Inca Trail: Day 1

Our Inca adventure started on a cold Cusco morning in September. The hostel had made us breakfast but it was nearer to 4am than 5 and we packed it as a snack for later. The Peru Treks guide escorted us in a dreary state through the damp streets to the bus that would take us to the start of the trail. We nodded greetings with similarly bleary eyed gringos and promptly fell asleep.

We were jostled awake a couple of hours later as the bus entered Ollantaytambo. The town preserves as much of is Inca heritage as possible, including an abrupt transition from tarmac to cobblestones. As Lauren and I had already done a sacred valley tour we hadn’t felt the need to stay awake for the scenery.

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The main square was filled with groups of under caffeinated gringos being gently ushered into their tour operators chosen breakfast establishment. After 3 black coffees we were ready to finally face the day. Firstly we rented some hiking poles to help us out if our knees decided they’d had enough and as a last minute decision we bought some “poncho plastics” or rain ponchos. These are really useful as they cover your bag as well as yourself.

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With everyone looking a bit more human we got back on the bus to go to the start of the trail at kilometer 82. On the way our guide introduced himself again (we must have slept through the first one) as Manny and he would be our father for the next few days. We got an an in depth explanation about what to expect as well as some history about the company.

We all got out of the bus at km.82 as the sun broke through the clouds! This was the first opportunity to see the porters or Chaskis as they’re called on the trail. Usually small (even by Peruvian standards) middle aged gentlemen they easily picked up bags up to twice their size and headed off to the trail security check. Recently the Peruvian government has put strict weight controls on what the  Chaskis can carry and they all get checked before being allowed on the trail.

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Despite Peru Treks issuing all its porters with stout clothes, good waterproofs and boots, most of the porters don’t use them. The home made leather sandals are the preferred footware, whilst a poncho plastic is lighter and more versatile. The bright yellow Peru Treks overcoats are however still worn, making our porters the most visible on the trail.

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Whilst these small men don’t look like typical marathon runners, the Inca trail is 26 miles long, the same as a marathon. The highest point is at 4200m, with around 4000m of total vertical change. This isn’t even to mention the treacherous footing and extreme weather conditions. The current record holder can do the whole trail in 3 hours 23 minutes. Not bad for a man in sandals.

The first thing we did was the most important to Lauren and I, our Machu Picchu passport stamps. With this firmly in place we crossed the bridge that marked the start of the trail.

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Day 1 of the Inca trail is definitely the easiest. It’s of few kilometres of relativity flat trail with only 400m gained across the entire day. The highlights are the excellent ruins you pass along the way.

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We had lunch, which was excellent, on some Inca farming terraces. These terraces are so prolific, especially lower in the valley, that the local communities live on and among them even today.

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Lauren and I were as usual not in a hurry and enjoyed the sights as the gradient rose towards the end of the trail.

The local villages you pass through at of course offering snacks to help you on your way. We quickly noticed however that the prices were rising far quicker than the path, so we stocked up on some water and Pringles.

When we got to the campsite that afternoon, the porters had already set up the tents and had hot chocolate in hand for us. An enterprising businessman was selling beers at around 3x the normal price, which we haggled over half heartedly before giving in. A few of us went to the nearby Inca watchtower which stood sentinel over the valley and drank our beverages as the sun set.

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That evening as we crawled into the tent, we noticed that whilst the height was excellent the length was clearly designed for someone of a far shorter stature…

Tune in soon for Day 2…

Top Sights Chile

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Chiloe

The second largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego. Chiloe is a cultural and gastronomic delight. The island has remained fairly isolated from most of mainland Chile and has a distinct feeling to it. Covered in unique and colorful wooden jesuit churches there is plenty to see. If you go at the right time of year, penguins and whales are also something you might get to enjoy. The islands capital Castro has lots of the traditional Palafitos, or stilted houses as well as a bright yellow cathedral. Chile is a country of excellent seafood, and Castro has the best of the best. If you can, head to Mercadito for some truly great food.

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Concha y Toro: Wine Tasting

If there’s something the Chileans can truthfully say they excel at, it’s wine. At the top of the worlds wine producers is Concha y Toro. As one of the biggest wine producers in the world in both size and sales, the quality of their wine is truly amazing. From cheap boxes to exclusive casks they offer good wine in nearly every price bracket. A visit to the original vineyard can be easily organised on their website and can be achieved in a day from Santiago. You can go for the normal tour, or pay a bit more and sample some of their better wines with cheeses and breads.

