Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul’s Highest Mountain

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Though Seoul is more famous for its nightlife and culinary scene, this urban oasis is actually an incredible city for outdoor lovers. The city is ringed by mountains, with smaller hills popping up in almost every neighborhood. And every hill and mountain, no matter how tall or small, is covered in hiking trails. Though I lived in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

Even after living in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

View from Bukhansan

Bukhansan, located at the northern edge of Seoul, is both a national park and a mountain with three main peaks. The park has many different access points and mountains worth climbing, but in this post, I’m going to explain how to hike to the top of Bukhansan Mountain, the challenging Baegundae Peak. It’s a fairly tough 4km climb up, with several options for hiking back down.

How to Get to Bukhansan Mountain

Seoul has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, so getting to Bukhansan mountain is incredibly easy. From anywhere in the city, just get on the subway line 3 and take it all the way to Gupabal station. Take exit 1 then head to the bus stop just behind the exit. Take either bus 704 or bus 34 to the Bukhansan National Park stop.

If you’re confused, just follow the pack of older Koreans in brightly colored hiking gear. They know where to go.

hiking bukhansan trail markers

Get off the bus at Bukhansan National Park and follow the crowds up the hill towards the Ranger station. From there, you have access to several hiking trails that head up towards Baegundae Peak. Helpful signs point the way. I took the 4km trail, which follows a really nice river up the mountain.

Hiking Bukhansan Mountain to Baegundae Peak

The trail begins slowly. It follows a rather beautiful river as it tumbles down large rocks from the pine-covered peaks rising above you. After a short while, you’ll come to a road and a sort of open space. Keep walking around to the left to stay on the path for Baegundae peak.

Bukhansan Mountain Trail

After about 1.5km of walking, you’ll come to another fork in the path with two options for heading up to Baegundae. I chose to take the shorter of the two routes, heading towards Wonhyobong Peak. Further up, the trail splits again, one heading to Wonhyobong, and another (our track) heading directly towards Baegundae.

Climbing Bukhansan Mountain

You’ll pass a gate to a temple with Korean carvings all around. You can walk through the gate to visit the temple, but the trail to Baegundae continues up to the right. Not too long after that, you’ll come to the final fork and path to the peak.

Final Push up to Baegundae, Seoul’s Highest Point

The final half kilometer up to the peak of Bukhansan is classic Korean hiking at its finest. The trail, if you can call it that, cuts straight up the granite boulders. In some places, posts and metal rails are there to assist you in climbing. Cling onto these as you haul yourself bodily up the side of the mountain. Don’t forget to look up! Hikers will be descending by these same metal ropes, so be aware and try your best to avoid collisions.

Hiking in Korea

After some sweaty pulling and climbing, you’ll reach the top of the peak. You’ll know it’s the top because a) the trail stops and b) there is a Korean flag jutting proudly from the rock.

From the peak, you’ll get a great view of Insubong and Mangyeongdae, the two nearby, but slightly lower, peaks of Bukhansan. Mangyeongdae is covered in rocks and trees and the stairs leading up to it should be visible. Insubong is a smooth granite peak jutting up from the forest below. This peak is only reachable via rock climbing. On most pleasant days, you should see a few intrepid climbers scaling her steep sides.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

Baegundae Peak has plenty of smooth, flat spaces to stretch out for some well-earned rest. Not a bad idea to bring up some food and have a picnic alongside the Koreans. Just be careful how much Makkeolli you drink. You still have to get back down off the mountain.

View from Baegundae Peak

Hiking Back Down Bukhansan to Seoul

For the hike back down, you have essentially three options: go back the way you came (boring but quick), continue on the path to Mangyeongdae and then back to your starting point (rather long and challenging but also quite beautiful), or go down the other side of the mountain to the Baegundae Information Center.

Bukhansan trail markers

I chose to go down to the Baegundae Information Center, as the sign said it was only 1.6km away and I was out of water. It was a mistake and I don’t recommend taking this trail down unless you’ve got plenty of time on your hands and love exploring every last nook and cranny of Seoul.

The trail heads down steeply from the peak until you reach the Baek-Woon Mountain Hut. This is a sort of traditional Korean house that has been built and re-built over the years. Today, it serves as a shelter and a small shop where you can buy water, drinks, some candy bars, and perhaps some soup or kimchi. It also marks the starting point for the ascent of Insubong (I think).

Mountain House Bukhansan

From there, the trail continues downhill more gradually. Stone stairs feature prominently in the descent. After a short time, you’ll come to the Baegundae Information Center, characterized by a large parking lot and coffee shop.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

But lest you think you’re back into the city, you are not. No, from there it is a further 2km walk down a paved road with wooden sidewalk until you reach a bus stop. In my opinion, there are far more scenic ways to get off of Bukhansan Mountain. I really don’t recommend taking the Baegundae Information Center route.

Baegundae Information Center

If you do end up down here, just follow the road off the mountain until you come to town, then continue until you reach the main road. When I was there in September 2017, they looked to be building a new subway line but it was not yet operational. When it does become operational, the stop will be called Ui Bukhansan.

Seoul Streets near Bukhansan

For now, I hopped on the 120 bus and took it to Suyu station and back into central Seoul.


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Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea

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

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 in Kep National Park – Off The Beaten Path in Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

The idyllic seaside village of Kep sits on the Cambodian coast only 26km (16 miles) from Kampot. Famous for its delicious blue crab, most tourists spend half a day in Kep, driving out for the morning or afternoon. But those willing to dig a little deeper – Kep offers a rare chance to hike through the jungle on well marked trails without a guide. For an independent outdoor lover visiting Cambodia, a visit to Kep National Park makes for an enjoyable day.

History of Kep National Park

remarkable fig tree kep national parkThe town of Kep is situated on a small peninsula jutting out into the Bay of Thailand. A small mountain looms above the sea, with houses perched around it’s base. Kep was once a coveted vacation spot for rich Cambodians and French Colonials, both for its beach and also for the many gorgeous art deco houses overlooking the sea. That came to an end with the onset of civil war and the subsequent Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.

When the war was finally finished, Kep began the slow and arduous process of pulling itself back together. Part of this effort involved designating the mountains of Kep as a National Park. In 1993, the Cambodian government set aside 50 square km as protected land. But for many years, the park sat unused, forlorn and forgotten.

Then, in 2007, a French expatriate partnered up with the local authorities to begin building a network of trails in the park. Today, there are many kilometers of trails criss crossing the mountain; some accessible by moto or mountain bike and other single track hiking trails. All the trails are well marked, and maps can be found at Led Zep Cafe.

The trails in Kep National Park are not particularly challenging, but there are some steep sections. A basic level of fitness is needed. Remember that you are trekking through a jungle so use caution and don’t just blindly reach out to grab at trees or sticks – they just might be snakes.

trail markers kep national park

Trail markers in the park

I was lucky enough to visit Kep in May, 2017, and I loved the town so much I spent three days there. Here is a round up of my favorite trails for hiking and mountain biking in Kep National Park.

Best Hiking and Biking Trails in Kep National Park

main trail kep national park

Entrance to the park

Bopha Prasidh Road – 8km

This dirt road circles the park at the base of the mountain. Most of the road is raised up above the town, so you’ll get plenty of beautiful vistas of Kep, the sea, and even Phu Quoc island in the distance.

