Homestays and buckets under beds – Puno and Lake Titicaca, Peru

We took another bus to Puno the following morning to explore Lake Titicaca but didn’t arrive until later in the evening, therefore having to explore the city the next day. After walking around Puno for a bit, we  compared different tour agencies for tours to the Islands of Lake Titicaca. That night we met a guy from New York, Jake, who decided to do the same tour with us. The tour consisted of us visiting three different islands, Uros, Amantani, and Taquile.

Uros Floating Islands, our first stop, are man-made islands now made by descendants of the Uros Indians. Each floating Island consists of multiple families with one man being elected the president. The president is elected by the members of the floating island and is someone who is highly respected and trusted. The islands and their boats are made from totora reeds and have to be rebuilt every 10 years. On the tour we learned that the younger generations no longer live on the islands as they decide to leave for the city life once old enough. Because of this, our tour guide explained why he believes the floating islands will cease to exist in the future as the younger generations continue to become more westernized. The floating island we visited had 8 families living there and every group of 4 people were shown around a family’s home by one of these families. The home Farima, Jake, and I visited was a family of four and although quite small, was equipped with cable TV and solar panels.

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After the home visits, we took a ride on one of the reed boats to another floating island. As we left the floating islands to head to Amantani, the families sang us the song “Row Row Row Your Boat”, which though very touristic, was also quite touching!

The boat ride across Lake Titicaca from the Uros floating islands to Amantani was nearly 3 hours. Amantani is a fixed island home to communities who still wear traditional clothing and follow ancient local customs. As there are no hotels or hostels on the island, those who choose the 2 day tour get a chance to stay with a local family in their home. Part of the stay also involves actually becoming part of the culture and part of the family you stay with for the 2 days. Jake, Farima and I all stayed with the same family and our Mama’s name was Helen but we chose to call her Mama all the time. She was this adorable little lady, who had 5 kids. She told us (in Spanish) that only the youngest one (who was 14) still lived with her on the island and the others had moved to bigger cities like Lima and Puno.

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The three of us were all given a shared a room next to Mama’s and our new brothers’. She cooked us lunch consisting of vegetables, quinoa soup (delicious) and fried cheese with rice. As we were part of the family, we offered to help and cleaned up the dishes. After lunch, we met the rest of our tour group in the square to begin our hike up to the highest point on the Island. As it was beginning to get a little colder, Mama gave us hats that she had sown herself for our hike up. They were quiet stylish (you’ll see in the pictures below)! Once we reached the top, we noticed a ceremonial plaza were locals come and offer coca leave as well as alcohol to Pachamama (Mother Nature) for a good harvest, wealth, and protection against natural disasters. There is a tradition that if you walk around the ceremonial plaza 3 times and make 3 wishes they will come true within your lifetime. Jake thought that if he ran for the last one his wish would come true sooner. So as Farima and Jake ran the last lap, I decided on a leisurely stroll. After some picture taking and sunset watching from the highest point on the island, we headed back to our house to meet Mama for dinner. Following dinner and some more dish washing, Mama dressed us all in traditional local clothing and we headed to a fiesta in town. Though I was a little disappointed that there weren’t as many locals present at the fiesta, mainly tourists and they’re rent-a-families, we had a blast learning the traditional dance moves with Mama that night.

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We woke up to homemade bread and mint tea for breakfast the next morning and walked back down to the port to say our thank you and goodbyes to Mama and the rest of the families and boarded our boat to our final destination, Taquile. Once there, we hiked up and around the island to enjoy more gorgeous views of Lake Titicaca. A fun fact we learned about the Taquile culture is that you can infer the marital status of a man by the type of hat he wears (and they are all required to wear hats). Men wearing black hats are captains and leaders of the island; red hats signified a married man while a mixture of red and white hats was representative of an unmarried man, whether or not he was in a relationship. However, if you were unmarried and wore your flap to the left it meant you were living with your girlfriend, to the right meant you had a girlfriend, and to the back meant you were completely single (and ok with it!).

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Our trip was coming to an end as we headed back down to the water after lunch and departed on our 3 hour journey back to Puno. Back in Puno, and as we realized it was Cinco de Mayo, the three of us headed out for celebratory tequila shots and margaritas to celebrate the occasion even when in South America!

