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

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

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

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

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

Chicon Glacier Hike

Understanding Life in the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Valley

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

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

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

The Three Main Towns

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

Pisac

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

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

Entrance to the ruin is included in the Boleto Turistico.

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

Ollantaytambo Free Ruins

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

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

Ollantaytambo

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

Rio Urubamba

What to do in Ollantaytambo

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

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

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

Where to Eat in Ollantaytambo

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

Urubamba

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

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

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

Urubamba Streets

Streets of Urubamba

Where to Eat in Urubamba

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

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

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

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

What to Do in Urubamba

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urubamba Hike to the Cross

View from the Cross above Urubamba

Chinchero

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

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

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

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

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

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

view from Maras village

The Streets of Maras

Maras/Moray

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

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

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

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

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

Best Hikes in the Sacred Valley

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

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

Lares Trek

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

sacred valley views peru

Sacred Valley Views

Option 1: Beginning from Huarán

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

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

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

Option 2: Beginning from Urubamba

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

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

Option 3: Beginning from Yanahuara

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

Inca Trail from Chinchero

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

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

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

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

sacred valley above urubamba

On the way up to Yanacocha

Laguna Yanacocha Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

naupa iglesia sacred cave hike near Ollantaytambo

Roadside map on the way to the Naupa Iglesia

Naupa Iglesia Hike

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

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

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

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

Hiking Chicon Glacier Hike Peru

Trying to get to Chicón

Chicón Glacier Hike (Chi’qun)

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

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

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

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

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

Salineras to Maras

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

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

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

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

Salineras Incan Salt Mines

Salineras Salt Flats

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

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

Best Events

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

Cervecería Saturdays

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

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

Sacred Valley Peru

Sacred Sushi Sundays

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

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

Market Day in Urubamba

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

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

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

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

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

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

traditional peruvian festival costumes in pisac

Women in their festival finery

Religious Festivals

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

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

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

Lare Trek Sacred VAlley Peru

Best Food

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

Papa Rellena

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

Rocoto Rellena

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

Yucca Frita

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

Pollo y Papas

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

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

Cancha

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

Pastelita

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

Soup Peruvian Food

Typical Peruvian Soup

Menú

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

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

Piccarrones

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

The Salineras Hike to the Incan Salt mines

Salineras

Tamales

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

Pachamanca

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

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

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

Where to Stay in the Sacred Valley

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

Hiking in the Sacred Valley Peru

View from a hike above the Sacred Valley

Willka T’ika

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

San Agustin Monasterio de la Recoleta

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

Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado

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

BUDGET OPTION: Llamapack Backpackers

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

Ollantaytambo Ruins

Exploring Ollantaytambo

Adventure Option: Skylodge Adventure Suites

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

Pisac Options: Nidra Wasi

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


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

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


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

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

Hiking the Huayhuash Circuit Solo: A 9 Day Complete Guide

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

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

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

Laguna Carnicero Campsite Cordillera Huayhuash

Campsite on Lg. Carnicero

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

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

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

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

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

Siula Pass Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

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

Hiking the Huayhuash Solo – What to Expect

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

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

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit Solo

Top of the pass, day 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Solo

Standing Proud on top of the pass, day 6

 

9 Day Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit At-A-Glance

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

Day 1 – Huaraz to Quartlehuian (4150m)

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

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

Laguna Mitucocha Cordillera Huayhuash

Looking back towards my campsite and Lg. Mitucocha

Day 2 – Quartlehuain to Laguna Mitucocha (4230m)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Trek the Cordillera Huayhuash Solo

View from the top of the pass, day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Carnicero Huayhuash Mountain Range

View from the campsite on Lg. Carnicero

Day 4: Laguna Carhuacocha to Laguna Carnicero (4330)

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

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

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

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

Fools.

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

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

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

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

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

Siula Pass Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

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

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

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

Day 5: Laguna Carnicero to Atascancha Hot Springs

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

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

Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit without a Guide

With my German friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Trail on the way to the pass on day 5

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

And so I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glaciers in Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash

Top of the pass, day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was heaven.

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

Huatiac Campsite Cordillera Huayhuash

Happy to see camp, end of day 7

Day 7 Huanacpatay to Huatiac (4400m)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I set up my tent and gratefully sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Jahuacancha in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Looking back at our campsite on Lg. Jahuacocha

Day 8 Huatiac to Laguna Jahuacocha (4070)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit

My adopted family

Day 9: Jahuacocha to Llamac

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

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

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

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


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

Biking the Cardamoms Days 1 & 2: Pursat to Pramaoy

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The story of my trip cycling from Pursat to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains started with me, sitting at my desk at work, daydreaming about being somewhere else.