The trail is wide enough and smooth enough to be driven on a moto, as many visitors do, but I chose to ride my mountain bike around it. It’s also possible to walk the path as well.

At one point the dirt road spills out onto a paved road. Stay close to the mountain and you’ll head back up onto a dirt road again soon.

  • Pros: Great views of the surrounding countryside and seashore, with chances to spot some wildlife if you’re quiet and lucky.
  • Cons: Not a physical challenge, have motorbikes passing by every now and again.
  • Best For: Mountain Biking or Driving
view from Sunset Rock Kep National Park

View from Sunset Rock

Sunset Rock

The Sunset Rock trail is a moderately difficult hike up to a rocky outcropping overlooking the Bay of Thailand and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island. To begin, take Bopha Prasidh Road until you find the transverse trail. In May 2017 the transverse trail was not marked, so keep an eye out for a very steep trail cutting directly up the mountainside. After a steep beginning, turn right at the sign for Sunset Rock. From here the trail levels out. Overall, the trail is narrow but well maintained.

  • Pros: Stunning view of Kep and the ocean.
  • Cons: Tons of mosquitos – bring spray!
  • Best for: Breaking a sweat and getting an epic view. Bring a headlamp or flashlight if planning to stay for sunset.
Little Buddha Kep National Park

Little Buddha on the way to Phnom Kep

Phnom Kep

This is the trail that takes you up to the summit of the National Park. Phnom Kep sits at just about 300m above sea level, so while it isn’t exactly the most rigorous climb, it’s still a fun hike. There are several different routes to get up to the summit. All begin with the transverse trail. From there, follow the signs to Phnom Kep.

I took the Sunset Rock and Little Buddha route up, which wasn’t very steep, then took the Stone Horse route down.

  • Pros: Break a sweat and get to reach the summit
  • Cons: No view from the top.
  • Best For: Getting to say you bagged a peak in Cambodia. Just don’t mention the elevation.
little critters in Kep national Park

Critters on the trail

How to Get There

Getting to Kep National Park is quite easy. If you’re driving into town on the main road from Kampot, follow the signs for the National Park from the roundabout where the road splits for the Market, Beach, and Park.
From there, the road heads uphill, the entrance to the park is behind the Veranda Natural Resort.

Entrance fee: $2 per day.

Phnom Kep Kep national park

No views but at least you get this funny sign at the summit

What Next?

After you finish up exploring the park, head down to the crab market to taste some of Kep’s famous blue crab, pulled right out of the sea to order. Ride on over to the beach to check out how local Cambodian people like to enjoy the seaside. If you’ve got plenty of time and love urban decay, try to find some of the deserted mansions left over from Kep’s golden era.

If you’re coming to Cambodia, I highly recommend adding Kep to your travel plans. It’s an often skipped over town, but it deserves more visitors. I loved hiking in Kep National Park – I saw monkeys, crazy insects, and found some great photo opportunities. In my opinion, Keep is a hidden gem of Cambodia.

Have you been to Kep National Park? What did you think?


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Get off the path in Cambodia and try hiking in Kep National Park near Kampot. Best Cambodia Travel Tips from Into Foreign Lands

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

Bike Tour Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

This leg of the trip has been incredibly scenic, empowering, physically challenging, and overall rewarding. But despite this, it all started off with more of a fizz than a bang.

After waiting 9 long days in Phnom Penh, my 6 month visa extension finally came through. Gratefully clutching my passport to my chest, I rushed back to my room to pack up my bags and get ready to finally, finally head out of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take One

I left Phnom Penh around 7am, excited for the 112km day ahead of me.

My bike, however, had other plans.

While in Phnom Penh, I had taken my bike into a fairly high end bike shop for a check up. I told the guys at the shop that I was having trouble switching gears and that I kept getting flat tires. They told me they would look into it.

$85 later and I had new, fancy inner tubes, a new cassette, new bottom bracket, and a few other touch ups. It hurt my wallet but I figured it was worth it. No more flat tires.

Yeah, about that.

On the road out of Phnom Penh as I was coming around a bend in the road, I felt it. The horrible thumping feeling you get when the back tire goes flat.

Are you f****** kidding me?

My back tire was flat! 30km outside of Phnom Penh! How was this possible? I pulled to the side of the road and set about changing the inner tube. As I did, I felt the inside of the tire. It was shredded in places. My tire was almost worn through.

IMG_0339.jpg

I decided to swallow my pride and head back to Phnom Penh to buy a new tire.

New inner tube in, I headed back the way I had come, off onto some side roads that meandered through rice fields towards a ferry across the Mekong and into Phnom Penh.

Just kidding! You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

20 minutes later, once I was well and truly too far away from the highway to walk back, my tire was flat again. The same tire! The new inner tube! I was overpowered by anger, frustration with myself, frustration with my bike, and fury that the guys in Phnom Penh hadn’t noticed this.

Also, I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to fix up this inner tube or worse, put in a new one just to have it ruined. I needed a ride back to Phnom Penh. But how was I going to get one this far from a main highway?

I walked my bike along the road until I came up to the back of a garment factory. There were a group of Khmer people there. What transpired will go down as one of the most overwhelmingly frustrating moments of my life:

I approached the group of people and one man came up to me speaking broken English. He immediately noticed my flat tire and tried to direct me to someone who could fix it.

The last thing I wanted to do right then was pay for yet another inner tube, only to have it burst in a matter of minutes.

“No” I insisted, “I don’t want to fix it, I’d like to go to Phnom Penh.”

But despite my repeatedly saying “I want to drive to Phnom Penh. Please take me to Phnom Penh.” the English speaking man continually tried to lead me to someone who could fix the flat.

This went on for about 15 minutes. Him saying “we can fix it” and me replying “No, thank you, I don’t want to fix it, I just want to go to Phnom Penh.”

After about 10 minutes of it, I started crying.

Finally, in a fit of frustration, I told him rather firmly that “no, I don’t want to fix it. I fix it again and again and again and again but it always breaks.”

That got through to him.

It only took a few more minutes for them to arrange a cart to take me back to the ferry into Phnom Penh. That part was actually pretty fun. Sitting in the back of a farmer’s cart that normally trucks sugarcane around. Got some pretty funny looks from the other locals we passed by.

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And for a 20km ride, it only cost me $5. Seems fair.

Back to Phnom Penh, replaced the tire, and woke up early the next day to really leave Phnom Penh.

This is a nice moment to remark on something I’ve learned over the course of this ride: you are never alone and never without help in Cambodia. Even in remote areas, on backroads, deep in the mountains, a Khmer person is always going to come by and 9 out of 10 times, they will help you, fix your bike, find you a ride, give you food, or do whatever they can to make sure you are ok. Knowing this is what allows me to do this ride every day without an ounce of fear.

Cycling Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take Two

With the tire problem sorted, I hit the road feeling positive and energetic. I was ready to put those 10 days in Phnom Penh behind me and get back into the groove of cycling.

I had two potential routes to get to Kampong Cham: one was quite boring following National Highway 8, to National Highway 11, to National Highway 7 into Kampong Cham. Highways are the actual worst and should only be used as a last resort.

