4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Peru”

My South America Favorites + Returning “Home” (by Carmen)

17th century map of South America

Our South America trip was better than I could have ever expected.  I loved practicing my Spanish, scouting out local cuisine, imbibing lots of caipirinhas and red wine, and observing the mix of old world and new world traditions.  One thing I hadn’t quite expected was the jaw dropping natural beauty, from jungles and beaches to arid, bushy plains; from huge cacti growing out of red rocks to stark Andean mountainscapes.  It was a collection of unforgettable experiences.

With that in mind, I thought I would get through some FAQs.  These generally begin with “what was your favorite…”.  So here are a selection of my favorites from my fifteen weeks down south.

Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires

Nathan grilling up some lomito

Sifones used to store soda water

Fútbol fanáticos

Favorite City: Buenos Aires.  The city has a special lived in elegance to it.  I enjoyed the cafe culture, the pretty parks, and the slightly rough around the edges feel to it.  And the Argentinian accent, which uses a lot of soft “j” sounds, was incredibly endearing.

Cafayate View

Last rays of sun in the Cafayate canyons

Favorite Town: Cafayate. Good wine, yummy empanadas, an alfajores factory, a spacious main plaza, beautiful scenery and wine flavored ice cream…Cafayate instantly welcomed us.

Pasta, wine, yum…at Pierinos

Quinoa salad at Market in Rio de Janeiro

Artemisia in Buenos Aires

Favorite Restaurant: Pierinos.  I love pasta.  This is the third time I’ve mentioned it in this blog but the slow cooked sauces Pierinos slathers on its homemade pasta steal my heart.  Other favorite eats include Artemesia‘s mostly vegetarian fare, the fresh salads and smoothies at Market, any buffet in Brazil, and fresh ceviche in Peru.

Delicious fried trucha

Chicharron sandwich stand in Arequipa

Favorite Hole in the Wall: Trucha stands on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. So simple but so good with the fresh caught trout fried to perfection in garlic and oil. El Cuartito served my favorite pizza in Buenos Aires.  The lomito sandwich in cordoba wasn’t much to look at but was delicious and big enough for the both of us.  And then there was the chicharron sandwich Arequipa. Fried pork with spicy coleslaw is always a winner.

The spectacular Salar de Uyuni trip

Nathan and me enjoying Bolivian scenery

Nathan the mountaineer on Salkantay

Favorite Sight Salar de Uyuni and Salkantay Mountain. We saw so many beautiful sights but it is the people you share it with that make it even better.  Therefore it’s a tie between the non-stop excitement of the salar de uyuni trip and the first view of Salkantay with old friends from San Francisco. Oh and Iguazu Falls too!

Wine and Cheese in Tafí del Valle

Schwarzwald beer hall in Curitiba, Brazil – I loved the mini stein in the big stein!

Favorite Drinking Experience: Wine and cheese in Tafí del Valle.  We brought a wonderful Malbec from Mendoza, sliced up some local cheese and sat on the porch of the historic villa we stayed at. Heaven.  I also loved collecting mini beer steins at the convivial German beer hall Schwarzwald.  And the most delicious caipirinhas I tasted were made by a Peruvian at Pepe’s Bar in Foz de Iguazu.

Bossa Nova in Rio de Janeiro

Marching band in Copacabana

Favorite Live Music: Los Tabaleros performing at the hidden restaurant. The chef and his friends played the show at the secret restaurant my classmate’s roommates hosted.  I’m still happy I won the cd! Also enjoyed the classic bossa nova in Ipanema and the parade music at Copacabana’s festival.

Church roof in Potosí

Potato peddlers in Sucre

Best Place to Go If You’ve Only Got a Couple Weeks: Bolivia.  The variety of the sights here is incredible!  You can enjoy lush jungles or cold windy mountains.  The people are friendly and helpful.  They keep the traditional culture alive and well.  And, importanly, it’s inexpensive to get around.

Chandelier in Argentina’s congress building

All the places we went and sights we saw, and there is still more to see.  I was sad to leave South America when there is so much more to explore. On the other hand, adventures in other parts of the world beckoned.

Dewy rose in Tafí del Valle

From Peru we returned “home” to California but that’s a tricky word for me.  If home is where the heart is, mine is rather split up. Immediate family in Southern California, close friends in San Francisco, extended family in Chicago.  And then there’s the part of my heart passionate about travel, which creates an itch to make a home in new places.

So the final and most popular FAQ, “What’s next?” Should we travel for the entire year? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.

Where oh where will we go from here?

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Northern Migration (by Nathan)

Recoleta Cemetary

In January I began my southern migration. I escaped the constant 60 degrees of San Francisco for the sun and summertime of South America. I was excited to begin work on improving my Spanish and I was ready to live and travel through countries and cultures of which I had only a cursory knowledge.  The plan was to roam from city to city with an open mind, a loose pocket book and a constant curiosity to explore and enjoy the differences in these countries.  After four months of adventure, Carmen and I would return to California ready to embark on another journey.

Fugazza and Faina Pizza

Açai breakfast

Our trip began in Buenos Aires with food, activities and cultures that stood up to any great city. The fugazza pizza was deliciously unique with thick doughy crust, creamy cheese and heaps of oven caramelized onions.  El Cuartito was the best, and I think Rick agreed. I would return for the pizza and empanadas and all the beautiful streets that BsAs has to offer.

