A Travellerspoint blog

Trekking Up High and Down Low

Arequipa, Misit Volcano & Colca Canyon


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With La Paz behind me I set my course for Arequipa with another volcano climb (Misti at 5825m) and some trekking in the Colca canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world on my radar. Arequipa itself is a nice enough city that is supposedly the second largest city in Peru but has a small city feel about it.

Within a day I had sorted out to visit both back to back which I was happy about given I sat still in La Paz a little longer than I wanted to. A good night out with the entire hostel going out on my first night was nice and then after a day of rest it was time to get ready to climb Misti.

At 8am in the morning we headed off to our starting point at 3400m, this was an interesting enough trip in itself with drive requiring us to go past where they were still working on the road. In fact the conversation went something like this:
Road Worker: You can’t go up there, there is nothing there. No road or nothing.
Driver: I’ll just go around then!

And with that he took off ahead! Still with about 15 minutes of offroad driving we managed to get back onto the track we were supposed to be on and eventually arrived successfully at our starting point. From here it was a climb of ~2200m to the top and the guide pointed the path we would take. Path however was a generous way of putting it, as it seemed merely to be a case of going straight up from where we were. Never the less we set off and with the volcano not having any refugio’s we set off with full backpacks, carrying out tents, water for two days and cooking equipment all up a nice ~15kg weight to make the first days climb just that bit more interesting. Within minutes we were starting our ascent climbing over rocks and dealing with the loose gravel path that made grip difficult. This bit of the climb was a bit difficult with the harsh sun and backpacks wearing us out quickly, so the water breaks were coming thick and fast (this did atleast lighten the load a bit!)

After about 5 hours of solid climbing over rocks we arrived at the ~4800m mark where we would be setting up our tents and camping for the night. The relief in the group was obvious as we were all a bit tired from the stiff climb. Within half an hour we had set up the tents, started cooking and added layers as here once the sun drops it gets quite cold in contrast to the quite hot days in the sun. By 7pm we had eaten our hearty meal of soup, chicken and pasta and were headed off to bed with an early wakeup at midnight.

Predictably after much tossing and turning midnight came around with no one other than the guides getting any sleep at all. Weary eyed we drank our cocoa tea and snacked on some bread and cheese before starting the climb. This time thankfully we set off without our backpacks however with three layers on both top and bottom to deal with the cold….it was very cold and extremely cold feet was just one of the challenges of the climb! Slowly but surely we worked our way up the mountain with the guides showing us the path….and by path I mejan which rocks to climb over. I was still in the stages of recovering from my cold and this wasn’t the ideal place to recover but I had done nothing for too long and was enjoying being away from the city once more. Our guides seemed a bit rushed and we were all a bit confused when we got to 5000m and he announced that breaks were not going to be taken every 10 minutes anymore but every 25, needless to say we all ignored this! After about 6 hours of climbing we finally reached the crater from where you could see a good view of Arequipa, a view of the cross at the highest point and sadly a poor view of the crater itself. Owing to our guides now cautious approach we were not allowed to go near the crater for photos….an incredible let down sadly as there is no real peak at this volcano to see. Still with little option other than to wait at the top and freeze we set off to finish the climb and reach the cross, the highest point. With the cross set right back in the volcano the view is actually better from crater lip with the countryside and Arequipa in full view. Still its always nice to get to the top and 5825m is still fairly high and good practice for the coming weeks.

The interesting bit of this climb however is the going down which is supposed to only take 2.5 hours to the bottom something that we didn’t believe. Our guide then showed us the path which involved going straight down one of the sides….we thought he was joking! But just five minutes later he was telling us to grab our trekking poles dig our heels into the soft dirt and essentially ski down on our feet! Definitely a fast and slightly crazy way to go down, especially with the backpacks once again on your back but make it down in 2.5 hours we did! It was then time to catch our transport back to Arequipa (this time almost entirely offroad – I guess the roadworks happen slowly over here too!) to be back about 2pm. After checking into a hostel and having a well deserved hot shower it was time to get some sleep for the 3am wake up for the colca canyon trek.