Street Art in Valparaiso

Valparaiso

The next nearest city to Santiago, Valparaiso sits on the Pacific coast. A city that stretches up into the hills, you will find Valparaiso a city that you want to walk around. Whilst most of the grander colonial buildings sit on the thin stretch of flat ground near the sea, the real Valparaiso is in the hills. The buildings here are a mix of constructions, but it’s the street art that draws the visitors. Whilst it’s technically just graffiti, it’s the type of graffiti that improves a city. The local artists have taken every blank wall and covered it in paintings from the imaginative to the bizarre. A set of steps becomes a piano, and a rocky wall an iguana made out of bubbles.

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Las Dunas

Found just up the coast from Valparaiso, Las Dunas (the dunes) are a collection of huge sand dunes that stretch from the top of sea cliffs right down to the waters edge. Whilst they’re now being slowly overtaken by the same developers who bought the land to “protect it” you can go and get some inspiring views of the Pacific coast. Take some snacks and wine and enjoy the view.

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San Pedro de Atacama

As one of the usual first/last stops in Chile, San Pedro in the Atacama desert is a must on the South American backpacker trail. This adventure capital is a great place to see the surrounding salt flats, hot springs, volcanoes and the world famous Valle de la Luna. The valley of the moon is an other worldly landscape of ridges and sand dunes. The tiny town looks like something out of an American Western and the night skies offer some of the best starscapes in the world. This is also the place to begin your trip into Bolivia with an unforgettable salt flats tour.

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Valle de la Muerte

Just outside San Pedro de Atacama, we thought the Valley of Death deserved it’s own mention. This martian landscape is equally if not more impressive than the Valley of the moon. If you want to this is a great place to try your hand at sand boarding. Shooting down the dunes is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon and the views from the top are spectacular. If you’ve got the time, we’d recommend cycling there on your own. Unlike the Valley of the Moon, it’s not a National Park, so there’s no entrance fee. Grab some mountain bikes and explore off the beaten path.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

Probably the best known of Chiles sites, the Torres del Paine national park is a hikers dream. The 4-5 day treks through the park feature some of the best scenery in the world, with the Torres (towers) being most peoples highlight. Whilst the weather is so unpredictable you can “experience four seasons in one day” you’re bound to have a great time. If you’re not up for the five day hike, you can do one day trips to the Torres in the summer, or even just catch a bus around. Whilst you won’t get as close this way, you’re still going to see some amazing scenery.

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Pre-Columbian Museum: Santiago

If you’re going to visit one museum to get some basic history on the South American peoples, then we’d definitely suggest the Pre-Columbian Museum in central Santiago. This museum is highly informative with excellent displays of artifacts. We came out truly astonished with the crafts of the peoples of South America. The level of craftsmanship that was being performed hundreds, even thousands of years ago is on display throughout the museum. If you’ve got little or no Spanish all of the displays are in English as well.

Top Sights Bolivia

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats
If you’re planning on heading to Bolivia then i’m sure a salt flats tour is already on your list of things to do. Driving across the salt flats or standing on one of the islands for sunrise is a truly unforgettable experience. If you’ve got the time we’d definitely advise that you do a 3 day salt flat tour with a border cross to/from Chile. Whilst the salt flats are great there is so much great scenery in the area that you really shouldn’t miss. The Bolivian altiplano with its sapphire lakes, smoking volcanoes, flamingos and llamas in droves are equally as picturesque as the flats. It’s cold, the air is thin, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable and we’d see it all again in a heartbeat.

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The White City: Sucre
Sucre, the Bolivian capital city is definitely the nicest in the country. If you just woke up there one day you’d be surprised to find out you weren’t in a particularly beautiful Spanish city. The city received huge amounts of money when nearby Potosi was still producing silver and as such the entire town center is a UNESCO world heritage sight. Apart from the fact that the people are friendly and the food is good there are plenty of things to do in Sucre to keep you occupied. There is a chocolate factory, jurassic park and cemetery. A lot of backpackers choose Sucre as a place to stop and learn Spanish for a few weeks due to its inexpensive prices.

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El Cerro Rico: Potosi
The mountain that looms above the mining town of Potosi once produced most of the silver for the Spanish Crown. Whilst the silver has now been mostly mined out, the “mountain that eats men” is still the single largest employer in the city. If you fancy it, tours can easily be arranged all over town. If you don’t fancy going into the mines Potosi is still worth visiting. As one of the highest cities in the world the air can be quite thin but don’t let this put you off. The old Spanish mint, now a museum, offers excellent guided tours explaining the history of the city. There is also plenty of opportunity to tuck into Llama in virtually every restaurant.

