Puno and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

On the border between Peru and Bolivia you find Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. Puno is the biggest town on the Peruvian side and a gateway to tours of Lake Titicaca’s islands (Taquile and Amantani are the most popular) including the artificial, floating islands made of reed (Uro islands). The people on the Uros have lived on floating islands for about a thousand years!

A tiny floating island

We stayed in Puno three nights, mostly because Mathias was sick (..again, but this time it probably was the restaurant the first night in Puno), so the only things we did other than laying sick in the room was visit the floating islands and strolling around Puno a bit.

We have to say that the floating islands, although interesting to see, definitely feel very touristy. We were met by a local guide who gave us a quick, well-rehearsed speech about the islands before urging us to buy souvenirs. Next we “cruised” to the main island in a reed boat where we could buy more souvenirs or lunch.

Our guide on the floating island

Inhabitants of the islands

All in all it wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, but it’s definitely interesting that they live on islands made entirely out of reeds! We also learned that they needed to put on new reeds every 15 days and continue doing so for 20 years before they needed to build a new island. The fact that we paid almost twice the price necessary (we hadn’t researched it enough beforehand) for an “all inclusive ticket” that didn’t cover certain unexpected charges on the island (such as the reed boat cruise) may have contributed to lowering our total experience..

Quechua

Handicrafts and souvenirs

Lake Titicaca is a very beautiful place, though very touristy (on both sides of the border). Even so, if you go a little outside the main tourist streets you see the locals living their normal lives: the women in the funny Bowler hats; sheep, chicken and alpacas for sale; and boys hauling mountains of eggs to the market on some very heavy wagons.

The next day we took the scenic route around the lake via Copacabana (the Bolivian main town) to La Paz, and if we’d had more time we would have stopped some days in Copacabana as well, as it seemed a bit smaller and more idyllic than Puno.

Woman with traditional bowler hat

Pimped out mototaxi

Tuva looking out

Find more pictures from Puno, the floating Uro islands and the rest of Peru here.

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A little detour to Arequipa and Colca Canyon

We weren’t actually planning on going to Arequipa, but after several people highly recommending it despite the extra 10 hour busride, we decided we had to check it out.

On top of the world!

Arequipa is a large colonial city with charming streets, a pigeon-filled main square and the large Santa Catalina monastery which is like a city within the city and definitely worth a visit. It’s called “the White City” because of the white lava stone used for many of the buildings. We only spent 2 nights here which we found to be enough as we weren’t really that charmed by the city. We spent our days mostly strolling around town.

Plaza de Armas

Silencio

We decided that we needed to try “cuy” which is fried or grilled guinea pig (marsvin) – this is a typical dish in the Peruvian highlands and a favorite of many local people we talked to. It had a really nice, crispy skin, but it was a struggle to get to the good meat as these little guys aren’t especially muscular. It was an interesting experience (tasted almost like chicken), though we probably won’t eat it again – it is just so unappetizing with the whole body right there in front of you, not to mention that it is really difficult to find enough meat to get full.

Sceptical

From Arequipa we booked a tour to the Colca Canyon. The drive from Arequipa to Chivay in the Colca Valley (where we spent the night) took us past hoards of alpacas and their wild and beautiful relatives the vicuñas, beautiful scenery and an altitude of 4910 meters (that’s almost twice the height of Galdhøpiggen, Norways highest mountain!).

The Incas had one of their food production areas in the Colca Valley and they would walk all the way from Cusco to spend the harvest season in the valley before walking back with the produce! The whole valley is filled with pre-Inca stepped agricultural terraces, most of them still in use by the local farmers.

On the road

Vicuñas grazing

Terraces and valleys

At the western end of Colca Valley is where the Colca Canyon starts, this is the deepest canyon in the world with a depth of 4160 meters. From the viewpoint Cruz del Condor we could see the small beginning of the canyon as well as several Andean condors. The condors were gliding on the warm currents, some just over our heads – quite special when their wingspans can be up to 3.2 meters! The landscape and the views were amazing and definitely worth our little detour.

Flying close to the tourists

Male condor up close

Traditional clothing

Almost twice the height of the highest mountain in Norway!

Amazing landscape

See more pictures from Arequipa, Colca Valley and the rest of Peru here.

Magnificent Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and a must-do if you are in Peru. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see how the Incas managed to build a sacred retreat high up in the mountains of Peru. Given that the Inca empire only lasted for a hundred years (before the Spanish conquistadors came and destroyed them in the 1500s) it’s truly amazing to see how much they built and the technology they had developed.

