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Peru Travel

Why You Should Definitely Do a Homestay on Taquile Island

March 27, 2019

When thinking of a visit to Peru, one thinks of llamas, ceviche and of course Machu Picchu. There are so many places in this beautiful and diverse country thought that can take your breath away, and Lake Titicaca is one of them. Located on the southeast border of Peru and Bolivia, this large blue lake is famously known as the highest navigable body of water in the world at an altitude of 12,507 feet. 

When we first considered going to Peru, Lake Titicaca was not really on my radar. In fact after reading another blogger’s article (who I won’t name), who said it was the least favorite art of their trip, I was almost dissuaded to go. I am so glad that my husband convinced me otherwise though as it was a completely unique and beautiful experience I almost didn’t get to have.

We arrived in Puno just before sunrise after a 6 hour overnight bus ride from Cusco. I was a little leery of the long haul bus situation but Cruz del Sur, the company we booked with, had comfortable reclining seats, bathrooms on board, pillows, blankets, snacks…honestly it was more comfortable that sleeping on a plane! 

At the bus station in Puno we encountered several people rather aggressively promoting their tours of Lake Titicaca. We opted to wait and simply take a taxi to the port to see what ferries and boat taxi collectivos were available. We ended up talking to people in one of the few offices on the dock who said that once they got enough people they would depart to Uros & Taquile, the two islands we were wanting to visit (we had also booked our homestay on Taquile so we would be sleeping there.) It was very cheap (around 25 soles aka $8.3 USD) for a RT ticket and we were told we could take the 2:30 pm boat the next day back to Puno.

IMPORTANT: Pack light! If you are staying on Taquile Island, only bring a small bag, preferably one you can carry on your back. Taquile has NO CARS and you will be walking, uphill to where you are staying, so having a large bag would be impossible. We almost brought our big rolling suitcases and we would have been pretty screwed so at the last minute we decided to leave them at the office of the boat company. (Spoiler alert: everything was still there and intact when we returned). 

We first stopped at Uros, which are a series of floating reed islands constructed by the people that live there. I heard this this was the most “tourist trappy” part of the area, so my expectations were low, but it was a pretty unique sight. Once you arrive on the island you are given a presentation (in Spanish) by a local explaining their way of life and how the islands were built. You are then invited into the home of another local who will take out all of her handicrafts and try to sell them to you. This part is a bit awkward, as we had no interest in buying a bunch of woven goods, but we did get away with buying a friendship bracelet and a keychain.

After Uros the boat continues on to Taquile and it takes about 2.5 hours…for some reason the boat is EXTREMELY slow but this bodes well if you are prone to seasickness as you will most likely not have any problems! At the port on Taquile we were greeted by our family stay host, Señor Celso. We booked our accommodation with him that very morning on Booking.com, and he got in touch with me via WhatsApp to confirm the time we would be at the dock. He walked us to his home which was up several steep hills (be prepared, the altitude here is no joke) and showed us to our room which was clean, comfortable and detached from the main house. We also had access to a real bathroom with running water (not a given on the island) and a hot shower. We were told that the island has no electricity except for solar panels, so if we wanted to charge our phones we would need to give them to him to do so with his solar powered battery.

Life on Taquile is wonderfully and refreshingly simple. 

The air is some of the cleanest you will ever breath, due to the lack of car fumes. The only sounds you here are from people and nature, and the green hilly fields are filled with purple and yellow flowers from the potato plants they grow. You pass people dressed in brightly knit traditional clothing – sometimes weaving as they walk. The only restaurants on Taquile are cooperatives, meaning that local families take turns working at them and supplying the ingredients. They eat an almost strictly pescatarian diet, and your meals there will always consist of quinoa soup to start, followed by grilled trout and potatoes with muña or coca tea to finish. There is also a huge knitting cooperative where the locals work to handcraft beautiful garments that you can purchase. If I had to do things all over again, I would have saved space in my suitcase and money spent at other markets to buy more of their wares, as there was almost no comparison to the quality between what we saw there and the massed produced items of the markets in Lima and Cusco. Breakfast was provided for us by Celso’s wife (delicious pancakes) and we chose to add on dinner to our stay (trout soup & omelet) which was also very good and a nice experience to dine with the family. It was also quite interesting to communicate because they did not speak English (only Spanish and their native Quechua language) and we had very rudimentary Spanish, however we were able to have meaningful interaction. Celso’s 13 year old son sat with us as well, working on his knitting as his father had taught him. 

