A Day in Ollantaytambo

Waking up on a memory foam-topped mattress, swaddled in plush blankets and pillows, following days of trekking up and down mountains, you can only imagine how many times I clicked the snooze button. But, my time had expired in beautiful Aguas Calientes. I had an 8am train to catch to Ollantaytambo. I was definitely going to miss this city tucked away in the shadows of Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the city’s simple and quiet flow of life and the ever-present feeling of being wrapped up in safety and a warm hug by the looming mountains that surround. The city was still at such an early hour and the walk to the train station was unimpeded by the hustle of tourists and paraders that filled them just the day before. It was nice to have my quiet goodbye.

Most of the passengers on my train car were students from the University of Illinois on a post-graduation trip with their honors college. It hit me that my interactions with Americans had been few and far between so far and I found it unexpectedly comforting to hear snippets of conversation about familiar cities, jobs, and college courses floating in the air. Just three years ago, I was them. Oh what a life that has unfolded since then!

When the train pulled into the station in Ollantaytambo, the rough plan for the day had been decided. Retrieve my backpack from my hostel. Find a tourist office to see what nearby hikes were available. Eat some good food. Wander the markets. Board the colectivo van back to Cusco by mid-afternoon.

As it turned out there were some Incan granaries about an hour’s hike from the city center. The walk to the trailhead brought me down a maze of cobble-stoned streets, wide enough for foot traffic only and eerily quiet except for the rare stray dog here and there. There was a woman setting up her chicha “flag” to announce that a fresh batch of beer was ready for passerby.

The hike was short but strenuous on my already beyond sore legs but worth it. The views from the top were incredible, overlooking the clay roofs and ruins across town. I shared the trail with three, maybe four other hikers. The sun was shining and the temperature was hot but manageable. I think I bumped into bliss again.

On the way back down, I ran into a local offering tours of the ruins I had just seen. Although I obviously didn’t need a tour, I did need lunch. He recommended I try alpaca and directed me to the restaurant to do so. It was a good recommendation. My alpaca came drowning in a sweet mustard sauce and lay on a bed of caramelized onions. The meat was lean, tender, and almost sweet even without the mustard. With a little spanglish, I managed to successfully substitute the spinach side for a nice order of french fries – “No espinaca. Papas fritas, instead [thumbs up + head nod].” Then they had to roll me out of the restaurant. So filling!

After wandering the markets for a bit, I decided it was time to head back to Cusco. The colectivo vans line up over by the train station, hoping to fill their vans with the off-loading train passengers. The van I ended up in wasn’t so successful but it meant my giant backpack didn’t have to sit on my lap for the next hour.

This being my second time in a colectivo, I noticed how much more relaxed I was with it all and was able to sit back and just enjoy the breathtaking scenery passing by. The stretch of road that U-turns around Urubamba is hands-down one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on. Sitting in this van full of friendly strangers I couldn’t communicate with and the beautiful patch of earth passing by outside my window, I once again felt completely at home and at peace in the world. This is what I want my life to be about – simple pleasures in beautiful places, surrounded by culture and an endless flow of new experiences. The feeling needs to be bottled.

Returning to Cusco felt good. I was glad that I had spent that unexpected day here just a few days before. It cut down on the stress of finding my hostel and way around. I felt like a local or like I’d spent at least more than 6 hours there, strangely enough. It felt like home. My hostel, Hostal El Grial, was much nicer than I had expected and right next door to La Boheme, the hostel where I had been storing my bag last time I was in town. I had a room tucked away on the first floor. They brought coca tea to me as I was settling in and set me up with a map and some recommendations for things to do and where to eat. I was impressed in all of 5 minutes. Glad I had two nights here!

By the time I wandered outside again, it had already grown dark. The streets were full of light and people and I couldn’t have been more excited to be there. Still stuffed from my lunch, I opted for a hot chocolate and pastry for dinner and found this really cute cafe just off the Plaza de Armas. I met a family from Seattle while there. Their daughter had actually lived in Cusco for the past year going to university and was now headed to the jungle for 6 months to live with a tribe and do research. The conversation was interesting and insightful. It was nice getting back to the random conversations with whoever was nearby. Ollantaytambo was nice but so, so vacant. I was ready for the hustle and bustle of a city again. And that is exactly what I received over the next two days.

