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More than six weeks after landing in Cartagena, Colombia, we finally found ourselves only six kilometers away from Machu Picchu. We hopped off the train with our guide and a small group of fellow hikers at kilometer marker 104 of the Inca Trail and took a footbridge across the Urubamba River.

After checking in at the closest trail station (one must register weeks or months in advance to get permission to be on the Inca Trail) we congregated with our guide at a small set of ruins to review some pre-Inca and Inca history.

Then we were off.

Along the way we encountered dozens of different types of orchids and other flowers that bloom during Peru’s wet season. The hike was relatively steep, but Kristi and I found it relaxing compared to our previous battle in the Colca Canyon. We also came across several waterfalls and mind-boggling views of the Andes.

Just before lunch and the final push to arrive at Machu Picchu, we emerged from the forest at Wiñawayna, a beautiful archeological site on the mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu. This site was discovered by a biologist searching for rare orchids and is named for the orchid, wiñawayna, which means “forever young” in Quechua.

Wiñawayna

Our bag lunch was enjoyed at the confluence of two trails where hikers doing a 4 or 5 day trip camp the final night before descending into Machu Picchu. From there, we were less than an hour away from the Sun Gate. We finished up lunch and trekked on and before we knew it, we were there.

View from just below the Sun Gate

The entire day had been overcast and our guide was sure we’d be rained on. However, little by little, throughout the day the clouds thinned and minutes after arriving to the Sun Gate, the sun itself made an appearance. It was our lucky day, I suppose.

Our postcard (except for the dude trying to sneak in on the left side!)

We took it all in. Machu Picchu is famed not only for its beautiful Inca architecture, spared from destruction by the Spanish who never found it, but also for its dramatic location, on a mountains ridge, with the roaring Urubamba snaking through the valley below.

The next day we returned early in the morning with our guide for a tour. That day the weather wouldn’t be so kind as the previous day. It was pretty magical, however, to be standing and listening to the guide with nothing but fog all around, then all of a sudden turn around to see the ruins slowly emerging out of nowhere.

Poncho type of day

The lore and history that applies to Machu Picchu has filled many books so I won’t say much to that. But the coolest thing we learned was that Machu Picchu was not an abandoned city at the time of its rediscovery by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s. When he was taken to the site by a local Quechua man in 1902, there were at least a couple of families living within the overgrown ruins. The implication being that Inca and their descendants have inhabited Machu Picchu since the beginning.

Waka Kuntur (Temple of the Condor)

Inca Princess

Machu Picchu was more amazing than I had hoped, and I had very high hopes for it. The cliché that pictures don’t do it justice is of course 100% true.

But we tried anyway

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The last, and climactic stop on our post-PC journey would be Machu Picchu near the city of Cuzco. The trip from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco is a beautiful bus ride of between 7 and 10 hours. The 7-hour trip is a non-stop tear through the Andes. Another option offered by a couple of bus companies is the 10-hour tour that makes several stops along the way to take in various sights.

Our first stop was the town of Pucará. Pucará is a typical small pueblo but what sets this town apart from others is its cultural history. Artifacts from various pre-Inca cultures are housed in the museum in town and on the edge of town there are pre-Inca ruins. Not much is left of the original structures because the Spanish conquistadors used the stones from the ruins to build their Catholic Church (which itself was very beautiful).

Church built from stones from nearby pre-Inca ruins

Next we stopped at the highest elevation on the highway from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco. At over 4,000 meters, there wasn’t much at this stop except local crafts, a bathroom, and these beautiful mountains.

Next stop, Racchi, another Inca archeological site. The site contains an amazing defensive wall that is largely still intact, agricultural terraces, a residential center, dozens of circular storehouses, and the Waka Wiracocha (temple). This temple is believed to have been the largest roofed structure from the Incan Empire until it was destroyed by the Spanish.