Sunset on Ipanema Beach, Rio

Carmen and the sands of Rio

We traveled through Uruguay and into Brazil. Rio de Janiero was everything that I love in a travel destination. Beaches stretched endlessly with the urban landscape pressed right up against the sand.  The culture is vibrant with dance, music and tropical foods.  The açai and fresh fruit drinks stand out as an epitome of fresh summertime delights. The country is a mix of indigenous, Europeans, Africans and Asians, a familiar mix to the United States so we felt welcomed as foreigners.  We could swim, climb a mountain and go dancing all in one day.  I enjoyed gaining a better understanding of the favelas as well as peering down into the city from the many vistas.

Fun at Lapa steps

Iguazú Waterfalls

We worked our way through Brazil’s vast landscape.  We visited the breathtaking waterfalls in Iguazú that roared unbelievably over the cliffs edge. We baked in in the sun on Ihla do Mel on coastal Brazil and we jointed friends in Santiago Chile.  We bussed our way over the Andes into Mendoza for a day or two (or three) of wineries, biking and empanadas. We explored German settled villages and the bigger cities of Córdoba and Salta. It was the canyons that really captured my heart.

Fun light fixture at our hostel

El castillo en Quebrada de Cafayate

Another one of my favorite cities was the charming Cafayate in Argentina.  We sipped wine at several walk able bodegas. We hiked through beautiful canyons and cliff formations.  And most often, we enjoyed strolling through the cozy town.  With a simple town square and food market our time here was relaxing and satisfying.

Jumping off rocks at valle de rocas

Fun on the salt flats

Another bus brought us into Bolivia. The country is poor with struggle, but thriving with cheap delicious food, unforgettable sights and nice helpful people.  One of my favorite experiences of the entire trip was the four day trek into the Salar De Uyuni.We visited brightly colored lagoons, spectacular volcanic rocks and salt flats that made us act silly with our new friends. The home-cooked Bolivian food was excellent and every day I wanted to take the little woman home with me to teach me everything she knows in the kitchen.

Painted desert in Bolivia

Salt harvesting

We continued high into the mountains. The cities of Potosí and Sucre were wonderful places to learn about Bolivia, South America and the indigenous people that lived here for thousands of years.  La Paz contained the best market that we experienced in South America.  This was because the stalls could not be contained by any building and instead flowed out on the streets in every direction.  It was mayhem and delight simultaneously. I loved it!

The best market streets is in La Paz

We biked down mountains in La Paz and hiked islands of Lake Titicaca. A festival in Copacabana engaged our feet and sent us running for cover from fireworks.  Bolivia has a rustic, untamed, and raw quality to it that flaunts colorful traditions with people that are genuine and kind.

Street in Arequipa

When we had finally made our way into Peru our bellies began being stuffed to the brim with constant feasts of amazing food.  Arequipa was the best food city we went to in South America.  There was ceviche, alpaca, rocoto rellenos, chicharrones and fresh fruit smoothies. We found something delicious everywhere we went.  The city had beautiful architecture and the nearby Colca Canyon was great for hiking.

Arequipa food market

Our history lesson continued when we finally arrived in Cusco.  The city is packed with nearby ruins and a brutal history where the mighty Incas were decimated by the Spanish. One downfall of Cusco and Peru is that very few sights have accessible tourist information.  There are an abundance of guides, that costs, entry fees are high and there are many sights to see which makes Peru a challenge for tourists on a budget.  But with friends it is all worth it.

Machu Picchu

On our Machu Picchu trek we went all out with excellent cooks, porters, equipment and a guide.  I think I liked the walking and hiking just as much as the ruins.  We walked for six days climbing snow covered passes, jungles and high altitude wetlands.  We stuffed ourselves on Peruvian favorites and we laughed until we hurt playing card games into the night.  We wondered around countless ruins out doing one another in jumping photos and we caravanned up and down the mountainsides. Machu Picchu in itself is a spectacular piece of history and archeology.  We combined it with Salkantay, the Inca Trail and friends for an unforgettable adventure.

Carmen patiently waiting for me to finish the photo

Our final city in Peru was LimaThe time spent there was brief, but the amounts of ceviche consumed copious.  Ponte de Azul ceviche stands out as one of my favorite meals.  The fish was firm and fresh and the juice sour and spicy.  In the blink of an eye Lima was over and we were boarding a plane saying goodbye to this Lima, Peru and South America.

Every vacation involves exploring new places, having adventures and creating memories.  The challenge and fun of any vacation for Carmen and me is that we leave with a longer list of places to see and immerse ourselves into next time.  Our next trip to South America would focus on exploring the natural side of this continent.  Patagonia tops our list of “must sees.”  We did not want to lug around our carpas and sacos de dormir (tents and sleeping bags) this trip.  So next time we plan on several weeks of hiking and back-country camping.  We want to see the coasts of Peru and Colombia known for beautiful beaches.  And finally we want to see more of Brazil- Belem is supposedly vibrant and bountiful with Amazonian foods and culture.  In no way did we calm our enjoyment of Brazilian rhythms and dance; we want more samba!

