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South America

Girls Gone Wild: Three Days in the Bolivian Wilderness

IMG_0141.JPGThree simple words describe the last three days–cold, dirty, and fun. Sarah, Rachele, and I have been on a tour through southwest Bolivia, including the Salar de Uyuni and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. This is the first time on this trip where I have been completely disconnected from the outside world–I’ve had no cell service or internet access for the last three days! Most hostels, bars, and restaurants have wifi, no matter where you are in the world (yes, even in Zimbabwe back in December!). However, I’ve finally found a place in the world without wifi, and it’s Bolivia.   

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Being truly disconnected has been a wonderful experience. While I have missed being in touch with family and friends, I have appreciated how the lack of cell service and internet has forced me to focus solely on the people I am with and the places I am visiting. Ironically, the one connection to the outside world came on our first night, when Sarah caught a stray cell service signal and received a push notification on her phone from the WSJ notifying us that the Cleveland Cavaliers had won the NBA championship. This one tidbit of information has been our one connection to the rest of the world while traveling here!

 

Here’s a breakdown of our last three days in the wild.

 

Day 1: We woke up bright and early in La Paz to catch a 7am flight to Uyuni. After an hour in the air, we arrived and instantly realized how much colder Uyuni is than La Paz! After putting on an extra pair of pants and another top, we headed to our tour company’s office to check in and rent a sleeping bag. Here, we met the three other travelers we would be sharing our Land Cruiser with the next three days.They were all undergraduates at the University of Florida who had just finished a 6 week rotation working in medical clinics in Cusco as part of their pre-med studies. We also met our guide, Diego, who immediately gave the impression of being a very tough, but nice, and in-control type of guy. Diego also doesn’t speak English, so we were all able to practice our Spanish a good bit. Our entire group meshed really well, and we decided we were una familia de sal, or a salt family! At 10am, we were off. Our first stop was an abandoned train graveyard.IMG_9906.JPG

 

We then continued on to the salt flats! The salt flats are over 10,500 square kilometers of pure salt. The dryness of the ground forms a beautiful pattern in the salt. We spent the morning taking pictures and soaking it in.IMG_0162

IMG_016413497611_10207809691372752_2624019445916217152_o.jpgWe then traveled to Dakar, a small settlement on the flats, where we had lunch and visited the flags outpost.IMG_0004

 

From Dakar, we continued to drive across the flats, stopping occassionally to take pictures and take in the views. We stopped once at an island in the middle of the flats called Isla Incahuasi. Sarah and I walked two laps around the island to get a workout in!IMG_0163

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IMG_006213498026_10206748148531489_8882855185857648342_o.jpgBy the time the sun was setting, we were just leaving the salt flats. After about 2 hours, we reached our accomodation for the night–a “salt hotel!” The salt hotel was basically a structure constructed out of blocks of salt, with the bed frame and dining tables and chairs also made out of salt. The floors were simply covered in loose grains of salt, like sand. There was no heat, but it did have electricity and running water. As the temperature had dropped below freezing, we all bundled up then enjoyed our salt family dinner together, along with some wine we had picked up in a small store along the way. IMG_0166IMG_0065We all voted unanimously we’d rather be dirty than cold, so we skipped the showers and just enjoyed the unique environment! Also, the view of the stars and the nearly full moon from our outpost was brilliant.The last time I saw “estrellas” (stars) this bright was in Africa, and I felt very happy to be in the wild with them again!

 

Day 2:  We woke up at 7am (so late for us these days!), had a small breakfast, and left our salt hotel for a day of travel. Instead of salt, on our second day we drove through a tremendous amount of dust. It felt like we were in the movie Mad Max! Our first stop of the day was at the Volcano Tunupa, which is still active. IMG_0081We also stopped at several lagunas, where I was shocked to see a large number of flamingos. I always assumed flamingos lived only in tropical and warm environments, but here these were, wading through the icy water just hanging out!IMG_0091

 

IMG_0105After a stop for lunch, we decided to have a dance party at the Laguna Honor.

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As we traveled on throughout the afternoon, we stopped in the Atacama Desert and saw the Arbol de Piedra (or rock tree). We also saw the Laguna Colorada, which is known for its red color.

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Arbol de Piedra
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Laguna Colorada

We then continued on to our accomodation for the night, a small shack with no heat and no showers. It made our salt hotel seem luxurious. While it did have electricity, the light in our dorm-style room did not work, so I was excited to be able to use my headlamp for the first time on this trip (I knew it would be handy at some point)! We once again layered on the clothing, brought out the vino, and enjoyed hanging out with each other and the other groups that were also staying the night here.

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Our salt family!

