Hiking Peru’s Alpamayo Circuit Trek without a Guide

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

The Alpamayo Circuit Trek is one of the most beautiful long distance hikes in the world. Slightly more stunning than its more famous cousin, the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, the Alpamayo rivals even the pristine peaks of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit in grandeur and scale.

This roughly 87-mile trek encircles the majestic Alpamayo Mountain, sometimes called “the worlds most beautiful mountain” within the Huascaran National Park. With massive gains in elevation, a wealth of biodiversity, and jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas, the Alpamayo Circuit earns its right to be named one of the greatest treks in the world.

In October 2015, I set out to hike the Alpamayo Circuit without a guide. Though this is a long and intimidating trek, it is possible to do without the help of a Peruvian guide or porters, as long as you’re fit, knowledgeable about wilderness survival, and adventurous.

Alpamayo Circuit Trek Views Mesapampa Pass

View from Mesapampa Pass

For full disclosure, I took on this trek with my then boyfriend and our donkey. It was part of a longer 3-month backpacking trek across Peru, for which we purchased a donkey in nearby Huaylas. But don’t worry, you don’t need to buy your own donkey to take on the Alpamayo Circuit solo.

For those of you who are headed to the Huaraz region of Peru looking for adventure, the Alpamayo Circuit is the granddaddy of them all. If you’re thinking of trying this Andean adventure, here is everything you need to know to plan and trek the Alpamayo Circuit without a guide.

Donkey in Peru Cordillera Blanca

Beautiful Chana

Table of Contents

Before You Go: Planning Your Alpamayo Circuit Trek
What to Pack
What to Budget
Getting to Hualcayan
The Itinerary: A Day by Day Guide for the Alpamayo Circuit
Day 1: Hualcayan to Wishcash
Day 2: Wishcash to Ruina Pampa
Day 3: Ruina Pampa to Cruze Alpamayo
Day 4: Alpamayo Base Camp Day Hike
Day 5: Cruze Alpamayo to Laguna Safiuna
Day 6: Laguna Safiuna to Jancapampa
Day 7: Jancapampa to Quebrada Tuctubamba
Day 8: Quebrada Tuctubamba to Quebrada Huaripampa
Day 9: Quebrada Huaripampa to Tuallipampa
Day 10: Tuallipampa to Cashapampa
Conclusion

Ruina Pampa Cordillera Blanca

Goofing in Ruina Pampa

Before You Go: Planning Your Alpamayo Circuit Trek

The Alpamayo Circuit Trek can be completed in as few as 8 days, though I recommend setting aside more time than that. However, if you have a limited amount of time, bring enough supplies to last at least 8 days. My trek lasted 12 days, but that included some slow hiking and getting lost. This guide is a 10-day itinerary, allowing for a few days spent exploring lesser-known high Andean landscapes.

Any trek in the Cordillera Blanca begins from Huaraz, a town in the Ancash Region and the center of all trekking in Peru. There are several bus companies that will take you from Lima to Huaraz in about 8 hours. Z Buss is one of the cheapest but other, better-known bus companies also make the route.

Before your trek, spend a few days in Huaraz to acclimatize to the altitude. You’ll be spending almost the entire Alpamayo Trek above 4000m (13,000ft). If you try to do this trek without getting acclimatized first, you will almost certainly get sick.

If you spend a few days in Huaraz and you’re still worried about altitude sickness, you can easily pick up some altitude sickness pills, called sorochi pills, at any pharmacy or “botica” in town.

Huaraz is also the spot to rent any gear you’ll need, buy supplies, and find trekking buddies. Most outdoor shops in town sell maps of the Cordillera Huayhuash with the Alpamayo Trek included. There are various qualities at various prices ranging from about 40 soles to 100 soles.

For food shopping in Huaraz, there are a few small grocery stores in town. These are generally well stocked but overpriced. The best place to get supplies for your hike is in the Mercado Central. There, shops sell all kinds of nuts and seeds in bulk at half the price of the supermarket. You can also find cookies, biscuits, instant noodles, hot cocoa mix, and everything else you could possibly need for an 8 to 12-day trek.

camping in Peru alpamayo trek

It gets cold

Planning for the Alpamayo Trek Without A Guide: What to Pack

Sleeping – Waterproof 3 season tent, sleeping bag 16F, sleeping mat
Clothing – Layers! Silk pant liners, hiking pants, waterproof pants, warm pants for sleeping, t-shirt liner, hiking t-shirt, fleece jacket, waterproof shell, gloves, hats, socks and sock liners (at least 2 pairs), hiking boots, camp shoes
First Aid – minimum first aid kit including iodine, bandages, scissors, tweezers, anti-inflammatories, anti-histamines, sorochi (altitude sickness) pills
Kitchen – stove, gas, pot for eating, knife
Food – enough for 8 to 12 days, keep in mind that water boils lower at elevation so rice and pasta won’t cook so well. Things like oatmeal and instant noodles work best.
Other – Map, water filter or method for cleaning water (I used a Steripen), length of cord, other misc camping needs

Many camping supplies can be rented in Huaraz, and gas canisters that work with MSR stoves like the Pocket Rocket can be purchased. You’ll also want to pick up your Huascaran National Park pass in Huaraz. I didn’t and they still made me buy it on my way out of the Santa Cruz trek. There are checkpoints. You need to buy the pass.

Backpacking Budget for Peru’s Alpamayo Trek

Because you’ll be taking on this trek unsupported, you may actually be surprised by how cheaply you can do it. A Peru backpacking budget can be quite small, especially if you’re planning to spend most of your time in the mountains.

Costs associated with this trek include renting any supplies in Huaraz, purchasing your food, your transport to and from the trek, and the Huascaran National Park Pass. The numbers below are just an estimate and depend on your own planning and experience. They reflect my reality when I made the trek in October 2015.

Transport: Collectivo to and from Caraz, 12 soles, taxis to and from Hualcayan and Cashapampa, 70 soles total, cheaper may be available for the adventurous Spanish speaker.
Gear Rental: gas canisters 10-25 soles, sleeping bag $2-$10 per day, tent $5 to $15 per day.
Food: Estimate 100 soles for 10 days
Map: 40 to 100 soles depending on quality
Huascaran National Park Pass: 65 soles for 21 days.

These prices are more of an estimate than a definitive number, but if you’re looking to hike the Alpamayo Circuit without a guide, expect to spend somewhere in the region of 352 soles plus the cost of any gear you need to rent. That’s just over $100 for a 12 day trek. Not too shabby. Obviously, if you have to rent tents or sleeping bags it’ll get more expensive.

Donkey Grazing in Hualcayan Peru

Chana grazing in Hualcayan

Getting To Hualcayan

The Alpamayo Circuit begins at a small village called Hualcayan. To get there, get a collectivo to Caraz. They leave from the main road in town and the cost of a one way trip is 6 soles. From Caraz, ask around till you find the taxi station, then ask for cars going to Hualcayan. There may also be collectivos, so if you’re trying to keep this low budget, I suggest asking around town before getting into an expensive taxi.

There is a campsite in town where you can spend the night, the locals will ask for a small fee to camp there but this village is the last time you’ll be asked to pay a fee before camping.

When I was there in October 2015, there was no checkpoint for the Huascaran National Park pass in Hualcayan.

The Itinerary: A Day by Day Trail Breakdown of the Alpamayo Circuit

hiking in peru alpamayo trek

Day 1 Hiking up to Wishcash Camp

Day 1: Hualcayan (2900m/9514ft) to Wishcash (4300m/14,107ft)

Day one begins with a steep ascent then becomes a more gradual climb. You’ll find yourself winding up the mountainside through low scrubs and grasses. At one particularly exciting point, the trail cuts across a massive scar left over from a long-ago landslide. It’s not a particularly frightening crossing, the trail is large and stable, but it bare and exposed with plenty of stunning views of the valley below.

Towards the end of the day, you’ll find yourself cresting some rounded hills. The campsite, Wishcash, is located on the top of one of these. There is a small stream there for drinking water but little shelter from the wind.

It’s not a particularly tough day of trekking, but you’ve climbed up above 4300m/14,107ft and you’ll need to acclimate, so it’s probably a good idea to stop here before attempting the passes above you.

Once you’ve set up camp, there is plenty of exploring to be done around the campground. If you hike just a bit uphill, you can look down the cliffs at a beautiful lake. It’s probably possible to hike down to the lake, about 300m down, but I didn’t find the trail.

If you’re feeling strong and acclimated, you could potentially continue hiking up to Laguna Cullicocha at 4850m/15,912ft, another 500m/1600ft up from Wishcash and just below the first pass of the trek. Listen to your body and if you start to feel dizziness, headaches, or nausea, turn back to Wishcash.

Peru adventure travel

Horse in the village next to Ruina Pampa

Day 2: Wishcash (4300m/14,107ft) to Ruina Pampa (4000m/13,123ft)

This is an incredibly grueling day crossing two high altitude passes with steep descents and ascents in between. When I hiked it, I divided the day into two separate days. On the first day, I was feeling a bit put out by the altitude, so we just hiked up to Laguna Cullicocha at 4850m/15,912ft, sitting just below the first pass. It was a very short hike and we spent the late morning and entire afternoon messing about around the lake taking pictures and letting our donkey rest. I loved it, but if you’re carrying all your own supplies and trying to make the circuit in a set time, it’s probably not the best plan.

Otherwise, it’s onward to cross Osoruri Pass at 4860m/15,944ft, then follow the trail as it drops steeply into the valley below, only to climb back up a demanding set of switchbacks to Vientona Pass at 4770m/15,650ft.

We stopped here for a quick lunch, then continued toward towards our destination for the day: Ruina Pampa. From Vientona Pass the trail zig zags relentlessly down the mountainside. Once you reach the valley floor, you’ve more or less made it. There is a small village down there, just a few families living in almost complete isolation. I chose to camp there and the few villagers I met were very welcoming and friendly, even sold us some firewood.

There is a small village down there, just a few families living in almost complete isolation. I chose to camp there and the few villagers I met were very welcoming and friendly, even sold us some firewood.

To get to the official campsite, follow the trail up the valley for maybe another kilometer and you’ll find the campsite sign.

Ruina Pampa Camp Alpamayo Circuit Trek

Ruina Pampa Campsite

Day 3: Ruina Papa (4000m/13,123ft) to Cruze Alpamayo Camp (4150m/13,615ft)

After the rigors of your two passes yesterday, you’re rewarded with a fairly easy day of hiking up the Ruina Pampa valley. The trail itself is stunning, it hugs the wall of the valley, giving you a view of the river below as it winds down from the glaciers in the distance. You’ll meander through ancient ruins and corrals, the last remains of an ancient civilization.

After not too long, you’ll find yourself in a wide open valley surrounded on three sides by massive mountain walls. This is Cruze Alpamayo Camp, so look for the official campsite or just find a dry spot to set up your tent.

Peruvian Andes Adventures Cordillera Blanca

On the way to Cruze Alpamayo

A word of caution: Beware Andean Valleys! They look like beautiful places to frolic but in fact, they are watery quagmires just waiting to eat you alive. Approach with caution.

You’ll probably arrive at Cruze Alpamayo Camp by lunchtime. If you’re feeling energetic, follow the path that hugs the mountainside towards Laguna Jancarurish. It’s a stunning crystal blue lake sitting beneath a massive glacier. The hike to get there is a bit dicey and you might lose the trail, but don’t worry, the lake is just behind the large wall of rocks.

Alpamayo Base Camp

Alpamayo Base Camp

Day 4: Hike up to Alpamayo Base Camp and Lakes

Most tours skip this section, but if you’re lucky enough to be hiking without a guide and making your own itinerary, I can’t encourage you enough to include this mini day trip up to the Alpamayo Base Camp. It was perhaps the most beautiful day of hiking I had in all of Peru.

Set out from camp and follow the same trail towards Laguna Jancarurish. Instead of heading to the lake, follow the switchbacks up the mountainside in front of you. At the top, you’ll find another high valley opening up in front of you with snowcapped peaks rising up all around. This is the Alpamayo Base Camp valley.

There is a trail up to a high Alpamayo Base Camp above 5000m/16,400ft. We missed it when coming up from Cruze Alpamayo, so I’ve not made that ascent. Instead, we visited some lakes beneath the glaciers.

