Arequipa and Colca Canyon

After exploring both Machu Picchu and the Peruvian jungle, the next natural step for our travels took us to Arequipa, about 500km south of Cusco. One of the main reasons to visit Arequipa is to trek the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world and a great place to spot giant Andean condors. Arequipa itself is known for it's beautiful white volcanic-stone architecture, so we were excited to spend a few days there before our trek.


Being the second largest city in Peru, we were surprised to find that the city centre of Arequipa was quite peaceful, with many small streets leading to beautiful old buildings and not too much traffic. We had arrived by night bus from Cusco which had taken around 10 hours, and after a busy week were feeling pretty tired, so we checked into a reasonably priced hostel (La Posada Del Kuraka) and crashed. The hostel had a great roof terrace giving a great view of the city and the perfectly cone-shaped volcano Misti in the distance.

On our first day we took a walk through the Plaza San Fransisco to the pretty main square Plaza de Armes, taking in the white stone architecture such as the Basilica Catedral church and the many arches surrounding the square. As the sun was shining, we decided to grab an ice cream and found a bench to people-watch in the square. We then spent an hour or two wandering around the beautiful cobbled streets, peering into textile shops and exploring the quiet alleyways of the historic centre.

After watching the sunset from our rooftop we noticed that the Basilica Cathedral was beautifully lit, so we headed to the square once more for a closer look. At night it was just as busy as it was in the day, and there was even a classical music concert drawing in a small crowd. For dinner we went to Hatunpa, where they served dishes with varieties of Andean potatoes as the main ingredient with a choice of toppings. It was cheap and the service was excellent, and we even got to sample some Peruvian craft ales.

On our last day we had a lazy morning, and after lunch decided to go to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, an old yet still functioning 20,000 square-meter monastery for nuns in Arequipa. We had to pay a rather steep 40 soles each for entry, but as its quite a big place we were told it was worth the money. On entrance we were greeted with a beautiful courtyard with many painted arches, plants and intricate tiles. As we wandered through the maze of passageways it started to feel like we'd wondered back in time, and we really enjoyed exploring the Mudejar-style architecture, with walls painted red, blue and orange to define the various sections. It felt more like a small town than a monastery!

The monastery was comprised of many rooms including kitchens, bedrooms, prayer rooms and chapels, all surrounded by very well kept gardens and water fountains. It seemed surprisingly quaint and comfortable considering nuns lived there, and was quite unusual compared to typically minimal religions dwellings. After an hour or so the monastery was about to close, and so we headed back to the hostel just in time to watch the sun set from our hostel roof terrace, having really enjoyed Santa Catalinas rustic charm and tranquil ambiance.

We had been recommended Sonccollay on our travels, a restaurant in Arequipa that was known for it’s ‘pre-inca’ cuisine, an ancient style of cooking that used no oil or butter to prepare traditional andean ingredients. Curious by this, we decided to pay it a visit while we were there. The restaurant was situated on the main square overlooking the cathedral, and we arrived with high expectations and empty stomachs. On entering, we noticed that the restaurant actually wasn’t that busy, with only a few other people there. We sat outside (which was a little chilly), and ordered our food. The menu was surprisingly pricey, but we assumed it would be worth it once it came.

To our disappointment we ended up waiting for over an hour for the food, with one dish arriving 20 minutes before the other. On top of this portions were less than generous, and we were a bit annoyed to leave feeling hungry, despite it being the most expensive meal we'd had in Peru so far. On the plus side, the food was really tasty, and the charcoal-grilled duck was beautifully cooked, as was the river lobster ceviche cured in passionfruit. It was also nice to meet the chef and see his rustic kitchen and traditional cooking techniques. However, we probably wouldn’t recommend the place unless you come in a group (so you can try more of the dishes), don't mind a long wait and are prepared to splash out! 

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon is the most popular place to visit from Arequipa, and being the second deepest canyon in the world (more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona) and with stunning scenery it's not hard to see why. We had met a couple of travellers at our hostel the day before who had told us the 2 day trek was pretty intense and that it was much better to do the 3 day option, so taking their advice we booked the slightly longer trek from our hostel. The tour agency was called Oasis Palmeras Travel Tour, and having read good reviews online and with a time-efficient itinerary for a decent price, we felt confident we would enjoy our trek.