The other option was much more appealing, if a bit riskier: I’d follow the National Highway 8 for about 25km, then take a turn onto a country road that cut through the rice fields, met up with a small river, and finally, followed that river until it reached the Mekong and Kampong Cham. It looked like it would work out, on Google, but if I’ve learned anything on this trip it is this:

Don’t trust google maps in Cambodia.

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Even as I left Phnom Penh, I didn’t know which route I would take. I wanted to take the country road, but I was nervous that it either didn’t exist, or would be impassable from all the rain.

Nonetheless, I was willing to try.

I rode out to this country road quite quickly, making it there before 10am. Stopped to have a second breakfast/early lunch at a restaurant. While I ate, I asked the locals about my potential route. Does this road go to Kampong Cham?

“Oh nooo, no.” They told me. “No it doesn’t.”

Despondent, I consulted google maps on my phone. I really, really wanted this route to work. I didn’t relish the idea of spending a whole day on highways.

After the chorus of “noo’s” was finished, one guy spoke up. He mentioned that in fact, it was possible to get to Kampong Cham that way, but it wouldn’t be easy.

That was all the encouragement I needed. I turned onto my country road and in so doing, began one of the best rides of the trip.

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This road begins at a village called Prey Pnov and heads north towards Sithor Kandal. At first it was paved and cut a straight line through the rice fields. I flew along, admiring the traditional Khmer houses and basking in the palm tree lined glory of the street. The rice fields were a vibrant green, the sun was shining, and I was delighted.

Eventually the road turned to dirt, but remained in good condition. I continued to fly along. After a time, I came upon a market town. In the middle of nowhere. What was this market doing here?

I had reached the T junction at the river. The market down does have a name, but I’ve forgotten it and it isn’t listed on google. Sorry.

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I’ve noticed something about rural Cambodia vs. Main Highway Cambodia. On the main roads, people are usually pretty open when I pull into a shop or restaurant. Sure, they might be nervous that I don’t speak Khmer, but they are still willing to try, open to talk with me, grabbing their youngest child who might maybe have learned some English in school.

But out on the backrounds, in markets or towns like this one, buried deep in the rice fields, miles from any main road or city, things are a bit different.

When I pull into remote places and stop my bike, I’m greeted with silence. In this particular market, everyone around me froze. There were plenty of people there but none were speaking. They all stood, still as statues, and watched me as I looked around. Trying to break the tension a little, I smiled at a few of the women. One smiled back but the rest looked down, shy. I walked down the road and took some photos of the river. By the time I came back, a small crowd had gathered around my bike. One of the braver men there struck up a conversation.

“Tos na?” He asked me, “where are you going?”

“Tos Kampong Cham.” I replied. “I’m going to Kampong Cham.”

It was as if I had spoken the magic words to break the spell. A wave washed across everyone’s face, the relief was palpable. She speaks Khmer! Suddenly, questions were coming at me from all sides. Everyone wanted to talk to the strange foreigner, find out where she was from, what she was doing there, and if she was hungry.

I’ve learned over the last weeks not to be afraid or uncomfortable if people are unfriendly at first. Sure, not everyone is happy to see a random foreigner in their home, but usually someone ends up being welcoming.

After that market, the road conditions deteriorated significantly. The road was dry, but narrow, rutted, and filled with puddles I had to dodge. If it had been raining, I’m not sure this road would have been passable.

It wound along next to the river, passing through villages, rice fields, bamboo forests, and Buddhist temples. Because of the poor conditions, I was forced to ride slowly. This road was only for the final 26km, but with the bad conditions, fatigue, and stopping to take pictures every five feet, it took me three hours.

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But what a glorious three hours it was. I’m not kidding when I say this was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever done in Cambodia. Truly a special route. I highly recommend it.

Reached Kampong Cham late in the afternoon and curled up in a nice riverside guesthouse for $5.

Kampong Cham to Memot

I spent one night in Kampong Cham, then rode out 7km along the Mekong to visit the Chiro Village Homestay. It is a local NGO where I once volunteered, back in 2014. I’m not a fan of voluntourism anymore and I must say that I didn’t find my return visit all that satisfying. It’s a great place to stay, though, if you want to get a glimpse of Cambodian village life.

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After my day in Chiro, I woke up bright and early, literally before the sun came up, and was on my bike by 5:30am to begin the 90km trek to Memot, a small town on Road 7, along the way to Mondolkiri.

This day was, much to my regret, entirely along the highway. Luckily, the further away from the Mekong I rode, the less crowded the highway became. Flat at first, it wasn’t long before I found myself riding up and down rolling hills. Pepper farms extended away from me in all directions. I had no idea what to expect from this part of the ride, but so far it was proving quite beautiful.

And then, about 50km into my day, I saw an interesting sign on my right hand side.

“Knoung Sdech Kan Temple 5km”

If you know me, you know I can’t resist the lure of an ancient temple. Plus it would only add 10km to my day. A drop in the bucket, surely. And who knows what kind of magical forgotten place I might find…

Turning off the main road, I followed the signs down a paved road through undeveloped countryside. This was about when I realized just how remote an area I was really in. There were a few rice fields, but not many. No houses to speak of, and very few people. The people I did cycle past didn’t wave, didn’t shout hello, didn’t do any of the things I’ve come to expect from Cambodians.

Instead, they stared. Eyes blank, shy, or cautious. I’m not sure what they were thinking and they certainly weren’t giving me any hints. All along the empty road I was met with blank faces hidden behind scarves and visors.

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After about 5km, I came across a moat, similar to the moat around Angkor Wat, and a village. Here the people were a bit more welcoming. The response was still mostly silence but at least a few of the children waved.

Then I came upon the wall of the temple. Cycling into the complex, at first all I saw was the large modern temple rising up in front of me. Then I noticed two ancient towers, similar in style to the towers of Prasat Kravan in Siem Reap, only less well preserved.

And of course, I had the place almost completely to myself. As I stood beneath the ancient towers, I heard footsteps behind me. Turning, I saw two little boys watching me. One was dressed in typical schoolboy clothes, the other in the saffron robes of a monk. They couldn’t have been older than 10.

Walking behind the modern temple, I found a massive reclining Buddha, beautifully painted and surrounded by a small garden and other meditative statues.

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Places like this, Buddhist temples and their compounds never fail to instill a sense of peacea nd calm in my mind. There is something in the air that requires you to pause and appreciate the stillness. Although peace and quiet can sometimes be hard to come by in Cambodia, I can usually find it in a temple.

As long as they aren’t chanting over a loudspeaker.

After my solo adventure to the temple, I hopped back onto the bike and out to the main road. Oddly enough, this time around the people were much more friendly. Waving, saying hello, cheering. I’m not sure what the difference was.

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Back to the main road and onward to Memot. The rest of the ride was smooth and uneventful. Rolling hills that gradually got larger until I arrived in town. Took a room in a guesthouse just off the main road before 3pm. Spent some time exploring town, took a walk around the temple, visited the market, and had a lovely chat with some locals over my rice and pork dinner.

Riding from Memot to Snuol

The next two days threw a bit of a wrench in my plans. I originally intended to ride 50km to Snuol, then 120 to Mondolkiri. But life happens, and I got my period. I know there are some women out there who can just keep on ploughing through no matter what. I am not one of them. I am incapacitated by my menstrual cycle. Literally cannot get out of bed.

But there’s no crying in bicycle touring! So I split up my 120km day into two 60km days.

