Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lunahuaná (September 14th - 16th, 2013)

Lunahuaná is a small adventure resort. We probably saw more rafts and quad bikes than people there. Still, the town was not empty, it had quite some people, including tourists. To our pleasant surprise, almost all of the tourists were Peruvians and not foreigners as in other parts of Peru.

We arrived from Paracas by taking a taxi, bus, shared taxi and another shared taxi. It may sound complicated, but it was actually quite a smooth process, and on average we did not need to wait more than ten minutes for the next connection. As we arrived quite late and had not managed to have a proper meal during the whole day, the first thing we decided to do was to go for dinner. Edgar and Verena had recommended us to try a chifa - this is the Peruvian version of a Chinese restaurant. One portion at a chifa happily filled us both. The same evening, we also talked to some agencies to make a plan for the next day.

After breakfast, we had planned to do rafting, because we really liked our Arequipa experience and wanted to repeat it. To our surprise, we were on the raft with a Peruvian family with three kids. Unfortunately, we were in the dry season and the majority of the local river was unusable at the time. There was not much water and for a while I thought that the river is quite boring. Suddenly, I don't know how, I fell out of the raft! Fortunately, our guide managed to pull me in pretty quickly, and I just got a couple of scratches on my fingers.

Before departure

After rafting we rested a bit and then went for lunch. The next activity we wanted to try was riding a quad bike. We booked with our hostel and a friend of the owner took us on a tour. The ride was boring not only for our guide, who was constantly playing with his phone, but actually for us as well. All of the agencies took people on the same route, making it look like a quad bike traffic jam. We were also disappointed to see our guide throw away a plastic bottle onto to the road. This was something we had rarely seen since leaving Bolivia. 

Quad bikes
During the rest of the afternoon we caught up with our blog, and next morning we departed for Lima.

We do not have many pictures of Lunahuaná, but there are still a couple more.

Paracas (September 13th - 14th, 2013)

We spent only a day and a half in Paracas, but managed to do quite a lot of things. After arriving there in the afternoon, we went swimming in the Pacific Ocean - for me, this was the very first time. It was quite chilly, and other tourists didn't dare go in. Afterwards, we enjoyed watching another marvelous sunset.

The next morning, we went on a boat trip around the Ballestas Islands. On the way there, we saw a large geoglyph - El Candelabro - the origin of which is still unknown. The islands themselves were covered in guano (bird excrement), which is harvested once about every five years and sold as fertilizer. Guano is and has been economically important for Peru, and control over guano-rich islands even lead to some military conflicts in the 19th century. We also saw hundreds of thousands of birds, including albatrosses and Humboldt penguins, as well as many sea lions.

El Candelabro 

Penguins parading

Life is good!

The Ballestas Islands had several arches such as this one

In the afternoon, we went on a tour to the Paracas National Reserve. The trip took us to several beautiful beaches, a small museum, and to a place where we could observe flamingos. We weren't allowed to go close, though, and I'm glad we had our binoculars with us. We also experienced a seemingly persistent sandstorm. Indeed, Paracas means "sand rain" in Quechua.

There were beautiful cliffs in Paracas ...

... and colorful beaches as well

We have some more photos of the area here

Huacachina (September 11th - 13th, 2013)

Huacachina is a desert oasis, a village that's home to about four families. After our fun sand boarding experience near Nazca, we were looking forward to some more action in the sand. In addition to sand boarding, one other traveler had recommended that we try a dune buggy ride in Huacachina. Thus, on the day of arrival, we went on an afternoon ride with a buggie. Honestly, it was the best fun I've had in South America! It was a bit like a roller coaster ride, but just so much better. Some Colombians on the same buggy were laughing the whole time, and I nearly as much.

We'll never forget that dune buggie

Once we had been taken up to the dunes, we would sand board down. This time, we tried going down standing and sitting too, but at the longest slope, our guide told us once again to lie down for safety reasons. Our fantastic afternoon ended with a beautiful sunset at the dunes.

Perhaps this gives you a vague idea of the sunset we saw

The next day, we went sand boarding again, but without the help of the buggy. Radek sand boarded the whole morning, and I a little in the afternoon. As we had to carry our sand boards up ourselves, we only went up small slopes and focused more on the standing technique. It was not easy, but still fun.

For lunch, we went to Ica - a much larger town close to Huacachina, because we needed to withdraw some cash. Moreover, food was substantially cheaper in Ica.

We also went swimming in the pool at our hostel. It was nice and refreshing, and we had some great company. We met Edgar and Verena, a German couple who had been working in Austria for several years, and talked with them the whole morning about life, the universe and everything.  

