We had been in the mountains for our whole Peru experience thus far. Now, we were heading down to the coast. Purposefully aiming more south than west we missed Lima (the nation’s capital) entirely. Cities are huge money-sucking machines that we try to avoid if we don’t have any specific need to visit. We dropped from just over 11,000 ft to sea level in about two hours. We found ourselves high on oxygen and overdressed for the warm weather.
We camped out on a bluff overlooking the Pacific behind a restaurant. We were not the only overlanders there. We joined some Colombian motorcyclists that we had met previously at Laguna Parón and a couple from the Czech Republic who had been driving South America for the last three years. It was a very chill entry into life at sea level.
It felt so good to be at the ocean, surrounded by moist warm air. We drove out to Paracas National Park. In Paracas, there is a tourist circuit that is on the regular maps and advertised on the pamphlet they gave us at the entry gate. That circuit took us to a couple of overlooks and beaches where we had to share space with busloads of other tourists. I can’t think of many things worse than busloads of people. There are also roads that aren’t on the maps. They are discreetly marked with cement poles and are really just tracks across the desert. Those roads are where the fun is located. We drove off into the dry horizon feeling very alone in the world. We made it out to some cliffs on the edge of the continent where we could peek over the side and spy on sea lions and birds. From there we just followed random roads to see where they might lead (spoiler alert- the ocean, always the ocean). Having had our fill of desert sand and washboard tracks we headed to the town of Huacachina.
Huacachina is a little town located in an oasis surrounded for miles by giant sand dunes. The main tourist draw is to take buggy rides through the dunes chauffeured by fearless psychopaths and slide down the dunes on sandboards. Also, Instagram. The draw is to get the perfect shot on Instagram. Last time I was in Peru I visited this place and took the buggy ride. I thought it was something that Scott would enjoy so we booked a tour. The last time I was here was before Instagram existed. It was better then. This time the tour stopped for photo opportunities every few minutes. The tour may have been better last time I took it but we got better photos this time. The buggy driver was a charmless fellow who didn’t engage with us at all. He wore a face mask with a scary smile printed on it and a soft pink sweater. He did not wear a seatbelt. Ostensibly, so he could bail at any moment. Our seatbelts would probably only serve to strangle or decapitate us in the event of an accident but we clung to them, regardless. We stayed out until the sun dipped just below the horizon line and then raced all of the other buggies back to town.
From there we continued our desert exploration with another stop that I had made once before and thought Scott needed to experience. This was a visit to Nazca and an overflight of the famous geoglyphs called the Nazca lines. Since I had already done this once (and the lines haven’t changed) Scott flew solo. Well, him and about 6 strangers. We had camped at the parking lot at the airport. In the morning, I drank coffee and Scott got to fly over the Lines. Some of the lines are just long straight formations that span huge distances. Others are drawings of animals. The hummingbird, monkey, and spider are very charismatic. The Nazca lines are old, huge and best appreciated from the air. This is how we know that they were created for/with the help of aliens from other planets. I know this to be true because I read it on the internet. Now you have too.
Moving on, we visited the necropolis of Chauchilla. This is a place where tombs have been excavated and mummies are on display. The Nazca desert is such a dry place that the mummies are creepily intact. They still have hair, skin and connective tissues. The Chauchilla people entombed their dead here between 200 and 900 CE. Graverobbers have worked through the sight leaving human remains and bits of pottery and woven cotton cloth scattered across the desert. It is now protected and most of the artifacts and remains have been returned to the tombs. It is fascinating and a little sad. On the way to the site, we passed a cemetery. It was isolated and fenced off. Obviously, people visit it frequently. The graves were decorated with flowers, wreaths, and ribbons. A contemporary necropolis. It made me wonder how long a society has to be gone before it is acceptable to open the graves and display the bodies. Anyhow, enough darkness. After we had ogled the dead we turned our truck towards the mountains again.
Back in the mountains, we were getting geared up to hike to the Inca ruins of Choquequirao. The hike was not incredibly long but it was brutal. We started where the road ends at a place called Capuliyoc. It was late when we arrived so we camped where we parked – in a horse corral on the side of a mountain with snowcapped peaks in the distance.