We decided to go to bed not because we were tired, but just to get warm! As we drifted off to sleep in multiple layers of clothing, hats and gloves, in a sleeping bag, all under a huge pile of blankets, Sarah and I decided (for some reason, I wonder why?!) that we really missed the USA! So, we sang every song about the USA we could think of as we fell asleep…it was hilarious.

 

Day 3: We woke up at 4:45am to find it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 degrees Celsius). We had a small breakfast as we struggled to keep warm, and headed out shortly thereafter. Our first stop of the day was shortly after sunrise at some natural geysers. IMG_0152We then continued on to some natural hot springs and the Laguna Verde, near the Chilean border, before driving the 8 hours back to Uyuni, making some small stops all the way. We were all very exhausted from the cold and ready for a shower at this point!

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Laguna Verde wasn’t as “verde” as I expected, but it was still pretty. The white substance is borax, which is a naturally occuring substance used as a cleaning solution.

 

The last few days have not been easy or luxurious by any means, but it has been very rewarding to see so much natural and untouched beauty. Bolivia literally feels like another planet to me, as the landscapes have been bizarre and extreme and alien, yet beautiful all the same. I have really enjoyed taking time apart from the rest of the world to have the opportunity to appreciate what feels like a different one.
Next, we fly back to La Paz this evening and I catch an early morning flight out the next day to Dublin!

 

A Day at Lake Titicaca: Los Uros and Isla del Sol

After two full weeks of trekking, sightseeing, and taking in the Peruvian culture, the time came to say goodbye to Peru and move along to Bolivia. We had booked seats on Bolivia Hop, an overnight bus that crosses from Peru to Bolivia while making a few fun stops along the way. We showed up at the bus station in Cusco at 9pm, as directed, and the station was pitch black! Fortunately, our nice cab driver sat with us until the Bolivia Hop staff showed up. We then boarded the bus and settled in for a 7 hour overnight drive to Puno, a Peruvian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

 

At 5:30am, we got off at Puno and had a small breakfast before boarding a boat for a tour of the floating islands of Los Uros in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America, and the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. The altitude was evident, as it was freezing cold as we boated across! After about 30 minutes, we reached the village of floating islands–42 islands made by the Uros people from reed straw. The Uros people still maintain their unique Uru culture, but also speak Spanish and have some modern amenities (like motors for some reed boats).IMG_9831.JPG

The local ladies welcomed us warmly, and demonstrated how the floating lakes are built from living reeds, soil, straw, and rope, and are anchored in the lakes. These islands are maintained periodically throughout the year with fresh installments of reed overlays. It felt really strange to walk across the ground cushioned by reeds and to know I was floating! One local lady invited us into her hut, and explained how it was wired for electricity only 2 months earlier through the installation of solar panels. We even learned how to say hello in Uru–kamisaraki!IMG_9827

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The solar panels on the floating island of San Miguel are 2 months old. Before this, the village had no electricity.

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Every floating island has a lookout post.

After the visit, we headed back to Puno via boat and boarded the bus for another 2 hours, before crossing the border over foot into Bolivia. We then boarded a new Bolivia Hop bus, and 10 short minutes later we were in the scenic Bolivian lakeside village of Copacabana. After a quick lunch, we then boarded another boat, and rode for 1.5 hours across Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol.

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The beautiful view from the Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol was absolutely beautiful, and I really wish I could have spent an extra night here! From the boat, we trekked about 40 minutes through the sun temple and small village on the island, soaking in the views all along the way. I stopped to do some shopping with a local vendor, buying 2 pairs of baby alpaca socks for just 60 bolivianos (less than 9 USD!). While I bargained with her a small amount, I paid her the amount she asked. The more I travel, the more I realize that tourism is the economic lifeblood for so many of these local places. I can do my part to support the local economy by paying up for some goods–even though I’m on a “student budget” now, I feel fortunate enough to be able to travel and afford these things, and it’s a privilege to be able to support the places I am visiting economically.

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There were lots of donkeys on the Isla del Sol! ❤

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IMG_9851After our short trek across Isla del Sol, we boarded our boat again to make the 1.5 hour journey back to Copacabana. We then boarded the bus, and drove the 4 hours to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. The ride was exciting for 2 mains reasons–1) At one point, we had to get off the bus and ride a small motorboat across a Lake Titicaca tributary, while our bus floated by on a ferry. We then reboarded on the other side. This experience was unique and fun, but made me appreciate bridges all the same. 2) We watched one of my favorite movies of all time on the bus ride–Interstellar!! Yes, I am not ashamed of my nerdiness.
Once we arrived in La Paz, we were dropped off at the wrong hostel, but quickly found our way to the correct one. After over 24 hours on a bus, I enjoyed a hot shower and warm bed and slept for about 10 hours. Today, I am still really tired, but hope to see a little of what La Paz has to offer before heading to the salt flats of Uyuni tomorrow!