Some more pictures of the sand can be seen here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nazca (September 9th - 11th, 2013)

Nazca is a city perhaps most famous for the nearby desert line drawings, created about 1400 to 1600 years ago and preserved because of the dry nature of the area. Indeed, the region is one of the driest in the world. In addition to seeing the lines, we were looking forward to hiking up the world's highest sand dune - Cerro Blanco, also on the doorstep of Nazca.

We arrived in Nazca on an overnight bus and took some time to find a hotel and get settled in. In the early afternoon, we went to several tour agencies and asked for prices to see the desert lines and Cerro Blanco. A 30-minute flight to see the Nazca lines was too expensive for us (85 USD), and thus, we booked an afternoon tour to a couple of view points instead (50 soles = approx. 18 USD). In addition, we arranged to go to the Cerro Blanco early next morning.

Our tour took us to one natural view point, from where we could see long straight lines, and to an observation tower, with a view on three figures - the hands (also called the frog), the tree and the lizard. In addition, we visited the Palpa lines, created by another, older culture. All lines were made by removing a small layer of pebbles to uncover the underlying grayish earth. It was all rather impressive, but we had the feeling that the lines would have been much better visible in the morning. Our tour also included a trip to the Maria Reiche museum. Maria Reiche was a German lady who dedicated her life to the study and preservation of the Nazca lines. The museum was originally her tiny house in the middle of the desert.

People of the Nazca culture made hundreds of lines like this, some of which are several km in length

The hands or the frog

The Palpa lines were my favorites

The humble room of Maria Reiche (the figure in the corner is just a puppet)

At 5:30 the next morning, we were picked up by Arturo, our sand boarding instructor and guide for the Cerro Blanco. He drove us to the trail head, from where we started a three-hour walk up the dune, carrying some water, bananas and our sand boards. I was afraid that it would be uncomfortably hot, but it was really not too bad, despite the lack of shade. We reached the highest point - 2078 m above sea level - at about 9:30, and then had our first attempts at sand boarding. Arturo told us that there are three methods to go down on the board - standing, sitting, and lying down on the stomach. The latter is the safest, so that's how we got down. We had four rides - the first one short, for practice, the second and third a bit longer, and the forth was really long, lasting several minutes! When we got back to town, our clothes and shoes were, of course, completely full of sand.

Our goal - to reach the top of Cerro Blanco

We carried the sand boards on our backs ...

... and went down on our stomachs. My face looks so dark because I covered my mouth and nose - I did not want to breathe in sand

In the evening, we visited the Maria Reiche planetarium, which is at the hotel where she had a room during the last years of her life. We heard a lecture about her theories of the lines and their possible connection to constellations and times of the year. Current interpretations link the figures with water sources and other places of worship. The planetarium also had a telescope, and with which we could see Saturn and the moon.

Couldn't see the American flag, but the view was still amazing

More photos of Nazca and the surroundings can be seen here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cusco (August 28th - September 8th, 2013)

Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, and reminders of its past can be seen in many parts of the city. Currently, it is the most visited tourist destination in Peru, and also this is clearly evident: not only did we see many tourists, but were on countless occasions asked if we want a massage, or told that the restaurant we were about to pass is the place we should have dinner. This was quite irritating, but other than that, we really liked the city.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco

Cusco from above

Like in Arequipa, we weren't satisfied with the hostel where we spent the first night, and decided to look for a new place to stay. Namely, we had found a centrally-located hostel and thought that the room was nice and the price (40 soles) more than reasonable. That it was dirt cheap should have been a clue for us, though: we did not manage to sleep a wink that night. At about 10 p.m., we started hearing loud electronic music from somewhere below our room, and it did not stop until 5 a.m. Exhausted, we packed our things in the morning, checked online for a new place, and headed that way. Online, the Andean Dreams hotel offered a room for two for 62 soles, but we could not book it for that day. We went there, and found out that the price should actually be 125 soles, but the person working there allowed us to stay for the price we had seen online. We were very happy with the service, the rooms and the breakfast there, so we decided to stay until we left Cusco.

The first thing we did in Cusco was a free walking tour. We had two guides for the tour: one could speak very good English and told us about the history of the city, whereas the other was much more difficult to understand. The main responsibility of this guide seemed to have been to take us to different restaurants (altogether five), where we could sample a bit of sushi, falafel, chicha morada or chocolate. The food was good, but honestly, I would have preferred to hear more about the city.

During the tour, we also participated in a lottery, and I won a free entrance to Ccochahuasi animal sanctuary. This was a wonderful place to visit! Every animal there had a special, and often sad story about how it had arrived there. Among other things, were told about the reasons for the decline in condor populations (one of them particularly gruesome), and about the dozens of natural dyes that Peruvians use for their textiles.