To find the glacial lake beneath Alpamayo, hike across the valley towards the distant peaks and you’ll find another lake similar to Jancarurish. There isn’t really a trail to get there and it’ll take some intrepid trailblazing to get across the valley, but the lake is beautiful and you really feel that you are standing among the mountains.

Bring layers. It’s damn cold.

Head back down to camp at Cruze Alpamayo that night and prepare yourself for the toughest climb of the trek the next morning.

Cordillera Blanca Trekking

Cruze Alpamayo Views

Day 5: Cruze Alpamayo (4150m/13,615ft) to Laguna Safiuna (4200m/13,780ft)

Today is the day you cross the intense, grueling, and breathtakingly rewarding Cara Cara pass. The day begins with your journey to find the trail. Cara Cara pass is across the valley and above you, but at least when I was there in October 2015, I struggled to find the trail. No matter, make your own way up the mountainside heading in the right direction. This is where it helps to have a map.

Eventually, you’ll find the trail again, I promise. Just keep using the map and heading up.

The trail begins in a straight line up the mountainside as it passes two lakes. It’s probably one of the toughest single pieces of trail in the whole circuit. Eventually, you’ll work your way out of the grass and come to a final small lake, more of a puddle really, and the rest of the climb is all loose rocks and scree.

The trail zigzags steeply up the final ascent as the winds begin to swirl around you. The last few steps are so sheer you may worry you’re going to slip back down the mountainside.

Give yourself a treat and don’t look behind you until you’ve reached the top of the pass. The view from Cara Cara is one of the single greatest things I’ve ever seen. Just pure Andean glory.

Cara Cara Pass Alpamayo Circuit Peru

View from Cara Cara Pass

Once you’ve had your fill of the view, it’s time to move onwards and hike down into the valley below. Thankfully, the trail is less steep and far less windy on this side. After initial switchbacks, you’ll follow a relatively smooth trail along the valley wall and up to cross the second pass of the day, Mesapampa Pass at 4500m/14,760ft. This is a significantly easier ascent.

Another breathtaking view awaits you here, then it’s onward and downward to the valley below and the waiting Safiuna Lake camp at 4200m/13,780ft.

Gara Gara Pass Alpamayo Circuit

View from Cara Cara looking towards Mesapampa

Day 6: Laguna Safiuna (4200m/13,780ft) to Jancapampa (3500m/11,480ft)

I got pretty lost on this section and never made it to Jancapampa. The trail was very difficult to follow. That plus a few other reasons, and we bailed out for a different option. But before I frighten you, let’s discuss what I did and what you ought to do instead.

From Laguna Safiuna, continue hiking down into the valley then follow the trail along the wall of the valley over towards the bridge. In October 2015, they were in the process of building a massive new bridge but I imagine it’s finished by now. Cross over the river and head up towards Huilca, a small village. Really, it’s two or three houses surrounded by livestock, including alpacas, sheep, goats, and even some horses.

From there, the trail is meant to continue up to Yanacon pass and down to Jancapampa.

I did not do this. The trail up towards Yanacon path is incredibly difficult to find and possibly nonexistent from the valley floor. Instead, since I couldn’t find the trail, I asked one of the local village boys to help me out. He seemed unsure about where the path to Yanacon was but kept pointing to another, much more obvious trail, that went up the valley on the other side. He told me it would take me out to Pomabamba, the closest main town. and my ultimate

Our original plan was to hike to Jancapampa and leave the donkey grazing there with a villager while we popped out to Pomabamba to pick up supplies. So, if this young guy told us there was an easier path to Pomabamba, fine. We opted to skip Yanacon path and follow the alternative trail. This took us out to a village, the name of which I cannot remember.

It took us a further two days to make the trek out to that village. This was due in part to length, but mostly we were held up by the most delightful Peruvian family. We met them just over the next pass, sitting by a lake eating chocho and checking up on their cattle. Instead of hiking, we spent most of the afternoon hanging out with them and walking around in the valleys looking for injured cows.

After two days, we made it out to this small village, found a family willing to guard our donkey for two days for a fair price, and hopped in a collectivo out to Pomabomba. After two days in the big city, we got a collectivo back to the village and from there it was just a day’s walk over the hill to Jancapampa.

But if you’re not intending to restock in Pomabamba, I suggest having more fortitude, and a better map than I had, and heading up towards Yanacon pass and down to Jancapampa. My best advice is just to commit to hiking up in the right direction and eventually, you’ll find the trail and the pass.

Jancapampa is a small village where you can purchase cookies and instant noodles, so if you’re running short on supplies, this is where you’ll want to restock.

Peru treks

Day 7: Jancapampa (3500m/11,480ft) to Quebrada Tuctubamba (3800m/12,470ft)

From Jancapampa, the path heads uphill, crossing through farmland and pastures. You’ll cross the Tupatupa pass at 4400m/14,435ft and head down into a valley below. The trail winds through this valley heading uphill. I chose to follow it for most of the day right up until the base of the next pass. There are plenty of open grassy areas for camping and the trail follows a river, so water is readily available as well.

Alpamayo Circuit Trek

Day 8: Quebrada Tuctubamba (3800/12,470m) to Quebrada Huaripampa (4150m/13,615m)

Another grueling climb. I decided to wake up early, around 4am, to try to beat the sun and catch the sunrise from the top. I didn’t quite make it, but close, and it was well worth it!

The trail begins with tight switchbacks through Andean flowers and rocky scree. The top is all jagged rocks and makes for some great exploring. You’ll catch some views of the trail up to Punta Union across the valley, with a few glimpses of snowcapped peaks beyond. Once across, the trail down the other side is a well-maintained switchback that passes through both open rocky land and some groves of the endangered Queñuales trees.

Enjoy this last ascent in your Alpamayo Solitude because after this, the trail joins up with the immensely popular Santa Cruz trek, so you’ll be sharing the trail with donkey trains, tour groups, and plenty more trekkers. Makes for more social campsites but there is something to be said for the solitude of the Alpamayo Circuit.

Anyway, you can choose to camp that night in Huaripampa, it’s a wide open valley that unlike most Andean valleys is actually dry and great for camping. Or you could choose to go up and over Punta Union on the same day. If it’s the dry season I say go for it, but if you’re hiking in the Peru’s rainy season, as I was, better to wait until the next day. Afternoons in the rainy season mean clouds and limited visibility.

Punta Union Santa Cruz Trek Peru

View towards Punta Union Pass and Santa Cruz

Day 9: Huaripampa to Tuallipampa (4250m/13,945ft)

The trail heads up out of Huaripampa, passes three high Andean lakes along the way, and then zigzags all the way up to Punta Union, the breathtaking main pass of the Santa Cruz trek, with views of snow-capped peaks and crystal blue lakes far below you.

Unfortunately for me, I hiked this in October during the beginning of the rainy season and my view was mostly of fog. Oh well.

From Punta Union, it’s a long but easy slog down to Tuallipampa, a wide open grassy campsite sitting beneath sheer rock walls.

Megan and Donkey Alpamayo Circuit Peru

Just me and my donkey Chana

Day 10: Tuallipampa to Cashapampa

This is the end. If you have enough supplies, you can take an extra day, climb up to the other Alpamayo Base Camp on this side, and camp at the Llama corral campsite further down. I did not choose to do this, only because after so many days of hiking, my legs were pretty tired and I was ready to eat some pizza.

The trail out of the Santa Cruz trek is gradual and very easy. You’ll wind down through the valley, passing by the extremely picturesque Laguna Jatuncocha, before finally finding yourself in the relative civilization of Cashapampa.

There is a checkpoint at the end of the trail where you’ll need to show your Cordillera Blanca pass. Then walk down into town and find yourself a taxi. Some of them wait at the trailhead, others can be found in the town’s main square.

You can get a taxi from Cashapampa to Caraz the price is negotiable. I recommend spending a day or two in Caraz, it’s a lovely town and a good jumping off point for a few other treks. But if you’re in a hurry, you can catch a collectivo back to Huaraz for 6 soles.

Laguna Jatuncocha Santa Cruz Trek

Laguna Jatuncocha

Conclusion: Final Thoughts on the Alpamayo Circuit Trek

The Alpamayo Circuit Trek is truly one of the most splendid hiking experiences in all of Peru. During the course of the 8 to 12 days, you’ll cross over several massive passes, hike through a huge variety of environments, and get up close and personal with snow-capped peaks and glaciers. Though far less popular than the nearby Huayhuash Circuit, the Alpamayo Circuit is the perfect hike for intrepid explorers who want to experience the ultimate Peruvian Andean adventure.


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Trek My Favorite Hike in Peru the Alpamayo Circuit Trek without a Guide; the Ultimate Peruvian Andes AdventureTrek My Favorite Hike in Peru the Alpamayo Circuit Trek without a Guide; the Ultimate Peruvian Andes Adventure

5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years Abroad

Adventure Travel, Travel

As of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad; working and traveling; for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, strength. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve traveled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a more complete version of myself.

To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.

Chinatown Incheon

Visiting Incheon’s Chinatown in South Korea 2012

1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules

Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that give you purpose.

When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.

I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.

So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.

The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilty if I spent a whole day doing nothing, lying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.

But this is my life and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.

This lesson applies to so many things in life, how your spend your free time, what career you pursue, whether or not you attend university, who you spend your time with. In the end, we only live once, so it’s best to remember:

Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Buying a Donkey in Peru

Meeting my donkey, Chana, for the first time, 2015

2. There is Happiness in Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert. But when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. Not valuing my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book, I thought this inclination toward nights in made me anti-social.

Life abroad has shown me the strength that comes from introversion. Because of this side of my personality, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7-week long bike rides by myself.

Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring. But that person will come along eventually. Or maybe they won’t. For now, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world solo.

If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.

Annapurna Circuit Manaslau Pass

Crossing the Highest Point of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, 2014

3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm

I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something left undone. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.

Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.

Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.

Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.

But over the years, these stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at the situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.

Touring in Kyoto Japan

First visit to Japan, 2013

4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time

This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales.

This lesson came to me recently, during my seven-week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to get in shape then begin my epic bike tour in April. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.

Then May 1st came and I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! On my first day, a 77km ride over some hills almost killed me.

But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.

This strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.

This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.

You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.

Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end, I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.

You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.

Hiking the Alpamayo Circuit Solo

Hiking in the Alpamayo Circuit, Peru, 2015

5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It

Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.

Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.

For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, even years when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Writing is not a real career choice.

It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.

Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.

Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.

I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take but this process of living abroad has shown me that I have the strength to get there.

My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.

If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self-doubt.

But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.


Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out, let me just add as a caveat: I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.

BIke Tour Through the Cambodian rice fields

Cycling through the rice fields outside Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self-growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.

Your life is your own, and you only get one.

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5 Lessons Learned from a Life spent living abroad, working abroad, and traveling across 15 countries

The Complete Guide to the Sacred Valley of the Inca in Peru

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

No trip to Peru is complete without a visit to the verdant Sacred Valley of the Incas. Located in between Cusco and Machu Picchu, most tourists only spend a day or two here before heading off to take on the Inca Trail. But take it from someone who lived there for a year, you may want to reorganize your trip to make more room for this tucked away paradise.

The Sacred Valley of the Inca is unlike anywhere else on earth. In a single day of exploration, visitors can take in sweeping vistas of snow capped peaks while enjoying an organic locally grown feast. With just a few days, the adventurous tourist can hike to waterfalls, visit ancient Incan ruins, and learn about a vibrant indigenous culture that still carries on today despite many hardships and obstacles.

There is so much to love about Peru’s Sacred Valley. It is one of my favorite places in the world and I’m delighted to share with you my complete guide to visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Chicon Glacier Hike

Understanding Life in the Valley

As with any visit to a foreign land, you cannot expect to fully understand the depth and complexity of life there in just a few weeks or months. But there are a few things you can learn that will help you understand the culture of life in the valley.

This valley was once very near to the center of Incan society. And those Incan ancestors left behind more than just ruins.

Much of the population are Quechua people, an indigenous group descended from the Incans. These people speak the Quechua language and some don’t speak Spanish. Though most are Catholics today, their ties to their ancient culture are still evident.

Pachamama, a mother earth figure, features heavily in local folklore. Hikes and other journeys often begin with a ritual offering of 3 coca leaves to Pachamama.

Many who live there still talk of the ancient Incan understanding of the three-part world: hana pacha, the upper world, signified by a Condor; Kay Pacha, the middle world, signified by a panther; and Uku Pacha, the lower world, signified by a serpent.