An Overview of Peru’s Sacred Valley

 

I have spent the last few days in Peru’s Sacred Valley. While the highlights have certainly been Rainbow Mountain and Machu Picchu, my time here overall has held more subtle surprises. Since arriving in Cusco a few days ago, I’ve found my primary personal objective to be to chill–I have now been traveling for over a month, and I was in need of some downtime. I have welcomed opportunities to sit in a cafe, relax, blog (woo!), and use wifi to reconnect with family and friends at home. However, of course I have also found a few adventures! I’ve detailed my highlights below.

 

1- Free walking tour of Cusco. Upon arriving in Cusco, Sarah, Rachele, and I took advantage of a free walking tour that meets in Cusco’s Plaza De Armas a few times a day. Fortunately, our visit to Cusco corresponded with the city’s annual historic celebration, so we were able to view several unique festivities along the way. IMG_9262.JPGOur tour guide, Angel, was exceptional. He explained to us how Cusco was the center of the Incan world, and how the roads delineate the four regions of the Incan empire, stretching into modern Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia.

He also showed us how the city is shaped like a puma (who knew!) and demonstrated several Incan instruments for us and explained their historical significance. For example, the charango was developed as an alternative to the guitar, as the Spanish invaders did not permit the natives to play the guitar. Because of its small size, the natives could hide the charango under their ponchos to avoid persecution.Screenshot 2016-06-16 at 3.34.46 PM.png

The tour concluded with some beautiful views and free pisco sours. We were also excited to meet two fellow New Yorkers on the tour!

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A beautiful sunset over Cusco

 

2- A visit to Moras and Moray. On the way from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, we stopped by the ancient ruins at Moras and Moray. Archaeologists are still uncertain as to the purpose of these circles engraved into the earth, which made it even more exciting to me!IMG_9520

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3- Exploring Ollantaytambo and hiking to the “Inca Face.” Today, I stayed behind in Ollantaytambo a few extra hours to hike to Pinkuylluna, or the “Inca Face” ruins. The ruins are located on one of the mountains that surrounds the city. The hike up took about an hour, but I did get lost as the trail is worn and not clearly marked. I also stopped along the way to soak in some views and get some reading done! The views of Ollantaytambo from the top were beautiful.

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The Inca face is between the 2 ruins. I had a hard time spotting him, but I am sure he is there! 
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The view from the top! 
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Finding some chill time at the top! 

Tonight, I will head back to Cusco to meet back up with Sarah and Rachele, then we will board an overnight bus to Bolivia. I am slightly nervous, given every person I have met who has visited Bolivia has gotten food poisoning (including my very best friend, who was deathly ill here from some sketchy meat…this is why I’ve been vegetarian since I left the USA!) However, I am excited to see all of the natural beauty the country has to offer–if it’s anything like Peru, it will be amazing.

The Magic of Machu Picchu

Yesterday, I visited one of the New Seven Wonders of the World–Machu Picchu. Discovered as recently as 1911, Machu Picchu is an Incan city built six centuries ago. Before coming to Peru, this was the one site I had heard the most of, and I was almost desensitized by the amount of pictures and information I had seen about Machu Picchu on TV and social media. However, I realized upon my arrival that nothing could have properly prepared me for this visit, and no pictures or words can ever really do this place justice.IMG_9774.JPG 

When we were planning our trip, Sarah and I decided to do one day in Machu Picchu and forego the week-long trek along the Inca Trail that many visitors elect to do (I want to do this someday though!), so that we could have more time to visit Rainbow Mountain and Colca Canyon. At 5:30am, we woke up and walked down to the train station in Ollantaytambo to catch the Inca Rail for an hour and a half ride to Aguas Calientes.

 

Aguas Calientes is the last town before the Machu Picchu archaeological park, and it reminds me of a Peruvian version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–very quaint, but touristy and overpriced! Once here, we purchased a bus ticket to Machu Picchu and hopped aboard the first available.

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Aguas Calientes…the last stop before the magic! I doubt the water is actually “caliente” (hot)…Peru has been freezing cold mostly! 

 

Once we were there, we immediately walked to the first viewing point!IMG_9571

 

We had booked our visit early enough to secure a ticket to hike two of the smaller mountains in the ancient city–Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu. While 2,500 visitors are allowed each day at Machu Picchu, only 200 are allowed on these peaks each day! After soaking in that first initial view, we made our way to the gated entrance for these two mountains. I got separated from Sarah and Rachele, so I went ahead and started the treks on my own. I first scaled Huaynapicchu, the smaller mountain. It only took 20-30 minutes to climb, and the most exciting part was a small cliff where I had to pull myself up by rope! Once on top, the views of Waynapicchu and Machu Picchu were beautiful. I also made friends with a German, a Canadian, and an Italian at the top.

