After spending eight days on boats in the Galapagos, it was time to get back to the mainland. Excited to leave Ecuador, we landed in Lima, Peru at night (our least favorite time to arrive anywhere, especially places we'd heard weren't so safe). We weren't staying long in Lima, though - the next morning we were catching a bus to head north to the hiking outpost town, Huaraz. But instead of taking a late bus, we decided to book a hostel close to the airport, get a good night's sleep, and take off north in the morning.
As I mentioned, we'd read that Lima outside of the Miraflores neighborhood isn't particularly safe for tourists, and to never flag a cab down for a ride, even at the airport. Thankfully, the hostel provided transportation for us from the airport, so all we had to do was walk outside the terminal and find the man holding a sign with my name on it. Our first impression of Lima was exactly what we expected - lots of police controlling who they let into the airport, lots of gates protecting the doors to the check in lobby, lots of safeguards in place to keep the area safe. I guess everything we'd read about thieves and bad people are true if they need that many safety measures! Our driver took us 10 minutes down the road to our hostel. And based on the location, I'm pretty glad we were only staying there for one night. The hostel was fine - probably the dumpiest place we stayed in on our trip but it was clean. And the neighborhood looked like it was falling apart- trash was everywhere, shacks were built onto the neighboring hills, buildings had bars on the doors and windows, streetlights were burned out. The good news? There was hot water and a comfy bed. And no, this place did not charge by the hour.
In the morning we tried desperately to get bus information from the girl working the reception desk - "Do you know if Movil Tours picks up at this location? I'm trying to buy tickets online but the website won't work properly. Can you call them for us and explain what we need?" I asked her several times. "Yes I'm pretty sure they pick up 5 blocks away from here. You can walk there." Hmmm…well, we didn't have much faith in her knowledge of the bus stops, and we certainly didn't want to walk through this neighborhood to some random bus stop and wait for a bus that may never come with all of our stuff on our backs, basically inviting people to come mug the tourists. "Can you just call them and make sure please?" So she dialed the number, let it ring three times, and hung up. "No one is answering." Why did you hang up!? I wanted to yell at her. But instead, I kept my composure and asked her to try again. And again - three rings and she hung up. Does this girl not know how to use a phone? Just let it ring until someone answers!! So, our mission to get useful information from the girl at reception was a failure. So we went to plan B - she called a car for us that we took across town to the main bus station where we knew we could get the tickets, get on the bus, and get on our way to Huaraz.
Plan B worked, of course! And we started our first luxury bus adventure in South America! Little did we know that we didn't need to eat a full three course meal in the bus terminal before boarding the bus because they gave us another three course meal when we started moving! But the ladies in the terminal were like Peruvian grandmas and I was starving, so of course I wanted whatever they were serving.
Our eight hour bus ride seemed to fly by - there were movies, some good, some not so good, tea whenever we wanted it, snacks, comfy seats. I could get used to this! As it turns out, the bus did make a stop at the other bus stop that was recommended by the hostel receptionist. And, the stop seemed safe and we probably would have been fine picking it up there, but we just didn't trust her wishy washy information. Soon we arrived in Huaraz at 3,000 meters above sea level, and at the base of the snowcapped Peruvian Andes. And it was chilly!! We got to our next hostel, a lovely little place called El Jacal, and planned out our stay. We were there for the hiking, and we were excited to see what we could do! Our first day was spent relaxing - you know, because I needed a break after all that relaxing in the Galapagos! But the second day we took off on foot, marching from travel agency to travel agency, asking what hiking tours they offered. Of course, we brought our newfound knowledge of dealing with travel agents from the Galapagos, so we were a bit wary as we gathered information. We followed up our conversations with some internet research and settled on the place we liked best - the owner, Mila, was nice to talk to, her information was thorough, her prices were good, and the reviews of her company online were great. So we booked two tours with Andean Summit - a day trip to Laguna 69, and the three night Santa Cruz trek!
