Backpacking: Cuzco, Perú to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

I’ve had several people ask me about Peru lately. I’m feeling restless and thinking about reviving the blog to motivate myself to keep saving my nickels for future adventures. This is a continuation of our backpacking adventures through northern Perú. We all love Perú so much we can’t wait to go back!!

Machu Picchu and Cuzco:

Like many people, seeing Machu Picchu has been on our bucket lists for a long time. Although many come to hike, we decided to take the train up. Our son is a pretty good hiker, but we were afraid he would be miserable after a day or two. The steps are really tall and steep… and what’s the point if he’s not enjoying it, right?! On the other hand, a train ride is a really fun way to travel with a kid. Will was particularly excited about getting to eat dinner at a table on the train, and we loved getting a chance to sit back and enjoy the gorgeous views.

Will was anxious to write about our Machu Picchu adventure on the train ride back (with his cool new llama pen!)

We only spent one day wandering around Machu Picchu, and although we read that we should do more… it was plenty. It is an awe-inspiring site, but for us, a full day of hiking around and taking photos was perfect. At this point, we had been in Peru for a while, and there are ancient ruins scattered around everywhere. Being able to wander around the iconic green mounds of this lost Incan city was an experience I will never forget. Getting to see llamas harass people for apples was icing on the cake. (Seriously, the llamas are particularly used to people here… and hilarious.)

Will tried to take some llama photos, but he was sure they were after him… and I think he was right.

We didn’t plan enough time in Cuzco. Unfortunately, Will got sick during our stay, and we spent a couple of days taking it easy. Many people complained about altitude sickness, but I think being acclimated to living in mile-high Denver helped us to be able to avoid that mess. Also, we had plenty of coca tea. Everyone suggests coca tea to help with altitude sickness, and it’s available everywhere, often for free. There are so many sights to see in Cuzco and the surrounding areas that if I were to do it again, I would schedule more time to enjoy the area. I hear the night life is really fun too, but traveling with a young child usually means an early evening. Even the chill days at home with short outings for food were really enjoyable. If you are looking for a great restaurant, we really enjoyed Pachapapa. The food and the atmosphere were amazing.

Yes, we let Will try the coca tea. Yes, he’s fine. It’s not cocaine. 

Peru is famous for it’s cuisine. I couldn’t get enough Alpaca! I miss it. Mmmm… So tender. It’s hard to describe. Maybe like a lighter pork loin? It’s usually arrives to the table grilled and served with potatoes. Oh, and the potatoes! There are so many varieties, and they are so buttery! Jesse got tired of Peruvian food after a while. Although I’ll admit we had a difficult time finding a lot of variety of foods in the Andies, I could have eaten Lomo Saltado and alpaca every day for several more months before reaching my fill. I did miss coffee though. Nescafe is a staple all around the world, and I’m fine with it. However, cafe pasado is not my thing, and it seems to be the most typical style served. It’s some type of coffee concentrate served with hot water, and you mix them at the table. If you like milk with your coffee, they might give you hot milk. I love sweet, milky coffee, and I had a hard time feeling satisfied. Luckily, coffee shops aren’t too hard to find in touristy areas, and I’ll admit to seeking out a creamy expresso drink a time or two during our time in Peru.

Cuzco is oozing with history and culture. Many of the buildings have stone along the bottom… old relics left by the Inca where people have simply used the Incan foundation to continue new buildings. The streets are incredibly narrow, and although we spent more time that usual crossing our fingers that we wouldn’t get hit by a car, it was fun to think about how the same streets we were walking on had been used by people during the Inca empire.

Incan ruins are not the only eye candy in the Sacred Valley. Textiles spill out of every market and tourist area beckoning for you to buy. Oh, the textiles! The weaving! I loved being able to watch as people were working in traditional ways by spooling alpaca wool hand and weaving by memory. I wanted all of the blankets and bags. Even though we are traveling with only a couple of backpacks, I found a way to stuff a couple of blankets away.

Look at this gorgeous display of alpaca yarns and the natural ingredients used to dye them.

After spending a few days in Cuzco and taking the train to Machu Picchu, we started our trek toward Chile. We decided to take a tourist bus that makes stops in interesting places along the way. It was super comfortable, and there was only one other couple on the bus, making it extra amazing. The guide had tons of information and even brought samples of the herbs from the region for us to try.

Will and I walk across an ancient Incan bridge during one of our bus stops.

Puno and Lake Titicaca

When we finally arrived in Puno, we were super exited to see the reed islands and boats on Lake Titicaca! We all love taking a boat ride — getting to ride on top of colorful boats with faces was extra fun. It’s super touristy but totally worth it. The tour we chose took us to an island where we met some women who live there with their families. They shared with us about the culture of the people of Uros and used models to demonstrate how the islands are made. It was super cute when Will made friends with a little girl from the island. (She was irresistibly cute, and he loves little ones.) It’s amazing to see how well kids can communicate using only facial expressions and body language.

Uros was a dream come true for a kid that loves to play with sticks as much as Will does.

Colca Canyon and Chivay:

Or next adventure was a bus ride to Chivay where we would see Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. We really enjoyed the tiny town, and the astounding beauty that surrounds it is breathtaking. We stayed at a friendly, well-located hotel, near a great coffee shop, and a comfortable walking distance from both an Astrological Observatory and La Calera hot springs.