Outside the airport, our last minutes in Peru

There are so many places to visit; each city or village opens new possibilities of adventure.  We walk everywhere and we eat everything; that is what 4feet2mouths is all about.  Our love for travel has taken us to the other side of the world.  And as fall sets on South America we land in Los Angeles ready for new adventures, more exotic countries, more tiring hikes and street food that will leave our mouths searing and tingling.  Traveling is too much fun to stop now.  Do you want to join us?

One of my favorite photos: Congresso reflection, BsAs

36 Hours in Lima (by Carmen)

The buck stopped here.  Our last stop in South America was Lima.  We had intended to spend more time in Peru’s capitol city, but the way things worked out we got about a day and a half.  So we tried to make the most of it.  It was kind of fun to finish off our trip with final rush of food and fun.

Ceviche at Pontal Azul

Arroz con mariscos at Pontal Azul

Our first stop after dropping off our packs at the hostel was more ceviche!  We went to a convivial restaurant called Pontal Azul in the Miraflores neighborhood.  Lima is right on the ocean and this, combined with the modern amenities of the neighborhood, made us feel like we were in California again.  Its coastal location also makes for supremely fresh seafood, and this ceviche didn’t disappoint.

Huaca Pucllana ruins

Next we visited a small set of ruins nearby.  The Inca get most of the attention from the west since they were the ones in power when the Spanish came.  But in fact that empire was only a few hundred years old and many civilizations existed before them.  A series of these previous groups were responsible for this slightly strange set of ruins, which is essentially a large hill built of stacked bricks.  It took several hundred years to build with each society adding layers upon layers.

Downtown plaza

Breakfast at Tanta

The next day we went straight to downtown.  Our first stop was Tanta, a restaurant owned by Peru’s star chef, Gastón Acurio.  We weren’t planning to go here but we accidently missed the breakfast at our hostel.  This turned out to be a very good mistake.  I ordered eggs scrambled with fried yucca and chorizo along with some coffee mixed with honey.  It was to die for.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.  I love fried yucca.  Its starchiness was perfectly balanced by the spicy oil in the chorizo.  Nathan, meanwhile, had an an empanada stuffed with aji de gallina, a kind of chicken stew made creamy nut-based sauce. He accompanied this with an excellent strawberry and passionfruit smoothie.  I would definitely go back.

Dinner at Astrid and Gaston

We spent the next couple hours exploring the old center.  We visited a monestary with a crypt full to the brim of old bones.  They estimated the remains of 50,000 people were kept there.  Afterwards we snuck in some more ceviche at La Choza Nautica, which was good but not as good as Pontal Azul. We then hurried back to Miraflores for a sunset beach stroll before meeting our friends Brenda and Drew for dinner.  Based on the excellent experience at Tanta, we decided to eat at Gaston’s other restaurant, Astrid y Gaston.  It was a fight to get a seat, but we finally managed to eat at the bar around 10pm. The verdict – it was ok.  The food was well executed but, as Nathan put it, it lacked love.  Too bad.

Cevicheria la Choza Nautica

Our final morning in Lima we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hostel and then piled in a micro (one of the minivan buses) on our way to the airport.  It was time to go back to California. I had mixed emotions about leaving South America but that will be the topic of another post…

Much Ado About Machu Picchu – Part 3 (by Nathan)

There is so much hype about Machu Picchu.  Of all the tourist activities to do in South America, this one set of ruins seemed to be on the top of everyone’s list. The archeological site is very accessible with a short tram ride from Aguas Calientes. Carmen and I wanted to expand upon a one day visit to Machu Picchu, and thus we embarked on a six day journey that traversed the hillsides of Peru covering a distance of over sixty miles and four high altitude passes two of which exceeded 14,000ft.  Our lungs and our minds were functioning at top shape after five weeks of traveling through the highlands of Bolivia and Peru.  We were ready to see the famous, the majestic, and the spectacular Machu Picchu.

Tilt-shift shot of Machu Picchu (photo credit: BDix)

Our first glimpse of the ruins was from the sun gate atop a saddle of the east mountain range.  The first five days of the trek were challenging, but included luscious scenery and multiple historic ruins.  On the sixth day we woke up in the depth of the night to begin our hike to the sun gate.  Four of our friends from San Francisco joined us on this trek and with bounding skips and strides we hiked the last stone steps in the dawn light.

Five hundred year old Inca buildings

The sun gate was a magical place for the Incas.  On the winter solstice the sun shines through the stone pillars at sunrise and casts light through the aligned window in the sun temple.  This would cause for a celebration because this day marked the shortest day of the year and that the sun would continue return bringing summer and harvests in the coming year.

Looking over Machu Picchu

We finally made it to Machu Picchu!We sat on the sun gate wall with our legs dangling over the cliff edge completely awestruck over the beauty of this city.  When the Spanish arrived to Peru they went to work destroying the biggest South American empire, the Incas.  Once a city was conquered, the Spanish would force the people to disassemble their most sacred temples and buildings. Then the Spanish would build cathedrals and monasteries on top of the ruins.  We saw this all over Cusco where a very standard looking catholic church sat on beautifully carved Incan masonry walls.  At other ruins only the biggest unmovable stones remained from the temples that once stood so prominently.  With great fortune  Machu Picchu survived!

