On Hiking with Porters

The only way to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is by going with a guided group. This is because prior to 1990, the trail was unregulated and not all hikers treated Pachamama (Mother Earth) with respect. The trail suffered from trash left behind and too much foot traffic so in an attempt to preserve it, the Peruvian government only issues 500 permits per day to access the trail. Most companies employ porters to carry your belongings and my hiking experience was made immensely easier thanks to the incredible team of porters that travelled with us during the 4 day trek. I made sure that I chose a company that treated their porters fairly and paid them competitive wages but despite this, I don’t think it is something I will do again.

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Most of group at the end of Day 1

On average it costs $650 for a 4 day/3 night hike on the Inca Trail. This includes everything you could possibly need: food and water, transportation from Cusco to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. It was a priority for me to find a company that had high standards for paying their staff. I went with Alpaca Expeditions and felt good about this choice especially after reading about their policies on porter treatment, including their wages and benefits such as health care and safe gear (hiking boots, warm clothing, etc.). Most of these porters come from farming communities in the Peruvian highlands, and Alpaca Expeditions also coordinates social projects that give back to these communities. It was evident throughout the hike that not all porters are treated so nicely by the companies they work for, and I really believe that AE does everything they can to make the experience safe and fair for their employees.

Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to our team of porters. After driving for a few hours from Cusco on the morning of Day 1, we stopped in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis. This town is located closer to the farms where most of these men live, so this eliminates the need for them to travel hours to Cusco the night before a trek begins and stay overnight to travel with the group. Elio, the manager of the group, sat next to me for the remainder of the ride. He told me about the farms in the area and the crops that are grown there. I asked him to teach me how to say thank you in Quechua: sullpayki.

As soon as we arrived at the trailhead, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day. This included setting up tables and chairs, cooking eggs, making toast, boiling water for coffee and tea, preparing fruits, etc. Once we finished eating and were ready to hit the trail, the chaskis stayed behind to clean up and pack everything into their bags. I immediately realized how uncomfortable I was having a team of people working to make me comfortable.

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Hard at work getting ready to hit the trail

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The speediest breakfast table set up I’ve ever seen

An hour or so into our hike the chaskis passed us on the trail – something that would continue to happen every morning and afternoon after they had cleaned up from the meal they just prepared, packed everything up from the spot, and got on their way to beat us to the next stop. They always moved at a steady jog despite their enormous backpacks being almost twice their size!

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Our chaskis heading to the first checkpoint

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Passing us on the trail

Since the Inca Trail has such steep inclines and declines over the course of the 4 days, it is too dangerous to use animals to carry the heavy packs. This means it is human power that needs to bring everything up and down the mountains each day. Each hiker is allotted 7 kg (15 lb) of weight to be given to a chaski to carry for the duration of the trip. This isn’t a lot, but there were 10 people and 2 guides in our group. That meant that aside from a small day bag that we each carried ourselves, 16 people were carrying literally everything we would need for the 4 day trek, plus everything they would need as well. They carry tents (for sleeping, eating, and cooking), food, our belongings (clothes, toiletries, etc.), sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a portable bathroom tent and toilet, chairs, tables, pots, pans, plates, cups, napkins, utensils, all the trash produced throughout the hike…I’m sure there are things that I’m forgetting.

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On the left: my belongings they carried for me. On the right: what I carried myself

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Just a small part of the gear they carried. Not pictured: food, everything needed to cook and serve food, tents, etc., etc., etc.

Peruvian law states that porters are not allowed to carry more than 25 kg (55 lb) each. Their packs are weighed at 2 separate checkpoints on the first day. I have read that some companies ask hikers to carry some things through these checkpoints, making the porter’s bags lighter, and then have the porters take the weight back into their bags after passing the inspections. According to the website and from what my guides told me, Alpaca Expeditions’ weight limit per chaski is 20 kg (about 45 lb) – 15 kg of gear/hiker’s belongings, and 5 kg of things each chaski needs for himself. Having just completed the Ausangate trek where I carried everything myself over difficult trails, I felt terrible watching this team of people work so hard for me.

I like to ask a lot of questions, so throughout my hike I made this a big topic of conversation with my guides, Herlín and Manolo. I asked about the chaski’s wages, how much weight they were carrying, and how they were treated by Alpaca Expeditions. The Peruvian government sets standards for wages, and on average they make 45 soles per day ($13.50 usd at the time of writing this post). That’s $54 for the 4 days! Companies can then provide added benefits such as health insurance and free gear that they need in order to safely hike. I also asked where they slept during the hike since our campsites didn’t seem to have enough tents for them. Once they finished cleaning up after dinner each night, they cleared out the tent where we ate and placed their sleeping pads and sleeping bags in a long line through that tent. This makes a lot of sense in terms of having less to carry, but of course it offers absolutely no privacy, and 16 men end up sleeping like sardines for 3 nights.

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Our meal tent. The small green wall separated where they cooked from where we ate. 16 people slept in this tent!

During an introduction ceremony that we had on our first night together, I learned that our team ranged in aged tom 21 to 59. I asked our guides what other opportunities they would have if they weren’t working as a chaski. What I learned is that although it’s not a very good job, it is a decent one in terms of the cost of living in rural Peru, and it allows their children to go to school. The majority of these men are farmers from the Sacred Valley.