Central columns from the temple still stand today

Storehouses for grains and other crops

After Racchi, we hit a popular lunch spot. The food was so-so, but at least there was a baby llama to occupy our time.

yep

Our final stop was another famous Catholic church known as the Sistine Chapel of South America. San Pedro de Andahuaylillas was pretty I suppose, but I’d seen heaps of churches by this point. The more interesting thing in this town were some deformed skulls on display. The Incans practiced various forms of skull elongation in order to make their royal children smarter by increasing brain volume… Genius!

Hope it worked, because it sure is ugly.

Next up… Cuzco and Machu Picchu!

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More than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, the Colca Canyon in southern Peru is well over two-miles deep at its deepest point.  And, although it is located around 6 hours from the major city of Arequipa, it is Peru’s third largest tourist attraction.

Second deepest canyon in the world

Kristi and I, and our new Australian mates, Ali and Tim, met up in the small town of Cabanaconde with hopes of descending into the canyon.  Cabanaconde is the best place to set out for treks into and around the canyon.  It is also famous for it’s Andean condor viewing.

We had stopped earlier on our bus at Cruz del Condor where the condors are supposedly most spotted, however, the visibility this day was only a few meters.  So, as soon as we arrived we set out for a short hike to the canyon’s edge in order to try to see the condors.  From the rim of the canyon we were treated to perfect visibility and three amazing condors soaring in and above the canyon.

Two Andean condors

At the canyon rim

After the short hike, there wasn’t much to do in the tiny town except for a quick nap (our day started at 2:30 am with a 6 hour bus ride).  With our batteries recharged we settled in at our hostel for a few beers and some brick oven pizza.  We all decided it was best to turn in early because the next day we were to descend 1,200 meters to the bottom of the canyon.

Pizza chefs with their oven

The hike down wasn’t all that bad, but our knees were definitely a bit exhausted after the descent.  All along the way there was beautiful scenery and views of the canyon.  The hike was only about two and a half hours but the sun at that elevation was brutal.  We were glad to find that the simple lodging at the canyon bottom offered a very nice pool to rinse/cool off in.

Tim and I next to the pool which was built into existing rock walls

Foot-bridge over the River Colca

Our accommodations next to the Colca River were simple but the set meals were delicious and the air-temperature beers, refreshing.  Like the previous night, bedtime was early because the next day we knew we’d be in for a challenge.

View from the bottom back towards where we were headed the next day

We set out around 7 am for the roughly three or four-hour hike back to Cabanaconde where we had to make a 2 pm bus back to Arequipa.  I think we were all kind of nervous about the hike and the possible added difficulty of altitude.  The river at this point was about 2,700 meters above sea-level and Cabanaconde, about 3,900 meters.  Despite our trepidation, we all conquered the canyon.  Of course, the canyon would have the last laugh the next day when the muscle soreness hit.

Kristi headed to the top

We made it!

We made it back to town just in time to see their Easter celebration which involved street music, dancing, and chicha (fermented corn beer).  The music was especially enjoyable with simple percussion, trumpets, and tubas.

All the locals breaking it down in front of the church

I would’ve loved to have had another day or two to hike to other areas in the canyon, but while planning the trip, we had no idea what to expect.  The Colca Canyon was the perfect mix of physical challenge and visual beauty.  Our quick trip was just enough to appreciate the rugged and amazing topography of southern Peru.

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Our second stop on the way from Lima down to the southern city of Arequipa was a desert oasis called Huacachina.  The tiny town is really just an offshoot of the larger city nearby, Ica.  Huacachina isn’t really a town at all, more of a tourist destination for people seeking adventures into the desert.

Desert Oasis

We spent two nights there and basically one full day.  There wasn’t much to do during the mid-day heat except take in some sun and enjoy the pool at our little hotel.  Not until the sun gets a bit low is it recommended to head into the actual desert.

Ica beyond the desert in the background

Desert at sunset

Some people climb the dunes, but the best way to take in the desert is via a buggy tour.  When Kristi told me about the buggy tour I figured a little dune buggy like I’d seen at various North Carolina beaches.  The monsters used to tackle the dunes in Huacachina are hiiighly modified 3/4-ton American made pickup trucks.  Our particular ride was a 1980 Dodge Ram.