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Atop Huaynapicchu

 

I then made my way toward Waynapicchu, the big mountain. I was actually very surprised I was allowed to climb it, as it looked quite treacherous. Surely enough, I found the trail and began to follow it up, scaling some very steep and narrow steps along the way. It took about an hour to climb up, and I was so famished at the top (I had only had a small package of wafers for breakfast!) I instantly ate some Peanut M&M’s (my favorite!) and chugged some water before soaking in the view. I also climbed around on some rocks at the very top, and at one point I was literally holding on to a rock to keep from sliding down (not off the mountain, but just a few feet!) so that I could get a good picture angle for a sweet married couple I met. All the trekkers who made it really bonded at the top of Waynapicchu!IMG_9667

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IMG_9665IMG_9686After making my way back down (and almost dropping my iPhone off the side of the mountain…a very close call!), I met up with Sarah and Rachele for lunch. They wanted to leave early to head back to Aguas Calientes, but I chose to stay a bit longer at Machu Picchu. After re-entering the park, I soon found myself on the trail to Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. This was my favorite part of my time at Machu Picchu! This was the original gate into the sacred city from the outside world, and the trek up from the city was about an hour up. The views of the city below were absolutely amazing. I also met a nice Russian along the way who was about to quit the trek…but I convinced him to keep going!IMG_9730.JPG

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On my way down from Intipunku, I stopped by a grassy area where people were laying in the grass and chilling, and I decided to do the same. The view from here was also amazing. I found myself reflecting a lot on the last few months, the last few years, and what is ahead of me for the next few years. In my daily life, I often have a hard time slowing down to take time to pray and meditate, but I found myself doing such as I laid in the grass with the views of Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu, the mountains I had scaled earlier in the day, before me.IMG_9772
Finally, it was time to leave. I caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes and met up with Sarah and Rachele. We then took the Inca Rail together back to Ollantaytambo. I was not feeling well at all, so I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Even though I felt sick physically, I had such a full heart from the amazing visit earlier in the day. Strangely enough, I felt a real spiritual connection at Machu Picchu, and I can’t wait to visit again at some point in my lifetime (God willing!).

A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain

Yesterday was a high point of my trip in South America–not only because it was my birthday (27 years young!), but because we trekked up Vinicunca Mountain (otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain!). Rainbow Mountain is a recent discovery and opened in April 2015 to tourists who dared to make the trek. Starting at 14,000 feet, the trek takes you across 10 miles, ultimately ending at an elevation of approximately 17,000 atop vibrantly painted mountains rich in minerals and undisturbed by human touch.IMG_9405.JPG

 

Back in January, when Sarah and I started planning this trip, we discussed in detail what exactly to do on my birthday. Our first thought, naturally, was the majestic Machu Picchu, which is arguably Peru’s most famous attraction. However, the more we saw and read about the Rainbow Mountain, the more convinced we became that this was the ideal trek for June 13.

 

But was this the right plan? The more we talked to people along the way once we arrived in Peru, the more worried I became. One guy who had hiked it legitimately laughed when I told him we were hiking Rainbow Mountain on my birthday. The trail is known for being extremely tough given the altitude and steepness, and people sometimes fall ill along the way or have to get a horse to ride as they can no longer walk the trail. “I’m sure we will be fine!” I responded to his laughs. Still, my anxiety secretly grew! Were 3 city girls from NYC who relied on running, SoulCycle, and yoga for fitness ready for this trek!?

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Tres NYC chicas…ready for this trek!

 

Finally, the day arrived. Our alarms sounded at 1:45am, and our guide, Abel, picked us up at our hostel at 2:15am sharp. It was entertaining to watch people stumble back from the bars as our bus took us out of Cusco, knowing the arduous trek that was ahead of us in just a few hours. It took 3 hours to reach our “base camp” site, which was a hut with no electricity or running water with a herd of alpacas right beside. I tried to sleep on the ride, but it was too cold. Therefore, I had the pleasure of watching our bus make some extremely sharp turns along a narrow mountain pass. Once, the turn was so sharp our driver put it in reverse, and I honestly thought we were going to back off the cliff! I grabbed my friend Rachele’s hand and said a quick prayer…fortunately, we survived and continued on! We also got stuck on a bridge, but this was not life-threatening, so I wasn’t as worried.

 

At our base camp, we had breakfast of bread, fruit, and tea. Once the sun rose, we started on our trek, passing through a herd of alpaca and scaling our first steep hill. Our group consisted of Abel (our guide), Sarah, Rachele, and myself, as well as a really nice girl from Boston. Our Boston friend quickly realized on the first hill she needed a horse, so we trekked onward and let her and Abel catch up with us on the first mountain pass.