When I arrived at our first campsite, the team was working hard to set up our tents and get dinner cooking. I asked if there was anything I could do to help but they insisted that there wasn’t. After a few minutes of aimlessly walking around the campsite, I asked again but the answer was still no. After asking a 3rd time (it was really difficult watching them do everything and doing literally nothing myself), one of them finally let me finish blowing up some sleeping pads with an air pump. I had an entire tent to myself, which was a real luxury and not intentional. You can pay more for your own tent, but I was fine being placed in a tent with someone else in my group. Originally there were supposed to be 11 people in our group but one dropped out at the last minute. There was a miscommunication about how many tents to bring, so instead of sharing one with the 9th person, he and I each had our own tent. I felt terrible knowing that an extra tent was schlepped up that mountain for me when I would have easily shared. I also didn’t like having so much space to myself after learning where the chaskis slept. Although it was a service I was paying for, deep down it did not make me feel good.

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My spacious tent and the meal tent in the background.

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Our campsite on Day 1

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Our campsite on Day 2

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Our campsite on Day 3

Our amazing team stayed at each campsite and lunch spot after we had left in order to clean and pack up. They somehow scurried by us somewhere along the trail in order to arrive before us to set up at the next campsite. Each time we arrived at the next spot, they stood in a line to applaud us for making it. At each campsite and lunch spot they provided each of us with warm water in a small basin for us to wash our hands and face. (I felt so clean that I almost forgot I wasn’t showering this whole time!) They boiled, purified, and then cooled all the water that we drank throughout the hike. They kept a portable toilet clean and at our service in another tent. After dinner they stayed up later than us to clean and organize, and in the mornings they woke up earlier and provided hot tea ready at our tent as a wake up call. Not to mention they also hiked the same exhausting trail we did while carrying much more weight. I’m sure the experience of the beautiful nature and breathtaking views is much less enjoyable after hiking it day in and day out for years while working hard for other people.

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They even made us a cake to congratulate us on making it to Machu Picchu!!!

On our last night we had another small ceremony to thank the chaskis for everything they did. This is the time where it’s customary to give them tips for their service. Thankfully these tips are not factored into their wages. We each got a chance to thank them in our own words for all that they had done. I was happy to be able to speak to them in Spanish without a translator, however, it was so challenging to find words to express the immense gratitude I felt toward these men. To close the ceremony, we were taught the Quechua word haylli meaning happiness with nature. It’s tradition to chant this 3 times together at the end of all Andean celebrations as a way of saying sullpayki – thank you.

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Showing off my selfie stick skills

I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of hiking the Inca trail in the days and months after my trip. When people ask me about the experience, it’s hard to express how I felt about hiking with porters without sounding like I don’t appreciate their work, or the fact that I got to have the experience in the first place. I want to be clear that the hike, the Inca sites, the incredible nature, the history – everything about the experience was amazing and I am so lucky to have experienced it. However, observing how hard the chaskis work was a very important part of this experience for me, and I did not feel proud to be participating in an industry that employs humans to do such physical labor for the benefit of my vacation.

Having now completed this hike, I am interested in other hikes of this caliber in other parts of the word – mainly hiking to Mt. Kilimanjaro or maybe even Everest base camp someday. I don’t know if these are possible without the help of porters. I am aware that as a participant in an experience like this, I am contributing to the fact that these people have jobs and opportunities to support their families. This does help me feel better, but I’m conflicted as to whether I would feel comfortable hiking in this way again.

If you’re thinking of hiking the Inca Trail, I highly recommend booking your trek with Alpaca Expeditions. They are a wonderful company and having lived the experience with them, I can say that I do believe they are one of the better companies available in Peru. Here are a few other recommendations I have from my experience:

Inform yourself: Research is so important when it comes to traveling, and this is the perfect example as to why. When I first thought about hiking the Inca Trail, I wasn’t considering the lives of the people that would be working to make it possible for me. Go with a company that has high standards for how they treat their employees. It’s hard work out there!

Ask questions: Even after doing my own research and feeling good about the choice I made, I still asked my guides lots of questions because I wanted to know if what I had read was true. Luckily I didn’t find out anything that I didn’t want to hear.

Say thank you: Better yet, say gracias. Although these people are working, they are also human, and they are doing everything in their power to make this experience comfortable for you. Thank them for what they’re doing, and for goodness sake, say it in THEIR language. It made me so angry to hear people thanking them in English.

Talk to them: You’re in Peru surrounded by locals! Learn from their culture, listen to their stories. Although they’re working, there’s downtime at the campsites and I did my best to make small talk with them when it seemed appropriate.

Offer to help: maybe this is just me, but I don’t like being doted on. I liked helping out when I could, although they were very reluctant to accept. I suppose it’s possible they’re not supposed to let paying customers help with their work but it made me feel better to try.

Tackling the Ausangate Trek

While planning my trip to South America, I came across the Ausangate glacier hike that passed by Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain, located outside of Cusco, Peru. Six days of walking and camping around a glacier at (a minimum of) 15,000 feet sounded very challenging. As I looked into it further I noticed that there’s almost no information about it online, and whatever you can find highly recommends hiring a guide as well as horses to carry your gear. Going as part of a guided group costs anywhere from $500-$600 – so almost immediately, I deemed the experience too expensive and something I wasn’t prepared for. I tossed the idea out the window.

After arriving in Colombia and posting the first picture of my travels on social media, a friend I met at UMass 11 years earlier wrote to me to say he was in Chile. Nick and I exchanged our vague itineraries, but since I was in the very north of the continent and he was in the very south, we figured it might be difficult to meet up somewhere, especially considering how little we were both planning along the way. As my time in Peru approached, he started mentioning that he and his friend Jimmy were planning to do the Ausangate trek and they were determined to do it without a guide. They kindly invited me to join them but I was nervous I’d be holding them back. This would be my first time backpacking and camping along the way, and we would need to carry all the gear and food we’d need for 6 days. These guys are very experienced hikers who had just spent 2 months exploring Patagonia. Nick’s response was that “this is a group effort” and so began the most laid back planning of the most difficult hike I’ve ever done.

