Machu Picchu: the South America Grand Finale

Like the place itself, the internet is crowded with tourists’ tales of their visits to Machu Picchu. Rather than pile ours on, we’ll keep this brief.

Machu Picchu was awe-some. It’s hard to fathom the how of it all. We loved being there as much for the mind-blowing structures and grounds as for the epic natural beauty; the landscape that surrounds Machu Picchu is other-worldly.

A few pro-tips (with accompanying photos!) below in case you’re planning your own trip:

Getting There

There are no roads in and out of Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You have to take a train*, which is an expensive, but beautiful ~ 2 hour ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town adjacent to Machu Picchu). As our prior blog posts confirm, we recommend a few nights in Ollanta before your train ride!

Once in Aguas Calientes, you can hike to and from Machu Picchu (about 90 mins up, 60 mins down, depending on your walking speed), or you can take a bus ($12 per person per direction), which takes about 30 minutes. We recommend saving your legs for the grounds and bussing up, but hiking down. The trail down the mountain is surprisingly lush (but note: it is all steps, so not great for weak knees).

*You can also opt to take a bus to a nearby town, Hidroeléctrica, which is a cheaper, more time and labor intensive option. Google it; many a backpacker has paved this path.

While You’re There

Our hostel hosts (Pico’s House – a bit hard to find but very comfortable stay with friendly proprietors) recommended we first visit the Incan Sun Gate, which is a 20-30 min walk away from and above the main grounds. It provides a beautiful vantage point from which to get a lay of the land – you can see the citadel and surrounding landscape, and escape some of the more intense crowds. We concur with this recommendation!

If you can handle heights and are up for a few hours of good physical challenge, book tickets for Huayna Picchu. It is the vertiginous mountain famously backdropping the Machu Picchu citadel, and hiking up and around it was thrilling, mystical, and rewarding. (Only 400 people per day are permitted to hike Huayna Picchu, so book your entrance tickets well in advance.)

First you hike straight up, up, up to the peak and marvel at the fact that there are more stone structures built there at the top, and then most people hike back down. We strongly recommend following the trail to the back of the mountain, where we saw only a handful of people for the rest of the hike. This trail goes down, down, down (including straightdown some precarious ladders, see pic below) until you reach the Temple of the Moon. This is said to have been built by and for Incan women specifically, and the stone work and views were breathtaking. Return to the citadel via another tough but beautiful (and shorter!) ascent.

Whatever you plan to do while there, we recommend spreading your time at Machu Picchu over at least two days. Taking it all in on day one, and then really engaging and exploring on day two made the experience that much more memorable and meaningful. Plus, it’s a chance to see Machu Picchu in potentially different weather conditions, which is a real treat!

Without planning it this way, Machu Picchu ended up being our last real stop in South America. We left on an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo, where we switched to a bus which took us, under a rising full moon, through the Sacred Valley back to Cusco. We slept and caught a flight the next morning to Lima, where we spent five hours wandering the airport before connecting to our flight to Mexico City.

In 55 days we walked over 300 miles in the cities and towns, mountains and beaches of three amazing countries. We took 21 buses and flights between destinations, and dozens of tuk-tuks, taxis, Willys jeeps, motorcycles, subways, gondolas and other forms of transit within places. We spent time in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, explored the world’s longest mountain range (the Andes), visited two of the continent’s most populous cities (Lima and Bogotá), and spent a week in the second highest capital city in the world (Quito). We sampled so many new fruits, vegetables, spices and meats, shared meals and time with family and friends old and new, and thanked countless strangers for their kindness, welcoming warmth and helpful guidance as we explored a small segment of this vast continent.

Some of the new friends who made our travel that much more fun!

As we took off to the west over the Pacific Ocean from Jorge Chávez International Airport, it felt both as if we’d just arrived, and been there for years; covered significant ground, and hardly scratched the surface. With mixed emotion, we said goodbye to South America and flew north!

Inca Fitness

One of the things Sara and I loved about Ollantaytambo was the wide range of strenuous outdoor activities on offer. In addition to exploring the ruins of Pinkuylluna and Ollantaytambo fortress (see last post), we undertook two such adventures. Here’s the story about each.

We went with the divide-and-conquer approach on Saturday the 16th: Sara took care of a variety of business items and went for a peaceful walk around town, while I rented a bike and pedaled up the Abra Málaga, an Andean pass that reaches nearly 14,200 feet in elevation and crosses the South American continental divide. This was a very challenging ride, consisting primarily of an uninterrupted 23.7-mile climb that ascended just over 5,000 feet – from a starting point of 9,100 feet! Fortunately, it got less steep the higher I climbed, so it remained feasible throughout.

