23 Jul

What Goes Up Must Go Down: Colca Canyon Trek

We start the Colca Canyon trek descent in the early afternoon. A dusty, rocky, steep trail that switchbacks down the 1000 meters to the bottom. One thousand meters…that’s one kilometer straight down.

Colca Canyon, Peru

After climbing the heights of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, there was nowhere to go but down…to the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world…Colca Canyon. Okay, full disclosure…there is a deeper canyon (by about 40 metres) but it’s a little further away and more difficult to get to…for my purposes, this is the deepest.

The top of the canyon is dry, scrubby desert…the bottom holds the Colca River and is warmer and lusher. We reach the bottom inn about 3 hours and are impressed by the bamboo dining hut and adobe buildings that will be our home for the night.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Colca Canyon, Peru

I’m even more impressed by the beer that is available as the only way in and out of the canyon is by the trails that zigzag the walls – there are no cars here, only donkeys to help with transportation. But tourism is a major industry here and tourists like beer…so beer is brought down.

The next day is even more impressive as we hike along the bottom of the canyon to reach the oasis a couple of hours away.

Here there are terraces of adobe and bamboo huts, palm trees and…swimming pools! The spaces between the huge boulders littering the site have been dammed and swimming pools created. It is a hot, sunny day…we waste no time in digging out our swimming togs and claiming a spot by the pool for the afternoon.  Our first summer-like activity since leaving home.

Colca Canyon, Peru

The next day starts before dawn for us as we start the hike back up in the dark to avoid baking in the sun. I have said that I think we can do it in two hours and so we set a pace to try. Zig, zag, zig, zag, zig, zag…up and up we go, slowly reeling people in and passing and we trudge slowly toward the top.

Colca Canyon, Peru

One thing we have going for us this time is that we are not at nearly the altitude we were for Dead Woman’s Pass a few weeks earlier so our lungs and heart are not protesting nearly as loudly.

We crested the top at one hour and fifty eight minutes. Pretty happy.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Trekking the canyon was cool. Seeing people living there makes me wonder how they do it…up and down those trails so often. Our guide, Patricia, says that the locals can make it up the trail in 45 minutes…seriously, that is impressive!

14 Jul

How To Just Let Things Happen In Puno

I’d heard that Puno was the asshole of the earth. People said ‘don’t stay there, just head to the islands’. I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

We took a tourist tour bus from Cusco to Puno. On board was a guide who explained all the sights along the way. We stopped at four historical/cultural sights plus had lunch at a local buffet restaurant. It was a good deal and I would recommend the newer, and cheaper, Tourismo Mer over it’s more expensive counterpart.

The views from Cusco to Puno were amazing. We were, again, in the altiplano with the valleys alternately widening and narrowing as we weaved our way through the mountain tops. We could see the terrain change as we reached higher and higher altitudes where farming is no longer possible and only the high plains grass can grow – suitable only for ranching. Cattle and llamas are king here.

Puno, Peru

Puno, Peru

We thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Taking the bus during the day makes all the difference in the world!!

We arrived at the Puno bus terminal with no plans,  no reservations and no clue. We hadn’t been able to find anything suitable (read…cheap) on line, and talking to people in Cusco had also provided no clues as to where to stay.

Our plan was to taxi to the main square and start circling until we found a place to stay. Then, Micaela found us. She started showing us pamphlets of hostels and hotels and listing all their amenities. Once she learned our price point, she pulled out a listing and convinced us to take a look. We went with her to the hotel and found that it more than met our needs and decided to stay…at much less than the posted rate.

Once we were settled on a place to stay, Micaela pulled out her Lake Titicaca tour pamphlets. We told her what we were looking for and she easily found us a tour in our price range for the next day. Easy, shmeasy.

When were we leaving Puno, she asked us, and would we need bus tickets to Arequipa? Why yes, we would need bus tickets, we said telling her when we wanted to leave and, again, our price range. She immediately hooked us up with bus tickets for the day following our Lake Titicaca tour. (What’s more, on the day, she came and picked us up and helped us negotiate the bus terminal).  She was a veritable one stop shop for Puno, Lake Titicaca and Arequipa!

