We jumped on a Bolivia Hop bus from La Paz to Peru...*Bolivia and Peru Hop buses are HIGHLY recommended if anyone is not on a tight backpackers' budget; the buses are clean, comfortable and complete with WiFi and charging stations! Meant strictly for tourists, as you will hardly ever see a local on them, which is not usually how we travel BUT in our tenth month of travel (OMFG) we were getting quite lazy with penny-pinching and are starting to feel the constraints of time!
These buses are also great because they make scheduled tourist destination stops. So we stopped for an afternoon breather in... Copacabana, (her name was Lola she was a showgirl!) No, not Barry Manilow's Copacabana. We stopped in the real town of Copacabana that borders Peru and Bolivia and sits on... wait for it... Lake Titicaca!!! Yes! Titicaca DOES exist! I always thought it was a made up place, like timbucktwo. Aside from the super funny name, the lake itself is pretty impressive; it's the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the WORLD!
However cool the name of the place we were in and the lake we were on, the town itself was not. It was a complete tourist trap; we equated it to a very run down, cheesy version of Niagara Falls. On the lake, locals were peddling rental swans, boat tours, sandal repair, you name it. The restaurants were over priced and bad quality - both food and service. We waited in one restaurant for a solid 10 minutes and not a soul came to greet us. The stores were all souvenirs and unauthentic. And there was no place to sit without spending money, and we were scheduled to be here for 4 hours.
The next three photos aren't ours but I wanted to show you what it looked like (I think we were so unimpressed we actually didn't take any real photos):
We ended up at a restaurant rooftop that looked over the lake and we split one appetizer and enjoyed two drinks that melted in the sun because we stretched out our purchase and the right to dwell for so long. For so long, my scalp actually ended up getting sun burned and I had flakes peeling off for weeks afterwards (yummy, I know.)
After the four hours of waiting around and trying to kill time, we finally boarded the bus again and made our way to Puno, Peru, for the night. There is reallllly nothing to report back on for Puno, especially because we arrived in the dark and left right after having breakfast. However, we did find a great little cafe, with delicious coffee and WiFi - so bonus points for Puno!! Because a good traditional breakfast (Eggs, Toast, Real Coffee) spot has been VERY difficult to find around the world!! Unless, of course, you're into over-hard boiled eggs, some sort of carb (possibly with beef in it) and Nescafe instant coffee packs with powdered milk right when you rise - then you'd love breakfast around the world!
From Puno we went all the way to Cusco, the tourist mega hub of Peru! We were dropped off and conveniently taxied into the city center (another bonus of Peru Hop). Our first stop was McDonald’s - mostly because we have been living off unconventional Bolivian fried fast food for the last week or two... so we needed to fuel our bodies with good ol' American fast food, duh. We also needed WiFi to find a place to sleep that night. So with that, Carter added “Peru” to his list of Big Mac experience's around the world... and we quickly realized although beautiful, how freaking expensive it is in Cusco.
We landed with a less than ideal “hotel” for $20usd a night (with breakfast included, always an added benefit) and packed up, left McDonald’s and made our way to Intipackers Hotel. Another realization we quickly came upon was that just like La Paz in Bolivia, Cusco was ALL hills. We had a 20 minute up-hill battle to reach our destination. We were staying in the area of San Blas, which in the later days we would learn is beautiful...although killer on the legs. I thought after climbing a freaking mountain we were done with hills for awhile.
We spent the next day in and out of cafes planning the last two months (OMFG...HOW ARE THERE ONLY 2 MONTHS LEFT??) of our year abroad. We were in serious need of this catch up as we were really going day by day up until this point. We also used this day to prepare for Machu Picchu! One of the main reasons we were in Peru to begin with!