Beginning on the lush valley floor, I climbed up and up, through sweeping switchbacks, along an insistent stream. Though my legs ached and my lungs burned, the biggest challenge was actually the aggressive dogs I encountered along the way. (Get off and walk past the worst of them, holding the bike between them and me.) Gradually, trees dwindled, then smaller shrubs; I was making my way into a remote and desolate world of fog and wind. At the top, a pair of indigenous women welcomed me into their shack for coffee by a small but crucial hearth, amid a family of rabbits, a scraggly cat, and a couple of hens.

Then, of course, I got to enjoy an hour straight of descent back into the Sacred Valley. Here’s a Strava link and a photo gallery from this ride, one of the hardest I’ve done:

On the 17th, we decided to warm up for our upcoming Machu Picchu explorations by going on a huge and taxing hike! (This was also my idea of a recovery effort after my continental divide bike ride the day before.) Our goal was the Inti Punki, or Sun Gate, an Inca ruin located on the ridgeline of the Sacred Valley, supposedly located so as to frame the sun’s rays as seen from the Sun Temple in Ollantaytambo, on some date, at some time. Along the way, we would also pass a series of quarries used by Inca laborers to source massive stones for the Ollantaytambo complex.

This hike was not so dissimilar, actually, from my bike ride the day before. From Ollantaytambo we climbed and climbed, until there wasn’t any more climbing to be done, then we returned the way we came. In this case this meant climbing more than 4,000 feet over a 12.4 mile hike, almost all of that during the 6.2 mile outbound leg. Now imagine doing this regularly, barefoot, while hauling heavy things. The Inca must have been jacked.

Check out the Strava recording and a photo gallery, below.

Rather winded but eagerly anticipating the next day’s travels (to Machu Picchu!), we gratefully concluded our time in Ollantaytambo.

The moon rises over the Sacred Valley.

Ollantaytambo Rocks

Peeling ourselves off the sweaty seats of our colectivo (shared mini-van) as it pulled in to the center of Ollantaytambo, we knew within moments this was our kind of place. As dusk waited in the rafters, the sweet town square welcomed us with a bevy of friendly dogs, trees and a few people, sweet shops, small restaurants, and the mountains of the Urubamba Valley painting a striking backdrop.

The streets that lead off the main square – including the one that led to our home for the next four nights – could hardly be called that: no cars could squeeze down their narrow width, and they are better described as perfectly-laid stone walkways lined on both sides with perfectly-laid stone walls. A rushing brook is built into the side of the paths (presumably for plumbing purposes) and from within the courtyards of the houses that fronted the paths, tree limbs spilled over and bloomed in view.

These paths hold the structures for what are said to be some of the longest inhabited dwellings in South America, dating back to pre-Incan indigenous communities who lived on this valley floor. We walked the short distance to our hostel, K’uchu Wasi, where we met owners Andrés and Silvia and their Bernese mountain dog, Beethoven. Their property sits on the edge of town, almost directly under the Pinkuylluna ruin site, with an incredible flower garden, and one of our most comfortable beds in our travels to date.

After dropping our bags and reassembling ourselves, we ventured out in search of dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to Chuncho, a second floor restaurant overlooking the town square, known for its modern takes on traditional regional fare (and pisco-oriented happy hour!). After a few tasty cocktails from the balcony, we moved inside and enjoyed a multi-course feast featuring lots of root vegetables, corn, a ricotta-like cheese and yes, alpaca meat! (Cuy, or guinea pig, was also on the menu, as it is all over Peru, but we abstained.)

Since becoming a sometimes-meat-eating person in my late twenties, I have slowly made my way around the edible animal kingdom, exploring the culinary possibilities afforded by this new (to me) food group, and always trying to remember to express gratitude to the animals when I eat them (“thanks, fishy!” is a common phrase in the Levitt-Draper-Zivetz household). So it went with the alpaca skewers: a word of thanks, a bite off the stick, and – at least for me – almost instant remorse. 2/10, wouldn’t try again. But Drew loved it! The texture of alpaca is tough and the taste is gamey, with an aggressive flavor that leaves little chance for any accompanying sauces or seasonings to compete for attention in your mouth. With our divided house on this one, we can’t make a Scheme-Based-Adventure Official Endorsement, but we can request you report back if you get a chance to try alpaca yourself!

Anyway, enough about the food. (Haha, yeah, right). The highlights of our time in Ollantaytambo were multiple and varied, including several feats of physical strength. I will leave the vivid descriptions of those to my brawny husband in a forthcoming post, and instead share a bit about what brings most people to this place: the ruins.

As mentioned, we were staying just under Pinkuylluna, the lesser-visited of the two ruin sites in town. On our first full day in town, we followed an unassuming sign leading from a path in town up a mountainside towards what turned out to be a phenomenally in-tact granary/store-house. We speculated that one builds a granary precariously into the side of a mountain some 30 sweaty minutes vertically up from the town for… security purposes (more protected from attacks and floods?)…but we can’t be certain. I will let the photos speak for themselves.

