Inca Trail – my knees will never be the same again

Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200.

Rather than take a direct bus from Puno to Cusco we decided on the Inca Express, a tour bus that only takes a couple more hours but include a few stops en route. It was a mediocre day, we were stuck we a few weird couples that creeped us out massively and promised ourselves to be more selective with the organised tours in future. Move on…

So here we are in Cusco, for one of the highlights of our tour of the Americas – The Inca Trail. Over the past few months we have learnt there is a fair amount of snobbery around trekking to Machu Picchu. Many say the original Inca Trail is touristy and crowded, some same it’s not authentic, yadda yadda yadda. Our opinion is that these comments appear to be from people who didn’t book the trek in time and therefore didn’t have the option, the bitter and twisted souls. We, however, booked about four months in advance, and can’t see a reason to come all the way here and not actually follow the original Inca Trail and are very very excited (although the tour shops will tell you of the other one day Inca treks which is nonsense).

Start of the trail - Inca Bridge

Regulations state that only 500 people can start the Inca Trail every day, and since this number also includes porters and guides, the actual number of tourists starting is around 200. We have picked one of the biggest and best known companies, SAS, on the recommendation of friends, who follow a slightly different camping schedule, meaning we will miss most of the other groups along the way. Machu Picchu itself has lifted all limits on visiting tourists, what used to be a 2500 daily limit has gone, so you need to get there early to miss the hordes. If all goes well we will have most of the trail to ourselves and arrive at MP at the quietest time, just as the sun is rising.

We have a blissful five days in Cusco to acclimatise, although that’s nonsense really – we have got used to the altitude already, it’s just a bit of an excuse to settle and relax. Our hostel is only a 10 minute walk out of town and we make full use of the many restaurants and bars that Cusco is famous for. This is a very touristy city, full of two week holidaymakers, most of who seem to be American. For the first few days we take full advantage of the incredibly cheap deals on offer (£3 for a 5 course meal). Until I come down with a bug that is, and suspect the cheapo salad.
Whilst overcoming the curse of unwashed cucumber we watch lots of TV, take in the sights and smells of Cusco, and enjoy some more sunshine, we are both counting the days until we get to a beach again.

The night before the Inca Trail starts we decided last minute to hire some proper hiking books after we are told at a briefing that there are many thousands of metres of steep stairs, and well, I’m getting on a bit. We also stock up on snacks and water and treat ourselves to a huge McDonald’s feast in preparation – telling ourselves we will no doubt burn it off in no time!

So, back to the Inca Trail. We’re picked up around 5am from our hostel, then drive for three hours to the start of the trail. We have only our day packs to carry, but we have, as is usual, porters to carry the rest. It might be a tough four day trek but we are not going to ruin it by actually having to carry all our own stuff, oh no!

Leah walking action shot

The Inca trail is about 40km (25 miles) in total, which might seem such a short way for four days, but when you consider that we have to ascend up to 4300m from 2300m, taking in three summits along the way, with very few flat paths, then you begin to realise why it takes so long. We are advised to buy some walking sticks to help with the steep steps, which everybody in the group does. There are only 10 people in our group, as five people decided to pay extra and go private and there was a cancellation. That leaves us with a couple of really nice German/American friends and a bunch of American students who have come unbelievably prepared with pills, potions and paraphernalia that would make even an experienced Everest expedition feel ill-equipped. In contrast, we have stocked up on Mars bars, trail bars and a bag of coca leaves to help with the altitude.

Here is a fancy video showing a virtual Inca Trail using Google Earth.

Day 1

(Leah takes over the writing here as I got bored)

We’re told the first day is easy, a gradual climb, about seven hours walking starting at 10am and finishing around dusk. When we arrive at the start of the trail it seems we’re a couple of porters short, so whilst the guide makes some last minute phone calls, we head off. Don’t worry, they’ll catch us up, we’re told!

