Saturday, August 31, 2013

Inca Rail

Our first mission of the morning was to pay for Machu Picchu, then to figure out how to get to Ollyatombo, where the train picks up.

The cab driver dropped us off at a sort of unofficial bus station. Instead of buses, however, there were minivans and cars that drivers packed with people. We opted to pay one dollar more to take a less cramped and far more comfortable car. After waiting almost an hour for other people to go in the same car with us, we were off toward the mountains. Traveling anywhere in Peru is an experience because the scenery is absolutely stunning. The car ride almost went off without a hitch, until we were out of the car and Ali realized the driver unintentionally drove off with her backpack still in the trunk. Luckily, the driver realized less than ten minutes later, and returned the bag on the condition that Ali would buy him lunch. She did.

After the 2 hour car ride, we took a 1 1/2 hour train (PeruRail) up to Aguas Caliente, where we would stay the night. Aguas is the closest city to Machu Picchu, and it was actually created simply to be a tourist trap on the way up the mountain. Everything there was built for tourists.

The train ride was beautiful, even though we were seated on the right side of the train, and should have been on the left for even better views.

On the train, I sat next to a girl from South Korea. She was shocked that I quit my job because it is so difficult for South Korean girls to get jobs. She said there was a maximum age of 23, and after that, girls weren't desirable hires. She said she had particularly bad luck because on the day of birth, South Koreans turn 1 year old, then every January 1, they are one year older. Her birthday was Christmas, so on her 6th day of life, she was already 2 years old. Crazy.

Once we reached Aguas Caliente, we decided to go to the hot springs for a swim. This was one of those things that sound like a good idea, but isn't. We took one look at the brown water and hundreds of bodies cramped into small pools and turned right around.

Instead, we went out to dinner amongst all of the other tourists and then went to bed early to prepare for the early morning tomorrow.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Big White Jesus

First thing in the morning we headed to Peru Rail to get tickets to Machu Picchu. The company only sells train tickets and not entrance tickets, so we had to purchase them online. Simple enough... Except not in Peru. You could make a reservation online, but it was impossible to pay. The website said we needed to pay at Peru Rail or 10 other places. Peru Rail said they stopped taking tickets and he best place to purchase was the Ministerio... Which was close because it was a holiday. After hitting up 4 other places on the list and only finding dead ends, we gave up and decided to try again tomorrow.

After the ticket ordeal, we decided to take matters into our own hands and hike to ruins that were sort of near by. We found out that Saxysaywoman cost 70 soles to see, but you can also see it from the giant white Jesus, which is free. In order to get to Christo Blanco, we had to hike about a million stairs (at altitude). A more accurate estimate would be 2 km uphill. But it was worth it. As we got higher up, the views of Cusco only became more beautiful. And once we were at the top, you really could see the ruins. Also, there were about 100 local kids up at the top flying kites. We actually hiked down to the ruins as well, but didn't really explore because we didn't want to pay the fee.

We took a cab back from the giant white Jesus. It was perfect timing to pick up my laundry from the place next door to our hostel... Except the unmarked laundry mat was technically closed. By that, I mean the door was closed. But after some knocking at the door, a small child, probably 5 years old, appeared to take my money and to give me my laundry. Everything about that experience was weird. There have been a lot of situations where little kids are doing adult jobs, and it definitely is something I will need to adjust to.

We had been talking about falafels all day, and saw in Lonely Planet that there was a highly recommended falafel place that donated all of its profits to a school for kids who have experienced domestic violence. This was an excellent restaurant choice. The decor was crazy - a giant tree decorated with Christmas ornaments growing in the middle of the room, stuffed animals inhabiting seats at random tables, and so many details that it could keep our eyes busy for the entire dinner. They also had a game called Quiddler, which I made Ali play because I love word games. The food was also delicious.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Vamos a Peru!

Last night was fun. We went out to eat and I finally found a place that served tacos! The one waitress at the restaurant was the hardest worker I had ever seen. She was running from table to kitchen, and also to her baby who she was caring for while working. She was amazing. The restaurant was full because it was one of two restaurants with heat, and it had live music. First there was a young boy, maybe 10, playing a wind instrument of sorts and singing about being in love with two women, one fat and one skinny. Then, a man who played traditional Latin American songs on a small string instrument. After the restaurant, we attempted to watch a movie on my iPad, but I fell asleep 5 minutes in. Ali was more successful and watched the entire thing.

We woke up early this morning to store our things at the hostel and to get on a boat to Islas del Sol. In the morning, the island was absolutely freezing. We wore double pairs of pants, double gloves, two sweaters, a coat, and an alpaca scarf! The boat ride took about an hour and a half, and though it was pretty smooth, Ali wasn't feeling great. Once we reached land, we quickly found a guide who could lead us on a trail to the ruins. The trail was one of the most beautiful that I have been on. Not only did it offer views of snow capped mountains and cliffs, but also of the lake and the coast. The hike was also at the highest altitude I have ever hiked - 4,000 meters. We hiked for a few hours,  emptied my camera battery, and headed back to the boat for a ride to he south side of the mountain.