We already discovered that we technically should have booked months in advance if we wanted to walk the Famous Inca Trail into Machu Picchu, and that it was extremely overpriced for our liking. We checked availability in our first few days in Costa Rica and it was already booked until November 2018. But we were hopeful that we could take on Wayna Picchu no problem. This is the mountain that towers over the Inca historical site you see in all of the quintessential pictures of Machu Picchu. We checked online and there was still availability in the next couple of days - so we lined up outside of the cultural heritage office to purchase our tickets. Once we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that there were only afternoon tickets available and if we wanted to climb Wayna Picchu, you could only do so in the morning... which meant we had to wait two weeks for the next morning availability. Nadda, we don’t have the time nor money to wait around in expensive Cusco just to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu with a thousand other tourists. We purchased our afternoon Machu Picchu tickets for August 5th which was still a few days away and went on our merry way.
Since we had time to spare and days to wait, we booked a quick day trip out to a mountain lagoon, Lake Hamuyna. We left the next morning at frickin' 4:00am (sometimes I don't know why I let Carter talk me into these things), to drive 3.5 hours (one way) into the Salkantay mountain range...YES, he seriously made me go back into the snow capped mountains on another deadly/cliff edge road.
We had breakfast in a little village of Molletana around the 2.5 hour mark and honestly, I think it was at someone's house that the tour group struck a deal with. This is where everyone woke up from their very-early-morning-slumber and we got to know our group a bit better; they were all students visiting from Arequipa. So, it was just a big group of Peruvians...and us. But it worked out well because they were all young and educated so they were pretty fluent in English and we had great conversations through out the day!
Our hike started in Soraypampa, at 3,850 metres. We had to make an elevation gain of only 350 metres to reach the lake which sat at the base of this incredibly beautiful snow-covered peak mountain range. Below is a picture of the once again precarious road sitting on the side of a cliff in which busses (including ours) are flying around. At this point...our fear of dying doesn't really exist anymore on roads like this, we just trust the system baby!
After just summiting Huyana Potosí a few days prior, at 6080M, I thought this hike would be a breeze... wrong, altitude still messed with us! We ran out of breath quickly, simple steps up took major effort and you stop a heck of a lot more for rests to get your heart rate back down to a semi-normal rate. It took 2 hours for us to reach the lake...all the while always seeing where we were headed which made it that much worse and agonizing getting there.
The lake was beautiful, a Caribbean blue that was a startling contrast to the white mountains. Just as we approached the base, an avalanche boomed down the mountainside! Again (like Nepal) it was too high up that it never actually reached us or put us in any danger, thankfully. Hearing the sound of an avalanche is definitely something we will never forget!
We spent two hours at the top taking pictures, admiring the views and trying to fly to the drone... but a local guide quickly came running to shut the operation down.
One of our Peru highlights was that we had the opportunity to see an Andean condor!! WOO!! The largest flying bird in the world - based on height and wingspan! The one we saw must have had a wingspan of 8 or 10 feet! That was truly incredible to witness.
After we hiked down (which was obviously much easier and enjoyable), we had lunch and made our way back to Cusco. After all, another incredible experience (okay, sometimes I am glad I let Carter talk me into these things.)
The next day we explored the city center of Cusco. It is historic, beautiful and charming even though it's packed with tourists wanting to visit the nearby world wonder.
Finally, August 5th had arrived!
Now, what no one tells you about Machu Picchu is how freaking CONFUSING and TIME CONSUMING all of the different options are to get there!!! For being a Wonder of the World, you would think there would be endless information stating "do this, go here, and BOOM, you're there!" but no. Everyone and their aunt has a different idea, method, transportation suggestion, etc to get to MP.
Here are some of the options we considered:
The first, most convenient and thereby most expensive option is the beautiful train experience. You board in Cusco, and it gets you to the base of the mountain in 3.5 hours to the town of Aguas Calientes. BUT, to get on the train you're waiting in ungodly long and crowd-pushy line ups, you're also spending close to $400+. The luxury trains also sell out well in advance.