Day 1

We got picked up from our hostel at 4am to get the 3 hour minibus to the Colca Canyon with a few other trekkers. After driving for a couple of hours the sun rose and we began to see the incredible scenery that led to the canyon, with green hills, Inca-style terracing and the impressive mountains that made up the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservation. We stopped for a quick and basic breakfast at a small cafe before continuing to our first stop, Cruz del Condor.

Cruz del Condor is a popular tourist spot on the way to the Colca Canyon where you can see giant Andean condors, a huge bird with a wing span of up to 3 meters and an important icon of South American culture. When we got there we found swarms of tourists already there, but luckily the condors didn't seem phased, and silently glided all around us in their numbers, often flying right overhead.

After getting a few photos we got back in the minibus and were driven to the starting point of the trek. We met our guide and introduced ourselves to our fellow trekkers, including a French couple and a group of elderly guys from Holland. Before we set off our guide explained the reason behind the name 'Colca', originating from a combination of the Inca settlements Collagua and Cabana (hence Col-Ca). He also explained that a Colca is a kind of Inca food store built into the mountains. We the set off in our small group down the steep canyon path, edging deeper each step we took, taking in the incredible scenery as we went.

About 2 hours later we approached the bottom where we arrived at a river crossing, and took a much needed break from the heat in the shelter of a shaded hut. After we got our breath back we crossed the bridge and headed up a short but very steep path. At the top we took another break amongst bunny ear cacti and from there it was only a 20 minute walk through farmland along flat terrain (much to our relief) to our lodging.

We finally arrived at our accommodation, a farmhouse settlement with a few rooms and a small restaurant. We had a lunch of soup and Lomo Saltado (fried steak and peppers with rice) and chatted to the other Trekkers. We then went for a short siesta, finding that our rooms were basic but cosy, and only lit by candle light. After a relaxing afternoon we grabbed a few beers and watched the incredibly clear starry sky before dinner and bed.

Day 2

On the second day we woke around 7am and had a great pancake breakfast before we started our trek. To our relief we were told that the days trek would be much less steep as we were now deep inside the canyon itself. Our guide led us along the stony path, pointing out some interesting landmarks such as the '5 warriors', a series of statue like rock formations and an ancient Inca waterway carved into the vertical cliffside. It was a lot hotter lower down the canyon, and as the heat of the day approached the trek became a little more tiring, despite being less challenging in terms of terrain.

We took a rest at a small family farm, and got a much needed cold drink and some snacks to keep our energy levels up. The lady who worked there offered us some cactus fruit, which was really tasty if you could avoid the spines! Shortly after an excited little Peruvian boy, who was spending his holidays on the farm, showed us the various animals that lived there including ducks, chickens and a lot of Guinea pigs (or cuy) stored in a series of hutches - all of them clearly would end up on the menu! 

After exploring the farm and saying our farewells to the family, we set off once again through the canyon, passing through small towns along the way. The scenery was spectacular and the sheer size of the canyon walls never seemed to grow old. We continued along the canyon path where we gradually started ascending and descending up and down the dusty path.

As we approached 3 hours of walking we started to see the green Oasis de Sangalle nestled in the bottom of the canyon. We could see waterfalls leading to a river that flowed right through the middle, with tropical plants and palm trees surrounding them. With this very inviting view in sight we descended quite quickly, keen to take off our shoes and relax after a day of walking in the heat.

Finally we arrived at the Oasis de Sangalle, and wandered past a few other hostels and hotels before finding ours, the Paraiso las Palmeras Lodge. It was absolute paradise, with our own small private hut and a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees in the most idillic setting. Taking advantage of the sun we quickly changed into our swimming gear, grabbed a beer and dived into the refreshing pool to cool off.

The sun set fairly quickly in the canyon (around 4pm) due to the surrounding mountains, and so once the pool became shaded we got changed and headed to the bar for a few drinks with the other trekkers. This led straight into a typical Peruvian dinner (soup, rice and meat) which filled the gap. Feeling tired after this we headed to bed early before our final day and the big ascent.

