Following ancient Inca treks to Machu Picchu

We got to Cusco two days early but already super excited for our big trekking excursion to Machu Picchu. Thus, before we started, we spent some relaxing time in this once so important Inka city, mingling with all the other tourists which crowd the streets and markets here, stocking up our already way too full backpacks with some cozy alpaca sweaters and other souvenirs we could not resist to buy.
As the Inca trail, the most famous route to Machu Picchu, was booked out months ahead before we even knew when we would be in Peru, we chose an alternative trek to the long lost city of the Incas: the Salkantay trail. This trek, just like the Inca trail, is part of the giant trail network the Incas built back in the day to connect the various parts of their empire. It is possible to hike it without a guide, but we decided to spoil ourselves a bit and thus opted for an organized tour. This turned out to have been a great decision, because that way we not only had the most amazing group to hike with, but also probably one of Peru’s best cooks to prepare delicious meals for us. Furthermore, we had a herd of mules, donkeys and horses carrying all our food and tents and could enjoy this four day hike with less baggage and more energy for enjoying the stunning scenery. The trail started in Mollepata, just three hours outside Cusco, and ended at the entrance of Machu Picchu National Park from where a train took us to Aguas Calientes, the main base for almost everyone going to Machu Picchu. During these days we hiked up to heights of 4650m above sea level, passing by mighty glaciers and crystal clear lagoons and later descended down through lush rainforests while munching delicious passion fruits.
On the fourth evening of our excursion, we eventually arrived in Aguas Calientes where we could rest our tired feet as well as the rest of our bodies in a bed instead of a tent again. Aguas Calientes is probably the most touristy town in all of South America with not much to see and do, however, it is also the place where we had the so far best Pisco Sours, Peru’s signature drink made mainly of Pisco (a grape liquor), sugar syrup and limes. Thus, we were super relaxed and refreshed the next morning when we hopped on a bus that took us up to the entrance to Machu Picchu. When we got there, thick fog was covering all the ruins still. This added lots to the mysteriousness of the place, however, it also prevented us from seeing much. Luckily though, soon the fog started lifting and Machu Picchu was revealed to us in all its beauty. Our day here was not only impressive but also quite intense: first we only strolled through all the ruins, but then we hiked up loads and loads of steep steps to the top of Huayna Picchu (the hill which is depicted in most illustrations of Machu Picchu) to get a bird’s eye perspective of the whole area. To top it all off we went to see the more famous than spectacular Inca bridge before we walked back down to Aguas Calientes where a delicious Creole lunch (Peruvian cuisine) was waiting for us. Later that day, exhausted but happy, we boarded a train which took us back to Cusco where we had a few days more to recover and plan out the rest of our time in Peru.

When in Cusco
Where to sleep: The Hostel Nueva Alta is run by the sweetest Peruvian family, has mostly tiny rooms but for cheap prizes. Also it is kept super tidy and it is centrally located.
Where to eat and drink: We mostly ate at the local market, where tasty “menus” cost about a bit more than 1 Euro. If you want something a bit nicer, try the Pikanteria La Cusquenita, we had a great lunch there once.
What to do: Stroll around town, there is a myriad of churches and museums to see, but alone visiting the local market is entertaining enough for quite some hours. Of course also book a tour to go see Machu Picchu!