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From Memot to Snuol was a real treat. I found an alternate route by following the paved road up past Memot Temple. Up and down rolling hills through pepper farms and rice fields, the ride was easy and scenic.

Came to a four way intersection and took the righthand turn. The road became dirt but was still in great condition. Up and down many rolling hills, through rubber plantations, pepper farms, and untamed jungle. Every once in awhile I’d roll through a remote village and people would stare, yell “Hello!” and call out “Barang chi kong!” (A foreigner riding a bike!)

After awhile I decided to stop and take a break. I wasn’t feeling particularly tired but my own personal honor code is this: If I’m passing through a remote, rural area, I want to spend at least a little bit of money. To give back, in my own small way.

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I stopped at a shop for a sugar cane juice and the family offered me a seat. Not long after that, pretty much the entire village had gathered around to chat with me. My khmer is pretty limited but we managed to work out where I was going, where I was coming from, that they had all voted in the election that morning, and my age. Hilariously, they told me that I looked 15. Thanks but.. no.

The rest of the ride was euphoric and smooth. The road was deserted, rugged, and perfect. The day was short. I pulled into Snuol before lunchtime. Got a room, and rested my poor, cramping, menstrual ravaged body.

Snuol to Keo Seima: Swallowing My Pride and Cutting It Short

From Snuol, I had planned to ride the 120km to Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri provide. This would involve rolling hills, and an ascent of over 2000 feet during the last 50kms. But because of my period pains, cramps, nausea, and a fitful, sleepless night, I absolutely wasn’t up for it.

In true Megan style, I couldn’t just give myself a break. No, first I had to berate myself and give myself a hard time. But in the end, I listened to my body and did what was right. I rode only 60km to a place called Keo Seima, where I hoped to find a guesthouse.

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Ride itself was nice, but I was in a bad headspace. Tired and in pain. I made it to Keo Seima sometime before 11am, found quite a nice guesthouse and curled up in bed.

Keo Seima to Mondolkiri: The Most Beautiful No Good Very Great Terribly Awesome Day

The ride up to Sen Monorom was everything I had hoped and feared it would be, and more. It was relentless rolling hills, more up than down. It was remote, it was devoid of human life, it was incredibly hard, it was unbelievably beautiful.

The day began with dense rainforest. I’m talking about massive rolling hills coated in a thick jungle. I even saw a family of monkeys watching me ride. When I looked up at them, they began to jump away through the trees.

For the first few hours of the day, I was having the time of my life. I’d power up the hills and giggle as I gained ridiculous speed on the downhills. But after about 35km with no breaks, I began to feel some fatigue in my legs.

During one particularly steep uphill slope, I started grunting and yelling. Not really saying words, just making noises, giving voice to the pain in my legs. Some Khmer guys rode by on their motor and looked particularly alarmed.

With only 5 more kilometers to go before the next village, I gave myself a small pep talk. If I could push through these final five, I could have a break.

And, cursing my very existence, cursing the day I decided to do this ride, I pushed onwards and upwards. That climb was beyond physically exhausting. And yet even as I was cursing myself and burning from head to toe, I loved it. I knew I would look back on this day as one of the best of the ride. And it was. It really was.

Stopped at a shop in Ou Rieng and had a plate of rice and pork. Rested for about an hour. Read my book. Generally felt proud of myself for what I had accomplished and optimistic about the final 20 kilometers of the day.

After Ou Rieng, the landscape changed. Due to deforestation, the rainforest has been cut back from the tops of the hills, clearing the way for villages and their livestock. While in my heart I know this is a bad thing, it makes for a very beautiful ride. Huge sloping hills covered in vibrant green grass, dotted with trees, stretching away to the horizon. I mean, really?

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I know I’m supposed to complain about it but I just couldn’t.

The hills continued to be unforgiving, but since I was riding through verdant green elysian fields, I found myself cursing less and giggling more.

During one incredibly long downhill I even belted out “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette. Don’t ask me why that particular song. I can’t control the weird songs that get stuck in my head while I’m riding. They’d make a pretty eccentric mix tape though.

Rolled into Sen Monorom tired but pleased around 3pm. This was a part of Cambodia I’d been aching to visit for years. And finally, here I was.


Stay tuned to hear more about my day with elephants in the jungle and my ride along the Death Road from Mondolkiri to Ratanakiri.

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How to Climb Bokor Mountain in the Rain

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

As part of my trip around Cambodia, I spent a few days resting and exploring the charming riverside town of Kampot. Driving into Kampot, the first thing you notice is the massive mountain rising up beside you. And sitting on top of that mountain is the fabled Bokor Hill Station, a must see if you’re wondering what to do in Kampot.

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French Resort in ruins

But since I was there in the beginning of the rainy season, I was a bit nervous to rent a moto and ride up Bokor Mountain in the rain.

Still, I’d been wanting to visit the famous Bokor Hill Station on top of Bokor Mountain for months. Back in the early 20th century, when Cambodia was still a French Protectorate, the French built an elaborate resort and casino on top of the hill. Today, all that remains is a shell of that decadent past. It makes for a great day trip.

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The resort, up close

Although I had ridden my mountain bike 600 kilometers to get from Battambang to Kampot, there was nothing that could make me ride my bicycle up to Bokor Mountain. The road is 35km uphill. Just no. I was relishing the idea of renting a moto and effortlessly driving myself up to the top. It was something I’d been dreaming about for a few days while I pushed my bike up the ruthlessly steep hills outside of Koh Kong.

Renting a Moto in Kampot

Renting a moto in Kampot is incredibly easy. It’s the main way that tourists get around town, so there are heaps of people willing to rent you a “new moto” for $4 a day. I saw one guy offering motos for $5 a day. I think he doesn’t get a lot of business.

I’m a brat and wanted a manual moto, so I wandered around town for 15 minutes looking for one. Most places only rent automatics, but eventually a found a shop, Hong Kimeng, and for $4 I had a Honda Wave for the day.

If you, also, want to rent a manual moto, you can find this place kitty corner from La Java Bleue.

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Moto entering the mists

When you rent a moto in Kampot, you have to leave your passport behind as collateral. As long as the moto comes back with no damage, you’ll get your passport back.

If the moto comes back damaged, they’ll hold on to your passport until you pay for the damages. And assume that you’ll be overcharged.

The Ride from Kampot to Bokor Mountain

Getting from Kampot to Bokor Mountain is pretty easy. Just head back out of town on the road to Sihanoukville for about 10km, maybe a little less, and eventually you’ll see a massive gate on your right hand side. The gate says Thansur Bokor Highland Resort but this is also the entrance for the national park. They’ve just built a massive, and massively ugly, modern resort casino up there.

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Gateway to Bokor National Park

Entrance for a moto is 2000 riel, or 0.50USD. You pay a guard at the gate and he gives you a parking pass. Hang onto that, you’ll need to show it again at the top.

As I drove past the gate, I looked up to see the mountain wreathed in fog and clouds. It had been raining earlier in the morning in Kampot but by now the rain had let up. Still, as I drove towards the mountain the rain began again. I hoped it would clear.

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Buildings in the fog

The road up the mountain is winding but easy. It’s uphill but not to steep, and the corners aren’t particularly tight. It’s a pleasant drive, but make sure you fill up your gas tank at the bottom of the hill.