It was getting into the evening now and we decided to go find somewhere to eat. On our way out of the hotel we inquired at the front desk if there was anywhere nearby. He pulled out a card for a restaurant on a side street and said it was good. Having had such a good day of taking whatever came our way we decided to try it out. Again, another good recommendation and we had wonderful meal of soup and alpaca.

Although we didn’t see much of Puno beyond the lake, I’m learning that sometimes it pays to just go with it…let people help. If we know what our parameters are for an item or experience and the person is offering something within those parameters then why would I not give it a shot? I can always say no once I see what is offered and, it just might make it easier on me…I don’t always have to do it the hard way.

11 Jul

Machu Picchu

The history of Machu Picchu is a mystery. Was it where the great Incan Pachacutec instructed his people to hide during the Spanish invasion? Was it the great economic center of  the Incan culture? Or was it built as a prison to house those that had committed heinous crimes?

Machu Picchu, Peru

In it’s current state it is a beautiful reminder of what the Incan culture must have been like. In it’s former state it must have been an imposing city in the mountains. I lean toward the theory of economic center but with all the amazing temples it must have been even more than that.

The Incans ingenuity and precision is astounding. The site looks to have been built from the remains of a long ago rockslide. There is evidence throughout the site of fallen rocks being incorporated into several buildings. The ‘quarry’ area consists of rocks in their original position, some have carving work, others appear to be in the process of being split or shaped.

Machu Picchu, Peru

The buildings and stonework are stunning displays of form, function and astounding astronomical and geographic knowledge. Stones are placed, or carved, to match exactly with the sun’s winter and summer solstice positions or to line up along the ordinal geographic lines. Seeing a rock carved into the shape of the Incan Cross and then shown, using a compass, that the points of the cross face due north, south, east and west, I was amazed at the knowledge that the Incans must have had.

We had seen Inca stonework in Cusco, but here it was on a much grander scale. Entire temples built using massive stones, stacked upon each other as if they were made to be that way. No mortar, no mud…just intricate carving until they all fit together.

Machu Picchu, Peru

And how did they do all this work with no modern machinery? It’s impossible for me to imagine how many people must have worked and lived on the site. Even when teeming with tourists, I don’t imagine the number of people on site matches the number of those that must have lived there.

Machu Picchu, Peru

It  was amazing to just wander around the site and take it all in. It was even better having walked the same path that the Incans walked to get there.

09 Jul

Inca Trail Trek

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

Having not done much trekking in my life, I can’t say where the Inca Trail Trek rates in terms of difficulty. What I can say is that with a porter to customer ratio of 1.4 porters for every customer (plus a chef and two guides), I have to think that this might be on  the cushy side…and it was still a lot of hard work!

Due to an impending strike in  Cusco, we left the night before we were scheduled to leave – sneaking out of town under the cover of darkness. About an hour into the trip the road became littered with rocks and tires as protesters realized that buses would be trying to leave early. Our little convoy suffered a few thrown rock blows as we pushed our way through at top speed. There was no damage other than a few frayed nerves of those of us on the bus that are not used to that kind of welcome. The driver, guides and porters on board just took it in stride. We arrived at camp in the middle of the night and settled in for a short sleep.

I awoke the next morning eager to see where we were. Pushing open the tent flap all I could see were towering mountains, a slight hint of frost on the ground, and the sun just starting to rest on the peaks. I could tell right then that the next few days were going to be amazing.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, a porter appeared with hot tea and another brought a bowl of hot water and soap for me to wash up with. Seriously…cushy I tell you! I drank my tea, washed up and packed up the few things I was responsible for in the tent (the porters dismantle and carry everything except my personal belongings). Breakfast was served in a large tent and would have been considered decadent at sea level, never mind in the middle of nowhere at 3300M.  First, coffee and chocolate with bread and jam. Then chicken crepes…seriously!

