Why I Decided on Peru/Bolivia
I chose Peru and Bolivia because I needed: 1. a sojourn, 2. somewhere safe for a solo female, 3. cheap (flights and once I arrived), 4. do-able in just 2 weeks, and 5. somewhere that was good in mid-April. These requirements ruled out the other places on the top of my list. Additionally, it hit some pretty major interest points – how can I resist adding a new continent, World Wonder, and some of the highest places in the world to my checklist?
Cusco was a wonderful, charming city. Though (I admit) I stayed mostly around the touristy, historic part near the Plaza de Armas. I was shocked how European it felt from the Conquistador influence. I was also surprised by bright blue accents (almost like the blue you see everywhere in Greece, or so I imagine). The Plaza felt very safe, even at night and the weather was warm, but mild. Each ally or staircase took you to a unique area, so it felt easy to get lost in an intimate way (similar to Venice).
Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni itself is a desolate mining town. The streets look a bit like you’ve walked into the Wild West – locals tearing through empty, dusty roads… Because Uyuni has a pretty major tourist attraction, there is one walking street in the middle of town with restaurant/bars and hostels.
I researched the company ahead of time and checked in with them when I arrived in Uyuni. I had also arranged to come the evening prior to my tour in case the company could arrange a night tour of stargazing on the salt flats, but when I checked in with them, they said they could not offer night tours, and confirmed what I had read that other companies were dangerous (drunk drivers). This was disappointing, but not surprising. Another reason I booked in April was because I hoped there would be water on the salt flats, but when I asked the company, they said no water. How could that be!? I saw some water from the plane as I flew in!
The next morning, predictably, I was pawned off on another company. Luckily, as I got into the exclusively Korean and Chinese SUV, I was told that this company GUARANTEES seeing water on the flats. Sure enough, we were driven to a room where we picked up galoshes/wellies! We conducted the tour as all of the other ones are done – first to the Train Cemetery (we were allotted 20 minutes and I could’ve stayed there all day taking photos of abandoned rusty trains). Then, we went out to the flats and took photos of the endless white desert. Lunch was provided for us, and I took the opportunity to do a tequila shot with fresh salt from the ground (I brought a mini bottle of Tequila from home and spent the morning finding a local grocery store in town to buy a lime, then bribed someone to cut it for me)! Off to the Cactus Island, then the afternoon was spent with the guide helping us get perspective group shots. As the sun got low in the sky, we headed back toward Uyuni and put on our wellies. A couple inches of water was on the ground, so we splashed around taking photos until the sun set. It was the most epic sunset I’ve ever seen!
The Salt Flat Tour dropped me off at the bus station just in time to catch my night bus to La Paz. The tour group I was with said that they were going back to the Salt Flats in the evening to see the stars and since this was another major goal of mine, I almost rearranged my entire trip around this. I ended up racing across town to find their tour company only to find out they were sold out for the evening, and then racing back across town to board my night bus. I got on the bus with dried salt water caked onto my sun burnt legs, and no time to freshen up. So, I poured hand-sanitizer into my hands and rubbed them along my calves. Note: Salt, sunburn and alcohol are a VERY painful combination.
We arrived in La Paz before dawn (alone in a dark big city – yikes), so I bummed a ride with a friendly guy to his hostel and used some wifi while I waited for the city to get light. Then, I remembered that La Paz has the highest aerial cable car system in the world. After quick research, I found that one of the lines goes to El Alto (where the airport is), so I hopped in a cab and headed to the Linea Roja station. I boarded the cable car gondola and took the 7 min ride up the hill, overlooking La Paz as the sun rose. What a perfect way to enjoy the city on my way out of town. At the top, I took another taxi to the airport with my very last Bolivian currency (I had to negotiate with the driver).
I didn’t think I had enough time to see all of the ruins in the Sacred Valley, so I decided to focus on the three closest to Cusco. Then, on a whim, I decided to cram in more and head out to Pisac, and try to hit the rest on the way back to Cusco in the afternoon. And I’m glad I did. Pisac valley is quite magnificent and the ruins are extensive. It was a nice introduction to Inca culture. I intended to taxi up the hill, then walk back to the city of Pisac, but after visiting the ruins, I was told from a police officer that I wasn’t allowed to walk down. I ended up bumming a ride with a tour group (and a Canadian couple who had the same idea I had, and I shared a beer with them later). On the way back to Cusco, I had the Collectivo drop me at Tambomachay ruins, which have beautiful water fountains, then I walked 8 km back to Cusco, passing Puca Pucara and Sacsaywaman ruins (and the Cristo Blanco).