After a bit of a climb initially, it’s a nice flat walk for an hour or so – this is a piece of cake! But then we hit our first bit of uphill and we realise that perhaps it’s not quite so easy. We’re all huffing and puffing and glad of a ten minute sit down at the end of our ascent. And this is the EASY day. And it’s not even lunchtime. What about tomorrow?! But, as we settle into it, we all begin to find our own pace and start to figure out that if you just take it slowly, it’s not all that bad – it’s not a race after all.

Urubamba river and obliging Llama

Unfortunately, due to the porter shortage, lunch is a little later than anticipated as we have to wait for them to catch us up, but we eventually stop at around 3pm, with only a couple more hours of walking left ahead of us. We’re all expecting a few pre-packed sandwiches and a packet of crisps and we watch in awe as the porters unveil a marquee, complete with table and chairs and a two course hot lunch with at least five different dishes. This is much more than any of us had anticipated and we’re all quietly impressed.

After some grub it’s back on the road again. After half an hour, we pass the campsite where most groups stop for the first night but are told that we walking on further. It’s a stiff hour long climb to the finish, but at least it means one less ascent tomorrow! As the sun sets and dusk hits, we reach the campsite and collapse into our tents – the porters are all there ready and waiting and everything has been set up for us already. Perfect.

I should probably mention a little more about the porters here for those that are unfamiliar. As well as carrying all our belongings, including clothes, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, they also carry all the food, tents, chairs, table, and gas for cooking. Each porter carries up to 25kg each – which is a pretty hefty weight – yet they practically run through the Inca Trail, whilst wearing sandals made of old car tyres. They are truly superhuman.

Anyway, back to Day 1. That evening and it’s another delicious meal cooked by our chef, Mario, before we all crash into bed at about 8pm!! We’re all seriously shattered and struggling to keep our eyes open! Plus, we’ve got to be up at 5.30am the next morning for a long Day 2 so none of us are keen on staying up any later.

Day 2


We’re woken with a coca tea and haul ourselves out of our surprisingly warm sleeping bags for a breakfast of quinoa porridge and pancakes. We’re out of the campsite by 6.30am, leaving the porters to pack everything up behind us. Today is the tough one, lots of uphill, including the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, and 16km to cover before bedtime. Eek.
Unfortunately one of the American girls is sick too so it’s a doubly difficult day for her. Poor thing.

Still, we all set off in relatively good spirits, despite the early hour, and start the day as we mean to go on with some seriously steep steps. Along the way, we buy a couple of bottles of rum to share amongst the group later. Our guide kindly offers to carry them for us, and it’s only later we realise he’s been taking a few cheeky swigs along the way!
Then it’s the long, but not quite so steep, climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, before an evil 20 minutes to the summit. I’m not going to lie, it’s certainly not easy, but it’s also not impossible. And as long as you take it at your own pace, you’ll be fine. You don’t even have to be THAT fit (as we both proved), and the American girl even managed it whilst simultaneously throwing up!! It felt great to reach the top, although as soon as we stopped walking, we started to feel the cold and we were soon piling on whatever clothes we had with us in an effort to keep warm whilst we waited for the rest of the group.

Top of Dead Womans Pass

After some group shots at the summit, and lots of cheering and back-patting later, it’s time to head down the other side of the mountain. Yippee! Downhill! Easy! Not.

Yes, believe it or not, downhill can be just as challenging as uphill. Ok, so you’re not huffing and puffing nearly as much but the steps can be very uneven and pretty steep so it’s tough on the knees. And ankles. And thighs. But after a few arduous hours, we reach the foot of the valley and our stop for lunch. It’s here that many groups set up camp for the night, but again, we’re heading on a few hours further, back up the hill. Oh joy.

Still, we enjoy the rest while we can, and the boots come off as we enjoy a delicious lunch of ceviche, amongst other local delights. Then, much sooner than most of us are ready for, we’re back on the trail again, climbing another summit and stopping of at a couple of Inca sites before a final 20 minute (flat!) walk to the campsite.