The next day we departed from another side of the island, so we got to see even more beautiful scenery and dine at another cooperative restaurant before catching our boat. I left feeling refreshed, enlightened grateful to have such an awesome opportunity. Out of everything we did in Peru, this might have been my favorite and certainly my most memorable experience, and I hope this post encourages you to look into doing a homestay on this island like we did!

Things to do on Taquile Island:

Walk around – the scenery is remarkable here. You can walk to the top of the mountain to see Inca Ruins and an incredible 360 degree view of the island and the lake.

Visit the main square and knitting cooperative. We spent an hour sitting in the sun in the square, observing the locals and tourists and even kicking around a soccer ball. There are little convenience shops, a cooperative restaurant, photo exhibit and even a place to get a special passport stamp.

Swim! We walked to the smaller beach which was closer to where we stayed. There honestly wasn’t a clear path down to the beach, but we figured out a way to get down there. We were the only ones, besides a herd of curious sheep watching our every move. The water was pretty cold, but Mike swam anyways…I watched with the sheep.

Get to know your host family. Even speaking basic Spanish I was able to find out things about their way of life, education system, what countries their tourism mainly comes from, etc. By staying with a local family you have a unique opportunity to learn firsthand about a remote culture.

DON’T FORGET:

Pack light! There are no cars or ways to carry luggage other than your own brute strength.

You might not have acccess to electricity, so charge your devices before you go and pack a portable batter/charger if this is important to you.

USEFUL LINKS:

Inn Taquile Familia Celso 

Celso and his wife and son were a delight to stay with. Very helpful, yet we had time and space to do our own thing. Our room was clean and comfortable, the shower was hot and they cooked us a delicious dinner and breakfast. I would definitely recommend them for your stay on Taquile Island!

Cruz Del Sur Bus Line

We had a great experience with this bus (we also did their bus from Lima to Ica.) Very comfortable and safe.

Peru Travel

Visiting Machu Picchu via Aguas Calientes

March 21, 2019
One glass of vino for the road in Ollantaytambo

The Journey to Machu Picchu…undoubtedly the holy grail of the Peru Trip.

Before I planned on going to Peru, I really didn’t know much about the process of getting to Machu Picchu, except that it was near Cusco. Fly to Cusco – go to Machu Picchu. Easy, right? Well, turns out, there are no direct roads leading from Cusco to Machu Picchu. You cannot drive, Uber or take a taxi. I knew you could trek there via the Inca trail, but due to our visit being during the rainy season (it closes in Feb for maintenance) that was not an option for us. There are other treks and expeditions you can take though that involve hiking on alternate trails.

The other option is to get there by a combination of train to Aguas Calientes (a small Hamlet at the base of Machu Picchu) and then a bus to take you up the mountain to the site. If you’re up to it, you can also walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, which I’m told can be done in about an hour and a half.

When you arrive in Cusco there are tons, and I mean TONS of tour agencies offering to coordinate your trip to this World Wonder. On our hotel street alone there were at least 5 different tour agencies. We stopped by one of them to inquire about pricing, and they were able to quote us a price of $250 USD per person for the next day, including train, bus, admission & guide. Having just arrived in Cusco and feeling a bit overwhelmed, we decided to not make a quick decision and do some other sightseeing first, then try to DIY it for Machu Picchu. It ended up being a good thing we did because the next day we came down with food poisoning and were confined to the room all day (imagine if we had pre-booked all of our tickets for the next day?! Phew!) 

A few people had told me that the best way to see Machu Picchu was to sleep in Aguas Calientes and then take the earliest bus to see it at sunrise. In the non-rainy season you can take a train directly there from Cusco, but during the rainy season the busses replace trains between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, so we figured we’d be more comfortable in a taxi and it would also give us time to hang out in the village (an ancient Inca town that is a wonderful place to explore if you have time). We took the 3:35pm PeruRail Vistadome trains which is the mid range train with a panoramic view. Your other options for trains are the Expedition, the budget option without the panoramic windows, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham, a luxury rail experience. We chose the Vistadome because the Belmond was way out of our budget (although it looks sweet!!) and I wanted the panoramic windows because I heard the view from this train ride was unreal (and it was).