Sunrise on Machu Picchu

There are several ways to travel to Machu Picchu, none of them especially cheap (more on that later), but all of them start from Cusco, which was the Inca capitol. Cusco itself is a nice town with lots to do for adventure-hungry tourists (there are about 200 travel agencies across town), but as Mathias got a bad case of altitude sickness we had to take it pretty slow the first days. Cusco really is a “tourist town”, which has both its positives and negatives. Positives being many good restaurants (we especially recommend La Bodega 138 and Jack’s Café) and options for tours, and negatives being that you feel that everyone wants to get some money from you and exploit the tourists as much as possible.

Back-alleys of Cusco

Under the arc

To get to Machu Picchu we opted for the popular scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town), spending a night there and walking up to Machu Picchu early the next morning. From Aguas Calientes it’s about an hour and 10 minutes brisk walk, mostly steep uphill, to get to Machu Picchu. We started in the dark at 5 o’clock in the morning in pitch black with only the stars to guide us (ok, and a headlight), which turned out to be a little late to get started as there were several busloads of people already in line at the top when we arrived 6:10. Not a big problem, but we were hoping to get a look before there were people everywhere. We did catch the sun rising above the mountains and the first light on Machu Picchu, which was spectacular!

Mathias gazing at Machu Picchu

Sun rays over the mountaintops

We managed to spend a full 10 hours walking around, taking pictures and relaxing while taking in the view of Machu Picchu. There are several tracks around the main “urban area”, and also tracks further out to the Sun Gate (great views!), the Inca bridge (a bit disappointing), and Huayna Picchu if you have the tickets (we didn’t :( ). We walked around marvelling at the views and the many many llamas grassing in the area (even a baby llama!). It really is a spectacular location and we can imagine this to be a retreat for the wealthy (which is one theory).

A llama grazing

Jump!

The explorer

Tips on travelling to Machu Picchu

There are mainly four ways to do Machu Picchu:

  1. Doing the Inca Trail. This is the highlight for many backpackers. A 2 or 4-day trek through stunning views and several Inca ruins. Price is about $400-500 and it must be booked several months in advance. We talked to some Brits who booked it two months ahead, but this was in the shoulder season (April).
  2. Booking a shuttle tour. This is the cheapest option, we found it for about $125 including the shuttle to the hydro station, a night in Aguas Calientes, the guide at Machu Picchu and the shuttle back to Cusco. There is a one and a half-hour trek from the hydro station to Aguas Calientes.
  3. Booking a tour with train. This includes the bus to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes, overnight there, bus to Machu Pichhu in the morning and a 2 hour guided tour, and the return train. The cheapest we found this for was about $225 p.p.
  4. Booking everything yourself. This is what we did. We booked with Incarail both ways for $106 each (Perurail is another option for trains),  bought our Machu Pichhu tickets (PEN 128=$49 each), stayed at the first hostel we found (Hostal Inca II for PEN 65 total including breakfast), and walked up to Machu Pichhu (we took the bus back which is about $10), and took shuttles betwen Ollantaytambo and Cusco (10 PEN pp each way). Our total ended up nearly the same as the cheapest tour with train, but we loved being masters of our own time an being able to spend all the time we wanted at Machu Picchu. We had a Wikipedia article on Machu Picchu (on the iTravel app), asked some of the guards around, and slyly overheard some of the guides in the passing tour groups, and all in all got a lot of information without our own guide!

There are also other tours such as jungle tours and more adventure filled tours to get to Machu Picchu. We didn’t look into that but they are probably not in as high demand as the Inca Trail.

  • Whatever option you choose, bring lots of water and snacks as it gets hot and tiring walking around Machu Picchu and the food outside is pretty expensive (it’s a bit of a no-no, but the guards didn’t check any bags as far as we saw)
  • The best time is before 9 am and after 3 pm, because of the sun and the crowds (much better pictures!)
  • Book early for cheaper train tickets, and also if you want to do Huayna Picchu!
  • A free map is available at the entrance after they have checked your tickets
  • Bring some information about Machu Picchu either on your phone (iTravel!) or in print if you don’t want to spend the money on a guide ($25)

Traditional woman

Girl in traditional clothes

Chewing llama

Tuva petting a baby llama

Me and the llama having a moment

The main plaza

Check out more pictures from Machu Picchu and the rest of Peru here.

Into the desert in Huacachina

We flew to Lima from Máncora (technically we took a bus to Piura and the flight left from there), spending just one short day managing to squeeze in a walk along the steep cliffs and through the modern neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco. Mathias’ main goal of the visit was to eat some ceviche, which we managed to do, and also stuff our faces with a lot of other traditional Peruvian food at a big buffet.