Buggy and Driver (sweet-ass job)

One way to take in the desert might be a low-speed cruise up and down some dunes.  Our guide didn’t want to waste any of the HP his truck had to offer so our tour was more… aggressive.  The best way to describe the experience is like a rollercoaster without a track to confine the excitement.

Another buggy out there with us

Various stops were made along the way so that we could go sandboarding.  I had imagined snowboarding on sand, that is, until I stood at the top of the first dune.  The vast majority take the slide down the dune on the stomach.  In order to avoid a trip-ending tumble, majority ruled.  It seemed dangerous either way but even the five-year old on our trip boarded down on his dad’s back.

Our group and another group about to head down the dune on sandboards

Is that a mirage?

The tour ended with the sun setting over the horizon and one last high-speed tear through the desert back to the oasis.  Tons of fun and also tons of sand in our pockets, hair, and teeth to remember the trip by!

Zoom!

Endless dunes

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Our last stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, the third largest city, and by our measure, the most beautiful.  Originally, we had scheduled at least another full day in Cuenca, but we stayed an extra day in Baños and our flight to Lima required us to get to Tumbes a day earlier than expected.  Oh well, we still had ample time to visit some of the sights that Cuenca had to offer.

In our South America guidebook it says that Quito and Cuenca have a bit of a rivalry as to who has the most beautiful historic architecture.  I’ll weigh in, Cuenca wins.

One of many beautiful buildings in the city center

We spent the morning ambling around and admiring the old and new cathedrals, the flower market, and the artisan market.  Unlike Quito we had no problem finding inexpensive coffee and small meals like this one.  A delicious tamale and fresh ground coffee near the Cathedral.

Buen provecho!

It is claimed that when the New Cathedral was constructed 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit in the building.  It really was immense and beautiful.

New Cathedral from the plaza

New Cathedral from the mercado

In the artisan market which is municipally sponsored and features works by women artisans from around the country, Kristi and I found a great baby alpaca blanket for our eventual home back in North Carolina.

Stall with several typical crafts at the artisan market

After a typical lunch we hit the Museum of the Central Bank.  It is not uncommon for Central Banks in large cities to have some of the best museums with objects of cultural importance such as currency from the country’s history, works of art, and artifacts.

We weren’t allowed to take our camera in but this museum housed one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen… shrunken heads!  You’ll have to google it to see a photo (or try the one I stole from the Internet.  Sorry, Internet).  I am pretty sure these things were actual human heads.  Not some Halloween reproduction.  Weird-ass stuff, man.

yeah.

Cuenca seemed like a great place to post up for a week or more and enjoy a laid back, friendly city with walkable streets and endless restaurants and cafes.  I wish we’d had another day or two, but we didn’t, so… Adios, Ecuador!

Kristi in the flower market

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The Ecuador section of our trip turned out to be very active.  Mountain biking and hiking on Cotopaxi and Quilotoa was quite an adventure.  To follow that, we planned a trip to Baños, a small town famous for hot springs.  We had planned on a relaxing couple of days of mud baths and steaming hot spring water…

Waterfall from our hostel window in Baños

Baños cathedral

Courtyard of the cathedral

While Baños does have hot springs, they weren’t really our style.  After visiting the hot springs outside of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, it would’ve been hard to impress us.  So instead of a relaxing stop in Baños, we opted for MORE adventure!

Germ soup.

On our first full day we rented a couple of mountain bikes ($5 for the day) and set off downhill on the “waterfall route”.  The road was paved so the 20 or so kilometers was pretty easy except for having to ride through two freaky tunnels.  There were more tunnels along the route but fortunately the other ones had a way around.  There is nothing fun about a muddy, dark tunnel on a bike being passed by a semi truck.

First tunnel...zoom!