Side note: if you’re looking for useful advice about how to plan for and actually do the Ausangate trek, check out Nick’s blog for lots of helpful information.

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Our goal: reaching this incredible glacier!


The only information available online about doing this trek without a guide are a few blogs that make it sound daunting. There’s no marked path and factoring in the elements of being at such high elevation, it’s considered to be a pretty dangerous experience. You’re completely remote since the only people you see during the trek are a few farmers who live in tiny villages, and only some of them speak Spanish in addition to their native Quechua. This also means that you need to carry all your food for the entire trek, and purify water along the way with either filters or iodine tablets. Finding a map of the trail is nearly impossible, and there’s only one person in Cusco who sells topographical ones. His office address is listed incorrectly everywhere online and his Facebook page said his office was now closed indefinitely. The best alternative we could find was a cartoon image of the trail that had no real information and no connections to the detour we’d have to take to get to Rainbow Mountain. We did buy map at a bookstore that highlighted most of the trail we wanted, so we finally decided to just go and hope for the best. We knew we’d run into other groups who had hired guides and figured they’d be kind enough to give us a little info here and there as we went along.

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All the essentials for 6 days of hiking and camping

After a few days of acclimatizing and gathering the essentials in Cusco, we started the adventure with a 4 hour bus ride to the trailhead located in Tinke (or Tinque) at 4,303 meters (14,117 feet). During the ride we noticed that the whole hike was marked on maps.me, the greatest app ever made for backpackers. It works offline and allows you to leave pins in places you’ve been. It works the same as other map apps, except it often includes hiking trails. Somehow we had missed this in our planning but it made us feel a lot better about what we were about to embark on. We dilly-dallied for a bit in the village square making lots of jokes about our survival, and finally hit the trail. We paid the 10 soles (~$3) it costs to enter the trail and noticed that a few other Americans and Canadians had also registered that day (albeit hours before our leisurely start time). We crossed our fingers that they weren’t too far ahead.

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My questionable editing skills – highlighting the trail on maps.me

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Getting ready to start! Bring what you need; there isn’t much in Tinke.

After an hour or so of walking, the weight of my backpack started to dig into my shoulders. The altitude is no joke, and the slightest incline made the weight I was carrying seem way worse. I never actually weighed my bag, but I’d guess it weighed somewhere around 25 pounds which frankly is too much for me. I tried to silently coach myself step by step, but after another hour I was almost in tears. I needed to ask Nick and Jimmy to carry some of the weight I had, and I hated admitting that. They were already carrying more than I was. Without even the slightest blip of a complaint, they immediately started rearranging weight to make things a little easier for me. My pack was still heavy but removing some food made an enormous difference. Before setting off again, we broke out the coca leaves that we brought which help with the effects of being at such high altitude. I was skeptical at first but it’s amazing how chewing them seems to lower your heart rate and reduce the pounding in your head from being so out of breath.

The first few hours were mostly rolling green fields covered in alpacas with a random house here and there and very few people. So when we stumbled upon a little girl who was lost, crying, and only spoke Quechua, we weren’t really sure what to do. Jimmy gave her a Snickers bar and let her play with his iPhone while Nick and I went on a mission to find another human being who could help. It took a while of climbing ridiculously steep hills, but we finally found a woman who spoke Spanish. They didn’t know each other, but the woman seemed to be familiar with the girl’s family name. We felt good about leaving them to figure the rest out on their own.


We hiked up and over a few more steep hills and finally came across a guided group. They confirmed that we were going the right way, and we more or less followed them to our first camp site located in Upis at 4,400 meters (14,435 feet). Right away we were surprised by how much more was available to us there than what we had read about online. We had anticipated a field with the slight possibility of other campers. Instead there were hot springs, toilets (but no running water), and a shelter under which we could put our tent. We did pay a few soles to the farmer who owned it all to be able to use these amenities, but it was a small price to pay for wind and (potential) snow protection. We swam in the hot springs, made some dinner, and were asleep by 7:30pm. Sleeping at such high altitude is very cold and a little bit scary. Both Jimmy and I woke up in the middle of the night feeling short of breath and very panicky. I remember feeling like my body had forgotten how to breathe properly and if I didn’t keep mindfully breathing I would stop completely. Of course that wasn’t what was happening and eventually I did fall asleep again, but it was definitely a reminder that this hike was no joke. On the bright side, 3 people in a 2 person tent means a very cozy and warm sleep.

We woke up early on day two and very leisurely got ready to hit the trail. We chatted with the French family and their guides we had met the day before and they were very helpful. We knew we had the app to guide us along a dotted line, but we were hoping to get some landmarks to base things off of. Unfortunately since there are no trail markers out there, the directions were more or less “turn left after the second reddish mountain.”

Day 2 was very difficult for me. The first pass we crossed was 4,850 meters/15,900 feet. It was a frustratingly slow and steady incline for 2 hours. We started off chatty and chipper but soon I couldn’t even hold a conversation. Nick and Jimmy were far ahead of me, keeping a steady pace while I stopped every 70 or so steps (I was counting to keep myself motivated). At one point I somewhat deliriously wrote a little song with my name in it telling myself that I could do it and to just keep going. Nick and Jimmy were so patient and every so often they’d stop and wait for me to catch up. They never seemed annoyed at my pace and were really supportive of our progress as a group. I can imagine that doing this with any other type of people would have been totally discouraging but they never let me feel like I was holding them back. In fact, we passed the French family and their guides where they stopped for lunch, and we were surprised to find out they left the camp an hour before we did! Maybe we weren’t moving so slowly after all.

And then around lunch time we got lost.

