Coming home

Things I am excited to do upon returning home:

1: BAKE!
2: Wake up and read the newspaper (including the comics!).
3: Run on trails/streets I know and love!
4: Drink water from the tap.
5: Ride my bike!
6: Wear a different outfit than I have been wearing for the last three months. AND SHOES! Oooh shoes.
7: BAKE! Did I say that already?
8: Have guaranteed water (both hot and cold!) at any hour of the day.
9: Call people whenever I want – because I’ll have a phone again!
10: Eat at home. Man am I sick of eating out.

Short little list, and there is a lot more where that came from, but now I’m off to enjoy my last day in South America!

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Cusco, Sacred Valley, Paracas, Map

I am clearly getting lazy as this trip goes on, and I’ll prove it today by posting about Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Paracas, AND the map of Peru (thanks to map making Mama!). Forgive my laziness, and I’ll spare you any April Fool’s jokes like “I’m not coming home, EVER!” because really, I’m coming home in two days. How wonderful!

Here we go with a map of my Peru itinerary – I figured better late than never right? Currently we’re in Lima – my last stop for the ENTIRE TRIP! It is really starting to hit me. After doing the below itinerary, I can confidently suggest that you skip the South Coast altogether – it really isn’t worth anything. Go inland, or go North (I haven’t actually done this, but I wish I had and I imagine it is awesome).

Cusco: Really great town! I thought Cusco was very cute, had an abundance of sights to see, and many delicious restaurants (which we mostly avoided because of our obsession with finding the cheapest set meals!). I could spend a lot of time in Cusco – perhaps studying more Spanish!

We had three days initially, then did the trek, then had two full days after the trek to be in and around Cusco. Our first day we wandered around to the market – which had everything from dried/salted alpaca meet to hallucinogenic cactus juice (we tried the former but skipped the latter) to fruit and nuts and veggies! We bought fruit, tried soup, decided we were all exhausted and went back to take a nap.

The next day we did the Lonely Planet’s suggested “walking tour” of the town, which was a nice way to orient ourselves with a bit of purpose – I like to know WHAT I’m looking at and what it means, rather than just knowing there is a church/plaza/museum/old house on any given corner. After doing a bunch in town, a few of us decided to hike WAY up to the White Christ statue above Cusco by taking some never-ending stairs through a neighborhood. We figured this would be good conditioning for our trek. We hauled up the stairs and found ourselves at a magnificent (and touristy) alpaca shop – so we looked around at beautiful sweaters and decided to only buy candy bars. Then we headed over to the White Christ and down via a different route to town.

I think I might be getting my days in Cusco mixed up, but I’m going to keep going confidently because I figure most of you will never know the difference…

The next day I really can’t remember what we did – except that I almost got eaten by an alpaca. We went to some old ruins in the city, which happen to have an alpaca on property, and after posing so nicely with me – it started biting and chasing me! Comical, yes, a bit scary? Kind of! I had to keep pushing it away (luckily it was so soft!) and finally a guard came over to escort it to a different area.

That is about all I remember of Cusco – whoops! I spent the time after the trek relaxing, trying to catch up blogging, sleeping, etc. Overall, I really enjoyed Cusco! Hopefully my family did too, seeing as they were all in Cusco with me! One of the best parts might have been walking through the side streets near the main market – also full of vendors – which was clearly not a tourist destination. We saw all sorts of things (including what we think are dried llama fetus’s…), and one woman asked me to hold her baby – VERY cute. If you know anything about me, you probably know that I LOVE babies. She insisted I take him out of her back sling and hold him, which I very willingly did, until the rest of my family had totally disappeared and I had to run off to find them.

On the day after our trek we (the family and Roland) rented a van and went up into the Sacred Valley, doing a typical loop through a bunch of towns and markets in the valley. It is beautiful, green, and amazing! Not as steep of mountains as we saw on the trek, but still gorgeous and huge. We went to a variety of markets – all with plenty of things I COULD have bought but somehow didn’t (except slippers, I did buy slippers), ate an authentic lunch, and went to a salt mine! The salt mine was actually pretty cool, although didn’t look very salty because it had just rained a bunch. We also went to a weaving co-op and saw how they get the wool, make it into thread, dye it, weave it, etc. Pretty cool.