The Astrological Observatory was a serendipitous discovery. We learned some really incredible things about how the Inca had an astronomical system that uses the negative space in the milky way. I had never actually seen the milky way before, and it was incredible to see it through such an interesting lens. Will was obsessed with looking at Saturn through the huge telescope. Needless to say, we all left looking up.

We liked the La Calera Hot Springs so much that we went twice. It’s set up like pools, and there are several to choose from. All of them are steamy, and you can order drinks from the water, which is the best place to order a drink from, if you ask me.

For our day in Colca Canyon, we took a day trip with a Spanish-speaking guide, and we basically got a private tour at a group rate. Plus, we got to practice our Spanish. Bonus! The canyon was breathtaking. Our favorite part, by far, was seeing the condors. The condor is a national symbol in many South American countries, including Peru, and people were gathered in droves to get a view of them circling the canyon. The condors are obviously used to people and get very close. They’re huge! It was so exciting to see them fly over our heads so closely.

Arequipa:

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and our next stop. It has a vibrant city center with lots of choices for activities. We were in need of some down time when we arrived here and spend most of our time wandering around the city center. There was one attraction I knew I didn’t want to miss though — Juanita, “The Ice Maiden,” at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. She is a frozen mummy that tells a tragic story. As a young girl, she was sacrificed as an offering to Inca gods on one of the volcanos that looms over the city. She wasn’t the only one, but she is incredibly well preserved since she spent most of her time frozen at the top of the mountain before thawing ice caused her to slide down the mountain where she was found. For us, it brought up some interesting questions about morality, religion, and context. Juanita is exhibited in a cold, dark room, and you can view her in small groups as she sits in her icy glass resting place, giving the experience a bit of an eerie, yet solemn feeling.

Juanita the Ice Maiden. (photo from the museum website.)

Over the border to Arica, Chile:

From Arequipa, we took a bus through a surreal, never-ending desert landscape to Tacna, Perú where we hopped in a taxi to cross the border into Arica, Chile. The next day during breakfast, we kept hearing a low rumble that was causing the windows to tremble. Our gentle host informed us that they were clearing out land mines on the border that we had just crossed. It gave me goosebumps to imagine the landscape I had been staring at for so many hours the day before was littered with landmines just beneath the surface. This was our first brush with hearing first hand accounts about Pinochet’s dictatorship, a time that I had only read about up until then.

Endless desert.

We didn’t stay in Arica long, but we enjoyed wandering around, hiking up “El Morro de Arica,” trying our first real Chilean completos, eating seafood, and having some great conversations in our a comfy hostel.

Chilean completo

San Pedro de Atacama:

Our next stop would be via overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama. When we were looking for hotels, everything was ridiculously expensive. On the advice of a friend living in Chile, we didn’t book ahead and found a place the old fashioned way, by talking to they people selling rooms at the bus station. It doesn’t hurt that my husband speaks Spanish fluently, but we were able to find a great place for a good price. Typically, since we’re traveling with a child, we try to stay booked ahead, but we were confident we could find a place to sleep, even if we couldn’t find a deal.

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a touristy little town with some great opportunities for day trips. It’s a fun place to walk around and it caters to travelers. There are hippies selling jewelry everywhere, and we even had hamburgers from a food truck. The day trips are amazing, and include many options. We decided not to pay the tourist visa ($160 each!) to go to Bolivia, but I would love to go back and spend time there someday. Here are a few things we did that I would highly recommend:

Will couldn’t resist all of the digging in the sand.

Valle de la Luna – Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is an other-worldly place. The name is perfectly fitting since NASA actually tested a Mars Rover prototype here. We drove around the area with a group tour, visited some cool salt caves, and ended the tour with a rare beauty of a sunset. Oh, and the stars! Oh, the stars!

Salt cave!

Salar de Atacama – We took an all day tour that lead us around to several different places, including the Salar de Atacama, or salt flats. Unfortunately, we made the incorrect assumption (based on our Denver experiences with desert, altitude, and mosquitoes) that there wouldn’t be a huge bug issue and accidentally left a bathroom window open, prompting poor Will to wake up slapping mosquitoes. We got out he mosquito nets, but the damage was already done. Will woke up with a swollen face. The woman where we stayed swore there weren’t mosquitoes, but I think something must have been lost in translation. All that to say, it may not have been the best day for an ALL DAY tour, but it was still super gorgeous and we met some great people along the way. The landscapes where absolutely incredible, and the flamingos were everywhere! Plus, I got to see two runaway llamas come running back to a local shop when a woman shook a bag of potato chips at them, and they got into a spitting match over the crumbs. It still makes me giggle. Honestly, that little scene was worth the fees by itself.

Salar de Atacama

Hot Springs – We love hot springs! The ones we visited here were really natural. Basically, it’s a gently running river with several pools to choose from. Although it was a bit crowded, we found a grassy nook where we made friends with a duck and some tiny fish. Jesse had a shoe stolen when a fancy tour group shoved everyone’s belongings to the side and his sandal got lost in someone else’s stuff… this was made worse by the fact that in order to get back to the bus, we had to trek up long, rocky path. Luckily, the facility gave him some hiking boots that someone else had left behind. If you go, there are places to lock up your things, so you might bring a lock. In fact, I’ve started carrying an extra luggage lock since this incident, and it’s come in handy several times.

Best buddies.

From the Atacama desert, we took a domestic flight to Calama to Santiago. We only stayed in Calama one night, and we hung out at the mall. I know what you’re thinking… sometimes we’re boring, and pizza at the mall is all exactly what we want to do. Although, I have to admit, it’s more fun in a new place.

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