Inca ruins on the trail

That night at dinner and Aldo introduces us to the wonders of macho tea, a concoction of tea, orange and lemon juice, some spices, and the added kick of some rum. Despite our best efforts, we’re all too tired to overindulge and after one round we all slope off to our tents. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night!

The benefit of having walked further than the rest of the groups on both Days 1 and 2 is that we have a pretty easy Day 3, and we are due to finish by 1pm tomorrow. It also means that you’re not walking in sync with 200 other people, so we’ve had a pretty quiet Inca Trail so far, something which I’ve heard friends travelling with other companies have been less lucky with.

Reaching the summit end of day 2

Day 3

After an omelette for breakfast, we head off for our final day of full trekking. Today is the easiest so far, fairly flat with only some gentle up and down hills, plus only five or six hours of walking – yay! I’m certainly not envying those other groups who won’t finish until this evening and still have some serious uphill hikes, feeling rather smug!
We arrive at the campsite at lunchtime, and after a bite to eat, we head to an Inca site a mere five minute walk away. We’ve decided to forego the hot showers (they don’t seem to be open yet anyway) in exchange for a dip in a nearby waterfall, a little further on. As we climb down the hundreds of steps on the way to the falls, we’re all too aware we’ll have to climb back up them on the way back, but at this point the lure of the cold, clean water is too much for us to resist. As we strip off to our swimwear, we’re the first in the water and it is FREEZING. The kind of cold that takes your breath away but is utterly refreshing and definitely worth it to feel even remotely clean after three days of sweaty trekking. Even the girls without bathing suits decide it’s too appealing to pass up and get themselves drenched in their clothes. After everyone is satisfactorily soaked, we head back up to the campsite for a spot of macho tea and a well-deserved rest.

Sunset on the trail

That evening, and after thanking and tipping the porters, who we’ll see the last of in the morning, it’s off for another early night before a 3.30am wake up call. Yes, that’s right 3.30am. If we want to hit Machu Picchu for sunrise then we have to set off as soon as the checkpoint opens at 5.30am. And if we want to set off from the checkpoint as soon as it opens then we have to be at the front of the queue, and start lining up from 4.30am. Urgh. Can’t someone else just hold my place?!

Day 4

( I’m getting bored now so Rich continues with the blog)

So after getting up super early and standing in line for 45 minutes, waiting for the checkpoint to open, we’re off on our final stretch to the magnificent Machu Picchu. Of the whole trail, this is the only point where things feel crowded as everyone races to the Sun Gate. It’s an hour and a half through the jungle before we reach the site, and the scenery is stunning. At this point, I (Rich) was really struggling, my calves were cramping and I’d slightly twisted my ankle. Thankfully it was nothing too bad; another in the group was wincing with pain at this point.

Hiking the Inca Trail, aside from the fun of it all, does have the benefit of an experience that no other trekkers or day-trippers will enjoy – watching the sunrise through the Sun Gate. This is where we first get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu itself. The truth is that the ruins are almost always misty in the morning and the chance of watching the sun striking the ancient structure is small. But luck is on our side and the sky is clear. In fact, we had pretty much perfect weather the whole trek. The days were dry and warm and every night we were treated to torrential downpours that left the mornings clear and fresh. At around 7:30am we peak through the Sun Gate to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu, the sky almost cloudless. Nice. If you have time (the first section drags on a bit) here is a video of me puffing and panting the final stretch to the Sun Gate.

Machu Picchu itself is stunning, a lot bigger than I expected and more impressive also. But I’m not sure it’s what I will leave remembering. The trek itself was a blast, it was difficult but not THAT difficult. Attitude more than exercise will get you through without complaint. The jungle sections were stunning, with waterfalls and hanging vines, Dead Woman’s Pass was surreal and the final two days were like walking through an Indiana Jones cum Tomb Raider set.

 

Jungle stuff

After our ceremonial group and individual photos, our guide gave us a short tour and then left us to explore alone. We found a nice little spot overlooking the whole valley and just took it all in. Around 12:30pm, dark clouds started to gather and as the place started to REALLY fill up with day-trippers we made our way down the hill to the nearest town, a bus taking about 15 minutes, passing hundreds of tourists going the other way, armed with cameras taking the easy route to the top.