On Tuesday we flew to Lima, and then Aunt Margaret and I headed South by bus to Paracas. We really wanted to go North to the Huaraz and Cordillera Blanca area, but decided that 16+ total hours on a bus didn’t sound appealing for only 3 days to spend up there. Hence: Paracas. What a funny little town – it is clearly expecting lots of tourism, but there is basically nothing there. The draw is the Islas Ballestas, the poor man’s Galapagos, which have tons of birds and sea lions. We saw penguins in the wild, and hundreds of sea lions (and babies!)! We went on a boat tour to see them in the morning (Wednesday), then had planned to hike around the national park on the peninsula, but after seeing if from the boat decided that it really didn’t look appealing. It is dry, ugly, desert. Nothing to see, it would have been hot, and we just didn’t want to try. So we lounged around town (since there really is NOTHING else to do), and waited until Thursday when we knew we could get to Lima!

Now we’re in Lima and it is really hitting me that I go home the DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Holy cow. That is SO soon! I feel this need to come up with profound discoveries on the meaning of life – but at this point I think I’m still digesting. I have definitely learned that if I’m going to do another trip like this I need to go MUCH more slowly – otherwise I get burned out (like now) and just want to veg. I’m also realizing that life is expensive in the US and that I need to find a job in Boulder asap… hmm…

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Inka Trail and Machu Picchu

Hiking the Inka Trail was pretty freaking awesome.

In my preparation for Peru I knew that I wanted to do a trek, and I knew that I wanted to see Machu Picchu. More people than not recommended that I NOT do the actual, Inka Trail trek, due to crowds and other annoyances, and instead do one of the alternative treks. I considered their opinions, briefly, but in the end felt like the actual Inka Trail trek would be a really great way to see the area and arrive at Machu Picchu. Hence, we did the classic Inka Trail 4 day trek.

I will talk about Cusco and the Sacred Valley in my next post, but I should mention that FIVE of my family members arrived last Sunday (almost two weeks ago now… whoops!) to join me for 10 days: Grandmother, Mom, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Debbie, and Uncle Bob! Party time! We spent three days in Cusco before four of us (Mom, Aunt Margaret, Uncle Bob, and myself) started our trek. Our group was small and, besides the four of us, only had one other person: Roland! We were very fortunate to have a patient, hilarious, and fun addition to our group – and hopefully we didn’t drive him crazy with our weird family-ness.

We set out from kilometer 82 (as measured from Cusco) to begin our trek. The days weren’t very long in kilometers, I think they were 9 km, 11 km, 16 km, and 6 km. What they lacked in distance, they definitely made up for in altitude gain and loss! WOW were there a lot of steps – and WOW do I never need to climb another staircase in my life. Just like I don’t need to ride another bus in my life. I won’t go into the gritty details of each and every day, but I really liked the progression of scenery we saw from the beginning to the end: we started in the mountains, which felt somewhat generic (although that is an awful thing to say because they truly were spectacular, I just can’t describe them in any great detail besides big and green), and ended at the edge of the jungle. Each pass we went over made it clear that we were getting closer to the jungle – everything got more green, more dense, and more wet!

The food on the trek was incredible. Our cook, Samuel, was clearly a talented chef and amazed us each day with his combination of flavors and his beautiful presentation! We weren’t expecting such luxury on a backpacking trip – and I don’t think I will ever have that sort of luxury again! We ate like kings (and queens) and were mystified by the cake he cooked in a pressure cooker… I plan to look up how to do this ASAP. Along with the cook we had our group of porters who carried our tents and group gear, as well as some of our personal gear. The porters generally come from villages up in the mountains, many of them only speak Quetchua, and it is AMAZING how quickly they run – yes, literally run – up the mountains. I wish we could have spent more time talking with the porters and getting to know them – I have a feeling they have an interesting story to tell – but unfortunately they kept a bit to themselves and, when I did make a small effort to talk, seemed very shy. Also, not all of them speak Spanish.