3am came around a lot sooner than I would have liked but after no sleep the night before I was able to get a few hours and got on the 3:30am bus headed for the canyon. Still tired I slept almost the entire way to the condors cross, apparently the best place for seeing condors. Some days the condors will come out to play and sometimes they don’t, today they didn’t with the half hour we were there only 3 condors visible and none close enough to take a worthwhile photo. You can’t everything I suppose and I was still optimistic of seeing more condors whilst trekking in the canyon.
About an hour later we arrived in the town of Cabanaconde the town that we would begin our trek into the canyon from. The first day was easy enough as we headed off just after lunch towards the towns on the other side of the valley. The hike was gentle enough with us taking a little 3 hours to hike down the 1200m on our side of the canyon and up the 500m on the otherside. Along the way we sampled the local fruits from the cactus, the sweet (tuna) which is similar to passionfruit and the sour (samcayo) that is about the sourest thing I have tasted. Tonight we would sleep at Cosnirhua a very small town of about 30 families that relies almost entirely on fruit production and trade for its produce. A really nice sleep (very welcome after the last two nights) mainly owing to having my own room left me nice and refreshed for tomorrows trek.

The trek for the second day promised to be the hardest but first we had a gentle trek down to the jewel of the canyon (atleast according to the tour agencies) the oasis, a series of swimming pools amongst the palm trees at the bottom of the canyon. An easy hours hike down saw us arrive comfortably and the 30+ temperature saw me in the pool in a very short time. A couple of hours later we had lunch and then looked at what remained ahead, the 1200m hike back up the side of the canyon. For me it didn’t look too bad but the couple I was with were doing their first hike and they were slightly more concerned. After lunch we headed upwards at a slow and steady pace given the slope and the heat. After an hour we had reached the halfway point and our guide suggested I shoot up ahead and sort out the hotel and dinner reservations so I shot up and broke a sweat by the top but it was an enjoyable hike amongst the canyon and the reward was getting to see the sunset from the top of the canyon – a glorious sight indeed. My guide and rest of the group made it too the top much to their relief and enjoyed the walk a little bit atleast. That night we were staying in a four star hotel which was a bit more than required but once again ensured I had another fantastic sleep and left the canyon extremely relaxed.

The third day was by far the most difficult with only a visit to the hot springs and two hours in the 35 degree water further relaxed the body and eased the muscles. After that it was a nice bus ride back to Arequipa and the end of a very enjoyable and relaxing visit to the colca canyon. The biggest disappointment was the lack of condors with only another three seen in the two days walking through the canyon but you can’t have everything. Still it was a great walk through some gorgeous multi coloured countryside. However one that given my time again I would have done without a tour such was the ease or maneuvering through the valley. Next for me it’s a little bit of a rest in Arequipa before making the long journey up to Huaraz for some more trekking and a visit to Chavin de Huantar, ruins from a 3000 year old civilization.

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Posted by rhinoc 20:13 Archived in Peru Comments (5)

Up and Over 6000m

Climbing Huayna Potosi


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With a return to La Paz required must too my distain I decided to make the most of a bad situation and headed there with the intention of ticking the one box that remained in Bolivia, Huayna Potosi. Marketed as the easiest 6000m climb in the world due to the base camp being at 4700m, leaving a total climb of less than 1400m. Despite this the people I know that have done it all have said it was difficult and most have shed tears either along the way or at the top. The easiest climb to 6000m it may be but it is still a climb over 6000m an incredible opportunity and challenge without question.