There were signs pointing to a mirador overlooking a beautiful lake so of course we followed them to see what was up there. After taking some pictures we kept going to the left around the lake which was the opposite of what maps.me encouraged, but it looked like a shortcut from where we were, and going right didn’t look like any sort of a path. So we bouldered around the lake for about half an hour only to realize that above it was another lake. Mountains can be tricky this way. Unless we had a canoe with us there was no way we were getting across dry. We found a spot that had enough rocks for us to make it across, but now we were cut off from the path by the first lake, and the only way forward was up and over the steepest grassy knoll I’ve ever seen. We really didn’t want to backtrack so we made the choice to go up and risk finding more lakes on the other side. It was the kind of incline that if you stumbled backward you would have tumbled down, which made hiking with all the weight on our backs very precarious. Slow and steady, we made it up. At this point we were all hangry so we found some nice rocks to perch on and eat lunch. From that perspective we could see exactly where we had gone wrong, and saw the guided group we had passed heading in the correct way. We scurried down the hill to catch up and follow them. We weren’t interested in any more detours.

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Happy to be back on track 🙂

The trail on this route is very different from any other hikes I’ve done. It never feels like you’re summiting a peak in the same way you notice when hiking a mountain. As I’ve mentioned, you can definitely notice even the slightest incline, but each time we reached the top of a pass, it was never the same sense of accomplishment that I’ve felt when summiting a mountain. The coolest part about the view is that since the trail goes around the Ausangate glacier, it’s always right there in the distance. It is enormous, emitting an almost overwhelming sense of awe. Every once in awhile, I would look up and remember that I was hiking around a glacier in Peru; that I was surrounded by thousands of alpacas, all with the same adorable/confused look on their faces; that I was in the most remote place I’ve ever been on this Earth. It was all so surreal.

We finally reached our second campsite located next to Lake Ausangatecocha where the only other people were the French family and their guides. Elevation was 15,233 feet, so it was COLD! While we still had some sunlight, we cooked the most delicious dinner you can imagine – ramen noodles with tuna and a cheesy sauce. Seriously, reminiscing about this meal makes my mouth water. I guarantee if I ate it for lunch today I would think it was disgusting, but after 15 km of hiking up and down multiple 5,000+ meter passes, ramen never tasted so good. Our evening entertainment included a few tunes on Nick’s ukulele as we passed around some whiskey. I tried to learn a few keys, but it was so cold that I couldn’t move my fingers. 

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This tiny tent was our cozy home on this adventure

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Look at that delicious ramen waiting to be enjoyed!


As soon as the sun went down we bundled up in our sleeping bags and watched a movie on a phone in the tent. Looking back, it’s crazy to think of being in such a remote place and having the luxury of watching a movie. When we turned it off and were surrounded by complete silence, we could hear parts of the glacier falling from the top. All I could think of was that we were living in an episode of Planet Earth live! I’ve never heard anything more majestic than that sound.

The next morning as we got ready for what was going to be the longest day of our hike, I ate a Snickers for breakfast. It tasted better than any candy bar I’d ever eaten. We took our time to get ready, something I really appreciated about Nick and Jimmy – they were never in a rush to get anywhere, and that took a lot of stress out of the situation. As soon as we started walking, we were met by a Quechua woman and her alpacas who collected 10 soles from each of us, apparently as payment for camping (that part was unclear), and we were on our way to the Rainbow Mountain.

Side note: The Ausangate circuit does not pass by the Rainbow Mountain as we originally thought. In fact, the easiest way to visit the Rainbow Mountain is with a guided group from Cusco. Buses leave around 3am in order to arrive by 7am, hike the 3-5 hours to and from the summit, and be back in time for lunch and a ride back to Cusco.

  

From our campsite it was a 2 hour hike to the base of Rainbow Mountain where we (luckily) got to leave our backpacks for free! We could see herds of people coming down the mountain after their early morning hike, and we seemed to be the only people walking up. We had a good feeling about how great the view was going to be. Somehow, out of the thousands of people hiking that day, I ran into my friend Tom whom I met in Chile and then later traveled with to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, Peru. Small world!

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Bonjour Tom!

After 2 more hours of intense uphill hiking, we reached the top of the Rainbow Mountain. At 17,060 feet (5,200 meters), it’s the highest altitude I’ve ever climbed to. It is so hard to describe how I felt on the top of that mountain. Besides being very cold and hungry, I couldn’t stop staring at the incredible views. We could see the Ausangate glacier in the distance, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that we walked from there to get to where we were.


The coolest part about it was that we were the only people at the top! I’ve read many travel blogs that talk about the crowds taking away from the experience at the summit and later having to photoshop people out of the background of the iconic Rainbow Mountain photo. I can say with 100% honesty that there was no photoshopping done to this picture. Nick, Jimmy, and I stood at the top taking in the insane views and hoping we didn’t get blown off the side of the mountain by the wind. We had the rainbow all to ourselves.

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Ausangate in the distance

When we reached the bottom, we had to make a decision to cut our hike short by 2 days. Jimmy was on a tight timeline to make it back to Cusco for a flight, and we were risking having to walk back to Lake Ausangatecocha mostly in the dark. We decided that the Rainbow Mountain had been the real goal of the trip and chose to make our way back to the main road to catch a bus to Cusco. This is where things got interesting.

The first person we came across to ask for some information was a potato farmer who had just finished planting some crops for the day and was headed back to the main village where we could find a bus. He offered us a ride in his car, from which he’d removed the back seats to make room for the potatoes, and he wanted us to pay him 60 soles (~$20) for the ride. Looking at the map, it was not a long ride so we decided it was too much. 