We enjoyed our first three days of trekking, even including Dead Woman Pass – 4,000 feet up in the morning and then at least 2,000 down to our campsite – and had a fairly regular schedule of waking up at 5 or 5:30 and going to bed around 8 pm. What a wonderful life. I could easily go to bed at 8 pm for the rest of my life – and it makes a 5 am wake up really easy! Our final day required a 3:30 wake up – not as easy – in order to get in line (weird) to leave the campsite and head to the Sun Gate and into Machu Picchu. We couldn’t leave the campsite until 5:30, so we waited in line with the rest of the trekkers until our group could go, then marched in line with everyone else up to the Sun Gate where, apparently, you can see Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, it was a VERY foggy morning and we could literally see nothing. See the following picture:

We were eager to get to Machu Picchu and skipped down the trail ahead of every other group (yes I know it isn’t a race, but we were first!) to arrive at Machu Picchu around 7:15, when we met up with Aunt Debbie and Grandmother who had taken the train up to Aguas Calientes the night before and bussed up to meet us in the morning. Aunt Margaret, Uncle Bob, Roland, and I all desperately wanted to climb Huayna Picchu (the tall rocky mound behind Machu Pichu in every classic Machu Picchu picture), and knew that since only 400 people can climb it per day we had to rush over to (hopefully) get a spot to climb! Luckily it was a cloudy, rainy morning and not very many people wanted to climb it in the first shift (7 am, but they let people trickle in for a few hours), but the 10 am shift was already full. We were allowed to go at 8:45 and somehow managed our way up more stairs (and sketchy ones at that) and were glad we did! It was still a bit foggy and rainy, but the clouds would part and blow by to give us a great view of Machu Picchu from above. In addition to just climbing up really high, there are more ruins at the top of Huayna Picchu which are also pretty cool to see.

By the time we descended from Huayna Picchu the fog had lifted a slight bit, so we could actually start to see the grandeur of Machu Picchu – and it really is grand. It is HUGE! We hiked around a bit looking for the others, then went to see the Inka Bridge (which sadly was not quite as cool as I had hoped), and returned to a beautiful sunny view of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu and Huchuy Picchu in the background! The weather turned out to be perfect, and I’m glad we were able to see it both in fog and sun.

We were exhausted, and had seen about a million other ruins on the trek to Machu Picchu, so we didn’t feel the need to explore every nook and cranny of Machu Picchu. We headed down to Aguas Calientes to have lunch and relax before our train left to take us back to Cusco. Aguas Calientes is clearly a tourist town, but is charming in its own little way. The river, Urubamba, which flows through town was RAGING – I don’t think I have ever seen water that big. I don’t think you could have gone through the section in town in any sort of water craft – it was THAT big and tumultuous.

Our trip back was uneventful – we rode the train to Ollantaytambo before getting on a bus back to Cusco. Upon our arrival in Cusco we all wanted to shower and go to bed, but alas, we had no water in our hotel. So we went to bed dirty (and in my case a bit peeved about it) and had to wait until morning to shower. Not cool. Our hotel staff told us that the neighborhood we were in doesn’t have water at night (although sometimes we did), and I know that Cusco has serious water issues, but it just seemed really strange to me that other hotels DID have water at night. We should have moved after the very first night, but it was a nice hotel overall.

Many people complain that the classic Inka Trail trek is too crowded with people, and I won’t deny that it has a lot of people, but it really didn’t bother me. It was kind of fun to see the same people every day and build a sort of camaraderie with them – you have to if you’re hiking up and down so many grueling steps! This is not a hike for weanies, you definitely need to have some sort of physical fitness level to do it, but at the same time it was doable – perhaps just requiring much more time for some. The mountains are littered with ruins like Machu PIcchu (only smaller), all of which our guide, Edwin, told us the history of. It was really an educational experience and a fun way to arrive at Machu Picchu with a bit of background.

I am really glad we did the trek, and really grateful our group was small and compatible! Roland, who is German, was a great companion for all of us and he and Uncle Bob certainly brought enough humor to the trip to keep us all entertained. I can’t imagine how it would be to do the trail in a group of 16 (as many people do), but I bet it loses a bit of the personal aspects we had in our small group. I am not sure I ever need to do the Inka Trail again, but I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to do a trek and see Machu Picchu!