Hasta luego,


Machu Picchu, is that really you?!

You know that feeling you get when you see a celebrity in real life? It kind of just doesn’t seem real. They look everything like you knew they would but for some reason the real-life version of them just exudes perfection and it feels like, if you were to reach out and touch them, they’d disappear or your hand would fall through them like a ghost. That is how it felt when I stood above Machu Picchu looking down on the ruins. There it was, laid out in front of me. So perfect. I’d take a picture and the picture was perfect. It was really hard to catch my brain up to the moment I was in. This was indeed real life and here I was standing on and in and surrounded by an ancient world wonder. I’m pretty sure I teared up. I can say this now that I am back home and done with my trip – this was the moment that it all sank in that I had followed my dream to go to Peru. I had made it happen. I was really here and I could not have been happier, prouder, or more alive than I was in this moment.

Once I had accepted the reality that I was in fact standing amidst the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu, I started to explore. I decided to save the actual ruins for the end and instead opted for any and all of the hikes I could access without an additional ticket (Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain would have to wait until my next visit). So, I explored the Inca Bridge and the Sun Temple. I opted to go without a guide and so much of my exploring was completely blind, having no idea what trail led where. The Sun Temple hike was fairly interesting. I climbed for over an hour up a very steep hill having no idea when or if I’d ever arrive anywhere. At one point, I thought I might be hiking the Inca Trail backwards and would wind up in Cusco in about four days time. It wasn’t until I reached the top that I actually knew I had arrived at the Sun Temple or that there even was such a thing as a Sun Temple.

The combination of my two-days hike in the Colca Canyon and the hilly streets of Cusco had left my leg muscles screaming as I pushed them up and down ever-steeper hills all over Machu Picchu all day long. When I did make it down to the heart of the ruins, I rounded every corner and followed every guiding arrow I came across, having absolutely no idea the significance of each room and courtyard I passed through. One thing I did know was that it was beautiful and the fact that these blocks of perfectly placed and packed stone had withstood the test of time and invasion was all I really needed to know anyway. I’m pretty sure I ended up in areas that I wasn’t supposed to be climbing. Oops. I blame the maze of twists and turns that are the ruins. It was amazing finding myself in pockets where I truly had the space to myself. Not another person in sight. Not a man-made sound to be heard. These moments I will never forget.

The weather was perfect. The train ride into Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo had been rainy but only a slight drizzle remained upon arrival at the ruins and sun prevailed later. The lighting was actually great for photos. The overcast conditions left no shadows. And the wispy clouds that hung over the surrounding mountains only added to the already epic scene. Now, let me at least spend a sentence on the mosquitoes because they were most certainly an ever-present companion throughout my exploration. My ankles were eaten alive. Moral of the story: bring bug spray to Machu Picchu.

When I’d seen enough and my stomach started grumbling for lunch, I decided it was time to take the bus back down to Aguas Calientes where I’d be spending the night. I had a hostel booked so step one was finding it and dropping my bag off. This is where the story gets interesting.

Unlike my hostel in Ollantaytambo, my hostel in Aguas Calientes actually had an address that was on a map so I found it fairly easily. Only problem was, the door was locked and covered in signs that I’m pretty sure I was translating correctly to mean, this hostel is closed. I hadn’t checked my email in a few days. Maybe they had warned me they were shutting down? Regardless, this was an unexpected turn of events and here I was tired, hungry, weighed down by my overstuffed day pack, and without a clue as to whether I’d have a place to lay my head this evening. So, I started walking away. A parade of costumed and masked dancers blocked the road ahead so I decided to wait it out and consult my guidebook for some hostel alternatives while they passed.

While I was searching for the Aguas Calientes section of my book, a woman I’d never seen before was coming my way calling my name. Cue confusion until I glanced at her shirt to see the the name of my would-be hostel like a long lost friend patched onto her shirt pocket.  She explained to me that she was indeed from EcoPackers Hostel and that she had seen me knock on the door. She said the government had recently shut them down for reasons I couldn’t quite make out through her accent. But the most important part was that they had a room for me in a hotel on the other side of town and that I would only have to pay what I would have at EcoPackers. She walked me to it as soon as we walked through the hotel’s doors, I realized that I had gotten very lucky indeed. The hotel was top-notch and my room was gorgeous! There were three beds and I was told others may straggle in throughout the day. They didn’t. So, I ended up having an incredibly, luxurious room for the price of a dorm room at a hostel all to myself. Can we call this “luck of the Incas”?