Bright and early the next morning we were picked up by a 15 passenger van and swept off to the Laguna 69 trailhead about 2 hours out of town. By then we were well acclimated to the intense altitude and were ready for our gorgeous trek Laguna 69 - a stunningly gorgeous, bright blue lake at the base of the giant grey and white Cordillera Blanca mountain range. It was a tough trail, especially thanks to the altitude, but a great training hike for our Santa Cruz trek.
After resting for one more day in between our hikes, we checked out of our room at El Jacal and got in another 15 passenger van full of our trekking group members: Lea, Rosa, Franck, Leah, Yuri, Jeremie, Florent, and Florent's quiet buddy who's name we can't remember. For the next 4.5 hours on a dirt road we each snoozed in the van before arriving at the trail head where we met our guide, Margarita, and chef, who's name I can't actually remember and never really knew the whole time on our trek (I'm not doing too well on names this time, am i?)…oh well. What I do know is that he was a pretty good cook! Margarita and the chef, who also happens to be her boyfriend, take groups back and forth along the trail for 3 weeks a month - boy do the get a workout! We also waved hello to the adorable and short donkeys that would haul our belongings, tents, cooking gear, etc, for the next four nights, as well as the donkey man.
Off we went on the trail, starting in Huaripampa and following Margarita, down into the valley. On our short day hike we passed by several small houses and huts where families lived and raised chickens and pigs before we got out into the open and away from civilization. Jake and I had read that this trek was a favorite of Nat Geo's, and made many a famous hiker's Top Treks list. Based on the sights of the first day, however, we were not impressed, and could not yet figure out why people thought this trail was so spectacular. We reached our first campsite as the sun was setting - seemingly later than expected and not an ideal time to be setting up tents. We were told by Margarita to hang out while the crew set everything up, so we all did. But as the night got a bit darker, and the air got colder, we got tired of waiting. So Jake and I grabbed a tent and started to set it up.
We put the three-person tent on a nice spot (it was hard to find a spot that wasn’t covered in rocks or cow patties), and started to set it up. Right away Chef came over to help us. When it was up, he looked at us and said "Ok, four people in this one, four people in the other one, and two in the last one." Jake and I looked at each other, confused. And we looked around the group, who was also confused. Each of us had been told when we booked the trip that, to maximize comfort, two people would sleep in each three-person tent. This would allow enough room for our belongings in the tents as well. And, one of the tents he was talking about was Lea's personal tent that happens to fit two people. Why should she have to share? This didn't make sense to any of us. So when Chef said to put four people in each tent, we spoke up. "We were told only two people would sleep per tent," we explained, "Putting four people in those is not going to work." "Oh," Chef said. "Ok, um, we have a spare tent for two people." Ok, that at least solved the problem of having four people sleep in three-person tents, but it was still not the sleeping arrangement that the owner told us would be provided. Of course, visions of our debacle in the Galapagos and the promises that Stalin made came flooding back, and Jake and I were pretty irritated. Why can't companies just do what they say they will do?? UGH!
We decided to let it go, though. It seemed like an honest mistake rather than them trying to pull one over on us. And, the group agreed to let me and Jake take the "extra" tent. And while there wasn't really room for our clothes to be in the tent with us (Jake and I ended up sleeping with clothes stacked between us), at least the 10 of us all slept a little more comfortably.
Well, not that comfortably. The sleeping pads that were provided were rock hard - we were reminded that they are not intended to provide a cushy place for us to sleep, but to provide warmth and prevent the chill from seeping into our sleeping bags. And holy cow I don’t know when I've ever been so cold. Even Galway couldn't compare to the late night freezing (below freezing, actually) temperatures of that first night! There was nothing I could do to stay warm. Wool socks? My toes were still numb. Thermal long johns as PJs? I was still shivering. A Sleeping bag made to keep me warm at 10*? I felt like I was outside. So the first night was not a good one. "It's only two more nights," I told myself. Buck up.
