As our semester in Argentina came to an end, everyone started packing up. Study abroad is a wild ride and by the end some parts of you want to sleep in your own bed or just collapse on the floor in a pile. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have an amazing and transformative time, but its definitely exhausting.
Most students prepared themselves for home. They dreamed of home-cooked meals, free housing, and hugs from people they hadn’t seen in 5 months. This is the story of two people that hadn’t had enough of South America yet… the story of terrible layovers and feisty flight attendants, never-ending hills and blue crater lakes. This is the story of unfinished adventures in South America, because as much as you crave the comforts of home there is nowhere like South America.
Benjamin and I left our beloved new home in Buenos Aires at 11:35PM on December 2nd. I remember writing in my journal on the first day of our program “never again do layovers to save money, it is ABSOLUTELY NOT WORHT IT!” Yet what did we do? Booked budget airlines to save money :P
Sky Airline was better than imagined! Despite the fact that the plane was empty, we were put in the middle seats (because we didn’t pay to choose a better one) but there was plenty of room to lay out anyways :P
Two plane rides, two bus rides, an airport nap, and two sketchy cab rides later we had made it to Cusco! It was almost 12pm the following day which doesn’t sound late except we hadn’t slept at all and there is a two hour time difference – who knew? ;)
Besides our tickets to actually get us to Cusco, none of our trip was planned. You might be thinking, what an exciting trip, how could you not have looked into anything before hand? Many people asked us that exact question… but with finals and other trips and just a small effort at procrastination, we ended up at our hostel without much of a clue and with a little bit of altitude sickness.
That’s right, altitude sickness. I didn’t believe it was real either… who really gets affected that much by being a little higher? Me apparently. As the bus drove into Cusco on the wiggly-windy roads, I felt like I was going to be sick around every turn. This is something to know about busses in Peru, and Ecuador for that matter. Yes, they are cheap that is for sure. But the roads in many parts of Peru and Ecuador are curvy as a cooked noodle. Don’t expect to sleep because there is a 74% chance that is not possible.
Despite my minor, silly illness, we decided to explore Cusco. There was no time to waste. 18 days seems like a lot but you would be surprised how fast it goes when you are bopping around all day.
Cusco itself is an eclectic mix of Spanish colonial and Incan native styles. The city square features beautiful cathedrals and of course American monopolies such as McDonalds and Starbucks in the beautiful balconies overlooking the main square. According to our free tour guide, there is a church in every square. However, around every corner is an Incan ruin or a small local restaurant.
A little, colorful alcove we happened to step into (accidentally of course :P)
That is another important thing about Peru. The food is dirt cheap. Like dirt cheap. Benjamin and I had our first meal, a two-course feast with a drink included for 7 soles, which equates to about $2.25 USD. YUP, you heard that right. The flip side of these cheap pre-fixed menus is the variety. Don’t get me wrong you can get very cheap, quality food but you will 9 times out of 10 either be eating chicken or trucha (trout in Spanish), definitely with rice (they absolutely love rice), and veggies (something that is non-existent in Argentina, so enjoy)!
Our second day we decided to go explore the ruins of Cusco. The thing about Cusco is that the whole city is a ruin. Every rock you pick up is part of a ruin, that is just Cusco. However the city does have more ruins in its surrounding areas. Just above the San Blas ("salty hole" in Quechua) neighborhood are countless ruins, many of which cost money with the Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket) we had heard so much about. Our cheap selves decided against the ticket took it upon ourselves to explore these parts without paying a penny ;)
Weltome to the Salty Hole neighborhood :) It is full of small, stone passageways and every block has a street name so it is super easy to get lost :P
First step? Snacks at the grocery store. Food in the grocery store is also dirt cheap… we got what seemed like 2 pounds of peanuts for about 30 cents. We also stocked up on water because you never know traveling through where you're gonna find some unwelcome friend in your water.
Our first discovery was Cristo Blanco (the white Christ) that sits a 500+ stair walk above San Blas. If you are looking for a quick workout with a nice view, the stair walk is beautiful and you get a little deeper into the "artsy" district of Cusco. Cristo Blanco was a gift from Palestinian Christians that sought refuge in Cusco in the 1900s, and the giant white Christ stands beside three beautiful crosses above the entire city.
