I recently reflect quite often on the past 3-4 years and while I have many good memories, it feels like this particular period of my life is coming to an end. Of course, there are also mistakes and regrets, things you want to forget. Still, I believe what matters most is that we remember the beautiful moments. Many of my best memories are from my travels and one trip in particular stands out: The cross-country tour to visit friends in Colombia, combined with stops in Peru and Aruba. This trip was unique in that it combined everything: Ancient Incan ruins above the clouds, night clubbing in bustling Bogotá, and wreck dive adventures in the Dutch Antilles. For this post I have to dig into my memories, but they are ones worth keeping and I think you will find this entertaining.
Day 0: Day flight on Saturday with Iberica to Bogotá – Arrival in the evening.
Day 1: Colombia
Day 2: Colombia
Day 3: Flight to Cuzco
Day 4: Cuzco
Day 5: Sacred Valley
Day 6: Sacred Valley
Day 7: Macchu Picchu
Day 8: Flight to Lima
Day 9: Flight to Bogota and then onwards to Aruba
Day 10: Aruba
Day 11: Aruba
Day 12: Return to Bogota and Night out Gaira
Day 13: Exploring Bogota by Bike and Overnight Flight home
Trip date: 09/2015
Trip duration: 13 days (on the ground, without travel time)
Vacation days required: 9 (Departure Saturday and holiday in between)
Cost rating: moderate (~200€/day)
Cost-wise it was much cheaper to just book a return ticket to Bogotá and then organize all local flights while in Bogotá. The International carrier was Iberia, which is…okay. Regional flights were all Avianca – a very good local carrier and prices are often even cheaper in-country vs. booking in advance. We had a day flight on Saturday, which meant we arrived in Bogotá early evening. This is convenient because you can just fall in to bed and sleep off the jetlag. Our friends picked us up from the airport, we had one last “planning” drink in the hotel bar, and into bed we went. In retrospect, we approached this trip much less optimized than our trips nowadays and if I was to do it again, I would probably cut Peru one day short and extend the time in Colombia. Also the Avianca flight connections require a must-change in Bogota – you can get more local time if you plan the order differently. My focus at the time was also much less on photography, I didn’t even have a proper camera, so this trip was rather dominated by food adventures. 😉
Actually it was this particular trip that got me started on seriously taking pictures, because I realized it is the perfect way to keep the memories fresh and is worth investing time and effort.
Day 1: Trip to Villa de Leyva
After sleeping *very* late, we had planned a trip with our friends to the old colonial town Villa de Leyva in the Boyacá Department of Colombia. About 3 hours drive from Bogotá. The drive alone was amazing and all 7 of us together had an amazing time, although it tooks us much longer than 3 hours to get there with lots of stops to resupply Aguardiente (Firewater) 😉 .
We spend most of the evening in the village, enjoyed the quiet, and talked with our friends. There is not that much to do to in the village. Rather our trip was about food and companionship.
Day 2: Colombia
We tried the local breakfast options this morning – quite interesting stuff. I forgot the name, but it was rice and egg and tasted much better than it looked.
Afterwards we headed out into the desert for some quad racing: Four teams, two different kinds of quad bikes and no streets.
The winner paid for yet another local drink experience: A pitcher of Cola&Pola. The landscape and village were really nice, but overall I would say one day is enough for Villa de Leyva.
I was really into the 360° pictures at the time. You slowly start turning clockwise, get the group in the first 90° and then they all run counterclockwise. With some practice you can get them 3-4 times into the same 360° shot. Totally stupid of course, but fun.
After this it was time to head back and catch the flight to Cuzco. To give you are feeling of the atmosphere of the ride: I taught my friend the song Sweet Child of Mine, which he tried on the Accordeon. He had literally never played that song ever before…so listen to this (Sorry for the crappy quality, still had an iPhone back then):
Day 3: Cuzco, Peru
Pretty sad we had to leave already, but we were scheduled to return to Bogotá in just a few days. Flight was via Lima into Cuzco. Our group had split up and some guys stayed behind, but right in the first youth hostel we meet a German girl travelling around all of Latin America and she joined us for the next few days in our travels. That’s how life works sometimes, people leave your life as quickly as others enter it. Crazy.
Sightseeing in Cuzco first and foremost means Plaza de Armas – the central city square and center for all activities and tours. Spending the lush evening at the busy square is a great start into experiencing the country.