Our hike on Day 2 was pretty interesting - we were supposed to be able to take in some pretty dramatic sights of the towering mountains that surrounded the valley we walked through, but the weather was too sour for it - instead it rained on and off, and the low clouds and fog covered the view. The terrain, though, was starting to get rather pretty, and even though we couldn't see the mountains, we were still happy with the sights. The toughest, and most rewarding, part of the day was our climb over Punto Union at 4,750 meters (15,580 ft) in elevation. The air was thin, the rain turned to snow, and the trail was hard to see. Thanks to our coca tea and a strong determination to "win", Jake and I were the first from our group to reach the summit!
I'm sure you're wondering what coca tea is. It's exactly what you think it is - tea made from the coca leaf. Isn't cocaine made from the coca leaf? Yes, it is! But I promise you, the tea and the drug are not the same thing! The coca leaf is very helpful in curing altitude sickness, and thus excellent to use when climbing at high altitudes. It can be chewed like tobacco for a faster effect, or consumed in a tea. The idea (which per WebMD does not have enough evidence to prove true) is that the extract from the leaf, the alkaloids, help promote blood flow in thus moves oxygen through the body more quickly, eliminating or reducing altitude sickness. The tea tastes pretty good, even Jake likes it, like a slightly more bitter green tea. While it’s helpful effects are not proven, I can attest they coca tea helped us - we were able to easily catch our breath during our big ascent and we felt like we recovered from fatigue quickly. I'll take it!
The climb down to our next campsite was really beautiful. A bright turquoise lake to the right with staggering peaks that were finally starting to coming into view thanks to the dissipating clouds, Paramount Mountain ahead of us, and a vast, open valley leading us to our tents. We got to camp at about 3 and had a decision to make - take a side trail up to another gorgeous lake up Paramount Canyon, or relax at camp. I decided to relax - I was tired, my knees were sore, and I was ready to read my book. Jake, on the other hand, was eager to see more. So he and a few of the others headed off for the lake. It wasn't until after dark that they returned, raving about the beauty of the hidden lake. The only tough part - Margarita told the crew they wouldn't need flashlights! Jake, being the always prepared Eagle Scout, brought two headlamps anyway. Good thing, too, because he, Rosa, Yuriy, and Lea certainly needed them for the walk back to camp in the dark! I don't understand why a guide would say not to take a torch (or in American English, a flashlight - which doesn't make sense because a properly working flashlight doesn't flash. Thanks for pointing that out, every British person we've met!) - she knew the walk was three hours long and that they had two and a half hours to sundown when they left…whatever. Jake was happy to be out in the wilderness somewhat by himself for a little while. I was enjoyed my book, my tea, and my stretchy pants. As I read, the wind billowed around the tent, making me happy I was somewhat warm inside. As the sun started its decent, the wind died down and I heard a whinny not too far away. Of course I poked my head out of the tent to catch a sight of the horse that was calling. To my great surprise, I saw not one, but 12 horses grazing just across the river. A little filly was galloping wildly, neighing and whinnying all along. These gorgeous horses in the field of this valley with the sun setting behind snow-capped mountains - it was a magical moment.
That night we slept much better. For one, we were at a slightly lower altitude. And it also helped that I slept with a water bottle full of hot water in the foot of my sleeping bag (thanks to my smart hubby for that great idea!)! The pads weren't any softer, but at least I was warm!
Day three led us through a giant dried up riverbed - it looked like a barren waste land, strewn with dry rocks and dead trees on their side after having been washed away from an avalanche or a flood years ago. Once across it, the trail met up with the rerouted river, flowing strong. The weather was perfect and we continued our descent. We passed cows and horses who all looked at us like we were intruders as we followed the river to our next campsite. Our last spot was at a lovely spot, a flat grassy place at a bend in the river. And, since we were so much lower in altitude, it was delightfully warm! We all took our shoes off when we arrived and took advantage of the ice cold river to tend to our sore feet, and we enjoyed feeling the grass beneath our toes. We quickly learned, however, that we were not the only inhabitants of this spot - tiny gnats came out in force to show their presence! We waved them away, not giving them a second thought, until we noticed tiny blood spots on our skin where they had landed. They bite! Those little suckers were biting us! They go completely unnoticed, you can't feel the bite. And then you notice the tiny blood spot, and then a dozen, and then a dozen more! We quickly put our socks and shoes back on to protect ourselves, but the damage was done. Two days later Jake and I were losing our minds trying not to itch the bites. And they itched LIKE CRAZY!