If the fancy Peru Rail or Inca Rail are sold out, you could make your way to a random town of Ollantaytambo and catch a more local train to Aguas Calientes. Getting public transportation to Ollantaytambo is a WHOLE other issue and cluster-ef of confusion in itself as well because every local you ask will be selling their own services at a unregulated price and won't give you the correct information to find a legit public transportation company.
The second option is hiking. You can take a week, 10 days or 2 weeks, 3 weeks or however long you have and want to endure, to do one of the upteen-million trail hikes along the famous Inca Trail. Again, the ship was sailed for us getting to Macchu Picchu this way because the most famous one, that I previously mentioned, had been booked out for months. Also, just having finished summiting Huyana Potosi, I was done with multi-day hiking for a while.
And then we come to the crazy cheap, lengthy, risky backpacker's way... and ultimately, the method we chose. This option is as follows. Book a shared mini bus from a random tour shop that takes you from Cusco, up over the Salkantay mountain pass 6/7 hours to a "town" called Hydroelectrico; quite literally called this because it's not a town at all, it's just a place in the mountains where a hydroelectric plant is located, classic! From there, there is another random train where people can pay to board and ride to Aguas Caliente, a town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu. However, this train is also very expensive and completely over-crowded. Instead of this train, people on a budget will walk with all their bags for three hours along the railroad track to finally reach the town of Aguas Calientes. Finally, from there, you hike another two hours from Aguas Caliente UP to Machu Picchu's entry gate. But we will come to that later...
So...we booked a mini bus with a company we chose after shopping around for the cheapest price all day, the day before. We were told to meet under 'such and such' sign in the main square; so the next morning, we showed up and waited around with no one else in sight... until a random man with little to no English, said to us "Machu Picchu?" obviously we followed him to his van.... again, trust the system and it always works out! We met with our group and we were off!
The trip over and around the mountains was much like any other bus journey in a developing country: nauseating switch back turns, full-speed/psychotic driver, passing trucks on blind turns, an absurd amount of horn honking, cliffs that lead to certain death if the crazy driver makes any slight error and much, much longer than you were told it would take with absolutely no update on when you will arrive. HOWEVER, there were breathtaking views and sights of rural village life. When we finally made it to Hydroelectrico, we were dropped off in the most chaotic mess of buses, vans, and cars we have ever been a part of! Our van inched it's way to the front of the line, the doors opened and we were told to get out and "meet here in two days...maybe at around 3pm". LOL...you got it, my friend.
So, we hopped out and like cattle we began following the crowd of people. Turns out, we were following the wrong crowd. Most everyone getting off these buses and vans were lining up for the train. So, we forged out on our own path with the only tidbit of information we had which was "follow the train tracks". This would have been useful, if the train tracks didn't abruptly end 500M down the line we were following!
So we back tracked once again (for the third time), and found a little sign poking out that read "Machu Picchu: this way -->".
We followed it up a bunch of steps, past a fake tourist payment hut, and out through a trail to the tracks we were to follow. Along our 3.5 hour hike, trains whizzed past us with all the rich tourists enjoying their easy and beautiful ride into Aguas Calientes. Meanwhile, Carter is soaking wet from sweat (obviously); I can feel the blisters from Huanya Potosi acting up, and the horns from the trains are mind-crushingly loud. But finally, we see the emerald city of Aguas Caliente upon us. Lucky for us, we arrived a few minutes before the sun began to set.
As we were walking into Aguas, we caught up and hiked ahead of two other backpackers on the same journey as us. They quickly called us out "Hey, you two! Looking at your backpack you visited every country around Singapore, but no Singapore flag on our backpack - why not?!" They were a very nice Singaporean couple who were also travelling for an extended amount of time. We laughed and told them that Singapore was far too costly for our budget, although we will make it there one day when we're rich and famous! We ended up finishing the walk together, having some laughs getting to know each other, and going our separate ways (keep this little detail of info in mind for our next blog!)