The train was really nice – they serve you complimentary tea/coffee and a snack while you ride up and the views really are spectacular – it took about an hour and 45 minutes. Arrival in Aguas Calientes is exciting – everyone is coming for one purpose and you can feel the energy and excitement. The town itself is so strange – in the middle of this beautiful lush jungle mountain setting are these buildings all piled up on one another, every other one under construction. There are also no cars besides the buses that go up to Machu Picchu. There are a selection of budget to luxury hotels and hostels here (there is even a super luxury resort right at the entrance to Machu Picchu). We chose a mid range option, Gringo Bill’s based on it’s price, last-minute availability and Booking.com rating.

When we checked in we were told by the front desk clerk to immediately head to the Machu Picchu office and bus ticket counter to ensure we had our tickets for the next day. You can buy admission for a 4 hour time slot, as they only allow a certain number of people to view the site at once. You can also purchase admission to climb Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu mountain with your admission tickets, which I’ve heard are both amazing but given my fear of heights and our food poisoning recovery status still in flux, we decided not to do either one and just purchase the admission from 6am to 10am. The bus tickets are general admission and you can get on at whatever time you choose. We had a lovely dinner at Tree House Restaurante, one of the more high-end dining options in Aguas Calientes. 

The morning of our visit we were worried we wouldn’t make the first bus (the first bus leaves at 5:30AM), but there were several buses lined up to accommodate people and we got on one right away. The bus ride also has phenomenal views so try to get a window seat! Once you arrive at the entrance you will immediately be approached by guides offering their services. We ended up joining a group of English speaking people with a guide so we payed significantly less per person than having a private tour. Make sure you secure your guide before you enter, as once you enter there are no guide services. Unless you have an independent knowledge of Incan history, I really do think it’s essential to have a guide, otherwise you won’t really know what you are looking at and having the background adds so much to your experience. 

There are also NO BATHROOMS inside the gates Machu Picchu, only at the entrance, so make sure you go before you go, if you know what I mean, and bring a snack if you think you’ll get hungry…although you may have to share with a llama. We had an amazing 4 hours at the site before taking the bus back, grabbing a quick lunch at French Bistro 

COST

Okay, so in the beginning of this post, I told you that the tour agency quoted us at $250 USD per person and we decided to try our DIY luck. Here is our DIY price breakdown of what we payed PER PERSON in USD:

Machu Picchu Cost Breakdown PP in USD
Taxi to Ollantaytambo $30.00
Vistadome PeruRail Train From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes $60.00
Machu Picchu Entrance Fee $50.00
Round Trip Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu $24.00
Joined Group Guided Tour $6.00
IncaRail Voyager Train from Aguas Calientes to Cusco $54.00
TOTAL $224.00 *

*Accomodations & Food in Aguas Calientes NOT included

So, as you can see, we did not save much doing a DIY version – HOWEVER, I would say my takeaway was that you can DIY it for a similar price and have more choice and freedom over your time frame. If you don’t want to worry about anything and have everything already pre-purchased and taken care of, doing it through an agency should not cost you much more than buying it piece meal. I also would recommend sleeping in Aguas Calientes the night before as I liked being one of the first people to enter the site.

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND:

Remember that all of this was done during the Off Season, so prices and availability will vary if you visit during more popular times. If you do decide to visit during the popular season, I would recommend booking all more in advance than we did!

Bring water and a snack with you – after you enter the gate of Machu Picchu there are no services. There are bathrooms and a snack bar right outside.

If you bring your passport you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp!

Try to get a window seat on the bus up the mountain, the view is spectacular. 

USEFUL LINKS:

PeruRail

IncaRail

Gringo Bill’s Boutique Hotel

The Tree House Restaurante

La Boulangerie de Paris

Machu Picchu Ticket Office

Colombia Travel

Colombia Highlights

October 29, 2018

Medellin → Cartagena → San Andres/Providencia → Palomino → Minca

MEDELLIN

STAY

Finca Marrokos | Kilometro 4.5 Via Aeropuerto hacia Hipodromo, Via Guarne, Rionegro 054040, Colombia

This was the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived in Australia and had one night before meeting our friends back at the airport to head to the Whitsundays. It was a good inexpensive option, no frills but clean and well located in Chinatown. From there we had lots of yummy options for Thai food & were able to easily walk to the Sydney Harbor to toast our arrival with a view of the Sydney Opera House.