On the walk up, Ali met some Argentinians. They were the first Argentinians that we have seen on the trip, and Ali found out why. Apparently, the government imposed a new law that restricts the amount of money you can withdraw from your own bank account. We aren't sure why this is a law, but it makes it very hard for anyone to travel. Fortunately, the people we met had saved money in a variety of locations (some illegal) and that's why they were able to go to Bolivia.

On the walk back to the boat, we met super friendly people from Spain. Ali walked off with the guy, so his wife and I attempted conversation even though she didn't speak a word of English. It wasn't an amazing conversation, but we did cover all of the places we have travelled, what we are each doing in Bolivia/Peru, and the foods we like and don't like. Our new friends also gave us advice for the Machu Picchu train - on the way up, sit on the left side of the train. On the way down, sit on the right.

Once we reached the second island, we were told that we had to pay to enter. I misunderstood and paid 45Bs when the cost was really only 5. Luckily, I was able to figure this out in time, and the worker returned the money to me. That second island was a bit crazy. There were no guides, and we weren't sure where to go, so we picked a random path up. This happened to be the donkey commuter lane. All of the sudden, Ali blurts out, "Tracy, look!!" I look up from the trail and I am nearly face to face with three donkeys being herded down the path. This was not a particularly wide path, so I just pretended I was I visible and everything worked out fine.

Also strange, we went to a restaurant/hostel that overlooked the lake to get some tea and food. The woman who worked there, however, was not at all interested in cooking anything, and suggested a number of other restaurants we could try, even after we had placed our orders. I have never seen someone not want customers so badly.

Sadly, our time on the islands had to end, and we headed for our bus to Cusco. Not only were we the only people seated in the cama (full bed) section, but the bus actually left on time!

And the border was a breeze! At first. Nothing goes perfectly in South America. After we boarded the bus once again in Peru, we found out the Peruvian immigration office had stamped our passports with the wrong date. We had to walk back to the office and get a new stamp. This wasn't a big deal at all, it's just funny how there's always something that goes wrong to make the experience more interesting.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Saying Goodbye...

This morning started off really sad because we had to say goodbye to some really great friends. But that's hostel living... And now I have an excuse to go to London!

We woke up early and waited for the bus to Copacobana, Bolivia. In typical Latin American bus style, the bus situation made no sense. We were supposed to pick up the bus at the hostel, but when the bus arrived, we were told that we were supposed to catch a different bus. Turns out that was the bus we should have gotten on. So to rectify the situation, the hostel had us take a taxi to meet up with a completely different bus, also going to Copa, but at 8:30. No travel here is certain. I'm not really sure why the second bus let us on because it was a different bus company than the one we booked. Some things just don't make sense.

Finally, we were on our way to Copa, and soon Cuzco! We actually arrived to the boat across Lake Titicaca at the same time as the bus that left at 7:30 from the hostel. We knew this because we saw people we knew waiting for their bus. This time, the boat ride was much more pleasant and calm because it wasn't raining and the waters were smooth.

I was starving once we got to Copacobana, so we immediately found a place to eat. We chose a vegetarian restaurant, though as soon as we took a look at the menu, we found that most dishes were not in fact vegetarian. Figures. Anyhow, I ordered the lunch meal of the day, and it was the most delicious meal I have had in Bolivia. The meal only cost 25Bs (about $3.50), but it came with so much food. First came the warm bread and tomato spread. Warm bread is a LUXURY here. It was the first time we ate warm bread since leaving San Francisco. Then came a salad with what I think was parmesan cheese. This is also a luxury here. Then came quinoa and vegetable soup, followed by spaghetti with vegetables. To finish off, the server brought us bananas in yogurt with coconut shavings. So much food and so delicious.

Copa is not a warm city. To make it worse, hotels and hostels here don't have heat. Really no building has heat. You have to wear pants, boots, a sweatshirt, and a jacket while eating at a restaurant.

What Copa lacks in warmth it gains in friendly people, great views, and crazy architecture. Ali and I spent some time walking around taking photos, then stopped for a coffee at a restaurant by our hotel. Copa is kind of a sleepy town so we don't have much planned for the rest of the afternoon...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chau Bolivia!

Last day in La Paz... So hard to leave for so many reasons!!

We got breakfast at the hostel and then headed out in search of the 80B one hour massage we have been hearing so much about. 80B is equivalent to about $12. So cheap.

Before the massage, I spotted a rooftop restaurant that looked like it might be pretty good. We decided to try it. Not only was the food good, but there were also amazing views. We could even see people scaling a wall, tied to a bungee rope. For a moment it looked so cool that I almost wanted to try it. After lunch, and a bottle of wine, I helped Richard (from the hostel) do some shopping for his family since he is returning home tomorrow.