 

Me with Inca stuff in background

Down in Agua Calientes we have a nice cup of tea and feel a little more human, the rain is now pouring down and we again realise how lucky we’ve been with the weather. After a spot of lunch with the rest of the group it’s a late train back to Cusco and hopefully a hot shower waiting. Here are some gratuitous photos that really don’t do the whole experience justice!

The full photo gallery can be found here or through the photo menu

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Taquile – sleeping with the locals

…our plan is to arrange a homestay on the Island of Taquile, a three hour boat ride away.

After an incredibly scenic yet unbelievably hot (no air conditioning) bus ride over the Andes we arrived at Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We have been to Titicaca before, about three months ago when visiting Bolivia, but I’ve been wanting to come back to visit the larger islands off the Peruvian coast, and as it’s on route to Cusco, why not?

To be honest, Puno itself is a bit of a let-down, nowhere near as picturesque as Copacabana. There are a few nice plazas at either end Calle Lima (the tourist street) but that’s about it, and it seems to cater for the older American tour group market. Bolivia maybe has yet to be discovered by these tours or is just seen as an unsafe option. Perhaps that’s for the best!

Puno street sellers

We’re not here for Puno anyway; our plan is to arrange a homestay on the Island of Taquile, a three hour boat ride away.

Homestays can be tricky business; it’s difficult to find one that is not just about the money. There are two islands off the coast of Puno, but with a little research we decide that Tequila is the least developed of the two and will get us closest to the locals and not just part of a pantomime played out for the tourist dollar. Our hostel owners are great and even recommend a family name for us to ask for when we land on the island.

To get to Taquile we book a one-day tourist tour but intend to leave the tour group as they head home and hopefully pick up an empty seat on a return boat the next day.

Uros Islands

For a few hours we are treated to the full escorted tour treatment. En route we stop off at the floating islands of Uros, just 20 minutes offshore. These locals were driven to living on floating islands made of local reeds when the Spanish invaded/populated the region.  We are dropped off onto one of these islands, inhabited by about 30 families, it’s obvious that their existence here is purely for the tourists and talk is that they head back to the mainland in the evenings for a cup of tea and X-Factor. Yes, very cynical, but true. We sit through an obviously over-performed explanation of their daily struggle on the islands with time-worn jokes inserted without much enthusiasm. Further out onto Lake Titicaca there are other floating communities that live a basic existence farming fish without tourist intervention, so it’s not entirely fake, but we get to see the Disney version (English, French and German language versions also available).

Uros islands

A two hour slow boat later and we land on Taquile, together with about 500 others, and we are split into bite-sized groups and divided out amongst a number of ‘family restaurants’ where we are treated to Authentic cuisine and dance for a few dollars more. Children are ushered off to get changed into outfits and dance like robots in front of us as tourists are plucked from the crowd to join in and dance with them, with cameras being thrust inches from faces–urghh.

Taquile local

I don’t like this sort of tourism; we don’t mind the tours that drop you off places and show you stuff, but this pre-arranged entertainment is just not for us and makes me feel a little uncomfortable.

The day trip to the Island is actually only a two hour visit and after being shepherded into a local artisan shop, some grumbles over the outrageous state of the toilets and frenzied hand sanitizing later, the intrepid explorers are on their way home. The group gives us weird looks as they are told we are not joining them on the trip home but are staying the night, we find a nice local lady who takes us to meet a family who can put us up for the night.

Taquile, our home for the night

At around 2pm as the tour groups leave the island the place is deserted, and we see perhaps six other tourists the rest of the day.