Driving up, I quickly entered the clouds and with them came the rain. I couldn’t see to my left or my right, and even my visibility in front of me was limited. Still, I’m a stubborn girl and I was determined to get up to this ruined old resort.

After 30 minutes or so of driving, I came to another gate, and a sign indicating that the road would split into a T-junction. Showed my parking pass to a guard and passed through. Because the fog and rain was so thick, I had no idea where I was or what was around me. A sign showed the “old casino” was off to the left, so I took the left turn after the roundabout.

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Limited Visibility

The rest of the drive was incredibly spooky, in a really great way. Limited visibility. Every once in awhile people or buildings would emerge out of the fog. I drove slowly, headlights on, savoring the effect. The rain had let up a few minutes before but I was still soaked and shivering, even under my thin plastic poncho.

Eventually, confused and lost, I came to the end of the paved road. I couldn’t see anything. There were no signs telling me where to go, and nothing to indicate where this old casino was located. I was a bit frustrated but still game for an adventure. I parked my bike and wandered off into the fog.

Exploring Bokor Hill Station in the Fog

A large building emerged and I could see a path going behind it. As I followed that path up the hill, the fog began to clear, and I was suddenly confronted with a jaw dropping view out over the mountains to the ocean.

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The view begins to appear

I gazed out at the sea for a few moments, soaking in that uniquely euphoric feeling you get when standing on top of a mountain. After a few moments of stillness, I looked around and realized the fog had lifted. And with it, my location was revealed to me. I was standing on the edge of a cliff, with the old casino 100 meters to my right, and some other ruined buildings down below me on my left.

In the fog and the rain I had driven by everything, completely oblivious. Now that the fog lifted, I found myself in a stunning environment. The mountains rolled away behind me, the sea stretched out before me, and a ruined old resort sat perched a top the cliff to the my right.

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Bokor Hill Station

The casino itself was fun to explore. You can’t go inside the building but you’re free to wander around outside of it. There are some stands across the street that sell coconuts and snacks but I didn’t go check them out.

After some time taking photos and enjoying the atmosphere, I was ready to ride back down the hill. It was 4pm by this point and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I hopped back on my moto and cruised down the hill.

Home to Kampot

The way back down was wildly different than the way up. The fog, clouds, and rain had entirely disappeared and instead I was gifted with incredible views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. I passed an old church, the ugly modern casino, and a large statue of a meditating woman, which I believe was called Lok Yeay Mao.

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Lok Yeay

I flew back down the hill, mostly just coasting in neutral and enjoying leaning into the turns. If the ride up took about 45 minutes, the ride down might have taken only 25.

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Ugly modern casino up ther

If you’re planning to ride up to Bokor Hill Station in the rainy season, pay attention to the weather patterns. The few days I was in Kampot, it rained around midday then cleared up in the afternoon. My luck held and I was granted stunning views of Kampot and the countryside. Being up there in the fog, though pleasantly creepy, is nothing compared to the views you get when the sky is clear.

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Bokor Hill Station

Bike Tour Cambodia: Koh Kong to Kampot

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Where we left off last, I had made it to O Soam, a remote village high up in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. I’m hesitant to even describe O Soam, only because I love it so much and obnoxious as I am, I’d love for it to remain “undiscovered.”

Imagine a tranquil lake situated below the tallest mountain peak in Cambodia. The surrounding landscape is covered in a thick jungle. You lay in a hammock most of the day, listening to the birds and the insects. You eat communal meals with a local family and the one other foreigner who stumbled in that day. When you’re feeling adventurous, you head out on your mountain bike to find some trails going off into the jungle. You discover rivers, massive trees, stunning views.

Yeah. That’s why I was there for 6 days.

But all good things come to an end. After those 6 days, it was time to make the long ride from O Soam to Koh Kong.

Cycling O Soam to Koh Kong

The road from O Soam to Koh Kong is 120km of relentless mountain hills. There are a few houses scattered up at the top followed by 90km of pure jungle. Given that I wasn’t convinced I would even make it in one day, I needed to carry all the water and food I would need for one, possibly two days of riding.

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Road to Koh Kong

I’d tried to make this ride once before, in November 2016, only to be thwarted by a flat tire. Back then, I flagged down a passing SUV and got a free ride all the way to the city.

This time I was determined to make it to Koh Kong only under the power of my own legs. I had all the tools and inner tubes I needed to make it all the way. I had my hammock and tarp in case I couldn’t quite get there.

Can I be honest? I was scared.

I was scared the road would be too hard. My legs would be too weak. I would be unequal to the task. I was more or less convinced I wouldn’t be able to make it to Koh Kong.

The night before the ride, the skies dumped gallons of water onto the mountains below, turning the road out of O Soam into a muddy obstacle course. I skidded and slipped down the first 15km or so, hoping that eventually the road would dry out.

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Boats in Koh Kong

It did, but I soon realized I faced another problem. Weighed down as I was with all my water and food, my back tire was having trouble holding air. It wasn’t completely flat, but it would get deflated easily. I had to stop once an hour to laboriously pump air into it with my tiny hand pump. Counting to myself to make sure I sent enough air into the tire, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.

As I came down a hill, I saw a house on my left. I knew from my last trip down this road that this was the last house before Koh Kong. I pulled over to ask if they had a proper tire pump.

I was greeted by a smiling and surprisingly outspoken Khmer woman who seemed to know a bit of English. When you first meet them, most Khmer women are soft spoken and a bit shy. To meet a woman who greets you loudly is out of the ordinary, to say the least.

She eagerly grabbed my bike and rolled it up her driveway, pulling out a tire pump and filling up both tires. Then, perhaps because she saw my already exhausted face, she sat me down and put a plate full of rice, an omelette, and a bowl of papaya soup in front of me. “Eat, eat!” She urged.

After the meal, I got up to continue and offered to pay for the meal. But she was having none of it. No money, no money, she insisted, over and over.

I grabbed my bike to head out and just then a bee stung my thumb. It wasn’t super painful, just surprising, but I guess it unleashed all the nerves and tension I’d been bottling up for days. I burst into tears.

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Koh Kong Resort

“No cry! No cry!” The surrounding Khmer people burst into action. They offered to drive me down to Koh Kong, offered to let me stay there, kept telling me not to cry.

I did eventually pull myself together, declined the free ride, and kept riding down the road. This was all before 9am. I wouldn’t arrive to Koh Kong until 5pm that evening.

But I made it. The road was long, the day was intense, but I made it to Koh Kong.

I spent two days in Koh Kong, one for recovery, and one making a quick visa run to Thailand. I’ll talk about that in a separate blog post.

Cycling Koh Kong to Kampot

From Koh Kong, my next section of the trip was riding down Highway 48, a paved road that would take me out to National HIghway 4, one of the busiest roads in Cambodia, and from there over to Kampot, a tranquil river town that had been on my Cambodian bucket list for months.

That first day out of Koh Kong was another intense day. At one point I had a 10km uphill climb of 350m. And another. And another. Just like the day from O Saom, this day seemed to stretch on forever.

These long days have taught me something. The challenging of physically pushing myself past my limits is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, walking across Peru was also physically challenging, and maybe the memory of that has faded over the years, but there is something about riding a bicycle up a mountain that is just relentlessly hard.