Moving to Cambodia to work for an NGO was a dream come true for me. My expectations before moving here were very high. The reality of living in Cambodia, though, especially in the city of Battambang, has taught me something: I am happiest near the mountains.

But Battambang? Flat as a pancake. Here, they call a 50m tall hill a mountain and mean it seriously.

As I slowly realized that the only thing I was going to climb were the stairs to my fourth floor apartment, the reality of my situation, and my lack of mountains, became clear. As a coping mechanism, I began typing in variations of the phrase “Mountains in Cambodia” into google.

I discovered Cambodia’s storied Cardamom Mountains. The Cardamom’s aren’t famous for their height. The tallest peak, Phnom Aural, is just over 1,800m (5,900ft). However, they are blanketed by one of the largest and still unexplored forests in Southeast Asia.

The Cardamoms are some of the last territory in the region that is home to wild tigers, elephants, and nearly extinct Siamese Crocodiles. Additionally intriguing, as late as the 1990s, these remote mountains were the last home and battlefield of the Khmer Rouge. Obviously, I had to explore them.

20161112_134627

The road to Pramaoy.

Geographically speaking, the Cardamoms aren’t so far away from Battambang. Naively, I believed getting into the mountains would be easy.

As I typed in as many variations of “Battambang to Cardamom Mountains” as I could, I kept getting the same results: I’d have to go down to Koh Kong (2 separate 7 hour bus trips) in order to get into the Cardamoms. It wasn’t possible. There were no options for entering the Cardamoms from the north.

BUT WAIT.

Deep in the dusty recesses of forgotten google search results, I found a sliver of hope. A post, written in 2010, described a possible mountain bike trek through the Cardamoms, beginning in a town called Pursat, just 100km south of Battambang on Road 5.

But here in Cambodia, a country that is changing more rapidly than Putin’s opinion of America, a blog post from 2010 has limited viability for 2016 travel plans. In short, I couldn’t trust it.

The only post I could find to corroborate the story came from 2013. This second blog post contained a vitally important footnote: the author claimed it would be possible to make this bike trek without camping gear, going from Pursat to Koh Kong in three days, staying in the only two towns in the mountains with guesthouses: Pramaoy and O Saom.

Welp. That was that, I was going for it. I just needed to find a time when I had 5 days free, 2 days for travel to and from Battambang, 3 days for bike riding. There was never a question of if I  would do it, it was simply when. After all these years of exploration, I’m not hesitant about traveling alone. Even when it might seem like a crazy idea.

20161112_174233

Pramaoy at Dusk

And so I waited, biding my time as the months went by, following a rigorous training schedule not ever riding a bicycle, nor, in fact, even owning one. Still I waited patiently until the day would come that during some Cambodian holiday with little to no relevance to my life, I would take off for the mountain wildernesses.

Then during the water festival in November my work gave me 3 weekdays off, so I had 5 days, from Saturday to Wednesday, to get this shit done. Was I worried about my lack of fitness and preparedness? Excrutiatingly. I didn’t sleep well for weeks leading up to it. And when I did sleep, I would spend half the night suffering through illogical stress dreams. But I was determined. I had to get the fuck out of Battambang and find my way into the mountains.

When it came to planning, I stuck to my usual travel approach: don’t.

Okay, well, I rented a bike from a local bike tour business, went to the market and bought a small backpack to hold a change of clothes, rolled up my hammock “just in case” I didn’t make it to a guesthouse any night, and bought a bus ticket to Pursat the day before. It was tricky finding a bus company that would agree to take the bike, I was surprised by how many of them ended up saying no. Eventually I found a bus ticket on Sorya bus for $6 from Battambang to Pursat, including the bike.

The only thing left to do was start.

Day 1: Bus from Battambang to Pursat

After two sleepless nights of stressing out thinking I was going to die on the road, I picked up my bike from Soksabike around noon on Friday and biked to the bus stop outside of town for my 1:30pm bus to Pursat.

Following the great Cambodian tradition, the bus was one and a half hours late, so my 1:30pm bus left at 3pm. Naturally. Then the 1 hour ride to Pursat of course took two hours. Because, why not?

So it was that at 5pm I stepped off of the bus on the side of the highway in Pursat with no hotel reservations, no clue about the layout of the town, armed only with the confidence that everything would work out, eventually.

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Pursat at Dawn

Cycling around town, I discoverd that once you get off of highway 5 Pursat is a lovely place. There is a river with a park alongside it meandering through town and a massive central market. The city seems to be a center for agriculture and I was very comforted by the giant market with lots of families selling their produce. It reminded me, in a way, of the mercado central in Urubamba, Peru.

Riding around the attractive tree lined streets surrounding the market, I did see a sign for a small, family run guest house, and popped in to find out how much a room cost.