Today, the Sacred Valley is an agricultural area. The high Andean villages make up some of the last pastoral communities in the world.

Sacred Valley

Overall, Peru is still considered a developing country and had a poverty rate of 25.8% in 2011, according to the UN. Clean water is difficult to come by and illiteracy is still commonplace.

Yet poverty isn’t the story in Peru. The modern culture in the Sacred Valley is vibrant, unique, and bursting with pride. In general, the Peruvians (I met) who live there are welcoming, accepting of tourists, and willing to educate outsiders about their culture and way of life.

Before you go, make sure you purchase a 10-day Boleto Turístico in Cusco. This pass will give you access to most (but not all) of the major tourist attractions in the Sacred Valley.

The Three Main Towns

There are many small villages running through the Sacred Valley. These vary in size and each one has its own flavor and secrets. That being said, here are the five main towns that every visit to the Sacred Valley should include:

Pisac

Pisac is the second most famous town in the valley and home to the largest population of foreigners in the valley. The town is dominated by a massive set of Incan ruins climbing up the mountain above town.

There are two ways to visit these ruins. For the adventurous, the ruins can be reached by hiking up a long Incan staircase, just head uphill from the market until you find the gateway. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can take a taxi up the mountain behind town and walk across to the ruins from there.

Entrance to the ruin is included in the Boleto Turistico.

After you finish exploring the ruins, spend some time walking around the market in the main square. This is one of the most touristic markets in all of the Sacred Valley. It’s a great opportunity to see what kind of handicrafts and trinkets are on offer, but there are less expensive markets selling most of the same products. If you see something truly special, get it! Otherwise, wait till you get to Urubamba.

Ollantaytambo Free Ruins

Pisac also has a whole host of opportunities for yoga workshops, retreats, vegan food, and plant medicine retreats. Many restaurants in town offer Ayahuasca diet menus, and there are shamans all over town offering their services. Just – do your research before booking! Some of these are great experiences, while others can turn into nightmares.

For workshops and yoga retreats, I can personally recommend Nidra Wasi. I took a yogic cooking workshop there in 2014 that was worth every penny.

Ollantaytambo

The gem in the crown of the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo is the most beautiful and iconic town on this list. Called the “Living Incan City” this town is unlike any other in the world. Built by the Inca over 500 years ago, today the town lives on, with Quechua people still living in the structures built by their Incan ancestors.

Rio Urubamba

What to do in Ollantaytambo

The main highlight of Ollantaytambo is the majestic ruin rising up above the town. You’ll catch your first glimpse of it from the main square. Just walk down the hill to reach the entrance. The entrance fee is covered by the boleto turistico.

These ruins, called Temple Hill colloquially, are unfinished, having been abandoned before completion over 600 years ago. Still, there are many structures and monoliths that are astounding to witness in person. The Temple of the Sun, located at the top of a long stair climb, features some of the remarkable stonework that makes the Inca famous. The many gardens, fountains, and foundations that run along the bottom of the mountainside will have you dreaming of what life was like before the Spanish arrived. This temple deserves at least a whole morning just for exploration.

If you have extra energy and time in Ollantay, smaller, less majestic ruins cling to the opposite side of the valley. Entrance to these ruins is free, if you can find it. Walk down the last alleyway in town and then look for a small path leading up the hill. These ruins were the storage houses for potatoes, grains and other foodstuffs.

Where to Eat in Ollantaytambo

Once you’ve finished exploring Ollantaytambo’s impressive ruins, it’s time for a snack. My personal favorite place to eat in Ollantay is Heart’s Cafe. This social enterprise cafe uses its proceeds to provide healthy meals and support to women and children living in high Andean communities. They have some of the most delicious food in Ollantay with vegan and vegetarian options.

Urubamba

Urubamba is situated right smack in the center of the Sacred Valley. This town is often overlooked by tourists because it lacks the quaint charm and stunning ruins of Pisac or Ollantaytambo. But in truth, you cannot fully understand life in the Sacred Valley without a visit to Urubamba.

A visit to Urubamba provides the opportunity to look behind the tourist performance and see what life is really like for the local Quechua people and Peruvian transplants that populate the Sacred Valley.

Urubamba is a hidden gem of the Sacred Valley, especially for those who love good food. The market at Urubamba is a gathering place for local farmers from all across the valley and up in the mountains. There are a few days a week when it explodes into a hive of activity. I’ll talk more about that in the event section of this article.

Urubamba Streets

Streets of Urubamba

Where to Eat in Urubamba

There are many restaurants in Urubamba worth checking out. The top choices serve the increasingly popular Novo Andino cuisine, while other cafe’s tend to focus on organic vegetarian meals.

El Huacatay serves up Novo Andino classics like Trucha (trout) or Alpaca meat. The restaurant is cash only and reservations are recommended in the high season. 30-40 soles per plate.

Paca Paca sits a bit uphill from town but is well worth the walk or moto ride. The restaurant offers a funky artistic vibe with wood oven pizzas and a good wine selection. Pastas are also recommended. 30 – 40 soles per plate

Kaia is my last and highest restaurant recommendation. It isn’t the most expensive or sought after restaurant in town but it is the most charming. They offer organic food prepared with love. Kaia also often has music performances or other artistic events. I recommend the chai tea with almond milk! 15-25 soles/plate

What to Do in Urubamba

Other than a visit to the market, what else does Urubamba have to offer?

The Plaza de Armas has a lovely traditional church with a view of the mountains behind. Get some ice cream from one of the heladerias or carts situated on the square.

Visit Urubamba’s modest ruins, the Palacio de Hyuana Capac – a humble remains of a once proud fortress. May only be interesting to true archaeology nerds like myself. From there, you can check out Urubamba’s Cemetery to get a sense of how Peru honor their dead, or walk down a true Inca trail as it winds out of town.

Urubamba is also quietly becoming an artistic hub of the valley. To find more information about this, the best places in town to visit are Kaia Cafe or El Arte Sano. Both have artistic performances, events, and workshops every month.

Lastly, Urubamba is a great town to use as a jumping off point for some epic hikes. I’ll talk about the best one, hiking up to Chicón, further down in the hiking section of this article. On top of that, a walk through the dirt roads that lead uphill out of town will often lead to small pathways winding up into the foothills of the Andes. You never know what you might find.

There is a short hike that goes up to the cross above town, providing a great outlook over Urubamba towards Cusco. To get there, head uphill on the main road, Yanaconas Chicón, until you see a zig zagging path going uphill on your left. Follow that trail all the way up to the cross. The top is a great spot for a picnic.

Urubamba Hike to the Cross

View from the Cross above Urubamba

Chinchero

Though not technically in the Sacred Valley, Chinchero is usually included in most Sacred Valley tours and it’s a town worth visiting for it’s impressive ruins, local market, and gorgeous countryside.

Chinchero is the highest town on this list, sitting even higher than Cusco at 3,700m (12,100ft), so make sure to spend some time in either the Sacred Valley or Cusco before heading to explore Chinchero. The headaches and nausea that accompany altitude sickness don’t make for a great day of exploration.

The highlight of a visit to Chinchero is the set of ancient Incan ruins and Spanish missionary church that dominate the town. At the ruins, you’ll find well maintained terraces and a few large boulders with Incan engravings and carvings.

But the true state of the ruins stands as testament to the tumultuous history that created modern Peru. Above the ruins, where once the main temple of the Incan ruin soon, it has been replaced with a Spanish cathedral, built by the conquering Spaniards to subdue the local people. It’s lovely to look inside, but the juxtaposition of Incan and Spanish will make you stop and think about colonialism both past and present.

Chincero also boasts a fairly popular market selling tourist goods as well as local wares. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days for the market, but it will probably be somewhat open most days of the week.

If you are particularly lucky, you’ll stumbled into Chinchero on a festival day. These days, the main square comes alive in a frenzy of colorful activity. If you find yourself in a Chinchero festival, remember to be respectful first and foremost. Ask before photographing women, stand at the back, and be respectful of local traditions. You’re witnessing a genuine part of the Quechua indigenous culture that is alive and well.

view from Maras village

The Streets of Maras

Maras/Moray

A visit to Maras, Moray, and the Salineras Salt Mines are a must if spending time in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The sites can be visited by a combination of hiking, biking, and taxis. I suggest beginning with a walk to the salt mines, which I outline below in the hikes section, then head up to Maras, where you can easily find a taxi to drive you out to Moray.

More commonly, people hire taxis from either Cusco or the Valley to take them on a full tour of the salt mines and Moray. Moray entrance fee is included on the Boleto Turístico. Salineras is not included, but it’s only $3 extra.

The salt mines are a work of terracing that dates back to the Incan empire. Built much like the green terraces found elsewhere, these are used to harvest salt. The flats are flooded and then the water slowly evaporates, leaving behind pure salt.

The Peruvians who work on the salt flats are part of a co-op system that dates back to Incan times. Everyone shares in the work and benefit from the harvests. Anyone can have access to the salt flats – as long as they are willing to pull their own weight.

Moray is the site of the famous circular Incan terraces. These were used, perhaps, to experiment with different crops. In truth, however, archaeologists cannot say for certain why the Incan build a circular pit of terraces here and not elsewhere. Whatever they were built for, they are a beautiful and mysterious spot to spend an afternoon.

Best Hikes in the Sacred Valley

Most tourists visit the Sacred Valley for it’s villages and markets, but there is more to be explored in this sun-drenched land. Indeed, the Sacred Valley is perhaps one of the most accessible and unexplored hiking locations in all of Peru. If you’re comfortable in Alpine environments and a very serious outdoors enthusiast, you can choose any valley and start hiking upwards to see what happens. As always, be respectful of any indigenous people you meet, ask permission before camping, and use caution.

If choosing a random trail and seeing where it goes seems a little too high risk for you, here are a selection of my favorite single-day and multi-day hikes in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.

Lares Trek

Though less popular than it’s more famous siblings; the Inca Trail and Salkantay trek, this two or three day Trek a stunning alternative to those heavily trafficked trails. The Lares Trek has three variations . Each begins at a different village in the valley, runs up and over the Andes, and finishes up at the Lares Hot Springs. Each route has it’s own benefit and, having personally hiked two of them, I believe that all three routes are equal in beauty.

sacred valley views peru

Sacred Valley Views

Option 1: Beginning from Huarán

This hike begins from a small village just outside of Huarán, following a well trodden footpath up into the high Andes. After several hours of hiking, you’ll come across the rural Quechua village of Cancha Cancha.

The people of Cancha Cancha are used to seeing tourists passing through but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want you walking around in their church or school. Be respectful and ask village elders for permission before wandering willy-nilly through their village taking photos. Not many villagers speak Spanish but simple sign language usually does the trick.

Continuing on from the village, you’ll soon reach a large, black Andean lake, the perfect spot for your first campsite. Day two you’ll hike up and over the ridge then down to the main road. Follow the main road until you reach Lares.

Option 2: Beginning from Urubamba

You’ll hike up out of town towards Pumahuanca, an absolutely stunning ecological area. You’ll be following a river and the path is actually a road for much of the beginning. Eventually it becomes a footpath that will lead you up and over the Andes.

On the way you’ll pass through a rural village, pastoral farmland, an ancient Incan ruin, and have breathtaking views back towards Cusco. Once you cross the pass, it’s a long walk down a dirt road until you reach the Lares Hot Springs.

Option 3: Beginning from Yanahuara

This is the only route I haven’t personally tried. The route from Yanahuara leads up to a large lake sitting at about 4000m. Camp beside this lake then continue up and over the pass and down to Lares and the much needed hot springs.

Inca Trail from Chinchero

Yes, it’s an Inca Trail hike, but it’s not THE Incan Trail. Here in the Sacred Valley, there is one long continuous hike that anyone can do, for free, on an authentic section of the Inca Trail.

It runs from Chinchero down to a small village called Urquillos. The trail can technically be hiked in either direction, but I recommend beginning in Chinchero and hiking down to Urquillos, unless you’re a true sucker for punishment.

Get a taxi or combi van up to Chinchero then head to the ruins. Walk down through the terraces to the very bottom and head off towards the forest and mountainside. You should find the start of a pathway leading down. After less than 5 minutes of walking, you’ll see a sign indicating that this is an authentic Incan Trail.