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The First Big Climb

I knew before I started this ride that it would be challenging, but I could never have imagined the extent to which I would be exhausted. Riding up these hills, my thighs burning, my lungs burning, my fingers going numb from some kind of pinched nerve in my palm, and yet still pushing through, knowing that I can’t stop yet.

As I climb the massive hills, I set tiny goals for myself. Get to that next corner and you can stop. Reach the corner, okay just kidding, get to that next sign and you can stop. Reach the sign and, oh theres the top, get to the top and THEN you can stop.

But I get to the top and I don’t stop. I roll down the hill, gratefully resting my legs for a few seconds before cranking into high gear and pumping down the hill. The sudden speed sending a burst of adrenaline into my mind and my muscles. All energy, I fly down the road towards the next uphill, ready to tackle this one just like I tackled the last.

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Kids Fishing in Andong Tuek

This process of riding through unforgiving territory for hours on end triggers some pretty intense realizations, both mental and physical. In a single day I might think “I can’t do this anymore” at least five times. But what I’ve learned is that I can do it. I can reach my goal. I can ride until I can barely stand, but if I need to, I can keep riding.

I’ve learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined.

Two days out of Koh Kong, I had one of those days where your muscles just wont warm up. Where even after two hours of riding, you still feel like your legs are made of lead. The bike is the heaviest thing in the world. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to cry. I wanted to give up.

But I had 70km more to go.

It was a 93km day and I probably felt strong for 20 of those kilometers. It was the day I hit National Highway 4, the road that runs from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. It is one of the busiest roads in the country.

The ride down Highway 4 was a constant barrage of trucks, cars, buses, more trucks, big trucks little trucks all rushing by me at top speed. Truck drivers found it amusing to shout things at me as they drove by. Busses didn’t find it necessary to move over even 6 inches to leave me any space. I felt their gravitational pull as they passed by.

Through it all, I’m operating on my lowest energy reserves. As my legs grow more and more tired, my mind becomes more and more negative. I get taken out of the moment and thrust into the horrible cycle of “when will this end?”

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Statues on Highway 4

I did my best to stay positive, but by the end of that day I was mostly just thinking about laying down in whatever bed I could find and not getting up until the next morning.

At 3:30pm I rolled into my intended destination for the day, a placed called Veal Rihn, which is really just a market situated at the turning point for Kampot. I found a small guesthouse and for $5 a night got myself a room with an ensuite squatty potty.

Not 10 minutes after I checked in, the heavens opened and it proceeded to downpour for the rest of the evening. After a shower and some time just laying in bed feeling thankful for cotton and synthetic foams, I got up and peeked outside to find some dinner.

A woman was holding court at a small khmer style restaurant, cooking up stir fried beef and spinach with steamed rice. I ordered a plate and sat down, half conversing with the locals, telling them where I was going, deflecting their offers of beer, and mostly just feeling like a zombie after 2 days and 200km of riding through mountains.

I fell asleep early that night, knowing I only had 55km between me and Kampot.

The Road to Kampot

After my dinner of beef and rice, I woke up the next morning feeling strong and confident. It was ready to bang out these 55km and enjoy my two days of well earned rest in Kampot.

The ride to Kampot was incredibly scenic. It was flat and tree lined. I enjoyed my smooth ride through small villages, market towns, and cresting little hills with views of the ocean and Vietnam’s Phy Quoc island.

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Kuy Tiev on the way to Kampot

I took my time, stopping to take plenty of photos and enjoy the scenery. I had no idea what awaited me in Kampot but I was expecting a typical out of the way Cambodian town. Some markets, women selling pork and rice, maybe a guesthouse or two.

Boy was I wrong.

Kampot: First Impressions

Kampot is a tourist Disneyland. Or at least, after days of interacting only with Khmers and staying in Khmer style accommodations, that is how it felt to me. I rolled into town and was immediately confronted with signs offering vegan and vegetarian meals, twice daily yoga classes, and backpacker hostels. Now I understood why everyone stopped here.

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Feeling Strong

The town itself is gorgeous. French colonial architecture lines the river, with a view of the Bokor Mountains beyond. With all the little shops selling Kampot Pepper, cafes with charming chalkboard signs, and whimsical backpacker shops, it’s the kind of town that you can find anywhere in southeast asia, adapted to please the backpacker crowd.

It’s like Battambang, but with more tourists.

Kampot is charming, delightful, and I’m seriously considering living here for a few months after the ride. But in the middle of this ride, the transition from regular Cambodia to Tourist Cambodia was a bit jarring for me.

Oh well.

Tomorrow I ride to the beachside town of Kep, a mere 26km away, where I’m excited to do a few hours of hiking on the hills there, then spend an evening on the beach. After that, one day ride up towards Phnom Penh then, as a present to my mom from mothers day, I will swallow my pride and get a bus for the last 60km into Phnom Penh. You’re welcome, mom.

I don’t love the idea of putting my bike on a bus but when your mom asks you, as a mothers day gift, well… you say yes.

Bike Tour Cambodia: Battambang to Koh Kong Through The Cardamoms (Part 1)

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

It’s 4pm, absolutely pissing down rain, and I am hiding in a Khmer family’s house watching lightening crash across the sky. I have 2 hours until sunset and 30 more kilometers to ride through potentially extremely steep mountain roads. My mind is full of despair. Why did I think I could do ride from Battambang to Koh Kong? Is my body even capable of this?

My bike trip around Cambodia has begun.


First up, cycling from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains, stopping in Samlout, Pramaoy, and my picturesque paradise: O Saom Village.

The night before I started the trip, I was operating at a low level of panic. In my mind, I was too out of shape, too unprepared. I feared I would set out the next day and not even make it to my first stop.

My friends did their best to cheer me up, but by that point the only thing I could do was start the ride.

My 5am alarm rang sooner than I would’ve liked.

Day 1: Cycling Battambang to Samlout

Waking up, my first thought was, “You don’t need to start the ride today. Go back to sleep.”

Thankfully I have at least a teaspoon of willpower. I headed out the door and left my Battambang life behind.

The first hour or two of the ride was really peaceful. I was up and riding by 5:20am, and had made it out to the picturesque hilltop Wat Sampov temple before the sun had fully risen. All the fear of the night before washed away as the scenery rolled past. By the time I stopped for breakfast I was in the zone.

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Samlout Scenery

My route followed the paved highway to Pailin for about 45km then turned off onto a dirt road heading out towards Samlout. Little did I know this was the last paved road I would see for over a week.

Riding out to Samlout my thoughts were conflicted. All I saw around me was peaceful farmland and Khmer daily life. But I also found myself contemplating the history I knew sat beneath the surface of this region.

Battambang region, and specifically the mountains on the outskirts, were some of the hardest hit areas of the Khmer Rouge period and subsequent civil war. By 1998, the town of Samlout and the surrounding mountains were cut off from the rest of the world. Old Phnom Penh Post articles talk about how impossible it was for wartime journalists to make it to the town, where the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge fighters were still revolting against the now firmly in power Vietnamese backed Cambodian government. The articles describe how the street to Pailin was lined with refugees. The very same street I was riding down during my first day.

Today, the legacy of that war is hidden somewhat. The valley is peaceful and still, filled with countryside scenes and Cambodian people herding cattle. But the scars remain beneath the surface. Signs dot the roadsides cautioning about mines or detailing mine clearing efforts.