Laura and a blue-and-yellow macaw

A Peruvian hairless dog, thought to alleviate asthma

Some of the natural products used to dye textiles in Peru

We visited Qorikancha - the ruins of an Inca temple, now the base of a colonial church and convent. It is said that during Inca times, the temple walls were covered in gold. Though this is no longer the case, the masterful stonework is still very impressive. We also had a three-hour tour lead by a novice guide in the extensive Inca museum. It left us quite tired, but was certainly worth it.

Terraces at Qorikancha

Without a doubt, the museum that left us with the biggest smiles on our faces was the Choco museum. Their exhibition on cocoa trees and the history of chocolate was very interesting, and their chocolate fondue absolutely delicious!

We also went on a trip outside of Cusco, during which we hiked along the Salkantay trail and visited Machu Picchu.

Don't forget to have a look at the other photos we took in Cusco!

Machu Picchu and around (September 5th - 7th, 2013)

We were not very enthusiastic about going to Machu Picchu, as it is the most touristy spot in South America. However, it still managed to positively surprise us: it is very photogenic and surrounded by beautiful mountains.

We started in the early morning in Santa Tereza. The owner of our hostel organized a shared taxi to Hidroelectrica for us, and from there we hiked around the railroad to Aquas Calientes. The trail was surrounded by plants with beautiful flowers and many other interesting things.

Abandoned railway chassis

Laura and flowers

We were originally thinking about camping in order to be closer to Machu Picchu, but a nice couple we met on the way recommended a good and cheap hostel to us, so we decided to go there instead. After we had settled in our room in Aguas Calientes and bought tickets for Machu Picchu, we climbed the Putucusi mountain (= the Mountain of Joy). The climb consisted of a couple of ladders that were quite straightforward, and of an easy section close to the top. It started to rain near the top, but it was just a short shower.

Laura climbing one of the leaders

Rainbow above Aguas Calientes

Thanks to the rain we were completely alone at the top for a while and enjoyed observing Machu Picchu with our binoculars.

Binoculars gave us much closer view than the maximum zoom on our camera

Eventually, Marco from Venezuela arrived to the top. He has Swiss and Italian roots, seemed well-educated and was very interesting to speak with. We found many similarities between Czechoslovakia before 1989 and the current situation in Venezuela. We walked together to Aquas Calientes, conversing the whole time.

The next morning we woke up at around 4:30 to be on one of the first buses to Machu Picchu. We had our breakfast while queuing for the bus, and were on the fourth one. Going so early was completely worth it, as we managed to take really nice pictures during the sunrise.

Llamas - not only for tourists, but also natural lawn mowers

Machu Picchu ruins and Wayna Picchu hill during sunrise

As the place started to fill up with other tourists, we headed up to Machu Picchu mountain. It is much less crowded than the popular Wayna Picchu and also higher. It provided us with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and of Machu Picchu itself.

Nevado Salkantay

Machu Picchu from a bird's-eye view

Berg heil!

We descended down and almost immediately went to the entrance gate. It took us a while, but eventually we managed to find a group for a guided tour. Unfortunately the tour was not very good.

The Incas thought quite economically - only the bottom of the building was constructed using their fancy stone cutting technique
Replanted flowers from Inca's time

This looks cool, but I still prefer Google Calendar

Laura was feeling very sleepy and decided she had had enough and went back to our hostel to relax. I had a short nap between the ruins and then decided to hike to the Sun Gate. Well acclimatized from Salkantay Trek, I was quickly overtaking groups of Japanese tourists. The Sun Gate itself was not very spectacular, but it provided a view of Machu Picchu from a different angle.

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate
I returned back, had another nap and wandered around a bit. Tourists were slowly disappearing and at close to five there were maybe just 100 people there, well spread out around the site.

Machu Picchu in the afternoon

Roca Sagrada

I left the site at exactly 16:59 and then just walked back down to our hostel. Laura had already had dinner, so I went to one local restaurant and had a delicious lomo saltado.

The next morning we took it easy, packed our things and started walking back to Hidroelectrica. We met two nice French girls on the way (Anouk and Anaïs), and might visit them in Rio, where they are on an exchange year. From Hidroelectrica we took taxi to Santa Maria. There we had to wait for a while. It was a bit chaotic, but we managed to find a van that took us back to Cusco.

The OpenStreetMap coverage was quite good, but we still manged to improve it a bit and we have many more pictures.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Salkantay Trek (September 1st - 4th, 2013)

Already when preparing for our South America trip, we knew that the Inca Trail would be very crowded, requires a guide and should be booked almost half a year in advance. This did not appeal to us at all, especially as we were aware of a similarly beautiful trek that can be done independently without neither advanced booking nor paying of stupid fees.