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Edited by: Farima M.

“The White City” – Arequipa, Peru (and Colca Canyon)

We arrived in Arequipa around 6 am and luckily our hostel let us check in early and we were able to take a morning nap after a long night bus ride. We met a fellow traveler on our night bus named JC, who happened to have gone to the same high school as Farima and graduated the same year as myself from UCLA – small world. We met up with JC for lunch and had a meal at the town’s market, San Camillo Market and afterward headed to the famous monastery in town, Monasterio de Santa Catalina.

At the monastery, we hired a guide to take us around the place, which was way worth it as she gave us an informative and detailed background on the place and its relevant history. The monastery is a mini city in itself completely run by the nuns living there. It was once home to two hundred secluded nuns, but now houses only 20 nuns who are no longer shut off from the world. At the time the monastery was more popular and common in the culture, the 2nd child of a typical Spanish family, given it was a girl, was obligated to become a nun and join the monastery. Upon joining, the girl was assigned a room that was paid for and furnished by her family members. Once inside the monastery, the soon to become nuns were completely secluded with limited to no access to the outside world. They had occasional visitors but were spoken to through brass bars as the visitors were never allowed inside. Even when a nun passed later in her life, family members were notified but not allowed to attend the funeral.

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The monastery was once destroyed when El Misti erupted. In order to rebuild the monastery, Spanish families could buy and build a room for their daughters. Therefore, the daughters of wealthy families were basically given their own apartment within the monastery with living quarters for their servants. Later on a Pope (I can’t remember which one) instated a rule that all nuns must eat and sleep in common areas. The nuns inside the Santa Catalina monastery had to give up their rooms and all move into one common bedroom. They also all had to eat in one common dining hall and were not allowed to use their own kitchens. What was regulated then is the current lifestyle within the monastery now, although now it is very much a personal life choice whether or not you want to join the monastery and become a nun. Personally, I could never imagine being shut off from the world, but it was definitely interesting and eye-opening to learn about this different type of lifestyle and way of living.

After our history lesson for the day, we headed back to get ready and met up once again with JC and a few of his friends from the hostel for dinner. We headed to bed shortly after as we had to leave early the next morning for our hike to Colca Canyon. We began our two day/one night trek into Colca Canyon with a stop at the Mirador Cruz del Condor, a popular viewing point to watch the condors fly over the canyon. The Colca Canyon terraces are supposed to be the deepest in the world measuring 4KM from cliff edge to the river bottom. We began our descent into Colca Canyon which would take us roughly 5 hours to reach our accommodation for the night. Halfway through, we stopped at an Indian village where we enjoyed lunch. Farima and I had not planned on ever trying alpaca but since that was what they were serving for lunch, we didn’t have much of an option. I don’t think either of us liked it very much and I found in particularly chewy.

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We finally reached our accommodation after nearly 5 hours. The hostel was a basic hut deep inside the canyon with a swimming pool whose water was supplied by the waterfalls of the canyon. I must say the swimming pool was quite refreshing after the long hike in the sun and although I found it a bit cold, I couldn’t complain given the views and the water source for the pool. We had pasta for dinner and sadly Farima and I ate more than the boys in our group. I have definitely noticed I eat a lot more traveling South America, which is probably why I’ve gained weight.

After dinner, we learned a dutch card game that we played with the other people in our hiking crew, Joe and Jasper. Like most hiking days, we had an early wakeup call of 5 am the next morning to begin our ascent back up the canyon, so we headed to bed shortly after. See below picture for an image of the trail we had to hike up the next morning, as you can see we were not that thrilled.

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I couldn’t help feeling like we were back on the Inca trail as we ascended up the steep mountain the following morning for about 3 continuous hours. Thankfully, the weather was a bit cooler as it was early morning but I did feel accomplished when I reached the top. We were a bit slower than the boys in our group, but once our entire group finished and made it up the mountain, we ate breakfast together and headed back to Arequipa.