The three day trek involves firstly taking a bus out to the Cordillera Real of Bolivia arriving at the base camp, a nice little Refugio with a solid kitchen and a large open area for people to sleep. First on the men u so to speak was a solid lunch before we loaded up our ice gear and headed off for the glacier to practice techniques for walking, climbing and rescuing on the glaciers. We did this for about three hours which is absolutely great fun and culminated in them setting up a few practice climbing walls for us. The first two were relatively easy with gradients of about 75-80 degrees which we all managed to negotiate reasonably easily. The last however was in the 95-100 degrees range and proved quite difficult especially when we started from the opposing rock face and had to turn around – fun but ultimately destined for failure. People fought with it for different periods of time but the ending was always the same with everyone stuck in what became the iconic pose for the day, dangling from your harness with one hammer still in the ice and a resigned look on your face. As a final insult after acknowledging failure you can’t just be lowered using the harness you have to climb back up and remove your ice axe before once again switching to the other face and crawling up to the starting position – this is incredibly depressing. After we had all tried and failed the guides all took the opportunity to show off and get themselves up the face, but we had achieved what we had set out to do and had some good practice with the equipment.

We returned to the lower refugio a little tired but encouraged by the day. Tonight the aim was to get some sleep because first thing tomorrow we would have a short 2-3 hour hike to the upper refugio at 5130m where we would get ourselves set for the big final day. Needless to say nobody really slept all that well that night but we all managed to get up at the respectable time of 7:30am and after packing we headed for the high camp. A few people struggled a bit with the terrain and the altitude but I was quite happy that it didn’t seem to bother me too much and I completed the stroll with my hiking partner Barnie from Germany in 2 hours safe and sound. The trek was easy enough although one small section of switchbacks reminded me and Mark of Choquequirao however thankfully these weren’t as long and we decided to power through them. When we arrived we setup our gear headed down for some lunch and then to bed to try ad catch an afternoon nap as we would be up at midnight for an early start. Thankfully I managed to catch an hour or so of sleep before we got up had a bit of dinner. The camp itself seemed to be set in the clouds as the wind would blow them across such that one moment you would see everything and then fixe minutes later you could see nothing – really eerie and cool. After dinner a couple of us took a few moments to reflect on what lay ahead and to prepare ourselves mentally (invaluable in my opinion and I think other wished they had done the same) after this we headed to bed at 7pm to try and get some sleep.

Needless to say no more sleep was had and we got up surprising fresh but weary at midnight for light breakfast and to organize our gear ready for the huge climb ahead. All the groups were to meet at the 5500m mark to assess how people were going and to sort out if any swaps were needed with partners. We left at about 2am from the glacier all kitted up and ready to go and moved smoothly up the mountain taking breaks when we needed to but without any real difficulty. The mountain boots we were using were absolutely hell on the feet but despite two giant blisters on my feet nothing was stopping me from getting to the top. Slowly we continued on breaking every now and again we gradually ate into the long steady climb before finally about 5:30am we reached the ice wall where the walking stopped and the climbing began. This is the only really technical bit of the climb and the 30m up you go cuts into the height quite quickly but requires confidence in your crampons and your ability to anchor and pull yourself up using your ice axe. Technical but achievable (to be honest about 10 times harder going down!) and as we got over the top I swore as the steep tiny goat track to the top was revealed, one last challenge before reaching the might summit. We then slowly worked our way to the summit and took in the incredible 360 degree views and also the ridiculous -25 degree wind chill. Our timing couldn’t have been better as we arrived at sunrise, ~6:15am, and we were all hoping the sun would come out and warm things up. Anybody that makes it up here takes but a very few photos at the top, not because the views aren’t amazing but because your hands literally go numb with only your inner gloves on and after a couple of minutes of taking photos I didn’t feel my hands for another half an hour. However the views from the top make everything worthwhile and as Barnie and I indulged a moment for a triumphant embrace we marveled at how we could see the entire Cordillera Real, two other glaciers in Bolivia that are slightly higher as well as across Lake Titicaca. After about 10 minutes at the top we were all ice blocks and we decided to begin the descent to warm up, mostly by getting out of the wind!