Different from the time we went to Nepal, we had understimated the 3500m of Cuzzco and not taken altitude sickness pills this time. Now we paid for it. Each of us got one bad day – I was number one. But the Coca leaf tea helped (and had other benefits 😉 ) Definitely plan for some adjustment time in Cuzco before you head on further! And try the coca tea…
Dinner was another specialty: Cuy (guinea pig). Tasted pretty unimpressive and was (compared to all the other dishes) massively overpriced. [not recommended]
Day 4: Cuzco, Peru
We had learned from our mistake and stayed away from the tourist trap restaurants. Still not fully adjusted (now it was time for the other 3), we went to the local market called San Pedro. This one is amazing (we actually came back several times) and it spans over an entire city quarter. You can get great local seafood and other specialties. Also try the famous hangover cure “Especiale” (I probably spelled that wrong). Ingredients are black beer, egg, lots of different fruits and much much more stuff… Not expensive and tastes pretty good. Looks disgusting though…
Did I mention this trip was about food? 😉
Exploring Cuzco also means lots of hiking – it is a very hilly city – especially if you go up to Sasayhuamán (one of the very few Inca ruins not totally destroyed by the Spanish in Cuzco). The ruins itself are not that amazing, nor is the statue, but the view is worth the climb. Sadly I have no picture. We afterwards went to another must-see spot: The Convent Santo Domingo, which was built on top of the old Coricancha (Temple of the Sun). You will literally see one holy place built upon the other. Definitely go inside and take a tour – it is very impressive. You will see murals depicting the astronomical knowledge of the Inca and the division of their empire into the four reigns. The gardens are also beautiful.
Many buildings are built on old Incan foundations – also The Palacio Arzobispal. The inside is unimpressive and [not recommended], but check the gigantic twelve angled stone on the outside. It’s not that remarkable by itself, but supposedly whoever jointly touches it , will end up together. If only it was so simple…
We continued to the cathedral nearby and then onwards to our final ‘museum’ of the day – the Museo del Pisco. Pisco Sour (and a million other pisco varieties) is the national drink and a must try. The bar has a nice sampling selection that I can fully recommend and that ended our day for us.
Day 5: Day Trip to Tipon and Pikillaqta
For this day we had booked a day-tour to Tipon and Pikilaqta. Around Plaza des Armas are hundreds of tour providers – check a few as prices are different. But the tours are almost all the same and not very expensive. Of course you have the standard tourist “buy something” stops, but it is fully optional and not pushy. There are several stops on the tours, most of them (like a local village and stuff) are uneventful, but Tipon itself and Pikillaqta are impressive. Tipón is located in the Sacred Valley and around 1500A.D. served as a resaerch facility for growing and selecting crops. The Incan irrigation system and agricultural planning was very advanced. The next stop of the tour were the ruins of Pikillaqta. Pikillaqta was a settlement of the Wari people, that signficantly pre-dated the Inca (around 550-1000A.D.)
We spend the evening exploring Cuzco again and enjoyed some Ceviche – another national dish of Peru and one of my absolute favorites. It is fresh raw fish with lemon and spiced with Chilly peppers. Definitely try this! Amazing!
Day 6: Through the Sacred Valley, Pisac and Ollantaytambo
Many tour operators claim you can do a day trip to Machu Picchu. This is wrong and [not recommended]. You will arrive in the afternoon, when it is crowded, and the views are not nice. The best way is to take a bus through the sacred valley and stay overnight in Aguas Calientes. This way you will see two other amazing sites on the way which you should not miss. Number one: Pisac. Pisac served many purposes, it guarded the southern entrance of the sacred valley and the mountains nearby are sacred burial grounds. Also the surrounding valley is beautiful:
The next stop is Ollantaytambo. This is a must visit and in some ways has impressed me more than Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo means “Storage of the God” and the image of a giant god is cut into the rock and you can see it on the picture. This is where the grain was actually stored and due to the natural cool breeze around the rock, the grain stayed cool and fresh. The temple of the sun on the other side is also impressive and offers the best view of the mountain giant. Ollantaytambo is the only remaining proof of the superior urban planning skills of the Inca.
You will see lots of Alpaca sheep around and you can get good prices for alpaca wool clothes. Just do NOT buy them on the tourist trains or busses or directly near Plaza des Armas, you will get ripped off.
After this we continued to Aguas Calientes – the entrance to Machu Picchu.
Day 6: Machu Picchu
The reason why I recommend not to take the day tour is that the place is totally crowded. You have the best chances of beautiful sunrise pictures, with clouds and few people, directly early in the morning. The gates open at 6am and that is the time you should be there. Walking up is [not recommended], rather take the busses as the walk up is just besides the road. Not very safe and not so nice and wasted time.
Important note on the Inca Trail. Many people want to hike this through the valley and all the way up to Machu Picchu. It is very beautiful, but the government has restricted the amount of travelers per day and this is strictly controlled. Tickets are VERY limited and sell out amazingly quick. We went in September and the tickets were sold out in January. So if you want to do this, plan minimum one year in advance and regularly check as the regulations change frequently.
When the gates finally opened, we rushed in for some sunrise shots of the lost city in the clouds and one of the new 7 world wonders.
There are many things to see in Machu Picchu itself. For great shots of the entire city you either climb Machu Picchu mountain (not so tough) or Huayna Picchu on the other side (tough!). Since the Huayna climb is also restricted to a limited number of people, we could not do it. You must do it in the morning and it is very crowded, best do it right away after you arrive. For pictures it is not ideal, as it means you shoot against the sun. However, it is the best shooting angle for the terraces. The climb is not to be underestimated and a no-go if you are afraid of heights. Overall, I would [not recommend] Huayna, but rather Machu Picchu mountain instead. We spent all day in Machu Picchu and took an evening bus back to Cuzco, said goodbye to our friend, and flew into Lima. Lima is a typical business city and offers nothing you won’t find better elsewhere. The Miraflores district is the nicest if you have time in Lima. You can get excellent food (but that applies to all of Peru), but I would say overall Lima is [not recommended].