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

Breakfast was our first opportunity to meet the rest of the trekkers that we would be spending the next 4 days with. As we laughed and joked our way through breakfast, and finally got  around to the introductions we realized that this group was going to get along just fine. In fact, in the end, I would say that it’s likely that we couldn’t have done it with a better group of people. I don’t think I ever heard a negative word throughout the whole trip. Some had hiked and camped before, for others this was a first – all were eager and willing to do whatever it took. We all hiked at a similar pace, chatting and laughing our way through. Thanks to all of you (if you’re reading) for making it so much fun!

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

After breakfast we started in on the hiking. The first day of hiking wasn’t too strenuous – fairly level with a few ups and downs. Our guide, Marco, stopped us at various points along the way to tell us the history of, not only the trail and the ruins along the trail, but also of the Incan people and their struggle to survive. Marco was passionate about his ancestors story and, as time went on, we realized that he was not just telling us stories that come from guidebooks but that his knowledge was much deeper. He had not only spent time at university studying but had also spent time in the mountains with the Incan descendants and so had a unique perspective on the area.

We hiked a total of 14KM the first day reaching camp just before the sun set over the mountains and valley and the cold really set in. We enjoyed a ‘teatime’ snack and then relaxed a bit before dinner was served. Seriously a lot of food – I was worried I might gain weight while trekking! After dinner we settled into our tent to play a little cards before heading off to sleep…the next morning would come early.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

The second day of hiking was advertised as a doozy…and it didn’t disappoint. Up and out early, our first half of the day was to climb 900M to Dead Womans Pass. As our group was dominated by women, we only hoped that it would not be one of us that would the the Dead Woman at the end of the day!

We could see the pass from our starting point, taunting us to see if we had the mettle. We were a determined group though and, heads down, we trudged our way slowly passing others along the way. The scenery was breathtaking, but difficult to take in  as taking my eyes off the uneven trail for even a second surely would mean a twisted ankle…or possibly worse (I had seen countless casted arms in Cusco the previous week).

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

As the trail climbed upwards it got steeper and, as the air grew thinner with every step, breathing became more and more difficult. My legs felt like lead for the last push but I just kept putting one in front of the other until I could see the post at the top and then, with a burst of energy, I finished it off. Adrenaline is a beautiful thing, and I jumped around like a madwoman hooting and hollering.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

Then it was down the other side – a 600M drop along a beautiful stone pathway cutting down into the valley below. If I thought this was going to be the easy part, I was wrong. Controlling those floppy, leadened legs was an exercise in concentration. However, breathing was definitely easier giving me an opportunity to chat with a trekmate about his travels as we watched the scenery go by.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

Lunch was at the bottom of the valley and would have been much more relaxing if the next climb had not been fully in view, taunting us as we enjoyed our meal. The afternoon saw us climb another 400M before dropping into another valley that was more jungle than scrub. We crossed the valley to find our campsite overlooking a set of astrological ruins as well as a stunning valley. Fog set in just as the light faded lending an eerie feel but also providing some insulating warmth. After 16KM of hiking through two passes, it didn’t take much of the special ‘rum tea’ to send us all off to bed!

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

The following day was relatively easy. Four hours, down almost the whole way – a reported 2000 steps. I didn’t count but my legs were more sore from this than from any other part of the trek! The end of this hike found as the last point before entry to Machu Picchu. It was here that all the groups on the trail, and from other trails, congregated to wait until dawn for the big reveal. There were hot showers to be had (and desperately needed, let me tell you!), beers to be quaffed and a restful afternoon to be enjoyed.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

Our 3:30AM wakeup call came very quickly. We packed up in the dark and rushed through our breakfast to get on the trail….and wait. Not far from camp there is a gate that is not opened until 5:30AM, so the 200 or so  trekkers from camp all lined up waiting for the time to come.

At last the gate opened and we all rushed through, eager to get to the Sun Gate before the sun broke. The one hour hike was not strenuous but was made more difficult by the intense darkness. Looking back I could see a snake line of headlamps slowly making it’s way through the terrain I had just negotiated – reminded me of night riding and how the whole world is only the 5 feet ahead that the lamp illuminates.

Inca Trail Trek, Peru

One last push up and suddenly we were there…we passed through the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu was laid out before us. It was kind of surreal. After all that work we had finally made it.