Later that afternoon, after a lunch and rejuvenating juice, we walked over to the other side of town (a trying adventure of about three minutes) and paid the entrance fee to the other, much larger set of ruins. We opted against paying for a tour guide, so can’t relay a whole lot of context for these ruins to you all, but we did pick up a few snippets here and there as we surreptitiously listened in on other Spanish, English and German tours that were underway in our proximity. Around six hundred years ago (mid-15th century) the Incan emperor Pachacuti built this estate for himself and other Incan nobility. It’s sprawling (maybe 1/2 km from end to end of what’s left) and includes multiple temples, military outlooks, residences, and farming terraces. It was notably the site of an important victory against the Spanish, preventing (temporarily at least) their advancement into the highlands.

Drew was particularly blown away by the stonework, and I loved imagining the harvests – in such proximity to everything else! – on the farming terraces that were still remarkably intact.

Other highlights included the amazing water temples which still have running water to this day – and the Temple of the Sun. The whole experience felt like a potentially dangerous warm up for what was ahead; could Machu Picchu really stand up to this?

Below is a 360-degree panoramic photo Drew took from the Inka Watana, the lookout post above the Ollantaytambo ruins. You can see the town of Ollantaytambo beneath the ruins, and beyond the town, Pinkuylluna with its own antiquities on the hillside. Farther afield, you can appreciate the strategic value of this lookout, with its long views down the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River to east and west as well as up the Patacancha River to the north.

It’s not easy (or even necessary) to choose favorite places, but we both agreed this was nonetheless a strong contender; we’re grateful to Howard and Wendy who visited a few weeks prior and encouraged us to spend some time here. Stay tuned for more tales of epic hiking and biking that rounded out our time at this wonderful stop!

Cusco through another’s eyes

Our stop in Cusco came at a point in our South America travels where the novelty of colonial architecture surrounding a leafy and lively central square – in this case Plaza de Armas – had begun to fade. Though we have mostly only nice things to say about the city – it is walkable, attractive, welcoming, and has the requisite excellent market for snacking and shopping (San Pedro, for those who wish to know) – the particulars of what sets Cusco apart aren’t coming to me easily.* That is, except for a wonderful experience we had one afternoon near the entrance to some Incan ruins on the outskirts of town.

After a walk across the main part of the city – which sits on a valley floor (if you can call it a floor at over 11,000 ft) – we made our way up through the hillside neighborhood of San Blas. Beautiful cobblestone streets and staircases led us up towards Avenida Circunvalación, which, as its name implies, hugged the northern perimeter of the city (and would later be the road we took out of town to the Sacred Valley).

We stopped for a selfie at the eight foot high Cristo Blanco – a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II – and found some nearby trees to sit under and share our picnic of Peruvian bread, salty cheese and Botija olives.

Looking out over Cusco from Cristo Blanco (Cristo not pictured). Note the signature red rooftops (#planning). Also note my $5.99 gas station sunglasses purchased last February near Coyote Hills Regional Park still going strong (#winning).

After lunch, we wandered down the road to Saqsaywaman, one of the better-known Incan ruins in the Cusco area. With a (relatively) high entrance fee and threatening rain clouds gathering in the middle distance, we opted to remain on the exterior of the grounds to enjoy the perimeter’s stonework and begin our descent back into the Cusco Valley. We paused for a moment so I could tie my shoe, and Drew could check out some birds in the distance through our binoculars.

Stonework of the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman – a preview of coming attractions in the Sacred Valley.

Just then, three young boys in school uniforms walked up to us and, knowingly eyeing Drew’s neck candy, asked if they could look through the binoculars. They each took turns, patiently helping each other see through the lenses. After a few minutes, they thanked us, reluctantly handed the binoculars back, and kept walking home.

Behind them, another, younger boy was lingering shyly on the other side of the path, clearly wanting his own turn, but too afraid to ask.

I offered him a chance to look in, and when he first held the binoculars we realized he’d never used them before. We explained how to look into the lenses and adjust them, and Drew helped him get them working. As soon as things came into focus, his mouth broke into a huge, open smile. He pointed and with a soft shout, told us excitedly about each of the things he was seeing.

For minutes, his expression went from joy to disbelief and back again, never once daring to remove the binoculars from his eye-sockets. After a stretch of silent, determined looking (in which Drew and I just stood there reveling in this kid’s pure apparent joy) he lowered the binoculars and looked straight at us: “un zorro!” he whispered breathlessly. He had seen a fox.

As raindrops began to fall, we reluctantly took the binoculars back and said goodbye to our new friend. As we parted ways, the temptation was strong to gift him the binoculars – he clearly the more voracious and enthusiastic consumer of their benefits – but as this particular set is a family heirloom, we ultimately opted against it.