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The start of the trek…passing through a herd of alpacas!

 

Abel was an amazing guide! He looked out for us “chicas” and was dedicated to making sure we were the first group to reach Vinicunca that day, meaning we could enjoy the vista views undisturbed by other trekkers! With our Boston friend on the horse, we kept a steady pace, and reached the mountain over 2 hours ahead of schedule (which was ideal for our type-A group)!

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Sarah and I at the very top with Abel. He was the best guide, and anyone who wants to visit should special request him through FlashpackerConnect!

We also had another informal guide, a dog that we named Rainbow (she didn’t have a name already!). Rainbow lives at the base camp, and walked with us the entire way up the mountains! She also loved to play, although sometimes she was a little rough (I tried to discourage her by saying “no morder!” because…rabies. But she was so cute and sweet!) Rainbow was seriously one of the highlights of my day!

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Our second fearless guide…Rainbow!

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Rainbow on top of Vinicunca…all in a day’s work for her!! ❤

Once on top of the mountain, we took time to soak in the view.

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IMG_9406The altitude did not hit me until the trek downhill. We were well-stocked on natural supplements in the form of teas, pills, and candies to combat the altitude, but I think these items can only help so much. Somehow, the way down was much harder for me than the way up. Although I did encounter some shortness of breath on the trek up, I had a terrible headache and achy knees on the way down. Abel had some special liquid that he put on his hands for us to inhale that helped a bit. After what felt like forever, we were back at the base camp, where they prepared a huge lunch for us! Sadly, we were all feeling a little nauseated, so we didn’t eat a lot.

 

Then, Abel brought us all outside, where he brought out a special birthday cake our cook had made for me while we were trekking! It was a beautifully decorated chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter cake…3 of my favorite things! I was so impressed he made such a delicious and intricately decorated cake on such short notice in such a deserted area! I shared my cake with some of the local farmers who also help with the treks, and we had a wonderful birthday celebration! This was truly one of the most special birthdays of my life, and I am so grateful to Abel and the locals who live here for that! 🙂IMG_9425

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The creator of my beautiful cake!
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Sharing cake and having a very special birthday celebration with some of our local hosts!

Rainbow Mountain was tough, but rewarding. Although I was covered in dirt and exhausted by the end of our 9 hours, I felt cleansed and energized for what the future holds. I am so happy I was able to start my 27th year in such a special place with amazing people. Last year was one of the best years of my life, and I can’t wait to see what 27 holds. It is already off to an amazing start!

Keeping Up in Arequipa

Arequipa (pronounced air-a-keep-a) has been both Sarah’s and my favorite town in Peru so far! Known as the “ciudad blanca,” the town center is comprised of beautiful white stone buildings sitting beneath Misti, an active volcano. IMG_8968IMG_8969We arrived in Arequipa Thursday morning via overnight bus, and made 3 friends at the bus station to share a taxi with into the city center. One of these friends (a guy from Holland) told us about a fabulous local beer and chocolate shop, so we made plans to go here at noon together. After settling into the hostel, we met 2 girls from Germany for the second time (we had first met them back in Paracas!). They also knew our Dutch friend from a prior encounter (it’s so funny how small the world of Peru travelling is…you meet the same people over and over along the path!), so the 5 of us left for beer and chocolate at noon. The spot is called ChaqChao, and reminds me of a place I’d find in Brooklyn back home! It was just as good as its reputation. After enjoying some local brews and chocolates on the rooftop, we left to join a free walking tour of the city after grabbing a quick lunch. We soon decided to forego the walking tour and just relax and wander around the city together. It was nice to have such a laid back, unstructured day to soak in this new city with new friends. We also met the cutest baby alpacas ever!IMG_8974

 

As Sarah and I had to wake up at 2:30am to leave for Colca Canyon the next morning, we went to bed at 8pm! The next morning, our guide picked us up at 2:45am and we left for Colca Canyon. It is a 3 hour drive to the Colca valley, and we stopped for a traditional breakfast in a village called Chivay (I tried quinoa juice and it wasn’t bad!). I was getting very cold with the few warm items of clothing I had brought, so I bought alpaca gloves and a beanie from a lady in the marketplace here for only 15 soles (about 5 USD).