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Walking into Chillca, Peru

We walked to Chillca, the next closest village on the map, and asked the owners of the first shop we passed for the bus schedule. Turns out it only comes Saturday-Tuesday…and we arrived on Wednesday. But they did tell us that a man named Francisco lives in town and has a car, so he might offer us a ride. We walked down the one road in the village asking for Francisco and it seemed like the whole village came out to the street to curiously investigate the gringos. We were finally directed to his house/minimart (literally a room where his family sold things, cooked, and slept). His wife Olga was home, but Francisco was out for a few days herding the alpacas, and anyway his car wasn’t working. She offered us her backyard as a campsite and said we could cook/drink beer in her store.

Chillca has the nicest residents who were all very curious about where we came from and wanted to help us get back. Olga and her friends said there was a truck that usually passed through Chillca at 8am and the driver would surely give us a ride to Pitumarca where we could take a colectivo to the highway where the bus passed by. This all sounded crazy but we had no other option, so we settled into Olga’s store and enjoyed another delicious ramen and tuna meal.

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Olga’s backyard: our new address in Chillca, Peru

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El baño…

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Look at that ramen!!!

We started on our way at 7:45 the next morning and sure enough a truck came along at 8am. The driver and his 2 passengers work for an NGO that visits public schools to teach students good hygiene practices. We waved them down and they offered to drive us the 2 hours to Pitumarca for free. I can now say I’ve officially hitchhiked. We chatted with them about the school system in Peru, and about how children in these rural areas sometimes walk 1-2 hours to get to their schools. Yet another example of how travel constantly reminds me of the privileges I’ve had.

Everyone on the street and on passing buses in Pitumarca giggled and waved at us as we walked through town looking for breakfast and a bus stop. Keep in mind, we’d been hiking and camping for 4 days at this point – I’m sure we looked dirty and crazy. When we got to the main plaza we came across a group of high school boys in their school uniforms who yelled “Hello! Selfie?” Of course we said yes.  

Our tuk tuk colectivo brought us to the highway where waved down a bus to Cusco. Although it was different from our original plan, I loved the hilarity, adventure, and spontaneity of the end of our trip.

I finished this hike on June 8, 2017, 6 months after having first read about it and doubting my ability to actually do it. I saw and learned a lot on this hike, but what stands out most is the overwhelming notion that I am so much stronger than I think. I arrived back in Cusco feeling like I could do absolutely anything. So this one is dedicated to Nick and Jimmy who kindly took me under their wing and made this hike possible for me. Without their patience and generosity (and countless silly jokes) I would never have believed I could do it.

 

An Unmissable Island in Bolivia

Lake Titicaca, one of the highest in the world and arguably the one with the best name, sits on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It’s huge, it’s very cold there because of the altitude (3800 meters/11,400 feet), and it’s insanely beautiful.

We arrived on a bus from La Paz, one that we actually had to disembark from in order to take the tiniest ferry across part of the lake while the bus was ferried over on its own barge. Strangely only the gringos had to get off the bus and pay for the ferry; all the local Bolivians got to stay for the free ride. It was one of those moments while traveling that just really didn’t make any sense at all, but you just have to accept that you don’t understand and move on. I was traveling with a friend from France and another from England, and we met two Australians on the bus ride. The sun was just about to set as soon as we pulled into Copacabana, so we ran to the market, grabbed two bottles of wine and ran to the docks just in time to see the sky lit up in color. It was the perfect start to our visit. 

My friend Tom and I decided to go to Isla del Sol for the day from Copacabana and potentially stay for the night depending on how we felt when we got here. As soon as we stepped off the boat we both knew we’d be staying. This place was so beautiful and we knew it would be the perfect place for another sunset. It was the best decision!

Here’s our boat driver, texting and driving with his foot. Luckily it was the slowest boat ride in the world!

Most of our time on the island was spent hiking around for different views as well as hours and hours of sitting on terraces staring at this beautiful place. Seriously, I felt like I was staring at a 3D painting the whole time. The lake is so peaceful and calm, and the sun sparkled off its deep blue color. We ate lots of yummy trout from the lake and of course drank wine at sunset. We strategically chose the hostel with the best terrace for watching the sunrise which we braved the cold and woke up for the next day. It rose over the snow-capped Andes across the lake, totally worth the chilly wake up call. 

Another highlight was our dinner in a cute little restaurant. We were the only ones in there aside from the owner/chef and her adorable son Juan. He joined us while we waited for our food and taught us how to play some game with marbles that I’m sure he invented. He was very serious about the rules! It was really fun chatting with him in Spanish and teaching him a little English and French. We walked by the next day and he ran out to give us big hugs! Such a cutie 🙂

Learning this made-up marble game

Here are some pictures of this stunning place!

I would estimate that I stared at this view for approximately 6 of the 24 hours I was on the island




What’s better than hanging with an alpaca?

Maybe only riding an alpaca around the island! Too much adorableness in this picture 🙂

Yummy trout, doesn’t get much more fresh than this!

Isla del Sol is a must-see on your next trip to Bolivia. Definitely worth it to stay overnight as well!

63 Kilometers into the Yungas of Bolivia

Google Bolivia, and amongst some of the first things you may read is that up until a new road was built in 2007, Bolivia was home to the World’s Most Dangerous Road. To quote my Lonely Planet guide, “the road between La Paz and Coroico was identified [as such] by an Inter-American Development Bank report, citing an average of 26 vehicles per year that disappeared over the edge into the great abyss.”


