From Lima, we took the Cruz del Sur bus down to Nasca to see the Nasca Lines. We met Tom and Anna, a British couple that are on a year-long honeymoon, on the bus to Nasca. We would later run into them several times during our trip even though we were on very different itineraries. We got to Nasca in the evening, dropped our stuff in the hotel, and then arranged for a flight over the lines the next day.
For scale, the tiny dots in the photographs of the lines are large rocks. We lucked out in choosing a company (Aereo Expreso Moche) that operates a plane with no wing struts obstructing the view from the windows. The lines have mixed reviews from other travellers; you either think they're incredible or you don't see what the fuss is. We thought that the lines are quite incredible and certainly worth the detour down to Nasca. We only stayed one night in Nasca before taking the (very expensive) overnight bus to Arequipa. We had not heard of the Cial bus company before but the bus turned out to be nicer than the Cruz del Sur buses that we'd taken.
We ended up spending almost a week in the Arequipa area. In Arequipa, we stayed in Hostal Santa Catalina (500 Santa Catalina, 054 243705), which has an awesome view from its roof patio. In addition, the two men running the place are very friendly. We also found a good restaurant, Nina Yaku (211 Calle San Francisco), a few blocks north of the Plaza de Armas.
In total, we spent two days in Colca Canyon, two days on El Misti, and two days in the city to relax and wander around. We went to Colca Canyon because I wanted to spend a couple of nights sleeping at higher elevations before going to El Misti; I wasn't really expecting much from that trip and Colca Canyon lived up to my expectations. Colca Canyon isn't as impressive looking as the Grand Canyon despite being twice as deep. I'd recommend skipping Colca Canyon if you don't have any compelling reason to visit it but your mileage may vary. Monasterio de Santa Catalina in Arequipa was interesting and it's probably a better experience if you get a guide as well. We felt compelled to visit the Juanita museum after El Misti and it was a highlight of our stay in Arequipa; the textiles and mummies on display were incredibly well preserved.
We signed up for a trip to El Misti with Zarate Expediciones. It cost more than the other agencies but we were quite keen to go on the trip with Carlos Zarate (84 years old at the time) who discovered a number of Inca sacrifices at the top of volcanoes near Arequipa. His son, Miguel Zarate, was the one that found Juanita together with an American archaeologist. Carlos was full of information about his climbs in the area, he would frequently point at something and tell us that he found x number of mummies and Inca artifacts x number of years ago. In fact, our trip was his 384th summit of El Misti!
For a walkup, El Misti was physically strenuous for several reasons: 1) we were barely acclimitized for those heights after spending two nights at 2000 meters (Arequipa) and one night at 3600 meters (Chivay), and no real physical exertion at those altitudes. 2) This period was the second day of my 12 day bout with food poisoning and a bad cold that plagued me through the trip. 3) The trailhead was at 3415 m (11,204 ft) and the summit was at 5827 m (19,117 ft), translating to an elevation gain of almost 8,000 ft to be covered over two days. 4) There's no water on the mountain and we had to carry 12 liters for both of us for 2 days. 5) I forgot to pack my energy drinks to Peru, which would have been quite helpful since I couldn't eat any solid food. On hindsight, I think a better choice for acclimitization is Chachani because, although higher, it is an easier climb since from trailhead to summit is only 1000 meters over 2 days.
When we reached the crater rim, it started to snow, and Serene and I hurried to make the summit before the weather broke completely. We ended up descending at the start of a snowstorm that plastered the upper part of the mountain with snow that was visible from Arequipa the next day. Descending El Misti was a breeze since you get to scree surf all the way down; bring good gaiters for your trail runners! The weather broke after this point in our trip and it rained almost every day from then. I'd wanted to climb in the Cordillera Real (Bolivia) but gave those plans up because of the weather.
From Arequipa, we went to Copacabana in Bolivia. We stayed in Copacabana during the New Year period and observed that it was packed with Bolivian tourists because Copacabana appears to be the only public beach in landlocked Bolivia.
If you can only visit one island on Lake Titicaca, Isla del Sol should be that island. We took the boat to the southern end of Isla del Sol and walked up the stairs to Yumani. In Yumani, we stayed in Inti Kala, which is at the northern end of the village (at the time it was the last hostal). We dropped our bags and then walked to the northern end of the island to the Chincana ruins and then hiked back around sunset. The trail running North-South is one of the best day hikes we've done; it follows the ridgeline closely and spectacular views abound on both sides. We had a really relaxing time on Isla del Sol and wished that we had planned to stay an additional day on the island. Isla del Sol is also great for acclimitization because its extensive hiking trails are around 4000 meters.
We stayed only 3 nights in La Paz, partly because the weather was quite bad. Because I was down with a cold and food poisoning then, we stayed in the Hostal Estrella Andina that is a step up from the places we normally stay at. We got on an organized trip to Tihuanaco near La Paz where we saw some pre-Incan ruins and artifacts. The organized tours bring the tourists to the museums first, and only went out to the ruins at noon when the light is harsh. Tihuanaco has a fascinating history and has unfortunately been extensively looted. In La Paz, we chatted with Charlie, the British owner of Artesanias Wara (Calle Linares 810, next to the witch's market), for quite a number of hours. He cheerfully explained to us how all his wool and cloth products are made, and how to discern the quality of such items. He quoted fair prices and we ended up buying a number of items from him. After 3 days of rain and hail, we'd decided we had enough and returned to Peru.
From La Paz, we returned to Puno in Peru where we stayed a night. We visited Taquile, an island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, which is famous for its weaving. The local boat we took also stopped at the Uros floating islands that we had visited on our last trip to Peru. The 2 hour ride on the local boat was the most interesting experience of this visit. In Puno, we found a good and well priced restaurant, Restaurant Internacional (201 Moquegua), which served excellent pancakes and dinners.
We spent 4 nights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley before flying back home. This visit was our second to cusco and we thought that we might get bored there. Fortunately, we found plenty of interesting things to see in the Cusco area that we didn't visit the last time. Instead of squeezing all the usual Sacred Valley stops like Chincero in a single day, we took the local buses to the towns and wandered around at our leisure. Having a flexible itinerary meant that we saw much more of the Sacred Valley at a cheaper rate than a single-day organized tour.
In Cusco, we stayed at the same hostal that we stayed at 2 years ago, Hostal Marani (Carmen Alto 194 Tel: 249462). Marani was better than we remembered because they renovated and extended the hostal earlier in 2006. We ran into Tom and Anna in Marani and it was fun catching up with our travels. Our first day was spent in Chincero, where we had a good time wandering around the market and Inca ruins.
Moray and Salineras were two sites that Sonya in Hostal Marani recommended that we see. They're less popular with tourists and are a little harder to get to by public transport so we hired a taxi for the day. Moray is the site of three sets of large circular terraces that the Incas supposedly used for agricultural experiments. Circular terraces are unusual and we had never seen them before. Salineras are 500 year old salt pans built by the Incas to gather salt. Hot water flows out of a spring in the side of a mountain and the mineral rich water is diverted to a large number of salt pans to evaporate. These salt pans are still used today to create salt licks for cows.
On our third day in the Sacred Valley, we took the local bus to Pisac where we walked up about 2000 ft from the town to the Inca ruins in the mountains above. Few tourists walk the trail and it's a pity because the views along the trail are quite spectacular. While hiking up the trail, we wondered where all the tourists were; we found out when we turned the corner to the main Pisac ruins and saw hundreds of people milling around. The buses bring the tourists to the main set of ruins and most people don't go beyond them.