The trail leads down a steep mountainside to the village of Urquillos, close to the Aranwa Sacred Valley Resort. Pop in there to ask for help getting a taxi, or simply stand on the main road and wave your hand until a passing bus or car picks you up.

sacred valley above urubamba

On the way up to Yanacocha

Laguna Yanacocha Hike

One of the most beautiful day hikes in the valley, the hike to Yanacocha is incredibly popular with locals but little known to tourists. It may be a good idea to find a local guide to show you the way, as this trail can be difficult to find. Your hotel in the valley should be able to help you find a knowledgeable guide.

The trail begins from Huayoccari, first winding through eucalyptus forests, then slowly ascending the mountains above.

The trail will open up onto high Andean farmland, then alternate through forests, slow scrub, and more pastures. If you’re lucky you may see some wildlife but it’ll mostly just be cattle.

When you come to a large flat rock, you know you’re almost there. This is a great spot to have a rest and take some photos.

The last part of the trail is steeper as you approach the lake. The big reveal comes as you scrabble up the last climb to find a most incredible sight: a large, crystalline black lake sits beneath towering cliffs.

Apparently there is another lake higher up and a trail to access it, but I never tried it. Hiking up to Yanacochoa at 4700m was enough for me.

Remember to bring water and snacks (at least!) or better yet a full lunch to eat at the lake.

naupa iglesia sacred cave hike near Ollantaytambo

Roadside map on the way to the Naupa Iglesia

Naupa Iglesia Hike

Really more of a short morning stroll than an full hike, the Naupa Iglesia is a mystical hidden gems in the Sacred Valley. Frequented by locals and expats, you’ll be unlikely to encounter another tourist at this secretive Incan site.

The Naupa Iglesia is found in a cave sitting atop some old terraces. Inside the cave is a stunning carved altar, partially destroyed by the Spanish, and a mysterious stone door carved into the wall of the cave. In front of the cave are several structures containing the human remains.

To reach this site, take a taxi or combi to “el puente Pachar” or the Pachar Bridge. You should see a large sign for a Circuito Turistico when you disembark from the car. From there, head on up the road that leads through the village and up the valley. Stay on the road and look to your right hand side. When you see some crumbling terraces, follow the path up them and you’ll find the cave at the top.

If you have a guide, there is a beautiful hike that goes from there up to a majestic waterfall and onwards. That is a full day excursion and not to be undertaken without a guide.

Hiking Chicon Glacier Hike Peru

Trying to get to Chicón

Chicón Glacier Hike (Chi’qun)

Chicón, alternatively spelled Chi’qun to respected the Quechua, is the massive glacier and mountain peak above Urubamba. It’s peak is visible as you drive from Cusco to the valley, visible from the main square, and featured prominently in this music video from Calle 13, one of my favorite songs.

The peak of the mountain is 5,530m (18,000+ft) and the glacier sits just a few hundred meters below that. Needless to say, it is a very rigorous and demanding hike. Though technically possible to achieve in just one day, you’re better off bringing camping gear and giving yourself two days to attempt this trek.

To get there, find a taxi to drive you up the Chicón valley to the end of the road. There are also combis that leave from the main road very early in the morning if you can find them.

From the gate, you walk up the road until you come to the flat, cleared area. Perhaps it’s a mine, but I’m not certain. After that, follow the switchbacking trail as it leads up and up and up. It’s a rigorous ascent and this trail is unforgiving.

Full disclosure: I got altitude sickness up there and did not make it all the way to the Chicón glacier. If you attempt this hike and make it to the lake below the glacier and to the glacier itself, write me a comment and let me know how it goes! I’m dying to go back for another attempt.

Salineras to Maras

Less of a hike and more of a day trip on foot, it is totally possible to walk from Urubamba to the Salineras flat mines and up to Maras. I really enjoyed this walk and I recommend it to other travelers who love seeing the world on foot.

From Urubamba, you’ll want to cross the main road and find the lower road that runs parallel, one block closer to the river. Follow this for a few miles until you see a sign for the rainbow bridge and Salineras. Cross the bridge. On the other side you should find an official who will take your 10 soles or $3 for the price of entrance. Hang onto the ticket he gives you.

Follow the road along the river then upwards into the valley. You can’t see the salt mines yet but you are almost there. Hike the winding path up the hill and you’ll soon find yourself in amongst the salt mines.

When you enter the mines from the bottom they are slowly revealed to you, bit by bit. It won’t be until later, once you reach the top and look back, that you’ll realize the full expanse of the salty wonderland you’ve been wandering through.

Salineras Incan Salt Mines

Salineras Salt Flats

After you’ve had your fill of the salt mines, there is a trail that cuts up the hillside all the way to Maras. Head through the parking lot and look for the trail cutting straight up the hill. It will be narrow at first but will eventually open up into a sort of narrow road. Look out for mountain bikers coming downhill!

This road winds up the enticing valley all the way to Maras. Once you arrive in Maras, you should be able to find taxis to take you out to Moray or back down to Urubamba, or even onward to Cusco.

Best Events

Spend a year in the Sacred Valley and you’ll soon notice that the rhythm of life in the Sacred Valley is marked by festivals. Each one had something unique and wonderful that sits locked in my memories. But few of them recur every year. Here are a few of my favorite yearly or monthly events happening in the Sacred Valley

Cervecería Saturdays

The Cervecería del Valle Sagrado is a craft brewery located just outside of Urubamba, in the small village of Pachar. They are open most weekdays from 2-7 and if you have a free afternoon I highly recommend dropping in for a flight or at least a pint of one of their delicious brews.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the valley at the end of the month, head out to the Cervecería for their monthly party. On the last Saturday of the month they stay open until 10pm and expats and Peruvians alike from all over the valley congregate to drink, chat, and be merry. It’s a great place to meet other engaged people while drinking delicious beer. Just make sure to arrange a ride home at the end or be prepared to spend ages trying to hail down taxis in the dark!

Sacred Valley Peru

Sacred Sushi Sundays

Another regular event in the valley, this one takes place in the hippie village of Pisac. Each Sunday all the expats and some Peruvians congregate at Sacred Sushi Sundays. Yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Enjoy delicious vegan treats like sushi or organic curry, as well as some sweet treats, spring rolls, and other delicacies. All dishes are vegan and made lovingly by a collection of expats living full time in Pisac. You can find them each Sunday just up the hill from Apu Organics.

Market Day in Urubamba

This tri-weekly event easily became one of my favorite things about life in Urubamba. As I mentioned above, the Urubamba market is the one of the best places to see what everyday life is like for the Quechua people living in the valley. Especially on Market Days. Three days a week all the local farmers from across the valley and up in the mountains converge on Urubamba to sell their wares, drink chicha with their friends, and generally make merry.

Every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday is a market day, with Wednesday and Friday being the largest. The day begins early. People start setting up as early as 4am and the party lasts all morning. By noon things are shutting down and it’s mostly finished by 2pm.

During the morning the streets are filled with locals in their finery: hand woven garments in every color of the rainbow. People sit around chatting with friends and drinking chicha: a local alcohol made from corn.

The market itself overflows it’s banks like a river in the rainy season. For at least four blocks in each direction, women and men lay out blankets and sell their produce and products at extremely discount prices. This is best during the rainy season when the farmers have the most to sell.

Food vendors walk the streets selling all manor of street food. Feel free to get adventurous, approach women sitting with pots and ask to eat. You’ll get a delicious meal for often 3 soles or less. Just be warned, you may also get food poisoning.

On especially vibrant market days, you may also get live bands or musicians wandering the streets, but this is usually only when it overlaps with my final event suggestion, religious festivals.

traditional peruvian festival costumes in pisac

Women in their festival finery

Religious Festivals

I debated whether or not to include this one in this guide. The religious and cultural festivals of the Sacred Valley were easily some of my favorite days spent living in Peru – but they are very much NOT for tourist consumption. These festivals, like the famous one dedicated to El Señor de Torrechayoc are religious events and authentic expressions of the unique blend of Quechua culture and Catholicism that exist in the Sacred Valley.

If you are lucky enough to be in the valley during a religious festival and you stumble onto their parades or parties, be respectful. Do not try to join the parade, do not take pictures without first asking permission. You are a visitor there, and this parade is not being put on for you. Count your blessings and enjoy this amazing expression of an indigenous culture that hasn’t yet been stamped out by the continuing oppression of colonialism.

I won’t share the dates of these festivals because I truly believe they are not tourist attractions. But if you are lucky enough to visit during one, I hope you get lost in the colors and the sounds of an Andean festival.

Lare Trek Sacred VAlley Peru

Best Food

To close out this complete guide to your trip to the Sacred Valley, I just want to briefly highlight some of my favorite foods. Some of these can be found across Peru, while others are unique to the Sacred Valley. All of them are delicious and worth a bite or two.

Papa Rellena

A Peruvian classic. A potato is baked, then mashed up and stuffed with vegetables, egg, meat, and some spices. The whole thing is then deep fried. Served with a spicy “picante” salsa.

Rocoto Rellena

Take a somewhat spicy rocoto pepper and remove all the insides. Then they stuff the pepper with veggies, potatoes, and cheese. This is then deep fried and served with picante, a spicy salsa. Usually women with carts will sell both papa rellena and rococo relleno.

Yucca Frita

A simple yet decadent treat. A piece of yucca (tapioca, cassava) is deep fried and served with a delicious salsa.

Pollo y Papas

The national dish of Peru. Chicken roasted to perfection over hot coals and served with a generous helping of french fries. In the valley you usually have the option to choose between pollo broaster (deep fried), pollo a la brasa (roasted over coals), or pollo a la parilla (grilled). My favorite is a la brasa, it’s the perfect mixture of juicy and flavorful for me. I recommend getting un octavo (1/8 of a chicken), unless you’re starving, in which case it’s time to go big and order a quarto (quarter chicken).

Your meal will always come with a small bowl of chicken soup, usually with a chicken foot included, and all you can eat from the salad bar.

Cancha

Basically just Peruvian popcorn. The kernels of choclo, the massive white Peruvian corn, are roasted in salt and eaten. One of the best things to munch on while hiking in the high altitudes. Soothes stomach pain and gives you instant energy.

Pastelita

A little cake made from corn flour. Find women with massive trays selling slices for 1 sol each. Best tasting from October to December, though I’m not sure why.

Soup Peruvian Food

Typical Peruvian Soup

Menú

A menú is a traditional way Peruvian restaurants serve meals, especially lunch. Basically, the cook will prepare three meals and that is what you get to choose from. Every meal includes a soup and a main. They will write their two or three choices on a board out front and you walk in and tell them what you want. Your food will arrive in minutes. Menús can be as cheap as 3 soles but 5 to 6 soles is more common.

Be brave but also be aware, Peruvians eat a lot of offal so if you aren’t comfortable with that, check the definition of the meal before ordering!

Piccarrones

Little deep fried donuts served often with powdered sugar. 100% worth the calories.

The Salineras Hike to the Incan Salt mines

Salineras

Tamales

The tamales in the Sacred Valley are often sweet, but you can get both sweet and salty, just ask the woman selling them ahead of time which one you’re getting. I absolutely love both.

Pachamanca

This last one is unique to the Sacred Valley and a truly unique gastronomic experience. Pachamanca is a traditional harvest time meal. To make it, a large pit is dug in the earth and filled with hot coals. The coals are then covered with stones, potatoes, vegetables, more stones. This is repeated until the pit is filled. It is then covered with some earth and grass and left until all the heat has died out.

Family and friends then gather around the pit and slow remove the rocks, eating the root vegetables as they come out of the earth. Roasted or grilled meat is usually also served. It’s a truly communal way to celebrate all the goodness that has been delivered by Pachamama.

There are several restaurants in the valley that will cook a Pachamanca. Arrange a large group and call ahead to reserve your feast. If you have the opportunity to enjoy this ritual meal while you’re in the valley, you won’t regret it.

Where to Stay in the Sacred Valley

Since I lived in the valley, I never actually spent any time in hotels. However, I did teach the staff for various hotels and also taught yoga in some hotels, so I can recommend a few. Most are for people with larger budgets for accommodations but I do have one recommendation for budget travelers. These are all to be found around Urubamba, with one except being in Pisac.

