This is far overdue, but here it is. It's been almost four and a half months since I got back from South America and Machu Picchu, but it is still definitely worth a blog post. I still remember the important things, and I have the journal I keep of my travels to help me with the rest.
By the way, I definitely recommend keeping a travel journal. I used to write in a journal a lot when I was younger, but now it's more of a thing I do when I go to new places. I have found it to also be a nice way to wind down at night in the hostel (or hotel if that's what you're into. My travel journal is pictured to the left and every sentence on there goes hand in hand with my travels!
After spending the night in Lima, I took a morning flight to Cusco. It was a fairly quick flight and I was in Cusco by noon. The first thing I had to do was buy tickets for Machu Picchu. Every day only 2500 people are allowed up to Machu Picchu. It's substantially less if you are planning on hiking Machu Mountain or Wayna Picchu. Since I went out of season, I wasn't too worried about not getting a ticket, but it is definitely important to get tickets ahead of time if you are going during tourist season (July and August I believe).
Cusco was beautiful. One of my favorite places I saw was the really pretty city square surrounded by a couple of churches. It was like no other city I've been too. Small, cobbled roads with mysterious doorways leading into dark rooms. The local people carried their wares and children to the markets in bright blankets. It was really enchanting and I was sad I didn't have more time to explore.
Overall, one of my favorite parts about Cusco was how the city was laid out. It was as though buildings were scattered in every which way, but somehow, it all still looked perfect. And I can't leave out the fact that my hostel only set me back $4 for one night!
The Train to Machu Picchu!
If you are considering taking a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu, make sure you do research first! When I purchased my tickets, my train was from Poroy to Machu Picchu, but on my way back, my train was from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is quite further than Poroy from Cusco. If for some reason you leave from Ollantaytambo, there is a shuttle that goes from the train station to Cusco at a fraction of the price of a cab. Since I was tight for time, I took a taxi from there to the airport, but even still, the taxi was not too expensive.
I'm really happy I decided to take the train in to Machu Picchu. It was a surprisingly long ride in my opinion (3 hours!!), but I was able to see the Peruvian countryside and it was absolutely stunning. We passed by small horses and farms with workers and people wearing traditional garb. It actually kind of reminded me on traditional polish clothing because of the brightish colors!
At some points, history was told over the intercom about the different areas we were going through. The train also used a special zig-zag rail system that allowed us to drop a substantial distance in just 5 minutes! It was definitely an interesting experience.
The Bus Ride
After getting into the city of Machu Picchu, I got myself situated at my hostel and got on a shuttle bus up the mountain to finally get to Machu Picchu. If you get car sick, good luck with this one! Not only was it a bumpy ride, but we were literally right on the edge of the mountain the whole time. It was insane. In the picture to the left, you can see the zigzagging road our bus took! It was insane!
The Lost City: Machu Picchu
Above you can see one of my first views of Machu Picchu. I could've believe I was standing there, in The Lost City of Machu Picchu. It was a place I read about in history class years ago, never thinking I would actually set food there. But I did. And it was breathtaking. Clouds surrounded the peaks of the surrounding mountains and I found it incredible that we were in the middle of nowhere. The entire day I tried to picture what it must have been like to live in this city so many years ago, but it was impossible. I couldn't picture it.
Inti Punku: Sun Gate
Over 2700 meters above sea level, the sun gate was my first stop. From the top, you could see all of Machu Picchu. It took about an hour and a half to get there, but it was well worth it. The view was incredible. I was up there by myself the majority of the time and it was very peaceful and it was nice to just relax there and take it all in.
I would definitely recommend doing the hike to Inti Punku first thing. It was relatively tiring compared to the rest of the day, so I was happy I did it first and was able to relax the rest of the time exploring the less strenuous views of the ruins.