To get to Choquequirao, we only needed to hike about 21 or 22 kilometers (12-13 miles). No biggie. The problem was that the first half had about 5000 ft of elevation drop and the second had about the same amount in gain. We were starting on a mountain that had a view of our destination. We had to hike down to the bottom of a valley, cross a river and hike back up the other side. There is a rumor of a cable car project, much like the one we rode to visit the ruins at Kuélap, in the future but this time we got here first. Hiking down to the river was rough. We got about 10 minutes of flat trail before it dipped down and stayed down to the bottom. My knees were not happy. It took way too long to hike down and we had gotten dressed and packed for this trip in the mist looking at the snowy mountains. We were way overdressed. It was hot and humid. When we got to the bottom of the canyon and were having a snack by the river a local guide wandered by. He told us that we had three more hours of “lento” (unhurried) uphill hiking to get to the next camp. Three hours would put us at camp just at nightfall. My knees like to hike uphill far more than they like to hike downhill so we actually made good time. We camped on a grassy patch in the yard of a nice family. We paid 5 soles for the privilege of using their space and their bathroom. We would have slept the sleep of the dead if they didn’t have two overachieving little guard dogs. We took our morning slowly. We drank instant coffee with insufficient sugar (packing error) and made friends with an adolescent cat. There was a sign at our camp that claimed we only had 3.5 hours to Choquequirao. Nope. Five hours of not-so-lento hiking later we were almost to the ruins. We had started our day feeling depleted. We were exhausted. It was hot. That is when we met a fellow traveler named Lorenzo. He had started from the beginning at Capuliyoc just that morning and still looked fresh, chipper and Italian. While we were driving the Americas he was cycling them. Mode of travel makes a difference in your baseline fitness. Anyway, we hiked for a while with Lorenzo but we couldn’t keep up so we let him go on ahead.
We finally made it to the ruins. The campsite was on terraces just outside of the main excavated site. We shared the campground with Lorenzo and two other travelers from Argentina. This is why we chose to go to Choquequirao. There are so few people there. We were at an Inca site on par with Machu Picchu and we pretty much had it to ourselves. Our plan was to take the next day to visit the ruins and then hike out the following morning. It was a relaxed schedule and it suited our lazy butts perfectly. When we made it out to the ruins we spent most of our time in solitude. Sometimes we would see another couple in the distance. We met Lorenzo at the Llama Terraces. We took one guy’s picture for him at the Plaza Principal. I actually took a nap on the grass in the ruins after our picnic lunch. This is not an experience we could have gotten had we gone to Machu Picchu. Plus, I had already been to Machu Picchu and Scott did not have his heart set on going. So we saved a ton of cash and had a great experience in beautiful Inca ruins.
On our second night at Choquequirao, after visiting the ruins, it started to rain. It was the most intense thunderstorm of my life. We were in the storm. Thunder was rolling on top of itself. There was no space between one thunder and lightning and the next thunder and lightning. Scott and I just laid in our tent, holding hands, listening to the storm, feeling thankful that neither of us needed to pee.
The hike out was so much easier than the hike in. We had gained strength from the prior days of hiking and were feeling excited about the challenge ahead. The hike down to the river treated my knees kindlier and we arrived at our last camp well before nightfall. I took an icy-cold shower under an avocado tree and we bought some sugar for our coffee and bananas (fresh from her garden) for our oatmeal from the lady running the camp. We were feeling on top of the world! The following day our hike out was even easier. It was all uphill, and we had the cool of the morning on our side. Before we knew it, we were back at our truck. That is when we had to put the brakes on our day and chill out. Our truck was completely surrounded by horses. Maybe twenty horses were on the road and in the corral. Our return home coincided with the arrival of a supply delivery. Every homestead on the mountain had a horse or three waiting to be loaded up with supplies to sell to tourists. Cases of Coca Cola and Gatorade got loaded onto wooded armatures on the horse’s saddles. Live chickens were awaiting a steed in the shade of our truck. I threw the chickens some corn while we all waited for the horses to be loaded. I had developed a sensitivity to the treatment of the horses in the mountains. I did not see one horse that was free of scars from the heavy saddles. Most were actively bleeding. Where their wounds had healed the fur grew back white. They did not seem very happy to be pulled up and down the mountain by their reins while carrying fat tourists and all of the trappings of fat tourists. I felt glad of our choice to get to the ruins on our own steam without hiring a horse to carry our bags or our selves. I felt thankful that I didn’t succumb to the desire to buy a frosty cold Coke along the trail. I felt bad about the sugar we bought for our coffee. It was definitely hauled in on a horse bearing the scars from years of service hauling supplies for tourists.
Finally, the last horses were loaded and we were able to leave Capuliyoc. We were headed to a thermal pool to camp and get a warm shower. Unfortunately for us, the showers were not warm. I had read that the showers were fed from the same tepid water that fills the pools. Nope. It was stone cold. The women’s showers were complete with a peeping tom too! A peeping tomcat, that is. He sat on the wall above the shower watching me with his lazy eyes the whole time. The pools were a popular place and it was the weekend. We knew we were in for a long night. Luckily, we were armed with melatonin and earplugs just in case things got rowdy. A thunderstorm rolled in around midnight and cleared the place out so we got a pretty peaceful night’s sleep.