La Paz has been very relaxed because we haven't been trying to do any day trips that require entire days of bus travel. While it's nice to relax, it's also unfortunate, especially for Ali, because we'd really like to see the jungle and the salt flats, but she won't have time to return. I am thinking that I will probably come back after the five weeks in Cuzco...

So instead of rushing around, we have been doing a lot of shopping (bought way too much to be traveling with) and hanging out with people from the hostel. Ali is wishing we had more interactions with people from Latin America, and I would have enjoyed that too, but I have also loved meeting people from around the world. It's an Irish-owned hostel, and pretty much everyone there speaks English. It's interesting that in the middle of Latin America there are these pockets of english speaking tourists, and you can go days without needing to speak very much Spanish. We met people from Israel, England, France, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Germany, and the US. It's a great way to get travel information, and to swap hilarious travel stories.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Making friends...

This morning we woke up and walked to get breakfast at the fancy breakfast place for foreigners. We had wonderful veggie omelets. It was one of the most expensive meals your can buy in Bolivia, but in the US, it would cost only $6.

It is shocking how extreme poverty is here. The walls of buildings are crumbling, hunched men beg for money, and women fall asleep on their bags of rice at the market while waiting for customers. The exchange rate in Peru was $1 to 2.8 soles. The exchange rate here in Bolivia, however, is $1 to 6.7 bolivianos. It's crazy to us that a three course meal could cost 12 bolivianos or less than $2, and yet so many people can't afford even that.

Ali pointed out that we have seen so many frugal tourists haggling with the locals over less than one American dollar. It's so sad that that amount of money is so meaningless to Americans, and yet tourists underpay the Bolivians because they feel like it means they have gotten a better deal...

After breakfast, we walked to the same markets as yesterday and I finally found the perfect alpaca sweater! Ali also bought a gift for her sister Rachel and a skirt for herself.


Around 2, we met up with a free tour offered by our hostel. We learned about the crazy prison here when prisoners can pay off the guards to have a night out on the town. We also walked through the witch's market, where they sold dead llama fetuses that supposedly bring good luck during the construction of buildings. Right before the witch's market, we walked through Little Tel Aviv. The guide only briefly mentioned that part of the city, so we can only assume that it's where Holocaust refugees went during the war. There are still signs there that are written in Hebrew, and stores with Israeli names.

Later on in the evening we went out to dinner at an Indian place with a group of people from the hostel. One girl is traveling by herself for a year and a half! That's such a long time! I didn't think the food was terrible, though it wasn't as good as Indian food in America.

A couple of our friends had spent the day motobiking across mountains and volcanoes. They said it was amazing, until one of the guys toppled straight over the side of the cliff. We saw pictures... The bike had tumbled really far down the cliff. Luckily, the guy came out of it totally unscathed, and was even able to get the bike back up and running (though it looked totaled to me). Crazy! We have no intention of motobiking or even biking down "death road," which is apparently the steepest, craziest road in the world. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Life at 13,323'

Once we finally got to our hostel, Ali and I found that we have a room on the top floor of our hostel, so every time we climb the stairs we sound like we have run a marathon. Also, we both have really tingly hands and feet from the altitude. We are trying to drink as much water as possible, and are taking our altitude pills so it should subside soon. You'd think that after living in Colorado that I would be ok, but this altitude is 2,000 feet higher than Alma.

Because we were feeling the altitude, and a little tired from staying up with friends at the hostel, we decided to take it easy. We headed to the markets in search of the perfect alpaca sweaters, scarves, and blankets. I found all but the sweater. Ali bought so many gifts, and she was able to find a sweater she liked.

After shopping, we went back to the hostel and rested, then had dinner and met up with friends for a couple of drinks at the hostel bar. The great thing about the hostel is that you don't even have to leave the building for food or entertainment. This is especially nice considering it's freezing outside!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

We made it to Bolivia!

We went the tourist route instead of taking a minivan to a minivan like the locals. It made our lives much easier to pay for a bus with Panamericano, and to have a reliable bus attendant who spoke Spanish and a little English. The bus ride from Puno to the border was two hours. What's interesting about tour buses here is that if they are not full, they will stop and pick up Peruvians who flag it down from the side of the road. My back has been doing great, even with the long bus rises.

The actual border crossing experience was insane. We had to get off the bus and walk across the border. We had to go to three different offices. The whole time the bus attendant kept seeing us wandering aimlessly, not sure which office to go to and in what order, so he'd scream at us, "I told you the one to the left!" The first two offices were fine, but once we crossed into Bolivia to go to the third, we had many issues. First, we didn't have a photocopy of our passports because nowhere was that mentioned. Then they were insanely strict about the condition of the twenties that we gave them. If there was any sort of tear or fold, they refused to take it. I had two spare twenties on me, but they refused to take three of our bills. Eventually, he told us that he would take our money, but we would have to come back and give him a different twenty when we returned. Right. They refused to even take a ten dollar bill from Ali, so she ended up paying ten dollars less than the required amount. Then, we had to search for our bus, which had crossed the border without us, and had all of our belongings on it. Luckily we found it pretty easily. Glad that's over.