We made our way back down to our hostel with big smiles of our own. We spent the rest of our last evening in Cusco on the roof watching the sunlight fade and the lights of the city come on. We cooked our favorite cheap traveler’s meal – pasta with tuna and cheese – and prepared for our next morning’s departure – to the Sacred Valley!

Twilight from the Chusay Rooftop Hostel. A great bargain stay on the west side of town, complete with a dog, cat, and Italian host – each of whom provides a very warm welcome!

*Important caveat: in fact what sets Cusco apart is that it was the actual center of the entire Incan empire. I don’t mean to overlook the importance of the city, which is obviously quite significant both in history and for its nearly half a million residents today.

We Really Didn’t Get to Know Lima At All

Honestly, we’d heard mixed things about Lima: it was a foodie’s paradise; it was big, loud, and dirty; it had great neighborhoods; it was boring. So when we were planning our Peru leg, we allocated only two nights in Lima.

We flew in from Talara airport in northern Peru (only three departures per day, all heading to Lima). After a short flight we arrived in the mid-afternoon, and after we had collected our bags, ridden the taxi from the airport in the northwest of the city to Barranco, a cool neighborhood in the southeast, and checked in to our hostel, it was about time for an early dinner. So we headed over to La 73, a charming and slightly spendy spot nearby, for a round of pisco drinks and a Peruvian paella. So far, so good.

(Our hostel was a real mixed bag. The location was great and it was run by a lovely family, but it was dingy and unkempt, and our room smelled musty. Sara and I like to think we’re willing to overlook a good deal of polish in return for good price, location, and companionship, but there are limits to these trade-offs.)

After our snack/dinner it was time to take in the sunset off the Pacific coast – Lima marked the last time, for a while, we’d have the chance to see an oceanic sunset. We stopped at the Malecón de los Ingleses (“malecón” is a little difficult to translate – it kind of means “boardwalk” or “pier” but this and other spots in Lima were all up on plateaus above the actual waterfront) and took some sweet photos of such a gorgeous evening sky.

Then we headed into the neighborhood of Barranco for drinks and adventure. We got a real Brooklyn vibe from some of Barranco, including the open-air crafts and foods market and the old mansion converted to a cocktail bar and art space. We also ate dinner at a chifa, a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant in central Barranco.

Unfortunately, something disagreed with Sara (possibly the chifa stir-fry) and this was all she was really able to see of Lima. I spent much of Sunday taking care of Sara and trying to keep her spirits up, then went out for a few hours in the afternoon to see just a little bit more of the city and to bring back some chicken soup. (The soup, not pictured, was a big hit. Peru is known for two great chicken soups, dieta de pollo and caldo de gallina.)

I walked up from Barranco to Miraflores, kind of the Upper East Side of Lima, where I grabbed some ceviche to go; sat in a lovely park; visited a big and bewildering grocery store; walked along the promenade; observed the urban and cultural fabric; and finally returned to our hostel.

A few urbanist observations. I was struck, both in Barranco and Miraflores (which are both high-rent districts), by the obvious obsession with quality-of-life infractions. Prominent signage prohibited things like blaring car alarms, dog poop, and unauthorized tourist bus stops. And everywhere there was evidence of extreme security measures on affluent homes – a sign that either crime, or paranoia, or both, are pronounced in Lima. Elsewhere in town, we saw some pretty good bike infrastructure and bus rapid transit; these systems are ubiquitous in South American cities to an extent that makes you really wonder why we can’t seem to get them going in North American cities…

And – that’s really it. The next morning we taxied back to the airport and were off to Cusco. On the way to the airport we passed broad boulevards and grandiose buildings in central Lima – I was vaguely reminded of Washington, D.C. – but we really came and went through this city of eight million people in just a handful of hours. Perhaps we’ll return someday to check out world-tier restaurants like Central or Maido; or take surfing lessons by the Miraflores pier; or visit all the museums – but for now we have to be content with the briefest handshake with the place.

Máncora in Three Photos

Our first destination in Peru was the northern beach town of Máncora. (Our presence here was a bit of the tail wagging the dog – we chose to travel overland through and out of Ecuador largely in order to avoid Ecuador’s $200/person tax on flights departing the country. By busing from Cuenca to Máncora, then flying domestically from Máncora to Lima, we saved several hundred dollars and diversified our overall experience of Peru.)

First, a few hopefully helpful notes on our trip: We entered Peru via the Aguas Verdes land border crossing near Huaquillas, Ecuador. Aguas Verdes has had a rough reputation in past, but Ecuador and Peru opened a pair of jointly operated facilities in 2016 and things have apparently dramatically improved. At any rate, we found the border crossing to be safe, easy, and smooth. There was also a sizeable group of Venezuelan refugees seeking asylum at the border crossing, as well as some UN-provided food/shelter/water aid – a brief but fascinating look at the human side of that humanitarian challenge.

