi on our way to Chinchero.

Chinchero

In Chinchero, our bed for two nights was supposed to be in Chinchero Boutique Hotel. To our horror, upon arriving we discovered that the lights were not on and indeed no one was home. Date and his wife hammered on the door for twenty minutes but we were out of luck. It was our first “Holidays from Hell” (ITV, circa 2004) experience! 

We gave up and asked Dante to drop us at the only other hotel in the area, the significantly more expensive Casa de Barro. Perhaps we were in luck after all, as Antonio and his staff/family at Barro were amazing. The hotel, and Chinchero itself, were clearly a day-trip stop, and once all of the Cusco-bound gringos left the restaurant, Antonio turned off the Peruvian panpipe music and replaced it with early 90s techno

Call him Mr. Raider, call him Mr. Wrong, call him Mr. Vain.

Mr. Vain – Culture Beat, 1993

Antonio had great music taste.

The main draw to Chinchero was the Sunday market. Every week, the little pueblo hosts many local, rural communities who sell their produce, crafts and skills. On show was the centuries-old bartering techniques of the local women; it sounded like a fight was starting before we realised it was a debate over the cost of flower petals. 

Before we left, we bought a few Christmas presents to various friends and family, and Dante picked us up for our last half-an-hour to Cusco.


If you are still reading, thanks for sticking around. This post was lost twice, which is why it is a bit late. The next part of our adventure began not long after we got back to Cusco, but instead of being high in the Andes we actually went to deepest, darkest Peru.

The Amazon Rainforest.

Until then.

I/

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Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

Arequipa y Colca: monjas y rutas de senderismo

Arequipa, Peru’s second most populous city, oozed with historical importance while also being an obvious hub for thrillseekers; look out of a window in any tall-ish building and you will be greeted by one of three surrounding mountains.  

Misti Mountain towering over Arequipa

The city had a bustling, verging on hectic feel. As we soaked in the atmosphere, it slowly began to remind both of us of Trujillo, only bigger and prettier. Spoiler alert, but outside of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa was the most beautiful that we’d experienced in Peru up to that point. The central grass, flowers and fountain were strafed by bars, restaurants and a convenient el Super – the freshly-baked bread reminded us of home and was available from 10:30am – which we visited most mornings to stock up on essentials, and never ice cream for 2 soles. 

Of the many cultural experiences available to visit in the city, and after a lot of discussion, we opted for two; the Santa Catalina Monastery for a window into a working nunnery, and the Alpaca Museum for a window into, arguably, the most cute of South America’s camelids.

Despite being 40 soles each, the Monastery offered an interesting look into how the Catholic Church maintains what can only be described as a patriarchal hold over the women that dedicate their lives to their God. From tiny rooms to underwear made of barbed wire, the beautiful architecture of the centuries old building retains a difficult past.

Fortunately, the residents in the Alpaca Museum did not have to suffer such abuses. While we were unsure of what to expect, on arrival, we were ushered away from the shop, which based on prior experience was odd, and sent towards our furry friends. There were six alpacas lounging in the sun, sadly not close enough for a cuddle. The museum told the history of alpaca farming in South America. Nevertheless, we saw how the shorn alpaca wool is graded by hand, and then walked through a collection of machines that cleaned and sorted the wool, then turned bunches into yarn. Personally, I never thought yarn would be so interesting. 

Post-museums we headed up to a rooftop bar that some friends had told us about; it was one of those “head to this corner, then go up some stairs into a restaurant and a woman will take you through a dilapidated bar onto the roof” type recommendations. Not only did this hidden gem serve amazing chocolate caliente, but the Andean sunsets were out of this world. 

Daisy looking at a sunset on a rooftop bar
Rooftop sunsets galore

Colca Canyon

Our bags at the top of Colca Canyon

Outside of the cultural significance, one of the mains draws to Arequipa is to use the city as a base while joining hundreds of other gringos in Colca Canyon. However, what we didn’t know before we got to Arequipa was that we would opt to self-guide the canyon; living by our own recommendations at last! Hours of research took us from a starting point of 3D/2N guided tour to 2D/1N self-guided hike; our chosen route was –

  • Day 0: Arequipa (6hr bus) > Cabanaconde (sleep)
  • Day 1: Colca 1200m decent (10.5km / 5hrs) > Llahuar (sleep)
  • Day 2: Colca 1200m accent (10.5km / 6hrs 15mins) > Cabanaconde (6hr bus) > Arequipa

Self-Guided Return Hike to Llahuar

We left Arequipa on the 11:25 Reyna bus scheduled to stop in Chivay before arriving in Cabanaconde. The Terminal Terrestre (travel tip: 7 soles taxi from Plaza de Armas, make sure to negotiate) was busy and we were delayed, which didn’t dampen spirits. 