Inside, two young Cambodian girls weres playing a game on a smart phone, and when they looked up and saw me, they both froze, wide eyed, unable to move or greet me. It didn’t help that I forgot the Cambodian words for hotel and night, so I had no Khmer vocabulary and was forced to ask in English. After a long and awkward silence, they broke out of their stupor and put me in an air conditioned and only slightly moldy hotel room for $7 a night.

Got some dinner from a street side seller and took advance of the free cable TV to watch CNN in my hotel room, always an interesting contrast when traveling in Southeast Asia, and went to sleep early, determined to be well rested for my 110km journey the next day.

Day 2: Pursat to Pramaoy – 110km

I knew, because I had read a blog post about it naturally, that from Pursat to Pramaoy was 110km. What I did not know was the location of Pramaoy on the map, or how the fuck do you even pronounce Pramaoy!? It’s pram – owee, turns out, but I didn’t figure that out until hours into day one.

My alarm woke me up at 5am and I jumped out of bed, determined to have as many hours as possible to ride 110km. Have I mentioned I wasn’t in cycling shape? I figured (hoped) I would need about 8 hours to cover that distance.

On the plus side, the first day was meant to be completely flat, so I anticipated being able to finish a bit ahead of schedule.

Hopped on my bike by 5:30 and rolled slowly out of town, looking for the turnoff for the road to Pramaoy. It was easy to find, just past the bridge over the river on highway 5, the sign points to Phnom Kravahn, the Khmer name for the Cardamom Mountains.

The road is paved for the first 20 or so kilometers and the riding was easy. Cruising along at a good clip, watching the sky turn from dark blue to purple to pink and white and sky blue, while the sun turned the tropical forests and rice fields around me a beautiful mix of gold and green, I felt at peace. This was the way I was meant to live. Traveling, moving through the world, experiencing life at its most raw.

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Cambodian Rice Porridge: Bor Bor

After an hour of this, my stomach finally got in touch with my brain and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything yet. After a little less than 20 kilometers, I stopped at a roadside restaurant and ordered a bowl of Bor, Cambodian rice porridge. Needless to say, it was spectacular.

As I ate, I was joined by a collection of school kids and their mothers. They gathered around the table in what seemed to be a normal morning ritual. Only this day, the morning gossip hour was interrupted by the appearance of me, the foreigner. They asked me where I was going, and I did my best to have a conversation with them. At one point, one of the women put my bike helmet on her head and started walking around laughing at herself.

Stuffed with rice porridge, I payed my $0.50 and went along my merry way. Not too far after my breakfast stop, I passed through the town of Phnom Kravahn and out along a bridge across the Pursat river. After the bridge, the road changed from pavement to dirt and I thought to myself, here we go. Now the adventure really begins.

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My legs, end of day 2.

But all that really began was my slow death by dust asphyxiation. The road is a well trafficked road and is under construction for most of the way between Phnom Kravahn and Pramaoy. For the entire day I was covering my mouth with my karma scarf while trucks and cars roared past me, churning up huge clouds of dust. By 11am I was covered in dust, my shirt, pants, shoes, and face all a unique orange hue.

Aside from the horrible traffic and dust situation, the mornings riding was pretty easy, but not overly scenic. There was nothing particularly exciting or challenging about it.

I stopped for lunch at a shack that seemed to have been set up to cater to the construction workers who were working on the road. In Cambodia, it is fairly normal to eat lunch around 11 and then take a rest during the hottest part of the day, from 11 until nearly 2pm. When I popped into the shack and asked for food, there was a group of men sitting there who all immediately started to talk about me.

I was feeling tired at this point and anti-social, so I am somewhat ashamed to admit I pretended not to speak Khmer. I could understand a lot of what they were saying, but I didn’t want to struggle through a conversation, so I didn’t reply.

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Incredible Noodle Soup

Through a series of pantomimes, the woman running the shop put a bowl of noodle soup in front of me with some kind of meat and vegetables inside. It was one of the most delicious bowls of soup I have ever had in my life. The broth was light and fresh, not too salty but not bland either. The rice noodles were the perfect balance between chewy and firm.

After the soup, I crawled onto a pallet at the back of the shop and fell asleep for an hour.

When I woke up, around 12:30, the people in the shop were still talking about me! Only now, having eaten and had a nap, I had the energy to reply, so we had a bit of a limited conversation. I don’t want to over exaggerate the extent of my khmer. I can listen fairly well, and can say things like “I’m riding my bike from Pursat to Pramaoy” or “I work in Battambang” and “I’m staying in Cambodia for one year.”

We didn’t delve into the heavy stuff.

Around 1pm I hopped back on the bike to continue my day. I was anticipating more of the same. Flat, wide, dirt road, heavily under construction, with a slight hint at uphill grade sometimes. I felt confident I would finish the 110km day. 