The view from Cristo Blanco - watch out for all the people trying to con you into tourist traps ;)
To the left of Cristo Blanco, facing the city, is Sachsayhuaman. Sachsayhuaman is just one of the well-preserved ruins of Cusco. The locals will tell tourists to pronounce it like "sexy woman," which is half an effort to teach Quechua pronunciation and half a good joke for them. Sachsayhuaman is included in the Boleto Turístico that you can pay for... OR you can check it out from Cristo Blanco and then bipass it for other, free ruins!
Benjamin and I followed the main road past Cristo Blanco and Sachsayhuaman - and a few alpacas grazing - and came across countless other ruins off the tourist map. While we didn't have a guide or any sort of historical context for the ruins, we did have the whole area to ourselves minus a couple stray dogs and some local vendors.
Benjamin, our doggy friend, and our amazing view :)
Beyond every bounding hill was another bounding hill, that is the beauty of Cusco. It makes you want to keep walking into its depths, so we had to make the decision to turn around at some point. The menacing cloud coming towards us made the decision easy but to be totally honest, despite the fact that it was rainy season in Cusco it wasn't very rainy.
The views just keep getting better as we climbed the hills... you can even see the planes taking off from this area which is quite the sight. They take off incredibly fast to avoid crashing into the mountains :P
For those of us who are less sporty, I definitely recommend taking a horse. We met a couple being led around by a guide on a local horse. They had to bring an extra horse because one of the horses was feeling a bit ~frisky~ on the steep parts and the man was getting a little freaked out but it's all part of the adventure, right?
The rest of the day was a self-guided exploration of Cusco, from the textile museum (which you can see local women creating their masterpieces) to the city's soccer field and the passage of heroes. Many of the people we met in our hostel had been there for weeks and at this point we understood why. After 1.5 days in Cusco we already felt at home and yet our big adventure still awaited us...
The next day we had a 6am wakeup call for Machu Picchu! We did research for days and had talked about skipping the famous ruin in order to "do it right" and give it its well-deserved time but naturally we had caved and decided to take an inclusive bus service.
After days of research the only conclusion we had reached was that the train (both Inca and PeruRail) were dirty expensive and that we had to find another way. We ended up using a service the hostel recommended - you will learn that everyone in Cusco has friends in all places - the bus driver knew the hostel guy who knew the tour guide who knew the young man in Aguas Calientes... it was all so intertwined. The bus picked us up about 30 minutes late and was not actually a bus. We were crammed into a standard size white van with a bunch of strangers and braced ourselves for the journey... little did we know it would be 7 hours of curvy, speed driving. We were not mentally prepared for this ride at all, but hey at least we stopped a couple times on the way ;)
We arrived at the Hidroelectrica station where one can pay an incredible amount for the train to Aguas Calientes (now called Machu Picchu Pueblo), or walk the 6 miles. Of course our cheap butts walked alongside the rest of the people in our van :) until we arrived 2 hours later.
The stroll was beautiful and by the time we arrived in Aguas Calientes we had just missed the rain and were ready to take a sit. Despite the unexpected van ride, every other detail was planned for us. We had dinner and hostel included, as well as all the details for our options up to the big MP the next morning and a guided tour once we got there.
The next morning we were out of the hostel by 4:03am for our walk up to the ruin. That's right, you walk up a 45 minute to an hour climb (depending on your sporty-level) before you even get to the mountain that is the ruin. It was a sweaty way up but definitely beautiful.
There is nothing like Machu Picchu... this is one of those places you really have to see for yourself. I had seen plenty of pictures before coming and yet I was not prepared for what was to come.
The ruin is simultaneously big and small and was technically discovered by Hiram Bingham from Yale (which actually still has many of the artifacts), but was obviously already "discovered" by the young farmer boy that led Bingham there in the first place. Our guide told us that any world heritage site has to be 80% original so the ruin has had repair but really not much in the grand scheme of things. It is the real deal.
While Machu Picchu is like any other ruin in Cusco, what makes it so special is that the Spanish never found it. It is the untouched city and that is why so much of it is still intact.