I will post more on Cusco and the Sacred Valley soon – sorry for being so far behind! I go home in FOUR DAYS (weird)! Everyone besides Aunt Margaret has gone home, and we are now in Paracas and heading up to Lima tomorrow for our last few days.

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Lake Titicaca and Puno

Sorry for the long delay in posts – I’ve been busy with the family here and hiking the Inka Trail! I will be cranking out a few posts ASAP in the next few days to get you all up to date – and then I go home on Sunday! AAH!

Puno, although cold and rainy, was pretty darn cool. Lake Titicaca was absolutely worth the trip, and highly recommended to anyone coming anywhere NEAR the area!

I left Arequipa and my wonderful home stay with Maria at Llama Education on Friday morning, and took a five hour bus ride to Puno. After having semi-ugly bus rides in the western half of Peru, the ride from Arequipa to Puno was a step up – some greenery and lots of llamas and related animals! The ride from Puno to Cusco was amazing, but that’ll be in the next post. I arrived in Puno around two in the afternoon and, after trying Inka Rest hostel and discovering it to be totally full, found a nice room with a queen sized bed at Hostel San Carlos – just a few blocks from the center of town. The room was freezing, but the shower was hot, the blankets were warm, and the price was right for a private room! I got settled in before exploring the town – which didn’t consist of much besides walking around the streets, seeing the cathedral, and going to the coca leaf museum.

Coca is very common down here – used frequently to make tea, and chewed by the more indigenous population. While it might sound controversial, since cocaine is indeed derived from the leaf, the cocaine aspect of the leaf is minor (think poppy seed muffin to opium) and is not the reason for chewing. While many people claim it has great benefits (from weight loss to digestive help to helping with altitude issues), I think it tastes like grass and really isn’t worth drinking (tea, I mean).

The next morning I got up early to go on a tour of both the floating reed islands, Islas Uros, and the larger Taquile Island. I think that, up to this point, these island are the coolest things I’ve seen on this trip. We took a boat out to the floating islands first, which are made from the reeds which grow in the lake. I think there are around 40 islands in the group we visited – all of which are visited by tourists on a rotating basis. Apparently there are more floating islands further out in the lake which aren’t really visited, which is good because it was sad to see these islands because they felt like Disneyland. My guide insisted that the culture hasn’t been lost, but it sure felt like it has been. They now live on tourism alone – mostly from selling their crafts to tourists visiting the islands.

The island were very cool though, especially when a little wave would come and make the ground lift up and down! They showed us how they use the reeds to construct the islands, and replenish them every few weeks. Their houses are also built from the reeds (and each have a television in them now), and they also eat the reeds like bananas! I tried one, and it didn’t taste particularly wonderful, more like a grassy sponge. The families living on the islands were very friendly, beautiful people, but clearly put on the show for the tourists. I really wonder what their culture was like before the tourism, and I would love to see it preserved, but I suppose that is the paradox of tourism – you want to see and experience culture, but by doing so you are often changing the culture! Yikes.

After the floating islands we headed 2.5 hours out into the lake to Isla Taquile – a real (big) island. After a 20 minute hike up from the dock (complete with heavy breathing, I tell you what! Lake Tititcaca isn’t the highest navigable lake for nothing!) we arrived at the main square of the island. This island is SO charming – I wish I had more time and I would have definitely spent the night with a family out there. The island was green with terraced plots of crops, charming little houses, traditionally dressed people, and wonderful views of the lake and Bolivia! We didn’t spent much time on the island – just enough to shop around the artisan market and have a lovely lunch of quinoa soup and trout. I wish we could have stayed a bit longer!