Panoramic (photo credit: BDix)

The city of Machu Picchu is perched in the saddle between two mountains.  The sacred river wraps around these mountains creating steep cliffs all around.  Machu Picchu is extremely well disguised; The city cannot be seen from the river below or any of the trails that traveled the hillsides.  The people never disclosed the location to the Spanish, and thus the whole city remained in tact for five hundred of years.  Several Peruvian families lived in the city into the early 1900’s.  The city became internationally recognized when Hiram Bringham made his formal discovery in 1911.

Masonry beautifully integrated with natural rock outcropping

Since this discovery this archeological site has been the most intact set of Incan ruins and the best representation of how the Incas lived and survived.  The Incas were a resourceful civilization that utilized the knowledge of all the tribes they conquered.  They built for earthquakes and carved grooves into the stones to lock them together. Enormous corner stones rock with the building and support it during shaking.

Tightly cut stones

The masonry was by far the most magical and seemingly impossible aspect of Incan building construction.  The stones of Incan buildings and walls were precision cut with stone tools. Individual blocks were cut from boulders using a technique of filling small hammered holes with wood pegs.  The pegs were soaked in water and as they swelled the blocks were cut from the granite.  Final finishing of the blocks was done with stone hammers.

Various masonry buildings with sun temple

The finest precision cut blocks were saved for the most important structures. In Machu Picchu the sun temple is built from the highest quality stone work.  Huge boulders carefully fit together without mortar and the joints are so tight that not even a piece of paper can fit.

Llama passings on a terrace

We enjoyed wondering around the complex.  There were hundreds of buildings, each room, wall or terrace held a special charm that I experienced nowhere else in South America.  Llamas shufffled around us on the ancient stone steps and green forested moutains soured in every direction.

Six hiking friends enjoying the view

At the far end of the city the only place to go was up. We bought an additional permit to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the famous mountain peak behind every Machu Picchu photo.  The pathway was steep, but the clouds began to gloom overhead.  In a rush of weather changes our clear sky transitions to a rumbling thick cloud plump with water that began dumping on us during our climb.  Quickly our enjoyable climb became a slippery, uncomfortable scramble up the hillside.  Carmen and I hugged at the rock outcropping that perched on the summit.  Unfortunately the rain and the wind came at us from all directions and immediately we were thankful that we had those few hours in the morning to roam around the city.  Soggy and wet, we climbed down the steps and walked back into Machu Picchu.

Incan bridge clinging to the cliff

Just as sudden as the rain came, it stopped.  We continued to stroll our way through the city.  Brenda and I decided to go on a little side hike to a place that hung carefully on the cliffs.  On the backside of Machu Picchu mountain the residents carved a trail on the cliff side of the mountain.  The cliffs fall thousands of feet to the Sacred River.  One of the most spectacular constructions on this cliff was the Incan Bridge that carefully placed wood logs over precarious block walls.  The bridge is small, but strategically placed to protect Machu Picchu from all directions

Machu Picchu!

Our six day trek had finally come to an end.  Alongside our friends we conquered the mountains in a way that the Spanish never could, we made it to Machu Picchu.  The city imprinted beautiful memories into our minds.  During the train ride home I had that phantom feeling that I was still hiking, still exploring the mountains of Peru and still laughing and joking with my friends.  In Cusco our group separated, but none of us would forget the epic hike of a lifetime.

Walk Like an Ancient Incan – Part 2 (by Nathan)

Wayllabamba ruins in the morning light

We woke up refreshed on our third day of the trek. We camped at the junction of the Salkantay trail and the tradionally hiked stone Inca trail in Wuayllabamba. The village was originally an important strategic settlement of the Inca due to the junction of three valleys. The sun began to crest over the mountains and we explored the first set of ruins on the Inca trail. At 9,900ft (3,000m) the climate was still very humid and warm. The trail was engulfed within a jungle of vines, trees and grasses.

Apus Peru porters setting up our camp

Once on the Inca trail our mules and handlers returned to the start of the Salkantay trail in Soraypampa. Our gear was to be carried by a group of porters that all came from one of the small villages along the Inca trail. This group of guys was more or less a small army. Nine men joined our two chefs and together the eleven of them carried all of our tents and dining materials. They could climb the steep inclines with amazing power then run down the hills with surprising agility.

Brightly colored catapillar

View from Warmihuñusca pass, valley and Inca trail

Our hike that third day was delayed for some permitting issues as our guide worked to get us a better camping location along the trail. It was then that a bee decided to sting me. I am allergic, so for the rest of the week my hand and arm were not pretty as they resembled a balloon more than an hand. I soaked my hand in the creek, but as the afternoon approached I needed to slip it through the strap of my hiking poles and start moving.

Bromiliads clinging to the trees

The jungles were fantastic. Bromiliads clung onto trees in every nook and crevice. Wild flowers surrounded us with pinks, purples and reds. My favorite was the bright yellow lady’s slipper flowers that abundantly filled the tall bushes along our walk. Our guide informed us of the traditional uses of the plants; the people of this area have been able to create medicines for headaches, sleeping, nausea, contraception and muscle pain for thousands of years.

Beautiful forest along Inca trail

Snack time with friends

The stone path continued through forests of vines and trees. The thick canopy blocked out much of the sun. I was in constant admiration of the Inca who constructed this road 500 years ago that is still in such great condition. The frequent steps were carefully chiseled from local stone allowing us to walk through the rough terrain.