Hiking in the Sacred Valley Peru

View from a hike above the Sacred Valley

Willka T’ika

This is less of a hotel and more of a retreat center. If you’re looking for a place to rest and escape for a few days, you couldn’t find a better option. Their staff are all dedicated and caring, the meals are all healthful with vegan options, and they have chakra gardens especially cultivated for walking and seated meditation. They can also arrange yoga workshops or classes for you if requested. Price: Luxury

San Agustin Monasterio de la Recoleta

Located in an old monastery, this beautiful hotel is a stunning place to lay your head before or after a long trek to Machu Picchu. I taught a few group yoga classes here and was very impressed with the staff and the setting. Truly a gorgeous place to stay. Price: Luxury

Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado

Absolutely jaw dropping hotel in an even more spectacular setting. Located a short drive from Urubamba, this hotel sits right on the Urubamba river, beneath high cliffs with views of the mountains. The staff are all dedicated, the food is excellent, and the rooms are comfortable and spacious. If you’re looking for a luxury retreat in the valley, this is it. Price: Luxury

BUDGET OPTION: Llamapack Backpackers

For the budget backpacker looking to stay near Urubamba, Llamapack is the most common option. They offer cheap dorms and single rooms, located just up the road from the main town, very walkable. Bonus, they are connected to a social enterprise rescuing Llamas. Price: Shoestring

Ollantaytambo Ruins

Exploring Ollantaytambo

Adventure Option: Skylodge Adventure Suites

This one of a kind hotel went viral not too long ago and for good reason. Where else can you stay in luxury suites only accessible by rock climbing or zip lining? Located 400 meters in the air, these adventure suites are 3 glass pods constructed of aerospace grade aluminum and perspex, giving you a nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding valley. The suites are only accessible through either a grueling via ferrata climb or a combination of hiking and zip lining. Either way, you’re going to earn your dinner beneath the stars. Price: Luxury

Pisac Options: Nidra Wasi

Mentioned this one in my Pisac section but I’ll mention it again. This guesthouse offers a communal space for workshops with a family atmosphere. Stay for the night or a month and take part in the many learning opportunities offered here in this spiritual center. Price: Low – Middle


That’s it. To learn more than that, you’ll have to come here and explore the Valley’s secrets on your own.

Have you visited the Sacred Valley, or are you planning a trip? If you can think of anything I missed, let me know in the comments!


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The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes  The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes

The Ultimate Guide to the Sacred Valley of Peru: Where to Go, What to Do, What to Eat, Where to Stay, and an Insiders Guide to the Best Hikes

Hiking the Huayhuash Circuit Solo: A 9 Day Complete Guide

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Of all the treks I took on during my 14 months living in Peru, I don’t know if any trek was as physically demanding and emotionally rewarding as my solo trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash.

The Cordillera Huayhuash is a remote mountain range just to the south of the Cordillera Blanca, in the Ancash Region of Peru. The nearest tourism city is Huaraz, though the Huayhuash is several hours drive from there.

Laguna Carnicero Campsite Cordillera Huayhuash

Campsite on Lg. Carnicero

The most common way to tackle the Huayhuash is by using one of the many tour agencies in Huaraz. You can easily book a 7 to 9 day trek around the range with great guides and everything included.

But for those of us who are stubborn, adventurous, and fiercely independent, there is only one way to trek the Huayhuash: solo.

If you’re wondering what to pack or how to prepare for a solo trek around the Huayhuash, I encourage you to check out my previous post about preparing for a solo trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash.

I trekked the Huayhuash back in October of 2015. At that time, I could find hardly any blog posts about tackling this mountain range solo. Most of the information that I did find told me not to do it, that the Huayhuash is too rugged, too dangerous, and should only be taken on with a guide.

I’m here to tell you that perhaps that isn’t, strictly speaking, true. Sure, if you’ve never done a long hike before, if you’re not familiar with the Andes Mountains, if you don’t know how to read a map – yeah, get a guide. But if you’re an experienced trekker who wants to take on a physical challenge through one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world – the Huayhuash is waiting for you.

Siula Pass Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

Taking a quick break on top of Siula Pass, day 4

Hiking the Huayhuash Solo – What to Expect

Before you go, make sure you get all your supplies, including enough food for 9 days. There is only one town on the entire hike, so if you run out of supplies, you’ll be in a bad spot. At the bare minimum, carry enough calories for 5 days, a way to clean your water, and enough clothes to keep warm in the freezing nights.

The Huayhuash Circuit takes you through extreme altitudes, with the highest pass rising above 5000m (16,400ft). However, you’ll almost always camp lower than your highest point of the day. Although this makes the trek extremely physically taxing, it also helps a lot with acclimation and avoiding altitude sickness.

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit Solo

Top of the pass, day 5

About traffic on the trail: there will be lots of it. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that if you get hurt you’ll die alone, with no one walking by for days. There are plenty of people out there. Even in the rainy season.

At the bare minimum, there are plenty of Peruvian villagers living up there. They are very mindful of the tourists passing through, for reasons I will get to in a moment. On top of that, there are plenty of tour groups. During my 9 day circuit in 2015 I met three separate tour groups, and two other smaller packs of independent trekkers. Out of 9 days, I only spent one night completely by myself.

So unless things have changed, and I very much doubt they have, you won’t be alone.

Last thing to expect: extortion. Make sure you bring at least 300 soles with you just to pay off the local villagers. At least once a day, you will be approached by locals asking you to pay the protection fee. You cannot avoid it. Maybe if you wake up every day before dawn, but even so, at the next village they may just ask you to pay twice. Best to factor in the $300 soles as part of your Huayhuash budget. It’s just a shitty reality of this trail. Save the little pieces of paper they give you.

Also, take a few days in Huaraz to acclimate. Go on some day hikes. Seriously, do it. Altitude sickness will ruin your trek.

And of course, get ready to see some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Solo

Standing Proud on top of the pass, day 6

 

9 Day Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit At-A-Glance

  • Day 1: Huaraz to Quartlehuain (4150m)
  • Day 2: Quartlehuain to Laguna Mitucocha (4230m)
  • Day 3: Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha (4140m)
  • Day 4: Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (4330m)
  • Day 5: Laguna Carnicero to Atuscancha (Hot Springs!)
  • Day 6: Hot Springs to Huanacpatay (4400m)
  • Day 7: Huanacpatay to Huatiac (4400m)
  • Day 8: Huatiac to Laguna Jahuacocha (4070m)
  • Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac

Day 1 – Huaraz to Quartlehuian (4150m)

The first day, I hitched a ride with a tour group that was leaving from my hostel. So, instead of taking the bus to Llamac and hiking from there, I got a free ride all the way up to Quartlehuain. If you can swing this, I highly recommend it.

At the campsite, I met another couple that was tackling the Huayhuash without a guide, and they said the walk up from Llamac was entirely following a road and not very pleasant.

Laguna Mitucocha Cordillera Huayhuash

Looking back towards my campsite and Lg. Mitucocha

Day 2 – Quartlehuain to Laguna Mitucocha (4230m)

The day begins with an immediate ascent up to the first pass. The path zig zags up the mountainside more or less relentlessly for 550m. You’ll get a nice view down the valley that you drove up the day before.

The final push up to the top of the pass is on switchbacks through some scree. The tour group I had driven with the day before blasted past me on the way up and I could see and hear them sitting at the top of the pass as I climbed.

They were all quite encouraging and cheered for me during my final steps. To be fair, they were all carrying small daypacks, whereas I had all of my supplies for my 9 day hike on my back. Was I jealous of their donkey train? Not really.

After you reach the pass at 4700m, the path takes on a gentler grade downhill. You find yourself walking into a wide open valley, with your first views of the snowcapped peaks of the Huayhuash mountain range peeking out at you.

After some time, you should come to a gateway where a local villager will wait to collect another 10 soles. From here, the tour groups will continue on to cross a second pass and head to their campsite at Carhuacocha. But not me.

One of the advantages of solo trekking is you can create your own itinerary. I wanted to check out this Laguna Mitucocha sitting right at the foot of some of the highest peaks in the Huayhuash.

The path to the lake hugged the edge of the valley, winding slightly uphill. Up over one last rise and I found myself at the lake.

My map indicated that there was an official campsite on this lake, but I couldn’t find any indication of it. Instead, I found an old corral of sorts and pitched my tent next to the stones, hoping to use them as a wall from the wind.

It was still early when I made camp, so I took a walk around the lake and spent plenty of time in quiet meditation of the massive glacier rising above me.

How to Trek the Cordillera Huayhuash Solo

View from the top of the pass, day 3

Day 3: Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha (4140m)

Leaving the lake the next morning, I packed up early and headed off across the valley back towards the main trail.

A note about Andean Valleys: They are a death trap. Do not trust them. Ever. They may look like idyllic vast paradises, covered in soft green grass just begging for a frolic, but do not be deceived! That soft green grass is a damp, cold, mire just waiting to suck you in and destroy you in an instant. Stick to the high ground. Do not walk across the valleys.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest. Moving on.

The hike up to Punta Carhuac, the day’s pass at 4,650m, is relatively easy. On the way up, I met my second group of fellow non-tour hikers. Three Germans who seemed just as intrigued to meet me as I was to meet them. I met them just a bit below the pass, where they were stopping for a snack. We said a quick hello but I kept on, telling them perhaps I’d see them at the top.

Although the ascent to Punta Carhuac is quite easy, the view from the top is still beautiful. It was nearing midday at this point and rain clouds were gathering overhead, but I still took a moment to have a seat and meditate. As I was sitting there, the Germans came over the rise and joined me.

We ended up not only walking down together, but also making camp that night on the side of Laguna Carhuacocha. Their German guidebook suggested that there were, in fact, two trails around the lake. The main trail, which goes down around the lake to the southern end, and another, which followed the Northern side. We opted to camp on the northwestern side of the lake, orchestrating a funny if precarious crab walk down the steep cliffs to the flat land beside the lake.

It made for a beautiful campsite, but we would learn the next day the error in our decision.

Laguna Carnicero Huayhuash Mountain Range

View from the campsite on Lg. Carnicero

Day 4: Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (4330)

This is the day that any aspiring Huayhuash trekker looks forward to. After three days of arduous trekking, you’ve arrived: Siula Pass and the incredible trail along the three luminescent lakes, with three massive peaks towering overhead. It’s an unforgettable sight.

But first: my German friends and I had to get back to the main path.

After a wonderful night spent by the lake, listening to the sound of small avalanches pouring down the far side of the valley, we woke early and packed up camp, eager for the scenic day and massive climb that awaited us.

Walking along the northeastern side of the lake, we met a local woman who tried to tell us that the trail was on the souther side. But fools that we were, we ignored her. The valley ahead of us looked so flat, it would be a simple thing to cross it.

Fools.

The valley was not only a swampy mire filled with grass that gave way like quicksand, it was also criss crossed with ice cold streams flowing from the nearby glaciers.

It was a long, cold slog across that field. At one particularly tricky stream we all took our boots off, walked across the ice cold water that came up to our knees, and then had to try to rub some life back into our toes.

Moral of the story… take the main trail along the southern side of the lake. Camp in the official campsite. Save yourself the frostbitten toes.

After that field disaster, we rejoined the main trail and hiked up into the mountains. This was the closest the trail had come to the majestic snowcapped peaks. Whereas on previous days the mountains had been distant abstractions, like looking at postcards from Switzerland, now they were immediate, imposing, and ever present. The sound of avalanches and cracking glaciers was a constant companion through the morning.

After some time, we made it above the third lake and were able to look back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Still to this day one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Siula Pass Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

The famous lakes. It’s even more unbelievable in person.

Continuing on, after the three lakes, the real ascent of the day begins. It is a very steep climb up a mountain wall to reach Siula pass at 4800m. On the way up I began to experience some symptoms of altitude sickness. Thankfully, I had the Germans with me. They took some of my stuff out of my pack, distributed it amongst themselves, and cheered me on up to the pass.

By the time we finally made it up there, the storm clouds were growing, and what earlier had been a clear sky was now dark and stormy. Sitting atop a mountain pass is not where you want to be when a storm is brewing, so after a quick break and a snack, we booked it downhill to Laguna Carnicero, and our lakeside camp for the night.

Day 5: Laguna Carnicero to Atascancha Hot Springs

Today was a bittersweet day. I was so excited to get to the hot springs and spend an afternoon soaking my very sore muscles. But the Germans were headed up and over a different pass, skipping the hot springs for more adventurous trails. Our time together had come to an end, and I was very sorry to see my friends go.