The descent down was actually probably more difficult and dangerous than the way up with the sun coming out and melting a lot of the snow leaving you to carefully walk across the ice. This and lack of a lure of the top to keep you going made it a slow climb back and it still took us about 3 hours to get back to base camp, compared to just over 4 to go up. We finally arrived back at the top camp and had a little bit of lunch before packing our stuff and heading for the lower camp which was our final bit of effort for the day which was good considering lack of sleep was starting to catch up with all of us. As a final parting gift the mountain wind brought rain and hail just as we arrived at the lower camp forcing us to unpack our equipment and return to La Paz in terrible weather, not ideal but we made it. In total we had 11 in our group with 8 of these making it to the top – not a bad effort considering two people were very sick. One guy was desperately unlucky not to make the top after switching partners at the 5500m and his partner being unwilling to go past 5900m and him being left with no choice despite wanting to continue. All in all an incredibly challenging and thoroughly rewarding trek but not something to be taken lightly. The next step, I’m not sure stay in La Paz until the weekend and head towards Arequipa I think gradually heading northwards with hopefully no more visits back to La Paz!

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Posted by rhinoc 12:01 Archived in Bolivia Comments (6)

Choquequirao & Maras Moray

The Lesser Known Sites of the Sacred Valley


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After arriving back from Choquequirao I can say only two things, Wow! and Thank god that’s over. This was one of the hardest but best treks that I have ever done. Arriving in Cachora we began the trek not quite knowing what we were in for with little more than the trek profile and the mumblings of one of our friends who had completed the trek recently.

Essentially the trek involves little more than descending from 3600m to 2800m, followed by a steep descent to sea level to camp by the river on the first night. The second day was the tough one with the ascent up to 2600m and then a descent down to 1700m to the campsite of the ruins with the ruins then located at the top of the hill some 1300m above. Once there we would have a day at the ruins before returning back the same way – a long two day walk indeed.

The reward however was the little known and even less visited ruins of Choquequirao, (a name that translates to cradle of gold, something that no doubt excited the Spaniards) a set of ruins that were built just after and based on Machu Picchu. The architecture here is not quite as exceptional as that at Machu Picchu but the location here is second to none. Perched atop the point that seems to be almost the centre of the Andes where you are surrounded by mountain after mountain looking way down to the Apurimac river below, it’s an incredible setting indeed and one that can only give you a brief insight into what the “rooftop of the world” must be like. From our vantage point we certainly felt like we were at the rooftop to the Andes. Looking down marveling in the glory that is Apurimac river snaking its way through the valley below.

The ruins there are still quite extraordinary with the lower plaza nestled between the upper plaza and the truncated hilltop where the celestial festivals took place. The impact of the ruins are further intensified by fortress like ruins on the very corner of the site and the giant terraces some as high as two metres used for farming in some of the most incredible places. These terraces extend down to all sides of the site and include some which inexplicably contain patterns of llamas which add to the mystique of the place. The real attraction as mentioned earlier is the complete lack of ppl here, with us spending the whole day there and only meeting 11 other people there. The tranquility this creates is incredible and as we sat down and watch the sunset over the ruins and the Andes in complete peace it was unbelievable. A far cry from the throngs of people that you share Machu Picchu with, Choquequirao is certainly one of Peru’s hidden treasures.

The trip back was almost harder than the trip there with the switchbacks just as intense but this time we were climbing up through the arid side of the valley not the tropical side. This meant less shade and we were soon suffering in the 35 degree heat climbing once again back to the mirador. The third long day saw us hike from 6am right through to 7pm at night, with our desire to push on to the 16km mark and make for an easier last day. The next day we were very glad for this and managed to do all our climbing before the sun came out and be comfortably back in Cachora for lunch time. Overall it would be possible to do this in four or maybe even three days but it was nice to be able to take our time and especially to have one full day at the ruins.

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We also took the early finish opportunity to visit the nearby Sayhuite ruins which are much less well know but impressive none the less. The central point of this site is a giant monolith that was supposedly to be a map of the area for the Incans.

After a couple of days to recover it was off to check off my final site in the Sacred Valley, Maras Moray and the Salineras. These are the famous agricultural experiments by the Incas, a primitive greenhouse if you will and also the Incan salt mines.

Whilst you can easily do this as a tour we decided to do it the local way and have little more fun. This wasn’t really as difficult as we thought and a local bus to Urubamba dropped us off at the turn off to Maras and a taxi took us to Moray. From Moray we caught a taxi back to Maras and walked from the town through the salt mines down to Urubamba and then caught a bus back from there. Simple.