Pinkuylluna & Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a beautiful, small town situated between two Inca ruins. Also, the train to Machu Picchu just so happens to depart from here. I took a Collectivo here and spent the afternoon visiting the ruins. First I hiked up to Pinkuylluna storehouses, which are built steeply on the mountain, overlooking the town. Then, I breezed through Ollantaytambo ruins with aqueducts, farmed terraces, and llamas! Then, I was treated to the best surprise of all – my train seat was in the front of the train, right next to the conductor. Our locomotive charged along the river and through carved tunnels, to Machu Picchu with me at the helm!
Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
Firstly, yes I ‘cheated’ and didn’t trek the Inca Trail. I don’t regret it. With limited time, it would’ve meant cutting out another great place and I wasn’t willing to do that. In order to make up for it, I did several day hikes of 6-ish hours, including the day I did Machu Picchu. I started before dawn at Aguas Calientes and waited with 50 others for them to open the gates at 5am. Then, we crossed the bus road countless times as we climbed steps straight up the side of the mountain, with a flashlight. I’m not a fan of straight up hikes or steps, especially first thing in the morning. So, I stopped. A lot. I let many people pass. I noticed a girl stopping as frequently as me, so we teamed up to encourage each other up the mountain. Buses started at 5:30am, and we counted 4 that passed us. Finally, we made it to the top and I sat to relax. A girl I shared the hostel with the night before said I was literally steaming. The reward? I wasn’t the first in the park, and there isn’t really a sunrise persay. It just gets lighter gray as the sun lights up the fog, and sunlight doesn’t actually crest the peaks around Machu Picchu until around 10am. What I conveniently forgot during my excitement for this challenging hike, is that I had also signed up to do the 10am Huayna Picchu hike. Waiting outside the entrance to Huayna Picchu at 9:30am, it was raining and I seriously reconsidered my next move. But, I clamored on. Up more muddy and slippery steps, at times holding on by a rope. The view from the top – Machu Picchu looked small and was covered in clouds much of the time. But what I realized, looking down at the river is that I had climbed the entire mountain that morning! WOW.
Lake 69 (Huascarán National Park, Huaraz)
Huaraz was a small town in the mountains with a surprising amount of charm. It has become quite touristy as the jumping off point for many hikers/campers, and was destroyed a few decades ago by a large earthquake, but I absolutely fell in love with the abandoned shell of a church. The open air windows towered above the plaza. In its footsteps was another, modern glass church – also abandoned. I spent my time here at a little chateau relaxing and acclimating for my next day’s hike.
The hike to Laguna 69 was the highlight of my trip and I consider it the best hike of my life to date! We drove into the Huascarán National Park and began the hike around 13,000 ft, into a green valley with a stream, colorful flowers and productive cows. We followed the stream as we approached multiple cascading waterfalls and began to climb switchbacks. The Cordillera Blanca is ‘white’ not because of the snow, but because we were hiking on light gray granite rocks! The group climbed up the mountain and as it leveled off, a dark black lake spilled out before some wonderful white peaks where we stopped for snacks. We continued on through another flat valley, following the stream and cow pies. We began to climb again. I saw a couple stopped just 10 feet after a pretty shallow incline and thought, OK, they weren’t ready, but I am. As I approached them, I needed a break, desperately. The altitude is tricky – without realizing it, you are moving slower than usual, needing more frequent breaks. Unlike Machu Picchu, everyone seemed to be moving at my speed, stopping for quick rests at every other turn. We climbed another set of switchbacks and just as you felt that you couldn’t go any further, it levels off and you get a first peak of the turquoise waters of Laguna 69. Gleaming like a jewel in the sun, it is incredible and you can’t bring yourself to look away. I took hundreds of photos of the same view – brilliant aqua waters, gray cliffs that fade into snow, and a narrow waterfall trickling down. We ate lunch with a friendly young cow, then it was time to head back. I didn’t want to leave and was one of the last to be pried away. Beautiful and now, all downhill! What a reward. I liked that the hike wasn’t too long (3 hours there, 2.5 back), it wasn’t uphill or challenging the entire time (like Machu Picchu), and the scenery was rewarding the entire time with a big payoff at the end, and finally a reward of easy return. My ideal hike.
Lake 69 is named such because when the Spanish settlers came to Peru, they started naming each lake with a number. Later, after they had learned the indigenous Inca names in Quechua, they changed the lakes back to the Quechua names. All were renamed except for Lake 69, because it had not been discovered by the Incas, so it remains the only numbered lake in the Cordillera Blanca.