In a Cloud
My phone and camera always die at the most inopportune times. It's the story of my life. As a result, the one moment that I would've loved to catch on camera will have to forever remain a memory. I wasn't prepared at all for rain, so when it starting pouring, I took shelter in this cavelike area, shielding myself from the cold rain. Afterward, when I emerged, all of Machu Picchu was enshrouded in a cloud. I couldn't even see a thing in front of me, it was all just cloud. It was magical. I've never experienced anything like it.
I'm sure everyone feels something different when they visit Machu Picchu. For me, it was constant bewilderment and enchantment. I could't believe that people once made their home in such a remote location. I couldn't believe I was walking the same paths that many walked years ago. At the same time, as corny as this sounds, I felt something different inside of me. I felt like being in Machu Picchu gave me strength. It gave me power. I couldn't tell you the reason for these feelings, but I think just being present in such a remarkable, remote area and being able to see everything in the surrounding areas made me feel that power. It was an amazing feeling.
At this point, I couldn't tell you the rest of the minor details of my time in Machu Picchu, but I think it is definitely a place everyone should go to at least once in their lifetime! It should be on everyone's bucket list for sure.
I definitely did not spend enough time in Cusco or Machu Picchu. That is one of my biggest regrets I had from my South American adventure. I definitely could've spent another full day in Cusco (making that a day and a half total) and another day of hiking in Machu Picchu (two full days in Machu Picchu itself). Unfortunately, I had to work with the time I had, though, and I am still extremely happy and grateful that I made the trip out there.
I PROMISE I will be back to Machu Picchu one day to do the Inca Trail. Saving that trip for a "partner in travel" though; I wouldn't want to suffer like that by myself! I think everyone considering doing Machu Picchu should definitely try to do the Inca Trail if you have the budget and time for it. Machu Picchu is incredible in itself, but I can only imagine what it would be like trekking into the ruins after a four day hike.
It's been about 3 months since my South American adventure. Sure, some of the little details have faded away to the back of my mind and will (hopefully) one day be triggered again, but one of the things that still has remained crystal clear in my mind is my bus trip from Buenos Aires to Lima. When I close my eyes, I can go back to exact moments of that trip, and that's one of the best things about travel - having those memories and having them last for as long as possible.
Quite frankly, I had no idea what to expect going into the 72 hour trip. On the four other trips, small meals (sandwiches and crackers) were included. Assuming this was the case again, I spent my remaining Argentine pesos on three small packs of oreos and a bottle of water (of course saving some pesos for souvenirs).
I was wrong - meals were not included. Since I only had hundred dollar bills in USD, I was afraid to change any more money, fearing I wouldn't use all of the foreign currency and I would receive a terrible exchange rate. For almost three days, I lived off of about 50 oreos. At night, I would get a stuffed nose and wouldn't be able to breathe. My body HATED me. On top of that, the toilet on the bus was gross, did not flush and had no toilet paper. I think I used the restroom twice in three days. I completely tested my body's limits in every horrible way possible. I didn't brush my teeth for three days. I didn't shower for five days ( I was on a bus for 24 hours right before this trip). It's the worst feeling in the world being so dirty, but after the second day, I definitely got used to it and accepted that I both felt dirty and smelled terrible (I put on deodorant at least 4 times a day, but once you get to a certain point, deodorant just doesn't help). But I fully embraced it, and sometimes, that's all you can do.
A New Friend
I was already exhausted from my bus ride from Iguazu Falls to Buenos Aires, so I really could not wait to get on the bus to Lima and rest. I chose a window seat when I bought my bus tickets (I highly recommend window seats) so I would have the window to lean against. A young Peruvian man came on the bus and sat next to me. He was studying in Buenos Aires and going home for the holidays. I quickly learned that he, nor anyone else on the bus (including the drivers), could not speak English. So he took out his phone and typed English words he knew to try to talk to me. I would then try to answer in my limited Spanish.
It was actually really awesome to have someone, in a country where I knew no one, try to communicate with me and show genuine interest in my life and getting to know me. He explained to me (in Spanish, of course) that the bus would stop for food and we would need to buy it. He would give me updates on how far away we were from Lima (he made the ride plenty of times before). When we were both awake we would chat about different things. Quickly, we became friends and my spanish improved tenfold as the trip went on since I was being reminded of all of those spanish words and phrases I learned so long ago in high school.