Now that the replacement road brings passengers more safely to their destinations, naturally the tourism market has taken over the old road, offering guided bike tours down the 63 km “Death Road.” It’s basically a must-do on any backpacker’s Bolivian itinerary, but I’m not a thrill seeker so I was definitely nervous. But what is life if it’s spent inside your comfort zone? So I mentally prepared myself for the last month or so, and finally got up the courage to conquer this famous ride. I’m happy to report that 1. I survived without a scratch, 2. I wasn’t freaking out the whole time, and 3. I had so much fun! Luckily some thick fog prevented us from seeing the treacherous cliffs from the start, but as the mist cleared it revealed some incredible views of the dramatic surroundings. The gravel road is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass so I understand why it gets its name! Unfortunately, peering over the cliffs reveals the remains of many fallen buses, a very eerie reminder that this wasn’t a Disney World attraction with safety nets and invisible barriers to protect me. In fact, many cyclists get seriously hurt on this ride, one of the reasons why I left all of the aforementioned details out of what I told my parents I was doing before I departed La Paz (I’m very sorry Mom and Dad!). Despite all this I would argue that unless you’re being unintelligent about speed and your general personal safety, it’s a really amazing day of mountain biking through some incredible nature. Highly recommended on your next trip to Bolivia!

A very foggy start to our ride

It’s tradition to take a swig of this very strong alcohol before the ride…

…and to give a little to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ask her to keep you safe

Wearing 4 jackets and 2 pairs of pants trying to stay warm in the rain

Finally some sunshine and a few less layers!


After a long day of the winding 3,600 meter (10,800 foot) descent, we were rewarded with a pool and a buffet lunch in the tiny town of Yolosita – well deserved and much appreciated. Instead of heading back to La Paz, I went to Coroico with two friends where we planned for some hiking, waterfalls, and coffee plantations the next day. Sometimes my favoroite places are the hardest to get to, and Coroico is one of them. Our “minibus” looked like it was 50 years old, and it bumped along a similarly daunting gravel road for 9km before reaching our destination. I’m thankful I’ve outgrown my childhood car-sickness because South American transportation would be really challenging otherwise. 


Coroico is a small pueblo that sees lots of gringos fresh off the Death Road. It’s surrounded by lush green mountains (Las Yungas), home to some of Bolivia’s best coffee farms. Never heard of Bolivian coffee? That’s probably because up until ten years ago coffee was the #1 product from the Yungas, but now it’s fallen behind coca leaves – a much easier plant to process and a much more lucrative business for a farmer. Although Bolivia is high on the list of cocaine production around the world, coca leaves do serve other purposes. Many indigenous cultures use the leaves for rituals. Chewing the leaves can help the intense symptoms of altitude sickness. You can find coca tea, coca candy, coca beer, coca cake…the list goes on. What I didn’t know is how harmful it is to its environment because it’s not native to this particular region. According to the coffee farmer I spoke with, after 5 years of harvests, the ground where coca is grown becomes infertile and it takes 20-40 years to recuperate itself. 

A coca farmer hard at work in the mid-day heat

Hot chocolate with coca extract 🙂

Coffee on the other hand is a very naturally growing crop in the Yungas. The owner of the hostel we stayed at recommended we check out M&M Café for some of the good stuff. I’m so glad we went! Mauro and Maritza, the sweetest couple in Coroico, grow their own coffee and serve it in their cute café near the main plaza. We chatted with their son, Maurito, for a while and he told us they also offer tours of the coffee farm, complete with the opportunity to participate in all the steps of the coffee preparation process. Of course I was sold! Up until this moment, I hadn’t had real coffee since Colombia because of the widespread consumption of instant Nescafé in Chile and Bolivia, something I will never, ever understand. 

M&M Coffee is the real deal. I was feeling utterly exhausted from my bike ride the day before, but two cups of their coffee had me feeling like a million bucks. We chose to hike to their house so we could check out the waterfalls along the way and they offered to drive us back after our 4 hour (!!) tour. This was shaping up to be the perfect type of day. 


Mauro’s passion for coffee was palpable. He took such care in explaining each step of the process to us. First we went out into the fields and picked some ripe berries off the trees. Berries sprout at different paces on the trees from August to October and are harvested at equally different times between May and July. Mauro only uses the highest quality berries for his coffee, which means he’s very selective about the ones that he picks and some are tossed because of their lack of quality. 


Step two is peeling the berries, which was by far my favorite part. Mauro’s machine is powered by a bicycle and when he saw how excited I was about this, he let me be the one to pedal. The berries are funneled in from the top and the bicycle somehow (maybe magically) peels the shells to reveal the beans covered in a gelatinous fluid. 


They then ferment in this fluid for 14-20 hours and need to be stirred at 4-6 hour intervals. Mauro said there’s a fine line between when they’re ready and when they’ve fermented for too long, something he said you just have to “know.” I trust him. The berries are then washed and left to dry in a green house for 5-7 days until they reach 11-12% humidity. Another extremely specific detail that I guess you just know.


The last step is to roast the beans which Mauro does over his very small gas grill. Toasted beans are packaged and after about a week they’re ready to be ground and finally enjoyed!


Mauro explained that since coffee trees are so natural to the region, all coca farmers in the area have coffee trees but they don’t have time or want to deal with the process of harvesting them since coca is worth more money. Five percent of the farmers in the area take the time to pick the good quality berries to sell to Mauro to use in his coffee, 10% pick whatever berries (meaning lower quality) and sell them to other coffee farmers in town, and the other 85% do nothing with the berries that grow on their land. That’s a lot of unappreciated coffee!

The most striking thing to me about Mauro and Maritza is that they’ve only been making coffee for two years. When I asked what they did before, Mauro shrugged his shoulders and said he worked on many different types of farms his whole life, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it so much. “Ya he encontrado mi pasión, ahora estoy vivo.” “I’ve finally found my passion, now I am alive.” I couldn’t contain my smile!

Of course I bought coffee beans from them, and Mauro also let me take a small bag of coffee that I toasted myself. Between all that and what I bought in Colombia, I’d estimate that about 7% of the contents of my backpack is now coffee. 