The journey from Cuenca to Máncora, by the way, can be achieved in either of two ways:

  1. The easy/simple option: one-seat night bus (about $30/person) – depart Cuenca around 9 or 10 pm, cross border after midnight, re-board same bus, arrive in Máncora around 3 am. Easy – but didn’t work with our schedule, and also, why on earth would you want to arrive somewhere around 3 am?? Seems like this would be a lot more appealing if it departed Cuenca at midnight and arrived in Máncora at 6 am. Anyway, a couple of companies offer this trip, so you can go to the Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca and buy tickets (best done in advance as they sometimes sell out).
  2. The more complicated/more flexible/cheaper option (about $20/person) – take a bus from Cuenca to Huaquillas in the morning ($7/person; departures about every half hour, from the Terminal Terrestre in Cuenca), get off at the roundabout just before Huaquillas, take a taxi from there to the border crossing ($5 or less), complete the border crossing, take an authorized taxi to Tumbes (fare fixed at $10; you can easily find other folks with whom to share a taxi), then take a bus or colectivo to Máncora (could be as little as $5/person but might be more because Tumbes has no central departure point so things are confusing and gouging is easier).

The bus ride out of Cuenca is amazing, by the way – you descend out of the Andes by way of gorgeous, desolate river canyons and then wind through banana fields on the coast.

OK, enough travel logistics. We found ourselves in Máncora, a beach town and kind of a party spot, but fortunately our hostel was distant enough from the dance scene that we got excellent sleep. How much is there ever to say about beach towns? So I’m just going to present three photos and comment on each of them.

Here we are the first evening, happy on the lovely beach. The beach was indeed lovely – we spent much of the following day reading/napping/swimming, punctuated by a lunchtime walk to Jasusi, a great ceviche restaurant well off the beaten path. (No photos of ceviche because it was a phone-free day, also quite a treat.)

Here is the back side of an atrocious billboard right on the main drag that should never, ever have been authorized or built. (The other side has a Corona ad.) This, along with the fact that Peruvian cities have no centralized bus terminals, and the fact that just feet from the wealthy, touristy strip of Máncora you encounter dirt roads, stray dogs, and open sewage, led us to believe that much of Peru lacks any kind of land use or infrastructure planning. It feels like a free-for-all, and one that could be substantially improved if someone, anyone, had the authority to say No to the worst elements (like this billboard).

Here’s a derpy dog we saw in one of the restaurants we visited for fresh pasta and pisco cocktails. No social commentary here, I just think this is hilarious.

One Night in Cuenca

Woman in the fields at dawn near Zumbahua en route out Chugchilán.

After a pre-dawn departure out of Chugchilán, a highly satisfying side-of-the-highway bus connection near Latacunga*, and a long and stunning ride through central and southern Ecuador, we pulled into Cuenca around 3 pm. We traveled through the narrow streets to Casa Macondo, one of the loveliest places we have stayed so far. In addition to a comfortable room and really good breakfast, Casa Macondo had a magical garden complete with two tiny, amazing kittens. I wished we could have stayed longer for the kittens alone.

Lovely Cuenca (and sneaky nod to the so-new-plastic-was-still-wrapping-the-seats tram system!)

Alas, our time in Cuenca was short but sweet. We headed out in search of some much needed sustenance, and landed first in a Colombian restaurant (semi-inadvertently, but it was a tasty and happy throwback!) and then in a cute coffee shop where we shared a slice of carrot cake, a cappuccino and a round of cards.

Drew pondering his 500 rummy strategy as he looks out over the Tomebamba river. Check out those delightful willows!

We spent the balance of the afternoon exploring this decidedly charming city built around the Tomebamba river. The old colonial center teemed with tourists and locals eating ice creams and enjoying the beautiful architecture. Steps leading down to the riverfront served as the venue for exercising youths and pro-instagrammers, and on the south side of the city, we found a really excellent public park (did you know we like public parks). Parque de la Madre (hooray for moms) was filled with joggers, kids, impromptu dance classes, and a great looking planetarium. We ventured further and shared some Czech-style beers in a local brewery before heading back to our neighborhood to split a few pizzas.

It occurs to me that this post sounds like we conducted an eating tour of Cuenca. You could call it that. Or, a day in the life of Drew and Sara.

The next morning, leftover pizza in hand, we headed back to the bus station and caught a bus onward towards the southern border – next stop, Peru!

Cuenca’s main square at night.