Arequipa and our excursion to the world’s deepest Canyon

Arequipa was our first stop in Peru and made us like this country right away: it is a beautiful city full of good food, friendly locals and there is lots to do in the city’s surroundings.
When we got to Peru, we only had a few days here before our Machu Picchu trekking. Thus, we spent one day with relaxed sightseeing in the city center and as we had heard so many good things about the Peruvian cuisine, we of course also had to start our culinary exploration, trying some Ceviche: raw fish in leche del tigre (tiger milk – we haven’t found out yet what that is exactly) and loooooads of onions. Smelling almost as lovely as fresh roses, we made our way “home” to the hostel, picking up a local specialty for dessert: “helado de queso” – cheese ice cream – it tasted way better than that may sound.
Arequipa is famous for the nearby* Colca Canyon, so the next day we took a bus to go visit it. Colca Canyon is supposedly the world’s deepest canyon and home to one of the world’s biggest birds: the majestic condors. Luckily we got to see a few while there.
To explore the canyon properly, we opted for a two day trekking trip. Thus, on our first day, we hiked down into the Canyon’s heart, called the Oasis, where we could cool down in our hostel’s pool after our quite hot hike. The next morning we had to get up at 4.30 am to hike back up the Canyon on time to catch our bus back. Hiking Canyons, however, is a bit of a weird and slightly illogical, or at least contra-Tyrolean common sense, regarding hiking, thing: first going down and then back up is somehow not as satisfying as vice versa. Also, there is no summit at the end to aim for. Thus, we had to try to make up for that and therefore, rewarded ourselves with a delicious second breakfast when we were back up. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hiking excursion to Colca Canyon, especially because the scenery with all the pre-Inca and Inca terrasses, where the locals still grow chia and other crops, is amazing. Furthermore, we were also lucky to see the whole Canyon “green”, as the rainy season had just ended, leaving the whole place covered in grass and flowers.
On our way back to Arequipa we visited some of the area’s picturesque villages where we tried some local foods like cactus fruits, made friends with some feathery creatures (check out our pictures!) and passed lots of snow covered volcanoes. We also relaxed in some hot springs and learned the difference between llamas, alpacas and vicunas – or at least tried to… They all are cute and fury after all, some are bigger, some are smaller, some have longer and some have shorter hair…. At the end of the day we eventually made it back to Arequipa where we then spent one more relaxed day before heading off to Cusco.
*”Nearby” here means just a six hours drive which in South America really is nothing distance-wise. However, it is like Innsbruck would start marketing Vienna’s Schönbrunn palace as a local sight…

When in Arequipa and Colca Canyon
Where to sleep: Vallecito Backpackers in Arequipa. This place was our absolute favorite hostel so far: super clean (amazing especially after just coming from Bolivia!), incredible friendly hostess and wonderful breakfast. In Colca Canyon are a few hostels in the Oasis and the farther in you go from the entrance, the nicer they get… Pick one with a nice pool when you get there to still enjoy some sun!
Where to eat & drink: The local market in Arequipa offers a variety of tasty local foods, for instance ceviche and fresh juices.
What to do: Don’t miss out on visiting Colca Canyon – if we had had more time we would also have loved to hike Arequipa’s “house volcano” Misti…

Visiting the sun’s birthplace at Lake Titicaca

Leaving La Paz on a bus like we did is quite a challenge as it takes forever to maneuver through some of the probably busiest streets we have ever seen. By the way, we have some amazing videos of the city’s crazy traffic, which entertained us from our hostel’s window better than any hollywood blockbuster could ever have. Just ask if you are interested to see them.
Anyways, as soon as our bus was outside the city area, it did not take long until the glistening blue of Lake Titicaca came in sight. However, this lake, that used to be a sea a long, long time ago, is so huge, it still took a while until we arrived at Copacabana. Most backpackers pass through this beach town when going from Bolivia to Peru or vice versa. The town itself is very touristy but still a nice place to spend an afternoon at. This is just enough time to, like us, have some delicious trout while enjoying a lovely view over the lake, to hike up Cerro Calvario to see the sunset and book tickets for the boat ride the next day to the “Isla del Sol”. This island is quite famous, as according to Inca mythology, it is the birth place of the sun as well as of the Incas as a people. Apart from historical importance, it is also recognized for being one of the lake’s most beautiful islands, and thus, we definitely wanted to see it.
Our boat took us to the North end of the island from where we walked in a nice afternoon stroll to the Southern end. While on our little “trans-island mission” we met lots of the friendly inhabitants of the island, not only people, but also donkeys, sheep, alpacas and pigs, always while enjoying lovely views. We arrived just in time to see a marvellous sunset. Afterwards we had a tasty candle-light trout dinner which was not only super delicious but also probably the last dinner in Bolivia on this trip of ours. As we slept in a hostel in the village Yumani, located up a hill, we had a spectacular view of the sunrise the following morning. Breakfast up here, with this amazing view over Lake Titicaca, tasted delicious. Afterwards we hiked down to the beach to catch a boat back to Copacabana where a big party was already going on: the 1st of May is celebrated here with colorful parades, lots of dancing and quite some booz. Despite that we would have liked to join in longer, we had to keep it short: Peru was calling and waiting to be discovered!