It was an insane two days packed full of interesting characters, long walks, and fast bus drives (we ran over a chicken on the way home) but they don't call Machu Picchu a world wonder for nothing. Definitely go.
Our last day in Cusco was equally amazing. We took the free walking tour of the city and it was THE BEST WALKING TOUR I've ever been on. We got free Pisco Sour and a wealth of information from Vicente who has lived in Cusco his entire life and used to trek Machu Picchu as a guide before hurting his knee. I went home that night and wrote down everything Vicente told us that I could remember so if you ever need to know anything about Cusco, I'm your girl.
After 5 days, we were definitely not ready to leave. If you do go to Cusco, just remember the 3 C's:
- Cusqueña beer - according to Vicente it tastes better because it is made in the altitude (Cusco is wayyyy up at 3399 meters or almost 12,000 feet)... whether this is true I cannot confirm but it is still some good stuff. I recommend trying all four varieties but if you have to do just one go for the Trigo (wheat) in the green bottle.
- Coca museum - Benjamin and I stumbled upon this museum by accident after our adventures in the ruins of Cusco and for some reason really enjoyed it. It isn't huge but it was definitely cool to read about this part of the native culture :)
- Cuey - Cuey is a fancy word for guinea pig, a delicacy in Cusco. We avoided it the whole time because we are wimps, but we did ask around and heard very mediocre reviews. Apparently it has little meat and lots of bones but if you are trying to experience the culture in full it is definitely a no-miss.
Our next stop? Lima! We heard very medicore things about Lima from our friends who had visited but it really is the stopping point from Cusco to anywhere north. We tried to bipass but you really can't avoid it. Lucky for us, our impression of Lima was nothing of a similar dissapointment.
From downtown Lima to bougie Miraflores to the hipster-y Barranco, there is really something for everyone. Downtown Lima where we were staying was like the historic district of any other city, lots of beautiful European architecture (actually a huge variety of styles), lots of history, and of course lots of traffic. Lima has traffic like no other city I've ever seen, so avoid cabs at all costs.
On our first full day we walked from our hostel (a beautiful French mansion that was remodeled) in the downtown district down Arequipa, one major road to try and catch all the highlights we could in the shortest amount of time. We hit the Huaca Pucllana, a ruin in the middle of the bustling city; Kennedy Park with its beautiful art vendor display; and made our way to the Malecón (the coast-side walk). Arequipa connects at least four different neighborhoods in Lima so if you're trying to see a lot at once it is definitely the place to go!
From my initial impressions, central Lima can be divided into three major districts: Downtown, Miraflores, and Barranco. (These were also the only three areas we explored so there is likely much more, the city is ginormous!) Downtown is the historic center. There is lots of European architecture, lots of traditional squares, and lots of churches! Miraflores, one neighborhood over, is completely different. In one word it is bougie. Even the trees on Arequipa (the street we walked all the way down) turned into palm trees as we got further into the neighborhood. We felt like we were walking in LA, a completely different vibe than the European downtown district.
As you enter Miraflores you also enter beach territory :) Lima is like Chicago in this way, a city by the water. While we got a little side-tracked on the way down to the beach, it was totally worth the detour. The water is super blue and if I had my bathing suit I would of definitely jumped in. According to one of our guides, beyond the cliffs are even nicer beaches with warm sand and space to play around.
As you leave Miraflores you enter Barranco, the artsy district. Here is definitely where all the cool kids hang out. There are dance clubs, bars with live jazz shows, and street art everywhere you turn. Especially compared to Downtown, Barranco has a much smaller, more communal feel. Our guide informed us that there is a very ecclectic group of residents... some families that have been part of the community forever as well as celebrities and artists!
Just your typical Barranco... many artisits have begun an effort to liven up areas that were deserted or dangerous otherwise with art that attracts tourists and just generally happy vibes
We stopped to chill in Barranco's center park with live music, balloons, and smiling people everywhere!
It wasn't until it was time to turn back that we had realized how far we had come. It had been about a 4-hour walk (with stops of course but still)! We walked back to Miraflores along the Malecón, watching the paragliders float through the trees, and then headed home a new way to keep things ~funky and fresh~ Lima is seriously the biggest city!