The trail from Laguna Carnicero proceeds downhill into a valley, where a local waits to extract a further 10 or 20 soles. From there, my German friends headed up for a little known pass well above 5000 meters. I considered going with them, but since I had felt minor altitude sickness the day before, it seemed prudent to take the lower pass and head on down to the hot springs.

Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit without a Guide

With my German friends

From the valley floor, the trail meandered upwards at a very light grade all the way to the pass. The surrounding landscape was beautiful, if not quite as majestic as the day before. After a few false summits, I reached the pass at 4750m.

There, I caught up with two men, a guy from Mexico and his Peruvian guide. I was honestly shocked to have caught them, since they were walking with nothing and I was still carrying my massive pack. They were both super friendly and it turns out were also headed to the hot springs. I headed on down the hill ahead of them, eager for a soak.

Down and down and down the trail went. After what felt like hours,I came to the shore of a massive lake with some sort of construction on it. It was my first industrial structure I’d seen in days and I was a bit spooked by it.

Tip: This massive lake is Laguna Viconga. For the curious, there is apparently an old Sendero Luminoso training camp on the far side.

From the lake, things can get a little confusing. There are trails going in a few directions. Take the trail heading northwest, down the valley, in order to find the hot springs. You’ll head back up this direction the following morning.

Feeling pretty fatigued from my massive descent, I took a seat next to a small waterfall to make some pb&j crackers for my lunch. I finished up, laid down for a bit of mindfulness, and a few minutes later my new friends came along the trail.

The guide immediately started laughing. I wasn’t quite sure why but I picked up my pack to follow them along the trail and not 2 minutes later we arrived at the hot springs.

I had stopped for a break less than half a kilometer away from my destination for the day. Oh well.

Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Trail on the way to the pass on day 5

When we arrived at the campsite, I found it already populated with two tour groups: my new friends, and a group of Israelis. I paused, looking for a likely place to put my tent, when my new friends said “camp with us!”

And so I did.

Spent the afternoon in the hot springs, soaking my muscles and generally getting rave reviews from the Israelis who seemed to think I was out of my mind doing this trek on my own.

Made my dinner and fell asleep feeling more relaxed than I had in days. Little did I know, the days of solitary trekking I imagined for my future were never to materialize.

Day 6: Viconga Hot Springs to Huanacpatay (4400m)

On this day, I had planned to cross not one but two passes, heading up towards Laguna Jurau. I knew it would be an incredibly grueling day, but it would get me up close and personal with more of the peaks and glaciers of the Huayhuash.

I still think it would make for a breathtaking day, and if you’re planning your own solo trek through the Huayhuash, do consider it.

But my plans changed not because of scenery, nor because of any problems with altitude or fatigue. Instead, it was because of some of the people I had met. Namely, my two friends from the day before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving the hot springs, the trail heads back up towards Laguna Viconga, then veers northeast and up to the pass.

Though I left camp ahead of everyone else, it wasn’t long before the tour group’s donkey trains were blowing past me. Their minder, a local Andean man, barely breaking a sweat as he marched up the path.

I was heading up towards the tallest pass of the entire trip at 5000m. The way up was a nice mixture of steep climbs and small plateaus.

The group of Israeli tourists were quite concerned for my wellbeing. They kept trying to give me sweets and snacks and asking how I was doing with my pack. In the end though, half of their group ended up getting pretty bad altitude sickness. Two of them had to ride donkeys over the pass. To be fair, they’d been drinking wine and smoking the night before.

Pro tip: Drinking wine and smoking joints won’t help you trek.

Reaching the pass definitely felt like an achievement. It was a wide open, bald pass covered in scree, surrounded by glaciers. Indeed, the glaciers felt so close I thought I could almost reach out and touch them. In fact I might have, if I hadn’t thought it was so dangerous.

Glaciers in Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash

Top of the pass, day 6

At this point in the day I was still considering attempting the second pass.

Then my new friends began to try to convince me otherwise. All three guys, the man from Mexico, another young guy from Canada, and their guide, all started telling me I should hike with them, camp with them, etc, etc.

In truth, they were funny guys. Friendly. And I enjoyed the company. I’d make a decision when I got to the fork, I told myself.

The hike down from that 5000m pass was steep switchbacks through scree. I’m not the best at walking downhill, even on solid ground. Add slippery rocks and I slow down to a snails crawl. My window for attempting the second pass was getting smaller.

By the time I reached the bottom I had made my decision, I’d skip the second pass and camp with my new friends. I’d have the advantage of mooching off their guide, and there were still 3 more days and 3 more chances to see these peaks and glaciers of the Huayhuash.

We reached their camp and I learned why, exactly, people pay for these tour companies to take them around. Their tents were already set up, as was the common area tent. I set up my tent then heard them inviting me into the common tent, where I was served hot taquitos with salsa.

It was heaven.

I’d been living off of ramen noodles and peanut butter crackers for days. I wolfed down everything they gave me, much to the amusement of the guys.

Huatiac Campsite Cordillera Huayhuash

Happy to see camp, end of day 7

Day 7 Huanacpatay to Huatiac (4400m)

This is the only day of the Huayhuash trek where the trail goes down below 4000m and then back up. It is also the only day of the trek where you’ll hike through a town and be able to re-stock up on provisions.

After a quick breakfast and coffee with my new friends (I still stubbornly cooked my own breakfast, even though they offered me some of theirs), we were off. The hike proceeded down a valley and then criss crossed down a steep wall to a river valley far below.

As we dropped in elevation the landscape became more welcoming. Signs of life began to appear. A few Peruvians leading donkeys or cattle walked by.

After some time, we came to Huayllapa, the only town on the circuit. The trail doesn’t go into the town, but you could easily take the left fork and head into the market.

From Huayllapa, the trail immediately begins a steep ascent, following a turbulent river. Large stones make a kind of giant staircase leading up, up, up.

I love trails like this, but even I thought this was a pretty steep climb.

All climbs end eventually though, and I was quite relieved to come over a rise and see the tour groups campsite laid out in front of me, their common area tent open, with the aroma of deep friend snacks wafting out the door.

I set up my tent and gratefully sat down.

It was still fairly early in the day, and the afternoon rains hadn’t come in yet, as they had on most other days. The guys started jokingly asking me if I knew how to do yoga.

“Yeah, in fact, I’m a trained yoga teacher.”

Their jaws dropped open in surprise. Apparently it had been a running joke with them that they could practice some yoga during their trek.

So, right then, in the middle of an Andean mountain valley, I lead an impromptu post hiking yoga class.

After yoga we retired to the tent for dinner. Though I tried to cook my own meal, my new friends wouldn’t hear of it, and I was treated to another gourmet three course meal in their tent.

Laguna Jahuacancha in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Looking back at our campsite on Lg. Jahuacocha

Day 8 Huatiac to Laguna Jahuacocha (4070)

A long day of trekking with two passes to cross before arriving at the final, majestic campsite on the Huayhuash circuit.

During breakfast that morning, a massive hailstorm blew in. Having already packed up my things, I huddled in the common tent with my tour group buddies while the mountain storm raged around us, threatening to tear the tent off of its spikes.

The tent held up, however, and after a half hour or so the storm relented and we were on our way.

The first pass of the day, Tapush, sits at 4800m. It’s a rocky, windswept pass and at the time I hiked it, covered in clouds.

From there the trail descends back down to 4500m. As I walked happily down the hill, a light snow starting falling, coating my outer layer of clothing.

Then back up and over Yaucha pass, 4800m. And from there, the trail winds down through a highland before dropping steeply into the valley of Laguna Jahuacocha. The view from the top of that final drop is something I will not soon forget.

The valley lays out in front of you, dewy and green and ethereal as only the Andes can be. A massive turquoise lake sits in the middle, and beyond the lake, three impossibly massive peaks rise up, towering above the valley below, nearly defying comprehension. The tallest of these is Yarupaja, 6630m and one of the tallest mountains the Huayhuash.

Our camp for the night was on the shore of that turquoise lake, with Yarupaja towering over us. The clouds and rains swept in during the afternoon, typical rainy season weather, but just knowing it was there, hearing the cracking of its glaciers and rumbling of its avalanches was enough.

Also, there is a small house next to this campsite and the woman there sells Cusqueña beer. We bought a few bottles and spent our last night together taking turns singing songs from our countries and telling stories. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. I was their adopted vagabond and I loved it.

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

My adopted family

Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac

The final day was bittersweet, as all final days of a trek are. We headed down the valley and out to Llamac. I believe the trail crosses a pass at 4300m, but the guide took us around, following an irrigation canal, that avoided the pass altogether.

We made it back to Llamac quite quickly, picked up a van, of course my adopted family let me ride with them all the way back to Huaraz.

For those of you solo trekkers who are not lucky enough to be adopted by a tour group, there are busses leaving Llamac for Huaraz daily. If you miss the bus, there are a few Hospedajes in town where you can sleep for the night. Or you can hike back up the hill to find one last peaceful campsite.

Would you hike the Huayhuash solo? Have you already? Let me know about it in the comments!


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Trekking the Cordillera Huayhuash Solo, a 9 day guide to Peru's Huayhuash Circuit

Rescued in Nepal

Adventure Travel, Nepal, Travel, Uncategorized

This story is a piece of a larger narrative about a time I trekked for 24 days through the Annapurna Circuit deep within Nepal’s Himalayan wilderness. But for now, this story is a standalone tale of the unforgettable kindness bestowed upon me by the Nepali people.

For most people who set out to tackle the Annapurna Circuit these days, the trail ends in a town called Jomsom, two days walk down from the highest point of the trek, the wind blown, barren landscape known as Thorong-La Pass at 5416m (17769ft).

Most of the blogs that I read beforehand said that you couldn’t walk on past Jomsom because the path had been replaced by a Jeep road. Once I got to Kathmandu I found out that there was path from Jomsom, it was on the other side of the river from the Jeep road.

I had a map, and I had the not-so-trusty, never there when you need them red and white painted trail markers to guide my way. I left from Jomsom at 7am, bright and early to beat the afternoon winds that come sweeping up the riverbed. From looking at my map, I planned to walk along the riverbed until I came to a small village, cross one of two bridges which would take me over to the larger town, Tukuche, where I could get some lunch, cross back over to my private side, and continue on to my ultimate destination of the day, Kalbeni.

20140523_105127

Apple trees growing in a wheat field

And so we find our heroine leaving from Jomsom on a bright, sunny, absolutely perfect Himalayan morning. The path took me through riverside villages, farm fields of wheat, apple orchards, and an enchanting pine forest accompanied by the distant sound of a rushing Himalayan river. I visited a village with a Tibetan refugee center, and climbed up a narrow staircase cut into a rock wall to visit a farming village sitting atop a promontory overlooking the river with snow capped Himalayan peaks rising in the distance. If heaven is a real place, this walk is part of it.

20140523_100218

Pine forest and the trail marker.

But eventually it came to be noon, and then one o’clock. And though these villages were picturesque, they lacked the ubiquitous teahouses that characterized every village on the other side of the Annapurna Circuit. What this meant for me was nowhere that served lunch. With no food in my pack, I had to get to Tukuche.

And then I saw a posted map. It showed the village I had just passed through, and it showed the river with two bridges crossing it. But the bridges were crossed off.

No, I thought to myself, this can’t be. Surely someone in Jomsom would have mentioned that these bridges were gone!

But I hadn’t told anyone in Jomsom my plans. All my trekking friends were either ahead of me, or had gotten a Jeep out of Annapurna. I was alone. I had no food in my backpack, and the bridge that I needed to get the only town where there would be food was washed away.

Still, I held onto the hope that the sign was wrong and the bridges had been rebuilt. Until I rounded a corner five minutes later and the riverbed opened up in front of me. There were the supports for two bridges, but there was a distinct lack of bridge on top of them.

So just so we are clear. I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal that morning at 6:30am and had now been walking for about 5 or 6 hours. I’m starving. And there is a rushing Himalayan river of questionable depth between me and the only meal within a 10 mile radius.

What else could I do? I had to cross the river.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and stepped into the ice cold flow.

After only a few steps I could feel the current pulling at my legs. My feet were slipping all over the stones in the river bed. By the time I was up to my knees I was losing my balance and afraid that the heavy pack on my back would cause me to fall in and drown. I gave up and headed back to shore.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I told myself, ‘quit being a baby. You’re tough as nails and you are going to walk your ass across this river because it just can’t be that deep!’

