The End of the Beginning & Our South America Recap

We spent our last few days in Brazil on Ilha Grande, an island south of Rio de Janeiro. We hopped on a ferry from the mainland and an hour and a half later, we were on the shores of Abrao, a small beach village on the coast which prides itself on not having any cars or ATMs. We spent three days hiking to Ilha Grande’s many beaches, including Lopez Mendes, one of Brazil’s “top 10 most beautiful beaches” (and Brazil has a lot of beaches).Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating with us and it rained for a good portion of our stay. We still had a great time walking around the small beach town, drinking the delicious local juices, eating the best burgers we’ve had on our trip and playing poker with our hostel roommates.

From Ilha Grande, we took a bus to Sao Paulo where we stayed for one night to catch our flight the following morning. We both LOVED Brazil and most definitely will be back again.

South America Recap:

After an incredible 99 days traveling through South America, we are headed to Africa!  Before we do, we wanted to do a quick recap of the past 3+ months and highlight a few trip stats as well as our favorite highs/lows.

  • Days traveled: 99
  • Countries visited: 8 (Ecuador/Galapagos Islands, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil)
  • # of Different beds slept in: 44
  • Flights within South America: 3 (Galapagos, to the jungle in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia to Chile)
  • # of Buses: too many to count

Favorite Country: Bolivia! There are so many incredible things to do and see, we could have spent months in Bolivia alone. They have it all – mountains, jungles, beautiful lakes, big cities and quaint remote towns. It was cheap, we ate incredibly well and stayed in some wonderful places.

Favorite City: Rio de Janeiro barely beats out Buenos Aires for our favorite city in South America. The gorgeous beaches, weather and lively culture pulled Rio to the top of our list.

Favorite Activity:  Our trip to the Galapagos Islands, the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia and hiking Machu Picchu all tie for our favorite activity. The Galapagos offers an up close and personal experience with wildlife while Uyuni transported us to a place that was so surreal we no longer thought we were on Earth. Machu Picchu was incredible because we’ve always wanted to hike the Inca Trail and it definitely lived up to our expectations. They were all unique and amazing in their own ways and the things we saw at each place were completely unreal! Honorable mentions go to the Potosi mine tour, the River Plate football match in Argentina, and our trip to the jungle in Madidi National Park, Bolivia.

Best Meal: Hands down, the best meal we had was at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires. The steak and chorizo was so good we ended up coming back again two days later for more. Plus, with 40% off all food and wine, it was a steal. Argentinian steaks definitely live up to the hype!

Best Snack: In Mancora, Peru, a woman wearing a big sun hat and pink skirt would walk up and down the beach selling homemade empanadas. The first day we bought one, the next day three and the last day we bought five. We’d impatiently eye her from across the beach with a soda in hand just waiting for her to come our way. The empanadas were hot, doughy, brushed with garlic and butter and packed with mozzarella, basil and tomato. So good.

Worst Food:  After hiking in Peru’s Colca Canyon for three days, we went to splurge for our first pizza in South America. We sat in a lovely restaurant overlooking the town square and were served the most disgusting pizza we’ve ever eaten. We didn’t know it was possible for pizza to be so bad. The dough wasn’t completely cooked, all of the toppings came from a can and the cheese and tomato sauce was foul. It was such a disappointment and the most expensive meal we’d purchased at the time!

Best Accommodation:  The hostel we wanted to book in Banos, Ecuador was full and they recommended that we stay at D’Mathias, a brand new hostel close by. For $6, we had a brand new private room and bathroom, TV, great in-room WiFi, balcony views, free tea and coffee all day and daily room service. We extended our stay from three nights to six nights because it was such a good deal.

Worst Accommodation:  We spent one night in Guayaquil, Ecuador, before heading to the Galapagos Islands. We found a hostel close to the airport and as soon as I saw our room, I wanted to bolt. You had to climb a narrow and dilapidated fire escape to get to our room which had eight beds and my bed had a cockroach crawling out of it. There weren’t any lockers for our belongings and the door to the room didn’t lock. The bathroom didn’t have a sink and the entire hostel didn’t have soap…of any kind. It was horrible.