A delicious lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes, cucumbers and beet salad

Dinner of mashed beans, stir fried meat, salads and rice

We would walk for several hours at a time with breaks along the way. The porters would pack up the camp while we were hiking then later we would step aside as they ran passed us. Each lunch and dinner was taken at a separate beautiful location. We would sleep with our tents nestled into beautiful green valleys with llamas pushing their way by our tents. Our lunch locations held the promise of nearby ruins and with every meal we were satisfied with plentiful amounts of delicious Peruvian favorites.

Ruins at Sayacmarca

Hole cut out of stone so that entrances could be roped closed

The Inca trail is filled with historic ruins. One of my favorites was Sayacmarca. This complex of rooms and small buildings clung onto the ridgeline and served as another checkpoint for people traveling between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Immediately we are reminded of the remarkable construction and engineering knowledge that the Inca utilized. The carving and placement of the stones is precise and exact. Carefully carved channels direct and deliver spring water into basins for bathing. Fifteen-foot stone walls terrace the hillside with flying steps that allow for maximum agricultural production.

Llama passing

The trail was not just for tourists.  Several llamas had also been using the pathway to transition to the higher elevations and cooler temperatures.  They were pushy, but we were able to pass by them without incident.

Descending the mountain after Warmihuñusca pass

Lago Negra from Runkurukay pass

We crossed two mountain passes on our Inca trail hike: Warmihuñusca (13,900ft) and Runkurukay (13,800ft). It was a challenge to climb over these crests, but after five days of hiking we were ready as we’re ever going to be. Breathing hard with sweat dripping off my forehead it was easy to look back and admire the view. At the top of Runkurukay a natural lake, lago negra, sits gloomily on the cliffs edge.

Dropping into the valley and seeing Phuyupatamarca

Carmen and I at Phuyupatamarca ruins

The fifth day included five more hours of hiking with the addition of exploring two Inca archeological sites.  The first was Phuyupatamarca that overlooked the beautiful Urubampa river valley.

Fading hills from Phuyupatamarca

The second ruins of the day were at Wiñaywayna.  The complex mostly consisted of nearly a hundred terraces etched into the steep hillside.  There were several small buildings and I was even able to find some gooseberries growing along the steps.  We found llamas here too, but one in particular entertained us because it appeared deep in thought or meditation while viewing the scenery.

Llama meditation (Photo credit BDix)

Machu Picchu was near and the buzz all around the camp that evening emphasized everyone’s excitement.  After months of traveling in South America we were finally going to reach one of the most famous historical sights.   I was exhausted from the day’s hikes, but I was anxious and excited which made it difficult to sleep.  We all did our best to get some rest, but the 3am wake-up call was difficult.  Still groggy, we made our way to the hiker’s entrance gate into Machu Picchu.  Just one more hour of hiking and we were going to see the sun rise through the sun gate over Machu Picchu…

Epic Hike to Machu Picchu – Part 1 (by Carmen)

The last city with roads: Mollepata

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous.  Did I really sign up to spend 6 days hiking to Machu Picchu in extremely high altitudes and cold nights and potentially pouring rain?  Should I have signed up for the train instead?  But there I was, hiking with poles in hand and hours and hours of walking ahead of me.  This was the capstone to our South American adventure.  Throughout the past 4 months it had loomed as an exciting yet anxiety inducing event.  As we had our orientation in Cusco, I couldn’t believe it had finally come.

Mountaineers

The most popular trail to Machu Picchu is the 4 day Inca Trail.  So many people wanted to hike it that they started to regulate it, requiring pricy permits and guided groups.  Its popularity is maintained, however, because it is the only walking route that leads directly to Machu Picchu.  We were interested in the Inca Trail, but it wasn’t badass enough.  No, we had to add an extra few days to walk past Salkantay Mountain, later joining up with the Inca Trail.  It seemed like a good idea when we booked it with our tour operator, Apus Peru.

Hiking team at start of hike

Grassy valley and our lunch spot below

What made the idea more enticing was that I was doing it with five awesome people: Nathan, Brenda, Drew, Dan and Randy.  On the first morning, we awoke early, met our guide Julio and drove a few hours outside of town to the trailhead.  Our packs were loaded on to some mules and we promptly set off.  From the beginning the views were spectacular.  We were in a wide grassy valley called Soraypampa with beautiful skies overhead a no one else but our group.  After a few hours we were already at our lunch spot.

A delicious lunch: spanish tortilla, quinoa, dehydrated potatoes and more…

The mules and 4 support staff had already arrived and set up the dining tent.  It was here that we learned how well our investment into a good tour company paid off.  The food was wonderful.  There were five or six courses, local peruvian favorites and flavors that were new, exciting and filling. Each meal we waddled from the tent in another failed attempt to finish all the food.  We were well fed throughout the tour thanks to our personal chef, Rutherford.

Nathan on top of the ridge

Salkantay from our tents

A few more hours of hiking and we made it to our campsite.  The tents were already set up and we were free to absorb the view.  And what a view it was.  We camped right below the gorgeously snow-covered Salkantay Mountain.  We watched until the sun went down and it got too cold to stand outside.  This was our coldest campsite – it dropped below freezing that night and we woke up to tents stiff with ice.