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The next morning, Farima and I headed across town (crossing Rio Chili) and took an uphill stroll to the Mirador del Carmen Alto, where we enjoyed views of the city and volcanoes surrounding it. You could definitely tell across the river was a nicer part of town, where most of the homes and buildings were very modern. We made our way back to the city center to join the free walking tour shortly after. On the tour, we learned that Arequipa’s architecture comes mainly from white siller stone and therefore, the town is also known as “The White City”. The famous volcano dominating Arequipa, El Misti was named because of a miscommunication between languages. Locals were calling the Spaniards mister and they thought they were saying Misti, therefore naming the volcano El Misti. As we were walking around, I noticed multiple street food vendors offering Queso Helado (cheese ice-cream), but we later learned that it wasn’t actually cheese ice-cream, but made with ice, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar. We also learned that although a rainbow colored flag in Cusco (and many other cities in South America) is representative of the indigenous people, in Arequipa it might just mean a gay club. Our tour guide was really fun and kept cracking jokes which kept us entertained the entire 2 hours. At the end of the tour we visited a market where ladies were knitting sweaters out of alpaca. Our guide told us that the bone one lady was using to knit was from her ex-husband. The look on Farima’s face was priceless, at the time she had actually believed he was telling the truth, therefore I had to explain to her that he was just making a joke, it was hilarious!  As most restaurants were closed that night, we picked up some groceries at the market and cooked dinner at our hostel for our last night in Arequipa.

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Edited by: Farima M. 

Cusco, Peru

After the Inca Trail, we headed back to Cusco and got ready for dinner and what we though was going to be a night out in honor of Brittany’s last night. Since we were nearly falling asleep at dinner of absolute exhaustion, we decided to enjoy our meal and skip the going out part.

We got up early the next morning to have breakfast with Brittany before she headed to the airport to catch a flight. As we have learned throughout our traveling so far, parting ways is one of the least desired parts of the experience. We had such an incredible time as trio and were sad to see her go but I think we may have convinced her to reunite with us in Patagonia this coming fall!

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After Brittany left, Farima and I checked out of the hotel and headed to another hostel, Millhouse, known for its social scene. We spent the rest of the day catching up on small errands, doing laundry, and face-timing with family members and friends — especially since my twin nieces were born! That night, we grabbed drinks at the hostel and then headed to a club called Temple. Though it was fun at first, it started to get so overcrowded that it became uncomfortable. It was beyond hot inside and the entire area filled with cigarette smoke, which is never fun and makes it difficult for those who don’t to breathe. The club was also almost all guys, making Farima and I a rare commodity, we even had to pretend to be together to avoid the unwanted attention. And that’s when we decided to leave.

The next morning, one of the hostel employees was offering a free walking tour around the city. We visited the San Pedro Market on the tour, which Farima and I had already explored, but were given more explanation to certain spices and items sold in the market. They even sold a spice at the market that works similar to Viagra. On the tour, they told us that it is considered rude to bargain on any food products in the market but okay to do so on clothing and artisanal crafts. We then visited a children’s school where I learned that public schools in Cusco are strictly boy or girl schools and the only co-ed ones are private. We also got to taste a local dish called causa, which is basically layers of mashed potato with various fillings (ours had avocado). Our last stop on the tour was San Blas, a small part of town lined with Inca stone and coffee shops overlooking the city of Cusco. Overall, I found the tour to be informative and very interesting.

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Later that same day, we ran into Fleur – a friend we had met earlier in Colombia – and made plans to meet up later that night. That night also happened to be our friend Fabio’s birthday, so the whole crew – Fleur, Farima, Mark, Dan, Alaina, and I – went to a bar/club called Mama Africa’s.

The next day we had lunch with our friend Scottee, who we had met at our hostel. After lunch, Farima and I headed to San Blas with our laptops to enjoy a cup a coffee with a view and do some writing. We headed back to the hostel around 4 pm, relaxed and watched a movie and then caught a night bus to Arequipa.

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Edited by: Farima M.