Our home for the night was with the Mamani Machaca family. Their home is a simple, mud constructed affair with four rooms around a central courtyard. There’s no running water or electricity, although the kitchen did have a couple of LEDs protruding from the ceiling on bare wires leading form a small solar panel in the garden. This, we are told, should provide enough light for a couple of hours each night. Our bedroom has two quite decent beds with a mud and straw floor and a few candles and loads of blankets. After working out what time dinner was and being introduced to the six and 10 year old daughters (Eliane and Anali), we decide to walk to the north of the island – it’s bliss. We wander through farming terraces overlooking the lake – the place is completely deserted except for a few kids flying kites.

Taquile Island, tourists make the climb up to the plaza

Dinner was a strange affair. An unhappy younger daughter is packed off to the grandparents for the night and we cram ourselves into a tiny kitchen whilst the mother and older daughter prepare the food. We stumble our way through conversations and there are awkward silences aplenty. I sneakily left the camera on video record for one of the awkward silences.

We think it actually helps if you don’t know the language that well as it gives both sides good reason to just sit and stare with the occasional smile. We ignore the hygiene issues, it really does not bother us. The water for soup was lake water poured from filthy oil can. Veggies were plucked from various bags, nooks and crannies around the mud walls, and we were told there would be no meat, although there was a surreal moment when the younger daughter brought a cute live lamb into the kitchen. I was about to say, that would be lovely with some rosemary, but Leah stopped me and we discovered we were only meant to say hello. So Leah had a quick cuddle and we continued onto a veggie dinner .

Taquile, dinner?

At the night the winds really pick up on Taquile, and outside it was freezing, but we were tucked up under many many blankets. We got up the next morning around 7 and took in the stunning morning views, Ines was up early and cooking us a local breakfast, a kind of deep fried bread and local tea made from herbs from the garden (which tasted like peppermint). After breakfast Ines shows us her local outfits. Clothes here are very very important – they show marital status, community standing and are even used to count days and seasons. The local men are renowned knitters and are recognised as such by Unesco.

Taquile, bedroom

We say farewell to our hosts with a donation for food and board and spend the next few hours wandering around the rest of the island. Making our way down to the port to find our boat, we can see the next deluge of tourist boats in the distance making their way to the island.  As it turns out, the boat we should be getting home didn’t leave port that morning,  but we get onto a boat a few hours later. It’s full so we have to sit outside in the sun (at altitude that not good news, the sun is strong in this thin atmosphere). To add to the drama, the steering broke on the boat, and we spent two hours with the captain struggling to steer against the motors using a makeshift tiller. In the end, it took four hours to get back and I missed the Spurs vs Man U game which made me a bit grumpy. We lost anyway, no surprises.

Overlooking Lake Titicaca

A fantastic experience, and well worth the slight detour. We got a taste of real local life on the island, and were humbled a little, but left eager for the rest of the trip and whatever it may throw at us.

Next we are off to Cusco and another stunning bus ride through the mountains. Suddenly Leah and I wish we had not had quite as much steak and wine in Argentina and perhaps even done a little exercise to get in shape. We’re off to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and we hear it’s tough!

Arequipa – welcome to Peru!

Welcome to Peru!

We arrived in Arequipa around 6pm on August 15th. As I discovered whilst reading the Lonely Planet on the bus, it was ‘Arequipa Day’, pretty much their biggest festival throughout the whole year. As a result, many of the roads in the centre of town were closed so getting a taxi was a bit hard work and we ended up stuck in traffic for ages, but eventually we arrived at the hostel, a mere four blocks from the main plaza.

Arequipa Cathedral - the main plaza

We decided to head out and investigate if any celebrations were taking place. Luckily, the corner of the plaza near our hostel seemed to be the only access point to the square, and since we’re significantly taller than most Peruvians, we managed to get a decent view of what was going on, despite the huge crowds. There was a huge procession of marching bands, traditional dancers, floats and schools, all making their way through the historical centre. We got chatting to a local and he told us that the procession had been going on since 11am that morning and would continue until around 10pm that night. It was a pretty awesome sight with some spectacular costumes (many of which were rather on the skimpy side – I certainly didn’t see Rich complaining though), but unfortunately we haven’t got any photos to share with you as we didn’t take our camera out on the advice of the hostel  – festival time = prime pickpocketing territory.