We stopped in Copacobana for lunch, which was not delicious. Then, we switched buses and were off to La Paz. It was nice to get out of Copa because it was rainy and even colder than Puno. It's funny how just a couple of days ago we were in the middle of a desert, lounging by a pool in bathing suits.

But the respite from the rain didn't last long for some people on our bus when they realized the rain was leaking through the emergency exits in the ceiling and onto their seats. This was the first time that we were the fortunate ones on the bus because we were one row behind the dripping water.

The dryness didn't last long because we  soon had to pass over Lake Titicaca. In order to do this, we all had to get off the bus (which took a different boat made of wooden boards that couldn't support the weight of both the bus and the people) and take a sketchy boat packed with too many people across the ever increasing rapids. Ali and I clung onto each other, paralyzed with fear every time the wake from another boat made our boat shake. You could see the waves reaching the edge of the boat. Looking across the lake and seeing the bus cross on the boards was like nothing I have ever seen before. Once we reached the other side, it was like the amazing race because no one knew where to meet the bus, but everyone wanted to be first on so that they didn't have to sit under the dripping ceiling. Luckily, Ali asked a Boliviano where to meet the bus and we were among the first back on. After that adventure, it didn't much matter if we got even more wet, I guess, but we felt very accomplished.

Ironically, the bus stopped leaking after the boat adventure. Figures.

All said and done, it took more than 11 hours to get to La Paz from Puno. Unpaved roads with no specific lanes for travel and no lights to direct traffic are highly unpredictable. On the bright side, our bus didn't break down today, but we got there much later than the predicted 3pm. Fortunately, we are staying for 4 nights here.

Our hostel in La Paz seems pretty awesome so far, we have a top floor room with a view of the city from the window. We'll explore the city tomorrow.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Vamos a Bolivia!

After a great breakfast (desayuno) at the hostel, we headed to the bus station for a 5-8 hour ride to Puno. It's insane to me that the bus could either take 5 hours or it could take 8, but that's just how it works in Peru.

The bus station itself is a crazy experience because there are people who work for each bus company, and they just constantly yell out the destination of their company's bus. That's the only way to determine which bus is right for you.

Once on the bus, there was a child in the seat directly behind us. Luckily, we had slept a good 9 hours already at the hostel, so we were in much better spirits when the baby was crying, even when we found out the entire highway in Arequipa was blocked off so there was an hour delay. One interesting thing that happens on the bus is that at every stop, people hop on to sell random foods and drinks - everything from corn on the cob to a bag of nuts to apple juice in a plastic baggie. Often, they give a heartwarming story to the entire bus (about growing old or something) or they talk about various herbal remedies, and then they walk through the bus selling something or simply asking for money. My patience was short for the people yelling on the bus when I just wanted to stare out the window and listen to Bon Iver in peace. This was especially true when a very smelly man came on the bus and read an entire book for 40 minutes while standing directly above me arm stretched out over my head and across the back of my chair.

When we were about an hour drive from Puno, our bus popped a tire, which had to be replaced roadside, causing yet another delay. We began to worry that we wouldn't make it to the Bolivian border in time to cross. We wanted to be there in daylight, and worst case scenario, we needed to be there by 6pm when the border closed. Unfortunately, we still had another two hour minivan ahead of us before we could get to the Bolivian border.

Around 3pm we decided it just wasn't a practical idea to continue traveling on to Bolivia until tomorrow. We decided to stay in Puno at Hostal Uros. Puno has an altitude of 3,800 meters, so it is super cold here. The hostel was a great choice, albeit a little chilly. It costs 10 extra soles to get a portable heating unit in your room, but we decided to steal blankets from the empty beds in our room instead. The room we are in is set up for 4 people, but we have it all to ourselves, which is wonderful.

We figured out our plan for getting to Bolivia tomorrow, and headed out for a walk. As soon as we exited he hostel we saw a parade of children dressed either in authentic Peruvian garb or Halloween outfits like a superman costume. It was confusing. Meanwhile, a woman we met at the bus station followed us to our hostel and tried to trick us into signing up for a bus trip to La Paz. Luckily, our hostel staff intervened and later told us people on the street sell tours, take the money in advance, then they give you a fake address to meet the bus the following day.

After that ordeal, we went to a street market where we bought a ton of fruit, bread, avocado, and dulce de leche for breakfast tomorrow. Then, we found a really cheap restaurant where Ali and I shared rice and chicken (arroz con pollo) for less than a dollar each. The rice was really good, but the chicken was iffy. We have gotten a little more adventurous with finding cheap food options lately, and for the most part it has been pretty delicious. It's definitely a more authentic experience.

There were a couple of things I forgot to mention about yesterday. On the ride back from the canyon, we stopped at a hot spring that overlooked the mountains and a nearby river. We had the opportunity to go swimming there. The experience of swimming in a hot spring is not very different from swimming in a kind of dirty heated swimming pool, but it was a nice view and good company. Ali had forgotten her bathing suit, so she went for a walk by a river and Inca ruins while I hung out at the hot springs with people from our tour.