On the journey, Daisy got through the majority of season one of Serial, and I some of season one of Quickly Kevin, will he score? The 90s Football Podcast, which passed the time before we arrived in Cabanaconde. The town is used as the main hub for hikers and adventurers of Colca Canyon; there isn’t much there, and expect to pay increased prices for snacks and water. Leg stretches, carb-loading at dinner and an early night.

Alarm at 6:15am: no snooze!

Before we left, we bought a Colca map from Pachamama Hostel (10 soles), which told us that the return hike to Llahuar was not recommended due to the accent – it’s much further than Sangalle, the oasis town also at the canyon’s bottom. Of course, we took the advice as a challenge and left for Llahuar at 8:15am.

The decent took us over agricultural land occupied by American Kestrels and Andean Condors; winding down rocky switchbacks; over rickety, old wooden bridges and along stretches of cliff edge that had unparalleled views of the canyon. The most difficult stretch of the hike was before the Geyser and bridge at the bottom of the canyon; 90 minutes of steep, blister-inducing gradient that got tiresome by the time we reached the bottom.

Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

An hour beyond the bridge, and post snack break, we arrived at Llahuar, a tiny place famous for hot springs. There were two places to sleep there – the bigger Llahuar Lodge and Casa de Virginia, which was smaller and our home for the night. Owned by a small family, Casa de Virginia was a little bit of escapism after a tiring day. We were made to feel incredibly welcome, with lunch and dinner made at our request; pasta, rice and more carbs please! We even got to pick fruit from their orange grove to eat fresh. Delicious!

Our room was a 7x7ft stone shack with no electricity, which needed candles to light at night. It was very rustic, and despite the barking dogs and crawling insects, we both slept well!

Breakfast at 5am
Banana pancakes, coffee and tea. A breakfast of champions!

After a 6:00 am departure, on our 1200m accent we were fueled for at least 3 hours by our banana pancakes, and until hour 5, it was “fairly easy going”. We powered up the sections that we thought would be tough, which allowed for strategic photo and water breaks. Clearly our memories of the previous day were hazy because after hour 5 we began to struggle; perhaps we should have listened to the map…

As we stopped for our final snack break, we bumped into some new friends – Huacachina Wild Rover buddies – who were heading down the canyon; they looked far more spritely than us, the pain fairly obvious on our faces. It took some mental strength, but the final hour was hiked and we arrived back at Cabanaconde after 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Selfie after the hike
Did it! Now, where is the bus…

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we would have stayed an extra night in the Canyon because it was so beautiful. Nevertheless, Cusco wasn’t going to see itself, and after a night in a complete dive hostel – Flying Dog Arequipa 1/5 – we hopped on our 5:15 am bus and headed to the Sacred Valley.

Cloudy Machu Picchu

Next up, Cusco, and that fairly unknown cultural site in the Sacred Valley. What’s it called? Machu something.

Until next time.

I/

Sin título

¡Estamos aqui!

Indeed, we are here and there is no turning back.

Our journey to Colombia was a game of emotional hop-scotch. At points, I had one foot in anxiety, followed by Daisy with two feet firmly in restlessness, then we had all four feet in nerves and sadness. This lasted the entire 10 hours at home before we left and the whole 36 minute journey down the M25. I finished on what can only be described as “oh my goodness, we are actually going away for 6 months.” My comfort zone was a mere flicker of light that was dimming over St Albans.

We pulled into Terminal 2, and it all changed. Everything was more relaxed, we had a really pleasant check-in experience and we were beginning to feel the travel vibes.

Cue a montage of plastic ziplock bags; an accidental luggage security check; burgers at Heston’s Perfectionist Cafe; some terrible chocolate ice cream; and a marital race down an escalator, and before we knew it we were playing Who Wants to Be A Millionaire on Avianca flight 212.


wearing-the-same-shoes

The power of wearing the same shoes cannot be understated…


Touchdown, 02.42am.

As we stood at the baggage carousel in Eldorado Airport, all of the negative emotions that had been felt throughout our last day at home were just distant threads of cortisol. It was aggressively early, and we may have been up for two hours already, but we were actually aqui.

The first 12 hours in this vibrant South American metropolis have been immensely entertaining. We’ve experienced an eclectic mix of modern art; Colombian history; magical pigs; rainy walks; cable cars in the fog; breathlessness at 3120m; table staff who really, really don’t want us to try and speak Spanish, and some really fantastic coffee.

Right now our trip is embryonic. Based on our previous travel experiences, we both know everyday won’t be like today, so we are going to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of Bogota to the fullest.


It goes without saying that our excitement for the next part of the trip is monumental. In 32 hours we are leaving for the Tortoise Islands, which are more commonly known as the Galapagos.

Until the next time.

I/