Aguas Calientes was a really neat little town; built in a sliver of the mountainous range beneath the World Wonder of Machu Picchu. In the picture below **It's just beyond the river bend - Pocahontas**
It had nice restaurants, lively bars and glamorously lux hotels (probably for the train dwelling, air conditioning having, rich folk.) We were hot, we were tired, and we had no battery in our phones. We had to find our pre-booked hotel the old fashion way and just walk around town asking and shouting out our hotel name. And wouldn't you just know it...because it was one of the cheaper hotels, it was also one of the furthest away, on top of the steepest street in town; we wouldn't have it any other way. Once we made it to our destination, we were shown to our rooms and we threw all of our bags off, changed and went directly back out to eat our faces off... and maybe had a beer or 5.
We ended on a nicer-ish restaurant that had an old Peruvian man singing and playing live music on a cultural flute.
The next morning we had a good sleep in, filled up on the free breakfast buffet, and headed out for the FINAL hike to get up to Machu Picchu! From Aguas Caliente there is a bus that drives up to Machu Picchu, but once again, we don't believe in paying if we can heel-toe it. We hiked for 2 hours up a fairly easy and straight forward trail; many people were on their way down as the AM ticket holders and from our conversations with many of them, even more people took the bus up for sake of ease and were enjoying the super-easy hike down the mountain. Us poor suckers, had to hike uphill both ways, just like Grandma used to say.
I am going to preface this next paragraph with a reminder that we have been travelling for 10 months now, we have been to 4 of the World Wonders thus far, countless tourist destinations and even to bring in comparisons at home, we have stood in lines at Wonderland and been Black Friday and Boxing day shopping at Yorkdale Mall.... this was BEYOND anything we have ever experienced with the above!! The line up to get into the grounds was A.B.S.O.L.U.T.E.L.Y mental chaos!!! We packed in like sardines and made sure we were heading in the right direction. Although super excited to be there, the entire process was lightly sprinkled with feelings of rage.
and mucho sweat...
We pushed and shoved and GOT pushed and shoved until our tickets were stamped and we were through the gates! Of course, the lines didn't miraculously stop and we weren't able to peacefully glide upon the empty ancient Inca ruins... no. We were herded along, wedged in between tour groups and their leaders wearing an umbrella hat and a flag waving in the air, yelling over a microphone system the history of the land we stood on in whatever language they were speaking. I started to stress eat at this time:
Finally, we get past the bottle neck of people to the edge of a particular viewpoint. We were finally there after all the hiking and waiting. We were about to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, to experience this glorious site.
Only to instead be greeted by the heard of selfie sticks and awkward smiles...
To be completely candid...Machu Picchu, to this day, was the most chaotic, over-filled site we have ever been to. So much so, it truly almost ruined the experience for us. Thankfully, we were able to hike further up a empty trail to get to a higher vantage point looking over the ruins. We only ran into a few other tourists, who were coming over the mountain into MP from the Inca Trail after a few days of trekking.
The ruins were truly breathtaking when we were able to sit in peace and quiet, and really let the history of it sink in; the history boggled my mind of how this civilization was just lost, overgrown, and forgotten about until an American explorer was told of them by a local farmer and was shown the way by an 11-year old boy.
Here are some pictures:
Look closely at the lines of ant-humans that are covering the entire ruins... gah.
We even got our passports officially stamped to prove we've visited one of the Wonders of the World! (They should all have their own stamp... I was very excited about this!)
We stayed until 5pm, when the grounds close for the night and made our way back down the mountain into Aguas Caliente for another well deserved meal. We stayed the night and in the morning packed everything up and started the 3 hour hike back along the tracks (in the rain!) to catch our van.
We did some research on Machu Picchu and the sad reality is that over 5,000 tourists visit each day. In the past few years it has been put on a list of world heritage sites at risk of danger due to over tourism. They have used a lot more rope and fencing to keep people off ancient sites (which is better for preservation.)