Campsite on night one

Mountain lake that Nathan and Drew jumped in

The next day we got even closer to the mountain.  It was going to be our highest climb, reaching 5,000 m (16,400 ft).  We started off strong but had to take a fair number of breaks to catch our breath.  It was in one of these breaks that Nathan and Drew had the brilliant idea of jumping into the small lake that had formed at the base of Salkantay.  They ran down while we climbed up.  I don’t know how they did it but they jumped in, and immediately jumped out of the icy water. Now they’ve got some good bragging rights.

Celebrations at the pass

A brief clearing in the clouds reveals…Salkantay

Pushing ourselves hard, we kept trudging to the top of the pass. And slowly but surely, we all made it. We all stood on the ridge, looking up at Salkantay.  It felt so rugged and powerful, living up to its name which means Savage Mountain.  I had never been so close to a mountain that reaches 6271m (20,575ft) into the air.  It was breathtaking.

Hiking through the valley

Colorful fauna

And then it was time to descend.  For the rest of the day we passed through more valleys, some with small settlements scratching out a living with farms or llama herds.  We found the hike to be incredibly peaceful.  We never really saw any other hikers.  Just locals using the paths for everyday use.

Canal built by the Incas

Flowing creeks cut through the valley.  The Incas restrained these waters and created canals that still contain and manage the waterways five hundred years later.

Group hiking continued

Towards the end of day 2, we made it to our intersection with the Inca Trail.  We settled in and ate a delicious dinner.  These always started with soup, then a meat entree, always accompanied with potatoes of some sort, and perhaps a veggie or two.  We all finished it off with coca tea. It was the poshest camping I’ll ever experience.

Nathan standing on a huge rock

With day 3 we ventured on to the Inca Trail and all was about to change…

Old Friends in Cusco (by Carmen)

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Cathedral at night

Nathan and I arrived in Cusco at about 6 in the morning. The streets were empty as we walked the uphill journey from the bus station to our hostel. We dropped off our stuff and headed out to walk again and explore the city. The streets had started to fill up but it wasn’t with locals. Everyone seemed to be from somewhere else.After traveling for so long in places with relatively few foreigners, it was jarring to be in a city practically overrun with tourists. This was both good and bad.

View of the Plaza Mayor from above

The good thing was that they were ready for the tourist hoards with a variety of restaurants, cozy cafes, gift shops, bars, info centers, etc. The bad thing was that they used the opportunity to charge inflated prices for some of the city sights. The cathedral, for example, would have cost $10. The ticket to see local ruins costs $70! These are very high prices compared to the cost of
living in Peru. Someone is making a lot of money but it doesn’t seem to be reinvested in the sights nor in the town outside of the central tourist zone. Seeing how things are in South America, it probably ends up in a few government officials’ pockets, unfortunately.

Stone wall made without mortar or metal tools

But some sights were worth shelling out some money. In the 15th century, Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. It was here that they built their finest temples and palaces using their best stone masons. Of course, the Spanish destroyed everything and rebuilt all the temple sites as churches. But there are still traces of the original grandeur. For example, a beautiful wall is just off the main plaza. It shows how magnificently the giant stones were placed together with no mortar or metal tools.

Another example of this fine stone work was at Qorikancha, the golden temple that celebrated the sun. The work was so precise and detailed. It would have been amazing to see it before the Spanish looted the gold that covered the entire walls.

Jumping for joy in the Sacred Valley

The true highlight of our time in Cusco, however, was seeing our Bay Area friends. Back in January we decided to do an epic 6 day hike to Machu Picchu. To acclimatized to the high altitudes we all spent a few days in Cusco. It was awesome to do this exploration with them. First we met up with Dan and Randy and got caught up over pancakes and paninis at Jack’s Cafe. Together we took a tour of the Sacred Valley, the farming region outside of Cusco that holds a few sacred ruins.

Terraces in Pisac

Nathan in an Incan trapizoidal doorway

The first set of ruins were the terraces and homes of Pisac. Built high into the hillsides these settlements were both closer to the apus, or mountain gods, as well as protected from invasion.

Temple at Ollantaytambo

Next we hit the town of Ollantaytambo which was strategically placed at the intersection of three valleys. It had intact terraces and fountains that still operate today.

Women demonstrating the dying of fabrics

As part of the tour we stopped at a textile factory where women spend a few months dying and weaving textiles, make some money, then head back home. The demonstration of how the alpaca wool is spun using a dradel looking thing, dyed with natural plants and weaved on a loom was a sort of a sales pitch but interesting nonetheless.

Lomo Saltado

That night we met up with two more dear friends, Brenda and Drew! We all went out for some roasted chicken but Nathan was a rebel and ordered lomo saltado, or beef stir fried with potatoes, onions, and tomatoes in a tangy sauce. This is one of my favorite Peruvian dishes. The combination of flavors and cooking styles reflects the Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine.