The Moray site is essentially a series of circular terraces that start at a height of 3500m and descend downwards. Between the drop in altitude and differing irrigation techniques the Incas were able to create several different microclimates. During summer they managed to create a difference in temperature between the bottom and the top of up to 15C. They then used these microclimates to experiment with and grow different types of crops. The site is incredibly photogenic and is perhaps one of the few places In the world that looks more perfect in photos than in real life, but still very impressive. The best bit about not doing a tour was that we had as long as we wanted, this particularly paid off when we decided to have a short kip/sun bake at the bottom of the site and watch everybody else rush through in the half hour they were permitted.

The salt works was quite interesting without perhaps being as spectacular. In a lot of ways it reminded me of a less attractive Pamukkale in Turkey. Here the salt water is diverted into various pools and the water is then driven off and the salt harvested. Interestingly they still use these salt works today which speaks volumes for the technology the Incans were able to develop.

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Posted by rhinoc 16:44 Comments (0)

Journey to the Navel of the World (atleast the Incan World)

Travelling to Cusco


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So what have I been doing since my last blog update you may ask, well after the jungle I continued my journey along the much travelled road towards Cusco. Having travelled these roads last year and seen the sites it was little more stopping for a break along the way with the main goal being to arrive in Cusco where I would stay for a couple of weeks, atleast until after my birthday. I did however take the opportunity to have some a bit more of the local delicacy guinea pig (cuy here) which in Puno is not only tasty but amazingly presented.

Lately I have realised that I have run out of material things that I want for my birthday and I now lean more towards trying to have experiences. With that in mind I decided that I really wanted to do the Choquequirao trek around Cusco a site that is supposedly just as beautiful but much more scarcely known than Machu Picchu, with that and the nightlife in Cusco I think this is a very suitable place to be for my birthday. This last 12 months I have particularly lucky and will count a visit to Iguazu falls (bday) and a visit to Petra (Xmas) as presents from my family – thanks guys! These places were simply amazing and I am sure that Choquequirao will continue the trend.

Arriving in Cusco immediately brought a smile to my face for as much as this is ever the gringo capital of South America it feels very much like my home away from home. The first few nights here were filled with catching up, catching up with friends I had made last visit, friends that I had made along the way and also catching up on the Cusco nightlife which never misses a beat. There are many different ways to experience Cusco and most people come here go out visit Machu Picchu and leave again which is sad because the area has some other great places to explore and anyone with a bit of time is crazy to miss out on sites such as the sacred valley.

Having visited most places last year, this time I was going to focus on Spanish classes for a week because I am feeling like I’m at the point where a week can once again make a big difference. With this in mind I moved to a much quieter hostel without any parties and focused mainly on my Spanish with the result being I am now comfortable in saying I more or less speak Spanish. It is far from perfect but I can hold a conversion and both comprehend and convey points of view. After a week of Spanish lessons it’s time to get ready to head out to Choquequirao which is comfortable enough to do in a small group without a guide which saves significantly on the normally $200 trip. Here in Cusco there are plenty of places to hire any equipment that you need so it is easy to facilitate. The trip is supposedly quite difficult but the reward at the end is that the site is so rarely visited that you supposedly will have almost the entire site to ourselves. The next week shall be the judge but I am very much looking forward to it.

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Posted by rhinoc 15:05 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Natural Zoo

Amazonian Wetlands


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Continuing my journey north from Potosi, I decided to take one of the nicer bus option since it was quite cheap and an overnight bus arriving at about 5am, exactly my least favourite type of bus. The bus journey however was completed with little in the way of problems as well as little in the way of sleep. My attempts to check into a couple of hostels in La Paz ended in failure so I decided to join some folk and head straight to the airport, saving myself a day and hopefully getting on the early flight. This didn’t quite go to plan and we arrived at the airport to find the next plane we could buy a ticket on was at 5pm leaving us with a lovely 10 hour wait at the airport. This airport wait was pretty painful however we didn’t have the energy to leave the airport so without Wifi we merely occupied a table at the restaurant for the day, one guy however did manage to ring up a bill of 6 hours at the extortionate internet café.

