Olivia traveled to Ecuador in January of 2010 for a Long Term Quest (6 months) with United Planet. She had an amazing trip and changed many lives for the better while she was there. We wanted to share a couple of her blog entries, as well as the link to the rest of her blog if you’re interested in hearing more!
In the interest of making the most of my time here in South America, I headed south to check out Peru last week.
My tireless and trusty travel buddy Olga and I spent ten days exploring the country on the well-traveled gringo trail, hitting all of the major sightseeing stops. Here are my top five:
#1 Machu Picchu
Ever since one fateful episode of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” back in the 90’s, it’s been a life goal to check out these Inca ruins.
Perched between two mountains (Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu) in the cloud forest, this incredible city actually left me speechless. And we all know how rare that is.
I still really don’t have adequate words to describe it; all I can say is that it’s absolutely worth seeing.
I was expecting the Peruvian coast to be similar to what I’ve seen in Ecuador – green and humid. Huacachina was anything but.
We headed there to try sandboarding in the giant dunes of the Peruvian desert –I’m surprised I wasn’t detained at the airport for the amount of sand still lodged in my clothes and body after a week.
Watching the sun set over the dunes was an experience I’ll never forget.
When I first heard about giant lines in the desert hundreds of kilometers long that appear as animals when viewed from the air, I was skeptical.
After all, what ancient culture was advanced enough to pull off something like that? The Nazca, that’s who.
Olga and I rented a tin can – errrr hired a plane – to check them out for ourselves. Definitely didn’t disappoint.
#4 Lake Titicaca
Aside from making me laugh every time I say the name, Lake Titicaca is a breathtakingly beautiful place (not just the scenery – it’s the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,500 ft). We visited the floating islands of Uros, which are built on layers and layers of tortora reeds and spent the night with a family on Amanti Island where we were treated to live music and dancing.
We also toured Taquile Island and took in some amazing views of the lake and the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia.
#5 Iglesia de San Francisco
We only had a day in Lima for sightseeing, but the highlight was checking out the catacombs below the San Francisco church. Said to be Lima’s first cemetery, there are thousands of bones and skulls arranged in creepy patterns lying underneath the church. Lucky for me it’s open to the public and I was able to get my fix of South American Strangeness for the day.
One of the most recognizable peaks on the Panamerican highway, Cotopaxi, has been calling to me ever since I arrived in Ecuador.
Literally meaning “neck of the moon”, it is the world’s highest active volcano and stands at a mighty 19,347 ft above sea level.
For a while, I had entertained the thought of trying to summit this beast, but my lack of technical skills involving crampons and ice picks convinced me to scale back on my ambitions.
Hence, Sunday found me and a few friends on a guided trip up to the snow line and around the national park. On a clear day, you can see Cotopaxi’s snow-capped peak from Quito. Unfortunately, Sunday was not a clear day. Oh well.
Onward and upward we went in the bus through the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park and to the parking lot, where we would start our ascent to the base camp at 16,400ft.
The wind was howling and icy rain was pelting us from all sides as we trudged along the path covered in volcanic ash. With the fog closing us in on all sides, it felt like we were on another planet. Certainly not Ecuador, since it seemed pretty strange to be seeing snowflakes so close to the equator.
Even though I’d been hitting the gym pretty frequently, it was still difficult to breathe at that altitude. We finally reached the Base Camp refuge after an hour of hiking and were treated to lunch and hot tea.
Everyone in our group was soaked and freezing, but we sat around the table animatedly swapping stories and sharing travel tips with fellow volunteers and other backpackers from a handful of countries around the world.
I think everyone was secretly relieved when our guide told us that the visibility was too poor to continue our hike up to the glacial line. Instead, we scrambled back down to the parking lot to pick up our bikes and zoomed down to Laguna Limpiopungo, about 8 miles away.
Freezing hands aside, it was a great ride and once we emerged from the clouds there were some spectacular views.
It’s amazing that a country as small as Ecuador can have such diverse landscapes; the sparse vegetation and craggy mountains were a stark contrast to the lush cloud forest and humid coast that I enjoyed the other weekend.
Sometimes I forget that I’m living in the Andes mountains, and this trip served as a reminder of what an amazing part of the world I’m calling home for a few more weeks.
Read more from Olivia’s awesome blog!
And…find out more about volunteering in Ecuador!