Sketchiest Moment:   A popular South American scam occurs when an offender throws fecal matter or something foul on you and/or your bags. Another culprit, who appears to be nice and helpful, offers to clean off your bags. While you are distracted by cleaning yourself off, they rob you of your bags and belongings. Well lucky us…when we were walking to the bus station (which are always located in shady areas) to leave Buenos Aires with all of our baggage, a nice looking woman tells me I have paint all over the back of my pack and jeans. It took a moment to realize that we both had white goo all over our clothes and bags. Another man starts pointing and laughing at us while other people start coming over with napkins to help us clean the mess off. I looked at Chris and said, “these people are about to steal all of our stuff – just keep walking.” We walk straight through the crowd and into the bus terminal while ignoring the commotion.  Once safely inside, we cleaned ourselves off and successfully made it on to our bus without any problems. We were mad that these people did this to us, relieved we had escaped with all of our stuff, grateful that we knew what was happening before something bad happened and thankful the “paint” turned out to be a good smelling shaving cream and not something worse!

Wow – what an amazing start to our trip. We can’t believe how quickly these first 3+ months have gone! We have had such an amazing time immersing ourselves in the South American culture. Thanks for all of your love and support over the past few months, it means the world to us that we have such amazing friends and family to come back to at the end of this journey. We are still happy to be traveling and look forward to the next chapter!

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Arequipa & Trekking Canyon Country

We left Cuzco and made our way to Arequipa which was a wonderful change of pace from the tourist-filled streets of Cuzco. We stuffed ourselves with empanadas and ice cream, visited the local market and hung out around the city center which was surrounded by views of the neighboring Andes mountains.We were also prepping for another multi-day trek – this time to canyon country. Cañon del Colca is home to the second deepest canyon in the world and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. We had amazing experience camping at the Grand Canyon earlier this year so we knew we had to give Colca Canyon a whirl!

After lots of research and talking to other travelers, we decided to forego the overpriced group tour to trek the canyon independently for three days/two nights. Instead of taking the 4 a.m. bus the tour groups take, we opted for more rest and hopped on the 10 a.m. bus to Cabanaconde on the upper rim of the canyon. We were on our way down the canyon trail in the late afternoon which was perfect timing as the sun was also on its way down, providing a great relief from the heat.We spent our first night at the bottom of the canyon at a homestay in a small village, San Juan de Chuccho, for 8 Peruvian soles ($3.20). We arrived just in time for dinner as the sun began to set.  That evening we enjoyed spectacular views of the stars and Milky Way from the canyon floor. Accommodations were basic with no frills but they had warm beds, hot showers and delicious banana pancakes for breakfast.The next day, we hiked through  a few small villages before reaching Sangalle, our second stop. Sangalle is also known as “the oasis” and is the main stop (and sometimes the only overnight stop) for the tour groups, but it’s not to be missed.After shopping around for the best “resort,” we shelled out another 8 soles for a bungalow with a beautiful pool nestled within the natural rocks right in the heart of the canyon. The next morning we awoke bright and early to hike back out of the canyon before the sun rose.  A little more than two hours later, we made it to the canyon rim and were back in Cabanaconde.By skipping the guided tour, we were able to go at our own pace, avoid the crowds, stay longer at the bottom of the canyon and save a decent amount of money. Thanks to the Parallel Life for their DIY post which served as a very helpful guide during our trek!

We celebrated our safe return with a pisco sour and pizza on a balcony overlooking the main square. Sadly, it was the most disgusting pizza we’ve ever eaten and by far the worst meal on our trip – go figure. On the flip slide, that was our first pisco sour (after being in Peru for nearly three weeks) and our first liquor drink since the beginning of our trip! I guess its time to lay off the hiking and time to start experimenting with the local refreshments!

The Main Event: Cuzco & The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

To give us plenty of time to acclimate to the high elevation (11,152 feet), we arrived in Cuzco a few days before our four day/three night Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. We spent the days exploring the city, running errands and stocking up on coca leaf brownies and toffees. The day before the trek, we celebrated one month on the road with an iced coffee from Starbucks overlooking the Plaza de Armas. There are many trails that lead to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail was considered a sacred pilgrimage traveled by only the most important Incans. Due to the popularity of the trail, only 200 trekking permits are allotted each day making the experience somewhat exclusive.