61Prado Guesthouse | Cl. 61 #50 A-60, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

This is where we stayed when we were in Medellin. The neighborhood was somewhat residential but the hotel was nice and clean and had a 24 hour restaurant (super convenient) and ROOF DECK with an awesome day and night view of the city! 

EAT & DRINK

Hacienda | Cra. 49 #52-98, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

A bit touristy but nice with typical food, a Lonely Planet recommendation. We mainly ate at the hotel and then had a meal out at Hacienda.

DO

Real City Tours -Free Walking Tour

Register online before to save your spot. Meet up with group is a few metro stops away from Hotel – MUST DO especially if you’re only there a day!

After the tour you could take the metro to the cable car and ride it up to Parque Arvi to see another awesome view of the city. Only costs Metro fare! Once you take the cable car up the Parque Arvi is nice and you can walk around it, there were little markets & food.

Guatape & El Penol Day Tours

This was awesome and your hotel will have information on this. It’s a full day tour that includes some different countryside villages, El Penol which is this huge stone tower you can climb (there are stairs!!) with an amazing view, meals & a boat ride on a lake. Just a heads up though if you get carsick, the ride is a little zig zag-ish 🙂

CARTAGENA

STAY

Hostal Santo Domingo Vidal | Calle San Juan #25-72, Getsemani, Cartagena

Nice, simple, breakfast available … 5 minute walk from walled city. I liked staying in the Getsemani neighborhood outside the walled city because it wasn’t as expensive or touristy and had a hip vibe. Lots of street art and near a square with bars and restaurants. Young clientele.

EAT & DRINK

Ohlala Bistrot | Calle Larga Callejon Vargas, Getsemani, Cartagena

Very charming & airy bistro with a French chef. Decor and food was delicious, a great place to eat lunch. Nice wine & ceviche!

DO

The old city of Cartagena is a great place to wander, shop & take pictures. To be honest, we didn’t do many of the typical “tourist” things, but I liked bargaining for the oh so trendy threaded bags & sandals with colorful pom poms. Ask a local maybe before you go looking what they think you should be paying. They also offer the free walking tours, but we did not take advantage because we weren’t there for very long.  

PALOMINO

STAY

The Dreamer Hostel | Palomino

We had a great stay at Dreamer! Since we were on our honeymoon and we’re in our thirties lol we opted for a private room & bath with a terrace, but they also have dorms available. This place had a great location on the beach, a nice pool & a large bar and restaurant. This is a good place to stay if you want to meet other travelers but also have the option of privacy. You are also not limited to just eating or drinking at the hostel, as there are other options within walking distance. 

We took a bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta and then from Santa Marta to Palomino. You can also fly directly to Santa Marta or Barranquilla, depending on where you’re coming from. 

EAT & DRINK

I’m not going to lie, we pretty much ate all our meals at the Dreamer. Honestly, it was so convenient that it was right on sigh and the food was decent. They do a very looooong happy hour at their bar with very yummy drinks. They also have trivia night! If you’re not into the hotel food, there are several options as you walk along the beach and on the road leading up to the main highway. It’s a cool little backpacker/yogi community there.

DO

Besides the pool on site and hanging at the beach (which is pretty but unfortunately the waves are a little strong for swimming), there are lots of activities in the area that the staff at Dreamer are happy to give you info about. One of the biggest attractions is Tayrona National Park, which you can get to by bus. We actually ended up getting talked into chartering horses (!) to ride to the beach, which was a cool experience but also a little scary. Seriously, sometimes I just had to close my eyes and pray that the horse could manuver the twists and turns. It did cut out a lot of time though so we were able to enjoy the beaches for longer. Not all of the beaches are swimmable, but the horses & guides took us to Cabo San Juan de Guia, which is the most popular and is swimmable. There was a place there to eat lunch. We ended up walking back along the beach for a bit and then through the marked trails in the jungle which was really pretty, we even saw a Capybara

Another fun activity we did with some other travelers we met was tubing. The staff at Dreamer will let you know what time tubing trips are leaving, and there are guys on motos that will be offering tubes for rent. They take you on their motos with your tubes and let you off at a trail, where you still have to hike quite a ways to get to the river. Wear flip flops! Some of the girls that came with us didn’t wear shoes because they didn’t want to worry about them in the tube, but then they had to hike for a long ways without anything to protect their feet from the bare forrest floor, complete with horse poop and fire ants. Trust me, you will be happy you have protection on your feet for that. Also I would suggest to bring beers or something to drink. Once you get to the river, it’s literally just floating down lazily until you reach the ocean. It would have been nice to crack open a beer while relaxing and taking in all of the birds and other wildlife we saw. It’s really cool because you get to see where the jungle meets the ocean, all the while getting to know your new Dreamer friends. It’s a nice way to spend a half day!