*If you’re looking for a way to get from the Quilotoa loop to Cuenca, there is very little information about this online. We’re here to help! Catch your bus towards Latacunga (be waiting early – our “6 am” bus left Chugchilán at 5:50 am) and ask the bus driver to drop you off at the “Paso Lateral” about 5km west of (that is, prior to) Latacunga. They’ll know what you’re talking about. At this roundabout, southbound buses will pass by and bus attendants will be hanging out the door shouting their destination and looking for passengers (you’re unlikely to be the only one). By all accounts, Cuenca buses pass by about every half hour, though we connected immediately after disembarking from our first bus. The bus we were on had a bathroom and USB outlets (rare, delightful luxuries) and from this roundabout to Cuenca took about 7 hrs through gorgeous scenery. The Chugchilán-to-Latacunga bus cost about $2.50 per person; the Cuenca bus cost $10 per person.

Hiking Quilotoa!

On our first full day in Chugchilán, we hiked out of it, to the Quilotoa Volcano/Crater/Lake. The trailhead for this famous hike was marked with an unceremonious sign right behind our hostel. We set out at 9:30am from an altitude of ~10,500 ft, and began the hike by descending in the sunshine among llamas, sheep, a donkey, horses, and some adorable pigs in a young corn field, into a valley.

After about a half a kilometer of going down, the path started to ascend, and that, dear readers, was the last time we had a normal heart rate for the next five hours. The trail soon led into thick brush* and what began as a steep incline soon transformed into what felt like a full on vertical scramble. Thanks to Drew’s tracking of the hike on Strava, we were later able to verify and validate this sensation: we registered a grade of 46.6 percent at one point. Here I am, loving that:

After a breathy and sweaty climb to the top, we reached La Moya – a collection of 5-6 houses with garden plots adjacent to a brief gravel road. A small child appeared out of nowhere at exactly the right moment to show us where the trail continued. He led us around his house, chickens in the yard and laundry drying in the mid-morning sun, into a gully and up the other side. He cheerfully pointed the way onward and then looked at us expectantly. While we fished out some treats from our day pack, we found out his name was Anthony, he was seven, and that he had six brothers and sisters. We gave Anthony some chocolates, thanked him for his help, and went on our way.

From La Moya, the hike was a beautiful challenge along a ridge line, into a canyon, across a river, up a hillside, through another town – this one seemingly abandoned – and through many acres of rural farmland, until we got to the final ascent a few hours later.

From the beginning of the switchback ascent to Quilotoa, looking back over the topography we had crossed to get here.

On the side of the Quilotoa crater, a series of seven punishing switchbacks led us up, each one bringing us closer to the hike’s reward. About 45 minutes later, hearts pounding, we crested the summit at 12,841 ft, and were gifted with an uninterrupted view down into the spectacular, ethereal Quilotoa Crater Lake.

Behold! A sun-dappled Laguna Quilotoa. The caldera is about 3 km wide and 820 ft deep.
Tired but v. happy hikers! The lake’s color completely changes when the sun goes behind the clouds, transforming from a the bright green pictured above to this icy blue-grey you see here.

Though reaching the crater’s edge was the hike’s star moment, it wasn’t its end. We then hiked around the crater for another 4 kilometers towards the town of Quilotoa where we would catch our ride back to Chugchilán. The trail zig zagged from the precarious ridge line – getting more and better views of the crater from every turn- to the outer face of the volcano which was silent, dotted with high desert scrub and pines.

Drew taking a meditative moment on the crater’s edge.
Hiking along the volcano’s outer edge – spooky and cool!
One more shot of the trail along the volcano’s edge – not for those with vertigo!!

We made it to the town of Quilotoa on the west side of the volcano around 2:45pm. A Carnaval party was in full swing and we followed our noses to the smell of oil cooking. A team of three were rolling dough balls, stuffing them with cheese, throwing them in the deep fryer, and dusting with powdered sugar. We bought five for a dollar and then walked out to the road, hopped in the back of a stranger’s truck and rode the six kilometers via paved road back to Chugchilán.

The hot shower and glass of wine that awaited us back at our hostel were each in a league of their own.

*For those that might have stumbled upon this post in search of directions to Quilotoa, know that this is the first of many decision points in your route; there is also a road (rather than trail) that you can take to La Moya which is longer, but less steep. We recommend using Strava’s global heat map to design your route, and to assess options in real time and stay on course – it can get confusing! Check out our hike here for some more details:

Three Days in Chugchilán

Written on the bus from Chugchilán to Cuenca:
To my left, farm land stretches, a multi-green patchwork bisected by paths that run to the hills. Neither the half complete cement houses nor munching cows are much closer to the earth than the soft morning clouds. A few miles back, in Riobamba, a vendor boarded the bus with still-warm pan de banana (not too sweet). We bought half a loaf, I pulled out my laptop and crossed my legs to write.

On our last morning in Quito, we said goodbye to Howard and Wendy at the bus stop down the hill from the apartment we had joyfully shared for a week. Four became two, and a traffic-filled hour later, we arrived at Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe – the intra-regional bus station on the south side of the city. We purchased tickets to Latacunga, a few hours further south, and found the last two open seats in the back of a departing bus.