05 Jul

Playing Fair While Learning Spanish

fairplay-logo It’s easy to find a Spanish school in Cusco, they are a dime a dozen. It’s more difficult to find one that offers a great program, is flexible, and gives back to the community. We found that, and more, at FairPlay.

Run by John, a Dutch fellow, and his Peruvian wife, FairPlay is a not-for-profit organization that offers single Peruvian mothers a chance to learn how to teach their language to others while they gain the self confidence they need to gain control over their own lives.

Talking to John about how the program is set up, how they choose the women and how they support them during the process, we knew that this was the school for us.

We set ourselves up with a four day, four hour per day, program. Two hours of grammatical teaching (one on one, each with our own instructor) and two hours of practical teaching out in the community (again, one on one).

The payment plan was also appealing. We paid an administration fee to FairPlay and also paid them 25% of the per hour teaching fee. The other 75% of the teaching fee we paid directly to the teachers – there is no wondering where the money is going…it passed directly from my hand to the hand of the teacher.

I met Eliana on the first morning for our practical lesson. I was nervous as I wasn’t sure how much I remembered and John had explained to me that, although the instructors speak English, they are not permitted to – they must speak to me in Spanish only.

Fair Play Spanish School, CuscoI needn’t have worried. Eliana was kind and gentle and spoke to me slowly, in simple Spanish. Along with hand gestures we were able to understand each other. She took me to the San Pedro market and we wandered for two hours learning the names of all the different products while we also learned about each other.

Next came the grammar lesson with Josee. I was still a little nervous but the practice with Eliana had helped. Josee gave me my grammar exercise book and we started learning all about the building blocks of Spanish. She, too, would only speak in Spanish but she was excellent at finding ways of explaining concepts and words to me – I was thoroughly impressed.

Fair Play Spanish School, Cusco, PeruJason and I were able to spend the next three practical lessons together doing things that we would never had been able to alone as his instructor, Carmen, and Eliana took us further afield to explore Cusco.

The first day together we hopped on a local ‘combi’ bus to climb the hill to Cristo Blanco. The next day we headed further out to Tipon where they took us to a local Cuyeria to try the local specialty…guinea pig.  The last day we visited a local market on the edge of town and then slowly walked our way back. It was amazing to be able to visit local places and realize that I did it all in Spanish.

Cuy in Tipon, Peru

Santo Blanco, CuscoThe grammar lessons also continued and Josee managed to get me through the two basic levels of Spanish structure. She was so kind and generous –  patiently explaining things over and over again and helping me to slowly, slowly, slowly get my thoughts across in Spanish.


FairPlay offers a great program that, not only teaches Spanish in an interesting, fun and effective way, but also helps those in the community. These women obviously enjoy what they do – they are great teachers and great mothers who now have the self confidence to stand on their own and an opportunity to show their children how it’s done.

29 Jun

Inti Raymi: Festival of the Sun God

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi is celebrated near the winter solstice on June 24th every year. It is an Incan ceremony that is performed in the native Quechuan language rather than Spanish.

We arrived in Cusco 2 days prior to the actual ceremony and the city square was already abuzz with people and bands and general merriment being made. Apparently the festival has expanded over the years to include the weeks leading up to June 24th also.

The following morning we left the hostel at around 9am to see what was going on. The plaza near our hostel was filled with costumed Peruvians staging to start the parade. Moving on to the main Plaza de Armas, the parading had already started and the plaza was filled with locals, other Peruvians and a smattering of tourists (at least it seemed like a smattering given the number of locals there were). A large stage area had been set up and was filled with dignitaries dressed in their finest – they would be marshalling the parade.

Each group in the parade was costumed in traditional gear. Most, if not all, had their own band to accompany them – they all played the exact same tune – I don’t know if it is some kind of national tune or what, but we were very familiar with it by the end of the day. They marched from the staging square down and around the Plaza de Armas, exiting on the far side of the square. From there they proceeded to the next square where each group set up their own fiesta of sorts, with beer and food, with their band continuing to play.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

This continued all day. I mean all day and into the night. We returned to our hostel at 11pm and they were not finished!! I awoke at 1am and they were still at it. That’s at least 17 hours that I know of!! I’ve never known a parade to go on that long. Those dignitaries sat through the whole thing as far as I could tell! Can you imagine?