The weather was starting to turn sour again as dinner was being prepared. A couple who was just starting the hike in the opposite direction passed us with two dogs behind them. Both puppies came over to greet all of us and get a pat on the head before one bounded off to catch up with its owners. The other one, though, stayed put, and took a long nap in between all of the tents. Since no one came back for her, we realized she was a stray who had wandered up from town. The small town of Cashapampa was only about a three or four hour walk, and she must have followed the other couple all the way over to our campsite! She sure was adorable, and we all liked her. That is, until we smelled our hands that we used to pet her. OH MAN. This puppy was STINKY!! As the rain started coming down, we all retreated to our tents, leaving Stinker outside sleeping. Just before dinner was announced, we heard a bit of commotion coming from one of the other tents. Stinker had crawled under the rainfly and was trying to get into the tent, getting her stink on everything! We had a problem on our hands.
At dinner time, the group piled into the dining tent and assumed our positions on our stools around a makeshift table and candle. Stinker, eager to escape the rain and try her luck at getting some extra grub, came in with us. She liked Franck best, so she stuck close to him the whole time, laying down between his legs, giving everyone in close proximity a terrible whiff of stray wet dog. She stayed with us through the whole meal, too smart to go back out into the rain, but not smart enough to just stay in the warm, dry dining tent to sleep there allnight when we left. That night, as Jake and I started to settle into our sleeping bags, I could smell her. I knew she was close to our tent. And given her track record of trying to wiggle into the tents, too close! I was too scared to unzip my side of the tent to see if she was there - what if she jumped in and got her stink on everything?? So Jake slipped out the other side to see where she was. Sure enough - she was trying to burrow under the rainfly to get in! This smelly puppy, as adorable and scruffy as she was, really needed to go! A swift bop with a sandal and a stern voice got her moving away from our tent, and we thankfully sleep smell free for the night.
We all woke to Stinker's barks the next morning - Leah, Franck, and Jeremie got quite a start as Stinker was burrowed back under their rain fly, so the barking was really loud! Stinker watched as we all packed up our stuff, and followed us on the three and half hour walk to Cashapampa. We waved goodbye to our smelly companion as we got back into our huge van and drove back to Huaraz.
Once back at El Jacal, we retrieved our big backpacks which they let us store for free while we were on the trek, took showers (thank goodness!), and had one final dinner with our new friends at a local restaurant. We had all just accomplished one of the most coveted treks on the planet! We had to celebrate with some beers! Hours later we headed to the bus station for our first overnight bus!
Overnight buses are never very comfortable. Sure, they're better than overnight flights because the chairs recline a tiiiiiiiiny bit more, but each time the bus goes around a bend in the road, my whole body rolls over to the other side. It's like trying to sleep on a docile roller coaster. And, to make it even more fun, many bus companies in South America like to play movies all night long, movies that play sound on the speakers that are piped through the whole bus instead of just in the headphone jack. So whether we want to watch the movie or not, we get to listen to it all night long. And, more often than not, it's an extremely violent or overly sexual movie. It's just so bizarre!
The other thing about overnight buses is that they usually get in REALLY early in the morning. Our bus to Lima was no exception. By 6:30am we had arrived at our next lodging, Kaclla: The Healing Dog Hostel, in the upscale Miraflores neighborhood. Miraflores is really quite pretty, and very safe - very different from the other neighborhood we stayed in the first time around! While we were greeted happily by the live-in hostel mascot, Pisco the Peruvian hairless dog (in fact, "kaclla" is the Quechua name for the Peruvian Hairless. Here's another fun fact about these dogs: "Due to the texture of their skin and the fact that they are warmer than the normal canine temperature, kacllas have been used for millennia, by indigeneous Andean civilizations, as pain relief for rheumatism and other ailments." And Pisco really was very warm!) the greeting we received from the guy working the desk was a bit less enthusiastic. "Check in is at 11," he told us. "Do you have a reservation?" Well good morning to you too! "No problem," we told him. "And yes, we have a reservation for a private room. We'll hang out in the living room until the room is ready." So we headed in to the building, made ourselves comfy on the couches next to Pisco, and waited. And waited. We read our books, edited photos, wrote blog entries…we made good use of the time. Finally 11am rolled around and I went to check on the room. This time a girl was at the desk, and she seemed much friendlier than her colleague. "It's not ready yet. Please come check with me again at 1pm." UGH! All I wanted to do was get settled in our room and take a shower so we could start celebrating Jake's birthday. Oh yeah, it was Jake's 30th birthday! What a way to spend the morning - stuck in smelly clothes coming off the night bus and sitting around in the living room. Oh well. While we had to wait longer to get our room, we couldn't wait any longer to get some food - so off to a celebratory birthday breakfast we went!