Day 3

After an early night and chilled afternoon the 4am start wasn't too painful, but the temperature had dropped substantially over night so it still wasn't that pleasant. We followed our guide upwards, using our torches to navigate the stony pathway in the dark. After an hour the sun started to rise making it a bit warmer making for ideal trekking conditions. The higher we'de climb, and the further we walked from Sangalle Oasis we really began to appreciate how isolated it was. 

Spreading the trek over three days meant we were well rested and with the help of some snickers we powered up in a time of 2:15 mins, even with multiple stops for photos on the way which we felt was quite an achievement for us! More impressively though, was that one of the guys in our group (aged 70!) also made it to the top which was really inspiring to see.

At the top of the canyon there were many people congratulating each other on making it up and taking victory photos. We took a much needed breather and got a few group shots ourselves before heading along the remaining flat path to a small town. We then walked to a little breakfast spot with a few other groups, and had eggs, bread and coca tea to refuel after our intense morning trek.

Once we'd finished breakfast we continued in the minivan on the road back to Arequipa, and stopped off at at the Apachetas of Chivay, a series of cairns thought to be made by the Incas, with an amazing mountain backdrop. The sheer number of them scaling the valley with a clear blue sky was an awesome sight. Additionally, and much to our surprise, we were shown the snowy peak of the Mismi mountain and were told that it is thought that it's glacial stream is the most distant source of the mighty Amazon River!

One thing we were really looking forward to on our trek was the Tambo hot springs. We made our way there, keen to soak our tired legs in the hot water. After walking down a short path and crossing a river we arrived at a series of pools. There were a few people in already, who warned that some of them were scorching! We decided to grab some cold victory beers while we dipped our toes into different pools to find the best temperature, and slowly lowered ourselves into one that felt as hot as we could manage.

After a few minutes we got used to the temperature, and relaxed for half an hour or so in the steaming natural spring water with our fellow trekkers. Our feet and legs felt almost fully rejuvenated as we made our way back to the bus and continued on our journey back to Arequipa, and was more than worth the 10 Soles entrance fee. While we were there we met with Amanda and Daniel, an Australian couple we had met during the trek, and enjoyed some beers together in one of the milder pools. 

Continuing onwards we were taken to the small town of Chivay for lunch. The whole group piled into the Los Portales de Chivay restaurant where a large buffet table was on display with various typical Peruvian foods. Luckily it was an all-you-can-eat menu, meaning we could go to town! While we ate a local band started playing in front of our table, singing traditional music with pan pipes and guitars.

Once finished we were then back in the mini bus and headed up towards our next look out of the nearby volcanoes. The air temperature was really cold as we had reached an altitude of 3,650 meters, and so we only spent a few minutes there to get some pictures, but it was great to see the smoking Volcan Hualca in the distance and the hundreds of small rock piles that had been carefully balanced. We then headed a little further to a Llama park where wild Llama and Guanaco were roaming in the green and yellow fields.

Our 4 days in Arequipa and Colca Canyon affirmed our decision to stop there during our trip. We loved the architecture, food and vibe of the city, and the Colca Canyon tour was probably one of our favourite treks of the trip since Patagonia. Having a well organised tour really did make a difference, and the incredible scenery and landscapes made the steep and often tiring stretches more than worth it. We were also lucky enough to have a friendly and like-minded group who helped make the three days even more enjoyable. The canyon oasis and hot springs were a luxurious surprise for us, and extremely welcome for our legs after the inclines. We left Arequipa feeling energised, keen for more exciting adventures ahead.

Patagonia — The W Trek

The W Trek is one of the most famous treks in Patagonia, and also one of the best ways to experience Torres del Paine National Park. With world-class landscapes, wild weather and breathtaking views, for many it's the experience of a lifetime. Having not had much trekking practice we were a little apprehensive about the 5-day 70km trek in the wilderness, but having spoken to other travellers about just how amazing it is we had to throw ourselves in headfirst and accept the challenge. After a 6 hour bus ride from El Calafate we arrived at Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine.

We'd heard there was an informative talk at the hostel and hire shop Erratic Rock at 3pm every day. We decided to stay a couple of nights so we could hear the talk, hire the relevant equipment and prepare our food for the next 5 days. They offered detailed information on the route (west to east was recommended) as well as transportation to and from the park. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, and we were grateful for the extra tips and expertise passed on by these passionate hikers. After the talk we hired our camping gear before visiting local stores to pick up food supplies, ensuring that the quantity and weight was suitable for our 5 days ahead. The following day we got up at 6am, had a final hot shower and set off for the bus to Torres del Paine National Park.