And then.

As I’m basking in my post lunch nap energy, feeling strong and rejuvenated, I came across something unexpected. The road was moving in a huge sweeping arc up a huge hill.

Alright. This wasn’t part of the plan.

But I’m strong. I love climbing hills on bikes. And the grade wasn’t very steep. I dropped into a lighter gear and kept pedaling. Then, a few minutes up the hill, I noticed an older much more rundown road off to the left, half buried by this dirt mega highway I was currently pedaling. I’m guessing that this was the old road, the one I had read about in the blog posts prior to undertaking this trip. That old road looked rugged and tough. It was much steeper and would have been a challenging climb.

If anyone is reading my blog looking to follow my bike path from Pursat to Koh Kong, I should probably tell you now, the day from Pursat to Pramaoy, you follow a flat, highly processed road that is probably going to be paved in the next 2 years.

So I snapped a photo of the old road and the new, and continued to climb. And climb. And climb. And climb. The hill went on forever. It was ridiculous. Outrageous. My whole world was this uphill climb.

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Old Road and New

Yet as with all things, the hill did eventually come to an end. The road flattened out and after a few moments, went back down. I cruised down the hill and after that point, the territory was more rolling hills. Even after the climb, I was feeling strong, and I powered through the rolling hills for another hour.

But sometime in the midafternoon, something inside me broke down. I felt myself hitting the proverbial wall. I pulled over at one point to buy a snack and a drink from a roadside house, and when I hopped back on the bike, it was like my legs refused to warm back up. Pedaling became agony.

Not to mention, since I hadn’t been riding a bike before this, my bum was wicked sore.

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Feeling pretty goddamn tired at this point.

Pushed on for another hour or so, but by 4pm, I was wrecked. My willpower was completely crushed when I came around a corner and saw another climb in front of me. Tired and beaten down, I stepped off of my bike and checked my maps.me app to see how many more kilometers I had to go before Pramaoy. The map said I had ridden 105km and had 28 more to go.

No.

Fucking.

Way.

In that moment, I figured I had 2 options.

Option 1: force myself to ride the final 28 km through rolling hills, and probably get to Pramaoy around 6pm completely exhausted. Most likely, I would be unable to ride the 60km through the mountains that I knew awaited me tomorrow.

Option 2: Stop here and try to flag down a passing car or truck to give me a ride the rest of the way to Pramaoy. Swallow my pride, and save my legs so that I could continue my ride tomorrow.

I went with option 2.

I propped my bike up on the side of the road and sat down to wait for the next car. And I waited. And waited. And waited.

A woman, probably the matriarch of the family, came out of a nearby house and asked me if everything was okay. I explained my predicament to her, that I was riding to Pramaoy, trying to go all the way to Koh Kong, but that I was tired, my knees hurt, and I didn’t want to ride any more.

Her reply? She offered to let me sleep at her house, and to feed me dinner. I was stunned and so honored. I thanked her profusely, but explained that I really had to get to Pramaoy today, because tomorrow morning I needed to ride from Pramaoy to O Saom, the village in the mountains.

To give her credit, never once did she tell me just to toughen up and get back on the bike. In fact, when no cars went by for awhile, I did start to get back on the bike to keep riding, and that was when my hostess offered me her own solution. She called out her son, and told him to drive me and my bike to Pramaoy… wait for it… on the back of his moto.

So he rolled out on his 100cc honda motorbike, I propped my bicycle upside down in my lap and sat behind him, and he drove me out to Pramaoy. Which, it turns out, was really less than 10km away, my map had been wrong all along.

Pramaoy was perfect. Dusty dirt roads intersecting a town of small shops and restaurants in the middle of farmland with mountains in the distance. I took in the sunset over town, grabbed some fried noodles, and fell into bed completely exhausted. 

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I have one piece of advice for intrepid mountain bikers looking to follow in my footsteps: if you’re looking for a rugged, wild mountain bike adventure, skip this day. From Pursat you can just get a bus to Pramaoy/Veal Veng. Unless you’re doing a cycle tourism trip and want to ride every mile, just skip this day. The fast driving trucks and cars are relentless and it gets unpleasant. Save yourself the energy, bus to Veal Veng, and tackle the extreme challenge of the ride from Pramaoy to O Saom. It’s much more fun.

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Scenic Pramaoy

Stay tuned for the stories of Days 3, 4, and 5. Trust me, my adventure had only just begun…

Rescued in Nepal

Adventure Travel, Nepal, Travel, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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Apple trees growing in a wheat field

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

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Pine forest and the trail marker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Tukuche.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English School in the Tibetan refugee camp

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

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A river stretches away into the Annapurna Wilderness

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

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Annapurna Circuit Solo Trek