Now that I had a home for the evening, I could relax and explore the quaint, little town of Aguas Calientes, nestled between mountains, cut by a rushing river, and in the shadow of glorious Machu Picchu. I ate lunch at a pizza place, Chez Maggi, recommended by my guidebook and was quickly joined by the most adorable cat. It was a stray from the streets but it was just too cute to shoo away, as I know my doctor would have preferred. It curled up on the bench next to me, practically in my lap. While I ate, it slept. I swear, I don’t think loneliness exists in Peru. Every time I seemed to have found it, someone or, in this case, some creature would walk into the scene to chase it away. This little kitty was just the companion I needed for this moment. The duration of one meal was all the time I needed to grow attached and contemplate taking her home with me. She’d fit in my backpack, I think 😉

After lunch, I explored the local market, bartered for the mug that would forever represent my Peruvian adventure (I collect mugs), and before I knew it darkness had fallen over the town and a shower was in order. Then more food, why not?!

I wandered into a a restaurant I had spied earlier in the day for dinner. The promise of local artisanal beers is what truly drew me in but the roaring fire in the center was a nice touch as well. I may have showed up alone but by the end of my meal I was deep in conversation with the table of Canadians next to me. They were on a family vacation, off to Brazil next. Like I said before, never alone…

As I exited the restaurant, yet another crazy, costumed celebration was parading down the street. Next thing I know, I’m being pulled into the mass of paraders and am flanked on both sides by white-masked men dancing some jig that I awkwardly tried to replicate (because what other choice did I have? They weren’t letting me go back to the sidelines). What a crazy, unexpected and unforgettable experience. A perfect capture of the trip as a whole. Nothing was what I could ever have imagined. It was better.

I went to bed smiling this night. It was a good day.

Hasta luego,


The Overnight Journey to Cusco and A Change of Plans

In a quite impressive two hours, I managed to return from my Colca Canyon tour, say goodbye to my new European friends, get back to my hostel, shower, reorganize my pack, meet someone new, enjoy some chicken nuggets from BK, and share a taxi to the bus station with the Germans from my Colca tour, leaving myself just enough time to be thoroughly lost and confused at the bus terminal.

The Arequipa bus station has two terminals and apparently no English-speakers. Of these two terminals, I of course wandered to the wrong one. For about a half hour, I walked up to person after person asking, “Habla ingles?” to no avail. Even the tourist information desk was no help at all. Finally, someone understood what I needed help with and tried to gesture me in the right direction.

When I made it to the correct terminal and into the waiting area for my bus with only minutes to spare all I could do was laugh at how difficult the last thirty minutes had been. Time to learn Spanish, Amber.

Not a minute had passed when a familiar face walked through the door. Earlier back at my hostel, when I was scrambling to get ready and packed, I very briefly met Naomi, a solo traveler from Australia, who was in the other Colca tour group that had shared the same van with us back to Arequipa. She had mentioned she was also taking an overnight bus to Cusco. Turns out we were on the same one! God, I love how life works sometimes. Unlike my experience, Naomi had quite a smooth arrival to the bus terminal thanks to a Spanish-speaking friend of hers. She, like me, knew zero Spanish but seemed to be very well connected. Someone else in the waiting room knew her too.

We boarded the bus. I had splurged a bit and booked a seat on Cruz del Sur’s VIP level. I’m not sure what the regular seats looked like, but the VIP seats were great. Plush, reclining, with a cozy, fleece blanket and pillow resting on top. There was a built-in television on the seat in front of me and as soon as the wheels started rolling, a hot meal was delivered to my seat. I could get used to this VIP lifestyle 🙂 I “fell asleep” to The Grand Budapest Hotel. I say “fell asleep” because it was more of a minute on, minute off type of sleep. I could have actually been on a roller coaster. I wouldn’t argue it. We sped along at what felt like 100mph through God only knows what terrain at God only knows what heights with God only knows what guard rails. But we made it, well rested or not.