The Inca Trail is considered one of the hardest treks to complete and you must go with an organized group as it is prohibited to trek the trail independently. The morning of our departure we loaded into a private bus at 5 a.m. with 16 other passengers (from the U.S., Ireland, France and England).The trek starts at Ollantaytambo, one of the last remaining Incan villages located in the Sacred Valley, an hour and a half outside of Cuzco. The first day, we trekked an easy 12 km (which took about 6-7 hours) through mountainous landscapes, a few Incan villages and several Incan ruins.  It was surreal to be hiking after many months of looking forward to the trek!The second day brought us through a cloud forest and up “Dead Woman’s Pass,” a steep section of the trail leading to the highest point of elevation on the trek (13,818 feet). This is considered the hardest day for many hikers. In total, we hiked about 16km (7-8 hours) but were rewarded with amazing scenery along the way. The third day is what they consider “the unforgettable day” and for good reason – it was the most scenic and beautiful day on the trek. It was also the easiest (10km).  We woke up in the morning to gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and followed the winding trail through natural tunnels, down 2,000 cobblestone stairs and through mountain passes.  We stopped at a few Inca ruins that could give Machu Picchu a good run for its money and had the views all to ourselves.The last day was a gradual two hour hike to a short stretch of stairs that the guides refer to as “the gringo killer.” The stairs are so steep that some hikers need to climb them with their hands.  Once you reach the top, you’ve made it to the Sun Gate where you catch your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Chris and I were so excited that we practically ran for these two hours. We didn’t even realize we were standing at the top of the Sun Gate because it was so cloudy, we couldn’t see anything. Thankfully, the clouds quickly burned off and there it was in all of its glory – Machu Picchu! After snapping a dozen photos, we followed the trail to the main entrance of the ruins. Our guide told us we were going to take one group photo at a lookout point just before the main entrance. He told us to stick together because hoards of people would start to arrive (a total of 3,000 tourists come to Machu Picchu each day) and we needed to get checked in together as one group.  Naturally, this is when Chris and I get separated from our group and aimlessly wander into Machu Picchu by ourselves without our tickets. We walked around for about 45 minutes snapping photos while getting lost in the city ruins. Finally, one of our guides found us and lead us out of Machu Picchu, only to have us stand in line with the rest of our group to re-enter Machu Picchu – ha!We spent the next few hours learning about the sacred city and exploring the ruins. What is most impressive is how advanced the Incans were in agriculture, astronomy and most obviously…civil engineering. Pictures don’t even do it justice – it was amazing! What is better than visiting the sacred Incan city of Machu Picchu? Seeing it twice. Our trek included a return trip to Machu Picchu and access to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits behind the city, the very next day. Unfortunately, I had to trek to Huayna Picchu solo because Chris had a touch of food poisoning from our lunch in Aguas Caliente the day before. He slept on the terraces of Machu Picchu for four hours while I climbed to Huayna Picchu.  There is a large temple built into the mountainside on the other side of Huayna Picchu mountain that is a well kept secret. Only 400 people are allowed access to climb Huayna Picchu each day and I only saw four people on my two hour hike to the Temple of the Moon. WOW! Hiking Machu Picchu has always been at the top of our bucket list and it did not disappoint!  A HUGE thank you to Nate and Jan Cantrell for the amazing wedding present – it was an experience we will never forget! Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the hot springs in Aguas Caliente because Chris was still feeling a bit under the weather. Frances, Pam, Jan and Alison, we promise to put your honeyfund to good use during another leg of our trip!

From Machu Picchu and Aguas Caliente, we took the backpacker train back to Cuzco and prepared for our next : Arequipa and Cañón del Colca!