From there we headed up towards Cusco. Our plan was to get a hotel there and civilize ourselves for a while. On the way, we stopped to hike up to a beautiful lake. It was a short hike so we figured it would be good for us as an active recovery after all the hard work backpacking. We arrived at the parking lot for the hike to Humantay lake around noon. Luckily for us most of the tours go there in the morning. It was in the process of clearing out. It is also the trailhead for a very popular trek to Machu Picchu so there were a ton of guides and groups mobilizing in the parking lot. The mountains were shrouded in clouds when we arrived. We grabbed some snacks and water and hit the trail. We must have looked tired because every other tourist gave us an update on how much longer we had to go to get to the lake as we crossed paths. It truly was a beautiful lake. Opaque green with snowy mountains surrounding. As we wandered around the lakeshore the clouds began to lift. By the time we made it back down to our car, the peaks were showing. Feeling rejuvenated by the beautiful scenery we headed on towards Cusco.
It was still the weekend and Christmas was coming. I should have taken these things into account but didn’t. We were on the outskirts of town, it was getting dark, traffic was thick, my phone was not connecting to cell service very efficiently and we did not have a reservation. I was feeling very stressed. This is my job. The only job I have is to navigate and tell us where to go. So, we parked at a gas station, I turned my phone off and on again, and hoped for the best in my search for a place to stay that also had secure parking. This time it was Airbnb that saved the day. We got a super cute apartment right next to military housing. Apparently, the proximity to the military made it safe. I was just happy to find a place to land for a few days.
Cusco is full of amazing sights and cultural attractions. We did not see any of them. We chose to drink coffee, eat food and take a vacation from our vacation. Most of the sights around Cusco are accessed by purchasing a “bolleto turistico”. You cannot buy entrance into just one sight. They are grouped together and the tickets are expensive. So, our experience of Cusco was just the city and not a whole lot of that either. Mostly, just chilling in our Airbnb gaining energy for the rest of our journey. After five days of hiding out in our Airbnb, they ran out of availability and we had to move on.
From there we went to visit the famed Rainbow Mountain. This is a view of a mountain that, I have read, we have climate change to thank for. Apparently, it used to be covered in snow. When the snow melted, it started to consistently show its colors. Beautiful stripes of red, yellow and green were exposed and have been enticing busloads of tourists up the mountain for the past few years. The drive to get there is fabulous. It is a twisty shelf road that threads through picturesque farmland. Countless buses drive up to the mountain every day of the week. The locals in the towns don’t even look up at the passing traffic. It is more fun for us to drive through towns that aren’t inundated by tourists. People are more apt to smile and wave. I felt like we were just one more faceless tourist to them. Anyhow, when we arrived at the parking lot we were approached by a couple of men who wanted us to rent their horses to take us up to the mountain. It was about a half a mile away. Nope. But thanks! These horses looked much happier than the horses up by Choquequirao. No blood, no scars, but we have legs to take us up there. I told them I was afraid of horses and they laughed at me. I am afraid of horses. They are huge! Anyhow, we got up to the viewpoint of the mountain about 20 seconds before the clouds rolled in. Our pictures are nothing like the photos on the internet we had seen that lured us up there. We could have stayed and waited for the weather to change but we were really high up and it was hailing. Wind-driven hail at 16,000+ ft elevation is not something I like to linger in.
After our failed attempt at experiencing Rainbow Mountain, we were aiming for the border with Bolivia. It was a long drive and we had lollygagged the day away trying to see the colors on the mountain so we stopped in a park called Tinajani Canyon. It was beautiful. There were wild bulbous rock formations and a river running through the canyon. We pulled in next to a museum to camp for the night. A man rode up on his bicycle to welcome us. He was the museum attendant and wanted to find out what time we wanted to have our museum tour the next day. The camping is free if you take the museum tour and the tour is 20 soles. He got kind of nervous when Scott told him we wake up at 5:30 in the morning. We agreed that he would come by around 8 am and give us the tour. It was a crazy tour. The museum was mostly just pictures of the rock formations and some old suitcases, pottery, and currency in glass boxes. Then it got weird. He unlocked a door to a room full of animals. Poorly taxidermized animals. It looked like students from whatever the equivalent of Peruvian 4-H is had tried their hand at beginning taxidermy. Apparently, every animal that had died in the canyon for the last 20 years was stuffed and displayed in this room. A stray dog was doing its best to sit on the counter. A black and white cat was suspended from the ceiling. A pink flamingo was trying to take flight. Fish and salamanders bobbed in jars of liquid. A baby donkey was leaning against the wall. Each of the animals had a little tag identifying it and explaining how it died. Exposure to cold was a common thread in those tags. The eyes of the larger animals were marbles. Swirly, multicolored marbles like I used to play with as a child. It was creepy and surreal and I was very happy that the tour was short.