The city center literally filled up with people. Paraders continued to fill town squares to party the night away and spectators continued to enter the city core to watch and hawk their wares or set up their portable grills to feed the hungry crowd. There was no empty space to be had anywhere…10’s of 1000’s of people filled every corner. It was absolutely unbelievable! They partied all night long and what surprised me was that they all kept their costumes on the whole time. They continued to play the same tune and danced and drank the night away. There seemed to be a sense of pride and camaraderie that filled every square.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

The actual ceremony was to occur the following morning. I have no idea how any of those people dragged themselves out of bed to perform the ceremony.

The Inti Raymi festival starts at the Plaza de Armas in town and then parades to an Incan site called Sacsayhuaman located about 2km from town up the hillside. We had heard that tourist tickets to the event were costing upwards of $30 so we decided we would climb the hill with the locals and watch from above the bleachers.

The ceremony had already started in the Plaza de Armas when we started trekking up the hill to get a seat on the rocky face. The place was pretty packed when we got there but we found a perch and set about waiting the next 3 hours for the festival to get to us.

The waiting was easy as there was nothing to do but people watch, and there were plenty of people to watch. As the ceremony started below us, the crowd stood to it’s feet and everyone rushed forward to get a better view. We’re on a rocky cliff people!! It got a little too close for us (see photo of postcard below – we were in a crowd just like that) We were squished, couldn’t see where the edge was and could no longer see any of the action…we decided to leave and head back into town for a little peace and quiet.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru


It was a great couple of days. We’re glad we came early to see it.

Here are some more pictures and you can see even more here.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru
Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco, Peru


26 Jun

Getting High in Cusco

Cusco Flag, Cusco, Peru

The plan was to take our time getting to Cusco from Lima. We were going to spend a few days, stopping along the way at Nasca and Arequipa to split up the journey.

Then we learned that the Inti Raymi festival was happening in Cusco on June 24th so we thought we would head straight to Cusco instead and visit Nasca and Arequipa after that.

We checked into flights and buses and decided that, at 1/3 the cost, the bus it would be. Sure it was going to be a 22 hour bus ride but I had heard that South American buses were ‘da bomb’ and so thought that 22 hours wouldn’t be so bad.

Boy, was I wrong. After the first few hours of the trip (in the dark because it gets dark here early) we turned inland and started heading over the Andes. We spent the next 9 hours swerving and swaying as we switchbacked our way cresting and descending mountain after mountain…in the pitch black. I didn’t sleep one wink.

It was worth it once dawn broke. As the sun rose and light filtered onto the landscape, it revealed that were high in the Andes on the altiplano. It was stunning. I peered out the window to see nothing but miles and miles of scrubland punctuated with huts and stone fences penning in llama herds. The smoke from the villagers hearths filled the crisp cold air and the sun glinted off the frost and frozen waterways. It was amazing.

Dawn broke at around 6AM. That still meant that we had about 9 hours ahead of us. We descended a long way from the plateau, swithbacking the whole way. This was not tolerated well by more than a few on the bus as they awoke and soon a well worn path was created to the bathroom that, unfortunately, was right by our seats. This did not add to the experience for me.

We spent the rest of the trip cresting and descending various mountains and following river valleys before we dropped into a large, flat valley right before Cusco. One more intense climb and descent saw us entering into the city finally.

The scenery was amazing and it was an adventure but I think, in the future, we will break our bus trips up a bit.

Sitting at 3300 meters, we have certainly noticed the altitude here in Cusco. At first I wasn’t sure if our headaches and nausea were from the bus ride or the altitude, but by the next morning we knew it was the altitude for sure. I seemed okay, a little winded for sure but not too badly, but J was feeling nauseous and took a little more time to adjust. I went and got some sorojchi pills from the pharmacy and they were like a miracle – within about 30 minutes he was feeling much better and could come out to play. We’re both still taking them to keep the headaches at bay, and we both feel winded at times, but overall I think we have it licked.