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Demining Sign in Samlout

This violent history doesn’t define the people of Cambodia, however, and I was happy to meet many helpful and engaging locals during the days ride.

The road to Samlout is hilly without being too steep. I finished the 77km before 1pm, exhausted but happy.

As I thankfully rolled into Samlout, I saw a sign that said “Guesthouse” so I pulled in.

No one was home.

I waited.

Eventually a little kid saw me, then ran off shouting. He came back with some little friends and they all stood off to the side and giggled quietly to themselves. After some time, a family showed up. I asked them, in Khmer, if this was a guesthouse. They nodded, then proceeded to more or less ignore me. It was pretty strange but I figured they were just taking their time.

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A motorcyclist checks me out on the road to Samlout

As I waited, I lay down across a bench and in my exhaustion, began to fall asleep. The father of the family ushered me inside and offered me a space to sleep on a wooden bed. No hotel room, just a wooden surface inside their house. I thought this too was odd but I was too exhausted to care. I fell asleep for an hour.

Woke up around 2pm absolutely starving. The family was almost entirely gone. A young woman probably about my age sat outside. Leaving my things inside the house, I left to find some food.

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Coming into Samlout

Rode around a bend and discovered that there was a whole second half of the town I hadn’t even seen yet. My doubts about the validity of my “guesthouse” began to solidify. But first, food.

As I’m enjoying my market stall noodle soup, the cook comes over and starts talking to me in English. Asks where I am from, if I’m traveling alone… typical questions. Then she asks if I’ve found the guest house yet, and points in the opposite direction.

Okay, so I wasn’t at the guesthouse.

Back at the first “guesthouse” the young woman was still sitting in front in the same position as when I had left. I picked up my bags, put them on my bike, said goodbye to her, and rode away. She didn’t seem phased at all. Just smiled and went back to staring into space.

From their point of view, I’m pretty sure a Cambodian family found a random foreigner sitting on their front step, let her sleep in their house for a few hours, and then the foreigner rode away.

Who knows.

Anyway, I found the proper guesthouse and got a room for the night. Had a really festive dinner with the owner and his friends, and was up at 5am the next day ready to ride.

Day 2: Cycling Samlout to Pramaoy and Everywhere In Between

How to even begin to describe this day? It was the first of many truly challenging days I would have cycling in Cambodia’s mountains from Battambang to Koh Kong.

The ride to Pramaoy taught me who I am as a person. It changed my understanding of myself on a fundamental level. It broke me down and built me back up over and over again.

I set out from my Samlout guesthouse all confidence. Yesterday had been so effortless, so fun. I was sure today would be even better. Only 71 kms. Throw a couple mountain climbs in there. No problem. Piece of cake.

It only took a few minutes for that hope to be shattered. My route veered onto jungle paths that barely live up to the word “road.” Eventually I made my way down to the river. No bridge. I was stuck.

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On the New Route to Pramaoy

I quickly found a new route that would add about 20km to my day. The new route cut a fairly straight line through some foothills towards the mountains. I rolled through several villages, coasting up and down small hills with the mountains rising majestically to my right.

After breakfast, I crossed the “bridge” which was really just a couple of logs strung together and got some questionable directions from the local villagers.

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The Only Bridge for Miles

I took the first right hand turn, checked my GPS and pedaled off down the road. Energetic from my breakfast and confident as I faced off with the mountain ridge in the distance, I pedaled hard and fast, allowing my thoughts to flow with the scenery around me.

I daydreamed like this for a good hour before stopping to check my GPS. To my horror and dismay I had missed a turn. Not missed it. Overshot it by about 20km. There was NO way I was backpedaling 20km. Not after the bridge incident from the morning.

I asked to my GPS to recalibrate. Took a new road forward, confident I had tricked google maps and found a better route after all.

But Cambodia had other plans for me.

The road soon disintegrated into a mucky, muddy mess. If you’ve never experienced the unique substance that is Cambodian mud, let’s take a minute to pay homage to this unique form of torture.

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Just a Cambodian Mountain Road

Cambodia’s soil is a rich clay that, when wet, becomes a slippery pit of despair that eats everything in its path. The harder you try to stay upright, the more the mud pulls you inexorably downwards.

It was a struggle, to say the least. There were some single tracks that intrepid motorcyclists had carved around the muck, saving me a bit of time and effort. Nonetheless, I took my first massive fall of the ride right into a giant puddle. With great effort I pulled myself upright and came face to face with a laughing old man.

Stifling his laughter, he asked where I was going. He leaned down and drew a map to Pramaoy in the mud. The rest of the morning entailed riding down a dirt road, hoping to eventually reach a T-junction.

I must admit, there came a moment where I shouted “I can’t do this anymore!”

5 minutes later I reached the T-junction. Because of course I broke down right before the end. Put myself back together and carried on, now safely back on track.

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Happy to see the T-Junction and be back on the main road

Popped into a market, had a plate of rice and pork, and fell asleep in a hammock for an hour and a half. Got up at 1pm to head up into the mountains, excited but nervous.

And of course, almost immediately, google maps sent me off on some crazy “short cut” road that was barely a road, mostly mud, and literally ate my bike up to the front wheel shocks. Luckily I still had one foot on solid ground and could pull myself back up.

Exhausted, frustrated, and a little excited, I fought my way through the bush road and made it back to the official road up into the mountains.

And man, was it up. It was relentless. A steep climb that just kept going. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and sit with the truck drivers who were also taking breaks. Because I guess driving trucks up mountains is also hard work.

But eventually, even though there is always more up, I came to the top. Actually, I made it to the top a lot more quickly that I expected to, which is pretty unusual in the mountains. Still, I couldn’t let myself get arrogant. Some truck drivers I had spoken to made me a bit nervous. Pramaoy was still very far away, with another big climb between here and there.

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At the top of the climb, about to take the downhill.

After that massive steep climb I was rewarded with every mountain biker’s dream: a long, almost endless downhill. It went on forever. It never went up, just down, down, down. Down through this wide open valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. There is a small village up there that stretches along the road. The locals would call out and cheer as I flew by. I would smile and laugh in return.

I was exuberant. I was flying. I was ecstatic.

Then everything changed.

Dark clouds pregnant with rain gathered in the sky over my head. As the first fat drops splattered down, a woman waved me over to cower under cover of her shop. I sat and ate a quick meal, and checked my phone and GPS.

4pm with 30km more to go through the mountains.

Sunset was at 6:20, and during my previous climb and rugged road conditions, it had taken me 1 hour to go 10km. At that rate, and with it pouring rain, impossible to ride in and guaranteed to make the dirt roads more difficult…. I doubted my ability to make it to Pramaoy.

Still, I was determined to try. by 4:20pm, the rain had cleared up and I was back on my bike, flying down the road.

Adrenaline and determination were flowing through my veins. I pushed and pushed. The downhill continued for a bit but then the road again began to climb. Thankfully nowhere near as steep as the early afternoon mountain ascent. I continued to push with an intensity I didn’t realize I had.

Honestly, that whole end of the day is a bit of an adrenaline soaked blur. I know the road passed through thick jungle, through a town, and I saw lots of roads turning off to the left. I knew the road would fork, and I needed to take the right fork, so I studiously stayed to the right.