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Chivay at 7am

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A cute puppy stretching in the Chivay market

We then continued up the mountain, where we stopped to do some trekking and soak in the views. I found the terraces in the valley to be captivating. Farmers built these terraces 1,000 years to cultivate the land to grow quinoa, corn, and potatoes. This means the terraces are older than Incan civilization!13412103_10207720326418684_70914105280173378_o.jpg

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Also, we were fortunate to see several Andean condors cruise overhead and through the valley. This is the reason our tour started so early–condors are most active around 8am as the heat rises, thus allowing them to glide and use less energy. Our guide told us that condors are a monogamous creature, and 2 condors in love always glide together. So, it was fun to watch these 2 literal lovebirds cruise overhead for several minutes! So adorable! Interestingly, if the female dies first, the male will not seek another partner. But if the male dies first, the female will find another partner. Fascinating!IMG_9131.JPG 

 

We then continued on to a natural hot spring, where I soaked for a bit (it was freezing to get out though!) After a traditional lunch in Chivay (more ceviche, yum!), we continued on to the highest accessible point in Colca Canyon–an inactive volcano at 4,910 meters high (or 16,000 feet!). Sarah and I were both feeling woozy from the altitude, which made us worried about the huge 10 hour trek we have coming in a few days (hopefully we are acclimated by then!) Afterward, we continued back to Arequipa, where we decompressed for a bit then went to dinner at a cute sidewalk restaurant, where we enjoyed some vino and a Peruvian version of Italian food!

 

This morning, we woke up and had breakfast at the hostel, where we befriended a U.S. Marine also traveling through South America for a few months. Interestingly enough, he is also starting law school this fall, so we had a lot to talk about! He joined us as we toured Arequipa’s famous Santa Catalina monastery later in the morning. The monastery is laid out as a mini version of the city of Arequipa, and it is quite easy to get lost in the “streets” of the monastery. There were several beautiful courtyards and a modern art gallery, and it was interesting to also see how the nuns lived in centuries past.IMG_9218

 

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A creepy nun mannequin in the monastery! 

IMG_9198.JPGIMG_9187After getting lost in the maze of the monastery, Sarah and I went on to do some shopping for some authentic baby alpaca goods. Baby alpaca fabric is the softest version of alpaca wool and is always from an alpaca’s first shave, meaning it is pricier and more rare but a higher quality than regular alpaca. Arequipa is known for its alpaca goods. I was excited to find a baby alpaca scarf/poncho that I can wear 8 different ways for only 120 soles! 🙂
On our last night in Arequipa, Sarah and I attended a Peruvian cooking class, where we learned how to make stuffed rocoto, pastel de papa, and soltero de queso (my favorite!). We really enjoyed getting to know the other students in the class from Germany and Brazil!

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Vegetarianas!! 

IMG_9227.JPGThis morning, we flew to Cusco and met our friend Rachele. Now, it’s time to prepare for some of the literal high points of our trip–Rainbow Mountain and Machu Picchu!

Ica and Huacachina: A Desert Oasis

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After the short bus ride from Paracas to Ica, we checked into our hostel for the night, Banana’s Adventure hostel in Huacachina. The music here was very loud and the wifi bad, but they had a really good restaurant and bar and all-around good vibe. After dinner (a quinoa burger…yum!), we crashed in bed.

 

Huacachina is the town next to Ica, and I wondered why we were staying here and not in Ica. However, I found my answer the next morning. I woke up and headed outside to the bar area for my morning coffee, and looked up to see we were surrounded by large sand dunes that I had not noticed as we drove in after sunset the night before. Huacachina is a literal desert oasis! After breakfast, Sarah and I decided to trek up the dunes a bit.

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Later in the morning, we headed out to visit two local vineyards that have been operating since the early 19th century. As has become standard, Sarah and I started practicing our Spanish with our cab driver, who did not speak English. He asked me what I did. “Yo estudio en la universidad de Nueva York a ser una abogada,” I told him. His face lit up! He then told me he is a professor of political science at the university in Ica and showed me his ID (I am guessing he is a cab driver on the side!). He then handed me a copy of the Peruvian constitution to keep, and we discussed the parallels between it and the US constitution for the rest of the drive (in Spanish!) This is definitely one of my favorite souvenirs so far, and I look forward to keeping it with all of my other law books in the fall 🙂

 

The vineyards were interesting to visit, but I did not find the wines and piscos we sampled to be enjoyable. Most of the wines were too sweet for my taste, and the piscos were very, very strong! That being said, it was fun to sample them in the place where they are made and to learn something new.

