Monthly Archives: January 2013

Puno Pt. II: Going Back to Puno

All dressed up for the party the night before

All dressed up for the party the night before

The next day, we woke early to a traditional breakfast of bread, butter, mate tea and pancake. Ernesto brought out his English-Spanish book and I got a chance to work with him on his English, which was another great experience. While I got great a chance to learn about Amantani’s history and culture and the family, I was glad to have authentic exchanges and great conversations about life in our respective countries with Ernesto, Hilda and Juana.

My room at Ernesto and Juana's home

My room at Ernesto and Juana’s home

As we said goodbye, Ernesto encouraged us to visit them again – without the facilitation of a tour company. Some families appreciate tourism, especially when all the profits go directly to the family instead of the tour company. If you would like to visit an awesome family on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca, send a letter to:

The Family of Ernesto, Juana and Hilda Quispe Calsin

Isla Amantani

Or just go to the island and ask for them around town. Tell them that I sent you and that I had a great experience with them – you know, the Chinese American girl from San Francisco, California!

The square on the island of Taquile

The square on the island of Taquile

We left Amantani to go to the Island of Taquile for about 2 hours. One hour was spent hiking up a long road into town, the other hour was spent looking at handcrafts in the main square and eating lunch. We also got a short presentation from our guide about Taquile culture. Many of the men wear hats that symbolize different things. One hat worn to the back shows that a young man is unmarried, another shows that a man is married, and yet another signifies that the person is family of an elected official – those hats are extremely bright and colorful.

When we started to head back to Puno, I realized that all the native South American tourists had become friends over time and were planning to keep in touch and hang out after the trip…

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Puno, Pt. 1: From Wild Vicunas to Floating Islands

When I first arrived at my hostel in Arequipa, I often wondered why some of the other hostel guests would sit around and watch movies in the common areas or be on the internet during the day. And then I realized: while Arequipa was a beautiful city, there’s frankly not that much to do around there during the day, other than eat and see churches (besides Colca Canyon or beach trips, hours away).


While I was excited to go to Puno for Lake Titicaca, I dreaded the infamous bus ride there that’s known to be dangerous, due to driver fatigue and altitude. The safest option was a Cruz Del Sur bus trip during the daytime. So I said goodbye to the White City, and went on my way up north to the border.

cruz del sur

My worries about the ride slowly faded as I got a chance to see some amazing Peruvian landscapes. The road to Puno is filled with wide open grass plains with enormous snow covered mountains popping up out of seemingly nowhere. I even saw what appeared to be redheaded llamas that I later discovered were wild and rare vicunas, running around or grazing in pairs or herds by the roadside.

hostal monterrey

Rains and large balls of ice pelted our bus and nearby store fronts when we arrived. I soon got a taxi for $4 Soles into town and found Hostel Monterrey on the main tourist boulevard of la Calle Lima. For just $20 soles, I got a very bare but clean and small room that was warm, had nice hardwood floors, and had a skylight.

Puno is nice, but there’s not much to do out here. Despite that, I came to really like the little city — its the restaurants, the sunlight that made the city shine, and the great people working at the bars and restaurants nearby.

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Arequipa: A Throwback to Colonial Times

While Cusco was cold, rainy and surrounded by Incan temples and sites, Arequipa is warmer and hella Eurpoean-ish. Colonial-style buildings, new department stores, and giant churches dominate the area around the Plaza de las Armas. The main thing that tourists do around Arequipa is get tours of the churches to check out the art and the lives of the nuns that lived there. Half-interesting, half-cray-cray.

I spent my first day just wandering around town – in shorts and sandals (despite being covered in mosquito bites, my legs really missed the sunshine). Even when it gets a lil bit rainy in Arequipa, it is still not that cold.  I found a few amazing local places that offered almuerzos/comidas (soup and a second course). This one was right by the Plaza de las Armas:

Amazing soup with cabbage, potato and beef for my 1st course almuerzo. And that hot sauce!

…and went to the main church (Cathedral) at the Plaza de la Armas to get a tour. In Spanish, of course. It was good for my Spanish (listening and speaking) skills, and I learned a lot more about the Catholic history in Arequipa, which goes hella DEEP. Yes, colonization lives quite well here and is very much a part of the culture (and tourist) attractions of the city today.