Gazing at the cliffs of Lima

Ceviche

From Lima, we took the very fancy Cruz del Sur bus to get to Huacachina, an oasis in the desert just outside the city of Ica. We were lured by the promise of sandboarding and crazy roller-coaster like dunebugging. Huge sand-dunes all around the tiny oasis made it feel like we were in the middle of a desert, although we were actually just 5 minutes from Ica!

Our first day we climbed up on the ridge of the largest sanddune. Turns out walking up a sanddune is an exhausting workout – it was so so warm and we didn’t bring any water, so Tuva started to see hallucinations in the sand! And walking down again is surprisingly painful as the superhot sand submerged and burned our bare ankles with every step, causing a rapid and not so elegant descent.

Oasis

Alone in the desert

The main activity in Huacachina is dunebuggy and sandboarding tours. The dunebuggy ride was like a roller-coaster  with the driver going very fast up and down various very steep slopes that did not seem to be made for driving at all! Sandboarding looked very scary, going face-first on a wooden board down a steep hill, but turned out to be great fun – Mathias even mastered standing on the board down the entire slope!

Most of the tours are in the afternoon, timing to the sunset and less heat in the sand dunes. However, our tour was just over an hour and felt a bit rushed and short. Looking back there were some tours that were a bit more expensive, but lasted for 2 hours, allowing for more time to sandboard and see the dunes.

Sandboarding in the sunset

Tuva sandboarding

Mathias in full speed

The area around Ica is also known for wine and pisco (Peru’s national liquor), we visited two artesan bodegas (Lazo and El Catador) and one industrial bodega (Tacama). They were very generous with the tastings and had a lot to try so we were definitely getting a little tipsy. Knowing we had a 17-hour busride that same afternoon to get to Cusco we declined more pisco at the final bodega – and we’re pretty sure that was a good idea :)

Clay jars to mature the wine

Under pressure

Wine ranks of Ica

Two women at the cliffs

In the dunebuggy 1

Into the desert

Blue and orange

See more of our pictures from Peru here.

Lazy days in Máncora

Sometimes it’s important with a little vacation from all the travelling, therefore we spent about 5 days on the beach in Máncora in the north of Peru, doing close to nothing. It was relaxing, beautiful and just what we needed after moving around a lot in Ecuador.

Chasing shadows

Máncora is the one of the popular beach towns in Peru, and is definitely a tourist based town, but we didn’t find it crowded in early April (although we heard it gets busier on the weekends). It is a popular spot among surfers with big breaks just off the main beach, giving us lots of entertainment from our sunbeds. Mathias braved the waves (they were much bigger than the ones we had our first surf lessons on in Nicaragua) and with a little help from an instructor he actually caught some nice ones!

Surfing like a boss

Photo by: Adrian Bjørge

Afternoon beach

We randomly met a Norwegian couple staying in a nearby hotel, Helene and Adrian, who were excellent company during our days here. We tried out some of the restaurants in the area and can especially recommend El Aji (great burritos), La Sirena d’Juan (tuna steak with passion fruit sauce!), and Green Eggs and Ham (stacks of delicious pancakes).

We stayed a couple of nights at Don Giovanni Balinese Suites, before we moved to their slightly less expensive neighbor Las Olas de Máncora. Both are beachfront hotels in the southern end of Máncora and really nice. It was good to stay in one end of the beach, due to quite loud music from the bars on the main strip, but it is of course less expensive staying in a hostel a little further from the beach near the bars and restaurants.

Red sun

El Forro

Máncora beach

Hey you in the bushes!

We really loved Máncora and our first taste of Peru, see all our pictures from Mancora and the rest of Peru here.

From Baños to Cuenca and beyond

Baños is Ecuador’s capital of extreme sports, sugarcane taffy, and, as it seems, pizza restaurants. We spent a couple of days in the little town to get our adrenalin pumping with canyoning (that is: rappelling down waterfalls) and try out their famous thermal baths (hence the name Baños).

The former we found on one of the many adventure sports agencies around town that offer more or less the same services for more or less the same prices. We chose MTS Adventure because they were at the top of Tripadvisor and would give us photos and videos of the adventure. We were not disappointed as we got our own, personal guide who took us up into the jungle where we found some nice, steep, and a bit scary waterfalls to rappel. We got wet and our hearts pumping from the adrenaline, and we had a great time. Mathias chose to walk face-down the last waterfall “Rambo style”, just to show how much of a man he is..