I must say, we really turned the morning around with breakfast! After a short walk through the neighborhood and perusing several menus, we decided to throw any notion of a "healthy" breakfast out the window and ended up at Manolo for stuffed churros (stuffed with fresh cream, dulce de leche, and chocolate), coffee, and torta de tres leches! Happy birthday Jake! And now Jake can say that a meal changed his life - he's never been much of a cake guy, but after devouring that perfect tres leches cake, he firmly declared, "I love this cake!". Om nom nom!
Our bellies full of deliciousness and our blood full of sugar, we bounced back to the hostel at 1pm to get into our room. Turns out we had a minor problem - the girl at the desk got us confused with another couple who had come in that morning looking for a room (they didn’t have a reservation) and they were told to wait while one opened up. The girl at the desk, thinking they were us, gave them our private room just minutes before we got back from Manolo! That didn't sit right with me, and as you've learned by now, I've really found my voice on this trip (not like I was very quiet before, but I was certainly more afraid to request that something be corrected!). I promise I was nice about it, but I was also quite firm. Here's how the conversation went: "Hi again! Is our room ready?" I asked when we arrived. "Oh shoot, I think I just gave your room to another couple," she said, looking up at me like she expected me to tell her that it was no problem. "Can you please go get them out of our room, then? We've been waiting to check in since 6am, it's my husband's 30th birthday, and we'd really just like to finally get settled." She looked at me like I just asked her to murder her favorite pet. "I'll, um, well, I just checked them in to that room," she told me. "Yes I understand that, so they shouldn't be too settled in it just yet. Can you please get them out of our room?" Thankfully, she did, and she was very apologetic. Within five minutes we were finally in our private room and could relax and shower. Phew!
To continue the big birthday celebration, we went to see one of the most awaited movies of the year (at least, for us), Spectre, the new James Bond film (in English, of course). While the movie was so-so, the popcorn at the movie theater was the BEST we'd ever had. I know that's probably a weird thing to say - who really cares about movie theater popcorn? Well if you've been following along with the blog, you'll know that we've had trouble finding good popcorn at theaters around the world! First problem with movie theaters outside of the US - butter is not a flavor, not even a topping! Second problem - the regular popcorn is usually way too salty. And last problem - the sweet flavors are so sweet, they're good for about three bites. But this popcorn at the Cineplanet in Miraflores, while not buttery, was so perfectly salted, and so perfectly oiled with something that I almost got up in the middle of the movie to go buy more! Oh man it was so good!
For dinner, we walked to one of the top rated ceviche restaurants in Lima, Punto Azul. Sure, maybe you're not really supposed to have ceviche for dinner (I guess not many locals do), but when the ceviche place doesn't open until 6pm, I think ordering it for dinner is perfectly acceptable. Besides, after our day of churros, cake, and popcorn, we needed something a bit healthier for dinner! So of course we started off with parmesan crusted scallops (ok so not that healthy). And then came the perfect Peruvian style ceviche. Jake got the traditional kind with leche de tigre sauce, hominy, and sweet potato on the side, and I got it three ways, traditional, spicy, and passion-fruity. The fish was incredibly fresh and had perfect texture and flavor. To wash it all down we enjoyed a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and since it had been quite some time since we'd had any wine, it, too, tasted SO GOOD! As we finished our entrees and Jake started to think that we could get out of the place without any birthday embarrassment, the waitstaff arrived at our table with dessert, a lit candle, and a box of crazy hats for us to pick out and wear while they serenaded us in The Birthday Song! And they sang it super slow, so there were plenty of awkward moments for everyone else in the restaurant to enjoy as they watched my husband turn beet red while I filmed it all. Happy birthday Jake! I love you!