First waterfall

Locals´ trout farm in the Andes

There are several suggested stops along the route including bridge jumping, zip lines, and gondolas.  I guess I´m truly getting old, because swan diving off a bridge with rope tied to my feet no longer appeals to me.  The gondolas were even a little crazy, but after watching old people and young ladies ride across we went for it.  We rode what is essentially a hot air balloon basket hanging from a cable across the canyon and over the waterfalls known as Manto de la Novia.

Second waterfall

Gondola over Manto de la Novia...we´re next!

Scary fun!

I just realized I´m afraid of heights

20 meters upstream of Manto de la Novia

We rode to several falls but the best was saved for last: Pailón del Diablo.  This was one of the biggest, craziest falls we’ve ever seen.  The best part about it was that you could get within about a foot of the crushing flow and even crawl behind.  It was mostly safe, but it felt as if the falls were going to change course at anytime and sweep you away.

One foot away from Pailón del Diablo

Pailón del Diablo

Rainbow to finish the day

To get back from the bike trip we were supposed to be able to find small trucks that are paid to bring bikers back to Baños.  We never found these trucks so instead we used something from our Honduras playbook: the jalón.  We thumbed a ride with a local Ecuadorian family who were very nice and offered us a free ride back to town.  Just as in Honduras, the locals were very kind to outsiders, something we hope to emulate once we finally return to the USA. It was a great day and another awesome Ecuadventure.

View of Baños from the mirador (overlook)

The next day we hiked up to a overlook of town with hopes of also being able to see the continuously erupting volcano Tungurahua.  The hike was very steep but the views of town were worth the sweat.  Unfortunately, we had more bad luck volcano-spotting.  The clouds hid the snow-capped volcano.  We were quite disappointed, but we were to have better luck on the days to come…

More amazing pics of Baños in the next post!

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We were exhausted after the first day of biking and trekking around on the volcano, Cotopaxi, in the central highlands of Ecuador.  After a beautiful car ride through the Andes, we settled in at a small lodge in the pueblo of Quilotoa, situated on the rim of the Quilotoa crater.  The rooms were basic and chilly, but  fortunately each room was equipped with a wood stove which was quite charming.  I was supposed to get up every couple of hours to keep it burning, but after we fell asleep, getting up was not even a faint possibility.

yep

Day two began with a breathtaking descent into the crater.  The views from the rim where we began were amazing and the entire trail in and out of the crater provided equally stunning views.  The crater was formed about 800 years ago. It is about two miles wide and over 800 feet deep in the deepest parts.  The crater lake sits at over 12,000 feet elevation.

Quilotoa Crater... wow

Roberto (guide) called this his postcard shot

Roberto, Casper, and Kristi on the rock formation jutting out into the lake

On the hike we passed several families with their donkeys, mules, and horses.  Some were transporting potatoes to sell and others were offering tired gringos rides out of the crater on horse or mule.  We were definitely tempted, but were a bit scared of being on horseback for some of the rugged terrain.

Two small boys leading their beasts down into the crater

Striking a pose on a cliff at the crater bottom

Despite the draining first day and the steepness of the trail, we didn´t have much trouble getting down then hiking back out.  However, this was just part one of the day´s adventure.  At the crater rim there were a few shops where Kristi bought a nice alpaca scarf from a local family.

They had some great stuff, wish we had more room in our packs!

After our hike we got back on the bikes for another 20 km ride through rural countryside in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Plenty of uphill on Day 2

The first few kilometers were a mud bath and we weren´t exactly enjoying ourselves but as soon as we began descending, the dirt roads dried up and the only danger was getting distracted by the views and the people we passed.

Alpaca with saddle ready for load

Cute donkey

Bootiful

Despite not-so-perfect weather, our two-day mountain biking trip was something we´ll never forget.  Quilotoa is an incredible town and hike and still retains its pueblo charm.  The Ecuadorian campo is a must see for anyone visiting, and we suggest a bike trip to fully appreciate the scenery and the local people waving and greeting you along the way.

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