No Idea What Was Going On
It was bad enough that my Spanish wasn't too great, but the fact that Peruvians have thick accents did not make it any better. When we stopped, I had no idea what was going on or how long we would be stopped for. Luckily, Gino, the guy sitting next to me, would wave me over to his table where he was eating so I wouldn't be alone and could have some type of idea what was happening.
A woman sitting across from us also was extremely nice to me. She spoke very fast, though, and I barely understand a word of what she said. She was very pleasant to me and even gave me a blanket one night on the bus.
Even though I just met these people, they gave me such comfort and were like family by the end of the trip. Even the obnoxious guy in front of me yelling "pelicula" the whole time was awesome. No one knew each other when they got on the bus, but by the end everyone was so close. It was very comforting and so amazing to see. It's not everyday that you get to witness the amazing transformation from complete strangers to friendly acquaintances and friends.
Some Things You Never Forget
There's something magical about listening to music and watching the sunset from the window of a bus. It could've been the perfect opening or closing of a movie. Actually, there were a lot of those moments during the three day long ride.
I'd spend the days talking or reading and by nightfall, I'd fall asleep. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, but I would quickly fall back asleep. Every morning, around 8am, the drivers would turn on the music. Traditional South American music was the norm and it was awesome. Many people would sing along to the songs and get a little crazy. It was amazing to witness.
One of the most amazing moments was when I woke up the second morning. The night before we were just traveling through the Argentina countryside. When I woke up to the loud South American music at 8am, the Andes were looming big all around us. It was exactly what you would expect from a South American road trip. It was unforgettable waking up to that - I couldn't believe it was my life. And that is something I would've 100% missed out on if I chose to fly to Lima. All morning, the Andes surrounded us. For some reason, it reminded me of the Motorcycle Diaries - I felt like it could've easily been a scene in the movie I once watched in my high school spanish class!
With the help of my spanish speaking friends on the bus, I was able to get through the Chilean Border Patrol without an issue. Surprise, surprise, no one at Border Patrol spoke English either! They also had thick accents!
The next morning, I woke up to the Chilean desert. It was like this for hours - pure nothingness. But I still thought it was awesome! Very different from any deserts I've seen before! And the change in scenery was nice!
The last morning, I woke up and was greeted with the Chilean coast. I watched the waves crash on the shore as we continued our trip. At this point, both my phone and camera died. But I still remember what it looked like - it was a gloomy morning and we passed by small villages along the coastline. There were a few people who dotted the beach that morning.
I was just amazed at how different everything was each morning. It was crazy!
When we finally passed through the Peruvian Border Patrol, the guys sitting in the front seat of the bus (it was a double decker bus) hung up a Peruvian flag that covered the whole window. National pride was evident in this gesture and it didn't surprise me when everyone started clapping and again started singing. It was, again, incredible and something I will never forget.
By the last day, everyone was anxious to get off the bus and get on with their lives. Originally a complete outsider, I got off the bus feeling like I fit in and earned the right to be on the bus and have the amazing experience I had interacting with everyone.
Sitting on the same bus for three days straight physically sucked. But those three days will be days I will forever remember and arguably will be some of my most memorable days traveling solo. Sure, it's awesome going to see cool landmarks at touristy destinations, but after a while, those memories just fade into pictures, pictures you can easily find on google. But you can't google an experience. And the three days spent on a bus with complete strangers in a foreign country was an experience and it made me realize that it truly is more about the journey than the destination. So often we try to get places as fast as we can, flying over countries we might never have the chance to see, all to save time. But I had the time, the time to take a bus. And I don't regret a single bit of it.