Coroico was the perfect escape from the mayhem of La Paz. The minivan driver that brought us back to La Paz whipped around that new winding asphalt road on whatever side of the double yellow line he pleased. The reggaeton was blasting and there was an infant in the front seat. Unfortunately in South America, a seat in a car that has both components of a seatbelt available is hard to come by. Although not necessarily what I would consider up to safety standards, this is certainly all part of the experience. 

This is just one part of the long and winding new road

3 Days in a 4×4

Recently I crossed the Salar de Uyuni, a 3 day trip across the desert into Bolivia that ends at the largest salt flat in the world. To get there, you have to take a 4×4 with a group, and if you’re lucky like I was, you get the sweetest Bolivian driver as your guide. The majority of the 3 days is spent driving along the long desert roads, but the stops you make along the way are truly spectacular. Here are some photos from my trip through beautiful southwestern Bolivia. 

Bolivian border crossing


Loading up the Jeeps

Filling up the gas tanks for the day

Pablo, the greatest guide in all of Bolivia!

Natural Hot Springs

La Laguna Verde

Hard to tell but those are flamingos in that red lake

Everyone needs a llama selfie!

Stayed a night in a hotel made of salt!

4×4 crew for the journey across the desert

Perspective photos at the Salar

An Unexpectedly Long Stay in Santiago

In the very early stages of planning my trip to South America, my friend Jaime who I worked with in Boston and who is from Chile connected me with his brother, Matias who lives in Santiago. It’s always great to have someone you know in a new place. I thought maybe I’d get to meet up with Matias and some of his friends for drinks one night, or at the very least have some suggestions of cool places to visit. He offered me a free place to stay which was way more than I could have asked for and we figured out both our birthdays fell in the same week I would be there. I planned to stay for a couple of days and move right on to the wine vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina. I ended up staying for 11 days!

My time in Santiago was mostly spent with Matias and his mom Mónica eating as much traditional Chilean food as I possibly could. Ceviche, mariscos, pastel de choclo, cazuela, mote con huesillo, chorrillana, sopaipillas, chacarero, asado, empanadas…and of course pisco – the strong alcohol made from grapes. It’s deliciously easy to drink as a pisco sour and painfully difficult to forget about the next day with your killer hangover. 

Ceviche de pulpo and a pisco sour!!

So much meat!

 

I went to the top of the tallest building in South America, La Costanera. I rode a teleférico to the top of El Cerró de San Cristóbal for a great view of the city (and it’s unfortunately high levels of smog). I went to the beach. I learned lots about the traumatic human rights violations that occurred between 1973 and 1990 under Pinochet’s dictatorship. I also unpacked my backpack and didn’t look at it again for the full 11 days. It was a nice change of pace. 

Mónica and I at the top of La Costanera

Selfie action at the top of San Cristóbal


I also had the opportunity to experience my first earthquake while in Chile. In fact, Chile shook hundreds of times while I was there but I only noticed it about 4 of the times. The big one was measured at 7.1 and I just happened to be standing on the 17th floor of a building at the time. Chilean engineers have found a way to build structures so they’re less rigid and they sway a little with the tremors. It honestly felt like I was on a boat. Since everyone around me assured me this was completely normal seismic activity, no pasa nada, I decided against mentioning it to my parents; however, it was big enough to make international news. Needless to say they weren’t too happy to hear the news from the TV instead of from me. Lesson learned. 

One of my reasons for sticking around was to celebrate my 29th trip around the sun. Although I knew I’d have a great time celebrating wherever I was, it sounded a lot nicer to be with new friends on my birthday. Matias, Mónica, and their cousin Tom made sure it was a very special day for me. It started the night before when we went to the beach for what Matias promised me would be the best sunset of my life. It was a cloudy day but we were very optimistic about what we would see. Unfortunately the clouds never cleared but it wasn’t until it was completely dark out that we finally admitted we wouldn’t get to see the sky lit up in color. It was still a great place to share a bottle of wine and lots of laughs with a new friend. On the bright side, I have a reason to come back to Chile! 

Thanks to FaceTime my Mom was with us at the beach!



Celebrations continued the next day when I finally tried a Terremoto (Earthquake…in liquid form). This drink is white wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream. It gets its name for the fact that it’s very easy to drink and when you stand up, everything seems to wobble a little, similar to how a real earthquake feels. From there we went to “Los Adobes de Argomedo” where we watched some Cueca, traditional Chilean dancing that varies by region. I even got pulled out of the audience to participate! Dancing is one of my favorite activities, especially when it includes some sort of cultural connection. To top it off, the host of the show announced that it was my birthday and the whole restaurant sang to me in Spanish. My heart was so full of joy!!

The last year has been challenging for various reasons. I moved home from Spain to live with my family for the first time in over 6 years. I felt lost in terms of what I’m doing with my career (this is still true but I’ve calmed down about it a lot). I was recovering from a broken heart. I knew I wanted to keep traveling but I never imagined doing it by myself. A strange thing happened to me in Santiago – for the first time in a long time I felt like myself again. I laughed, a lot! I sang a lot too, which is usually something I’m very shy about and only do when I’m in a particularly good mood. I’m not sure why all this is true. Maybe it was the place, or the people I was with. Or maybe it’s because I’m successfully doing exactly what I love most – exploring new places, meeting new people, learning new things. Whatever the case, I’m leaving Santiago with the sweetest memories of a place I never thought much about visiting. 


It was never my intention to stay in Santiago as long as I did, but my time there further proved something I’ve learned many times in my travels – it is never the place itself that makes a place special, it is the people you meet there that carry all the importance. I have met some of the sweetest people here, the kind that make it hard to say goodbye. I will absolutely be back to this strangely long and skinny country, probably much sooner than I would have thought before. 