We had a delicious breakfast at our hotel in Cusco, after which we walked to a place where we thought we could take a shared taxi to Mollepata. Unfortunately, we were there too late and had to take a private one for 80 soles instead. After arriving in Mollepata we were surprised that nobody was urging us to use their accommodation. There were a couple of places with the sign "Hospedaje", but they seemed to be closed. We were happy that one of them finally opened, after we had banged on their door for a while. It was very basic place, with dirty bathrooms, but for one night we did not care too much. As it was still quite early in the afternoon, we just walked around and searched for an open restaurant. All the restaurants were closed and we quickly realized why: there was a Sunday market on the central square and they had plenty of possibilities for eating, so we had a delicious grilled pork meal there.

Afterwards, Laura stayed in our room to read and I went around a bit more to map the streets of Mollepata. I met two nice French guys who were also planning to do the Salkantay trek independently. We exchanged information, as they were relying on some French description, whereas our information was from the blog of one English-speaking couple. Unfortunately, when I came back, Laura had a stomach problem, meaning we would not depart the next day.

In the morning, Laura was feeling a bit better, but still not well enough to go hiking. We were quite annoyed by the place we were staying at by that time - in addition to the very dirty restroom and lumpy beds, we woke up with dozens of spots on our skin, meaning we had not been alone in our beds. Thus, we started thinking about alternatives. The previous day, the French guys had told me that there is quite a good hostel in the upper right corner of the central square. We had missed it as it does not have any sign indicating accommodation. I went and checked it and we moved there immediately. Laura stayed there for the whole day, but I decided to go on a bit of a hike on my own. I soon managed to get a lift towards Soraypampa from one of the guys who was transporting luggage for many agencies.

I was lucky not to ride on top of the luggage, but next to the driver

In the end we agreed with the driver that he would drop me off at the same place as the luggage for half of the original price. From there it was still forty minutes to Soraypampa, but it was quite flat and the views were just amazing. The Salkantay mountain started to appear from behind the mountain on the right. On the way I met a nice guy who was leading some horses. He told me that we can use his services and have our bags delivered to the pass for 80 soles.

Nevado Humantay dominating the end of the valley

Nevado Salkantay will pop-up in the side valley towards the right, with Humantay on the left

It took a bit of an effort to find the hiking path back to Mollepata: I did not want to walk back on the road. Fortunately, there were many groups going up, so I just went in the opposite direction. It would probably be quite a tough hike to go up with all our equipment, but going down with a small backpack was very pleasant.

One of the many nice views down

I came back down at around 4 p.m. and immediately went to see Laura. She was sleepy, but feeling much better. The owner of our hostel booked us a taxi for early next morning and we went for a dinner.

The following day we started walking from Soraypampa up. We saw a group that not only had their luggage taken up by horses, but even the trekkers themselves went up on horseback. We put my heavy backpack on one horse for 40 soles and I took Laura's, which had just half the weight of mine. Laura went up with a small day bag. 

Laura with her small bag was going quite fast

It was quite crowded, but we did not mind, as the scenery was just amazing

We had a well-deserved break at the pass. It had taken us much less time than we expected to go up: we arrived there before 10 a.m. From there, we knew we would only need to go down. We made some more pictures, took our bags and started descending.

Great mountains at the pass

As we were getting down, the snow disappeared first, then the first trees started appearing and eventually we were just surrounded by them. The mountains at the Salkantay trek are quite impressive, but we enjoyed the flora of the Choro Trail much more than the one on this hike.

First, mountains with snow ...

... then grass ...

... and almost a jungle at the end

It was a lot of descending, but eventually we arrived in Challway. We built our tent at one of the many camping sites. The sites had quite a nice business model: camping was for free, but they would try to sell the right to use a bit overpriced hot shower and many drinks during their happy hour. We easily resisted this and just bought a pack of cookies in order to support them.

Our camp site

The next day we were one of the last to leave, as our tent is always very wet in the mornings and without direct sunlight takes ages to dry. The hike to La Playa was a bit boring. It was partially on a road, but mainly between the trees. Fortunately, some waterfalls and the river nearby compensated for it a bit.

Laura felt quite tired when we arrived in La Playa and did not want to continue. She was much happier after a short rest and especially after agreeing that we would not continue walking towards Hydroelectrica, but rather take a minibus to Santa Tereza.

Santa Tereza was a pleasant surprise. Already on the minibus we were approached by the owner of hostel El Sol, which, as we later read, is also recommended by Lonely Planet. Embarrassed to say, we did not believe him in the beginning, because local people often try to drag us to bad-quality hostels that presumably pay them provisions. After a bit of checking we found that the improbable is not impossible and happily stayed with him. Our trek ended with a visit of the wonderful thermal baths at Santa Tereza, which we liked a lot more than the ones in Chivay in the Colca Canyon and cost just a third of the price.

As usually, we contributed to OpenStreetMap and have many more pictures