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Death Road: La Paz
If you’re seeking adrenaline then Death Road is a must do. Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie then death road is still a great day out, easily arranged from La Paz. The views as you shoot down what used to be the most dangerous road on the planet are breathtaking. If you’re used to mountain biking then this is not a particularly technical descent, I found the biggest distraction was the view. If you decide to do the road, then the only company we’d recommend is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Whilst they’re the most expensive, you’ll get great bikes and the guides take you through every stage of the descent. At the end there’s the opportunity to do a zip line and visit an animal rescue centre with excellent hot showers.

Squirel Monkey

The Pampas: Rurrenabaque
The Bolivian pampas are a quick 40 minute flight from La Paz, followed by a 3 hour bus and boat ride to get to your tour operators lodge. The amount of wildlife in the pampas is truly amazing. Whilst we were there we saw five species of monkey as well as caiman, turtles capybara, hundreds of species of birds, piranha and pink river dolphins to name a few. If you want to get some photos of amazing animals then the pampas is definitely the place to go. We spent three days drifting the rivers in our boat in brilliant sunshine taking hundreds of photos, stopping only to swim with the dolphins and catch some piranha for dinner.

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Lake Titicaca
The world’s “highest navigable lake” straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru. Whilst we found the towns around the edge of the lake to be fairly forgettable, Titicaca itself is beautiful. On the Bolivian side a trip across to Isla del Sol is the highlight. The small slow boats take quite a while to reach the island, but you can sit on the top deck and enjoy the sun. The island has a collection of incan ruins and there’s a pleasant hike you can do from one end to the other if you feel the need to stretch your legs. Don’t forget to eat some trout, available from every restaurant, cafe, house and street vendor…

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The Bolivian border
The border between Chile and Bolivia at Laguna Verde is an experience that we thoroughly enjoyed. Driving up out of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you will arrive at a small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It’s made all the more fun by the road barrier to stop you sneaking into Bolivia, as there’s unguarded open altiplano for miles all around the border post. As long as you’re not suffering from the altitude too badly you’ll find this is one of the more unique ways you’ll ever change countries. A short drive from here is Laguna Verde. At 4,300m with a towering volcano, flamingos and llamas it’s the best welcome to Bolivia.

Returning to the Jungle…

So after much deliberation and a few skype calls to the family to get their opinion – we decided to return to the jungle. For the next 6 months we plan to take a break from life on the road and once again work with the monkeys and all the other wonderful animals at Esperanza Verde. Having fallen in love with life at the project dedicating a bit more of our time and putting off returning to London and potentially getting a “career” or some such scary prospect seemed to us like a no brainier.

So after our break in Cusco and our 4-Day hike to Machu Picchu we made the journey back to our temporary home. This time the once complicated journey didn’t seem so daunting and instead the familiar faces mapped the way. “Bigote” the ferry driver in Curimana didn’t seem to remember us but by the time we got to Bello Horizonte the unforgettable barks of Yarra, the family dog, announced our arrival.

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As they were functioning with just one volunteer on our arrival I think it’s fair to say the family were pleased to have us back. Before we knew it was back to work and we were pleased to find the monkeys hadn’t forgotten us. As usual Willow greeted us by jumping on us and pulling our hair…we missed you too Willow…

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Mica as ever is gorgeous and inquisitive…

And Jordi is still mischievous and can often be found stealing Yarra’s food when he thinks no one is watching…

In our absence there have even been a few new arrivals…meet Nikita our baby Capuchin who is charming everyone at the project…

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As ever life flies by here with lots of hungry mouths to feed and construction of the new house well underway. Internet access is limited but we hope to keep you regularly updated with tales from jungle. The plan is still to continue our travels next year but for now you’ll have to excuse us if we turn into some of those bloggers that just post endless pictures of cute animals…

Things to do in Cusco other than Machu Picchu

After our six weeks in the jungle, a quick border hop for a new visa and a revisit to the lovely Arequipa, we arrived in Cusco, one of the most visited cities in Peru.

When you arrive in Cusco it will quickly become apparent that everyone is trying to get you to go to Machu Picchu. Why else would you be in Cusco after all? Whilst Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail were definitely a highlight of our trip, you might be wondering how you can occupy the rest of your time in the city. If like us you plan on spending more than a few days in the Cusco, the city has plenty of charms to offer.

Hike between the Inca Sights in the Cusco Hills

Next to the Inca Trail this in our opinion is the next best thing to do in Cusco. If you like hiking and want an easy trail to break you into the altitude then this is definitely a good way to spend a morning. So here are a few directions to help you out.

We started by taking a taxi to Tambomachay, the furthest Inca ruin. Admittedly it is probably the least impressive sight of the day but still worth a look.