“A Whole New World”- Machu Picchu, Peru

I boarded my flight from the Galapagos at 12 pm, arrived in Quito at 5 pm, boarded another flight to Lima at 8 pm, arrived in Lima at 11 pm, and then slept in the airport for a 5:30 am flight to Cusco. Surprisingly, I learned I wasn’t the only one doing this. There was another group of travelers whom had slept in the airport the same night for the same flight out to Cusco. I arrived in Cusco around 7 am and went to the hostel to meet back up with Farima. After a power nap and breakfast, we headed to San Pedro Market with two other American girls from our hostel. It was mostly a food market, but they also sold traditional trinkets. We had lunch at one of the stands in the market and Farima and I split a famous Peruvian dish called Lomo Soltado, which is basically stir-fried beef with veggies and shared a fresh juice from one of the juice stands. I was pretty exhausted from my full day of travel, so we headed back to the hostel to rest. We had a quite night and ended up grabbing dinner and a drink at a spot in Cusco’s main Plaza, Plaza de Armas.

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Another friend of ours from study abroad, Brittany, was arriving the next morning for our Inca Trail expedition so we switched hostels to a hotel called Ninos. It was really cute with an adorable outside patio and we later learned that a portion of the revenues generated from it also helped orphaned children. After Brittany arrived, the three of us went and grabbed lunch at another outside market place then headed to the main square to walk around. We grabbed a cup of coffee at a place with a patio overlooking Plaza de Armas. After a bit of relaxation, we set out to buy any last minute things for the Inca Trail and Farima and I got bigger day packs and hiking poles. We headed to our Inca Trail (Tour Company, Alpaca Expeditions, office) debriefing around 6 pm to pay our remaining balances, get all the necessary information for what to bring and what to expect and to get hyped up for the next four days ahead.

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The next morning (Day 1 of the trek) we had a 4 am wake-up call followed by a 3 hour drive to Piscacucho, the start of the trail and the beginning of our adventure. The first day consisted of a 14 km stretch along the river and by far the hottest day of our trip. Our crew consisted of a total of 6 people: there was me, Brittany, and Farima, and a family of three that included two 14 year old twins and their mom. There was also our guide Amoroso who had been doing this for quite some time and knew his way around well. Not surprisingly enough, the three of us were the slow ones in the group as the super twin 14 year olds were always ahead and seemed to be training for a competition, with their fit mom on their tail. Even so, I enjoyed going at our own pace, taking our time, snapping photos here and there, sharing stories over the past 7 years since abroad, and enjoying the overall breathtaking scenery surrounding us. Side note: Brittany and Farima told me I was not allowed to touch the ruins on the first day because I would ruin them (pun intended), but we soon learned later that you could walk all over them and maybe even use them as a restroom!

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Though we were sleeping in tents and using sleeping bags at night, I wouldn’t exactly call what we did camping; it felt more like glamping. All we did during our trekking hours was carry a small day pack filled with our essentials and the porters (the rest of our crew who carried the tents, sleeping bags, food, and our bigger bags) took care of pretty much everything else. They would leave our camp site every day after us and still make it in time to the next break point/camp spot before us in order to set up food, tents and other necessities. Every day, we would wake up to homemade breakfast, would be provided with water and snacks, get a homemade lunch made for us midday, followed by another homemade meal at night where we set up camp. We even had a daily happy hour (tea time would be more appropriate) every day after we were done with our hike and a couple hours before dinner. During happy hours, we would relax, enjoy some tea or coffee, and devour homemade popcorn and another surprise snack the cooks would cook up for us.

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It rained throughout the night on the first night of the trail, but luckily the showers stopped just in time for the start of our hike the following and 2ndday. It was another early wake-up call for what would be the toughest day on the trail that entailed a 16 km hike. The trek included an ascent of 1100m to reach the highest point on the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, which reached an elevation of about 4200 meters. Luckily for us, it was slightly overcast and not as hot as the previous day during our 2 ½ hours hike up to the peak. Once up top, we took in the spectacular 360 degree views and had a mini break with snacks and celebrated reaching our destination with a video and a song. After our ascent, there was only one way to go and that was down. We had a 3 hour descent hike down the other side of the peak. On our way down, we started up a conversation with another couple who also happened to be from California. During our conversation, I found out they knew my previous boss, Eric, as well as a few of my other coworkers. What a small world to be running into people who you have connections to back home, on a random day and in a distant part of the world. My previous boss had mentioned he knew some friends hiking Machu Picchu around the same time as myself, but I didn’t think I would actually run into them, much less on the trail! Back at the campsite and in the middle of my sleep during the night, I had a random urge to use the bathroom. Though I usually try and avoid mid-night bathroom use on foreign grounds and in a tent, I am really glad I had the chance to step outside. The stars were absolutely incredible and breathtaking in the midnight sky that night and I hadn’t seen them so bright before. I wish I could have enjoyed them for longer but it was cold outside and I headed back to my tent after taking in the night sky for only a short while.