I took of my shoes and my pants all the way off and stepped into the flow. I made it all the way out until I was up to my hips, not even a quarter of the way across the river, before I gave up and struggled back to the shore.

There was nothing for it, I realized. I was half crazed from hunger and going to have to walk all day without lunch. Hopefully find a house on this side of the river where I could get some food and a bed, but I wasn’t optimistic. Things were not looking good.

I had just finished putting my pants and shoes back on when I heard a shout. I looked up to see a small Nepali man walking out of the woods onto the riverbed, motioning for me to come meet him by the river.

I was a little nervous about approaching a strange man in the isolated Himalayan wilderness, but what other choice did I have, really? I desperately needed to cross this river and its not like I could pretend he was shouting and waving to someone else.

“Tukuche?” He asked me abruptly, motioning towards the distance village across the river.

Yes, Tukuche.

“Alone? Friends?” He asked, looking around.

“Alone.” I replied. He threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes at me. What was a young woman like me doing out here, alone, on this side of the river.

Then he motioned for me to take off my bag. I tried to protest but he grabbed it, held it aloft over his head, and marched right into the river and crossed over to the other side like it was nothing. Depositing my bag on the distant rocks, he turned around, crossed again and held out his hand for me.

“Don’t look down. Look up! Look up!” he said, pointing to a distance mountain peak. And so I did. I looked up, and with a vice-like grip on my arm this tiny Nepali man half pulled, half carried me across a raging Himalayan river.

Successfully reunited with my bag and safely standing on the correct side of the river, I turned to say thank you and goodbye to my savior.

“You like Dal Bhat?” He asked. Dal Bhat is the national dish of Nepal and pretty closely resembles a typical Indian meal.

dalbhat

Dal Bhat with chapati and in the background, Dal Bhat with rice

I confirmed my love of Dal Bhat and he invited me to his house for lunch.

He strode, I struggled across the rocky dry riverbed, through apple orchards, and into Tukuche. Up until this point I had walked through villages, but only stayed in the teahouses, which are set up like basic hotels. Now, for the first time, I got to see the inside of a traditional Nepali house.

There was a large wooden gate in a stucco wall that faced the street. Behind the gate was a courtyard onto which all the doors of the house opened. When we entered, his wife and two daughters came out of one of the doors, saying something in Nepali before stopped dead in their tracks when they caught sight of me.

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The man who rescued me, took me in, and fed me.

My host, whose name, and please forgive my spelling, sounded like Uhmlahl, quickly detailed the story to his family, who immediately started laughing. His wife motioned for me to pass through a door in the back.

Taking off my wet shoes and socks, I entered their family room/dining room/kitchen. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of thick beautiful dark wood. We sat at benches around a long wooden table and his wife went behind a divider to cook.

Uhmlahl and I were soon served milky Tibetan tea and the most delicious Dal Bhat meal I have ever eaten. Lentils, rice, vegetables, I even got a fried egg. I did my best to eat it slowly and respectfully, but luckily in Asian cultures wolfing down your food shows your host that you appreciate their cooking.

Then two of Uhmlahl’s four daughters came out to sit with me. The youngest, Asha, was working on her English homework for school. She was too shy to actually talk to me, but she understood what I said and did look up and giggle a few times. The elder, 16, could speak English rather well and was happy to tell me about herself and her family. Turns out they had had two American college students come and stay a few years ago to learn about Nepali culture.

After lunch and conversation, I eventually had to say my goodbyes and continue on down the road.

20140523_095852

English School in the Tibetan refugee camp

What could have been the worst, most disastrous day of my entire Annapurna trek turned into one of the most beautiful experiences I had during my six months backpacking around Asia. I will never forget the kindness bestowed upon me by Uhmlahl that day, and I will try to pay it forward if I ever meet a Nepali man stuck on the wrong side of the river in America.

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A river stretches away into the Annapurna Wilderness

Pay it forward, guys. Beauty is everywhere. Adventure is calling.

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Annapurna Circuit Solo Trek

Hiking the Huayhuash Solo: Logistics

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

So you want to follow in the footsteps of Joe Simpson from Touching The Void? Or you just want to see some of the most remote mountain wilderness outside of the Himalayas? You’re looking for the Huayhuash mountain range.

For 10 days during October, 2015, I hiked alone through the Huayhuash Mountain range. For those of you who are feeling a bit left out at the moment, let’s back up and go over some basic information to answer the question:

What exactly is the Huayhuash?

The Huayhuash Mountain range is an independent chain of mountains located in the Andes mountain range of Peru. The range contains some of the highest mountains in the world outside of Asia’s Himalayas. The highest mountains in the Huayhuash include Yerapuja, Peru’s second highest mountain, rising to 6617m (21,709ft!!), and Siula, the mountain you may know from Joe Smith’s book and subsequent movie “Touching The Void” which ascends a jaw dropping 6,344m (20,813ft). In short, these mountains are big, very big, some of the biggest mountains you’ll ever see.

Peru-SAM-Map

This map. So funny. The more you know.

The weather in Peru’s Andes is fairly regular. From May to September is the dry season. During these months you will almost never see rain, the skies will be mostly clear and you’ll get the best views. From October to April is the rainy season, with cloudy skies, rainy days and nights, and generally terrible conditions for outdoor adventure sports.

The dry season also means boat loads of tourists, yes even in the remote Huayhuash. It’s just not THAT remote. And during the wet, the views are worse, but you’ll have the place to yourself.

Rainy Season Hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Conditions you can expect to deal with if you choose to hike during the rainy season.

So Megan, you said you were there in October?

Yes, I happened to do the Huayhuash in mid October. My trek through the Huayhuash was unplanned, through circumstances that don’t bear talking about, I ended up in the area of Huaraz with not much to do. Huayhuash it was.

If you hike during the wet season, know this: the mountains are reliably clear in the morning, with clouds arriving before lunch and rains arriving before dinner. Get up early.

Personally, I think the wet season was worth it. The place was close to empty and I had beautiful views 8/9 days.

So now we’re all oriented and we know where the Huayhuash is and why I wanted to go there, let’s get down to the business of logistics.

————

Most people take on the Huayhuash with an organized tour which can be easily booked online, or from the nearby major tourist hub of Huaraz. But unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a lot of info on hiking the Huayhuash solo.

My first word of caution is this: if you aren’t an experienced backpacker, and if you don’t have a lot of experience in extreme mountain environments like those found in the Peruvian Andes, go with a tour. The Huayhuash circuit is long, arduous, and at times, dangerous. If you feel nervous about taking her on alone, don’t. There’s no shame in having a guide.

If you ARE experienced and want the challenge, here is where I suggest you begin:

  1. Get to Huaraz.

This is a city in the Peruvian Andes from where you can organize your gear, purchase maps, find friends to hike with, and get a bus to the Huayhuash starting town of Llamac.

A bus ride from Lima to Huaraz is short and can be pretty cheap. There are the expensive “safer” options of Cruz Del Sur and Civa, but you can also take the cheaper Z buss and I’m willing to bet you will be fine.

  1. Organize your gear.

This is probably the toughest bit of hiking the Huayhuash solo. Most backpackers don’t go around carrying tents, sleeping bags, or stoves. Ask around at your hostel or at the various tour agencies as most of them will rent out gear.

Casa de Guias is a good place to start for research.

http://www.huaraz.com/casadeguias/

Gear List

  • REI 2 person, 3 season, lightweight dome tent
  • Marmot Sawtooth Sleeping Bag (-9C/14F)
  • MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove
  • Pinnacle Soloist cooking pot and cup
  • MSR plastic collapsible spoon
  • 2L Camelpak
  • Steripen
  • Solomon hiking boots
  • 1 pair silk pants
  • 1 pair hot chilis fleece pants
  • 1 pair prana hiking pants
  • 1 pair rainproof pants
  • 1 rainproof shell
  • 2 fleece jackets
  • 1 underarmor shirt
  • 1 daytime lightweight hiking shirt
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 2 sock liners
  • Topographical Map (purchased in Huaraz)
  • Notebook and 2 pens
  • Smartphone (to take pictures)
  • Kindle
  • Pair of collapsible Leki hiking poles
  • Kelty Coyote 65L Backpack – NOT RECOMMENDED, but it was a hand-me-down and super old and heavy.

And there you have it, add in enough food for 10 days and that was my pack. It was heavy and cumbersome but I did it.

Topographic Map for the Cordillera Huayhuash

My map and planning notebook

  1. Buy a topographic map.

If you’re going to hike the Huayhuash alone, a map is pretty important. There are a few spots where you might get lost. Also consider buying a compass. It isn’t necessary but it can’t hurt. Modern hikers have GPS machines ppppphhhttttt.

Inside the Mercado Central in Huaraz, Peru

Shot inside Huaraz’s Mercado Central

  1. Plan your menu and buy your food.

This is probably the biggest challenge of doing a solo hike in Peru. You do not have access to those pre-made camping meals from REI that are so popular in the states these days. Get yourself to the Mercado central in Huaraz and familiarize yourself with what is available.

There are 3 medium sized grocery stores in Huaraz where you can buy supplies but everything there is overpriced. Asked around and find the Mercado Central and you’ll find a giant warehouse full of vendors selling everything you need. There is even one woman who has a dry goods store with all the food you find in the grocery stores at half the price.

Take the time to plan a menu before you go shopping. I have met so many hikers in Peru who simply didn’t bring enough calories with them because they didn’t plan a menu. Its an easy thing to fix.

  1. Make sure you have a way to clean your water.

The water in Peru is undrinkable. Even up in the mountains in the remote Huayhuash there is livestock everywhere, pooping in streams and making you sick. Get a filter, a steripen, or iodine pills. You can buy the iodine pills probably at any botica, or outdoors store in Huaraz.

  1. Sorochi Pills

If you are new to the Peruvian Andes, you will feel the effect of the altitude. If you are nervous about this, it makes sense to purchase some sorochi pills, available at every Botica in town. If you’re into the more holistic approach, consider eating a lot of garlic, onions, or drinking coca tea.

One positive of the Huayhuash trek is the terrain. You will ascend to a pass and descend every day, so you will always camp lower than your highest point.

  1. Buy your bus ticket to Llamac.

There is a bus company right on the main road which leaves at 5am, getting you to Llamac around 11am. Tickets are fairly cheap, s/30 as of October, 2015. You should buy your ticket at least a day ahead of time.

  1. Make sure you have enough money!

Bring at least s/250 with you if you are planning to hike the whole Huayhuash. Every time you pass by a village, which is at least once a day, you will be asked to pay between s/10-s/45. They tell you that it is for “protection” but it is extortion and it is the worst part of hiking the Huayhuash.

The Peruvian government recently incorporated the Huayhuash as a protected area but not a national park. Before this change, the people who lived there were on their own. As such, there is no entrance fee, but every village charges a protection fee. Why?

Back in the 1980’s there was a known Sendero Luminoso training camp up there. You can apparently still find it, but I didn’t personally notice I was hiking by that lake until I was below it.

Two foreign trekkers were killed in 2002, and another four were shot in 2004, one of whom died from blood loss. These shootings were a result of people resisting robberies. Nowadays you aren’t at risk of being shot but you do need to pay the local strongmen close to $100 to hike through the mountain range.

Okay back to the cheerier subject. The Huayhuash is completely safe from violence today, and if you plan your trip well you will have an amazing experience.

Cordillera Huayhuash on a Solo Trek

Look out for my next post. I’m going to go through my 9-day itinerary, including suggestions of alternate routes and best hiking choices.

Happy Trails!

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Hiking Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash Solo - What to pack and how to plan

Busco Un Burro: Buying a Donkey in El Perú

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

It turns out that buying a donkey in Peru is not the easiest thing to do. Which, if you have ever been to Peru, may surprise you. Donkeys are everywhere. More ubiquitous than the llama, almost as common as the cow, donkeys are used on every trek and they can be found in every field.

Understandably, after a year of living in close contact with Peruvian farmers and their donkeys, I came to the conclusion that buying one would be a simple task.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Buying a donkey took me 4 weeks from the day I started looking.

Okay, so why on earth was I trying to buy a donkey in the first place?

My then partner and I had this crazy idea to walk across Peru from the ocean to the Amazon. But we really didn’t fancy carrying all our supplies on our backs. So we decided to buy a donkey to help us out.