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Across the road is Pukapukara. You really can’t miss this Inca ruin if you stand with your back to the Tambomachay car park. Cue a few more touristy poses…

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Now with your back to thePukapukararuins, turn left and walk along the road. You will pass a row of eucalyptus trees and just beyond these is the start of the trail back to Cusco. Looks a bit like this…

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The turning for the trail is just before this lake…

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With the lake on your right hand side, follow the trail and after 15 minutes or so you will reach a field in a little valley. Follow the field to the furthest corner (it slopes downwards slightly) and on the right hand side you will see a little trail alongside a small forest. Within a few minutes of walking along the hillside you’ll see these ruins…

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Either view from above or descend to take a closer look like we did.

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Then simply follow the valley down to the Moon Temple.

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And from here it’s a fairly straightforward walk to Q’enqo. If in any doubt ask a few locals to point you in the right direction. The path is sign posted but can be missed if you, like us, decide to follow the mountain bike track instead. Whoops.

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Once you’ve explored Q’enqo it’s a further short stroll along the road to the impressive Sacsaywaman. By far the highlight of the day.

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All these sights are included in the BoletoTuristico. It’s definitely worth buying this combined ticket if you plan to stay a few days and see all the ruins around Cusco. It should be purchased in advance from the COSITUC office on Avenida Sol 103, in the centre of Cusco just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas.

Take a Tour of the Sacred Valley

Some choose to take a few days to explore, perhaps spending a night in Ollantaytambo, but we chose to do a day tour of the Sacred Valley. The ruins were busy, as being on a tour we arrived at the same time as every other tour group, but the sights were impressive nonetheless. Our tour visited Ollantaytambo and Pisac, but be sure to check which sites your tour visits as each tour is slightly different.

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And at the end of our tour we were treated to a demonstration of wool dying, spinning and weaving, which despite the expected pressure to buy something this was a nice way to end the day.

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Again the BoletoTuristico is a worthwhile purchase for any of the Sacred Valley tours.

Admire the Architecture and Visit Q’orikancha

Maybe we are just easily pleased but with a few sunny days during our visit to Cusco we were quite happy strolling around the city’s streets and admiring the people and the architecture.

We also stumbled across Q’orikancha. Certainly worth a few hours of your time thisseventeenth century church is impressive andguidebook recommended.

 

Restaurants

With the huge numbers of international tourists that visit Cusco everyday it is not surprising that the city has an equally impressive supply of international cuisine. Glossing over the McDonalds, the Starbucks and the KFH some of our favourites were Jack’s Café, a “gringo” restaurant with fantastic food, and Papachos, a gourmet burger restaurant with 5 or 6 veggie options to keep us happy.

Spas

Unfortunately you wont be able to explore the streets of Cusco long without being offered about a million massages. In fact “Massage, Lady?” pretty much followed me around the streets. Having ignored the offers for the best part of a week and after our 4 day Inca Trail, I couldn’t resist trying one. On the recommendation of a fellow backpacker I treated myself to a massage and pedicure at Andina Spa. I second the recommendation, especially after a hike.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you to visit Cusco then look out for our next blog on the long awaited Inca Trail. Booked six months in advance we were naturally anxious to see if this experience would live up to the hype…

Monkey Mischief at Esperanza Verde

Life wouldn’t be life at Esperanza Verde without its resident monkeys. And not a day goes by when one of them doesn’t get up to some sort of mischief.

Within a few days of arrival we got used to the feeling of being watched. Whilst the monkeys enjoy the freedom of the jungle their favourite past time is watching us.

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They stare in fascination as you go about your daily activities and watch in wonder through the wire mesh as you work with the animals in cages.

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Every morning we woke up to Nakoya, a baby woolley monkey, hanging above our heads peering through the wire mesh window. She liked to watch us sleep and made little “oh, oh” noises when we’d stir and look up at her…

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Watching us prepare the twice-daily food rounds was the best viewing…

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But even just watching us read in a hammock was worth hanging around for…

Though when our jobs cause us to venture outside the monkeys will often be found “helping”. As we sweat in the midday sun, digging, raking or swinging an axe, Willow particularly likes to be involved. It’s a tough life being a monkey.

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Sorry were you trying to rake here??

A quick task of cleaning the drinking bowl attracts Willow’s help yet again…

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And a simple photography session turns into me gaining a student; Nakoya just couldn’t resist seeing what my fascination was with this strange black box…

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If the monkeys aren’t “helping” then it’s fair to say they probably entertaining us all. Mica wearing a discarded t-shirt and walking on her hind legs was unforgettable. Just like when she stole as many of the oatballs she could get her hands on…cue a bit of face stuffing…

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One evening at dinner the subject of the monkey drinking bowl came up in conversation. After a few minutes it transpired between us we had refilled the bowl an astonishing 15 times in one day. Fearing there may be a leak we kept an eye out the next day and found the culprit…

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Turns out Geordie, one of the capuchin monkeys, had found the sink plug and was proudly showing off his work to Mica.