I met up with Naomi again in the bus terminal and we shared a taxi to Cusco. My plan for the day was to sort out where to pick up a colectivo (local van) to Ollantaytambo, a village in the Sacred Valley. That is where my pre-booked hostel was. Naomi had been recommended a hostel in the San Blas neighborhood of Cusco so we told the taxi driver to take us there. Next thing I know, my pack is locked up in storage at Naomi’s hostel, I’m drooling over a plate full of the most delicious maple pancakes, sipping some fresh-squeezed orange juice, and shuffling through the Cusco section of my guidebook with Naomi to sort out a plan for the day ahead in Cusco. Looks like Ollantaytambo will be seeing me much later than anticipated.


When we made our way into the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, we were met by some of the most elaborately costumed characters, donning nightmarish masks and holding spray cans full of white foam that Naomi fell victim to eventually. I have no idea what the celebration was but there were parades all day long. It was like everywhere we went, the parade followed.


We paid a visit to the Choco Museum. As a certified chocoholic, I sort of had no choice. The smell of chocolate lured me inside and the suggestion of some chocolate tasting stripped me of any other alternative destination. Yes Ollantaytambo, you can keep on waiting. Chocolate always wins.

We tasted chocolate. We drank chocolate. We lathered ourselves in chocolate creams and oils. If only this place was okay with me moving in and never leaving, I probably wouldn’t have ever made it out of Cusco, let alone the museum. But we did. We headed back to Naomi’s hostel for a bite to eat at the creperie above it. An egg, ham, and cheese crepe satisfyingly took care of lunch and it was time to hit the road.


Loaded down by my seemingly growing pack (I think it ate the crepe, actually), I waddled down the hilly streets of Cusco to what I thought was the location of the colectivo pick-up. I was told to look for a bunch of white vans and people screaming destinations. None of which did I find and the area seemed pretty sketchy. What did this mean? It meant, the long downhill I had just enjoyed was now going to be a long uphill back to the main plaza to one of the information offices.

Successfully redirected, I jumped aboard a colectivo loaded with locals and, according to the man screaming, “Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo (x infinity)”, that’s where I was headed. Of the probably 15 people squeezed like sardines into this van, there was only one very nervous and doubting tourist: me.

I definitely questioned my decision as the van huffed and puffed out of town, barely making it up the steep climbs. We passed through some fairly rough areas of town and it was only because my trusty intuition wasn’t screaming at me to bail that I was able to silence the nerves and just enjoy the ride. And the ride did prove enjoyable. The Sacred Valley…WOWZERS!! I didn’t know light could shine like that or that something this beautiful could actually exist. The most memorable sight was the descent into Urubamba. We had the perfect overlook of the entire valley as we circled down into it from above.


I made it to Ollantaytambo just as dusk was falling over the town. My hostel was playing hide-and-seek with me and the whole town must have been in on the game because no one was willing to tell me where Inka Paradise was hiding. It wasn’t until I happened to randomly ask a couple of tourists passing by if they knew where it was, that I was hand-delivered to it’s doorstep. They happened to be staying there too! I love life.

Inka Paradise was fiiine. I had a private room with bath which was exactly what I needed. I screamed with excitement a little when I saw a fresh, clean towel waiting for me in the bathroom. The towel I was dragging along with me just never seemed to dry and it was picking up quite an interesting smell with each passing day. So yes, fresh towel, clean sheets, privacy, and Machu Picchu in the morning. I was starting to forget what real life was like by this point in the trip.

Hasta luego,


The downs and ups of the Colca Canyon

“Amber, Amber…” beckoned my Colca Canyon tour guide, Raphael, from the street below. This was my cue that my 3am pick-up had arrived. Raphael showed me to the van where the other 5 travelers in my group were already packed in. Greetings and the getting to know each other part would have to wait until breakfast in Chivay because we all had some unfinished sleep to get back to.