 

After grabbing a bite to eat, we left around 4pm for a dune buggy excursion outside of Huacachina. This was my favorite part of our time in Peru so far! Our driver took us up and down some very steep dunes so fast that I felt my stomach drop a few times. It was like riding a rollercoaster! Then, we parked atop a few tall dunes and they pulled out the boards. Sarah and I were initially hesitant to try sand boarding, but we decided it looked too fun not to try! Plus, I found out I could sit on the board instead of trying to stand on it, so I was sold. Gliding down the dunes was so much fun! After boarding, we were able to sit and watch the beautiful sunset over the dunes. I keep finding so many moments of deep peacefulness on this trip and this was definitely one. It was so quiet on top of the dune, with the only sound being the wind as the sun dropped slowly out of sight.IMG_9001

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After sunset, our buggy took us back to the hostel, where we enjoyed a pizza (my first since leaving the US!) and prepared to leave on the overnight bus. We left very early for the bus station (I am so careful ever since my incident in Saigon), and I proceeded to fall asleep in the bus station because I was so tired! Fortunately, Sarah woke me up when it was time to board! The overnight bus ride lasted 12 hours, and took us on some extremely curvy and steep roads. I surprisingly slept very well (similar to the Vietnamese sleeper train phenomenon) and woke up to this beautiful sunrise.IMG_8958.JPG
Our next stop is Arequipa for the next few days!

Peru Begins: Lima and Paracas National Reserve

The South America trip is off to a chilly and sleepy, but fun, start. After checking into my hostel in the beautiful neighborhood of Miraflores in Lima early in the morning on Sunday, I struck off to explore. The Pacific coast was only a few blocks away, and I found a nice walking path that led to a swanky mall right on the coast. Upon arriving, I immediately realized how much colder it was here and that I had not brought enough pants. I bought a pair at the mall and then had a delicious brunch by the sea of egg and avocado and fresh-squeezed camu camu, orange, and pineapple juice.IMG_8597

By the afternoon, the jet lag was really setting in badly. I broke one of the cardinal rules of traveling by taking a 4 hour nap between 2 and 6pm–finally having a proper bed after flying for 2 days was too tempting! I then woke up, hung out in the hostel’s common area for about 2 hours and made some friends, and fell back asleep at 8pm. Big mistake! I awoke to the sound of Sarah’s arrival in our room at midnight, and it was so good to see her!! We caught up until about 2am, when she fell asleep and I found I could not go back to sleep, even though I tried. I spent the next few hours catching up with friends in Europe, and went to a local cafe shortly after sunrise to get a coffee. Once Sarah woke up, we got ready and walked to the coast to enjoy another coffee with a beautiful view, then caught a cab down to the Lima historic district. Our cab driver dropped us off at the Plaza de San Martin.IMG_8621

This is when it got interesting. Sarah and I had been warned that Lima is a dangerous city, so we were already a bit on edge. We also noticed several locals were leering and making comments as we passed by. We tried to ignore and kept walking through the plaza. All of the sudden, a man quickly approached us with a blue card in his hand and started shouting. “No gracias,” Sarah and I both said, and kept walking. I thought he was trying to sell us a map, while Sarah thought he was trying to give us a flyer to a club. He shouted at us again and continued to wave the blue card. “No gracias!” we repeated, a bit more assertively, and continued to walk. All of the sudden, I heard Sarah say, “He’s following us.” I turned around to see he had, in fact, been following us across the plaza. As we started to freak out and walk faster, Sarah said, “Wait!” She turned around and took the blue card from the man–her birth control packet had fallen out of her purse, and the man was trying to return it! We apologized profusely and he shook his head at us, and we began to laugh hysterically!! It helps to be cautious of strangers, but it’s more important to make sure essential items remain in your bag at all times! 🙂

 

After this hilarious encounter, we proceeded on to watch the changing of the guard at the palace in the Plaza de Armas at noon. It was a grand affair with a full brass band and lots of flags and marching. After this, we got lunch at a local restaurant and tried Inca Cola (we did not like it!) and cancha (we liked it! It is like edible unpopped popcorn). We then walked around a bit more, then decided to take advantage of the sunny day and find a rooftop bar.

 

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They have tuk tuks in Lima! ❤

Leave it to the 2 girls from NYC to try to find a rooftop bar in a city where there are hardly any at all! After searching for about an hour (even with the help of TripAdvisor), we found a sufficient one just a block away from our hostel in Miraflores (haha). We ordered 2 pisco sours, the national drink of Peru. After serving us our drinks, the bartender told us one ingredient is raw egg white, and we freaked out a bit. We did try one sip, and decided it wasn’t for us. The bartender sympathetically then made us 2 margaritas at no extra charge! The rooftop had comfortable couches, and as the jetlag started to set in full force, it took all my willpower not to fall asleep on them. I am so happy Sarah was there to hold me accountable!13415478_10206661390242586_1074316500065567351_o

 

With no nap, we went to an early dinner at my brunch spot from yesterday, where I had a delicious quinoa, egg, and shrimp dish. We then went back to the hostel, where I got a solid 10 hours of sleep! I’m hoping the jet lag is defeated now!