The hike back to Hydroelectrica was a little wet, but the chaos of trying to find our unmarked white van in a sea of unmarked white vans, was a joke. We laughed and kept thinking back to when our driver dropped us off and said he would see us in a few days. We waited an hour, "at around 3pm, maybe" and were looking for others we shared the van with. Then we find out that a couple hundred metres down this van-filled road, someone was calling out names and directing them to the proper vans. So, after almost 2 hours of being confused and lost, we finally made it to our proper van. It was actually concerning that this was the process that takes place...every...single...day.
Want to guess what happens next? Remember our little extra-adventure after the Death Road in Bolivia? Sleeping over in a freezing cold van on the side of a cliff? Roads closed because of snow and ice? YUP! We hit a police check point en route back to Cusco, they informed us the road ahead was closed due to too much snow fall over the mountain pass. AGAIN. The people in our van had a hay-day when we told them this happened to us less than a week earlier!
However, there was two major difference between Bolivia and this experience. One, this snow fall wasn't as bad. It was an amount of snow that would not have been an issue back at home, but for old Peruvian cars and vans (that wouldn't have passed a Canadian emissions test) the snow was another nightmare. Secondly, these people in our van were much less positive and way more short tempered. So the overall vibes during this whole debacle was not as fun-loving and carefree as Bolivia. Not going to lie though, Carter and I were having Bolivian flashbacks and serious concern was kicking in for how long we may be in the van for.
After about 4 hours of waiting, we finally get the go ahead to attempt the climb up. We inched up and up and up. The roads were mushy, slushy, icy and covered in snow but nothing that would have held a good ole' Canuck back. See what I mean:
AGAIN, look at the lines of cars on this tiny road, trying to pass one another, for hours. Finally, about 2 hours of inching closer and closer through the mountain pass, we hit the top and made our way down the mountain, toward Cusco, back into warmer climate and out of the snow.
By 2am, we were almost home-bound and just closing in on the outskirts of Cusco (about an hour out)... and then we see flashing red lights. Our driver gets out after waiting for 30 minutes to see what's going on. Believe it or not, there is a random/bad luck/coincidental tractor trailer roll over accident up ahead. We thought, "wow that sucks, hope everyone is okay, let's take the other way home" YA...RIGHT, it just can't be that easy, why would it be that easy?! Our driver informs us that this is the only road back to Cusco, so we can't go anywhere until the accident is cleared, we will likely need to sleep in the van for the night. People in our van were up in arms; a few of them left the van to walk back to Cusco, literally... which I don't even want to fathom how long, cold or dangerous that walk could have been. Then our driver comes back and says in broken English "there is another way, much much longer, we can do it if you like...but ONLY IF every people give money for gas because we don't have enough to get back, we need more gas." Again, cue angry van mob. After heated debated, everyone decided the what would be equivalent to $5 was worth getting home (we knew this was likely the bus driver trying to get a few extra bucks in his pocket, but it was time to get the heck home to bed.) So, we gave our share of money and said VAMOS!
We arrived back safely to Cusco at 5am!!! We slugged our way back up to San Blas neighbourhood, in the door of our hostel, and fell into bed. When we finally rose from our comas, we knew it was time to leave Cusco and make our way to Lima, Peru's capital.