The Moche people pre-dated the Inca Empire and built giant pyramids with intricate, colorful carvings. Unfortunately, because they were built out of adobe along the coast, weather has badly eroded the pyramid. The Huaca del Luna, though older than the Huaca del Sol, is better preserved and archaeologists are just now uncovering layers upon layers of colorful carvings. In 20 years, they will have discovered many more artifacts from this amazing culture and might be able to open up the city and domiciles to visitors, but until then, it takes quite a bit of imagination.
At most ruins, I tried to go alone without a guide. Money savings and I figured I was more interested in the aesthetics/photogenic aspects of the sites, anyway. At Huacas del Sol y Luna, they explained to me in Spanish that I was required to go with a guide. They didn’t have any English guides on hand, so (I thought) they told me to join up with the children’s Spanish group at the top of the stairs. I set off and was listening to the guide explain things, when I saw the woman gesturing in my direction that I had obviously not followed her directions. The next group caught up with me and I was told that I was supposed to join their family on the tour with a French guide. I don’t speak a lick of French, but what choice did I have after being the dumb American who didn’t listen? Luckily I had just gone to the museum, so I sort-of knew what we were looking at and some words transcend all Latin languages, like ‘sacrificial’.
Nearby, the ruins of Chan Chan (Chimor Empire) are also being restored and though colorless, I liked these better because the designs appealed to my geometric sensibilities. The size of the place impressed me, quite a bit.
Night Bus to Chachapoyas
The longest night bus I signed up for was 12 hours – 4pm-4am. I’d already been on a few, so I was getting pretty familiar with the routine of watching a loud action movie (sometimes in English), eating questionable food, and then doing your best to keep warm and sleep. I sat in the front of the bus, with a nice Peruvian woman and watched the Northern Coast of Peru disappear into night. We stopped in Chiclayo for 20 min for a potty break, but I didn’t need to go. Around 2:30am, I woke up to see that we were stopped behind a truck with Jesus painted on the back. Around 4am, I woke to see that we were STILL stopped behind this truck. Maybe this was normal. Maybe we pull over for part of the night so the driver can sleep? I woke again at 6am with the light to see that we were stuck in traffic, behind the Jesus truck, on a two lane highway, with fields on each side. And every person from other cars was standing on the sides of the highway. This was bad. It’s Peru – there’s no other way around, and there’s no apology or explanation. People were missing work and that’s just the way it was going to be. No one knew how long it would be before we moved. Finally, at 8am, we began to move. We stopped three more times to get around land-slides where the road was one-lane. I was thankful this wasn’t my last day, with such a tight time schedule to keep, but was starting to panic that I wouldn’t get to see what I wanted in Chachapoyas. We finally arrived around 11am, 18 hours later. No food, no bathroom for 18 hours. Though, it wasn’t as painful as it seems.
After a grueling 12, turned 18-hour night bus, I arrived in Chachapoyas more than dismayed. My two days in Chachapoyas (one day for Kuelap and one day for Gocta Falls) was now 1.5 days, and I thought I would need to decide between the two wonderful sites. I never let a challenge stop me, so (not having eaten or used a bathroom in 18 hours), I raced to the Plaza de Armas and walked into the first tour office and asked if it was possible to do an afternoon tour to Kuelap. “When?” they asked. “NOW?” I said with a smile. To my surprise, they said OK and charged me less than I expected (still more than I liked, so I negotiated a transfer at the end to my hotel). Once it was settled, I asked when we would depart. He said, 2 minutes. So, I asked if I could grab some food to go and use a bathroom. They waited for me, and then off we went. It’s a two hour drive up the hill to Kuelap and the guide and taxi driver were both my age, so we joked in Spanish the whole way. The guide was from the Kuelap area, knew all of the workers at Kuelap and was able to explain all of the stunning reasons why Kuelap is so special. I even met his mother who ran a souvenir stand onsite. The late afternoon was perfect weather and most of the tour groups had left, so we had the magical site to ourselves! To go from thinking I wouldn’t even be able to see the site to getting the exclusive tour: What a treat!
Gocta Waterfall & Gocta Andes Lodge (Cocachimba)
As the final hotel in my trip, I intentionally saved the best for last. The only good way to explain this place is to show their unparalleled view of the beautiful waterfall. Additionally, the service was impeccable and food excellent. For a tour of the waterfall, (was was less than $20 US dollars, by the way), we were paired with a fantastic jolly and knowledgeable woman, offered walking sticks, bottled water and given a packed lunch – que ganga! Following the hike, I took a dip in the (freezing) pool and then sat on a lawn chair and stared at the waterfall for hours. It is mesmerizing.