Group at Sacsayhuaman

Tunnel

The next day we all took a bus 8km outside of Cusco. Together we walked the road back, exploring the various ruins along the way and ending at the famous and spectacular Sacsayhuaman. We hired a guide for this last site and within minutes we found ourselves in a pitch black tunnel dug out of the rocky hillside. As we emerged into the sun once more we found a circular area partially line with stones. The guide explained that a pool of water may have been there once to reflect the stars. I sat on the throne overlooking this pool area, trying to recreate it in my mind. It became very apparent how thoroughly the Spanish destructed these sacred sites and structures.

Me on the throne

The three tiers of Sacsayhuaman

What is left a Sacsayhuaman is whatever the Spanish couldn’t destroy. That includes three large terraces that formed the foundation of three important Incan temples. The temples are long gone but the enormous stones that formed the terraces would have required great effort to move. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but each wall is about 15 feet tall! The field in front of the terraces is the last battleground of the Inca against the Spanish, with the latter barely gaining their victory.

Chicharron

We finished off our ruins tour with a lunch at a chicharron restaurant. A few slabs of fried pork, onions, mint and some pink speckled potatoes hit the spot.

Cuy times

But there was one more dish to try before we all left for our hike to Machu Picchu: cuy (guinea pig). For anyone hesitant about trying this unique delicacy, I think the picture confirms your worst nightmares. Fortunately, none of the members of our group were intimdated. We dug in and found that cuy offered a dark, gamey taste. It was fun to try but not anything I’ll be craving soon.

I enjoyed how history came alive in Cusco. But it was time to pack our bags and start the hike of a lifetime.

Climbing In and Out of Colca Canyon (by Nathan)

Colca Canyon

Waking up at 3am is never easy, when traveling it is sometimes a necessity.  But when the plan is to hike in and out of the deepest canyon in the world we were excited.  A van picked us up at the hostel in Arequipa and we cruised through the darkness of the night and into the mountains.  By sunrise we had crossed the high mountain pass at 5,000m (16,500ft) and we descended to the cliff’s edge.  Our destination: the Colca Canyon with winding cliff trails, historic villages and expansive, gorgeous sights.

Andean condors flying through the canyon

The andean condor had already mesmerized Carmen and me on that exhausting day in Argentina, but along the Colca Canyon the condors have survived and flourished for thousands of years.  At the Cruz de los Condores we watched five giant birds soar majestically through the air.  With minimal effort they utilized the wind and the rising heat to pull themselves thousands of feet above our heads.

Carmen and I hiking in Colca Canyon

Our hike began mid-morning and nearly two-thirds down into the canyon.  The canyon is huge, but much less drastic than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The Rio Colcahas cut through a volcanic mountain range with summits at 5,500m (18,000 ft) and the river below rests at around 2,000m (6,600ft).  Our descent was rocky, loose and steep.  Our knees and feet ached after dropping 900m (3,000ft) in the first two hours.  A quick jump in the river and I was refreshed and ready to continue.

Colca Rock Face

Rio Colca

The villages in these mountains have a remarkable history.  Tribes of people have lived here for thousands of years. They farmed the steep hillsides by notching terraces, called andenes, into the slopes.  Each terrace was irrigated by local springs and the vegetables were optimized for the microclimates.  Thousands of potato varieties exist in Peru as well as primary crops of corn and quinoa; each crop was planted and harvested to the heat, moisture and soil that varies from terrace to terrace.  The people here survived before Inca times.  They flourished with Inca civilization and now the communities hang on to difficult lives that are locked high into the mountainside.

Corn cobs drying in the sun

The villages house several families and many of the towns take over two days to walk to.  There is one poorly kept clinic that provides meager guidance and healthcare to the people.  This was probably the most upsetting part of the hike because we spoke with and observed people that were brutally poor, yet we paid an entry into the park of $26.  This money did not go into roads, which were dirt, or signage, that did not exist, or residents, who did not even know that tourists pay over $100,000 per day to the region.  In this way, the hike was a cultural experience in addition to a natural one.

Terraced hillsides of Colca Canyon

Our lunch spot was San Juan de Cucho, which was 1,000ft of ascent from the river.  Our guide cooked us some lomo saltado and we enjoyed a conversation with our new friends.  While the rest of my group napped I hiked up the steep mountainside. I followed a narrow path that tightly cut through the brush and grass and I switched back and forth up the mountain.  I peered through the bushes to find another village, or at least the remnants of a village.  Beautiful stone walls peeked out of tall grass and trees grew from the foundations of former buildings.  I returned to our lunch spot and the group was assembled and ready to go.

Church in village of Malata

Our dinner and lodging for the night was in a town a few hours hike along the mountainside.  In Cosñirhua we were welcomed into a small dwelling ran by two women and a five year old boy.  The boy kicked a soccer ball with us and then laughed at my Spanish in our conversation about his front yard garden.  In the kitchen a small pen housed fifteen guinea pigs, but we would not get the chance to try this Peruvian delicacy until Cusco.  We slept in a room that crudely resembled a hostel but the room was warm, the bed clean and there was running water so not much more was necessary.

Sangalle el Oasis below and switch-backs to Cabanaconde

The next day was an easy hike with little change of elevation.  It went quickly because we were all excited to jump in the pools at the oasis.  Sangalle El Oasis is a cluster of buildings and huts that were built for the many tourists.  Each group of buildings includes a beautiful turquoise pool.  We jumped in the cool water and baked in the sun.  The mountains rose in all directions and quickly blocked out the sun and invited cold winds to howl through the canyon.