El Catedral


Despite those issues however, the history of the Cathedral was interesting – and  highly decorative. One of the main things that I noticed was the fact that there’s a Black Jesus (El Jesus Moreno) in one of the side rooms made by some Spanish Moor artists, and that one of the three wise men is also depicted as African (I forget which one, but he’s consistently African in other churches around South America too).

El Jesus Moreno

Like many of these churches, gigantic displays (from floor to ceiling) of various Saints and the Virgin Mary, incredibly ornate decorations, fake flowers, and towering pulpits carved in wood and gold decorate these churches. Visitors can also see the robes and jewels that they wore back in the day, oftentimes made of gold and silver threads, and HELLA jewels. Despite Jesus being a very humble man, the elaborate and expensive decoration on these items I guess showed how important religion and these religious leaders were to people at the time…

Held up by two pieces of wood

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From Cusco to Arequipa: Travel Highlights

After our 4 day Machu Picchu trek, I said goodbye to the South America travel homies and went up a few streets to find a newer, cheaper hostel. I found Los Ninos Hostel, which couldn’t have come at a better time. The sun was shining, the design of the hostel was way too cute, and I got my own huge “apartment” room for about $20US. Talk about finding calm after the storm!


My “apartment room” at La Hostal Los Ninos

I made it a point to find local Cusceno food around town (which was kinda hard, given how touristy the main areas and the Plaza de las Armas can get). I found a few places on la calle Belen that offered almuerzos or comidas – a fixed menu, that offers a soup and a choice of an entree. My cheap ass often ate the soup and took the second course to go for dinner…

La sopa del dia

La sopa del dia

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Part II: Machu Picchu: Realizations from New Years Day 2013

Okay, let me back up this story a lil bit.

To give a little context to our trek: the Inca Trail – or “el Camino Inka” – was a religious and ceremonial pilgrimage conducted by the Inca to honor the land and the mountains on the way to Machu Picchu. Along the trail, they built different fortresses or sites along the way for various purposes, that also allowed them to send fire signals (in a domino effect) from one site to another to sound an alarm during invasions or external threats.

Nuria and Natalia by one of the Incan sites on Day 3

Nuria and Natalia by one of the Incan sites on Day 3

So while our journey was historically a very spiritual one, I have to admit looking back that as visitors and tourists to the region, we could have done more (I’ll get onto that point much later).

* * * * *

Anyway, back to Day 3: The 10 Mile Hike to the Gates

Our mist-covered valley camp for night 2

Our mist-covered valley camp for night 2

Even as groggy as I was on the morning of the third day, I realized that I did feel HELLLLAA better. My flu-like symptoms (probably altitude sickness) had subsided quite a bit, and even though I was tired and felt weak, it was able to hike. I must say that someone, some god, or some spirit out there must have taken pity on me, because I have no idea how my health improved so quickly. Or maybe it was the drug cocktails I was taking the day before.

It was probably both.

At 6 am we were off again, starting our trip with two miles of steep rocky steps (it actually ended up not being too bad) where we stopped halfway at one of the Incan sites to learn about the history and the purpose from Victor.

More stair hiking at the beginning of Day 3

More stair hiking at the beginning of Day 3

The hardest part about Day 3 is that for most of the hike, you’re going down extremely steep stone stairs. While it is downhill travel, it’s a killer for anyone with bad knees or ankles (like myself), plus the steps are often wet from stream runoff. Tread carefully.

After lunch, we finally had a chance to meet all of the porters that had the incredibly hard task of carrying the group’s gear (camping and cooking equipment) on their back for the entire trip. In all we had about eleven men that helped us, from a young 22 year old guy to a 54 year old man. We also had to introduce ourselves and say our name, where we were from, our age, and whether or not we were single (!)

Dark group photo

Dark group photo

After lunch, we continued on for another five miles to our final camp. It was lush and green, scenic but still rainy, and warm at different times along the trail.

After dinner that night, we said goodbye to the porters, and gave them thanks for all their help. Since we had to get up at 3:30 am the next day, we all did our best to get rest before the 4 mile hike the next day.