This post doesn't even begin to do justice to the experience I had, but I hope it was able to show that something you think is just trivial can turn out to be something much, much more, even life changing. On paper, it was just a bus trip. It was a way to save money. I had absolutely no expectations going into the trip. It wasn't something I needed to have any expectations of, but regardless, it completely surpassed any inkling of an expectation I might have subconsciously had.
I hope everyone can have an experience like this at least once, because it is something that can change you and affect you for the rest of your life.
And with that, I leave you with this:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
― Mark Twain
No one is "too good" to spend three days on a bus in a foreign country. THAT is narrow-mindedness.
Pictures from the Journey!
After 8 days in Buenos Aires with my Habitat for Humanity Argentina family, it was finally time to say goodbye and part ways. I hadn't traveled alone like this since my two week trip to Poland and Greece back in 2012 when I studied abroad in London. Nevertheless, I was excited and ready for a new adventure.
My first obstacle was Retiro Bus Station. I've never been to a bus station or train station where I couldn't find at least one English speaking person to help me. Even in Poland, there was a person at the train station who was able to translate for me. At the bus station in Argentina, not so much. With hundreds of different bus lines leaving Retiro daily, I figured there definitely would've been at least someone who spoke English. I was wrong. Luckily, with my limited Spanish, I was able to make up a coherent sentence to get a ticket - Buscando comprar un bileta para hoy a la Puerto Madryn y doce horas. Definitely not perfect, but it got the job done! I also wrote down the tickets I needed in my notebook just to be sure I was understood correctly.
When I boarded my bus, I had no idea what to expect. It was a two level bus with seats on the bottom and seats above. I got a window seat, so I was able to conveniently stare out of the window without having to awkwardly look past someone. The seats were actually quite comfy for being semicama. They didn't go back all the way, but they tilted back enough to allow me to have a decent night of sleep - decent enough that I almost missed my stop in Puerto Madryn! Another half hour and I would've had a huge issue!
When we were passing through toward the Puerto Madryn bus station, I looked out the windows in astonishment. The houses and area were not what I expected. To be honest, I don't know what I expected. The houses and everything looked incomplete almost, as if I was in a city where someone decided to just use clay to build parts of the houses and just stop. It was really interesting and at first I felt a little scared and upset that I travelled 20 hours to this place that doesn't seem to be as appealing (or safe) as I thought it would be.
At the bus station, I stopped at the information center and picked up a map. I was tired and dirty and it was too early to check in to my hostel. I got a little lost at first, but I figured out which way the coast was and kept walking until I saw water, then I was easily able to find my hostel. It was in a great location - right on the beach. Along the beach there were a lot of shops and restaurants - nothing like what the city looked like on our way in!
I spent the majority of my first day in Puerto Madryn on the beach relaxing. My tours were scheduled for the next two days. Before I decided to head back to my hostel for the evening, I went out to the end of the pier. I was amazed when I saw three little sea lions swimming around the pillars in the water! It was the best thing ever and made my day. They were so cute!! I could've stood there for hours just watching them play and chase each other from pillar to pillar - they were so carefree and it was just wonderful.
Whales, Dolphins, Penguins, Elephant Seals and Sea Lions
If you love animals and you find yourself in South America, you HAVE to go to Puerto Madryn. I'm an animal lover through and through and I do not regret a single dollar or minute spent in this area.
My first day was dedicated to a whale watching tour on Peninsula Valdes, followed by a visit to Punta Norte and Punta Cantor to see penguins, seals and sea lions.
While we didn't get a chance to see the Southern Right Whales, we did come across hundreds of playful Dusky Dolphins. They kept swimming around and under the front of the boat, jumping out of the water in front of us. Their markings are beautiful!
The highlight of the morning though was when we came across a school of anchovies - there was about a ton of them according to our boat driver. And since anchovies are the prey of many sea creatures, we also came across more dolphins, sea lions, penguins and sea gulls all in the same place. It was incredible seeing all of these species in one place feeding. It was one of those moments that I'm going to always remember - it was so unexpected to come across that!