The traditions on Taquile are very interesting – particularly in relation to marriage. The men on the island wear hats which easily signify if they are single or married (all red = married, red and white = single). In order to get married, they have to knit their all red hat and present it to the father of their wife-to-be. The father pours water into it and, depending on how fast it leaks out, judges the quality of his knitting. If the knitting isn’t good enough, the man is sent away and told to return in six months with a new hat! Knitting is important because all of the knit goods (mainly hats) sold from the island are made by the men – and they are really beautiful! The women, who don’t cut their hair from birth, have to cut their hair when married and weave it into a belt for their husbands. The men wear these hair belts underneath other colorful belts, also woven by the women.

I was glad to visit the islands, and to see Puno. Puno is a bit hectic feeling, but really kind of charming in its own little dusty way. I wish I had spent a bit longer in the area, but I got up at 3 am to head to Cusco to meet my family who flew in last Sunday! I was supposed to be on a bus that left at 4 am, and would arrive in Cusco around 10 am. Unfortunately, I picked the worst bus in creation and it didn’t leave until 4:45, and then didn’t arrive until 12:30 – I was not pleased. I will write about Cusco, the Sacred Valley, the Inka Trail, and Machu Picchu soon!

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Arequipa has been a wonderful rest stop! I have deliberately been a bit lazy this week, because I think the state of my mental health was begging for it. That said, I still feel like I’ve accomplished quite a bit, and I’ve really enjoyed my five days here in my home stay and language school situation.

I arrived on Sunday morning around 7:30 AM after a twelve hour bus ride from Ica, which really wasn’t that terrible. Maria, the owner of the language school, Llama Education, picked me up from the bus terminal and we went back to her house which serves as both the language school and has a few rooms for students (like me!). I met her two daughters, Diana and Sonja, ate breakfast, then settled into my room and took an accidental (but apparently necessary) nap. After my nap we ate lunch (delicious causa limeƱa!) and headed out for a walking tour of the city. Being Sunday it was not very busy out, and many stores were closed. It was nice to get a personal tour (with Maria and the girls) of the surrounding area so I could explore in the following days.

Monday through Thursday had the following schedule: breakfast at 8, classes from 9-11 and then 11:30 to 1:30, lunch at 2, and each afternoon was mine to do what I wanted. On Monday I really wanted to relax, so I took a nap, read my book (in Spanish!), and went for a run. A RUN!? Hallelujah – it was nice to run. I’m excited to go home where I feel better about running (the stares and catcalls here are really distracting from actually running) and plan to do a LOT of it. More than ever before. I have big plans, which I’m afraid to share here because then I’ll have to follow through with them. Back to Arequipa: Each evening was roughly the same – we’d all have dinner and chat for a bit, before doing our own thing (which for me usually meant reading or scouring the internet for various tidbits of information on my future).

Tuesday afternoon I decided to go see the town for realsies. I walked down to the shopping center near the house and got some ice cream, then hopped on the bus to the historic center of town. I went to the Monastario de Santa Catalina – the first time since losing my camera where I have seriously wanted to have one. All of the pictures in this post are stolen from the internet. The monastery was beautiful and reminded me of a Maybeck building in that no two rooms or apartments were the same – each had a unique shape and personality. I was most interested by the kitchens (no surprise there). The kitchens often had tall ceilings, or no ceilings, plenty of counter space (glorious!), and one or two wood burning ovens (I’m not sure if that is the right way to describe them, but look at the pictures for an idea).

I could easily imagine the nuns working in the kitchens making bread, etc. Unfortunately, my imagination was ruined when I learned that this was not a normal monastery – at least not as I think of monasteries. I think the nuns in monasteries as being peaceful, living a simple life without many frills, and helping the poor. These nuns were nothing of the sort. Apparently these nuns paid high amounts to be there (it was an honor and only rich families could send their daughters!), the nuns had up to 8 or 9 servants PER NUN, they did absolutely nothing to help the community around them, and there is evidence of there being many abortions performed on the nuns in the convent… curious. Of course they don’t tell you that information in the monastery itself, but if you ask anyone in Arequipa about it they’ll tell you the same facts.

The harsh facts aside, I loved the monastery. It was so peaceful, and I loved the colors contrasting against the white which is so prevalent in Arequipa. I also was amazed to learn that there are still some nuns living there today – but only 12 or so. I walked all over and explored each nook and cranny (which involved a lot of ducking – apparently these nuns were short and squat) before heading back out to the streets of Arequipa to see some more.