PROVIDENCIA/SAN ANDRES

When we first booked our trip to Colombia, we weren’t even aware of these islands – no joke. BUT, they were such an amazing and memorable part of our trip, I can’t imagine our honeymoon without our visit to these jewels. The islands belong to Colombia but are closer geographically to Nicaragua and have a total Caribbean feel. You can take an hour flight from Cartagena to San Andres, we flew Viva Colombia. San Andres is nice but Providencia was pure paradise. To get to Providencia you have to either take another small plane or a 3 hour catamaran boat ride (we did the boat ride, and definitely took our Dramamine!). 

STAY

Hotel Refugio de la Luna | El Bluff, Providencia Island, Colombia

Carmeni provides a very comfortable guesthouse in a scenic location. We had breakfast and fresh juice every morning, and interacted with her very nice family when we were there. She also was super helpful arranging for us to be picked up from the boat, helping us rent a golf cart, tips on what to do each day, etc. I would definitely recommend staying with her if you can!

EAST & DRINK

The first day we went to the beach and found an open air restaurant with a guy grilling fish – this is common, casual and inexpensive. 

Cafe Studio | Soroeste, Providencia Island, Colombia

Very popular spot- cute little restaurant with a garden. We ate there for dinner one night, I had the black crab – delicious but I did feel a little bad later when we passed a bunch of black crabs on the way to Roland’s Bar (see below). 

Roland Roots Reggae Bar | Manzanillo Beach, Providencia Island, Colombia

This place is THE place to go at night on the island and everyone knows about it! Be prepared to drive your moto or golf cart down a long road (just ask all the locals, they will direct you) and watch out for the giant black crabs crossing the road. Once you get there you’ll find hammocks, a bonfire, coconut drinks, reggae music, dancing and cute dogs. It’s really fun.

DO

First thing you will want it to rent a golf cart or a moto bike to get around the island, as cars are rare and unnecessary. Our hostess arranged for a driver to pick us up at the dock when we arrived, and then she also helped us rent the golf cart from her friend. This will be the only transportation you need during your stay.

We spent one day here on the beach (the sand and the water there are pure magic) and one day snorkeling at Crab Cay. Our hostess recommended where to go to find snorkeling equipment to rent and we drove our golf cart there and were met by people trying to rent us equipment. You can rent them fairly cheaply, and then we talked to a guy who we ended up paying to take us to the Cay on his boat (not far) and then pick us up after snorkeling to take us around to a few other locations. That was totally worth it, and you can bargain for a rate. You also will have to pay a fee at Crab Cay because it is a national park. The snorkeling was amazing- lots of beautiful fish and Sea Turtles! There is a bar where you can get a drink before and after snorkeling, in a coconut OBVIOUSLY. 

MINCA

STAY

Casa Elemento | How to get there

We went to Minca for the sole purpose of staying at Casa Elemento. My husband saw the 20 foot hammock on it’s website and was totally sold. It was Quite. A Trek. Not for the faint of heart, and done easier if you only have a backpack, which we did. Once you get to Minca you ride on the back of a mototaxi for 45 minutes straight up a mountain through beautiful, albeit muddy, terrain. Once you get there though, you feel like you’re on top of the world.

The food is excellent, the staff is super chill (it seems like it’s made up of travelers who visited the hostel and wanted to stay), and the guests are friendly. There are resident dogs, a cat, and most delightfully a toucan that lets you feed it! The wifi is non existent, but it didn’t matter. The bathrooms are also open air to the wilderness, as are the “private cabanas” which are basically 3 walls around a bed with an open front view of the mountains and valley below. It was a little bit different for me and a lot more exposed to nature than I’m used to. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

From Casa Elemento there are birdwatching and coffee excursions but sadly we did not have time and the weather had turned rough (we experienced the start of hurricane Matthew there). After our delicious dinner we drank with the new friends we had made and played games until late in the night as the fog rolled in. Such great memories were made and it was a wonderful end to our trip.