Tuva going down

Walking down in style

We’ve visited thermals baths before in Colombia (San Vicente), but the baths in Baños were very different. This was a really social thing for the locals and it seemed that half the town had come to enjoy the hot waters in the pools that were the size of a medium sized living room. “Sild i tønne” (sardines in a barrel?) describes it pretty well and we really got to know the locals in more than one way.

Tuva and Baños

The extreme sports didn’t stop in Baños, as bus trips in Ecuador can be both a beautiful adventure and a near-death experience. While in Baños we saw a news report about the road accidents being the number one cause of death in Ecuador, and buses being a major part of those accidents due to tired drivers, old buses, alcohol and general risktaking. We decided to do no more night buses as those are the most dangerous, but our bus trip to Cuenca in thick fog was almost as bad. Our busdriver would drive by trucks in the fog (we could only see about 10 m) in a turn with double lines, only just making it before a couple of cars were coming in the opposite direction. We (at least Tuva) feared for our lives as we had a front row experience to the madness!

A horse in the clouds

Other than the hazardous driving, bus trips in Ecuador is an interesting experience as you drive through the beautiful countryside and see mighty mountains, Llamas and other animals on the roadside, and the daily life of the indigenous people whisking by. We were continuously stunned by the scenery unfolding as we made our way south. Just getting on and off the bus is an experience as you often get hushed in just as the bus is leaving the station and often have to get on/off in speed. The buses all cost about 1-1,5$ per hour and are reasonably comfortable.

Beautiful scenery from the bus

Our final stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, a larger city and the richest in the country. Many foreigners live here and it is a picturesque city with its colonial buildings and narrow streets. We didn’t stay long, so we really only had time for a city bus tour which allowed us to see all the sights in just a couple of hours. All in all Ecuador has been a beautiful and interesting country ranging from Galapagos (which really isn’t similar to the rest of Ecuador at all) to the Andean mountains and the bigger cities with its old towns. We could definitely see ourselves coming back and spending more time here.

Spears of the new cathedral

Cuenca Eagle view

Masters of the waterfall

Look ma', no hands!

Some flowers in the park

All photos from Ecuador can be found here.

Awesomeness in Quilotoa

One of the places we had heard about from several people both before and during our trip is Quilotoa in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. Fortunately this was on the way south towards the Peruvian border from Quito, so it was an easy stopover to make!

Quilotoa is an active volcano (though it hasn’t had an eruption for more than 200 years) 3800 metres above sea level. In its crater it holds an emerald green lake that together with its surroundings is said to take your breath away. The area around also has some of the most beautiful hiking trails in Ecuador, and yes, it did deliver!

Awesome Quilotoa

Just the bus journey was an adventure as the mighty Andean mountains surround you and you sit in awe of how the Ecuadorians manage to live here. The hills are lined with acres in 50 shades of green and the highest tops are surrounded in a skirt of clouds..

Canyon

We did a day trek from the Quilotoa village to Chugchilan, which took us alongside the crater rim for an hour, down from the volcano and through small farms and a more or less forsaken village, and finally down a steep valley and up again 600 sweaty and hard metres. We started at 3800 metres and finished at 3200 metres, with 2600 as the lowest point, the whole trip took about 5 hours including many breaks. The high altitude makes even crouching down to take a photo and getting back up an exercise, and with a landscape like this we took a lot of photos!

On the edge!

Trail along the rim

Across the valley to Chugchilan

Travel tips to Quilotoa

To get to the Quilotoa area you first have to take a bus to Latacunga and then a bus to one of the smaller villages from there. We used Chugchilan, north of Quilotoa, as a base and took our day-trip from there, but more hardcore hikers might want to leave some of their luggage in Latacunga and hike/bus from village to village around the Quilotoa loop. Either way it’s definitely worth a visit as you will see landscape like nowhere else. We almost felt like Frodo and Sam in Lord of The Rings as we gazed upon the huge volcano far away and the hike we had done :)

Chugchilan is a very small village with three hostels/hotels. We stayed at Hostal Cloud Forest which is the cheapest option of three. Private room was $12 per person including basic breakfast and dinner. There really isn’t much to do in the village, but there are many other day-trip options in the area.

To leave Chugchilan the only public bus is at 4 or 5 am. For those who like to sleep at night it’s easy to arrange private transportation to one of the larger villages with more frequent buses, we chose Zumbahua.

Adventurers

A Ecuadorian girl and her puppies

Andean hills

Instead of a stroller..

On the other side

More photos from Quilotoa and the rest of our travels in Ecuador can be found here.