I walked around the Plaza de Armas (central plaza), in the Basilica, and in the Iglesia de las Campanas before finding a bakery for another snack of budin de chocolate, a dense almost gooey chocolatey cake, and hot chocolate. I have a serious overeating problem these days. After wandering the streets a bit more, and exploring a local grocery store (which has become one of my favorite things to do on this trip!), I headed back home on foot. It was definitely a bit of a trek, but I figured I could use the exercise and I wanted to see more of the town.

Wednesday afternoon I went out again but headed in the opposite direction – up hill towards the volcanoes. OH the volcanoes! They are GORGEOUS. I have never been in a place where the peaks nearby are SO tall. I look out my window in the morning and I can see these massive snow capped peaks which seem really close, but so much higher than where I am! It is seriously impressive. On my walk towards the mountains I encountered a totally different kind of area: way less populated. I would walk by a field of corn, then a few hardware stores, a field of llamas, then a few car dealerships, a field of crop X, then some lumber stores. It was really pretty interesting. After about an hour I came upon a more populated, but clearly more poor, area of a bunch of stores and vendors in the street. I walked around looking at stores (and getting a lot of weird looks – I’m sure this isn’t a place tourists often make it to), bought a churro – which surprised me when it turned out to be filled with a sweet goo like dulce de leche – then headed back down towards the house. I explored more around the house (and another grocery store) before heading home for dinner and calling it a night.

Taking Spanish classes has been fantastic, especially with Maria. I have loved living in her house with her, Sonja, and Diana. There are two other women here from Canada who are leaving tomorrow also, and having all six of us has been really kind of fun! My classes have been a great review for my grammar, and a boost for my vocabulary. I just need to keep studying on my own and hopefully continue getting better! A lot of my classes involved reading articles and then discussing them, or just having conversations – which is exactly what I need. I am very comfortable here, and my room is really nice! I would highly recommend studying here for anyone who wants comfortable and welcoming place to live and study Spanish. It is perfect because I can retreat to my room when I want to be alone, or I can hang out with the girls downstairs if I want company and more language practice! The girls are adorable and are very patient with my speaking – and more than willing to act out any word I ask for a definition of! Llama Education – seriously look at it if you want a nice place to study!

This week has been very thought-provoking, and I’ve spent much of it contemplating what I’ve learned in the last few months of this trip. I don’t think I’m ready to unleash the fury of my brain quite yet, but in the next few weeks I’ll hopefully be able to clarify what I’m thinking and share what I feel I have learned through these few months of traveling. More than anything, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my life – and feeling pretty guilty that I don’t have a clear idea of what I want to do! I wish I had some specific career that I wanted to work towards, but I honestly don’t. It isn’t that I don’t have ambition, I just don’t have a specific thing I know I should be doing. I love managing people, problem solving, figuring out logistics, and researching… but I don’t know HOW to put those into action. I’m definitely open to ideas.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about people who visit the United States, like I’m visiting all of these countries, and only see part of it. I met a few girls from London last week who said they had only been to New York City, and it dawned on me that their perception of the US is COMPLETELY different than my life in the US! NYC is like a foreign country to me, as is Las Vegas or Miami – places that foreigners frequently visit. It makes me a bit sad that they don’t have any idea what it is like to live in Boulder, or the suburbs of Portland, because that is MY life as a normal American. Thinking about that then leads me to think about my experience here: what more am I missing!? What haven’t I seen? When I come home I anticipate getting a barrage of questions such as “how was Peru?” or “What was Ecuador like?” – but I don’t feel like I can adequately answer them. If I asked someone who had only ever seen NYC what the USA was like, their answer would be SO different from what I know the USA to be – I don’t think I can do any of these countries justice because I haven’t lived and experienced them as a local. And I probably never will. For some reason this makes me a bit sad, even though I know this is the way traveling is – and I’m glad I at least realize this difference rather than just making assumptions about a country as a whole.

Tomorrow I head for Puno to see the floating islands in Lake Titicaca, then to Cusco to meet up with the family! Woohoo!

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