We pulled into Latacunga around mid-day. The unremarkable station buzzed with travelers, and helpfully provided us with an ATM and a slice of pizza covered in tiny pieces of canned pineapple (a former childhood favorite of mine). We quickly found onward tickets to our final destination, Chugchilán, and I washed down the nostalgic slice with a dentist’s rinse cup of some impossibly sweet carbonated drink as we boarded our third bus of the day, and headed west into the mountains.

Rolling out of Latacunga, the bus paused at least a dozen times to let passengers on and off – school children, wrinkled elders, a few accompanied puppies, and indigenous women dressed in velour skirts and layered shawls, some with babies strapped to their backs, and most with adorned fedora hats.

About an hour into the ride, the bus got stuck in the middle of a lively small town market which had overflowed into the street where the bus usually passes. It was a Sunday, and it was Carnaval. In celebration, most people were dripping wet or armed with water or soap spray cans, at the ready to soak the nearest dry passerby. Several passengers (adults and children alike) boarded the bus drenched, and/or with their spray cans at the ready to soak an innocent passerby out the window. The whole town seemed to be giggling.

The bus conducted an impressively lengthy reversal out of the market traffic jam, and we were back on our way. We chugged further up into the Andes, with fewer towns and stops, and more scenery to keep us occupied.

We followed increasingly vertiginous cliff-side roads around hair pin turns up, up, and up into the beautiful highlands. Drew tracked our progress on Google Maps, both of us eager to have the three-bus-ride day behind us and settle into our new home in Chugchilán.

Part way through the journey from Latacunga to Chugchilán.

One of the strange marvels of travel in 2019 is the ability to know – with the help of smart phones and offline maps – where you are, and where you are going, with impressive real-time accuracy, no matter how in the middle-of-nowhere you might feel, or in fact, be.

As we approached the final intersection of our journey, our stomachs dropped as the bus turned not towards, but away, from Chugchilán. With this turn, the bus also left the paved road, and a heavy mist descended. We began ascending further into the páramo (high tropical alpine ecosystem) and all that appeared to lie ahead (both on the map and as confirmed by our eyeballs) was a vague dirt path-road and a wall of eery fog.

And then it started to rain.

We talked to the bus driver – twice – who each time assured us we were still heading in the right direction. Recognizing (though we had our serious doubts) that we had no better option, we sat and watched the rain and the mud as we splattered ever higher through it. About fifteen minutes later, at what felt like the top and end of the world, we pulled into the minuscule village of Guasumbini Alto, where most of the rest of the bus emptied out.

Now nearly alone save the driver and some bad bus music, we then made two lefts. To our great joy, the blue dot on Google Maps triumphantly reversed course, and it appeared we had begun retracing our steps. About 20 minutes later, gingerly making our way down the muddy mountain, we were back on the paved road. Five minutes after that, we were disembarking a few steps from our hostel for the next three nights.

It almost always works out.

We spent three lovely days in the sleepy town of Chugchilán, hiking the spectacular Quilotoa trail (more to come on that) and soaking in Andean mountain life. Chugchilán has a small population of people, and a competitively sized population of chickens, pigs, and sheep. Save some construction, one cowboy themed bar, and a woman who grills meats on the side of the road in the afternoon, there wasn’t much activity to speak of.

Local traffic.
Two dogs chasing a rooster at the local mini-cancha (soccer pitch). The dogs actually caught the rooster, much to its surprise, and triumphantly extracted some feathers, causing the rooster to emit an alarmed version of its morning crow for minutes following. (Look, I said there wasn’t a lot happening in this town, didn’t I?).

In spite of its incredibly laid back vibe, politicians were vying heavily for votes in this town. Election season – in full swing across Ecuador – brought the concrete facades on the main road to life with painted campaign slogans and instructions on how to cast a ballot. Everywhere we went, candidate posters and paintings promised clean water, jobs, infrastructure development (with transparency), and promotion of tourism. I was glad to see quite a number of women running for office, and one of my favorite campaigns was from Fernanda Naranjo, who took advantage of her name for a memorable roadside ad:

Snapped from the bus window – she did a great job covering much of her precinct with these eye-catching paint jobs on all matter of available cement walls. I wonder what happens to them after election season?

In addition to our hike to Quilotoa, we communed with the town’s pig population on one afternoon, spent some time getting to know some fellow travelers at the hostel, and shared an amusing meal with the local policemen who were glued to a WWE wrestling match. It was a peaceful, beautiful few days, and a privilege to peek into life in this part of rural Ecuador.

Beautiful views to the east that we enjoyed from right behind our hostel.

Guest Post: We’ll Always Have Quito

We had the great fortune of sharing a week (2/25-3/3) of Drew and Sara’s luna de miel with them in Quito, Ecuador. This was the best possible way for us to spend the last week of our great Peru-Ecuador trip. While we were together, they celebrated their six month anniversary. It was so lovely to see Drew and Sara enjoying each other’s company and their travels together.