 

The next morning, we boarded a Cruz Del Sur bus for Paracas. This ride was much more posh than we expected, and Sarah and I had very comfortable seats! The bus had an attendant that served drinks and snacks, just like an airplane. After 3 hours, we arrived at Paracas National Reserve. IMG_8689

Paracas was absolutely beautiful and was very surprising, as I really had not researched it before arriving. Our tour picked us up from the bus station, and we stopped at several vistas and overlooks along the coast. We also saw lots of flamingos and fossils. I felt like I was on another planet! I found myself soaking up the views, and comparing what I saw to what I had seen in Vietnam just days before, particularly in Ha Long Bay. It is incredible to me how much natural diversity our planet has, and how so many places can be so beautiful in their own unique ways.IMG_8745

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No todo es desierto…not all is desert! 🙂

IMG_8701Paracas is a protected space along the coast of Peru, and only a small number of fisherman are permitted to fish along its coastline. For lunch, our guide took us to a restaurant on the reserve that serves fish caught in Paracas. Here, I had the best meal I have had since I left New York–fresh ceviche (raw fish, squid, and scallops marinated in lime) served with sweet potato chips and crisps (my favorite!). We enjoyed watching a sea lion play in the water right in front of our table during lunch. IMG_8747

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Sarah and I also met some interesting people during our tour. We shared lunch with a British girl our age who is spending 4 months traveling solo through South America. We also got to know our tour guide very well–a friendly guy from Holland who visited Peru and has never left since. He also randomly decided to open up to Sarah and me about all of his baby mama drama, which was quite interesting!
After the day-long tour, it was time to head back to the bus stop for the hour-long journey to Ica. We are only two days in, and already feel like the adventure is well underway. We are excited to see what the next few weeks hold!

From Vietnam to Peru

It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I found this to be especially true as my time in Asia drew to an end. I won’t miss the heat or the crazy motorbikes almost mowing me down each time I walk down the street, but everything else I will definitely miss! Even after 3 weeks, I was not yet tired of the food, the culture, the history, and the friends I had made. On our last night in Vietnam, our group had a farewell dinner at Cau Go in Hanoi, which turned out to be quite the posh spot (posh is another word I’ve adopted from my British friends!) I spent the next day packing, saying goodbyes, doing a bit of last minute shopping around Hanoi, and sitting by Hoan Kiem lake one last time.

 

By a fortunate twist of fate, my closest friend from my Asia trip, Nat, was on the same flight as me from Hanoi to Doha, Qatar. It was so great to have a friend on this flight! 🙂 IMG_8529We said our “see you laters” in Doha around 11pm, as he was continuing back to London that evening. I was so happy to learn that Qatar Airways would provide me with free 5 star accommodations for the night before my 8am connection to Dallas. This was by far the “poshest” accommodation I’ve had yet on the journey! Thank you Qatar Airways! While I had initially been nervous to spend the night alone  here, everyone in Qatar was extremely hospitable, helpful, and nice. I highly recommend Qatar Airways! After showering and catching a few hours of sleep in a big, fluffy, clean bed, I returned to the airport for my 16 hour flight to Dallas.IMG_8549IMG_8545

 

Despite some turbulence over Iran and Russia (which I of course freaked out a bit over…hyperactive imagination?!), the flight went very smoothly. I watched several movies and listened to some Bob Dylan on their entertainment system (so on point!), then touched down in Dallas. I had not anticipated how good it would be to be back in the USA even for a few hours!! I even found a special soundtrack for landing 🙂IMG_8567

 

Once in Dallas, I walked around the airport for a couple of hours to stretch my legs and made calls to family and friends. I also realized how completely exhausted I felt, so I stocked up on Airborne tablets and Tylenol. I boarded my flight to Lima at 10:20pm, but we didn’t take off until around 11pm (typical for my experience with American Airlines! Why can’t all airlines be like Qatar?!) The plane did not even have a TV/entertainment system, but it was ok as I finally caught a few hours of sleep. After about 7 hours, I was in Lima, and the sunrise was beautiful from the window.IMG_8580

 

I was so happy to find my checked backpack had made it all the way to Lima from Hanoi, as I had my doubts about all the crazy connections. I made my way through customs and quickly found my driver I had booked transport in advance through my hostel). My driver did not speak English, so I spoke with him the entire drive in Spanish. I was relieved to see how quickly it came back to me (gracias to Senora Sephore from high school and Senora Botero from Vandy!), and I am excited to see how much I will improve over the next 3 weeks.
I arrived at my hostel and checked in, and am now enjoying some coffee on the porch with my new friend Pisco. IMG_8595Sarah arrives at 11pm tonight, and I absolutely cannot wait to see her!! She and I will be traveling together for the next 3 weeks here, and our friend Rachele (also from NYC) will be joining us about halfway. I am so happy to be in South America! Encantada!!

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