For our last full day in Lima we met up with another free walking tour. We really love these things, they're such a great way to see the most important sites of a city, and the guides are usually quite enthusiastic! This tour was no different - our energetic guide showed us how to use the metro system, which we took to get to the historic center of town. There we explored the main square and the exterior of the Presidential Palace where we happened to catch the changing of the guard. What a show! The entire outfit that mans the palace changes over at noon, so the production is fittingly huge. The military band plays on the courtyard for about 30 minutes, and the hundreds of military men that are coming off and going on duty put on a long, choreographed marching routine, complete with commands and responding yells. It was quite a sight!
Hungry for lunch after all that walking around, we headed back to Manolo for another healthy meal. This time, we ordered tres leches cake and mini churros served with mugs of hot dipping chocolate! I don't think I need to describe to you just how incredible it all tasted. And for dinner, we were craving more ceviche. So we wandered to a more casual ceviche spot called El Pez where we got our first pisco sours of the trip! I have always loved pisco sours (especially the ones served at La Mar in San Francisco), but Jake had never had one before. And we got there in time for the 2-for-1 special, so we both got to drink up! What was even more fun about the pisco sours at El Pez were all of the different flavors. The bartender infused pisco with all kinds of things (star anise, coca leaves, cinnamon sticks, chamomile…) and let us take a whiff of each one. I decided to go with the coca pisco sour, and Jake stuck with the classic. Both were deliciously refreshing.
The next morning we headed off to the airport to head to Cusco! Sure, we could have bused there, but it would have taken 20 hours on windy roads. No thanks! And besides, the flights were cheap! After a not-so-great first impression of Lima, we ended up really enjoying Miraflores. It's pretty, the people are nice and welcoming, and we never had any of the problems with taxis that we were warned about in the blog posts we had read. In fact, we met some really, really nice taxi drivers! I just love it when a place exceeds our expectations, and Miraflores in Lima certainly did.
We just had one last thing to take care of before leaving Lima - getting our yellow fever shots! Wait, yellow fever? What's that for? Well it's recommended that we get it for our trip to Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina later. And it's really expensive to get at home (between $200 and $400, the high price is probably due to the fact that supply is fairly low), and only the state department health clinics administer it at home and that was just too much of a hassle. So when I learned that we could get the shot for about $20 each in the Lima Airport, we decided to go for it. I hate needles, and I am terrified of shots. And the fact that some stranger in an airport hospital was going to give me a shot made me feel queasy just thinking about it. But I bucked up and went first. We checked in, paid the fee, and gave the nurse our passports. She handed us the official documents and called us into the room just moments later. Oh here we go. I went first, because I certainly was not going to be conscious if I watched Jake get his. "Are you nervous?" the nurse asked me. "Yes, I hate shots," I said, not even trying to speak in Spanish. Seconds later the shot was administered, it was over. And then seconds after that my face went white, and I started to feel like I was going to fall out of my chair. The super nice nurse looked at me, handed me a cotton swab with rubbing alcohol on it, and instructed me to hold it under my nose and breathe in until I felt better. I sat there with my eyes closed, sweating, as Jake got his shot. Of course, he was totally fine. I took a few more minutes in my chair to ensure that I wouldn't fall over the moment I stood up, and off to security we went. While security was super easy and fast, it felt like forever in my weakened state. I needed to get my blood sugar up and could smell the food court Chinese food from 100 yards away. We spent the next 30 minutes slowly stuffing ourselves with mediocre "Chinese" food, and I felt eons better afterward! Thank goodness!
Thanks for everything, Huaraz and Lima! The real hiking adventure was about to commence - up next, Machu Picchu!