Nonetheless, as the last light left the sky for the day, I found myself speeding out onto the main road, a Khmer man laughing nearby, most definitely NOT in Pramaoy.

How the fuck had I taken the left fork? I don’t even remember there BEING a fork, and I definitely stayed to the right the whole time.

Never solved that particular mystery.

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Cambodian Village Life

Checked google. 7.2km to Pramaoy. Okay, I told my fatigued legs, my exhausted lungs, and my disappointed mind, you can do this. 7km is nothing.

In the dim light of dusk, I rode. The road was now a large, well maintained dirt road. The hills were small, but my exhausted legs still complained on every uphill. With about 5km to go, I hit the wall. I started cursing the day I was born, cursing my decision to make this bike trip, and definitely cursed at a dog that started barking at me.

But curses aside, at 7:20pm I rolled into Pramaoy and collapsed into the first guesthouse I saw.

From 5:20am to 7:20pm, including an hour and a half in a hammock, I had been traveling for 14 hours. But I had made it to Pramaoy.

I’d love to say I gratefully took a rest day there in Pramaoy, but Pramaoy isn’t the kind of town that begs you to stay.

No, instead I woke up the next day and did it all over again.

Day 3: Cycling Pramaoy to O Saom

This was my second time making the cycling trip from Pramaoy to O Saom. I’d made it once before. Last November on my first trip through the Cardamoms.

This time was easier. I knew what to expect. Instead of stressing about the climbs or my mileage, I savored every hill. Pushed through the climbs, enjoyed the struggle, and made it to O Saom by 11am, with a little help from the ferry across the lake.

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Almost to O Saom, looking back.

It was a great ride. The road was in poor condition, but considerably better than it had been in November.

I rolled into O Saom exhausted but happy.


That’s a wrap on the first half of my ride from Battambang to Koh Kong. Once I’ve finished cycling through the Cardamoms, I’ll cover the unbelievably intense ride from O Saom to Koh Kong and Koh Kong to Andong Tuek. Until then,

Never stop exploring.

Biking The Cardamoms Day 4: O Saom

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

And on the fourth day, I awoke to the sounds of roosters crowing practically inside my inner ear. I tried, in vain, to stay asleep until my 5:30am alarm, but by 5 in the morning I had to give it up as a lost cause.

I laid in bed, feeling my legs and gaging my energy levels. They were still pretty depleted, if I was being honest with myself. And I was looking at a 125km day, through the mountains, down to Koh Kong. On top of that, I had really loved my afternoon in O Saom the day before and I fervently wished I had more time to enjoy the lake, this mountain village, and the people living here.20161114_102754

The Decision

The battle raged inside my head. On the one hand, my intense inner voice lambasted me for my laziness. Telling me to stick to my plan, not be a quitter, get on that bike and ride, damn it, never mind the burning pain in my thighs.

My more reasonably inner voice, the one that loves me and believes in a more laissez faire approach to life, told me to chill out. The reason I had set out on this journey in the first place was to spend some time in the mountains. Why was I in such a hurry to get to Koh Kong? The mountains were here, and I had 2 more days until I needed to catch a bus to Battambang. Just stay. Spend the day in the hammock reading a book and swimming in the lake.

Thankfully, the reasonable voice won.20161114_151315

I went to find the proprietor and let him know about my plans, then at 6am, laid back down in bed to go back to sleep. But of course, I couldn’t sleep and by 7am, my stomach was begging me for some breakfast.

A Cambodian Schedule

But Cambodians follow a very different meal schedule than most westerners, especially in rural areas. They wake up at 3:30 or 4, I assume they eat at this time, though I’ve never been awake to witness it, and head to work in the fields before the sun rises and the heat of the day begins. By mid morning they return home, and lunch is at 11 or 11:30. The middle of the day is reserved for napping in hammocks and spending time with the family. The late afternoon sees a bit more work being finished, then dinner is at 5, maybe 6 at the latest, and when they sun goes down, they go to bed.20161114_102802

All that is to say that I ended up cycling into town to get some breakfast and once again, had one of the best meals I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. A simple red curry over Khmer noodles, called “nom wren chok”.

As I rode my bike the 2 or 3 kilometers from the village back out to my homestay on the lake, I started thinking.

On Self Reliance and Obstinacy

Something I’ve noticed over the years is the effect that the mountains have on my thought process. Somewhere in the struggle and overwhelming challenge of moving my body across mountains, I reach a point of clarity.20161114_162134

The mountains let me step back from myself and observe objectively. Especially when I am alone. Over the past two days as I cycled up, I found myself appreciating my own independence and faith in myself in ways I hadn’t before. I realized as I struggled up the unrelenting mud drenched hills, that I was listening to myself, without fear or anger or shame.

I don’t always have a lot of faith in myself, to be honest. When I am with another person, my desire to please them can get in the way, and I find myself unable to make decisions. Instead of listening to my own inner voice, I try to base all my decisions on what I think will make the other person happy. It doesn’t work out. Ever.

But here in the Cardamoms, alone and struggling through one of the hardest bike rides of my life, I was the happiest I had been in ages. I wasn’t worried about anyone else feelings, about their opinions of me, or comparing myself to someone else. When I want to take a break, I gently push myself a bit further, and then I take a break. I got back on the bike when I Was ready, and not before. And I loved every second of it. Even when my bike broke or I was too tired and had to hop in a car, I wasn’t angry or ashamed, it was just part of the adventure.20161114_162302

If I had been with a partner, who knows if I’d have been able to take this day off to appreciate the mountain village. I may have pushed myself on, dangerously and in spite of the painful fatigue in my legs, simply out of a desire not to appear weak or incapable.

The next step is to take this solitary version of myself, the one who honors her own opinion and respects her own desires, and marry that with the self that I display when I am with a partner. I hope I’m up to the challenge, but I haven’t yet met the person with the adventurous spirit that matches and balances my own.

I love my competitive nature. It makes me fierce and it pushes me to be a better version of myself. But when it gets to the point where I hurt myself, and I hurt the people I love, then it has gone too far. Then it is time to put my competition aside. In the end, the only person you are really competing against, is yourself.20161114_164206

Meanwhile in O Saom

The rest of my day in O Saom turned into one of those travel experiences that you read about in blogs and magazines. I spent the morning riding around in the back of a pick up truck with a Cambodian family, visiting their friends in the surrounded villages, picking up odds and ends, and having broken conversations with friendly strangers. In the afternoon, I rode bicycles and practiced funny yoga poses with some of the local children, then we all went out swimming. At sunset, I walked around taking photos of the lake, photos of the village, and spent a few moments sitting with the local women, while they brushed each others hair.

Really, it was like something out of a travel documentary.20161114_170056

I was not, however, the one and only foreigner to ever pass through this town. In the middle of the day I saw two foreigners go by on dirt bikes, without stopping. And as the sun was setting at the end of my wonderful Cambodian day of realization, two Australian guys rode up on dirt bikes to spend the night at the hotel. We shared a few beers, I admitted I was envious of their bikes, they admitted the thought I was completely insane for trying to ride a mountain bike through this terrain alone.

They were probably right.

I went to bed early, rested and restored, ready to attempt the epic 125km last day out of the mountains.

This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, or Day 3 from Pramaoy to O Saom.

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