We made it back to Downtown Lima just in time for the Magic Water Circuit near our hostel. Too bad we were sitting outside the wrong fountain :P Benjamin and I parked ourselves outside the rainbow fountain expecting the show until we realized that everyone was moving away from it... classic. The park of fountains was HUGE and actually went under the road with a tunnel it was so big. We eventually found the infamous fountain that actually had the light show but decided to head back and sleep. It had been a long day.
Our second and final day in Lima we got to meet up with sweet Maddie, a girl from our study abroad program!! We spent the morning visiting the Catacombs, which are definitely worth a visit. We accidentally showed up right when they were starting an English tour but the mass graves and incredible stories of the monestary are like nothing you've seen. There is a huge library with books as old as the dinosaurs and so much of it is not even catalogued! The current monestary sits right next to/within the old but you are not allowed to take pictures in either area so you'll have to go explore for yourself! ;)
The rest of our morning was spent making ceviche with a chef in our hostel ~so so good~ We got to pick out the fresh fish from the market and everything!
Ceviche is fresh fish (the most important ingredient) that has been flash-cooked in acid. You really just take a flavor-less fish and mix it up with some mild onion and tons of lemon juice so the outside is slightly cooked. While I am not a huge raw fish person I kept everyone company while they ate it and they all said it was incredible :P Make sure you use FRESH fish and pair the ceviche with something sweet (corn and sweet potatoes if you like) to cut the acidic flavor.
The Uruguayan man that taught us how to make ceviche also has amazing presentation skills :)
We ended our day with another free tour (we really love free tours) and then got to have the most amazing dinner (Amazonian food) with Maddie and her mom. It was the best we had eaten in months and it was so good to see our buddy :) Great end to a great day!
Sunset on the Malecón
This trip was going as fast as it seems... every night we would get back to the hostel and realize our adventure was quickly coming to an end and we were off to our next destination! We left Lima the next day for a short pitstop in Piura (northern Peru) just to save money. We spent our spare five hours in Piura walking, eating, and I got a $3 haircut :P Our next move was a luxurious Argentina-esque bus ride over to Guayaquil.
HELLOOOO ECUADOR! Our bus driver woke us up at 3am to go through customs for an hour and then our bus broke down about an hour outside of the city but we had made it this far and we weren't letting it get us down. We arrived at the terminal, hopped immediately on a city bus, and hoped that the man giving us directions to our hostel knew what he was talking about.
People's reviews of Guayaquil were similar to that of Lima... mostly Why the heck would you go there? Once again, Guayaquil was a great stopping point on our way to Quito and we definitely made the most of our time there. Definitely hit up the tourist office if you go... it took us around 45 minutes walking back and forth to find it and even after directions from 4 people the office still wasn't labeled. Finding the office was an adventure in itself, but you can tell they don't get many visitors and they were more than excited to help us.
If you are passing through Guayaquil there are some really nice things not to miss:
- Las Peñas is a colorful neighborhood on a hill, much more artsy and quiet than the rest of the city and the view from the top is incredible! Walk along the Malecón and then you will see signs, you can't miss it!
- Isla Santay - while the bridge over to this little oasis is broken, you can take a boat and get a guided tour for only $5! (They use US money in Ecuador)! The island is definitely worth a visit, we met some great people on the tour and saw crocodiles :)
- Chicken and rice - you really won't be able to avoid this one even if you try ;)
And just like that we were off to Quito...
We arrived in Quito around 3pm (for like a $30 flight I might add) and were already off to explore. Benjamin and I had decided we were going to take the nature route for our last couple days so we only had the afternoon to explore the beautiful city.
Iglesia Santo Domingo, where our friendly cab driver dumped us :)
The Quito airport is nowhere near the center of the city but the ride over was beautiful so don't fall asleep because it is like a slow rollercoaster of green hills until you enter the European architecture again. The city is once again, HUGE, but it feels a lot more put together than Lima. Most of the churches and other historical buildings have a similar style and you can uncover something new around every corner.
We took a tourist map and gave ourselves a little tour, stopping at about 20 churches (can't really be avoided) as well as the more popular bar streets! My favorite was the Plaza Grande in the center of the city and the cathedral! The cathedral was huge and on a hill so you could see it grow larger as you got closer and closer.