Also, we stopped for lunch on the way back to Arequipa at the definition of a tourist trap - an "international" buffet. This is code word for imitation American food (burgers, etc.). Instead, we joined forces with our new friend Alex (from Texas, but moving to Boston to go to HBS) and walked as far away from the buffet as possible until we reached a genuine market (sin gringos). Alex's knowledge of how to find the cheapest possible meal and his courage to eat unidentifiable street food was impressive. In anticipation of the buffet, I had already purchased street food (espagheti picante con pollo), so I only bought a mandarin orange and a bag of popcorn at the market. Combined, they cost 1 sole, or 35 cents. At the market, we also came across a woman with various herbal medicines, including a bright yellow tree trunk that she shaved pieces off of so that you can make tea from it. It's supposed to be good for your kidneys. I didn't try it.

Right before the market, we also stopped at a small plaza, and each tried Colca Sours, the Colca version of a Pisco Sour. Instead of using lime in the drink, they used san dayo because Colca is the region where san dayo is grown. It's similar to a kiwi, only more sour.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Colca Canyon

It's been a long time since we have had a normal night of sleep. This morning we had to wake up at 2:45 because we were told our Colca Canyon tour would leave from the hostel at 3. Of course it ended up being Peru time, and the van didn't arrive until 3:20.

Exiting our room was a bit of a struggle. The lock on the door bent the key so that it would not come out. As a result, we left our room with all of our belongings in it unlocked with the trust that the guy in charge of the hotel would be able to resolve the issue once we were gone. Luckily we were already bringing our passports, money and camera, so all that was really left was clothes and my iPad. I quickly put my iPad in a backpack and handed it to the man to lock up somewhere else.

The van ride to Colca was extremely bumpy and rickety, but I was so exhausted that I was able to sleep for the first two hours. After that, the sun rose and it was impossible to sleep because I didn't want to miss the incredible views.

When we pulled into Chivay, we stopped to purchase the 70 sole tourist ticket at a police headquarters. To intimidate you, the building had a cardboard cutout of a police officer out front. Very high tech.

In Chivay we also stopped at a plaza to see a typical Inca dance and to take pictures with llamas. Typical tourist trap. After that, we drove a short distance to a house for a buffet breakfast. At the house, we had bread (pan), a hot liquid version of quinoa, and coca tea. The coca tea is the herbal remedy for altitude sickness, and it is also rumored to make you fell very strong (fuerte). I also bought some very necessary gloves for 5 soles. It is freezing in the morning at this altitude! 

Along the drive to the canyon, we passed cows, sheep, donkeys, wild horses, and (surprise!) stray dogs. It was a bit of an off-roading experience because many of the winding roads to the canyon were not paved. At one point, our van got temporarily stuck in a rut that was too steep to drive up without a running start. Sometimes we even shared the road with men herding cows or locals traveling by horseback. The homes we past had tin roofs held on with rocks. Low stone walls separated one plot of land from another. Yet even in a place so different from America, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lady Gaga still came through the radio in the bus.

The crazy drive was worth it though, because the views of the terraced, snow capped mountains were beautiful. We stopped at a condor lookout. At first we couldn't spot any, but right as we were leaving we saw two effortlessly soaring through the mountains. Condors are the largest birds in the world and can live 100 years. After dropping everyone else off on an overnight trek through the canyon, Ali and I continued on to sample two unusual fruits, San Dayo, which is super sour and Tuna, which was very sweet. We also stopped many times to take in amazing views of the mountains and volcanoes, to buy street food, and to take pictures of random animals (like Vicuñas) on the side of the road.

Once we got back to the hostel, we found the key was still stuck in the door, but none of our stuff was missing.

Today was beautiful, but we saying goodbye to Peru for now, and we are heading to Bolivia tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


We woke up at 6am because Madagascar was playing at full volume for the entire bus. So far all of the movies we have seen on buses have been American movies that were dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles.

I was excited to get off the bus as quickly as possible. I maneuvered my way down the aisle, clutching my purse and squeezing past sacks of herbs and people standing because they joined our trip from the side of the road instead of the bus station.

As soon as we got to our hostel in Arequipa, Le Foyer, we went to sleep. After our nap, we made plans to go to Colca Canyon on an organized trip tomorrow. We also decided to stay another day in the same place.

After taking care of the travel logistics, we walked around and took pictures at the Plaza de Armas. The entire plaza was overtaken by birds. They were everywhere. We also did a little shopping, and I bought a beautiful hand painted watercolor of a Peruvian child. The eyes in the painting are piercing. I am so excited to frame it.

On our walk we also saw a massage place, and after 12 hours on a bus, we both jumped at the opportunity to feel less like we have been lugging three months worth of belongings around with us every day. The massage place was interesting because both of the therapists that we had were blind. We couldn't figure out if the place intentionally hired blind people as part of a mission to help people with disabilities, or if it was just a strange coincidence.