Day 4: A Lesson in Life, Death, and Spirituality

Day 4 was all about waking up and packing up quickly at 3:30 am, eating breakfast, and standing in line at the gates to start the hike to Machu Picchu, the culmination of our trip.

The smallest orchids in the world, on route to Machu Picchu, day 4

The smallest orchids in the world, on route to Machu Picchu, day 4

As the clock hit 5:30 am, the gates opened and we were all up and hiking. There were a few other groups in front of ours and a few groups behind us, but as we’ve been the slow group for the past few days, some of us straggled behind while everyone else barreled ahead. I stayed behind to hang out with Jennifer, who was limping so badly that we weren’t sure how she was going to hike for 4 miles. Jessica and I tried to brace her knee while I gave her 600 mg of ibuprofen for the extreme pain that she was in. She started to feel a bit better after that.

Me and Jen

Me and Jen

As we slowly hiked up the trail – taking pictures and limping along the way – we heard someone tell us:

“Someone fell off the trail, be careful as you hike! Stay close to the mountain and stay away from the edge!”

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Part 1: Machu Picchu is not to be taken lightly (Abbreviated version)

A few of my friends had told me that Machu Picchu was a piece of cake, in not so many words. They’re pretty much on crack. IT WAS HELLA HARD.

day 1

After my day trip to Ollantaytambo, I was pretty excited about Machu Picchu. Camping, backpacking, history and traveling all rolled into one sounded like an ideal trip for me.

Well, as Murphy’s Law rules my life, the trip was not what I expected in many ways.

Day 1: From Trip Delays to Hiking During Sunset on the Inca Trail

The start of el Camino Inca

There were a lot of bumps at the start of our Machu Picchu trip – a lack of porters,, fights among local women and men, and a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Despite leaving Cusco around 6 am, we were still waiting for something to happen at 2 pm near the start of our hike.

I passed the time by doing tarot card readings with members of our group. Penny asked me to do a reading regarding how the trip would go for her – all I remember saying to her is that it would be fun, but hella hard – and that she needed to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Ooohhh…

After waiting what seemed like an hour to get our passports and tickets cleared by the Machu Picchu officials, we were finally off and hiking around 4 pm. As we hiked along the river, the view of the valley and the mountains was absolutely stunning. Some people live in the area around the trail, so as we hiked we also saw homes, a small cemetery, buildings, and a lot of people herding livestock.

Sharing the trail

The first day’s hike was great – it was gorgeous, the weather was perfect, the sun was setting, and I had enough energy to chop it up with folks and bond with a bunch of our group members. Talk about a small world – one woman used to work at an organization that’s allies with AYPAL, so we talked about doing youth organizing and education justice work.

The valley and river, Day 1

We had to hike using our headlamp lights around 7pm when the sun set, and came to our first camp around 7:30. We had just hiked 6 miles – one mile short of where we were supposed to be, but it was fine. The tents were set up, and we soon found ourselves eating a hot soup and chicken and rice dinner on a long table below a canopy.

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Natalia and Lizzy, staring at their hands for some reason

Raina (one of Penny’s childhood friends) and I shared a tent. She was a great tent-mate. However, for some reason neither of us slept very well at all that night. I actually don’t even remember falling asleep once. Was it due to the altitude? Feeling a bit queasy? Who knows.

Day 2: The Hike from Hell

We were told in advance that Day 2 would be the hardest day of hiking. I never knew it would be that bad.

stairs 1

We were woken up by the trip staff at 5 am and were each greeted with a tub of hot water to wash our faces and coca tea. How dope are they?

After eating breakfast, we continued our hike up the mountain. In a few words, it sucked. Why? Well…

The top 5 reasons why Day 2 is such a hardcore hike (on a 4 day trip to Machu Picchu):

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Cusco’s cold summer

So when I planned to come to South America this year, I thought that “summer” would equate warm weather. My bad. It’s the rainy season here! And no, it’s hardly ever warm, although the sun does shine through from time to time in the city.