The mission started when we arrived in Chimbote in late August, 2015. Chimbote is a fairly large port city in Peru. We got a room in a small hospedaje, the cheapest version of a hotel in Peru, and went out to get a feel for the town.

 

A young girl, probably late teens/early 20s was working at a cell phone booth and we started talking with her. Eventually we mentioned that we were in town to purchase a donkey.

Her shock was plain to see.  Not in Chimbote, she told us, incredulous, but outside in the chakras (farm fields) in a town called Santa. But, she warned us, donkeys were very expensive, 2,500 soles, or about $700… WAY more than we wanted to pay.

Still, it was our first lead. So off we went next day to Santa, a smaller much more agricultural town outside of Chimbote. We soon found an agricultural products store and asked them, Busco un burro? Donde se vende? (I’m looking for a donkey, where are they sold?)

Our timid questioning was met with much belly slapping hilarity. Not in Santa! This is a town! Silly gringos, go out to the chakras!

Into a moto and out to the rural area we went. And that was how we found ourselves standing in a deserted collection of 5 mudbrick houses. No one around. Donkeys in all the open spaces. I could just see the tumble weed floating by in the distance.

What was there to do? We didn’t know, so we walked down the street until we found someone. Eventually we ran into a guy using an ox to plow his field so he could plant his quinoa. He said he might know a guy with a donkey and calls a friend. Pretty quickly we get the standard response ‘nooo, no hay’ (There aren’t any).

Why do we want one? He askes. And we explain that we are looking for a donkey to carry our stuff from the ocean, across the desert, up and over 2 mountain ranges, and out into the Amazon jungle.

He looks alarmed.

No, these donkeys, he tells us, are burros costeños (coastal donkeys). A walk like that would kill them. They aren’t made for carrying heavy things.

 

Well there was the crux of our mistake. We had been living high up in the mountains near Cusco, where all the donkeys were hearty mountain donkeys. We had completely forgotten to take into account the fact that coastal donkeys would be as ill equipped for high altitude life as we were.

We decide, with much trepidation, to complete stage one of our walk, across a desert and over one 4,800m (15,700ft) mountain pass, without donkey.

Probably the most painful decision of my entire life. I was committing myself to two weeks of walking through unforgiving terrain with up to 50 pounds on my back.

14 days later and we’d made it to the end of stage 1 and the bustling metropolis that is Huaylas, Peru.

Did I say bustling metropolis? No sorry, I meant completely dead mountain town.

Huaylas, which had been our mecca for 2 weeks, is a ghost town. The tiendas are empty. There is one hotel and we appear to be the only guests. The market has one lady in it who, at 2pm, doesn’t appear to be serving lunch.

Having placed all our hopes on this town as our best option to buy food and a donkey: we despair.

But over the next 4 days, this ghost town slowly comes to life around us and I begin to love it.

The one lady who works in the market is Maria and she becomes our biggest supporter in town. Every day she makes us breakfast and asks how the donkey search is going.

On day 2, Maria calls up her son, and he and his cousin take us up into the mountains to several villages, asking around for a donkey. We head up to tiny rural communities without cars and ask everyone we see if they have donkeys available. We are greeted by a chorus of ‘nooo, no hay’. But to give our guide, Ibo, credit, he never gives up and even commiserates with us: que hacemos? (What are we going to do?) I had this beautiful sense that we were his friends and he was going to help us until the very end.

On day 3, Maria takes us herself through town to ask some friends about donkeys. Even when we are away, she goes by herself to a different pueblo and actually finds someone willing to sell a donkey to us.

Not to mention Maria is incredibly kind, friendly, and welcoming. Her help turned Huaylas from a ghost town to a living Peruvian community of which we are briefly a part.

On Day 2 in the morning, before Ibo can take us up to the mountain villages, we take a walk through Huaylas and up to the next town, passing through all the farm fields in between. We speak with everyone who crosses our path. People ask us where we are staying so they can find us if they do find a donkey. A man offers to sell us his, but he wants 800 soles, still way more than we are willing to pay.

Day 3 of the Huaylas search was the day of success. After Maria took us to meet her friends without success, we went back and asked the man who owned our hotel if he knew anyone. He turned out to be yet another incredibly helpful and friendly character from Huaylas.

And so we are off again, following señor through the town to the house of a woman who may own a donkey. Well, she doesn’t know of anyone, we get another ‘noooo, no hay’ and are about to give up, when a tiny campesiña woman walks by and our host calls out to her. Asking, does she know anyone who wants to sell a donkey?

For the first time, we don’t hear ‘nooo, no hay’ Instead, as if in a dream, I hear her say, my mother wanted to sell hers, let me call her.

Her mother is an 88 year old Peruvian woman who is as small as child, but tough as nails and sweet as sugar. She says yes, she has a donkey, a female, who is made to carry things through the mountains, and she would like 250 soles for her.

Perfect.

Off we go with Felicity, not the 88 year old mother, but the daughter. She takes us down ‘just 15 minutes’ to the chakra where the donkey lives.

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Chana looking gorgeous on the day we met her

And the donkey is perfect. She is sweet, mild tempered, with healthy teeth, healthy feet, a good weight, and a clean, healthy coat of hair. I couldn’t be happier.

We work out the details with Felicity and head back up towards town. I expect it to be the end of it, but no. Felicity takes us into her home and makes us a delicious lunch from scratch. Canchita (peruvian toasted corn), a pea soup, and a vegetarian dish of veggies and potatoes over rice. During all of this she tells us about her life, raising a daughter by herself, making sure her daughter stayed in school. Her problems with monkey and her life struggles. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in Peru.

And after lunch? She has us help her herd her sheep down to the fields below town.

And that is how you buy a donkey in Peru.

How to Plan an International Backpacking Trip

Adventure Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Begin at the Beginning

I am trying to tell the story of my solo backpacking trip. In 2014, I took 6 months and travelled solo across South East Asia and over to Nepal. It was my first time traveling alone, and it had a profound effect on who I am and how I see the world.

If you are planning a backpacking trip, I hope this can serve as a sort of guide or suggestion for beginners.

My desire for this blog is that it not only tell my story, but also act as a resource for anyone who is planning or even daydreaming of setting off to travel the world alone. Be that for 1 week, 1 month or 1 year. With that in mind, I will try to finish each post with a list of resources and/or recommendations.

But a journey has to begin somewhere, and this one began in Korea.

Leaving Korea was surreal. Life abroad as an expat has one constant: people leave, you stay behind. You make friends, they leave, new friends arrive. But it is never your turn to leave, until one day… it is. You close your apartment door, turn in the key, and take the bus to your friends apartment for the last time. As I rode away from Bangbae on bus 406 I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I may never ride on this bus again.”

Considering I rode that bus everyday, that was kind of a big deal.

lastmeal
My last meal in Korea

Of course, primarily I was excited. I was flying to BORNEO the next day. BORNEO! Where the hell is that? Is it even a country? Incidentally, it is not, it is an island split between 3 countries.

Was I sad…? not really. Or if sadness was there, I wouldn’t feel it for a few weeks. There was too much ahead. I was nervous, and somewhat anxious. I had never traveled alone!

I had spent the last 2 months attempting to “plan” my trip to Borneo, but every time I sat down to plan I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and simply read other people’s accounts of Borneo on trip advisor, or the pages in my Lonely Planet.

passportticket

In fact, the morning that I left for my trip I had absolutely nothing booked, and only knew the name of a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, my first destination, where I hoped to spend a night. I would later learn that when traveling “on a shoestring” this is the preferable way to do things, because you can often get the best deals if you just show up at the door without a reservation. But at 23 years old, leaving Korea and heading into a black abyss of uncertainty, I was plagued by insecurity.

But mostly, as I went to sleep on my last night in Korea at my friend Gregor’s apartment, I was excited. That morning, I woke up at 4am to catch my 6am flight to Kuala Lumpur. Even the name sounded exotic. Kuala Lumpur.

byebye

Getting on that plane was so overwhelmingly thrilling I got chills. I had a heightened awareness of the fact that I was heading into something I had no expectations of, no understanding of, and no preparation for. I was terrified and it was exhilarating.

You don’t leave for your first trip as an experienced traveler. You leave confused and nervous and green, and that is exactly how it should be.

Let yourself be afraid. Jump in.

 flight
Somewhere over China, en route to Kuala Lumpur


Now for the all important topic of What To Bring!

Packing up your whole life into one backpack is a daunting task. The good news is, you don’t need to get it exactly right, you just need to get it MOSTLY right (pro-tip: socks and underwear are a must) and then you can fill in the gaps on the road. In fact, filling in the gaps can be its own adventure as you try to find out where on earth do they even SELL toothpaste in this country!?

Take Away: You can always buy whatever you need in a foreign country.

Here is a list of the things I had packed on the day I left from Korea. Problem is, I didn’t write it down and can’t remember.

One of my biggest mistakes: I only had one pair of shoes and no flip flops. In S.E. Asia, this is a big mistake. I was heading to a tropical island WITHOUT flip flops. Such a winter child.

Here is the list of what was in my bag when I arrived home at the end of 6 months. Please keep in mind the fact that I bought many things along the way.

A General List for a Backpacking Trip

  • 2 Backpacks
    • 1 65L (60 is sufficient)
    • 1 Small “day pack”
      • I meet people who travel without these, but I find it useful if you want to go on a day trip, or 2 day overnight trek and don’t want to have to worry about bringing all your stuff.
  • Clothes
    • way too many pairs of socks and underwear
    • dry fit shirt
    • underarmour shirt
    • trekking pants
    • 2 cotton t-shirts (one was used exclusively for sleeping)
    • 3 tank tops
      • unnecessary, should probably only have had 1, but they were 30 cents each in Thailand.
    • 2 pairs of flowy funky pants picked up in Thailand
    • 1 pair of yoga leggings
    • 1 Fleece
    • 1 Rain coat
    • 1 pair of shorts
    • 2 scarves picked up in Laos
    • 1 sarong from Cambodia (used as a towel)
    • 1 dress (picked up in Thailand)
    • 1 bikini (and actually, I lost this in Indonesia so it wasn’t technically in my bag when I got home)
    • gloves and hat
  • Footwear
    • hiking shoes
    • flip flops
  • Toiletries
    • toothbrush/paste/floss
    • shampoo[which I also used as bodywash]
    • coconut oil
    • nail clippers
    • razor
  • Miscellaneous
    • first aid kit
    • headlamp
    • converters
    • phone/charger + camera/charger
    • journal and pens
    • tennis balls (picked up in Indonesia for self-massage)
    • yoga mat
    • jump rope
    • hiking poles
    • sleeping bag
    • pain killers + sleeping pills
    • passport/wallet/photocopies of passport/extra passport photos

I think that is it. My bag was very heavy by the end, but that was necessitated by the wide variety of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go during my trip. I had to have clothes and equipment for a yoga teacher training in Thailand, swimming/snorkeling in Indonesia/Malaysia, and trekking in… well in every country that I visited, but most importantly trekking in the cold high elevations in Nepal.

If you really wanted to pack light, of course it is possible. Could I have eliminated some stuff? Yes.

The most important step is to figure out what you think you want to do during your trip and pack for that. If you only want to party and sit on the beach, you really don’t need to bring much at all. If you want to go to Thailand and also the Himalayas, then your bag will be much more full.

Do yourself a favor and don’t buy into the budget attitude of idealizing having an ultralight bag. If you want to carry around a fully packed, 70L backpack, do it.

I will say this: you do not need to have a sleeping bag. Seriously. Unless you want to be the kind of person who goes camping, but do your research, there are not that many opportunities for independent camping in S.E. Asia. And when you do want to go outdoors, you can usually rent the gear in a nearby city. It all depends on the focus of your backpacking trip.

Adios amigas!


Recommendations:

For Finding Flights: www.skyscanner.com

For Basic Research:

  • Lonely Planet www.lonelyplanet.com I used other brands, but Lonely is the most widely used and useful. Just remember it is a jumping off point/crutch, once I get somewhere I almost never used it).
  • www.tripadvisor.com some of the people who write on here are not to be trusted, but you can get some really good ideas, referrals, testimony of other people’s experiences.
  • www.hostelworld.com decent place to find a mainstream hostel.
  • www.workaway.info If you are at all interested in volunteering during your trip, this is a great place to start.