Our goal for the day was to walk to a lookout to take pictures of the amazing volcano that boarders the city, but because of the massages it was dark by the time we walked there. We will have to return tomorrow after the canyon adventure. We did, however, see llamas grazing at a park on the way! It was so strange to see llamas roaming around in a very public place (Arequipa is very much a big city) as though they were a stray dog or cat.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Hostel Living...

Last night would have been OK because our roommates are all quiet and normal, but something crazy happened. Some crazy German guy started pounding on the main door of the hostel, screaming, "Let me in!" Ali said that the banging was so intense that she thought there was an earthquake, and she was going to have to save me! After about a minute he broke down the main entrance and entered the hostel, this time yelling, "Who cares?!" for about ten minutes. I was terrified, but the guy from Australia was nice and got up to double check that our room door was secure. We all stayed silent waiting for the crazy guy to leave, and eventually he did. Needless to say I didn't sleep much after.

Then, we found out that there were no buses to Arequipa that were running because a parade (?!) was blocking the highway.

So we figured we would check back in about the buses later and go get breakfast. Breakfast was delicious. We went to a hostel that was a million times better than the hostel we stayed in, and ordered vegetable omelets.

After breakfast we walked to yet another hostel and boarded the sketchiest form of transportation yet - a bright yellow dune buggy with no walls and a tarp ceiling. I had no idea what we were about to experience. The dune buggy drove at 50 miles an hour across desert sand. His job was to jostle us as much as possible. Whenever we approached a curve or the top of a sand dune, it looked like we we about to slide off the face of the earth. For reference, the sand dunes were so tall that when you look out a restaurant or hostel window in Huacachina there is no sky, only sand. While we screamed bloody murder and I stressed about my back, both of us survived and had a lot of fun. Ali even sledded down the side of a sand dune face first on what looked like a snow board. I chose to hangout at the top of the dune and take pictures.

Once we got back we quickly headed back to our hostel to check out and to find out about the buses. After a call to the bus station, we found out that the blockade was actually a protest and it would not be a problem for us since we won't be at that point until 4 or 5am. We were really relieved.

We had 8 hours to kill before the before our next bus would come. Since we were covered in sand, we showered, then hung out by the pool and the lagoon's beach area for the rest of the afternoon.

At 7:30 P.M., we took a taxi to an overnight bus to Arequipa. At the bus station I realized just how unpredictable the bathrooms can be in Peru. Some don't have toilet paper, some don't have seats... In general I expect the worst. So I was very surprised when I went to the bathroom at the bus station and there was not only toilet paper and a seat, but also a shower! Crazy.

The 12 hour overnight bus was not very comfortable because we had semi-cama seats. Also, Ali and I were seated in front of a very loud child who was awake and talking until 3 am. We are looking forward to a good night's rest in a nicer hostel tomorrow.

One thing that I forgot to mention about yesterday is that we stopped for dinner at Norky's. Like Roky's, Norky's is a common fast food establishment in Peru. The crazy thing about this chicken restaurant was that it also had a separate area for Karaoke!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Islas Ballestas, Civiche, and Stray Dogs

Today we took a bus to Paracas. There, we took a boat to the islands (Islas Ballestas) where there are sea lions, penguins, pelicans, and tons of birds. It was absolutely beautiful! We also saw a line of the Paracas. It was a carving of a candelabra into the sand that was made in pre-Inca times! We took lots of pictures!

After the two hour boat ride, we had a quick break for food, then headed to the National Reserve. It was a desert that bordered an ocean. We were on a bus that stopped frequently over the course of 4 hours so that we could take many pictures in front of beautiful landscapes. It reminded me of a desert safari. My three way pants came in handy, as the weather was totally different every time we left the bus. The only problem was that once I zipped my pants into shorts I had a difficult time getting the pants part zipped back on!

The tour ended with a fish restaurant on the coast. Ali ordered her first ceviche, which she was terrified to try, but ended up liking.

After the tour, Ali and I took a taxi to a bus to a taxi to our surprising hostel in Huacachina. While the website said we were booking a room for 4, the reality was that the hostel only had rooms for 8 people. Luckily we were roomed with a very nice young couple from Australia.

As we were traveling to the hostel we saw a common occurrence in South America - a small corner store closes its gate at night, and people just walk up to the gate and order through the gate.

Another unusual thing in Peru has been the amount of stray dogs. There are tons of stray animals everywhere. I am terrified of the stray dogs, but in general they tend to stay away from people (unless you have food).

Sunday, August 18, 2013

We made our way to Pisco by bus, clutching a $9 ticket that was handwritten on a recycled paper template. I hesitantly handed over my bags, a backpacker's bag and an oversized suitcase that I immediately realized was completely impractical and unnecessary. I worried about my luggage disappearing, and decided to look out the window every time we stopped to make sure it didn't walk away with a different passenger.