Day 1

Trail section: Paine Grande Campsite to Refugio Grey
Distance: 11 km
Duration: 3.5 hours

After a 7am bus to the national park, paying our entrance fees and listening to fire safety talks, we were dropped off by the ferry port and waited an hour or so for our catamaran. We were advised by Erratic rock to walk to a small but pretty waterfall not far from the docks. The wind was incredibly strong and at first we found it difficult to walk, even without our heavy packs! On return, we realised there was a big queue for the boat, and didn't end up getting the first one, so annoyingly had to wait for the second boat.

Once we landed, we set off to Refugio Grey, an 11km (mainly uphill) hike against the strongest winds we'd ever been in. It was quite a shock to the system, so were relieved when the winds finally died down halfway through and we were able to take in the views of Glacier Grey and Lago Grey. At 6pm we finally arrived and set up in the shelter of the campsite. We then walked to the lookout point of Glacier Grey, about 10 minutes from the camp, which was impressive even from a distance. We then walked back and prepared our first of many pasta meals in the communal kitchen in the company of fellow trekkers.

Day 2

Trail section: Refugio Grey to Campsite Italiano
Distance: 18.6 km
Duration: 6 hours

The following morning we made porridge and tea before packing up our tent and setting off on our next stint to Campsite Italiano. As we were walking back on ourselves the scenery was fairly uninteresting until we passed our starting point where the Catamaran dropped us. We wandered through scorched black and white trees where a fire had torn through the park a few years before (you can read up on it here). After a quick lunch of our own chorizo quesadillas (highly recommended) the clouds cleared in front of us to reveal Los Cuernos del Paine, an epic group of jagged pewter-coloured mountains.

The good weather held up all afternoon and we had fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us until we reached our second stop, Campsite Italiano, where we set up our tent in a small sheltered forest. The campsite had no running water so we had to climb down a river bank to a raging river to collect the ice cold fresh-off-the-glacier water! After cooking another much needed carb-heavy pasta dish and eating Nutella by the spoon-full (acceptable when trekking!) we got chatting to others we’d met along the way about their trips and experiences until it got dark and we headed back for an early nights sleep.

Day 3

Trail section: Campsite Italiano to Los Cuernos Campsite
Distance: 16.5 km
Duration: 7.5 hours

After a very wet and windy night we woke up to clear blue skies, much to our relief! We hung our wet tent up to dry during breakfast, left our packed bags at the campsite and ventured out with light daypacks to the Valle del Francés (or French Valley). Not having to carry such weight made a massive difference, and we felt a new wave of energy with our lighter packs and trekked through the stunning valleys in the beaming sunshine. Surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, sprawling glaciers, waterfalls, raging rivers and turquoise lakes, for us it was the most amazing panoramic view we’d ever seen. After following the river through thick forest, the footpath ended at Mirador Britanico where we stopped for lunch completely surrounded by the breathtaking landscape.

Once we’d fuelled up on more quesadillas, snickers and trail mix we headed back down to Campsite Italiano to (begrudgingly) pick up our heavy packs again to head onwards to our next stop. The 3 hour hike was broken up nicely by Mirador Nordenskjöld, a beautiful panoramic lookout of Lake Nordenskjöld, before descending to a small pebbled beach. We took a short break, skimmed a few stones on the clear and completely still water before walking another 1km to our 3rd stop, Campsite Cuernos.

Day 4

Trail section: Los Cuernos Campsite to Torres Campsite
Distance: 20 km
Duration: 8.5 hours

We were pleased to wake up to clear skies once again, and after having our staple breakfast of porridge and tea we set off to the final stop: Campsite Torres. Our legs were starting to feel a little bit weary after 3 solid days of trekking, but the lighter packs and great weather kept spirits high as we walked up the steep cliff side in the warmth of the sun. As we’d made good time we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a small lake and took a 10 minute sunbathe and rested our feet.