Little Peruvian lady

On the way home, we grabbed a bite to eat at one of the many Chinese restaurants lining Calle Bolognesi – mains are around 5 soles each (£1), possibly the cheapest meal we’ve had so far! Ok, it’s not exactly Michelin quality food but there’s nothing wrong with it and when you’re on a budget…

Leah and her llama friends

The next morning we decided to explore the town. Arequipa is known as the white city as many of the buildings are made from sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock which shimmers in the sunlight. As with most South American cities there are many, many churches and monasteries to explore but we decided just to pick a few of the highlights. We joined a tour of the cathedral, which was actually most impressive for the views of the plaza and surrounding volcanoes from the roof than anything else. I’m sure it’s a little more interesting if you’re into religion but the tour just made Richard angry about the amount of gold, silver and precious stones that were on show. Surely the church could have found more charitable ways to spend their money than building a huge golden pelican the size of a small child, encrusted with diamonds and rubies, to store their wafers in? Haven’t they heard of Tupperware?

The cathedral at night

That evening and we opt for a slightly more expensive meal (still pretty cheap though) and Rich samples some of the local cuisine – rocoto relleno – which is pepper stuffed with meat and spices, served with potatoes and cheese. Yum.

Santa Catalina monastery

Day two and it’s back on the tourist trail, this time to the Santa Catalina Monastery, a sprawling convent, over 20,000 square metres in size. Although it is still inhabited today, there are now only a few nuns left, but you can explore the old habitations from when it housed over 400 people. The rooms get a little samey after a while but the architecture is beautiful and it’s a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or two.

More monastery

On our final day in Arequipa we decided to go all out and be tourists good and proper. City tours aren’t normally our kind of thing. They’re usually the reserve of the older, fatter, silly-hat-wearing brigade, and we’ve managed to avoid them so far, but we decided to give it a go in Arequipa as it was pretty cheap and also took you into the surrounding countryside. So we pitched up at 9am ready to board the bus – there are several companies offering the tour in the main square, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of difference between them – they all cost the same and all go to the same places, that’s for sure.

Misti from Yanahuara

We spent the next four hours hopping on and off an open-topped bus, stopping at various sites around Arequipa, including Yanahuara, where we got some great pics of Misti and Chachani (the surrounding volcanoes), a llama farm/shop, an old colonial house (we didn’t bother paying the extra 5 soles each to go in), and an old mill where you could ride horses (definitely aimed at the older tourist – more donkey on the beach than wild west). Yes, it was cheesy. But it was pretty cheap, a convenient way to see the surrounding areas of Arequipa which you wouldn’t otherwise venture to, and no obligation to participate in the optional extras so we just used it as an opportunity to enjoy a couple of beers and ice creams in some picturesque locations.

Chachani

And that’s it for Arequipa. It’s been a very touristy few days but it’s also been lovely and hot and sunny and we’ve both managed to get a bit of colour after a few months of winter in Buenos Aires. Our hostel (Sol de Oro) only has a few rooms but has a massive garden complete with sun lounges so after mornings of sightseeing we’ve been taking advantage of the great garden and good weather. Next stop and it’s back to Lake Titicaca, this time for a taste of the Peruvian side of things.

Misti again

Arica – last stop in Chile

After Iquique, it’s a quick stop in another seaside town, although this one is not nearly as pretty. In fact, it’s a bit of a dump to be honest. We’re only stopping on our way across to Peru, there’s really no other reason to stay here.

We arrive around 9pm and try and get tickets for the bus the next morning but they are already sold out, so we are stuck here an extra day. Never mind. When we check into the hostel, the guy tells us that we’re actually better off getting a local bus across the border and then getting an onward connection once in Peru – it’s much cheaper apparently. So the next day we head back to the bus station and get a refund (85% anyway) on our tickets.