Later on in the day we came across a colony of seals with a handful of sea lions. It was too early to be breeding, but there was one sea lion pup and its mother and about 5 other male sea lions. The second the male near the female left, all of the other males came in to attack - they were all fighting right on top of the sea lion pup. After the fight, the pup didn't move and the male originally with the female pushed her away and out into the water. It was so sad! We though the baby was dead, but before we left, we saw movement! It was crazy how wild these animals truly are.
I was really bummed that I didn't get to see a Southern Right Whale. But I ended up seeing something just as exciting! On our way to Punta Cantor, we saw tons of cars stopped along the road. It turns out there was a group of three Orca Whales were close to shore. Once we arrived in Punta Cantor, we were able to get some good pictures and even saw one of them beach itself! It was incredible. Apparently they can only beach themselves during high tide, so we were there at exactly the right time. It was unbelievable! More pictures of the Orcas below!
Before the madness with the whales, we stopped at a penguin colony. They were so cute and a bit bigger than the Fairy Penguins I saw in Australia! I love penguins so much - I have no idea why! But how can I resist, they're just too darn cute!!!
All in all, my first tour was a success. I was excited for what the next day would bring!
My second tour was to Punta Ninfas to get up close and personal with wild elephant seals. The day prior, you could only stay on the paths. At Punta Ninfas, you can go right down to the beach and get up close and personal with the elephant seals. It was really amazing. I can still feel the warm, round rocks in my hands and hear them crunching under my feet. It was incredible - the three other people I was with and my tour guide were the only ones on the beach. I live for this type of stuff!
Puerto Madryn was beautiful. Both the landscapes and animals will always stay in my mind. In a way, I'm happy I didn't see the Southern Right Whales - it gives me another reason to go back in the future! In retrospect, I wish I stayed another day so I could've seen the huge penguin colony - apparently it's one of the largest in the world. It's okay though, there's always next time!
**This post and the following posts will be based on my travels in South America from November 29th to December 22nd. I was in Buenos Aires for a week volunteering, then I traveled to Puerto Madryn, Puerto Iguazu and Machu Picchu.**
Buenos Aires confirmed, but where else?
After my Habitat for Humanity trip in Kenya, I almost immediately applied for a trip in Argentina. By Easter, I already sent in my deposit and knew I would be spending a week volunteering in Buenos Aires. I purchased my flight ticket in late September. Not tickets, ticket. I did this for two reasons. First, I didn't have the extra money for the return ticket at that point in time and I wanted to make sure I definitely had a ticket to get to Buenos Aires. Second, I knew I wanted to stay on after the trip and do some traveling around the country.
It was three days before my plane departed for Buenos Aires when I finally decided I should make some type of plan for the remainder of my time in South America. I knew I wanted to be home by Christmas, so that was easy. That gave me exactly two weeks to spend on my own exploring.
I already had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. In Australia, someone recommended going to Peninsula Valdes. I've also heard of Iguazu Falls before and saw pictures from the amazing Devil's Throat. So those two were pretty easy to decide on. I looked at flights and the flights were really expensive, so I was a bit put off at first. After some more googling, I discovered that Argentina has a pretty great bus system, so I looked up bus tickets, and they seemed reasonably priced. While looking at the bus information, I tried to get more ideas. A bus from Buenos Aires to Lima caught my eye and that's when I decided Machu Picchu would be my final destination.