The final stretch got really steep, and it took quite a lot of our energy to scramble up the boulder-filled path in the heat of the day. Once we finally arrived at the campsite, we decided to dump our packs, set up camp and make our way to Mirador Torres straight away. We were quite tired by this point, but the excitement of seeing Torres in clear weather was all the motivation we needed. Despite seeing other trekkers stop for the day we decided to quickly fill up our water bottles and venture up the final 1km steep incline to the final and much anticipated viewpoint. We were so glad we did, as once we arrived we were treated with an amazing clear view of Torres del Paine and the turquoise lake in front. 

Day 5

Trail section: Torres Campsite to Las Torres Hotel
Distance: 10 km
Duration: 5 hours

When doing the W trek west to east, on the final day its tradition to get up in the early hours and see Torres at sunrise. At 5am we begrudgingly woke up, packed a sleeping bag and warm clothes and set off in the dark to Mirador Torres once again, eager to witness the classic sunrise. Using head torches, we followed the small reflective arrows up the steep rocky path in the rain, not really sure why we were putting ourselves through it again! Towards the top it started to snow, but we powered on determined to make it before the sun came up. Sadly we arrived in thick fog, and could barely see the mountains at all. Although this was disappointing, it made us feel even more glad that we’d gone up the day before.

We waited as long as we could in case the fog cleared, but had to charge back down the mountain at around 9am to pack up our tent and complete the final stretch of the W. The last 8km was downhill, and although our packs were lighter without food, it was pretty tough on our knees. Hotel Torres finally came into view, and it was a huge relief to arrive at the finish line of this epic trek (there were even a few tears of joy from one of us!). We then heaved our tired bodies onto the busy shuttle bus that took us back to the park entrance, and we waited for the final coach to pick us up and take us back to Puerto Natales where well earned victory beers, dinner and hot showers awaited.

On reflection, we were so glad we’d made the effort to do the complete W trek experience. From carrying all our camping equipment through all types of weather to rationing our food and collecting our water from fresh streams, we felt a huge sense of achievement. Trekking through Torres del Paine National Park for 5 days was a real privilege, and definitely an experience of a lifetime. After a tasty grilled lamb dinner at Aldea Restaurant we headed to the Basecamp Bar for celebratory beers with our fellow trekkers, and reminisced about our incredible Patagonian experience.

Patagonia — Glacier Perito Moreno

El Calafate

After 10 brilliant days in Buenos Aires we decided to take our first inland flight south, and within three hours of leaving the vibrant, bustling capital we landed amongst blue skies, snow-topped mountains and dazzling turquoise lakes. We had arrived in El Calefate, Patagonia! A short bus ride later we were dropped at our hostel America del Sur, sat high on a hill overlooking the small town. It was a great mix of contemporary architecture and rustic hostel living, and gave fantastic panoramic views of the Lago Argentino. The hostel staff were very helpful and got us booked up on our exciting trek for the following day.

Glacier Perito Moreno

After a 2 hour bus ride through incredible Patagonian landscapes we were dropped at our first stop: the Balcony. We were given a few hours to walk around the various glacier viewing platforms, taking in the epic mass of ice from all angles. It was truly amazing; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before.

At 5km wide and 70m high it's sheer size is astounding, and it's surroundings equally impressive - it was hard to get your head around the scale! Every so often large chunks of ice would break off and crash into the freezing water below, and for 20 minutes or so we patiently waited and listened to see if we could catch one before it hit the water. We had a quick packed lunch we'd previously prepared overlooking the amazing glacier.

The Glacier Trek


After returning to our coach, we could hardly believe that the best was yet to come. We boarded a catamaran and set off for a hike on the glacier itself. The approach was spectacular, and as Moreno grew in size so did our excitement! After getting off the catamaran we walked along boardwalk through a small stretch of woods and stopped at a row of wooden huts to prepare for our trek.

After getting our crampons (spiked shoe attachments for grip) on our feet and a quick lesson in walking on ice we were off. Less than 5 minutes into the trek it felt like we'd entered another world. Huge mountains of white and mineral enriched blue ice towered around us as we snaked through the truly awesome landscape. It felt like we were on another planet!

The trek was rounded off with a lovely touch of whisky on the rocks, where of course, the ice was chipped straight off the glacier in front of you - it tasted amazing! The trek had been one of our most expensive days on our travels, but one in which we both agreed had been an experience of a lifetime. It jumped right to the top of our list as the highlight of South America so far!