Birthday celebrations with Tom, Mónica, and Matias!

The Muiscas of Monguí

Monguí is the smallest pueblo I visited in Colombia and it came on my radar as a recomendación from a French guy that my friend and I met in San Gil. Accommodations are relatively expensive there but he gave us the name of a guy we could stay with who rents out a room in his house for very cheap while his son is away in the military. It was essentially like staying in an AirBNB except that the host didn’t advertise anywhere online. This French guy (I apologize for my inability to remember names) also told us about Maruja, a woman who leads guided hikes through the Páramo around Monguí. That was about all the information we had about this place before arriving at 1am after a very long bus ride from San Gil. It’s also yet another reason why having no plan is the only way to travel like this. I learned more in Monguí about Colombia’s indigenous history than I had in any other place I visited, and I decided on going there about 24 hours before showing up. 


Maruja and Emigdio, our guides for the 8 hour hike, are brother and sister who dedicate their work to teaching people about the Muiscas, an indigenous civilization who lived in the Páramo in the Boyacá region of Colombia. After the Spanish invasion of Colombia in the 1500’s the Muiscas slowly started disappearing and are now completely gone, with no trace of their language and little knowledge about their customs and traditions. Maruja and Emigdio work to teach people about this culture in hopes of keeping the memory alive. 


The Páramo is an ecosystem around the equator with a specific vegetation and it’s unlike any kind of nature I’ve seen before. Colombia’s Páramo is 36,000 hectares. We started our hike at 2,900 meters (8,700 feet) above sea level and reached the highest point at 4,000 meters (12,000 feet). My lungs could seriously feel the altitude as we went up. We spent the day steadily inclining while learning lots about this beautiful environment and how the Muiscas lived. The main plant here is called frailejon amarillo. This fuzzy plant grows one centimeter per year, and most of the ones I saw were taller than me. I’m about 164 centimeters tall, meaning some of these plants were close to 200 years old! The punishment for killing a frailejon is 15 years in prison (and just as a reference point for how important this is, killing one person in Colombia is punishable by 4 years in prison!). These plants capture the moisture in the air and prevent the water from being evaporated back into the air. Seventy percent of the rivers in colombia come from the Páramo and 30% comes from jungles and glaciers. We were even able to drink a little of the water out of one of the plants using a small piece of straw that Maruja found. Like so many others, this ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct because of global warming. Unfortunately some of this explanation got lost in translation while I was listening in Spanish and taking notes in English, but Maruja was extremely knowledgeable about the topic so I trust her expertise. 

The very knowledgable Maruja




Frailejones are also in danger because of farming on these lands. Cows are not native to Colombia, but they’ve been brought here for agricultural and economic purposes. We passed many frailejones that have either been trampled by cows or torn down by farmers because of their inconvenient location. Maruja was almost in tears when she saw these, and she does this tour everyday! Her passion for the Páramo was palpable. She is working hard to get UNESCO’s attention to protect the Páramo before it is lost forever. 

Maruja and Emigdio taking pictures and GPS location of this destroyed frailejon


Muisca culture was very linked to nature. Their Gods were Luna (Moon) and Sol (Sun). Every Muisca was equal, there were no hierarchies within their tribes. The matriarchy were the only people who had a bit of authority in the tribes in order to keep things organized. They generally lived to be between 100-108 years old because they lived very healthy lifestyles. They didn’t eat meat, they walked the mountains all the time, and most importantly they didn’t fight wars. 

Muiscas had a very sacred tradition for burying the dead. They were brought to the highest part of the Páramo (4,000 meters) and mummified and covered in gold dust before being buried in a hole that represented the womb. Death for them meant a trip back to the sun and to their mother’s womb. They were adorned with a lot of gold because they needed to go well presented on their trip to the sun in order to arrive and be received well. This went along with their belief that everything must go back to the Earth. It’s for this reason there aren’t any Muisca ruins, similar to what has been discovered from other indigenous cultures around the world. They only used natural materials in their buildings and it all got decomposed back into the Earth. 

Tombs where Muiscas were buried


Muiscas referred to Spanish invaders as their “little brothers.” Maruja painted the picture for us as to why. Imagine when you were young and doing something really cool and then suddenly your little sibling comes in and messes things up. That’s more or less what happened to the Muiscas. They were enslaved for no reason other than they were believed to be inferior, and if they didn’t speak Spanish they were killed. Exceptions were made for those who agreed to be baptized by the Catholic Church, and as time went on this baptism also came with a mandatory tax. Like many indigenous cultures, after years and years of death and destruction, the Muisca people along with their language and culture, disappeared. 

It’s challenging to articulate the sadness I felt when learning about the Muiscas. They seemed to live such peaceful, beautiful lives alongside nature – a true harmony. How is it possible that another culture can think themselves superior enough to barge in and destroy the other entirely? If we look at history, this has happened all over the world, and continues to happen today. Maybe not with such widespread killing but for sure there are still cultures that believe they are superior to others and they make life very difficult for those trying to live their lives through their own customs and traditions. It’s terribly sad to me that humans can’t seem to learn from their mistakes, and they continue paying the ultimate price. 

There are people who believe that while I’m traveling I am always on vacation. Of course there are days when I sit back and relax on the beach or visit some cool tourist attraction, but that is not my main goal in my travels. I travel to understand the world, to get to know cultures (current and extinct) and I try to learn something everywhere I go. I believe it makes me a more understanding, patient, and dynamic individual. Thank you to Maruja and Emigdio for contributing to my never ending education!

If you ever visit Monguí, be sure to contact Maruja at Turismongui-ocetour for an unforgettable experience (+57 313 479 8492).