The hardest part of planning my travels at that point was timing everything just right. Since I decided on traveling by bus, I need to ensure I gave myself enough time for transportation while also having enough time in each place. I made sure to have three bus times picked out for each trip just in case one time sold out or I missed the bus. Basically my plan was this -
December 8th - Leave Buenos Aires in am
December 9th - Arrive in Puerto Madryn in am
December 10th - Puerto Madryn
December 11th - Leave Puerto Madryn in pm
December 12th - Arrive in Buenos Aires in afternoon, Leave BA in pm
December 13th - Arrive in Puerto Iguazu midday, go to falls
December 14th - Leave Puerto Iguazu in pm
December 15th - Arrive in Buenos Aires in afternoon, leave BA in pm
December 18th - Arrive in Lima
December 19th - Plane from Lima to Cusco in am, afternoon in Cusco
December 20th - Train from Cusco to MP in am, spend day in Machu Picchu
December 21st - Train from MP to Cusco in am, plane from Cusco to Lima in pm, plane from Lima to NYC around midnight
I didn't bother looking up hostels at that point, but I did make sure to buy my return flight from Lima to Cusco, my return train from Cusco to Machu Picchu (apparently they sell out really quickly, so best to buy ahead) and my flight from Lima to NYC. I also didn't bother with the bus tickets at that stage since I wanted to pay in cash and get a better rate at Retiro Bus Station in Argentina.
Overall, I definitely was not as prepared for this trip as I have been on past trips. I wouldn't attribute this to carelessness, however. Personally, I found it exciting. Two years ago, when I was planning my solo trip to Poland and Greece for a week and a half, I probably wouldn't have found deliberate unpreparedness that exciting. But after two years filled with a lot more travel and personal growth overall, I've found a sense of security in the unknown. And as long as you stay safe, it's pretty awesome.
The cost of the Habitat for Humanity part of my trip was $2,110 (I know, super expensive!). Habitat trips are pricey, but a lot of the cost goes as a donation to both the Habitat for Humanity office in America as well as the office in the country being served, Argentina in this case. The rest of the cost goes toward providing transportation, housing and meals all week. Fortunately, I had quite a few people support my trip and I was able to get a stipend from my school, so I didn't have to foot the whole cost of the Habitat portion myself.
Including flights, bus transportation, accommodation, food, my Argentina visa, tours and entry fees to the different places I went, I budgeted $3000. Just to put this into perspective, close to $2000 was spent solely on transportation. This includes my flight from NYC to Buenos Aires, my return bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, my return bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, my bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Lima, my return flight from Lima to Cusco, my return train from Cusco to Machu Picchu and my flight from Lima to NYC.
Sure, I could've saved quite a bit of money if I chose to cut a place out of my itinerary, but I chose three places I really wanted to see at this point of my life, and I don't regret a single penny spent.
If you look in the right places, you can find great discounts on flight tickets. Just because you want to go across the world doesn't mean it has to be expensive!
I've packed for a lot of international trips before, ranging from a week to four months. But I've found the more I travel, the less time I leave to pack. I had to head out to the airport for my flight to Buenos Aires around 10am on November 29th. By 5am, I was still unpacking my bags from Australia. In my defense, while I got back to the states that Monday, November 25th, I wasn't actually home until November 28th. Anyway, by 7am I was finally packed and ready for a short nap before the drive to the airport.
To the left, you'll see what I brought with me for my three week trip. I have to say, this bag was probably one of THE BEST purchases of my life. I swear, Mary Poppins must've had the equivalent purse - I kept putting things in and still had tons of room!
My Packing List.
My first Habitat for Humanity trip, I brought a suitcase. My second trip, I brought a big duffle bag. This trip, I brought a backpack. And it was perfect. It was the first time I've flown internationally and didn't check a bag. The bag fit perfectly in the overhead luggage compartment and once I landed, I was able to get on with my life and not have to wait at the luggage carousel stressing about whether or not my bag would come out. No matter how much I travel, I still get anxious when it comes to getting my checked bag after the flight.
Looking back at my planning, I wouldn't change much. I did wish I had another day at Machu Picchu - one day just didn't cut it at such an amazing place. Other than that, I was happy I had a relatively loose plan. The main lesson this trip really taught me was not to stress. So many times we travel and we stress out about time and when we're going to get to a place and what happens if we're late and all of those what if's, but none of that crossed my mind this trip, mainly because nothing was really set in stone (except the train and flights). One of my buses was a couple hours late, but it didn't really matter because I'd get to my location when I got there, there was no reason to fuss about it. It turned out to be an awesome trip, as you'll see by my next posts, and I'm happy with how everything turned out!
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