When at Lake Titicaca:
Where to eat & drink: There is a line up of little food stands on the beach in Copacabana and they all know how to grill the local trouts to perfection (for little money).
Where to sleep: Hostel Mirador – overlooking the lake and affordable. There is no functioning Wifi but hardly anywhere here is.
What to do: Take a boat to Isla del Sol and hike from the North to the South – we can promise you amazingly scenic views (take the path along the coast). Also, enjoy the sunset in Copacabana from the Cerro Calvario – just a 30 min hike from the city’s center (calculated for a slow high-altitude pace).

Huayna Potosí – Our highest adventure

Huayna Potosí is one of the many glacier covered peaks surrounding La Paz. It is part of the Cordillera Real with a mighty peak reaching 6088m above sea level and in a moment of cockiness we had decided that we wanted to conquer it. Conveniently, our chosen target was located just an hour’s drive outside the city. However, the road was so rocky, going there felt way farther away from civilization than that.
We spend the first day at the base camp where our awesome guide Santos made sure we got enough carbohydrates in form of huge portions of pasta, rice and potatoes. He also gave us a crash course of how to use crampons and an ice axe correctly, without hurting ourselves – quite a challenge by itself already.
The next day we hiked to the rock camp, located up on 5130m above sea level, higher than Europe’s highest mountain and higher than our feet had ever carried us until then – but not for long! Dinner was served at 5 pm and lights were out at 6 pm. As you might imagine, falling asleep at this time of the, well, day, is not so easy, especially when one of your mountain comrades is snoring like a buzz saw. Luckily for that guy, it was too cold to get out of the sleeping bag and hunt him down and luckily for us, breakfast was already served at 1.00 am. After that we started out, a bit sleepy still but fully equipped and in high spirits, towards the summit. Despite that Huayna Potosí is supposedly one of the easiest 6000m mountains to climb in the world, it was definitely no piece of cake to reach the summit. But with the help of lots of chocolate bars and our unbreakable Tyrolean power of endurance, we made it through our different ups and downs along the way, and eventually got there, just in time to see the sunrise. The view from the top was amazing: once the clouds below us had cleared up, we could see lots of other peaks, the lights of La Paz and even lake Titicaca – all of that of course, far, far below.
After our little break of glory and satisfaction at the summit it was time again to descend. While hiking down we got to enjoy all the marvellous views of the glacier and its surrounding scenery that we had not seen while hiking up in the dark. However, going down we also noticed how steep the hike up had been. In the afterthought, it was probably quite a good thing to not have seen all that at first, that way we could concentrate on each step after the other.
We got back to the rock camp at 8.00 am where it was time for “lunch”. Afterwards we could relax for a bit before embarking on the last hike of this adventure down to the base camp where “dinner” was served – at 1 pm. We had a hard time not falling asleep while eating. Luckily, soon after, we were brought back to La Paz where warm showers and cozy beds were waiting for us exhausted mountaineers.

When hiking Huyana Potosí:
What to do: When in La Paz you can find tour operators offering mountaineering trips up Huayna Potosí on every corner. We picked the one operator that had Italian hiking boots – Albert Tours – and had a good experience, especially due to our amazing guide Santos. But pick whichever suits your preferences.
Where to eat & drink: No need to choose thoroughly as options are limited and selected by the tour operator. However, bring lots of chocolate or other soul food.