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The third day was slightly easier, with only a 10 km hike to our final campsite but with very different scenery and views this time around. We made our way down through a dense cloud-forest all the while singing Disney tunes! Throughout the 3 days, the three of us were just constantly laughing, making jokes, sharing stories, and enjoying each other’s company in the wilderness. We arrived fairly early to our campsite that day since we didn’t have as much ground to cover. Before happy hour, we decided to serenade our fellow campers with a nice little Disney tune “A Whole New World” (if you have heard either of our singing voices, you would most likely agree that the audience probably enjoyed the 4 minutes of listening to us sing a lot less than we enjoyed belting it out).

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After our musical performance, we walked about 5 minutes to visit a famous Inca ruin so fittingly named Winay Wayna (“Forever Young”). The ruins, although a lot smaller, were almost as impressive as Machu Picchu with amazing architecture. After taking a few snaps and wandering the ruins, we headed back to the camp site for Happy Hour and tea time. Since it was our last one of the trek, the team had surprised us with a homemade cake as the surprise snack! Throughout our entire trek, our crew (porters, cooks, chef and guide) had continued to amaze us with the dishes they prepared as they had all been delicious and exceeded each of our expectations. Besides their cooking and catering, we also had a chance to learn a little about each of them in the beginning and throughout our trip and we were sure going to miss them all. The one thing I wish I could change about our interactions, was having them join us during meals as they mainly ate on their own and separate from the rest of the crew.

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On the 4th and final day, we started our trek with the earliest wake-up call yet, which happened to be 3 am. Our guide Amoroso, assured us this was the best route in order to be one of the first on the last stretch of the hike and to avoid the overwhelming crowd at Machu Picchu once we would arrive. We waited in line for a couple hours till the entrance to the last trail opened at around 5:30 and made our way to our first stop on the trail, Intipunku (“The Sun Gate”). The Sun Gate offers spectacular overviews of Machu Pichu from up top, although unfortunately for us, it was early and the sky too overcast to catch a good glimpse of the ruins. It was beautiful on its own nonetheless. We stayed hopeful and crossed our fingers for clear skies as we continued our route to the main attraction.

After another hour or so of hiking, we had finally arrived at our destination.. what we had been hiking for during the past 4 days, 3 nights.. what we had endured high altitudes, aching muscles and ever changing weather for during the time. And boy was it all worth it. Machu Picchu with all its history, significance, power, and beauty stood before us. As to avoid underestimating the greatness that is Machu Picchu and as there are limited words to describe how beautiful it seemed to all of us at that moment, I will let the pictures speak for themselves (though much to their credibility, sometimes pictures are unable to do 100% justice of the actual views as well).

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After venturing Machu Picchu and learning about its history over the course of a couple hours, the three of us headed to the last stop on our trek. Huayna Picchu (an advertised 1.25 hour hike uphill), was a mountain near the Machu Picchu ruins that offered spectacular (and up high) views of the ruins and as it was a separate entrance/trek than the Inca Trail, the three of us were left on our own to explore it. We made our way up to the top in a little under 45 min (props to us!) and once there, stopped to take in the views it offered of Machu Picchu, as well as the Andean mountains. We decided to end our 3 day trek with a dance party singing along to one of our theme songs during the 4 days without a care in the world who was listening or watching as we had so many reasons to celebrate: our journey, our accomplishments, and our care and friendship for one another. The 4 days had come and gone so fast and yet we had experienced so much and seen a great deal that it would forever be engraved in our memories as an amazing experience we were so fortunate and happy to have experienced in our lifetime. We hope to reunite and complete the same trail in about 20 or so years and hopefully share some of the same and make a lot more new memories along the way. Maybe another whole new world.

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Edited By: Farima M.