Lately with my desire to get to Cusco quickly it feels like my days have been filled with either bus rides or waiting for bus rides. A nice four day trip out to the pampas area will be a nice change and should offer the opportunity to share the jungle with the many animals in the open marsh like areas as well as the population of mosquitoes that will be ever present.

My second attempt to get to Rurrenbaque couldn’t have started better , arriving in near perfect weather with the plane easily able to negotiate the grass field unlike the last time, when three straight days of rain prevented me from arriving. The next morning we set off on an incredible boat ride down the Beni river with wildlife spotting the order of the day and boy were we successful! Along the way we managed to see several different types of birds as well as hundreds of turtles and even some caiman eyes. The highlight however was the two different types of monkey that we saw, including the cappuccino monkeys that provided the highlight of the day when they joined us on the boat for a bit of fun and plenty of photos, After the boat ride we arrived at our camp for the next three days a simple but nice place that even had its own rope swing and resident crocodile. Its fair to say that the rope swing didn’t get a tremendous amount of use where he was around.

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Later that night after a good feed and a short siesta (playing hide and seek with animals is tiring work let me tell you) we got back onto the boat after dark to go caiman seeking. Sadly they were being shy and we saw but only a few sets of eyes that produce a magnificent yellow glint with torch light.
Next day was probably the most painful day we could have with little going right but as they say it was experiencing the Amazon wetlands in its rawest form. We set off in the morning searching for anacondas in the scorching heat, a foot of water and metre high grass…..finding a needle in a haystack would have been easier. After three hours of trekking our guide finally divulged the fact that he hadn’t seen one in the last two months! To add injury to insult almost all of our group managed to walk past and disturb a beehive, with the counter attack by the bees producing some comedic running as they tried to get away. Unluckily for me my boots had a hole in them that meant I was walking in water most of the time, luckily for me this meant I was far enough back to change my path and not get stung – always a silver lining.

After our unsuccessful anaconda search we returned to our camp for some lunch and to do some washing such was the encouraging sunshine. About an hour after cats and dogs fell from the sky as the rainforest lived up to its name with 4 straight hours of rain leaving us with little to do but hope our roof held up (thankfully it did) and have a long siesta. As quickly as it had begun it stopped with blue skies greeting us for our late afternoon pink dolphin search. Rather embarrassing we didn’t learn from our mistakes and half an hour later we were soaked in another thunderstorm. With a bit of ingenuity we managed to fashion some dry spots for our cameras and we spent the remainder of the storm swimming with the dolphins that we found. The dolphins themselves looked quite grey however later on we found they have a definite pink tinge under the suns reflection. The river dolphins are supposedly the kings of the river and when they are around the alligators and caimans stay away. Not sure about this as we saw the two pretty close together at times but it still made for a good swim and everything left us alone. The dolphins in sight however are a bit of a tease compared to their salt water cousins and don’t come out of the water for very long at all and they don’t surface anywhere near as much still impressive to see none the less. After this we had a about half an hour to get to know the resident alligator that was out of his hiding spot and residing on the bank.

The next morning we out fishing for piranhas which are quite difficult to catch, made even more difficult by the fact that the hooks they use are way too big. Despite this we did manage to catch a few on our boat and they contributed some food to the resident alligator. The fishing boat trip also provided us with some of the best views of the pink dolphins in the sun and the opportunity to try and get some photos of them although this was quite difficult. After this it was time to take the boat back to the city and say goodbye to the Amazon wetlands. It was quite weird on the way back as we had seen so much that it became a case of “theres another dolphin” or “theres another gator” which says something about the sheer amount of wildlife that you see – certainly more prevalent that in my jungle trip in Peru. As a final parting gift on the drive back we managed to see a sloth and a cabybara the largest rodent in the world – this place is amazing!

Posted by rhinoc 15:39 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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