I must have slept more soundly than I thought on the bumpy and winding 3-hour ride to Chivay because next thing I know the gentle sounds of some sort of Incan/Peruvian music are in my ear and the volume keeps increasing. Oh, It’s Raphael’s cell phone pressed against my ear making that beautiful sound and I’m the last one up!

We unloaded from the van to freezing cold temperatures. Shivering and still not totally awake, we take our seats at a restaurant that I have no clue how we arrived at. We were the only patrons at this early hour. A woman donning the colorful native dress dropped bread, jam, and coca tea on our table. We devoured about ten baskets worth of the bread while we started to gather each other’s names and stories. My group consisted of some honeymooners from Slovakia, a German couple on an extended 6-month vacation that started in Canada and is finishing in South America, and another solo female traveler from Austria. Of all the travel agencies I had to choose from in Arequipa, I had somehow landed in the perfect group. All easy-going, friendly, and ready for the incredible trek that lay before us.

IMG_8763After breakfast, we stopped at the famous Cruz Del Condor to hopefully catch a glimpse of the massive condors. These revered birds have a wing span of over 8 feet. They are huge! We spotted a few but from a distance it was hard to really appreciate their size.


Next up was the start of our trek in Cabanaconde. Raphael drew a circle in the sand to illustrate the loop through the canyon that we’d be traversing over the next two days. Right away, the views were amazing. I couldn’t take enough pictures. Raphael pointed out the speck across the canyon that was our lunch destination. It looked impossibly far away.


The descent into the canyon was grueling on the knees. For about 3 hours, we followed a zig-zagging and very steep trail to the river at the bottom. Making it to the bottom was an incredible feeling but then began the uphill. Fortunately, lunch was just another 40 minutes hike. Whereas the downhill was exposed and winding switchback after switchback, the uphill was lush and full of the most beautiful flowers and trickling trailside streams. We saw donkeys grazing and butterflies zipping about. The tiny village where plates of lomo saltado were waiting for us was a welcome and beautiful sight. We were all ready for a chair by this point and some fuel.


After lunch, we still had another 3 hours to hike to the oasis where we’d be sleeping for the night. Raphael offered us an alternate shorter route through some abandoned terraces that we all had no problem taking him up on. Along the way, we tasted cactus tuna, pepper, and this long, green, podded fruit called pacay. We smelled a special leaf that gives you instant energy and learned about the white insect that thrives on cactus and is used in our yogurts, cosmetics, and is the red dye used in many of the Quechua fabrics.


The first glimpse of Sangalle, the oasis in the canyon, was beautiful for so many reasons. Besides it looking like paradise with its lush, jungle-like landscape and a few thermal baths, Sangalle also meant food, rest, and only 3 hours left of hiking to the finish the next morning. We slept in thatched roof huts with thick blankets and no electricity. The stars above looked incredible! Dinner was soup, spaghetti, and some chamomile tea. I slept like a baby this night despite Raphael mentioning that we might find scorpions chilling on the walls of our huts. Harmless, he said. Fortunately I never found out if we had some extra roommates. Saved by the dark, I guess.


We started our final stretch at 5:15 the next morning. It was an all uphill hike to the finish that started by the light of our headlamps. Chatting with Raphael about trail running and his insane three treks a week schedule distracted me from my sore muscles and the incredibly steep 3-hour ascent. It was only when we reached the top that the realization of what we had just done sunk in. I felt like I just conquered the world and maybe for a second wished I could be back at the beginning again. I had no idea how amazing this experience would be.


The path into Cabanaconde was gorgeous, some of the prettiest scenes of the whole journey. It felt like our reward for making it this far. Another reward was a steaming hot breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, and coffee. That’s right – breakfast followed the 3-hour uphill hike. Needless to say, we were starving.

IMG_8764The rest of the tour was a bit of a blur. The best of it was behind us. We stopped at a craft market where you could take a picture with a llama while a large bird perched on your head. We visited the highest point in the area that offered views of all of the volcanic peaks. My head was spinning at 4,910 meters above sea level. Finally, we paid a visit to a llama farm where I learned the difference between llamas, vicunas, and alpaca. It’s all in the coloring, fur, and the length of their necks. Then it was back to Arequipa for my quick turnaround to the bus station for an overnight bus to Cusco…

Hasta luego,