Take My Hand, We’re Off To Sandy Sandy Land

We arrived in Lima after an uneventful (20 hour!) bus ride from Mancora.  As the bus approached Lima, we were surprised to see how impoverished the outskirts of the city were.  Sprinkled throughout the barren desert landscape were tiny huts made of plywood without running water or electricity. Once we reached the main city center, the landscape drastically changed as the desert was replaced with a concrete jungle boasting beautiful cliff views.Our stop in Lima was quite short. We explored Lima’s waterfront, stocked up on supplies and bought tickets to our next destination – Huacachina, Peru.

Huacachina, a desert oasis centered around a picturesque lagoon, lies four hours south of Lima on the gringo trail.We checked into our hostel and immediately left to climb the steep dunes surrounding the oasis.  Aside from camping at Joshua Tree National Park, this was the first time we’ve really been in the desert and the scenery was breathtaking!The next day, we went on a dune-buggy and sandboarding trip.  We were most excited for the dune-buggy rides, but the sandboarding turned out to be a blast.  The sandboards were basically plywood with velcro foot straps – not the safest equipment around but we made it work. We watched fellow backpackers eat sand on the way down the dunes but Chris was a sandboarding pro! I opted for riding the board like a sled. On the last and largest dune, everyone went down on their stomachs head first because it was so steep it was unsafe to ride any other way. While other people dragged their legs in the sand to slow themselves, Chris flew down the steep dune going faster and farther than any other person. By the end of the evening, every inch of our bodies was covered in sand – proof of a great time. Huacachina was the perfect place to relax for a few days. The vibe was very laid back and the small town was a great change of pace from the big city of Lima. Plus, it was absolutely gorgeous. From here, we are off to Cuzco – the launch pad for our trek to Machu Picchu!

Beach Hopping and Border Crossing

We just couldn’t get enough sun and sand in the Galapagos, so after flying back to Guayaquil, Annie and I hopped on a bus and headed along the coast to the small beach towns of Montañita and Puerto Lopez. Montañita is a coastal town approximately 3.5 hours from Guayaquil and is a surfing mecca blessed with the country’s best waves and lively nightlife.  We scored an awesome cabana that was set into the nearby hillside overlooking the beach.  Thanks to the Waldkirch’s for the great cabana digs from our honeyfund! Annie and I enjoyed swimming and sitting on the beach people watching.  There was a constant parade of vendors selling everything from bootleg DVD’s to lamps to delicious baked goods. After Montañita, we headed to Puerto López for a couple of days.  Puerto López sits on a fishhook bay and is known for whale watching, especially this time of year.We took a boat trip which included guaranteed whale sightings, lunch, and a short snorkeling trip.  After only about 15 minutes on the boat, we spotted a mother humpback whale and her calf!  We’ve never seen a whale before this trip.  The whales must have known this because they decided to give us a wave with their fins when we arrived. The calf was very entertaining to watch – it jumped out of the water (unfortunately no picture) and swam directly under our boat, splashing some people along the way.  We quickly found out how hard it was to capture good photos of the whales when they surfaced. The sheer size of the mother humpback was incredible.  It was amazing how easily they could glide through the ocean on their way north to Columbia. The whale watching trip really was a blast.  Thanks to David, Amy, Noah and Simon Brown for the honeyfund – it was an amazing experience!

From Puerto Lopez, we took a bus back to Guayaquil to make our way to Peru. Instead of suffering for 28 hours on the direct bus to Lima, we decided to make one more beach stop.  The border crossing from Ecuador to Peru seemed pretty straightforward except that it was hot, packed and swarms of bugs were flying around our heads.  While waiting in line, the power went out and we stood there in pitch black darkness clinging to each other and hugging our belongings.  Annie worried we were going to die in this “ninth ring of hell.”

There is always light on the other side and luckily the other side was Máncora – our first stop in Peru.  We arrived pretty late that first night, so we spent the night in dorm accommodations.  The next morning, we splurged and upgraded to a beach front cabana for the next couple days. Máncora is a vacation destination for Peruvians and is also known for its good surf (and the most delicious empanadas we’ve ever had).  In the summer months, waves can reach three meters.  I rented a surfboard for two hours to catch some waves with the locals and it only cost 10 soles (less than $4). After three small beach towns, we’re headed to the big city of Lima!