Eiffel's iron church

The next day and we decide to explore town since we’re stuck here for a day. There’s not a whole lot to recommend – there’s a church made entirely of iron which was designed by Eiffel (of Parisian tower fame); an old steam train; and some excellent ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon juice), which you can buy from the local fish market. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can head up onto the hill where there’s a religious museum but we’ve had a bit too much Jesus lately.

El morro

Monday morning and we’re up bright and early to catch a local bus to Peru. According to our friend, it’s best to go between 8am and 10am so at 9am we head to the bus station only to be greeted with the biggest queue in history. It might be because it’s a public holiday, it might always be like this, I don’t know, but all of a sudden the tickets we cashed in look much more attractive again. Not wanting to stand in line for hours, we decide to grab a collective (shared taxi) across the border instead – it’s twice the price of the bus but still only £4 each. We also decide to rebook a bus on this side of the border – if the queues are this huge we don’t want to risk it.

Ceviche at the fish market

The queues are just as big at the border but they seem fairly efficient and have a lot of windows open so we only have to wait about half an hour at each side, which is not bad considering the volume of people crossing through. Once we get to Tacna in Peru, where we are catching our onward bus, our taxi driver escorts us into the terminal, shows us where we can change money and buy food, and drops us at the desk of the bus company.

It’s true – if you buy the bus ticket on the Peruvian side you will save money. But we’re on a bus within half an hour of reaching the bus terminal and it’s pretty full so I don’t know whether we would have got seats if we’d waited. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, we made our choice, and we’re on our way to Arequipa. New country, our tenth so far, exciting stuff! We’re also heading closer to the equator so the temperatures should start to rise, although we’ll be at altitude for a little while yet so the nights will still be freezing!

Iquique – surfer dude central

We’re booked onto the Inca Trail for the end of August so we’re in no real rush as we make our way up  Cusco. So after a few days in San Pedro we decide to stop off in Iquique, a seaside town in the north of Chile famed for its surf.

We’re staying at the Backpackers Hostel, mere metres from the beach. Although we arrive at the ungodly hour of 6am they let us check into our room early and catch up on some sleep. It’s actually one of the best places we’ve stayed at, with nice rooms (duvet, yay!), great common areas and one of the biggest and best equipped kitchens we’ve come across.

The beach from our hostel

There’s not a whole lot to do in Iquique unless you’re into surfing but it’s a pleasant enough place to chill out for a few days before heading across the border into Peru. The Georgian architecture is stunning, but in the off-season quietness it gives the place a certain surrealism– you almost feel like you are walking onto a film set, especially when the old tram rattles past you at a snail’s pace. On other streets, you feel more like you are in the Caribbean, with the brightly painted, ramshackle wooden houses. A bizarre mix of styles but somehow charming.

Cool Georgian buildings...
...and Caribbean shacks

After a wander through town and some delicious empanadas (corn and pesto, chorizo and cheese, chicken and vegetable, yum), we head back to the hostel for a lazy afternoon of blog writing and kindle reading followed by a barbecue organised by the hostel. It’s another chance for a delicious steak – we really must start eating healthily soon!

The next day is even lazier – Rich does some geeking, we watch some films. We’re working our way through the Swedish versions of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo trilogy – not bad but some of the fight scenes are a bit amateur to say the least and the guy who plays Blomkvist is nowhere near as hot as Daniel Craig, so looking forward to the Hollywood version. Sorry, I digress. Back to Iquique.

Central plaza

That night we take advantage of the excellent kitchen and make ourselves dinner, nothing fancy, just some pasta, although we opt for pesto, as opposed to ketchup which we see one couple using as pasta sauce – I’m all for eating on a budget but that takes it a step too far in my book.

The following day and it’s back on a bus, heading up to Arica on the Chilean/Peruvian border, but not before we head down to the beach to check out a local body boarding competition. A couple of lazy days in a lovely hostel – if you’ve got time to kill you can while away a day or two but if you’re in a rush then don’t worry too much, you’re not missing a great deal.

Surfer dudes