This posting will describe some impressions of our time together in Quito – for us the end of two months in South America; for them the start of the second month of their year-long honeymoon.

When we travel, we sometimes play the game ”could I live here?” We’re certainly not thinking of leaving San Francisco, but it’s fun to idly speculate on what life would be like in city X, or rural area Y. Well, Quito is the one locale from this trip (which included Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco in Peru, and Guayaquil and Cuenca in Ecuador) where we said, “We could live here.” It’s a huge, beautiful and vibrant place, set amidst volcanoes, at an elevation of 9350 feet. The Spanish colonial historic center is a UNESCO-designated world heritage site, but unlike Cusco’s historic center – also beautiful and a world heritage site, it does not seem to exist just to cater to international tourists.  

On our arrival evening, we had a lovely dinner together on an outdoor terrace at the Mosaico restaurant that overlooks the historic district. 

As we started back on a deserted street (all of the streets are empty after 8 pm), we were picked up by two very friendly and talkative Tourist Police officers, who insisted on walking us back to our apartment.  While they told us not only about the many ways that tourists can be robbed in Quito, we never felt at any risk.

We stayed in a quirky Airbnb apartment at the north end of the historic district, from which we could also access some interesting sections of the newer city on foot or via a jam-packed BRT corridor or double articulated bus, as well as enjoy some down time together.  

Our apartment was located just down the street from the Basílica de Voto Nacional, one of the largest in South America. 

We bought tickets to ascend to the Basílica’s towers. What we didn’t know is that the ticket gave us access not only to three towers with fabulous views of the city, but also to a rickety catwalk over the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral, hair-raising and precarious ladders, and vertigo-inducing platforms. We’ve never seen a cathedral from these perspectives before. 

Thanks to Sara’s online sleuthing skills, we enjoyed a couple of great craft breweries in the historic center (Santa Rosa Brewery; Bandido Brewery – with a band playing covers of an eclectic mix of 1980’s tunes –  Dylan, Stones, Bob Marley, etc.) for two dinners and a delicious lunch in the garden of the De La Llama restaurant. 

We really enjoyed exploring the city from Drew and Sara’s perspectives as urban planners. We rode the TelefériQo up to a viewing point at an elevation of 13,000’. 

When not shrouded in clouds and fog, the views were stunning. We saw several mountain bikers drop onto dirt trails for a wild ride to the bottom. Before we descended, Drew led us on a short excursion to a fire lookout tower with the best views of all.

Quito has many great museums. We visited both the Centro Cultura Metropolitano and part of the Museo de la Ciudad. The Museo de la Ciudad had a great exhibit on mercados (food markets), addressing one of Sara’s special interests. The Centro Cultura had a great exhibit called “Dinámicas Urbanas” about the evolution of the modern Quito cityscape that especially grabbed the dynamic planeadores (oops, planificadores) in our quartet.  

We also visited the museum of Ecuador’s most famous painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín. His main productive career was just after Picasso’s, and there are clear similarities in their stylistic trajectories. Before his death, Guayasamín donated his gorgeous art-filled home to Quito, along with a large number of his paintings.  

Drew and Sara were put off by Guayasamín’s outsized ego, as expressed in a film about him and his many quotations scattered about the museum. But is there a world-renowned artist who doesn’t have a big ego? 

We also enjoyed exploring the many parks and plazas in Quito. 

And one evening, we attended a free performance of the Quito Sinfonia Band at the ornate Teatro Sucre. The concert featured three pieces composed for the marimba. It was fun, but don’t expect marimba music to become a regular part of the symphonic repertoire anytime soon. 

Fun fact – Wendy and Sara share the same October 9thbirthday (as Wendy and her mother also did). October 9 marks the independence of Guayaquil in 1820 and is a national holiday throughout Ecuador. 

On our last full day in Quito, we rode the BRT an hour north to Quito’s primary soccer stadium, strangely called the Casa Blanca for reasons that weren’t entirely obvious.  (Still, it was nice to see a White House that isn’t tainted by its current occupant.) We watched Quito’s main team, La Liga, trounce the team from Guayaquil. The quality of play by La Liga was very good – crisp passes, well designed plays, great shooting – and the celebrations by the fans really fun to see (see video below).

There are some great restaurants in Quito, including La Purísima, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner after the fútbol game. 

We said our goodbyes fairly early the next day as Drew and Sara boarded the BRT for the ride to the southern part of Quito to catch a bus to Latacunga, and onward to their next stop in Chugchilán in the central highlands. We had tears in our eyes thinking about the many adventures that lay ahead for them, how much they mean to us, and when we might see them next. As we said to each other sometime while we were together, “We’ll always have Quito!”