The bus ride was beautiful. We drove down the coast with a constant view of the beach and the ocean. The bus was also surprisingly comfortable. The seats reclined almost to a laying position, and they served free lunch and snacks. The lunch was terrible - I swear the bread was part plastic. Ali says there's just more egg in the bread here, and that's what gives it its challah-like glaze. It was the first time ever that Ali liked the food more than me. They also played a movie for us about magicians. I think ScarJo and a guy that looks like Hugh Jackman were in it, but I am not sure. Anyhow, it was an American movie that was dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles.

As we were driving through Chincha, Ali pointed out that there was a little boy who had just crafted his own kite out of a trash bag and sticks.

We also observed an interesting method of security on the buses and at the bus station. A minute before departure, a woman came onto the bus and had everyone look into a handheld camera. Then, once we pulled up to the station, they had another handheld camera and were taking videos of people picking up their bags. Very different.

Once we reached Pisco, we discovered something else that was very different - mototaxis. They are miniature cars that speed through the streets honking their horns because there are no street lights or stop signs, so it's the only way to warn people that they are driving through a busy intersection. It's basically a free for all. The drivers honk and hope it will be OK. It's insane. 

Once we got to Pisco, we found out we were too late for a tour of Paracas, so we walked around the small city center. Pisco is only ten blocks total.

On our walk, Ali began talking to a guy who sells tours for Paracas and Huacachina. He was incredibly friendly. I still haven't really acclimated to the friendliness of strangers in Peru. We thought Sam was directing us to a BBQ restaurant, but he  actually brought us to his friend's barbecue in an empty lot in between two buildings. At the gathering there were plastic stools, children, and at least ten people who all immediately introduced themselves, in Spanish, and with kisses on the cheek. I was very unprepared for the experience, and couldn't understand anything they were saying, so Ali and I left soon after and had dinner at El Dorado down the street.

Later, we ran into Sam again, and this time he brought us to his friend's house, who he described as the oldest person in Pisco. This man, Igor, lived in the ruins of a hotel that crumbed in the 2007 earthquake in Pisco. The earthquake was an 8.4, and did a toll on the entire city, but the effects of the quake were especially apparent at the site of this hotel. The hotel was slowly being rebuilt, and Igor lived in a one room apartment there. In order to get to his apartment, you had to climb over the earthquake debris. His stories were incredibly sad. He told us about how his wife was killed in the quake, and how less than a year ago he found a baby in the garbage, and adopted her after the police said they wouldn't get involved.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The challenge of not speaking Spanish in Lima

I ventured out for lunch on my own, in search of the supermarket. I couldn't find the supermarket, which would have required minimal Spanish speaking skills. But I did find a pizzeria, which required an unbelievable amount of Spanish. Note to self: "sin carne" is an incredibly useful phrase if you don't want meat. "Tienes una botella de agua" is also proving very useful, as I am constantly thirsty. After speaking to two waitresses in terrible Spanglish, I was able to order a cheese pizza that came with a bottle of water and garlic bread! Feeling very accomplished, even though the pizza tasted terrible (cheese in Peru is horrendous)!

My Spanish with Ali isn't completely terrible. I am usually able to patch together sentences... But when I go to speak to anyone else, even if I know the exact sentence I should say, I totally freeze up out of miedo (fear) and ended up just staring at the waiter with a blank expression on my face.

Before leaving the hostel on my solo adventure, I talked to the people we are sharing a room with. They just came from Ecuador and northern Peru and said it was wonderful - few tourists, cheap hostels, and great scenery.

In the afternoon, Ali went on a shopping spree at a place called Floam. I practiced my Spanish while she shopped. The clothes seemed to be perfectly made for Ali's miniature stature. Then, we went to Las Veci Nas for dinner. It was an organic restaurant tucked behind layers of stores in front of it, which included a cafe, a bakery, and a thrift store. The 4 different kinds of stores within this one space all shared a common bohemian feel with a theme of upcycling and environmental consciousness. I got a quinoa burger and Ali ordered risotto. Both were delicious, but the best part of the restaurant was definitely the atmosphere.

On the walk home, I stopped in for an alfajor cookie from a pastry shop/corner store. It was delicious. Peru is known for their dulce de leche (carmel), so I had to try the cookie, even though I was already pretty full.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Day 1 in Lima!

Our first order of business in Lima, a city known for its cuisine, was to hit up a polla a la brasa restaurant. We headed to Roky's and it was amazing. We had a rotisserie chicken, papas fritas, ensalada, and torta de chocolate. All of that food only cost 20 soles, or about $7 for both of our meals. In Peru, lunch is typically the biggest meal, so instead of ordering food a la carte, you order a prix fixe menu. It's actually much cheaper and it is a huge portion of food.