We took a Cruz Del Sur overnight bus to Lima. We beat the system and somehow managed seats in the VIP section, with leather lazy-boy style chairs and a TV in front of us. We had a "private-ish" washroom for the 12 people sitting in this section; everything was pristine, clean and stainless steel...this was the nicest bus we had been on this year. We weren't even phased that this bus trip was another 21 hour drive because this bus was a god sent. Carter was thrilled! Finally bus seats that fit his long body, pillows, wifi!!! He couldn't believe it! The highlight was definitely when he returned from going to the bathroom for the first time "Wow Britt, that bathroom is incredible! It's huge! And man, I don't ever think I've seen a hand dryer on a bus before! I mean it wasn't working, maybe the bus driver has to turn it on, but still really cool!!" I immediately raised an eyebrow, and replied "what hand dryer? I didn't see a hand dryer?"... Carter proceeds to describe this immaculate silver cylinder right below the sink that he tried a few times to stick his hands in to dry but no air came out.... OMG, well when I realized what he was talking about, I burst out laughing!!! So much so that I was squealing and other bus riders were beginning to stare. I eventually worked up the ability to get the words out to him "Carter, are you friggin kidding me? That silver bowl is the URINAL!!!" Ahaha oh man we laughed forever; he tried to explain that he was too tall to really see into it and see what it was but no... note to self: never stick your hands into an unknown bowl in a bus bathroom!
Later on as Carter slept, and I looked our the window (yes, this is the first time in the history of Carter and I as humans, that he was the one sleeping and I was the one awake on transportation), I realized Peru is probably one of the most beautiful countries to travel. To literally travel, sitting on a bus or a train and to watch the landscape unfold in front of you. There are always mountains; sometimes their snow covered and towering over you, sometimes their rolling hills with huge cacti growing sporadically throughout. There is always a rushing powerful blue river flowing between the valley or down the sides of the cliffside; and many times the waterfalls gushed out onto the road, down the next hairpin turn, and the bus or van has to push through the mini river. The cities are, for the most part, beautiful with old colonial style, clay shingled roof buildings. The villages are quaint and have a special charm to them. More of planet earth's true beauty.
WOOO! After a great sleep and a few movies on our 21 hour bus ride, we got to the capital of Peru, Lima. We hit a coffee shop, did some research and decided it best that we splurged on an AirBnB apartment; I definitely needed a dose of normalcy after being stuck on yet another bus on a mountain and a LOT of ground covered in a short period of time.
Our apartment was in Miraflores, one of the nicer areas of Lima. We order Dominos pizza, got a bottle of wine, did laundry and scrubbed clean...our actual paradise.
Carter's dose of normalcy was finally shaving... but not without making every questionable progression of facial hair options, like this one:
But at the end of the day, it was the return of the moustache. I knew I would one day see it again.
We ate the all famous ceviche, again, and again, and again. The food was fantastic and abundant in Lima.
The next morning we walked the city. Naturally, we ended up at the mall...but this wasn't a mall like any other - it was probably the coolest located mall, ever! Open concept, overlooking the ocean with the best bars, restaurants and patios.
Oh ya, I forgot to mention that Lima has two seasons.... blue, clear skies in summer and complete nothing but grey in winter. But I am talking 100%, no chance of sun, grey wall of grey clouds, all the time...grey.
However, the lack of blue and sunshine doesn't stop people from their activities in the city!
Oh, or surf with the locals... like Carter did:
AND ALL IN 50 STEPS FROM THE MALL!!! Did I mention how cool this mall is??
A little more from venturing around the beautiful city, mostly eating and drinking:
We also visited the "old city" within Lima. I don't know what it was that we came across but the royal guards were on duty, a band was playing within the gates, locals ran over to the gates for a better view with their phones and then 4-5 people came out on a small balcony of this royal building and waved to the crowd. We couldn't get across our question of who they were in Spanish, so to this day it remains a mystery but we were happy to be a part of whatever it was!
We visited Bar Cordano, by mystical whim, but it is the oldest bar in Lima. We ate their best-selling menu item of Chiccharon (pork belly) sandwiches and a Peruvian chicken soup with quinoa. Carter's sandwich heaven.
Then we stumbled across a super busy hole in the wall shop to see what all the commotion was about, we were pleasantly surprised with the outcome: a fresh churro filled with dulce de leche: (fried dough with caramel filling)
After we ate our way through Peru, it was time for the heat and sunshine of Colombia!! Our last exotic stop in our year adventure!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!