Cusco met me with wet stone streets, dark buildings, and gray rain clouds. In the distance, I could see the sometimes colorful stucco homes scattered all over the hillsides, alongside rows of crops and farmland. And words sometimes, written large on the hills, spelling out the names of universities, Cusco, history, etc.

Cusco at night

Cusco at night

I was supposed to meet up with my friend Penny so that I could do the four day trek to Machu Picchu with her and her friends, but I had no idea how that would coordinate. Good thing she happened to be standing outside the door of my hostel when I first arrived by cab!  That night I got to meet the whole group over a good dinner of traditional Peruvian/Cusqueno food. I had the alpaca; it was pretty damn good.  They had a nice spicy sauce to add to our dishes that didn’t seem to be that hot, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been exposed to so much Southeast Asian spicy food since becoming an AYPAL staff member. Nothing beats that hotness!

My alpaca dinner, Day 1 - Lizzie being cute.

Dinner with the crew, Day 1. Lizzie lookin cute.

The next day we all met up to take a trip to the Ollantaytambo temple. I had missed the previous trip to the Saqsaywaman temple (“Sexy Woman”) the day before because I only had about 6 hours of sleep over the past two days (after 3 flights and 2 layovers from SFO to Cusco) and decided to rest while everyone else went touring.

On the way there, we of course stopped off at a flea market as a part of our tour. I bought some mandatory earrings, and coca leaves – one bag for me, and one for Lizzy, who was hungover/suffering from altitude sickness in the van. I also got to hold a baby llama, which is pretty much my dream come true. We later went to an animal sanctuary, where got to visit with different endangered and hurt animals. Our guide even got a condor fly over our heads as we dodged and took pictures of the spectacle. Condors have always been highly revered animals in Peru and were considered gods during Incan times; yet today they are targeted by poachers who want their feathers – probably to make trinkets for tourists 😦

More photos of fuzzy and cute animals to come…!

Alpaca love

Alpaca love


Dodging while taking pictures

Ollantaytambo’s temple is incredibly impressive and stunning. The small town is said to not have changed much since Incan times. There’s a lot of history to the area, but as I am a visual learner, and have poor audio memory (unless I take notes!) I don’t remember the details. Basically, the temple’s full purpose remains a mystery. Some say it was a temple to honor the Sun. You can see some amazing stone architecture  around the temple – homes, fountains, terraced gardens, and stone steps and rooms.  And storage buildings built up high on the sides of the mountains. When the Quechua were building the temple, they had to halt construction to fight off Spanish conquistadores, who were warring with the Incas over territory and power. It was never finished.

The mountains and valley around Ollantaytambo

The mountains and valley around Ollantaytambo

The stairs and terraces

The stairs and terraces


For more information, check out:

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Travler’s Diaries: The South America Trip 2013!

So I was pretty sure I was quitting my job this past year to get a bit of a “funemployment” break from working some crazy-ass non-profit hours for the past 10 years. Twas not to be, I guess. I ended up staying on part time to help the organization transition as other staff left. HOWEVER, right before I made the decision to stay on board, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to plan a 2 month trip to South America. Shit, why not? I’ve been pretty responsible for most of my life, I feel like it’s time to live my 20’s in my mid-30’s.

The wack part about my trip is that I’VE PLANNED NOTHING AT ALL for my itinerary – except for the first few days of the trip, when I planned to Machu Picchu with a group of friends for NYE 2013. Besides that epic trip, I have no idea where to go in Peru, Bolivia or Argentina. All I know is that I’m going to do it broke, and that I really want to go to Patagonia!

Any recommendations on places to go in those three countries? Or other places to go in nearby countries (Chile, etc.)? Any recommendations are extremely welcome!

Ideas on places to visit so far:


* Cusco

* Manu National Park?

* Arequipa

* Puno – Lake Titicaca


* Copacabana

* La Paz

* Sorata

* Rurrenabaque

* Madidi National Park

* Uyuni salt flats

* Cochabamba


* Iguazu falls (unless it’s too hot this time of year)

* Buenos Aires (ditto above)

* Cordoba

* Mendoza

* The Lakes District

* Places in Patagonia (Bariloche, el Perito Moreno, etc.)

I want to see glaciers!

Happy travels.

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