Day 7: A Birthday in Three Countries
2018 is the tenth year of a custom that started out as a coincidence. For now ten years, I make sure that for every birthday of my girlfriend, we are somewhere else in the world and never in the same place. Often we are even starting into a vacation on that exact day. We have passed a dateline and were able to celebrate twice. And we celebrated on four different continents. But only on this trip I managed to book flights in a way that we could celebrate three times in three different countries. We did an extended birthday breakfast in Lima. At noon we flew into Bogotá and got a Colombian lunch celebration with our friends. Then in the evening we flew onwards to Aruba and celebrated over Seafood dinner in Wacky Wahoo ‘s. This is arguably the best seafood place in Aruba and we had an amazing time.
Day 8: Natural Pools and Sea Urchins
Since we had to wait 24hours after flying before we could dive, we spent this day relaxing on the beach. The winds are very strong on Aruba, so you can get nice shots of the bent trees at the coastlines and of the splashing holes whenever the waves hit.
In the afternoon we drove to the natural pool. Like the name says, this is like a naturally formed basin, separated by rocks and protected from ocean waves. There are lots of fish and it is quite beautiful. I had rented a car for us, but you can’t drive all the way unless you have a 4WD. I did not want to try with a Hyundai Getz 😉 It was quite hot and a long walk, but the pool was very relaxing. Unfortunately my wife stepped into a sea urchin (they have lots of warning signs to stay only in the pool area and keep shoes on, guess what she did 😉 ) This stuff is quite nasty and needs to be treated. But we were very lucky, because the Dutch military had a joint training exercise in the area and we ended up with the army medic treating her and about 100 soldiers taking care of her. We even got a ride in their army trucks all the way back to our car. I think she enjoyed being the center of attention so much, she almost forgot about the sting. 😀 We went to a pharmacy and got some good treatment and by the end of the day the swelling was mostly gone.
Day 9: Wreck Diving
Aruba is an amazing island. One shore is rough and wild, with strong winds and currents for surfing and sailing. The other side offers pristine beaches for bathing and relaxing. And all around the island you have literally hundreds of wrecks from all time periods and of all diving difficulties. We did a couple of wonderful and easy wreck drives and then watched the sunset at the Moomba Beach Bar.
Day 10: Chilling at the Beach
Just another day of swimming, sunbathing, reading and relaxing. Perfectly uneventful as it should be.
Day 11: Return to Bogotá
We flew back to Bogotá and met up with the remainder of our group again. My personal highlight was the night clubbing and concert in the club Gaira. The area is quite safe and the atmosphere was amazing – they had different bands and artists perform throughout the entire night.
Day 12: Exploring Bogotá by Bike and heading home
Thanks to our friends who lived in Bogotá, we experienced a totally different side of the city by exploring it all day by bike. Of course stopping often for drinks, coffee and enjoying the quiet, green and relaxed side of the city. They even invited us to their bakery and we got to try all the local specialties and sweets.
A perfect ending to this exciting adventure.
Since this trip wasn’t so much about photography, only a few recommendations:
- Aruba: The Bent Trees, the Water Fountains at the beach and the amazing sunsets. If you plan on wreck driving – bring a GoPro – the sights are amazing
- Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo from the Sun Temple, get a shot of the amazing city layout as well. Tipon and the irrigation system.
- Machu Picchu: Early morning (6am) and up the mountains (either one) for good shots. Get shots of the “eyes” and the temple of the condor if you are early enough and it is still few people.
- Cuzco: Plaza des Armas. City view from the Incan ruins. and the convent santo domingo.
- Most important: If you want to do the Inca Trail. Book at least 9 months in advance. It might have been changed to open up reservations on January for the whole year. So make sure you have this planned.
- Hotels fill up quick in Aguas Calientes and Cuzco. Better reserve in advance.
- You need a car on Aruba, but for sure do not get one in Bogotá or Peru.
- Transportation in Bogotá is best with a reserved driver.
- Bring some medication for altitude sickness.
- Spanish is a must in Peru and Colombia. You can get by with English, but you will miss out on lots of things.
- Not need to change money or get cash in advance. You can get money from ATMs. But cards are not accepted everywhere, you need cash.
- Tipping is the normal 10%.
- Traffic is bad in / around Bogotá and Lima.
- Aruba is very safe, no crime risk.
- Colombia is very dangerous. Do not go out alone at night. Use pre-arranged or pre-booked transport. Watch your drinks. Go in a group.
- Peru is relatively safe. But still avoid being out alone at night, in particular if you are a woman.
- Altitude sickness can be a problem in Colombia but especially in Cuzco. Plan time to adjust (1-2 days is fine).
- If you want to fly over the Nazca lines in Peru be aware of the really bad safety record of planes and check providers carefully.
- Some of the trails (Inca Trail in particular) are quite tough. Do not attempt if you are not fit.