Roky's was a very confusing restaurant. In the front it almost looked like it was going to be fast food, but at the back there was a fancier (not to be confused with fancy) seating area. It was filled with Peruvians, and no tourists, which is always a good sign. But even in this back area, it was weird because there was also a stage for a small band (that wasn't playing) and an upstairs area that we figured is for receptions after seeing a wedding cake! Very strange. We later found out that Roky's is not unique to Lima, and is actually a well-known fast food establishment all over Peru.

After Roky's, Ali and I walked to Miraflores, which is another district in Lima. Miraflores had a very different feel than Barranco - it's more of a big city with taller buildings. It also had more shopping, so Ali bought a couple of dresses and a scarf. When Ali went to buy the items with a credit card, they said she needed ID, so we went across the street to a hotel to download her passport on her phone. Then, as soon as we got back to the hostel, I found a photocopy of her passport in her purse. It was with her the whole time!

My favorite part of Miraflores was the mirador, or lookout, over the ocean. Not only could you see the waves coming in against the green cliffs, but there were also para gliders sailing through the sky. It was beautiful.

Before leaving the area, Ali and I stopped for coffee and a chicken empanada at Cafe de la Paz (Peace Cafe). While Ali made plans for the night here, I booked our next two hostels in Pisco and Huacachina.

Once back at the hostel, we made friends with the other visitors who all seemed to have travel plans that were very similar to ours. It was reassuring that other people our age were also traveling for 3-6 months.

After, we met up with Ali's friend Sebastian from her study abroad program in Argentina. He is actually from Lima. He introduced us to his friends here, who were all super nice. We all went out to an extremely loud bar where we could barely hear each other.

There has been a lot of confusion around bathrooms since arriving in Peru. The toilet paper is located outside of the stalls and the toilets are not to be sat on because they are too low and have no seat and you will fall in. But the most hilarious mistake so far happened to me at the bar. How was I supposed to know the women's room was marked with "M"... That doesn't make sense! "M" is for men! While the sign on the door didn't clue me in, the sight of a urinal did. Whoops.

After the bar, we headed to Sebastian's friends' house.

My expectations for apartments in Peru were no where near the reality of the apartment we went to. Their apartment reminded me of Miami. A security guard opened the door and we were led into an elevator that went directly to their 6 room apartment that had a wraparound balcony overlooking the ocean. Two people lived there, but they had 3 bedrooms! After a few hours, I made use of one of the bedrooms. I was exhausted, and my head was spinning from all of the Spanish, so I took a nap in the guest room until Ali was ready to taxi back. Also, let's be real. I usually struggle to stay up past midnight, so the fact that I made it to 3 a.m. was a time zone miracle. It was great that they had a guest room, because it wouldn't have been safe for me to taxi alone that late at night.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Flying to Lima in (free) first class seats

The best way to start a long journey to South America is to upgrade to first class, for free. Because our flight itinerary was changed, landing us in Lima 5 hours later than originally planned, I approached the counter, explained our situation, and simply asked to be upgraded. Ten minutes later, our names were called over the loud speaker and we were handed new tickets, this time for row one. 

First class is quite fancy. Before everyone was even boarded, I was given OJ, a muffin, a pillow, a blanket, and headphones. I definitely wouldn't pay for first class, but it is nice to get it for free!

Once in El Salvador, things got predictably more confusing. Not sure what time it actually was, and not having boarding times on our tickets, boarding was a challenge. I'm not sure if our plane was late, if we were early, or if everything happened according to plan.

Exhaustion set in around 2:35 p.m. I was able to sleep for about 1 1/2 hours before our flight at 5:50 a.m., then about the same on the plane. Three hours is not enough sleep to function when faced with a different language at a confusing airport. I was definitely looking forward to getting settled at the hostel.

Another challenge we faced was having (or rather, not having) Peruvian currency. No bank in San Francisco had soles on hand, then the currency exchange at SFO wasn't open at 4 a.m. ., then El Salvador didn't even have a currency exchange because they use dollars.

But that wasn't even the greatest concern we had. Our main challenge was how we were going to get from the airport to the hostel. Realizing at 1 a.m. that we forgot to confirm airport pickup, we spent the day bombarding the hostel with emails (really we only sent two emails) asking them if they could pick us up. No response.

Luckily, we found a money exchange at baggage claim in Lima and an inexpensive cab with a super nice driver that actually used to live in New York. He gave us lots of advice about what to do and what to eat while we are here. This was the first lesson in needing to just go with the flow.

Once we checked into the hostel, we found out that we have no roommates until tomorrow, which is ideal since we haven't really slept in about 48 hours.

In order to try to stay on a semi-regular schedule, Ali and I decided not to go to sleep, but to walk around the Barranco neighborhood to get our bearings. We arrived at the hostel around 10 p.m., so it was difficult to see what the city is like in the dark, but there's definitely a lot of nightlife and we are very close to the beach.

The ride from the airport was 60 soles. We weren't sure at the time how much that really was in dollars, but according to the Lonely Planet guide, we weren't ripped off. It turns out that since the exchange rate is close to 3 to 1, it cost about $20.