While I think we definitely could've spent more time exploring the city, we were more than happy to wake up early and hop on the metro-bus to Quitumbe Station, the portal to nature :) I will bipass the story of our terminal pizza and the 2 other busses we successfully climbed on until we got to Laguna Quilotoa.
Despite all the planning I had done (I'm really not the world's best planner) I brought us to the wrong place. We had gotten the recommendation to come to the Quilotoa loop from a woman in our hostel in Cusco. I was so excited about the prospect of a four day backpacking trip from hostel to hostel that I had spent every night planning out how we could make it possible with only 2 days and starting from Quito center.
The Quilotoa Loop is basically a through-trek of multiple indigenous towns in the Cotopaxi province near the famous volcano. The loop can be done with a day pack because each town has welcoming hostels :) If you do it right you can end up at the beautiful crater lake!! Too bad I took us there accidentally on day one and ruined the surprise.
A bus ride and a steep walk later we ended up where we had intended: The Black Sheep Inn. After 5 months in South America, I have spent a lot of time in hostels. I am a seasoned expert in bringing my own towels and finding breakfast included and yet the Black Sheep Inn was by far the best place we had stayed for so many reasons.
Let's start with the food.
Every morning there was an enormous breakfast (eggs, yogurt, veggies, whatever you could desire and on Sunday there were pancakes)! They lovely women would pack you a lunch for the day and then cook you a family-style feast at night. If I could eat their stuffed eggplant everyday for the rest of my life I would be a happy woman. Everything is for veg-heads which also contributes to the second great thing:
We arrived at the Black Sheep in and then accounted for 2/3 of the guests there. It was amazing. Even by the second day when there were at least 8 extra guests, everything was calm and relaxing! We composted our poop, recycled everything we used, and had plenty of time to relax, read and...
Hike! The BSI was a hub for a bunch of great day hikes and conveniently enough there were written and visual instructions for all of them (thank goodness because I have a gift of getting lost).
Each day was a new adventure... day one we did the rim walk above the inn. The views were beautiful until the clouds took over and we walked ourselves right into the abyss.
This is the abyss
Day two we made our way back to the crater and did it right this time :)
One side of the crater rim walk... the other side featured the crystal blue water :)
We got confused a couple of times but surprisingly never got lost :) We also got lucky because extra busses run on Sundays, go figure! The hike from the crater was about 4 hours, so we took our time, ate snacks, and made it back in time for yoga with one of our new hostel friends.
Our last day we did the Edmundo's famous sky walk with the lovely yoga teacher we had met at BSI. Add that to the list, free yoga and new friends!
At this point I was already packed up, it was my last full day and I needed one last taste of the real Ecuador before hopping on the plane. It had been 5 months, 5 countries, and countless adventures and it was all about to end... I wasn't exactly ready to accept that reality and so naturally I was not allowing myself to think about it.
I arrived at the Quito airport pretty early on the night of the 19th because I couldn't just sit around in the hostel and wait... I was on to my next adventure, granted one that I was probably more comfortable with... or so I thought. I hadn't been home in 5 months. Had it changed? Had I changed?
I arrived in Florida around 5am and was able to use my phone for the first time. So weird. I spoke English to the flight attendent and got on an earlier flight. Also weird. I said thank you and asked for advice in the metro station... everything was easier for sure but it didn't feel exactly right.
I was off on my next adventure, adjustment would have to follow.
I finally arrived home and had two puppies waiting for me ;) (one of my brothers, Sam, and our new baby Jelly Bean). It was nice that people were so excited to have me back, it made me more excited to be home. But I also definitely didn't want to forget the past 5 months had ever happened.
One week later, there are definitely positives to being home like the free food and the comfort of having family around. You can speak English and eat vegetables and see your people that you haven't seen in months. But you miss the adventure, the hiking everyday, the sleeping in and eating pancakes, the composting your poop :P, and the challenge it is to NOT be in your comfort zone.
Being home is weird. That's pretty much the best way I could phrase it. But it is also so good. We are all on to our next adventure, trying to navigate home life again... we all snap chat each other and check in, how is being home going for you? In my mind, you just gotta take it like you did all the other adventures and enjoy the ride ;)