Group photos above Colca Canyon

Our third day was challenging.  We needed to climb out of the canyon.  We started walking at 5am and pushed ourselves up the steep trail.  Each of us walked at our own pace and in 1.75 hours I was at the top after climbing 1,100m (3,600ft).  Forty-five minutes later, Carmen arrives claiming that she did not even break a sweat.

Nathan, a little girl and a baby alpaca

We hiked with an international group of people from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and France.  Each arrival of one of our new friends was a celebration.  Both out of breath from the hike and from the beautiful views we congratulated each other on the three wonderful days of hiking.  We picked up breakfast in Cabanaconde and lunch in Chivay that included a welcomed sight of a baby alpaca and young girl dressed in the traditional fabrics and hat of the region.

Alpacas grazing along the side of the road

It was an exhausting couple of days, but for Carmen and I this was only practice for the six days of hiking that we had planned to Machu Picchu.  First we needed to get to Cuzco…

Delicious Eats in Arequipa (by Carmen)

We finally made it to the last country on our South America itinerary – Peru!  We have been looking forward to this moment for a long time.  The reason, simply, is the food.   I have always loved Peruvian food.  A childhood friend’s Peruvian mother exposed me to the cuisine early on.  And I couldn’t get enough of the roasted chicken at a Peruvian restaurant my family would frequent when I was young.  But now I was at the source, ready to to make new culinary discoveries as well as seek out some of my favorite dishes.

Mototaxi!

Mototaxi!

We were on our way to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city.  But to get there we first had to spend a night in Puno, a small city near the Bolivian border.  Not a whole lot going on there but we did get to ride the cute little mototaxi between the hostel and the bus station.  I loved it!  I’m sure we’ll be seeing tons more once we get to Asia.

Sunset in the Plaza Mayor

Sunset in the Plaza Mayor

Me and the Cathedral

Me and the Cathedral

Once in Arequipa, we found a lovely city with pretty architecture, a bustling center, and dramatic mountains surrounding it.  The city was living up to its reputation of being a great place to stroll around but we wanted to check out its other claim to fame: gastronomic excellence. We wasted no time in getting to Zig Zag, a cozy upscale restaurant in the old part of town.

Trio of meats with creamed quinoa at Zig Zag

Trio of meats with creamed quinoa at Zig Zag

Zig Zag was fun, if a bit over the top (we were served a cocktail for two out of an ostrich egg cup).  We indulged in their specialty, which involves your choice of meats that come out of the kitchen still sizzling on a lava rock.  We opted for pork, alpaca and lamb, which came with little triangle flags announcing each one.  The perfectly cooked meats were paired with creamed quinoa and a few dipping salsas.  For our next meal, we decided we were ready for Peru’s famous seafood dishes.

Leche de Tigre

Leche de Tigre

Ceviche at El Cebillano

Ceviche at El Cebillano

So we asked our hostel owner where the best ceviche in town could be found.  She directed us to El Cebillano which turned out to be excellent advice.  We started off with some delicious leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), which is a small glass of the acidic juice they soak the seafood in.  Nathan asked for his to be picante, and I think it was the spiciest thing I ever tasted.  It was like pure chile juice!  Next up we got ceviche de pulpo (octopus ceviche) served three different ways.  In the states, we are more familiar with the ceviche that is soaked in lemon juice.  In South America, we’ve also encountered creamy ceviches.  These are tasty but I still prefer the sourness of the lemon.

Chupa de Camarón

Chupa de Camarón

Rocoto Relleno with potatoes

Rocoto Relleno with potatoes

Another recommendation from the hostel took us to El Nuevo Palomino.  Here we opted for an Arequipean specialty, chupa de camarón.  It is basically a seafood stew with a wonderful, creamy broth.  Hints of saffron and paprika made the flavors reminiscent of spanish paella. And the dish was enormous.  This picture is of just one of our bowls after we asked them if we could split it.  We really didn’t need the side dish of rocoto relleno (a pepper stuffed with veggies, cheese and ground meat) but we couldn’t resist.  Rocoto relleno turned out to be one of our favorite Peruvian finds.

Central market in Arequipa

Central market in Arequipa

We had satisfied our fine dining fix while in Arequipa and it was time to hit our favorite part of any town, the market.  This one didn’t disappoint, with lots of people and a balcony to watch all the action below.

Chicharron stand

Chicharron stand

It was in the market that we found one of my favorite snacks in Peru, the chicharron (fried pork) sandwhich.  They sliced up a big slab of chicharron, slapped it on a bun, slathered it with salsa and onions and handed over all for about $1. Just perfect.  As you can tell by now, Peruvian cuisine isn’t very vegetarian friendly.  We were still missing our veggies but at least the flavor range and been seriously improved in Peru.

Bakery stand at the market

Bakery stand at the market

Our beloved guagua

Our beloved guagua

There was one more find at the market, our guagua de pan (bread baby).  We happened to be there on Mother’s Day and the tradition is to buy these little bread loaves in the shape of bundled infants.  They have these tiny ceramic faces baked into them – I found them irresistibly cute. And the sweet bread was surprisingly tasty!

Our stopover in Arequipa was a great (re)introduction to Peruvian food and I was looking forward to more in Cuzco and Lima.

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