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But even with the sink plug firmly jammed in, Mica was splashing out the water to empty it…I like to think she was giggling at our stupidity every time…

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So at times the monkeys ran rings around us, but life just wouldn’t be the same without them…even when they steal your shoes and eat them. They’re charming, annoying, adorable all at once and sometimes you’d be convinced they were plotting their next mischief…

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More monkey mischief soon…

If you’d like to volunteer at Esperanza Verde or simply make a donation then get in contact with Olivia at info@esperanzaverdeperu.com or via the website at http://www.esperanzaverdeperu.com/

Lima to the Jungle

When we last wrote we had just left the Ballestas Islands and were making our way to Peru’s capital city, Lima. Once arrived and before we knew it we were saying goodbye to all our good friends. Sam, our dearest friend from London was heading home. With a new job to return to, our pleas for him to stay and carry on living the dream were outdone. The last two months together had flown by so quickly and we miss him. “Team Blue” a name coined by this picture is no more…

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At the same time we said goodbye to the rest of the group of friends we had acquired over the last few months. We were all heading off in different directions but we do hope all our paths will cross again in the future.

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So after a few days of fun and a farewells in lovely Miraflores we set out on a completely new adventure, just the two of us…oh and the ducks of course. When we first started planning this trip we had both agreed we would like to volunteer with a project somewhere on our travels and after 5 months of being on the road what better time. Being the disorganised people we are and far too much enjoying planning life a day ahead, we did a few days of research, approached a few organisations and pretty much jumped on the first plane to the jungle.

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Just 1 plane, 1 taxi, 1 mini bus, 2 river crossings, and a 5-seater car with half a village in it, we arrived to our new home for the next 6 weeks. And so begins our story of life at Esperanza Verde, working with all their beautiful animals…

I hope over the next few posts you will see just why we fell in love with this organisation and life living in the jungle. At the very least I defy you not to be charmed by the adorable creatures we had the pleasure of caring for. Look out for more soon.

Our Little Oasis: Huacachina

After our flight over the Nazca lines we decided to head for a bit of sun and sand in nearby Huacachina. Laying back on the sand, maybe a quick dip in the water and all over 25 miles from the coast. The oasis of Huacachina is now well established on the backpacker route for those interested in sand boarding and dune buggy rides.

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The Ica desert, whilst not enormous benefits from gigantic sand dunes that have attracted tourists seeking the thrill of sand boarding. Having done some in San Pedro, Sam and I couldn’t wait to give it another go. Lauren was more excited about lying back in the sun with the local turtles.

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Whilst all the hostels and travel agents in town offer sand boarding expeditions, we quickly noticed that the equipment was a bit rubbish. Most of the “sand-boards” on offer were in fact home made and you were meant to lie down on them like a sledge.

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Sand-board Peru is one of the only places to offer proper boards (well maintained) and the focus of the trip is the sand boarding. Most other agencies put their emphasis on the sand buggy rides. The buggy rides are good fun, but be prepared to be thrown about in the custom made vehicles. It’s not uncommon to turn up for a tour and find the police doing spot safety checks on some of the buggies.

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After a quick re-introduction, we set off to the big dunes. The size of these monsters made the ones in San Pedro look like a children’s play park. We spent 3 hours moving between increasingly large dunes in the sand buggy as the sun set. Sam and I were soon reacquainted with getting faces full of sand, but at least we had a set of wheels to get us back to the top again.  We finally finished with a bit of starlight boarding back into town.

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Even if you aren’t interested in sand based activities then Huacachina is still a nice place to stop for a couple of nights. All around the edge of the oasis there are plenty of bars and restaurants. The accommodation options aren’t great, but most places are fine for the short amount of time you’ll be there.

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It’s also a good place to go and visit a couple of Peruvian vineyards. Whilst no where near the scale of Concha y Toro in Chile these vineyards have plenty of history and are also all producers of pisco.

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After our wine tasting we headed for a pisco tasting, with everything from pisco cream to double strength pisco. In our group we had several Peruvians, two Aussies, three Brits and a Korean and as a result we all exchanged our words for “cheers” in various languages. However when we tried to teach the group the meaning of “bottoms up”, were pretty sure our Spanish translated as “arses in the air”…whoops. Ten glasses of pisco later we left (on unsteady legs) with several samples in hand.

 

Backpacking through South America…