Once we were free of the obligatory museum tour we headed out to hike one of the trails through the rocks. It led us through potato fields to some caves in the hillside. Signs warned us not to touch the nettles and that the caves were full of good vibes. We passed through three caves full of positive energy and dipped our hands into the fountain of youth. It was a pool hidden behind a little door in the rocks. I washed my face in it just in case it really did result in eternal youth.
After our hike, we took the scenic route back to the highway. We passed by rolling hills filled with my new favorite plant! It was the Puya raimondii. The largest bromeliad in the world. We were a bit late in the season to see them blooming but there were a few with flowers on them. Not that I could see them very well because they were so high up in the plant. These plants reach heights of up to 50 feet! We wandered through the flowers for a while keeping one eye on a growling dog who didn’t really like us wandering through her territory.
After a magical day of caves and Dr. Seuss flowers, we ended up in Puno. Puno is a less than magical town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We got a room in town there so that we could organize all the papers we would need to cross into Bolivia. The list of requirements was long. Extra passport photos, proof of yellow fever vaccinations, proof of financial solvency, proof of onward travel, $160 clean unmarked bills per person, copies of our passports and driver’s license and truck title. Our plan was to apply for our visas at the Bolivian consulate in Puno to streamline the actual border crossing. We arrived on Friday evening so we took Saturday to get all of our papers together. We went to a shop that advertised passport photos. We waited in line behind a couple of young girls who were getting what looked like school photos taken. There was a lot of hair combing going on in the shop. The photographer took his job very seriously. He even retouched our photos. We walked out of there with eight stunning photos each. My complexion was even and he had removed the smile lines from around my eyes. Scott’s hair was markedly less fly-away and his beard a little less gray.
We had to wait for the consulate to open on Monday which left us with a Sunday to fill. We chose to take a tourist trip out to the floating islands of Uros. We knew this was going to be a very touristic experience. The islands are made of rushes and every few weeks they have to add a new layer on so that they don’t sink. Our guide said that about 3000 people are living on these floating islands. There is no plumbing associated with these islands. I was not tempted to swim. When we arrived on the islands we were greeted with songs. They were dressed in their traditional clothes and had songs prepared in each of the most common tourist languages. They sang in English, Spanish, French, and German. They have their own language as well but it is dying out. They explained to us how the islands were built and maintained and then they took us on tours into their houses. Once we were feeling comfy with them, they busted out the handicrafts for sale. I wandered off to look at the boats and left Scott unattended long enough that we are now the proud owners of a needlepoint pillowcase. We had just enough money left to spring for a fancy boat ride to another island. The other island had a general store, a couple of restaurants, and more handicrafts for sale. We were clean out of money by then so we just sat on a bench and watched the other tourists touring about.
Finally, it was Monday and we were ready to get our visas at the Bolivian consulate. We had everything together in our folder and our money carefully protected from any folding or tearing. We were a little nervous as we had never visited a consulate office before. The door to the consulate had no visible hardware. We located the intercom and requested to be allowed in. The door buzzed and opened. We entered a hallway and followed the most likely path to an office. Up some stairs, we found a waiting room with one man reading a magazine. He pointed down another hallway. Eventually, we were seated in front of a friendly-looking woman with a short bob haircut. I tried to explain that we were there to apply for a visa to enter Bolivia. She told us that we didn’t need one. I figured she had mistaken us for a different nationality. I explained that we were from the United States and again asked to apply for a visa. She patiently explained that we really did not need a visa. Bolivia was between presidents at the moment and the interim president had rescinded the visa requirement for visitors from the US and Israel. This seemed too good to be true. I asked a couple of redundant clarifying questions and was assured that we did not need a visa and that we did not have to pay the $160 each to visit Bolivia. She told us that she did not know how long this would last but as of now we just needed a passport to enter her country. We thanked her profusely and left the building. Woo-hoo! Merry Christmas to us! It was a bummer that we spent so many days in Puno collecting paperwork that we did not need and extra sad that no one was going to inspect our fancy new passport photos. We remained incredulous right up to the next day when the man at immigration stamped us into Bolivia without any questions.